Category Archives: Sovereignty

Just keeping going..

A thanksgiving psalm.

Shout out to the Lord, all the earth, worship the Lord in rejoicing, come before Him in glad song.

Know that the Lord is God. He has made us, and we are His, His people and the flock He tends.

Come into His gates in thanksgiving, His courts in praise.

Acclaim Him, bless his name. For the Lord is good, forever His kindness, and for all generations His faithfulness.

(Ps 100. R Alter translation)

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: 

a time to be born and a time to die, and time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…..a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace… 

I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning.

(Ecc 3.1-4,7,8,10-11)

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

(2 Thess 2.16&17)

As I write this week, I am conscious of the shadows cast by heavy burdens in the lives of many dear friends, and also of the national and global challenges which we face in these days. It would be so easy to give in to despair. But, as those for whom the gospel of Jesus Christ is truth and light, we must cultivate a different reaction – a lived outcome of faith in a sovereign God, which is a steadfast heart.

We believe that our God is on the throne, and that his plans for creation and for his people are being fulfilled. We believe in his promises to save us from sin, and through all manner of suffering which life in a fallen and sinful world must involve. Therefore, we look expectantly for daily blessings and tokens of divine love, the signs of his presence among us and his power at work. We trust they are there, and then look for them! The testimony of God’s people down through the ages is that even in their deepest sorrow, and fiercest trial, they have seen his hand and heard his voice – when our time comes, we too will surely know this care and provision.

We choose to act responsibly, taking up the duties which are part of our place in life and community – trusting God to be at work, using them in us and for others, no matter how small or trivial they may seem. We keep on reminding ourselves that life will always and inevitably involve pain and loss, so that we need not fear these things, because our God knows our frailty and has provided for us.

We choose to worship God by persevering, and continually affirming God’s power and glory. We worship by enjoying God’s good gifts of life, creation, family and friends, culture and creativity, fun and laughter as part of our daily bread, things that he wants us to appreciate and use well.

We worship by praying for ourselves – and others – the perspective which he alone gives, to see our troubles in this world as light and momentary in the face of eternity and the promised glory which awaits. This in no way diminishes these trials, saying they are nothing, but by his help we refuse to let them dominate and overshadow our lives. We pray for ourselves – and others – that we might recognise God’s provision against our troubles when the occasion arises. We do not anticipate and dread these things, but rather in trusting, and realistic faith, we daily commit ourselves to our Lord, Saviour and God. Humankind is born to trouble; we will have struggles and pain, death will come to us all. But as believers, none of these things should be able to paralyse us on a daily basis and rob us of joy.

Heavenly Father, worthy of our praise and the adoration of all creation, we come before you in our frailty, praying that we might not dishonour your name by living in fear and mistrust. Grant us courage to live each day well, however insignificant our lives may seem, that we might worship you by our trust and cheerful spirits. When troubles rise, Lord be our refuge and provide for our need, that we may know and rejoice in your faithfulness. For the sake of our Lord Jesus, your son, our Saviour we pray these things, Amen

Measuring ministry…

He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.” But I said, “I have laboured to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due to me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” And now the Lord says – he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honoured in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength – he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

(Isa 49.5&6)

Jesus called [the disciples] together and said,”.. whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Matt 20.25-28)

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant… he humbled himself and became obedient to death..

(Phil 2.5-8)

Followers of Jesus, people of the Way, called to a life, not merely an intellectual creed or habitual observances. My faith, unless it be manifest in works – in ministry and a godly life – is dead. But do you find it difficult to discern sometimes what your ministry is? It may not involved anything explicitly evangelistic, no teaching and training of disciples over text books and bible commentaries. You may not be the one who leads children’s work or speaks boldly at every mission prayer meeting… that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a ministry, a role to which God has called you and for which you are given strength, insight and perseverance each day. In fact, there may be several things going on at once!

