Category Archives: Grace

But that’s not my job Lord…is it?

Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel..

(Eph 6.19)

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ…that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.

(Col 4.2-4)

Finally brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you.

(2 Thess 3.1)

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden for that would be of no advantage to you.

(Heb.13.17)

I make no apology for the number and length of bible passages quoted this week, because they illustrate the theme which is very strong in my mind, namely our role as church members in supporting our leaders.

I was at a meeting recently where the speaker gave some insight into the ministry of CH Spurgeon, a great teacher of the early 20th, whose sermons and writings continue to bless the church today. He once told his congregation that the day they stopped praying for him, would be the day he hoped to die, since it was only in the power of God, released by prayer, that his ministry had any worth and effect. I was challenged, disturbed, wondering how many of those who bear the burden of leadership in our churches know that they are faithfully supported by the prayers of their people.

Have we any idea how lonely it must be for them? Week after week, disciplining themselves under the word; by study and meditation, wrestling to receive the message which God reveals to them for their people. How much do we take for granted the preaching and teaching which we receive week by week, the knowledge which is required to inform and instruct us in our faith? When did we last take time to talk to our teachers, to share the ways that God in his grace has used them to heal us, to correct us, to encourage and inspire us? They are human too, and while the satisfaction of obedience to their calling is their ultimate reward, they will thrill to know that God is using them. Sometimes it can be what seems a disastrous sermon to the preacher which turns out to be the greatest blessing to the people – but how much better if the preacher knows than if he or she goes home despondent and unaware!

But more than speaking even, is the real responsibility we have, to PRAY for our leaders. And Paul spells out what to pray for them – that they may preach fearlessly and clearly, that the gospel might go out with power, without restraint, and that the end result would be honour to God. When did we last pray, like that?

The point of Spurgeon’s comment was to emphasise that without prayer for the word of God to speak to hearts and transform lives in Christ, there was no point in his preaching. Sometimes the word will be a rebuke, it will hit hard and bring distress – that is why Paul asks us to pray that preachers might be fearless. They must be so submitted to the word that they are willing to deliver hard messages – think of the prophets in the Old Testament who brought dreadful warnings to their hearers! But if a preacher fears the reaction of his hearers, he will be tempted to soften the message, to avoid the hard things, and that will lead him to disobedience and his work will indeed become a burden to him. So let us pray for fearlessness for our preachers.

Clarity – how can we learn if we cannot understand? What a crucial prayer this is, that people might see and know exactly what the good news of Jesus is, that they might be saved and transformed into his likeness. Unrestrained power – praying that the devil will not hinder, distract or dilute the message by hindering the preacher! A pulpit or platform is a battlefield when God’s word is being faithfully proclaimed and we as a congregation can claim victory on behalf of our teachers, so that they are free to preach what they have prepared.

I hope that I will be able to take this challenge to heart in the years ahead, that I might commit to the discipline of praying for my preacher: – fearlessness; clarity; unrestrained proclamation, and above all, that God in his power will speak through the word to transform lives and bring glory and honour to Jesus Christ, our Lord and the focus of all that is said in his name.

 

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Slow..to the point of immobility!

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every thing that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 

Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

(Hebrews 12.1-3)

If my life were to be pictured as a race, what kind would it look like? A sprint? – fast, strong, utterly focussed? Or a steeple-chase, with obstacles over which I leap gracefully, recovering my stride and moving smoothly onwards? Or even a marathon – not very fast, but nonetheless dogged and relentless, without swerving from the allotted course?

Alas, my life as a race would resemble the progress of a blindfold athlete, who had forgotten to put on the proper clothes, and who was carrying most of their belongings on their back in a pack. My progress would be uncertain, without direction, with frequent periods when I simply sat down wherever I happened to be and cried for a while out of sheer frustration and self-pity.

