Category Archives: Mystery

Who? Me?!

This is what the Lord says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight, ” declares the Lord.

(Jer 9.23&24)

The angel went to [Mary] and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you!.. Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age.. For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant, ” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!… Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.”

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.”

(Lk 1.26-49)

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no-one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written; “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

(1Cor 1.27-31)

The calling of Mary to bear the Son of God, to nurture and bring him to birth, to feed, clothe, wash and protect the incarnate deity, is one of the most staggering and attractive parts of our faith story. It is both mind-blowing and yet beautiful, to consider that the unknowable, uncontainable, should be for nine months, held in the safety of a young girl’s womb, to grow and take human form, and then like every other human infant in their utter helplessness, the one who named the stars became speechless and had to learn words, walking, and every other life skill.

This story has been particularly precious to me since my own children were born, and I learnt for myself how much work it takes to bear and nurse a baby, just how dependent they are on the care and compassion of others. Motherhood is hallowed for me, made part of my work for God, as I see that God himself chose to let himself be mothered, embracing our humanity in every aspect. It is both a perfectly ‘natural’ process, and also a privilege and a calling, and a precious gift. And Mary was an ordinary woman – probably scandalously young by our western standards to be marrying and bearing children. She rightly describes herself as humble, and we do wrong if we ascribe unique virtue to her and see her as somehow other than ourselves.

What is extraordinary, and a challenging invitation to every believer, is her acceptance and embracing of God’s will as announced to her by the angel. After expressing her (understandable) reservations, she is prepared to accept the angel’s explanations, and to embrace all the glory and shame that will ensue. She boasts in the God whose choice has fallen upon her – exulting to be his handmaiden, to be part of his plan and to glimpse even dimly what a great part that will be. The calling of Mary is entirely consistent with God’s upside-down approach to fulfilling his purposes and establishing his kingdom, and we can also take comfort as we recognise how again and again, it is the unlikely (in human eyes) who are used mightily by God.

When human beings recognise their powerlessness and offer themselves to God to be used according to his plans – whatever that may be – then there is no hindrance to his almighty power, no pride or self-will to thwart his work and to steal the glory that is his alone.

As I consider Mary again this advent season, I pray that I might, like her, offer myself to God with a trusting and humble heart, believing that he will do what he has promised in and through me. I rejoice in God my Saviour, and my soul magnifies my Lord.

(picture of ‘Annunciation’, 2009 by Hermann Josef Runggaldier, Verona)

A renewed vision

Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous: it is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to him a new song; play skilfully and shout for joy.

For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.

By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses. Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere him.

For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm for ever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.

Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance. From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling-place he watches all who live on earth – he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do. No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.

We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in you.

(Ps 33)

When my heart is troubled, and my mind filled with anxious thoughts about my life, and my loved ones, or about the distress of the world in these days, it is always good to return to the biblical perspective, to regain the larger vision.

The Hebrew scriptures reveal a creating, loving, powerful and just God; a God who desires to know and be known – in so far as any created being may know its creator! We find there glimpses of a mighty being, beyond our comprehension in character and eternal existence, who nonetheless claims to be intimately aware of each and every one of his people. It is clear that we cannot begin to grasp the magnitude, might and holiness/otherness of this God who makes himself known, and yet he invites us into a relationship with him, based on what we do see and can know.

The scriptures also reveal and ruthlessly detail all the ways in which we, the creatures, have departed from what we were made to be. Our realm is now so full of the rebellion we choose, and the evil, pain and destruction which are the consequences of that choice, that to believe and depend on the possibility of innate human goodness and progress seems to me utterly naive. It is in these ancient texts that we find a convincing, clear and relentless analysis of what is wrong in the world, and why humankind is as far as ever from dealing with the root of the trouble.

