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LW08 - Morning 2 - Torn apart : faith and doubt

Jeremiah 20:7-18

The wednesday morning session was introduced by Mark Seager (Paulsgrove Bapist). We sang "When we walk with the Lord" and then I read the scripture.

Jonathan introduced this difficult passage by telling us about a conversation a friend of his who is a pastor in London. This man had many years experience as a Christian - but had recently been involved pastoring a young couple whose 4 year old daughter had a serious illness which eventually proved fatal. And he described how this trauma brought in its wake a wave of doubt; questioning things he had been certain of for half a century.

Only blind faith is invulnerable to doubt. And there is no merit in blind faith. A schoolboy definition of faith goes: "faith is believing something you know aint true" - a similar definition is taken by the so-called "New Atheists."

He spoke of students who had tried assiduously to keep the studied discipline completely separate from their faith - lest their faith be threatened.

Biblical faith does not recognise these options. We are encouraged to ask impossible questions. To wrestle with them. Habakkuk starts his prophecy with questions and ends with worship. A christian who claims to have no doubts should be treated with the same degree of skepticism as a husband who claims never to have arguments with his wife.

If we try to live consistently and allow our faith to inform our lives there will inevitably come a seemingly inexplicable problem which confronts and threatens our faith. Nevertheless we should distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Only a believer can doubt - doubt is the questioning of an already held belief.

Jeremiah's doubt: Faith in two minds

v7,8,10 He felt isolated. "I am ridiculed all day long: everyone mocks me." He had just received a humiliating and painful punishment in the stocks. He was nicknamed "Terror on every side" - a phrase that often cropped up in his prophecies. He was somewhat paranoid fearing a whispering campaign against him.

Isolation is demoralising and often leads to doubt. And yet it's common. Being the only Christian in your workplace. Or in your family.

v7 He felt betrayed. God had given him prophecies but had yet to make good on them. Jeremiah was looking increasingly like a false prophet as the doom he predicted didn't take place. He felt as though he'd been sent out on false pretenses.

v14-18 He felt depressed. He ends the chapter despairing to the point of being suicidal. "I would rather have been aborted than live the life I have" is the essence of his message. The incredibly graphic language describes the way he feels, rather than being specific curses.

But he is not alone in this depression. Elijah, after the showdown with the prophets of Baal in which both he and God were vindicated, pleaded with God to take his life.

Battered emotions can produce a crop of doubt more devastating than an atheists hardest questions.

An then there was another prophet, alone crying out "My God! my God! Why have you forsaken me?" from a cross against a darkening sky...

Jeremiah's faith: talking straight with God

He was totally honest. "We need not attempt to bottle it up because God invites us to pour it out." -- John Goldingay

There is no point or room for pretense with God. "Unreality towards God is the wasting disease of much modern Christianity" -- Jim Packer

This honesty is not merely emotional catharsis: it is an adult and appropriate way to deal with issues in a trusting relationship.

v9 He felt compelled to speak. "His word is like a fire. I am weary of holding it in; I cannot." Going on is hard, but not going on is impossible. This works because true faith is not something we conjure up, but a gift of God. Irresistible grace. It is there - and in times of doubt we can experience the strength of God's grip on us as our grip on him seems to weaken.

v11-13 He was sure of God's presence and power. "The Lord is on my side like a mighty warrior." God was there and Jeremiah was confident of rescue.

When they are in Doubting Castle in Pilgrim's Progress, Hopeful reassures the doubting Pilgrim by reminding him of the great things that he was already seen accomplished.

We can look back at the cross and consider what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us on our behalf. We may not understand what we are experiencing and it may not fit neatly into a box, but the cross assures us that it is not God's indifference or abandonment.

"faith ... is the art of holding on to something your reason has once accepted in spite of your change of moods" -- C. S. Lewis

He spoke of a family he knows where the father is suffering from cancer. His latest prayer letter was characteristically upbeat - asking for prayer that they would not spend time looking inwards so much as upwards.

We need, as Martin Lloyd-Jones put it, to spend more time speaking to ourselves than listening to ourselves.

This is not false comfort, nor a cheap hallelujah - a dark night of the soul can be used to build a stronger, more adult, godliness.

It is not so much great faith we need as faith in a great God." -- Hudson Taylor.

We closed by singing "I know not why God's wondrous grace"

LW08 - Morning 1 - Responding To God's Call

Jeremiah 1

The Living Word Bible Convention is back for another year, with Jonathan Lamb as this year's speaker. The morning session was sparsely attended - like my father's hair it was almost all grey and thinly spread.

