Over Christmas 2015 at City Church Birmingham we invited those who visited our Carol services to take part in a poll to identify the three most important questions that we would like to ask God. On January 3rd, 10th and 17th each question is answered in turn. Here are my notes that provide a reasonably accurate transcript from the first talk (you can also listen to the talk here).
If you were here over the Christmas period then you’ll know that we’re giving these first three Sunday mornings of January to discovering how the Bible helps us answer three really important questions about God. They are the three most popular questions as voted for by you from the over 500 votes cast over Christmas. And the question we are starting with this morning wasn’t the most popular question voted for in our poll but 21% of people did vote for it. And it is a really important question for our times – it’s this; ‘God, if you’re there, why don’t you make yourself more obvious?’
Now that’s a question important for all of us whether we would call ourselves Christians or are taking a look at Christianity because there are plenty of people who think God isn’t playing straight with us. When I play hide and seek with my youngest son the one thing I know is that he wants to be found – for him that’s actually the best bit – he’s not going to stay hidden for long. Well if God is there why doesn’t he do more? Maybe like many others out there you wonder why God if he were there wouldn’t choose to make himself clearer. Why doesn’t he make it blindingly obvious? Surely there is no good reason why God would hide and remain hidden from us. Well in one short talk this morning I hope you won’t ask too much of me. The best I can do is sketch some kind of response.
So, I want to start this morning by suggesting
A. God has made himself clearer than we might think
Now if you’re challenge to Christianity goes something like ‘if what you’re saying is true, then you ought to be able to prove it’ then I’m in trouble. Because the truth is that I can’t prove God’s existence as if it could be solved through a mathematical formula or a scientific experiment. The truth is that there is very little that can be proved in that way.
The reality is that none of the things that really matter to us can be proved mathematically or scientifically and yet I’m sure as I can be that they are true.
Let me give you three examples:
‘My wife loves me’
‘Mozart was a genius’
‘Murder is wrong’
I believe that each of those statements are true and what’s more I don’t think that there is anyone who can tell me otherwise. But I can’t prove them. Most of the things I believe about the world cannot be proven scientifically.
But what I can do for each of those claims is look at all the evidence and ask what makes best sense of evidence – what offers the best explanation.
I want to sketch what I think should be the beginning of the answer this morning by looking at four pieces of evidence that God isn’t hiding from us but rather has made himself clearer than we might think
1) God reveals himself through creation
We read in Psalm 19:1-2 (NIV),
The heavens declare the glory of the God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
Through-out human history and indeed for the majority of people in our world today the very universe is a declaration of God’s existence. And yet in the western world over the past 200 years we have rejected this evidence because we have increasingly argued that science tells us all we need to know without God.But I would argue that modern science rather than make it harder to believe in God is giving us more and more reason to believe that he is there.
Professor Anthony Flew of Reading University was an outspoken atheist and critic of religious belief. But later in life he had a quite dramatic conversion from atheism to theism. He came to believe in God and he wrote a book about it. He gave it this title: There is a God – how the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind…
In it he writes ‘I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence….why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century?’ ‘The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.’
Flew argues that science, far from disproving God, makes it pretty much impossible to explain our universe as we know it as an accident. The mathematics are truly staggering. Stephen Hawking has estimated that if the expansion rate of the universe was different by one part in a hundred thousand million million one second after the big bang the universe would have either collapsed back on itself or never developed galaxies. If the gravitational force were different by 1 part in 10 (40) our sun would not exist.
Flew, looks to modern science and finds overwhelming reason to believe in a god. For him as a philosopher it was simply no longer credible to believe that this universe of law and order, of complexity and apparent design could have originated from nothing.
And to those who remain sceptical Flew put the following challenge: ‘What should have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for us a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?’
Arnos Penzias is an American physicist, radio astronomer and Nobel laureate in physics who co-discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, which served to establish the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe.
Rather strikingly he stated in the New York Times, ‘The best data we have . . are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms and the Bible as a whole.’
2) God reveals himself through conscience
It’s not just the universe out there through which God is speaking, it is also what is going on in our very minds that reveals God to us. Quite simply the things that matter most to us as human beings – truth, beauty, love, right and wrong, depend on God. If there were no god the most basic truths of reality that cover the most important aspects of life would lose their foundation for meaning.
Will Provine, a Professor of the history of Science at Cornell University in the US in a debate not many years before his death: ‘Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear . . .There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me.’
And the result of such thinking becomes clear in his conclusion:
‘There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans either.’
In a similar vein Biologist Stephen Jay Gould when asked the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ for Life Magazine concluded ‘we are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists.‘
But I’m not sure any of us can live that way. In fact I’m sure that we all insist on living as if the world had meaning.
