When God Keeps us Guessing – Group Study Questions

Introduction

Peter wrote his letter in a time of great challenge and uncertainty. People were suffering for following Jesus. It was hard. Some had been exiled to strange lands, leaving family members and livelihood behind. Others had lost their lives. Our finely honed sense of justice would have us demanding answers. Peter affirms the uncertainty, and pushes in a different direction: like the prophets of old, we need to be patient. Sometimes, maybe often, our questions remain unanswered…

Read: 1 Peter 1:10-12

Discuss

  • Share with the group about something you’ve always wanted to understand, but at this stage you’ve been prevented from doing so. How does that lack of understanding make you feel?
  • The Holy Spirit revealed to the prophets that some of the things they wrote about would only be understood in future generations (after the Messiah had come).
    • How might knowing this have helped Peter’s readers?
    • How does it help us?
  • How does this passage impact on our understanding of how the Scriptures were written – our view of inspiration?
    • How does it confirm or challenge your views?
  • What implications to these words have for our unanswered questions?
    • How might you use this passage and others to comfort someone struggling with unanswered questions or tough life realities?
  • Share with the group how you have seen a humble faith and a trust in God’s sovereign care expressed in the life of another
  • What would your church or small group need to do to be a better context for people to express the questions they may have?

Sermon audio can be downloaded from iTunes as  Gateway Community Church podcast

Transforming Suffering [Hope Eternal #3]

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Read: 1 Peter 1:6-9

There comes a time in the life of every child when they realise the power of questions.

Why is milk cold?

Why is grass green?

Why is their air?

Why can’t I see it?

Why can’t I touch the sky?

I found one article recently which claimed a typical 4yr old could ask 400 questions a day, while a typical mother can field over 200 questions from her children. I found that hard to believe, but it was in Brisbane’s Courier Mail, so maybe we can take it with a grain of salt.

Even so, we never lose the capacity to ask why. It’s just that the questions become more serious and probing.

Why are relationships so difficult?

Why am I suffering with this cancer?

Why can’t I be happy?

Why do my friends reject me for being a Christian?

We can be sure Peter’s readers wondered why they were suffering. But the thing that catches our attention is that as they asked that question, they were also rejoicing:

“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Peter 1:6, NIV)

How did they hold these two things together? How can you rejoice while you suffer?

Suffering Purifies Faith

Peter says there are three reasons. First: they can rejoice because suffering purifies their faith

“These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. …” (1 Peter 1:7–8, NIV)

In biblical times, gold was purified in a furnace. Heated to great temperatures so impurities would be burned away. It was a harsh process, but it left a beautiful result. If they wanted pure gold, this is what had to be done.

If you want faith that is pure, suffering may well be part of it. It’s a harsh process, but God assures us it will leave a beautiful result. Peter wants these Christians to see their troubles in this light.

Do you seek a strong faith? A beautiful faith? A pure faith? In some ways it will come through the crucible of pain. It’s an extreme process, but it delivers a beautiful result.

Church history bears this out. Around the time this letter was written one particular Roman Emperor, Nero, hated Christians. He persecuted them. Punished them. Made a public spectacle of them. There are accounts of Nero illuminating the Vatican area with Christian human torches. He used Christians for blood sport with wild beasts. He was trying to kill the church. And you know what they say, right? If you don’t kill it, you make it stronger. Well, Nero did not kill the church. He just made it stronger. The faith of these Christians was purified in the furnace of trial and persecution.

Something else: look at the words

“…for a little while you may have had to suffer …” (1 Peter 1:6, NIV)

The original indicates their suffering was necessary because it happened under the sovereign hand of God. This tells us the universe is not operating at random. We do not believe in fate, or luck, or karma. We believe in a moral universe and a loving God who holds us and our world in his hands. We trust a God who restrains evil so it cannot swallow us and our world completely. And in his sovereign rule he also allows trouble and trial so we become a strong and healthy church with a vibrant and muscular faith.

This is what we understand by the providence of God. It’s not that things will always be good, that we’ll get what we want, or that the green grass will grow all around. Rather, for his own glory, God will give us what we need to accomplish his will in our here and now.

27 Q. A. What do you understandby the providence of God?

The almighty and ever present power of God

by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven

and earth

and all creatures, and so rules them that

leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years, food and drink,
health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—

all things, in fact,
come to us

not by chance but

by his fatherly hand.

Think of Job: his suffering came from the evil one, but only in accord with the limits God imposed.

Let me be the first to admit: there is deep mystery here. So rather than try and figure out this relationship between a sovereign God and a world of pain, we should recognise the limits of our understanding, note that our great God is sovereign, that Christ has all power, and that we are ultimately, eternally, and actually safe in his hands.

So, yes, we rejoice that through suffering and trial God strengthens our faith.

Transformation by Faith

Secondly, we can rejoice because faith transforms trials in two ways. One: our faith in Christ gets us seeing trials differently.

Suffering, of course, is painful. But we look beyond it to God’s great victory. We see this in Jesus, don’t we? In the garden he experienced such pain that his sweat was like drops of blood. He was deeply grieved that his disciples could not discern the burden he was carrying. But he still prayed ‘Not my will, but yours be done’.

The next day he was whipped to within an inch of his life. A crown of thorns was jammed on his head. His hands and feet were nailed through to the beams of a cross. He was hung there to die an agonising death.

Was he happy? The question itself is offensive. And yet we read

“let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2, NIV)

The joy set before him was his coming victory over death. So he scorned the humiliation of the cross. His faith in his Father gave him a different perspective on suffering.

Joy is not dependent on circumstances, is it? That’s why these Christians can respond to suffering in such a surprising manner. Their joy is not based in their circumstances. Their faith, or should I say, the object of their faith – Christ’s victory over all – allowed them to rejoice despite their suffering.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,” (1 Peter 1:8, NIV)

Secondly, faith transforms trials because through them Jesus changes us. Suffering teaches lessons about the nearness of the Saviour which cannot be learnt in any other context. Think of Psalm 23: How will we know his powerful right hand will lead us and hold us and guide us, if he never allows us to walk through the valley? How will we know that Jesus actually prays that our faith will not fail, unless we feel the sifting of the evil one?

These things are hard for us to hear, but they are true. And because they are true, while they are hard, they do us good. Faith changes how I see my trials. And faith allows me to learn more about Jesus’ loving care.

Saved through Faith

Finally, these Christians can rejoice in times of trial because they know how the story of Jesus ends. Through all our troubles, we know Jesus Christ will vindicate his people

“These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:7, NIV)

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8–9, NIV)

We know this because our eternal inheritance is guarded by God. In suffering our mind goes to heaven. Some will scoff at this as ‘pie in the sky’. Karl Marx said getting the poor and broken to think about heaven turned faith into an opiate. Something that stopped people from addressing injustice on earth. Peter would never say that. In fact he says something quite different.

Faith in heaven should make us good and and godly citizens.

  • They are to have attitudes that display Christ’s rule in their lives (2:1)
  • They are to live good lives among the pagans (2:12)
  • They are even to submit to human authority – even to people like Nero. By doing good they would silence foolish and abusive talk (2:13)
  • Slaves has to serve their masters as though they were Jesus
  • Marriage and family would become a context of Gospel transformation, instead of a context of domination, inequity, and abuse.

