Relationships, not rules..

..Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your god my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me , be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

(Ruth 1.16&17)

Therefore, I urge you, sisters and brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual or reasonable act of worship.

(Rom 12.1)

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

(Eph 6.25-27)

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds the all together in perfect unity.

(Col 3.12-14)

We recently completed a short study in the story of Ruth, and as I came to write this blog about sacrificial living, it struck me that she is the embodiment of what Paul wrote about. Ruth freely chose to embrace uncertainty, danger, poverty and alien status – why? She committed herself to loving Naomi, whatever it took. Her whole being was involved in that commitment, she left nothing behind in Moab, and so far as we can read in the story, never looked back in longing for her ‘freedom’. This was unconditional love in action, a rather one-sided relationship perhaps at times, where Ruth got virtually nothing in return. But she never seems to have wavered in her commitment and faithfulness, and as a result, her story is one of the most beloved of all scripture, her character held up as a pattern for us to follow and admire.

Ruth personifies for us the love of God, ultimately revealed in Jesus; the mercy which Paul speaks of in the letter to the Romans. It is a pattern of living which brings life and hope and love to those who need it so badly, and asks nothing in return but the privilege of serving. If our Lord and Saviour, who lived a perfect life which glorified God – and thus worshipped His Father- then why should not we follow that example. In this way, we too may worship God most acceptably. And this kind of worship has little to do with an hour in a building once a week, and everything to do with the kind of people we are every hour of every day in every place which we go.

What might sacrificial living look like for you and I today? There may be seasons in our lives where the needs of others will be clear – dependent children or relatives, neighbours who have a call on our time and abilities – and then out of love for them – not because somehow by serving them we gain credit with God – we give and serve in love. At other times it may be less obvious, but as we offer our gifts, money and time to God, he will show us where they are to be used – for the body of Christ in the church and in the wider world. We all have something to offer, and we can all receive from others as they serve us!

It can feel frightening to commit to unconditional love – and it goes against the grain of much contemporary culture. We fear being trodden underfoot, left behind in the race for self-fulfilment and success. But we are not called to measure success and fulfilment as the world does. When we look through God’s eyes, we see clearly that our human measures are false and temporary. True and lasting joy, fulfilment and success come as we follow the servant-King, looking to love, not merely obey rules. It is not in some ‘rub-my back and I’ll-rub yours’ sort of transaction that we live lives of worship and love. Rather it is as Christ lived – pouring himself out unstintingly, and trusting God for the outcome – for himself and for others.

Outlook; cloudy, with bright spells

Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honour, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he ploughed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!

In this all-out match against sin, others have suffered far worse than you, to say nothing of what Jesus went through – all that bloodshed! So don’t feel sorry for yourselves. Or have you forgotten how good parents treat children and that God regards you as his children?

My dear child, don’t shrug off God’s discipline, but don’t be crushed by it either. It’s the child he loves that he disciplines; the child he embraces, he also corrects.

God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble that you’re in isn’t punishment, it’s training, the normal experience of children. Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves. Would you prefer an irresponsible God? …. [he] is training us to live God’s holy best. At the time, discipline isn’t much fun. It always feels like it’s going against the grain. Later of course, it pays off handsomely, for it’s the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God.

(Heb 12.2-11, The Message)

Father, this is your child. I am weary, disheartened and ashamed by my failure to live for you by faith.

Father, this is your daughter. I am full of tears, a great heaviness which is flowing out at the slightest opportunity.

Father, this is your redeemed, beloved, adopted one. I am filled with longing for the end to come, and yet dreading it because so many whom I love are in rebellion against you.

This week, I have given up fighting the tide. There is so much grief around, so much fear and pain. The tide of human evil is running high, and so the tidal wave of human suffering rears up to obscure the light. It feels as though faith is futile, and prayer pointless. All the comforts of the great story of God’s work in history, the narrative of redemption and transformation for eternal joy seem infinitely far removed from the raw pain and deadening burden of each day. They bring me no help, no strength for the day.

Where is wisdom in this situation for the believer who – in spite of floods of doubt and weariness – in her heart yet longs to be faithful to her Saviour, to glorify him, to learn whatever lessons he has for her in this time? Where is the light breaking through the clouds?

