24 May 2015 sermon – Genesis 40 – Persevering Through Darkness

Yesterday I preached a sermon on the continued suffering of Joseph in Genesis 40 (c.f. Colossians 1:21-28), where he interpreted the dreams of the chief cupbearer and chief baker.  The chapter ends with the cupbearer ‘not remembering’ Joseph, with God’s man being described as ‘forgotten’.  In v. 15, Joseph laments (for the first time) on the injustices that he’s suffered: “For indeed I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews; and also I have done nothing here that they should put me into the pit”

The way Joseph describes his own suffering is telling: it’s told in the passive (“I was stolen away”), not blaming anyone in particular.  Yet the suffering he describes is specific: his brothers had tossed him down a pit (ch. 37) which took him into slavery; and, alas, he was imprisoned in another pit on the basis of false accusations by his boss’ wife (ch. 39).  (Some translations have ‘pit’ as ‘dungeon,’, but the word can also mean ‘cistern’.)  Perhaps Joseph is here collapsing both betrayal experiences (that of his brothers and that of his boss).

The first words in Hebrew of this verse are very strong in their emotional intensity.  They literally read ‘key-gunov gunav’ti‘ which = “For STOLEN STOLEN I was”.  Twice he uses the verb /ganav/ (stolen) and both forms are in the Pu’al form of the verb.  The Pu’al form is the intensive passive form of receiving an action.  The first form, gunov is the infinitive absolute; that itself is not translated, but heightens the intensity of the following verb.  To have two such intensive forms side by side gives the impression of incredible angst on Joseph’s part, and  provides clues about how much personal agony he’d been through by languishing in prison.  

This is a very powerful story that is, at times, quite hard to take in, particularly given an intimate understanding of his trials in Genesis 37 and 39.  And yet it relates so much to our human experience and how horrible injustice feels to us.  It is sick and alien, and yet we have a saviour who suffered far worse injustice unfairly, to save thoroughly undeserving people.  When the sermon is uploaded on the site, I will link it here.

Praying for our world

Our world is dark – and getting darker.  With the west falling under the sway of the Evil One – vis-a-vis gay marriage and other influences – there has never been a more important time to pray and pray hard.  There has been a significant rise in natural disasters that have wiped out thousands of lives, and war is increasing.  Jesus foretold in Matthew ch. 24 that these things are signs of His return.  

So how to pray?  You can go to the website Operation World, which has prayer points for every country.  I am going to work hard at doing this every day.  I am becoming more and more convicted of the power of prayer and the ways in which God works powerfully through it.  Let’s pray for our sick world, which Jesus went to such astonishing lengths to save (John 3:16).  

Word Saturated?

teabag “The longer the teabag sits in the cup, the stronger the tea. The more God’s Word saturates our mind and heart, the clearer our grasp of what is important to Him, and the stronger our prayers” – Joni Erickson Tada.

Healing the Abandonment Wound

In one of the most stunning Psalms of Scripture, King David in Psalm 22:1 penned a verse that accused God of neglecting him.  Jesus, while dying on the cross, quoted it:

My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?
Why are You so far from helping Me,
And from the words of My groaning?

In Hebrew it goes: Elee Elee (My God, my God) lamah (why) ‘azavtani (you foresaken me) rachok (far) mishuati (from saving me) divrei (words) sha’agti (literally ‘my roaring’, of distress)?  

The verb for abandon (‘azav, עזב) is, as I have mentioned here before, not one that simply means leaving something behind (like forgetting your car keys).  There is another Hebrew for that, which = natash (נטשׁ).  ‘Azav is more intensive, because in many instances (particularly this one) it has the connotation of experiencing the end of relationship.  Ruth, when following Naomi, is said (Ruth 2:11) to have ‘foresaken’ (‘azav-ed) her mother, father, and homeland to join the family of Israel.  In that context, it signifies a final divorcing, as it were, of an old way of life in order to enter into another one.  In Psalm 27:9-10, David uses the verb side-by-side: “God, t’azav me not … for my father and mother have azav-ed me, Yahweh will take me in”. 

Psalm 22:1 really hammers home the pain of abandonment.  To be abandoned by others can be so crippling, but to be abandoned by God really is hell itself.  Psalm 22:1, in using ‘azav,  shows how horrible that feeling is.  God does not, of course, abandon His people (Hebrews 13:5) but the feeling can be so real.  In 22:1, David lays this accusation quite heavily: it’s ‘my God’ who has done the abandoning, and David says it twice to express how horrible that feels.  He also uses the strongest verb to express that abandonment, and what he feels is personal.  “Why have you abandoned me, my God?”  Again he presses further: “Why are You so far from helping me and the words of my roaring”?  He is lost in his pain.

