Tell me again..please?

Therefore, I will always remind you about these things – even though you already know them and are standing firm in the truth you have been taught. And it is only right that I should keep on reminding you as long as I live….For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendour with our own eyes….because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets.

I want you to remember what the holy prophets said long ago and what our Lord and Saviour commanded through your apostles.

(2 Peter 1.12,16,19 &3.2)

Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the good news I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. It is this good news that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you…I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the scriptures said.

(1 Corinthians 15. 1,3&4)

 Our world in these early years of the twenty-first century is driven by rapid change – population growth; expanding economies; transforming technologies. We in the prosperous and stable European nations enjoy an unprecedented standard of living and are swept along in the current of constant innovation which drives our economies and personal lives. Every few years, we replace appliances, cars and pieces of furniture, and obsolescence is built in to much of what we use,  we accept it cannot last for long. We are increasingly driven by novelty, the lure of the new and different. It was ever thus, humanity is easily bored, but the pace of change today is breath-taking.

Do we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking about faith in this way, as if there ought to be some innovations by now, some new and exciting insights and teaching which will render much of our tradition obsolete? Well, perhaps there is a case for arguing that much which is traditional is no longer helpful, but actually obscures the gospel, and it could therefore be set aside. But, there is a foundation of truth upon which our faith must rest if it is to have any validity at all, and that foundation remains today as it was when the apostles wrote about it two thousand years ago..

We believe in a God who became human, lived a perfect life, died the death of a sinner, and was raised to new life, ascending into heaven where all those who accept his death in their place will also be received. It can be reduced to the simplest of statements, as the children’s hymn puts it, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so..”

There is sufficient profound theology behind this truth to occupy the greatest minds; and yet it is clear enough to be understood and embraced by the youngest and simplest of us. And it does not change…this is what we believe, and without this, we are astray upon a sea of conjecture, tossed by fashionable philosophies, driven by ruthless atheists, and without any real grounds for hope. It is this truth which we need, more than anything else, to give us courage to face life, to face ourselves in all our weakness, failure and malice.

Jesus loves me – therefore I am of worth, I have value in God’s eyes and can hold my head high no matter what others say of me; Jesus loves me – and his death has dealt with all my sins, the past, present and future, I am forgiven and the burden of guilt has no weight for me: Jesus loves me – I want to live in a way that honours him and recognises that my life is no longer my own to waste; Jesus loves me – and that love is for all who will receive it, therefore I have good news to share with my world!

This old story, of Jesus and his love, is what I need to receive afresh every day of my life. It is as basic to my existence as the food I eat and the air I breathe. Without this story, I have no hope, and am at the mercy of my own sin, the wiles of the devil, and the power of evil in the world.

Praise God, in his infinite wisdom, that his great story of redemption is complete, that nothing need be added by all the cleverness of humanity to make it effective. There is no need to look for new versions of the good news of Jesus; the old story, the unchanging story, is never obsolete, always effective, and the only sure foundation of faith. Alleluia, and Amen!

Stop, look…listen!

Honour the Lord, you heavenly beings; honour the Lord for his glory and strength. Honour the Lord for the glory of his name. Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness.

The voice of the Lord echoes above the sea. The God of glory thunders. The Lord thunders over the mighty sea. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic. The voice of the Lord splits the mighty cedars; the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon’s mountains skip like a calf; he makes Mount Hermon leap like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord strikes with bolts of lightning. The voice of the Lord makes the barren wilderness quake; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord twists mighty oaks and strips the forests bare. In his temple everyone shouts, “Glory!”

The Lord rules over the floodwaters. The Lord reigns as king forever. The Lord gives his people strength. The Lord blesses them with peace.

(Psalm 29)

I don’t know if you have ever noticed how hard it can be to simply praise God, without slipping in a little request along the way? I used to attend a church where the Saturday night prayer meeting began with a time of praise. We sang a psalm and thought about it a little, then spent ten minutes or more simply praising God – absolutely no requests were made, the focus was entirely upon our God in all his aspects, and our response of worship. It was through this experience that I learned how important it is to stop my busy thoughts, to lift my eyes to the truth revealed about God, and give him his proper place.

