Wednesday, 28 December 2016

What can we Learn from Dr Guthrie?

Over the last few months in The Record we have looked at different aspects of Dr Guthrie’s incredible ministry: his preaching, his pastoral work, his work as a social reformer, his pioneering work as a church planter and his role as the 'Apostle of Temperance'.  
His legacy is awe inspiring and very humbling.  The key question is what can we learn from Dr Guthrie and apply in our own situation today?
1.  Vision - Dr Guthrie had incredible vision.  He literally, by God's grace, changed Scotland.  His vision was not shaped by the challenges of 19th Century Scotland but rather shaped by the greatness of the God he served.  He believed that the Christian gospel could save anyone and transform any community.  By the time of his death Guthrie had, along with many other social reformers, changed childhood.  Rather than being seen as commodities, towards the end of the 19th Century, children were seen as those in need of protection and nurture.  Partly as a result of lobbying from social reformers like Guthrie legislation was passed protecting children from working long hours in often dangerous situations.  The DNA of men like Thomas Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers is that they had a big vision.  It wasn't a congregational vision or even a Free Church vision but a national vision.  Surely Guthrie teaches us that our current vision for Scotland is too small and parochial.   

2. Truth - We need to know what we believe.  Unlike so many Christians who get involved in social action, Guthrie never lost his Biblical moorings when he became a social reformer.  It is clear from his writings that he adhered to the Bible as the word of God and remained confessionally Reformed throughout his ministry.  He believed in the supremacy and centrality of preaching as the main method that God uses to save sinners.  Guthrie preached the whole counsel of God with love and tenderness but never compromised on doctrine.  Are we as a church falling out of love with the reformed theology that compelled men like Guthrie and Chalmers?  Are we embarrassed by our reformed heritage?

3. Love - As a minister of the Gospel, Guthrie embodied love.  We are told in James 1 v 27:  Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.  The fruit of true Christianity is always love for the poor and the oppressed.  Many people regard practical love for the poor as a deviation from the gospel.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Guthrie's work with ragged children enhanced his message and gave his Christianity a reality and authenticity that made the gospel attractive to sinners.  We must never love people just because they may become Christian’s or come to our church.  We must love them because they are made in the image of God and the gospel commands us to love our neighbour.  The very essence of grace is to love with no strings attached.  How are we loving those on the margins of society like Dr Guthrie?  Are our churches places where people with addictions, relationship difficulties, prisoners, women experiencing domestic violence will find grace and love? Do we want these kind of people in our churches?  If we do, how will we support them and disciple them?

4. Hope - It was this combination of truth and love that gave Guthrie such hope for the communities he worked in and for the individuals he sought to reach.  The gospel, when preached in all its fullness and freeness, should fill every sinner with a sense of hope that Christ died to reconcile them to a holy God.  The church has gone though many periods when this message has been lost or when she has lost confidence in the power of this gospel to reach the darkest and most hopeless parts of our communities.  Guthrie (among others) gave the Free Church the belief that the gospel, accompanied by education for the poor and the practical outworking of love through the local church could redeem the darkest and most hopeless communities. Do we still have this hope?

There is a famous story about Dr Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers standing on George IV Bridge looking down on to the Cowgate.  Guthrie tells us; ‘Hopeful of success, he [Chalmers] surveyed the scene beneath us, and his eye, which often wore a dreamy stare, kindled at the prospect of seeing that wilderness become an Eden, these foul haunts of darkness, drunkenness and disease, changed into "dwellings of the righteous where is heard the voice of melody."  Contemplating the scene for a little in silence, all at once, with his broad Luther-like face glowing with enthusiasm, he waved his arm to exclaim, "A beautiful field, sir; a very fine field of operation” (Out of Harness, Thomas Guthrie).  

It takes great vision to look at some parts of Scotland and see them as a ‘beautiful field’ but yet that is what men like Dr Guthrie saw in places like the Cowgate. Thomas Guthrie brought hope to thousands through his preaching, his pastoral care and his practical Christianity.  Nobody was beyond redemption for Guthrie.  He preached a gospel that was free for the worst sinner and believed that nobody was a hopeless case.  He is an inspiration to us, that in dark and difficult days, the gospel can once again reach the darkest corners of Scotland. 