The work of child-rearing; of house-keeping; of integrity and compassion brought to the daily tasks of your employment; of volunteering  among your community; of caring for elderly relatives and neighbours; of cleaning up toilets and washing dishes; of doing DIY and gardening chores for others; of praying in private, again and again and again for the lost sheep of the Great Shepherd. All of these are ministries, and there will be so many more, reflecting the gifts, situations and opportunities of God’s children around the world. Let us pray for one another, and encourage one another in these less visible ministries, where our service for the Lord is not under a spotlight, but is nonetheless our opportunity to delight in copying Jesus’ servant heart and humility.

In our human frailty, we long to be rewarded, praised and recognised for our contributions, and to see fruit for our labours. I think our Father knows this, and therefore he also understands when our particular ministries don’t seem to bear fruit and we are tempted to be discouraged. We can pray for one another here too – let’s be honest about our discouragements, in order that we may serve one another faithfully by restoring our focus on Jesus. We are called to serve, but we are not promised an experience of the outcome of our service. We may never see fruit for our labours – does that mean they are worthless?

By no means (as Paul would say!). As the passage from Isaiah says, our reward is surely in the Lord’s hand – to be kept for us until his good time. He decides what fruit will come, and whether we should see it or not. Perhaps it is better for us – sparing us the danger of pride and self-conceit – to be delivered from success in the world’s eyes. Perhaps we couldn’t cope with the potential shipwreck of our faith on the admiration and praise of other people!

Loving Heavenly Father, thank you that in Jesus we have a perfect example of life and ministry to follow. Help us to sacrifice our pride, our desire for human praise, even our natural hunger for fruit for our labours, at the feet of Jesus. It is our privilege to serve in his name, to love in his strength, and to seek his glory. When others see fruit, receive praise and even perhaps take credit for our labour, let us humbly rejoice that you are over all, and that you have a greater reward than we can possibly imagine awaiting us in glory. Make us content with whatever you choose to give, or withhold, so long as you fulfil your purpose in us. For Jesus’s sake, and his glory we pray, Amen.

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

A wider vision..

 

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us,

Selah

that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations. May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for you, for you rule the peoples justly and guide the nations of the earth.

Selah

May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you.

(Ps 67.1-5)

I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart; before the “gods” I will sing your praise. I will bow down towards your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. When I called, you answered me; you made me bold and stout-hearted. May all the kings of the earth praise you, O Lord, when they hear the words of your mouth. May they sing of the ways of the Lord, for the glory of the Lord is great.

(Ps 138.1-5)

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)

Pray.. for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

(Eph 6.19&20)

I grew up in a congregation which met weekly for prayer on a Saturday evening. It wasn’t the kind of meeting where we shared personal concerns, but rather an ambitious and confident gathering which every week prayed around the country and around the world. The focus was on what our sovereign God was doing through his ministers, missionaries and through the unfolding of history.

I am profoundly thankful for this background to my early christian life, which I was privileged to continue in other churches which I attended. Sometimes, it seemed a great effort to drag myself out on a dreich night, sometimes my own affairs pressed hard and I was tempted to give way to self pity. But I never regretted making the effort to overcome the temptation, to face the weather or my own weariness, in order to join with others in lifting God’s world up to him for his will to be done and his name glorified.

This discipline of entering into intercession for God’s people and the growth of his kingdom is such a privilege, but also a blessing! I would encourage anyone who is feeling overwhelmed by the issues facing their own congregation to get involved in the work of prayer for the world. It lifts us out of our own lives for a little and shows us something of the breadth of God’s vision for our planet and our race. God is working all the time to fulfill his purposes – raising up and casting down nations, just as he did in the time of the prophets. He is moving people around the world in order that they might hear the gospel and take it back home to their own tribe and tongue. He is sending the light of Christ into prisons and detention centres, as his persecuted saints witness in their cells to his love and the power of the cross and the empty tomb. He is using poverty-stricken believers in war-torn countries to show his love to their displaced neighbours, bringing healing and hope.