There is so much that we do not understand about the ways of God in addressing the brokenness of his creation – but he asks us to trust him because of what we do see and know. We see his power revealed in creation, and in mighty deeds of deliverance and preservation. We see his faithfulness to his promises, in preserving the people whom he called to be his special possession. And ultimately, we see in the good news about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the plan that God has to address the malady once and for all. It may seem odd to us, but the whole agonising ancient problem is so deep, so real and so far beyond our solving it that I find relief in letting God know best, and trusting that when he acts, it is because there is no other way.

I will therefore join with the psalm writer and all who sing; I will put my faith in God, the one who spoke – and it was. I will ‘urgently wait’ for the Lord as one translation puts it – making him my refuge in trouble, the only recipient of my praise and thanksgiving, my foundation of trust and dependance.

Unfathomable depths..

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isa 51.5&6)

“I will forsake my house, abandon my inheritance; I will give the one I love into the hands of her enemies…. go and gather all the wild beasts; bring them to devour. Many shepherds will ruin my vineyard and trample down my field; they will turn my pleasant field into a desolate wasteland… parched and desolate before me; the whole land will be laid waste because there is no one who cares.  They will sow wheat but reap thorns; they will wear themselves out but gain nothing. So bear the shame of your harvest because of the Lord’s fierce anger. “

(Jer 12.7,9-13)

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice,… “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

(Matt 27.46)

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.

(Jn 15.9&10)

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us…. this is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

(1Jn 3.16; 4,9&10)

Just look at those final words in the quote from John’s gospel again, “just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” Jesus spoke these words on the night when he would be betrayed to his trial, humiliation and death. He speaks with absolute conviction that he is held in his Father’s love, in spite of what lies immediately ahead of him, and fully aware that his imminent suffering is what was planned by this loving Father.

We do not find it easy to accept that love will not always protect the beloved, our instinct is to shield and divert the danger, to go to any lengths to avoid their pain. How then do we understand what God, through Christ, is doing on the cross? Why was the only begotten Son of the Eternal Father abandoned to the full power of death, and the unspeakable agony of rejection?

The words spoken by Jeremiah, among many prophets, gives us an insight into the truth, as we hear God’s words of pain and horror over the fate of his chosen people. Their disobedience cannot fail to have consequences, but even as the invading armies gather, so God mourns for the grief and loss which is surely coming. Have I ever really grasped just how much love is in these words? How much it cost God to let his beloved go into exile? Their fate was a foreshadowing of the future which awaits all humankind, unless we can be restored to relationship with our holy and just God. The exile which awaits us is not merely removal from our homeland, but eternal separation, an alienation without hope or light or anything good. It is truly awful.

And so, in order to rescue us from that ultimate exile, in order that we might live in his love, God sent his Son to be abandoned in our stead. In the mystery of the counsels of the Trinity, out of a fierce and relentless love for lost humanity, this plan of salvation was forged and committed to by Father, Son and Spirit. God loves us so much, that even his beloved Son was not protected from what had to be done, and in love, the Son obeyed the Father.

In their astonishing love for me, for you, Father and Son endured that agony of separation and abandonment in order that I, that you, might NEVER be cut off and lost to the darkness of a godless eternity. How profoundly this stills my heart, as I contemplate the depth of divine love, and its relentless, unflinching commitment to paying the price for my sin. I need have no doubt that my Father loves me…

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan; oh, the grace that brought it down to man; oh, the mighty gulf that God did span, at Calvary!

Mercy there was great, and grace was free, pardon there was multiplied to me, there my guilty soul found liberty, at Calvary!

(WN Newell, 1868-1956)

When there is no (obvious) happy ending..

But the Lord said to me, “.. You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you… See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.. Today I have made you a fortified city.. to stand against the whole land – against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you”

(Jer 1.7,8&10,18&19)

“O remnant of Judah, the Lord has told you, ‘Do not go to Egypt.’…when Jeremiah finished telling the people all the words of the Lord their God.. all the arrogant men said to Jeremiah, “You are lying!.. Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you to hand us over to the Babylonians, so that they may kill us or carry us into exile.” So.. all the people disobeyed the Lord’s command .. and all the army officers led away all the remnant of Judah.. and Jeremiah the prophet and Baruch son of Neriah. So they entered Egypt in disobedience to the Lord.

