Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Reforming Worship

This is an article written by my father Rev John J Murray in January 2016

Reformed Theology and Reformed Worship are one

The conflict over worship today manifests itself in what have been called ‘the worship wars’. In many church buildings you witness a platform with a plethora of musical instruments. If you check out the order of service  you will find that more time is given to so-called ‘worship’ than to the reading and preaching of the Word of God. You may hear people say ‘We had a time of worship and then we had a message from the visiting speaker’. Is this a sign of spiritual health? Have we made progress in the last twenty years? Or is it a mark of the lack of genuine spirituality and a question of filling a vacuum?

Has the time come for another reformation?  For Calvin it was the issue of worship that necessitated the 16th century Reformation. He said: ‘The primary rudiments by which we are wont to train those whom we wish to win as disciples of Christ , are those; viz, not to frame any new worship of God for themselves at random, and after their own pleasure, but to know that the only legitimate worship is that which God himself approved from the beginning’. In his tract entitled On the Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin speaks of ‘the whole substance of Christianity that is a knowledge first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained’.

What is required to recover true Biblical worship? There are certain basic considerations:

 1 True worship is directed wholly to God

‘Worship’ is a transitive verb. It demands an object. Everybody worships some thing or somebody.  Everybody has an altar and every altar has a throne. The question is who is on the throne? What is highest in our lives? What do we value most? The highest object ought to be the triune God. We come to this God and we ascribe His worth.. We make a response to God and we have a passion for God. He must be the sole object of our worship. (Exodus 20.3)

The worship of the Reformers and the Puritans cannot be understood without the high vision of God contained in the Bible and in their Confessions of Faith. The restraint which marked Puritan worship sprang directly from much humble meditation on the inexpressible glory of God’s being. They were  drawn to delight in this glorious God and His image was reflected in them.. Dr J I Packer makes a comparison with them and us:  ‘The experimental piety of the Puritans was natural and unself-conscious because it was so utterly God-centred, our own (such as it is) is too often artificial and boastful, because it is so largely concerned with ourselves.’ (Among God’s Giants, Eastbourne, 1991, p283)

2 True worship is centred in the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven
For Calvin, Christians ascend into heaven while worshipping. Worship  draws the Christian into heaven in communion with the ascended Christ. Our Mediator descended in the incarnation to lift us up to heaven. ‘He has entered ‘into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us’ (Heb 9.24). Believers are seated with Christ ‘in the heavenly places’ (Eph 1.3). They are united to Him. They have an entrance into the Holiest through Him and their persons and offerings are accepted in Him. He leads the praise of His brethren for ‘he is not ashamed to call them brethren , saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee’ (Heb 2.11-12).

But that is not all.The Church that is in the heavenlies is also on earth. Paul writes to ‘the saints which are at Ephesus and to the faithful in Christ Jesus’ (Eph 1.1).  They have two locations.They are a colony of heaven. They are the Body of Christ on earth. The link between heaven and earth is Christ dwelling in the believer and in the Church by the Holy Spirit. As Calvin observes, the enthroned Christ helps us heavenward as His Spirit descends to empower the Word and sacraments of the Church. ‘Such is the weakness of our minds that we rise with difficulty to the contemplation of his glory in the heavens.’ The Hebrew Christians were hankering after the glories of the old Levitical system. They were forgetting the greater glory - the glory that surrounds our High Priest in heaven. God is the glory in our midst.

3 True worship is dependent upon Spirit-inspired truth

We all need to ask why our worship is not more uplifting and transforming? The response  of many is to try to make worship more pleasing to the senses. The tendency even among some Reformed Churches is to make services more user-friendly and so be a means of winning converts.  But the question needs to be asked: What have these changes done so far to inspire holy living, to give a hunger for the Word of God or to arrest falling numbers in churches?

Worship expresses our theology. W Robert Godfrey says that Calvin would have insisted that those who think they can preserve Reformed systematic theology  while abandoning a Reformed theology of worship are wrong. (The Worship of God, Mentor, Fearn, 2005,p 49). The two go together. Salvation is all of God and so too is worship. Reformed worship like Reformed doctrine is God-centred and God-directed. The late Dr William Young declared  ‘Man’s will may contribute nothing more to God’s worship than to God’s plan of salvation, and it is no accident that will-worship and rejection of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone flourish together’.  (Worship in the Presence of God, Greenville, 1992, p 80).

