Category Archives: encouragement

On persevering…

Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it..Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

(Josh 1.8&9)

A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.

(Prov 11.25)

I eagerly expect and hope that  I will be in no way ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body..If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me…I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.

(Phil 1.20-26)

Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints..refresh my heart in Christ.

(Phm 7&20)

Dear Lord, how we long to know that our lives are worthwhile, that the tears and endurance – as well as the joys and celebrations – have purpose and real value..how easy for the enemy to disable and discourage us by counting all the ways in which nothing seems to change; by pointing out our failures and the things that suggest unanswered prayers and wasted petitions. We are so vulnerable here, seeking constant reassurance to drown out the voice of our enemy and help us to go on with confidence.

And so we rejoice and thank you for your promise to Joshua, in his extreme need of reassurance as he took over from Moses. How loudly the doubts must have rung in his ears, but you repeatedly spoke to comfort and assure him, above all that you would go with  him even as you had gone with Moses. You didn’t promise that it would be easy – a smooth path doesn’t require strength and courage! But you promised to go with him, and to fulfill through him the promise to establish your people in this new land. 

So he went; he took courage and obeyed. Lord, make us like Joshua, as we stand on the edge of this new year, this next month, week and day. We do not know what lies before us, but we know you and we have your priceless promise to depend upon as we go. 

Some of us fear to be useless, to somehow miss your path and waste the gifts and time you give us. So we thank you for the words of Paul, as he spoke of his deep conviction that if God continued to grant him life and liberty, then it was because there was work to be done for the kingdom. As we consider what opportunities 2021 might hold for us, may we be like Paul, eager to use each gift and chapter in our lives for fruitful labour in your name.

We thank you Lord, for Paul’s deep conviction of your sovereignty in all that happens, and pray that we too might learn more and more to live in quiet confidence that EVERYTHING is capable of being used by you to further your glory and build your kingdom. 

Father God, sometimes I am ashamed to see what little I seem to do in your name, forgive me for doubting your wisdom in apportioning gifts and opportunities to me. The fault lies in my failures, not your gifting and providing. Help me to accept the place allotted, and not to envy others their particular calling. Help me, like Joshua, to obey with what I have and to be content that you are at work through it. 

Thank you that encouragement and refreshment of your people is within my power, let it be my passion too. Thank you for those who have refreshed and encouraged me, may they too be refreshed by your Spirit. Help me to trust Lord, that even when I cannot see it, yet you are active to bless and give your people joy, fresh courage and hope, even through me. Thank you that you keep me humble and depending on you by hiding the work from me! Let it be enough that I am privileged to serve you with all that I am and have, and leave the fruits of my labour in your hands. 

In my life Lord, be glorified today…and every day of 2021!

When it seems like nothing..

..the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai;”..who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong..Be strong, all you people of the land,” declares the Lord, “and work. For I am with you..this is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.”

This is what the Lord says:”In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come and I will fill this house with glory,” says the Lord Almighty. “The silver is mine and the gold is mine….the glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house..And in this place I will grant peace”

(Hag 2.1-5,6-9)

After Jesus was born..Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star,..and have come to worship him.”..On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts..

(Matt 2.1&2,11)

the Holy City..shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel..The wall was made of jasper and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city..were decorated with every kind of precious stone..The twelve gates were twelve pearls…the great street of the city was of gold..The nations will walk by its light and the kings of the earth will  bring their splendour into it…The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it..

(Rev 21.10-26)

Be strong…work..my Spirit remains among you…Do not fear.

As we contemplate the global pattern of church growth in the 21st century, these words are so important for us in the lands where the church appears to be dying. They were addressed to a group of discouraged folk, returned from exile and attempting to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. But how painful it must have been to compare the fruits of their labours with the memories of what was lost, how easy to mourn that departed glory as if it would never come again.

Does this not ring true for us in Scotland today? We remember fuller churches, an enthusiasm and confidence in ministry, and how christianity was welcomed within institutions like schools, hospitals, and public life. Today, we are marginalised, suspected of all kinds of bigotry, tainted by association with past wrongs, and our attempts to share the good news of Jesus meet largely with indifference, and occasionally with hostility. The glory has departed..