Christians must not use thoughts of eternity to neglect their world. Rather, being saved for eternity they seek to live eternity’s values in their here and now. Their hope is fixed in one enduring reality:

“…you are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8–9, NIV)

This hope is what gave the early church such strength! Writing after both Nero and Caligula, the apostle John writes of the great victory which will be won by the King of Kings (see Rev 7:9-17)

These people were victorious because they were washed in the blood of the lamb. This is critical: if you’re suffering, the only way you will endure is to claim the ultimate victory of Christ on the Cross. That’s when every force was defeated. That’s when the evil head of Satan was crushed. That’s where life was won!

And ultimately, the really big deal is not about us, it’s that the glorious Lord, Jesus our Saviour, is glorified for the rescue he has won! Honoured for the world he has redeemed. Lifted up for the injustice he has banished from the face of the earth. Worshipped because he has borne our iniquities, carried out sorrows, and drawn us through his spirit into everlasting life!

“These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:7, NIV)

Friends, faith is purified in the context of trial. Faith in Jesus changes how we see trial, and becomes a context for us learn new things about his loving grace and care. And faith points us to the great day when Christ shall be all in all, and every tear will be wiped from our eyes, every pain will end, and every injustice made right.

“Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”” (Revelation 7:12, NIV)

Deep – Confused

Psalm 73:25 (NIV)

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.


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Additional reading: Psalm 73

There are three words which will make the strongest man weak in the knees; the most courageous man slink away like a wounded dog; the most upbeat man queuing up for a Zoloft script; and Dwayne Johnson wannabes crying like a baby. These three words will either be words of life or they will be words of death:

“Some Assembly Required”

Maybe it’s just my learning style – which in educational parlance is ‘when all else fails, read the instructions’, when I have to assemble something, I just look at the bits and pieces, line ‘em up, and get into it. But then, as my wife knows very well, there will also be tears.

One particular event – the desk – comes to mind. The instructions were written in Ingrish. Originally Chinese, then translated into Swahili, and then to English. Of sorts. The desk was an Officeworks item, and I was putting the top on the desk, and it looked all symmetrical, so I guessed it didn’t matter which way it went on, right? Unhappily, it was asymmetrical in one tiny place. And that stopped the  thing from going onto the rest of the frame… So I am huffing and puffing and kind of thankful that these flat packs do not come with their own blood pressure monitor, and we’re living in Queensland, and it’s frightfully humid, and it just should not be this difficult!!

To say that I was CONFUSED by the experience would have been delightfully G-Rated, but totally unlike what actually transpired…

Maybe we think that faith should be more like a flat pack: You have the instructions. You read and follow the instructions. So you should get what you spent your money on.

Confused

Many Christians, perhaps unawares, operate like this: I go to church. I identify as a Christian. I pray. So, life should not be this complicated, and the fact that it is this complicated leaves me pretty confused.

We all know people who have gotten stuck by life circumstances: they follow Jesus, but things don’t seem to work out the way they expected. So in their confusion they decide to unfriend and unfollow God.

Such confusion is not only an individual thing. It can affect communities. Attendances might be inconsistent. Finances can get tight. It can be a struggle to find people to serve in different aspects of ministry. It confuses us… it just should not be this difficult, right?? Let’s be open about that. But one thing we should not do is think it is too much of a struggle and  give up. We must not let our confusion or the discomfort of our situation determine our response.

My guess is this has only become a significant issue for the church over the last 200 years. The more we have modernised, become affluent, the more health and standards of living have improved the more we expect our faith to make life easier. Everything else is so much easier than it may have been for our grandparents. We have instant information via the internet. We have instant hot water. We have instant light. We arrange doctor’s appointments via a phone app. And we expect following Jesus to be much the same.

But if things are tough we should neither be confused nor surprised, for plenty of Christ’s people before us have shared that experience before us. Read the Scriptures however and you will that is not the experience of even the most faithful of God’s people. The writer of Psalm 73 could identify with our confusion:

“But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.” (Psalm 73:2–5, NIV)

Or who could forget about Job? Lost his livelihood, his health and his children. Could not see any rhyme or reason to his sudden descent into the valley of the shadow of death, yet he maintained that God was not punishing him.

Think of Jesus. Sinless, holy son of God. Blameless. Righteous. Yet reviled and rejected. He had nowhere to lay his head. Beaten. Scorned. Crucified.

If this was Jesus’ experience, it should not surprise us if it is also ours. No servant is greater than his master.

My portion

Quite amazingly, the Psalmists who often lay tangled in the loose ends of suffering remained confident in God. The David who was hounded and exiled on several occasions could also write

“Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” (Psalm 16:5–6, NIV)

The writer whose soul panted for God as a deer pants for water could also write

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46:1–3, NIV)

As Paul remained in prison he could write

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10–11, NIV)

Yet in suffering deep and unknown could confess

“…in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10, NIV)

Rarely are we so honest.

These scriptures expose our tendency to place unhealthy, unwise and unwarranted expectations on the church and on the God whom we worship. That it should be easier. That it certainly should not be as difficult as it is.

I say this for two reasons.

One, I believe that in this time of challenge God is driving us back to himself, and challenging our the focus of our faith and discipleship. Frederick Beuchner has remarked that these situations are ‘the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.’

Part of the problem is that our church culture tends to be determined by what we want out of a church:

Great preaching. Brilliant music. Engaging programs for children and youth. Modern facilities. Effective discipleship. A vision and mission we can connect with. Powerful evangelism. Oh, and great coffee…

Is church a context in which we truly worship God, or just another context where we want God to make us happy?

All those things are good, but isn’t this just checklist Christianity? Where the church that gets the most ticks is the one we go for?

David Platt has said

We are settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is about abandoning ourselves and following Jesus

So here is the challenge: Is corporate worship a context in which we truly worship God, or just another context where we want God to make us happy?

Two: think of what might have been. Imagine if we were never in challenging  and trying situations. That services were always full, that our music teams had a full complement of musicians and vocalists. That we had plenty of leaders for our ministries, oodles of room for activities, and outreach program that was pumping, producing converts. That disciples were growing and creating more disciples. That everything was just great.

Would we ever get to ask the hard questions we’re asking now? Would we be in touch with our thirst, or emptiness, our spiritual distance and our confusion?

See, when all we want to do is avoid the discomfort, God wants us to feel it, to know it, to own it, and to learn from it.

when all we want to do is avoid the discomfort, God wants us to feel it, to know it, to own it, and to learn from it

The best thing we can do with our difficult situation  is bring it to God, acknowledge the blessings we have received, acknowledge our tendency to trust in the work of our own hands, repent of that tendency, and ask him to revive us again.

Into God’s presence

That’s the point: we need to observe in the things that are not the best the promptings of the One who is the best. In the things that are not as good as they could be, we need to renew our love for the One who is more good than we can possibly imagine. In all our struggles and failures we look to Christ who is our victor and our glory. Our comfort can never be in the things we do. Our only comfort can be Jesus, knowing him, and being known by him.