The true public worship of God is counter-cultural. To make people feel at ease is not its purpose. It is that they may sense the presence of the living God. The teaching of I Corinthians 14.23-25 is rather overlooked today. The Spirit who inspired the truth is the One who can make the means of grace efficacious to sinners. Words spoken by T E Peck in Columbia, South Carolina in 1884 are worth pondering. He refers to those who resort to the devices of human wisdom ‘instead of humbling themselves before the Holy Ghost in earnest prayer for his quickening which alone can make any ordinances efficacious for salvation..The true glory of Christian worship consists in the presence and power of the Holy Ghost and without the Holy Ghost,  all our paraphernalia of  “long drawn aisle and fretted vault” of painted windows and “ dim religious light”, of symbols of lamb and dove, of pealing organs and what not are but the paraphernalia of a corpse lying in state. It is a vain attempt to conceal the reality of death’ (Quoted by Iain Murray  in To Glorify and Enjoy God, Banner, 1994, p191).

May the Lord intervene in His mercy to reverse the trend!. As Terry L Johnson says ‘The way we worship today will determine the shape and substance of our piety for generations to come.’

Friday, 15 January 2016

Everyday Hero

What makes a good father?  As the father of five boys most people seem to think I have this particular question nailed.  I don't.  But I do spend a huge amount of time thinking and praying about it.  Over the last 16 years I have made a lot of mistakes, shed a lot of tears and had the privilege of a very patient wife and five long-suffering sons who still love their Dad (even when he messes up).  I also talk to lots of other Dads who struggle with all the same issues I do; juggling all the pressures of work, family and church, trying to pay the mortgage while always trying to nurture our own relationship with God.  I've written before on my own upbringing and reflections on my own father in 'Reflections of a Forty-something Father' which you can access here.

Obviously our parenting style is heavily influenced by our own parents.  I had a really happy childhood but it was overshadowed by the death of my sister, Lynda in 1980.  You can read about my reflections here.  Watching my parents cope with this trauma taught me a lot about resilience and faithfulness in difficult times.

A few other things stick out in my mind that helped me form my own view of parenting.  One was when I was out in America in 1992.  My Dad was ministering in Detroit but we had the chance to travel around.  We visited some friends up in Lamont called the Lannings.  I remember being incredibly impressed with Ray and Linda and how 'normal' their kids were.  As a family they loved Jesus, they had fun, they loved sport, they were involved in their community and they all seemed to get on as a family.  I guess it felt very 'holistic' or 'joined up'.  I remember, as a 19 year old, chatting to Linda about raising kids and she said something I never forgot.  She said that she had agreed with Ray, before they even had kids, that they would parent in such a way that they would enjoy their children and wouldn't have to spend their all their time disciplining and correcting them.  This meant setting down the ground rules early, communicating expectations and then covering everything in lots of love and prayer.

For us, this means putting family worship, at the centre of our family life every day. Reading the Bible, prayer and singing the Psalms introduce a whole set of values to my boys on a daily basis. Most importantly they learn about Jesus, the greatest example who ever lived.  People seem to think that worshipping as a family is really difficult.  But it doesn't need to be.    This year we have been reading through Kevin De Young's 'The Biggest Story - How the Snake Crusher brings the Garden back to Life'.  It is beautifully illustrated by Don Clark and is made up of short chapters that take you through the whole Biblical story. We are also using Tim Keller's new book 'My Rock My Refuge' which is a lovely meditation on the Psalms.  Either would be a great place to start worshipping together as a family.  We've also really enjoyed the 'Jesus Storybook Bible' by Sally Lloyd-Jones for the younger kids.

I'm a great believer in bringing up boys to be boys.  I encourage my boys to play shinty, football, attend army cadets, get muddy and occasionally have a wee scrap (they can almost take me when they jump me at the same time).  I try and keep them off the xbox and other devices as much as possible and make sure they treat their mother and brothers with respect. Most of all I want them to grow up knowing and loving Jesus.  We have that great promise from Proverbs 22 v 6 'Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.'

I hope (and pray!) that my boys look on me as some kind of example albeit a very imperfect one.  I guess I would love to be their hero - maybe not a super hero but I would just settle for an everyday hero.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Analysis Paralysis - Living Purposefully in 2016

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.’ Lamentations 3 v 22-23.

As most of us crawl through our first week back after the Christmas holidays, its a good time for reflection and change.  It is so easy to drift through life wasting time and having a lack of purpose.  I'm reading through John Hayes book 'sub-merge' at the moment and he talks about 'analysis paralysis' among Christians.  I was struck by something he said about the blind man in John 9.  His disciples took part in what Hayes calls ‘analysis paralysis’.  Hayes says; ‘Jesus sidestepped the counterfeit debate and recast the negative scenario as one of hopeful opportunity.  The issue, He said, was neither the man nor his parents; the issue was that God wanted to reveal His power to the blind man.’  Hayes continues; ‘Jesus was, and is so different.  He simply reached out and touched the man.  It was embarrassingly simple: Jesus acted.  Christ committed Himself to a ministry of compassionate presence, not dispassionate distance.' 

I want to make 2016 a year of 'hopeful opportunity'.  Some of the changes I am making is to read more.  I've taken up Tim Challies 'Avid Reader' challenge and hope to read a book a week.  We are also going to give ourselves as a family much more to hospitality on a weekly basis.  If you are eating anyway why not invite others to join you?

