Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Response to meeting for Brotherly Conference, 1788

In a previous post, I mentioned the concern a group of lay-leaders in Easter Ross had about possible criticism of their meeting together for mutual prayer and fellowship. What happened once they begun meeting? William Findlater tells of some repercussions:

'The judiciousness of their conduct, as well as their devoted piety, in thus recording their sentiments and objects, soon became evident. Their meeting thus exclusively, and being composed chiefly of men who did not frequent their parish churches, their motives were misrepresented, and their character aspersed by the moderate clergy, who at that time carried things with a high hand, both in Church courts and in their Parishes. These excellent men were stigmatized as ‘leaders of a hostile faction, – promoters of schism and division, – censorious, &c., and worshippers of idol shepherds – a term applied to the popular ministers, and as breaking asunder the harmony that should exist betwixt ministers and people.

'Such was the influence of these reports and calumnies, no doubt exaggerated or distorted, that soon after they had held some of their meetings, the late pious and excellent Mr. Mathieson of Kilmuir, to whose church some of these men repaired, made some pointed and personal allusions as to their conduct. In a few days thereafter, two of their number, who were his regular hearers, called upon him, and after requesting an interview in his study, and shortly stating the object of their visit, put into his hands the above document, which having read attentively, affected him deeply. He cordially embraced them, admitted that he had been misinformed as to their views, and ever after esteemed them as his dearest and most valued Christian friends, and uniformly vindicated their characters when assailed – esteeming them as the truest friends to the church and the cause of religion in his day, and acknowledged that the duty in which they were engaged should be an example to ministers, who he wished had such a meeting for such purposes among themselves – a wish which in a few years thereafter was realized, on the admission of Dr. M’Intosh to Tain, and Mr. Forbes to Tarbet, which the writer believes is still kept up by the majority of the members of that presbytery.

'From this meeting, he believes, emanated the first proposal of a Society for missions, called ‘the Northern Missionary Society,’ which has excited such a lively interest in that part of the country, as to be warmly supported, by liberal collections and donations, from all the contiguous parishes. The late highly respected and deeply lamented Dr. M’Intosh was among the first who called the attention of his brethren, and the religious public in Ross-shire, to its establishment, and was appointed and continued its active and confidential Secretary till his death.'

Meeting for Brotherly Conference, 1788

In the late eighteenth century, some local church leaders (not ministers) in Easter Ross agreed to meet regularly for prayer and fellowship because they were concerned about the decline in spiritual vibrancy in their churches. Aware of possible criticism, they drew up the following explanation of their gathering together.

Invergorden Ness, 17th September, 1788.
‘The after subscribing persons,(1) having, by the kind providence of God, and as the outward fruit of the gospel, attained to an intimate acquaintance of one another, although from different parishes; yet as members of one church, of which Christ is the professed head: – After spending some time in considering privately together, and secretly alone, the too many undeniable proofs (from the light of the word of God, and our own woful experience) of our own deadness and unfruitfulness, and the deadness and unfruitfulness of the day, with the prevailing of all manner of sin in the land –

‘We have come to the following resolution, that is, to meet four times in the year, or as oft as shall be judged fit and most convenient, and in the places that shall be agreed upon, to humble ourselves before the Lord by prayer and supplication, that He would avert the threatened and deserved judgment (in which we acknowledge our own guilty hands) which is already making too visible a progress one year after another. It is generally owned by the most considerable part of ministers and professors, that the Lord hath withdrawn his wonted presence, in a great measure, from his people and ordinances (and we own though others would deny this, that we have daily experience of it,) which calls for such a duty; and among other causes we briefly name the following.

‘I. The woful deadness and decay that hath fallen on ourselves, our heart backslidings, our closet coldness, our family formality, our dry and careless reading of the word of God, our barren minds as to meditation on the word, with love, profit, and delight; from whence has proceeded an untender walk, unguarded expressions, carnality in heart, inclinations, and actions, worldly in our minds and pursuits, resisting the remonstrances of our consciences, checks from providence, and the word of God, grieving the Holy Spirit, whereby our evidence of his love to us, and our interest in Christ, is darkened, which makes us go doubting in the dark.