(Jer 42.19; 43.1-3,5-7)

‘This is what the Lord says [to Baruch]: ‘I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the land. Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the Lord, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.’

(Jer 45.4&5)

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for… These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

(Heb 11.1&39-40)

So I finished reading Jeremiah: at 52 chapters it is quite an undertaking and full of fearful prophecies of judgement. As a follower of Jesus, who would have known this book all his life as part of the Hebrew Scriptures, I must trust that there is truth here for me as a disciple, wisdom that can help me to live in the world as a faithful witness and remain steadfast.

There is much that grieves, as we read Jeremiah’s deep lament both for the way his people reject him and the message that God has given him, but also for the wayward people themselves as they face a dreadful reckoning at the hands of the Babylonian armies. There is much to bemuse, as slaughter, starvation, humiliation and the destruction of the temple come to Judah because they have broken their covenant with God over and over again. I am not able to unpack the whole business of God’s judgement on his people in this time, so instead I have been reflecting on what I can learn from Jeremiah.

God takes sin very, very seriously. His covenant people cannot break their pledge to him without consequences, and the price to be paid is so high.

God is full of compassion towards his people, and the grief which their rebellion and subsequent sufferings cause him is unspeakable. He views separation from them with horror, and yet cannot dwell with their sin.

God is sovereign over all the nations, and in holiness and justice will act to fulfill his purposes in and through them. His ways are beyond my finding out, and I am called – like Jeremiah and the people of Judah – to trust that when it looks as though all is lost, yet He is still at work for good and for His glory.

God calls us to faithfulness in difficult places, among rebellious people, where we may experience rejection, mockery and persecution.

God goes with us when – like Jeremiah and Baruch – we are unable to resist the tide of history around us and are carried off into the land where God had commanded the people not to go.  In such days of judgement, it would be counted a great blessing to escape with one’s life, a sure sign of God’s favour and protection.

It is our personal faithfulness, so far as we are able to live it out, which matters most. Our relationship with the living God, and not our geographical location, or the trappings of ‘religion’, are what keep us safe in the ultimate things.

God calls his servants to apparently fruitless ministries, to death in exile, to suffering and hardship endured in faith.

There is surely much here from which we can learn in these days for the body of Christ which is the church in our world, a world where the gospel and its messengers are often rejected and mocked, or else actively persecuted and attacked. We can pray for those who are called to lead and teach, but also for one another as believers.

Heavenly Father, let us be like Jeremiah, living by faith, trusting in your love and provision for us in what appear to be fruitless situations. Encourage us to be faithful in the places where we are called to live, blessing our communities in Jesus’ name, whether they want to hear of his love or not. In obedience, may we be content, trusting that very soon, we will hear the trumpet sounding for your return, and the dawning of the day when all your faithful servants down all the ages are made perfect and united in your presence. In Jesus’ precious name and for his glory, we pray these things. Amen

Making it real..

In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind…. to God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his… To him belong strength and victory;.. He reveals the deep things of darkness and brings deep shadows into the light. He makes nations great, and destroys them;… He deprives the leaders of the earth of their reason; he sends them wandering through a trackless waste. They grope in darkness with no light; he makes them stagger like drunkards. My eyes have seen all this, my ears have heard and understood it.

(Job 12.10,13,16, 22-25)

“This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of… For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name…, though you do not acknowledge me… I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things… This is what the Lord says – the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands? It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshalled their starry hosts. I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness….

(Isa 45.1,4,7,11-13)

Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

(Ac 2.22-24)

The King has come. The new kingdom has been birthed in the lives of those who confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, and their loyalty is now to him. But is it?

When the state of our world, or the state of our neighbourhood, fills us with sadness and threatens to flood our hearts with fear for the future of our children; when long cherished plans and hopes for our lives or those of our loved ones are shattered and we are tempted to despair instead of to hope; when our situation seems utterly futile, and existence seems pointless… what does it look like in these circumstances to live as loyal subjects of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?

