A sacrifice…and a responsibility

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no-one knows but himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God….out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ” He will rule them with an iron sceptre.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS

(Revelation 19. 11-16)

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

(John 15.13)

Every year, it seems to me that the number and scale of events of remembrance grows, and I wonder why it is that although we are apparently more attentive to the sacrifice of so many on behalf of peace – and particularly on behalf of the freedom which was preserved for us from oppressive regimes – yet still the world teeters on the verge of war. Nations posture, leaders make grand statements, and we shiver in horrified anticipation of fresh conflict.

The brutal reality is that war really cannot change people, cannot make them peaceful. Centuries of conflicts have left humanity still unable to resolve difference in a generous and peaceful way. I do not in any way want to dismiss or diminish the sacrifices made by so many, and indeed find remembrance a very moving time, when I am deeply thankful to those who fought and fight on, that I and so many others might have freedom. But we have to face the truth..humanity is aggressive, selfish and unable to live at peace. It seems that the responsibilities we have to those who have paid such a high price – to find ways to compromise that all might thrive together – are somehow beyond us. We must make the effort, of course…but somehow I fear that it will never be entirely successful.

In the bible narrative, we find another story of a sacrifice, of a life laid down for the sake of others, that they might have peace. The life of God himself, in his beloved son, was given up on the cross, so that hostilities might cease, and humanity might live not just in the absence of conflict with God, but in a wholesome, healthy and flourishing peace. I believe that it is through this sacrifice alone that peace will ultimately rule in our world – as the hearts of individuals are surrendered to and transformed by this sacrificial love.

So what makes the difference? A life is given up, for my sake, and I am called to live as one who no longer belongs to herself, but to the one who has paid the blood price which I owed to my just and perfect judge. I am not my own, and in love to the one who saved me, I respond with obedience and a continually growing desire to become like him. And, praise God for his great mercy and kindness to us, the power to change is from him, not from me. It is by his spirit, now dwelling in me, his heart now beating in mine, that the transformation is effected. This is what makes the difference – God has made my heart his home, and is making me new. Without this power within me, I could achieve only a barren and desperate adherence to rules, and – like humanity today – my desire to be worthy of the sacrifices made on my behalf would continually be undermined and betrayed by my human fallibility.

I will continue to pray for the cessation of war and all conflicts; I will pray for those who have paid a terrible price and lost limbs, sanity and hope as a result of the conflicts they have survived; I will pray for politicians and policy makers to pursue peace. But I will also pray and work and witness for the discovery by all peoples, of the true peace which has been purchased for all his children by our good and gracious God. This is my responsibility, and the very least that I owe to the one who sacrificed everything for me, my Lord Jesus Christ.

 

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And is it really possible?

If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust him to do it – you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked – well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift.

(Romans 4)

How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is. He’s the father of our master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ.

Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the cross, we’re a free people – free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making.

(Ephesians 1)

Both taken from the Message, the New Testament in contemporary language.

Five hundred years ago, a theological fire raged across Europe, one which left relations between church and state in tatters, and transformed culture and social life for ever in many nations of the north. The varied rumblings and outbreaks of discontent with the established Roman church found a focus in the life and work of Martin Luther, and in 1517, he publicly appealed for a debate on the many areas where he believed reform was needed.

The failure of the church authorities to engage in this debate saw Luther push to clarify the proper relations of scripture and state, priest and people, and having once begun to rely on the scriptures for his guidance, he found more and more reasons to protest against the status quo. This ‘protestant’ movement against the claim of supreme authority by the pope over the understanding and interpretation of the bible was to set intellectual life free in Europe, empowering and encouraging enquiry and personal enlightenment.

What Luther found in the pages of the bible transformed his life, from that of a pious but desperate monk, unable to find any assurance of salvation despite a life of rigorous labour and upright conduct, to a confident, humble and passionate believer in the salvation freely and solely offered through the death of Jesus Christ. When Luther finally saw that all of the demands of God’s holiness or righteousness upon his life  had been met in Jesus’ sacrifice, and that it was God’s love gift to him received simply by faith, he wrote that it was as though the doors of paradise swung open to welcome him. The prospect before him was too beautiful to be true, and yet it was!

It was this which drove Luther in his work to translate the bible from Latin – unintelligible to his fellow-Germans – into their own language; to write books and pamphlets explaining the true means of salvation and sweeping away the confusion caused by false teaching; to teach and nurture other teachers in turn who could preach and bring this light to their congregations. In his defence before the emperor, accused of heresy and in danger of his life, he would say that he was “captive” to the word, and incapable of speaking of anything else, or of covering up what he found there.

