Monthly Archives: December 2015

This is my story, this is my song..

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures for ever. 

Has the Lord redeemed you? Then speak out! Tell others he has redeemed you from your enemies.

For he has gathered the exiles from many lands, from east and west, from north and south.

(Ps 107. 1-3)

On Christmas Eve, in our little corner of a big city, a group of christians from local congregations gathered on a street corner to sing carols, to pray and to hear again from God’s word the story of Jesus birth.

It was a filthy night of weather, we were wet, cold and buffeted by the wind. Barely anyone passed by, nor could they have heard much if they did! But it proved to be one of the most meaningful events in my celebration of Christmas this year, because we were free to do it. We can publicly declare our faith and tell the story of God’s love born into our midst.

No one called the police and reported us for ‘illegal’ activities, no one threw stones or even hard words at us. We are privileged to live under a system of law which protects our freedom to gather for public worship, and it truly is a privilege, a gift and blessing! As we enter a new year and look to the opportunities which may lie ahead, I am challenged by these words from the psalmist. Do I speak out?

I have a story to tell, of salvation and of life lived in the presence of my God. I have been given the good news of Jesus Christ to share; the best gift anyone could ever receive is mine not to hoard but to advertise! There are no legal restrictions on my witness, I need fear nothing from the authorities.

But I do fear ridicule, rejection, giving offence and being misunderstood, driving someone away instead of drawing them near. I look back over many years of living as a christian and wonder just how many opportunities I failed to take through fear? It seems that so many of those around me who do not know God’s personal love for them are people who would be angry, insulted and hurt if I said anything which suggested their lives were somehow lacking. Many of them believe that Christianity is outdated, irrelevant to their lives, a source of hatred and violence down the years which should be discarded. They tolerate my faith because I refrain from offending them, but I know very well that I am not free to challenge their position.

So where is my witness? I try to live in a way which speaks of God’s forgiveness and love, his transforming power and presence in my life – hoping that this might somehow prompt questions. But it hasn’t, not yet, not to me…. And I fear that I am simply written down as a ‘nice person’ (if only they knew!!), who suffers from some misguided religious beliefs but is too polite to make a big thing of them.

The picture at the head of this post is of Galilee, the great lake which in Israel today is called Kinneret after the harp which it resembles in shape. The hills beyond are the Golan Heights, beyond which lies Syria, and a dreadful destruction from which the land may never recover. It is here that Jesus walked on the water; here that he sat by the lake and called fishermen to leave their nets; on these hills he prayed through the night and taught his disciples about the kingdom which he was inaugurating.

I believe in a historical Christ, who lived, died and rose again; whose death bought life for me and all who believe in his sacrifice for them; a Christ whose love and indwelling power can and does transform lives. He is my Lord, my Saviour, the lover of my soul and beloved in my eyes. He is my God, my Father, the source of life and power and the one who will someday make all things new so that I will be at home with him forever.

This is my story, my song; may I be given opportunities and courage to tell it, to sing it, and to be privileged to see God at work in the lives of others this year as He continues to work out His good purposes in this world for His glory.

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Mourning..at Christmas?

Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief.

(Proverbs 14.13)

So last week our church family held its annual ‘Carols by Candlelight’ event, our building transformed by candle – and fairy – light into a glowing haven on a dark, damp night. Music from the choir, the praise band and the gathered folk themselves, interspersed with readings and video clips to challenge us to look beyond the familiar trappings of the story.

And I stood at the back, weeping inconsolably, bewildered by the force of my grieving, and ashamed to bring it into such a lovely space.

Why, why should I feel wounded and heart-broken as I hear these wonderful words again, words which have marked every Christmas of my life, the story of my Saviour’s birth?

One may be sad at any time of year, and perhaps especially at Christmas when remembering loved ones who have died; realising that life is not working out as you had hoped and that expectations are not going to be realised; recognising that life may be going to get harder, that there are trials and sore tests on the horizon. But it was none of these which I found in my heart last Sunday evening.

I felt myself drowned in the grief of God for a world of human beings whom he loves with a passion which we cannot imagine; and who have consistently refused to recognise his love, rejecting his mercy and scorning his tenderness.

Look around at society today.. chasing material wealth, health and long-life; grasping eagerly at every excuse for a party, a reason to “be cheerful”, trying to live up to the myth of the perfect Christmas and the ideal family. People know that there is more to life than they have already, that is what drives them. But they will not see that in Christ, God has given us what we really need, and that without him, nothing else can satisfy them.

Folk crowd along to carol services, they sing the old familiar songs and watch the old films again; they eat the same foods and play the old games; all reaching vainly after something meaningful and nourishing for their hearts.

But they can’t or won’t see past the glitter, the tinsel, the food and the gifts. The story is there because it has always been there, but they cannot see past the nativity play costumes to the glory enclosed in human flesh; to the priceless gift that Mary held in her arms for the shepherds to adore. Our God, with us, in our mess and desperation; our self-deception and fatal self-sufficiency; our willed blindness to all that might do us good.

Our God, with us, to give us the new hearts that we need to live well, to live forever with him in wholeness and joy.

Is it not enough to make us weep? That we who have been given this gift – through no merit of our own, but entirely by God’s grace and goodness – should be unable to open the eyes of our neighbours, colleagues, family and friends to what we have.

I know it is wrong to despair, but I think it is good to realise a little of how our utterly good God must grieve over this world in its stubborn refusal to hear him. I think that there is a place for mourning at Christmas, for calling out to God by his Holy Spirit to open blind eyes, and breathe life into dead bones. The hymn ‘It came upon the midnight clear’ expresses this so tenderly:

But with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;

Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;

And man at war with man, hears not the love song which they bring;

O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low,

who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,

Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;

O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

(E H Sears, 1810-1876)

The truth is here for all to see… Oh Lord, have mercy upon the closed mind and the proud heart, remove the veil and let people see you in all your beauty.

