Category Archives: perseverance

One story..in many chapters

Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name. Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me.

(Ps 119.129-133)

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”…. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom..

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

(Matt 4.17&23,5.17&18)

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

(Luke 24.25-27)

“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life….do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

(Jn 4.39&40,45-47)

One of the – admittedly few – disadvantages of growing up in a christian home, under a ministry of faithful biblical preaching, is that so much is familiar and absorbed unthinkingly. It can be a challenge to read and listen to God’s word without hearing and understanding through the lens of those who taught me, and I suffer from a real lack of confidence in handling the word responsibly for myself. For example, it is only recently that I have realised how significant Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 are for my own understanding of the bible! 

It can be tempting to dismiss or discount those parts of what we call the Old Testament which are dull, hard to understand, or difficult to reconcile with our own ideas of God’s character and purposes. We might want to pretend some of it was never said, or has nothing to do with the ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ of the gospel narratives. In fact, Jesus himself makes this impossible by his words to the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. 

Jesus own ministry is explicitly placed in the context of the Hebrew scriptures – Law and Prophets – and he claims not to be replacing, but fulfilling them. In other words, everything which had been written, was part of God’s revelation towards this point when the Son of God would inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth. I find this a great encouragement to me – both in my appreciation of the many places where I find comfort and instruction; and also in my wrestling with the places where the message is painful, and even apparently contradictory. Jesus refuses to rub out anything. The God revealed in the Law and Prophets is his Father; there is no inconsistency between what has gone before, and what he will reveal through his life and ministry. Rather, he comes to wrap it all into a coherent and cosmos-shaking mission, by which the future of the world and its people is forever changed.

The God of the Hebrew Scriptures (the OT), is loving, passionate, slow to anger and intimately concerned in his children’s lives. The Son of God revealed in the gospels is loving, passionate, denouncing unbelief, exhorting with tears but unflinching in his proclamation of the eternal separation and judgement which will come on those who insist on having their own way. One God, in three persons, telling a unified story of redemption, transformation and new creation.

I have – in our combined scriptures – God’s good gift to me of revelation, of faith-food for life, all that I need in order to live with and for him. Let me grow in hunger for and reliance on that word, rejoicing that I can trust it to be nourishing and sustaining, even if – and maybe especially when – I have had to really search and wrestle to understand!

 

 

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]

Not our will, but yours O Lord….

Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is not breath in it. But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. …Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.

(Hab 2.18-3.2)

“What about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you..for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

(Matt.16.15-18)

..You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord…His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Eph 2.19-21, 3.10&11)

One of the hardest lessons in the great narrative of the bible is that God consistently acts in ways which bewilder his people; they stumble and falter as time and again, he works through gross evil and hostility to accomplish his purposes. We consider the role which Pharaoh played in the great redemption story of the Exodus – how the adamant resistance and pride of that ruler played directly into God’s plan to reveal the full magnificence of his power to deliver the people of Israel. 

Perhaps most shockingly, and hardest to keep in focus for those like me who have known the story all their lives, is the role of the Jewish establishment and Roman authorities in crucifying Jesus and thus bringing about the salvation which God had ordained from the very beginning. The injustice, malice, and concentrated evil which was at work to overcome Jesus acted instead to achieve exactly what had been intended, and from apparent defeat, God drew absolute victory. 

What happened next? The sustained persecution of the new believers in Jerusalem sent them far across the known world, spreading the gospel as they went and bringing hope to every people whom they met. Our God IS working out his purposes – but how ready we are to assume that those must be the same as our own, and how wrong we may be!

The ‘church’ is the people of God – those privileged to be citizens of heaven, members of God’s family – and our ultimate purpose is to demonstrate to the heavenly powers that God is good and wise and powerful, not that we are! It is God who is building, not us. It is God who sustains and inspires, and his Spirit which breathes life into those who are dead in their sins – not our strategies, or missions, or institutional magnificence. We are being built up together in Christ – not into a human organisation – and our purpose is to be the place where God’s presence dwells in the new heavens and the new earth. 