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Singing the Song of the Incarnation

Most of the material in this blog post comes from Tim Keller's excellent book 'Hidden Christmas'

Luke 1 

 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.54 He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

What does Christmas mean to you?

For most of us it probably involves some extra shopping, lots of food, presents, family and friends.

Hopefully for most of us it is also a reminder of the glory of Christs Incarnation – how God became Emmanuel - God with us.

Unfortunately, the way the Christmas story is told has become so sentimental, that when we read what the Bible actually says, we are shocked.  Far from a cosy scene of domestic bliss we see Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem under the prospect of shame and uncertainty.   Mary was an unwed, pregnant mother in a culture where marriage was important.

Far from receiving kindness and sympathy, Mary and Joseph took refuge in a stable, or perhaps a cave, or maybe the house of a poor relative who lived with animals.  An ‘Inn’ can mean a furnished room so its possible that Mary and Joseph were staying with relatives but they had to stay with the animals.

At some point in his young life Jesus flees from a genocide commanded by the paranoid, bloodthirsty Herod.

The Christmas story is wonderful – but it is also full of the brutal reality of poverty, shame,  uncertainty and fear – which is good news because that is what most of us struggle with.  

The Christmas story reminds us why Jesus came into the world – to bring light into darkness.  The Christmas story is not sweet and sentimental – it deals with the most fundamental issue that we struggle with – the sin of the human heart.

But what the Christmas story does give us is hope, hope in the midst of despair and light in the midst of darkness.

And at the heart of the Christmas story is a mother – frightened, confused, unsure – just like thousands of mothers in Scotland today.

We see in Mary, this young, vulnerable mum, the hope that can come when we see the wonder of Jesus and when we tell others about that wonder.

While Matthews account focuses more on Joseph, Luke tells us more about Mary.  We want to look in this blog about how she responds to the news of Jesus coming into the world through her.  She responds thoughtfully, gradually, in wonder and in willing surrender.

1.  She responds thoughtfully Luke 1 v 26 - 38

People often accuse Christians of ‘blind faith’ of not asking enough ‘hard questions’.  But when the angel appeared to Mary in Luke 1 v 28 we are told that she was ‘greatly troubled’ or ‘moved at the strangeness of it’. We are told that Mary ‘wondered’ – ‘to make an audit’ (accounting, to add up, weighing, pondering).  She asks in verse 34 ‘How can this be?  It is a question of innocence because she is not yet married.

We sometimes look back at ancient cultures and think they were less developed and less enlightened that we are.  But this is not true.  Mary was just as astonished at the appearance of an angel as we would be.  She had also been trained by her culture never to believe that God could become a man. Mary has just as much difficulty in believing in the Christmas message as many people do today – it is a belief in the supernatural.

But a mixture of evidence and experience shatter Mary’s objections.  It’s interesting when we compare Mary to Zacharias, that when Zacharias expresses doubt, he is struck dumb. You see there is doubt that comes from a closed mind (like Zacharias) and doubt that comes from an open mind (like Mary).  Mary was open to truth and she found faith despite her initial doubts.

2. Mary responds Gradually

It is a dangerous experience to standardise Christian experience. 

Some people come to faith like the Philippian jailer while some come to faith very gradually like the dawning of the sun.

We see Mary’s first response as one of incredulity v 34.  Mary’s is basically saying to the angel ‘this is crazy!’  How can I give birth to the Saviour of the world?

For most of us we can think of a time in our lives when we have finally understood the gospel in a real way and we have reacted like Mary.  The gospel is (at one level) ridiculous, impossible and inconceivable.  But Mary’s response is measured – she wants to know more.

Secondly, she responds with simple acceptance. Mary says these beautiful words in verse 38: ‘I am the Lord’s servant.  May your word to me be fulfilled.’  Mary has gone from shock to submission – she is now a disciple, a servant.  At this stage Mary still doesn’t understand everything but despite her fears and reservations, she follows.  We also see that she exercises faith from the heart.

