Friday, 3 April 2020

On Being Overwhelmed [Redux]


I wrote this piece for ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. If it sounds familiar to the two regular readers of my blog (Hi, Mum! Hi, Brett!), that’s because it’s a beefed-up version of a piece I wrote last week.

It was Harold Wilson who allegedly said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. In these recent momentous days, it looks as if that should be reduced to five minutes.

In the space of a very short time, life has been turned upside-down. Work, school, family life, daily routines, leisure activities, as well as that number one pastime – shopping – have changed for all of us, almost overnight.

It’s easy to see why our nation – nay, our world – is uneasy. You may feel it yourself, identify it in friends and colleagues, or see it reflected in your social media feeds. We’re experiencing what theologian David Ford has called ‘multiple overwhelmings’. Whether personally, professionally, or politically, it’s one thing to have a single event that knocks us off our feet. But what if the knocks continue to come thick and fast? Is it any wonder we’re confused, anxious, distrustful, and fearful?

In all this, though, shafts of light manage to break through – the neighbours forming WhatsApp groups to support people in their street, the already-exhausted NHS workers coming in for the next shift, the rainbows in windows of houses saying more than the occupants of those homes perhaps know about the commitment of God to his creation.

They’re all traces of grace, showing something of a refusal to be shaped by the prevailing culture, which Christians of all people should understand. Because while some ‘overwhelmings’ wound and crush us, others are life-giving and transformative. As David Ford says, the wisest way to cope is ‘not to expect to be in control of everything’, but ‘to live amidst the overwhelmings’ in a way that lets one of them shape the others.

During this period of Lent, Christians remember that Christ himself embodied ‘multiple overwhelmings’ – baptised in the Jordan, driven into the wilderness, tempted by the devil. Then, at the climax of his life, betrayed, deserted, tortured, crucified. But, as Ford writes, ‘then came the resurrection, the most disorienting and transformative overwhelming of all’.

Given that death-and-resurrection pattern, what would it look like at this time to be overwhelmed by gratitude? Overwhelmed by generosity? Overwhelmed by a commitment to pray? Overwhelmed by a desire to see others thrive, even if it comes at our expense? Overwhelmed by an assurance of God’s love?

Given the resources available to us in the gospel, what might we be overwhelmed by today?

Thursday, 2 April 2020

On Finding a Purpose


The below is an extract from an email sent to my church.

Beyond the ever-changing daily headlines, questions of hope and meaning are never too far away.

Several of my friends have linked on Facebook to a thoughtful article in this week’s The Spectator magazine, by the journalist Douglas Murray, who asks, ‘In this strange new world, where do we find purpose?’

Murray himself concludes that ‘we are most likely to find meaning in the places where meaning has been found before. That what has seen our forebears through, and nourished them, will see us through and nourish us in turn’.

While Murray has elsewhere admitted to having a respect and admiration for Christianity, he is also a self-professed non-believer. But his sentiment here has the ring of truth about it, and it strikes me that Christians of all people know where real ‘meaning’ is found.

In his first letter, Peter encouraged his first-century readers to ‘give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15). It’s good to be able to tell others how we became a Christian, but Peter is expecting us to be able to say why. Why do we have hope? Not, in the first place, because we have a better philosophy or a better morality. The reason, ultimately, is Jesus. As Peter has said earlier in the letter, we have been born ‘into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade’ (1:3-4).

It is that hope which has nourished those who have gone before us, and it will continue to nourish us through this season.

9Marks Journal (March 2020) on Gospel-Centered Preaching


The latest issue of the 9Marks Journal, available from here in various formats, looks at the question, ‘What’s wrong with gospel-centered preaching today?’

In the Editorial Note, Jonathan Leeman describes a conversation he had with David Helm, in which the latter mentioned that he was concerned about the growing popularity of gospel-centered preaching. As Leeman describes it:

‘What?! Why? Isn’t gospel-centered preaching a good thing?

‘He answered, “Because the tail is going to start wagging the dog.” Helm was worried that young preachers would get lazy, not pay close attention to their texts, and move toward Christ too quickly. They wouldn’t do careful exegetical work; or preach the point of their particular texts; or take canonically responsible ways of moving toward the gospel. To put it another way, they would allegorize.

‘Of course, that’s not the only problem with preaching out there. Some preachers don’t preach the gospel at all. Others fail to apply the text to their whole church. And still others fail to respect the rules of their particular genre, have bad biblical theology, or preach without exemplars.’

Monday, 30 March 2020

So Great a Salvation #5: The Cross and the Defeated Enemy


When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Colossians 2:13-15

Global warming. Terrorist threats. Nuclear weapons. Covid-19...

It’s not too difficult to draw up a list of reasons to be fearful. And that’s before we add in anxieties related to relationships, work, money, and childrearing. Small wonder that many have spoken of living in a ‘culture of fear’ – with the overwhelming sense that we are confronted by powerful forces that threaten our everyday existence.

Fear itself goes back to the garden of Eden, where it’s a mark that we are out of joint with our Creator. But, to those who live in the shadow of fears, there is good news.