When we spend time deliberately thinking about all we can see of God’s handiwork, and all it reveals about his power, beauty, imagination, playfulness, love and skill, we come into an attitude of profound thankfulness and also humility. The sheer scale and complexity of the created world is so far beyond our comprehension that we rightly marvel at the one who made it. When we realise how delicately everything has been balanced so that humanity can thrive, we are overwhelmed by the loving kindness which lies behind every detail.

As we focus our thoughts on God, not for what he may give us, but simply for who he is and all the wonderful and terrifying things we know of him, our perspective shifts and he takes his rightful place – on the throne of our hearts, undisputed ruler and subject of our highest loyalties and ambitions. Such adoring contemplation helps me to keep other things – principally myself – from taking that highest place in my life; and it is when God rules in human hearts that they are most fully human, we were not made to worship ourselves, but him!

This psalm demonstrates that beautifully, as the word “I” never appears, and God is referred to in every sentence. Try reading it aloud to yourself, feeling the growing thrill of wonder and worship as the psalmist heaps image upon image in order to express the power and authority of the Lord as revealed in his creation, until that wonderful response where all in the temple simply have to cry “Glory!”

And those final words are like a benediction. After so much contemplation of who God is, we turn to what he does..He rules and reigns. This God, whom we have seen is so powerful and holy and good; he it is who rules, and therefore we do right to bring all that we are and all that concerns us to him. It is his task to see that justice is done, and while we may have questions about how he chooses to do that, we can surely trust him. Our God is great enough to hold our unanswered questions and to give us peace in return, since we see his goodness and know that he must be true to himself.

How good it is to praise God, and how unutterably wonderful to have one who is entirely worthy of praise! Let us lose ourselves more often in worship of the Lord who rules and reigns forever, so that we might live by his strength and in his peace.

To win the prize

But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. . forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

(Philippians 3.12-14)

Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give some of the manna that has been hidden away in heaven. And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it.

(Revelation 2.17)

I have become involved in a weekly lunchtime event with some of our primary school children, an informal “athletics” session, when we run, jump, throw, catch and generally do sporty things just for fun…But watching some of the little ones, I see such a strong drive to win, to be first, every time – even though there is absolutely no competition going on! Humanity has a strong competitive instinct, and takes so much pleasure in winning – even if the activity is walking slowly with a beanbag balanced on the head!

Is it this kind of prize which Paul is talking about in his letter to the believers in Philippi..one which some will gain at the cost of others losing? I think not! Our faith is in a finished work by a triumphant Saviour; we receive our eternal life as a gift from a gracious God, not as a result of some stupendous effort by which we outstrip our fellows. So what kind of prize does Paul mean?

Last year I ran for the first – and probably the last – time in a 10km event, and received a medal for completing the course, not for a fast time, or a stylish run, or even for overcoming any significant obstacles in order to take part. I was rewarded for persevering to the end…and it is this kind of prize which is in view as Paul writes. The apostle is seeking to encourage his young church in their faith, to strengthen them in the face of difficulties of many kinds, and by his own example, to help them see what it looks like to imitate Christ in real, daily living.

We have been laid hold of by Christ, taken into his team, as precious individual beings whose particular character and talents are known and valued, with a unique contribution to make to his work, his church. We are with him, because this is where we belong, where we make a difference for eternity, and where all that we are is most richly expressed and exercised. Perfection is in store for us, dimly glimpsed here, and gloriously realised in the life to come, when his purposes for us will be complete.

I am called to be the perfect version of me – and although on this side of death, I will not see it, yet by his grace, God is working in me to realise that perfection. To the extent of my obedience, of my glad submission to his will for me, and my striving with his power to leave sin behind and follow Christ – to that extent, I press on, straining toward the goal. The prize which awaits is not a reward for being “better” than anyone else, it is the prize of being the perfect me – that unique and glorious daughter of the King of Kings; whose voice has music only for her Lord and who will dance before him unsullied by any stain of sin.