We are not there yet….by a long way, and I am just wondering whether part of God’s purpose in these days of global turmoil is to shake us as believers completely out of the complacency which continues to trust in human institutions. Is it possible that all the trappings of Christianity which we still cling to – buildings, hierarchies of clergy, denominations, ritual and pomp – all these have been hindering us from seeing and obeying God’s call? As we are forbidden to meet together, and are forced to take responsibility for our own spiritual lives in unprecedented ways, is God pruning off dead wood? This trial is revealing whether people are putting their faith in God, or in the human institution which we call the church, but which perhaps never really merited the name…

Let us pray in these days that God will find us ready to listen to his direction; to obey his call; to put away those things which are hindrances to gospel living and loving. Let us cry to him for direction and above all for encouragement that through this trial, he will reveal his power at work in building his church – in spite of all the obstacles which our ‘church’ has put in his way. 

Dust-bound…

I lie in the dust, completely discouraged; revive me by your word. I told you my plans, and you answered. Now teach me your principles. Help me understand the meaning of your commandments, and I will meditate on your wonderful miracles. I weep with grief; encourage me by your word. Keep me from lying to myself; give me the privilege of knowing your law. I have chosen to be faithful; I have determined to live by your laws. I cling to your decrees. Lord, don’t let me be put to shame! If you will help me, I will run to follow your commands.

(Ps 119.25-32)

If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject criticism, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding.

(Pr 15.31-32)

So get rid of all the filth and evil in  your lives, and humbly accept the message God has planted in your hearts, for it is strong enough to save your souls. And remember, it is a message to obey, not just to listen to. If you don’t obey, you are only fooling yourself. For if you just listen and don’t obey, it is like looking at your face in a mirror but doing nothing to improve your appearance. You see yourself, walk away and forget what you look like. But if you keep looking steadily into God’s perfect law – the law that sets you free – and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, than God will bless you for doing it. 

(Jas 1.21-25)

I am thankful that when we read the scriptures handed down to us, we find the people of God struggling with doubts, burdened in spirit and sometimes utterly discouraged. Their experiences – recorded for us in God’s mercy and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – are profoundly reassuring when we face our own periods of heaviness, doubt and despondency.

Here we find the saints of old pouring out their grief over the world, and over the state of their own hearts – the largest to the smallest matter is fit to bring to the mercy-seat of the Almighty when it comes burdening one of his beloved children. How wonderful to have such ready access to a loving, accepting heart; how amazing to know that when we come in near despair at the apparent inactivity of the God in whom we seek to trust, still he welcomes us and cherishes our tears and agonies. Our struggles to believe in the face of the barrage of reasons to doubt are precious to our Father, and our resolute clinging to his word as our source of security and strength is entirely the work of his spirit.

So today I am summoned not to hide my griefs away, to put on a brave face, but to come with all the mess, doubt and fear which stirs within me and robs me of my peace. To come and confess that I have deceived myself, harbouring false images of my own godliness. It is painful to be undeceived, to see that I had begun to take pride in myself, but it is necessary. Instead, I am forcibly presented with unpleasant truths about selfishness, indolence, and an unloving spirit.

O God, when shall I be free of this deceitful spirit? When shall I finally live as one with nothing to be ashamed of? Only when my resurrection body finally stands before you in glory shall I know that total freedom of which now I have tantalising glimpses. Only then shall I be free of this interminable battle to stand against my own weakness and the wiles of the evil one – make it happen soon, dear Lord your children are hungry for holiness and weary of war…

Only in Jesus’s death for me can I find comfort in these days – this is love; unmistakeable, inexplicable, unshakeable. My failure to grow in holiness; my self-centred and small-mindedness; my failure in loving and serving; my ineffectual living….all these things are somehow forgiven, and I am loved. I am ashamed to fail my Lord in so many ways, to bring so little honour to his name – and to know that this will be the case until he mercifully takes me home.

O Lord, encourage me in your word; teach me your ways and comfort my griefs.  I can do nothing worthwhile, think nothing good, believe nothing true, unless you enable me. May I receive your gentle and loving correction as you show me the truth of my own heart, so that your word and Spirit bear fruit in my life which does honour to you, and blesses those to whom you have sent me.

 

Divine discomfort..

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?…If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday.

(Isa 58.6&7,9&10)

You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground…you hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain…You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts….Seek good, not evil, that you may live…Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.

(Am 5.7,10,11-15)

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?….He has showed you , O man what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

(Mic 6.6&8)

“Then the King will say..,’Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…..whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

(Matt 25.34-40)

Reading recently through the prophecy of Isaiah, I was overwhelmed time and again by the contrast between the glorious future prophesied for God’s chosen people, and the reality in which they lived –  in which we live now. We are in-between people; saved and assured of an eternal life in glory yet still living in a broken and pain-riddled world. We live with the tension between God’s promised rest, fulfillment and security, and the appalling suffering which exists across the globe.