Paul Moore (of St Wilfrid's, Cowplain), the chairman, introduced the session. We sang "To God be the Glory," accompanied by Adrian on the Piano, and then Mark Seager (Paulsgrove Baptist read the scripture, Jeremiah 1).

Here are my notes:

Jonathan started by talking about a pastor he'd met recently named Josef Bondarenko, who he'd prayed for years earlier. Josef suffered under communist persecution of Christians and spent time labour camps in Siberia. (He also mentions Josef in "Integrity: Leading with God watching", p110). Yet despite substantial persecution, Josef remained passionate about serving God and spreading the gospel - much like Paul, much like Jeremiah. Jeremiah is the 2 Corinthians of the Old Testament - ministry under difficult circumstances.

v1-5 The Lord's Call

v1-3 Jeremiah outlines the prevailing crisis. The background is politically uncertain - balance of world power was shifting as the Assyrian empire began to totter. As v3 points out, it ends in captivity for God's people. Jeremiah mentions 4 of the 6 kings whose reigns intersected his ministry - all died in unusual circumstances. It was a time of moral and spiritual turmoil - a situation which resonates strongly with Britain today.

Josiah is mentioned - a good king whose best efforts were not enough to prevent the decay that had set in.

v4-5 God summons Jeremiah. It's a vital experience that colours his subsequent ministry. Not a romantic experience - it's a summons not an invitation. Magnificent and uplifting, but produces more panic than glee.

3 assurances given: 1. I knew you... I shaped you. "knew" implies more than just awareness - God was committed to using Jeremiah. It's the knowledge of relationship. God has designed Jeremiah for the task he is giving him.

2. I have set you apart, consecrated you. Jeremiah was specially chosen for his mission.

3. I have appointed you. He has been givein a global ministry that reflects God's sovereignty over the whole earth.

The greater the turmoil, the greater the need to hear God's word.

v6-9 The Lord's Response

v6 Call. God's call comes, typically, when it's not expected. Jeremiah assumes that God's made a mistake - Jeremiah doesn't have the requisite facial hair to be a prophet! He wishes for a prolonged period of childhood without carrying the burdens of his people on his shoulders. This sense of weakness/inadequacy is an essential pre-requisite for christian service.

v7-9 God's answer. I send you ... I command you ... I am with you.

v9 I will deliver you. This assurance stays with Jeremiah - and even though severe doubts plague him throughout his ministry, God ultimately proves faithful.

v9 I have put my words in your mouth. A promise of authority - an authority not in Jeremiah himself, but that is derived form the fact that Jeremiah proclaims God's words. (The locus of authority being in the word rather than the person is reassuring - the messenger can be killed, but the words cannot be unspoken). The centre of power - God - remains unchanged.

v10-16 The Lord's Message

v10 Strong message of judgment, combined with a message of hope.

Jeremiah has been described as the life and soul of the funeral.

2 mini visions:

v11-12 the almond branch - one of the first trees to blossom; a sign that spring is on it's way. God is ready, he will deliver on his promises.

v13 cauldron facing away from the north - God's judgment is delayed - but only for a limited period of time.

They may be God's people, but that doesn't mean they have diplomatic immunity.

Jeremiah faithfully relays this message of judgment - with tears and weeping. There is no place for smugness when warning of God's judgment.

v17-19 The Lord's Resources

Jeremiah has a similar message to Paul, who was told "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Jeremiah will be like a fortified city, an iron pillar, a bronze wall. He will face opposition. He will experience loneliness. But the attacks on him will ultimately fail.

The guarantee is not that God will stop the fighter, but that he will stand by the fighter. -- Derek Kidner

The defining factor in Jeremiah's "success" will be the faithfulness that is possible when God is present.

If we want to serve, we need to hear the promises God made to Jeremiah - that he will be alongside us in our weakness.

The session closed with the hymn: "I the Lord of sea and sky".

Most people like to sleep on a mattress...

I bought a bed recently. In Havant. I walked into the shop, looked at the bed. Then I said to one of the employees: "May I purchase one of those beds please?" A rudimentary reading of my face would probably have shown that this was the first bed I've ever bought.

He took my order. He told me when it would be delivered. And he delivered it. And not once did he point out that it (a) didn't include a mattress, (b) he sold mattresses, (c) he could sell me a mattress.

I'd been brought up believing that most people have beds and mattresses in pairs: one bed with one mattress. I'm still wondering why he never offered to sell me one...