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God's sovereignty and Israel - Romans 9-11 - Stones among the cherries

Testwood Baptist Church, Sunday May 13th 2007

 

Readings
Romans 9:1-5, 14-21, 30-33, 10:1-4, 9-13, 11:1-6, 17-21, 28-36
Psalm 80

 

 

I thought tonight I would break with personal tradition, and start with a joke… not just any joke but one about sport. Perhaps I’m talking through my hat, but bear with me.

One day, God the Father, Jesus, and Moses were playing golf. The light was starting to fade, and they came to a hole with a water trap in front of the green. Moses hit first, and sure enough his ball went into the water. Undeterred, he walked up, held out his golf club over the water, and it separated into two pools so he could walk up to the ball and hit it onto the green near the flag. Jesus went next, and the three watched his ball also splash into the water. He strode up, walked across the surface of the pool and knocked his ball out of the water onto the green. Then God the Father steps up, looks around, and comments that the light is not as good as it was. He hits the ball, and for a third time it heads towards the water. But this time, just before it actually splashes in, a large fish leaps out of the pool and catches the ball in its mouth. As the fish is falling back, an eagle swoops down from a tree and grasps the fish – and the ball – in its talons. As the bird is flying back, a sudden bolt of lighting hits the tree. The tree bursts into flame, lighting up the green, the eagle sheers off in alarm and drops the fish, the fish lets go of the ball and drops into the water, and the ball rolls across the green to fall into the hole. There is a short silence, after which Jesus turns and says, “Dad, if you can’t play by the rules we won’t invite you again.”

I think that we have a kind of inbuilt standard about miracles. We think of some miracles as “fair” – like parting the Sea of Reeds and walking on water – and others as “not fair” – like manipulating nature to secure a hole in one. Somehow, when we read the Bible, the miracles that Jesus performed, or those of other Old and New Testament figures, seem fair. They heal people, they restore well-being, they vindicate truth or refute error in some way. But sometimes, the miracles that happen out of the sheer awesomeness of God Himself, seem unfair. We are happy to say with CS Lewis’s Narnian characters “He is not a tame lion”, but then if we do see Him in His untamedness, His wildness, we shrink back.

Tonight we have 3 long chapters and 2 difficult subjects. Indeed, when Gordon first talked to me about this, he suggested people should be allowed to bring sandwiches along. There’s been a lot of emphasis on cherries and other fruit the last couple of weeks: tonight we are getting to the stones amongst the cherries. While fruit makes good food, it makes poor buildings, and if we want to build a house that will last we must use stones. The house built of fruit will smell sweet the first day but rotten after a few weeks, and when the rains fall and the winds rise, the house of fruit will not survive – and what a great squash it will make! We are going to cover some hard things tonight, so before I make a real start I want to say this. The first part of tonight’s material is foundational to all Christian churches; all Christians agree on this. But after a while – and I shall be making it quite clear when that happens, we will be looking at issues over which Christians through the years have come to different conclusions. That is OK – there is a principle that goes back to St Augustine around the year 400: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” So the first part tonight covers essentials, and the later parts non-essentials. And we need charity – self-sacrificing, act-of-the-will love – to look at these things. There is a huge amount of material here, and my selection does not at all exhaust Paul’s writing. The two things I want to keep coming back to, like a kind of chorus in this sermon, are these: first, God’s intentions can be hard to understand, and secondly, we must never presume to judge God’s eternal favour and grace according to present earthly circumstances. So, as we get thoroughly under way, let’s listen to Psalm 80, which captures in its few lines a good deal of our subject matter for tonight.