We are tempted to hopelessness by a sense of our own futility, and the apparent lack of fruit in people’s lives and in our communities. And into this, comes God’s word through the prophet to his toiling remnant – be strong, work, do not fear, I am with you!

God promises to be present with them – as he always is with his faithful servants, whether in exile in foreign lands, in prison, under oppressive regimes, prospering or suffering, we are never separated from him. He promises his power will accomplish what he intends – and the vision from Haggai is of all the nations of the world bringing their tributes to God in his glorious temple, it is his might and power – not the efforts of the people – that will fill it with majesty and honour. And God reveals to them his purposes – even though they may not see the fulfilment with their own eyes.

We share in the promise of a glorious future, where peace is established and flourishes according to God’s word. We share this fuel for hope in our own struggles, in our situations of discouragement. The vision of glory is for our encouragement, it is the ultimate fulfilment of God’s purposes to usher in a new heaven and earth, where redeemed humanity from every tribe and nation will reign with him in perfection, peace, joy and mutual delight.

Friends, look out at the global church, and behold, the glory of the Lord at work, in the farthest reaches of our planet. Look ahead and depend upon these promises and visions of what God is surely doing even now, and will surely complete. Even as the magi from the east brought treasures to the God-child, so today, people bring their own riches to lay at his feet – silver and gold, but also the priceless treasures of their unique identities, characters, cultures and qualities. Those travellers from the east represented an early trickle of that flood which will finally be realised. 

Let us not lose hope, but work on without fear. Our God is with us by his spirit, and in his strength, we obey, leaving him to put his power to work.

On being confused…

The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple…Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me.

(Ps 119.130&133)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God..

(Matt 5.9)

Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men I will disown him before my Father in heaven. Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth I did not come to bring peace, but a sword..Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me;…and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

(Matt 10.32-38)

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word..Therefore ..it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you..so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

(Luke 1.1-4)

..these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

(Jn 20.31)

Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to come to the gospel without any background understanding or knowledge; no preconceptions or expectations, no ingrained bias or barriers to understanding..perhaps no one comes this way, since everyone has consciously or unconsciously made some deductions about how life works and what – if anything it means. But still I wonder, struggling to read the four accounts of Jesus life and ministry without hearing again the interpretations of past teachers, and trying desperately to learn for myself from the written record.

As a christian, Jesus is not only my role model for life, but also the one who by his Spirit lives in me to make that new life possible and desirable. I know, because the bible tells me so, that as I dwell on him, worship and love him, so I am being transformed into his likeness, and that this is for my highest good. But if this is so, then why do I find his teaching so puzzling? So much seems obscure, depending on years of study and intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (OT) to be understood. Is it really meant to be so hard? Why do we hear of non-believers reading the gospel accounts and coming to faith, when I frequently come away bewildered and wondering what I ought to have learnt?

Perhaps I am simply intellectually too lazy to do the necessary work; perhaps my heritage does truly hinder me, as I am so accustomed to learning from the preacher, and not from personal bible study. But the fact remains that while I can read much of the scriptures to great personal benefit, finding encouragement and direction, when I come to the gospels, I am often baffled.

But I persevere, trusting that even what seem like superficial observations are worth making, and that in my own confusion, I might identify with Jesus’ disciples, who must often have wondered..Who is this man who first commends peacemakers, and then claims to have brought a sword to divide the closest families? Who is this man who shows love to the outcasts, and shockingly rebukes the religious leaders?

One thing is becoming very clear as I read in Matthew….Jesus polarises opinion, leaving no middle ground when it comes to our response. It is not possible to say, “Oh he was a good man, a great teacher”. His teachings are puzzling, challenging and disturbing. He speaks more about judgement and hell than anyone else in the bible. He claimed to be the Son of God, equally divine, with full authority over creation and the spirit world.