I choose to sit with my Father; to pour out my heart in shame and find that his arm holds me close and his voice speaks comfort and reassurance. I choose to recognise and resist the wiles of the enemy of my soul, who longs to bind me fast in darkness and immobility, prayerless and hopeless, numbed by pain into silence. I choose to emulate the psalmists who time and again bring lamentation and loss before the Lord, and in so doing, worship him in spirit and in truth. What good will it do me to lie and pretend to my Father that all is well?!! He alone sees and truly understands my situation; he knows why the burdens of this season are weighing so heavily on my nature because he made it.

Almighty God and Father, your beloved child creeps into your arms and cries tonight. In her weariness, be merciful and lift the burden for a time so that she may rest. Speak to her of your love and power to save the lost over whom she agonises; of your work around the world through your servants bringing aid and hope; of your work through those who do not recognise you, to achieve your purposes. Show her the light!

Gently remind her that her Lord Jesus himself endured great trials in order to save her and, that he will strengthen her too as she – like him- fixes her sight on your glory and promises. Deliver her from false guilt, that she might accept her weakness in humility, and thus depend so much more on you. 

To be mature in faith, humble in service, loving at all times, and to glorify God in every circumstance. This is my earnest desire. Hear and answer, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Just keeping going..

A thanksgiving psalm.

Shout out to the Lord, all the earth, worship the Lord in rejoicing, come before Him in glad song.

Know that the Lord is God. He has made us, and we are His, His people and the flock He tends.

Come into His gates in thanksgiving, His courts in praise.

Acclaim Him, bless his name. For the Lord is good, forever His kindness, and for all generations His faithfulness.

(Ps 100. R Alter translation)

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: 

a time to be born and a time to die, and time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…..a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace… 

I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning.

(Ecc 3.1-4,7,8,10-11)

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 Thess 2.16&17)

As I write this week, I am conscious of the shadows cast by heavy burdens in the lives of many dear friends, and also of the national and global challenges which we face in these days. It would be so easy to give in to despair. But, as those for whom the gospel of Jesus Christ is truth and light, we must cultivate a different reaction – a lived outcome of faith in a sovereign God, which is a steadfast heart.

We believe that our God is on the throne, and that his plans for creation and for his people are being fulfilled. We believe in his promises to save us from sin, and through all manner of suffering which life in a fallen and sinful world must involve. Therefore, we look expectantly for daily blessings and tokens of divine love, the signs of his presence among us and his power at work. We trust they are there, and then look for them! The testimony of God’s people down through the ages is that even in their deepest sorrow, and fiercest trial, they have seen his hand and heard his voice – when our time comes, we too will surely know this care and provision.

We choose to act responsibly, taking up the duties which are part of our place in life and community – trusting God to be at work, using them in us and for others, no matter how small or trivial they may seem. We keep on reminding ourselves that life will always and inevitably involve pain and loss, so that we need not fear these things, because our God knows our frailty and has provided for us.

We choose to worship God by persevering, and continually affirming God’s power and glory. We worship by enjoying God’s good gifts of life, creation, family and friends, culture and creativity, fun and laughter as part of our daily bread, things that he wants us to appreciate and use well.

We worship by praying for ourselves – and others – the perspective which he alone gives, to see our troubles in this world as light and momentary in the face of eternity and the promised glory which awaits. This in no way diminishes these trials, saying they are nothing, but by his help we refuse to let them dominate and overshadow our lives. We pray for ourselves – and others – that we might recognise God’s provision against our troubles when the occasion arises. We do not anticipate and dread these things, but rather in trusting, and realistic faith, we daily commit ourselves to our Lord, Saviour and God. Humankind is born to trouble; we will have struggles and pain, death will come to us all. But as believers, none of these things should be able to paralyse us on a daily basis and rob us of joy.

Heavenly Father, worthy of our praise and the adoration of all creation, we come before you in our frailty, praying that we might not dishonour your name by living in fear and mistrust. Grant us courage to live each day well, however insignificant our lives may seem, that we might worship you by our trust and cheerful spirits. When troubles rise, Lord be our refuge and provide for our need, that we may know and rejoice in your faithfulness. For the sake of our Lord Jesus, your son, our Saviour we pray these things, Amen

Pride of man…

 

For you have rejected your people, the house of Jacob…. Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots. Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made. So man is humbled and each one is brought low – do not forgive them! Enter into the rock and hide in the dust from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendour of his majesty. The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.