‘II. The deadness and decay of the day we live in, as to a work of the Spirit on the generation. There are few or none crying, “What shall I do to be saved?” The Lord hath been calling home his faithful labourers and people these many years by-gone, and few – few rising in their room; whereby the hands of those that remain are weakened when they are not seeing a seed rising to serve Him, according to His promise; but instead of that, all manner of vice and immorality rising in our land: Adultery, fornication, and uncleanness, among all ranks, (of which it were to be wished that professors of religion were free,) – murders, robbery, and thefts, – hatred, malice, lying, Sabbath-breaking, &c., – contempt of godliness and the people of God, – religion evil spoken of, and the sincere practisers of it branded and stigmatised as the troublers of the peace of Israel, and as a people that turn the world upside down; which is a matter of lamentation, and should be a lamentation to us.

‘III. The low case of the church of Christ and His cause in our land: Great men setting up their power and interest to oppose Christ in His rights, prerogatives, and members. In His rights as sole Head of the church, and His prerogative to reign and rule in it; they (the great men) are thrusting in ministers on reclaiming congregations, with the force of the law of Patronage, – ministers who have nothing in view but the fleece; their manner of entry and their after walk proves it is not sparing the flock, but scattering them; which is a sin greatly to be mourned for, and has turned common in our day, and practised without a parallel. And when we add to this sin, the sin of the Judicatories of our Church, that so few of them witness for Christ and his members, with the neutrality of almost all professors in our day, which in the light of the word is clear to be against Christ (Mark, ix, 40) and his interest, and nothing but men-pleasers, – when they comply and fall in with whatever is proposed to them, they would not venture on the frown of men for a good conscience and the favour of God, (how learned Peter and John, divinity of God rather than men!) which we desire to acknowledge to be matter of humiliation before that, the professors of Christ are not confessors of Christ, – oh what can be found among a people to bring on wrath that is not found in our land this day! when to this we add corruption in doctrine, legalism generally taught, (which is laying too much stress upon works,) or of more refined pressing of evangelical duties without an eye to the Spirit of God. Some press duties, so as they seem to think that their own reasonings are able to enforce a compliance, and more than that, as of old, so of late, we hear that some broach awful errors, and that with impunity.

‘IV. The case of the young generation, who are generally given up to irreligion, and contempt of all that is serious, despising even the form of religion. What will become of the cause of Christ and his interest in our laud, if they continue as they are?

‘And being together for the above causes, we resolve to keep the following order, namely:

‘First. That each meeting shall choose a Preses, (only for order’s sake,) whose province will be to read and sing a portion of the word of God, and call one about to pray; and during the intervals betwixt the said duties, if one of us have a doubt, upon which he would have the mind of his brethren, that each give his thoughts freely upon it, for our mutual edification.

‘Secondly. That none of us bring any other person into this our meeting, without consent of the rest asked and obtained.

‘Thirdly. As the word of God requireth, that we should consider one another, to provoke unto love and good works; therefore, if one or more of us. see or hear any thing unbecoming in the walk, conduct, or expressions of one another, that we be free with one another, according to the Scripture rule: “Go tell thy brother his fault,” &c. Matthew, xviii, 15. “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart; thou shalt in any wise rebuke him, and not suffer sin upon him” Lev. xix, 17.

‘We are aware that this our meeting together, out of different parishes, will be misconstructed; but so far as we know ourselves, we have no divisive views in it; nor do we make a faction; and we desire to give none offence; but if the following of our duty give offence, we cannot help that. If we could meet unobserved, it would be our choice: not that we are ashamed of our duty, about which to find we have been at pains, and searched the word of God, and found it to be His command; and the exercise of His people, in such a day as we live in, to meet together for prayer and spiritual conference, as in Mal. iii, 16: “Then they that feared the Lord spoke one to another.’ The command in Zeph. ii, 1-3, seems to be to the same purpose: “Gather yourselves together,” &c.; and Heb. x, 21, 25: “And let us consider one another – not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together – for as much as ye see the day approaching.” These portions of Scripture, besides others that might be mentioned, prove that fellowship-meetings of the Lord’s people, mutual prayer, and spiritual conference, (being held within the bounds of men’s station,) is a necessary duty and special mean of life in a declining time, and of strengthening against the temptations of such a time. Wherefore seeing our call and warrant from the word, the example of the people of God, and the Lord’s dispensations, in the day we live in calling for it, our own needy cases calling for it, (being a day of famine,) we have now come this length, as to appoint the first Wednesday of November coming for our first quarterly meeting. And may those more near the Lord be stirred up for such a necessity, in a day of so much deadness and lukewarmness, that the Lord may justly complain as in Isaiah, Ixiv, 7: “There is none that calleth on thy name,” &c. O! for the spirit of prayer to cry, “Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts, look down,” &c., “Quicken us and we will call on thy name.”’