I found these 10 questions from Kevin de Young really challenging. You can read DeYoung's answers here and mine are below.

1. Am I spending time slowly reading God’s word and memorizing Scripture? 
I had a look at various Bible reading plans towards the end of last year but I'm sticking with my tried and trusted M'Cheyne Bible reading plan. It is normally 4 chapters per day and lets you read the New Testament twice, the Psalms twice and the Old Testament once.  I find I can usually read it while travelling on the train in the morning although more recently I've enjoyed listening to the Bible on my new kindle fire.  Memorisation is a challenge but surely a necessity if we want to store God's word in our heart.  I think keeping a journal can help with this.  There are lots of reading plans available here.

2. Am I having consistent, focused, extended times of prayer, including interceding for others? 
No.  I long to pray in a more focussed way.  This year I am keeping a journal so I can write down prayer request and answers.  Finding time and peace and quiet are a challenge but something I need to wrestle with.

3. Am I disciplined in my use of technology, in particular not getting distracted by emails and blogging in the evening and on my day off? 
Again a real challenge for me.  It is easy to get lost on facebook or in online news sites.  In terms of blogging I'm keen to blog more often this year.  I'm hoping to put aside Tuesday evenings for this.

4. Am I going to bed on time?
I'm better than I used to be but too often its nearer 12 than 11.  Can they not put Newsnight on a bit earlier?

5. Am I eating too much? 
Apart from falling off the wagon over Christmas I'm now wheat and dairy free.  This has helped my eczema and my waistline.  I'm fairly committed to 12 stone but my wife is a very good cook!  Marmite crisps are my downfall.

6. Have I exercised in the last week? 
I've got the option of 5 a sides on a Tuesday, walking 2 miles from work to the station every night and shinty on a Saturday.  Hopefully between the different options a get a wee reminder each week of how unfit I am.

7. Am I patient with my kids or am I angry with them when they disobey or behave in childish ways?
My answer is pretty similar to DeYoung on this - you need to ask my kids.  I also find the winter much tougher with the kids not running off much energy.  I've made the decision to preach much less in the coming year and we try and keep Tuesday and Friday nights as well as Saturday and Sunday as family days.

8. When at home, am I “fully present” for my wife and family or are my mind and energy elsewhere? 
With five boys it's easy to seek refuge in the converted garage - 'I'm just watching the Channel 4 News!'.  If I'm being totally honest I can bring the problems of work home with me and I need to work at being 'fully present'.  As anyone with young children will know, parenting is incredibly rewarding but it can also feel like a long dark tunnel.  As our kids get older, and as the older ones can babysit (please James) my wife and I are now committed to getting out at least 2 Fridays a month. 

9. Am I making sermon preparation a priority in my week or am I doing other less important things first?
Unlike DeYoung I'm not a minister so perhaps not so relevant.  My only commitment to preach is once per month in my local prison.  I want to do this much better than over the past year.  I hope to work through 'Encounters with Jesus' by Tim Keller.  Apart from that I've decided only to preach in my own local church with perhaps 1-2 exceptions.

10. Have I done anything out of the ordinary to cherish and help my wife? 
This is a good reminder to be much more 'intentional' (terrible word) about this.  I probably need to ask my wife more about what makes her feel cherished. 

DeYoung makes a great point that our faith is all about grace and not works.  No amount of 'performance' will bring me any closer to the Lord.  God does, however, want us to bear fruit and lots of it.  By living our lives in a purposeful, organised and accountable way we can achieve more for God's glory and His kingdom.  Let's make 2016 a year of action not paralysis - redeeming the time not wasting it.  Let's be known for a ministry of compassionate presence not dispassionate distance.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

God's loving kindness in tragedy

I recently preached in Stirling Baptist Church on Ruth and the Brokenness of Family Life. You can listen to the sermon here.  The following blog post is a summary of what I said.

I was recently at a course on the 'Power of Storytelling'.  It was a great course and it proved that our brains are wired to respond to stories rather than large amounts of data.  As one of the facilitators said 'storytelling is data with soul'.  Surely this is why God has given us so many great stories in the Bible?  Through these powerful stories God doesn't want us to understand dry data but living truth and exciting doctrine.  He uses rich and powerful stories to teach us eternal truths which point us to our need of Christ.

There can be few more powerful stories than Ruth in the Bible.  It asks some of the big questions like; Where is God in all the suffering around us?  Where is God in death?  Can God still be in control when there is so much evil and chaos all around?

Perhaps, like we often ask in Bethany Christian Trust , you are asking, how does God want us to respond to
the poor?
 to the destitute?
 to the refugee?
 to the widow?
 to the hungry?

These are the questions that are asked and answered in the story of Ruth. 

