Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent Poems (2)













Advent III


humble Bethlehem
least among the clans

out of you a vine
stretches to inherit

the nations,
standing with their backs to God

soon all eyes
fasten on your offspring

one of David’s line
whose rule leaps

from heart to heart
carrying the white flag of truce

to dress the fallen
who walk goat steps

and wished they were clean,
rags snatched from the fire


Advent IV

advent rips the veil
parting bride and groom

with a baby shower
of grace

the God-child
who cries

the kingdom
on white Christmas

answers our winter sleep
with descension

salvation come down
touching orphans

his armistice
for the God-ejecting

born of a virgin
so we’d be swept

away in the mystery
of visitation

caught up in the air
where God surmounts

the odds through conception
hangs peacetime on a miracle

for those who deserve
the noose

Advent V

It was a short distance
from crib to cross

when you winked
baby blue eyes at Mary,

saw Calvary’s shadow
in her reflection

with prophetic sight
staring down the years

towards Jerusalem,
where she’d weep

even as the stone
rolled back victorious.

In the manger you knew
your resting place,

ordained yourself as born
to die, as orchestras

of angels lighted Israel’s
way out of exile

for hungry shepherds,
soon washed in the blood

Advent VI

In this bleak midwinter
falling incense is how you answer

prayers for a foretaste
of your coming son.

Nothing is wasted
I’m enraptured on the black ice

crying maranatha
as for one brief moment

I catch a glimpse
of bridal lace

prepared for consummation
when God conjoins with his beloved.

Coming up from the washing,
I’m beside springs that warm

my cold veins
with visions of Zion

that prepare the way
out of this tired dispensation

shake December’s frosty root
to new fires breaking

upon the nativity play
where infant Jesus dons a crown.






Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Testimony















1 John 1:1-2

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life,which was with the Father and was made manifest to us

John 5: 39-40

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

Acts 10: 43

To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.


Absorbed by the testimonies of changed lives, healings, signs and wonders, and prosperity in our church services, we can forget the testimony which brings us eternal life. No other testimony outside of 'Christ crucified and risen' secures our forgiveness before God. To make those other testimonies primary would be to make our spiritual transformation the gospel, and to encourage Christless Christianity in our churches - with our faith not resting on the historical confessions of the church but on "its cash-value in experiential terms". Where our preaching of Christ is judged solely by its pragmatic and therapeutic uses to provide us with fulfilled lives and happiness, rather than as a means of grace for lost sinners.

Michael Horton explores this danger in his book on self-help moralism,(or 'moralistic therapeutic deism' as he coins it), and provides a timely cure:

The church exists in order to change the subject from us and our deeds to God and his deeds of salvation, from our various missions to save the world to Christ's missions that has already accomplished redemption. He sends us into the world, to be sure, but not to save it. Rather, he sends us into the world to witness to Christ as the only Saviour and to love and serve our neighbour in our secular vocations. Evil lies not outside us but inside; it is salvation that comes from outside ourselves.


Nothing the church does extends, completes, or fulfills Christ's all-sufficient, once-and-for-all, completed work of living, dying, and rising for sinners. So enough about us! We are the sinners he saves, not the redeemers he inspires. That is the content of our witness, which is why we are heralds of the Good News rather than mere purveyors of good advice. And even in terms of evangelistic impact, I am confident that this orientation is more effective with non-Christians. They may not like our message anyway, but at least they might be relieved that we have stopped holding ourselves up as the way, the truth and the life.