A divine substitute?

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,

Yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

(Isaiah 53. 4&5)

The mystery at the heart of the Christmas story, is the mystery of who this miraculous child really was? Why was he foretold by God’s prophets hundreds of years before his birth, and what is the significance of the way he was described in those ancient writings? Babies were born regularly, frequently, it was nothing new, so why all the fuss about this one?

We have the testimony of the gospel writers, who must surely have had the details directly from Mary herself – who else could have told of the visit by the angel to her home in Nazareth all those months before the trip to Bethlehem? That testimony refers again and again to the prophecies given over the years, which pointed to a coming saviour, one who would save his people, would dwell with them, would bring justice, an eternal rule of peace, and real healing of our sin wounds.

We have Jesus own testimony about himself, coming as the fulfillment of all the old testament scriptures, coming as the one who would reveal God to his people, and would lay down his life for his sheep.

We have God’s direct testimony, at Jesus’ conception, birth, baptism, transfiguration, and ascension into heaven. This was God’s own son; beloved, sent, broken and blessed – for the redeeming of the world.

So on the one hand we have a very simple story; a young woman conceives and gives birth to a son. On the other hand we have a mystery which enchants and inspires us even as it perplexes us; God himself is enclosed in embryo, the creator of the universe submits to the process he himself devised, and takes on human flesh. When he was finally born in Bethlehem, the angelic host could contain themselves no longer, and burst forth in praise and adoration to announce to the shepherds that something absolutely unprecedented was going on!

All through his life, the paradox continued to develop. He was fully human, and lived a sinless life; He was sent to save his people, yet never raised a sword or led an army; He came in fulfillment of all the scriptures, yet the religious leaders opposed and hated him, utterly failing to recognise him. And ultimately on the cross, his death in disgrace and shame was to be his greatest triumph and the means by which his mission was accomplished. By his sufferings for our sins, all those who trust and believe in him are set free from the consequences of sin. His death for us, conquers death for us. His life laid down for us, births new life in us. What a mystery, what profound depths are these to consider!

This is the child whose birth we anticipate and celebrate over again each year; this Christ, the helpless baby who was also the eternal, all-powerful word of God. I am so thankful that at the heart of the story of Christmas is this great mystery, from which every year I am freshly blessed and find new cause for praise and thanksgiving. It is no empty sentimental excuse for a party, but the only gift which could ever really do me good, given by a God whose love I have every reason to trust.

The best songs are the ones which focus my thoughts on this truth, the simple, stunning reality that in Christ, God sent someone else to take my place; and this week, I have been singing one of the simplest and best of them. I close with it, and pray that for all of us, this truth will shine like the light in our darkness in the days ahead.

Child in the manger, infant of Mary;

Outcast and stranger, Lord of all!

Child who inherits all our transgressions,

All our demerits on Him fall.

( Mary Macdonald, 1817-1890; tr Lachlan Macbean, 1853-1931)

Jesus Christ, the apple tree?

The tree of life my soul hath seen, laden with fruit, and always green,

The trees of nature fruitless be, compar’d with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel, by faith I know, but ne’er can tell,

The glory which I now can see, in Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought, and pleasure dearly I have bought; 

I missed of all but now I see ’tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m wearied with my former toil, here I will sit and rest a while; 

Under the shadow I will be of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

With great delight I make my stay, there’s none shall fright my soul away,

Among the sons of men I see, there’s none like Christ the apple tree.

I’ll sit and eat this fruit divine, it cheers my heart like spiritual wine.

And now this fruit is sweet to me, that grows on Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive;

Which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.

(  Anon , first published in the 18th century)

Old songs can be hard to sing, hard to understand, because their language is antique and unwieldy, words have shifted in their meaning, and images and allegories which were once familiar are now strange.

Many of the older songs traditionally sung at Christmas come under this heading, and I appreciate that for this reason, few modern leaders choose to use them in congregational worship. But if – like me – you have enough of a taste for old language, for rich imagery in praise, then there is great sweetness in these pieces.

The picture of a tree full of fruit and goodness is an attractive one, and for the Christian, the image immediately conjures up the tree of the Garden of Eden – of the knowledge of good and evil – where humankind first rebelled against God and rejected his authority in their lives. But the tree of life is described in detail in Revelation 22, with its continual fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations. This tree is not a source of curse and loss, but of healing and life! And we know that it is in Christ, by his work on the cross, that we are healed and restored to newness of life.

The beauty of Christ’s love for us, that heart-piercing loveliness which brings us to our knees in adoration of the one who counted us worth dying for, makes this tree the one above all which we cherish, and prefer. Nowhere else are we so satisfied as here, and here we rest, as in the shade of a tree on a hot day. In Christ we rest, because all the labour of our salvation was his, not ours, and he has extended to us all the privileges of glory to treasure.

And so we live by his fruit, because it is the forgiveness which he won for us which lifts us out of darkness into light and God’s favour; it is the new life which is ours in him that enables us to live in hope in this world and with confidence for the next; it is the constant presence of his spirit within us, like the food which nurtures our bodies, that feeds our souls, our faith, our walk with God. If I do not eat, I die; and if I refuse the fruit of my precious Lord, then surely I will starve and waste away, and the life which Christ died to give me will be a travesty, a ghost and dreadful to see.

So as I anticipate the feast of Christmas, celebrating the coming of Jesus, God with us, I will feast on the great images which deepen my understanding of him – the Shepherd; the Gate; the Water of Life; the Bread of Life; the Alpha and the Omega; the bright morning star; the Messiah; the son of David… and the apple tree!

May we be richly nourished in the days ahead..