textofmeeting

Encountering the Living Word in the Text of Meeting.


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Spoilers in Hindsight

One of the things I enjoy most about films is that they enable you to taste of an experience you are never likely to have in full, whether that be catching a notorious serial killer, overcoming tragedy, or saving the world from zombies.

At least one of the ways I measure the quality of a film is the degree to which it succeeds in drawing me into its narrative. And it’s because I enjoy being drawn into a film’s plot development that I hate spoilers. Knowing the ending from the beginning, or having more than a hunch about some crucial turn in the story ruins the forward momentum of the experience. ‘Spoilers’ is right!

For instance, I was told about the twist ending in Sixth Sense before having the opportunity to discover it for myself. And that was, to put it mildly, disappointing… 

As Christians, we believe that we’re part of the biblical story. It’s not just something we read for entertainment. We know that we have been adopted into this narrative in ways that can only be radically life-changing.

But reading the Bible is different to watching a film for a couple of important reasons.

First, we are living in the final chapter of the biblical story. So we’re looking back, not forward, to get a sense of where we’re at and what role we play in God’s mega-plan.

Second, related to the first point, most of us have become Christians from hearing about Jesus. In other words, we haven’t heard the biblical story in chronological order. Only after hearing about Jesus’ death for us do we go back and try to make sense of Old Testament laws and Israel’s covenant with God and so on.

Another way of putting it is that we begin with the spoiler—Jesus’ life, death and resurrection—and then we explore the earlier part of the narrative, looking through a Messianic lens. And in some ways, that’s just as well. Because without a Messianic lens, some parts of the Bible are hard to read.

In many ways, we’re like the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, trying to put it all together. As they made their journey, Jesus turned up to walk beside them. And beginning with Moses (i.e. the Pentateuch) and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what the Scriptures say about him (Lk 24.27). Man, I’d love to have been a pesky fly on that long walk!

 

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus retells the biblical story and presents himself as the surprise ending. More than that, after telling his disciples the biblical story with his own death and resurrection as its recent climax, Jesus adds, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’ (v 25)

In other words, you disciples should have seen this coming. The prophets spoke about it in ancient times, and Jesus had spoken about it for the past three years. ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ (v 26)

The crucifixion was necessary. That’s the way God works. 

Jesus defeated sin and death though self-emptying love rather than through self-actualising power.

That’s the spoiler that makes sense of history. And not just world history, but your own life history, too. As Jesus said, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (John 12.24) Or as one of his disciples, C.S. Lewis, put it, ‘Die before you die, there is no chance after.’ 


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How Original is ‘Original Sin’?

The doctrine of ‘original sin’ is basically the idea that the wrongdoing of Adam (and Eve) has affected all humanity. We are all, to quote George Thorogood’s well-known song title, “bad to the bone”. (Hmm.. I just noticed the contradiction between his surname and the song’s title.)

Another way of putting it is that we are all stained by “The Fall”, and therefore born with a built-in compulsion to make a mess of good things. In his excellent book, Unapologetic, Francis Spufford defines sin as:  

“the human propensity to f— things up… It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch. Now I hope we’re on common ground.”

Yes, we’re on common ground. Every one of us shares this propensity to mess things up… to our own detriment. But in answer to the question at the top of this page—’How original is original sin? ‘—I would have to say, ‘not very…’

Yes, I understand why it’s called ‘original sin’ (sin that goes back to our origins, and so on), but the truth is, sin is actually very un-original. If you try to define sin, or think about what it is, it’s very hard to imagine. Because sin isn’t really anything in itself. It has no substance of its own. Sin is probably best described as a parasite.

Here’s a definition for you: “parasitism is a non-mutual symbiotic relationship between species, where one species, the parasite, benefits at the expense of the other, the host.” You get the picture. Or maybe you don’t. Here are some visual examples:

This parasitic tree has wrapped itself around a host tree to take all the nutrients it needs to survive.