If the message the church proclaims makes sense without conversion, if it does not offend even lifelong believers from time to time so that they too need to die more to themselves and live more to Christ, then it is not the gospel. When Christ is talked about, a lot of things can happen, none of which necessarily have any lasting impact. When Christ is proclaimed in his saving office, the church becomes a theater of death and resurrection. (p. 141)

Unless Christ is publicly exhibited as crucified - placarded before us week after week in Word and sacrament - we will, like the Galatians, drift toward the view that we begin with Christ and his Spirit and then end up striving for our own righteousness before God (Gal. 3:1-3). Since even Christians remain simultaneously justified and sinful, we will always gravitate back towards ourselves: that which happens within us, that which we can measure and control, that which we can see and feel. (p.146)

We are not saved by our changed lives. The changed life is the result of being saved and not the basis of it. The basis of salvation is the perfection in the life and death of Christ presented in our place.... (p. 151)

footnote: all quotations used are from Christless Christianity - The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Michael Horton, Baker Books 2008)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent Poems (1)











Isaiah 9:2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.

Zec 2:10 Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD.



Advent I

born to purple
poor is the Christ child
carried on angel wings

who ransomed his equality
in coming through the birth
canal under the law

humbled to a stall in Bethlehem
leaves of grass his cradle
dirt birthplace of our servant king

more precious than gold
lording over all coronations
that history applauds

amidst the wind and withering

Advent II

the star of Bethelem
wakes men out of stupor

in the land
of the shadows of death

Emmanuel's great light calls
all exiles to the sheep pen

to kneel before the royal babe
who appears the word

of the Father in his flesh
without stain

my Lord and my God
at thy birth


Sunday, November 28, 2010

What is the Gift of Prophecy? (3)














John 16: 8-9 When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me.


1 Cor 14:24 But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all. (NIV)

For the unbeliever prophecy brings rebuke and conviction of sin as the Holy Spirit acts on the unrepentant heart with the hammer blows of the Law. We too bring the Law - the glory due a holy and righteous God in whose sight sinners cannot sand without the secrets of the heart being laid bare (1 Cor 14:25). AS it brings conviction, the gift of prophecy evokes God's holy presence, sows the seeds of repentance as they come into the throne room of our Lord whose judgment flashes like lightning (Hosea 6:5). Their tongues falling silent before his holy Law (Romans 3:19).

Used in this way, prophecy produces a healthy fear of God. From which the soul is led to Christ, being made conscious of sin (Romans 3:20), and feeling its need for forgiveness which our Lord is quick to bestow.

The gift of prophecy then is the application of Law and Gospel (although I'm willing to concede that it has other important functions). It brings revelation that under God's Law we all stand guilty of transgression. And the revelation of Jesus' testimony through which the forgiveness of sins, and the justification by faith alone, is offered to those who believe. When applied to our lives, the prophetic should offer the severity of God's law to those secure in their sins, and the sweetness of the Gospel to those in terror of the law. All in step with the Holy Spirit whose primary purpose is to bring us to Christ.

Friday, November 26, 2010

What is the Gift of Prophecy? (2)













John 14:26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

Rev 19:10 For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. (ESV)


What is prophecy? For Christians it is nothing less than Jesus' words breathed on us by the Holy Spirit for our encouragement and consolation. Fulfilling his promise that he will not leave us as orphans (John 14:18).

Prophecy is not something we summon up like mystics at a seance, or through our own pious efforts, but it is a gift from the Word made flesh who reminds us (because we need the reminder) of his testimony which gives eternal life to those who hear and believe.

Prophecy is not something outside of God's Word, because it is through Spirit-inspired Scripture that we first hear Jesus' words, which alone are sufficient for us. But away from the pages of the Bible we are prone to forget the Gospel. So our Lord comes to us by his Spirit to bear witness in our hearts to his goodness, with words that are truth and life, so we might proclaim his marvellous works among all the peoples (Psalm 96:3).

Monday, November 22, 2010

What is the Gift of Prophecy? (1)













Lately I've struggled with this question - as though the Lutheran and charismatic sides of my Christian faith were in hand-to-hand combat over it, leaving me steadfast in impasse; with no way to reconcile objective and subjective Christian experience. My questioning over the gift of prophecy revolves around a number of important issues for me which advice from well-meaning Christian friends has yet to resolve. These issues are:

1 Reliability

If a prophetic word is not as reliable or steadfast as God's Word, why would the Holy Spirit choose to communicate this way. When I hear, "I felt that the Spirit said this", how can I be sure that it was God. Not just what sincere Christians want me to hear, what I would like to hear, or just the result of a half-digested scrap of beef (as Scrooge thought of the ghost of Jacob Marley in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol").

