Let every head bow…

The Lord is a God who avenges. O God who avenges, shine forth…How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant? They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, Lord; they oppress your inheritance. They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless. They say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.’ Take notice, you senseless ones among the people; you fools, when will you become wise? Does he who fashioned the ear not hear; Does he who formed the eye not see? Does he who disciplines nations not punish? Does he who teaches mankind lack knowledge? The Lord knows all human plans; he knows that they are futile.

(Ps 94.2,3, 8-11)

There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God all have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’….there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.., And all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

(Rom 3.11&12, 22-24)

 

Then I saw a ‘new heaven and a new earth’, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’

(Rev 21.1-4)

All over the western world, at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, people will gather to remember…to remember what? Facts from history books about a conflict which is now virtually beyond living memory? Snatches of poetry, prose and music which conjure up something of the horror of that particular war? Or perhaps more recent struggles – The second World war, the Suez crisis, the Spanish civil war,the Falklands war, the Vietnam war, the Gulf war, the struggles in Northern Ireland, campaigns in Afghanistan; or perhaps those many eruptions of violence in the name of nationhood and justice which have blighted our planet beyond the immediate involvement of our nation but with equally devastating consequences – campaigns in Central and Latin America; violence and bloodshed after the partition of India and Pakistan, civil wars and decade long unrest and destruction all over the African continent; or the current agonies unfolding in Yemen, dragging on in Syria, in South Sudan, in the Congo, Chad and Nigeria…

Humanity has an appalling prediliction for taking up arms in order to settle accounts; and there is no nation which can claim to have always been on the side of justice, nor to have avoided unnecessary bloodshed and harm. Humanity is equally complicit, equally guilty of inhumanity to others. Down the years, people have claimed to have God on their side, to be fighting for truth, justice, freedom..but even if some of this might have been true, in reality, when humanity starts fighting, dreadful things are done, and as the bible puts it, all creation groans in anguish until it is to be delivered from the burden of sinfulness which it bears.

For me, Remembrance Sunday is a time to confess before God that we have all truly fallen short of his perfection; a time to stand and grieve at the price which humanity has paid and is paying for this sinfulness; and a time to worship and adore the God who has freely provided forgiveness, redemption, and the promise of eternal peace to all who will accept it.

Let us remember and weep, repenting of our own sinfulness which is part of the world’s plague, and praying urgently for the return of our Lord to wind up the sorry narrative of history, and usher in the glorious new beginnings which Revelation speaks of. Let us remember the sacrifice of Christ, for all who will accept him, and weep in joyful thankfulness that such mercy should be shown to us. Let us remember the promise, that one day, redeemed humanity will be citizens of one city, whose gates will never be shut, and into which the glory and honour of the nations will be brought – all that is good and true and beautiful in God’s people from across the globe. And with that vision, that hope, and that assurance, let us go from remembering to living; living with purpose; that purpose to share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ with all who will receive it that they might share in the future which is without war, without grief, without death…

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Making marks in eternity..

I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. I will glory in the Lord, let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.

(Ps 34.1-3)

We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.

(Ps 33.20-22)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground….

(Eph 5.10-13)

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

(1 Pet 1. 6&7)

It is easy to forget that our lives as followers of Jesus are acted out before a great audience of spiritual beings, and yet the bible makes it plain that this is the case – think of Job, and of how God calls Satan to witness the faithfulness and true quality of that much tried saint. Paul also, in writing to the believers in Ephesus, points out that they operate in spiritual realms, not just the physical; so that their enemies while appearing in human form, or in the guise of the troubles of the world, are actually spiritual.

This invisible reality is enormously relevant for our attitudes to our daily lives, so often seemingly mundane, with petty troubles, and common challenges to overcome, and nothing very significant going on. The truth is that every day brings us fresh opportunities to make choices which will glorify our God, causing the angels to rejoice in the power of Christ in a person’s life to transform them completely. We may not see or hear the joy, but that doesn’t mean that it is less real!

As we grow in faith and understanding, our lives will come to reflect the pattern of Christ-likeness which is God’s ideal for his children, but we will also increasingly be out of step with the spiritual tone of the world, which is still so much in thrall to evil. Our growth in faith may not even be evident to us, as we feel increasingly that we are struggling with many trials arising from our choices and our beliefs. In reality, the spiritual reality which we do not see, that very consciousness of struggle is a sure sign of growing faith – if we did not so ardently long for holiness, we would not react so strongly against all those things which would drag us down. It is therefore possible for a faithful saint to look back over many years of following Jesus, and fear that they have made little progress, when in reality, their continuing struggles to choose purity, honesty, faithfulness and integrity are a sign that they have never been closer to him. It is the very precious reality of our faith which makes the fight against sin most bitter and prolonged.

