As I mentioned in the last post the Bible has a lot to say about marriage not least because the principles behind how we ought to behave towards one another as Christians in general can be applied to the marriage relationship in particular. So if the Bible says love one another, be patient with one another, they are lessons for Christian marriage.
But it is in Ephesians 5v.22-32 that we find Paul identifying that it is in husbands and wives living out their God-given gender roles that we find a key to healthy and happy marriage. Our marriages are modelled on the relationship witnessed between Christ and the church.
Today, we start where Paul starts and a word to wives.
Wives submit to your husband v.22-24
Now I recognise how counter-cultural and for some downright offensive Paul’s words appear here. Many are tempted to simply ignore these words or to relativise their meaning for our own time and culture. But let me highlight five reasons to see wisdom for today in this command.
1. Paul’s words are to wives not to the husbands. What that means is that submitting to the leadership of the husband in a marriage is active and voluntary. It’s an instruction to the wife not an invitation to a husband. Paul has a lot to say to husbands but compeling your wife to respect and submit to your leadership is not one of them.2. All Christians are called on to submit. We shouldn’t think that submitting is something only married women are asked to do. The reality is that ALL Christians face multiple situations and circumstances in which God calls on them to willingly and voluntarily submit to the leadership of others. Men and women must submit to Christ in becoming his disciple (Matt. 7:21-23), also to submit to local church leadership and discipline (Hebs. 13:17), to the civil authorities (Rom. 13:1-7) and of course to their employers (Eph. 6:5-8).
One writer comments: We live in an ordered universe, in which there is authority and submission to authority everywhere (cf. Rom. 13:1). Authority and submission relationships are therefore natural and necessary.
3. Not all types of submission function in the same way. They differ, often radically, from one another. Time doesn’t permit me to build a case here. But in the context of the Bible as a whole we see, for example, that a wife is not called on to submit in the way for a child submits to its parents.
4.There are limits to our submission. We should only ever obey the word of a husband IF his leadership is consistent with what the Lord Jesus calls on us to do c.f. Acts 4:18-20.
5. This is an invitation to be like Jesus. Jesus always and only did the will of his father in heaven.
So Paul in 1 Corinthians 11.3 says: Now I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. In Ephesians Christ is the model for servant-leadership in headship. But in 1 Cor. (and elsewhere) He is the model for submission. If we think that submission is simply just wrong then we are taking issue with Jesus. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died showed what an extraordinary thing this submission is. He said to his Father (this is Luke 22.42):
‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’
6. It functions differently in different situations. It is self-evident that this aspect of a marriage relationship will look different i) from couple to couple, ii) generation to generation, and iii) one culture to another. There are plenty of women in the Bible taking initiative, exercising leadership, managing others and in every way using their God-given gifts and abilities. This is not a call for women to be passive and subservient!
7. No-where does God give us a list of what men and women are to do. This is not about who manages the money, or does the washing up, or has the highest paid job.
8. It is a blessing. Submitting to the leadership of a man who is seeking to love you as Christ loved the church should bring us great blessing. A husbands job is to be deeply ambitious for the spiritual growth of his wife (and children). Ambitious enough to make you his personal priority and spiritual focus.
A word to single people thinking of marriage
If you are a woman hoping one day to marry. You need to look for a man who, v.32, you can respect. This has nothing to do with his dress sense, or ability with money, etc., but everything to do with whether you would be willing to let him lead spiritually in the marriage relationship.
I’m sure that means it is not a good idea if you are a woman to marry a new Christian who would need to constantly look to you for a lead in spiritual matters. This instruction of Jesus also shows why it is positively dangerous to marry a non-Christian who cannot lead you into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
What exactly is God’s purpose for marriage?
In Ephesians 5.31-32 we read ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.
For many people marriage is a total mystery. Maybe it’s a mystery to you that anyone would want to make the kind of commitment that marriage requires. Some of us might question why anyone would ever want to give up their freedom it that way. Maybe it’s a mystery for you that people still think marriage works – you’ve experienced marriages that have been painful or come undone.
When Paul uses the word mystery he doesn’t so much mean something that is beyond our understanding. By mystery he means something that is hidden and must be revealed. The word mystery could equally be translated ‘secret’. In other words Paul wants us to know the secret of marriage. What could be more important to us not only to know what marriage is but what it is for.
So what is the secret of marriage?
Paul says the secret, v.32, is that marriage is ‘about Christ and the church.’ We can’t understand God’s purpose for our marriages, as believers, unless we look deeply at the relationship between Christ and the church. What on earth does Paul mean?