For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up – and it shall be brought low;.. and the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. And idols shall utterly pass away. And people shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendour of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth.

Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?

(Isa 2.6-11)

If we lived as though it were true that the creator of all things, the all-powerful and eternal God is our God; if we had no fear of humanity, nor pride in humanity except in so far as we are the beloved children of the Creator and bear his image; if in all things and at all times, we gave God all the glory – the loyalty and devotion and pre-eminence – which are rightly his… what would be different?

If we recognised the utter futility of depending upon humanity for the deliverance of our race and our planet form the mess it has gotten into; if we were free from placing our trust in politicians (of whatever hue) or human schemes and philosophies; if the body of Christ in this world didn’t pursue social status, cultural influence, material prosperity but devoted itself to the glory of God in Christ and the searing, healing power of the gospel… what would be different?

If we acknowledged that we are as dust in our transience; if we would discern the immanent, eternal realities which glow through our experience of the everyday and the voice of the Almighty in conversation with his children through his handiwork and their daily experiences of love, loss, labour and joy; if we recognised our humble (and yet exalted) position in creation and chose to accept it, delighting in God’s authority and sovereignty over us…. what would be different?

Our God is a jealous God, and he will not share his glory with anyone or anything. The experience of humankind on this earth is a lived exposition of what happens when that glory is given to another – humankind, nature, beauty, power, status, wisdom – anything which is not the Lord Almighty, the Lord God of hosts who reigns supreme, the only one worthy of worship and in whose power all things are made and sustained. When God is not at the centre of all we do, and his glory is not the aim of all we plan, then nothing is in its right place, and even our most significant achievements are flawed. 

As I read the words in Isaiah, this old hymn came to mind, and I leave it with you today as a prayer, a meditation and an affirmation of faith. Friends, let us continue to purse whole-hearted loyalty to our God, seeking in all things to glorify him, and learning to depend on no one and nothing else.

All my hope on God is founded; he doth still my trust renew.

Me through change and chance he guideth, only good and only true.

God unknown, he alone, calls my heart to be his own.

Pride of man and earthly glory, sword and crown betray his trust;

what with care and toil he buildeth, tower and temple, fall to dust.

But God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.

(J Neander, 1650-80)

Making good investments..

I will sing of your love and justice; to you, Lord, I will sing praise. I will be careful to lead a blameless life – when will you come to me? I will conduct the affairs of my house with a blameless heart.  I will not look with approval on anything that is vile. I hate what faithless people do; I will have no part in it…. I will have nothing to do with what is evil.

(Ps 101 1-4)

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. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.. rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator…. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

(Col 3.1-3,8-10,12-14)

As those who have put their faith in Jesus for salvation, and the hope of eternal life, we are now citizens of a new kingdom – the kingdom of Christ – and our loyalty is to a higher throne than any this world has known. We also belong to a people whose morality is radically other than those around us – it is grounded in the nature of God and as those who now live under his rule, we seek to honour his kingship by the way that we live.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul explores for his readers just what it should look like for believers to live as citizens of God’s kingdom in a fallen world. The crucial thing is to remember that our behaviour is not modified in order to earn our salvation, but rather the fact of Christ’s sacrificial death and the power of his forgiveness motivate us to love him so much that we long to emulate and model ourselves on him. As the note in my bible commentary says: “you are…. now be!” In other words, live as though you really are God’s beloved, redeemed and holy children, those who delight to be holy as He is holy, and to love as He loves.

This week, I just want us to notice that nowhere in Paul’s words does he refer to how we might feel on any given day, or how hard it might be to pursue godliness in any given circumstances. In the same way as the psalmist pledges his commitment to daily choices to pursue holiness, so also Paul expects us as believers to commit to pursuing lives which express the character of Christ who now lives in us and whose power is at work to shape us in that way. This is a matter of developing habits which will shape our thinking and behaviour in such a permanent way that when a crisis hits, we react in godly ways quite instinctively. Does my love for Jesus motivate this kind of commitment? Am I deliberately choosing to cherish those virtues which reflect him, or am I lazily drifting along and assuming that God will sort me out in the end?