So, if we’re confused with where things are at, here’s how we can respond:

Recognise Jesus

His death has brought us right into the presence of the living Lord!

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:19–23, NIV)

He is the living water, soothing the thirst of our hearts. He is the bread of life, satisfies our emptiness of soul. He counted his glory as nothing, gone the distance, bridged the gap, and reconciled us to God. Christ and Christ alone will resolve the confusion we feel, for in him is life, true life

He said:

“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3, NIV)

Repent

Sounds like a big call, but where we’ve placed our trust in things, in people, we need to acknowledge that, turn to God, and seek his forgiveness. We have placed improper expectations on the church, and sought in the church that which only Christ can give. Blindly we have followed out culture, placed ourselves at the centre of life, even of the church. We need to turn around, and return to Jesus as the first love of our hearts, the living water, true bread, the One who died to reconcile us, who as the way, the truth, the life ends our confusion forever.

Live differently

Love Jesus daily, through renewed and daily prayer that he change and transform us, conforming us to his likeness. We can do this by loving others.

It takes time to rebuild, and where we end up will always be a little different to where we have been before. One thing you can do is commit to growing healthy God honouring community. Do all you can to help build a great church.

Love your church

Meaning? Well, that will be my next series, “Living Members” starting at Gateway on June 21. For now, start with a daily prayer:

Lord, Help us become a healthy church. Help me do whatever I need to do to make that happen. Together, bring us back to the core, to the heart, to Jesus himself.

God’s Plan to Address Injustice

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Read: Luke 10:25-37

It seems you don’t have to talk about Christianity for too long before someone says, ‘One of the issues I have with God is that there is so much evil in the world: Why isn’t he doing something about it?’

Does God have a plan to address injustice?

We’ve been looking at issues surrounding injustice for the last four weeks, and the question we’re dealing with today is that very question: Does God have a plan to address injustice?

On the road to Jericho

One day, a lawyer asked a question of Jesus: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus asked him what the law taught, and the lawyer’s response is well known:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Luke 10:27, NIV)

‘Great answer’ says Jesus. Do that and you’ll be fine. But the lawyer knew that giving an answer and living an answer were two very different things.

Think about it: ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ Who can do that perfectly? So The law expert wanted the matter clarified: ‘and who is my neighbour?’

The parable of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ answer to his question. And while we might not realise it, this parable is also the answer to our question: what is God doing about injustice?

But before we get into that, Let’s observe that there are two aspects answering the question of what God is doing about injustice. First, there is what we call the ‘not yet’ aspect: The ‘Judgement Day’ aspect.

He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4, NIV)

Rev 21 & 22 tell us a day will come when every evil act, every abuse, every agent of oppression, every person who does injustice or turns a blind eye to it will answer to the living God. On Judgement Day God will forever end all injustice. But we are not there yet.

Second, there is a ‘Now’ aspect. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows us what the ‘now’ aspect is. We read,

…“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30, NIV)

The victim was a Jew. A priest and a Levite, both brother Jews to the victim, to our surprise pass by on the other side. Then along comes a Samaritan. Jews hated Samaritans. Samaritans hated Jews. Typically, neither would have regarded the other as their neighbour.

Do you see what Jesus is doing? See where he’s pushing?

The lawyer wanted to justify himself. That is, he wanted Jesus to say ‘your neighbour is your brother’; or at worst: ‘your neighbour is your countryman’. But Jesus does not do that. Jesus says your neighbour is anyone, anyone who needs your mercy. Anyone in need.

In this parable, a great injustice has been committed. A man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead. His own countrymen ignore him. And the question that interests us right now is: What was God’s plan to address that injustice?

Well, of course, God’s plan was that the Levite address that injustice. And his plan was that the priest address that injustice. But they both rejected God’s call. And then along came this despised Samaritan. Like the others, he was the plan. Unlike the others, he obeyed, showed mercy, used his donkey, spent his money.

your neighbour is anyone, anyone who needs your mercy. Anyone in need

What is God’s plan to deal with injustice? His plan is to use us! When injustice is going on, and you know it, and you see it, you are the plan to deal with it.

God’s plan has not changed

God’s plan is to deal with injustice by using his people. His plan has never been any different. The oft quoted Exodus manifesto reveals how when God’s people obeyed him and kept his covenant

“…then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation …” (Exodus 19:5–6, NIV)

Jeremiah 22 and Isaiah 1, show the Lord expects his people to address injustice around them. It was his plan for his people then. The question is does the New Testament teach it is his plan for his church, for you, for me, for his church to do it now? Does Jesus clearly teach this?

Let’s cover some of that data:

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:16–18, NIV)

It’s clear: Christians know God’s love, and this places them under an obligation to help a brother or sister in need. In doing this we clearly follow Jesus’ example.

“Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8, NIV)

It’s clear: Because you are a Christian, you have an obligation to assist family and relatives in need.

“In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”” (Acts 20:35, NIV)

As Paul farewells the Ephesian elders, he does not just tell them about their responsibilities to guard the flock from false teachers. He clearly says they have an obligation to help the weak.

“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:10, NIV)

Here we see how the circle of responsibility widens: it’s not just fellow Christians in need that the church has to care for, nor to their responsibilities extend only to their family. God’s people are called to do good and to address the needs of all people.

Can you see the emphasis? You are God’s plan to address need inside the church. You are God’s plan to address need outside the church.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,” (Matthew 25:35, NIV)

Christ’s people don’t just render assistance to the ones they know and love, but even to those who are strangers. As one scholar observes:  to ‘those who were enemies politically and religiously.’

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13–16, NIV)

You are the salt of what? Your Family? You are the salt of your friends? You are the salt of the people you know and love? You are the salt of people who are like you? No. None of that. You, church, are the salt of the earth. It’s hard to think of a context wider than that. You are God’s plan on the earth.

“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:11–12, NIV)

Peter writes to this church, people who are salt and light, and he says “be this kind of people, do good, live good lives, even amongst pagans. In the context of 1 Peter, God’s people were called to live good lives toward those who were persecuting them. That is an astounding command.

So: What is God’s plan to address injustice? You and me. Us. Church, together. We are the plan. We see from the above that this teaching is consistently reflected and embedded in the witness of the New Testament. And when it comes the the emphases in Jesus’ ministry, I can do no better that quote Timothy Keller. In Generous Justice he writes:

While clearly Jesus was preaching the good news to all, he showed throughout his ministry the particular interest in the poor and the downtrodden that God has always had.