There can be few Biblical stories more relevant to Europe in 2015 that the story of Ruth;

 A couple face the stark choice of bringing up their family in the midst of a natural disaster (a famine).  They give up everything and travel to a strange country.  They arrive disenfranchised, powerless and with nothing but what they can carry.

While away in this strange land, the tragedy turns into nightmare as Naomi stands at three open graves.  With no tears left to cry, Naomi returns to her homeland bereft, alienated and lonely.

How many millions of people are experiencing what Naomi experienced in this book?

As the church seeks to respond to the challenge of our age, what can we learn from Ruth?

We can look at Ruth chapter 1 under 3 headings.

1. Rebellion

a)  When the Judges ruled

Chapter 1 begins with the words ‘in the days when the Judges ruled’.

What kind of days were they? The last verse of Judges 25 tells us. It was a time of chaos, rebellion and apostasy.

The covenant God Jehovah had promised blessings for his chosen people when they came into the promised land. These blessings were dependent on their faithfulness to God’s law.

Deuteronomy 28 promises that God will bless the people of Israel;

And the Lord make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord swore unto thy fathers, to give thee.  The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure, even the heaven to give rain unto thy land in due season, and to bless all the work of thine hands: and thou shalt not lend unto many nations, but shalt not borrow thyself.  And the Lord shall make thee the head. and not the tail, and though shalt be above only, and not beneath.   Deut 28 v 11, 12, 13.

God had laid out the requirements of his people very carefully but they had rebelled.

Doesn't that sum up Scotland today?

We are living in a time of national rebellion.

We see this in family life don’t we?

·        The CSJ published a report in July 2014 stating that while 62% of 15 year old boys in the UK had a smart phone butonly 57% lived with their fathers.

·        1 million kids had lost contact with Grandparents as a result of separation and divorce.

·        Family breakdown cost the country £50 billion per year

·       By the age of five, 48 per cent of children in low-income households are not living with both parents, according to Government data.

We are a nation in rebellion against God.  He is judging us for our unfaithfulness.

b) Looking for help in the wrong place

The book of Ruth tells us that Bethlehem (House of Bread) was now a place of famine and desolation.  Instead of turning back to the Lord, Elimelech and his family turn their back on God.  They travel to Moab. Elimelech means 'my God is King' while Naomi means 'pleasant'.  They were Ephrathites – from the area of Ephrath or Ephrathah – now Bethlehem.  These were true Hebrews – they would have known the law of God.  But Elimelech took his family to Moab – a people God had forbidden Israelites to have anything to do with.  The  Moabites had refused to give Israel food and water in their wilderness journey (Deut 23 v 4).   Balak, King of Moab, called for Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 23 v 7).  God commanded the Israelites; ‘Do not have anything to do with the Moabites or the Ammonites in all your generation, forever (Deut 23 v 3)

Elimalech had heard God’s voice in providence, in the famine, and he had also heard God’s voice clearly through the law.  So why did he disobey?

Elimelech was addressing the wrong problem.  The problem was not the lack of bread – the problem was the lack of a right relationship with God.  There had been famines before and God had raised up Joseph to respond to that famine (Psalm 105 v 16-17).

The famine wasn’t the issue it was the rebellion that was the issue. 

Isn’t this the problem with our society?

So often we are addressing a whole range of issues when the fundamental issue is a spiritual and moral one.

What Scotland needs more than anything else is a spiritual and moral revival. 

No amount of social work intervention can ever stem the tide of family breakdown, abuse, domestic violence and intergenerational poverty.  Social workers do a heroic job in incredibility difficult circumstances with increasingly limited resources. Of course we need to help people in crisis but fundamentally we need to build a stronger and more caring society and that can only happen through the gospel.

It will only happen as churches in Scotland live out the gospel in their community – touching broken lives and stemming the tide hurt and pain through grace and love.  Only Christ can ultimately heal our broken nation.

2.  Return

a) A change of name

The time that Elimalech and Naomi spent in Moab became a nightmare.

As strangers in a strange land Naomi lost not only the bread winner, but both her sons – she had no living fruit from her womb.  The sons left two widows – Orpah and Ruth.  We see three widows in a patriarchal society with no assets and little hope.  As Iain D Campbell says;

The family had left Bethlehem-Judah and they had come to Moab expecting to find great things; instead all that they found were broken hearts and broken dreams, and sore experiences under God’s hand.

What good could possibly come out of this tragedy?

How could God be at work in such devastation?

Naomi is numb with grief as she says in Ruthe 1 v 13 and 20 – 21.

Naomi is not saying ‘the Lord has embittered me’ or ‘I am very bitter’.  Rather she is saying ‘I have experienced bitterness.’

