Fighting the wrong battles?

 

The Lord said to Samuel, “..fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king….Rise and anoint him; he is the one.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power….David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.

When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran. Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines…

(1 Sam 16.1, 12&13: 17.45&46,51&52)

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me….Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. “

(Matt 10.21&22, 34)

Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?” and they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I told you that I am he, ” Jesus answered. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.”…

(John 18.7&8)

As a parent, and friend I have often found myself choosing which ‘battles’ to fight, having to decide whether there is something worth fighting for, and whether I am the person to do the job. I believe that in our lives as followers of Jesus it is easy to get these decisions wrong, and end up at best wasting my energy, and at worst, getting into a dreadful state of despair and exhaustion!

In both the old testament story of David, the boy warrior (but also the anointed King and God-appointed leader and representative of his people), and the salvation narrative of Jesus death on the cross, we see one person stepping out on behalf of others who are unable to fight this particular battle for themselves. In both cases, God has called this one person to the task, and particularly equipped them for it. The role of the rest is to stand back, to let God’s warrior take up his weapon and then to follow after, pursuing a defeated enemy in order to establish the rule of the rightful king.

We are not meant to learn from the tale of David that we too may be giant killers – the whole point is that only God’s anointed one could do that! Our job is to recognise that the great foe has been defeated, and our enemies are in retreat – we are on the winning side and nothing can change that, even if we lose our own lives in the smaller conflicts that follow.

Jesus rebuked his own followers when they struck out against the soldiers who had come to arrest him – this battle was not theirs, and indeed, he spoke strongly and clearly to ensure that they were not taken captive, but left free to observe, to wait, and in due time to take up their role of pursuing a defeated enemy by spreading the good news about the risen and victorious Christ. We may be up against strongholds, where the powers of evil appear untouchable, but the truth is that nothing can withstand the power of the God whom we serve, and he has promised to build his church, for eternity.

The message which we proclaim is of peace with God, through the atoning death of Christ – but as Jesus himself said, that message itself brings bitter division and hostility, as the pride of the human heart rebels against the truth and will have none of it. This is why followers of Jesus have throughout the centuries been accused of stirring up trouble – the truth we witness to is indeed a stumbling block to many; an offence beyond bearing. And yet that gospel is our weapon, the only one we have in our pursuit of the defeated foe. Truly, God’s ‘foolishness’ is greater than human wisdom!

May God grant us wisdom, that we do not find ourselves fighting for our salvation when it has been won for us; may we discern the strongholds which are our job and be given the faith and confidence to go up against them in the name of our victorious Jesus. We have been given peace with God through Christ, may we recognise when the Devil is trying to steal it (loading us with guilt, low self-esteem, the endless to-do lists), resisting him in the name of Jesus. We will face opposition, and pain, but through it all, may the love of Christ be seen in us, so that even those who are appalled by our message might be unable to dismiss it.

 

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Reality check..

Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it only leads to evil.

(Ps 37.3-8)

Jesus said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

(Luke 9.22-26)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things…Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord..It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

(Col 3.1&2, 23&24)

It is terribly easy to fall into the habit of selective reading of scripture, picking out those passages which make us feel comfortable and good about ourselves, and losing sight of fundamental truths which present a challenge to our thinking and acting.

Psalm 37 makes us feel good; we think about how God will give us our heart’s desires, and vindicate our good name, and it is reassuring! And then, the Holy Spirit prompts a recollection that this would have been one of Jesus own songs, one of his prayers too…..what did it look like for this to be fulfilled for him? He was the only perfect human being who ever lived, and therefore surely his cause was righteous, his desires were fulfilled and his way vindicated by God?

Our Lord delighted in God the Father, we read so many times of his prioritising time alone to pray and of his speaking of his love and obedience to God. And what did God give Christ? Hardship, foolish and faithless followers, persecution, injustice and finally an agonising, humiliating death. Jesus committed his way to God the Father, from his earliest days he sought to be about his Father’s business and publicly declared that everything he said and did was as directed by God. And his righteousness was despised, his name was blackened, and he was condemned as a criminal.

He was still before his accusers, he waited patiently through the agony of crucifixion to accomplish his allotted task, to achieve his desired end; he refrained from anger, and prayed forgiveness for his persecuters. His road to glorious and absolute victory led through what looked like abject failure and defeat…and he calls me, he calls you to follow him.

Our victory is assured in Christ, we cannot fall out of God’s loving grasp; but even as we will share in his future glory, so we are called now to share in his path of obedient self-denial and submission. God calls me to follow Jesus in doing the hard things, the painful things, the lonely, secret and insignificant things which are involved in dying to myself – a sacrifice which is for God’s eyes only, not to make a public performance or to win human praise.