If I will not accept Jesus on his terms – as God; as the physical manifestation of the Almighty and Eternal Judge as well as the loving and redeeming Saviour; as the only true Lord of my life, before whom every other human tie or principal must submit; as the Sovereign whose ways are utterly beyond my finding out, and who must be trusted, not understood – then, I am rejecting him utterly, and in so doing, I am putting myself beyond the reach of God’s mercy. This was the tragedy of the Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ day, that the Messiah whom they longed for stood before them, but because he didn’t fit their theology and expectations, they rejected him with merciless fury, and stood thus condemned before God.

Jesus says, “Take me, and you find God. Reject me, and God will not know you.” He will not force anyone to accept him, but if – as he claims – he is the only true way by which I may find hope, home and healing in God, then I must and will persevere in my quest to know and love him as he is. May God grant us humility and understanding as we feed upon his word, and are transformed by the Word into His likeness.

Famous last words…

Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!

(Ps 150)

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

(Matt 28.18-20)

Therefore, dear friends….be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen

(2 Pet 3.17&18)

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star. The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”..Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life…He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

(Rev 22.16,17&20)

Intelligent writers and speakers know that their closing words will influence how people remember and respond to their messages. An effective summary, or an exhortation that follows from the content of a speech or written piece can enthuse, galvanise and equip for action.

All these scriptures close their respective books, and leave the reader in no doubt about the essential message intended by their authors. The Psalms close in a cacophony of celestial and earthly praise to the Lord who reigns on high; the perfect and ultimate King of his people, in whom alone lies security and where they find forgiveness, peace and wholeness. It is almost the Old Testament equivalent of the exhortation to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ which is found in the letter to the church in Thessalonica.

Matthew chooses to close his record with the commissioning of the church to make disciples, coupled with Jesus’ assurance that he will be with us to the end of all things. We are left in no doubt of our task, and of the resources – in Jesus – to accomplish it. The letters of the apostles often end in passionate exhortations based on theological teaching,  to make sure that their hearers are in no doubt about what it means to live as followers of the risen Lord – again combining comfort and encouragement with instruction. And Revelation itself ends in a glorious statement  of Jesus’ authority, of the gift of life which he alone can offer, and the promise that he will come soon – comfort for a persecuted church and to God’s people ever since as we wait in faith..

In church services, we refer to the ‘benediction’ – which might be translated as the ‘good word’ –  spoken over the congregation by the pastor or leader in closing public worship. These words  often remain in our minds and – if well chosen – can bring lasting blessing. I want to share with you two such ‘good words’, one which focuses on the immediate task of the church, and the other on its hope for the future.

We have a faith that is real, in a gospel that is true, about a Saviour who has come and is coming again, and has given us work to do. So let us go, and the blessing of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be upon you and remain with you, now and evermore…

May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest among you and remain with you until the day breaks and the shadows flee away…

Dear friends, we are called by the Saviour who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords to bear witness to him in a world of shadows, pain and darkness. He is the light, we the light-bearers; He is the healer, we the stretcher-bearers. We are able, because He is with us in the darkness and is the light within. We are weak, but He is strong and works in and through us. He will not rest until the dawning of the day when His kingdom comes in all its glory and all the shadows flee away; the day when he will come to dwell with his children in love and joy and fullness.

Amen, Come Lord Jesus!

[ my thanks to Stuart Smith for the first, and the late James Philip for the second benediction]

Standing firm, or hanging on..or being held?

Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures. Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you….I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have preserved my life… To all perfection I see a limit; but your commands are boundless.

(Ps 119.89-91,93&96)

Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please

(Isa 46.8-10)

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God….where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?…For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

(1 Cor 1.18,20&25)

As I read this morning in Psalm 119, it hit me like a wave of relief….it is not what the world may say that matters, but rather what is true. What do I see around me? What does the testimony of centuries speak of? What above all does the book of Revelation assure me ? That the God in whom I am fighting to trust, that Almighty who reveals himself through the scriptures of the Old and New testaments, He is..He is good…and astonishingly, I am his beloved.