Our God is not chained, he cannot be controlled by border guards and oppressive regimes, or silenced by control of the media. Our God will be glorified in all the earth, and he invites us to be his co-workers in making that happen, as we pray for others and also grow in courage to witness ourselves to our neighbours. Let this work of intercession be an encouragement to you when you feel there is no future for the gospel in your neighbourhood. The God who has called you there is faithful, and has work for you to do – even if it is the silent witness of loving, serving and forgiving others who refuse to let you talk to them about your saviour.

Yes, the world has many troubles and sorrows; human rebellion against God continues to work itself out in pain and destruction, the degradation of both people and the planet we inhabit. But, our God is on the throne, and we are under his wing. We have his authority to preach good news, and to pray for others who are also reaching out in his name. Let us, like the psalmist, cry out to be made bold and stout-hearted that we might join with confidence in the work of growing the kingdom, and interceding for one another. 

Stout… but in a good way!

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed. I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfils his purpose for me. He sends from heaven and saves me, rebuking those who hotly pursue me. 

Selah

God sends his love and faithfulness. I am in the midst of lions; I lie among ravenous beasts – men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth. They spread a net for my feet – I was bowed down in distress. They dug a pit in my path – but they have fallen into it themselves. 

Selah

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast: I will sing and make music. Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.

(Ps 57)

Humble yourselves.., under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be self controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith… And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong and firm and steadfast.

(1 Pet 5.6-10)

How often the psalmist gives us words, helps us find relief for pent up feelings and concerns, and the expression of the roller-coaster which happens inside as we face the ups and downs of life. In Psalm 57, David is in acute distress; on the run from Saul and in danger of losing his life. He has no power or authority in the situation, but clings for dear life to the promises of God, the God who has been his lifelong companion and in whose name Samuel anointed David as the future king.

David is quite realistic about the situation – and rightly estimates his enemies as ruthless men who would destroy him. But rather than simply bewailing the situation, David is enabled by the Holy Spirit to stand firm, calling his scattering and fearful thoughts back to focus on the God in whom his trust lies, instead of the threats which lie so close.

Here is the key for me, as I face major threats and discouragements, or merely the daily trials and disappointments which are the lot of humankind in a fallen world. Will I chose, like David, to ensure that as I bring my concerns and fears to God, I am continually disciplining my thoughts to focus on the strength, goodness and faithfulness of the One who hears me? Or will I instead turn my prayers into litanies of self-pity, continual recounting of my trials and a refusal to acknowledge that God is on the throne of my life, but also over the whole world, and is at work for his good purposes even if I can’t see them?

David prayed for help from God – in other words, he humbled himself and didn’t even pretend that he could deal with this situation safely alone. Will I follow that example? Will I ask God to help me exert the self control needed to stand firm in the face of troubles large and small? Without that divine assistance, I will surely fall into despair and fail to honour God. But if I follow David in casting my burdens at the feet of the sovereign who has given his life for me, then surely I will be able to face what comes stoutly, confident in His strength and trusting that my obedience is the channel through which His victory is realised in my life.

These words from the daily prayers of John Baillie are a monthly reminder to me of the absolute necessity to humble myself and depend upon God, may they help us all to pursue our way like steadfast followers, confident and uncomplaining, looking to Christ our leader and friend as we go.

Oh Lord my God… give me grace, I beg Thee, to understand the meaning of such afflictions and disappointments as I am called upon to endure. Deliver me from all fretfulness. Give me a stout heart to bear my own burdens. Give me a willing heart to bear the burdens of others. Give me a believing heart to cast all burdens upon thee.

(from ‘A Diary of Private Prayer’ by John Baillie,1936)

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)

Whose headlines?

The Lord reigns for ever; he has established his throne for judgement. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice. The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.”

(Ps 9.7-10)

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

(Jn 16.33)

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

(Rom 5.1-5)

It is some years since I stopped watching news programmes on TV, and I mean stopped altogether, not just the late night bulletin which would upset and depress me just in time to go to bed…. all of them. My preferred radio station has the briefest possible bulletins, and no chat shows or analysis programmes. Our family newspaper is only skimmed by me, and I pay more attention to the articles on rugby union than UK politics!