[Read Psalm 80]

The first area I want to talk about tonight – where all Christian churches agree – has to do with the snippets of doctrine that Paul uses. He does not simply base his argument on things that seem reasonable; he roots them in clear principles of who Jesus is and who God is. For example, in 9:5 we find “…the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised”, and in 10:9 we find “if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved… the same Lord is Lord of all”. Christianity is a faith of the heart, but it also involves clear thinking in the mind, and Paul wanted his readers to have real, solid content to their faith. The Christian church through the years has followed this principle: over the first few centuries AD the content of the Faith was summarised in short, clear statements called creeds. These creeds are a framework that unites all the various branches of the faith, and divides Christianity from other religious groups. They separate, they make a distinction. The creed we hold to here unites us not only with other Baptists, but also other Protestants such as Methodists or Anglicans. It unites us with Catholics, and, with one minor change, with members of the Greek, Eastern and Russian Orthodox churches. That is tremendous. Here are some examples: the Nicene Creed, worked out over some years, finalised at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD, has this to say about Jesus:

[We believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all worlds,
Light of Light, very God of very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

The Athanasian Creed, about 100 years later has this to say about the Godhead:

We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity,
neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being.
For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Spirit is still another.
But the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, coeternal in majesty.

While this slide is up, I want to say that this is not just a matter of getting some ideas right in your head. Getting to grips with doctrine shapes all kinds of things, like for example your prayer life. Take that little phrase “neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being”. Let that start to take hold of your prayers as you are speaking with the Father, or with the Son, or with the Holy Spirit, and something will be able to grow in your spirit. Our prayer life should reflect our creed, so let’s employ these summaries of our faith as we pray. Let’s use them as prayer, as praise.

The early church tried to find a number of pictorial ways to see what was going on, and one of them was this, sometimes called the Shield of the Trinity. See what is going on here – each of Father, Son and Spirit is truly God, but each is a separate person from the others. We worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in unity, for there is only one God. The church as a whole has never stopped trying to formulate this. The Thirty-nine Articles that are part of the founding principles of the Anglican Church reflect this, as does the Westminster Confession which is accepted by many church groups including Baptists. The creeds were deliberately short, easy to learn, and aiming to secure universal Christian agreement. In many churches speaking out one or other creed is a regular part of worship: here at Testwood we don’t do that, or indeed any other of the great collective affirmations of the historic Christian faith, but we did run a teaching series on it, nearly five years ago back in 2002. Why do churches do this as an act of worship? When we speak truth together, as a collective act of unity, then we do several things. We are speaking these things in three dimensions at once. We are speaking them to and with our brothers and sisters who are here at the same time. As we do that we are both repeating our faith and building it. That’s a kind of horizontal line in the here and now, linking us also with Christians in other churches today. Secondly, we are affirming our unity, our joinedness, with Christians who have lived and died before us, and who will live and die after us. Here in this church, in any Christian church on the face of the planet, we are not just an isolated group of people who happen to have some ideas in common. We are a small branch of a great vine, whose eldest roots were set in place by our Lord Himself, and in which the place of every tiny leaf and sprig has been personally overseen by Him. As we say these things in worship we are consciously attaching ourselves to the great community of Christ through history. Finally, we are saying these things to God. These truths are not man’s inventions, although the specific words they are couched in are the product of some very acute and able human beings. He gave us these truths, these faith-mysteries, and when we speak them out we are giving back to Him what is His.

OK. We are now going to move into two areas which are not central points of agreement within Christianity at large. Some church groups have their own particular standpoint on these matters, but they are not central to the faith. They are not in the creeds. You will not be tested on them either here at church or by St Peter at the Pearly Gates! Testwood probably does not have an official position on either of these matters, and different people in this congregation may have different views on the subject. That comes under Augustine’s quote: “in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, charity”. Although Paul deals with them in one order in his letter, we’re actually going to go in reverse order. The two subjects are the place of Israel in these days after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (which Paul does second and we will do first), and the issue of God’s sovereignty over life: does God know or intend from the start that some people are doomed to destruction?

Israel first. The question of what role the nation of Israel, or at least the believing Jewish population, has in a post-resurrection world, has led to a huge variety of Christian responses. Since the time when I first started thinking about this sermon, I have received leaflets through the post ranging on the one hand from the idea that Israel had once had a chance, but rejection of the Messiah means that she is now under condemnation, right through to the idea that Israel is precious, that Britain’s negative attitude to Israel led to the loss of the Empire, and national repentance is required to recover God’s favour. In picture form we have the two main options:

  1. Replacement: “the church replaces Israel and is the true intended recipient of the covenant promises”
  2. Two salvation streams: "God's original plan still applies to Israel and has been supplemented and not replaced by the arrangement with the Gentile church"

My own view on this: well, I simply don’t know. I personally don’t feel that we have enough Biblical information to choose one way or another, and I have seen Bible-based arguments going both ways. My main interest here is to establish a number of things that I believe are true, and postpone a decision on the main question. Others in this audience may well differ here: that’s OK! That’s a matter for charity.