Peter's fall and restoration

'The case of Peter is sometimes coarsely handled. Many deal with the sad scene of his denial of Christ as though he were placed on the pillory to be branded as a traitor and coward by every passer-by. But when they scan and censure Peter's fall, it would be well if they inquired whether their own lives be not one continued denial of Christ; whether their hearts ever dictated Peter's question and confession, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life'; whether they have ever shared Peter's blessing, "Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven"; and whether, if they can see the greatness of his sin, they can also enter into the pungency of his sorrow over it. Not that we would dare to speak lightly of Peter's sin; but it is dangerous to contemplate the falls and infirmities of the saints of God without respect to their life of faith and obedience, and especially to the deep repentance consequent on their reclaiming and their experience of mercy; – to probe into their sins and faults, while our own hearts' corruptions remain unexplored by us. We are then in danger of extracting poison from such a precious passage of God's Word as this, if we are content to bring to its consideration a hard unhumbled heart.'

'Christ would have Peter to remember, ever to remember, the wondrous mercy he had experienced in being restored and forgiven, that there might be, as it were, a pillar set up here to which he might look back at every succeeding step of his journey; and we cannot doubt that where he now is, before the throne of God, he often looks back to this period, and from its review gathers fresh impulse to join in the song, "To Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood"' (extracts from sermon on John 21:15-17 by Charles Calder Macintosh, a minister in Tain, Ross-shire, in the nineteenth century).

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Heaven comes near

Heaven is brought near to us at different times. One frequent occasion is during a sermon when the preacher is enabled by God so to describe a spiritual topic that his presence is almost felt in a physical manner. Another occasion is the Lord’s Supper when the presence of Jesus becomes so real that we can sense that he is with us at the Lord’s Table. We would hope that the first type of occasion occurs frequently as we gather under his written Word and focus on what it says. And since he has promised to be with us at the second type, it is a reason for us to have it more frequently.

There is a third occasion when heaven draws near and that is when one of his people is taken there by Jesus at the end of their life. Heaven then comes close and says to us that Jesus has taken that believer to the eternal home, costly and lovingly prepared, and in which the people of God will dwell together forever. This year, as we come to its final month, is a time for us to reflect on among other things the wonderful fact that the Lord has taken home from our midst several of his people who served him here for many years.

There are other ways in which heaven draws near. But they, and the three we have mentioned, all remind us that each of us needs to ensure that we will get to heaven personally. Sometimes we may buy a bus ticket or a train ticket for ourselves and for someone else. We cannot do that as far as getting to heaven is concerned. Each of us has to get our own ticket. Where will we get one? The answer is that we get it by asking God to forgive us and to bring us to heaven.

One of the good things about getting to heaven is that we will get there punctually. Often when we travel by bus or train we look at a timetable and realise that we are not going to arrive on time. With regard to getting to heaven, we don’t need a written timetable to know when we are going to arrive. The fact of the matter is that each person who gets there arrives at the best moment possible for him or her.

A third aspect of reaching heaven is that we will arrive there publicly. On some occasions, when I have been on a train or bus, there has been hardly anyone travelling with me and the station has been empty when we arrive. That will not be the experience of heaven, either in travelling to it or arriving there. We travel there with others and when we get to the door of heaven we will discover that a large crowd is waiting to welcome us. Among the crowd and leading it as it praises God will be the Lord Jesus. And we will discover that heaven has drawn near forever.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Personal Ministry of Christ

Taken from a sermon on 1 Peter 2:27 that was preached by Charles Calder Mackintosh in one of the early years of his ministry.

The main employment of Jesus consisted in preaching the gospel. To this his miracles were all subservient. It was most suitable that his public life should thus be spent; that, as he had come into the world to die for sinners – as the preaching of his cross was to be the great means of salvation – he should usher in the proclamation of the joyful sound, and thus consecrate and dignify the ordinance of preaching, and give it perpetual efficacy.

And how otherwise, indeed, could fitting employment be found for the Son of God, when for a time he had to appear publicly before the eyes of men? The Lord had ‘anointed him to preach good tidings to the meek, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that were bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’ (Isa. 61:1-3); and therefore he went about preaching the gospel of the kingdom in the synagogues, in the temple, in the villages, by the wayside, by the seashore, in the desert, on the mountain, or in the house, and saying, ‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.’ He addressed men as sinners, and setting death and life before them, commanded them to repent. He addressed them as the children of Abraham after the flesh, and warned them of the danger of trusting in outward privileges and outward connection with God’s Church, and exhorted them to seek the ‘renewal of the Holy Ghost’ (John 3:3). He proclaimed the will of God by direct authoritative announcement, by parable, by warning, by promise. He proclaimed it in its bearings on all the darkness and corruption of the heart, and on all the fears of the labouring and heavy laden. How precious is the gospel and the gospel ministry, since the great work of the Son of God, when on earth, this consisted in preaching the gospel.