Friends, this is something I find to be a constant challenge, and I am thankful for my heavenly Father’s patience and gentleness with me as I fail time and again. I will worry; I will find myself doubting that God will get it right, and that what He is permitting in our world just now can possibly be good and right when so much pain is involved for so many. I am indebted to the Canadian writer, Ann Voskamp for the most recent reminder that when I choose to let my thoughts run down this path of worry and doubt, I am dethroning Jesus and putting myself back onto the throne. 

The message of the Hebrew Scriptures, the gospels, Acts and all the letters (and especially of Revelation) is absolutely consistent. God is in charge; God is good and just, powerful and righteous; God can be trusted to keep His word. But, God is capable of doing the utterly unexpected, we cannot and must not try to constrain his actions  – the recognition of the heathen Cyrus, King of the Persian empire, as God’s agent to fulfill the divine plans must have caused consternation in Isaiah’s audience!

So what should I do next time the news in the papers, or the message from a friend threatens to send me down the well-trodden path of worry, fear and doubt? I take those thoughts captive; I recognise that I am on the top of a familiar slippery slope and choose to step back! The power to do this will come only as I depend by faith on God, asking his help to honour his name in my life – honouring him by choosing to trust and giving him the glory in the midst of what I do not understand.

And when God’s will seems most incomprehensible, I will remember what Peter told the crowds in Jerusalem at Pentecost, will remember that God purposed to bring the greatest good out of their greatest act of betrayal and rebellion. My God is so much greater than I can possibly understand, and he is in the business of turning darkness into light, death into life, and mortal into immortality.  I will keep on crowning him King, and choosing trust.

King of my life, I crown thee now – thine shall the glory be; Lest I forget thy thorn-crowned brow, lead me to Calvary.

Lest I forget Gethsemane, Lest I forget thine agony, Lest I forget thy love to me, Lead me to Calvary

(JE Hussey 1874-1958)

Drawing breath

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law….. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him..

(Det 29.29; 30.19&20)

Does the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen? Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the bear with its cubs?           

           Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?

(Job 38.28-33)

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?…. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

(Matt 6.26&27,34)

Be patient.. until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near… As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

(Jas 5.7,8 &11)

My soul, draw breath: turn your inner ear away from the cacophony of voices which are calling you names, reminding you of weakness, folly, errors and failure. 

My soul, draw breath: turn your eye away from the list of things you ‘should’ be doing, the things that are ‘good and worthy’, the great towering mountain of expectations that you feel obliged to fulfil.

My soul, draw breath: your Lord is near, and while you deafen yourself by telling over the lists, you cannot hear him; while you fix your eyes on the expectations, you cannot see him.

My soul, draw breath: remember just how much has been done for you, in the name of love, and by whom. Remember that your smallness does not require you to work harder than ever to achieve and to succeed. Remember that your riches are inherited, not earned, and that the loving hand which gives so generously is your Father, not your employer. There are no conditions attached, only the invitation to respond in love and adoration.

My soul, draw breath: yes, there is so much that you do not understand and cannot bear to think about. But remember who holds those secret things in his keeping: He holds you too, as his beloved. In the closest places of his heart you are present and precious. Nothing happens to you beyond his knowledge, and the burdens belong to him, who alone is able to bear them in justice and holiness, doing all things well.

Almighty God, the secret things belong to you, and sometimes that great amount of unknown threatens to overwhelm me – both my immediate questions, and the wider ones affecting your people around the world. But one of the things revealed is your power in creation, and so much more than power; brilliance, artistry, wisdom, vastness, and majesty. You are the great artist, the ultimate maker, and I praise you today. Thank you for human artistry which can help me to take time to look, really stop and contemplate the beauty of the details as well as the big pictures. Thank you for those whose gifts of word, hand and tongue cast light on your creative genius and help me to see it afresh – to find rest in contemplation of your handiwork.

