Category Archives: divine love

Relentless, single-minded…love?

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

(John 15.12-14)

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love….. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

(Eph 4.1&2; 15&16)

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

(Mark 11.25)

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?….You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye……If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you…”

(Matt 7.3&5;18.15)

Lord, your love is perfect: mine is so imperfect.

You fear nothing: I fear so many things.

Out of your love, you cause me to face pain and difficulty, that I might become the glorious creature you know that I can be.

Out of my feeble shadow of love, I shy away from inflicting pain or causing others to face difficulty, because I am afraid of what they might do to me.

If I loved you as I ought; if your will truly ruled in my heart; if I truly loved others, then nothing would stop me from speaking the truth in love that they might grow according to your glorious purposes for them.

Oh Lord, forgive me, that I do not love as I ought. Forgive me, that I have failed to love others as I ought, and have let fear of my own pain hold me back from obedience to your will.

Have you ever considered that laying down your life for others might look more like a sentence of hard labour than a death sentence? That sounds a little severe, but let me unpack what I mean..Jesus spoke these words on the night before he died, and so we often associate them with his sacrificial death – and rightly so. But is it not also possible to apply them to the years leading up to this night?

Jesus had given up his life for his disciples, for three years. He had lived and worked with them, walked and eaten with them. He had borne with their foolishness and ignorance, their misplaced ambitions and squabblings, he had even borne with the presence of the one whom he knew would betray him. His life had been a living sacrifice of service to these men, a worked example of divine love in action.

I have been challenged recently to apply this to myself, to see that my life is also poured out in love to others, for their blessing and growth in grace and faith. If I choose to follow my own instincts – which are for peace at any price, and the avoidance of all confrontation – then I will effectively fail in my calling. God asks me to be his agent of love to people – to speak truth in love to them, that they might hear through my loving voice the word of God calling them to repentance and change. This is a huge responsibility, and for one like myself who goes in great fear of doing “the wrong thing”, it is terrifying!

But God gives me no choice; as his child, one in whom Christ dwells by the Spirit, I am called to play my part in building up the individual members of his body and that means helping others to see the truth about themselves. Will I choose to trust that He can and will direct my words; give me wisdom and humility; use what I say for the good of those to whom I speak; and above all, help me to overcome my fear of everything except disobeying him?

Loving Lord, I pray that you will so fill me with your relentless love that I will no longer hold back, but will speak the truth in love; humbly acknowledging my own great sinfulness and need of forgiveness; depending on your grace and power to change us all according to your will and looking forward eagerly to the day when we all stand revealed in the glory that you have in store for us. 

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My God…the reader of my thoughts

I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed…Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty. …”you have said harsh things against me, “says the Lord. “Yet you ask,’What have we said against you?’ “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evil doers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.'”

(Mal.3.6,7,13-15)

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked….When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny….Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

(Ps73.1-3,16,17,27&28)

Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name. “They will be mine,” says the Lord Almighty, “in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.

(Mal 3.16-18)

How easy it is to forget that while we may hide our inmost thoughts and motives from even our dearest friends, we cannot hide a single, fleeting notion from our holy, almighty and just God. How foolish we are, reckoning that because we fool some of the people, for some of the time, that somehow God – who made the mind, in all its complexity, and who alone understands the human heart because He formed it – is deceived by our lip-service and nominal obedience.

In the book of the prophet Malachi, God challenges his people, stripping away their defensive arguments, to reveal the truth of their hearts, the things they really believe about Him and about themselves. They have fallen into the classic misunderstanding which continues to dog humanity in its dealings with divinity – that somehow they can and must earn favour by going through certain prescribed motions. The absurdity of the notion, that these little rituals of sacrifice/cleansing and fasting, by insignificant mortals, can in some way alter the attitude of an eternal, unimaginably holy and powerful God, just keeps slipping away from us and we assume that our performances put God in our debt! It is beyond ridiculous, and it also betrays a complete failure to understand the character of God, and our own utter helplessness.

It is God’s favour to us – undeserved, boundless and eternal – which calls forth from us a response of worship and obedience to his revealed will. The prophet is speaking on behalf of God, beseeching them to repent of their superficial religiosity, and instead to embrace obedience from the heart, not in order to earn favour, but in order to appropriately respond to what they have received. Ingratitude, rejection of God’s love, of His rightful place as Lord, all speak of hearts which are full of pride and self-reliance. Earnest – if flawed – obedience; the desire to keep on pursuing holiness by all the means of grace at our disposal, speak of hearts which are humble, realistic, and dependent on God.