The prize is not some standardised medal, no one-size-fits-all T-shirt; it is to receive that intimate name, that ultimate assurance of being known for oneself..known, accepted and exulted in! No one else will ever fill the place in the eternal dance which is meant for me – and each of you has your own space, where the Father will seek and delight to find you, playing your own perfect part and bringing joy to the whole.

Is not this vision, this prize which Paul describes to us, a great encouragement to persevere in our faith; to see beyond the darkness of the battlefield, or the dimness of the sickroom, and the dullness of the routines?..We are becoming beautiful in his sight, every day a little brighter, and everything that we encounter on the way is another opportunity to press on.

Let us join with Paul, in pressing on toward this brilliance, this wonderful future, rejoicing that it is God who works in us, thus ensuring that we will receive all he has in store!

For my children..

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

(1Timothy 6.6-12)

Nearly twenty two years ago, I was safely – and belatedly – delivered of a son, a precious gift and source of great joy and contentment, as well as not a little grief and anxiety over the years of his growing! Four years ago, he left home, first for a gap year, and then to university. There he thrives, and we have had the pleasure of watching him relish every opportunity to learn; every friendship which has come his way; and above all, of seeing him grow in faith, seeking to reach his community with the gospel. He is a man made by and for God, and he knows his maker – a blessing which cannot be quantified, and one which every christian parent craves for their children but cannot guarantee.

I say these things not to boast – it is none of my doing, and even as I give thanks for the blessings he has received, I yearn over the children of christian friends who as yet are choosing to walk through life without putting their faith in Christ, sitting lightly to the question of their salvation. So why talk about him at all? Because this  morning, after a week of holiday with friends here, he left me again…

Does it never get easier, this parting from the one who once was utterly dependent on me? Does the raw place where my heart was ripped from his never really heal over? I have no fear for him, and yet how sore it is when he leaves, returning to the larger life he now enjoys with friends who are so dear – in which I barely play a part – and all of life ahead of him.

The bible regularly uses the imagery of a father – or mother – to describe God’s yearning over his children, and I believe that this longing love is something that human beings experience in smaller degree. In our parenting; our nurturing of new life and raising for independent living, we experience a little of the passion with which God loves us, his beloved children, driving him to seek after and bring us to himself again. The very pain which is part of letting our children go, is a window into the heart of a tender God. How are we to use it?

I can resent the ways that God has chosen to ordain my life, separating me from my children and leading them away from me..or I can rejoice that for a little time, I was privileged to be in their lives, loving and caring for them on his behalf. They were his before they were ever mine, and if I remember that, then I can take comfort even as I watch them go – God’s love for them is so much greater than I can ever imagine, and they can be in no better place than the centre of his will for them.

I can follow the example of Paul, who though not the human father of Timothy, yet wrote tenderly to that young man, calling him a dear son, and addressing many earnest and loving words of advice to him. Paul does not caution Timothy to look out for his own interests, but challenges him to the highest calling – a life devoted to God, in which those qualities of godliness, love, endurance, faith, gentleness and righteousness are always growing stronger.

Who knows what this will look like in real life? A calling to full-time christian service; to overseas mission or ministry in this country? A life lived in an increasingly secular and hostile society, bearing faithful witness to the rebuke and challenge as well as the offer of the gospel? A life of single chastity, or marriage and parenthood? A life blessed with good health, or plagued by illness?

I cannot tell, and I thank God that I do not know. But I can and do pray for my children – and for their friends, the precious young lives which come into contact with mine – that their faith will be in Christ alone; that their will to obey might be fixed; and that they might live to glorify and serve the God who made them for such a time as this.

All so much rubbish..

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

(1 Corinthians 13.2)

If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.. BUT whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider EVERYTHING a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

(Philippians 3.4-7)

For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

(John 5.36-40)

I have spent my Christian life in churches where the preaching of God’s word was paramount, where it was a matter of deep conviction that the whole of scripture was for our instruction and blessing, and above all that God speaks through the word to his people. I have perhaps not benefitted as much from all the teaching as I ought, but I am  thankful for it, and for the breadth of understanding and confidence in reading the scriptures which it gives me.

