Today’s Sermon: The Master Renovator

2 Corinthians 4: 6-18

Ezra 3: 10-12

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.

A Sermon: Love and Terror

(This is a sermon I gave on the 20th of February this year, before the Russia-Ukraine Conflict began)

Romans 8:14-18

1 John 4: 7-21

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.

Today’s Sermon – They Can’t Hear the Orchestra

1st text:

1 Corinthians 12:12-31:

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues[d]? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

Main text:

1 Corinthians 3 5-15:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

Message for Children:

I’d like to show you a short little video I made 11 years ago, that has a boring name, but is also called “How to Park a Toy Car”

Did you like that? As you saw, the little ball at the start had all sorts of adventures and did all sorts of interesting things before it set another ball going, which started another little chain reaction, and another, then finally the big ball hit the wall that set off the toy car to park itself.

That first ball didn’t see the end result, it just knew that it did its job well. Life can be like that, in that when we do something good for someone, it can seem like nothing has really changed, when in fact we’ve started a process that will end up causing something truly beautiful. So don’t give up and stop doing good things for people, because the good things you do, especially the things you do for God, are much more important than you realise.

Sermon for adults:

Basically, if you remember the children’s message, you’ll get the main point of today’s sermon, but us adults tend to make things much more complicated than they need to be, and like things to be explained in more detail, so let’s try to do that.

Deep down, all of us would like to make a difference in the world. Some of us have less ambitious goals than others, and many have given up on the idea, but ultimately we would like to think that we can make a little part of the world a better place than it would have been without us.

Many of us look at our own efforts and the results from them, and get discouraged. We don’t see crowds of people getting saved in response to something we said, we don’t get people coming up to us to thank us for something we did for them that changed their life completely. Of course, it’s a very good habit to be sure to thank people that have helped you in small ways, it is a real encouragement to them to persevere with acts of kindness, especially when the person didn’t realise how much what they did helped you.

But small acts of kindness can have much more impact than we realise. Someone who has just been shown a kindness, especially an unexpected one, is in a better mood and more likely to then show kindness to someone else themselves and less likely to be needlessly cruel, so our initial act is multiplied, echoing further and further, making more and more of a positive difference the wider the context we take in.

This is multiplied again by the fact that humans are beings of habit. When we overcome our nerves and do something once, it is easier to do it again, and the more times we do it the easier it gets until it becomes second nature and we do it almost without thinking.

The same can be said for speaking important, even painful truths. Openness breeds openness.

Unfortunately, the same is true in the other direction. Cruelty breeds cruelty, and deceit breeds deceit. So it is a great power that we have, a great responsibility, far more than we realize.

So a kind act, a kind word, a small piece of the truth can help another soul along their journey to find God, but a soul’s journey does not end when it gives its life to Christ, it is only just beginning. As God’s children we have that foundation of Christ, and it’s time to build on that. We can help each other practically, we can study together, share our discoveries, offer warnings about dangerous paths, support each other through difficult times and encourage each other to build good habits and grow in character, becoming more and more citizens of heaven down here on earth. We are not all teachers, we are not all prophets or miracle workers, we don’t all have gifts of healing, we all have different skills, talents and opportunities, but what we do does not have to be spectacular to be worth doing, it can still change the world.

Maybe you didn’t like the analogy from the children’s message. After all, you’re not an inanimate metal ball or block of plastic—you can think, you can choose, you can actively participate in or fight against things, so here is a different one, a musical one, from the ending to the film Robots:

When Herb starts playing by himself, even though he is putting all of his heart and skill into it, it sounds awful, like he’s gone insane and is just making random noises. It’s only when the others realise what he is doing and start playing the other parts that it becomes obvious that he is actually playing beautiful, fun and joyful music.

It can be like that with us. When we try as hard as we can to do what is right, serve God, and stand up for the truth, but to the outside world we can look like a fool doing pointless random things, and sometimes the situation can get so bad that we start to see ourselves that way.

