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It all looks a bit bleak…

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises…..In his pride the wicked does not seek him, in all his thoughts there is no room for God…His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. He says to himself, “God has forgotten, he covers his face and never sees.”

(Ps 10.1,2,4,10&11)

When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?

(Ps 11.3)

Help, Lord, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. Everyone lies to his neighbour; their flattering lips speak with deception.

(Ps 12.1&2)

Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done…They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

(Rom 1.28-31)

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.

(Ps 9.7-9)

The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm for ever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.

(Ps 33.1)

The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake. Great is the Lord in Zion; he is exalted over all the nations. Let them praise your great and awesome name – he is holy.

 (Ps 99.1-3)

It is good to allow the words of the bible to remind us that humanity has never been any purer at heart, any nobler in intent, than it is today; to see that the basic problems we face are not new, and that God is not somehow caught out by the situation in which we find ourselves today. Paul in his letter to the Roman church uses language which is completely up to date, and we recognise in the words of the psalms the very things which trouble our societies today.

It is an ugly, bleak and depressing picture. We see so much oppression, exploitation, suffering and injustice. The world’s populations are on the move fleeing from war, famine, slavery, and it always seems the poorest and weakest who suffer most, never those who are in positions of power and influence, making these things happen.

We cry with the psalmist, “How long?”, looking for God to act in judgement. And then we remember that we too are sinners: greedy, lazy, self-centred and quarrelsome. We too deserve judgement at the hands of a holy and righteous God. In his inscrutable purposes, the time for God to bring all things to an end has not yet come, he has not finished gathering in people who worship him from all the nations, and so the world goes on. And we must also believe that in his wisdom, he is permitting suffering and injustice to continue – for ends which we may never understand.

What we can know from the bible is that God does see and care about the wickedness and suffering of the world; and that his church are called to be part of his plan for addressing injustice and pain. When I feel grieved for those who are in trouble, what do I do about it? Prayer is absolutely necessary, but are there not other things? I can support campaign and action groups on poverty issues, debt cancellation, justice and reparation, support and counselling for the traumatised and displaced. There are many ways in which followers of Jesus can and should be part of his plan for hearing and acting on the cries of the poor and weak.

That doesn’t take away the struggle we have in watching wickedness prosper, and yet believing in a God who is loving and just. We must again look to the bible for our guidance in holding these things together in faith and confidence. The psalmists repeatedly affirm the greatness of God, the glory of God, his supremacy and pre-eminence. In the face of extreme suffering, the verdict of scripture is that God is, that he is good, and that no one will ever be able to accuse him of injustice when he brings all this broken and fractured world to its end.

I need to work hard at this, finding it all too easy to fall into despair, and to doubt that God will really answer my prayers – and those of so many – for him to act on behalf of the suffering and oppressed, and to judge the wicked. May I learn to focus ever more on what God says about himself in his word, and in the face of the bleakest scenarios, to share the confidence of the psalmists, worshipping and exalting their great and glorious God.

 

 

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Just so much fluffiness?

See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young…… For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel, for I myself will help you,”declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.   ………………….”Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.”

(Isa 40.10&11;41.13&14; 42.1-3)

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

(Matt 11.28-30)

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.

(Eph 4.1-3)

As followers of Jesus, those who have the fruit of his life within them being developed by the power of his spirit, we are all called to gentleness – alongside self-control, patience, joy, peace etc – to the development of a ‘kindly nature or character’ (after the dictionary definition of this quality). But what does that look like for us, in a world where kindness and gentleness are often confused with weakness, and trodden underfoot; where strength lies in might, in noise, in exerting power and status and influence, where looking after number one is paramount? Gentleness is now largely a matter of describing fabric, or the quality of a breeze, and is rarely valued in the personalities which dominate our headlines.