Jesus, in his incarnation, “moved in” with the poor. He lived with, ate with, and associated with the socially ostracized (Matt 9:13). He raised the son of the poor widow (Luke 7:11–16) and showed the greatest respect to the immoral woman who was a social outcast (Luke 7:36ff). Indeed, Jesus spoke with women in public, something that a man with any standing in society would not have done, but Jesus resisted the sexism of his day (John 4:27). 51 Jesus also refused to go along with the racism of his culture, making a hated Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:26ff) and touching off a riot when he claimed that God loved Gentiles like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian as much as Jews (Luke 4:25–27). Jesus showed special concern for children, despite his apostles’ belief that they were not worth Jesus’s time (Luke 18:15). Lepers also figured greatly in Jesus’s ministry. They were not only sick and dying, but were the outcasts of society. Jesus not only met their need for physical healing, but reached out his hand and touched them, giving them their first human contact in years (Mark 1:41; Luke 5:13). He called his disciples to give to the poor in the strongest and most startling ways, while praising the poor for their own generosity (Mark 12:42–43). His own mother prophesied that he would “fill the poor” but turn the rich away empty (Luke 1:53). Yet Jesus also showed true justice by opening his arms to several classes of people who were not just poor. He ate with and spoke to tax collectors, the wealthiest people in society, yet the most hated, since they acquired their gains through collaborating with the Roman forces of occupation. The first witnesses to Jesus’s birth were shepherds, a despised group considered unreliable, yet God revealed the birth of his son first to them. The first witnesses of Jesus’s resurrection were women, another class of people so marginalized that their testimony was not admissible evidence in court. Yet Jesus revealed himself to them first. The examples are too many too enumerate.

So it is very clear indeed: Jesus’ teaching and ministry shows the absolute depth of His commitment to address the injustices of his day and reflect the compassion of his Father.

The How and the Why

In fact, Christians have no way of understanding God’s plan to address injustice, or their own part in it, outside of Jesus.

We need to remember this. Too often the church and Christians have been guilted into compassion. But guilt is such a lousy motivator. It may lead people to conform, but it never changes the heart. All guilt gives is more brokenness.

we take responsibility for God’s plan because in God’s plan, Jesus has taken responsibility for us

So, what is our motivation to join this plan of God? To be his means to address our world’s injustice? Well, we take responsibility for God’s plan because in God’s plan, Jesus has taken responsibility for us.

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6–8, NIV)

The Gospel ends every argument about whether people will accept compassion in the right frame of mind, whether they deserve it, or whether they will abuse the grace extended to them.

Because

  • I was not in the right frame of mind for the love of God in Jesus.
  • I did not accept him as I should have.
  • I regularly abuse the privilege of grace.
  • Only in Jesus do I become the righteousness of God.
  • Only through Jesus does my status move from rebel to regenerate.
  • The Gospel gives me the only motivation I need to engage with God’s plan.

But Jesus is not only our motivation. Jesus is our means, our capacity, our ability to respond. He lives in us through his Spirit, the deposit guaranteeing what is to come. Christ in us! Do we need more? It’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me! This incredible reality means we have Jesus’ resources at our disposal as we engage with God’s plan!

“I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13, NIV)

Jesus is my motivation. Jesus is my means. And Jesus is my message. As we are God’s plan to address injustice, let us remember that we cannot divorce what we do from who we are in Jesus Christ. Faith and actions go together. Gospel work with Gospel words. It’s not enough to aim for mere changed circumstances. What we’re presenting is that God changes people through the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The greatest agent of change in the world is the human heart ruled by Jesus Christ.

The greatest agent of change in the world is the human heart ruled by Jesus Christ.

Now that doesn’t mean that before we help anyone we have to share the gospel, or get them signing off on ‘two ways to live’, or something like that. But as Jesus himself did, the works become a context to speak his words.

When the message comes without actions, it will lack traction. When actions come without the message, people will not understand the gracious God who is reaching out to them through his son.

God has a plan to address injustice. God has made it clear: through Jesus we are the plan, and God does not have another plan. So, how do we do this? What will we at Gateway Community Church actually do to engage with God’s plan? Do we have a plan? That is what I will get specific about next week.

For now, for this week, pray this

“Lord, open my eyes to how I can be part of your plan.

Open my eyes to how we at GCC can engage with your plan.

Open our eyes and our heart to

the people we need to see,

to the situations we need to address,

to the dark places,

the broken lives,

where the light of your Gospel needs to shine,

and where the love, grace and forgiveness of your Son will bring healing.”

Restoration – Foundations #7 (Group Questions)

Group discussion questions

Opener: What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word ‘heaven’?

Read: Rev 21:1-8; Rev 22:1-5

How does this biblical vision of the new heavens and the new earth challenge what people typically think about heaven?

What are some of the factors that might make thinking about heaven difficult for us?

Read Isaiah 60

What impresses you most about Isaiah’s vision of God’s restored universe?

How literally should we take the picture Isaiah presents?

Does this comfort you or challenge you?

How might the restoration Jesus will bring influence our church’s mission or their engagement with their local community?

With your group: some time dreaming about this restoration, and asking God to impress his vision on your hearts.

Restoration (Foundations #7)

Reading: Rev 21:1-8; Rev 22:1-5; Isaiah 60

First: some small print:

• In this sermon I will not be discussing the various views about the second coming of Jesus. In many ways these alternate views are but a distraction to the focus God’s big picture, the restoration of all things under Jesus Christ

• I will not offer any extended discussion of the intermediate state: what happens to the soul of the believer on death and until Jesus returns. Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him in paradise. For now, that is enough. Anyone who trusts Jesus, even in the most simple manner, enters into his presence on death

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Sometimes when I read an exciting novel, I can’t help myself but turn to the last few pages, just to see how things are going to finish. I know it’s bad form: some would say it spoils the whole experience. I am not sure it has ever done that for me.

One thing I am sure about: if I have done that, I know that whatever happens as the story develops, whether good or bad, it will not change the result. It reminds me of how once Desmond Tutu was asked how he retained his faith in the face of so much evil. He is reported to have said “I have read to the back of the book, and we win.”

When thinking of God’s Big Picture, the great climax of all time will be God’s restoration of all things under Jesus Christ.

Screen Shot 2014 08 16 at 8 11 08 pm

We know what restoration is:

Taking something old or damaged, and bringing it back to its original condition. Last year I bought a 1925 Singer sewing machine. For several months I hid it in my shed, restoring it (as best I could) to its original state. It was a gift to my wife, and she loves it. My goal was to take the machine back to its former glory, and bring some delight to my wife in the process.

IMG 0782

Don’t you find yourself longing that the world would be restored? Back to it’s original condition? If you do, you’re like God. Because God is going to make all things right, restore his entire creation.

Interestingly, the idea of restoration does not seem to occupy the minds of many Christians. Most Christians talk more about their idea of heaven.

As it happens, one of the most popular books in Christian circles is a book called ‘Heaven is for real…’ This is the apparently true story of a 7yo boy who experienced heaven during an operation. He had wings, a harp, and found it a bit boring…

And fair enough. Does anyone find this picture appealing? Let’s just say someone invited you to a party, and one of the conditions was that it would be held in a public place, you would have to wear wings, play a harp, and move from one big pile of cotton wool to another while singing songs of praise. Is it a party you would want to attend?

So, are we surprised that there is a degree of ambivalence about heaven? If we’re not sure about heaven, how can we expect people to want to go?

The fact is, the Bible never talks about people in heaven having wings and harps, flitting from cloud to cloud while singing a selection of traditional hymns. So, what does the Bible say about heaven? About this restoration God will bring through Jesus?