The reality is that unless we are actively pursuing habits of virtue, and deliberately rejecting or avoiding habits of vice, then we will inevitably drift toward the latter. Our fallen nature, the world around us, and the devil who seeks our injury will all conspire to entice and entrap us by our own undisciplined natures.

O God, who in Christ saved us from our sins, and by the Holy spirit lives in us day to day: have mercy on our frailty and strengthen us in godliness, that we might worthily present you to the world around us. As we consider Christ in all his glory, and the work of salvation in all its indescribable love and generosity, may our hearts and minds be ever more committed to rejecting all ungodliness, and to embracing and cherishing all those things which reflect his goodness. 

To daily choose virtue, and to reject vice; to depend on your power at work in us to strengthen every feeble effort; to rejoice that we need not earn our salvation but rest in Christ’s finished work: O God, hear our prayer, in his name, Amen.

When the fight is worth it..

It wasn’t long before some Jews showed up from Judea insisting that everyone be circumcised :”If you’re not circumcised in the Mosaic fashion, you can’t be saved.” Paul and Barnabus were on their feet at once in fierce protest. The church decided to resolve the matter by sending Paul, Barnabas, and a few others to put it before the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem…

The arguments went on and on, back and forth, getting more and more heated. Then Peter took the floor: “Friends, you well know that from early on God made it quite plain that he wanted the pagans to hear the Message of this good news and embrace it – and not in any secondhand or roundabout way, but firsthand, straight from my mouth. And God….. gave them the Holy Spirit exactly as he gave him to us… So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and us too? Don’t we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those from beyond our nation. So what are we arguing about?”

(Acts 15.1-2,6-11; Message translation)

Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you… The moment any of you submits to circumcision or any other rule-keeping system, at that same moment Christ’s hard-won gift of freedom is squandered… When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace.

(Gal 5.1-4; Message translation)

Recent bible studies with our church in the book of Acts have brought us to this remarkable chapter at the heart of the story… The story of a massive, stand-up fight! We often associate the early church with generosity, lives being transformed and a general air of rejoicing and good will. So where does this battle fit in?

I want to consider today how some fights are not only inevitable, but necessary, and that as believers we need to be aware of this – ready to fight as Jesus’ disciples fought, for truth, for the good news about salvation by faith.

The church in Antioch, where the story begins, is the first non- Jewish or Gentile congregation to be established – ever. It was hugely significant in the onward spread of the good news across the known world, and must have been an exciting and sometimes chaotic place to be, with so many cultures coming together in faith. Into this heady environment of new life, hope and possibility, came a group of devout Jewish-believers who had come to faith in Jesus from their Jewish roots and out of a lifetime observing the laws of Moses.

This group asserted that the Gentiles couldn’t really be saved until they adopted Jewish practices – in other words, they argued that salvation came via the observance of circumcision and Mosaic law, in addition to faith in Jesus. Perhaps you can see why this argument was so very dangerous, and why Paul(himself an incredibly devout Jew) and Barnabus reacted with such vigour and concern. Such an argument implied that salvation was not by God’s grace alone, but that human actions – in this case law/ritual observance – were also necessary.

It was crucial to the ongoing spread of the gospel to Gentile populations that this false teaching be dealt with immediately and forever. If salvation is not God’s free gift, then grace is not grace, and we are still bound to sin and hopelessness!

I am profoundly thankful that Paul and Barnabus saw the danger, and with the support of the Antioch church, headed for Jerusalem to get it sorted out at once. Their willingness to confront wrong teaching – and the respect and gentleness with which the church leaders eventually responded – is an example to us of how we should behave when confronted with plausible but dangerously false teaching. Anything that detracts from God’s grace in Jesus, anything that suggests it is by my own effort/observance/tradition, that I earn the right to salvation is to be rejected with steady determination.

After this great debate – with all the discomfort and tension that such occasions produce – the message of the gospel could go forth with greater clarity, and the whole body of believers now knew that the observance of Mosaic law and ritual was unnecessary for Gentile believers. It was this event which ensured that the message which spread continued to carry the full power of God’s offer of forgiveness, salvation and transformation in Jesus.

