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Archive for December, 2011

Wonderful article by Alastair Roberts on Atheism and Christianity.  Every paragraph’s a winner, how about this to whet your appetite:

The target of much atheist protest is the god that secures all meaning and makes sense of the world, the religion that serves as a crutch and underwrites the social order, the faith that inures one to truth and reality and gives birth to dulling and enslaving illusion. This is the god in whom they don’t believe. They might be surprised to find that Christians stand alongside them in attacking this deity: we don’t believe in that god either.

Read the whole thing here.

And Happy New Year!

 

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Happy Friday

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is on iPlayer now.

A lovely bit of silliness…

And speaking of silliness, this is great.  Warning: a lot of swearing at the end…

 

 

 

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Adapted from a previous post…

What does it mean to be God-centred?

Three answers:

As a description of theology, it’s inescapable.

As a method of theology, it’s indispensible.

As a doctrine of God, it’s incorrect.

First, as a description of theology…

Simone Weil put our inescapable theo-centricity like this:

“No human being escapes the necessity of conceiving some good outside himself towards which his thought turns in a movement of desire, supplication, and hope. Consequently, the only choice is between worshipping the true God or an idol.”

Or Luther in his larger catechism had this to say regarding the first commandment:

What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart… That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.

We’re all God-centred.  The question is, which God?

It always bothers me when one Christian claims a superiority over another because they are ‘God-centred’.  As a description of someone’s theology, that’s a plain tautology.  Trying to shout “God” most loudly is not the way forward in assessing the merits of various theologies.  “God” is central.  But we should be much more interested in the question: “Who is this God who is central to our theology?”  Since we’re inescapably centred on this vision of ultimate reality, the identity of this God is the vital question.

But before we jettison the term “theo-centric”, let’s acknowledge a realm in which the term is useful.  As a theological method, theo-centricity is indispensible.  That is to say, as a way of knowing God, we must be God-centred.

Jesus said that the Father and Son are bound together in an eternal Family Secret (Matthew 11:27). Only the Father knows the Son and only the Son knows the Father.  If the verse ended there only God would know God.  But wonderfully the verse continues:

No-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  (Matthew 11:27)

There is a way into knowledge of God.  But it’s not our way to God, it’s His way to us.  We do not know God, but God reveals Himself, through His Son and by His Spirit.  The trajectory is downwards.

When the Spirit reveals Christ as Word of the Father then we know God through God and by God.  And this is the only way to know God.  Therefore our method of theology must be theo-centric.  We must centre ourselves on where God has revealed Himself – in God the Word and by God the Spirit.

So theo-centrism is a useful term.

But… it can be a very misleading idea if we think of it as a doctrine of God.

You see we might grant that all people are focussed on some vision of God.  And we might determine to focus ourselves on God’s revelation of God.  But it’s an entirely different question to enquire whether God Himself is likewise consumed by Himself.

Of course we should have our hearts and minds fixed on the living God, and of course if we fixed our ultimate affections elsewhere that would be idolatry.  But I have heard philosophical arguments from Christians to say that God must fix His affections on Himself lest He be an idolater too.

Do you see how theo-centrism as a theological method gets confused with theo-centrism as a doctrine of God?

And, more dangerously, do you see how such a method is in fact anthropocentric? It’s an argument that says ‘We would be idolaters to set our affections on lesser beings, so God must be an idolater if He did that.’  It’s a theology from below.  And yet I find it on the lips of the very people who want to accuse all around them of man-centredness.

So let’s be clear – everyone is already God-centred in their theology.  The real issue is what kind of God we’re talking about.  And the question of theo-centric method does not at all settle the question of God’s own being.  While we must be theo-centric, we have to admit that God Himself is higher than the ‘musts’ that apply to us.  The theologian who says God “must” love Himself higher than the creature has actually followed a theo-logic that is less than God-centred.

God has actually revealed Himself in the Word who became flesh for all time.  If this God was the God we centred on, and if this revelation was the one to which we listened, we’d find no room for the self-centred God.

In this sense then, to be truly theo-centric means extolling the truly other-centred God.

 

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Click for source

It’s universally popular.  You can find it cross-stitched on Granny’s mantle-piece and emblazoned on a rock star’s T-shirt. It tumbles from the lips of bible-thumping fundamentalists and soft-spoken gurus. But what does it mean?

Let’s consider four points…

Because God is love, there is relationship, radiance, room and response.