In the midst of tragedy Naomi did not embrace atheism but rather anchored herself in the God of the Covenant.

b) A change in circumstances

We see in v 6 ‘the Lord had come to the aid of his people.’  Naomi hears that the famine had come to an end and prepares to ‘return.’  Just like the Prodigal Son, while she is in the far country people in Bethlehem are feasting.

Often we see in scripture that words that give signals.  'Return' is used 10 times in chapter 1

Return or go back – v 6, 7, 8,10,16, 22
Return home – v 11, 12
Going back – v 15

This Hebrew word 'shub' is used again and again to illustrate that Naomi and Ruth weren’t just going back to Bethlehem – but they were also returning to God and his covenant grace and mercy.   This was more than a journey for Ruth it was a spiritual transformation as we see in verses 8 – 18.  Orpah returns but how does Ruth respond?

Where you go I will go....

This word ‘return’ is running like a melody line throughout the whole story.  God is at work in the midst of tragedy.

This isn’t just a journey – it about turning back to God, it is about returning to his grace, it is about coming to faith.

Here we see God starting to work out his purposes.  This tragedy was used by God to bring a heathen Moabites to trust in Jehovah.

We see in the passage that all the women wept.  Orpah perhaps wept because she had left Moab and wanted to return.  Naomi wept tears of regret because she had gone to Moab ‘because the Lord’s hand has turned against me’ v 13.  Her decision (along with Elimalech) had brought down the judgement of God.  Ruth wept tears of joy because she had a new life, a new path and new people.  She no longer worshiped the gods of nature – she worshipped Jehovah.

Don’t you see God’s hand as we look back at this story 1000’s of year later?

Out of death God brings life.

As Sinclair Ferguson says It is a gospel secret that death is the way of life.

Think of the death of Stephen – stoned to death.  Yet this was the means to awaken Saul.

3  Redemption

Finally Naomi and Ruth reach Bethlehem.  The city was ‘moved’ or ‘stirred’.

How did God provide for these widows?  What provision was there in the Biblical economy?

Will the Lord answer Naomi’s prayer of verse 8?

a) The law of love for the poor

We often think of the Old Testament laws as harsh and cruel.  But God’s law actually expressed his love, particularly for the poor.  Leviticus 19 v 9-10 and 23 v 22 commanded farmers not to exhaust their crop but to leave it for those in need.  Everyone within the compass of God’s covenant – the haves and the have not’s had provision.  This was the law of grace – the rule of a bountiful father.

The Bible shows us again and again that God is interested in the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  God is concerned for justice for the oppressed and mercy for the needy.  Provision is made for Ruth by good laws from a gracious God.

Notice Ruth’s willingness to work.  Work gives people purpose, dignity, confidence and self-esteem.

b) The ties that bind

Notice also that in God’s providence help is to come through the family.  Ruth gleans in the field of a relative of her father in law – Boaz.

After her first day of harvest she brings back around 30lbs of barley.  See the surprise of Naomi in Ch 2 v 19.  You see what God is saying: ‘Naomi rebelled and came back empty, Ruth put her trust in me and has come back full.’

It was no accident that Ruth gleaned in Boaz field.

Boaz was Ruth’s guardian redeemer or kinsman redeemer.

Boaz showed Ruth kindness or hesed ch 2 v 20.  This word hesed is used 250 times in the O.T. – it means God’s loving kindness.  As Sinclair Ferguson says;

It [Hesed] means God’s deep goodness expressed in his covenant commitment, his absolute loyalty, his obligating of himself to bring to fruition the blessings that he has promised, whatever it may cost him personally to do that.

You see, through all the darkness, death and tragedy, God’s hesed was at work.

Ruth eventually marries her kinsman redeemer (Boaz) and they have a son called Obed, who has a son called Jesse who has a son called David.

As Ferguson says;  What God was quarrying out of the suffering of these two women was nothing less than his purpose to bring his Son into the world in Bethlehem.

God not only provided bread in Bethlehem but he went on to provide the Bread of Life.

The line of Jesus came through gentile woman with a Jewish mother in law.

What is God’s purpose in Naomi, Ruth and Boaz?  He was quarrying for diamonds.

By the end of the book they had all experienced God’s hesed.

The story began with no king in Israel
·        It led to a day when there was no bread in Bethlehem
·        A dark night when there was no children in her family
·        Now this covenant keeping, all sufficient God, Yahweh and El Shaddai, has given her a grandson, and within a few generations will give Israel it’s greatest king.

Do you know this King?  Have you come to know the ultimate Kinsman Redeemer - the Lord Jesus Christ?  This King who loves the poor and the marginalised?

‘Praise be to the Lord who this day has not left you without a kinsman redeemer.  May he become famous throughout Israel’ (ch 4 v 14).