At the beginning of a new year, we often make promises to ourselves about a new start, fresh commitments. I have been here often enough to know that is a recipe for despair and self-loathing by the end of January at the very latest! Instead it seems to me healthier to focus for a time on the ways which God has kept me through the previous year, to see more clearly his provision and all the ways he has brought good for me- and perhaps others – out of times of pain, and difficulty. But, in racing terms, that only counts as a breather! And I am called – as a follower of Jesus – to follow, which implies movement, forwards in a given direction..

So how can I realistically face this new twelve-month, knowing that I have no way of preparing for the unknown events ahead; that I may not even live to see the end of it? Paul’s exhortation to the readers of this letter are like the encouraging – and bracing – words of our coach and mentor..

Look who is watching, who has completed this race before you! They are witnesses to God’s power to keep you and transform you and be glorified through even such frail creatures as we are. You can do this, because God is with you!”

On the one hand, I remember those heroes of the faith who were commended in chapter 11, all of whom were frail and sinning people like me – and God, through the writer of this letter, calls them his faithful servants. If they can be commended, after trying and messing it up, then I can too!

Seeing this, I can take courage to commit myself to the ongoing effort to become more like Christ – letting him dominate my sight and thought, recognising and letting go (or cutting out), those things which distract me from him, and distort his image in me. This is God’s work in my life – but I know I can choose to hinder it, so I pray for a submissive heart and willing attitude to co-ooperate with that work, knowing that God can and will complete what he plans.

I am a slow learner in this following life; I never know what to say when asked earnestly, “So,what is the Lord trying to teach you at the moment?”. I think God knows what he is doing, and I prefer not to look too closely for myself – but rather to do as Paul exhorts his readers…to fix my eyes on Jesus, to consider him and let nothing else get in my way.

This I know, that if my heart is fixed on obedience to Christ; and my desire is to become more like him, then whatever else happens in 2017, I will be given grace to persevere, and to glorify God in it. I may not see any progress, but He will, and that will be sufficient.

Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me, all his wonderful passion and purity.

May his spirit divine all my being refine, Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me.

(Tom M. Jones) 

Honestly…

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

(Matthew 7.7-11)

I love to read and hear of answered prayer, of those wonderful stories of healing, deliverance, divine provision for financial and physical need which we find in the bible but also in the stories of many believers down through the ages.

We are rightly encouraged to pray for one another, to ask God to heal, provide, direct and work in and through us as we seek to obey him and work together for the increase of his kingdom. Jesus, in these words is telling his disciples – and through them, us – to ask, expectantly and with faith, and then to await the good gifts which God will give us.

In obedience therefore, I pray for friends, for missionaries, for the work of preaching and evangelism, discipling and serving which is going on all the time. I pray for the growth in faith of my children, for God’s leading and directing of their lives according to his will. I pray for my own life, that I might bear faithful and lively witness to the love of God for me and the power of his spirit to transform and make beautiful that which was marred by sin.

And yet, am I the only one who sometimes reads those words of Jesus, and wants to cry out in agonised response that God’s answer feels like a stone instead of bread, like a vicious, stinging snake instead of a nourishing fish?

What of those prayers of faithful Christian parents for children who are steadfastly walking away from Jesus, choosing to reject the Lord who loves them? What of the spouse praying earnestly for the healing of a diseased partner, and watching instead as the life of the beloved ebbs away? We surely all know of believers who have watched livelihoods vanish through no fault of their own, families crumble under economic strain and physical trials. How does Jesus’ command sound in the ears of parents watching their children suffer and die as a result of war, famine and displacement? Where are the good gifts of God then?

I believe that we do ourselves no good if we ignore such troubling questions, and I also believe that our God knows we must wrestle with them, because he made our minds to question and enquire. We must face the reality that the answers to our prayers are not always what we think are good for us, and we struggle to see how they can possibly be the will of a good and loving God. Honesty compels us to bring our doubting and bruised hearts to God, who has commanded us to pray and to ask in confidence.

When I do this, I am acknowledging that although I do not understand, I am submitting to the mystery of God’s infinite understanding. Jesus sought for an answer to prayer which was denied him, as he asked in Gethsemane for the cup of suffering to be taken away. He got the very thing he most dreaded, and chose to trust and embrace that answer because he knew the one from whom it came. How we struggle with mystery, and strive by any means to make God do as we desire!