Ticks are probably one of the best-known parasites. And as you probably know, they feed on blood.

Enough of the pictures. But if you’re feeling disgusted, you’re getting the point: Sin is unoriginal, but it attaches itself to good things and ruins them. Distorts them. Unmakes them. Perverts them.

Think about all those wonderful things God has made that sin attaches itself to. Relationships. Sex. Communication. Learning. Food. All good things, but wrecked by sin. Sin twists and ruins God’s good intentions. 

One of the main ways sin does this is by distorting God’s good intentions for human life. Genesis 1.27 says that we were created to bear God’s image: 

God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

But sin — which is in our nature — distorts God’s purpose so that we crave other things more than God. And as we worship those things, we become like them instead of becoming like the God in whose image we were made. 

King David experienced this. He was a good man, a great man, one of Israel’s best kings on record. But at one point in his life, sin latched onto that greatness and turned it into something very ugly.

David got lazy and his laziness led to complacency. In his complacency, he saw a woman bathing, lusted after her, and decided we was going to have sex with her (after he was informed that she was married).

When she fell pregnant, he arranged to have her husband killed and then tried to rewrite history with lies to smooth everything over. That’s right: coveting, lust, adultery, murder, and lies. Sin’s domino effect.

This story from David’s life is a graphic illustration of the way sin sucks the life out of us. David’s painful experience is what qualified him to write Psalm 51, a psalm of repentance that all of us can relate to. The antidote to sin is repentance (which literally means ‘turning around’). Here are a few verses from David’s great psalm:

1  Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

2  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

3  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

4  Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

5  Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

10  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Amen.

 


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How and Why Does God Create?

Let me be clear from the beginning (so to speak): I don’t think Genesis 1 says much about how the universe came into being. Put simply, Genesis 1 is not a scientific document, and we get awfully confused when we read it as a literal account and then force it to match up with scientific theories like the Big Bang.

So when I ask, ‘How does God create?’, I’m asking what the Bible’s poetic account of creation reveals about God, not ‘what really happened’. Similarly, when I ask, ‘Why does God create?’, I’m inquiring about the purpose or goal of God’s handiwork—however exactly things were made.

The goal of God’s creative activity, the why, is a place where human life can flourish. In Genesis (and throughout the Bible) God gets creative to create space for human beings to live life to the full. This is made clear in Genesis 1, where human beings are the pinnacle of creation, the last thing God makes on day six. In other words, when everything else has been set in place to make an inhabitable world, human beings are made and placed within that world that they may live—and thrive.

Genesis 1 also reveals something fascinating about the manner in which God creates, the how. Simply put, God creates by making distinctions. Light and dark. Day and Night. Sky and Sea. Dry Land and Waters. Everything God does on days one to three can be classed as acts of separation. And of course, the how of God’s creation relates to the why. Life is possible, life flourishes, where there is order.

This isn’t just a theme in Genesis, either. When God saves Israel out of Egypt, what is the first thing he does? He gives them the Law. He orders things by making distinctions between what is wrong and what is right. And the purpose of these distinctions is that true life become a real possibility. As Moses says to Israel at the end of Deuteronomy when he is encouraging them to obey with all their hearts, souls and minds, ‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live’ (Deut 30.19). One of the ways God gets creative is by making distinctions, and he does so to give us life. 

What are the areas of chaos in your life? What disorder and fragmentation threaten the life-giving order God wants to establish for you? What distinctions need to be made to set you apart for the life God intends for you? We tend to develop sophisticated ways of permitting a little darkness to mix with the light God has brought into our lives, don’t we? You know better than anyone what this looks like in your own life. But however things look at the moment, you can take comfort from Genesis 1.2:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Whatever darkness, formlessness or chaos threaten your capacity to live life to the full, you can rest assured that the Spirit of God hovers like a bird over the depths of your being, whispering: ‘Let there be light. Let there be order. Let there be shalom.’

Amen.


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You Are What You Worship

You ever seen those advertisements for healthy eating, accompanied by the slogan: “You are what you eat”?