But who can suitable speak of the preaching of Christ – the matchless graces of the preacher, the celestial purity of his heart, the grandeur of those communications of the Father’s will regarding the salvation of men which were made by his only-begotten Son! Who can think aright of the burning zeal and the love of the Redeemer’s heart while he fulfilled his ministry, the consuming purity manifested in his denunciations of hypocrisy, or the infinitude of the pity which wept over Jerusalem!

There was a time when the Son of God in human form in very deed dwelt on our earth, a preacher of righteousness. A new experiment was made on the character of the apostasy of man from God, and on its power of resistance. Holy prophets had appeared in preceding ages with unquestionable evidences of having been sent by God. They had called men to repentance, and had left in succession mournful complains of the unsuccessfulness of their mission. Some of them were mocked, some stoned; most of them had to say. ‘Who has believed our report?’ (Isa. 53:1). But a greater than all had now appeared – One who not only proclaimed the truth, but who was, in his own person, a spotless reflection of it; One who not only spoke in the power of the Spirit, but to whom the Spirit had been given without measure; One of who a devoted Enoch, a holy Noah, a believing Abraham, a meek and faithful Moses, and a zealous Elijah, would unite with John in saying, ‘The latchet of his shoes I am not worthy to unloose’; One not only free from all sinful weakness, but possessed of the uncreated excellence of divinity, veiled and curtained indeed, that their dazzling splendour might not consume sinful men, but appearing in such measure in the human form as to stamp divinity on him who dwelt in it. Yes, the Creator and Lawgiver appeared in the form of a man, outwardly mean and poor, yet exhibiting the moral beauties of our nature as they had not shone even in Paradise.

And he preached peace, and besought men to be ‘reconciled to God’. He spoke plainly, that the most unlettered might know his meaning; solemnly and with authority, that they might be impressed with the danger of refusing instruction; tenderly and affectionately, if so be he might touch and melt their hearts. He spoke of God, in his glory and justice as moral governor, and in his excellence as the sin-pardoning God; of the soul, in its worth; of sin, in its vileness and deservings; of Satan, in his power and malice and success in destroying souls; of hell in its horrors.

He spoke, above all, of the mercy of God; and of himself as the gift of this mercy, the ‘Bread of Life’, the ‘Fountain of living water’; the ‘Son of Man’ who had come ‘to seek and to save that which was lost’. He invited the lost children of men to come to him. He addressed himself to their understandings, their consciences, their hopes and fears and desires, in the way of all others best fitted to instruct, to awaken, to reach the very depths of the soul and its hidden springs of action.

And he did this, not for a Sabbath or a week, but for years. He spent his strength in the work. He sat down, so to speak, before the heart of man, and used the best possible means for bringing it to surrender to God. And what was the result? Did it yield? Did the whole body of his hearers cast down the weapons of their rebellion? Did the whole people of the land turn to the Lord, rending their hearts? Oh, how affecting the complaint of the Son of God! ‘I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nought and in vain’; ‘All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.’

Genealogies of Jesus

Some people are interested in family trees as a hobby. Others wish to research them in case they are related to a famous person, and then discover that they are also connected to an infamous person, or perhaps to more than one. Jesus, as we can see from the accounts of his birth in Matthew and Luke, had two genealogies. I have always been puzzled as to how commentators can assert with confidence which of the genealogies is that of Mary and which is that of Joseph. It looks to me to be a lot safer just to say ‘Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus’ and ‘Luke’s genealogy of Jesus’.

At this time of year it is common to think about the passages in the Gospels that are connected to the birth of Jesus. Although I have been on earth a long time I have not heard anyone preach a Christmas sermon from the genealogies. Of course, you may have heard one or more, maybe even preached one or two. So if I were going to preach one, what would I say?

To begin with, I would choose one of the genealogies because any attempt I would make at explaining the differences between the two would only be speculation on my part, no matter what important names I could link with the comments I would make. I also suspect that to do so would be somewhat distracting for the congregation and lead them away from feeding their souls on certainties. Better, I would say, to have two different sermons, one on each genealogy, if that were needed.

