Everything is behind this week. We did meet last Wednesday and looked at the next of the Psalms of Ascents - Psalm 121. It is a famous psalm but there are some difficulties with it, beginning with what looking to the hills is all about. I also wanted to say there the reference to the sun and moon was a merism, that is to say two opposites are mentioned to cover the range (as in the opening verse which refers to heaven and earth but includes everything God made). Could I think of the word merism or find it through google, however? No way. Anyway we got through the psalm and made some useful points I hope about God and his care for us . We also had a good time of prayer.
Bonhoeffer uses a similar phrase 'worldly Christianity'. It's J Gresham Machen that I want to line up most closely with. See his Christianity and culture here. Having done commentaries on Proverbs (Heavenly Wisdom) and Song of Songs (Heavenly Love), a matching title for Ecclesiastes would be Heavenly Worldliness. For my stance on worldliness, see 3 posts here.
No not the results of the government's latest drink driving offensive but a look at one man's personal convictions about celebrating Christmas
I am sometimes involved in interviews at a theological college. We ask most of the questions but at the end they can ask what they want. I remember an occasion when one student asked about celebrating Christmas and Easter. He had come to the conviction this is something he did not want to be involved in and knowing that not all Christians take the same view he wanted to flag up his viewpoint. We assured him it would be no problem.
He is not alone in his convictions. I know of a minister with similar convictions who regularly goes on holiday at this time of year knowing that most of the church take a different approach to the season. The late Professor John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, apparently used to really enjoy having the place to himself each December 25, which was for him an ordinary working day.
At the other extreme are Christians who keep Christmas as enthusiastically as anyone. Some will have a crib in their front room, pipe endless Christmas carols through the house and send cards with nativity scenes and texts. Some even talk of celebrating Christ's birthday and the idea of not being in church on Christmas day of all days make them rather nervous.
What about you? Did you tut a little when you saw that the magazine theme was a Christmas one? Or were you pleased that the subject has been raised again? Whatever your reaction you need to hold firm convictions on this vexed subject but you need to hold them with grace recognising that not all will hold the same convictions as you.
What I want to do here is to set out my own convictions so that if you are undecided on the issue it may help you to come to firm convictions, which we all need, and if you are decided you will have a good opportunity to test your convictions and consider whether there might be need for change.
Conviction 1 The New Testament does not require believers to keep any particular festival
Talking about Jewish customs in Colossians 2:16 Paul says do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. In Romans 14 he says (6, 7a) One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord.
Obviously the Lord's Day is to be kept special as it is part of the moral law but with everything else it is up to the individual. If you wish to celebrate Passover or Israeli independence or your birthday or Christmas or (to a limited extent) Ramadan for that matter, you are free to do so.
Conviction 2 Christmas or the midwinter festival as some want us to call it is a pagan festival
It is certainly possible that Jesus was born on December 25 or thereabouts but the truth is that we do not know, we cannot know and we do not need to know if that is so. It is true that large numbers of people celebrate his birthday at this time of the year but that is undeniably tied into the pre-Christian traditions that existed in communities in the northern hemisphere long before they heard the gospel.
Wherever Christians have gone they have attempted to transform pagan customs into something more Christian. There is some evidence, for example, that Boniface the sixth century missionary to the Germans tried to stop pagan tree worship but still encouraged the custom of cutting down a fir tree and bringing it into the house in winter.
We may feel that pagan customs are better abandoned rather than adapted but the fact is that year by year we are confronted by pagan traditions, often with but increasingly without a Christian veneer, and we need to decide how to react. To do so we must try not to confuse what is allowable for a Christian to do with what it is necessary for him to do. It is allowable for a Christian to put a tree in his house and decorate it or eat plum pudding or wear a paper hat and blow a party puffer. It is allowable for him to celebrate Christ's birth with songs and readings and sermons any day of the year. None of these things are necessary for him to do.