"Ah", I hear, "but you must test the word". Well, yes, I acknowledge the Apostle Paul says we must test everything. But if the gift of prophecy is what charismatics claim it is, even testing relies on a subjective experience. My spirit testifying with the Spirit that this is true; an inner revelation that the prophetic word and Scripture match up. Which leaves me looking back at my imperfect self.

Whereas God's Word always pulls me away from myself to his Word which is eternal and living (1 Peter 1:23), sweet to the taste (Psalm 119:103), and sharper than the sharpest two-edge sword (Hebrews 4:12). God's Word is where the external triumphs over the internal gnosticism of other world religions and cults.

2. Sola Scriptura

When prophetic words are being offered in place of the preaching of God's Word, there is cause for concern. At Winchester Vineyard Church, I have witnessed the erosion of Sola Scriptura in action. Where the Bible does not have supremacy above their prophetic speakers. While prophecy brings encouragement, the lack of a solid diet of Scripture cannot be very healthy to us as God's people, especially when question of discernment still exist for the congregation e.g. "is this prophetic word especially for me?" No such uncertainly exists when we hear God's Word, when law and gospel are rightly preached in their saving office.

3. The "prophetic office"

I remain convinced by Scripture that the Prophetic Office ceased with the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles who alone were speaking the very words of Scripture. There is no new revelation today except what we received 2000 years ago, from the revelation of Jesus Christ. In fact the Bible warns us about adding anything to this revelation (Rev 22: 18-19), which should give us pause before accepting the latest announcements off the prophetic hot lines in America. We should equally be concerned with the growing authority these self-appointed 'Prophets' in America have, especially when their prophetic calls are greeted with the same aplomb as Presidential speeches. Here also questions of trust and discernment arise: "have these words been properly tested?", "whose agenda does this service, God's kingdom or that leader's prophetic ministry and reputation?" The rise of the Kansas City Prophets, the New Apostolic Reformation, Cindy Jacobs, and others within the hyper-charismatic movement seem to me to be wrenching the attention of Christians away from God's Word. When Christians are increasingly relying on the latest prophetic word for guidance, our reliance on God's Word suffers - and maybe this is their intention. To shepherd us away from Scripture so their ministries can grow at the expense of the integrity of God's Word and the message of the gospel.




Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Confidence


















Psalm 27:13

I am still confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.

Psalm 27 speaks with confidence about God's character. God is our light, our salvation, our stronghold, our helper. Based on these attributes, the Psalmist's cries towards God move us to approach in praise, in prayer, waiting with patience. In the hope that he will keep us safe, exalt us above our enemies. That he will never forsake us, but lead us along the right path.

All these hopes are fulfilled in Christ Jesus, who is the rock upon which our confidence stands. Through his name we approach the heavenly throne room. By his cross we are kept safe from God's righteous judgment, from the power of sin and the devil. United with him in his resurrection we will be raised to new life, freed from the enemy of death. In Christ and through Christ our heavenly Father has laid the straight path of salvation for us, and has promised that not one of his sheep will perish.

In Jesus Christ we surely saw the goodness of the Lord.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Looking Forward






















Philippians 3: 13-14

But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.


The apostle Paul's words cut through the fog bank of the difficult problems and circumstances in this earthly life, and shine as a beacon towards our future, heavenly citizenship (Col 3: 1-2). They remind us to daily put on the new life, and to die to the old, sinful nature (Eph 4:22-24) - to remember our right standing with God through Christ, and all that means for our identity as sons and daughters of God our Father.