Since this is true, we can encourage one another with the fact that every time we make a decision for Christ in the midst of the trial – choosing to think, speak and act according to his pattern – we are making our own mark in eternity, our own contribution to the great structure of worship and praise to the Saviour which is the work of the church. It is indeed all by his grace and indwelling spirit that we are able to do these things, and so all the glory goes to him when his followers prove his strength and faithfulness.

Although we may feel that our trials are secret, ashamed that we continue to face the same troubles over and over, yet we may rejoice that in the eternal story, our part is valued, and our own small experiences of his enabling will be significant. It is all worthwhile, nothing is wasted! All will be to our blessing, and to his glory: Amen, so let it be!

Bursting with praise!

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.

(Ps 19.1-3)

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good..

(Gen 1.31)

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

(Rom 1.20)

Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.” The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy;

(Ps 96.10-13)

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

(Isa 55.10-12)

This autumn has been a fitful, boisterous and wet one in my part of the world, with few settled days to enjoy the changing colours of the trees, and a great deal of strong winds and heavy rain. The gales largely stripped the trees of their leaves before the colours had ripened into gold and bronze, and the dark, rainy days have muted the opulent colours of russet bracken and purple brown heather so that they are barely noticeable. But when the sun has made it through the storms, we have rejoiced indeed in the transient glory which is an autumnal palette, and our spirits have been refreshed and nourished by the riches all around.

On such days, I call to mind the wonderful poetry of the psalms and prophets as they speak of how all creation rejoices in the creator and continually praises him whose handiwork they are. It is good for us to join in that song of praise; to put aside all requests and fears; to look away from the brokenness to the beauty, and to allow these things to give our souls ease.

Yes, all these things are transient; but their song is none the less powerful for that. The coming darkness of winter days, the knowledge that trees will soon be bare, and all nature withdraw into herself to wait and prepare for the sure-awakening spring, these things are part of the rich song of worship which accepts the ways God has woven into the world. As a created being, one who knows from whom her identity and worth come, I can also surrender to that providence, and trust the good God who has decreed all that shall be part of my life.

Because I have Christ, I am in tune with creation’s song; I know to whom I owe thanks for all that I see and receive. His purposes for the world and all within it inform my praise, I know that while this world delights me, it is only a taste of the inexpressible joy which awaits…One day, I shall awake in the new earth, in the realm for which I was made, where all sadness and mourning shall have fled away, and where I will walk forever in unshadowed companionship with not only all those who call Christ Lord, but with my Lord himself. All this, I know now, as surely as I know that he will keep me safe until that day. This is reason enough to lift my voice with the trees of the field and the hills around, to glorify the Lord of heaven and lose myself in worship.

Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green;
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen:
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
Flow’rs with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am His, and He is mine.

(GW Robinson 1838-1877)

 

to honour by trusting..

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God…my eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare.

(Ps 25.1&15)

Then Jehoshaphat stood up in the assembly..at the temple of the Lord and said: ” O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no-one can withstand you…If calamity comes upon us…we will stand in your presence before this temple that bears your Name and will cry out to you in our distress….We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.

(2 Chron 20.5,6,9&12)2

Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear…Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field..how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!….But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well….Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom…Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

(Luke 12.22,25&32: Matt.6.33&34)

As a follower of Jesus, I am called to honour and glorify God in everything I do – that is, to make his name great, to give him his rightful place and encourage others to acknowledge his worth and greatness. God has not promised his children that they will have an easy path through life in order to glorify and testify to his power, rather he makes it clear that we are to worship and lift him high in the midst of the trials of life, mundane though they often are, and extreme as they can be. How do we do this? Surely one of the ways most clearly commanded to us – explicitly by the words of Jesus quoted above, and implicitly in many other places – is by our trust in God.

Our God is an awesome God; he reigns from heaven above with wisdom, love and power, our God is an awesome God. Do I believe it? Do I live as if I were the apple of his eye, the one for whom he guides all things together for my blessing and his glory? Do I give God credit for all his promises, and even more, for all the things he has done which prove his faithfulness? Too often, the answer has to be that I do not; that my actions – my addiction to worry and anxiety, to controlling and manipulating circumstances – all speak of a heart which does not trust God to do as he has promised – to deliver me and keep me safe. If a jury of my neighbours and friends were to consider the evidence for my dependence upon God, my reliance on him to do all things well, what would be their verdict upon me? I fear they would declare the case ‘not proven’, in face of my fretful and discontented thoughts and words; my self-centred actions and attitudes.