Thank you, that when I take time to receive from you the daily bounty of beauty, the love in every detail, I can live in gratitude and in expectation of what you are yet to do. Thank you that this contemplation restores my perspective, and I am reminded that my place is not to uncover every secret, but to live for you on the basis of what is revealed to me. The burden lifts, as I humble myself before my maker and accept my limitations.

Draw breath my soul: look, listen, and remember what is true. And then let your song rise to your Lord, as you rest in him today. 

But…Lord, I don’t understand, forgive me…

The Lord said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!…Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? Do you have an arm like God’s and can your voice thunder like his?”

(Job 40.1&2,8&9)

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion…..The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…

(Ex 33.18&19; 34.6&7)

Watch out that no-one deceives you….You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of the birth pains.. you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death because of me.. many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations

(Matt 24.4-14)

I am back on familiar ground, wrestling with the sheer scale of human suffering – today and in the past, and in the future as it seems to be unfolding before our very eyes. Wrestling with the tension between the revelation of God’s love and power and will to save as seen in Jesus, and the heartbreaking cry which is going up every hour of every day as people face pain, horror, oppression and death without hope.

The very doubts which arise in my mind make me feel guilty – adding to the messy and distressing nature of the fight. And yet, I think of Job who cried out in his agony and loss, and whom God commended for speaking truth about the Almighty – truth about God’s justice and holiness and absolute trustworthiness. And I think of Jesus, in very nature God and able to heal, resurrect and create new life, who nonetheless spoke to his disciples that they would ‘always have the poor with them’, and whose mission in his short life was not to tackle social justice, create an ideal state, overthrow the oppression of women, or heal every illness and deformity which could be found in the world in his time. 

If Jesus had a different, and greater, agenda, then is it not possible for me to try to grasp that other agenda too, to begin to see beyond this world and its very real troubles to the greater and more glorious reality beyond? Am I so embedded in the physical present that I cannot even begin to understand or imagine there might be something immeasurably better? May I not learn to trust that there is something worth hanging onto beyond the immediate and enveloping misery which clouds my vision of the world?

God tells us that his ways are higher than ours, and yet to our shame we continue to fall into the devil’s trap of sitting in judgement on the Divine, of weighing God’s plans and purposes by human values. Surely this must be one of the forms by which ‘wickedness’ has increased, so that so many in the world today are deceived into condemning God without really listening to the gospel and to the claims which Jesus made for himself. As CS Lewis put in the title of his book, we put ‘God in the dock’, and having found fault with the plans of the Almighty, decide he is untrustworthy, and not to be considered in any of our thinking about life and creation.

With shame, I confess it again, I really struggle with these great unanswered questions, these mysteries which surround God’s great plan of redemption. I pray, “Thy will be done..” and then am tempted to add a qualifier – “but not if anyone is going to get hurt by it…” 

Father God, I believe that you could end all human suffering and pain tomorrow, if it were your plan and purpose to do so; if by that means, all glory would go to your Son my Saviour. And so I pray, “thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven”. Help me, dear Father, to trust you for the prayers which seem unanswered, for the answers that involve ongoing mess and pain for billions around the world. And dear Father, forgive and cleanse me of this arrogance, this pride which keeps on rearing its head and demanding that you give account of yourself to me, for my approval. I am so ashamed to recognise this attitude in my heart. Thank you for the mercy which I have in Jesus, so that my sin is forgiven in his name. May my passion be for the proclamation of that mercy to all nations, so that he might be glorified, and your kingdom come on earth.

The trumpet has sounded…

The Lord has made proclamation to the ends of the earth: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘See, your Saviour comes! See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.'” …Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendour, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save..”

(Isa 62.11-63.1)

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me..”Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory…

(John 14.1-3)

For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where ,O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.

(1Cor 15.53-58)

On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit and I heard behind me a loud voice, like a trumpet…I turned round to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw…someone “like a son of man”, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash round his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven starts, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance…then he said:”Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

(Rev 1.10, 12-18)

Because HE lives….