Consider Paul, who asked three times for his particular ‘thorn’ to be removed, but God instead said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. Consider Ezekiel, who was unable ever to fulfill his heart’s desire and serve God as a priest in the temple, because he was born and lived all his life in exile. Consider Hosea, who was called to be faithful to an unfaithful wife, living with the open wound of her adulteries. These men never got the answers which they longed for. Instead, they received grace for their need.

Am I willing to go on trusting God when he consistently answers my prayers for good things in ways which cause me continued grief?

I must, because the death of Jesus for me – like a solid foundation – proves conclusively the lengths to which God will go to show his love. If that death is true, and I believe it is, then no matter my struggles, I must accept that I am loved, in and through all that happens to me, and that His grace will be sufficient also for my weakness.

The scandal of grace

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus….God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. All honour and glory to God forever and ever! He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. Amen.

(1Timothy 1.12-14,16&17)

I had never really noticed this passage from Paul’s letter to the young man, Timothy who had been appointed as a church leader and who needed encouragement to persevere in that work against opposition from those who condemned him as too young and inexperienced. The whole letter is full of strong and yet tender exhortations from Paul, seeking to build up Timothy’s confidence – not in himself, but in the God who called, and who therefore will equip and provide all he needs for the work.

As he often does elsewhere, Paul uses his own life as an example of what he is teaching, and in this case it is that no one is beyond God’s grace when it comes to transforming lives! He is encouraging Timothy to believe that youth and inexperience are no obstacle to God’s appointment, and that God’s work in a leader’s life can be a powerful witness to others.

This is tremendously encouraging for us all, and should help us to avoid the mistake of trying to behave as if we were already perfect and that everything in our lives is wonderful. Paul certainly refuses to wallow in self-pity, or to allow his past failures to hold him back from undertaking God’s work, but he also clearly recognises that his personal holiness is far from complete, and that it is an ongoing work which God alone can do.

How do I behave when I am aware of sin in my life, of past griefs or failures that continue to shadow my thoughts, or painful struggles with present burdens of poor health, bereavement or other trauma? If I learn from Paul, then I am willing to acknowledge the ways in which I am affected, thanking God for all his grace in sustaining and saving me from the power of sin, while also asking for and expecting that he will continue to change me through this struggle. I also expect that God will use my own experience as an example to others – of his sustaining power; of his grace to sinners; of his leading and healing of his children. If I am not willing to be honest and open about my own life, then how can God use me in this way?

As I contemplate moving to a new congregation, a new church family, I need to be praying that God will indeed give me strength to do his work in that place. I also need to be asking that my life might be a witness to God’s scandalous grace – all the riches of life in Christ poured out on undeserving rebellious humanity. God chooses and blesses us regardless of our past. Paul, the vicious persecuter of the early church; Jacob, the deceiver who manipulated his brother and plotted against his father; Peter, the self-confident, impetuous blunderer…  and me, with all my weakness and doubt.

Am I willing to be open and honest with my sisters and brothers in Christ, so that my life story might be used by God for their blessing too? It is after all only another variation of the great theme of the bible, that without Christ, there is no hope for us. He is supreme; the one and only means by which we may be saved. All our hope is in him, and we can and should take great pride in telling all the world of his beauty, his power, his generous grace and his tenderness, so that others will join in praising his name.

Give me eyes to see..

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God…

..once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light!

(Ephesians 5.1,2 &8)

You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.

(1Peter 2.9)

The image of light is a very powerful one, and used in many ways in the bible. Here, Paul and Peter are using it to contrast the before and after state of the believers to whom they write. We know from our own experience how much we depend upon light in order to function.. Only the other night, awaking in the pitch dark of a strange bedroom and trying to  creep out quietly to visit the bathroom, I ended up nearly in tears in a corner frantically trying to find the door handle…My long-suffering husband was wakened by my increasingly agitated fumblings, and putting on the bed-side lamp was able to show me the way out!! It was an educational experience; the next night, I used my phone as a light.. The glow from the screen was minimal, but enough for navigational purposes.