But that’s because they can’t hear the orchestra. They don’t see the ripples of influence flowing out, the slow processes that have started, the grand context that will show the true beauty of what we’ve done.

In summary, I’d like to share a poem I wrote back in January for people who saw all the scary currents in the world and were tempted to despair and shut themselves off completely.

[Perception]

So don’t give up, you just can’t hear the rest of the orchestra yet.

God’s Solution to Worry, Anxiety, and Fear by Nathan Haddock

For the purposes of transparency, the author is a friend of my wife and I was provided this book for free for review purposes.

The world is a stressful place, and it is easy to become consumed with worry, anxiety and fear. Doing so is very unhealthy, but thankfully also unnecessary. This book provides an effective antidote to the constant barrage of messages to be terrified and discouraged by what is going on in the world and what is just around the corner, by focusing on the unchanging rock on which our faith is built.

Nathan doesn’t do this with artful prose, ground-breaking insights or powerful rhetoric, but with simple reminders of biblical truths in a way that is accessible to new believers. For those of us who have been around the theological block a few times, you’ll most likely have heard these things before, but these basic principles that lead to a healthier mindset can be drowned out by the hectic pace of life, so reminding yourself of them can do no harm.

Come With Us

Today I was reading Numbers chapter 10, and this little passage jumped out at me:

Numbers 10: 29-31 (NIV):

Now Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place about which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will treat you well, for the Lord has promised good things to Israel.”

He answered, “No, I will not go; I am going back to my own land and my own people.”

But Moses said, “Please do not leave us. You know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you can be our eyes. If you come with us, we will share with you whatever good things the Lord gives us.”

This is the heart of evangelism. We, as beneficiaries of the New Covenant, are heading for the true Promised Land, and it is only natural that we should want others to come with us, since all are invited.

Our journey there is the greatest of all adventures, offering the greatest of all rewards, along the way choices and challenges with enormous stakes, our actions leaving ripples that echo to eternity.

Notice that Moses does not just offer to have him taken care of the whole way, but invites him to participate. He has something to offer Israel, he will make their journey better.

What Christ offers as part of being his children is not just an adventure tour, not just a journey where everything is prearranged for us like a safari, package holiday or adrenaline sports, but a partnership in a great and glorious mission.

You might not think so, but you have something to offer. You can make a very meaningful difference. You can share love and truth and hope with others. You can help to mould your own character and those around you in ways that will be reflected in eternity. You can be part of God’s blessing for someone else, take part in the great love story that started before the creation of the universe and will outlast it.

Who’s up for that?

Alma Deutscher, the Superversive and the Importance of Beauty in Art

Alma Deutscher is a world-famous musical prodigy and composer, who at the age of 15 has already composed full orchestral concertos and even a full opera, with her music having being performed together with major orchestras and in major venues such as this recent performance at Carnegie Hall:

The piece is wonderful, but I found her introduction especially interesting, since it could have come straight from the Superversive Literary Movement’s mission statement:

“Some people told me that melodies are no longer acceptable in serious classical music. Because in the twenty-first century, music must reflect the ugliness of the modern world. Well, in this waltz, instead of trying to make my music artificially ugly in order to reflect the modern world, I went in exactly the opposite direction! I took some ugly sounds from the modern world, and I tried to turn them into something more beautiful through music.”

Another similar quote from almost three years earlier, when she was 12, puts it even more succinctly:

“Let me tell you a huge secret. I already know that the world is complex and can be very ugly. But I think that these people just got a little bit confused. If the world is so ugly, then what’s the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?”

The transformation of ugliness into beauty, the magical nature of beauty in art, and the desire to rebel against today’s pretentious fashionistas of foulness and lifeless drudgery with true and worthwhile art is the sign of a healthy mind and genuine artist.

A single flower poking through a crack in a vast concrete landscape, a small act of kindness in the midst of horrific war, innocence being protected from a depraved mob—each far outshines its surroundings and transforms the whole scene into something uplifting and inspiring—no wonder our intellectual jailers put so much effort into polluting, smothering and drowning out all glimpses of beauty, all glimmers of hope, all echoes of the truth, because just one breath of fresh, pure air will undo all of their work to enslave and convince the world that there is no point in resisting, nothing worthwhile to aim for, no meaning to be found in life.