I see these principles as important. First, Paul tells us that the Gentile Church should consider itself a shoot that has been grafted in to God’s olive. That’s in the middle of chapter 11, from verse 17 onwards. So we are to remain humble and grateful of our new position, and to acknowledge that any vitality that we have comes through the root. As Paul says, the root supports the branches, not the other way round. We are a graft, crafted to be sure by the Master Gardener, but always retaining something slightly alien about our culture. We are not “natural”.

Secondly, we should recognise the enormous and everlasting value of God’s selection of the chosen people of the Hebrew Bible – the Old Testament. Paul uses an unusual word in 11:29 to describe this, a word translated as “irrevocable” in the NIV. The word in Greek is a-meta-melita, and it’s used only one other time in the New Testament. It carries the idea of “having no change in how much you care”, of “being without regret”. If, then, God does not feel regret about His choices, why should we? The way Paul writes this sentence is to move the lack of regret right to the front – it’s the key thing he wants to say here.

Thirdly, we learn something about how to live the life God selects for us. Some here will remember me talking three weeks ago about the intimate relationship between God’s law – His Torah – and God’s Spirit, how they both spring from the same impulse of God to lead His people onwards. Here Paul tells us a little bit more about the problem of legalism that Israel suffered – he says that they “pursued a law of righteousness not by faith but as if it were by works.” That is a really helpful phrase that he uses, and it can be a good antidote for us. There is law in every part of the Bible – not just the Old Testament – and whether the instructions come from Moses or Jesus, we need to be pursuing them by faith and not as if it were by works.

Finally, we have huge amounts to learn from the Hebrew record of their life with God. That hardly needs saying in a church context where we draw regularly from both Old and New Testaments, but it is worth highlighting every now and again. The New Testament, written so soon after the events described, gives a record of some 50 or so years in total, most of which is focused on just 3 years. The Old Testament gives us more like 1000 years of writing, with the events from Abraham onwards spanning over 1500 years. That supplies a vast wealth of experience of loving and living with God. Martin Luther once wrote “Although the New Testament was written in Greek, it is full of Hebraisms and Hebrew expressions. It has therefore been aptly said that the Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks from the stream that flows from it, and the Latins from the downstream pool” … and one might perhaps add that we British, who are often so reluctant to learn other languages, have to make do with bottled water! I have had over the years the good fortune to have had friends who are both Jewish and deeply familiar with the Scriptures, and I have found that these friendships are profoundly meaningful and stimulating to my faith. But not always easy!

The relevance of the Israel issue today lies, I think, in three main areas. First, we have the political matter of the modern state of Israel, observant and secular Jews alike, and we have to somehow work out a valid, Christlike response to the very serious problems faced by Israeli, Palestinian and Arab – by Jew, Moslem, agnostic, atheist, and Christian – living so close together. The existence of today’s Israel is partly due to the passionate campaigning of Christians committed to a specific view of the importance of Israel, and the legacy they have left us is not an easy one to resolve. The religious borders do not always coincide with the ethnic ones.

A second point is that an awareness of history can make us more sensitive with our use of language. There used to be a fashion in this country to use the word “crusade” when talking about campaigns. Now in the past the Crusades were seen in this country as examples of courage and religious faith… but to Jews the same word suggests brutality and inhuman slaughter, times when people claiming to be Christian used violence to steal and oppress. Knowing this, when I hear the name “Campus Crusade for Christ” I have a little internal shudder, and I wonder how Middle Eastern listeners feel. Because of their name, not because of what they personally have done. The church, both rightly and wrongly, has often been linked with gross anti-Semitism, and this stain on our past is a barrier we have to recognise and, when necessary, speak out and demonstrate repentance. Even if you are not the perpetrator, even if noone from this church has been, even if no Baptist since the start of the Baptist movement has ever been involved with anti-Semitic words or actions (which I think is very doubtful), we are all interlinked with the entire body of Christ, and it may be our calling to offer repentance on behalf of others.