Relationship

1 John 4:8 says “God is love.”  It doesn’t say ‘God is loving’, which would be true.  But God is love.

This could not be true of a single-personed God.  Just imagine an eternity past of utter solitude.  If God was an individual, He’d never know anything of love, of sharing, of give and take, back and forth.  He is defined by being alone.  He is defined by being supreme.

If such a god brings creation into existence it will be the first time he has had to relate to anything.  And such a god is definitionally supreme.  So how is this god going to relate to its creatures?

This god can only dominate you.  This god can only lord it over you.  The very being of this god is power and supremacy.  And you must be its slave.

But what about our God?

Our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (as 1 John 4:9-14 unpacks).  Therefore, for everlasting ages past there has been giving, sharing, back and forth, give and take, exalting the other, blessing the other.  The early church used to refer to it as a dance (perichoresis).  And it’s a dance like all the best dances when the partners bow to each other and defer to each other.

That has been the Trinity’s existence from all eternity.  Our God enjoys having others alongside.  Our God lives to bless the other.  Our God is love.

Radiance

When you read “God is love” in context you realise that “God” refers particularly to the Father.  In the next verse we read how “God” sent His Son.  So “God is love” tells us particularly of the Father’s being.  Eternally He has been defined by love because that is who He is – He is Father.  And fathers beget.  Fathers give life.  That is the definition of a father.  You are not a father unless you have given life.  But the Father has been eternally life-giving.

Wind back the clock into the depths of eternity and you will always find the Father begetting His Son.  (This is what the Nicene Creed means when it says that Jesus is “eternally begotten of the Father.”   The Father has always been giving life to His Son).  There has never been a time when God was not Father – when He was not Life-giver, Lover.

There was a whole eternity when God was not Creator.  There was a whole eternity when God was not Lawgiver.  Creator and Lawgiver are not fundamental to who God is.  Of course we readily imagine that God’s prime job description is Maker, Ruler or Judge.  But it’s not. And Trinity means it can’t be.  Far more fundamentally God is Love.  And He was love long before He was Creator, long before He was Law-giver.  Long before He was Judge.  His Fatherliness is the most basic thing to say about Him.

Which means that God has always had a radiating quality.  The Father has always been giving life (begetting), always shining His Light (Hebrews 1:3), always speaking His Word (John 1:1), always loving His Son – and this in the power of the Holy Spirit.  God’s very nature is an outgoing, radiating nature.  He is a Fountain of life and blessing, because “God is love.”

Room

All of this means that there is room in God.  Perhaps that sounds like an odd phrase, but just listen to how John speaks in verse 16:

God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. (1 John 4:16)

What an astonishing thought! “Dwelleth in God.”

Think of the lonely god for a second.  With such a god you might make your way towards him if you slave really hard.  But you would always be outside Him.  Now think of the Trinity.  By the Spirit we are grafted into the Son and brought to the Father.  In other words, by trusting the Son we are brought in on the love that God is.  We dwelleth in God!

All the other gods keep you at arm’s length.  In Islam only a few of the righteous will even get to see Allah, on one day and from a great distance.  But because the Living God is Trinity we are wrapped up in God.  Filled with the Spirit, clothed in the Son, doted on by the Father.  2 Peter 1:4: “We participate in the divine nature.”

Response

Finally, there is response in God. Think of the dearly beloved Son of God.  For all eternity He has responded to His Father – receiving His love, trusting His care, obeying His words, offering His praise – and all by the power of the Holy Spirit.  But at Christmas time, this perfect response to the love of God was earthed into our humanity.  Here’s what John says:

God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.  (1 John 4:8-9)

The Beloved Son takes flesh and lives a fully human life of response to God.  He receives, trusts, obeys and praises the Father in our name and on our behalf.  And now, says John, we live through Him.  In other words, we come in on the perfect response of the Son.  We live in perfect correspondence to the Father through Jesus.

Just as Christ lived our life in our name, now we live His life in His name.  We not only pray “in Jesus’ name” but do all things, whether “in word or deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father by him.” (Colossians 3:17).

The wonder of “God is love” is immense.  But without the truth of Christ’s response, “God is love” could only condemn me.  “God is love” but I’m full of hate and indifference.  “God is love” but my heart is sluggish and cold.  Yet God sent the True Responder to His love into the world.  And now we live through Him.  Hard-hearted, hate-filled sinner though I am, Jesus has saved me.  He has propitiated the Father’s wrath (v10) and offers the perfect response of gratitude and worship on my behalf.