If I were to preach on them, I would opt for Matthew’s first, probably because it begins and finishes with a reference to Jesus. It would also, I think, take less preparation time because there are fewer individuals in his genealogy to think about. And I would have to think about them if I was going to preach about the genealogy that mentions them.

Of course, some of the things that I would say about one of the genealogies could also be said about the other. As a general point, both genealogies remind us of God’s control of history. As the generations passed, each with their own changes and developments, he remained in charge, working everything according to what he had already planned would happen when Jesus was born.

Both genealogies also remind us of God’s awareness of people. As I run my mind over each individual in the lists I realise that I know very little about most of them. In contrast, God knows everything about all of them. He knows what each of them felt when their descendants were born or what they felt when their predecessors died. There were times of happiness and times of sadness, times of anticipation and times of disappointment, and God knows them all.

I am not aware of any other genealogies in the New Testament, which is a rather striking difference from the Old Testament, because the latter has several of them. The ones in the Old Testament usually became longer the further time moved on. I wonder did anyone ever ponder if the time would come when they would cease to grow in length. But in the New Testament, they do come to an end, and the reason they come to an end is because Jesus was born. Is it too much to say that an important message of the genealogies in the Old Testament is that they say, ‘He has not come yet, but one day he will’?

Looking at Matthew’s list of names, we can see that he wants to prove that Jesus is the promised descendant of Abraham who would bring blessing to the nations as well as being the promised ruler from David’s line who would reign over God’s kingdom permanently. It is a very ambitious way to begin a book, so I suppose we should ask if Matthew still feels that this will happen as he closes his account. When we turn to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we see that he refers to Jesus claiming to have ongoing universal power (as the descendant of David) and sending out his apostles into the whole world with the gospel (as the descendant of Abraham). What may have seemed to be a small genealogical point at the commencement of his Gospel turns out by its end to be a statement of huge significance. Indeed, for those who know, it is a summary of his book as well as an introduction.

No doubt, someone will ask me why Matthew has divided his list of individuals into three sets of fourteen names each. To be frank, I don’t know. Yet if I were cajoled into making a suggestion, it would be that he was using a form of memory aid whereby it would be easy to remember the names in the list. After all, people back then had to memorise much more details than we need to do today. But I wonder how many of us can say from memory who the great-grandfathers of Jesus were?

Most people know that Matthew’s list refers to four women who had question marks about them (for some reason, those who mention this detail often fail to say that his list also includes forty or so men who had question marks about them). In fact, there is only one person in the list who does not have a question mark against him, and that is Jesus. Yet here we have in this genealogy an example of him being numbered with the transgressors.

I suppose we can ask why Matthew chose to refer to those women. Perhaps he was sensitive to the circumstances of Mary, who probably had a stigma to bear, and he felt it was appropriate to mention that others before her had gone through something similar. No one can be definite about that suggestion, of course. Nevertheless it does raise the issue as to whether or not we would want our family tree muddied by references to undesirable characters from long ago.

Still we have to acknowledge that those women were used by God in the development of his kingdom. Imagine walking past Rahab’s house in Jericho and observing her going about her business. Would we have imagined that she would have a part to play in the coming of the Saviour? Yet God had more in mind than the deliverance of Israel when he directed the two frightened spies to go to her house. He was providing the line from which his Son would be born in two thousand or so years’ time. And we can say something similar about the other women in the list as well.

It is a solemn realisation to note that everyone in the list apart from Jesus was a sinner. No doubt, reflecting on this fact will show us that his genealogy tells us why he had to be born. All his ancestors, including his mother, needed to be saved from their sins, and he was the only one who could do this for them, not by his birth alone, but also including his perfect life and his atoning death.

Yet we have also to face up to the fact that not all of Jesus’ ancestors are with him today in heaven. Some of his forebears were godly individuals, others of them were not. Some of the latter even used their God-given position and talents to try and remove the knowledge of God from the people of Israel – although they were born long before Jesus, they were his enemies. Those individuals died as they had lived – without God. They will yet be judged by their Descendant and while their names were in his genealogical tree they will not be found in his book of life. You and I, while we cannot have the privilege of belonging to his earthly genealogy, can through faith in him belong to the register of the heavenly city.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Diary extract from Lady Glenorchy

May 11, 1768. 
This morning I awoke with a great desire to praise God for his mercies; but my lips were sealed, I could not utter what I felt. At breakfast, I renewed the argument upon faith with ______, and was led away by the impetuosity of my temper to say what I did not at first intend, and some things that savoured too much of Antinomianism. In the course of the argument, I felt much carnal pride and self-applause in my heart, and I did not apply, as I ought to have done, to the Holy Spirit for his assistance. This I take to be the reason why I was left to fall into error. 

