Sunday, March 02, 2008

Evening service: a chronological account

Subtitle: On Kindness

Sunday evening. I'm in church, a little weary mentally and emotionally if not physically. My friend asks me to save a seat for him while he goes to the loo, but unfortunately we lose each other and the service is starting. Psalm 145 is read out as Paul gently settles us down and focuses us: God is our king, the one we praise and worship, most worthy of praise, and we remember what God is like in particular: "The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love". With that, the sounds of Crown Him with many Crowns begin to play. From Psalm 145 too, "The LORD is righteous in all his ways" (v.17), something we all are not, mindful of the ways we have failed him throughout this week. And so we turn to God, whom we can call our Father as part of his family, in a time of corporate confession:

Father, we have sinned against Heaven
and against you.
We are not worthy to be called your children.
We turn to you again.
Have mercy on us,
bring us back to yourself
as those who once were dead but now have life
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hear Psalm 145 again: "The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love...The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth." (v.8, 18), and reminded that Jesus assures us completely that forgiveness is there for all who truly turn to him: "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28)

We hear from LM, who is about to declare his faith (instead of being baptised, having already been baptised as an infant in a nominal Roman Catholic family) but before that we hear a little of his story. Apart from the odd crisis moment here and there where God is a convenient genie to call upon, God has otherwise been absent from the first 18 years of his life. But having been puzzled by the behaviour of a Christian girl he fancied, he undertook to go to an "Introducing Christianity" course if only for the sake of impressing said girl. Not that it went well at first, having fallen asleep in 2 of the first 3 weeks he went! But in the fourth week, it was as if somebody had switched on a light bulb. An awareness of his own sense of sin, coupled with just an awestruck feeling of the person of Jesus suddenly had him scrambling for answers, wanting to know more about Christ and those who call themselves his followers. The rest is history. Well, it isn't really, but you know what I mean. This isn't read out, but I now think of v.19 in Psalm 145 - "He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them." As always with baptisms/declaration of faiths, my favourite part is when at the end of it, we all get to say together that "We are members together of the body of Christ; we are children of the same heavenly Father; we are inheritors together of the kingdom of God. We welcome you!" and then break spontaneously into applause. It reminds me that Christians are never just individuals but a part of one whole body.

We hear prayers, for the week of evangelistic talks just gone by, that peace and justice might reign in Kenya, for some of our mission partners. And then we sing, His Forever and Yesterday, Today and Forever. It is during the singing of the latter that I am reminded once again why the words of the songs we sing are so important. I'm not feeling particularly upbeat, but when I sing a song like that, which focuses on God as the object of our faith and not on the strength of my faith, how I happen to be feeling at that particular moment, that paradoxically, I am strengthened, for I can be certain that God is "always loving, always true / always merciful and good / are faithful and we will trust in you."

We're in the middle of a series on Elisha in 2 Kings, today being 2 Kings 4:1-44, 6:1-7. This is a passage with some more well-known stories, such as the widow and the oil, and the barren woman who ended up having a son, losing him, and getting him back, but it also contains some more obscure yarns, like the poisoned stew (!) and the borrowed axe head(!!). I won't cover the sermon in detail, but it was nourishing. Andrew's quite new at this, having not been out of Bible college for that long (although to his credit, he has already co-written a well-known book!), so his preaching may seem a little unpolished, but I actually think that the plainness of his sermon helped in magnifying God's word tonight. Andrew tells us upfront that his sermon really has only one main point today: the kindness of God. Having set the passage in context, God's judgment of a nation and his preservation of a faithful remnant, of whom all of today's characters are a part of (v.1, 9, 38, 6:1), he shows that the five stories we look at all point to a God who loves his people. Andrew right points out, I think, that this particular son doesn't grow up to be anyone "special", or significant in the Bible storyline. Having recently been looking at many barren women who eventually bore sons who were "important", such as Sarah (Isaac), or Hannah (Samuel), or even Ruth (Obed), it's easy to think that God only blesses those whom he deems important in history, even if it is salvation-history, but here instead we simply see a God who passionately cares for all his people.

I enjoyed his point about the incident in 6:1-7 too, which records a seemingly trivial incident, especially when juxtaposed with what comes after! But again it illustrates that God is concerned with all our lives. Andrew also mentioned his wrestling with how to best apply the passage. To show us how not to apply the passage, he read out part of a sermon by a popular prosperity gospel preacher here in London on this exact passage, which to bluntly put it, was horrendous and pastorally irresponsible. But at the same time, Andrew tells us that after thinking long and hard about it, it is still right to conclude that God wants to bless his people. We could easily fall into the opposite trap of having low expectations about God, and fail to see that our God is one who draws near, one who delights in showing his love.

Whew! I've written far more than I expected, but I need to mention one last thing about the sermon before we move on. Throughout this series in 2 Kings, the preachers have sought to persuade us that through Elisha, God is offering a preview, a microcosm of what he will eventually do through Jesus. After tonight, I'm convinced! There is of course, the basic fact that both their names mean "God saves". That in itself doesn't show anything. But when I see Elisha raising a child from the dead, or feeding men barley loaves with some left over (4:42-44), the Christological parallels become more striking. God ultimately shows his kindness through Jesus. In a world hostile to God, we can be sure of Jesus' own kindness to those who are faithful to him. (Romans 2:4 is the other verse that immediately comes to mind.) And so we sing again, and we close as we started: "The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love."

My Bible study co-leader came up to speak to me briefly, and I'm thankful that he seems to be more deliberately looking out for me lately in a big church where I can still feel alone in a crowd. I spotted Nicholas Cage/David again tonight, but didn't have a chance to see if he remembered me. Instead, it was another more recent conversation that got a sequel. Lee is a Korean who's newly arrived in London - I won't go into it, but basically not knowing anyone and being homeless, he ended up being invited to stay in Andrew's (said preacher) home. I was asked to take him under my wing last week, and we ended up having a very good and very long chat, despite the fact that his English wasn't very good. Unlike David, Lee is a Christian, who's about to go join YWAM in Switzerland. (As YWAM is an organisation I'm familiar with, that did help provide some grist for our conversation!). He was delighted to see me again this week and although I was initially not feeling up to it, I could see that he needed a familiar face and agreed to go to church supper with him. This time around as we talked, I was just blown away by his simple trust in God this week, as his gratitude to God providing "his manna", as he jokingly put it, in terms of providing for a place, food, and Christians came across really clearly. He thanked me for showing him kindness as we got ready to head home, but once again, I was left thinking: "The encouragement isn't as one-sided as you think!"

To use Piperite language, tonight was a God-saturated service, with the Word given primacy, and a recognition that Christians are all part of a body. I know the church is far, far from perfect; I've heard plenty of stories of spiritual abuse; that people "like Jesus but not the church" etc. etc. When I came back tonight, I'm still tired. I still know there are battles ahead. I still wish that in many ways, I had more intimate relationships with other Christians. But in the end I'm also thinking: churchless Christians? Why?

Notice: This post is another one of those that BK just had to churn out so he apologises if it is a little raw.

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