I believe that as we look at Jesus, we see gentleness modelled for us very clearly. Here is no doormat, no timid spirit. Jesus at times was bold, confrontational, assertive and he certainly cannot be accused of conforming to popular opinion in order to avoid uncomfortable situations!! He demonstrated the power of God to overrule the natural world, to defeat the powers of evil, and ultimately, the power of death. And yet he is commended to us as a gentle and humble man.

The prophets foretold these qualities, speaking of the coming judgement and justice which would be fulfilled under the authority of the Messiah, and yet also speaking in the most eloquent, tender words about the gentleness with which he would tend, heal and cherish his own precious ones.

I believe that gentleness speaks of strength under complete control, exercised in love to those who are weak, wounded, frail and desperately needy – which we as sinners are! I find this quality in my Lord utterly irresistible, and it is one which we greatly need to cultivate in our dealings with one another. None of us can see into the heart of another, we cannot know what struggles and wounds are being carried there – through interminable days – as our fellow believers seek to follow Jesus along the path to which he has called them. What we can do, is to handle one another with gentleness, guarding our language and tone of voice, as well as the way we use our physical strength, and fully aware of one another’s vulnerability.

If a person is irritating you so much that you are in danger of losing your temper and being harsh…..what would your gentle Lord do? Consider his manner with the confused and questioning disciples on the night before he died- he was so patient and gentle with them, in spite of his own desperate need for reassurance from his father. Their weakness called forth his own loving gentleness; out of his strength, he gave to them in their need and tempered his words to their confusion.

Let us rejoice in the gentleness of our Saviour, as he carries us in his arms; let us pray that we might have that same gentleness in our dealings with one another, that we might be a means of healing, strengthening, comforting and guiding one another, and always pointing to Christ, the perfect ‘gentle’-man.

My God…the reader of my thoughts

I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed…Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty. …”you have said harsh things against me, “says the Lord. “Yet you ask,’What have we said against you?’ “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evil doers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.'”

(Mal.3.6,7,13-15)

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked….When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny….Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

(Ps73.1-3,16,17,27&28)

Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name. “They will be mine,” says the Lord Almighty, “in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.

(Mal 3.16-18)

How easy it is to forget that while we may hide our inmost thoughts and motives from even our dearest friends, we cannot hide a single, fleeting notion from our holy, almighty and just God. How foolish we are, reckoning that because we fool some of the people, for some of the time, that somehow God – who made the mind, in all its complexity, and who alone understands the human heart because He formed it – is deceived by our lip-service and nominal obedience.

In the book of the prophet Malachi, God challenges his people, stripping away their defensive arguments, to reveal the truth of their hearts, the things they really believe about Him and about themselves. They have fallen into the classic misunderstanding which continues to dog humanity in its dealings with divinity – that somehow they can and must earn favour by going through certain prescribed motions. The absurdity of the notion, that these little rituals of sacrifice/cleansing and fasting, by insignificant mortals, can in some way alter the attitude of an eternal, unimaginably holy and powerful God, just keeps slipping away from us and we assume that our performances put God in our debt! It is beyond ridiculous, and it also betrays a complete failure to understand the character of God, and our own utter helplessness.

It is God’s favour to us – undeserved, boundless and eternal – which calls forth from us a response of worship and obedience to his revealed will. The prophet is speaking on behalf of God, beseeching them to repent of their superficial religiosity, and instead to embrace obedience from the heart, not in order to earn favour, but in order to appropriately respond to what they have received. Ingratitude, rejection of God’s love, of His rightful place as Lord, all speak of hearts which are full of pride and self-reliance. Earnest – if flawed – obedience; the desire to keep on pursuing holiness by all the means of grace at our disposal, speak of hearts which are humble, realistic, and dependent on God.

The same rituals which were dismissed as bearing no fruit by the merely religious, could be a source of encouragement, a form of true worship by those whose hearts were changed. In our day, the so-called ‘duties’ of a believer – bible reading and prayer; attendance at church and active membership in a congregation; faithful giving of time, talents and money are all means by which we may choose to be blessed if we bring the attitude of a redeemed sinner to them, instead of a self-serving, self-reliant critic of God.