If you revisit the trials of the Nazis at Nuremberg 23 of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich what is striking is how many of them refused to recognize their crimes or to apologize in any way at all. They went to their deaths unrepentant. Now if there is no God, no right or wrong, or higher answer, then who’s to say.
Tim Keller in Reason for God writes ‘the Nazi’s who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.’
And the Bible says that our conscience – our moral compass- has been put there by God. God’s standards revealed in the Bible are also written on our human hearts. In Romans 2:15 (NIV) we read ‘the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.’
God isn’t a nice idea he is a necessary being if all the things that matter most to us (love, truth, right, wrong, . . . ) are to survive. And so the very fact that we refuse to tolerate living in a world without meaning is God’s way of speaking to us.
3) God reveals himself through Christ
Our reading this morning was taken from the very beginning of a letter called Hebrews in our Bible and we read of how God has spoken through-out history to his people but THE way in which he has spoken to the world is through his Son. In Hebrews 1:1-4 (NIV) we read
‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.’
The most remarkable claim of the Bible is that God is far from hidden away in the sky. But has actually entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ. I know of one Christian who when asked ‘Have you ever seen God?’ liked to reply ‘I would have seen God if I had lived at the right time. Have you seen Queen Victoria?’
At the heart of my confidence that God is there is the person of Jesus. We read ‘the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.’ Only Christianity claims that God has spoken by turning up personally in our world. And the great news is that we can investigate that for ourselves. We can read one of the gospels – discover what happened in the life of Jesus.
For as we read we learn all about the character of God – what he makes of us – what he wants from us.
Romans: 5:6-8 (NIV) ‘ You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
4) God reveals himself through the church
God is at work in the world today building his church. The church remains imperfect in so many ways but the testimony of many who have found God to be real is that one of the things that helped them to arrive is getting to know other Christians. Seeing a little bit more at first hand the difference God makes to individual lives and to the lives of a community. We read in a letter written by the apostle Paul to the Ephesians (3:10-12, NIV)
‘His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus.’
If you’re trying to discover whether God is there can I invite you to keep coming. Decide for yourself whether there is anything in the life of the church here at City that suggests God is at work amongst us – in our relationships and community. Next Sunday we’ll be looking at our second question ‘Why did you create a world with so much misery?’ and then as we do once a month here at City we’ll be staying on for a church bring and share lunch. We’d love you to stay for that.
So those are four reasons why I think it’s fair to say God is far from hidden away.
1. The extraordinary odds against our universe even existing is evidence of a creator God. Our universe could simply have not happened by accident.
2. Our own consciences testify that atheism cannot be true. We simply refuse to live as if morality is false.
3. In Jesus Christ God has entered our world. His death for our sin is God’s great statement that he is a God who is for us not against us and his resurrection from the dead as an evident in history
4. The church is a living testimony to the difference knowing God makes and I encourage you to take a closer look.
When the evidence is taken all together I want to suggest that it’s not just a possibility but it is in fact the only explanation that makes sense of all the evidence.
I don’t know what your favourite tv viewing was over the Christmas time – mine had to be All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride. It featured a traditional reindeer sleigh fixed with a camera and featured two Sami women – the Sami people live in the artic circle – pulled by reindeer across the snows of the north in temperatures of minus 20 degrees.
And one fact in the programme grabbed my attention – between the months of November and February the Sami people do not see the sun in the sky. There is some daylight but no sight of the sun itself it is too low on the horizon.
They know the Sun is there – they feel its effect but they do not see it. And it reminded me of something Oxford Professor CS Lewis who became a Christian having been an atheist at the age of 30 once wrote:
‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.’
Ass we draw towards our close I want also to say
B. God is willing to make himself clear to you
Here’s a question : ‘If God is there, would you want to know?’ Maybe there could be some truth in the suggestion that it’s not so much that God has hidden from us as much as we are not sure whether we want to find God. I wonder whether I could respectfully ask whether there is just a possibility that the problem could be on our side at least in part. I have friends who have been honest enough to say to me that they would rather not find out if God is there. They’d prefer not to think about it.
Thomas Nagel, studied philosophy at Oxford and complete his PhD at Harvard. He is a Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. Which is just a way of saying he is a very bright individual. In a book he wrote in 2001 entitled The Last Word he said the following:
I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
Is there anything in me that doesn’t want God to be there? Nagel doesn’t want at the heart of the universe to discover a God – how about you? God could have written words in the sky, God could speak to you in a vision or a dream, God could show you he’s real through a bizarre series of inexplicable events but God has chosen to make himself known through Jesus at a moment in history for a very good reason . . . so that he could die for you! Surely that is the God who is worth knowing and know this please as we finish. Jesus never refused anyone. God does not discriminate – he says to each of us if we draw near to him he will draw near to us.
Having just taken my 10 year old to see the new Star Wars film today here is a helpful article on thinking clearly and biblically about the Star Wars phenomena.
Interesting piece in the guardian from an atheist who describes her faith in rejecting God.