Thirdly, I want us to consider for a moment how easily we jump to conclusions about God’s plans. In the year 793 AD the Vikings attacked and plundered the monastery on Lindisfarne, Northumberland’s Holy Island. This picture does not show the original monastery – that was burnt by fire, like the vine in Psalm 80. This was seen for many, many years in England as a terrible disaster, a savage and inexplicable action. But this Easter, in the parish church on Lindisfarne I read a letter written a while ago by leaders of the Norwegian church, first offering a public apology for that action by their ancestors, but also affirming that that event represented the birth of Christianity in Norway. What had been seen as a disaster, a huge setback for the faith in northern England, has another dimension – it gave birth to faith elsewhere. Paul speaks of this kind of thing in chapter 11 – “if Israel’s rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” We can sometimes judge too quickly that earthly difficulties, earthly oppression and such like, means divine displeasure. Much of the Bible, Old and New, speaks against such a simplistic equation, but humanly speaking we easily get led into it. Israel has been in a desperate plight since the time of Christ – scattered from her homeland, often feared or hated, the victim of prejudice and bigotry, and it is all too easy to take that as a sign of rejection by God. Paul speaks most emphatically against this view.

I want to return to Psalm 80 as we draw this section to a close. The vine that was trailed out from Egypt was, of course, Israel. I spoke a little about that a few weeks ago. The Psalmist knows that it is God who brought her out, cleared the ground, made a place for her, planted her, and watched over her growth. The Psalmist also knows that it is God who has broken down the protecting wall; it is God who has allowed in the scavengers, the wild boar, the grazing life of the field. The psalm goes on to plead for restoration, but only in the context of acknowledging both truths about God – He has built Israel up, and He has exposed her to hardship. The poet is deeply pained by this, but does not shrink away from the cruel dilemma. Yahweh is still his God, still the only one who can restore, but the relationship is painful just now.

We’ll come back to that in a while, but before then I want to move on to my last main area – God’s sovereignty. Since Paul spends so much time on this, I think we can guess it was important to him. To repeat what I said earlier: in much of this letter Paul wants his readers to think rightly about situations. In verses that Gordon is going to cover shortly, we find Paul’s most clear statement – “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. For tonight, I just want to emphasise that the way we think about things is very important to Paul. The heart of these two chapters, the main thing he grapples with, is this. If God knows everything, if His almighty power means that He comprehends everything that can possibly happen, if He is the author and perfecter of our faith – then what place does that leave for human choice? “Who are you, O Man, to talk back to God?” says Paul. He poses some very hard questions here – what if God prepared some people for mercy and some for destruction? What does that mean for us, for our friends, for our evangelism? Can I have any assurance about the reality of someone’s faith, indeed, my own faith? Is it all utterly pointless in the face of an all-powerful God? I want to re-affirm here something that always true of everybody’s sermons, not just this one. We all come to a service with some sort of background, some sort of history. With any sermon you hear, you may well get to points where you think, “I just don’t get this, this seems completely at a tangent from where I am”. That is perfectly normal. Take from this part, take from what anyone says up here, whatever is for you, for tonight. This stuff has engaged the minds and hearts of Christians for many years: we are not going to solve it tonight all in one go.

There are two men whose names have been solidly linked with this question. One is John Calvin, a Frenchman who lived in the 1500s in Switzerland, and the other is Jacobus Arminius, a Dutchman born shortly before Calvin died. Neither was solely responsible for the points of view that have taken their name – Calvinism and Arminianism – but both were highly influential, inspirational teachers. Across today’s churches, you will find both points of view represented – for example most Baptist churches used to be Calvinist, and most Methodist churches are Arminian. You can easily find both points of view within the same church. Many, perhaps most, Christians do not give this much conscious thought, and their beliefs on the matter will be shaped largely by teaching they have heard and taken in. What about you? Whether or not any of us has sat down and thought at length about this, we all have a view. It might depend on what Christian preachers you have heard, or books you have read. It might be fun to go round our elders and deacons here and find out what they think – but remember that it’s OK if they don’t all have the same view. It’s not an essential: it’s something we have liberty over, an opportunity to be charitable. What you will hear from me tonight is slightly different from Brian’s point of view last week: that’s OK – it is an opportunity for him to be charitable about my views, and me to be charitable about his! Remember too that Paul intends this part of his letter, just as much as the rest, to be for everyone. He does not stop at the end of chapter 8 and say, “OK, the next bit is just for full-time church leaders”. It is for all of us.