Jesus once made the related point that You Are What You Gaze At in the sermon on the Mount:

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt 6.22-23)

I guess he was saying that the principle “You are what you eat” applies to immaterial things we put into our bodies, too—the things we look at, the conversations we have, we people we spend time with, and so on. And his message wasn’t so different from the preaching of other Israelite prophets who came before him.

Isaiah ridiculed the false idols of his generation for their inability to speak. As Isaiah put it, they couldn’t say anything meaningful about the past or the future because at the end of the day, these molten images were nothing more than “empty wind” (Isa 41.29). But more than that, when we worship these false idols that cannot communicate, we become mute like them. The Psalmist said it most clearly:

Their idols are silver and gold,

the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but do not speak;

eyes, but do not see.

They have ears, but do not hear;

noses, but do not smell.

They have hands, but do not feel;

feet, but do not walk;

they make no sound in their throats.

Those who make them are like them;

so are all who trust in them.

Ps 115.4-8 (also Ps 135.15-18)

That last verse is pretty sobering, isn’t it? Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them. You are what you worship… 

The Israelites worshipped idols for so long that they eventually lost their ability to hear, see and discern the voice of God in their midst. (Check out Isa 6.8-11). So let’s make this personal. What’s your top priority today? What are you becoming?

Of course, we’re too sophisticated for stone or wooden idols. But we’re not so different from our ancestors. Technology. Success. Sex. Power. Self-image. They’re all competing for your praise and worship. Beware!

But what’s so bad about putting these things at the top of your priorities, you ask? Well, they’re incapable of love. Or trust. (Or much else, for that matter.) So if you’re becoming like these things, well, to put it bluntly, you’re becoming less human. See, another way of looking at this is to ask “What should I worshipping? Whose image should I be reflecting?” And the answer to that question is given in the first chapter of the Bible:

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them. (Gen 1.27)

This is serious stuff. Because this principle is part of the nature of reality. Human beings become like what they worship. You ever met someone so obsessed with sex or money that they have come to see people differently? As objects or as financial opportunities? You ever met someone so concerned with their self-image that they’ve lost the ability to love and understand anyone else? These are just a few of the life-diminishing symptoms of idol worship.

You were created in the image of a beautiful God. Put him first today and see what happens to your self.


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Breaking (and Making) Habits

A huge amount of our daily living is (pre)determined by habit.

Apparently, our brains need habits for us to function. If we had to think about every movement that is required just to walk, our brains would be exhausted by the time we reached the front door. So most of the things we do are managed by a small part of the brain that forms habits, leaving the larger part of our brains for conscious thought and real decision-making.

This means that a lot of the time, even when we think we’re making free choices, in fact we’re not. We have formed habits and we’re simply sticking to them. It’s physiological and neurological. Part of being human. You do something enough times and your mind ‘helps out’ by automating that thought process or action. And of course, it’s not just good things like walking, talking and eating that are habitual. We have plenty of bad habits, too.

Seriously, think about that for a sec. What are your bad habits? Things you don’t like doing, but find hard to change?

Those things are hard to change because your brain has moved them over to that part of your brain that functions more by instinct rather than conscious thought. Actually, if you know exactly what all your bad habits are, you’re doing really well! Because when behaviours become instinctive and automatic, we develop blind spots. If you’re wondering—yes, you have some blind spots. We’ve all got them. (It’s easier to see someone else’s blind spots than your own.) 

From a Christian point of view, these ‘bad habits’ or ‘blind spots’ are sins. Not necessarily sins we choose to commit on a daily basis out of a defiant spirit, but sins nonetheless. And it’s no good saying:

“I can’t help it…”

“That’s just the way I am…”

“My parents raised me this way…”

“Someone hurt me once, so now I always react like this…”

Your habits are your habits. Our spiritual parents, Adam and Eve, tried to blame others, too. As Adam put it: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” And Eve: “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

God says no. “The devil made me do it” is not good enough. Your habits. Your sins. Your responsibility. (We’ll come back to that.)