Let's make our Kinsman Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, famous in Scotland. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Dr Thomas Guthrie on Wisely Considering the Case of the Poor

William Carey, the great missionary, when leaving for India in 1793 said 'I'll go down into the pit, if you will hold the rope.'   When Dr Thomas Guthrie was called to Old Greyfriars, Edinburgh in 1837 from his country charge of Arbirlot he said something similar when comparing the difference between his two charges; 'I can compare it to nothing else than the change from green fields and woods and the light of nature to venturing into the darkness and blackness of a coal pit.'

Throughout his whole ministry Guthrie took a great interest in the poor of his parish - primarily, although not exclusively, in the overcrowded Cowgate.  Even before arriving in Edinburgh Guthrie believed a minister should live amongst his people; 'Now, I should like a clergyman never to step out of his own door but he steps in amongst his people.  I would have him planted in the very centre of his population' (letter to Mr Dunlop in 1837).  Initially Guthrie lived in Argyll Square and then in Brown Square which would have both been where today's Chamber Street is as can be seen from this old map.  It is hard to imagine the squalor and poverty that Guthrie saw on a daily basis as he visited his parish.  He recounts his early days; 'I can never forget, nothing can efface the impression made on my mind, when I first lifted the veil from the hideous veil of starvation and sin that lay before me. The scenes that I was called on to witness the first three or four days of my parochial visitations almost drove sleep from my pillow.  They haunted me like very sceptres, and, after visiting till my heart was very sick, I have come up from the College Wynd with the idea that I might as well have gone to be a missionary among the Hindoos on the banks of the Ganges.'

Dr Guthrie was no ivory tower minister.  He was the embodiment of salt pressed against the decaying flesh of the world around him.  This came at a heavy price with Guthrie's future health problems.  He became a magnet for his parishioners seeking temporal and spiritual help on a daily basis; 'My door used to be besieged every day by crowds of half-naked creatures, men, women, and children, shivering with cold and hunger; and I visited many a house that winter, where there was a starving mother and starving children, and neither bed, bread nor Bible - till, with climbing stairs my limbs were like to fail, and with spectacles of misery, my heart was like to break.'So how did Guthrie respond to all the challenges around him?

His starting point was that man is made in the image of God.  The half naked child sleeping on the streets of Edinburgh was, to Guthrie, as precious in the sight of God as the Queen on the throne. In his first plea for Ragged Schools in 1847 he compared what some regarded as 'rubbish' as shining jewels; 'Yes it is easy to push aside the poor boy in the street, with a harsh and unfeeling refusal, saying to your neighbour, "These are the pests of the city."  Call them, if you choose, the rubbish of society; only let us say, that there are jewels among that rubbish, which would richly repay the expense of searching.  Bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, which only wait to be dug out and polished, to shine, first on earth, and hereafter and forever in a redeemers crown.'  Our response to poverty will depend on our starting point.  If we see people with honour and dignity, made in the image of God, our response will be full of compassion and we will seek to go the extra mile.  If we see people as economic units as George Osborne does, our response will be very different.

Secondly, Guthrie took sin seriously.  He was no socialist.  He knew that little is achieved by the mass and indiscriminate distribution of money or food.  Sinful nature often makes a bad situation worse as Guthrie found on his many pastoral visits.  Poor families with little we're ravaged further my a drunken or profligate parent.  This was the time of the 'dram houses' and 'gin palaces'. Indiscriminate (however well meaning) compassion often compounds problems rather than solving them. If you need any evidence of this just look at Africa and the billions spent my Western aid agencies with little long lasting effect.  For more on this read 'When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself' by Corbett and Fikkert.  In believing in original sin as the source of society's problems, Guthrie responded, as we shall see next, in a gospel centred way.

Thirdly, Guthrie believed in the 'omnipotent power of Christian kindness'.  Our response to poverty needs to be gospel centred.  Guthrie knew that compassion without the power of the gospel would change little.  Only the grace of God can truly change the human heart.  We get a flavour of Guthrie's view of poverty in his great work 'Seed Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools' (published 1847, 1849 and 1860).  Having outlined the plight of thousands of 'ragged children' on the streets of Edinburgh he famously said 'These Arabs of the city are as wild of those of the desert, and must be broken into three habits, - those of discipline, learning, and industry, not to speak of cleanliness.  To accomplish this, our trust is in the almost omnipotent power of Christian kindness.  Harsh words and harder blows are thrown away here.'  The ragged school model sought to work with families by offering the children a comprehensive system of education, food and industrial training during the day while encouraging the children to return home in the evening.  The aim of the ragged school was to teach young people how to survive and thrive.  Unlike today's welfare state it did not crush people under the weight of a faceless and unresponsive bureaucracy.  Christian compassion needs to be personal, genuine and it needs to go 'above and beyond'.

