Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Learning to Leave Things with God

Back in the 1960s, one of the most helpful things we were taught as young Christians was to learn to ‘leave things at the foot of the Cross’.  You just don’t hear that kind of language in church today … or if you do, it is usually some cynical comment about old fashioned ideas or old fashioned language. But perhaps it is precisely because such truths have been either neglected or rejected by today’s church generation that the contemporary church is in such a mess. Admittedly, it has always been possible for Christians to attempt to ‘dispose’ of negative things such as sin or guilt or failure, or ‘deal’ with difficulties or dilemmas, by sweeping the former under some kind of religious carpet and the latter by passing the buck to God. The problem is that when we do this, we don’t really solve the problem.  A friend of mine once said to me about his wife, ‘Ann takes her burdens to the Lord in prayer … but the trouble is she brings them back again!’ There is clearly more to ‘leaving things at the foot of the Cross’ than simply telling God (and others) that we have ‘left things at the foot of the Cross’. To genuinely leave things with God is not a negative thing at all but a very positive thing. It means bringing God into the equation.

Thus in the Old Testament narrative we find King Hezekiah waiting prayerfully upon God having received an extremely threatening letter from Sennacherib [2 Kings 18, 19]. Hezekiah came to the throne of Judah at the age of twenty-five and reigned for twenty-nine years from 715-687 BC. He introduced religious reform and reinstated religious traditions. The Bible portrays Hezekiah as a great and good king, and his reign saw a notable increase in the power of the Judean state. During much of his reign Judah was subservient to Assyria but between the death of the Assyrian king Sargon, and the succession of his son Sennacherib, Hezekiah sought to throw off Judah’s subservience to Assyria. He rebelled against Assyria, ceased to pay the tribute imposed on Judah, and entered into a league with Egypt against Assyria. If Hezekiah expected the Egyptians to come to his aid he was mistaken and Hezekiah had to face an invasion of Judah by Sennacherib in 701 BC as a result.

The invasion of Judah by Sennacherib and the Assyrian army is a major and well documented historical event. The Bible records that initially Hezekiah tried to pay off Sennacherib with three hundred talents of silver and thirty of gold in tribute but, after the payment was made, Sennacherib renewed his assault on Jerusalem. [2 Kings 18:14-16]. Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem and sent his supreme army commander, together with a huge army, to surround the city. Having tried, and failed, to break free from the yoke of Assyria through human reason and effort alone (and been forced into seeking to appease Sennacherib as a result, albeit unsuccessfully) the narrative records that Hezekiah recognized the futility of his own resources. He humbled himself before God and went to the temple and there he prayed, the first king in Judah to do so in 250 years, since the time of Solomon [2 Kings 19:1-4]. In response to the penitential prayers of Hezekiah and his people God spoke through his prophet Isaiah promising supernatural deliverance for the oppressed people of Judah [2 Kings 19:5-7]. He Despite the prophecy things got worse rather than better. Sennacherib renewed his assault on Jerusalem and sent Hezekiah a horrifying threatening letter spelling out destruction and annihilation for the king and his people. In the face of this Hezekiah’s response is fascinating:

Hezekiah received the letter … and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the Lord and spread it out before the Lord. And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord … Give ear, O Lord, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God [2 Kings 19:14-16] 

Hezekiah did not spend a long time recalling all the negative events of the past weeks, months and years. He did not tell God what to do about the situation. He simply laid out the letter before God and prayerfully invited God to read it and respond to it [2 Kings 19:14-19]. He left the matter, even though it was extremely serious and literally life-threatening, with God. In due course the answer came. God spoke yet again through his prophet Isaiah to affirm and expand the original promise of deliverance [2 Kings 19:20-34] … and that very night bubonic plague broke out in the Assyrian camp (according to Herodotus, brought by rats) resulting in the death of 185,000 Assyrian soldiers and the complete withdrawal of the besieging Assyrian army [2 Kings 19:35,36]. Sennacherib never returned to besiege Jerusalem … within a short space of time he was assassinated by two of his own sons. 

What do we learn from this story? We learn what it really means to truly leave things with God … not by sweeping things under the carpet, nor adopting a stoical, martyr spirit towards things, nor by praying once about something and then forgetting about it or giving up on it, nor by going on and on about things to God without allowing him a word in edgeways, or by working things out for ourselves and applying our own logic alone … but by sharing the situation with God in prayer … and then waiting patiently for clear revelation, understanding, direction from God to be given to us.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Waiting on God

‘If prayer is talking to God, which it is’ wrote William Barclay, ‘it is even more so listening to God!’ I agree wholeheartedly. Someone once suggested that the reason why God gave us two ears but only one mouth was because he wanted us to do twice as much listening as talking … which brings us to the subject of this particular blog.