After this, I walked out to the place which I have chosen for my morning devotions. My mind was much disturbed in reading the word; I was in great darkness, but it pleased the Lord to enable me to utter my wants to him, and to pray fervently, with many tears, for myself and all my friends. After this, in walking home, I sung part of the 71st psalm, and felt much joy and comfort in the latter part of it, from the 20th verse: 

Thou, Lord, who great adversities 
And sore to me didst show, 
Shall quicken, and bring me again, 
from depths of earth below, &c. &c.  

After dinner, I met with a sore trial of patience, and here (from not looking to Jesus for help) I felt most sadly. I lost temper, and said many bitter things. I recalled to mind all my former grievances, repined at the will of God, and thought my case uncommonly hard. In short, the Lord left me to my own proud heart; and I sinned greatly. This has cost me many tears. Lord, forgive me this offence, and wash it away in thy precious blood.

I this day resolve (with the assistance of the Spirit) to watch over the first risings of passion and to pray daily for the grace of a meek and quiet spirit, and above all for humility, in which I am greatly deficient. This has been a day of many errors and infirmities. Lord, if thou shouldst mark iniquity, who could stand before thee? but with thee there is mercy, and plenteous redemption. O clothe me with the righteousness which cometh by faith from Jesus; for all my righteousnesses are as filthy rags: even my best duties are stained with sin. My trust is in thee, O Lord; let me never be confounded. 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The will of God

If we had gone to the carpenter's shop, and watched the holy youth as He bent over the construction of some simple article of furniture, or fashioned some rude instrument of husbandry, and had asked Him, 'Son of Mary, what are You doing?', he might have answered, 'The will of God.'

If we had drawn near to Him, as He instructed the ignorant, healed the sick or opened the eyes of the blind, and had said, 'Prophet of Galilee, what are You doing?', He might have answered, 'The will of God.'

If we had turned to Him as He hung upon the cross, bearing our sins in His own body, and had asked, 'Son of God, what are You doing?', He might still have answered, 'The will of God.' The will of God was the only thing that ever He did.

(from Life in His Name by David McIntyre).

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Unanswered prayer

I read a sermon recently on unanswered prayer by a Free Church minister of the nineteenth century whose name is forgotten today. He was James Cameron and he was the pastor of Glenbervie from 1864 to 1875. For reasons not stated, after he died several of his friends published a short memoir containing a brief biography and several sermons. No doubt, those friends wanted to have a permanent record of his ministry. Their names are mentioned in the preface, but as far as I could see they are now forgotten as well. Such will be the fate of most of Christ's servants and of virtually everyone else. Yet when I picked up this short book I discovered that James was still speaking through what he had preached long ago.

One of his sermons is about unanswered prayer, a common problem for Christians in all ages. The sermon was based on James 4:3, where the brother of Jesus tells us that the cause of unanswered prayer is that we ask amiss, which is another way of saying that it is our own fault if our prayers are not answered. As the preacher pointed out, this is a divinely-inspired explanation of why that happens. 

Cameron explains what it is to ask amiss. He begins by saying that it is possible to ask for wrong things. He then tells us that it is possible to ask in the wrong manner and he obviously regarded this as very important because most of his sermon dealt with this failure. How can we ask in the wrong manner? He said we do so when we fail to address God as Father and experience the warmth that such a relationship should bring; he said we do so when we fail to realise that we approach the Father through Jesus the mediator; he said we do so when our prayers are not earnest and sincere; and he said we do so when we cherish a secret sin in our hearts.

It is obvious that the preacher said nothing new in his sermon. But it is also the case that he said nothing untrue in his sermon. The reasons he gave for unanswered prayer in his congregation in nineteenth-century Scotland are probably the reasons for unanswered prayer in congregations in twenty-first century Scotland and elsewhere. Is there a bigger tragedy in a congregation than unanswered prayer?

One question for me is why did God in his providence bring this sermon on unanswered prayer to my attention in 2014. James, I am sure, would not have imagined that a simple sermon of his would minister to another preacher almost 150 years later. But God had it in mind and when he enabled James to prepare his sermon I was the focus of divine attention, as well as those who heard it and later those who read it. We can say that about any item from the past that comes our way. I would suggest that the God of grace brought it my way so that I would pay attention to how I pray and for what I pray. That is an evidence of his kindness. And since you are reading this summary of the sermon, he has brought it to your attention as well.