This is our Lord, our beloved master, our teacher, sacrificial substitute, high priest, bridegroom and friend; closer than breathing, heart of our hearts, his life beats in our veins. It is his voice which broke the mourning silence in the hearts of his faithful disciples, those women who met him in the garden and heard the beloved voice speak with the added power and beauty of resurrection life.

The voice of the Son has sounded, “It is finished”!! The victory is won and nothing can undo it for all, and any, who will put pride to death and enthrone him in their hearts as the only worthy sovereign; their true security and source of hope.

The voice of the Son has announced the absolute defeat of evil, and the dawning of God’s eternal kingdom of righteousness, justice and peace. Nothing has power to divide God’s blood-bought children from his love, or to steal their inheritance in his glory.

The voice of the Son has promised that we have a place at his side, and that we are the companions he desires to share his glory. We, the very ones whose sin and brokenness are the cause of his pain and suffering, are assured of a future where the guilt and shame will be gone and we will stand tall at his side, full of joy and pride in our Lord.

Let this truth ring in my ears every day, as the base line to every other tune which my life plays. I have a Saviour who died for me, a Father who loves me, and an indwelling Spirit who is making me knew.

Let this truth form the foundation of all my thinking about what life holds for me. The darkness may yet look strong, but it has been fatally weakened, and the light is breaking, therefore I need not fear.

Let this truth never cease to have the power to bring me to my knees in adoration, in fresh commitment to the one who gave his all for me, so that I might hold nothing back in serving him.

O sin , thou art vanquished! Thy long reign is o’er; Though still thou dost vex us, We dread thee no more.

O Sing, Hallelujah, O sing Hallelujah, O sing Hallelujah! be joyful and sing, Who now can condemn us? Christ Jesus is King!

Our Lord Christ hath risen! Day breaketh at last; the long night of weeping is now well-nigh past. 

O Sing Hallelujah, O sing Hallelujah, O sing Hallelujah! be joyful and sing, Our foes are all conquered – Christ Jesus is King!

(Wm. C. Plunket 1828-97)

He never said it would be pretty…

Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt…they put slave masters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labour..but the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. ..then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every [Israelite]boy that is born you must throw into the Nile…”

(Ex 1.8,11&12,22)

In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel…Ahab..did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him..he married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him….Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him…

(1 Kings 16.29-33)

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour, he was enraged. yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

(Esther 3.5&6)

“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you though him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross..God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact..

(Acts 2.22-23 &32)

We are easily overwhelmed by the rampant violence, evil and brokenness of the world in these days of the 21st century, and wonder just where God is in the midst of the chaos? We hear those who do not follow Jesus exclaiming that ‘if there was a God, surely He would not let such things happen!’, and struggle to know how to respond ..at least I do.

I have been helped recently through a series of sermons on some of the truly evil, powerful and apparently uncontrolled characters of the bible narrative, thinking about what their stories have to teach me – about our world and God’s plans for us. I should say at this stage that I am not setting out to give easy answers to the big questions about evil, only to share some insights which have helped me to be less afraid of the questions.

We find that from the very beginning of the great story of redemption, evil was active in humanity, and that God never claimed to be in the business of addressing every wrong at the moment it occured – or even of preventing things which appeared utterly contradictory to his promises and plan.

The bible shows that God is so far above our thoughts that we simply can’t begin to understand how love and goodness can be expressed in the ways which he chooses….how could a good and loving God permit generations of Israelites to suffer and die under brutal slavery in Egypt, and finally see a form of genocide enacted against them? How could he permit his people to be led astray by king after king, into idolatry which would bring judgement upon them? How could he permit the destruction of all he had promised, and the people’s exile under threat of extinction from the scheming Haman?

His ways are beyond our understanding, and although sometimes we receive glimpses of his working – as when Joseph speaks of God’s planning for good through his brother’s evil plot; and when Esther is made queen and therefore empowered to protect her fellow Jews – we are more often called to trust. When we demand that God be accountable to us, abiding by our definitions of love and goodness, we only demonstrate how limited is our grasp of his greatness, and how selfish our understanding of our own role in the unfolding fulfilment of his plans. We want to feel safe…he wants to make us glorious, in his coming kingdom!

