Category Archives: submission

But Lord, you promised!

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.

(Proverbs 13.12)

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 

(2Cor 1.20-22)

We are human, you and I. We have hopes for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities and our world. How often have you tasted the bitterness of dashed hope? Too often to entertain the thought that everything we wish for can be ours if we will only believe in and work hard enough for it!

Where do you go with your broken expectations and hopes? Some may have been unrealistic, and in retrospect we recognise and learn from those experiences – while also acknowledging the very real pain which our disappointment has caused us. It is good to know that our Father God understands how easily we set our hearts on the wrong things, and is patient and compassionate with our grieving. By his grace, we learn to set our strongest hopes and expectations only on those things which he has promised, but even here, we must learn wisdom and discernment.

I recently spent a little time looking at the life of Sarah, wife of Abraham, and was reminded of the explicit promise which that couple received from God – a son of their own, founder of a nation which would be numerous as the sand on the shore. It was an outrageous promise, but coming from God they had no reason to doubt it would be fulfilled….No reason except human weakness and impatience, which is our common lot, so we can’t really criticise Sarah when she resorted to manipulating circumstances in order to get a son by other means! Certainly, it gave Abraham the son he craved, but it also set in motion a train of events which continues to this day to cause great trouble and grief in the world. We all have reason to regret Sarah’s decision to give her servant as child-bearer to her husband – and Abraham’s willing cooperation with that action!

In the end, God’s promise was fulfilled in the supernatural way he had always intended, and Isaac was born to the elderly parents, bringing delight and joy and that sweet fulfillment of hope which is indeed like a tree of life. If only…if only Sarah had been more holy and faithful than we are, she would have waited and trusted God even when it appeared that he had forgotten his promise. Let us be wary of judging this woman for acting as we are so often tempted to do – trying to find ways to get what we think God has promised us in any way we can make it happen! May we be restrained from acting rashly, causing more problems than we solve, and may we find ourselves willing to go on trusting, and meantime praising the God who has promised – who is good and who keeps his promises.

The shepherd boy who would one day wear the crown in Israel had learnt that lesson, and all through the long years when David – as the anointed and future King – was on the run from Saul, he never took the opportunities available to him to kill Saul or injure him in any way. He maintained his respect for the king, and waited, and waited, until his heart must at times have sickened within him and murmured that God was only waiting for David to act…

Then came the word of Saul’s death in battle, and David’s hour had come – without any need to dress up as obedience an act which would have been in truth a rebellion against God’s law – and the first thing he did was to mourn for Saul, honouring even in death the man who had pursued him so viciously  for many years.

What has God promised me? Health and happiness? No. Suffering and struggle? Yes! Let no one convince you otherwise, than that our life in this world will be marked by trouble, and our response should not be ‘why me?’ but rather ‘why not me!?’ Far more significantly, we are also promised the constant presence of our Saviour and God, dwelling in us by the Spirit and continually strengthening us, counselling and directing us. We are promised complete forgiveness, and freedom from guilt about the past, and we are promised a future more glorious, exciting, fulfilling and fun than we can possibly imagine!

All God’s promises to us, are ‘YES’ in Christ – and we don’t need to manipulate anything to receive them, but freely accept them as God’s gift to us. Oh let me learn to live in those promises, to set my heart and desire on them, that their fulfillment might be for me a tree of life!

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On saying farewells

My life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus – the work of telling others the good news about the wonderful grace of God.

So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock – his church, purchased with his own blood.

And now I entrust you to God and the message of his grace that is able to build you up and give you an inheritance with all those he has set apart for himself.

(Acts 20. 24,28,32)

Last weekend, we said farewell to our congregation here in the city, and there was so much to be thankful for and to rejoice in. Our church family are generous, open-hearted, willing to try new things, and over the years we have seen so many grow in their faith as the word preached bears fruit in their hearts. Financially, spiritually, and in the quality of the facilities available in the church building, they are in good heart, and will present an attractive package to any prospective new minister.

