Sunday, 23 February 2014

Starting Well

A.N.: I preached this as a sermon on the 2nd February 2014, on the passage Judges 1:1-2:5. This blog post is not word-for-word exactly what I said in front of the congregation.

Since the government scrapped January exams, I've had to sit mocks for all of my subjects in class instead. There's a phenomenon known to my friends and I surrounding exams, particularly your handwriting during exams. At the start of the exam, your handwriting is neat and legible, but by the time you reach the end of the exam and time has started to run out, you start to panic more and your handwriting becomes worse and worse until it might as well have been chiselled into a piece of rock for all that you can make out what it says.

This kind of flow from good to awful is what is going on in this passage of Judges. The Israelites are entering the Promised Land, and in order to live there they must first drive out the people who are already living there. They start of in this mission well, going from strength to strength - but by the end of Judges 1, it has turned sour, and their victories are becoming few and far between.

This siege of the Promised Land was first ordered by God in Deuteronomy, when God gives the Israelites clear instructions about how they are to drive out the people living there already in order to settle themselves. In Deuteronomy (Chapter 7, verse 2), God tells the Israelites that they must not make treaties or collaborate with those living in the land already in any way. Yet the Israelites do not obey God's instruction: instead, they disobey Him three times, and because of this, they begin to fail in their mission.

At the start of Judges, the Israelites are doing well. The tribe of Judah make about 15 victories during the initial 20 verses of this chapter. However, after this, they begin to lose battles, beginning with the battle against those who live in the valleys. The text is very clear in pointing out that the Israelites' adversaries in the valleys have iron chariots, and that this is a key factor in their defeat. At this time, the Israelites' weapons technology is still in the Bronze Age, so it is most likely that they fear their rivals with 'iron chariots'. After all, if you were waging war with bows and arrows against an army which had sub-machine guns, you would probably be forgiven for being a little fearful.

Yet it is this fear that shows the first cracks in the Israelites' wholehearted faith in God. A vicar once said in a sermon that the opposite of faith is not unbelief; the opposite of faith is fear. If the Israelites are scared, then they are not putting their faith fully in God, and they are not trusting in Him to give them victory - and so they are defeated. Faith can ensure victory even when all the odds are stacked against you, as David proved when he went up against Goliath. The Israelites did not put their trust fully in God, and this led to their defeat.

The second way that the Israelites disobey God's instruction is by not driving the people out completely. God has instructed that no one who was living in the land when they entered was to remain living there after they had settled, yet this is not what happened. After verse 20, the chapter begins chronicling the battles of the other tribes of Israel, who were not as successful as the tribe of Judah. In many cases, these tribes did not drive the people out completely, but rather pressed them into manual labour, or slavery. Thus, they did not obey God fully, and instead allowed those whom God had instructed them to drive out, to live among them instead.

The third and final way that the Israelites disobeyed God's instruction was to make a treaty with a Canaanite, or one who was living in the land already. This, however, is not the first time that the Israelites have collaborated with someone they should have been driving out. In Joshua, when the Israelites orchestrate the fall of Jericho, they are helped by the prostitute, Rahab, who hides two Israelite spies and aids them in escaping the guards. Yet there is a key difference between Rahab and the Canaanite in Judges, and that is that Rahab approached the Israelites, whereas the Canaanite was approached by the Israelites. In Joshua, it was the case that Rahab made a treaty with the Israelites, while in Judges, the Israelites made a treaty with the Canaanite. Thus, Rahab is called righteous in James (Chapter 2, verse 25), whereas the Canaanite in Judges is not even named. Rahab threw her lot in with the Israelites; the Canaanite merely accepted an offer of freedom.

At the start of Chapter 2, we see the Israelites made aware of the reason for their defeats, at which point they begin to repent. It is this act which sets the tone for the rest of the Book of Judges: the Israelites disobey God, they are punished (usually by a foreign power overthrowing or invading them), they realise their sin, they repent, they are restored, and then they forget about God, go back to disobedience, and the cycle starts again.

