For those of you who haven’t heard about it, my old client and friend Yakov Merkin has been very busy over the past couple of years, and is running a successful fundraiser for the continuation of his Light Unto Another World series, whose promotional video includes some high-quality animation. I haven’t been involved at all in this work of his, but knowing him it’s a good bet to be entertaining. Click on the image below to take a look and see whether this is something you’d be interested in backing
I had the opportunity to preach at my church yesterday. Here is the sermon I gave:
Galatians 5: 13-23:
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b]15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Isaiah 42: 10-13:
Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them. 11 Let the wilderness and its towns raise their voices; let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice. Let the people of Sela sing for joy; let them shout from the mountaintops. 12 Let them give glory to the Lord and proclaim his praise in the islands. 13 The Lord will march out like a champion, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal; with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies.
The children of our church (my own included) recently went on a Royal Rangers camp based on the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There are so many lessons, illustrations and passages that can be taken to use as sermons from such a rich book, the one that has always stood out to me from a theological perspective is when the Pevensie children are with the Beavers and are first told about Aslan, when Lucy asks:
“Then he isn’t safe?”
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
It’s only natural that people, especially children, want to feel safe. So why do I find this answer so satisfying? Why do we praise God for being a mighty warrior? Why does that reassure us?
Because a God who is safe, who is harmless, has no power to protect us from the dangers we face in this world. A kitten or puppy enriches our lives and makes us feel good, but it is no help against a wild animal, an invading army or tyrannical government. Safety, protection, requires strength, and our God is almighty. Good news!
While we’re on the topic of God’s omnipotence, people often ask the question:
“Can God make a stone so big that he can’t lift it?”
And think that they are asking something clever, as if showing that omnipotence itself is a contradiction. But this comes from a misunderstanding of what omnipotence is.
This becomes clearer when we break the question into two parts. The key is the second part: Can there be a stone so big that God can’t lift it? Of course not; size and mass are no obstacle to an omnipotent God. This is a logical impossibility, nonsensical. Now is the time for another favourite quote of mine from Mr. Lewis, this time from The Problem of Pain:
“…meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, ‘God can.’ It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”
So asking whether God can create something logically impossible, in this case a stone too big for God to lift, remains nonsensical. Omnipotence means being able to achieve anything that power can achieve. Let’s keep nonsense out of our discussions, and take God seriously.
So, God is omnipotent, and this concept makes sense, but strength, by itself, is not enough to reassure us. Bullies and tyrants are stronger than their victims (though they are not stronger than the strength of all their victims added together, which is why they like to keep people divided and fighting each other). I’m reminded of the American saying from the 1950’s (and probably earlier)
“A government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take everything you have.”
Everyone in this country (the Czech Republic) over the age of 40 has experienced this under Communism, and many people across the world, even in supposedly free countries, are experiencing it now. I don’t know about you, but I don’t place much trust in politicians and bureaucrats to not abuse their powers. This is why the second half of Mr Beaver’s remark is so important. Aslan is not safe, but he’s good.
Our God is not just dangerous, omnipotent, he’s also good, goodness itself. God’s unlimited power is reassuring because of his unlimited goodness, his love, his kindness, gentleness, and generosity, his forgiveness, his patience with us.
God is dangerous to the world, because he is stronger than it and better than it, he uses and turns around the world’s evil schemes to achieve something wonderful in the long term, even though in the short term things can get very unpleasant. He also shows us a better way to live to resist being part of the world’s evil. This is why the world hates Him and those who follow Him
Coming back to the first text, the world wants us to be impure, deceitful, angry, jealous, divided and out of control, because those kinds of people are easy to manipulate. It’s easy to point at someone and say, “That person is the problem, those people are the source of all the evil and danger you see around you, pour out all of your pent-up uncontrollable rage and cruelty on them. Whenever you start to feel bad about something you’ve done, look at today’s target and see that they are worse than you. Punish them, destroy them! Then you’ll be the deliverer of justice and can drown out your own guilt (for now).”
God’s kingdom doesn’t work like that. We are called to be productive, capable, self-controlled, loving, generous, kind, merciful and joyful. When we see someone doing something evil, our reaction should not be “Ha! I’m better than you!”, but instead “Without God’s grace, that could’ve been me.” We are not called to control other people, to make their choices for them, or take away all consequences of their actions; that’s not what God does with us.
[*Indeed, as Lewis opines elsewhere in “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” essay found in God in the Dock:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”]
God allows us the freedom to make mistakes, take the consequences and learn and grow from them. In this life his primary interest is in our salvation and our character, in the direction we are growing. Unfortunately, in order to truly pay attention to an issue and learn, it often takes a lesson that hurts.
That’s not to say that we should remain passive; we should stand up for what is right, and if we see someone doing something truly evil and dangerous, and it is within our power to stop them, then we should try to, but not with the goal of destroying them, but to give them a chance to see sense, repent and turn their life around.
Our God is not safe, but he’s good, and our king. He calls us to be free. As we serve him, and in our dealing with others, let’s try to be like Him.