The same rituals which were dismissed as bearing no fruit by the merely religious, could be a source of encouragement, a form of true worship by those whose hearts were changed. In our day, the so-called ‘duties’ of a believer – bible reading and prayer; attendance at church and active membership in a congregation; faithful giving of time, talents and money are all means by which we may choose to be blessed if we bring the attitude of a redeemed sinner to them, instead of a self-serving, self-reliant critic of God.

Let us be on guard against this attitude of entitlement – God owes us nothing, but has given us everything we need for this life and the next. Those who try to earn salvation by their deeds; or who reject the idea of God altogether and choose to live without him, will have their reward in this life, but will have no part in the treasure-house of God when He comes to gather it for eternity. May we be faithful in proclaiming this truth to those who do not know it, and meantime live humbly depending upon His grace to us, and not our worthiness to receive it..

Gathering clouds…

The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!..”

(John 1.29)

Moses said to them, “Go..and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood…and put some on the door-frame…When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the door -frame and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.

(Exodus 12.21-23)

Jesus took the twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be turned over to the Gentiles. They will  mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

(Luke 18.31-34)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. ..those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins….But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God..because by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those  who are being made holy.

(Hebrews 10.1, 3, 12&14)

As a boy growing up in a Jewish family, Jesus would have celebrated the Passover many times before the night in Jerusalem when he shared that final meal with his disciples. Do you ever wonder at what stage he began to discern that it was to be his privilege and pain to become the ultimate Passover lamb, The One who would die once and for all, so that God’s wrath against sin might be turned away from all who accepted the offered sacrifice?

The only scriptures he had were those of what we call our Old Testament, and that in itself should encourage us as 21st century believers to take those books seriously. In them, Jesus found mapped out the path which he was to take – as he reminds his disciples when he says that he is going to Jerusalem so that all that the prophets had written about him should be fulfilled. In the book of Genesis, he found the first promise of the coming saviour, and the assurance even then that suffering would be involved. In the story of Abraham and the covenant promises, he found that God’s blessing was intended for all the peoples of the earth. In the miraculous Exodus narrative, he found the decisive image of a sacrifice to avert destruction, and later a whole structure of temple worship which demonstrated that the wrath of a holy God against sin could not simply be set aside; that there was a price which must be paid; and it was a blood price.

I grew up in churches where the Old and New Testaments were held together, taught together, and I am so thankful for that heritage, which means that the oldest stories are full of symbolism, fore-shadowing what was to come, and that all through the wandering, rebellion, exile and restoration, the fine line of God’s faithful promise can be discerned.

As Jesus approached Jerusalem for this last time, after all these years of celebrating Passover in peace, he knew that his time was come, that there would never again be any need for sacrifice of lambs or any other beast in the temple, after his body had been broken and his blood poured out. These days were the culmination of centuries of God at work in his people, they were the centrepoint of time and the object of all His Father’s loving plan.  If the angels and heavenly beings had been “on the edge of their seats” at his birth, how much more were the host now intent upon the drama of the coming days? What weight of expectation lay upon those human shoulders, and coloured all the thought and actions of the son of Mary?

As we approach the season of Easter, and remember particularly – and fittingly – all the events of that last week of Jesus’ earthly life, I am humbled and drawn once again to worship this God-made-man, in his incredible love for humankind, and his complete submission to his Father’s will.

Worthy, worthy is the Lamb, all praise and glory to the One who walked unwaveringly into death, that we might live!

I just wanna be a… sheep!

Help us, O God of our salvation! Help us for the glory of your name. Save us and forgive our sins for the honour of your name…Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will thank you forever and ever, praising your greatness from generation to generation.

(Psalm 79.9&13)

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need…

(Psalm 23)

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep……I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. …My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else. No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.

(John 10.11,14&15,27-30)

One of God’s many gifts to his children, are the rest of his children! How often are you comforted, encouraged, inspired or helpfully chastened and challenged by other believers? Recently, a friend challenged me to think again about a passage and a concept with which I am so familiar that I realise I had stopped thinking about it! I think it is one of the traps into which long-time believers can easily fall, failing to register the depth of meaning in a passage because we think we understand and have already grasped all it has for us..Praise God, that he doesn’t leave us to our foolishness, but stirs us up to look again, to seek to learn again – old lessons for a new time of life, or new lessons altogether!