That is why we as Superversives applaud Alma for her stand, and strive to create beauty, serve the truth and bring hope through our creations, whether they be poetry, prose, song, story, painting, sculpture, or any other art form.

The source of all beauty, hope, truth and love stands with us, and He is stronger than the world.

 

*update* found the source of the second quote and added the video

Another appearance on Zaklog the Great’s Book Club

Two and a half weeks ago, I appeared on Zaklog the Great’s Book Club again to discuss part of Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”. Being an ex-pat myself, I thought I might be able to offer some interesting perspectives.

Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto VI, [My Native Land]

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;—
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.

The Scandalous Humility of Christ

I forget the precise context of the conversation, but several years ago I used a simplified form of this analogy to describe Christ’s mission on earth:

A prince falls in love with a common girl from a distant province of his kingdom, but she rejects him thus: “I no more belong in your world than you do in mine; with all your wealth and finery and power, your palaces and servants and armies, you will never understand how poor people live.”

So the prince disguises himself as a serf, telling no-one but a few trusted servants and taking no money or other possessions with him, learns a trade and goes off to live where his face is not well known, supporting himself and working his way across the country. Where he spots an injustice against others, he has his servants secretly report it to the king to be dealt with, but gives them strict instructions to not intervene on his own behalf, no matter what, merely record how people treat him and only deal with such matters after he has decided to reveal himself.

Over three years he meets with both kindness and cruelty, generosity and greed—dishonest merchants, corrupt sheriffs, hospitable paupers and violent bandits. He is insulted, robbed, beaten, wrongfully imprisoned and tortured, yet not once does he invoke his authority to spare himself, not once does he call out for his nearby servants to intervene, he endures it all quietly.

Finally he arrives at the girl’s door, his simple clothing torn and scars visible on his face and hands, and asks her to reconsider, that his offer of life with him at the palace still stands.

Can you imagine what those servants must have felt, watching their beloved prince be so mistreated, suffer so many affronts to his honour, endure such undeserved pain and degradation, yet with strict instructions to not defend him, and all for the sake of some common girl. Scandalous!

Christ’s sacrifice for us is even greater than that, in that he is far further above us than a prince is above a commoner, and He took the punishments for our crimes, enduring even separation from the Father and excruciating death. At any moment during His earthly ministry, he could have called down legions of angels to defend him, yet He did not, only using his divine authority to help others, to heal the sick, free the oppressed, bring hope to the fearful and light to dark places. We are utterly unworthy of His generosity, of His scandalous humility, and each day we should remember and be grateful.

30 Years Since Freedom Broke Out

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of Communism in this country, when, as we can learn from the late Vladimir Bukovsky’s mammoth work, Judgement in Moscow (Mr Bukovsky unfortunately passed on from this world a few weeks ago; I am glad to have been part of the effort to bring his long-term dream of an English translation of that work to reality before he left us), the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union planned to stage apparent major popular revolutions across all the nations they controlled, in which they would place ‘independent reformers’ in power (whose strings the CPSU would continue to pull) to fool the West into continuing to prop up their crumbling socialist economies with new floods of investment.

 

Their efforts were partially successful, and vast amounts of money flowed into Soviet coffers, but they failed to take into account one critical thing—how deeply unpopular socialist rule had become among the people that lived under it—and the staged upheaval in Eastern Europe (especially in this country) ended up doing what it was supposed to only pretend to do—actual reformers rose to positions of power and dismantled Soviet rule entirely.

 

Some countries were not so lucky, and the process stuttered and stumbled to a halt with no clean break with the past, and their people continued to suffer with lessons only partially learned. The lack of Nuremburg-style trials of Soviet leaders was a tragedy and major contributing factor to this lack of healing.