I’ve used this illustration at a few weddings recently but I think it captures something of the idea. A 2000 piece jigsaw is hardly a wedding present many people would put on their list. But imagine I gave a couple a 2000 piece puzzle but without the box. You know that if you can only put them all together they would make a beautiful picture. But what is a puzzle becomes more of a mystery when there is no picture on the box to look at – you just don’t know where to begin.
In our culture marriage has become like a jigsaw without the box. We just don’t know what we’re meant to be making of it. Now think what pressure that puts relationships under, when you are competing to make different things of the puzzle. Inevitably it leads to stress and conflict.
But the Bible insists that the key to marriage is to understand that the picture on the box is here in the Bible. We know that there is a day still to come when God will have a relationship with his people so perfect, so intimate, so loving that the nearest we come to it on earth, the only way we know how to describe it is a marriage. Christ and the church are made for each other, they will share eternity together in a perfect relationship.
Marriage now is about re-creating in our lives a picture of the marriage that is still to come. The pieces become the picture on the box. Marriage and the gospel inform each other. And we see that idea all of the way through the passage. Five times our passage Paul says to husbands look and learn from Jesus (vv. 23, 24, 25, 29 and 32). He tells us that Christ is the head of the church, that Christ loved the church by giving up his life for her. We learn that he cares for the church by feeding it and sustaining it and that the living Christ is united to his church for all time. And then Paul says six times look at the church and learn, (vv. 23, 24, 25, 27, 29 and 32). Christ is the head of the church; Christ loved the church, he feeds it and sustains it and the living Christ is united to his church.
In our society so many solutions are offered to the challenges of marriage. The state might try to offer tax incentives – appealing to our pockets. Self-help books and agony aunts insist marriage works when we stand up for our rights in a relationship. Paul’s radical message is that husband and wife, by looking to that gospel, learn to give up their rights. The power for Christian marriage comes when wives give up a right to autonomy and independence and husbands give up their right to self-interest by dedicating their lives to the good of their wives.
As we grapple with this passage we find Paul’s key to healthy and happy marriage lies in God, the gospel and his purpose for Christian marriage in the world. Paul will tell us let the gospel inform your marriage and let your marriage glorify the God of the gospel.
Next time ‘why should wives submit to their husbands and what does that look like?’
This is the third post in a look at the question ‘What is marriage?’ We began by recongising that there are at least 5 reasons why we need to look at this issue afresh. In the last post we considered the consequences that have flowed from the radical redefinition of marriage from covenant to contract that has taken place in our society since the 1960’s.
Now I want us to reflect on just how what the Bible teaches us about marriage as a covenant relationship changes the way we might think about marriage. The five headings I’m using come from Andreas Kostenberger’s book God, marriage and family. As we go through each one I’m going to touch briefly on how a marriage covenant points us to a better understanding of God who has made a covenant with us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If marriage were merely a contract between two parties then it could be temporary but because it is covenant established by God it is permanent. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:4-6 and in particular his conclusion ‘what God has joined together let not man separate’ makes that clear.When Christians marry we must never marry thinking to ourselves well if things don’t work out for me in this relationship, if I am unhappy, unfulfilled, or if our lives are pulling in different directions then I can always leave.
As Tim Keller says ‘to break faith with your spouse is to break faith with God at the same time.’
James Dobson wrote a letter to his finance shortly before their wedding day and he said ‘I want you to understand and be fully aware of my feelings concerning the marriage covenant we are about to enter. I have been taught at my mother’s knee and in conformity to the word of God that the marriage vows are inviolable and my entering into them I am binding myself absolutely and for life – the idea of estrangement from you through divorce for any reason at all will never be permitted to enter my thinking. I’m not naive on this on the contrary I’m fully aware of the possibility, unlikely as it now appears, that mutual incompatibility or other unforeseen circumstances could result in extreme mental suffering. If such becomes the case I am resolved for my part to accept it as a consequence of the commitment I am now making and to bear if necessary to the end of our lives together.’
How does this point us to God?
This costly sacrifice that comes from committing ourselves by way of covenant is what we see demonstrated by God in the gospel. He made a covenant to love us and he has kept that covenant even though it caused considerable pain to do so.
2. The sacredness of marriage
Because marriage is a relationship not just ordained by God but as John Stott says ‘sealed by God’ only God can end a marriage. It is not for us to decide that a marriage is finished but for God to say it may be finished. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:1-12 address marriage, divorce and singleness and in this series we will spend quite a bit of time in this passage. In his comments on divorce we read very sobering words that tell us that if we end a marriage for reasons that God has not permitted then any subsequent remarriage is sinful and adulterous. Jesus says, Matt. 19v.9, I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’ What Jesus teaches in this declaration is that there might be divorces that, whatever we might like to think, are not divorces in God’s eyes. For him the first marriage is not over.
