Ash Wednesday

palms-for-ash-wednesday

After the splurge on pancakes yesterday, many Christians today feel bloated, and a bit lethargic.   It’s just as well that the medieval church foresaw this problem, and made sure the first day of Lent was a super-fast day.

The whole point of Lent is to prepare for Easter – because it’s easy to boil Christianity down to certain holy days, instead of making it about a life of service.   So while Jesus fasted 40 days at the outset of his public ministry, someone had the smart idea that a 40-day preparation for the holiest of holy days – Easter – was a good plan.

Christian preparation ought – rightly – to involve confession of sin.   This allows us to more sweetly savour the work of Jesus, as both atoning sacrifice and cloak of righteousness.   It also forces us to face the need for reconciliation with our fellow humans, particularly in the church – “forgive us, as we have forgiven others” is a radical, life-altering prayer.

But because it’s very easy to reduce Christianity to ritual behaviour, a display of repentance became the focal point.   Searching the Bible, wearing sackcloth (the clothing of the utterly destitute) and sprinkling ashes (the ash-heap probably being the place of discarded rubbish) was identified as an outward display of grief, and by extension grief over sin.   The problem with ritual is that it builds symbolism upon symbolism.   The sprinkling became a little ashen cross on the forehead (while the priest intoned the words “repent and believe the Gospel”), and the ash itself was the blessed cinders of the previous year’s Palm Sunday branch-waving.

But what if these displays of repentance are better understood as cultural expressions, not divinely-commanded displays for all of human time?   In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus compared the public displays of prayer – which he went on to teach as including repentance – with the way he expected his disciples to pray:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

(Matthew 6:5-6 ESV)

Instead of obsessing about ash-filled ritual today, why not get back to the radical heart of repentance?   Firstly, enjoy a private engagement with God.   The sweetness of the Gospel is that it doesn’t rely on public displays to affect inner peace.   The reward of a secret-seeing Father is that the secret hurts and grief are also seen, and tenderly healed.

Secondly, be reconciled to people.   Ritual masks – it papers over – the broken reality.   Show the love of God today, not by wearing an ashen cross, but in a broken heart that longs to be reconciled with your hurting wife or husband, with quarrelsome parents or siblings… the power of God to heal in these situations cannot be discounted.

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Mid-week Meetings – 1

Over the next few weeks I’ll be spending some time with my congregation looking at how we use our mid-week meetings.   There are probably some misunderstandings about what mid-week meetings are for, and who can, or should, attend.     This week, we’ll look at the format of our Wednesday night meetings.

Most weeks the meeting is a bible study.   The aim of these studies is to increase people’s working understanding of what the Bible teaches.   At the moment we’re working through a study on the person and work of Jesus.   Other times we will work through a particular book of the Bible, or focus on practical themes, e.g. prayer.   It is helpful if people have read the study notes before coming along, as the discussion closely follows the material we are studying, and the main purpose of this type of meeting is in-depth bible teaching.   These weeks, an elder will pray at the beginning of the meeting.

It’s helpful to think of prayer as the “engine room” of the church, so once a month (the first Wednesday) we devote the whole meeting to pray for the work and witness of our congregation.   A full set of prayer-notes are provided, ideally the Sunday before.   We read through these first and clarify points, if anyone has questions about them.   We then break into small groups and spend time in open prayer going through the items listed, and anything else people feel led to pray for.   If you can commit to only one Wednesday a month, this meeting would be the one I’d urge you to make time for.

Next time, we’ll think about who should be attending these meetings.

What should I be praying for the Church? (2)

Second in a series looking at the priorities Paul had in his prayer life, particularly as he prayed for the church.

These verses in Ephesians 1:15-23, teach us to pray:
1. Giving thanks for believers in the congregation, particularly as you think on their faith and love.
Verse 15 – because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you
2. That the choices we make through life would be governed by our covenant relationship with God.
Verse 17 – A spirit of wisdom, in the knowledge of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
3. That we would not live by perceived wisdom alone, but also by the revelation we have received from God in his word.
Verse 17 – A spirit of revelation, in the knowledge of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
4. That we would be able to continually live in light of grace and the Gospel.
Verse 18 – That the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.
5. That we would be enabled to have the full assurance of the hope of the resurrection.
Verse 18 – So that we may know the hope to which he has called us
6. That we would have the full assurance of knowing we belong to God, and he will never fail us.
Verse 18 – So that we may know the riches of his glorious inheritance
7. That we would have a full assurance of God’s power graciously disposed towards us.
Verse 19 – So that we may know the immeasurable greatness of his power
8. More a point of note really: The same hope, inheritance, riches and power which he makes ours, and which we pray for assurance of, are given to us through the resurrection and exaltation of Christ