May people trapped in persistent sin and addiction are begging this question: “Where was God in my pain?  Why did He not care and leave me?”  I can say that everyone I’ve met with some persistent sin (sex, gambling, alcohol, drugs, etc) has experienced ungrieved abandonment in their lives.  I’ve had to wrestle with this personally myself.  God, as I now know, allowed that to happen in order to train me and make me more like Himself: He does this so I can trust Him, make me more like Christ (who also suffered unfairly) and thereby be a blessing to others.  But it’s a horrible feeling.  This Psalm (not just v. 1 but the rest of it) give words that we can take to God to honestly have our hearts healed.  The lie, of course, is that God has foresaken.  We often assume God has done the foresaking when, in fact, someone else has done that (e.g. Psalm 27:10) and we’ve projected that unfairly onto God.  Yet, David realises by the end of the Psalm that the ‘abandonment’ of God is not true because he prayed in v. 24, “For [God] has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from Him; but when He cried to Him, He heard“.  Even if God does not hear or answer in the way we expect, He always does.

If you are broken-hearted and feel angry with God, thinking that He has abandoned you, give it to Him.  Tell Him why you think that and open your heart in all honesty.  We speak to God through the Saviour, Jesus Christ, was abandoned by God in order that those who believe in Him will not be left alone in this world or the next (in Hell), but rather be blessed with endless relationship with Him in Heaven for eternity.  He blesses honours hearts, and will come in to heal you if you let Him.

God bless, Haydn. 

17 May 2015 sermon – Psalm 19 – Overcoming Persistent Sin

Here is the sermon that I preached today, called Overcoming Persistent and Increasing Sin, based on Psalm 19 (2nd reading was Titus 2:11-14).  Included below is what I prayed after the sermon.  It is adapted from a prayer written by Puritan Jonathan Edwards, to suit the occasion:

Oh Infinitely Passionate Father,

You have created in us the capacity for deep affections — to love, to loathe, to desire, to delight, to excite, to grieve, to laugh, to enjoy, to fear, to be sad, to be thankful. And You made us this way that we may glorify You by finding You our Supreme Satisfaction and us with the Fountain of everything delightful. But we confess that our affections for You are often grievously tepid while selfish interests steam.

We are bold to advocate for and defend our own honour and reputation and often timid to defend Yours. We are quick to satisfy our bodily and carnal appetites and often slow to feed our souls with the Bread of Life. We are quick to do the opposite of what we ought to do. We squander precious moments devoted to communing with You while carefully protecting moments devoted to banal entertainment, such as the Internet and TV.

We are distracted from speaking with You by books that need straightening, emails that need answering, and a spot in the yard that needs seeding, and a TV show that seeks to be watched. We are easily and foolishly concerned with worldly success and prosperity while languid and unmoved about the greater things of another world!

And we know that our errant affections are most offensive to You when we hear of the infinite breadth of Your love for us in Christ Jesus, of Your giving Your infinitely dear Son to be offered up a sacrifice for our sins … to redeem enemies like us from deserved punishments and instead give us unspeakable and everlasting joy and glory. And yet our response is cool, lethargic, and indifferent. Oh gracious Father, thank You that Your Son’s sacrifice is so great and sufficient that it pays even for such sins of erroneous affections!

But, our affectionate Father, we are humbled to the dust that we are not more affected by what affects You! We repent of being “slothful in zeal”! No more, Father! Make us boil in spirit as we serve You ! To be moved by Your glorious gospel and precious promises, is why you gave us affections! Nothing on earth or heaven is greater or more important. Merciful Father, make us hot! Whatever it takes, whatever it costs us, give us the Spirit-salve for our heart-eyes so that we may see what is Real, believe what is True, treasure what is Valuable, and forsake what is worthless. May Your passion in saving us be matched by our passion for You!

In the name of Jesus, your glorious Son, the Pearl of Great Price, Amen.

For more information, feel free to visit the Georges River Congregational Church website.

‘From the Pastor’ – Biblical Evangelism (17/5/2015)

Every week I write, for my church, a short devotion for our bulletin.  I will post them here for others’ edification:

‘From the Pastor’ – Biblical Evangelism (17/5/2015)

When we open up the book of Acts, we see for the first time Christ’s mission being put into effect through the preaching of the apostles.

Tellingly, the first sermon involves preaching to the Jews (2:14-47). What’s interesting about theses first converts is that they were the very people who strung Jesus on the cross (2:36). Peter didn’t hold back in using the Old Testament to bring their guilt to their awareness. Eventually, they were so heartbroken by what they’d done (2:37); and yet they came to trust in the saving Name of Jesus (2:38)! An astonishing three thousand souls were saved that day!

What struck me in reading this is how it shows how incredible gracious God is. It illustrates that though we may have done terrible things, no-one is too hard for God to save. No sin can be unforgiven and even the most brittle, hard-hearted person can be saved while it is still called ‘Today’. Such grace is gobsmacking, unfathomable and unparalleled.