Almighty God, we praise you today for those who were willing to be unpopular, to upset established systems and to challenge the influential parties. Thank you that through this great confrontation, you brought new clarity and commitment to the gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus. Thank you that this same grace, undeserved goodness to us, continues to be made available to all and any who will today receive it and confess Jesus as their Lord. Give us courage to proclaim that message, and also to defend it against wrong and dangerous teaching. Be glorified through your church we pray O Lord, Amen.  

Frail as summer’s flowers…

Bless, O my being, the Lord, and everything in me, His holy name. Bless, O my being, the Lord, and do not forget all his generous acts… As a father has compassion for his children, the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For He knows our devisings, recalls that we are dust. Man’s days are like grass, like the bloom of the field, thus he blooms- when the wind passes by him, he is gone and his place will no longer know him. But the Lord’s kindness is forever and ever over those who fear Him and His bounty to the sons of sons, for the keepers of His pact and those who recall His precepts to do them.

(Ps 103. 1&13-18. R Alter translation)

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me… It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking by the arms; but they did not realise it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love…. My people are determined to turn from me….. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?  

(Hos 11.1-4,7&8)

Our human affections, as God’s image bearers, can teach us so much about the character and love of the Creator, and I have been considering how my experience as a parent has led me to a much deeper appreciation of all the rich metaphors in the scripture which speak of God as a mother or father.

Do you have any memories of your first encounter with a new-born child, of the sense of wonder and awe which is engendered as you see the beauty, fragility and intricacy of this tiny being? This is an echo of the delighted wonder with which our God greets each and every new life – He never grows tired of the miracle of unique human identity, but values each one just as they are. Frail we are indeed, and yet He lavishes upon us so much love and care, not willing that any should perish without coming into relationship with him. My challenge is to love those around me with this same open-eyed wonder and delight, to see them as He sees me each day, and to love them as He has loved me.

I have watched friends and family live through the trauma of miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death, teenage suicide and extreme, prolonged physical and mental illness, and through their traumas have glimpsed the acute and debilitating pain which such losses bring to loving parents and extended families. Does this pain not also reflect the depths of the love which existed? The more we love, the greater we can hurt when our loved ones are threatened, and how much it hurts only the secrets of the heart, the night agonies, the deadening, hopeless dragging days can tell. Our capacity to love and suffer with our children in this way is surely another echo of the heart of God for his own beloved children – we are told again and again, that because of Jesus, our pain is known, is affirmed and given its full significance before God’s throne. None of that suffering is wasted, or unnoticed – the Lord in heaven sees and feels the weight of whatever is crushing you as your young ones suffer.

And when these beloved children, nestled in our hearts and yet free to choose for themselves, walk away from the faith into which they were born, oh then how great is our agony.. The one thing which above all we covet for them, is the one thing we cannot in any way force them to receive. And then our ability to identify with God in his depth of agonies over the unfaithfulness of Israel is really established. Only when I began to feel it for myself, with a degree of desperation and fear, did I appreciate the passion and pain that lies behind God’s wrestling over the disobedience which took Israel to worship idols and reject their covenant-keeping God.

In our frailty, we find the burden of love almost too much to bear when it brings with it so much pain. And yet, we too are God’s beloved children; our pain matters to him too, and he knows our weakness. In his unbounded compassion, he invites us to take advantage of his loving heart in the same way that we welcome our children’s suffering as part of the privilege of being their parent. And here we find just how great is our God, how faithful, how good, how loving. We are never rejected or dismissed as too weak, too fearful, too anxious. We are heard and loved and grounded in order to go on, loving like our Father in heaven because of the ways He loves us.

Father, in our weakness, be strong that we might love well; in our grief, be comforting and giving hope that we might bear witness to your goodness; in our failings, pour out your grace to bring blessing to us and to those whom we love as best we can, in the name of the Son whom you love perfectly, Amen.

Measuring ministry…

He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.” But I said, “I have laboured to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due to me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” And now the Lord says – he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honoured in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength – he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

(Isa 49.5&6)

Jesus called [the disciples] together and said,”.. whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Matt 20.25-28)

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant… he humbled himself and became obedient to death..