Sealed by God, our marriages are sacred. As his children so we must therefore work on my marriage, invest in it, nurture and feed it.
How does this point us to God? In the gospel we see God practicing what he preaches. However weak our love is and however many times we may fail God his covenant loyalty means that he will not break promise with us or himself. It is a sacred bond. Our relationship with God is not performance-based and he will not withhold his love or his affection because we struggle to honour our commitments. That said, Scripture’s warning is also clear that if we deny Christ and forsake him our covenant with God is broken. ‘If we disown him, he will also disown us’ (2 Tim. 2:12).
3. The intimacy of marriage
In the beginning God says everything in his perfect world is good. That is the constant refrain of chapter 1. But there is one thing that is not good and that is that the man is alone. Now, interestingly, God says it is not good before Adam appears to have noticed that it is not good. There is no evidence in the passage that Adam is lonely. As Christopher Ash points out in Married for God ‘marriage is not there to solve the problems of loneliness.’
Our culture tells us that we will be unfulfilled unless we one day marry. That is not so. In heaven we will not be married, the Lord Jesus never married and many Christians down the ages have testified to lives lived fully for Christ as single people. We will return to this theme later. Rather it is the job that God has given Adam to do that means it is not good for him to be alone.
Marriage is a gift of God to help us fulfil the work God has given us to do. In Genesis 1v27-28 we read ‘so God created man, in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number’
Part of God’s purpose for marriage is godly offspring. Christopher Ash says ‘we ought to want children in marriage because we want to serve God. The Creator entrusts to married couples the awesome privilege and responsibility of pro-creating.’
There are many ways to serve God but the distinctive way in which couples in marriage are to serve God is bringing up godly children. Ash says ‘never despise the significance of parenthood in the service of God! For many, especially mothers what they do as parents will prove more significant in eternity than the most glittering careers in the eyes of the world.’
God’s purpose for marriage addresses two big questions of our day.
Why would God not approve of same-sex marriage?
If marriage is about companionship then it might be that a stable, loving, committed homosexual relationship would be considered equal in God’s eyes with a heterosexual one. But, whilst not the only argument against that conclusion, a key one is that God’s purposes in marriage are pro-creation. I want to point you to this little book called Is God anti-gay? It’s written by a friend of mine, who is a church leader and whilst preferring not to use the title ‘gay’ to describe himself he is someone who is attracted to other men. Drawing on those words of Genesis 1 he says ‘God’s purposes in marriage depend on hetero-sexual relations.’ Marriage is designed to bring children into the world.
Whilst in a perfect world God’s design for every marriage is children, living as we do this side of the fall, sadly, not every marriage enjoys the blessing of children. Jane and I know something of that pain personally having waited 12 years to have kids. If this a personal struggle for you or friends can I commend the book Just the two of us written by a friend.
Why is sex outside of marriage wrong?
God’s design for marriage is that Adam and Eve should express their perfect intimacy through the union of their bodies. In Genesis 2:24 we read ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.’ Sex is the body-language of perfect self-giving intimacy that befits marriage. Sex outside of marriage is to tell a lie with our bodies because when we give our bodies to another – when we are united to them – and yet are not commitment to them through the marriage bond we make one promise with our bodies that we are not ready to make with our whole lives.
The intimacy of marriage does point us to the greater intimacy that God offers to us in the gospel. At the very end of the Bible, in Revelation 21:4, we read ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes.’ Our need for close, intimate relationship will be fully met in Christ. What many of us are looking for from a marriage is actually to be found in our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the next post two further ways in which marriage as covenant changes our view of marriage.
What is marriage?
There can be no doubt that one of the most significant events of 2013 was the passing of legislation by Parliament re-defining marriage. At the heart of the debate, whether acknowledged or not , was the question ‘what kind of relationship is marriage?’ And the reason that Christians and our non-Christian friends have found ourselves talking past each other and have failed to find any common ground is simply this; in our society there has been a silent revolution that has taken place over the past 40 years or more in which marriage has ceased to be understood as a covenant and come to be understood as a contract.
What is the difference?
At the heart of the idea of marriage as contract, Tim Keller argues, is the idea that personal fulfilment and individual happiness. So much so that therefore ‘we stay connected to people only as long as they are meeting our particular needs.’ Many might talk of a marriage being over because ‘we have fallen out of love,’ or ‘have drifted apart.’ Marriage vows still give the impression that marriage is a covenant – huge life-long promises are still made – yet the change in mindset that has also seen the introduction of no-fault divorce demonstrating the reality that marriage in our culture is a contract masquerading as a covenant.