Heaven, Restoration and Scripture

In the NT, ‘heaven’ is shorthand for the place where God rules. In the sermon on the mount, and in the NT parables, Jesus often refers to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ as the place where the will of God is done on earth, where God’s rule is recognised:

• Where God’s commands are lived graciously (Matt 5:19)

• Where greatness is measured in servanthood and humility (Matt 18:3)

• Where justice and mercy dominate all human relationships (Matt 18:23-35)

• Where there is peace between all people (Matt 5:3-10)

The Kingdom of heaven is seen wherever the curse is undone and sin overcome (Col 3:1-17). It is seen as God’s people live his ways, announcing his good news, and living his new good.

We know that until Jesus returns, the efforts of his people to live his new life will be imperfect and incomplete. Even so, such efforts are natural and normal for those people in whom Jesus lives by his Spirit.

The second thing we note about ‘heaven’ in the Scriptures is that the emphasis is not primarily on what God’s people receive, but on God’s acts to restore of all things.
God’s Big Picture is to bring this restoration completely, powerfully, wonderfully and eternally through Jesus Christ the Lord. So much so that human rebellion, sin, grief and the fall will be completely done away with forever.

The total work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem this entire creation from the effects of sin … God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s fall. [Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, p.275]

God’s restoration will be universal and cosmic in its scope, including all reality, physical and spiritual.

There are some important considerations here, and the first is that when heaven, God’s restoration of all things, is in view the Bible does not speak about the removal of physical reality. This is surprise to many people in the western world.

The reason many think that heaven will a disembodied existence, with harps and wings and clouds is not because they have been influenced by the Bible, but because they have been influenced by ancient Greek thought. Greek gnostic thinking held that the closer to got to the divine, the more physical things would be left behind, and the more spirit focussed we would become.

Admittedly, we do have references like 2 Cor 5:8, which talk about being away from the body and at home with the Lord. But these refer to the spiritual state believers enter on death, before Jesus’ return.

The ‘heaven’ we are talking about today is the heaven after Jesus has returned and restored all things when all creation will sing “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13, NIV)

The restoration to come under Jesus is not the destruction and removal of everything physical, but the destruction and removal of everything sinful and fallen. So, when we read about the earth being purged with fire (2 Pet 3) we are not reading about the destruction of the earth because it is physical. We are reading about the cleansing of the earth that is opposed to Christ and his rule.

In the language of the NT, heaven cannot be a place of disembodied existence. We see this first and foremost in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was not raised simply as soul or spirit, but as a complete ‘true man, true God’ person: body, soul, spirit.

This is the truth confessed all through the ages:

I believe in the Holy Spirit
the holy catholic church
the communion of saints
the forgiveness of sins
the resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting

[The Apostles’ Creed]

NT Wright observes:

If the resurrection is an event that actually occurred in time and space, as well as in the material reality of Jesus’ body, it has implications for other events that must follow.

Indeed it does. Christ’s physical, bodily resurrection is the first fruit of restored reality. The entire universe, recreated.

Finally, the NT teaches that when Jesus returns, his restoration will involve the coming together of heaven and earth.

The Apostle John sees this vividly:

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”” (Revelation 21:1–4, NIV)

It is nothing less than the coming of an entirely transformed existence, a new universe:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 22:1–5, NIV)

In this restored creation, all sin is gone, the curse has been conquered, and the tree of life – once barred to humanity in Eden – is now fully available to all.

John adds:

“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” (Revelation 21:22, NIV)

In the Old Testament, the Temple was a sign of God’s presence with his people. But in God’s restored reality, God’s presence does not need to be signified, because he is with his people at last, and they are with him.

What God started in a garden, He recreates to become a city of light. It is a glorious climax to the life restoring redemptive plan of an all loving and all powerful God – praise His Holy Name!

That the new heavens and the new earth has this physical aspect is troubling to some, and the question naturally arises whether all this physical imagery is just symbolic.
The problem with the symbolic approach is that Scripture is replete with this picture, and some of the most stunning examples are found in Isaiah 60.

We read of a place which will be visited by nations and kings,

Of seas, and boats. Of herds of livestock,

Where exiled peoples come home to a place of freedom and splendour,

Were there is such safety that doors stay open and locks are thrown away

Of glorious natural beauty and majesty

Where violence is non existent

Where the weak are strong and the insignificant are lifted up in honour.

And just in case we doubt whether this could ever happen, the chapter finishes with an eyeball to eyeball guarantee:

“…I am the LORD; in its time I will do this swiftly.”” (Isaiah 60:22, NIV)

So, God’s restoration will reunite heaven (where God dwells) and earth (where humanity dwells).

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3, NIV)

The enmity and separation brought by human rebellion and the fall, the alienation of humanity from God will be completely overcome! Eden is gloriously restored, and everything is ‘very good’ for all eternity.

This is where we are headed, friends! This is the great plan of God: once for all to deal with human sin and rebellion, and restore all things to their rightful place in and under Christ. This restoration is focussed on the glory of our great God and the overwhelming victory he will bring. Those who once were rebels, now raised in Christ, will rule on his new earth, and the glory of the Lord, the profound peace of God – His Shalom – will rule from sea to sea.

Imagine…

Marriages without arguments (I know Jesus says people will neither marry nor be given in marriage – but you know what I mean: harmonious life, peaceful relationships, no more misunderstandings).

No more depression or mental illness.

No more guns and war.

No more fear at night.

No more terror. No more hatred.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

[John Lennon, 1971]

It’s such a deeply help human wish, that even those far from God find themselves dreaming about it.

Living in the ‘not yet’ with our eyes on God’s forever

God’s restoration of heaven and earth is the ultimate reason to live for him and praise him! This vision draws us into a rich hope, a hope which the Bible says, does not disappoint. It is the best motivation to trust God, to offer him our heart, to ask him to rule our lives!

But we are not there yet. This is why we are people of faith and hope. Following Jesus does not take us out of the world: it send us into it. Not to adopt its values, but to transform them (Rom 12:1-2).

CS Lewis once said “Aim at heaven, and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth, and you will get neither.”

What he is saying is we will only find fulfilment as the values of God’s new creation shape everything we do. As new creation we announce the good news and we live the new good.

How important for us to do this! We have seen much terrible news these last weeks. Whole groups of people, some of them Christians, gunned down by ISIS extremists.

ISIS believe their task is to extend the Kingdom of Allah by force. Use guns and swords and tanks to subjugate people. And those who do not comply, put them to death. That kingdom expands through terror, bloodshed and fear.

God’s Kingdom, God’s restoration, does not come by terror, or violence or human power. It comes by resurrection, selflessness, and the spirit of the servant, Jesus.

God’s Kingdom, God’s restoration, does not come by terror, or violence or human power. It comes by resurrection, selflessness, and the spirit of the servant, Jesus.

“…Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6, NIV)

Jesus’ rule is extended by grace and love. Through the sacrifice of the cross, and the resurrection life of Jesus coming to expression as he rules human lives. While we wait for the ultimate restoration, we live its life now. Doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven so people everywhere will see men, women, children, communities changed by Jesus.