(Phil 2.5-8)

Followers of Jesus, people of the Way, called to a life, not merely an intellectual creed or habitual observances. My faith, unless it be manifest in works – in ministry and a godly life – is dead. But do you find it difficult to discern sometimes what your ministry is? It may not involved anything explicitly evangelistic, no teaching and training of disciples over text books and bible commentaries. You may not be the one who leads children’s work or speaks boldly at every mission prayer meeting… that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a ministry, a role to which God has called you and for which you are given strength, insight and perseverance each day. In fact, there may be several things going on at once!

The work of child-rearing; of house-keeping; of integrity and compassion brought to the daily tasks of your employment; of volunteering  among your community; of caring for elderly relatives and neighbours; of cleaning up toilets and washing dishes; of doing DIY and gardening chores for others; of praying in private, again and again and again for the lost sheep of the Great Shepherd. All of these are ministries, and there will be so many more, reflecting the gifts, situations and opportunities of God’s children around the world. Let us pray for one another, and encourage one another in these less visible ministries, where our service for the Lord is not under a spotlight, but is nonetheless our opportunity to delight in copying Jesus’ servant heart and humility.

In our human frailty, we long to be rewarded, praised and recognised for our contributions, and to see fruit for our labours. I think our Father knows this, and therefore he also understands when our particular ministries don’t seem to bear fruit and we are tempted to be discouraged. We can pray for one another here too – let’s be honest about our discouragements, in order that we may serve one another faithfully by restoring our focus on Jesus. We are called to serve, but we are not promised an experience of the outcome of our service. We may never see fruit for our labours – does that mean they are worthless?

By no means (as Paul would say!). As the passage from Isaiah says, our reward is surely in the Lord’s hand – to be kept for us until his good time. He decides what fruit will come, and whether we should see it or not. Perhaps it is better for us – sparing us the danger of pride and self-conceit – to be delivered from success in the world’s eyes. Perhaps we couldn’t cope with the potential shipwreck of our faith on the admiration and praise of other people!

Loving Heavenly Father, thank you that in Jesus we have a perfect example of life and ministry to follow. Help us to sacrifice our pride, our desire for human praise, even our natural hunger for fruit for our labours, at the feet of Jesus. It is our privilege to serve in his name, to love in his strength, and to seek his glory. When others see fruit, receive praise and even perhaps take credit for our labour, let us humbly rejoice that you are over all, and that you have a greater reward than we can possibly imagine awaiting us in glory. Make us content with whatever you choose to give, or withhold, so long as you fulfil your purpose in us. For Jesus’s sake, and his glory we pray, Amen.

A consuming fire

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorised fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: ‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy, in the sight of all the people I will be honoured.'”

(Lev 10.1-3)

“‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them…I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness…I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord..'”

(Ezek 34.11,12&16)

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

(Jn 10.11)

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm…But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God…. You have come to God, the judge of all men…, 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.”

(Heb 12.18,22,23,&28)

It is not easy for us to begin to appreciate the holiness of God – the ferocious purity and abhorrence of evil – which characterises the Creator and upholder of all things. We live so intimately with sin, subtly excusing and softening it in order to give ourselves an easy time, that we find God’s reaction to it a little excessive.. But that is our weakness and not God’s. He is goodness, light and love. He is right and true and entirely other than the corruption which is our nature.

From the beginning, the story of scripture makes it clear that holiness cannot be in proximity with sin; it must be destroyed – even as the power of the sun destroys everything that comes too close to it. And yet, God desires to dwell among his people, and all the story of salvation is designed to make this possible; from the sacrificial system, through the temple era, until Jesus came to be the living fulfilment of all those foreshadowings and models. He came to be the means by which holiness could be reconciled to sinful humanity, the one through whom intimacy could be restored.

In Jesus, all the destroying power which had to be unleashed against the offence of sin found its focus. As the good shepherd, he literally stands between us and God’s wrath, taking its full force upon himself – and being consumed. Thus and only thus, our sin is dealt with and we can enter into the perfect relationship which God has long desired. We receive his perfection, and he takes our sin. By dying and rising again in his new resurrection body, Jesus inaugurated the new nature which will enable all God’s chosen people to dwell intimately with his holiness in the new creation. There will be nothing in us from which God will shrink, or that could call forth his wrath on us.