Conviction 3 Christmas or the midwinter festival is a good idea for many
If you live in the northern hemisphere winter is long and dreary. Splitting it up with a celebration in the middle makes good sense psychologically. If at the same time lots of people want to say it is a time to celebrate Christ's birth then rather than complaining about it take advantage of the opportunity to talk about his birth, his life and his death too and how to come to him.
Having said that it is a pagan festival, if we are going to celebrate it then we must nevertheless be careful to celebrate it in a Christian way. Can we justify the amount we are spending albeit on other members of the family? Is slumping in front of the TV for more than a few hours a good idea? What about all that food and drink – is it right to so indulge? Are we just being swept along with it all and not thinking about how to glorify God? These are the sorts of questions to ask.
More positively, many will want to go further and not simply seek to shun the commercialised and pagan Christmas that is so common but really celebrate the fact of our Saviour's birth. When he saw Christmas trees Luther would famously speak about how Jesus the Light of the World has come into this dark world. That fact beats anything the world has to offer.
Conviction 4 No celebration should be allowed to unduly interfere with the Lord's Day
I do not know how you celebrate Christmas Day. For many people it includes a number of things that they would not normally do on the Lord's Day. It is important not to let anything interfere with keeping the Lord's Day as far as possible and so when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, as it will this year, it is wise for those who mark it to think ahead and consider how best they can handle possible conflicts. For many of us it will be wisest if, this year at least, we do many of the things that we normally do on December 25 the day before or the day after.
In his lifetime his more than twenty works sold well and he is certainly someone whose works look worth reading. What did for him then? Unlike Ryle he was no controversialist. in fact he kept right out of it and never identified with any party within or without the Church of England. Perhaps Spurgeon is responsible. In his Commenting and commentaries he quite sniffily dismisses Oxenden's contributions.
On Ruth - A very tiny affair, of no great moment to the expositor.
On Psalms - For reading at family prayers. Alas, poor families! Ye have need of patience.
To listen to these sermons must have afforded a suitable Lenten penance to those who went to church to hear them. There their use began and.ended.
The Gospels - Why Oxenden's books sell we do not know. We would not care to have them for a gift. "Milk for babes" watered beyond measure.
Our speaker begged to differ.
If you want to form an opinion you can find many of his works online here.
When I was in Swansea last I was reminded of Griffith John. I had missed the latest biography by a member of the church, John Aaron, which came out last February. It is in the Bitesize series which I am such a big fan of (22 out so far). This was a great introduction for me to man of whom I knew nothing. At the end of the book the author plausibly explains the reasons why he has fallen rather into obscurity. It also makes clear that by spending his life in Chin Griffith John made a real sacrifice one that may have been to Wales's detriment but was certainly to China's gain. The book includes references to Hudson Taylor and to a man who was just a name to me, Timothy Richard, and to the developing scene in China over the period when Griffith John was active. It is well written, brief and to the point, and an excellent introduction to the series. My one moan is that this new style cover is out of sync with all the rest.
This book by Canadian Grant Gordon explores the relationship between John Newton (1725-1807) and George Whitefield (1714-1770). I can't remember reading a book exactly like this but it certainly works well in that it sheds light both on Newton and Whitefield and is very stimulating to thought. I suppose when you read a single biography you identify or fail to identify and there can be no easy way to apply the lessons learned. This format means that you are forced to stand back and consider two pretty different men - not even exact contemporaries (they only knew each other the last 15 years of Whitefield's life) - and so the danger of over identifying is not really there in the same way,
The approach is to briefly give the two men's lives up to 1754 then in five chapters look t the life of Newton and his interactions with Whitefield. Closing chapters consider Whitefield's impact on the younger man and how they compare and contrast with a final page or two on Newton's final tribute to Whitefield. If you know the story of Newton and Whitefield you will enjoy the way they are delineated that much more sharply by this book.
Dr Grant intimated that he intends a similar book on Newton and Wesley which would be very welcome. This present volume is enhanced by several visual items, an index, etc. It is a pity it is not in hardback.