Fourthly, Guthrie's response went to the root of the problem.  His response to poverty was what might be termed today 'tough love'.  He sought to restore self respect, hard work and sobriety.  While he had all the time in the world for the innocent victims of drunkenness and poverty he was very outspoken against those who perpetuated their poverty through vice.  He had no time for encouraging laziness or indolence through well meaning compassion; 'The money which is lavished on sturdy beggars, on the wasteful slaves of vice, on the reckless and improvident, you have no right to expect repayment of.  These are not the poor.  On the contrary they plunder the poor, and prey on poverty; and hardening men's hearts by their frauds, improvidence, crimes and detected impostures, against the claims of real poverty, they deserve not charity but chastisement.  It is a scandal and a shame that such devouring locusts are permitted to infest our city and swarm in its streets.  These vices of a system which the police stangely tolerate, and our charity unwisely maintains, are visible in the botched and brazened features of those thriving solicitors.  The very breath with which they whine for charity smells of the dram shop.  It poisons and pollutes the air; and those who contribute to foster this profligate system have no claim to the blessing.'  The Victorians often receive a bad press for their view of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor but how can it be compassion to prop up a man or woman's vice while their children starve?   Welfare must always be a hand up not a hand out.  This is surely the principle of 2 Thess 3 v 10.  If a man is able to work, and work is available, our whole system of welfare should be focussed on helping him work.

Finally, Guthrie wasn't interested in 'harm minimisation' or 'risk management'.  His focus was on transformation. This final quote perhaps best sums up Guthrie's views.  It encourages us to have a 'wise' response to the poor.  
'Blessed is he that wisely doth
The poor man's case consider'

'So run the opening words of the 41st Psalm, in the Scottish Psalter.  Wisely?  He wisely considers the case of the poor who, wherever it is possible, supplies them with work rather than money; who helps them to help themselves, who encourages them to self-exertion, and teaches them self respect; who patronises not indolence but industry, not the intemperate but the sober; who applies his money to relieve the misfortunes that come from the hand of Providence, rather than such as are the divinely ordained and salutary penalties of vice.  And who thus goes to the work of Christian benevolence will meet with many cases to cheer him on, and keep him up to this mark, "Be not weary in well-doing."

This is the challenge for the church today.  As Bryant Myers says in his book Walking with the Poor; 'Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.  Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.'  Poverty is not just about money.  It is about lacking the networks and relationships that can lift us up when we fall.  This is where the church needs to be - to go beyond relief and an emergency response to poverty and walk with the poor in the long and often hard journey of discipleship.  What our broken, fractured communities need more than anything is the bread of life, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christian compassion so often compounds the plight of the poor rather than offering a helping hand to a new and better life.  In the Psalmists (and Guthrie's) words we do not 'wisely' consider the poor. Compassion that compounds and excuses sin is not biblical compassion.  We need to feed the hungry but also present Jesus in all his beauty and majesty.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Elisha (2) A Miracle in Samaria

In our first study entitled Elijah and Elisha; Law and Grace we looked at the background to the prophet and how he was the prophet of grace.  Elijah's ministry had been characterised by judgement and the law and as Rev Alexander Stewart has said; 'Before Elisha could have sown the seeds of grace, Elijah must have ploughed the fields of judgement.'  As we also saw in our last study this was an age of prophetic action rather than great sermons.  We see this illustrated in the story of Naaman and his miraculous cure from leprosy recorded in 2 Kings 5.  We'll briefly look at 4 different aspects to the story and see how it radiates with gospel light.

1.  An Incurable Condition.

Naaman was the Commander in Chief of the Syrian army.  Given that the Syrians were warlike people their leaders would have been tried and tested in battle.  Naaman was no bureaucratic appointment.  He would have been a national hero with great achievements under his belt.  We are also told that he was highly favoured by the King (Ben-hadad II) so he would have wielded great power and influence.  In many ways he had it all.  Like so many today Naaman had all that his heart could wish for yet God allowed for a pot hole on his road to success.  He was arrested at the zenith of his glory.  We read in 2 Kings 5 v 1 'but he was a leper'.  The word 'leprosy' covered a number of conditions in the Old Testament but assuming it was what we know today as leprosy, it would have been a devastating diagnosis for Naaman.  Leprosy is a condition that damages the small nerves on the skins surface resulting in loss of sensation.  We think of pain as a great evil but pain is in fact a gift to tell us when something is wrong.  Those suffering from leprosy don't have this early warning system and often lose limbs, go blind and suffer terrible sores on their skin.  Even worse than this, leprosy, even today, leads to discrimination and isolation and people are shunned by their family and community. Amazingly there are still 3 million sufferers of leprosy today with 200,000 new cases each year (see Leprosy Mission for more information).  Naaman faced disfigurement, blindness, discrimination, social dislocation.  All his hopes were dashed.  

Is leprosy not a picture to us of what sin is like?  Doesn't sin create blindness?  Doesn't sin disfigure and twist our personalities?  Doesn't sin dislocate our relationships?  We are all like spiritual lepers. The question is are we aware of it?  Do we see our need?  Naaman at least saw that he needed help. This was the first step to a cure.  