Whilst, by and large, I am an advocate of the use of up-to-date translations of the Bible – the New Testament was essentially written in the common Greek of the day rather than classical Greek – occasionally the Authorised Version (or King James Version) of the Bible gets it just right. Thus when we read in Isaiah that ‘they who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint’ [Isaiah 40:31 AV] the old King James Version of the Bible captures the sense of what the Writer is seeking to convey here much more accurately, in my opinion, than more modern translations. Whilst the New International Version translates part of this verse as ‘those who hope in the Lord’ it is clear from the context that the Writer has more in mind that simply putting our trust in God – even if the Hebrew word for ‘hope’ signifies something more than our Western ‘fingers crossed’ understanding. One could perhaps even argue that for the translators to substitute ‘hope in the Lord’ for ‘wait upon the Lord’ reveals how much we have moved away from this ancient principle of waiting prayerfully on the Lord for understanding, revelation and direction. The Hebrew word ‘wait’ signifies a sustained effort on our part of ‘keeping on keeping on’ in prayer and expectation. In secular use ‘waiting’ sounds like inactivity but in Hebrew ‘waiting on God’ is just the opposite of inactivity. It involves focussing on the Lord, attending to the Lord, asking the Lord to help us and prayerfully waiting upon him until we receive some measure of the understanding, revelation and direction that we need. No wonder that Eugene Peterson translates the word as ‘stay with God’ [Psalm 27:14 The Message].

What we have here is an important biblical principle for both individuals and churches. Thus in the Old Testament narrative we find King Hezekiah waiting prayerfully upon God having received an extremely threatening letter from Sennacherib [2 Kings 18, 19].  In effect Hezekiah simply lays out the letter before God and prayerfully invites God to read it and respond to it [2 Kings 19:14-19]. I will return to this story in a later blog, but for now it is sufficient to see that in this extremely difficult situation Hezekiah didn’t panic or react with a solution of his own but spent time waiting prayerfully upon God seeking understanding, revelation and direction. One hesitates to spoil a good story by revealing the ending too soon, but in response God gives Hezekiah a clear prophetic word that Israel would triumph over the Assyrians [2 Kings 19:20-34], and that very night God supernaturally intervened in the situation to fulfil his word and deliver Israel [2 Kings 19:35, 36]. In a similar way, in the New Testament narrative, the embryonic church waits prayerfully on God for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit in response to the command of Jesus [Acts 1:4,5,12-14]. Eventually, some 50 days later, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the gathered disciples – some 120 of them – and they are both transformed and empowered in a supernatural way and equipped for the ministry to which they have been called [Acts 2:1-4,11]. I will return to this passage of scripture at a later date as well.

Both these passages illustrate the important principle of waiting prayerfully on God for every important situation and circumstance in which we find ourselves – personally and corporately – whenever and wherever we recognise the need for understanding, revelation and direction, and perhaps particularly for the help and empowering of the Holy Spirit. The simple reality in today’s church here in the West is that we rely far too much on our own resources – our own wisdom, reason, finances, natural gifts, and so on.  Isaiah 40-55 date immediately before, and during, the fall of Babylon (c.539 BC) and these events awakened great excitement in the hearts of God’s exiled people, Israel, and stirred latent hopes of release. Here in chapter 40 we see the Writer revealing that God had accepted Israel’s repentance for the sins that had resulted in their captivity. He was about to redeem his people through the meteoric rise of the Persian Cyrus and the impending collapse of Babylon. It was one thing for the Prophet to know this, however, and quite another for the people to believe it also? For the people to really know it in their own hearts – just as Noah knew he had to build an ark, and Abram knew he had to set out for the Promised Land – it was necessary for the people to ‘wait prayerfully on the Lord’ [v.31]. Only in this way could God put that deposit of faith into their hearts whereby it was easier for them to believe God than not believe. Only in this way would they be able to ‘rise up with wings as eagles’ and see things from God’s point of view not just theirs; ‘run and not be weary’ buoyed up by the certainty that God would fulfil his promise; ‘walk and not faint’ conscious that God himself would give them the stamina to keep going until they entered into the liberty and freedom God intended for them.

The Bible is full of all sorts of promises – many of them general and therefore applicable to all of us – that cover just about every human need. Some are to do with the freedom from the sin and guilt that cripple many of us, a certain liberty God wants us all to enjoy – ‘If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ [John 8:36]; ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty’ [2 Corinthians 3:17]. All of them reveal that God only wants the best for us – ‘ I have plans for you, declares the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, plans to give you hope and a future’ [Jeremiah 29:11]. But we will never know the truth of these things for ourselves unless we give time to waiting on God … listening to him, giving him the space and time to speak into our hearts by his Spirit and through his Word.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Asking for the Old Paths

Some years ago (before the advent of the sat nav), having taken a wrong turning on a journey to Bala in North Wales and ending up 20 miles out of my way in the middle of the night with no other option (because of the mountains) than to turn round and drive the 20 miles back, I learned a very important lesson in life: sometimes we have to go backwards in order to go forwards!