Unlike a contract, in covenants we bind ourselves to another ‘come what may.’ The relationship, rather than personal fulfilment, is the centre. Keller argues that perhaps the only covenantal relationship that we can still relate to in our culture is that of parent and child. Parents put the child and the relationship ahead of individual happiness and comfort. Parents sacrifice and serve and seek the well-being of the other ahead of their own. It’s practically unthinkable to imagine someone coming into work announcing that their relationship with their kids was over. Well until relatively recent times it was almost as unthinkable that the marriage relationship could end.
Here’s a table showing how the change from covenant to contract has impacted marriage. In 2011 there were 117558 divorces, in 1860 there were 103. After the 1969 reform act the figures grow exponentially. Why was divorce so rare for so long? Because in our culture marriage was regarded as a binding covenant.
At least three things flow from this biggest redefinition of marriage away from covenant to contract.
1. Falling marriage rates. The reason people say marriage is ‘just a piece of paper’ is because they are viewing it as an economic contract. Whether or not to marry at all is now really no different from going into the phone shop and weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of a contract phone vs. pay as you go. Co-habitation is simply pay as you go. So the table tracks that general decline over 40 years.
2. General acceptance of no fault divorce ad steep rises in divorce rate. Again, that’s what the table shows us.
3. Freedom to redefine marriage and therefore who may enter the relationship. Why should we exclude same-sex couples who wish to make their commitment to each other if marriage is a contract the terms of which we define. And now that same-sex marriage has been accepted by society it’s not surprising that growing numbers of people want polygamous relationships recognised too. Why should we limit a love agreement to 2 people? So in Brazil last year a civil union was established between a man and two women.
What does this mean for Christians and their view of marriage?
The real danger for us in establishing healthy marriages will probably not come from the challenge presented by the re-definition of marriage that took place last year but the cultural shift that represents the redefinition of marriage from covenant to contract over the past 40 years. What tv and Hollywood have done to redefine marriage is far more likely to shape the way you think about marriage, even your own, than recent events.
Tim Keller writes ‘the very idea of ‘covenant’ is disappearing in our culture. Covenant is therefore a concept that is increasingly foreign to us, and yet the Bible says it is the essence of marriage, so we must take time to understand it.’
For, as we will see in our next post, Jesus says marriage is not a contract but a covenant.
This Sunday at City Church we started a nine week series entitled Marriage, Divorce & Singleness. I gave the following 5 reasons for making this our focus at the start of the new year.
1. Understanding for a world in confusion. In our times no-one seems really sure as to what marriage actually is. We need God’s word to shed light on this topic with some urgency and in doing so we will find that God’s word constantly challenges the values and wisdom of our culture.
2. Preparation for the future. We need help to make wise choices and decisions about marriage. Whether we are in a marriage or thinking one day about marriage we need to understand God’s purpose for marriage. What should we be working towards to fulfil God’s ‘mission for marriage.’
3. Healing for the past. For some of us the very thought that we will be tackling subjects that are the cause of much personal unhappiness is a reason to be concerned. Maybe you have been a victim of divorce. For some of us it will be hard to be caused to reflect on an unhappy singleness (through all this talk of marriage!) after having worked so hard to learn to accept it. Well, the series is not here to dredge up hurts of the past and this series is certainly no witch-hunt designed to highlight past sins that have been repented of, but we do want to bring to God our past and seek understanding and a gospel perspective that allows us to move on with renewed joy in our hearts that the gospel is bigger than our past.
4. Wisdom for living well today. We need practical wisdom and advice on getting it right. We will be thinking through how we should live whilst maybe wanting to be married and waiting to be married and yet being single, how to know whether and when to marry. In what ways we should invest in and strengthen our marriages if we are married. What to do if we are struggling in marriage and how to resolve difficulties. Whether and in what situations we might even end a marriage.
But I want to say right at the start that it would be a big mistake to think that the reason we’re looking at this topic is to focus only on human relationships. Our real goal in this series is that we might all say by the end of it we know our God better and that we have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the gospel.
5. Insight into the gospel. We need to understand how the themes of marriage, divorce and singleness point us to the very character and purposes of God in Christ Jesus. The truth is, whether we’ve ever thought about it or not that marriage, as a gift of God is given to teach us about our future.
The Bible might begin with a wedding between a man and a woman but it ends with a wedding between Christ and his bride, the church. Whatever our views on marriage for this life, we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that if we believe the Bible then one day, perhaps very soon, we will all be married.
In Revelation 19 we read these words
Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was give her to wear. (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)
The Christian life IS marriage preparation. Our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ in the new creation is one of perfect union, intimacy and blessing that the only way we can get close to it in this life is to understand God’s gift of marriage.
In the next post we will look at why marriage is in crisis in our culture and how the real and radical redefinition marriage took place not in this past year but 40 years ago.
