54. A Time to Regain our Identity

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 8 – Counter Attack

54. A Time to Regain Our Identity

Mt 16:18  I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

1 Pet 2:9,10  But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

I wonder? I have wondered if the average church member ‘sees’ themselves in any way different from anyone else? Very early on in this series I considered a number of ways the Christian – and subsequently the Church – is different from their non-believing neighbors. So yes, being a ‘believer’ is perhaps the starting place, but is that all you see?

Why? Now you may be thinking, why is he taking us back over this ground if we have covered it so thoroughly in the past studies? Well, it is simply because when I meet with other believers, that is the sense, and only that – that we are ‘believers’ – that ever seems to get communicated, and because I believe that is so, I think it is one of the reasons that Christians are so often backward in coming forward, or so deferential when it comes to standing up and declaring how needy the world is and how wonderful the answer that we have is. Mostly I detect we are on the defense.

A Positive Faith: One of our failures of recent decades is that of not communicating the positive aspects of Christianity – which are only found in Christianity – which can help this sick and ailing world. Of course part of that has been our ongoing failure to coherently and graciously communicate why the ways of the present world of the West are failing. It seems it is only the occasional columnist of one of the big ‘broadsheet’ newspapers who shouts, “This is not working!”

The appearance – and forgive me if I am wrong – is that in the UK where there is a ‘state church’, the Church of England, it is too tied in to the establishment to be regularly prophetic and thus it fails to prepare itself and its leading bishops to be voices of hope and change in a dark world. In the USA, although there is no state church, church and politics appear entwined so often but this seems to have resulted in specific limited battles being fought – the abortion battle being the most obvious but there have been others – but without conveying, “Hey this Christian thing is the best thing going!” and so there has been a failure to collectively convey the positive nature of the Christian faith that should be life changing, and if given a chance, also community-changing and nation-changing.

My Identity: So if someone asks you who you are, do you reply, “I am a believer in Jesus Christ,” or “I am a Christian,” because as excellent as those testimonies are, they only take us a short way along the path of identifying who we are. A shorthand answer along this path is, “Well, the Bible says I am a child of Almighty God, the Creator of all things” and that opens up a whole new area of discussion. But perhaps the more important issue is not so much what I have to declare as what I feel about myself. Knowing who I am, enables me to speak or act as I do.

For example, a number of times, either in this series or other series, I have reminded us that a) Jesus is seated at his Father’s right hand in heaven, ruling in the midst of his enemies (Eph 1:20) and then, b) that we are told that we are seated with him in the heavenly realms (Eph 2:6). Now this is quite remarkable if we believe it (understatement of the year!) because it means we are linked to Almighty God and because of that there is a sense where we should see ourselves as ‘above’ the world, having an overview of it that provides a more accurate view than anyone else, which means learning with Christ how to live with that.

Part of a Strategy: But this also reminds us of a verse we have considered many times in the past: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.   For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”   (1 Cor 15:24,25) Now this requires us to realize and recognize how Christ is ruling in the midst of his enemies (Psa 110:1,2, Heb 1:13, 10:13, Mt 22:44) – even though the world seems to be doing its own thing – but also for us to realize that we are part of his ruling, we are with him in working to bring down these enemies (which include such things as unbelief, unrighteousness, ungodliness, anger, bitterness, hostility, wars, fighting, etc. etc. as well as the more obvious evils, such as slavery, still as prevalent today as in the past). We have a privileged position, privileged power and a privileged calling within the strategy of Christ in his calling to bring in the kingdom of God.

Inferior or Special?  So let’s be honest, how do we really feel about ourselves before the onlooking world? Have we let Satan demean us, do we feel inferior?  Now if this was a church meeting and I was one of those preachers who hype up the congregation, asking those things in an ever louder voice, we might expect the temptation might be the shout back, “No, we’re superior!” but that is not Christlike, it is not what the apostle Paul taught, or any of the other apostles. The word we are looking for is ‘special’.

I have a friend who dislikes us saying to anyone, “you are special,” because, he says, you can’t say to everyone, “You are special.”  Yes you can. First of all we can say it to us as a group of people in the world. At Mount Sinai, God said to Moses to say to the people, if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” (Ex 19:5) Don’t tell me that “treasured possession” doesn’t mean special! Perhaps it was with this in mind that the apostle Peter wrote to the church (see 1 Pet 1:1,2) those words at the top of this study: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet 2:9,10) Here I have highlighted words that say we are special.

Uniqueness: So dare we say, “I am special to God,” or “We as a local church are special to God,” so that marks us out from the rest of the world?  We are special because we have responded to Him and we have been adopted into His family so that we can say we are children of God, even sons and daughters of God. We are special because we have open access to heaven, a voice to God and an ear to hear from God and the ability to receive all the resources of God.

If that doesn’t make us feel good, perhaps we need to pray and ask the Lord to open our eyes to see the reality of these things, rather like the apostle Paul prayed, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,  and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph 1:18,19)  All this comes only by revelation. We need today the fresh revelation of who we are, the wonder of who we are, the wonder of what we are, the wonder of our destiny, and when we get that afresh, perhaps we will stand up in the midst of the world and cry fearlessly with the apostle Paul,  “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes,” (Rom 1:16) and then go on and demonstrate that power – which leads us on to the next studies about going into battle. Stick with me.