“No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.” (Isaiah 65:22–25, NIV)

This is God’s Big Picture. This is the core message of Christianity. In Jesus, God is dealing with human rebellion, our alienation from our creator, the brokenness of our world. In and through Jesus God will restore it all. Read to the end of the book, and you will see that we win.

This is the reality we are headed toward. There are may questions. Some we can answer, some we cannot answer. The biggest question of all, however, is this: Will you be there?

Jesus declares to us and assures us that he is the way, the truth the life. Anyone can come to the Father through him.

This glorious restoration, the glory of God, is reason alone to do just that. To trust him, to honour him, to live for him.

Dealing with Disaster (Group Questions)

Discuss:

Share your thoughts about how the tragic events of the last few weeks have impacted you. How have these events influenced your prayer life?

Read Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism: What strikes you about this personal assertion of God’s providence?

Read Psalm 46

Think of a time when life was hard for you or your loved ones. Was it apparent that God was your fortress? What impact did this have – positively or negatively – on how you managed that challenge?

What would the writer of Psalm 46 have to say to those who hold that God’s blessing is measured in health, wealth and prosperity?

In times of tragedy and trial we will often say ‘God will work things out for our good.” Is this what Romans 8:28 actually says? Who are the “those” in the phrase “the good of those who love him”?

What does Genesis 50:15-21 tell us about divine sovereignty and human responsibility?

Are you ‘a person of the problem’ or a ‘person of the solution’? How is this seen in your behaviour?

Read Matthew 5:13-16. List the things your church is doing to be ‘a community of the solution’ addressing suffering in your local community.

Read the full text of “Dealing with Disaster: Where is God in tragedy?” here

Dealing with Disaster: Where is God in tragedy?

Read: Psalm 46

Images

A grandfather boards a plane with three young grandchildren. This is an adventure! The kids are incredibly excited!

Arjen and Yvonne Ryder are travelling home. They are keen to see their children and reconnect with their church community.

Six others traveling to an HIV conference in Melbourne, include Joep Lange who has dedicated his life to find a cure for HIV and to relive the suffering of those who have the disease.

On July 17 their plane was blown out of the sky. All 298 people died instantly.

Ismail, Ahed, Zakaria, Mohammed and Sayed live in a poor Gaza neighbourhood. Their play is simple. One hot day the boys run down to the beach, hoping for relief from the heat and from the rockets which slam incessantly into their neighbourhood.

While the boys are at the beach, a rocket slams into a shipping container on the nearby break wall. Petrified, the boys run for their lives. A second rocket targets them, and seconds later four of them are blown to bits. The fifth escapes with serious injuries.

Near Aleppo, Syria, six men once followed Islam. Recently ISIS extremists captured them, charged them with apostasy, and publicly crucified them.

We are people who follow Jesus. How do we deal with such evil?

God’s Word

God’s people have wrested with that confronting question all through the ages. They have seen slavery in Egypt. Exile in Babylon. Persecution of the early church. More currently eviction and persecution of Iraqi Christians under threat of death.

It all seems a world away from suburban Australia. Ours is a peaceful country, possibly the best in the world. We have ice cream in our freezers, iPhones in our pockets, we plan our holidays and leisure pursuits.

These terrible events invade our comfort. And the greatest temptation is simply to push them away. We escape into the screen. We get out with friends. We grab some food. We create a diversion to escape the world of horror and evil.

One writer says

We cannot and we must not soften the blow; we cannot and we must not pretend that evil is not that bad after all

(NT Wright: Evil and the Justice of God, p.20)

So, if we are not to soften the blow, how do we deal with it? How does God’s word help us?

Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism opens our minds to the whole sweep of Scripture with a daring assertion: even in the face of evil, God is sovereign, in control of all things, and loving toward all he has made.
Q&A 27

Q: What do you understand by the providence of God?


A: Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God
by which God upholds, as with his hand,
heaven and earth and all creatures,
and so rules them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years,
food and drink,
health and sickness,
prosperity and poverty
—all things, in fact,
come to us not by chance
but by his fatherly hand.

But wait: we are talking about MH17, about ISIS crucifixions – did these really come from God’s fatherly hand? Well, God did not do those acts of evil. They were done at the hands of people, people committing crimes against humanity.

But by the same token, they were not acts of chance, or random forces operating outside the mysterious sovereign will of God.

I don’t know how to explain this. But I do know that if there are things outside God’s power he is not much of a God. If there are things in our world over which he has no control he is not worth believing.

But this is not the testimony of God we read in the Bible. Scripture teaches this sovereign God remains passionately and compassionately involved in our world and our lives.

Scripture teaches this sovereign God remains passionately and compassionately involved in our world and our lives.

So we are left with a tension: people are fully responsible for their behaviour. God is fully sovereign over his world and our lives.

We understand there is great mystery here.

Truth is, there are some things we may never be able to understand. Even in eternity we will know fully, but we will not be omniscient. We will stay human, and God will stay God.

Jesus reminds us that despite these mysteries, despite the limitations of human understanding, our loving God stands above all our woes. That his sovereign grace and almighty power is our only hope.

This God knows what we need:

““Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:25–33, NIV)

Jesus reminds us that despite these mysteries, despite the limitations of human understanding, our loving God stands above all our woes. That his sovereign grace and almighty power is our only hope.

We see the same in Psalm 46. This Psalm is a voice of hope and trust in the midst of dark threat and danger.

Let’s go there…

vv.1-3 This Psalmist reminds us that anything can happen. Even the unthinkable: mountains fall into the sea; the earth gives way. In this very context we hear the voice of faith:

But we will not fear!

There are shades of Daniel in the lion’s den, or the three in the fiery furnace: When God is our refuge, our strength, whom – or what – shall we fear?

vv.4-7 God is with us, and his presence is our protection. “God with us!” That tiny word ‘with’, when the Lord is the subject, is an indicator of covenant language and a signpost to his covenant faithfulness. The promise that God will be with his people is grounded deeply in his eternal promises.

“I will be with you” the Lord said, and led his people through the Red Sea with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. This God, Jacob’s God, is our mighty fortress.

But what, then, of Arjen and Yvonne Ryder?

Or Joep Lange?

Or any of the other 295 people on board MH 17?

A missile blew up their plane!

How could God be their fortress?

Well, Christians believe there is life, an existence with God that even a surface to air missile cannot take away. Those who trust in Jesus have an enduring hope in a glorious promise:

“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31–39, NIV)

It was this hope which prompted Daniel’s friends, when threatened with death in the furnace, to say that whether they survived or perished in the flames they would not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s image (Daniel 3:16-18). They knew, they trusted, they believed in the reality of life with God beyond physical death.

vv.8-9 Christians believe God will one day bring an end to warfare, to terrorism, to missiles, to grief and suffering.

“God will one day restore creation so the dark and threatening sea of chaos will be no more”
(NT Wright)

On that day they will beat their tanks into carousels, and their guns into bakery equipment.

This is no cliché. This is truth. This is where our world is heading, friends: a day is coming when God will put all things to right.

How do these truths impact God’s people?

v.10 “Be still, and know that I am God”

Cease striving.

Stop railing against it all.

Don’t let bitterness take root.