The darkness of the world has not changed; the bleak outlook in economic, political, environmental and social terms is the same. But – thanks be to the kindness of my Lord and the work of the Spirit – my eyes have been guided back to the only worthwhile truth, the eternal word of God. While the world continues to perplex and trouble me, I know deep in my heart that it makes even less sense if I try to leave God out of the picture. I rejoice with the psalmist, even as I call on God to fulfill his purposes in our broken world, even as I cry for his mercy on my doubts, and his active care for the untold millions in distresses without number.

The testimony of God’s people down the years – first his faithful among the Jews, and now those from all nations, tribes and tongues who acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and Saviour – is that God chooses to confound human pride and strength, in order to demonstrate our limitations and his own glory and might. Our God will not share his glory with another ; no state apparatus, no empire – however secure and impregnable it may look at its height, no power-hungry leader, no commercial system or social trend.. All human institutions come and go, but our God reigns and rules for ever and he will accomplish all that he pleases.

I want to be on the winning side! I want to stand at the end with Jesus, and say thank you for bringing me into your family, at such a cost and in spite of all you knew about how I would fail you – because all of this will resound to his glory and will magnify the love which planned from the beginning to redeem a fallen world. I want to be part of the new creation, to finally live as I was made to live in humble and glad service of God, and enjoying his presence without shame.

For the moment, this means accepting the world’s judgement of me as foolish; it means living with the agonising tension between the dark and broken reality of the world, and the certainty of hope which is mine in Jesus – a hope which is offered to all who are willing to lay aside their pride and accept the ‘folly’ of the gospel.

Can I encourage anyone reading this who is struggling like me to live faithfully in this tension…it is God’s tenacious grip on me which is my security, not the assiduity of my bible reading or prayer life. It is God’s certain adoption of me into his family through Jesus which gives me peace, not the credit of my good works or exercise of the talents which I have been given. This is called foolishness in a world which preaches self-help, and rewards those who have confidence in themselves…

Keep on talking to your heavenly Father, keep bringing your grief and lament into his presence, keep putting yourself in the place where you can hear his voice – so many things have been used to help me this past week, the words of hymns, the prayers of others, remembered phrases from books..You honour him best in these trying times by clinging harder and harder to that eternal word, pushing into that faithfulness and covenant love.. There is no one like our God, we are on the winning side, and he will indeed accomplish all that is good and right – how we long to see that day!

Overflowing…or running on empty?

Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and my hope is in you all day long. Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord.

(Ps 25.4-7)

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ..May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

(Rom 15.4-6&13)

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith….. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds.

(Heb 10.19-24)

What can I hope for, as a child of God? What can I reasonably expect and depend upon, based on God’s promises and the revelation of his character and his will? The letter to the Romans shows us that our hope is to be encouraged by the narrative of scripture, and refined through endurance – it is based on the absolute trustworthiness of God, who did not keep back his own son but gave him up to be a sacrifice of atonement for us. Such love, argues Paul, will not deceive us, will not let us down, but will fight to keep us safe until we are united with Christ in glory…He who promised, is faithful and so we may hope – stubbornly, desperately at times, but always.

While I may not hope for an easy life; I can and do hope that at every stage, I am in God’s eye, and he is working to bless me, and bring glory to himself through my circumstances.  I can hope that although I may not perceive it, I am growing in faith and maturity, and fruitfulness in God’s sight. I may hope and be at peace, knowing that nothing is wasted .

While I may not hope that I will never rebel again, never let my Lord down again, never hurt other people again; I can and do hope that for every failure there is abundant forgiveness, cleansing and a fresh start. I can hope for strength to try again, to move out in faith after failure, confident that I am not estranged from or forsaken by God. I may hope, and be at peace, free from guilt and resting in Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

While I may not hope for riches, good health and freedom; I can and do hope that in every situation, I am able to receive good gifts from God, tokens of his love for and delight in me. I can hope for continued grace to see these things, and for the ability to give thanks for them. I may hope and be filled with joy because nothing can separate me from the love of God, in Christ Jesus.

My God is not some small pathetic construction of my own thinking, created to prop me up on bad days. He is the Almighty, the God of creation, the invisible and yet revealed Majesty who rightly claims the worship and homage of all things. He is not safe, doesn’t play by the rules of his creatures, and at times the mystery of his ways leaves us bewildered. But he is absolutely trustworthy, and so we cling to his promises, depend upon the salvation he offers us, and receive each day fresh from his hand.