What do I do with these dirty habits, then? How to break old ones and make new ones?

Psalm 1 points us to a solution. Choose friends who will lead you to maturity (verse 1). And open your life to the light of the Scriptures (verse 2). Those things will lead you to fullness of life (verse 3).

Ps 1.1  Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,

or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

[2] but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.

[3] They are like trees planted by streams of water, 

which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. 

In all that they do, they prosper.

Without wanting to over-simplify, changing habits is essentially a two stage process: (i) Make unconscious behaviour conscious, so that (ii) you can choose and change behaviours to establish new habits.

But how am I supposed to see my own blind spots? Surely they’re called blind spots for a reason!

True.

As Psalm 1.1 suggests, rather than hanging out with people who will encourage bad habits, seek out friends who will gently help you open your eyes (see Prov 13.20). Open up your life to a friend, or possibly a few friends. Let them identify things you do or say that you may not be aware of. Lots of grace is needed when these kinds of conversations happen. Be gentle. Having your eyes opened to cringeworthy habits is, well, not easy. Also, let others know about the skeletons that lurk in your closet. Addictive behaviours feed on secrecy. Break their power by bringing them out into the open.

Second, whenever you enter the Text of Meeting (i.e. read your Bible), ask the Spirit to show you what he would change about you. Don’t worry; he won’t overwhelm you with all your bad habits at once. He’ll lead you gently into the truth.

When I preached this stuff last night, I left something out of my sermon. So I was really glad when one of the church’s interns added it during the closing worship time. She reminded us all that Jesus’ death and resurrection have dealt with our sins, once and for all, even though we are left with the hard work of ‘kicking dirty habits’. That’s so true. The good news is not that we can be better people if we just try harder. Living a godly life as a Christian is something the Spirit empowers us to do as an act of gratitude.

We’re not trying to break bad habits to escape the consequences of our sins. We’re doing it because we’re free from those consequences. If you believe that Jesus took the consequences for your bad habits, then you’re as righteous in God’s eyes now as you will ever be. We don’t strive for better habits so that God will accept us, but because God already accepts us.

Amazing!


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Tent to Text

Moses had a pretty special relationship with God.

I wonder what it was like to speak with God face to face, ‘as one speaks to a friend’ (Exod 33.11). Or to have everyone freak out because—apparently—your face is glowing from a conversation that lasted longer than expected (Exod 34.29).

On top of that, imagine having a special tent set aside for these encounters with the divine.

Exod 33.7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp.tabernacle

This tent of meeting was God’s portable dwelling place, enabling him to remain close to his people as they made their pilgrimage from slavery to freedom. And as Israel’s first prophet, Moses mediated God’s word to God’s people.

Exod 33.9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. [10] When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. [11a] Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.

Holy Moses! Literally. A remarkable man with a really special way of relating to God. It’s the kind of relationship most of us can only dream about…

Or is it?

In the New Testament, the introduction to John’s Gospel picks up on this imagery. John introduces Jesus as God’s revelatory Word who ‘tabernacled’ or ‘pitched his tent’ among us (Jn 1.14) so that God might fully be made known. Jesus is, as John puts it, the enfleshed Word of God. God’s personal word to us, written in blood and bone.

Through Jesus, you and I are invited to encounter God in remarkably personal ways, ways that will (almost) make your face glow. But where is our tent of meeting? Where can we go ‘outside the camp’ for these special encounters?

Well, hang on. Before you head down to your local hardware store for some poles, tent-pegs and a sizeable bit of tarpaulin, I’ve got some good news for you. The Christian Bible is the new tent/text of meeting. So enter in. Read and feed. But whenever you do, keep in mind these (somewhat harsh) words, spoken by the Word himself:

John 5.39 You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. [40] Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. 

When you venture in, don’t forget that the Text of Meeting is a place of encounter. Not with flashy ideas or fat theologies, but with a Person.

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