We should never be surprised when things don’t work out smoothly and easily; when God’s people go through great tribulations; when death, disease and suffering of every sort appear to be afflicting increasing numbers of the world’s population. God never said that it would be beautiful in our eyes; but he did say that he would bless the whole world, every people and nation, through the one who would come from Abraham – the Christ whose life and death once for all defeated the power of evil in the lives of God’s children. That is why our good and loving God permitted the suffering and death of the only perfect man who ever lived; why the Son of God willingly entered the unimaginable darkness and pain of separation from his Father.

On the cross, we find the place where God declared his love and goodness, and evil appeared to triumph, only to be defeated by it’s own plans, as God’s infinitely greater wisdom and power overcame death and showed us that no matter what is happening, the things that really matter are safe in his keeping.

How thankful I am, that I have a God who is so much greater than all that evil can do, so much purer than I can imagine, with a love that knows that suffering is not all bad, and that the glory and eternal goodness which await are worth the fight. May I learn more and more to trust him in the darkness, and not to be surprised by evil, but to rejoice in its defeat in Christ.

I believe…

The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies above can compare with the Lord? Who is like the Lord among the heavenly beings? In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him…Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord.

(Ps 89.5-7&14&15)

Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no-one deceives you…when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines..

(Mark 13. 5,7&8)

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them…Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.

(Rom 1.18,19&28-32)

I believe in the wickedness and depravity of the human heart….in greed, selfishness, malice, violence, pride, callousness and hatred.

I believe in the brokenness of the physical world..the cruelty of nature, the destructive powers of fire, wind, earth and water.

I believe in the powers of evil, ranked in implacable opposition to Almighty God, willing to use and abuse every beautiful part of his creation against him in order to thwart his purposes.

I find it easy to believe in these things, because I live with human beings – and more pertinently, I am human. I find within myself the seeds of all those appalling fruits which Paul lists in his letter to the Romans. The human heart is fatally flawed, and it makes no sense to me to advocate education, meditation, mediation or any other kind of self-help as a means of dealing with that flaw. Our brokenness goes so deep that we cannot make ourselves whole again.

I live in a physical world which demonstrates great cruelty, where disease, and death, neglect and violence rule. Not all the troubles that we see are the result of human exploitation and abuse of God’s good gifts, but rather come from within creation itself. This wonderful world, this incredible universe and the galaxies beyond, all somehow warped and stained and not what they could and should be.

And so I believe in the evil with which our race chose to align itself when we rebelled against God as King and Lord, and deluded ourselves into thinking that we knew better, that we couldn’t trust our Creator to be good. We fell straight into slavery to that darkness, within our hearts and in the world around us, powerless now to break free, and often blind to the reality of our chains.

We live today under judgement – our plight is the result of our own choices down the generations – and still we refuse to recognise the truth about ourselves, about our slavery to sin, and the reality of our desperate need for God’s salvation.

When I consider the cross, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, I believe in the reality of God’s love and of his plan to save us and make all things new. If any other way had been possible, then the Son of God would not have died. But he did, and in the mystery of mercy and justice meeting at the cross, he achieved our complete rescue from evil, and offered freedom to the slaves.

I believe in the hand of God to gather all things together in his perfect time, to keep his  people through turmoil of every kind as the end draws near, and to deliver us into the new creation when Christ returns in glory and every knee – willing or reluctant – bows before him as Lord.

I do not understand why so much agony must be endured as we await his coming; why famine, war, abuse and neglect, slavery and exploitation, genocide and terror continue to afflict so many. But I believe in a God who is great and good beyond my puny comprehension, and with his help, I will trust and persevere.

I accept with humble joy his daily gifts of love and beauty, I worship him in his power and majesty, and I pray for his will to be done and his kingdom come.