But before that new appointment can be made, they have to let us go, to make the break in their minds from a leader and pastor who has been there for 22 years, and to search and wait together for the person whom God has already planned and identified. They are indeed a little like sheep without a shepherd, afraid and uncertain, and there were many tearful hugs. I was reminded of the passage in Acts which records the final exhortation by Paul to his friends in the church in Ephesus, from which these verses come.

His words express our own situation so clearly, and I have found myself saying similar things time and again as our departure draws closer and I have more people to say goodbye to. It is very encouraging to see that my own thoughts have at least in some degree been the same as those of the great apostle himself – God is slowly but surely shaping my thoughts and words to do honour to him!

It is often only when saying goodbye that the depth of our affection for one another becomes evident, and all at once it becomes important that we say something significant and of long-lasting value. Often it is a person’s last words to us which remain in our minds with greatest force, colouring our thoughts and memories. So it is that I have found myself following Paul’s example, trying to make the most of that opportunity to encourage and build up.

As Paul affirms his allegiance to Christ and submission to God’s will, so I have time and again found myself explaining our call to our new church in terms of an order which it is both my duty and my delight to obey. To remain with those who love us would be easy, but disobedient, and would not result in blessing for any of us. To go, to bear the very real costs of upheaval and loss, is the only real option for a true disciple. To trust, that God who has called will provide both for our needs and those of the flock we leave behind, is our calling and God’s grace will be sufficient for us all.

As Paul exhorts his friends and fellow believers to fulfill their own calling, to obey in the place where God has put them for the present, so I have encouraged our church family to pursue God’s will for them in this place, not to drift away because we are no longer here. While they are still part of this church family, they can be good for one another, can love and work together to reach out with the good news of the gospel, even as we will be doing in our new place.

And finally, even as Paul did, I have commended my dear church family, the ones who helped me raise my children, who have loved me through the loss of both my parents, who have accepted and never judged me, to the keeping of the lover of their souls. They have helped me to prove God’s faithfulness in keeping his promises, because so often they have been the means by which he has done so. It is surely the most important thing that we can pray for one another; that we might rely utterly on God, in all things, to build us up and keep our faith in  him secure against all trials.

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.

(Romans 15.13)

Whose job is it anyway?

I may have done the planting and Apollos the watering but it was God who made the seed grow! The planter and the waterer are nothing compared with him who gives life to the seed. Planter and waterer are alike insignificant, though each shall be rewarded according to his particular work.

In this work, we work with God..

(1 Corinthians 3.6-9, JB Phillips translation)

This blossom is on the apple tree in our garden, borne by a carefully trained branch, on a well pruned tree which only last year gave its first real harvest of delicious eating apples. There is some relationship between the care given by the gardener, and the fruit of the tree, but ultimately, we recognise the truth of what Paul is saying in this extract from his letter to the Corinthians: it is God alone who brings forth the life and fruit of the plant in due season, and to him alone belongs the credit!

As I prepare to lay down my responsibilities in order to move to our new place of ministry, I find that I have fallen into the trap of thinking that the work which I am leaving is somehow ‘my work’. I find myself unhappy about leaving a less-than-perfect arrangement behind me, or not finding people to take over my particular role before I leave. And as I consider why I am so upset, I find some very unattractive things going on.

I am behaving as though my worth and value depend upon the work I do instead of upon the identity I have as a child of God.

I am assuming that I will be judged upon the work I do, and if it is found wanting, then I am afraid of the condemnation of other people – instead of entrusting myself to God as my sole judge.

I am resenting the fact that other people are not willing to step up and take on jobs which can be demanding and time-consuming; when I know that I sometimes resent those same demands! I am being unloving, lacking compassion, and above all, not trusting God to provide for the work which he wants to do in his own way.

It is a painful grace when God shows us what is really going on in our hearts and minds, because we are ashamed of the reality – the ugliness and depth of pride which are revealed. But it is still grace, because he is giving us the chance to repent, to learn, and to move forward into a new way of living.

