Category Archives: encouragement

When there seems no way out of the woods..

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you….I am God and there is none like me..I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do as I please.

(Isa 46.3,4, 9&10)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed…

(2 Cor 4.7-9)

..rejoice in the Lord..whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ..I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me..our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body…

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received from me, or seen in me – put it into practice…I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

(Phil 3.1,7,14,20-21; 4.6-9,12&13)

The words spoken by Isaiah from the Lord came to a people who were on the edge of catastrophe, of military defeat and exile, from which many would never return. They were likely to spend the remainder of their lives under alien rule, far from the temple and all they knew of comfort and familiar ways. To these people, God speaks of his faithfulness, making no exceptions regarding their future place of residence or the impossibility of carrying on temple worship in Babylon.

Their departure from the land was entirely within God’s purpose, the Babylonian invasion would not take him by surprise, any more than the circumstances of our lives do. When believers find themselves called to hard places, we have this precedent to which we can turn, seeing God declaring his commitment to his children as they live in hard places, deprived of much which others take for granted, and consequently finding life a struggle.

I do not in any way intend to make light of the dreadful conditions in which many live, poverty, political and social persecution, violence and pain, the realities of disease and disability, of mental illness and abuse. But I do believe that the bible refuses us permission to treat these things as beyond God’s knowledge. We cannot understand why these things are permitted but we can know that we are never out of His sight or forgotten by His love.

Some are called to situations which – humanly speaking – are unlikely to change for the duration of their natural lives; always walking in what can feel like thick woodland, sometimes a very dark and frightening place, with little light upon the way, and no mountain top from which to see a clear path ahead. Each day can be a huge struggle, and the temptation to despair is real. The snare of comparison with others more fortunate than ourselves is equally fatal to our perseverance and joy, and for this reason it is good to remember Paul’s words to his churches as he exhorts them to persevere and find contentment through trials and uncertainty.

The only comparison Paul makes is between the trials which he is facing, and the glorious inheritance which is guaranteed to him by Jesus. He looks not to the relative ease and prosperity of other Roman citizens, but to the inexhaustible grace of God, to the goodness and beauty revealed in salvation and shining from Jesus to enlighten us. The ultimate in noble and good things to contemplate in our darkness, when the wood seems never-ending and our courage fails us, the Lord Jesus is within us by his Spirit, and therefore, we cannot be lost.

My path may be harder than I had hoped, but if it is the one to which I am called, then I can expect and  thankfully depend upon the sustaining of the God who put me here. I can trust in his power to provide each day’s resources, and can fully empty my load of care at his feet as often as necessary. It is his desire that I glorify him in my dark wood;  surely he will then provide me with all I need in order to prove him faithful.

A pleasure, and a privilege..

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in agreement with the faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him lead diligently; if it is showing mercy let him do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.

(Rom 12.6-13)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms…so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

(1 Pet 4.7-11)

Tomorrow, for the first time in many months, there will be guests in our house, sharing food around a table. A simple thing, denied to us for so long because of the pandemic and the subsequent restrictions on daily life designed to restrain and defeat it. We have learned a great deal over these months about ourselves, our habits, the freedom and activities we took for granted.

It felt so good today, to be pottering about the house preparing to welcome people, thinking about the food but also looking out dishes and glasses which will be a pleasure to use, clearing a space which will be pleasant to sit in, and anticipating the conversations which will be a joy to participate in.

Offering hospitality was something in which my parents excelled, and barely a weekend passed without a gathering of folk over a meal on a Sunday after church. I appreciate only now as an adult, the work which went into this, but I know that my parents offered it as part of their service of the Lord whom they loved, and for the sake of his people. Hundreds of folk found a haven there over the years, many became friends, others passed on having been refreshed and blessed by the food and the encouragement of time with faithful believers. It was offered with no expectation of return – although my mother did love it when someone invited her round even just for a cup of tea! Rather, this was a way of using their gifts to glorify God, even as Peter directed the readers of his letter.

Another dear friend made it a habit to open her house every Friday morning for coffee to any who wished to drop in. A simple gathering, but one which over the years became for me a place of refuge, encouragement, and deep affection. This was her gift to us, a place of love and acceptance, a celebration of friendship. 