I am aware however, that this heritage, this proper emphasis on the teaching of the whole of scripture, can take me down a dangerous path; one where I pride myself upon my knowledge, upon the number of sermons or bible studies I have heard, and to put my faith in that instead of in Jesus himself.

Jesus addressed this weakness directly in the Pharisees – the most passionate religious scholars and devotees of Judaism at that time, people who prided themselves on an intimate knowledge of their scripture (all the books of the Old Testament), and a rigorous application of those details to daily life. In their passion to see God’s law upheld, and their own personal devotion to it, they have much in common with those in the church today who revere scripture, and who long to see society governed in accordance with the law of God it contains. And yet Jesus is utterly scathing in his condemnation of them, accusing them of stealing the key to life from those who seek it, while failing to enter into that life themselves.

In this passage above, he explains that in spite of all their boasted proficiency in the law, they have completely missed the point of scripture’s revelation. They have neither heard God’s voice, nor recognised his hand at work, and have completely misunderstood his revelation…because if they had, they would have responded to Jesus by falling before him and worshipping him as Messiah, God’s anointed, the long-promised Saviour. They are so besotted with their own achievements in head knowledge and passion for details, that they have never encountered the living God in his word.

Later on, in his letter to the believers in Philippi, the apostle Paul details all the grounds that he might have had for believing his eternal hope secure – grounds of birth, training, and above all zeal for the law, the word. Then, writing to this church of Gentile believers, with no hope of claiming such heritage as their grounds of faith, he shockingly says that he accounts all his learning as nothing, just so much rubbish, because it is of no value beside the true experience of knowing Jesus.

In the same way, those who are raised in the church, who can boast extensive knowledge and proficiency in handling the bible must take care, lest they begin to put their faith in mere head knowledge and rule-keeping. Mere proficiency in the word is lifeless and useless. I must encounter the risen Christ, be filled with his spirit and walk with him daily as my companion, my Lord and Saviour, if I am to have forgiveness of my sins and hope for the future.

NOTHING is of any value unless I have Christ, not knowledge about him, but himself. Faith is not an argument which I can win by my cleverness, it is a sure hope in a trustworthy person – the Christ I meet when I read the bible with an open heart and mind, expecting to hear his voice, and willing to obey.

Praise God, who has made our salvation so freely available, so readily accessible, so utterly complete in Christ!

Not of my choosing..

“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.”

(Luke 9.23&24)

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

(Matthew 11. 28-30)

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long O Lord, how long? Turn, O Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love…The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.

(Psalm 6.2-4,9)

When my late father was undergoing treatment for cancer, he discovered – much to his chagrin – that a great deal of the good temper and exemplary patience which he had enjoyed all his life had been due to his excellent health! When that health was undermined, he discovered that perhaps it was not so easy to be gentle, forbearing and always cheerful, and found a new sympathy with those whose health had never been good.. In the same way, a person who has never experienced real deprivation may lack sympathy for those who truly suffer from it, may not have compassion for their anxiety and may even judge them for a lack of hope and confidence..

God sees clearly those areas of our lives where we are most proud of ourselves, where our self-esteem is most deeply rooted, and where we are least dependent on his sustaining power. I believe that at times he permits those very dear things to be undermined, in order that we might learn to cling to him alone in a new and closer way, accepting that EVERYTHING we have is only ever a gift, which may be withdrawn, and which cannot be relied upon for our peace of mind and sense of worth. These things are in danger of becoming idols in our souls, displacing Christ from the place of pre-eminence which is his right, and weakening us in our life of faith and witness. It is grace when God in his wisdom chooses to uproot them.

I do not have permission to choose the cross which I am called to take up daily, and which requires me to deny, to silence those voices which cry out against God’s will and clamour for my own way in everything. Will I trust my God for this trial, this cross? Do I believe him, when he promises to sustain me through it, even to glorify himself in my life as I lean hard on his arm for strength? Am I willing perhaps NEVER to see how God uses my experience for good, but to believe that he will because he has promised it?