11. Under Scrutiny

Meditations in 1 Peter : 11 :  Under Scrutiny

1 Pet 1:17 Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.

I have a picture of a family of mother, father and three children, out for the day, walking and playing in the woods and planning a picnic at the end of it. The children are told to remain in sight of their parents and in this instruction they feel quite secure. They know that if anyone came to threaten them, their father would be there for them. It is, first and foremost, a sense of security of which they are aware. But actually there is also another sense that they have and it is that of not straying over boundaries of behaviour that the family has set, otherwise they will be answerable to the father. Again though, it is something that creates security for they know that as much as they will be held accountable for misdeeds, so will their brother or sister. They feel secure in this.

Nicky Gumbel, originator of the Alpha Courses, tells the story of an occasion when he took his boys to weekend football and the referee had not turned up and so the boys asked Nicky to referee. The only trouble was that he didn’t know all the rules and thus didn’t have the authority. Within a short while the game degenerated into constant arguments and upset. After a while the proper referee arrived, apologetic for being late, but then took over. Suddenly the game took on order and, the most important thing, the boys started enjoying the game now there was order and authority there.

Peter has just reminded us in the previous verses that God is holy and, as His children, we are to be holy. The present verse reminds us that He will hold us accountable in the same way as the father in my illustration above does with his children, and the referee does in Nicky Gumble’s story. But in calling us to do this, he says two helpful things.

The first is the reminder that God has revealed Himself to us as our Father. For many of us who have had bad family experiences with human fathers, the concept of God as Father may not fill us with joy – but it should. We should not see Him in the same mould as our imperfect human fathers, but He is The example of Fatherhood above all other examples. Yes, He is the One who created the world and brought us into being but now He is also the One who is constantly working to draw us back into close relationship with Him so that we may receive of all of His goodness and love. He is there to help us, support us, provide for us and protect us and in that He is the One who brings security to our lives. Everything about Him is love and goodness.

He doesn’t have favourites – we are all His favourites. Think about the privileges that a favourite child receives in an imperfect family situation, and God gives that to ALL of us who are His children. A cynic has said that if we are all special then that means that none of us are special. That might be true of a limited human father but in God’s case it is like when He draws near to us, we know that we are the most important person in the world – but so do all the other children of the Father! He can do that because He is God. A child who feels they are special has the sense of the father pouring out his love over and above the normal. Well God does that with every one of His children. It is only our own unbelief that hinders us receiving and enjoying that.

The second helpful thing is the reminder that we are “strangers” here. Although we tend to think that this life is the all important thing, and we are fearful of the thought of giving it up, we do have a destiny in heaven. Heaven is our ultimate home. But there is something even more significant in this: we are citizens of heaven NOW. The life we have in us, the Holy Spirit, is rooted in heaven. He is the One who provides a link with heaven. So often in the Gospels, the reference is to “the kingdom of heaven.” The character, the atmosphere if you like, of heaven is within us, linking us to heaven and that is where the origin of our present ‘life’ comes from. The perfection and wonder of heaven is here within us in a measure and that is what makes us citizens of a different realm. Paul wrote, he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son.” (Col 1:13) We are to see ourselves as strangers to this world because in reality we now live in another realm, the kingdom of God.

The final reference to living in “reverent fear” is no more onerous than the children knowing they would be answerable to their father, or the boys answerable to the referee. In both cases they feel secure in the presence of the adult. The only time they feel fearful is when they transgress the accepted rules of the family or of the game. Thus it is with us and our loving heavenly Father. Be secure in His love.

2. Elizabeth & Mary

2. Elizabeth & Mary

(Warning: In this little series of  ‘meditations’ there are simply wonderings about what actually some of the people in the Christmas story felt. They are obviously based on Scripture but they are only wonderings, for we do not know. Yet, if they help us really think into the wonder of what happened two thousand years ago at the time we call Christmas, that will be good.)

The young girl toiled up the hill towards the house on the edge of the town. She had left the caravan on the road below. The journey had been tiring but at least the feelings of sickness had stopped now. As she worked her way up the path her mind ran back over the recent months. If I hadn’t felt these changes within me I would have thought I was dreaming it, she thought. Had I been right to tell Joseph? His response had been cold but I wonder what else I might have expected? It was a lot for him to take in. For a while she had felt utterly alone – until he came with his own story of an angel in a dream. How amazing is all this angelic activity! Why is it happening like this? God has seemed so distant from our nation for so long. It was clear that some had thought He had given up on us. But now?

She arrived panting at the house. Thank goodness I’ve got here at last; it’s been a long journey. The door was flung open and her elderly cousin’s husband stood there beckoning her in. Why can’t he say something to me, the girl thought. And there was her cousin, larger than Mary had ever seen her.

“Elizabeth, how lovely…” she began.