Looking behind us, outside of Christ, at the storms of life, we can easily forget the prize as the Israelites did when faced with the lack of food and water, and turn to other idols to fulfill our earthly needs. The golden calves we create and worship are our own ingenuity and skill; our self-sufficiency and self-realisation. These idols we create in our unbelief, in our anxiety we turn aside from what God has said and promised and trust in ourselves to get the job done.

As we press on through our wilderness life, we need to remember God's provision in the meat of His Word, in the water of His Spirit, and in the living bread of His Son. Leaving behind the false idols that deceive us, and our past sins that come back to haunt us. Leaving them behind in the waters of our baptism on our exodus straining towards the promised land.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Law and Gospel: A Short Catechism












Q: What is the proper distinction between Law and Gospel?


A:

...the law is properly a divine doctrine in which God's righteous,
unchangeable will is revealed. It shows what the quality of a person
should be in his nature, thoughts, words, and works, in order
that he may be pleasing and acceptable to God. It also threatens
its transgressors with God's wrath and temporal and eternal
punishments. For as Luther writes against the Antinomians:

Everything that reproves sin is and belongs to the Law. Its
peculiar office is to rebuke sin and to lead to the knowledge
of sins (Romans 3: 20, 7:7).

Everything that comforts, that offers God's favour and grace
to transgressors of the Law, is, and is properly called, the Gospel.
It is a good and joyful message that God will not punish sins,
but will forgive them for Christ's sake.


Q: What are the purposes of the Law?

A:

God's law is useful because:

[1] external discipline and decency are maintained by it
against wild, disobedient people
[2] through the law people are brought to a knowledge
of their sins
[3] when people have born anew by God's Spirit,
converted to the Lord, and Moses's veil has been lifted
from them, they live and walk in the Law.


Q: What are the purposes of the Gospel?

A:

It [the gospel] teaches that God's Son, our Lord Christ,
has taken upon Himself and borne the Law's curse
and has atoned and paid for all our sins. Through Him
alone we again enter into favour with God, receive
forgiveness of sins through faith and are delivered from
death and all the punishments of sins, and are
eternally saved.


Q: How should we teach and preach the Law and the Gospel?

A:

They must be taught with the proper distinction of which
we have heard: (a) through the preaching of the Law
and its threats in the ministry of the New Testament the
hearts of impenitent people may be terrified, and (b)
they may be brought to a knowledge of their sins and to
repentance. This must not be done in such a way that they
lose heart and despair in this process. "So then, the law
was our guardian until Christ came,in order that we might
be justified by faith" (Galatians 3:24); so that the Law
points and leads us not from Christ, but to Christ, who
"is the end of the law" (Romans 10:4).

People must be comforted and strengthened again by the
preaching of the Holy Gospel about Christ, our Lord.
In other words, to those who believe the Gospel, God
forgives all their sins through Christ, adopts them as
children for His sake, and out of pure grace - without
any merit on their part - justifies and saves them. However,
He does not do this in such a way that they may abuse God's
grace and may sin hoping for grace (Romans 6:1).

We must guard this distinction [between Law and Gospel]
with special care, so that these two doctrines may not be
mixed with each other, or a law be made out of the Gospel.
When that happens, Christ's merit is hidden and troubled
consciences are robbed of comfort, which they otherwise
have in the Holy Gospel when it is preached genuinely
and purely. For by the Gospel they can support themselves
in their most difficult trials against the Law's terrors.


(Taken from The Book of Concord, "The Formula
of Concord", Article V)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Power Trips













Acts 1:8 (NLT) But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit
comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses...


The power of the Holy Spirit is given so that we might witness
to Christ's finished work on the cross. Today many use this
charismatic power to witness to their own glory in a wave of
revivalist hype, where their signs and wonders are the main
headline. For those burned out on sensationalism, on pilgrimages
to whatever American hub happens to be the source of power that
season, the choice has to be the Giver over the Todd Bentleys of
this world.