But what does that say about our need for spiritual light? How much is enough? With a tiny glow in the darkness, we suddenly see that things could be so different, and embrace the illumination which God’s offer of salvation brings. And as we grow in faith and walk with Jesus through the maturing experiences of life, it is as if the light within us grows steadily stronger.

I firmly believe that one of the most encouraging things about becoming more mature as a Christian is a growing awareness of how much about us is still needing to be changed! The stronger our source of illumination, the greater degree of detail we can observe, and that applies just as much to our spiritual lives as to the rest of life. I can’t sew properly unless I have sufficient light to let me see the needle and thread clearly, but a dim light is enough to show me the letters or cards for a board game.

I wrote last week about the struggle to take my thoughts captive, to exercise the victory which Jesus has won for me and to turn away from acting on wrong thoughts. But I realise now that I can be most deeply encouraged by my own distress over my thoughts! Think about it: if I was not – by God’s grace – being made more like Jesus, a little less sin-sick, and a little more holy, then I would simply not care about these rogue thoughts. As I am being re-shaped by God’s word at work in me, my spiritual eyes are growing healthier and the light within is showing more of the reality of remaining sin in my life. So although I may regret the necessity for the struggle, I rejoice that I desire to engage in the battle. I am on the Lord’s side in this, and more importantly, he is on my side. We are fighting together, and I have his power at my disposal, his spirit to help me to see as he does, and his love to inspire me.

The love and mercy poured out upon me are continually drawing out a response of gratitude, which manifests itself in a desire to bring delight to the one who has loved, God himself. That is why Paul exhorts his readers ‘as dearly loved children’ to respond to that love by imitating their heavenly Father. When we come to him in our struggles, sharing his hatred of the sin which clings to us like smoke in our clothes, and claiming the victory he has won for us; surely then our God is full of gladness and delights in his little ones. We are not perfect, we are not as nearly perfect as we could be.. but by his grace and to his glory, we are not what we were, and the light in us is growing stronger and stronger.

Walking into the dark

I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.

(Isa 50. 6&7)

As the narrative of Jesus life draws to its climax and close, all four gospel writers slow down the pace, and give us great detail of these last days and hours, leaving no room for doubts about the significance of what is happening. I get the impression of a spotlight growing increasingly focussed on the one figure on stage, and the surrounding scene growing dim. The background music becomes more and more urgent, full of tension, apprehension and even horror as events unfold.

On Palm Sunday, the scene is full of light and hope, colour and rejoicing. Many in Jerusalem think that they are greeting a potential leader who will deliver them from Roman rule – although his choice of a donkey as a steed must have made them wonder!! But as the week goes by, and Jesus continues to confront the religious authorities, orchestrating their opposition and determination to bring him down, the light begins to fade. The crowds in the background are beginning to wonder about this Messiah and just what kind of redemption he is offering.

Jesus is walking steadily towards a long-desired goal, his face set like flint and his will holding him on course. He is the long-awaited and only true Lamb of God, come as the Baptist had said to take away the sins of the world. And there was only one way in which that could be done.

From the very beginning of God’s dealings with humankind, it had been clear that only by the shedding of blood could the abhorrence of sin be truly dealt with. A price must be paid, the highest possible – as represented in temple sacrifices by spotless or perfect animals. The anger of a holy God against sin could not be turned aside with soft words, there was no justice in that, and it would make a mockery of his purity. If God is God, utterly holy and utterly just, then in order to receive sinful humanity back into his family, their offence against him has to be paid for. And we cannot ever pay that price – our chronic sinfulness makes it impossible that we should be the perfect sacrifice.

So Jesus came. The spotless one who would live the life we could not live, and die the death we should have died, so that we might live again as new creatures, no longer stained and abhorrent to God, but welcome and beloved. It is beyond the power of words to tell or music to express the greatness of such love for the unlovely. We can and must simply fall in worship, aghast that such agony was necessary, but also amazed with gratitude that it was offered and sufficed!