(*unfortunately the Czech translation of God in the Dock only contains about a third of the essays in the original and omits this one, so I was unable to use it in the sermon, hence this section being in square brackets)
Today is the 22nd anniversary of the first time I contacted the girl who became my wife. Here is the song I wrote and sung for the occasion last night.
There’s a certain precious magic in communication When distant souls discover they are close; Two lonely hearts that have their homes in separated nations Take a chance, and thus a friendship grows.
That friendship can plants seeds of love that sprout and grow and bloom, And multiply the joys and stakes of life, Until the two stand side by side as blushing bride and groom, Forever to be joined as man and wife.
I’m so glad I started down this path that led me to your heart And grew my soul immensely on the way, So I’ll do my utmost to always play my part In blessing you, my treasure, every day.
The temple had lain in ruins for around 50 years. Destroyed, but not forgotten, just like Jerusalem itself. It still had immense, painful value to the Israelites. The visible sign of God’s presence among them desecrated and useless for anything except a reminder of what once was. Hence the strong emotions of both joy and sorrow, joy that the temple, and through it the nation of Israel, is being rebuilt with God at the centre, and also sorrow that it will never be like it was under the glorious rules of David and Solomon.
It’s hard to imagine the task of rebuilding an entire nation, but I’d like to look at the process of reconstruction, of renewal, from a different angle, using some modern examples from youtube. There are a lot of channels that focus on this sort of project, whether it’s restoring a classic car, a boat, an airplane or a house, but there are some projects that stand out.
A youtuber with a lot of followers often drove past a hill that had a ruin on the top of it. It wasn’t a castle or temple or anything like that, it was an incomplete construction project that had been planned to be a great mansion, but for various reasons construction halted and the partially completed house was abandoned to the elements for nearly twenty years, had been frequently snuck into by teenagers and animals, every window was broken, rain had gotten into the stonework, there was dirt, rubbish and broken glass everywhere, and many of the timbers were rotten. What could have been a very valuable property was now useless. He saw the potential of the place, bought it for a vastly reduced price and began to work on it, documenting his progress in various episodes and updates. He cleared debris and filth, tore down rotten beams, parts of the roof and walls until there was nothing left but the foundation and the interior walls and floors that had remained intact and undamaged by the elements, then over the next two years new frames and walls are added, roofs and windows replaced, plumbing and wiring done, doing a lot of the work himself alongside various professionals, learning new skills from those professionals, and in the process made changes and expansions to make the house even larger and more practical for his family, finally moving into it recently while some areas surrounding the house are still being worked on.
The viewership of his channel increased enormously, he obtained sponsors for the individual episodes that enabled him to pay for professionals to implement his more ambitious plans, His viewers are excited and happy for him, supporting him financially through buying his merchandise, giving him advice as well as professional contacts on all sorts of aspects of the project.
Another youtuber who specializes in restoring planes and motor vehicles was offered a plane for free if he could get it running. It had cost half a million dollars new, but had broken down and been left to rot outside for fifteen years, inhabited by birds, rats, mice and spiders. It was filthy, stank of mould and every kind of droppings, its engines were clogged with all sorts of gunk and seized up with possible corrosion.
Step by step he took the engines apart, scrubbed and cleaned the various components, cleared the lines with pressurized air, put them back together and after many failed attempts got first one engine to start, and with the help of some spare parts sent in for free by a viewer, also the second. Both engines will be sent for a full professional service later, the exterior has been given a deep clean, and recently crawled around the filth and foul stench of the interior to clear the trash, remove the seats and carpets to begin the process of giving the whole of the inside a deep clean.
Again, his channel received a major boost in viewership from this project, he’s raised over $200,000 via crowdfunding for the project, from people who will get nothing in return, only the knowledge that they helped make this project succeed.
Why is that? What is it about these projects that so captivates the audience? Is it following the progress of a pleasant, enthusiastic and skilled individual working hard to achieve their goal? That’s definitely part of it, but these cases also touch on something deeper.
Something that was clearly valuable was overlooked and written off by the crowd as worthless, beyond saving, too much work to consider bothering with. But then a wise and kind individual came along and fell in love with the beauty and potential and true value of the thing, currently spoiled as it may be. That person then lovingly and patiently and skilfully sacrifices their time and effort, working to restore and polish that treasure so it’s true magnificence can be seen by all.
Wouldn’t it be great if someone loved me or you like that? Are we dirty, broken treasures that can be repaired, cleaned, renewed and transformed into something wonderful? I have good news. You are a treasure, loved deeply by God himself, though you are full of dirt, brokenness and corrosive sin. He is ready and excited to work on you to clean, repair, renew and transform you into something glorious. If you have already given Him your life, then he has already begun that work, it is called sanctification. This process takes a long time, can be unpleasant and for long periods it can seem that no progress is being made. Parts of you need to be scrubbed clean of all the corrosive sins and attitudes that threaten to eat them away; that can hurt. Some parts will need to be thrown away and replaced entirely with something new and better, so we can become a new creation; that can be scary. Parts that have been seized up your whole life will begin to function, giving you capabilities you didn’t know you had.
You are a temple of God, a place for the Holy Spirit to dwell, a great treasure in a pot of clay. You might think that you are too broken, too polluted, to be of any use, but a whole new abundant life awaits you, if you only allow the master renovator to do his work.