God is love and now, through Jesus, I dwell in love.  Hallelujah!

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Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins

Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women

My soul doth magnify the Lord

She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Mine eyes have seen thy salvation

Behold, there came wise men from the east

Gold and frankincense and myrrh

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Thanks to Vincent Marty-Terrain for translating!

On dit que tout là-haut vivrait un grand barbu,
Soi-disant très joyeux, mais… difficile à dire :
Je ne l’ai jamais vu, en fait, et toi non plus.
Mais les enfants y croient, ça peut bien nous suffire.

On le dit solitaire, et puis plein de mystère,
Pas le temps de parler, il a bien trop à faire !
Et s’il vit en reclus tout au long de l’année,
Nous, on est bien content qu’il se montre discret.

Quand on s’adresse à lui, pour nos besoins urgents,
Jamais de réponse : qui sait s’il nous entend ?
On veut être sages, raisonnement simpliste,
Pour mériter nos places sur sa belle liste.

Et peut-être qu’un jour, mais c’est sans garantie,
Il nous donnera tout, pourvu qu’on soit gentils.
Alors moi j’en ai marre, et je crie au scandale :
C’est un distributeur qui nous fait la morale !

Ce coup de gueule peut paraître un peu étrange
Mais c’est pas le Père Noël qui me dérange,
Aussi drôle qu’il soit, et il est bien curieux,
Je m’attaque en fait à l’idée qu’on a de Dieu.

C’est Dieu que l’on voit comme un vieux barbu distant,
Père Noël antique, invisible géant
“Il te voit quand tu dors, il te vois éveillé,
Il regarde et attends pour te voir te planter”.

Comme au Père Noël, nos souhaits, on lui envoie,
On veut bien ses cadeaux, mais lui on n’en veut pas !
C’est la vérité bien qu’on ne la reconnaisse :
On peut l’embellir, mais ce n’est que du business.

Il faut que nous soyons gentils pendant l’année
Pour avoir un bonus lorsqu’elle est terminée.
“Donne-nous nos cadeaux, on a été bien sages !
Puis va-t’en, on a tout ce qu’on voulait, vieux mage!”

Car le Père Noël est piquant, singulier,
Mais personne ne voudrait qu’il reste à dîner !
Je suis sûr que c’est un hôte haut en couleur,
Pourtant nous craignons son discours révélateur.

Voilà donc ce que l’on croit du Père Noël
Et c’est l’idée qu’on a de ce Dieu dans le ciel.
Mais Noël nous illumine de son éclat,
Car voilà : le Dieu Très-Haut est né ici-bas.

Il vint en personne au sein de notre misère:
Dieu le Fils, lui, est devenu Dieu notre Frère.
Il vint à nos côtés, pour y être à jamais,
Lui, notre Emmanuel, notre Dieu incarné.

Ce Dieu né humblement bouleverse nos clichés:
Il descend de son ciel, il est destitué,
Bercé dans la paille, bébé gesticulant,
Car pour nous sauver c’est notre place qu’il prend.

Le vieux Noël donne les cadeaux et repart,
Jésus vient pour nous connaître, il vient pour nous voir;
Le vieux Noël récompense les enfants sages,
Jésus guérit, pardonne, nous sort de nos cages.

Si tu n’aimes pas Dieu, je crois savoir pourquoi…
Tu le prends pour ce Père Noël de gala.
Tu fais bien de rejeter cet épouvantail !
Mais regarde, aujourd’hui, ce Dieu né sur la paille.

– Adaptation du poème de Glen Scrivener,
par Vincent Marty-Terrain.

 

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My Favourite Carols

Here’s a Christmas carols playlist.  39 minutes of Carolling glory while you wrap your presents.  You’re welcome!

And here’s the first one:

Unto Us a Child is Born

Thou Who Wast Rich

Hark The Herald

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

Angels From the Realms of Glory

See Amid the Winter’s Snow

From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable

O Come O Come Emmanuel

O Come All Ye Faithful

While Shepherds Watched

We Three Kings

Once in Royal David’s City

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And here’s the closed captions for my video (you click on the little CC button at the bottom right)

Continue reading for the transcript…

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Dear Christmas Preachers,

Did you know that Christmas is about the incarnation?  No, but seriously, did you?  Cos I aint hearing much theology of incarnation.  Which is odd, don’t you think?

