Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Judgment

The weeping prophet

Recently I preached at church on Jeremiah. It was part of a series on the good, bad and ugly of biblical figures. 

Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet. The bad and the ugly has more to do with what he had to confront the rulers with than his own character flaws.

Listen to the sermon here.

Download my notes here, and download the PowerPoint presentation here.

God’s gentle, correcting sense of humour

jesus_ecce_homoI reckon God has a good chuckle at our self-assured theological convictions at times. In my case, I think God changes me and moulds me more into his character by using his sense of humour in a gentle, correcting, loving way.

A few years ago I went through a period where I would be critical of a particular denomination. When I saw the type of books that this denomination had in their bookstores and some of the churches I’d been to, and what I’ve heard come out of the mouths of some of its ministers, I have been adamant that I would never want to be part of a denomination that was so wishy-washy about what they believed in the name of being inclusive.

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The plank in my eye

Plank in your own eyeI just finished watching the movie Tsotsi with my wife. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t give away too much except to say that it’s a story of redemption. It’s the story of a young man who lives in a shanty town in South Africa whose life is changed after he carjacks someone and takes off in the car only to find a baby in the back seat.

This movie got me thinking about the reasons people do what they do to survive when they are living tough. It is always the poor who get a rough deal, who are blamed for being lazy or good-for-nothing. But it is also those same people who are going through the most incredible hardships. That is not to condone their destructive behaviour, but it definitely is to understand it. There is a huge difference. The ones who really should be criticised are those with a comfortable lifestyle who commit white-collar crime. But they can always afford the best lawyers and so get off more easily.

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What if there were no consequences?

If there were no consequences whatsoever for any destructive behaviour you engaged in, would you want to engage in it? Someone asked me that question once, and its profundity has caused me to think long and hard. If there were no consequences for cheating on my wife, for stealing what wasn’t mine, for taking credit when I didn’t deserve it, would I do it?

The issue here is, where is my heart at? How captive am I to that which enslaves me? Many years ago Gil Cann said in a sermon that when we think of our inner life, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. At the end of the day, what we all need is a heart transformation. As U2 sang even more years ago, “a new heart is what I need. Oh God, make it bleed!”

Where is my heart at? Do I want what is right simply because it is right? With God’s help, yes I do. But as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, there is a line that divides the good and evil in every human heart. In our heart of hearts there is a desire to do good which sits alongside a desire to get whatever we can for ourselves. A heart that is being redeemed by grace is one which wants to become more like Christ, that just wants to do the right thing. It is a heart that is sick of its own selfishness and deception, a heart that confesses it is in need of grace, a heart that cries out for renewal.

The human heart needs transformation, and it can only be done by the Holy Spirit. Social justice can’t do it, simply reading the Bible can’t do it, and listening to your favourite preacher or reading your favourite Christian books won’t do it. Only a heart open to the conviction of the Holy Spirit of God is one that will change.

Part of the way the world is set up is that there are consequences for our actions. There are good consequences or there are destructive consequences. We reap what we sow. It cannot be any other way. There are some things we just need to accept in life, and this is one of them.

But not only is this the way life works, it is the wonderful truth of the Christian message. There are consequences that go beyond what we experience in this life, but at the same time those consequences are utterly dependent on our actions in this life. The kingdom of God has broken into history and will one day be fully consummated. Things will one day be finally put to rights. There will be a day when the first will be last and the last will be first, when those who constantly suffer now because of injustice will at last get to see justice, when those who are downtrodden will be downtrodden no more. All the suffering that goes on in the world today is not meaningless; it is in fact redemptive. It will be used for good and it drives us toward hope, the sure hope that one day everything will be put to rights and suffering will be no more.

So, in one sense, the question of whether or not my behaviour would change if there were no consequences is a moot one. The fact is there are consequences and we can’t do anything to avoid the fact. It is a bit like asking what life would be like if there were no gravity on the earth. Our existence just isn’t like that.

Yet on the other hand the question is highly relevant, because it is a question that quite literally speaks to our ultimate motivations for doing the things we do in life. It is a question that asks where our hearts are at. Are we altruistic because it makes us look good and holy in front of our Christian brothers and sisters? Or are we altruistic because we really want to glorify God and see his kingdom of love and transformation come on earth as it is in heaven? Truth be told, we spend most of our lives hovering between both. I know I do. As I continue on this journey of life though, I am also more convinced that living a life daily surrendered to the God of Jesus Christ is the only way to find the sense of home that our restless hearts yearn for.

When we think of the secret thoughts that we have, or even the secret actions that we might engage in, what do we think of the consequences? What do you do with those secret thoughts you have that you are too ashamed to admit? For us men it is said that all of us are faced with the temptation at some point in our lives to run away from everything. Women may have similar dark thoughts. The problem is not so much that we have them, but how we deal with them. This is where it is crucial to have a person or people in our lives with whom we can share our darkest thoughts without shame, with the knowledge that we will still be accepted for who we are, and to know that such thoughts and desires can be redeemed.

My heart needs redeeming every day. It needs desperately to be brought in line with the heart of God. I am sometimes tempted to live like there are no consequences to my actions. But when I am deceived by such thoughts, it is then that I need to be reminded of the transforming love of God in Jesus to change me from the inside out, to create in me a clean heart and renew within me a right spirit. God help me to live such a surrendered life.

N.T. Wright on judgment

Whether we are Christians or not, whenever we think of judgment, especially with regards to Christianity, we have this idea of judgment as being that of a wrathful, vengeful God (and as a friend of mine pointed out to me this week, this is where the idea of penal substitution fits in to much evangelical thinking as well). But to people who are suffering and consistently persecuted, the idea of God coming back to bring judgment and justice is good news indeed. They see it as what it is – the setting right of all things.

The justice of God is primarily a restorative justice rather than a retributive justice. That is why the Psalmists often cried out ‘how long O Lord!’. When that day comes, these people will cry out ‘finally!’ Finally there will be justice, finally all things will be set right.

I first became aware of this idea of judgment being a good thing while recently finishing N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. In this masterpiece (which should be a must read for all Western Christians), Wright says,

“in a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance and oppression, the thought that there might be a coming day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be. Faced with a world in rebellion, a world full of exploitation and wickedness, a good God must be a God of judgment.”

This is good news for those who really know what suffering is. Interestingly, these are exactly not the people who tend to question how a good God would send judgment. People who know suffering tend to look forward to judgment. I wonder if the complaints of those of us in the comfortable West actually betray a sense of guilt for our complicity in much of the suffering of the world.

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