In recalling with thankfulness the ways in which God used Luther and his fellow reformers – with all their flaws, and failings – am I guilty of forgetting what a wonderful thing it is that they restored to us in simple beautiful clarity?

We rest on the authority of Scripture, as God’s revelation of himself to us, and specifically the revelation of Jesus Christ as God incarnate. We trust solely in the atoning death of Christ to deal with the wrath of a holy God, accepting that of ourselves we are powerless to change our fate. We rejoice to receive solely by faith the power of that sacrifice, by which the holy God declares us to be clean, put right with him, and destined to share eternity with him. All has been done as a result of God’s grace, nothing is required of us but faith, and all the glory goes to God.

The door is open wide, the voice of love calls to me saying “Come child, hurry and be at home with me”, will I hesitate? Will I reject the price that was paid?

God grant that a fire may burn in our hearts too, as in Luther’s heart when he found the truth, so that we long to share the message and see others set free by our God, who has done all for love of us..

And yet I dare to enter…

And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none but me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, “In the Lord alone are righteousness and strength.” All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame.

(Isaiah 45.21-24)

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel…Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

(Hebrews 12.22-24,28&29)

One of the pitfalls of having spent my entire life within a christian community, is that so many of the phrases we use and read are so familiar – I stop seeing them, stop noticing how bold and audacious they are!

And then God in his goodness gives my mind a nudge, the Spirit opens my eyes and ears, and suddenly I see it afresh. That happened with the little phrase from Isaiah, “And there is no God but me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none but me.”

To the mind of sophisticated 21st century humankind, that statement is outrageous, arrogant, or ludicrous – depending on one’s viewpoint. As a follower of Jesus in Scotland in 2017, I am in the minority, regarded by many as deluded and foolish, by some as dangerous in my commitment to my faith. The notion that there is a God is mocked by many, and others would argue that all faith systems lead to the same place, so that all “gods” are equal.

Where do I stand? I am made uneasy by the strength and vehemence of the secularists, as they denounce my faith and my God. I am dumb in the presence of articulate intellects, mocking all that I hold dear, and dragging away the foundations of my world. I cannot defeat clever speech, nor do I desire to mock others for their beliefs – mockery is no way to gain respect or a hearing for my own belief.

When I am conscious of being under assault, I fling myself back at the foot of the cross – that great pivotal point in history, when God declared that He would not be mocked by sin, and that the devil would not have lasting dominion over God’s creation.

I believe in an historical Jesus, God-incarnate walking the earth, working steadily towards the unveiling of an unparalleled act of divine intervention. Who else has a God who is utterly holy, just and pure – a searing brilliance that our polluted minds cannot being to imagine – and YET who is full of mercy and love, and chooses to reconcile his love and his justice in order that He might be re-united with his unfaithful people?

There is truly NO God like this, and all our philosophies and science, all the pride of  man in his thinking and discovering has uncovered nothing as beautiful and life-changing as this God in his act of reconciliation through Jesus death on the cross.

I would rather be a fool for Christ, than considered wise by men; would rather remain on the fringes of society as a faithful follower, than enjoy popular success without my Lord. He has opened the way for me – even me, so broken and flawed by sin – to enter the presence of this righteous God, and not to enter as one dreading well-earned punishment, but rather as a beloved child.

What does it matter to me if men mock? My eternal fate is not in their hands, but safe in the hands that bled for me, the hands that are raised to intercede for me, the hands that extend to welcome me with love into my Father’s presence. He is mighty and glorious indeed, and worthy of reverent praise, but because Jesus died, I dare to run to him, to cling and call him Father. In his house, I am at rest and safe, and nothing can drag me from his arms.

Cheering me on?

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up…. everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

(Romans 15.1,2&4)

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

(Philippians 2.1-3)

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

(2 Thessalonians 2.16&17)

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes about how each part of the church – each individual member – has a valuable contribution to make to the life of the whole. One of the gifts mentioned is that of encouragement, and while I recognise that some people are particularly gifted in that way, we can all probably learn to practice it better!

What do we mean by “encourage”? I think there are two aspects to it: firstly, that it should help people to see themselves as God’s redeemed and beloved children; and second that it should help them to find strength and courage for the next steps along their journey as believers.

When we celebrate people for who they are, the unique combination of qualities and experiences which make up their characters, and all the varied elements of their life story, we remind them that God values them. They are those for whom Christ died, those who are being refined to a perfection of beauty which will leave us all speechless, those whom he delights to call his own. We can use our words to show them their own worth in God’s sight, affirming the struggles they are going through, and the triumphs they have achieved.. In our family, even very small occasions are an excuse for celebration cakes, and an affirmation that the details of our lives matter. When I take the time to notice someone, to find out about them and share something of their story, they are encouraged – God has sent someone to say “I care about you”.