May I be forgiven for dishonouring my Lord in this way; for disbelieving his word, and dismissing his historic faithfulness, and living as though no one was looking out for me, but myself.

May I learn to be more like the godly king Jehoshaphat, who in time of great national danger came publicly to claim the help and protection of God – boldly reminding God of all that had been promised, and leaving the matter entirely in his hands. This is what it looks like to seek God’s kingdom before our own needs – to come and say, “Lord, I don’t know what to do, but I am looking to you, not to anyone else and certainly not to myself, for your good will to be done.”

In every circumstance, may this be my experience, to turn towards and not away from God; to run to his word, his promises, his character and find there my grounds for peace, for hope and for the security of all that I entrust to him. May I learn, as the flowers and birds have never forgotten, that I am called to live and thrive for as long as my Lord shall decree, and to honour him by my absolute trust that he knows and does all things well.

Playing hide and seek…

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden…

(Gen 3.8)

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night you hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” – and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him. You are my hiding-place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.

(Psalm 32.6&7)

I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, may stronghold. I call to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies.

(Psalm 18.1-3)

One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.

(Psalm 27.4&5)

The narrative of the bible is clear that the effect of sin from the very beginning was to cut humanity off from the one who loved them, and created them to share life with him. And it was their shame, and consciousness of having done wrong which drove Adam and Eve to hide from God when he came seeking them.

As a follower of Jesus, one who has admitted her need of a saviour, and who claims to be forgiven by God because of the sacrifice made for me on the cross, I know in my head that I no longer need to hide from God. The whole point of my Lord’s death and resurrection was to re-open the way for me – and every other sinner who accepts the offered grace – into the welcoming arms of my heavenly Father. I am free from guilt, sin no longer has power over me, and the devil himself cannot pluck me out of God’s hand.

But it is clear from the words of the psalmists, and of the apostles themselves, that as believers we are vulnerable and forgetful, and so often try to tackle the enemy of our souls in our own strength. We act as though we had to deal with sin before we can come before God again – we hide away from him, ashamed of what we have done, thought, or failed to do; we allow sin to become a barrier again between ourselves and the freedom and peace which are our inheritance and birthright in Christ.

Forgive us Lord,  for our short-sightedness, and misplaced confidence. We needed a saviour in the first place because we do not have the power to defeat the enemy who wages this war – against you, in our lives. We needed a saviour to destroy that power for ever, and he did it, on Calvary! But we still need that saving power, every day, to fight and win the battles in our lives over and over again. We will NEVER in our own strength, be big enough to defeat evil in all the devious and persistent ways which it tries to draw us away from Christ.

So instead of hiding from God as we struggle with persistent and secret sins, with all those things of which we are so ashamed, we need to run to him, and hide in him! It is only from the safe stronghold of his arms that we can look upon evil and have confidence; only in the name of Christ that we can claim the victory; and only in the blood of Christ that we receive forgiveness for our ongoing failures, setting us free to persevere and even to hold up our heads with pride in the one who has loved and chosen us.

Who is on the Lord’s side? I am! By his grace I will remain here; by his strength secured from harm. He fights for me, let me cling ever more closely to him and cry ever more readily for help, so that I may rejoice ever more in the deliverance which he delights to give.

Bible colouring exercises..?!

You must go on steadily in those things that you have learned and which you know are true. Remember from what sort of people your knowledge has come, and how from early childhood your mind has been familiar with the holy scriptures, which can open the mind to the salvation which comes through believing in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for re-setting the direction of a man’s life and training him in good living. The scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God, and fit him fully for all branches of his work.

(2 Tim 3.14-17: JB Phillips, the New Testament in Modern English)

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness….Teach the older men…teach the older women..so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men…set them an example..so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us…Teach slaves…so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and wordly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

(Titus 1.1; from 2.1-10, 2.11-14)

I am part of a group of women in my community who meet together to study the bible regularly. We use DVD’s, books, and occasionally an approach which I find hugely enjoyable, called Inductive Bible Study. It requires us to print out the bible passage with plenty of space on the page to scribble on, get hold of coloured pencils and start… there are a few key questions, but no study guide and no formulaic answers.

What is so good about this technique is the way it builds confidence in the follower of Jesus, confidence in their own capacity to hear God speaking through his word without a preacher explaining it to them! I love to listen to sermons, it is my favourite way of learning about the bible and receiving the word. BUT I also know that I need to be able to read and learn from the scriptures on my own and in a small group, so this technique for bible study is very encouraging.