Her cousin gasped as she saw Mary and clutched the bump that showed the presence of a baby, but then she laughed with joy. “Indeed, how wonderful child, that you too carry a child, oh, a child who will be our Lord! But why are you here? Why should we be so favoured? We weren’t expecting you, yet as soon as you spoke the child I am carrying seemed to leap for joy. He has been making movements for some time but this was a leap that seemed to recognise you and the one you carry. How has this come about?”

And so the two women, one so young and one so old, shared their experiences. Elizabeth shared about her dumb husband’s experience with an angel back in the Temple in Jerusalem, and Mary spoke about the angel who came to her in the room of her home. Elizabeth laughed at what the neighbours had said when they heard that she was to have a child. Mary shared about the difficulties she had encountered back in Nazareth when she shared that she also was expecting a baby.

The responses had been mixed and when Mary’s mother had suggested she spend some time away at her elderly mother-to-be cousin’s home in the south, it seemed so right and confirmed what the angel had said, so that she had gone willingly. Now she knew why.

Who are these babies, they wondered together.

“Zechariah has written that the angel in the Temple told him my child will be called John and he is to prepare the way of the Lord, like Isaiah said,” Elizabeth shared, “though I don’t know how he will do that!”

“Yes, my angel at home said you were expecting and that’s why I came.” Mary replied. “He told me my child was to be called Jesus and that he will be a ruler, a son of God, but I’m not sure what all that means.”

“It means you are most favoured by God,” her cousin responded.

Suddenly it seemed to Mary that she was filled with joy, and she found herself speaking out for several minutes, what had to be a prophecy that seemed to have come from the pages of the Scripture scrolls.

When she stopped, Elizabeth looked at her in awe. “Where did that all come from? How wonderful!”

“I don’t know’” breathed Mary, “it just seemed to fill me and pour out. Yes, indeed! Oh Elizabeth, how wonderful indeed!”

Zechariah, standing in the background, still said nothing but wondered much. “These are indeed incredible days,” he thought to himself.

Read this story again in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 1, verses 39 to 56.

28. Worshipping Providers


28. Worshipping Providers

Matt 2:11,12 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

We are almost there. Tomorrow is Christmas Day. For a large percentage of the population it will be a day of presents, large amounts of food and drink, possibly too much TV and, for some, parties into the night. There will be a tiny minority who will totally ignore the day, but in the middle of these two groups will be those of us who want to appreciate the day in the traditional way with Christmas lunch and so on, but who also want to hold onto the truth and wonder if what we believe, according to the Bible, took place on this day slightly more than 2000 years ago. For Christians it’s always an odd sort of day, trying to balance these things, but then the Christmas story is an odd sort of story. Today’s verses are about those who came and worshipped the baby. Can we retain worship in all that happens tomorrow?

The ‘Wise Men’ are a great example of worshippers. They worship the newly arrived Son of God by bowing down and by giving to him. It is a faith that expresses itself by far more than just words or certain spiritual actions. It is a faith that provides for him. Now isn’t that strange! God arrives on the earth in the form of a tiny, vulnerable baby, complete with all the limitations of a baby. He’s going to grow, this baby, and when he’s fully grown, the power of God is going to flow through him as never seen before or since; he is God on earth. But, for the time being he is reliant upon Mary and Joseph to care for him and now, for the wise men to provide for him. Yes, God can do miracles, like providing life where there is none, but having done that He so often wants to use us as the means of further provision. The Christian life is a life of partnership with God (1 Cor 3:9. 2 Cor 6:1). Thus we’re told to work out our salvation, because God is also working in us (Phil 2:12,13).

So these worshippers come and provide for the child. They provide Gold, currency in any day. This is God’s immediate bank account for this little family. Frankincense is a pure incense used for worship offerings and for wedding processions in the Bible. Myrrh, another perfume was used as a perfume for bridal processions, and for funerals. Whether the two perfumes were given as symbols of what would be involved in this child’s life or whether they were just given as alternative forms of currency, things that could be sold for money, is not clear. They are however, clearly expensive gifts, lavish gifts, gifts what could be purely ornamental, but also very practical.

Some say the practice of giving gifts at Christmas (which is not done by Christians all over the world) derived from the Wise Men. Giving is a practice very much at the heart of love for God. For the Christian it is not just a ritual done to appease God, for He doesn’t need appeasing. It is a response of a freed-up heart that sees need and gladly rises up to meet it. In a world where so many charities clamour for our attention we need to learn to respond to God’s prompting to give, not the emotional pressures of advertising agencies working for such charities. Giving starts with those closest to us in need. Giving comes with a heart of love, a love that is moved by compassion and moved by relationship. John picked this up in his letter (1 Jn 3:17) as did James (Jas 2:15,16). We become providers for others, knowing God will provide for us (Phil 4:19).

Having come as worshippers, these men find a new form of guidance, as they too move into the realm of guidance by dreams! Yes, there is a truth here: true worshippers come into a new closeness with God where they can hear His guidance more clearly. May we each know it! May we bow before him today and tomorrow and every day and may we let nothing detract from our worship and become a people guided and directed by God for ever more.