There is a tendency among Christians to take the Old Testament with a pinch of salt; Jesus has fulfilled the Old Testament, and therefore it is only necessary as background knowledge, and is not directly important for our lives. Yet this cycle we see in Judges is not one that has been broken; it is one that we are all in today.

Last year, I sat a history mock, and when I got to my lesson that morning, I didn't feel quite ready for it. I had revised, but suddenly, in the face of the exam itself, I began to panic and wonder if I had done enough. In order to help calm my nerves, I stood outside the classroom door and began to pray, asking God to help me calm down, to focus, and to trust in the work that I had done. A few minutes before my history teacher arrived to let us into the classroom, I realised that this was the first time I had prayed in a while; in fact, I hadn't prayed at all since the last time I was in a mess and had to seek reassurance. It was at this point that I realised that I was stuck in this cycle, just as much as the Israelites were all those years ago.

The cycle seems never-ending, but it will end one day, and we have to trust that that day is coming. It's not easy, but no one ever said that it would be; as long as we can hold on, we can trust that the cycle will be broken.

We have started well. But now we must continue.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

On My Stereo: Flyleaf

It seems within the public eye that rock music - especially heavy rock and metal - and Christianity do not mix. This is something which has annoyed me a lot over the years, because I like rock and heavy metal, but I don't generally like a lot of what such music seems to be about.

Which was why, when I discovered something called white metal, I was overjoyed. Bands such as As I Lay Dying are proper heavy rock (even screamo) and they only sing about Christian themes. It is something which most do not believe possible, but it is, and it is out there if you want to look for it.

My favourite Christian rock band at the moment - whose songs are 'mainstream' within the rock community and are even played on music channels like Kerrang! and Scuzz - is Flyleaf. I've already mentioned one Flyleaf song on this blog, but I got their self-titled debut album for Christmas, and it is phenomenal. The first song, I'm So Sick, was even used in Die Hard 4, and has excellent female screaming in it. (I recognise at this point that to say 'screaming' might sound strange to those outside of such rock circles, but believe me when I say that it's just another method of singing.) They are certainly worth checking out, if you like metal and heavy rock.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

References in Culture - The Results

The experiment has finished! I have been observing my interaction with popular culture, and searching for references to God, Jesus, or events or people in the Bible. I am of the opinion that there are references to such things in popular culture aplenty, and I can reveal that I counted, in one week, a total of...

*Drumroll, please*

91 references!

I understand that there are quite a lot of faults with this experiment; for example, I only monitored the popular culture that I come in to contact with, I had to rely on my remembering how many references I had seen in a particular TV show/song/etc., and it was only one week. I will consider doing this experiment again at some point, to get a closer average, but my results from this one experiment show that the number of references in popular culture is higher than may be expected at first glance.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

References in Culture - The Experiment

I am of the opinion that theology is everywhere. Despite the secularisation of modern British society, I find that there are references to the Bible and Christianity in general - even if it is just blasphemy in television programmes.

To test my theory, I have designed a simple experiment. This week, while I am off college, I will make a note of every time I hear/see a reference to theology or the Bible in popular culture, whether it be songs, books, fanfictions, television programmes, films, adverts, etc. I will not read or watch any more things than I normally would. I will simply be on the lookout from Monday until Saturday evening. Next Sunday, I will post my results whether I was right or wrong.

This should be fun!

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Read All About It

There is a song by Emile Sande called Read All About It. On the surface, it seems like quite a random thing to mention - many people know this song, and it's not a particularly religious song. In fact, I doubt that its true meaning has anything to do with God. Despite this, this song really makes me think of my relationship with God - particularly the chorus.

It's often said that the Gospel is the Good News, and this is used to preach about, well, preaching; that when you have good news, you share it with others, so that if you have the Gospel - the ultimate Good News - why would you not want to share it with others?

This kind of argument is hard to argue against, despite the fact that for many reasons we find it hard to tell others about faith. We are scared of being seen as fanatical, or of being ostracised for our beliefs. Moreover, it's often easy to separate the Good News from good news. Your favourite sports team winning a match is obvious good news, and we can understand why we want to share it with everyone we know. The Good News of the Gospel, however, doesn't seem to feel like the same kind of good news. It doesn't quite give us the same feeling, even though it is, in fact, Good News indeed.