As it happens, the good news also begins in Genesis 3, with God’s promise of the serpent’s crushing defeat by the seed of the woman. The fulfilment of that promise unfolds in the rest of the biblical drama, coming to its unexpected peak in the death of Christ. To bystanders it would have looked like the worst-possible, most-shameful defeat. But for Paul, it was the place where ‘having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross’.

Notice that Jesus defeats the enemy not only in his resurrection and ascension (those obvious markers of victory) but first and foremost at the cross – precisely at the place where it looks like the powers of darkness and death have triumphed.

But why was the cross necessary? Because, says Paul, of the record of debt ‘which stood against us and condemned us’. The victory Jesus brings comes only at the expense of the death he dies. His Devil-defeating, death-dealing, deliverance-bringing work on the cross is carried out on our behalf.

This paradox of victory through suffering carries over into the Christian life. As Paul writes, ‘the God of peace will soon crush Satan underneath your feet’ (Romans 16:20), but there is a gap between the ‘It is finished’ of the cross and that final day. We’re not merely waiting around for that victory to come; we live into it now, as those who have been made ‘alive with Christ’ – but we do so only in the shadow of the cross.

In this way, the cross also points forward – to the worship of people from all nations, singing the triumph of the slain Lamb, victorious and enthroned, all enemies put down, all fears finally put to rest, that God may be all in all.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Lausanne Global Analysis 9, 2 (March 2020)


The latest issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, from The Lausanne Movement, is available online from here, including pdf downloads.

In the issue overview, editor David Taylor writes:

‘In this issue we explore servant leadership as modelled by Jesus, suggesting principles for global 21st century mission; we ask how we can engage Sikhs, adherents of the world’s fifth largest religion; we consider creation care as part of the mission of the church in the light of the Amazon mission of the church in the light of the Amazon fires; and we examine global terrorism from an African perspective asking how we should understand and respond to it.’

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

On Being Overwhelmed


The below is an extract from an email sent to my local church.

It was Harold Wilson who allegedly said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. In these recent momentous days, it looks as if that should be reduced to five minutes!

In the last week, life has been turned upside-down. Work, school, family life, daily routines, leisure activities, including that number one pastime – shopping! – have changed for all of us, almost overnight.

It’s easy to see why our nation is not at ease. You may feel it yourself, or identify it in friends and colleagues, or see it reflected in your social media feeds. As a society, we’re experiencing what some have called ‘multiple overwhelmings’. Whether personally, professionally, or politically, it’s one thing to have a single event that knocks us off our feet; but what if the knocks continue to come thick and fast? Is it any wonder people are confused, anxious, angry, distrustful, and fearful?

In all this, though, shafts of light manage to break through – the neighbours forming WhatsApp groups to support people in their street, the already-exhausted NHS workers coming in for the next shift, the rainbows in windows of houses saying more than the occupants of those homes perhaps know about the commitment of God to his creation.

They all illustrate something of a refusal to be shaped by the prevailing culture, which Christians of all people should understand. Because while some ‘overwhelmings’ wound and crush us, others are life-giving. What would it look like at this time to be overwhelmed by gratitude? Overwhelmed by generosity? Overwhelmed by a passion for justice? Overwhelmed by a desire to see others thrive, even if it comes at our expense?

Given the resources available to us in the gospel, what might we be overwhelmed by today?

Monday, 23 March 2020

So Great a Salvation #4: The Cross and the Law Court


Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus... 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?
Romans 8:1, 31-35

Paul could hardly say it any more clearly. Read it again if you need to: ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’

And that little word ‘in’ is all-important.

What’s the central thought of Paul’s letters? Is it justification? Reconciliation? Adoption? As important as they are, what’s most central is Jesus. The prior, primary, foremost, fundamental reality for Paul is our union with Christ, being in Christ. And all the benefits of salvation flow from that union – our justification for sure, but also our adoption, redemption, sanctification, glorification, and our being joined to each other in the church, the body of Christ.

It’s on the basis of our union with Christ – in his death and resurrection – that we are declared right with God, free from the penalty of our law-breaking. As Paul has made clear earlier in his letter to the Roman Christians, what flows from being justified is ‘peace with God’ – not through anything we can bring to the table, but ‘through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (5:1).

Moreover, since God has declared us right in the present, that verdict will stand on the last day. We can look forward to the future with confidence, because it’s a future that Christ himself has secured for us. Being counted righteous in God’s sight, even now, brings hope as well as peace.

But more than a legal declaration of our status before God, justification takes us to the heart of the covenant relationship between God and his people. Like Abraham himself, all those who stand in right covenant relationship with God do so through faith, and on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross, whether they be Jew or Gentile. Here is how God makes good on the promises made to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him.

As if this was already not enough, at the bottom line of it all, and the ultimate basis of Paul’s confidence, is God’s love – not merely shown to us, but ‘poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 5:5), a sign of his ongoing commitment to us. It’s a love, Paul says here, from which nothing can separate us.

If any of this was down to us, we’d have room for doubt. As it is, our assurance lies elsewhere. Peace, hope, blessing, love – and all through Christ.