I dont want to be the bearer of bad news. But, I am reliably informed, we are exactly 2 weeks away from Blue Monday. Researchers advise that the January 20th will be, officially, the most depressing day of the year. A combination of post-Christmas blues, cold dark nights and the arrival of credit card bill in the post single the 20th January out for this special status.
Maybe you’ve been careful with your spending this Christmas time but even so unless we are very blessed then most of us will have at least some debt outstanding as we go into this new year. Perhaps you have a student loan, a mortgage or it could be that you owe money to the bank of mum and dad for something they’ve let you buy. I don’t know you’re exact situation but I am pretty sure of this – that you don’t enjoy the feeling of being in debt. And given the choice you’d rather have it off your backs. The simple reality is that we feel life would be happier if we were debt-free.
And that is what makes what Paul says to us sound counter-intuitive. Because he wants us to recognise that one of our key motivators for our christian lives and ministry begins with remembering our debt, the one debt in fact that we can never pay back. So here is what Paul says in Romans 13:8 – Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law.
So if we like to think that if we could only win the lottery, or inherited a fortune we could pay off all our debts, Paul says to there would still be one debt outstanding, a debt we can never repay – a debt to God for his love to us in the Lord Jesus Christ.
So heres the question? Does being reminded that we owe God big-time motivate or demotivate you when it comes to living for Christ? It seems to me that whether it works for us or against us depends almost entirely on whether we think that the debt we owe to God is something we should be attempting to repay.
And herein lies the danger. For I don’t think for a moment that Paul wants us to see the purpose of the Christian life as pay back to God. The problem I have is that it is pretty instinctive to want to pay back what I owe. And to begin to apply that to our relationship with God. So can I ask whether your Christian service begins to function in that way for you? Ever tempted to think that way? I owe God and therefore what he wants of me is to pay him back.
The problem, friends, is that when our drivers are duty, or even guilt, our very ministry begins to be a denial of the gospel. It’s actually putting the gospel in reverse. When Paul says that you and I have a debt to God he is not using guilt or duty to motivate your service. You see the secret of the gospel, I’m just beginning to discover, is that the right place for us to be, the only place for us to be, is forever in Jesus debt.
I guess the reason we don’t like the language of debt is because we don’t like the thought of being dependent on anyone. But the gospel is that reminder that now, and for all eternity, it will do my soul good to rest content in the knowledge that I owes everything to Jesus and always will.
The new song in Revelation 5: 9-10 tells me that eternity glory is to worship Jesus because he is worthy of my praise and to rest content in that truth. And putting Paul’s words of 13:8 into context, when we consider Romans 12:1,2 which is the foundation for this whole section of practical application of the gospel, he begins by urging Christians to keep God’s mercy in view not to drive us to guilt but to fill our vision with gratitude and delight.
The truth is as John Hindley has so well put it ‘Jesus loves to give and give and give, freely and generously. We cannot pay Him back, through serving Him, and even to try to do so is to rob Him of His glory as the great Lover, the great Giver.’
I hope none of us suffered too greatly in these storms battering our coastline in particular. But imagine with me for a moment that in the storms of this past week you had needed a rescue from the high seas. A lifeboat crew had come to pull you out of the waters. They had saved your life. The newspapers and tv crews hear about what happened and ask for an interview with you and the lifeboat captain together. You agree. And at some point in the interview youre asked this question. What does life look like for you now knowing you owe your life to this man sitting next to you?
If you were to say, well I’m looking for ways to pay him back so I’ve set up a £100 a month direct debit and I’ve promised to help his mother with her weekly shopping, it would not only seem odd but somehow inappropriate. Is that really what gratitude looks like? Surely, the true sign of gratitude, the right response, would be to say I see a big part of my life now as drawing attention to the work they did. I want more people to know about him and his work not me and mine.
Gospel gratitude leads us to rejoice in our salvation and to make much of our saviour. ‘In view of God’s mercies’ continue to serve him and maximise what he has done. Lets be happy to serve God but not because we seek to pay him back but because we delight to be forever in his debt.
And as we do so let’s recognise that its pretty stupid of us to even claim that our ministry, freely offered, does anything other than put us ever more into debt with God.
John Hindley again,
When we serve Christ, we are not giving Him something; He is giving us something. When you visit a friend from church who is sick, and take her some groceries and stay to clean her house and make supper for her kids, you are serving her and serving Christ. But you are not giving something to Him. You use your time, effort and money to serve your friend, and this is Christ’s gift to you. . .You are enjoying serving her. You are expressing you love for Jesus and His people. You are living as you were created to live. You are happy. Jesus gave you a gift.
And all this matters not just for the good of our own souls but for the salvation of those whom we serve. I think people are quick to detect what motivates our service. They may not be able to articulate it, dissect it or fully understand it but they sense it.