If I feel that who I am matters, that the details are all known by my Father in heaven, every sorrow and joy seen and cherished by him, then I have reason to be confident that my future will also matter. When I remember that Christ died for me, that I am united forever with him, then I am free to stop worrying about propping up my own self-worth or achieving “self-fulfillment”. My Saviour has everything that matters safely in his keeping; my reputation is his affair, not mine and I am free to put others first, to seek their good, loving them as God loves me.

It is this kind of encouragement to which we are called as believers, drawing on the biblical pattern, where so often God’s people were called to remember his care for them, provision for their needs and long-suffering with their sins. This remembrance was the basis for a call to new commitment on their part, to obedience and faithful reliance on God to provide for them and achieve his purposes through them.

So how shall we encourage one another this week?

Think back over conversations you have had; if there is anything which was concerning a friend, or a trial they were facing, go and ask how it worked out. Celebrate the good things which happen, mourn together over the disappointments, and point one another back to the cross and the faithfulness of God, so that courage is found to persevere.

If someone has done something to help you, to make you laugh or to ease a difficult situation – tell them, in a card or text, let them know that they made a difference, and were God’s means of helping you at that time.

If someone has offended you, ask God for grace to forgive them – as you have been forgiven so much more by him – and then go and find something you can do to celebrate that person.

We can encourage one another anonymously, but it is lovely to know who has taken the time to be God’s love in person for us. In this way we build one another up, we grow in Christ-like love, in unity, and God is glorified among us.

Let’s make some cakes!

 

Take courage my heart!

Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves…Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.

(Philippians 2.3, 12&13)

The old way, with laws etched in stone, led to death, though it began with such glory that the people of Israel could not bear to look at Moses’ face. For his face shone with the glory of God, even though the brightness was already fading away. Shouldn’t we expect far greater glory under the new way, now that the Holy Spirit is giving life?…We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away…to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ..So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. 

Therefore, since God in his mercy has given us this new way, we never give up.

(2Corinthians 3.7,8,13, 14&18)

Take courage my heart, your Lord sees your true desire and is delighted by it. He is merciful as well as just, and will not despise you in your weakness, but will bestow strength for each new need. Praise the Lord my heart, for he shines upon you like the sun.

Take courage my heart, your Lord sees your deep sorrow, and is full of compassion for you. He knows that you are frail, and longs to take the burden from you – cast it at his feet, and leave it there; over and over again, cast it down! Praise the Lord my heart, for he carries you in his arms and lifts your heaviness like the tenderest parent.

Take courage my heart, your Lord sees the way that lies ahead, and understands your fear. He has prepared good things for you to do for him, and his strength will not fail to make you able for them. Praise the Lord my heart, for his mighty power is freely given to all his children for their labour in his name.

Take courage my heart, your Lord is working in you though you do not see it. In his mercy, he spares you from foolish pride in yourself, he gives you a humble spirit and a tender conscience. Praise the Lord my heart, for he shines through you all unawares, and gains glory for his name in your humility.

Take courage my heart, your Lord has dealt with sin forever on your behalf. When the accuser deceives or torments you, cry on Jesus name, proclaim the Saviour’s death, and receive anew the assurance that you are forgiven, washed clean, and free. Praise the Lord my heart, for his mercies never fail, and his love covered all my sin.

Take courage my heart, for as the flowers raise their faces to the sun and in receiving light, are transformed, so also you are changing. From one degree of glory to another, you are being made new, made whole, made like Christ. Praise the Lord my heart, for one day, he will look into you and see himself, perfectly reflected.

To him be the glory, the honour, and the praise. Amen!

How shall they hear?

The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got – all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols….”It is plain to see that you Athenians takeyour religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, TO THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with.

(Acts17)

This is the core of our preaching. Say the welcoming word to God – “Jesus is my Master” – embracing, body and soul, God’s work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That’s it. You’re not “doing” anything; you’re simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That’s salvation…It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help….but how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if  nobody tells them?

(Romans 10)

Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy.

(1Peter 3)

All from The Message – the New Testament in contemporary language

When Paul stood up in the Areopagus in Athens, to direct the attention of this diverse and intelligently curious people to the ‘unknown god’ whom they worshipped, he faced a major challenge. Which language should he use?