Let us be on guard against this attitude of entitlement – God owes us nothing, but has given us everything we need for this life and the next. Those who try to earn salvation by their deeds; or who reject the idea of God altogether and choose to live without him, will have their reward in this life, but will have no part in the treasure-house of God when He comes to gather it for eternity. May we be faithful in proclaiming this truth to those who do not know it, and meantime live humbly depending upon His grace to us, and not our worthiness to receive it..

Celebrating the ordinary

Then I realised that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God..

(Ecclesiastes 5.18&19)

Praise the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendour and majesty. (The Lord) waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.

(Psalm 104. 1,13-15)

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 all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

(Philippians 4.6&7)

What does it take to make you realise how many gifts you receive daily from the hand of God? I know that I sit far too lightly to the bounty which is bestowed upon me constantly, and am guilty of a perverse and persistent discontent, recklessly discounting so many good things.

Perhaps you have suffered periods of illness, been confined to your bed, or to the house, even unable to move independently. Is it not the case that in the early days of your restoration to health and freedom of movement, you rejoiced in every step, every breath of fresh air? I know that has been my experience, and there is some faint memory of the depth of my gratitude for the gift of health and physical strength. But it quickly fades, and we become impatient of lingering weaknesses, or inexplicable aches and pains, choosing to focus on the negatives instead of rejoicing in the good things we have.

Perhaps you have been deprived of the company of those you love for a long period of time – due to work commitments, study arrangements, or even just the natural process by which children grow up to leave home.. How sweet it is to be reunited, to see their faces, feel their hands in ours, have their physical presence once again. And how long before their habits, their opinions, all those little things that are not quite to our liking begin to irritate us, and we long for their absence?

What fickle creatures we are, how much in this regard we fall short of the image of God in us! Our God never tires of his people – think of that for a moment…NEVER! In our most irritating moments, when we have chosen for the umpteenth time to disregard his loving care and to resent his directing of our lives – even then, he is waiting patiently for us to turn again in repentance and glad desire for a fresh start in his company along the road which he knows is best for us. We have so much to learn from him in the ways that we receive and celebrate one another – may we grow in this accepting and affirming love, willing always to see the good, and to build up our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Not every one of God’s children has enough to eat and drink, not all have the shelter and peace they need to thrive. But if those of us who do have these things fail to give thanks and appreciate them, does that help anyone? Of course not! In fact, the more grateful we are for what we have, the more aware we are of those who do not, and the more generously we will seek ways in which we may meet those needs. The gift of contented gratitude for all we receive is not one which should anaesthatise, but rather galvanise us, into reaching out to others.

Let us give thanks for simple food, seeking to restrain our greed so that we may provide for those who hunger and thirst.

Let us give thanks for health and strength, seeking to resist self-indulgence so that we may serve others whose bodies are not so vigorous.

Let us give thanks for our gifts, no matter how insignificant they may seem, so that we recognise we too have things which our God desires to use to bless his people.

Let us give thanks for the gift of contentment, recognising that God has freed us from the prison of envy and  that our personal worth is not determined by our possessions, looks, career or anything except the priceless sacrifice of Jesus for us.

Contented people are able to serve others gladly, selflessly, sacrificially and joyfully because their worth is in Christ; their peace comes from knowing him and trusting him to do all things well.

God grant us this gift of grateful content, that we may freely give…

 

 

But I will boast!

As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of  that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died. It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle, they are the new people of God.

(Gal 6.14-17)

This is what the Lord says: “Don’t let the wise boast in their wisdom, or the powerful boast in the power, or the rich boast in their riches. But those who wish to boast should boast in this alone: that they truly know me and understand that I am the Lord who demonstrates unfailing love and who brings justice and righteousness to the earth, and that I delight in these things. I, the Lord, have spoken!”