It is tempting to withdraw into a shell of comfort, shutting out troubling pictures of reality and thinking of our own security and hope of eternal life. But..the majority of Christians in the world today cannot do that, since they live without most of what we in the prosperous nations take for granted. They endure that tension, as poverty, war, violence and climate change make each day an ordeal in survival – all the while believing that God’s promises are to them, for their peace, their flourishing too. If we who are wealthy proclaim a faith that does nothing to address the reality of suffering, and the agonising tension between the ‘now and the not-yet’ of fulfillment, then we have nothing to offer our world, we have no ‘good news’.

I would make so bold as to say that any Christian who can live without being profoundly disturbed by the state of the planet – climate, ecology, society, economy – is ignoring God’s clearly revealed message in scripture.

We serve a God of justice – where then is our concern to see justice for the oppressed, the ones who have no voices, who suffer at the hands of unfair trading systems and corrupt governance?

We serve a God of compassion and mercy – where then is our concern for the people who are being exploited and broken – the trafficked sex-workers, the debt-slaves, the prostitutes and addicts, the mentally ill, the abused children, and the confused and frail elderly?

We serve a Creator God, we are his stewards commissioned to cherish his good work – where then is our concern for the flourishing of the planet on which we live; for the climate systems on which our lives depend, and which human greed is gradually destroying?

I have been profoundly challenged in these days by my complacency – to argue that the problems are too big for me is no argument at all. God doesn’t ask me to fix it, but he does ask whether I care? If my faith does not issue in works, it is dead. I am called not only to be a child of God, but a servant, a witness, a worker.

I am praying that I might be willing to live with the divine discomfort caused by a restless spirit, one unable to do nothing in the face of the brokenness of our world. I am praying that I might find where God wants me to use the small gifts I can offer – time, intellect and anything else I can bring – in bearing witness to the love of God for this world and all its people. I am praying that I might be willing to serve in a very small way, in a great campaign where I may not see the outcome, but be content in having obeyed the call.

 

The potency of patience

 

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 make known the end from the beginning…I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please…What I have said, that will I bring about…

(Isa 46.3&4, 9-11)

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

(1 Tim 1.15&16)

Be patient, then, brothers, 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.

(Jas 5.7&8)

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

(2 Pet 3.8&9)

Do you ever stop to consider that it is only because of the ‘umlimited’ patience of God that you and I are alive? God’s patience with sinful humankind has led him to wait, to wait for hundreds of years since the resurrection, looking for those who will repent and recognise their need. Our God is holy and just, and at any point in those long years, he could have decided that enough was enough, and it was time to bring an end. Yet in his wisdom and power, he has chosen to wait – to go on working out all our mess and pain for good,  in bringing people to repentance and new life in Christ. I can trust him with the world, in all its turmoil, because he has not finished…

The bible assures us that God is at work in history – His Story – and that all he plans will be accomplished. Although it may seem that he is absent, yet his timing is perfect and when the right moment comes, he acts. The rebellion of his people did not deflect his purposes; and their very betrayal became a stunning demonstration of his patience with those whom he has chosen for his own. I can trust him with myself, because he does not give up on his children – in spite of their failings….

The patience of God is powerful indeed – drawing people to repentance; painstakingly weaving history into a complete and purposeful whole; bearing the unimagineable pain of a Creator who sees his handiwork spoiled and yet restraining his anger against the despoiler; wooing his redeemed children ever closer to his heart as they respond to his patient love and kindness.

 As I consider the mess which has been and is being made by humankind, both of the world and of each other, Lord, I marvel at your patience. Your works are despoiled, and you are misunderstood, reviled and dismissed – yet your hand is restrained. 

I praise you because in your patience, you wait to see all the chosen called into the kingdom; because you know the end and can wait; you can contain your righteous anger perfectly.

Thank you for your patience with us, your children. You use us in spite of our persistent faults – we don’t have to be perfect to be useful; you invest in us over years and gradually reveal our sin as we are transformed by your spirit. How marvellous to know that in spite of all our flaws, you are glorified in us, and we can serve you as we are.

Help us Lord, to see your patience for the wonderful quality which it is – forgive us when we chafe at ‘delays’- and let us by faith fully trust your timing, for ourselves, our loved ones, and our world. And let us cultivate patience with ourselves and others, that we might live and love to your glory.