Here’s a great new video highlighting why Birmingham is on the rise. And in case you think it’s all just hype check out this study by PwC that ranks Birmingham as the most investable city in the UK and the 6th in Europe.
Having just read through Urban demographics: Where people live and work in England and Wales a report published today by Centre for Cities here are my top 10 facts I think we need to know about the changing face of city centres in England and Wales.
1. One in three people living in our city centres are aged 20-29.
2. In the UK’s larger cities (550,000+ but excluding London) nearly 50 percent of the city centre population are aged 20-29.
3. Just under 50 percent of people in city centres are single and only 22 percent in some form of live-in relationship.
4. Over 70 percent live in flats or apartments
5. Students account for 44 percent of that population (London 16 percent).
6. One third of working age living in our centres have a degree and over half have A-levels.
7. Over 50% of those who work and live in the city are professionals.
8. The population of our cities grew by 37 percent between 2001 and 2011. The suburbs only grew by 8 percent over the same time.
9. The larger cities (550,000+ but excluding London) doubled in population size between the 10 years 2001 to 2011.
10. Student populations increased by 188% in the UK’s larger city centres between 2001 and 2011
Last night American golfer Zach Johnson won the Open at St. Andrews. I then discovered that he is a Christian with a living faith in the Lord Jesus.
Here’s something of his testimony given in 2012.
In Early in the winter of 2002, I gave my life to the Lord.
Since then, my priorities have certainly changed. It’s not Zach’s agenda anymore. I refer to the years after high school and before making my decision as my “blind years.” Now, I can see.
Before I was one, I always thought being a Christian would be boring. In reality, it has been the complete opposite. There is joy, fulfillment and even fun! There also are challenges and trials, but knowing that my foundation lies in Jesus and what He has done for me is what is important. It’s all that matters.
And here’s an article in today’s Daily Star (a newspaper that has never featured in this blog before now!)
Here are two excellent articles on how the church should respond to the challenge of same-sex marriage and the marginalisation of Christian beliefs.
This first piece by Canadian Carey Nieuwhof serves as a reminder that it’s not actually a new idea that Christians are called to be counter to the culture!
And here is a thoughtful and compassionate response from British pastor Sam Allberry
It’s easy to complain when an election doesn’t go our way. How can we as Christians find reasons to be content whoever wins. Here are 5 answers;
In giving us government that has enables us to live lives relatively free from the threat of violence, oppression, injustice and poverty God has given us better than our sins deserve.
2. In Britain all the main political parties, whilst imperfect, seek to govern according to high standards.
In giving us government that is accountable to the nation and that seeks to government well we do better than many who live in countries where government is corrupt and the people live in fear.
We should give thanks then whoever gets in!
3. Take confidence that God is sovereign over government and the nations.
‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.’ Romans 13:1. This is the government that in his wisdom he has given to us.
All government – good or bad – cannot thwart his perfect plan but only aid him in all he seeks to do c.f. Psalm 22:28, 75:6-7, John 19:10-11, the whole of the book of Daniel!
4. Do not expect too much.
Our country is not a Christian country and our leaders will govern without reference to God. We should pray that God would work through them but we should not expect too much.
5. Remember the gospel
a) All authority belongs to Jesus- Matt. 28:16-20
b) His kingdom alone will be one of perfect peace, justice and righteousness and will endure for ever! Rev.5:13
c) We need new hearts far more than a new government. Ezek.36:2-27
d) We too were ignorant, foolish, hostile to God and his ways until he had mercy on us. Eph. 2:1-10, Titus 3:3
(With help from Oak Hill Lecturers of old!)
Here are my notes from a recent seminar at City Church on the upcoming election
1. We must be committed to the welfare of our nation
a) We are ‘resident aliens’ in the world. The Christian recognises that this world is not our home but we are not to despise it either. Jeremiah 29:7 ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ (NIV).
b) Government is God’s idea. To punish wrong and commend good
1 Peter 2:13-14 – Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men. Submission to authority is part of our witness to the world. It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the talk of foolish men.
Romans 13:1-7 – v.1-2 The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.
We should be better citizens than unbelievers because we have a higher motive than they. They submit to authorities because they fear punishment if they do not. We submit because we want to honour God – recognising that they are his means of common grace to restrain evil.
1 Timothy 2:1-3 ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour.’
When Paul urges us to pray for Kings and all in authority. John Stott comments ‘this was a remarkable instruction, since at that time no Christian ruler existed anywhere in the world.’
What to pray for? That we may live peaceful and quiet lives. Stott: ‘only in a well-ordered society is the church free to fulfil its God-given responsibilities without hindrance.’
What are these responsibilities government are to uphold?