There are many people running away from God’s grace because they’re convinced He won’t forgive them, even if He can. Why? Because they’ve done so many ungodly, shameful things and their consciences condemn them. This is a terrible thing to accuse God of, because it dismisses His grace. The reason for this, I suspect, is because in this sinful world we do not experience such unbridled, endless love. We often take what we experience in this world and impose that upon God and doubt that He can do what He says. But if we trust Him, and help others to do so, we see that God yearns to love us and heal our broken hearts.

But will we let Him? Let us invite God into our hearts when they are cut with the guilt of sin, running to Him and receiving the grace that He yearns to give. We cannot allow Satan to use shame to block us. That is true for both the sinner and the saint, for “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit”.

God bless,

Pastor Haydn.

Expressing lament and sorrow for healing

 Pictured left are a group of Jewish men in Jerusalem observing the annual Tisha B’Av, their national day of lamentation and fasting.  I cannot imagine this kind of thing being observed in any Christian circles.  Yet lament and sorrow are expressed all over the Scriptures, and is often done so quite dramatically in public with the tearing of one’s own clothing, removal of clothes, sitting in dirt and ash, screaming, wailing, and other displays.  In many western churches, worship experiences demand only worship and exclude the very natural and human outpourings of heart-felt grief: we’re told to be happy and only be joyful, ignoring that very simple command in Romans to rejoice with those full of joy and to mourn with the grieving.  By contrast, I frequently express heart-felt grief and lamenting sorrow in prayer, and it gets so overwhelming sometimes that I, like the Jewish man in the picture on the left, unable to even sit or stand.  Sometimes I can’t even say anything.  It is extremely liberating to do, even when it does not reach a prescribed crescendo of prescribed western-culture ‘praise points’.

In fact, I have accepted the fact from what the Bible says and form my own experience that lamentation doesn’t always end in praise points.  It can (e.g. Psalm 77, as praise follows lamentation); other times there is no praise or resolution (e.g. Psalm 88, where blame is entirely shifted onto Yahweh, yet the psalter isn’t told to be quiet and stop outpouring; God lets the man grieve).  Very often, the prayers of the Psalms actually fluctuate between worship and lament, back to worship, and then back to lament again (e.g. Psalm 31).  

One Filippino pastor has written a very helpful article on the expression of grief in church named ‘Preaching Lament’ in the book ‘He Began With Moses: Preaching the Old Testament Today’ (ed. by Dr. Grenville Kent, Paul Kissling, and Laurence Turner, IVP, 2010).  In it, he observes that Christians are often too quick to get lamentation out of the way and get to the praise bit, rather than allowing it to take its own natural course.  They prefer to belch out cliches such as ‘The Lord giveth and he taketh away … God is in control and all things work together for good.  So we should always praise the Lord no matter what …’ and that testimonies with lamentation would not get a hearing in church because it is construed as ‘too negative’ (pp. 64, 65).  

We do this in the west too.  Why?  I think much of this is connected with the fact that:

  • western culture is averse to and confused about emotional expression.  Largely stoic, British-based cultures (with the exception of the US, to a certain extent) smother emotional expression with the ‘stiff upper lip’.  But this is very counter-cultural to the rest of the world.  In Asia (e.g. Korea) and Europe (e.g. Italy) and other places, people grieve in ways not dissimilar to the Israelites. I attended a funeral of my wife’s cousin in Korea who had killed herself and I witnessed this first hand.  At first, it was unusual, but I got used to it and eventually participated in it myself.  It was incredibly liberating.
  • people have not been shown or given permission to express emotions of grief.  When I share my testimony about freedom from homosexuality, I often publicly weep because I am grieved at my sin (though it is forgiven) and the ways that I have hurt God and others.  I also weep in joy at God’s goodness.  Many people think I put this on, but it never is: it’s a natural outpouring.  And it’s very very cathartic.  I don’t wait around for permission to do this.  I just do it, and people gravitate to it because it gives them permission to vent their sorrows.  Even non-Christians know this, and often wonder why Christians don’t express their sorrows more: little wonder so many of them won’t go to church because they feel it is too artificial.
 Not doing this lead to a church that is like the women of the Stepford Wives, who put on fake smiles to hide what’s really going on.  But who wants a church like that? Who likes having their grief stifled by Christian jargon? Thankfully the ministry of preachers like John Piper is challenging many emotionally-stunted evangelicals to get emotional and to use  their emotions to draw close to God.  They’re promising first steps, because true worship is not meant to be outwardly adoring and praise-based (i.e. all mountain top moments as what is constantly idolised in Pentecostal Churches).  Nor should it be emotionally flat (i.e. what happens in a lot of Anglican and Reformed circles), but in harnessing lament in both the pulpit and worship experience.  Otherwise people will think that God isn’t interested in the aches of their hearts, which is oh-so untrue.  The Bible is positive about emotions:
  1. We can get angry, especially when we have been wronged.  But we should never get aggressive or allow the sun to go down on our anger (Psalm 4:4, Ephesians 4:26-27).  Give yourself permission to be angry, because Jesus got angry and He openly mourned and expressed Himself emotionally.  Ignore the rubbish which churchfolk say, to try and make you feel guilty about being emotional, like “Christians are not supposed to get angry and cry”.  That’s not Christianity: that’s worldly western culture and it will damage your connection with God.
  2. If you find yourself unable or unwilling to get emotional, call it out to God in prayer.  Ask Him to help you get emotional and renounce that part of you which wants to shut it all down.  Practise it: the more practice, the better you’ll get at this, like everything else.  Often when I preach, people ask me all the time how it is that they too can be more emotional in their connection with God.  The good news is that it is neither mechanical nor mystic: just do it.  Be careful, though, not to be like Job and do it in self-pitying, self-righteousness, and if you’re angry with God, then name it.  God invites us not to hide it but to confess it, renounce it, and learn to trust Him in faith.  The point of telling God about the anger and lament is not to keep holding it but surrender it so that the heart will be healed and strengthened;
  3. Find safe places and times to express your sorrow.  Do it alone if you must, because not everyone will understand or appreciate it.  Do it in your car or spare room.  Cry into a pillow and get their frustration out physically in exercise or some other safe way.  It will be so worth it!
  4. Mourn with others who mourn.  Be a listening ear: don’t eulogise and blame-shift and guilt people when they’re grieving, like Job’s friends, because you’ll be doing much more harm than good.  Don’t minimise pain by comparing it to others by saying, “What are you crying about?  Others have had it much harder than you”.  By doing this you can use your own pain and healing to pass on blessing to others;
  5. Read great passages like Psalm 91 for comfort.  Pray like the Psalter (139:23-24), where he asks God to test his heart and expose his anxious thoughts for healing.  Memorise them;
  6. Allow the grief and the negative emotions to take you on their journey.  The more we fight them, the more painful it will be.  Just go with the flow, and pray that God will guide it towards Himself.  Just go through the emotions for yourself too.  Why not?
  7. The good comes with the bad.  The negative emotions may lead themselves to praise, but they may not.  But why is that a problem?  Why are we in such a hurry?  Give yourself time and permission to grieve and be human.  You’re not a robot or a mere animal: you’re made in God’s image, and He too experiences grief (see Genesis 6:5-6) and gut-wrenching pity (see Hosea 11), among other things.  

In most occasions in the Bible where lament is prayed, it does result in praise, but it is not confected or forced; it comes because the pain has been surrendered to God and, therefore, the heart has capacity to receive and pass on blessing.  I have SO much more to say on this, but this will do for now.  Below is Psalm 77 to give and example of how this all works:

*
I cried out to God with my voice—
         To God with my voice; 
         And He gave ear to me.
  In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord;
         My hand was stretched out in the night without ceasing; 
         My soul refused to be comforted.
  I remembered God, and was troubled;
         I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed.  Selah    
You hold my eyelids open;
         I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
  I have considered the days of old,
         The years of ancient times.
  I call to remembrance my song in the night;
         I meditate within my heart, 
         And my spirit makes diligent search.   
*
Will the Lord cast off forever?
         And will He be favourable no more?
  Has His mercy ceased forever?
         Has His promise failed forevermore?
  Has God forgotten to be gracious?
         Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies?  Selah    
*
And I said, “This is my anguish;
         But I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
  I will remember the works of Yahweh;
         Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.
  I will also meditate on all Your work,
         And talk of Your deeds … 
 *
In the beginning, the sufferer in the Psalm is confounded and cannot sleep, he is so wracked with sorrow.  In the middle, he throws the big questions at God, even accusing Him of not really loving him.  YET at the end he remembers God’s saving graces.  May it be so for us, that as we give God our aches and pains, He will hear and heal the roots of all that pain.  In doing so, we become more full of Him and our hearts are engaged, not just our heads.  Then and only then will we be able to truly obey Him and have capacity from the overflow of our hearts to love, bless, and obey God in spirit and in truth.  
Shalom, Haydn.

The Drooping Honeycomb of God’s Word

honey

“Some words of the Lord are nuts that need cracking … but those to which I refer are … are simple sweetness, prepared pleasures – in fact, drops of delight. To enjoy these, one does not need to be a theologian or a grammarian … the honey or the meaning flows out of the [honeycomb] of the words as fluid consolation, liquid love, and perfect truth”

~ ‘Concerning the Dropping of Honeycombs’ in Only a Prayer Meeting by CH Spurgeon (Psalm 19:10).