Yet even if we feel this way most of the time, the time will come when we feel particularly close to God - it might be when we're praying, it might be because of a verse we read that moves us, it might be during worship - and in that moment, we see the Gospel for the Good News that it really is.

Most of the time, when I feel close to God, I get an initial thought reaction. Mostly it's a prayer, or a religious song that I particularly like. However, a few months ago I found that my initial thought reaction was not any of these things - it was the chorus of Read All About It. In that moment, when the Good News felt like good news indeed, I wanted to share it; to scream, shout and sing.

That's what this song means to me now. It might mean different things to different people, but from that moment I now find it synonymous with my relationship with God, and that it is Good News indeed.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

On My Stereo

When I was in my (Christian) primary school, I remember there was one assembly that my class had to do about worship music in its various styles. Each group (there were about four groups) had a different style of worship song to talk about. When our teacher told us what we were going to do, we immediately started asking how many genres of music could possibly be that are used for worship. My teacher replied by saying that any genre of music could be used to worship - "even rock music". I particularly remember that there was indignation at this point, for no one in my class thought that you could use rock music to worship. I suppose rock music has a bad reputation, and indeed it is quite hard to find worship music heavier than pop rock. In the case of Building 429 - especially their album Listen to the Sound (which both of these songs are from) - rock music definitely works for worship.

Building 429 - Made For You

This song has one of the best introductions I've heard for a while. It builds up perfectly and is a great karaoke track. This song tells the story (in the first person) of someone realising that to find themselves, they must find themselves in God. It's a great song to sing along to. 

Building 429 - Right Beside You

This song is different to every single worship song I've ever heard, for one simple reason: it is not in the POV of a Christian speaking to God nor the POV of God speaking to us. Instead, it is in the POV of a Christian talking to another Christian. It is one of encouragement, and reminds the listener about how Christians should act towards each other; that we should take care of each other as family.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Psalm 139:7-10

There is a Looney Tunes character called Droopy, a rather depressed basset hound. There is an episode of Looney Tunes in which Droopy is after an escaped criminal. The criminal flees all over the world to evade capture, but whenever he gets anywhere, Droopy is already there, ready to apprehend him. No matter how many times the criminal runs away, or how far away he goes, Droopy is already there.

These few verses in Psalm 139 speak of God much like Droopy in this episode of Looney Tunes. It mentions places that we could never hope to go to in the physical world - Heaven, the world of the dead, beyond the east and the farthest place in the west - and says that even if we were to go there, God would be there first.

There is nowhere we can go that God is not. There is nowhere that we could venture without running into God at every turn; He is there every step of the way, and when we get there, He's already there as well.

For the escaped criminal in the Looney Tunes clip, the fact that Droopy was always one step ahead of him and cut him off at every turn drove him so mad that he begged to be let back into prison. But God isn't trying to catch us out by always being one step ahead; instead, He is supporting us and helping us.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Three Points About Creation

This post is a little different from my previous posts. In this post, I would like to talk about three things which people generally take from the Creation Story (or, to be more precise, the first three chapters of the Bible) that I do not agree with, based on my own interpretations of how the beginning of Genesis is written. I am not by any means asking that you agree with me, just that you hear me out.

1) That Adam and Eve were the first humans
It is almost a Christian cliché that Adam and Eve were the first humans. Whenever we tell the story of Creation, we tell it the way we were told it as children, which includes the notion that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day of Creation; that they therefore were the first humans.

However, the story of Creation itself does not actually mention Adam and Eve. Instead, on the sixth day humans - both men and women - were created in God's image (Genesis 1:27), whereas Adam and Eve are not mentioned at all until Genesis 2. How, then, could Adam and Eve be the first humans if, according to the story of Creation, humans are created before Adam and Eve?