The gospel of John contains several passages in which Jesus refers to his people as sheep, and himself as shepherd, building on an image used in the Old Testament by the psalmists and prophets where the people of Israel are God’s flock, and most famously where David rejoices in having the Lord God as his shepherd. Sheep and the whole business of shepherding was as familiar to Jesus’ audience as our own daily routines are to us. The character of sheep, and the necessary qualifications of a good shepherd were  widely understood, so that when Jesus used these things in his teaching, everyone could grasp the message.

We – as sheep who have gone astray, vulnerable and foolish, needing care and protection – have in Christ the ideal and perfect Shepherd for our souls. His love for us – the love which took him to Calvary on our behalf – has shown the value which is placed upon us, a price beyond imagining. He knows us, not merely about us as statistics, but an intimate understanding and delighting in, which mirrors the joyous communion within the Trinity. How hard we find it to let this truth sink deeply into our understanding, to let it inform our thinking about God, and about ourselves as his beloved and chosen people!

By the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, we are increasingly able to recognise the voice of our truth-telling beloved Shepherd, to discern the false voices which might beguile us away from him, and to reject them. That Spirit is also the guarantee of his gift to us, the gift of eternal life, which is the hope of all who trust in Christ – every straying, tired, despairing, or wilful sheep has a place in the Shepherd’s heart and he will not give up on any who truly call him Lord.

Finally, we are safe, and can have absolute assurance of the grasp which Christ has upon us. It is almost as though Jesus were gently boasting here, in the manner of a child..’my Dad is so much stronger than anyone else!!’ But in this case, it is no idle boast, but an earnest reassurance from our Good Shepherd that we need have no fear about our eternal security. I wonder if Paul was remembering these words of Jesus when he wrote this:

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?..No despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow – not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below – indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Romans 8.35-39)

I am content to be a sheep; to accept my foolishness and utter need of constant care from a shepherd who has demonstrated such love for me and promised such a future. And I am thankful for other members of the flock who do so much to help me to hear his voice more clearly, and to follow him more nearly!

Of course..Christmas is for the children

A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac was the father of Jacob..Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam…..Matthan the father of Jacob and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

(Matthew 1, various)

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…born of God.

(John 1.11&12)

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! the reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

(1John 3.1&2)

I am that child, the one who was never popular, never cool, the one who didn’t push herself forward or think she was anything special.

I am that child, the one who looks at the world and feels the fear, cowers at the darkness, shivers at the evil and malice, wakes from screaming nightmares of the power of humanity to wound, humiliate and destroy.

I am that child, the one who is tired of trying, of finding her own strength inadequate to the adult-sized task, tired of being patronized, dismissed, ignored and demeaned, who is beginning to believe what the stories of others tell her about her own worthlessness.

I am that child, the one who lashes out in her own weakness, and then stands appalled at the damage she has done, the one who holds back for fear of hurting others and is then trampled all over, her restraint mistaken for surrender.

I am that child, so ashamed of her own mistakes that she wants to hide away for ever, to punish herself for the mess and pain she has caused, the one who knows the truth behind the big public act, knows only too well that she is a fraud.

 

Who will comfort this child?

Who will be her shelter?

Who will show this child that she is beautiful, precious beyond all telling?

Who will teach this child that she can be whole, pure and fiercely, gloriously holy?

Who will heal the wounds of this child, and pour the cleansing of true forgiveness over her stains?

Who will lift this child’s head, look into her eyes, and show her that there is a life worth living, a journey worth taking, a love worth giving, that she is called and qualified to give?

Who will bring this child into the light, and say, “This is my beloved daughter, she is perfect, because she is as I made her to be; and in her I delight!”?

Who, if not her perfect heavenly Father?

Oh, how I need the good news which the angels brought, of a child born in Bethlehem who would be Immanuel, God with us! How I need to know my Father’s love, his will and power to save me, to transform me, to show me my true worth.

In the birth of Jesus Christ, all the children of the world find firm ground for hope, and good cause for joy.

Let us be the children who make much of Christmas, who rediscover with delight the gifts being bestowed on them by their Father, who nestle in the security of his arms and face the days ahead with confidence knowing he will go with them.

Glory to God in the highest!

 

 

And then you take my breath away..