At the moment, I am experiencing a particular trial – a gentle undermining of my health which has gone on for over four years now, in various guises, preventing me from doing things which are important to me. My estimation of myself is diminished, I am tempted to despise the rather feeble person I am become, as I try to live within the limitations imposed by my body. Is God any less delighted with me as his daughter, because of these things? NO! Am I in any way less able to pray for his work, to witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ? NO! And yet, and yet, I fret and mourn for what cannot be, tempted to despair instead of rejoicing in all I am and have in Christ.

As my running shoes remain unused, and mountains remain untrodden, I am drawn to cling to my God, to pour out my regrets and fears to the God who knows and loves me so tenderly, who gave me a desire to run and climb in the first place! He knows the burden which he is asking me to bear at this time, he knows how much it is costing to pick up that cross daily and then to walk with it cheerfully.

When we bring our crosses into that loving presence – whatever they may be – we find one who knows how we struggle, and who himself bore burdens beyond our imagining . And he comes alongside to bear us, to draw the sting of anxiety and dread, to give us for every pang the sweetest assurance of his presence and love.

In our daily carrying of our individual crosses, may we find the fellowship we enjoy with Christ so dear, so sustaining, that the burden does indeed become light, since we bear it for his sake and with his strength. In our weakness, may his power be made abundantly plain, and our delight in his grace towards us grow ever greater!

Misplaced loyalty?

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven..

(Matthew 6.9)

“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place…You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world. to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

(John 18.36&37)

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

(Philippians 3.20&21)

The seventh angel sounded his trumpet and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.”

(Revelation 11.15)

Who is really in charge? Who truly wields power in the world today? On one level, the answers are obvious – money is power, our multinational corporations are virtually a law unto themselves; military might gives power, the threat of destruction creates domination and control; ideology drives men and women to act in ways which create power, they terrorise and destroy in order to realise their vision.. The ballot box, in a democratic society, is power surrendered to the people, but it depends on their intelligent approach to the use of their votes, on their willingness to vote, and on the integrity of those who are elected to represent them..

I am thankful to live in a society where military might is not abused, where ideology is still restrained from creating chaos, and where legal systems to hold money to account, to prevent the multinational corporations from getting away with any and every form of exploitation. But am I in danger of forgetting that all these are only by the providence of God? Am I at risk of putting my faith in the ballot box, in education and information as hope for the future of my children and neighbours? Our secular society would have us believe that all we have is the result of our own labours, and that we can, with the right tools and time, sort all the problems that remain.

The bible tells me differently, and I think that many would agree on a second look at the state of the world today. Humanity is improving the lot of millions, through technological advances, through education and development. BUT we continue to destroy our planet in our greed; to destroy one another in our selfishness, prejudice, and refusal to love and forgive. The scale of human suffering today is unimaginable, in spite of all the tools available to us to create prosperity, health and stability. Why? Because the problem lies in the heart of humanity, and no system, no power that ever existed can change the heart of man – only God in heaven, its creator, has addressed that brokenness and until we accept his diagnosis and his offer of saving, transforming life through faith in Jesus, we are ultimately hopeless.

I have a duty, as a citizen of my country, to vote, to act responsibly according to the laws of the land and to seek the good of my people as far as it lies with me to realise it. I have a responsibility to pray for those who are willing to shoulder the burden of elected representation – a thankless task, one which brings much frustration and can damage those who undertake it. These people need my support, and encouragment as they(broken and weak human beings) seek to do their best, in a situation where much is outwith their control.

But my ultimate loyalty is not to the nation of my birth, but the kingdom of which I am a member by faith in Jesus. It is the eternal security of that realm which gives me hope for the future, in spite of the growing darkness and unease of the world in which we live today. I believe in a God who is just and good, and who will never leave his people unaided.

Let me not allow political uncertainty, and the abuse of power – of any kind – to undermine my confidence in the absolute security which I have in Christ, my place in the kingdom of God, an eternal inheritance of which I have already received the guarantee. Because of him, in this world of fear, hostility and inequality, I can have peace as the flag flying high over the castle of my heart!