 

Today many people have forgotten or never learned the lessons of that horrendous attempt to create utopia on earth without God, which killed somewhere between a hundred million and quarter billion people while enslaving half the world for half a century, and are clamoring for their nations to follow down that same tragic path of centralising control of speech, thought, wealth, opportunity and incentives.

What obvious lessons should we have learned?

People do not turn into angels as soon as they are elected or given power.

A government that is powerful enough to give you everything you need is also powerful enough to take everything you have.

The bigger the bureacracy, the more distance there is between decisions and their outcomes, the easier it is to shift the blame and avoid responsibility for your mistakes.

In a massive bureaucracy with little to no accountability, a bureaucrat doesn’t get job security by solving your problem. He gets it by making you and many others dependent on him for the rest of your lives.

When a government is given the power of life and death over its people with little to no accountability, the ones who rise to the top will not be the most benevolent, but the most ruthless.

Collective ownership means no-one really cares what happens to the thing owned.

Everyone being paid the same regardless of job or job performance means it is not worth the effort of learning a difficult skill or doing a good job. As the old Soviet saying goes, “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” Productivity suffers, quality declines, corruption, theft and graft increase, infrastructure decays and falls apart, supply lines fail more and more often. Former (and soon-to-be-former) Soviet citizens  found it incredible (and were often brought to tears by the fact) that western shops had shelves full of food.

Innovation and creativity entail risk. When you remove the possibility of reward for a risk paying off, creativity and innovation are stunted.

Individual charity is appreciated, institutional provision is taken for granted. A life lived without gratitude becomes empty and soul-crushing.

Let us not fall prey to the temptations of utopian promises, of an easy life, of free stuff for ourselves. Rise to the challenges of freedom and individual responsibility. Remember the past, or be doomed to repeat it.

Today’s Sermon: The Music of the Spheres

I had the privilege of preaching in my church today, and it was well received by all. Here it is in its entirety:

2 Peter 1: 2-11 (NIV):

2 Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters,[a] make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This list is a recipe for spiritual growth, and could easily form the basis of a whole series of sermons, but I would like to focus on one small aspect of it, how knowledge of God leads to love for God.

The word translated as faith, pistis means a clinging to things we know to be true from the evidence, even when our emotions tell us to doubt. Goodness is self-explanatory, a long-term determination to seek the truth and do good, whether that is in the form of defending the innocent, standing up to evil, consoling the suffering or declaring the uncomfortable truth as best we can.

We all know the greatest commandment, from Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV):

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Some people really struggle to love God, they have it in their heads that love is a feeling, a mood you have to be in, but that is an unhealthy approach, a dangerous lie sold to us by advertisers and bad storytellers, that will not only lead us to an unhealthy, superficial and fragile relationship with God, but similarly disastrous and unsatisfying relationships with other people.

The attitude of “As soon as you stop entertaining me or make me uncomfortable, I’ll discard you” leaves you alone, shriveled and childish. Like goodness, love is an attitude, a determination and daily decision to seek the best for the object of your love in the long term, even when it is sometimes the last thing that person wants in the short term. It is the highest calling, and a difficult challenge.

Some would say that the key to loving God is gratitude for what He has done for us, for saving us, and they would be right. Gratitude is a cure for all sorts of evils, it helps us to see ourselves as we really are, a healthy motivation for all sorts of good things and a very important part of a loving relationship. However love is more than just gratitude, and gratitude can wear thin. An important part of true, deep love is really getting to know the one that you love, and delighting in who they are.

This is sometimes difficult with people here on earth, because we can discover unpleasant things about them, and this can spoil our impression of what God is like, but with God, who is perfect, we know that there will always be more and more wonderful things to discover and admire, that the greatest appeal of heaven is that we will be there with God, and see Him in His full glory and beauty with none of our own flaws and sins getting in the way.