For the church the Gospel is not a footnote but accompanies
everything we do, including signs, wonders, tongues, etc. Where
true signs and wonders touch Christians and non-Christians alike,
Christ alone is proclaimed (Acts 2:14-40, 3:12-26) for the Spirit
wants to give glory not to Himself, nor to the charismatic speaker.
JI Packer writes that "the Holy Spirit's distinctive new covenant
role is to fulfill... a floodlight ministry in relation to the Lord Jesus
Christ"(Keep in Step with the Spirit, p.57):

The Spirit's message to us is never, "look at me; listen to me;
come to me; get to know me", but always, "look at him, and see
his glory; listen to him, and hear his word; go to him and have life;
get to know him, and taste his gift of joy and peace". The Spirit we
might say, is the matchmaker, the celestial marriage broker, whose
role it is to bring us and Christ together and ensure that we
stay together
(Keep in Step with the Spirit, p. 57-58).

So where signs and wonders spring forth within the church, we
should not give witness to ourselves, our performance, our
charismania, or even to the witnessing Spirit, but to Christ and
Him crucified (Revelation 19:10). For as 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us,
the sign gifts and their accompanying miracles will die away.
But the effects of the Gospel, our death and resurrection in
Christ Jesus, are eternal. Though Christians in this life may
receive healing it is only temporary for everybody dies while we
still live in this body of sin (1 Cor 15:22). Our hope looks beyond the
temporary to our final glorification where death is put to death
(1 Cor 15:55) through Christ's victory which wipes away all tears.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be
no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain
anymore, for the former things have passed away.
(Revelation 21: 4 ESV).

Friday, October 1, 2010

Passover











John 18:28 (ESV) They themselves did not enter the governor's headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.

Our Passover Lamb is acknowledged by us as we recognise our defilement, and seek the forgiveness of sins. The shadow of the Cross cuts across any sense of our ethnic or moral superiority. Instead it shows us as an unholy people who daily need to be washed clean in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:13). As we take Communion each week, we make a spiritual record of this need. According to Martin Luther, we go to the Lord's Table because:

we are poor, miserable people. We go exactly because we are unworthy. This is true unless we are talking about someone who desires no grace and Absolution nor intends to change....

If, therefore you are heavy laden and feel your weakness, then go joyfully to this Sacrament and receive refreshment, comfort and strength. If you wait until you are rid of such burdens, so that you might come to the Sacrament pure and worthy, you must stay away forever. In that case Christ pronounces sentence and says, "If you are pure and godly, you have no need of Me, and I, in turn, no need of you." Therefore, the only people who are called unworthy are those who neither feel their weaknesses nor wish to be considered sinners.

(Large Catechism, "The Book of Concord", p. 631, 633)


We go to our Passover meal not on our own merits, as the Pharisees and priests did boasting in their own righteousness and outward expressions of holiness. But on the merits of Christ's body and blood which alone can raise us up to eternal life:

So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever. (John 6: 53-58 ESV)


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Surrender




















"And I surrender, all to you..."


This chorus has become a popular refrain in our modern worship services.

When I hear it, I sense the Law's condemnation, its thundering back at me that "you haven't surrendered, you have fallen short of the glory of God". For the sensitive Christian caught in the battle between flesh and Spirit, surrender can therefore be a dangerous catchword tearing down more than building up one's faith.

Until of course we look at surrender with a gospel framework in place. Realising that there is only one spotless, sinless Saviour who really did surrender all in perfect obedience to the Father. A Saviour who surrendered his divinity in His Incarnation so that He might surrender His blood as our atoning substitute.

Faced with Christ's perfection, we should not try to "storm the gates of heaven" with our imperfect, stumbling surrender which in the end does not justify us before a holy and righteous God. But rather trust in the surrender of Jesus who humbled himself, even to death on a cross (Phillippians 2:8).