How would they? Because, it seems to me that someone who is content to be forever in Jesus debt, someone who has Gods mercies always in view, is someone who serves not for themselves but out of a delight in Jesus. Their ministry is marked by a liberating joy and glorious self-forgetfulness.
Often I find serving wearying. It can feel like hard work and what I don’t need is to then think that I have to do it because I’m paying God back. What I need is that gentle reminder that my service of others is to be fueled by my worship and delight in God. Bryan Chappel said of a time in his own ministry when mercy got out of view, grace went away and we might add when grace goes away gospel ministry dies.
Find ways to delight in the extravagance of God, to rest content in the fact that you owe Jesus everything, and then serve him who has won your heart as you take the gospel to others.
At New Year we both take stock of the last 12 months and also begin to give thought to the changes we’d like to make in the year ahead. One newspaper found, last year, that our top 10 resolutions included ‘getting out of a rut’, trying new experiences and the top three were 1. Lose weight, 2. Get fit and 3. Eat more healthily.
But how should we decide our priorities for 2014? One author reminds us that ‘You cannot work on the structures of your life if the ground of your being is unsure.’ In other words if you’re not sure what life is about then it’s pretty difficult to decide how to live it.
A friend of mine pointed me to former pop star Alex James’ autobiography Bit of a Blur (James was the bass-guitarist in the band Blur) in which he looks back on life and decides that his priorities as a pop-star were all wrong. Having lived a pretty wild life, which including spending a million pounds on drugs and drink (!), James says ‘this was the top of the hill. What else could life hold? It’s funny, but when I look back I think that period of my life was the bottom of a pile, rather than Mount Fantasticus. I was a morally bankrupt, drunk fatso with a stupid grin and a girlfriend with a murdered heart.’ What he thought life was all about in his 20’s turned out to be a big dead end.
So how do we decide what it will mean to live well in 2014? Jesus points us to a bigger purpose in life than having fun, trying new things or getting fit. He said ‘Now this is eternal life; that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’
Jim Packer concludes ‘What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we have in life? To know God. What is the eternal life that Jesus gives? To know God. What is the best thing in life? To know God. What in humans gives God most pleasure? Knowledge of himself.’
And here is the key to making life work. For here we find our purpose that helps shape our priorities. Packer concludes ‘Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.’
So why not make 2014 a year in which you eat a little better, take up a new hobby but above all else a year in which you discover and enjoy the very purpose for which you were made – to know God and in knowing him to enjoy life.
(HT: Steve Ayers)
One-time atheist and now Christian, AN Wilson ( see why I believe again), has written a super piece in the Telegraph today out-lining why the falling numbers of church-goers and the declining influence of Christianity in the UK are really no reason for us to be alarmed.
He concludes ‘the paradox is that growing or shrinking numbers do not tell you anything. The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it. The hopeful thing is that, where it is tried – where it is imperfectly and hesitantly followed – as it was in Northern Ireland during the peace process, as it is in many a Salvation Army hostel this Christmas, as it flickers in countless unseen Christian lives, it works. And its palpable and remarkable power to transform human life takes us to the position of believing that something very wonderful indeed began with the birth of Christ into the world.’
This year marks the 160th anniversary of Charles Dickens first ever public reading. In December 1853, he chose A Christmas Carol as the book to read and he chose Birmingham Town Hall as the place to read it. It was the book he read from most in his lifetime and the story remains as popular as ever.
So what’s to like about a Christmas Carol?
I think we like it because it celebrates that we really do believe that Christmas is good for us. More than just tinsel and turkey, Christmas has the power to change a life. Scrooge is a man redeemed and transformed by visions of Christmas past, present and future. What we see in a Christmas Carol is really, truly and finally to be found in another story, the true story that God brings to us at Christmas time.
Just as the Spirits broke into the life of Scrooge so Christmas calls on us to remember that God loves us too much to leave us alone. The God of Christmas wants to change us as we reflect on Christmas. So are you ready to meet God this Christmas? Do you welcome the thought that God might want to use Christmas to bring a real and radical change to life?
On average each household spends 300 hours to preparing for Christmas. What if we gave not 300 hours, but just 30 minutes this Christmas to preparing our hearts to meet with God. So, for example, why not reflect on what a radical and unique message Christmas is? Here’s how Elyse Fitzpatrick puts it in her book:
The incarnation sets Christianity apart from every other religion. The thought that God would become man is simply without parallel in any other faith . . . in no other religion does a creator god become weak and an indistinguishable part of creation. God became so completely one of us that the people who lived with him didn’t notice anything special about him . . . look across the room at someone. That’s how ordinary he looked.
The story of Christmas is one of extraordinary condescension. The Apostle Paul put’s it this way in the Bible, though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.