Visiting the worthy sermon repositories in England and the US, I’ve listened to dozens of “Christmas sermons” over advent.   Yet I’ve found that, if the incarnation is mentioned at all, it’s mentioned as a stark fact – something merely to wrap our heads around: “God in skin. Weird huh? Anyway…”

Or as an excuse to talk up ‘history’: “Jesus shows up in time and space which means that we can verify the truth through historical methods, and really the New Testament documents are very reliable don’t you know…”

Or as a line in some Anselmian argument: “God basically wants to acquit his elect and so needs a Scapegoat to take the fall. So there he is the manger. Weird huh?  Anyway…”

In my experience, even that kind of mention is about as incarnation-y as it gets for your average Christmas sermon.

Where is the whole “He became what we are, that we might become what He is”?  (Are we so functionally unitarian that we can’t really make Athanasius work for us?)  Where is a theology of God-with-us?  (Are we so Latin in our theology of the atonement  that ontology seems irrelevant to the question?)  Where do we exult in the “divine-self-emptying”?  (Are we so wedded to a theology of glory that we refuse to countenance the little LORD Jesus?).

Anyway, it’s Thawed-Out-Thursday so here’s an old article on Incarnation from the ‘freezer’ (and links to two more).  The three are:

Incarnation and Trinity

Incarnation and Creation

Incarnation and Salvation

(And for good measure here’s a paper on Athanasius and Irenaeus)

Below is Incarnation and Creation.  Have a read.  Or, much much better, go and read On the Incarnation.  Seriously, it’ll make your Christmas!

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It’s very rushed. I’d only just written it when we filmed, so didn’t memorize it.  We shot it in haste and had big trouble with the sound.  We’ll try to do a proper version for next year.  But… you get the idea.  Share it around if you like:

 

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They say there’s a big man who lives far away,
Supposedly jolly but it’s hard to say.
I’ve never seen him, and neither have you.
But the children believe, and I spose that’ll do.

He’s known as a loner, with many a quirk
No time for a chat, he’s embroiled in his work
He keeps to himself, for most of the year,
I reckon we’re grateful he doesn’t appear.

We send him requests, for particular needs,
But we never hear back, who knows if he heeds?
We try to be good, give his arm a twist,
To merit our place on his blessed little list.

And maybe one day if we do what we should,
He’ll give us our things, so long as we’re good.
I’ve had it to here, I’m calling his bluff:
He’s a weird moralistic dispenser of stuff!

Granted, this rant is a strange one to pick
But listen I’m not really after St Nick
As strange as he is, and Santa is odd,
In fact I’m attacking most folks’ view of God.

It’s God who we see as a distant Big Guy –
An ancient, invisible, St Nick in the Sky.
“He’s sees you asleep, He knows when you wake
He’s watching and waiting to spot your mistake.”

And just like with Santa, requests we hand in,
We want all his things but we don’t want him.
That’s our connection with old Father Christmas.
We might dress it up, it’s essentially business.

Throughout the year, good behaviour’s our onus
When Christmas rolls round we’re expecting our bonus.
“Just leave us the gifts Nick, we’ve been good enough!
And then please push on, now we’ve got all your stuff!”

I mean Santa is interesting, curious, quirky
But no-one wants him to share their Turkey!
I’m sure his “ho, ho, hos” are sublime,
But I fear what he’ll say once he’s drunk our mulled wine.

That’s old St Nick, but the picture rings true,
It’s how we imagine what God is like too.
But Christmas resounds with a stunning “Not so!”
The One from on high was born down below.

To a world in need He did not send another.
God the Son became God our Brother.
He drew alongside, forever to dwell,
Our God in the flesh, Immanuel.

This God in the Manger uproots all our notions:
A heavenly stooping, divine demotion.
Born in a stable, wriggling on straw,
Fully committed to life in the raw.

Santa gives things and then goes away.
Jesus shows up, to befriend and to stay.
Santa rewards those with good behaviour.
Jesus comes near to the broken as Saviour.

If you don’t like God, I think I know why…
You probably think He’s St Nick in the Sky.
You’re right to reject that far-away stranger!
This Christmas look down to the God in the manger.