• Freedom of religion – that enables me to grow in godliness and holiness
• Freedom of speech – that allows me to proclaim Christ through evangelism
Wisdom on government from Proverbs:
When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; When the wicked rule, the people groan – Proverbs 29:2
By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down – Proverbs 29:4
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, For the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; Defend the rights of the poor and needy. – Proverbs 31:8-9
Conclusion We cannot expect, so we must not ask, a secular government to govern according to Christian principles. But we should pray that government will protect the vulnerable, reward good and punish evil and allow Christians to get on with being Christians without interference from the state.
2. The privilege of democracy
Many Christians in other parts of the world can only pray for a change of government. We have an opportunity to shape government!
3. Should Christians vote?
Yes. By voting:
a) we can demonstrate that Christians make the best of citizens because we recognise that government is a gift of God
b) we can give thanks to God for the good government that we enjoy. Under any of the main parties we will enjoy fundamental freedoms and privileges that many Christians are denied elsewhere.
c) we should take the God-given opportunity to elect a government that it will govern according to God’s purposes for it.
B. How do we decide who to vote for?
1. Look to elect government that will function according to God’s standards: Here are just SOME of the questions you could consider.
a) Protection of the vulnerable
• Do you believe that marriage provides the most secure and loving environment in which to raise children? Should that be reflected in the tax system?
• Should euthanasia be legalised? What care should be provided for the elderly?
• Do you believe that the law on abortion is too lax, too restrictive or about right?
• What legislation do you propose to limit the damage caused by harmful greenhouse gases and other causes of environmental damage?
• What is your policy on Asylum seekers and on migration?
• Do you agree in principle to the idea of shared days off for families? Should there be legislation to enable this?
• How do you define an ethical foreign policy and do you think that the UK should pursue one? What commitment can you make that further progress will be made to ensure that developing countries can be genuinely set free of the burden of debt?
b) Protect religious liberty
• Do you believe churches should be free to employ only Christians?
• Should there be a law against incitement to religious hatred?
• Should the right of Christians to freedom of speech be protected?
c) punish wrongdoers
• What solutions do you propose to violent crime in our society?
• What steps should be taken to rehabilitate young offenders?
• Do you support the reintroduction of the death penalty for murder?
d) prevent the spread of sin
• Do you think the law on cannabis should be liberalised?
• Are you in favour of compulsory sex education for primary school children?
• Do you support tougher controls against the broadcasting of pornography?
2. Try one of the websites designed to help you see which party manifesto is most aliened with your own convictions.
3. Consider the character of the candidates
a) For a list of your candidates visit https://yournextmp.com/
b) To discover if there are any hustings you can attend visit http://meetyournextmp.com/
c) Personal beliefs and practices cannot be separated from public life. Do they have a record of lying, adultery, misleading parliament, etc… If you want to know how your last MP voted on a range of ethical and moral issues then visit www.christian.org.uk/election and follow the links.
In an earlier post we reflected on the fact that the virtue of compassion belongs, properly and uniquely, to a Christian worldview. In this second and concluding post we consider our response to the call of the gospel to live out lives of compassion.
Compassion: Our virtue
No wonder Brian Borgman in his book Feelings and Faith insists the Lord Jesus is our pattern for compassion. We need not only to see people as he saw them but feel for them as he felt for them.
How is compassion something that we can cultivate? Without doubt it is a deep reflection on the gospel of Christ that produces and promotes compassion within us. Tim Keller argues ‘to the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need.’ Once I consider that Jesus was moved to meet my need I begin to see that others share my neediness and I can choose to cultivate compassion wherever I see need.
A Christianity without compassion is a Christianity unmoved by the gospel and where there is little or no concern for a world in need there can be little of Christ in our hearts. It’s quite possible for even a prophet of God to fail in this regard. Human nature, unmoved by the gospel will, like the prophet Jonah, place limits on those for whom we ought to be concerned. Jonah was indifferent to the fate that awaited the people of Nineveh when sent by God to warn of impending judgement. That God was a God of compassion was a cause of complaint because the heart of Jonah was not shaped by the heart of God. So much so that when the Ninevites repented and God’s anger was assuaged Jonah’s anger only grew! As far as Jonah was concerned God’s compassion ‘ seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.’ (Jonah 4:1-2, NIV). My problem, Jonah concedes, is that you are a God of all compassion.
Compassion: A unique opportunity
Bruce Sheiman isn’t the first to see something unique in the kind of love shown by Jesus and his followers. Emperor Julian (332-363 AD) was the last Roman Ruler to persecute Christians yet even he could not fail to recognise that a love shaped by the cross of Christ is radical. He wrote of how the cause of Christianity ‘has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.’
Brian Borgman invites us to join him in praying; ‘May God the Father, who is full of compassion, and the Lord Jesus who is our model of compassion, fill us through the Holy Spirit with the holy emotion of compassion that compels us to relieve suffering, misery, loneliness, and lostness wherever we can. When we do that, people will see Jesus.’
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