In my mind, I can imagine meeting James somewhere in the heavenly country and telling him that his sermon was used by God to help me. Perhaps you too will be able to join the conversation and say that you also were guided to pray appropriately even by this brief mention of the explanation he gave of why we experience unanswered prayer.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Say Something Inexpressible

It is unlikely that we would classify Paul as a person who would ever be lost for words. Yet in 2 Corinthians 9:15 he writes, ‘Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift,’ which is a reference to Jesus.

Paul describes this divine Gift as inexpressible, as impossible to fully explain. Sometimes it is difficult to describe a thing because it is too small; others cannot be described because they are too large. With regard to Jesus, he is inexpressible because he is too big. This has not stopped some people trying to reduce him in size: such speak of him as a great teacher or a willing martyr for a good cause. It would not be impossible to describe such a person; in fact, many such biographies have been written of important people. But you cannot get a biography of Jesus because as John says in John 21:25: ‘Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’ (The four Gospels are not biographies of Jesus but explanations of his mission.)

The fact that the Gift is inexpressible does not mean that people should not speak about it. Paul, the man who wrote this verse, often speaks eloquently of Jesus and what happened to him. An example of Paul’s words are Philippians 2:5-11. Despite his great mind and vast understanding, Paul knew he was only paddling at the shore of an infinite ocean. Others in the Bible also give great descriptions of Jesus Christ.

Throughout the centuries, many great minds have written and spoken about Jesus Christ. Theologians and preachers have endeavoured to explain who he is and what he has done, and despite the vast number of words that have been said or written, they have not fully described him. To them we can add the estimation of the heavenly host who have had access to him in heaven since they were created. They know a great deal about him that is not contained in the Bible, yet when their contribution is added to that of the theologians and preachers, we are still on the edge of the ocean.

To the contribution of the above, we can add all the thoughts of the redeemed. Some have expressed themselves in poetry, all of them say something about Jesus in prayer or in words of testimony. Yet when this combined description of Jesus is added up, he is still inexpressible, not all has been said about him that can or will be said.

As we think of the fact that more can be said about Jesus, it means that there is space for us to say something about him today. There is always space for a new and accurate comment about Jesus. Your actual words may not be different from what others have said, but your experience of Jesus will be totally unique. So say something about him today, perhaps to encourage or comfort a friend or perhaps to commend him to someone who does not know him yet.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The love of God

John 3:16, in its description of the love of God, has been called the Bible in miniature. There is sufficient teaching within it that will enable any person who takes its teaching to heart to find his way to heaven, supposing he would never heard or read another verse.

It is not clear from the chapter who spoke the words of John 3:16. Many assume that the words were part of Jesus’ message to Nicodemus because they had been speaking to one another in the previous verses. Personally I think it is more likely that the verse is a comment by John composed as he reflected on that discussion as he recorded it six decades later when he wrote his Gospel under the inspiration of the Spirit.  

Who does John say is the object of the love of God? The answer is the world. Normally when we think of the term ‘world’ we focus on how large the world is and we try and explain the greatness of God’s love by highlighting the millions of people who belong to it. Yet I don’t think that is the emphasis that John is stressing by the term ‘world’. 

Put it this way. Imagine that the world was composed of perfect, ideal people, each of whom had never even had a wrong thought. If we said that God loved such a world we would not be focussing on the number that God loved; instead we would be thinking about the type of people he loved. Since they are perfect, they would deserve to be loved.  

Now we know that the world is not made up of such people. In fact, out of all the millions who have belonged or do belong to the human race, each one of them has defects (sins). These sins are expressions of disobedience to God’s commandments. This is the world that God loves, and the emphasis is not so much on the number but on their character. It is not the size of the world that is staggering, but the sinfulness of the world when we think of God’s love for it. 

How did God show his love? He did so by giving his Son in order that sinful people would not perish. This is a reference to what took place at Calvary when Jesus became the substitute of sinners and suffered God’s wrath in their place.

Today, all over the world the story of God’s great love will be proclaimed in a variety of settings. Many who will listen to it will have responded already to his offer of salvation. Others will do so for the first time. It is through the declaration of this message that God’s kingdom grows.

What will be the most important speech delivered today as far as the world is concerned? Perhaps politicians will make some announcements about relevant things. Maybe sportsmen and women will have something to say. Yet the most important statements will be said wherever the gospel is declared. So as we gather in our services, we should remind ourselves that we are listening to an announcement designed for our eternal good as well as for our earthly comfort.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Thinking about a move

Tests about our spiritual progress can come from a wide number of sources. In chapter 40 of his book Jeremiah describes a test that came his way after the city of Jerusalem had been captured by the Babylonians. What made the test more difficult was the fact that it was a nice offer, made by a prominent person who wished Jeremiah well, and who had the heart and the power to bring it about.

