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.

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Who else would dare?

Today is my wedding anniversary, here is this year’s poem:

Who else would dare?

Who else would dare to join with me,
With all my flaws and fears?
Who else has set my heart so free
To love you more each year?

There’s no-one I would rather share
My secret pains and joys;
There’s none more worthy of my prayers
For refuge from life’s noise,

For beauty’s glimmer, pure and deep
To wash right through your soul,
For heaven’s peace to fill your sleep
When hard days take their toll,

For my love to give new strength
When all of yours is spent;
That we may share the same wavelength
And know what each one meant;

That our bond may forever be
A taste of His sweet rule
That helps us touch what we can’t see,
The pledged celestial jewel

Of His kingdom on the earth
And life forevermore,
Bought by His death and humble birth
To open up the door.

Upstream

The mighty salmon swims upstream to die and to give birth;
We, too, must resist the flow and climb for all our worth.
The world spews out debauchery and every kind of sin
In waves to surely knock us down the moment we give in.

And yet we stand on solid rock with strength that’s from on high;
Just stay upon the narrow path, that way your feet stay dry.
He promises to bring us back should we ever stray
From His footsteps up the hill along the narrow way.

Don’t dip your toe in that awful flow, it’ll soak you to your skin;
Worse yet, drag your foot away until you topple in
And tumble hard against the rocks that pulverise your soul
‘Til purity and sanity are futile, foolish goals.

That’s when a feeble plea to Him is answered at a run;
He dives in, pulls us to the shore, but still His work’s not done,
Gives us the pure white robes He left behind as He dove in,
Then sets off with divine resolve to break the power of sin,

Swims up that putrid torrent to block it at its source,
By soaking up its vileness with His own disfigured corpse.
He made himself a horror that no holy eye can stand
To open up a way for us to reach the Promised Land.

His humbling sacrifice complete, He rose again in power,
Now sits upon His throne and at His own appointed hour
Will judge the living and the dead with justice, but with grace
To welcome those for whom He has prepared a special place.

Generosity

Observe the grasses’ greeting as they wave within the wind;
They bless the ground beneath our feet as if we’d never sinned.

The quiet kindness of the trees feeds rivers in the sky;
They offer up their strength to every creature passing by.

Streams bear precious nutrients that they themselves don’t need,
Reviving weary souls of every nation, tribe and creed.

Birdsong adorns the fragrant air and sunset’s amber hues
Give otherworldly warmth to those who haven’t paid their dues.

This fount of generosity is but the faintest glimpse
Of all the Father does for us and many others, since

Eternally He gives all that He is to His own Son,
Who gave Himself to pay for all the awful things we’ve done.

His Spirit pleads on our behalf and gives gifts on our way
Of life in full abundance towards eternal day.

(I composed the above while walking around our village to give my eyes some rest from looking at computer screens, since a recurring eye problem (malfunctioning tear duct causing severe eye dryness and headaches) has flared up again. Prayers for me would be appreciated).

Such As These

Trudging through a wintry plain
As toes begin to freeze;
Kind eyes look down from heaven
To watch over such as these.

Disfigured outcasts stumble on,
All ravaged with disease;
Holy hands don’t fear to touch
And make whole such as these.

Abandoned by their former friends,
Despite their desperate pleas;
A well-lined back in heaven knows
The pain of such as these.

Souls wracked with guilt that won’t wash out
And wearying unease;
Scarred hands and feet in heaven show
He died for such as these.

Slandered, beaten for His sake
And forced onto their knees;
A special place in heaven
Is prepared for such as these.

Their race full run, their strength all spent,
Their breath a painful wheeze;
Arms in heaven are stretched out
To welcome such as these.

A loving smile, a sick friend healed,
A fragrant summer breeze;
Foretastes of His heaven are found
In moments such as these.

A child’s unflinching openness,
Trustful and keen to please,
The kingdom of our God must be
Approached as such as these.

Today’s Sermon

I was preaching in church today (and translating myself at the same time, since there were a lot of Americans at the service). I thought I’d share what I said here, since it touches on the Superversive Literary Movement.