Perhaps you can guess from the texts quoted above that our study recently was the book of Titus – all three chapters in one session. It was fantastic fun! We traced the key ideas which cropped up all through the book, and all of a sudden, something which we had initially read rather mechanically, became enthralling and relevant to us here and now. If you are not familiar with Titus, and assume that since Paul wrote it, there must be some difficult arguments and hard concepts in it, please think again! The book is a delightful exposition of what it looks like to grow in the ‘knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness‘, basically a handbook of practical christian holiness.

In Titus, we are reminded over and over that God is trustworthy, his word is true and comes to us through the scriptures and the preaching and teaching of that word. In our culture where everything is relative and the devil would have us believe that there is no such thing as truth, how we need to remember and affirm the truth about Jesus, about God, holiness and judgement. We are warned to be on guard against those within the church as well as in our culture, whose beliefs and actions are deceitful and self-promoting. And we are reminded that our growth in godliness, in purity and the lovely qualities of Christ-likeness to which we aspire, should speak as loudly as our words in showing Jesus Christ and the gospel of salvation to those around us.

What a challenge Titus gives us: is my life self-controlled, upright and godly? Am I reverent, eager to do what is good, not a gossip or a glutton? Am I encouraging others to grow in their faith, and waiting in confident hope for the glory to come? None of these things are a means of earning the salvation which God’s grace gives; rather they are all manifestations of my response to that free gift.

May God stir up within me a spirit of thankfulness, dependence and eagerness to grow in godliness, so that I too might ‘make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive’.

 

It all looks a bit bleak…

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises…..In his pride the wicked does not seek him, in all his thoughts there is no room for God…His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. He says to himself, “God has forgotten, he covers his face and never sees.”

(Ps 10.1,2,4,10&11)

When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?

(Ps 11.3)

Help, Lord, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. Everyone lies to his neighbour; their flattering lips speak with deception.

(Ps 12.1&2)

Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done…They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

(Rom 1.28-31)

The Lord reigns for ever; he has established his throne for judgement. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice. The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.

(Ps 9.7-9)

The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm for ever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.

(Ps 33.1)

The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake. Great is the Lord in Zion; he is exalted over all the nations. Let them praise your great and awesome name – he is holy.

 (Ps 99.1-3)

It is good to allow the words of the bible to remind us that humanity has never been any purer at heart, any nobler in intent, than it is today; to see that the basic problems we face are not new, and that God is not somehow caught out by the situation in which we find ourselves today. Paul in his letter to the Roman church uses language which is completely up to date, and we recognise in the words of the psalms the very things which trouble our societies today.

It is an ugly, bleak and depressing picture. We see so much oppression, exploitation, suffering and injustice. The world’s populations are on the move fleeing from war, famine, slavery, and it always seems the poorest and weakest who suffer most, never those who are in positions of power and influence, making these things happen.

We cry with the psalmist, “How long?”, looking for God to act in judgement. And then we remember that we too are sinners: greedy, lazy, self-centred and quarrelsome. We too deserve judgement at the hands of a holy and righteous God. In his inscrutable purposes, the time for God to bring all things to an end has not yet come, he has not finished gathering in people who worship him from all the nations, and so the world goes on. And we must also believe that in his wisdom, he is permitting suffering and injustice to continue – for ends which we may never understand.

What we can know from the bible is that God does see and care about the wickedness and suffering of the world; and that his church are called to be part of his plan for addressing injustice and pain. When I feel grieved for those who are in trouble, what do I do about it? Prayer is absolutely necessary, but are there not other things? I can support campaign and action groups on poverty issues, debt cancellation, justice and reparation, support and counselling for the traumatised and displaced. There are many ways in which followers of Jesus can and should be part of his plan for hearing and acting on the cries of the poor and weak.

That doesn’t take away the struggle we have in watching wickedness prosper, and yet believing in a God who is loving and just. We must again look to the bible for our guidance in holding these things together in faith and confidence. The psalmists repeatedly affirm the greatness of God, the glory of God, his supremacy and pre-eminence. In the face of extreme suffering, the verdict of scripture is that God is, that he is good, and that no one will ever be able to accuse him of injustice when he brings all this broken and fractured world to its end.

I need to work hard at this, finding it all too easy to fall into despair, and to doubt that God will really answer my prayers – and those of so many – for him to act on behalf of the suffering and oppressed, and to judge the wicked. May I learn to focus ever more on what God says about himself in his word, and in the face of the bleakest scenarios, to share the confidence of the psalmists, worshipping and exalting their great and glorious God.