Our God, who gives endurance and encouragement; Our God, who is the God of hope, by his Holy Spirit, will cause joy and peace to well up within us as we choose to trust him, as he enables us to trust him. All we need, he gives; and so we may indeed overflow with hope, because he will never fail us..

Cultivating wonder…

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.. and the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food..

(Gen 1.31: 2.9))

‘God is exalted in his power. Who is a teacher like him?..Remember to extol his work, which men have praised in song. All mankind has seen it…How great is God – beyond our understanding!..He draws up the drops of water..who can understand how he spreads out the clouds..? God’s voice thunders in marvellous ways; he does great things beyond our understanding’

(Job 36.22,24,26&27: 37.5)

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons…

(Romans 8.19-23)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away….And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them..”

(Rev 21.1&3)

After what feels like weeks of wind and rain, I walked this morning in a calm brightness, the sea unruffled and the distant mountains gleaming white in the sunshine. There was almost no sound at all in all the great amphitheatre of the loch, and the quiet chirruping of unseen birds carried far in the still air. Brightness, light, and saturated colours met my eye in every direction, and my soul rejoiced in my Creator, the great Artist and maker of all beauty.

I believe that God made everything good, in fact very good – not only useful, but beautiful. I exult in the magnitude of space – so far beyond my comprehension – and in the infinitesimal details of ecosystems and living beings – so far beyond my perception. I am glad to worship and yield myself to the hands of this God, whose power and infinite variety have expressed themselves in this incredible world which we perceive with all our senses.

We neglect our sense of wonder at our peril, because with it we lose a great source of encouragement and delight in our daily pilgrimage. Our glorious God has placed us in a world, a universe, which shouts his praises; and although the bible tells us that it is flawed and suffers the consequences of human rebellion, yet we also see that it remains truthful in reflecting God’s glory. We are also told that we were originally called to be faithful stewards of the garden – nurturing and tending for the benefit of all who live there – so that our fall from grace must have implications for our task as well as for ourselves.

Our garden is suffering because we are in rebellion against our maker, and ultimately that agony will only come to an end when Christ makes all things new – when our defiled and weary planet is transformed even as our mortal bodies will be transformed for immortality. This doesn’t mean we should abuse it further, but rather return with great energy to the task we were originally given, and seek to fulfill it as redeemed servants who believe in a glorious future. There is an added incentive to this labour, since we now know so much about the impact which human exploitation has had upon the whole earth’s systems – and in turn upon the creatures which depend upon it. God cares about his creation, as his children, we should care too. If by our labours now, we can create a healthier, fairer life for our poor neighbours, those affected by drought, floods, soil erosion, then let us do it – cultivating the garden for the benefit of all…

There is wonder in the coming of spring, as new life erupts in every plant, from the tiniest weed to the greatest trees; as buds swell and new leaves and flowers unfurl miraculously from tiny beginnings to extravagant displays of colour, shape and texture. There is wonder in the effortless gliding of seabirds as they ride the wind; in the ceaseless movement and energy of hedgerow birds as their tiny forms flit from thicket to tree and back to hedge. There is wonder in the the unfurling of an infant’s face and hands as they begin their journey of life. There is wonder in the soft skin of age, the strong and worn hands which have laboured and served, the patient and loving eyes which have wept, laughed and seen so much of life.

God made us to worship him, and not his creation. When I cultivate wonder, I am not worshipping the trees, the people, the sunset or the mountains, but I am reminding myself that I worship a magnificent God, who is utterly beyond my comprehension, and who yet has made all this so that I might live and know him.

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. (Ps 95.6&7)

Outlook..changeable!

Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; rescue me from deceitful and wicked men. You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the pace where you dwell.  Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God. Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

(Ps 43)

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed….Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

(2 Cor.4.8&9, 16-18)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!…Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

(Phil 4.4&6)

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

(1 Thess 5.16-18)

One of the many effective ways in which our enemy, the devil, can cause us to stumble in our walk with God is by making us doubt our salvation. And one of the easiest ways for him to do that is to tempt us to focus on how our lives in this world continue to be dogged by difficulties – suffering of every kind. If he can once begin to direct our thoughts down the line of “if I were a real christian, surely I would not find life so hard, I would triumph over all my difficulties”, then he has got us trapped in a mire of self-reproach, self-preoccupation, and lies.

I say lies, because if we actually take time to look at the stories of believers’ lives – both faithful Old Testament followers and disciples in the New Testament – what we find are very familiar patterns of struggle and despondency, in a world that looks as dark and difficult as our own. The psalmists wrote of great joy, and also of deep despair – even of a sense of abandonment – but always from the conviction that God was listening, and powerful to act. They freely expressed their troubles, but had learnt that their experiences were not to be relied upon as an indication of God’s presence, absence or favour.

Time and time again, we find their darkest hours are underpinned by the rock-solid belief that God is, that He is good, and that somewhere, somehow, He is at work in this situation. They pressed on, in faith, not pretending to be perfect, not imagining that the world should be kinder to them than it was, but trusting God to keep them and use every trial for his glory and their blessing.

The same picture is painted for us in the lives of the saints, the believers of whom we read in the New Testament. They have the full revelation of Christ, knowledge of God’s saving love for them on Calvary, and yet they continue to struggle with the reality of life in a broken world.  Not only do they suffer persecution from non-believers, but also internal divisions within the churches. They experience illness, bereavement, personal disagreements and alienation, famine and natural disasters. All of human experience continues to be their experience – the joyous and the troubled – as it is ours. And nowhere do we find believers rebuked for their suffering, as if it were somehow the result of a lack of faith.

Rather, the apostles are concerned that they be wise, mature in their understanding, and above all grounded in faith in the nature of God. Just as for the Old Testament followers, it is not emotional experience which is the basis of reality and truth, but what God says – about himself and about us as his children. We WILL have trouble in this world – Jesus promised that! But we WILL also have his presence with us always, until the very end, when all troubles will cease and the need for obedient perseverance will finally be over.

We must encourage one another, through the ups and downs of our lives, to remember that while the ‘weather’ of our situation may change dramatically, the God who is in charge does not change. We will always feel cold when it is icy, get wet when it rains, and struggle when it gets too hot – those are normal and right reactions to our conditions. In the same way, we will grieve, feel fear or anxiety, anger and horror, depending on what is happening. We bring those feelings to God – as the psalmists did – and with thanksgiving (as the psalmists and the apostles did) we rejoice that He does not change, that He is in control, and that He will prove faithful through it all.

Family ties…

..one of my brothers came from Judah, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile…They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace..When I heard these things, I sat down and wept..I mourned and prayed..”O Lord, God of heaven..who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him..they are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.”

(Neh 1.2-4, 5&10)

I thank my God every time I remember you…It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart…all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

(Phil 1.3,4,7&8)

As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children…For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you…But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you…

For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord..when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed you are our glory and joy.

But Timothy has ..brought us good news about your faith and love…that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged…For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.

(1 Thess 2.6&7, 11&12, 17-20; 3.6-8)

This lengthy extract from the letter of Paul to the young church in Thessalonica – which he had to abandon at short notice to save his life – is a delightful revelation of the warm and affectionate relationship which he had with them. It is touching to read of Paul’s anxiety for them, and his frustration at not being free to return and see that they were holding firm to their faith. Like a parent whose child has recently left home, he is anxious to hear that all is well, and his concern demonstrates his love.

And like any Christian parent, his principal care is that they should “stand firm in the Lord”. With that foundation, they can weather any storm, and endure any persecution, knowing that their eternal future is secure in God’s hands. I can identify with him so deeply in this, as I watch my young adult children making their way independently in life, and pray that in all things, they might seek and know God. They will face joys and sorrows, successes and failures, times of ease and times of dark distress, and my overwhelming desire is that they too might “stand firm in the Lord” – here alone lie security and hope.