Outlook..changeable!

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

(Ps 43)

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

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

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

(Phil 4.4&6)

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

(1 Thess 5.16-18)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living with imperfections..

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me..When..you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways…I will hold you accountable for his blood..Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! ‘”

(Ezek 33.7&8,11)

Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. for I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God..”

(Acts 20.26&27)

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on…Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put it into practice.

(Phil 3.10&12, 4.9)

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith…

(Heb 13.7)

The apostle Paul is revealed through his words – recorded in the book of Acts, and in his pastoral letters to churches and leaders – as a passionate evangelist and church planter, consumed with one desire – to make Christ known across the ancient world. His single-minded pursuit of this goal took him through dreadful suffering and persecution, and enriched his life as he saw God transforming lives through the preaching of the gospel.

Paul was urgent, earnest, and fully aware of the responsibility which God had laid upon him – to call the wicked to repentance and faith through Christ. In his powerful final address to his beloved friends in Ephesus, he declares himself ‘innocent’, a watchman who had fulfilled his calling and warned of the coming judgement and present offer of salvation. No one could accuse him of withholding good news from them; their guilt would be on their own heads for rejecting God’s grace.

Paul knew that he was not perfect, indeed he refers on several occasions to his ongoing weakness and struggle. But, it is not that which defined his ministry, it was his tenacious obedience, and total dependence upon Christ for salvation and acceptance with God. When Paul invites his readers to imitate him, it is not because everything in his life was holy and without fault. Rather it is because he knows it is not, and he has sought on every occasion to model how the believer should conduct themselves in light of that knowledge.

As redeemed sinners, we are free from the fear of sin because we have full forgiveness whenever we need it, and the burden of guilt is taken from us. Our sin no longer defines us, and cannot hinder God in the working out of his purposes. We are on the winning side and although our enemy is powerful, our captain is victorious and our very struggles are – by his grace – working out for our blessing and his glory.

When the writer to the Hebrews invites the reader to imitate their leaders, it is faith which is mentioned, not perfect lives. What is faith? It is the assurance of things not seen – our promised eternal life at home in glory, our future perfection and the full realisation of the sanctifying work of Christ in us. Faith is depending upon God’s promises, and basing our lives on the truth of what he says about us – forgiven, justified, adopted, beloved, glorious. This kind of faith does not pretend that there is no sin left, nor is it obsessed by the fear of sin, but rather it knows the quickest way to the Father’s side, to the mercy-seat, to the fresh cleansing fountain of forgiveness and the strength of Christ in us to resist temptation and if we fall, to get up in confidence that God is with us and we can keep going.

This is how we live with imperfections, by imitating Paul and others who have taught and modelled the christian life for us – as a persevering, a dogged and cheerful obedience which knows that we are not earning salvation, but living in it. This side of death, we cannot know complete freedom from our weaknesses, and from the pain of sin in the world. But we can live free from fear of those things, because Christ has conquered them, has promised that none of them can separate us from him nor prevent the completion of his work.

God grant us a burning desire to be holy for him, total dependance on Christ’s saving work and the Holy Spirit’s power so that as we press on, we will indeed be changed increasingly into the likeness of our glorious captain, to whom be all the praise and honour!

 

Learning in serving

[Moses] said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day…they are not just idle words for you – they are your life!”…”The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms…Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword”..since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.. 

(Deut 32.46&46; 33.27&29; 34.10)

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts..so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body..God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be..God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body..If one part suffers, every part suffers with it

(1 Cor 12.12&13,18,24&26)

While I’m locked up here, a prisoner for the Master, I want you to get out there..on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands..and mark that you do this with humility and discipline – not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences…..Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift..working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive in Christ.

(Eph 4.1-3,712&13: The Message)

I know of very few things which are as effective in showing me the true state of my soul as the necessity of serving my fellow-beings, and more to the point, serving as Christ would do – in love. I can gloss over my weaknesses when alone, or when in congenial company with no challenges to my pride and sense of self-satisfaction, but it is a different matter on the frontline of fellowship.