My heart’s desire may truly be for the glory of God and the building of his kingdom, but am I really prepared for what that will mean in my own life? Being a follower of Jesus is not meant to be easy, smooth and comfortable – his path was none of those things! All those things which self clings to as its right – health, security, family and a good name – are disposable in the will of God, and I must hold them lightly, ready to yield them up if necessary with an obedient and willing spirit.

May God in his grace grant me his strength to do the work of dying to myself, that I might live for Christ; may the vision of the glorious and risen One draw me on steadily through my own path of self-denial, keeping me steady and full of hope that even as I share his sufferings, so also I will share in his glory.

 

What am I..?

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy one of Israel, your Saviour…you are precious and honoured in my sight, and ..I love you..

(Isa 43.1-4)

Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his, we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

(Ps 100.3)

Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s…For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 

(Ps 103.2-5&11)

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

(1Jn 3.1)

I have written before about my personal temperament, about the strong inclination towards pessimism and negativity which colours so much of my reaction to daily life. I rejoice that God, through his power at work in my life, is transforming this as well as every other part of me, and that one day, I will be free of that shadow. By his grace, I can choose to see good in others, to love them in the way that God loves them, and can encourage them to believe in God’s love and care for them and to persevere with confidence and hope. I can be positive for other people, and I enjoy doing it – truly we are greatly blessed when with God’s help we deliberately set out to bless others!

But… it is somehow much harder to extend this same grace to myself, and to use my words positively and helpfully in that personal soul-talk which is part of our christian discipline. What do I say to my soul when the day’s plans don’t work out as I hoped; or when I don’t come up to my own expectations in living for Jesus? What is the pattern of my thoughts as I get on with the business of daily life, the messiness of relationships and the uncertainties that are our lot as human beings?

I am so thankful that God has shown me so clearly in the bible just what he thinks of us, of me, as his child. For a start, there is that astonishing word itself ‘child’ – I, this little person in this small village, am the beloved daughter of the King of Kings, and heir to all the promised inheritance of heaven. This is nothing to do with how I think, act or react; it is a statement of fact, grounded in my salvation in Jesus, and utterly secure.

I AM, God’s delight and joy as his precious and honoured little one.

I AM one of his flock, the object of his personal attention and provision. All the details of my life are of concern to my shepherd, and He is able to work all things together for my good – whether I see it or not, I can trust him absolutely.

I AM completely forgiven of all my sins – past, present and future – as I depend upon Christ’s sacrifice, which means that I have no fear of being cut off from God and need bear no guilt. I may repent, and do grieve for ongoing sin, but that need not be a burden that weighs me down and binds me in despair, because God has declared me blameless in his sight.

I AM the way He always intended me to be – for His glory and the blessing of his people. I may not see the reasons, or the blessings, but I can trust Him to use both my weaknesses and my strengths according to His will.

Lord God, beloved and mighty Father, thank you that I can trust you to be at work in me for good. As I speak to myself, I pray that I might not condemn where you have forgiven; that I might be content where you have provided; that I might bring failure and weakness to you in perpetual confidence and hope, not in self-recrimination and paralysing despair. By your Holy Spirit’s continually refreshing power, cleanse my mind of lies, and fill me with the truth which you have declared about who I am, so that I may learn to live in the freedom of the forgiven, restored and beloved child, with nothing to prove and no reason to fear. Destroy all the remnant of pride which causes me to resist these truths and let my life be a beautiful testament to your amazing grace..

 

I believe…

The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies above can compare with the Lord? Who is like the Lord among the heavenly beings? In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him…Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord.

(Ps 89.5-7&14&15)

Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no-one deceives you…when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines..

(Mark 13. 5,7&8)

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them…Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.

(Rom 1.18,19&28-32)

I believe in the wickedness and depravity of the human heart….in greed, selfishness, malice, violence, pride, callousness and hatred.

I believe in the brokenness of the physical world..the cruelty of nature, the destructive powers of fire, wind, earth and water.

I believe in the powers of evil, ranked in implacable opposition to Almighty God, willing to use and abuse every beautiful part of his creation against him in order to thwart his purposes.

I find it easy to believe in these things, because I live with human beings – and more pertinently, I am human. I find within myself the seeds of all those appalling fruits which Paul lists in his letter to the Romans. The human heart is fatally flawed, and it makes no sense to me to advocate education, meditation, mediation or any other kind of self-help as a means of dealing with that flaw. Our brokenness goes so deep that we cannot make ourselves whole again.

I live in a physical world which demonstrates great cruelty, where disease, and death, neglect and violence rule. Not all the troubles that we see are the result of human exploitation and abuse of God’s good gifts, but rather come from within creation itself. This wonderful world, this incredible universe and the galaxies beyond, all somehow warped and stained and not what they could and should be.