As a Pharisee – a teacher of the Jewish law – he was skilled in using all the technical language which grows up around faith and the literature on which that faith is built. The terminology was second nature to him, and he was adept in drawing on scripture for his arguments. In his new life as an apostle, and a church-planter and teacher, these skills were hugely significant, equipping him to articulate and elucidate all the implications of the coming of Jesus Christ as the long- awaited Messiah.

But as he moved further from Jerusalem, and as the Holy Spirit moved him further from Jewish populations, he had to articulate and teach faith to people who had no background in the books and culture of Judaism, and no family history of observance to inform their understanding. Paul had to learn new ways to communicate this world-changing faith, this good news about Jesus Christ, which would be understood by people of completely different religious backgrounds. His speech to the Athenians as recorded in Acts 17 is one such attempt, and is often cited as a model for evangelistic addresses in places where there is no history of christian faith (and he didn’t hesitate to call for repentance in light of coming judgement!)

In studying this passage with folk at church recently, we agreed that in order to effectively share our faith with our neighbours – a thing we agree is right – we need to purge our speech of all the technical jargon which followers of Jesus tend to adopt. We need to have thought clearly about what is meant by salvation, about the incarnation and the divinity of Jesus, about resurrection and sanctification – all these big words which we use so lightly!

It can be helpful to read regularly in versions of the bible such as the Message, because they use contemporary language for complex concepts, and we learn how to express ourselves in the words of daily life when sharing our faith. I was challenged by this study, to think how readily I talk in an almost coded ‘faith-speak’ which would be incomprehensible to a person without a long experience of the bible. In the same way that I lack the knowledge to ‘read’ ancient religious mosaics, so my hearers will fail to understand me. I may well be speaking truth, but the message isn’t getting through!

If I am serious about sharing the good news of a new start in life, a real healing for brokenness and hope for the future, then for the sake of my neighbours, I need to put in the work and learn to talk simply and courteously about Jesus.

How shall they come to faith in God, if no one tells them about him? And if the words I use, and the life I live is too remote from their experience of daily life, then they will not hear, no matter how earnestly I speak to them.

May I become in this more like Jesus, who lived among us, full of grace and truth, and in his words and actions, spoke directly to the hearts of his hearers.

Infinite beauty

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again – rejoice!

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

(Philippians 4.6&8)

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

(Isaiah 53.5 & 61.1-3)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…From the fulness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

(John 1.14-18)

There is a common misconception about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this messy and troubled world, where life can be unbelievably hard and painful for so many people. It arises from this verse in Philippians, when Paul exhorts his readers to ‘rejoice’ always in the Lord. It is not only false, but also deeply unhelpful, to argue that this means that we are all meant to triumph continually over every adversity, to smile perpetually in the face of pain or tragedy, and to face injustice and oppression as though they were nothing.

Look carefully at what Paul says – we are to rejoice in the Lord, not in our circumstances, nor in some pretended victory over those circumstances. It is only right that as mortal beings, created in God’s image, we should grieve over death and destruction, should be provoked by injustice and deceit. As followers of Jesus – who wept over Lazarus, and delighted to heal those who suffered in their bodies – we should feel the pain of this broken world, not pretend it doesn’t exist for those who profess faith.

So what does Paul say? That our primary source of gladness, of joy and the strength which comes with it, is to be Jesus Christ, our Lord. It is as we contemplate this man, this God-made-flesh, that we are refreshed in our spirits,  growing in faith and trust, and thus able to continue to witness to God’s goodness and saving power. This source of joy can never fail us, never dry up or become contaminated. We can never reach the end of his loveliness. This Jesus combines in himself all the wonderful attributes of God, and a perfect humanity, and therefore ticks all the boxes of things Paul is exhorting his readers to think about!

Every good quality that we celebrate in one another, is seen to perfection in Christ.

Every need that we find in ourselves, and most desperately the need for forgiveness, restoration to fellowship with God, and freedom from sin; is given abundantly in Christ.

Am I weary? He is patient and strong.

Am I grieving? He is my tender comforter, and ever-present companion.

Is the devil stirring up dead ashes of guilt about old sin? He is my all-conquering captain, victorious over that enemy and blowing the ashes away with the strong breath of his forgiving and cleansing love.

Am I toiling with private griefs and seemingly endless trials? He is faithful in bearing the burden as I repeatedly lay it upon him; and as I contemplate his death for me on the cross, I am comforted that even through my troubles, he can work all things together for good.

My beautiful Lord..faithfulness made visible, love made flesh and blood, holiness completely allied to mercy..

Praise God, praise with great praise, for the joy which we receive as we gaze upon the infinite beauty of Christ.