Stop hassling about ‘why?’ and concentrate on ‘what’.

Not: ‘why did this happen’

But: ‘as people who know the love and mercy of Jesus, what do we need to do to bring the grace of God’s kingdom to expression in this situation?’

Be still. Know that he is God.

And you are not. You are human. You cannot work this out. No one can.

No, God is not the author of evil. He sent Jesus to break the back of evil and to triumph over it.

And a day is coming when this Jesus will bring his world to rights. He will recreate it and bring it back to shalom, so that it will all be ‘very good’ once more.

A day is coming when those who fire missiles at kids on a beach will stand before the King of Heaven and Earth and give account for what they have done.

A day is coming when those who fired that missile at a plane full of scientists, families, couples, and children will give an account.

It is possible that human investigations into the incident may fail. The perpetrators might not ever be identified.

But God knows who they are, and they will answer before him.

A day is coming when ISIS extremists will stand before the Great King, and made to give an account for their violence.

There is One Judge who will act with justice. No one will miss out on that.

v.11 And so the Psalm’s refrain again: “The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” (Psalm 46:11, NIV)

Your ultimate hope comes from relationship with the Lord Almighty. You are called to reach out to Jesus, who promised “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
This truth is no guarantee that we will never have any troubles, or that we will be spared tragedy and grief.

But we know, with the Psalmist, and with the writers of Lord’s Day 10, that it is in the crucible of grief that the strongest trust and confidence on the Lord is formed.

Take heart friends. You are not at the mercy of random forces of evil. You are in the hands of the living God, our sovereign Lord.

Answering the inevitable questions

But having said that, how do we answer the questions people ask? What can we say about all this?

First: Admit your ignorance. There are some things we just don’t know.

We don’t have all the answers. No one does. To admit this is to admit our humanity.
Try and say otherwise, or cover your ignorance, and people will know you’re faking it. And rightly so.

Second: Psalm 23 reminds us that even as we walk through the valley of death and grief, we know the Lord is with us.

You will notice the Psalm does not say we’ll be miraculously transported to the beautiful mountain top and start soaring with the eagles. We stay in the valley. The grief and suffering remain. The comfort is our God is not unaware or unmoved by our struggle. His rod and staff – his guidance and protection – comfort us. He is with us. Always. His Spirit, the Comforter, lives in us, experiencing with us all our struggle and pain. Our God is not unaware or uninvolved in our lives when tragedy or grief comes our way.

Third: The reality of suffering and pain challenges how we look at our world.

Tragedy is its own preacher: reminding us that despite all our advances and all our knowledge, we are small, and ignorant, and totally dependent on our living Lord.

Tragedy is its own motivator: drawing out of complacency. It drives us toward a better world, a greater story, a narrative – a view of life which can give us hope. This is why were are currently working through the Foundations Series: we want to understand our world, and how God’s plan in Jesus enables us to live as his new people.

Fourth: there is a greater tragedy, a greater evil than any warfare or act of aggression between people.

It happened 2000 years ago, when the Son of God was put to death on a torturous Cross.
This innocent Saviour died in the place of guilty rebels.

He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was laid upon his shoulders. By his suffering, we were healed.

In which other life context would you want another person to take your punishment? To suffer for your wrongs?

In that sense, the Cross of Jesus is the deepest and most appalling of injustices. In another sense through this greatest of evil, King Jesus conquered:

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:15, NIV)

This Jesus promises the comfort of his grace and the presence of His spirit to all who call on him. This Victor, the great Overcomer, is with you, and he will give you strength to cope with life’s sharp and brutal edges. The Cross and the open tomb remind us that Jesus takes evil and turns it into something that results in good.

“We will not be delivered from suffering, but with God’s help we can be transformed by it”

(Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised)

Fifth: This Jesus will return, to throw evil, aggression, and its exceptionally ugly author into the abyss for all eternity.

We long for and pray for a world where there will be no more weeping, crying, mourning or pain. Where the old order of injustice and aggression will be no more. In all the grief of this world, we look to the new heavens and the new earth.

We do this not as a means of escape, or as reason to ignore the pain and grief around us. We look to the next world to filter and focus what we do in the here and now. We want to see God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We also look to the new heavens and the new earth in faith that Jesus is returning. He will make it right. He will bring his eternal shalom.

Sixth: everyone of us must ask: am I a person of the solution, or a person of the problem?

Ask yourself: am I ruled by Jesus, and so working to break down evil in my community? Am I working to relieve suffering in my world? Am I a man, a woman of peace? Am I a person of the solution or a person of the problem?

See, if you ignore the evil around you and in your community, if you turn a blind eye, you are part of the problem. The church is not called to turn a blind eye. The church is called to be light of the world right there where you are.

So, is my church community working hard to address the suffering in our own neighbourhood? Do we understand that God’s mission is to bring an end to evil and suffering? As his people, do we accept his mission? Will we align all we do to see that he is honoured, that we will follow his call, and do all we can to bring his kingdom to glorious expression in our locality?

In the face of terrible tragedy, know that God will contain evil, he will restrain evil, he will prevent it form doing its worst, and he will even use the malice, ignorance and stupidity of human beings to further his own sovereign purposes (NT Wright). This is our comfort.

And we know that God seeks to wipe away the tears of the suffering even in this life, to break the chains of injustice, and to bring evil to account.

He will do this through the power of his risen Son.

And he will do this as his Son rules his people.

People like us.

This is our great mission.

May God give us the grace, strength and courage to shoulder it.

Foundations #2 – Rebellion

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Image: iStockphoto: © stphillips

Reading: Genesis 3

Not the way it should be…

The big day has finally arrived!

No, not your wedding day. Not your 21st. Not the big promotion.

It’s the day you get the huge Samsung curved screen TV.

It takes up half your lounge room. And before you install it, you have to extend the room by several meters, otherwise you’re sitting so close your hair stands on end…

Anyway, it’s all there. You have the chips. The dip. The Shiraz. And you’re hanging out for the final of Masterchef…

You turn it on, the screen springs to life, but all you can get is Extra – A channel dedicated to advertising stuff no one needs. But this is your new 65″ curved screen TV, so you watch a little Brazil Butt Lift, and then try another channel.

Extra.

But now it’s Dr Ho’s Pain Therapy. IN disbelief, you hit the remote again.

Extra.

And your next thought is… This is not the way its supposed to be. There’s something wrong with this thing…

In that moment of frustration, though you might not know it, you express a core truth of humanity and the world we live in: This is not the way it is supposed to be.

There seems to be a universal sense that things should be better than what they are.

That cancer is ugly and wrong.

That people should be honest.

That people should be able to walk down any street on any night and have no fear.

That politicians and orphanage workers can be trusted.

That some church leader is not going to abuse my child.

That people should not have to seek asylum ever.

Why do we have this sense, this deep rooted belief, that things should be better?

In this Foundations series we want to understand basic Christian teaching. The core message of what God is doing in the world. And one of Christianity’s core beliefs is that things should be better than what they are. The Bible tells us where that core belief comes from.

Sin… meaning what?

The problem is summed up in one word: sin.