And so I believe in the evil with which our race chose to align itself when we rebelled against God as King and Lord, and deluded ourselves into thinking that we knew better, that we couldn’t trust our Creator to be good. We fell straight into slavery to that darkness, within our hearts and in the world around us, powerless now to break free, and often blind to the reality of our chains.

We live today under judgement – our plight is the result of our own choices down the generations – and still we refuse to recognise the truth about ourselves, about our slavery to sin, and the reality of our desperate need for God’s salvation.

When I consider the cross, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, I believe in the reality of God’s love and of his plan to save us and make all things new. If any other way had been possible, then the Son of God would not have died. But he did, and in the mystery of mercy and justice meeting at the cross, he achieved our complete rescue from evil, and offered freedom to the slaves.

I believe in the hand of God to gather all things together in his perfect time, to keep his  people through turmoil of every kind as the end draws near, and to deliver us into the new creation when Christ returns in glory and every knee – willing or reluctant – bows before him as Lord.

I do not understand why so much agony must be endured as we await his coming; why famine, war, abuse and neglect, slavery and exploitation, genocide and terror continue to afflict so many. But I believe in a God who is great and good beyond my puny comprehension, and with his help, I will trust and persevere.

I accept with humble joy his daily gifts of love and beauty, I worship him in his power and majesty, and I pray for his will to be done and his kingdom come.

 

 

Can’t help myself!

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…And God said, “let there be light..let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear…let the land produce vegetation… let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night”…God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

(Gen 1.1,3,9,11,14&31)

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is the son of man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour.

(Ps 8.1-5)

My heart is steadfast, O God; I will sing and make music with all my soul. Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, higher than the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory be over all the earth.

(Ps 108.1-5)

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

(James 1.17&18)

Do you ever think about praise as a means of defeating evil? That is how the psalmist describes it in Psalm 8, giving the voices of children raised in faith the power to advance God’s kingdom and silence the wicked! I love this, because it helps me to understand why it is always good to praise God, even when we are in trouble, weighed down by burdens of our own, or those of others.

When we declare in the face of the darkness that God is, that he is good, loving, faithful and utterly trustworthy, then the kingdom is being built. We may not see how God uses those statements of faith, sometimes whispered from breaking hearts, but he does.

And sometimes, in spite of the darkness in the world around us, we are simply prompted to praise by the beauty we see around us – and living where I do now, this happens very frequently! I sing with the psalmist, from a heart that overflows with delight, gratitude and deep joy, responding to the light, the colours, the sights, smells and sounds around me. I am so thankful to be alive today; so thankful for the physical strength which I have been given to move and work and play; deeply grateful for the mind and spirit which enable me to appreciate and grow in love for my God and all he has done.

God made it, and made it very good; and even all the consequences of human rebellion cannot disguise the vision of the creator, or take all the joy out of creation’s natural constant song of praise to its maker. The mountains and seas rejoice in their elements, the wind whispers and roars songs of praise; the trees and flowers of the field shout ‘Glory!’, and the creatures each in their place display his power, might, and delight in details and in the ridiculous.

I am made in God’s image, I share in some small way the delight which God has in all he has made – so that my joy in the beauty around me is a right and proper thing; a gift to be rejoiced in, and given thanks for. When I am gladdened, lifted up in my spirit, I sing thanksgivings in my heart to my Father God, and in sharing my joy, I am enriched and He is exalted because all the glory goes to Him.

Let me never neglect this ministry of rejoicing before my God, of fulfilling my debt of thanksgiving and praise, so that I might do my part in advancing his kingdom, standing against evil and proclaiming Christ’s victory. Let my voice not be silent among the chorus of creation, because I am both made and remade, I have double reason to shout alongside the trees, the birds, the glory of light upon the water and the wind over the moors!

Shout with joy, all my being rejoice and sing before your Lord and King; exult in his goodness and acknowledge in all things that He is God!

A sure and certain hope!

Jesus said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations…You are witnesses of these things.”

(Luke 24.44-48)

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

(John 20.19&20)

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him…God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear….therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.

(Acts 2.22-24,32,33&36)

On the eve of Passover, as darkness fell, the city of Jerusalem returned to the business of preparation and observance of the coming feast, a great time of rejoicing and remembering God’s deliverance of the people from Egypt – when many signs and miracles had accredited Moses as God’s servant and they had trusted for deliverance.