Why? Because I am fully aware of the impact on my attitude to life and to the world around me that the ‘news’ can have. How often do we hear really good news on the radio or TV? When did a headline in the papers last make you think, ‘How really wonderful!’? The sad reality is that bad news sells, attracts and keeps attention, and so our media news channels focus on that – on disagreement, on the dramas of international disputes, on natural disasters and the threats of more.

I know that some outlets are more reliable than others when it comes to an accurate and unbiased reporting; I know that some sources are more likely to take account of all the facts and avoid pursuing some political agenda of their own. But, I also know that since none can actually take a broad, complete picture, they will inevitably distort and fail to convey the full picture.

And so, as a follower of Jesus, I choose to place little weight in the news as reported. I choose instead to rely on the statements by the one who truly sees and knows all, who holds the nations in his hand and sees into every heart, discerning motives and desires which are hidden from the world. I choose to trust God’s headlines over those of the media, and to find in his viewpoint, my security and my analysis of the situation.

There is so much more going on than we ever hear about. There are so many things which are good, and true and beautiful that never make the news. God’s love is in action, all around me people are caring and giving and celebrating because He is, and has loved them. I believe that only eternity will show the full significance of all the apparently ‘small’ good things that are happening all the time. If I am to hold a balanced view, I need to make sure that the reality of God’s love and goodness, of his beauty and power are at the forefront of my mind, balancing the pain, evil and misery which is also part of our broken world.

And what are God’s headlines?

The Lord reigns for ever. He will judge in righteousness. He has overcome this world’s evil, and the victory is given to all who trust in him for forgiveness and eternal life. We are on the winning side! Whenever you are being overwhelmed by the latest tidal wave of bad news, dear friends, take a step back and remember what God says about this world and all that is happening and will take place.

Not only is our Lord reigning already, but he is also present with his people in their journey through this place so painfully compounded of joy and sorrow, light and darkness, beauty and ugliness. This holiness came and lived with our sinfulness. Nothing that we encounter can shock or defeat him. Nothing that the darkness hides goes unseen by him. We never walk alone….

So much good news, from the most trustworthy source imaginable: my friends I pray that we might never lose sight of it, and might indeed discern it every day in the lives of those around us – the faithful love of a spouse for a failing partner; the committed work of missionaries, carers, healthworkers and emergency services; the unselfish generosity of neighbours and the positive community efforts to care for the weakest and least visible in their midst. God’s headlines may not always be the most dramatic, but they will always help me to walk more steadily through our troubled world, and to offer hope to all who will receive it.

On feeling very, very small…

[God] spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing. He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight. He covers the face of the full moon, spreading his clouds over it. He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness. The pillars of the heavens quake…By his breath the skies became fair;… and these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him! Who then can understand the thunder of his power?

(Job 26.7-14)

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. You hem me in – behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain…How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.

(Ps 139.1-6,17&18) 

Can you spot the boat in the picture? It is almost invisible, lost in the sheer expanse of the horizon as the sea opens beyond the mouth of the loch. Every wise sailor knows that they must go carefully into open waters, the forces arrayed against them are huge and must be reckoned with. How then do we – as tiny craft upon a great ocean of life in this world – venture with confidence?

Many years ago, a dear saint in my congregation gave me a little card, a bookmark and remembrance which I still have, bearing the words, “My boat is small, your sea so vast: Dear Lord protect me.” We do well to be lost in admiration and worship as we consider the scale of God’s creative powers as displayed in our world and the unimagineable reaches of space beyond. We do well to feel how very small and insignificant we are on this little green planet, lost among billions of other human beings, present for a tiny moment in time and then lost to sight and memory, leaving no trace of our passing.

This sense of our transience and irrelevance is one of the things that God uses to call people to seek him – since the eternal likeness to himself which is implanted in every person cries out against it. Somewhere deep within, we believe that we matter, that we have purpose and value, and yet…behold how great the ocean, how unmoved by humanity are the mountains and the great winds. 