(Jer 9 23-24)

The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…. there is a subject upon which one could lavish a lifetime of study and reflection and still never reach the end! It is the pivotal point upon which all of history revolves, and by which the eternal destiny of humanity is determined. And for every individual follower, it is the foundation of their new life, the power which re-creates them as children of God with the promise of eternal life and the guarantee of his constant presence.

In the cross, God demonstrated that he was indeed a God who brings justice to the earth, because it was there that the price demanded by holiness for sin was paid – the wages of sin is death. And there too, was demonstrated the unfailing love of God, because it was God himself who paid the price, so that we might be spared! Our God, he it is that delights in justice, in unfailing love, and righteousness – that all should be done well. How great should our delight in this God be! We can most legitimately boast in our God, the only one who can fully deal with the brokenness of our hearts and our world, while at the same time restoring us to the perfect relationship with him for which we were designed.

What human wealth could ever buy a clean conscience or a quiet mind? What power on earth can bring a holy God back into fellowship with rebellious, proud and stubborn creatures? What wisdom could discern the only way to restore the broken image of God in his creatures? When we begin to understand what was achieved on the cross, then we begin to understand our great God, to glimpse the unfathomable love, the amazing grace, which are his essential character. There can be no end to the ways in which we can truthfully glory in, boast about our wonderful God.

This afternoon, I watched my small nation’s rugby team winning – against the odds – the opening game of the 2017 Six Nations tournament. It was thrilling, nerve-wracking, exhilirating – all the things a great sporting occasion can be; and I am proud tonight to be a Scot, to identify with the team in their commitment, passion, skill and doggedness. But as we all know – especially Scots! – sporting greatness is a fleeting thing, and not to be relied on for national pride or peace of mind. As individuals, we dare not invest our security or identity in such things, because they CANNOT be relied upon, they will fail us and leave us adrift and vulnerable. That is the point which Jeremiah is making when he dismisses the claims of wealth, power and wisdom to our loyalty and reliance.

There is nothing upon which it is safe to build our identity, our lives, except the Lord of unfailing love, who delights to bring justice and righteousness to the world. And it is supremely in the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord that we see this God revealed to us, when everything  needful was done to restore us. We add nothing, no matter how wise, powerful or rich we are, to the cross. If we cannot accept it without paying or contributing in some way, we have failed to understand what God is doing, and what a state we are in before his holiness. Let us rejoice in this complete work, in the cross, and be at peace!

I will not boast in anything, no gifts no power no wisdom;

But I will boast in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection!

Why should I gain from his reward? I cannot give an answer;

But this I know with all my heart, his wounds have paid my ransom.

(Stuart Townend) 

 

Shouts of triumph!

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Saviour – yes, the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others – the armies of heaven – praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

(Luke 2.8-15) 

Still the night, holy the night! 

Shepherds first saw the light,

Heard resounding clear and long, 

Far and near, the angel-song,

“Christ the Redeemer is here!”

(Joseph Mohr 1792-1848)

The angels knew what it meant, this insignificant family’s arrival in Bethlehem and the birth of a little boy in the most insanitary circumstances.

The angels knew the other side of the story, knew the plan formed from eternity, in the love of the Trinity, to redeem fallen humanity.

So many years they had seen God working patiently to bring his promise to fulfillment: watched as time and again people distrusted and disobeyed, and yet God never gave up.

They had been his messengers over those years, bringing encouragement and words from God’s heart for his people. But never had they had such good news to tell as today! This was God’s trumpet call, announcing his personal arrival in human form, to change forever the path of humankind. It would not only echo around the hills and in the ears of the shepherds, but would resound through history, reverberating down the centuries, as time marches on towards its ordained conclusion.

Here at last was the beginning of the end for evil and the power which had enslaved humanity since Eden. Here was the hero, the champion against whom nothing would be able to stand, and who would conquer death on behalf of all his beloved children. The angels had known him in his glory, the Son of the Father, one with him and sharing his glory. Now they throng the skies to see him swathed in strips of cloth, tiny hands and feet protected from the cold air, all that glory somehow poured into the miracle which is a human babe…Can this be the same person? How is it possible?! Angelic minds cannot penetrate the mystery of incarnation any more than ours, but they proclaim the glory and wonder of it nonetheless.

