Posts Tagged ‘grace’

Christmas; Nicety or Necessity?

December 18th, 2012

I think it’s fair to say people of all ages who’ve lived through 2012 will remember it as a good year, full of uplifting and memorable events like Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France win, the Diamond Jubilee, the Olympic and Paralympic Games and Felix Baumgartner’s space leap. It’s been year that has displayed the best of human achievement and endeavour.

So sad then that 2012 has proved to have a sting in its tail.

Another school shooting, in Newtown Connecticut, where 26 people, mainly children, were needlessly and brutally murdered. This event, just as all its predecessors from Dunblane to Columbine, sent shockwaves across the world, and left us asking once again; how can this kind of thing happen?

The Newtown massacre was all the crueller as it happened so close to the festive season, when people are busy making preparations, buying presents and looking forward to spending time with their families. But Christmas is a time of hope, peace and goodwill to all men isn’t it? Surely Christmas can offer us some hope, some respite from such evil… can’t it?

I would say with confidence that it can. But not the Christmas offered by our culture. That Christmas has become a nicety. My 3 year old illustrated this when I asked her recently what she was looking forward to most about Christmas. She replied ‘Father Christmas giving me lots of presents’. Alongside momentarily making me feel like a parenting failure, she had unwittingly summed up what Christmas has become – the shallow anticipation of material gain, along with warm and cosy feelings and the hope of having a ‘nice’ time. The problem is, niceties cannot answer big questions.

The true Christmas story speaks God’s love, proximity and identification with humanity right into the heart of Newtown, Connecticut. You see, from the moment Jesus was born, he was being hunted by King Herod; a despot who was nervous about a prophesied Messiah being born on his patch. This meant Jesus, having come into the world in the most chaotic and wretched way imaginable, was now a refugee, his parents having to flee to Egypt until Herod’s death. But there was significant collateral damage: ‘Herod…gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under’ (Matthew 2.16).

The slaughter of the innocents is a part of the Christmas story that is sometimes forgotten, often glossed over. How many nativity scenes include Herod’s soldiers alongside the shepherds and wise men? How many times does ‘The Coventry Carol’ feature in a Christmas service?

Yet it’s integral to the Christmas story, which displays that Jesus’ life was one of identification with human suffering  (‘He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain’ Isaiah 53.3). It’s also important because events like Newtown remind us that the spirit of Herod is still active in the world. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, perhaps unknowingly, highlighted this when he stated “Evil visited this community today”. How true. And such evil. But this isn’t the evil of one ‘loner’ who we can distance from the rest of humanity and therefore cling to our supposed inherent goodness. This is the evil of the same ‘spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient’ (Ephesians 2.2) and who holds the world under his control (1 John 5.19).

Nice Christmassy message? Not very cosy and warm and ‘nice’ but then neither is the gospel a nice message, neither is God ‘nice’ in the Santa Claus sense. He is good, and the gospel is good news to a humanity that has rejected its creator, gone its own way and therefore suffers the dual consequence of being morally adrift and open to God’s judgment without a plea. The only way to overcome the awful darkness that we see displayed through our own lives and through atrocities is to believe the message; that darkness is overcome through the death and resurrection of Bethlehem’s baby. For ‘the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work’ (1 John 3.8), and; ‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1.15).

We need saving, we need rescuing from evil. And that’s exactly what Jesus does. He is both the Saviour and the Rescuer of the world. That is why Christmas is a matter of necessity for us. We need it. So let’s tell it boldly, and celebrate the real hope that came into the world through that baby in the manger.

Categories: Central Point Tags: , , ,

Terrific Twos

May 25th, 2012

If you’re a parent with children of toddler age or older, you can probably relate to the stereotypical scenario of the public meltdown in aisle seven of the local supermarket, and perhaps, understand why the phrase ‘the terrible two’s’ is applied to children at that stage of life.  I’m a dad to a 2-and-a-half year-old (who is already planning her 3rd birthday party), and I have to say that my experience so far is that this is the best age yet! Let me give you some examples of why.

So we’re trying out the see-saw at the playground and my daughter says ‘I’m happy’. Rewarding enough! I then ask ‘what makes you happy’, to which she replies ‘you make me happy’, at which point I nearly fall off the see-saw, overcome with parental joy.

Here’s another one: ‘Daddy, I don’t like your singing’, ‘why not?’, ‘because I’ve got finger paints’.

How can anyone talk about the terrible twos when your toddler comes out with gems like that?!

Now don’t get me wrong, there are definite challenges of this stage. In fact I’d say that as well as being the best age yet, it is also the most challenging yet (although admittedly I’ve only a couple of years’ experience to draw on!). But the delights of daily seeing my daughter develop as a person and discover the world far outweigh the difficulties. The main reason I can say this is because I have the perspective that being a Christian parent gives me.

Firstly, the perfect model that my Heavenly Father is for me as an earthly one.

Secondly, the fact that there is a purpose to it all, which Colossians 1v28-29 explains well; to present our children mature in Christ. No mean feat! But this can be done with all the wisdom, power and energy that He provides!

Thirdly, the fact that being a parent is a faith thing. We can walk in utter dependence upon God, and while we can’t do it without Him, with Him we can prevail and have a healthy family life and fulfil the purpose of seeing our children develop to maturity in Christ.

Fourthly, the dreaded ‘D’-word! In the last 6 months we’ve had to discipline our daughter in some form on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. This is a big challenge and my wife and I have wrestled with questions like ‘are we being consistent?’ and ‘are we going to ruin our relationship with her?!’ But again, the Bible has much encouragement! Hebrews 12v11 says “no discipline is pleasant at the time, but painful”. That pain is felt by the parent as well as the child! But it also talks about God’s disciplining of us, and how it means that He is treating us as sons and dealing lovingly with us. God’s discipline means that He is shepherding us, not leaving us to our own devices, and that He has a plan to make us more like Jesus. Discipline is an act of God’s grace!