Nebuzaradan was the captain of the guard, a high officer in the Babylonian army. He recognised that the Lord had spoken through Jeremiah, and perhaps he wanted to have such a person with him in his home in Babylon. Maybe Nebuzaradan was a superstitious man who liked to have religious men around him or maybe he had come to believe to some degree in the God of Israel because of the fulfilment of his word through Jeremiah. Perhaps he was offering to become the equivalent of the kind master of a slave who would provide for all the latter’s needs. In any case, the prospect of a comfortable room in a nice house would have seemed much better to Jeremiah than the cistern or even the courtyard in which the king of Judah had placed him recently. Was this God giving him a reward for his faithful service, he might have wondered?

Jeremiah also was aware that the Lord had promised to bless the captives when they went to Babylon (see Jeremiah 24). Although that may sound strange to us at first, yet it would be there that God would begin the spiritual recovery of his people. Why not go and live among those whom he knew would experience the Lord’s blessing? Surely this was God directing him to go there and be part of it. Divine providence seemed to be opening a door and beckoning him to go through it. And if he went, would he not enjoy seeing God at work, fulfilling the words that he had allowed Jeremiah to preach?

Nebuzaradan recognised that Jeremiah might not want to go to Babylon. Yet he indicated that he would not be offended if Jeremiah refused his offer. Instead he advised him, if that was his choice, to go and live with Gedaliah, the individual whom the Babylonians had put in charge of the area. No doubt, Nebuzaradan assumed that Jeremiah would be safe there. And it was to there that Jeremiah went.

Why did he do so? No doubt he would have deduced that since he had promised to do so the Lord would provide for his people in Babylon. But what about the insignificant ones who had been left behind in Judah? Who was to guide and teach them if he did not do it? He may have seen in Nebuzaradan’s mention of Gedaliah an opportunity of serving those whom others did not think were important.

Jeremiah here seems to have answered a question very few even think about. Instead of wondering where he would be most comfortable, he asked where was he most needed and where could he do the most good. How many hearts of the little remnant left behind in Judah would have been made glad when they saw that Jeremiah had put their needs before his own and decided to remain with them. Perhaps they are still talking about it today in heaven.  

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Fighting for God

There are three important lessons for us to learn from the story of Saul’s first battle as the new king king of Israel (1 Samuel 11). 

In verses 1-4, there is an illustration of the challenge that faces God’s people. The threat of the Ammonites is a vivid illustration of spiritual warfare that we face from the powers of darkness. Satan knows that he cannot remove salvation from God’s people. But that does not mean he sees no point in attacking them. He will aim to weaken them. What he wants Christians to do is compromise with the temptations he puts in their way. He will attempt to destroy their spiritual vision. This is what happened to believers that Peter describes in 2 Peter 1:9. In that chapter Peter has described the way of Christian progress, and then says that if a believer does not make such progress, he ‘is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins’. The devil had prevented the person developing spiritually and that person became ineffective spiritually. 

Then in verses 5-11 we read about an example of the difference made when a person is under the control of the Spirit. The experience of Saul illustrates the difference the presence of the Holy Spirit makes in a person’s life. Although every Christian has the Holy Spirit indwelling him, this does not mean that his power is available automatically. If a Christian by his sins has grieved the Spirit, he will not experience progress until he repents of that sin. We need God’s power for a wide variety of reasons and purposes. The power of God is not something distinct from the presence of the Holy Spirit; rather it is the Holy Spirit working effectively.

There is also an important lesson here for those who are leaders of God’s people. Before they lead Christians into a new enterprise these leaders must possess power from the Spirit. When they are in a proper spiritual state, the Lord will put the fear of God into those who follow them. The proof that leaders are receiving the Spirit’s guidance will be evidenced by the same details that were seen in Saul: jealousy for God’s cause, harmony in the people, strategy regarding what to do and victory when it is done.

The third lesson from this passage emulates Samuel’s response to the victory by Israel. He saw it as an opportunity for re-dedication. This is the appropriate response to progress in the Christian life  whether it is fresh understandings of Bible passages, answers to prayer, victory over temptation, or the sense of the presence of the Lord. Yet they are not opportunities to sit back and imagine we have arrived, rather they are occasions for repentance and fresh dedication.