The Pharisees and leaders of the religious community were hugely relieved that the trouble with Jesus of Nazareth was over just in time; the body was gone – it didn’t really matter where, there could be no doubts that he was dead because Roman executioners couldn’t risk getting it wrong. The people would forget soon enough, and be content to return to the routines of temple worship, of looking back to God’s faithfulness in the past, and looking ahead to the Christ, the Messiah who was yet to come in power to save them from Rome…

But life would never return to the old ways, because in the quiet tomb, out of sight and in the mystery of God’s power, the Messiah whom the people had so utterly failed to recognise – in spite of the signs and wonders he had done – was not to remain dead, his body would never decay and be gathered into a jar of dry bones for storage…

On the morning of the first day of the week, something happened in that forgotten corner of the city, something utterly outside human comprehension, when the eternal divine erupted into the temporal and earthly, and a dead man breathed again, walked again, talked again! In a body utterly transformed and yet immediately recognisable, he encountered his dearest friends and blew apart their grief, engulfing them in a joy and excitement beyond anything they could have imagined. He that was dead, now lived! The grave had been no more than a resting place for him, and now he was alive – more fully alive than anyone they had ever known.

I sometimes catch a hint of that incredible experience, can almost sense the wonder and the shattering power of realisation, as the women and men who knew Jesus so well held his hands, heard his voice and saw the love and joy and exultation in his eyes as he shared with them the victory which he had realised so completely.

I think we hear that sense of triumph in Peter’s words in Acts as he laid out with brutal clarity for the crowds at Pentecost just what God was doing when Jesus died. This life, this death and above all this resurrection were all God’s doing; in them the eternal plan for redemption was fulfilled. All the signs and wonders had been from God, showing that He was about to achieve a deliverance far greater than that of the Exodus, by means not of slaughtered lambs, but the sacrificial death of the perfect Lamb, the promised Messiah.

This life, death and resurrection are our sure and certain hope for the one deliverance we need – from our own sin and the penalty which it requires. The testimony of the disciples, so carefully recorded for us, is our foundation for belief, and on that we rest.

Today, I rejoice that my Lord lives; that the grave could never hold him; and because of him, I too may live. He has triumphantly completed his work, and I have everything I need. One day I too will know the resurrection power and exultation of a new and perfect body, but even now I can rejoice in the glory and power and mercy of my God, prostrate in wonder and love and soaked through with deep gladness and thanksgiving.

Hallelujah, Christ is risen!

Whose body?

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity…It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life for evermore.

(Ps 133.1&3)

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf…So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgement on themselves

(1 Cor 10.16&17, 11.27-29)

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body…after all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body.

(Eph 4.25&5.29-30)

On the night before he died, and after he had celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples, showing in the wine and bread what lay ahead for him, Jesus prayed for the unity of those who would believe in his name for their salvation.

He prayed this way after commanding his disciples to love one another as he had loved them, namely patiently, perseveringly, selflessly and sacrificially. This unity is therefore not something which comes easily as a feeling, but rather one which is a deliberate acting out of foundational truths, and it requires our commitment and continual focus of attention.

The remnants of our brokenness, even after we have become followers of Jesus, are at war with this desire for unity and fellowship – honesty compels us to recognise within our own church families that we are divided from one another, hiding behind polite facades of competence, nursing grudges, unable to embrace change for the sake of others because it makes us uncomfortable. Our weakness undermines our fellowship, and yet, through those very things, God chooses to demonstrate his power. When we recognise Christ in the believers around us – seeing their inestimable value as his redeemed children – then we find we can love as we want to and ought to! God’s grace is seen as we learn to forgive, to serve (and be served), to bear with one another and to keep lifting up those who stumble. It isn’t about feeling, but about doing and putting ourselves in God’s hands for the good of our neighbours.

As we celebrate the Lord’s supper, communion, or whatever we happen to call that wonderful time of remembrance, Paul is advising us (through his letter to the Corinthians), to see the body of Christ around us, the people for whom Jesus died. We are all equally hopeless without Christ; dependant upon Christ; and gloriously transformed by Christ – and we belong together. When one suffers, we all suffer. When one rejoices, we all rejoice. Christ’s sacrifice is not for me alone, but for all those who call him Lord, and as I take the bread and wine, he calls me to remember that and to consider just how much I am dwelling in loving unity with my brothers and sisters. We do this ‘in remembrance of him’ – whose human body was broken for us, and of whose spiritual body we are now a part.

He died, that we might be his and be one. Am I actively undermining that purpose, am I hurting one of his children, withholding love? Am I neglecting opportunities to build others up in their faith? I am called into the body of Christ to serve him by loving others – what am I doing to fulfill my part in that purpose?

We are the body of Christ – gathered, redeemed, precious and holy to him. Our unity is beautiful in his sight, and as refreshing and blessing to us as divine dew on dry ground. May our celebrations of communion be times to remember and discern the body of which we are part, so that his love for us becomes our motivation to love others, undergirding and informing our conduct so that we do all for and with one another.