Have you ever seen that TV programme Secret Millionaire? A millionaire agrees to go undercover and rough it for a few days living amongst the socially marginalised visiting community projects – shelters or hostels or something – everyone thinks he is just a nobody but all along the secret millionaire is looking for people and projects he can give money to. But then his true identity is revealed – before astonished volunteers at some community centre. The man they’ve been showing around is not really Joe blogs he’s Mr Millionaire and he hands over a cheque to the utter shock and amazement of the beneficiary – the tears flow and the ratings rise.
At one level it all appears very noble but it’s really a game – the millionaire after a few days gets back into the Rolls Royce and drives to a huge house a few quid poorer but cashing in on a new found fame and reputation. It looks worthy but it’s ultimately self-serving AND a million miles away from the life of Jesus. You see Jesus wasn’t playing a part. It is a glorious truth – ‘though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.’ He left the glories of heaven behind when he became a man and as a servant gave his life even to death. All of that for us and our sake.
So here’s a question for each of us this Christmas season: not what do you want from Christmas but what does God want from Christmas? Elyse Fitzpatrick says ‘Jesus came to serve you that he might win you with his love. What does God wants for you this Christmas. He wants your wonder and your worship. He wants your witness and your life. His purpose, through the power of Christmas, is that you be changed.
Scrooge says after his dramatic transformation “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” I love that little phrase I will not shut out the lessons they teach. Let’s join Scrooge in determining to learn the the lessons Christmas is teaching us.
On Sunday evening 370 people packed The Blue Coat School Chapel in Edgbaston for our annual Carols by Candlelight. The text for my address is given below.
Three wealthy sons each gave their elderly mother a Christmas present. The first son gave her a new house. The second gave a new car. But, the third said to his brothers, “you know mum can’t see very well these days. So I’ve spent £20,000 on a most gifted parrot money can buy and I’ve had him trained to recite all her favourite poetry. He’s amazing.”
After Christmas the old lady wrote “thank you” letters. To the first son she wrote: “Thank you so much for the house. Sadly it is rather too large. I much prefer my small flat.” To the second she wrote: “Thank you so much for the car. Sadly my failing eyesight means I can no longer drive.” But to the third she wrote as follows: “Dear Donald, thank you that at least You have the good sense to know exactly what your mother likes. The chicken was delicious.”
Well Christmas is that time for giving and receiving gifts and I for one love doing both although I’m not so hot on the shopping bit. We don’t always get what we want though do we. Apparently last year 366,000 people already had an unwanted present listed on eBay by the end of Christmas night. And greater numbers than ever rather than watching Christmas day TV are scanning the internet for the presents they didn’t get – at knock down prices – before the day is over.
Of course the reason we give gifts at all at Christmas time is because we remember the gift that God has given to the world. If you could ask God for one thing this Christmas I wonder what it would be? An England win in the ashes? An x-factor voice? The football skills of Lionel Messi or perhaps a body the size of Kate Moss?
The idea that God could, if he really wanted to, do a lot to improve our lives is an attractive one. So what is it that God given you?
1. God’s gift to the world that first Christmas was the gift of himself.
The angel said to Joseph that the son born to Mary would be called Immanuel – which means ‘God with us’. Now, why would God, in all of his wisdom, give us Jesus for Christmas? What made him the best gift we could receive?
To help us think about that I want to draw our attention to our final reading this evening from the beginning of John’s gospel.
And there in v.9 we read ‘the true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.’ John describes Jesus as a light to give us light for life. God’s one gift helps us make the most of all of the other gifts. Many people will wake up this Christmas day and will have Steve Jobs to thank for their present. Thanks to him we have iphones and ipads and all of the rest but even Jobs in all of his brilliance cannot give us what we really want. In his battle for life he said ‘No one wants to die and yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.’
Another brilliant man, Leo Tolstoy, gave great pleasure to the world through his books. But he remained frustrated by his own lack of answers. He famously asked — Is there meaning in my life which will not be destroyed by the inevitable death awaiting me? Is there anyone who can give our lives the meaning and purpose that no amount of socks, perfume, or even chocolate can fill.
God’s gift to you this Christmas is the true light that gives light to every one of us. In v.3 we read ‘through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light of men’. Jesus the author of life is the key to life. As God he is our guide to life. He’s our satnav, he’s the help desk. He’s the technical support, the on-hand expert because the light of the world brings light to our lives. Once we know that God is there and we know the future that he offers it gives direction, meaning, purpose to all of the details of our lives.