Prayers for the Church (1)

I was recently reading Mark Dever and Paul Alexander’s The Deliberate Church. There Mark Dever talks about the 4 priorities he had in taking up his ministry in Washington D.C. His priorities were Preaching, Prayer, Personal Discipleship & Patience. His points on the place of pray in the ministry have led me to think for a few weeks now about beginning a series of bible studies on Prayer for the Church. The first is a collection of some thoughts on Philippians 1:9-11.

I’m in a blogging mood today, so here’s what I’ve been thinking:

This prayer in Philippians 1:9-11 teaches us to pray:
1. That we would never be satisfied with the love we already have, but would long for it to deepen.
Verse 9 – “That your love may abound more and more.”
2. The this deepening love would grow, not out of our own possibly wayward thinking, but rather out of a knowledge of the word, and of the character of Christ, which we would seek to emulate, and knowledge of the love that he has shown us.
Verse 9 – “That your love may abound with knowledge”
3. That this love would be willing; willing to be quick to do the right thing, not just thinking about doing something, but to actually do it.
Verse 9 – “That your love may abound with discernment”
4. That this deepening love would result in growing discernment between right and wrong actions, resulting in a pursuit of righteousness and godliness.
Verse 10 – “so that you may approve what is excellent”
5. That this desire for righteousness would be displayed through perseverance and godliness in the life of believers.
Verse 10 – “and so be pure”
6. That there would be a real desire for the good of others, and an active movement away from causing hurt and offence.
Verse 10 – “and so be blameless”
7. That we would all keep the goal – the return of Jesus – in mind, and that we would live in as people looking forward to that.
Verse 10 – “so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ”
8. That the fruit of righteousness, that is the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in sanctification would be evident in the lives of believers.
Verse 11 – “Filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Chrsit”
9. That ultimately God would be glorified in this church, through the walk of the saints, as they proceed into deeper godly affections for one another and for God himself.
Verse 11 – “to the glory and praise of God.”

Point 3 probably bears some explanation. It’s a tricky word to pin down, but I’ve taken the meaning not to be limited to the sense of discerment, but more linked to the power or manner in which that discerment actually works. This can be somewhat supported by the appearance of something similar in the following verse – the power to approve what is excellent. The idea is that not merely have a sense, but having that sense sharply tuned is paramount.

Anyway, God willing, the folk at Greyfriars will be encouraged to make these points part of thier prayerlife over the next week or so.

The closeness of Jesus

Everything in the Christian life revolves around proximity to Jesus Christ. Sunday past I was reflecting on Philippians 4:4-7, and how Paul’s repeated reason is the closeness of the Lord.

V4 – Rejoice in the Lord – the Christian’s delight reaches its highest when the Lordship of Christ is clearly seen in relation to whatever brings us joy. A beautiful landscape might bring someone joy, but add Christ to that – the creator and sustainer of the universe, and that joy becomes enhanced, an act of worship as we see creation itself pouring out glory to our king.

V5 – Let your reasonableness be known to everyone (for the Lord is at hand) – how we live as we wait for the glorious appearing of Jesus is driven by the proximity of Christ. Hold him at arm’s length, and the effects of sanctification will be minimal. Paul’s desire was that believers reflect the character of Jesus, and that comes about through the Spirit of Jesus at work within us.

V6 – Don’t be anxious, pray – Paul’s language here expresses our approach to a sovereign of unimaginable power. But the way we approach that power is through Jesus Christ, in whom we find our only right of access to the thrown of Abba.

V7 – You will be guarded in Christ Jesus – the Bible is replete with references to the way God watches over his people, and generally that protection comes through closeness – e.g. Psalms 17, 36 or 57 – where the place of safety is under the shadow of his wing. The safest place for the Christian is close to Christ; our best armour his righteousness imputed to us, and worn not loosely, but strapped on tight.

I was wondering about two things in Paul’s line of thought in concluding his letter to the Philippians:

1) How does the closeness of Jesus impact on our Christian unity (v2-3)?

2) How does our desire for purity impact on our closeness to Christ (v8-9)?