What is the difference between these two views? Well, both camps affirm that mankind by nature is enslaved to sin, which has corrupted every part of body and soul, so that unaided humanity can never earn God’s favour. Both camps affirm that only a sovereign action by God can initiate change, can call a person out of darkness and into the light of God’s grace. Christians of both camps carry out evangelism, they do good deeds. They differ according to the extent that a person’s own will can change things. Calvinism holds that the operation of God’s grace is in fact irresistible, so that the person who God has chosen for eternal life will in fact be saved… even if humanly speaking there seem to be all kinds of delays and setbacks. Arminianism holds that a person can resist and ultimately refuse this grace and so, if you like, alter God’s plan. Calvinism holds that a person who is genuinely saved is then securely and eternally kept safe by God, while Arminianism holds that a person can, after salvation, turn again to resistance and refusal of God and so be once again lost. There are other differences, but the key issue boils down to the role of human will. Has God actually planned and decided every action in advance, including the choices you and I make, or does His fore-knowledge mean that He sees all the different things I might do, but does not actually steer me down any specific one?

Now, both camps can argue a good case from Scripture, and I am not here tonight to tell you which is correct. To put my cards on the table, I incline to Calvinism, but as in the role of Israel, you will not be tested on your choice, and none of the creeds makes a definite statement on this. So who cares? Why does it matter? Speaking personally, Calvinism provides great comfort for my own soul, especially when I stumble and fall, or when I am lukewarm or indifferent to God’s call. I can go on trusting in the irresistible nature of God’s grace. Again, this inclination gives me hope for the lives of others who I hold dear, that the same irresistible grace will work out its plan to perfection for them. Those who choose an Arminian persuasion will no doubt have their own ways of holding on to comfort and hope.

It is not of crucial importance to your salvation which of those viewpoints you choose, or some variation. What does matter is how we think about God, how we think about mankind. Part of Paul’s argument here is that, when all is said and done, mankind is very small compared with the superlative greatness of God: not just in His power, but also in the mystery of His plans. Paul has spent 8 chapters exploring how God’s purposes for lost men and women are kind and gracious, how He has set in motion a wonderful plan to buy back all those wasted lives, all those years that the locust has eaten. He now wants to ensure that we don’t swing to the extreme of thinking that everything revolves around us. God does not act only for man’s benefit: he has a whole universe to consider, not simply the convenience of its human inhabitants.

I think the best way to approach this is in layers. If you’re preparing a wall for a house, you have lots of layers that have to go on in the right order – bricks, plaster, and then decoration. So it is when we think about God. We have to get certain things about Him straight in our minds so that when we add the next level we don’t get all muddled. We have to keep the layers clear in our mind… but we also have to go on adding the layers and not stop once we have the first one or two. The most basic fact about God that we need to start with in this context is that He is good. He is, in fact, absolute good. He is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. Everything else that we fit in place about Him has to be built onto this as foundation. Secondly, His plans for His people are, in keeping with His character, good plans. Those are the base layers, the black-and-white truth, the plain facts of the case.