When we are willing to bless others in this way – by opening our homes to them for refreshment and conversation – we are using the gifts which God has given us, and it is a pleasure to do so. We offer out of his generosity to us, in order that they should be encouraged and give thanks to God in turn. Our privilege as those in possession of homes, food, and somewhere to sit, is to use these things for God’s glory. We can use them in reaching those who know nothing of Jesus, sharing our lives as well as our food, choosing to be available and vulnerable and involved with our neighbours. 

As the freedom to welcome others into my home is restored to me, how am I going to use it? Will I choose to offer what I can, to make the awkward conversation with the folk I should have invited a long time ago? Will I begin to make it a habit to invite people in for a meal or just a cuppa, keeping it simple but genuinely engaging and opening my life to them so that when the opportunity arises, we might speak of Jesus, of a love which passes understanding, and a hope which cannot fail? 

This I do know..

One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on 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 sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.

(Ps 27.4-6)

“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?..But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

(Matt 6.27,33&34)

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun..

So what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen?

(Rom 8.29-33, The Message)

Therefore we do not lose heart. 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 far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. 

(2 Cor 4.16-18)

What does it mean, to love God? Is it about feelings? Is it a continual state of joy, an endless experience of peace?

I would counter with another question…what does it mean to love another person? I think it means to seek what is best for them, whatever that may look like. Love is what prompts a parent to release their children into the world, into independence and adulthood, having spent years caring for them. Love is what prompts a spouse to go on forgiving their partner, to go on asking forgiveness, to go on trying to be more gentle, understanding, supportive – it is love which seeks to see the other thrive, whatever it takes. Love for the other is what can drive us to become better people – for their sake we tackle the weaknesses and failings which cause them so much trouble. The care-free young adult, on becoming a parent may find stores of patience, determination, and self-sacrificial commitment which transform them, all for the sake of the infant committed to their care.

So when I am tormented by the enemy of God’s people about my own feeble commitment to Jesus, when I am reminded of my ongoing sin, continued failures, the weaknesses which injure others and undermine my witness, I hold on to this thing that I know..I hold on to the truth about love…it’s not about my feelings, but about my motivation and actions. What drives me, what grieves me, what do I hunger for?

The answer to those questions is – as truthfully as I can tell it – that I long, like the psalmist, to dwell in God’s presence, to see his face and be worthy to be there with him. I remind myself that God’s own Son was willing, out of love,  to die for me – I matter that much to him, and in that death, my sin is dealt with once and for all. It cannot be used to drive me away from him, but only towards him in dependence on that full forgiveness. He knows how bitterly I grieve for my own sin, for the ways I fall short of righteousness and holiness….and he hasn’t given up on me. He knows I hunger to be more steadfast, eloquent, fruitful, Christ-like …..and he hasn’t given up on me. He knows how easily I am swayed by self-pity and general self-centredness…..and he hasn’t given up on me.

How glorious is this reassurance to all those – like me – who are making their way steadily, but full of self-doubt, along the road to our eternal home! God is going to finish what he started, and that heart-hunger to give him joy is his gift of reassurance, that I am on the right road. I may not feel joyful or victorious, powerful or holy – so what! I KNOW that God has saved and forgiven me, loves me, and is ALWAYS at work in me by his Spirit to realise the likeness of his beloved son, my saviour, Jesus.

Lessons in construction..

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.

(Prov 12.18&25)

For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building..Each one should be careful how he builds. For no-one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is…It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.

(1 Cor 3.9-13)

..to each one of us grace has been given…to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.

(Eph 4.7,12&13)

For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

(1Thess 5.9-11)

One body, one people under Christ, one holy temple where God is pleased to dwell and reveal his glory, power and love. This is where I belong, and where in addition to rights as his beloved child, I have responsibilities to exercise for the good of others and the glory of God who has called me here.

In the same way that the constituent parts of the human body work together for the good of the whole, so also God’s people are charged with being good for each other. I am challenged to consider how I behave to others, but also what that behaviour springs from – what is the condition of my heart? Jesus pointed out to his disciples that unclean thoughts and actions spring from an unclean heart – and only he can make that heart clean again. But if I have accepted the forgiveness which he offers, and believe that I am being transformed into his image, then I should not settle for remaining less than holy. While I remain impure, I weaken the body of which I am part, and cannot fulfill my tasks properly. My sanctification is part of God’s work in building up the church – am I happy to settle for being a weak spot? Do I want to know that it is my persisting sins which are undermining the witness of the gospel, or creating divisions and suffering in the body of Christ?