Jesus really is the ultimate gift because there is nothing like him. v.18 No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
The wonder of Christmas
The real wonder of Christmas is that it tells me not just that there is a God but that he is interested in me. Some of us ask does God care about this world, could God ever be interested in me. Perhaps those are questions that sit at the back of your mind this evening. But when God came into our world. He chose to live life just like you and me. He didn’t arrive on Air Force One with a cavalcade of stretch limos. No God chose to be born in a stable because no one offered him a bed for the night. He grew up in a small town, doing an ordinary job and all to tell us what kind of God he really is. One of us.
And Jesus when he grew to be a man made his mission clear. To seek and save the lost. Jesus came into the world because he came looking for you and me. The true light came to give light to every man. To show you the way back to God. To give you a life and a purpose that lasts into eternity.
Well if the wonder of Christmas is that God would do all of that for me then the scandal of Christmas is that when he came we didn’t exactly make him welcome.
The scandal of Christmas
Even at Christmas time not everyone is welcome at least not all of the time. There will be falling’s out this Christmas. One survey suggested that a fifth of rows this Christmas will be over what to watch on TV. 14 percent of arguments will be over doing the washing up. 11 percent will be about an old family issue; and ten percent about what presents to open. Top of the list? Board games prompt more arguments than even TV – 24 percent.
John tells us, v.10, that when Jesus came into our world, ‘though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.’ When we read through the life of Jesus we see that when God came into our world we did not exactly make him welcome. It wasn’t just a few innkeepers who could not find room for Jesus at Christmas. It seems that the whole world was ready to exclude him from their celebrations.
When we remember that a life that began in a manager ended on a cross we are reminded what a very easy thing it is to refuse and reject God. Many of us have simply got comfortable living life without him. How many of us even if we think that God might just be there have no plans of making room for him in our lives this Christmas time?
The gift of Christmas
God’s gift has come into the world – yet even as many refuse him, look with me at v.12, ‘to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.’ Jesus comes to give us the greatest gift of all – a relationship with God. More than that, a whole new status – you and I can leave here this evening as children of the living God.
If you’re looking for a last minute present there is a website called highlandtitles.com. It offers you – for the small sum of just £30 – the chance to become a Lord or Lady of an area of one square foot in the highlands of Scotland. A real plot of land, a certificate for the wall and the right to call yourself a lord or lady. Tempted? Well maybe. But we all know it’s a complete nonsense of course.
But God’s offer is not nonsense. For to become a child of God changes everything.
A little later in John’s gospel we read these words, perhaps the most famous in all of the Bible ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ Jesus, through his death on the cross would pay for our sin and for all who do receive him he reconciles to God. That is the Christmas gift that is on offer to you this evening.
Kerry Packer was the richest man in Australia. He died a few years ago but one newspaper obituary recorded an extraordinary episode of his life. One evening Packer was out with friends and came to a pub looking for a meal. The landlord turned him away saying ‘.I’m sorry he said we’re not still serving food.’
Undeterred, Packer walked across the town square to the other pub but this time the landlord was pleased to welcome him and provided a meal for his party. When they had finished eating the bill duly arrived for £140. Packer got out his pen and wrote a cheque for £10,140. Explaining what he had done he said to the landlord. £140 is for the bill. £10,000 that’s your tip. The only condition is that before you cash the cheque you show it to the landlord across the road.
The mistake the first landlord made was not simply that he had turned someone away but it was much more who he chose to turn away – the richest man in his country. John urges us not to make the same mistake this evening. This Christmas time Jesus says – will you receive me? If you will I will give not £10000 but the right to become a child of God. Wouldn’t it be an even greater tragedy to turn away not the richest man in the land but the one who offers eternal life.
What might it mean for you to receive him this Christmas?
Joshua Dubois was a man working for Barack Obama when he was Governor of Illinois and campaigning for the Whitehouse. Dubois was just an aide working for the Obama team. They’d never met each other but Dubois wondered whether in the midst of everything that was going on in Obama’s life whether anyone was really thinking about his soul.
So he sent Obama an e-mail with a Bible verse. He didn’t expect a response but he got one almost immediately . Obama replied ‘That is exactly what I needed’ and then said ‘would you do that every day.’ And that is what Joshua Dubois has done for the past 6 years. I wonder whether you think someone pointing you towards Jesus in a busy and stressful life might just do you good too?
Why not take this booklet and read it. Why not join us at City Church this Sunday or on Christmas day. Then in the new year there is a chance to join us on a course called identity.
And if you think it might just do you good I’d be happy to send you one e-mail a week. With just a Bible verse, a thought. My commitment to you is that apart from adding you to that e-mail list I won’t contact you unless you ask me to. And of course you can stop receiving them at any time. If you’d like that simply drop an e-mail to the city church office and you’ll receive that first one just in time for Christmas.
As we turn to our closing carol may I take this opportunity to wish every one of you a very merry and blessed Christmas.
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