Without Jesus, humanity stands before God as Nadab and Abihu did – presuming on our own notions of what is good and right, and being destroyed. With Jesus, our prospect is totally different. No dark mountain with destroying fire, but rather light, love, celebration and worship. The consuming fire HAS gone forth, but another has been burnt up for us, has completed the sacrifice, and as we – by faith – stand in him (Christ) so we receive all the blessings promised in his new covenant. We have an inheritance in glory, a place in God’s family and citizenship in an eternal, unshakeable kingdom.

Let us then worship him with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire!

(Image is part of ‘A Garment of War’ by Sir DY Cameron 1864-1945)

Going deeper..

The heavens tell God’s glory, and his handiwork sky declares.

Day to day breathes utterance and night to night pronounces knowledge.

There is no utterance and there are no words, their voice is never heard. Through all the earth their voice goes out, to the world’s edge, their words.

For the sun He set up a tent in them – and he like a groom from his canopy comes, exults like a warrior running his course. From the ends of the heavens his going out and his circuit to their ends, and nothing can hide from his heat.

The Lord’s teaching is perfect, restoring to life. The Lord’s pact is steadfast, it makes the fool wise. The Lord’s precepts are upright, delighting the heart. The Lord’s command unblemished, giving light to the eyes. The Lord’s fear is pure, outlasting all time. The Lord’s judgements are truth, all of them just.

More desired than gold, than abundant fine gold, and sweeter than honey, quintessence of bees. Your servant, too, takes care with them. In keeping them – great reward. Unwitting sins who can grasp? Of unknown actions clear me. From wilful men preserve Your servant, let them not rule over me. Then shall I be blameless and clear of great crime.

Let my mouth’s utterances be pleasing and my heart’s stirring before You, Lord, my rock and redeemer.

(Psalm 19, R.Alter trans. 2007)

I am learning to read the bible… which may sound a ridiculous thing for a middle-aged woman to say, one who grew up in churches with outstanding preaching and teaching every week.

But, it is true. I learnt so much and am forever grateful to those who fed me so richly, and inspired me to persevere in faith – my debt to them is incalculable. Nevertheless, I am only now learning to read for myself, to listen to my own thoughts, to trust that as I seek and study, God will teach me; and as I learn in community with others, we can discern truth even though there is no written booklet or ‘qualified’ teacher present!

A few months ago, a group of local women began meeting together weekly, reading from the book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures, and using resources like their bible commentaries and cross-referencing systems to begin exploring the connections, themes and lessons contained in that book. Much to our own delighted surprise, we not only found enough to talk about each week, but we were continually stimulated to think deeply, to learn from one another’s traditions and approaches, to refresh our understanding and to even change our ideas! The freedom to dig into the word, to wrestle with its obscurities, to juggle the paradoxes and revere the mysteries was intoxicating. We proceeded to study Philippians, are now in Ruth, and next plan to tackle Isaiah – which is not a small book!

As we read in community, we trust God to guide us, we pray for the Spirit to lead us, and we pray for humility to listen to each voice. We have had some entertaining pursuits of red herrings, followed some devious rabbit holes and stumbled upon impenetrable mysteries. We have grown in love for one another, and more significantly, in confidence in God’s word to us and for us in 2022.

There will always be so much more to learn, but rather than letting that make us feel overwhelmed, we choose to praise God for the inexhaustible riches of his word, and for the many resources which are available to us now to support our learning together. I can testify that my delight in meditating – or struggling! – with the bible is so much deeper, more satisfying, than ever, and would hope that this makes me more responsive to God’s leading and transforming work in my life… that is for others to say.

Don’t give up reading, thinking, exploring the riches of God’s word to us. Find a community where the word is honoured, and where people will honestly face it with their doubts, willing to learn and to grow. We will never reach the end of God’s revelation, but we can choose whether to drift along on the surface, malnourished and vulnerable, or to take every opportunity to make truth our own, to stretch our minds and strengthen our confidence in the word. It is for each one of us!

May the words of our mouths, and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.