And our problem is that our culture has no real concept of what that is.
Let’s do something on the fly: Fire up your browser and go to Google.com.au and starting type ‘sinful’

The first entries are generally things like ‘sinful iPhone, sinful colours, sinful chocolate, sinful dessert…’

See what’s going on?

Sin has become fun. Stuff you eat. Great experiences. Things we typically enjoy. Here’s the point: If Google’s definition is what people are thinking about sin, it’s no wonder we’re confused. Who needs to repent of eating a cake? Or chocolate?

In contrast to this, the Bible says our world is broken. And we need to ask, ‘how did this happen?’ If God created the world, “and it was very good”, how come it falls so far short of that today? How is it that human wrongdoing, or the threat of it, mars every workday, every child’s school day, every family holiday? [see Plantinga, p.8]

That’s the question. And we are not going to like the answer because the Bible says we human are to blame.

Read Gen 3:1-7

Adam and Eve had been told not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But instead of obedience, they chose disobedience. Instead of trusting God, they chose independence. Instead of submission, they chose rebellion. Their action became humanity’s spiritual coup d’état. A seizure of power from the world’s rightful and loving ruler.

That first act of rebellion has affected all humanity. Relationships between people and people are a mess. Relationships between people and nature; people and God; people and themselves; nature and God – all polluted. The whole universe manifests the ugly evidence that things are not they way they should be.

Rom 8:19-22

How pervasive, insistent and ugly is this human rebellion against God. It stains every act. It pollutes every disposition. It brings brokenness into every life context. It affects all of us, right to the core.

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV)

The lousy smell of rebellion makes its way into every part of life. Like those embarrassing times when you walk into an important meeting with some post canine material on your shoe. You can smell it. Others can smell it. And you’re thinking, ‘phwoah, what’s that funky smell… that’s not they way it’s supposed to be…’ And you realise, way too late, that it’s been your problem all along.

Is there anywhere in that room where the smell does not make its heinous presence known? So also, there is no part of life that is unaffected by human rebellion and indifference against God. This is what we refer to when we talk about total depravity.
We are not as bad as we can get. But the smell of the fall impacts every part of human personhood.

The analogy actually falls down because actually everyone has that mess to deal with, and not just on their shoe – but deep within.

Seen those images of Isis militants executing people in cold blood?

Heard the reports of institutional abuse from the current Royal Commission in Australia?

Noticed that in your relationships there is not only wonderful capacity for love and joy, but also dreadful ability for pain, hurt and rejection?

this sin, this smell of the fall, it is not just ‘out there’. It is right here in this gathering. It is in our hearts. It is part of us

We cannot always measure culpability for it, but this rebellion possesses appalling force. Simply by our habitual practice, we let loose a great, rolling momentum of moral and spiritual evil across generations. By doing such things, we involve ourselves deeply in what theologians call corruption. [Plantinga, p.27]

See, this sin, this smell of the fall, it is not just ‘out there’. It is right here in this gathering. It is in our hearts. It is part of us.

And God hates it.

Not simply because it violates his law, but more substantively because it violates his shalom. Because it breaks the peace he first poured into his creation.
It interferes with the way things are supposed to be. [see Plantinga, p.27]

Now we have all seen and heard the voice of militant atheism raging against Christianity and faith in God. These voices trouble us, and threaten us. We will sometimes find ourselves cowering in their icy blast.

But think about it: What can atheists say about our human condition? What hope do they offer? Every person who does not believe in the living Lord, what hope do you have?
What challenge, ultimately, do you offer to the ugliness, the evil, the injustice we see in our world? What have you got to say?

You have no solution. You present no hope for your world. You offer no prospect that things will ever be any different.

When the next abuser is unmasked; when the next grotesque injustice is perpetrated;
when the next family breaks down; the next marriage vow broken; the next time children weep themselves to sleep; all you can say is ‘this is the way things are and it will never be any different.’

What a hopeless way to live.

What a pathetic view of life.

Solution

So here is the question we all need to answer, right here, right now:

Do we just accept that this is the way things are?

Do you want to go on living with the belief that things will never change?

Do you want to deny that cry from deep within that there has to be another way, a better way, a way of hope?

This is why you need to trust God.

If we go back to that initial act of rebellion, right back in the garden, we see that the moment humans rejected God, the moment they turned their back on him, the moment judgement descended, this same God – his own heart grieving – promised life and hope.

Humanity is hiding, living in guilt.

And God is seeking, speaking grace (Gen 3:9).

To the serpent, the evil one’s agent of the fall, this God says

“…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”” (Genesis 3:15, NIV)

He turns the children of the women, ultimately children of faith, into polar opposites of evil. He creates an antithesis, an ingrained opposition, an enmity between those who seek to live for God and those who would persist live without him.

This God of hope promises that one day, One would come who would crush the head of evil for all time. One who would bring an end to the pain, the tears, the grief, the crying and mourning and injustice and deceit.

God’s plan is that his people, those who despite their wrongdoing and rebellion, would still trust him, that through these people he would show what life was meant to be like. He promised that ultimately, from these very people, One would be born who would ultimately crush this evil power, and start to bring things back to the way they should be.

We read the OT and we see how God chose a people as his very own. How he lived with them. They were his people, his priests, his holy nation. He would be their God. And We see them stumble and fall and fail, and lose faith.

But God stays remains faithful to his promises. His faithfulness knows no limit.

And all through the years He sent prophets who

“dreamed of a new age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain. The foolish would be made wise, and the wise, humble. They dreamed of a time when the deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease, and people could go to sleep without weapons on their laps. People would work in peace and work to fruitful effect. Lambs could lie down with lions. All nature would be fruitful, benign, and filled with open wonder. All humans would be knit together in brotherhood and sisterhood; and all nature and all humans would look to God, walk with God, lean toward God, and delight in God. Shouts of joy and recognition would well up from valleys and seas, from women in streets and from men in ships.”

[Plantinga p.9-10]

The NT tells us that Jesus is the one to bring this new creation. He is our promised rescuer – more about that next week.

Be sure of this: through this Jesus God is answering the rebellion of humanity that has wrecked his world.

Writing about Jesus, Paul says

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19–20, NIV)

This is the peace we all long for.

It comes through Jesus, who lived and died and rose again. His birth, life, death, and rising are historically verifiable events. The resurrection of Jesus vindicates His claim to be creation’s rescuer, your Saviour, your very present hope.

through this Jesus God is answering the rebellion of humanity that has wrecked his world

This Jesus – in a way that we can scarcely comprehend – is awakening that sense in you that ‘things are not the way they should be’.

He’s telling you that your world is broken. That you are broken. That we are all broken.

His death and rising again show that he has the power to put us back together.

To deal with our rebellion.

Our fallen acts.

Our fallen disposition.

Our corruption.

And he is calling you to trust Him.

To come on board with his all powerful effort to make things right.

So that instead of being stuck in rebellion, we might be free, our world made right, and one day, at last, everything will be the way it should be.

[I acknowledge with thanks the clarity Cornelis Plantinga has brought to this discussion with his work ‘Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be – A Breviary of Sin‘ This book breathes the hope of Christ into any discussion of our deepest and ugliest realities]