If for the time being we stick at that layer, then we already see many of the benefits that Paul has told us in this letter. Dave talked about some of these as like a treasure box which he unpacked back in February from chapter 3. Les was excited about others two weeks ago. God’s goodness and His unchanging character mean that we can come to faith and hence to a place of being saved. Not only that, but we can have assurance of our salvation, and that assurance can be legitimately applied in our hearts to others – to those we know who have made genuine profession of faith but perhaps are not currently walking in that faith. For some people tonight, that is, perhaps, what they most need to hear. Salvation is offered by the Most High God, has been made available by His most precious Son, and can be made real as an act of faith in our hearts by His most Holy Spirit. Chapter 10 contains one of the strongest affirmations of assurance in the New Testament: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved… ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

But once we have those layers clear, we then start to delve in to the shades of grey. The Biblical accounts, and people’s personal experiences, seem to tell a different story. God does things that don’t seem good at first sight, He stays silent when we think He should say or do something. God’s works and words can be difficult, and God’s lack of words and lack of works can be difficult. God’s justice is sometimes difficult to understand – the good may suffer, the wicked may prosper – and it is all too easy to fall into one of two traps. We might abandon a faith that, perhaps, was simplistic, when harsh reality seems to contradict the idea that God is good. On the other hand, we might simply close our eyes to the difficulties and try and live in a world where there are no problems, only opportunities. I believe Paul wants us at neither extreme. We must continue to affirm the absolute foundation that God is good, but we must never seek to deny the reality of the terrible, heart-rending things that happen to people inside and outside the Kingdom of God. We live in a world that is fallen: let’s never delude ourselves or pretend to others that all is as it should be.

I think that is essential we hold both those things out to the world in our ministry. I want us to reflect on four things that happen if we are not faithful in teaching and demonstrating the parts of the Bible that are hard, that make clear that bad things can happen to good people. First, our own ability to cope with personal problems is diminished. Secondly, our ability to minister into the crisis situations of others is desperately weakened. Thirdly, our credibility with the world at large is damaged, and finally we have failed to seek God with all of our heart, and mind, and strength. Some Christian ministry in today’s world is like this: it is weak, simplistic, trivial. Let’s strive to ensure that what we offer here is not like that. We need to be able to suffer with those who are suffering as well as rejoice with those who are happy: part of imitating Christ is to identify with the plight of others in a genuine way.

This brings us back again to one of our key points for tonight. There are times in people’s lives that can be appallingly hard. They may suffer all kinds of misfortunes; they may struggle with, and fail to overcome all manner of trials and temptations. You and I do not know God’s purpose for that person, and the message of the Bible – Old and New covenants – is that we must not presume that times of personal difficulty, personal tragedy, personal failure, have any relationship at all to whether that person has been saved. Difficult circumstances in this world have very little to do with the question of eternal security in Christ. The most centrally important thing – the Pearl of Great Price – is our eternal calling, not our earthly circumstances.

Psalm 80, as you perhaps noticed as we read it earlier, has a sort of chorus that gradually builds up from start to end. The phrase I want to pick up on is one used in the second and third of these, “God of Battles”. The NIV, for reasons of its own, weakens the phrase to “God Almighty”, but that is not accurate. The Hebrew word tseba’oth has a specifically warlike connection. Many translations, old and new, use the phrase “God of Hosts”; The Message goes for “God of the angel armies”. I’m going to stick with “God of Battles” since very few people use the word “hosts” in war any more, and God’s armies are not just angelic but include us as well. Why make an issue of this? Because from the time of the Fall, our God has been a god of battles, and He has called His people to be a people of battles as well. But there’s a proviso here in the small print – He wants us to be fighting the right battles, and oftentimes God’s people in every age have shown themselves adept at fighting the wrong ones.

What happens when we do that? Well, God is not very interested in supporting an institution that is fighting the wrong battles. On a personal level, to human individuals, His calling into eternity is given irrevocably, given without regret… but He does not make the same commitment to human organisations. So it is, perhaps, that churches and denominations that once thrived are now abandoned. One of Paul’s frequent themes in his letters is that we have absolutely no basis for presuming anything of God. Our national heritage, our family or community allegiance, our church history, our personal level of faith – none of those give special grounds for expecting God to do things for us. He gives, and He can take away.

So, if God wants us to be fighting battles, and to be fighting the right ones, which are they? There are many, many such battles, and I am aware of only a tiny handful. Locally there are those who work amongst the young people of this area. Nationally we might think of those who struggle to get recognition and legal rights for the unborn. Internationally the “Make Poverty History” campaign has been something that churches can feel truly excited about. These are all very practical campaigns of action, and there are a great many others as well. But Paul’s letter to the Romans has a great deal to do with how we think. He is eager to get his readers – including us – thinking rightly about things. Some of Yahweh’s battles right now, today, are being fought over the way people think about things, and we need to be every bit as eager to get involved with those battles, as with ones of practical ministry.