Secondly, we can find evidence that Adam and Eve were not the first humans by looking at the story of Cain and Abel. After Cain has killed his brother, he is exiled. Cain protests against this punishment, claiming that if he were to be exiled, anyone who met him would kill him (Genesis 4:14). If Adam and Eve were the first humans, then after Cain kills Abel there would only by three people on the earth, including himself. How, then, can there be anyone to kill Cain if the only people in existence to kill him are his parents, from whom he is being exiled?

However, although they were not the first humans, we can say that Adam and Eve are the mother and father of all humanity. They are direct descendants of Noah, whose family were the sole survivors of The Flood.

2) That woman was created as man's 'helper'
It is also written within the first few chapters of Genesis that Eve was created as Adam's helper, for Adam was lonely and needed such assistance (Genesis 2:18). This has been the basis for many claims that the Bible says that women are merely the 'helpers' or 'assistants' of men.

However, if linked to my previous point, this verse does not show the alleged inferiority of women. For, if Adam and Eve were not the first humans, then how could all of women have been created as man's 'helpers'? The most accurate thing we can make of this verse is that Eve was created as Adam's helper, not that entire womankind was created as the 'helper' of all of mankind.

On the contrary - as we have also seen in the last point that I made - both men and women were created at the same time on the sixth day, both in God's image; both equal.

3) That the story of Creation goes against the scientific explanation of the world
My final point is probably my most controversial. Over the years, there have been many debates over whether the scientific explanation of the world means that we have no need for the Creation story. However, this would imply that the scientific explanation of the world and the Creation story are in conflict with each other; that, much like Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort (warning: spoilers coming up), "one cannot live while the other survives". This does not have to be the case.

Firstly, you can take the order of the Creation story and compare it to the scientific explanation. Firstly, there was light, night and day. Secondly, there was the sky. Thirdly, there was the earth. Fourthly, water and plants. Fifthly, the moon and the influence of the sun. Sixthly, animals. And lastly, humans. In only one way does the order of the Creation story not mirror the scientific explanation of the world; albeit if the former does not use as sophisticated and scientific language as the latter.

One argument against the Creation story is that science as itself can disprove it; that if there is a scientific explanation, we have no need for the Divine Creation. Science, as an entity in itself, disproves the existence of God. However, could not science have been created by God? Science is the delicate string that holds our universe together; a set of rules that binds and controls all matter in the known cosmos. Therefore, it is very complicated. Therefore, could we not argue that it came into existence using the Design Theory?

Humans are an inquisitive race; it is what many people say separates us from animals, that we have the ability to dream and wonder and to question the world around us. This world is one that God created for us; He meant for us to inherit it, as a gift. Would you give someone a gift that they had no hope of understanding? Without science, our intelligence would not be advanced enough for us to understand how Creation works, for if it was, we would all be God. Therefore, I believe that science was created by God as a way of helping us to understand the world around us and to feed our infinite thirst for knowledge.

Another argument against Creation is the seven days aspect of the story. The Bible claims that the world - indeed, the entire universe - was created in seven days. Science claims that it took more like 13.7 billion years. That's a big difference in time. However, how literally can we take the timing written of in the Bible? The civilisation that wrote Genesis were more scientifically naive than us. A concept like 13.7 billion years even boggles us, let alone a race who has not had our centuries of scientific innovation to make a number like that more accessible. 7 days is accessible to everyone.

Furthermore, how can we say with any real certainty that God lives inside of time? Even the scientific explanation of the world claims that time started at the Big Bang - and God existed before the Big Bang; therefore for something to exist before time, that thing - or Person - must exist outside of time. 7 days to God could have been billions of years for those living inside of time.

Finally, the theory of evolution. How do dinosaurs fit in with the Creation story? To this, I argue a case similar to my last point. The story of Creation does not mention explicitly the animals that were created. Dinosaurs could have emerged in the 'day' that animals were created, but - as I have already mentioned - if that 'day' was actually millions of years, then there is no difficulty fitting in the dinosaurs into the story of Creation.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

GPBP: Nature Taking Over

I took these photos while waiting on the train at Broxbourne station. There are railway tracks that aren't used anymore next to the used tracks, but because they have been neglected nature has started to take them over. I think that this reflects the resilience of God's Creation over anything and everything that is solely man-made.