Colossians 3: 22-24:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

In this passage the overall principle is clear, and we in the West are far better off than slaves, even though on a particularly bad day we might briefly forget it. We have even more reason to obey this commandment, and less reason to complain. This doesn’t make it any easier to obey, but it helps to keep things in perspective when we realise who this commandment was originally given to. If slaves are to obey their masters sincerely and in reverence for the Lord, how much more are we to do so, knowing the heavenly as well as often earthly rewards we will receive for our efforts?

It can often seem that we are toiling and toiling away at something with no positive results to show for it, or we see results, but fail to see how what we are producing is of any value, of any wider spiritual benefit. At those times it can be easy to lose hope and just go through the motions. I’d like to look at this issue from a slightly different angle, beginning with a quote from the ever-awesome C.S. Lewis:

While we are on the subject of science, let me digress or a moment. I believe that any Christian who is qualified to write a good popular book on any science may do much more by that than by any directly apologetic work. The difficulty we are up against is this. We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s line of communication.

 

What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent.   You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian. The first step to the re-conversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat the Penguin and the Thinkers Library on their own ground. Its Christianity would have to be latent, not explicit: and of course its science perfectly honest. Science twisted in the interests of apologetics would be sin and folly.

This is what I try to do as a writer, to create works that stand on their own merits alongside other books by people with very different worldviews (I leave it to the readers to decide how successful I am in that regard), while at the same time as a member of the Superversive Literary Movement to tell stories that encourage people to build rather than tear down, to persevere rather than give in to despair, to notice, value and be grateful for the beauty we see all around us in all its forms and provide glimpses of the great truths behind this universe.

This principle not only applies to books, but to every kind of useful work, every productive industry. What if whenever someone wanted to find a good handyman, a good lawyer, a good engineer, a good doctor, a good researcher, the best options available to him, the most capable, the most trustworthy, were always Christians? What effect would that have on that someone, on the society as a whole? Wouldn’t it open up tremendous new opportunities for the Good News to spread? This is the context of Peter’s instruction to the believers in his first epistle:

1 Peter 3:13-16

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

In the culture in which this was written, pure altruism was unheard of. If you helped someone in some way, they were then literally in your debt, since honour and shame was a much more powerful motivating force than it is today. This sometimes made people reluctant to accept help, since they didn’t know what sort of return favour would be asked of them. So when a Christian helped a stranger and didn’t want anything in return, as Jesus commanded, the recipient of that help would be suspicious. They’d think, ‘Oh, they must be holding out for something really big from me’, and this would be the opportunity for the Christian to explain that they were expecting a heavenly rather than earthly reward for their efforts. It opened up a door to share that hope.

The two greatest commandments are to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, strength and love our neighbour as ourselves. With all of our strength and our mind includes the work that we do, so it would be appropriate to say that we should love the Lord with all of our work. So let’s work on ourselves, educate ourselves, improve, become the best we can be at what we do. Let’s honour God, make his world a better place and bless others through our work.

 

God likes to work through us, to use us to achieve his purposes. Jesus said that he came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. Let’s be part of that abundance that God has planned for others, and through our work give them a little glimpse of the abundance that only he can give. Sometimes this will open up an opportunity to share some of His good news, other times it will be enough to simply be that blessing for others, and give them a tangible foretaste of His kingdom.

 

This is a great challenge, one not to be taken lightly. I’d like to close with the closing instruction Paul gave to the Phillippian church:

Phillippians 4:8

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Why is it important to think about such things? Because what we feed our mind on forms our character, transforming us and our behaviour from the inside, so people can watch us and see the Gospel at work. If we can provide true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy things for other people to think about (as the Superversive Literary Movement tries to do), all the better.