I am thankful to rest on God’s grace as I strive for perfection, knowing that in this life I cannot attain it and that he can overcome all that results from my failures, to fulfill his purposes and reveal his glory – there is no limit to his forgiveness. BUT I do not want to harbour or cherish persistent sins as if they were unimportant. Such an attitude undermines all that Jesus died to do, and devalues his sacrifice. Sin, is Sin, is Sin, no matter how intimate or – in the world’s eyes – unlikely to cause problems.

So I continue to submit to God’s discipline, asking him to reveal and deal with my sins; enabling me to turn away from them and pursue holiness for love of my saviour.

As God continues his work in me, so I am able to perform my task in building up my fellow believers – as my heart is changed, so my words and deeds become more Christ-like, my spirit more responsive to his leading, my desire ever more for his glory. I want to build in material that will last – in love, joy, hope, grace, so that my companions on the road are blessed by what God does through me. All that I am and have is a gift from God, given for use in his plans, and primarily for the encouragement of his people. I may not be an apostle or teacher, but I can always choose kindness over indifference. I can always point others to Christ, to the word of God which feeds their spirit. I can always be honest about my own need for grace, humbly offering my own experience of God’s goodness to encourage others who are struggling.

May God graciously enable us to build wisely, so that his church grows in strength and is built up, not torn down. May we build in the name of God, on the gospel of Christ, in the power of the Spirit.

Choices, choices…

Trust in the Lord and do good..Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. Be still before the Lord and wait for him.

(Ps 37.3-7)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us..Therefore we do not lose heart. 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 far 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 4.7,16-18)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade … In 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 your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

(1 Pet. 3-7)

“There are no throwaway moments in life; everything counts for eternal reward.” – Joni Eareckson Tada, in ‘A Spectacle of Glory’, 2016, Zondervan

Much of what I want to say today was inspired by these words from Joni, whose life and ministry among those with physical disabilities has shown us what God can do through suffering when it is yielded up for his work and glory. Since the diving accident which left her confined to a wheelchair in her teens, Joni has made choices every day to pursue God’s glory and to trust that He will use what she offers to that end. She is honest enough to say that it is never easy, but also urges us to believe that it is both possible and worthwhile to do.

If someone like Joni can commit to such choices, then surely I can too. Each day, I am faced with the normal trials, struggles and frustrations of human existence; from the large ones to the trivial. Each day, I have choices to make about how I will respond to what God has permitted for my life. It may be that my initial responses to trouble will continue to be instinctive – anger, fear, disgust, disappointment – but the bible teaches me that I have choices about what I do with those emotions.

Will I recognise the temptation to indulge feelings and attitudes which deny God’s goodness, providence and power? Or will I act as quickly as I can to bring those emotions to God and ask him for his help to think and act differently? I DO NOT say that this is easy, or that I am never guilty of giving in to the temptation to complain, indulge in self-pity, nurse resentment and hold grudges. But, I also believe that with God’s power at work within by the Spirit, I can choose to set aside the wrong responses and move on to the ones which will produce in me the godliness, holiness and God-glorifying qualities which I long to see. As Joni says, we have opportunities every day to make life count for eternity, to show the world, its ruling spirits, and all the heavenly realms, just what Jesus can do in us when we ask.

As I remind myself that my Lord is always near, that my purpose is to glorify God, and that I am a new creation in Christ, then my resistance to choosing God’s way is broken down, and I repent of my self-indulgent fits of temper or resentment, and find joy in acknowledging my need of him. I thank God that He is nurturing in us the self-control which enables us to do this, and that every such effort strengthens our faith and the right instinct of dependence.

The words of this prayer help me to commit my ways to the Lord, trusting that as He works in me to answer, so I shall increasingly shine with his glory.

Teach me, O God, so to use all the circumstances of my life today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin.

Let me use disappointment as material for patience:

Let me use success as material for thankfulness:

Let me use suspense as material for perseverance:

Let me use danger as material for courage:

Let me use reproach as material for longsuffering:

Let me use praise as material for humility:

Let me use pleasures as material for temperance:

Let me use pains as material for endurance:

(extract from A diary of Private Prayer, John Baillie, 1936)

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!