Today, let me listen for that angel song again. Let my heart be filled with joy and my eyes with tears of gladness, as I contemplate the glory which is God-made-man, for me, even me.

For he came for me, in my weakness and need, to show me how much I am loved. He came for me, in my loneliness and desolation, to show me the way to the home I have always wanted. He came for me, in my shame and regret, to show me that I am beautiful, the daughter of the King of Kings, and that in his name, I receive a crown of righteousness.

How I love to sing those words, of the shepherds seeing the light – can you picture it? Darkness suddenly rent apart and the rugged hills flooded with glory – no wonder they were afraid! God visited them that night, and surely for the rest of their lives, in times of darkness and fear, they would remember that visitation and be at peace. The light would shine in their hearts – Messiah has come! And the song would ring in their ears and in their memories, the whole host of heaven’s armies rejoicing at God’s outrageous love and plan of salvation.

This is the only thing that really matters today: that song is true. All the rest of the festivities are so much trimming, even distraction. But that song’s truth still shakes men and women today, transforming lives and bringing hope.

Christ the Redeemer is here!!

Only let me speak!

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, just a it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

(Romans 1.16-17

Nice people… kind and generous….so welcoming!

Is that all we are, as the body of Christ in the world, ‘Nice’?

Is our desire not to cause offence to our neighbours eroding our ability to speak truth and to share the gospel of Christ? I think it may be doing exactly that. I know that I am so afraid of offending people, of losing their attention, that I am very careful about what I say in regard to my faith and the gospel which is so precious to me. The modern passion for ‘tolerance’ is very effectively gagging Christians in their personal evangelism, and the life of the church is being smothered out of it by the kindly consideration of our neighbours toward our outdated beliefs.

With Christian friends, I can be on fire in my desire to share the good news of sin forgiven; but put me in the swimming pool changing room, with people who don’t recognise sin or who find the idea offensive, and I become a very different person! I believe that my heavenly Father sees my longing to share his love with others, and is glad. But I also reckon that my failure to speak is a source of grief, and one of my besetting sins. It is so much easier to keep putting off the difficult conversations, giving the inoffensive answers. And yet, I wonder if people would actually be surprised if I asked them one day, just what they thought about Jesus?

If I am known as a Christian, then perhaps such a question would not be offensive, just predictable, and fully in keeping with the belief I claim to live by. Perhaps, by failing to ask the question, I am undermining the witness I seek to present, being inconsistent? Is my failure to speak naturally about the Lord of my life not a direct contradiction of my faith?

I need to remember that I am not responsible for the reaction to my question, only for asking it in the first place – and ideally not asking until I have prayed and developed some basis of relationship on which to hold the conversation! But it comes down to this basic issue, put so forcefully by Paul later on in his letter to the church in Rome:

As Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 

(Romans 10.11-14)

If I have found the solid rock on which to build my life, the secure foundation for eternity and a fulness of joy which is beyond telling, then why will I not share it with those around me? I have no right to keep such good news to myself when others are being tossed around me in the storms of life, or towed under into despair and hopelessness, and eternal separation from God, from goodness, from light.

As I settle into this new community where God has placed us, I am looking to develop relationships where I might have the opportunity to speak about Christ, to introduce him to souls who don’t know they need him yet. There will be many who have already dismissed the gospel as ‘not for them’, sadly often on the basis of bad experiences of church and ‘christian’ attitudes. Perhaps I might be the means by which God opens their eyes again to the glorious possibility that He is true and loving and entirely FOR them! What an amazing privilege that would be, to watch someone come alive in Christ, and go on to grow to live for and with him.

May I be stirred up in my daily living to speak of my Lord, and to make him part of my conversation, so that those with whom I now live might be given the opportunity to call upon his name, and be saved!