2.  An Unlikely Messenger.

Who signposted Naaman to Elisha?  Was it a prophet?  A preacher?  A priest?  No, it was a little slave girl serving in Naaman's house.  In a heathen land this little Israelite girl remembered the covenant God of Israel.  She had every reason to remain silent.  Her master had ripped her from her homeland and her family.  Yet she showed him kindness by pointing him to Elisha the prophet.  Isn't this an encouragement to us?  God uses the weak things of this world to confound the wise (1 Cor 1 v 27).  God is building his Kingdom through little slave girls, fisherman and through feeble saints like us.

Notice also how God is at work in the seeming tragedies of life.  In what the Israelites would have regarded as a tragedy God was at work to save one of the most significant heathen generals in Syria. We can think of this in the life of Joseph.  He faced 40 years of setbacks and disappointments and yet all the time God was preparing him to be a great leader in Egypt.

3.  A Surprising Solution and a Radical Restoration. 

Naaman travels to Samaria.  He carries a letter from his king to Jehoram, the King of Samaria.  The King is beside himself; 'Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man doth send unto me to recover a man of his leprosy?'  (2 Kings 5 v 7).

Thankfully Elisha hears of Naaman's arrival and invites the general to his house.  He arrives to no fanfare or great ceremony but just a lowly servant who asks him to wash in the river Jordan 7 times. What can we learn from this?

a) Naaman's cure shows us how God saves.  Many people turn away from the gospel in anger.  To them Christ crucified is a stumbling block and the gospel is foolishness.  You see the gospel runs counter to human wisdom.  Naaman had his own plan.  He had his position, his wealth, his letter from the King.  How could Elisha refuse to help him?  The easiness of the real cure made him furious.

You see, God's cure for Naaman went right to the root of his condition.  Elisha knew that even worse than Naaman's leprosy was his pride.  He prescribed a cure that would deal with Naaman's pride.  The gospel calls us to abandon our works, our self righteousness and our pride.  This is why people refuse the gospel offer.  As Alexander Stewart says; 'Our idols are too dear to be dethroned.  Our habits too strong to be given up.  Our transgression too pleasant to be forsaken.'  Salvation involves submitting to God and accepting Christ freely in the gospel.  Christ said we need to become like little children to become Christians - we need to have that simple child like trust in our heavenly father (Matthew 18 v 3).

b) Naaman's cleansing illustrates the miracle of conversion.  Naaman wasn't just miraculously healed from leprosy but he was spiritually transformed.  Look what he says in ch 5 v 15 'Now I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.'  His healing led him to see the living and true God so that he was physically and spiritually transformed.  Notice how the proud military captain talks about being a servant.  His encounter with God has humbled him.  He renounced his false gods and gave thanks to the true God.

4.  A Serious Warning.

The story of Naaman starts and ends with leprosy.  Elisha's servant Gehazi is given to us as a serious warning.  He runs after Naaman and makes up a story so that he can ask for some of the money and clothes that Elisha had already refused.  Think of the sermons and miracles Gahazi must have witnessed. Yet all the time he was a coveter, a liar, a cheat and a thief.  Gehazi reminds us of Judas Iscariot. He was close to Jesus but his heart was unchanged, he remained a coveter.  As Stewart says; 'the sin of covetousness is black with the shame and dishonour of the great betrayal; it is crimson dyed with the blood of the holy and just one.'

Gehazi and Judas remained in their sin despite their closeness to Elisha and Jesus. What does this teach us?  That outward privileges and associations don't make us a Christian.  We may have grown up in the godliest home, have the finest parents, have been brought up in the best church, sat under thousands of sermons, and yet none of these things make us a Christian.  We can remain just as hard as Gehazi and Judas.  It is not our religious efforts that make us a Christian, only the extent to which we rest on the finished work of Christ.


What can we learn from the curious story of Naaman?  Well just like Naaman, we all have a serious condition and we desperately need a cure.  The condition of sin is much more serious than leprosy. We are all twisted, diseased and terminally ill.  The wages of sin is death, eternal death.  Nobody spoke more about hell than Jesus - just read Mark 9 v 35 - 50.  The great news is that there is a cure.  Jesus came not for the healthy but for the sick.  If you have a sense that you are sick and lost, seek Jesus who is the only one who can restore you.

Why did Jesus reach out to so many lepers?  He was sending out a message.  He was saying 'I am here for the outcast'.  I'm here for the marginalised, the broken, the outcast and the rejected.  This is why Jesus mentions Naaman in Luke 4 v 27.  He was saying that he was here for Jew and Gentile alike.  He was here for pagan generals like Naaman.

God is restoring the outcast.  The question is have you received Christ as your Lord and Saviour? Naaman had religion but he didn't know God.  You need to humble yourself and receive Christ's finished work.  Come to him today.