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Based on this former rant…

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Sermon: Luke 1:26-38

Less of a sermon, more of an advent calendar…

Text

Audio

Slides

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Psalm 72 – one of my favourites

Student Carols – Isaiah 9

Christmas is God laying hold of us – Hebrews 2:14-18

Evangelistic carols service – Light shining in darkness – Isaiah 9:2-7 (different to the other Isaiah 9)

Luke 1:26-38

In the beginning… – John 1:1-2

The Word became flesh – John 1:14

Christmas brings a crisis – John 1:15-18

All-age: Christmas turns slaves to sons – Galatians 4:4-7

All-age Carols Talk: Christmas is weird – Phil 2:5-11

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Here’s a simplified guitar tab for From the Squalor – one of my favourite carols.

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The proper tab can be found at Christisinn’s excellent channel with over a hundred hymns for guitar (really loving his latest upload O Jesus My Hope).

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Audio.

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Happy Friday

O unHoly Noise

Fastforward to 5:43 for the updated performance. Just as nauseating:

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A repost from  two years ago…

Today I had two very different meetings with a similar theme.

One person – a really great Christian – confessed to me that they’d prayed for God to enter their life many thousands of times but never got the answer they were looking for.  I could relate – this describes the entirety of my teenage years.  (See this talk for more)

The other meeting was with some Mormons who knocked on our door.   They both told me they became convinced Mormons when they prayed for an experience of the Holy Ghost.  This apparently confirmed to them the truth of the gospel as restored by Joseph Smith.  As the little leaflet they gave me says: “The Holy Ghost confirms the truth through feelings, thoughts and impressions.”  Both of them described this as a private experience of peace and joy.  It was unclear how this brief religious feeling related to the status of Joseph Smith as a prophet and priest, or the truth of the book of Mormon.

But apparently this is the way to become a Mormon.  As with Smith himself, pray James 1:5 and something will happen.  My leaflet tells me, “This knowledge can be miraculous and life changing [Smith met the Father and the Son personally!!] but it usually comes as a quiet assurance.”

Joseph Smith 1

Clearly the missionaries I met were at the ‘quiet assurance’ end of Holy Ghost experiences.  But it struck me after they left that they had found what my friend was after, and what I’d been seeking as a teenager.  I wanted a private religious experience – shining lights, weak knees, woozy stomach.  I wanted peace and joy as I perched on the end of my bed.  I wanted some kind of numinous glow, wordless ecstasy, love and groovy vibes.  Now that I think about it – I was very much into Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground at the time.  I think I basically wanted spiritual heroin.

But again the question would have to be asked – what exactly is the link between this spiritual experience and the truth that is supposedly being authenticated?  The Mormons had a spiritual high – but that doesn’t answer the question, ‘which spirit has produced it?’  A Mars bar could give me warm fuzzies, what’s that got to do with Jesus?

Perhaps this is another case where we need to reconsider faith in more biblical ways.  We commonly think of faith as our work (a feeling to be generated) and as something related to religion in general.  On this understanding, all kinds of people have ‘faith’ because they manage to work up generic religious sentiments.

In the bible, faith is simply our receiving Jesus.  Not our work but God’s.  And its content is not ‘religious feeling’ in general, but ‘Christ and Him crucified’ in particular.

And how is Christ received?  Not perched on the end of my bed.  He is received in word and sacrament.

Ever noticed how parallel Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 are?  Well look in particular at Eph 5:18-20 and Col 3:16-17.  Being filled with the Spirit is parallel with ‘letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly.’  Want to be filled with the Spirit?  Be filled with His words.  And these words are the words of Christ – He Himself is communicated in them.

So I don’t say to my friend that spiritual experiences are unimportant.  But neither do I advocate the Mormon route.  God is found in Christ and Christ is found in His word.  We ought never to stop short of a personal encounter with the living Christ.  But we should never seek such encounters apart from where He Himself is given.  And He is freely given in word and sacrament.

It’s just interesting to me that a cult founded in mistrusting the word and trusting personal experience can foster spiritual understandings that are so close to home.  Let’s give up on looking for the spiritual heroin.  Let’s instead receive fellowship with the living Christ, not because of our own quest for experience but on the basis of His prior and utter self-giving.  The encounter is already real and true in the gospel – He is yours.  “The Son of God loved you and gave Himself for you.” (Gal 2:20)   If you’ve believed this gospel truth, you have experienced the Holy Spirit’s assurance.  If you haven’t received that word, then you must know that you’ll receive Christ in no other way.  Continue to ask, seek and knock by all means.  But return continually to the place where He’s already freely offered.  Right there you already have Him.

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