For the next few weeks we will be reading through Lamentations at our Sunday gatherings. There is tremendous benefit in reading the bible together and doing so in public. Even when there's no further comment, study or preaching of a passage, there is tremendous benefit in reading the scriptures together. The scriptures themselves encourage such public reading (1Tim 4v13) and promise blessing when it is done (Revelation 1v3, Psalm 1v1-2).
But why are we reading the book of Lamentations in particular? Here are a couple of the (many) reasons:
It's an unfamiliar book, but we still need it
Even if you have been a Christian for a long period of time, chances are you haven't heard much preaching on Lamentations, or studied it in a small group or one-to-one. Likewise, most of us will read more frequently from the gospels, Psalms, epistles and narrative books of the bible than Lamentations. But, as with all scripture, Lamentations is inspired by the Spirit of God (2Peter 1v21) for our salvation through knowing Christ (2Tim 3v15) and our encouragement in living as the people of God (Romans 15v4). It is part of the richness of God's message to us and his world. If we neglect it, we miss out. One particular aspect of this is...
It expresses things we don't often express, but we still need to grapple with
The clue is in the title of the book: Lamentations is a series of laments. It is written in the aftermath of the devastation of Jerusalem and the Temple of God by the Babylonian Empire in 587BC, confirming and deepening Israel's exile. This was an event of seismic proportions, one which threw the Israelites into turmoil - a spiritual dislocation to match the political and geographical upheaval they had been through. Although there are many differences with our own lives, there are important similarities. We too live in a world of tragedy and suffering, we too live in a world where God's people often fail, we too live waiting and longing for our true home in God's restored and renew creation.
And yet, we are not very good at expressing our pain or hearing the pain of others expressed. We do not often pray or sing 'in the minor key.' We ignore, or distract ourselves from the painful reality of living in a world under the judgment of God. We have much to learn from Lamentation's graphic descriptions of Jerusalem's devastation, its confessions of sin and expressions of hope the far side of judgment.
For a helpful video about Lamentations see here.
In this short series of posts we have been showing how our Anglican doctrinal heritage gives us a wonderful expression of the Christian faith as it was re-discovered during the reformation.
If 'Faith Alone' was the issue at the heart of the reformation, 'Scripture Alone' was the foundational issue. Where did Luther and others get their re-discovery of the gospel from? A fresh study of Scripture. On what basis did they dare to challenge the powerful church authorities of their day, overturning the traditions that had built up in recent centuries? On the basis of what God had said in the Scriptures, which, they insisted, is the only final authority for Christian belief and practice.
The 39 articles of the Church of England (essentially the 'doctrinal basis' for Anglicanism) explain this very clearly, even though the language now feels a little archaic. Consider this from part of article 6 for example:
Just how this restrained the power of the Church is expressed very well in article 20:
Please note though, in line with what all the reformers believed, this isn't saying that teachers and leaders in the church have no authority whatsoever. It does meant that their authority is subject to the bible. Likewise, the articles were not proposing that all of tradition be rejected out of hand. Often, much of what our brothers and sisters in the past have handed down to us is extremely helpful. For example, article 8 says this about some of the ancient creeds:
Today we sometimes misinterpret 'Scripture Alone' to mean 'me and my bible on our own.' The Reformers would not have seen it that way. We benefit from the help of our Christian family in understanding the bible, both today and throughout history. But the Scriptures must rule supreme, and have the final say.
Each and every single Sunday when we hear God’s word together it is a moment of immense spiritual importance. That said, as I get ready to preach there are some parts of the bible that seem to stand out as of particular relevance to our church life at that time.
The sermon on Romans 8v12-17 from a couple of Sundays ago was like that. This was partly because of the way v13 urges us to engage in a lifelong, sustained and continuous battle with our sin:
Here are just three of the many reasons this verse, and the sermon on this passage, are of such importance:
1. It’s not familiar
The call of this verse is repeated elsewhere in the bible (for e.g. Colossians 3v5) but it’s not one we hear all that often these days. We are so used to either ignoring or winking at our sin, and even using God’s grace as an excuse for doing so. But the life lived by God’s grace is a life of putting sin to death.
2. It’s both realistic and hopeful
v13 assumes the presence of sin in the life of Christians - there’s no fanciful notion that we will ever be free in this present life from the need to engage in this struggle. At the same time Paul speaks in such a way as to raise our expectations of being able to achieve real progress in the battle. We are not held captive by sin anymore. We can, by God’s grace, experience change.
3. It’s a must
This is what a Spirit-led life looks like. This is what those who are headed to glory do on their way there. And a life of unchecked sin is headed down a very different path. This is a struggle we must be engaged in.
If you weren’t in to hear this particular sermon I’d encourage you to make the time to listen. In fact, I’d encourage each of us to listen to it again with the bible passage open in front of us.
One of the things we will inevitably keep coming back to as we make our way through Romans chapter 8 is the work of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, this is a subject that can be a cause of confusion amongst Christians.
One of the reasons for that is because we separate the Spirit’s work in our lives from Christ’s work for us. We sometimes focus on issues of particular gifts the Spirit gives, or certain experiences we ascribe to the Holy Spirit. But the big picture of the Spirit’s work is that he is all about Christ; making Christ known, conforming us to be like Christ, putting into effect the salvation Christ has won.
This is something we’ve seen even just in the first 11 verses of Romans 8, for example:
Jesus achieves what the law could not achieve (v3) in his death on the cross but this becomes ours through ‘the Spirit of life’ (v2).
Christ died so that we might live a new life of obedience to God, but this new life can only be lived by walking according to the Spirit (v4)
The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and it is impossible to belong to Christ unless the Spirit dwells in us (v9).
Jesus rose again for our salvation but his resurrection will actually becomes something we share in and experience ourselves because of the Spirit who dwells in us (v11).
In other words, Romans 8 shows us that what Christ has achieved objectively for us in his life, death and resurrection, is applied and made real to us personally by the Spirit.
This blog post is related to the recent sermon on Romans 8v5-11 which you can listen to again to by clicking here.