An opportunity for service may initially strike me as a way to bless others, to do God’s work in a particular sphere, and in a myriad of ways, to feel good about myself and what gifts I bring to my community. Those things may be true – God prepares good works for us, so that his body, the church, might be built up in every way and it is right that we should seek to use the gifts we have to that end. BUT, it is also true that I am not perfect, far from it in fact, and that God has much to teach me and to change in me. Did Moses, that great servant of God, not discover many uncomfortable truths about himself as he obeyed God’s call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and through 40 years of desert wandering? His final words to the people ring with the authority of one who has been tested, and has proved the faithfulness of God – and also the forgiveness of God – as the only basis for our lives, but that authority came from years of learning about his own weakness, and crucifying his pride as leader.

Christ is always my example in my dealings with others, but how easy to forget when we are frustrated by another’s failure to be and act in the ways we want – when ‘our’ project is not being carried out as we planned it. How readily we give up on those who do not share our gifts, energy, intelligence or talents but who nonetheless are alongside us in serving the body of Christ. It is never my job to condemn, ridicule, undermine or lose patience with my fellow-believer – but how often I am tempted to do so. May God have mercy on me, show me the places where pride still reigns, and love is smothered by self.

Father God, thank you for the privilege of being part of the body of Christ; let me never forget that this is all by your gift, not my merit.

Lord Jesus, thank you for the privilege of serving the Church, your body; let me never rate my gifts too high, but in continual humility see the value of what you have given to others. Let me always be willing to repent of pride, and learn to cherish each unique child of God.

Holy Spirit, thank you that you are the lifeblood, the oxygen in the veins of the body of Christ, bringing continual fresh supplies of grace, and healing, transforming power, so that I – along with my fellow believers – am being renewed in the image of Christ himself.

Following…who?

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.

(Ps 1.1-3)

Watch out for false prophets..By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 

(Matt 7.16&17)

As I urged you…stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer…these promote controversies rather than God’s work – which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about…

(1 Tim 1.3-7)

If you point these things out …you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus..train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

(1 Tim 4.6-8)

The goal of God’s work in his children’s lives is their godliness, the creation of an ever clearer reflection of himself in them, showing his glory and beauty to the world. In the same way that a silversmith purifies the metal by fire, burning off impurities until he sees his face reflected in the liquid metal surface, so also our God is working out his good purposes in us.

We can choose to cooperate with this work, to embrace our destiny with faith and hope, trusting in God to be at work in all things, and seeking to learn in every situation what his will is for us. We can choose to hunger for godliness, choose to yearn after the fruit of the spirit above all worldly ambitions and make every effort to reject those things which frustrate our fruitfulness. The psalmist celebrates the power of the word of God to grow us into fruitful disciples, and when we meditate on it – chew it over, consider it from many angles, allow it to shape our thoughts – we are transformed indeed.

But we also make choices about what kind of people we admire and emulate, whose advice we take seriously and whose lives are our example. It is about choosing such people wisely that Jesus teaches when he speaks of looking for grapes on thornbushes! It is good to have role models, but what qualities should I look for?

Firstly, I need to find people who at least claim to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, our sacrificial Lamb, the Risen and returning Judge – a tree that looks like one which ought to bear good fruit. Secondly, I need to consider what fruit their lives actually bear, since this may give the lie to their claims. Paul warns Timothy about those who claim to be christians, but who bear bad fruit in disputes, divisions, doubts and pointless speculation. The effect of their ministry is not growing godliness – in themselves or their hearers – and this is a sure sign that they cannot be trusted.

So if I am looking to be inspired and encouraged by others in my journey of faith, I need to find those who bear good fruit after the manner described by Paul – lives of godliness, showing peace and self-control, faithfulness and patience, love, joy and kindness. It may well be that those qualities are in lives which are small and quiet in the eyes of the world, and even those considered foolish – so be it, these are the things which I desire. Let me learn humbly and reverently from God’s servants wherever they may be found, recognising in them a means by which I may be drawn further into godliness.

It is also good to find teachers who can educate us in the things of God, and we can serve them in praying for their protection – the history of the church is littered with sad tales of prominent saints who were led astray, and whose status proved a temptation to which they seemed to have no defences. We are all vulnerable and none should judge another for falling, but rather pray God’s keeping from sin and deliverance from temptation for ourselves and all those called into public service for the gospel.

Lord God, I thank you for all those who teach and lead me in your ways. Keep us all from sin, and make us quick to run to you when tempted to go astray. Keep your name in honour among us, that we might above all things fear bringing it into disrepute, and strive with all our might to be found increasingly in the image of Christ. For your glory and our blessing we pray, Amen!