This world, green and blue, suspended in one of countless galaxies, so small and insignificant, yet so large as to contain the lives and ambitions of billions of people. This world, teeming with life and yet existing only because of an exquisite balance, which you uphold Lord my God; daily and hourly you decree that we should continue.

All our boasted scientific knowledge only reveals to us more about your creating genius, leaving us more to marvel at and a humbling sense of the responsibility you gave us in putting all this into our hands as your stewards. How unworthy we have proved to be of that great trust, squandering your riches; destroying your creatures; polluting the air, the water and the land.

And not only have we abused the bounty of nature, but one another too. Our failure to see that every human creature bears the imprint of a heavenly Father’s nature, reflects – however imperfectly – his character, has brought untold misery and suffering upon our race.

We are deserving of judgement and destruction – indeed, we are perhaps hastening the day by our own actions! We have rejected you, rejected the idea of ourselves as subjects, and grabbed selfishly at some pseudo-lordship of our own.

Oh God, in your holiness and utter ‘otherness’, we are so completely cut off from you, rebellion against you is in our very bones, and we cannot overcome it of our own efforts. What hope do we have?

Of ourselves….none.

And into that void, you speak.

Into our despair, our rebellion, our darkness, there came a voice, a man, who said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

And you took our rebellion, our shame and guilt, and he bore it away, so that we are free for the first time. Free from the stranglehold of sin on our lives, free to see and taste, smell and touch, hear and speak of all your goodness and love to us. 

Such love: selfless, sacrificial, soul-searing and saving.

Your love,

takes my breath away.

Whispers of hope

Rejoice greatly; O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey…… He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.

As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners.. Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you!

(Zechariah 9.9,10b-12)

The bible narrative from Genesis onward is not an easy read, as the consequences of sin make themselves felt at a personal and national level for God’s chosen people. Time and again they rebel and pay the price for their disobedience. But alongside this sadly realistic picture of human nature, we find words of hope – hope for temporary relief from distress, but also of a future perfect peace, a dwelling together of God and his creatures in mutual delight and harmony. This prophecy from Zechariah, addressed to a people in long-term exile, is one such word. The promise of a coming deliverer, bringing freedom, rejoicing and justice without borders.

The exiles circumstances were bad; there was no earthly reason to hope that the future might see an improvement – and their hopelessness was compounded by the knowledge that their exile was a direct result of persistent disobedience to God, and of breaking the terms of the covenant God had made with them!

Once again, God sends through his prophet a word of encouragement to the people, a word of grace, of unmerited favour and his faithfulness to an unfaithful people. Once again, God is revealed as the  hero of the story, preparing to bless those who have so deeply grieved him and got themselves into a dreadful mess as a result. He alone can and will deliver the imprisoned and despairing. Any hope for salvation depends utterly on this grace of God, who chooses to act because he must be true to his own promises.

 What makes us prisoners? Too often it is our fears; sometimes it is our success in the world’s eyes; and for some it will be circumstances which are beyond their control and which bring great distress. Think of the prophet Daniel, who spent his entire life in captivity in Babylon, or the exiled Ezekiel, born to be a priest in the temple but doomed never to fulfill his ambition.This passage in Zechariah promises that in God, we have a deliverer, and a sure hope for future freedom from whatever binds us now. We are called by faith to turn again to the stronghold which in this case is not a physical fortress, but the Lord God himself! The psalmist writes enthusiastically of this truth:

In you O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame…Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me for you are my rock and my fortress… For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. (Ps 71.1,3&5)

When by faith we are drawn to hide ourselves in God, our fortress, then we are no longer prisoners of our fears or circumstances.Our obedience in clinging to him means that we are now capable of receiving his blessings – and our whole view of our lives is transformed.

We will be hope-prisoners in the tower of the Lord, walled about by his promises, with the light of his love shining in our lives and holding us as close to him as the tightest chains. This kind of imprisonment is not something to shun, but rather to seek! There is no safer place than in God: our great,powerful and good God.

This hope can open the door of the deepest, darkest places, bringing assurance that our God is always with us, and where he is, there is life now and will be abundance to come. Our hope is certain because it is based on the character of God, not on our own strengths, or ability to work out our own salvation. And it is the fulfillment of this hope which we celebrate in the birth of Christ, who would one day ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, deliberately recalling this prophecy, and through whose death, the basis for peace between God and man would finally be established.

Let us rejoice in this promise fulfilled. Let us live as prisoners of this great hope, turning ever and again to the stronghold which is our God, and seeking to share the good news with our neighbours.