As I considered this, I thought of the great apostle Paul, who was required so many times in his ministry to pack up and leave – sometimes after very short periods – and who must have learnt very quickly how to handle this experience of relinquishment. In these verses from the first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul lays out very clearly his understanding of his role in God’s work – he describes himself as ‘insignificant’ and ‘nothing’. Now we know that in other places Paul describes his labours on behalf of the churches in great detail, and encourages them to follow his example of service and sacrifice. So he is not claiming to do nothing, but rather that in comparison to God, his role is ‘as nothing’.

God has chosen to give us, his children, the privilege of serving him, of working with him as he prepares for the return of Christ and the coming of the new creation. This is our great purpose in life, and one which we can be rightly proud of. But, we are not responsible for its completion. In fact, we only ever play a passing role, and must always be ready to be moved on and let God deal with what we leave behind. So it comes back to trust again..

Am I willing to trust God for the jobs I used to do? Am I willing to let things get messy, or even stop altogether and still believe that he is in charge and that I have not failed him? Am I willing to put to death the pride which longs to hear the praise of people for the ‘successful’ things I have done?

As I begin to see how deeply my pride is dragging me down into anxiety, frustration and resentment, I long to be free of it, and gladly confess that I need to be changed.

May God who honoured me by allowing me to serve him give me grace to let go and not fret, but recognise that obedience is what I am called to. May I be content to rest in his approval alone, and not look for affirmation anywhere else. May he continue to expose the roots of pride which disguise themselves so effectively, and cause me to stumble.

To him be the glory, in all things, for ever and ever, Amen!

The foundation of obedience..

Take off take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy..

(Joshua 5.15)

So Joshua has successfully led the wandering people of God’s promise into the land where they are to settle. He has seen the floods of the Jordan back up to create a dry pathway for their feet, and heard the thunder of returning waters after the last foot left the river bank. He knows from his spies that the people who live in the land – even in the great fortified cities like Jericho – are terrified at the coming of this bunch of nomads, because of the reputation of the God who goes with them.

He could be forgiven for becoming a little presumptuous about the next steps, for assuming that he just had to walk up and challenge the gates of Jericho, to see everyone flee in terror. But it seems he was not – one of the things I love about the stories of Joshua, are the way they reveal an utterly humble and faithful servant heart, I look forward to meeting this hero of God’s story in heaven and hearing all about it!

Joshua went wandering, prowling around the hills near the city, perhaps debating in his mind how God would want him to proceed. He is answered, in a heart-stopping encounter with an armed stranger, who is revealed to be neither an enemy, nor a member of his own army! This is the true commander, come to remind Joshua that God is God, and owes alliegance to no man. It is the work of God which will open the land to his people, not the strength of Joshua’s strategies or soldiers. The question is, where does Joshua’s alliegance lie? Has he become proud – as Saul would later in Israel’s history – and unwilling to wait on God’s leading?

There is no question in Joshua’s mind, as he drops to the ground in reverence, and identifies the stranger as ‘my Lord’, asking what the instructions might be. We should be cheering this faithful servant, rejoicing that God has answered him so directly and convincingly! But we can also learn from him, and the way that God dealt with Joshua – as he dealt also with Moses all those years before in the desert encounter with a burning bush.

Our God is a holy God – that means that anything impure is utterly abhorrent to him and it cannot abide in his sight, but will be consumed as if by fire. Joshua, this mere man, a creature of flesh and weakness even as we are, knew that to be on holy ground was a terrifying thing, fraught with danger. He surely knew as the writer to the Hebrews would later put it that ‘It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.‘(Heb 10.31)

We shrink from the idea of a God who should be feared, preferring to dwell on the wonderful love which is revealed through Christ’s life and death for us. And it is good so to dwell. But the same holy and righteous God is active in the life of Christ. We see him condemning those who reject his kingdom, assuring all who listen that those who continue to shut their ears to God will suffer and know his wrath. This is not easy reading, it should frighten us! Our God is above all one who must be taken seriously – both in his love for us, and also his power and holiness.  Do we? Do I sometimes sit far too casually with my familiar sins, instead of seeing them as my living God does – as the appalling and deadly thing they are? Does my obedience and desire for growing holiness of life really spring from a growing awe at the God who has called me to be His own?