This is one of the many blessings we receive in the gospel, as we join God’s covenant family and share in his promises and purposes in the world. We discover that while our sense of inadequacy and smallness remain, we now know that God the creator and sustainer of all things knows and cares intimately for us. We have been brought into a personal, loving relationship with the one who keeps the stars in their courses, who sees and rules the great beasts of the deep and who holds our planet in its life-supporting place in the universe. How marvellous to realise that although we are as dust on the ground, yet we belong to the awesome, holy and good God who made all things. Our frailty no longer defines our future – He does. Our past sins, and present failings no longer define our future – He does. Our tiny efforts to please him, to labour for his glory and the building of the kingdom do not define our future – He does. 

My friends, as we today consider how small we are, how easily lost within the vastness of creation and humanity, let us rejoice that we are never lost to the God who made us, who saved us in love to live for and with him. Let that knowledge bring peace and freedom to venture out with courage into the smooth or turbulent waters that lie ahead, trusting the great navigator to keep us just where we should be, right under his eye and in his hand.

When there seems no way out of the woods..

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

(Isa 46.3,4, 9&10)

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

(2 Cor 4.7-9)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the fields seem barren..

Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the Lord alone are righteousness and strength.’ All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame. But in the Lord all the descendants of Israel will be found righteous and will exult.

(Isa 45.22-25)

He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.

(Lk 10.16)

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God…I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes..for in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last..

(Rom 1.1,16&17)

You must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed..by the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men..

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 3.3-9)

When all that I am is for God, and it seems that he has chosen to put me on the shelf. Oh Lord, have mercy!

When I can see that he has gifted me with abilities and character crafted to his work, and he calls me to situations where those abilities are not needed. Oh Lord, have mercy!

When I know that he has called me to share the gospel, to speak his word to anyone and everyone, to give the shocking invitation of illuminating grace to those in darkness, and he surrounds me with people who politely, firmly and tolerantly refuse to let me speak..Oh Lord, have mercy!

When my heart burns to see his glory in transformed lives, to see communities healed and individuals blossoming in the light of his love, and he permits me to be smothered by indifference. Oh Lord, have mercy!

When I have promised to serve the body of Christ in a particular situation, looking to see his power at work in spite of the weakness of human institutions, and instead am faced with decline, denial, the collapse of vision and hope on every side. Oh Lord of the church, have mercy!

This is the lived experience of so many of God’s faithful under-shepherds today, on their knees before their Lord, begging for some sign that he still has worthwhile work for them to do, wondering why he called and gifted them only to set them aside to waste away in the dying churches of the west. There is only so much that one preacher, pastor or teacher can do, and without the work of the Holy Spirit, there will be no fruit for all their labour.

The prophets and faithful servants of God have known this experience – think of Elijah despairing in the wilderness, of Jeremiah called to preach to a people who WOULD NOT listen – and it is one of the hardest things that he calls his followers to do, to be apparently redundant.

No one wants to see life drifting by without satisfying outcomes for their work, to feel abilities atrophy for lack of use, to sense the springs of life and zest for the task dry up and vanish. The good news burns within them, they feel shame that they cannot reach their communities and give this priceless news of forgiveness and life eternal. And it is very, very hard to find reason to hope. We know in our hearts that God could break into our country, our culture like an earthquake, breaking the thick protective coating of indifference, sending men and women running to find someone who can answer their desperate questions about eternal things. But we also know that – for his own good reasons – it hasn’t happened yet, and we begin to doubt that it will.

Friends, let us pray for our pastors, and teachers, those called to ministry and leadership. Let us intercede for them, praying against despair and for a fresh anointing of courage. Pray that in their sense of futility, God will meet them and teach them that obedience and submission to him in this situation are not wasted. Let us pray for ourselves as their flock, that we might grow in our own faith and hope, believing that God will yet raise up many in our land to call him Lord, and that we might be privileged to serve him and be part of that revival.