Dear Brothers and Sisters,
It’s been a busy and tough week. From lawyers to farmers, I have had the privilege of sharing God’s word with some fascinating people. I was due to go to the Darling Downes conference in Queensland this week and on Monday that was looking unlikely. A couple of Covid cases in Brisbane caused the Queensland government to lockdown the city for three days, and I had ‘man flu’ – with a really sore throat, cough and temperature. In Australia that means you have to go for a Covid test. Thankfully the negative result was returned within 12 hours and I was able to go to the conference which, despite the Covid scare and the rain, went ahead.
This was small town Australia – so different from North Shore Sydney – and I loved it. But it was not easy – not just physical health, but also a sense of discouragement amongst the people made it difficult. I hope that preaching through the whole of Colossians in eight sessions helped and encouraged them.
There is of course much to discourage – the news from home is not good – watching the dishonesty and corruption of the SNP is depressing – the thought that Nicola Sturgeon will get back in and continue on the ‘soft totalitarian’ path that she has already taken Scotland down, is so depressing, that I am thinking of applying for political asylum here! Mind you politics here can be brutal, tribalistic and discouraging as well. I was quite shocked by the bias and mockery shown on ABC’s flag political show, The Drum.
But there is one issue that has played more on my spirit than any other – and that is the Jonathan Fletcher case. Several people have written or spoken to me asking me to comment. Something I have been reluctant to do. Not because I do not think it is important but simply because I do not know enough – and numerous words have already been said and written. What could I add? If the 31:8 report is correct (and no one seems to be disputing that), then its a situation that calls for repentance and reformation – as well as support for those who are the victims.
Yesterday morning, I was tired after preaching nine times in four days, and a bit flat because of all the above and my own personal sin. I went out on to our balcony and read and prayed and the Lord gave me a wonderful gift; Richard Sibbes’ sermon on Song of Solomon 1:5-6 entitled The Church’s Blackness. (p.95 of volume 7 of his works). I would love to share the whole thing but here are just a few principles we can apply to this situation.
1) The Church should always be ready to confess her own sins.
“No man is more ready to charge the church than she is to confess her infirmities. She never hides them, she never justifies them; she is black, she has afflictions, she kept not her own vine, she wants knowledge, affection, discretion, love. She never denies it, but confesses all freely from her heart; she does not hide her sin, but tells what it is, what she has done, that so she may give glory to the Lord God of Israel. And indeed, it makes much for the honour of Christ, and commends his grace, that he, such a king, will set his heart and eye upon such a deformed slut as the world deems her to be.”
2) We should not be discouraged when God shows us our sins, but rather run to him for mercy.
“Though our estate be here imperfect, yet we must not be discouraged. God’s children must so see their sins, and sorrow for them, as that though by thereby sent to humiliation, yet they may retain hope of mercy”
“This is to humble ourselves for our weakness; for alas! How often are we swooning and discouraged. Every slight affliction, corruption, temptation, does dismay and put us to silence. If storms fall, and winds blow, if flesh stir, and Satan be busy, our faith trembles, and hearts are shaken; we meditate, fear and suspect ourselves; we suspect God, and shun his presence, and say in our haste ‘we are forgotten’; this is our death.”
Sibbes goes on to talk about the many imperfections of the Church and yet that ‘beauty and deformity may stand together, some light, some darkness.”
Sibbes point is that we should run to Christ for mercy, not to the media, our friends or whatever means of gossip is currently in vogue in our culture.
3) In a hostile world we need to be courageous
“Now learn to be courageous. Are afflictions upon you? Be sensible of them, be humbled in them, but never shrink from your hold of Christ or hope of mercy.”
4) In the midst of the storm, we must recognise the beauty of the Church
“There is a glory and excellence in the saints of God in the midst of all their deformities and debasements.”
5) We should not glory or rejoice in other people’s sins
“We must not still be poring into the deformities of God’s church and people, like flies on galled places, or dogs upon garbage and raw flesh.”
Sibbes describes some critics as those who are like bats who see to fly in the dark only. They don’t see the prosperity or the good, but they delight in those who suffer shipwreck “and whence is all this? But from ignorance or great hypocrisy, or malice?”
6) When we become conscious of sins in others, it should drive us to examine ourselves first.
When we see troubles coming and others falling into sin “It first teaches us to do as the church does, to examine ourselves”. When persecution and other troubles arise we have cause to say ‘I kept not my own vine’.
He suggests that we fail in two ways. Firstly we “outrun our callings. We grow far too over busy”. Our zeal carries us captive. Secondly, we run too slowly….as we get older we lose our zeal, we ‘slack and cool’..
Sometimes it is remarkably easy to see what is wrong with others – and to miss the beam in our own eye. Every group I have experienced (the Free Church, C of S evangelicals, the Baptists, charismatics, the PCA, the Proclamation Trust, UCCF, Scripture Union, Spring Harvest, Word Alive, FIEC, Sydney Anglicans etc) has its problems and difficulties. My discouragement is not so much that there are problems and sins with other Christians, not even when they go badly wrong, my problem is that I am no better – and probably even worse. That is why our only hope is the mercy of Christ. But what a hope! His faithfulness is great, and his mercies are new every morning – whether for Jonathan Fletcher, his victims, his critics, his defenders, or me!
To be honest I had written a whole lot more but then I thought better of it. Why get involved in what increasingly looks like a civil war/family squabble? I would just add fuel to the fire and get eaten alive in the process. From a distance it looks to me as though a section of English evangelicalism is eating itself. It’s so distressing to see all of this played out in public. Having experienced that in Scotland, I can only lament and warn my English brothers and sisters that if you carry on like this, it will not end well – no matter how many times you affirm that you are doing this in love! Heed the warning of Scripture – “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:15).
I leave you with Sibbes final words of that sermon.
“Every one has a vine to look to, look to your callings; and then whatsoever befall you, ‘if you suffer not as evil doers, you are blessed.” (1 Peter 3:14)
See you next week,
Letter from Australia 86 – A New Beginning.
I discuss this a little in this weeks podcast – Quantum 140 – Foucault, Fletcher and Chariots of Fire – the Easter Episdode