Many people struggle to love God because they have a false impression of who God is, they imagine he is a cosmic Santa Claus, a magical grandfather who smiles, pats us on the head, gives us a treat and sends us out to play (and when they see the pain and suffering in the world, they start to doubt that He exists at all); others see him as a mean and strict sheriff, watching our every move so he can bring the full hammer of the law down on us the moment we step out of line.

Both of these images are wrong. God is more loving and generous as well as more powerful and just than both of these images.

Others see him as an engineer, who built his creation as a great machine, then left it to run, following its progress with interest and occasionally tweaking it or reprogramming to make sure everything is running properly and it does what he wants it to do, sometimes even stopping it and acting directly to rescue someone or tell his creations something important.

This one is a little better, but like all images of God falls far short of reality, He is far more involved and interested and foundational in His creation than this. No one image can capture God completely, He is far greater and more amazing than we can possibly imagine, but there is a much better approximation, and one that is far from a new idea. First, a quick look at Revelation 4:11:

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”

Not just created, but also have their being. Not just crafted, activated and left to themselves, but actively maintained from moment to moment, from nanosecond to nanosecond. The idea from classical theology, the analogy for the relationship between Creator God and His creation is of a musician and the music that he plays. He is the source of all existence, and is actively involved in absolutely everything that exists, if he stopped actively supporting the existence of the universe, it would no longer exist, just like the music would end as soon as the musician stops playing. We don’t need to worry, the patterns, and harmonies that we know as the Laws of Nature are solid and dependable because God is solid and dependable. It is a powerful analogy that works on multiple levels, in that God’s creation is full of beauty, harmony, and repeating patterns, like well-crafted music.

In ancient times they used to call the motion of the stars and planets musica universalis, the music of the spheres. Even in modern physics, String Theory (which I don’t pretend to fully understand) has vibrating strings as the basis of all matter, with different vibrations like musical notes producing different particles, the notes with which God plays the music of the universe.

Well-known authors of fiction have also famously made use of this imagery, such as C.S. Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew, when Aslan sings Narnia into being and into life, or J.R.R. Tolkein in the Silmarillion where Eru Illuvatar (God) and his Ainur (Holy Ones) together sing the world into existence, and Melkor (the greatest of the Holy Ones) out of pride and lust for power and influence corrupts his part in the music, causing disharmony and twisted, evil creatures, but in a musical battle Eru takes Melkor’s harsh and dissonant part of the song and adds his own higher music to transform the whole into something even more beautiful, and this is all reflected in the world and its history that is created, as Eru announces, “Behold your music!”.

In this analogy of the relationship between God and creation, miracles are not God stopping the music to rearrange the orchestra or fix a broken instrument, but flourishes, fanfares and improvisations that fit into and enhance the overall work.

We are part of that music that God plays, we are utterly dependent on Him in every way, there is nothing we are or have or can have that is not directly reliant on Him. Not only that, but He has given us life, a mind a spirit and the ability to choose to take part in and add to that harmony, joy and beauty, or work against Him and create disharmony, ugliness and suffering.

Many people, and many of His angels, have chosen the latter, resulting in the polluted and corrupted world we live in, causing many to see God as cruel and heartless. If we can look more carefully, past the flaws, we can see a dim reflection of His true nature, his beauty and harmony, his astounding generosity and his power.

We see it in the sunset and in the night sky; in the majesty of mountains, forests, seas and deserts; in the songs of birds and the graceful movements of animals; in the inventiveness of ingenious machines and devices; in the purity of a child’s eyes wide with wonder; in the paintings and music of true artists; in the faithfulness and kindness of true friends and loved ones, in the magic of the seasons.

The triune God who is perfect love, who loves us more than we can ever love him, who gives us all these things and more, who will right all wrongs at His appointed time, sacrificed himself to pay for our part in ruining His creation, and invites us to come and know him, for now in part, but when the time comes we will know Him clearly, perfectly and eternally.

One day He will sing a new song, transforming this song that we know into something better; a song that will never end and never go wrong; music that this current song makes possible, and he invites us to be part of it.

That is something to look forward to and be grateful for. That is who we have the honour of knowing. That is someone to love.