Knowing God’s discipline has definitely helped me to reflect His grace-filled approach to disciplining my daughter (although I don’t always get it right!). And the more I have to do it, the more I understand that discipline is a good thing, and an essential tool in reaching the parenting goal of our child’s maturity[1], and salvation[2].

So if you’re a parent to a toddler, or to a smaller tot who will soon be running around, talking non-stop, and pushing at those boundaries, be encouraged! God is using you to bless your children, and there is a purpose and a goal to it all. Oh, and don’t forget – enjoy every minute!

[1] Proverbs 22v15 & 29v17

[2] Proverbs 19v18 & 23v13

Categories: Central Point Tags: , ,

Anders Breivik and Retributive Justice

April 20th, 2012

A year ago I had a very interesting conversation with a female student who was seriously investigating Christianity. She was clearly impressed by Jesus and seemed to like being around Christians, but she had one problem with Christianity: the Bible’s insistence on the need for retributive justice!

Now, I’ll back up a bit to keep everyone up to speed: basically, there are several reasons why societies punish people and two of the main ones are reformation (to make the offender a better person and stop them offending again) and retribution (to pay them back for their crimes). This lady believed that any form of retribution was wrong, as paying someone back for their crimes was a vindictive, mean thing. She believed (rightly) that God was neither vindictive or mean but, from this basis, reasoned God would only ever punish with a mind on reforming an individual.

While this may seem incredibly technical, it meant that she refused to accept that a payment was due for our sin, either through Jesus’ death on the cross or through an eternity in hell. As far as I know, this still is the main obstacle preventing her from becoming a Christian.

The reason I feel compelled to dredge up this unusual chat is that this very issue has been raised with some force in the news this week through the trial of Otto Breivik. Breivik is the Norwegian man who, acting entirely alone, bombed the Norwegian government building in Oslo before gunning down 77 people on a nearby island. In most countries, he would receive at the very least a lifetime in prison, but in Norway the maximum possible sentence is 21 years and Norway’s prisons are notoriously plush. In Newsweek, the journalist Stephan Theil, reporting on these elements of Norway’s penal system, concluded that Norway “considers the idea of punishment barbaric.” Norway has come to the same conclusion as the student with whom I conversed: punishment should be primarily to reform, there is no place for retribution.

Norway will certainly have to do some soul searching about this issue in the light of Breivik’s chillingly brazen show in court. However, I personally have no strong feelings about Norway’s methods of punishing criminals. In a fallen world, governments have to make calls on issues of law and order and I do not think that the Bible categorically supports any particular answer to these difficult questions. However I believe that there is a vital question looming behind all this that we need to think through and be ready to engage with our friends about: does God have the right to punish sinners?

The Bible makes it clear that we have all broken God’s law and stand before Him as criminals in the court of heaven. It is also clear in Scripture that God’s heart is to reform us. That is why he sent his son. The gospel is not just that we can escape punishment, but that we can change and become righteous. As Paul says in Romans 1:14 ‘in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed.’ Salvation starts with justification (an imputed righteousness) but is leads to sanctification (a stuttering but noticeable progress in our personal holiness) and finally glorification (when 1 John 3:2 says ‘we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ Woop woop!) One day, we will look back and see that secular Scandinavia does not have a monopoly on reformative justice, God is the master at transforming the worst sinners into Jesus’ doppelgangers!

However, the God of the Bible is a God who has put retribution at the heart of how the universe runs. Isaiah 59:18 says:

‘According to what they have done,
so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
and retribution to his foes’

and in Romans 12:19

“It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord.

As Christians, I certainly don’t think these should be our most beloved verses and I can see why some people who aren’t Christians recoil from those who seem to take a cruel delight in God’s willingness to repay sinners for their sin. It is hard to read about Jesus and conclude that God delights in avenging sin in anything like the way he does in showing grace.

However, we need to maintain God’s prerogative to administer justice, because for all the technical terms, justice is what this involves. God is just. Justice is good. Sin needs to be paid for. That is the horrifying reality of the depths to which we have sunk, but a universe without such justice would be out of control and even more awful. In fact, it would be hell already.

Whatever Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen (the judge overseeing the Breivik trial) decides to do to Otto Breivik, there is another judge who will have the final say on the matter. Breivik’s sins will be punished by God along with all our much less public horrors. They will either be punished in the person of Jesus on the cross or in the person of Otto Breivik in an eternal Hell.

My guess is that this trial will raise serious questions about the nature of punishment in Norway and other secular nations (like ours). We must engage with those questions by presenting a God who longs to reform but who is utterly justified in taking retribution as well.

Categories: Central Point Tags: ,

It’s No Mistake

December 10th, 2010

Sin is a very uncomfortable word. It implies that there exists a moral absolute that we are accountable to and a moral absolute that we have fallen short of. And as a result, this word has almost completely dropped out of our vocabulary. But when we allow the concept of what sin is to be distorted, there are far reaching consequences. Rather than getting us off the hook, ignoring the reality of sin actually robs us of much of the joy there is in the Christian life!

That many of us can at times have a half-hearted approach to God and find it hard to muster up any passion in our worship of him is often down to an inadequate understanding of sin. One of the richest treasures of knowing God is knowing his grace. But if we have a deficient view of the reality of sin, we will never fully fathom the depths of God’s amazing grace!

If you want to understand why the Christian message is such incredibly good news, you don’t want to miss the final installment of the ‘Distorted’ series this Sunday morning at Churchcentral.

Categories: Preaching Series Tags: , ,