As I watch Jesus walk into the darkness of Good Friday, with the stormclouds of evil gathering around him and his friends fleeing in terror – as I surely would have done too – I am overwhelmed with pity, and grounded by grief and shame for my own part in his suffering. His trust in his father was absolute, it was the ground beneath each step towards the cross, and the breath behind every word he spoke in preparing his disciples and answering his accusers. Was there ever such courage? Where shall I find another hero like this one? One who would dare all for my sake, even to the extreme agony of separation from his father as the weight of sin finally descended upon him.

There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin;

He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.

(C.F. Alexander 1818-95)

May I be filled once again with a sense of the debt I owe, that I might surrender over again to this relentless, redeeming love, holding nothing back from my Lord who held nothing back for me.

The best I can do?

O God, we meditate on your unfailing love as we worship in your Temple.

Let the people on Mount Zion rejoice. Let all the towns of Judah be glad because of your justice.

Go, inspect the city of Jerusalem. Walk around and count the many towers.

Take note of the fortified walls and tour all the citadels, that you may describe them to future generations. 

For this is what God is like. he is our God forever and ever, and he will guide us until we die.

(Ps 48. 9,11-14)

I used to wonder why the psalmist exhorted his hearers to go and count the towers of Jerusalem, it seemed a pretty weird thing to do as a way of worshipping God! But I now realise that this physical act of walking and counting was a very practical way of directing attention to how God had kept his promises to his servant David, that a temple would be built, and a city established where a king would reign. The city itself was a memorial, a testimony to God’s faithfulness. Yes, it was strong, but it was God’s strength which established and maintained it, and it was His presence which made Mount Zion a place of rejoicing

The Old Testament stories are full of memorials, ways that God appointed to help the people to remember the truth about Himself, so that their faith could be strengthened and passed on to future generations. The twelve stones carried from the bed of the Jordan river to create a pillar at Gilgal when Joshua led the people out of forty years wandering into the Promised land; the Ebeneezer stone raised by Samuel marking the defeat of the Philistines; and the great Passover Feast itself, which recalled the dramatic events leading up to the deliverance from Egypt. These each in their own way prompted the people to recognise that it was God who was at work – rescuing, leading, preparing the land for them – and to celebrate the God who was so powerful on their behalf and crucially to trust that God would continue to be with and for them in the future.

As followers of Jesus, we have one particular memorial, established by him, the night before he died. The Lord’s supper, communion, call it what you like, is a memorial, a physical act which he commands us to carry out for just the same reasons. When we take bread and wine, remembering his death for us, we recognise that God was at work, celebrate His power to achieve what was beyond us, and strengthen our faith in His ongoing presence and work in our lives now.

There is another reason for memorials, hinted at in the psalm – that we might tell future generations about the God whose acts are celebrated.

We may not be confident in debating the philosophical grounds for belief in God, but we can legitimately share our personal experiences of His power at work in our lives. We can tell the stories of our own private memorials – celebrating times when we saw Him at work; showing people the God who has saved us and come to live with us. We can do what the early disciple Andrew did, when he went to find his brother Peter, in order to bring him to meet Jesus. We can pray for others for God to bless them in the way that the four friends of the paralysed man fought so hard to bring him into Jesus’ presence. We can do as the Samarian woman did after she encountered Jesus at the well in the noonday heat – bringing her neighbours to meet the man who knew all about her.

We cannot in our own power force anyone to accept Christ as their Saviour, but we can and must make every effort to ensure that our lives reflect Him. We may be the only stories about Jesus that a person ever hears, what are we telling them?

It is always good to care for physical needs, to show practical love and care, but the best thing we can do for anyone, is to bring them to Jesus, because ultimately their eternal salvation matters more than anything else. It is God alone who convicts people of their need, who brings faith to life, and we can have confidence in His power to do this. Our job is to say, “Come, we have found the Messiah, we have found God dwelling with us!”

May we have confidence to obey, and wisdom to know how to do it, so that many souls will yet be gathered into the kingdom!