I believe that Joshua served God gladly, with joy and even pride in what God had called him to do. But there was a right spirit about his service that I desire for myself – a spirit of prostrate worship before an utterly holy God; to whom nothing but perfect obedience should be given, because nothing less could be an acceptable expression of his love and devotion.

May God grant us each an ever deepening grasp of his beautiful, terrible holiness, blindingly bright, and irresistibly lovely, so that we might worship and serve Him worthily, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When your place is in the shadows..

Cursed be the day I was born!

Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?

(Jeremiah 20.14&18)

My splendour is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.

(Lamentations 3.18)

The prophet Jeremiah is not perhaps our favourite personality in cast of bible characters. He has a name for gloom, for predicting disaster and generally spoiling the party! It is quite true that much of his writing is filled with warnings of judgement to come, of rebuke to a stubbornly rebellious people from their long-suffering God. Jeremiah spoke the heart of God; a broken heart, a jealous heart, which could no longer hold back the tide of invasion, destruction and exile which would finally destroy the last hold of idolatry from the heart of the people whom He loved.

But do you ever think about the cost which this ministry was to Jeremiah? As you take the time to read his words – both the long prophesy and also the devastating book of Lamenations which follows it – you find a desperate man, bereft of comfort and wrestling with the God who called him to this appalling ministry.

In his words, his grief, anger and despair, I find comfort for my own struggles. Am I the only follower of Jesus who is disappointed with some of the ways that God has chosen to direct their life? Does everyone else really live in the sunlight all the time? I beg to doubt it, and I thank God that in the words of this faithful prophet, we find permission to speak our pain; and comfort that we are not alone in it.

Very few of us are called to such a difficult path as that which faced Jeremiah – and that alone should give us cause to rejoice, and to see that we are greatly blessed to have been spared much pain! The point is that Jeremiah was doing exactly what God had called him to do, and yet his life was incredibly hard and sad. How often do we fall into the trap of thinking that a difficulty or sadness in our lives is a sign that we should be changing something, “fixing it” in any way that seems good to us? I believe this can be a very clever distraction and even a trap for us, by which the devil distracts us from faithful obedience into a fretful dissatisfaction with God, and even outright disobedience.

God is not primarily in the business of making life easy for his children. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t, because the bible never promises that He will. Instead, we are assured that we will suffer; we are told that the world will hate us for Jesus’ sake; we are reminded that until the coming of the new creation, there will be sin, pain, death and suffering of all kinds. God is in the business of calling his people, of making all things new, and only he can see the full picture of which our lives are a tiny part. He is building a kingdom, making the name of his son known throughout the world and creating disciples. My role in the process will not be clear to me, and indeed I may feel it is completely insignificant if it has any value at all. BUT.. if I am making choices about my life directed by God’s word, desiring always to obey and glorify him then I will be a useful tool in his hand and bring him pleasure through my service.

So, whether it is a job which becomes incredibly difficult and challenging to sustain – seeming to call for qualities which I do not possess – or a relationship which drives me continually to my knees in prayer for strength to go on giving love, forgiving hurt and trusting God for the future; in all and any such callings, I have the example of Jeremiah to draw on in my struggles. What did he do? Over and over again, and often in the midst of a prophecy, he turns to God in his agony and pours it all out. First the pain, the anger of being in such a difficult position; and then his determination to trust God to be good and to be faithful to him.

Heal me , O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved, for you are the one I praise. 

They keep saying to me, “Where is the word of the Lord? Let it now be fulfilled!” I have not run away from being your shepherd; you know I have not desired the day of despair….do not be a terror to me; you are my refuge in the day of disaster.

(Jeremiah 17.14-16)

May we know and share the faith which allowed Jeremiah to cling to God in the darkness and to continue in faithful submission to the calling which he had received. Our Lord quailed in Gethsemane at the prospect of pain which lay before him, but chose obedience – may we by His strength be enabled to do likewise.