One of the glorious things about the family into which we are re-born as believers, is the affection which God gives us for one another, and which places us in community, where our emotional needs are met and we love one another as family. We rejoice in this gift, and nurture the affection, working at it in a persevering and cheerful spirit, in the same way that human families seek to bear with and love one another. This affection is a source of encouragement to us, as we take delight in seeing our ‘family’ growing in faith, standing firm and trusting in God.

We also encourage others by our perseverance in faith, and expressions of love and concern for them. See how Paul delights to hear that the Thessalonians are yearning for news of him, and long to see him again even as he longs for them. The expression of mutual affection is a refreshing, strengthening and gratitude-prompting ministry, as Paul rejoices in God’s faithfulness and promise-keeping.

Nehemiah’s anguished prayer for his fellow-Jews who were struggling and disgraced in Jerusalem expresses his affection, the feeling of one who sees his precious people in trouble. We learn here how to pray for one another when things are hard, when our affection unites us to those who are suffering and we cry out to God on their behalf. Our love for one another is but a pale reflection of God’s love for each precious child, so we can be sure that when we are upset or concerned for others, His heart is even more moved. So when we pray, interceding for them, lamenting their sorrows, we are praying in his will, for their blessing and his glory. He desires that we should serve one another in this way, becoming ever more united in love.

Let us not be afraid to feel and express the affection which we have for one another as God’s children – in words, in actions, and above all in prayer as we give thanks for one another and intercede for one another. We are children of the King, who will not let his little ones be destroyed and who can be trusted to do right at all times.

Tell me the old, old story

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from days of eternity….He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. and they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.

(Mic 5.2&4)

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth..to Bethlehem…to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son…and there were shepherds living out in the fields near by…An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them..But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord..”  So [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in a manger…The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

(Lk 2.4-6,8-11,16&20)

You are to give him the name Jesus [or Messiah], because he will save his people from their sins..this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means “God with us”

(Matt 1.21-23)

Like a movement caught only on the edge of my vision; a whisper on the edge of my hearing; there are intimations of a glory unimagined in this beloved story. I cannot remember a time when I did not know the words, and yet I know that I will never tire of hearing it again.

This birth, in a small town in a dim corner of empire, is the culmination of centuries of God working out his promises and purposes. It is the focal point of a multitude of lives and events fashioned down the years so that at just the right time – in every sense of the words – this woman gave birth to this child in this place. How many hundreds and thousands of people played their part in the great drama? How many had any idea that their lives were of such eternal significance? Does this not give me courage and inspiration for my own small life – seemingly insignificant – that within the purposes of God, I matter! I may not see the big picture yet, but I can trust that my God – the God of Mary and Joseph, of Abraham and Isaac, of Ruth and Rahab, of David, Solomon and Isaiah – has me in exactly the place which he desires for his glory.

This birth, in a land under enemy occupation, to a people without power to govern themselves, a people divided against themselves and lacking leadership, was the beginning of a new kingdom – the rule of Christ the King of Kings. The circumstances suggested anything but such a future for this child, and yet the reality – the truth – was that God had inaugurated the reign of the Shepherd King, who in himself would bring true peace to his people. And that people would reach around the world and throughout time, until every nation, tribe and tongue will be represented in his flock.

Our world is as dark, threatening, confused and pain-filled as it was then. The people of God today remain a minority, threatened on all sides, divided within themselves, and losing their way under false leaders. But shall we not find hope in the old, old story? Our God remains on the throne, and his arm is still mighty to save and establish believers, to build up the church and to keep it until the end. The circumstances remain unpromising – but I believe in the God who was at work in Bethlehem, and in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago.

The vision of glory which is our eternal future; dwelling in uninterrupted and joyous fellowship with Jesus our Lord, and finally realising our beauty as the unified church, the bride of Christ – this vision is no daydream. It is guaranteed to us by the God of Bethlehem, whose glory shone upon the shepherds, whose plans cannot be thwarted, and whose timing is perfect. Let us rejoice today in this old, old story and in the timeless truth which it teaches, for our encouragement and to the glory of God.