Here are some thoughts. They are necessarily personal thoughts; others may well disagree. They apply to church in general; they are not criticisms of this particular church. The first is our inability to present to the world a theology of suffering. I think that over the last century or so, since the end of the First World War, the church at large has failed to help people understand suffering. That’s ironic, given that the single most important fact of our faith involves unimaginable suffering, but I think it is true. What that has meant in practical terms is that many people, who might otherwise have found help in the church, have turned instead to other forms of help. Some of that help has been from psychotherapeutic professions – and many of the most influential pioneers of that discipline grew up in Jewish or Christian environments. Psychotherapy has matured, grown and flourished in that century, and it has done so partly because it has had a willingness to work with those who have suffered, to dig deep in search of understanding of how the human mind and heart functions, to stand alongside others in their need. That study has spilled over into some of the related counselling professions. My sense is that, by and large, the Christian church has been slow to wake up to this desperate need to speak credibly about suffering to the world. If our theology cannot be spoken aloud in the presence of desperate agony of soul, we need to rethink how we speak it – not rethink the facts of our faith, but rethink how best to explain them.

My second thought concerns the Bible itself, this text we hold so dear. This is nothing new – every single Christian generation has to defend the Bible in some way, shape or form. In this area, I have very little sense that the nonconformist churches, and that includes Baptist churches, are doing much in the fray at the moment. We are leaving it to the older denominations, the Anglicans and the Catholics in particular, to defend the Bible intellectually. To be sure we have Bible colleges, but with only a few exceptions they offer practical training in ministry, and they are not providing serious, considered answers to the intellectual challenges of our day. This Bible is being challenged as regards when it was written, whether it is any different to other books of religious thought, whether the events it describes have any relationship to real history. There are Christians out there who are defending the Bible not on the basis of faith – a line of argument that cuts very little ice in the world at large – but on the basis of language, of archaeology, of comparative history. I know some of those Christians, and most of them are amongst the older denominations. In the past, the Baptist movement, and other nonconformist denominations such as Methodism, have produced great thinkers, great theologians, great defenders of the Biblical text… but I don’t meet too many of them nowadays.

Now, whether or not my two particular examples touch your heart, the general principle is still true. Yahweh is a god of battles, and He wants his people to be fighting the right battles with Him. Some of those battles are in the mind, they are being fought over the way people think, and we need to be on the field of war somewhere in this arena. I quoted St Augustine near the beginning of this sermon: I want to do so again now. He said: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” That could be written in large letters over every single battle Yahweh presides over as God of Battles: let’s make sure it can also be written over the battles that we involve ourselves with.

I want to conclude by repeating two principles that have woven themselves in and out of tonight’s passage: first, God’s intentions can be hard to understand, and secondly, we must never presume to judge God’s eternal favour and grace according to present earthly circumstances. On an individual personal level, He never regrets choosing any single one of His children. But when we say He is not a tame lion, we must remember that what we are really saying is that He is wild! His creative energy and power are absolutely boundless. The scope of His plans is beyond our understanding, and if we try to out-guess Him we are doomed to failure. When we shift our gaze away from individual human beings, to look at human organisations and institutions, then His wildness comes fully into view. With them, He will raise up and cast down as He sees fit, He will gather and scatter again in ways that may not make sense to us. The images that the Bible uses to describe God are active, often violent – they are images of the hunt, of armies, of storms. And yet, unexpectedly and mercifully, God is hunting man because He loves him, because He is man’s friend. For all His wildness, for all His ability to destroy and unmake, for all the vast arenas of space and time He contemplates when knitting together His plans for His creation – for all that, when He turns to consider the plight of one of His children, His hands are poised to mend rather than mar. The process of mending our broken lives may take rather longer than we wanted, it may involve rather more pain than we thought needful, but He never regrets the choice He made.

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