Last time I gave a sermon, I introduced a new song, and played a video connected to the sermon that also served as a pre-sunday-school message for children. This time, I have (almost) combined all of those into one (I’m not sure it quite works as a message for children, but they might enjoy some of the images at least)
Many people struggle to love God because they can’t grasp who and what God is, how indescribably wonderful he is and worthy of our praise and attention. This passage provides us with one key to grasping a whole lot more of who we are called to worship and follow.
God is love. Would you say that the song was telling the truth about love? We see examples of love in the world that reflect those aspects, those properties of genuine love. Even if we aren’t experiencing them directly ourselves, we have certainly witnessed something like them in the lives of others around us, or in stories that really resonate with us, because they are showing something true and pure, the love of good parents or grandparents, of good and honest friends, a motivated rescue worker or doctor, the camaraderie and sacrifice of an honourable soldier, a helpful colleague at work, a kind-hearted stranger, a loving husband or wife. All of those loves that we can see concretely are weak reflections of the perfect, abundant, generous and powerful love of god. All of those loves that we see around us or hear about ultimately come from him.
God is love. So everything that the song said about love, we can say about God. He is patient and kind; he won’t leave us to our fate, he looks us in the face; he sees our flaws, but that doesn’t discourage him; he gives us a place where we truly belong, he continues to care even when we turn our backs on him, he forgives us and welcomes us back when we realise how stupid we have been, he gives us room to grow and empowers us to be the person we were truly meant to be.
God is love. A key aspect of God is that He is a powerful, active, invigorating, joyful, and supremely generous relationship between three persons. God is so overjoyed by this relationship that he wants to share it with us! Imagine that. He wants us to be as loving, as joyful, as generous and fulfilled as He is—to have live in abundance. To grow the gifts that he has already given us and become more and more the magnificent creations he made us to be. Now that is an invitation worth accepting. If we have already accepted that offer, it is one worth remembering, being grateful for and living accordingly with all our heart, all our strength and all of our mind.
Perfect love casts out fear. What is the message that the world, our governments and news organizations has been telling us for the last two years?
Be terrified. Suffering and death is around the corner. Hide. Everyone around you is a threat; keep them away. Don’t meet together, don’t celebrate, don’t sing. Wear a mask, or two, or three. Be responsible and show everyone around you how terrified you are. I recently saw a video of a man on an airplane putting on six masks. He was very proud of himself, making a show in front of everyone of adding mask after mask, as if to say, “Look at me! I’m better than all of you, because I’m more afraid.” It’s absurd. Other people scream hysterically whenever anyone comes near them, as if standing next to someone is the same as attempted murder. Some just play at being scared so they can look down on others and bully them, others have become addicted to this foundation of fear and are unable to cope with things going back to normal. They should be pitied.
What else does the news try to terrify us with? War is coming with Russia! (Now that the war between Ukraine and Russia has begun, that it’s the start of World War III and nuclear catastrophe) Democracies are turning into tyrannies all over the world. Civil wars are on the horizon. Economies are collapsing. Everything is unstable, out of control and you’re powerless to do anything about it. Despair, cower, and most of all, be terrified.
How do we respond to that? We could quote Mark Twain:
“If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.”
Because so much of the news is distorted, if not invented, and important events and contexts are often ignored completely. Unfortunately this is not only true of the tabloid press, the never-ending news cycle means that reaction and attention is everything, and the easiest attention-getting reactions to evoke are fear and outrage. (The fact that these reactions also make the viewer/listener easier to manipulate is a bonus). There will be some fragments of truth mixed in occasionally, but without a reliable direct source for comparison, it becomes very difficult to know what is really going on (even moreso during a time of war, as all you will hear on the news is propaganda from one side or the other), so ignoring the sensationalized version of what a given news source wants you to think becomes more appealing, even healthy.
Even if every danger they warn of is real, the words of C.S. Lewis that have been recently circulating online in various venues come to mind:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb.“How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays
If all of our hopes are in this life, then despair and terror are logical responses. It has always been that way. But our hopes are not all in this life. We are promised persecution, struggles, difficult tasks and difficult choices, but also the strength to endure and grow through them. We are not abandoned and helpless, we are treasured children of a loving God. If the worst happens and we die, we go to be in the arms of God, fully plunged into that amazing relationship, seeing His infinite beauty face to face.
Getting back to the song, a blind friend of a friend by the name of Michael Bayus listened to it, liked it and shared the following thought:
“Being deeply loved by someone gives one strength, loving someone deeply gives one courage.”
So know that you are deeply loved by someone stronger than the world, who has defeated the world, and take strength from that to deal with the discomforts and troubles of life, and we are still very well off compared to any era in history.
Let’s have the courage to love those that God loves around us, work to make our little part of the world a little closer to what it should be, create something beautiful and share it, renew a relationship that’s been neglected, support a friend in their efforts to improve themselves, work on developing the gifts we have been given, aim to be more like Christ in the way we treat others. Meditate on what it means that God is love, and that He loves you, and learn to love him back.