In his book God Was In Christ, Donald Bailey suggests that we cannot understand the Christian Faith without paradox – two equal and opposite truths. An obvious example of this (and the one at the heart of Bailey’s book) is the doctrine of the Incarnation – Jesus Christ being at one and the same time fully human and fully divine. Thus the modern concept (despite it being rooted in a very old piece of scripture) of God doing ‘a new thing’ [Isaiah 43:19] in the church today, is balanced (to my way of thinking at least) by an equally valid concept, if somewhat unpopular view in this modern church age, that as church what we really need to be doing is to be asking God to reveal to us again the ‘old’ or ‘ancient paths’ [Jeremiah 6:16]. My personal conviction is that in our constant search for new ways, new methods, new experiences, we have forgotten some of the old ways, old truths, old experiences which would stand us in much better stead if we were to recover them once again, rather than endlessly search for something new.

Jeremiah was both a priest and a prophet who prophesied to Judah (the southern kingdom) c.626-586 BC. He prophesied during a period of storm and stress when the doom of the entire nation of Israel – including Judah – was being sealed. His ministry began c.626 BC half way through the reign of Josiah – a period of real hope – but ended sometime after 586 BC at the conclusion of the reign of Zedekiah and the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. He was forcibly taken to Egypt (along with Baruch) by others who feared Babylonian reprisals (see Jeremiah 43:4-7) when he was around 70 years of age, and Jewish tradition has it that he died there. Jeremiah essentially presided over a period of decline in Judah, but one of the things he tried to do was to call the people back to the old ways, the ancient paths of Godly commitment and devotion – ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls’ [Jeremiah 6:16].

This idea of God doing a ‘new thing’ in his Church today is in reality not that new. The idea has been popular amongst many Christians since the mid-1960s and the outbreak of the charismatic renewal. Personally speaking I have become tired of waiting for this so-called ‘new thing’ to manifest itself – there have been far too many false dawns – and I increasingly find myself actually longing for some of the ‘old’ or ‘ancient paths’ – some of the truths and practices that characterised the church of my youth back in the late 1960s and early 1970s that we appear to have lost. In saying this I do not want to appear too critical of the so-called ‘new churches’ from whom those of us in the historic churches have much to admire and learn from – their enthusiasm in worship and witness, their dedication not least in financial giving and sacrificial service, their commitment to Christ and to one another in the church. If they appear to have gone too far in certain directions at times this is primarily because of an understandable reaction to the staidness and lack of spiritual zeal of many of the historic churches. We need to be careful not to use criticism of their more obvious faults and failings – the speck in their corporate eye – to cover up our own faults and failings – the planks in our own eyes that we have been guilty of in the historic churches for generations.

The advent of the ‘new churches’ has challenged many of us in the historic churches to re-examine the way we ‘do church’ today. We have been forced to re-visit key areas such as worship, financial giving, service, commitment, pastoral care, leadership in the church, evangelism, the gifts and ministries of God the Holy Spirit, and so on – indeed we have not been frightened to learn from them and try and discover for ourselves the ‘new thing’ that (the new churches continually tell us) God is seeking to do among us.  Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder if – in our attempt to be new and original – the pendulum has actually swung too far and we have in fact, as church, forsaken some of the key things of the ‘ ‘old’ or ‘ancient paths’? I have visited too many ‘new’ and ‘renewed’ churches in recent years where although the ‘worship’ has been lively there has been a noticeable absence of Bible reading and intercessory prayer, and Communion has been seemingly relegated to the back burner and observed either intermittently or on a kind of ‘help yourself’ basis. Despite an initial vibrant start even the new churches are struggling numerically today along with the historic churches.

I would suggest that the church today here in the West – like the Judah of Jeremiah’s day – is truly ‘stand[ing] at the crossroads’ and the decisions we make as church today about the way we go from here are absolutely vital for the future of the church! Is it time for us to stop asking God to do a ‘new thing’ among us … and instead ‘look’ for, even ‘ask’ God in his goodness to show us again those ‘old’ or ‘ancient paths’ and give us grace to walk them once again?

Just one of those things – and the one I want to return to in my next few blogs – is the art, the need, the priority of what used to be called ‘waiting on God’. Not waiting for God – a demonstration of some kind of stoic patience as we wait for God’s intervention – but rather waiting prayerfully on God for understanding, revelation, direction on a particular matter or situation concerning ourselves, our church, our nation, and so on. Whilst patience is a virtue, and something that we all need to demonstrate at times including those times when we do have to wait patiently for God to fulfil his promises or plans for our lives, waiting prayerfully on God is something altogether different and something that needs to be recovered in today’s church and in our personal walk with God.