If you want to sample some of my efforts in this regard, click on the images below:

all cover_f1_v13_frontsmall

Selected Verse - Heroes and WondersSelected Verse - Faith and Family Beyond the Mist

 

 

 

 

* After the sermon, someone came up to me to ask where I got the C.S. Lewis quote from. I had to explain that I went looking for a Czech translation of God in the Dock, in the end finding one, only to discover that it was a translation of a selection from that essay collection and the passage in question was not included. I ended up translating the passage myself together with my wife in preparation, and handed him the copy I had printed out for the sermon. For my tens of Czech readers, I provide it below:

 

Když už mluvíme o vědě, udělám malou odbočku. Věřím, že jakýkoliv křesťan, který je kvalifikován napsat dobrou popularni knihu z jakékoli oblasti vědy, tím dosahne daleko více než skrze čistě apologetické dílo.  Problem je v tom, že lidé budou často naslouchat křesťasnskému pohledu na věc třeba půl hodiny – ale jakmile odejdou z naší přednášky nebo odloží náš článek, jsou ponoření zpět do světa, kde se opačný postoj považuje za samozřejmost. Dokud tato situace trvá, nějaký dalekosáhlý úspech je prostě nemožný. Musime napadnout nepřítelovy komunikační kanály.

 

To, co chceme, není více knížek o křestanství, ale vice knížek křesťanských autorů o jiných předmetech, v nichž je křesťanství skryté, v pozadi. To lze nejlépe pochopit, když na to podivame z druhé strany. Naší vírou těžko otřese nejaká kniha o Hinduismu. Pokud bychom ale četli nějakou základní knihu o geologii, botanice, politice či astronomie, a jeji závěry by poukazovaly k hinduismu, to by námi otřáslo. Moderního člověka nedělají materialistou knihy napsané na obhajobu materialismu, ale základní materialistické předpoklady ve všech ostatnich knihách. Stejně tak nebude nijak zvlášť znepokojen knihami o křesťanství, ale bude zneklidněn, když kdykoliv bude chtít koupit levnou populárně naučnou knihu v nějakém vědním oboru, zjistí, že nejlepší dílo na trhu napsal nějaký křesťan. Prvním krokem k znovuobrácení tohoto národa je série knih napsaných křesťany, které mohou porazit sekularni alternativy na jejich vlastním hřišti. Křesťanstvi těchto knih by muselo být v pozadi, nevyslovené, a věda samozřejmě naprosto poctivá. Překrucovat vědu v zájmu apologetiky by byl hřích a pošetilost.

Wise Men

Declared by wonders in the sky,
Wise men saw a king was nigh.
Trusting in their ancient art,
They got ready to depart
Across the vast and burning sand
To a distant promised land.

A mighty convoy was prepared
To ensure they made it there,
With treasures, mounts, supplies and troops
To fend off nomad raiding groups.
Tents to shield from brutal heat
And nightly chills that oft repeat.

After months through harsh terrain,
Despite discomfort, cold and pain,
At last they reached the royal court
To see the newborn king they sought.
The old king flatters them a while,
With subtle knives behind his smile.

“Of course we’ll worship this new king
As soon as you’ve confirmed this thing.
In Bethlehem was prophesied
The birth of our great nation’s guide.
Pay your respects, then bring back news
That we can share with all the Jews.”

With joy refreshed and strength renewed,
And packs refilled with royal food,
They journeyed on to that small town
(Soon to be of great renown),
Above them that celestial sign
Guides them in one final time.

With reverence they find their goal
Beside the slumbering lamb and foal.
Despite the stench, the holy sight
Fills their souls with peace and light.
Their treasured offerings now seem
Paltry in that glorious gleam.

They stay a while, discuss the worth,
The meaning of this wondrous birth,
All that’s heralded this thing,
A pauper’s home for this great king?
What will he be and do for all,
That has the heavens so enthralled?

Their spirits countlessly enriched,
Return to where their tents are pitched,
And as they rest, a herald warns
Of plots against this pure newborn.
To thwart this foul insidious wrath,
They packed and took a stealthy path.

“This all our fathers saw and knew,
Most honoured gospel scribe Matthew.
We know their tale is one small part
Of a greater work of art.
Now we have helped you as we ought,
Please tell us all He did and taught?”