It is only when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth that Mary fully comprehends what is happening. Elizabeth by the power of the Holy Spirit recognizes that Mary is carrying the Messiah.  This confirms what the Angel and said to Mary and gives her assurance.  Mary breaks out into praise and recognises that the child she is carrying is the fulfilment of centuries of promises:

‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant’ Luke 1 v 46-47.

Mary is no longer agreeing with what the Angel said, she has gone from mental assent and duty, to worshipping joyfully with her heart.  Mary’s faith was gradual.  

Why does faith take so many different paths?

Well because it is God who gives us faith – it is a gift of grace – we are not in control.
We may have heard the Christmas story a thousand times but one day God opens our eyes to see it a different way – gradually God draws us to himself and assures us of his love.

Where are you in terms of faith?  Are you a sceptic? Are you a seeker? Are you saved?

Follow Mary’s example – seek, submit and serve.

3.  Mary Responds in Wonder

We see in verses 46 and 47 that Mary speaks of her soul glorifying/magnifying and her spirit rejoicing in God her Saviour.  What is the difference between her soul and spirit?  The answer is that there is no difference.  It is a repetition that is saying every part of her being is moved to worship.

But Mary is also amazed that this is happened to a sinner like her ‘…the Mighty One has done great things for me.’ v 49

Mary is looking down through history and suddenly recognises that the baby she is carrying is the fulfilment of centuries of promises. And as we see from the genealogy in Matthew 1 – who does God use?  God uses women, he uses Gentiles, he uses prostitutes, adulterers and cultural outsiders.  Even the royalty in Jesus family tree was a murderer and an adulterer.  As Tim Keller says ‘even the begats of Jesus are dripping with God’s mercy’.

What was God saying? What God says through the Christmas story is people who are excluded through culture, by society, excluded by the law of God, can all be brought into Jesus’ family. Just like Mary – it is not our family, or pedigree, or our church connections that saves us – it is God’s grace.

God spent centuries preparing his people for the Messiah, and how would the Messiah be born in to this world?  Through a simple, poor, teenage, unmarried mother.

Surely this sense of wonder and amazement is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.  Grace is a miracle – that God should shower us with his love.  Have you responded like Mary with wonder?

4.  Mary responds with Willing Surrender

If we go back to verse 38 Mary says ‘I am the Lords servant.  May your word to me be fulfilled.’  ‘Behold the servant of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word.’ (Geneva Bible).  Remember Mary was in a traditional, paternalistic society where shame was real. She knew that even if Joseph stayed with her, people would work out that Jesus was the result either illegitimacy or unfaithfulness.  But in her song of praise she links her experience to Abraham.  What is the connection?

Well remember God promised Abraham that salvation would come through his offspring, his family. But the first thing God told him to do was to give everything up – he had to leave his homeland, your family, your friends, your security and go out into the wilderness.  Hebrews 11 v 8: ‘He went out not knowing where he was going.’  Just like Abraham, Mary was asked to put aside her hopes and dreams of a normal, average married life. Mary simply says ‘I am your servant.’

This is what it means to be a Christian.  It means surrendering our will, and our plans to God’s plans.  It is the most radical thing we can do in out individualistic, rights based culture.  But look at Mary.  She knew that her surrender would sink her even lower down the social ladder.  Imagine the pain she felt watching her son being tortured and crucified. Mary is a living example of the verse in Matt 23 v 12 ‘those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

But however low Mary had to go for Jesus, think how far Jesus came for you – from the glory of heaven to this dark world.  Jesus accepted God’s will knowing it would cost him everything.  Christ’s surrender to his fathers will brought salvation to a broken world.  That’s what Christmas is all about.  Jesus was born to die – to give us eternal life.

Mild, he lays his glory by,
born that we may no more may die
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.

He used a poor, unmarried young mother to carry the Messiah.  This Saviour who came from generations of cultural and racial outsiders.  Today he is offering you the greatest gift of all – eternal life.  There is an answer to sin and suffering – Jesus came to bring life and hope.