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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!

Such good news!

“Is anyone thirsty?
    Come and drink—
    even if you have no money!
Come, take your choice of wine or milk—
    it’s all free!
 Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?
    Why pay for food that does you no good?
Listen to me, and you will eat what is good.
    You will enjoy the finest food.

 “Come to me with your ears wide open.
    Listen, and you will find life.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you.
    I will give you all the unfailing love I promised to David.
 See how I used him to display my power among the peoples.
    I made him a leader among the nations.
 You also will command nations you do not know,
    and peoples unknown to you will come running to obey,
because I, the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, have made you glorious.”

 Seek the Lord while you can find him.
    Call on him now while he is near.
 Let the wicked change their ways
    and banish the very thought of doing wrong.
Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them.
    Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously.

 “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
 For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.

 “The rain and snow come down from the heavens
    and stay on the ground to water the earth.
They cause the grain to grow,
    producing seed for the farmer
    and bread for the hungry.
 It is the same with my word.
    I send it out, and it always produces fruit.
It will accomplish all I want it to,
    and it will prosper everywhere I send it.
 You will live in joy and peace.
    The mountains and hills will burst into song,
    and the trees of the field will clap their hands!
 Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow.
    Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up.
These events will bring great honor to the Lord’s name;
    they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love.”

It has been a long week..last Sunday we had our last meal together as a family in Glasgow, and by Tuesday evening, we were in the new house, surrounded by boxes, shell-shocked but thankful for all the mercies which had attended our removal. Beautifully dry weather, exemplary removal men, and a house which was clean and ready for us to move into – thanks to the efforts of our new congregation in finishing off the alterations and getting a superlative team of cleaners on the job!

I have been unable to think straight, to contemplate much beyond the next box and where to bestow its contents, my body manifesting the stress through pain and a weariness I have never experienced before. It is at times like this that faith is a matter of just keeping going, trusting that our feelings are transient, and not the grounds of our salvation or God’s love for us! I have been hard to live with, and yet my faithful Lord has been ever present, tenderly bearing with my weakness and helping me recognise my blessings! I am so grateful for his patience and covenanted love for me in such circumstances.

Last night, my husband and our new congregation made promises to love and serve our great God together in this place, in mutual love and faithfulness – a solemn and joyous occasion, like a marriage ceremony in its formal vows made before God. We admit that this is not about feelings, it is a commitment of the will, made in obedience to God; made in trust that by his power, we will keep faith with him and one another in the days ahead. It was good to sing, pray and hear God’s word together, including these from Isaiah, a triumphant declaration by God about the power and priceless treasure which is his word to us.

Since I have been unable to think coherently enough to write for myself this week, I leave you with the words of God through the prophet, because it is his word, and the power of God through that word which is good news for our own lives and also the work to which we are all called. We obey, but it is God who is at work, and we look forward in this place to seeing how his word will bear fruit in lives transformed by his love and forgiveness.

Jesus Christ, the apple tree?

The tree of life my soul hath seen, laden with fruit, and always green,

The trees of nature fruitless be, compar’d with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel, by faith I know, but ne’er can tell,

The glory which I now can see, in Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought, and pleasure dearly I have bought; 

I missed of all but now I see ’tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m wearied with my former toil, here I will sit and rest a while; 

Under the shadow I will be of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

With great delight I make my stay, there’s none shall fright my soul away,

Among the sons of men I see, there’s none like Christ the apple tree.

I’ll sit and eat this fruit divine, it cheers my heart like spiritual wine.

And now this fruit is sweet to me, that grows on Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive;

Which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.

(  Anon , first published in the 18th century)

Old songs can be hard to sing, hard to understand, because their language is antique and unwieldy, words have shifted in their meaning, and images and allegories which were once familiar are now strange.

Many of the older songs traditionally sung at Christmas come under this heading, and I appreciate that for this reason, few modern leaders choose to use them in congregational worship. But if – like me – you have enough of a taste for old language, for rich imagery in praise, then there is great sweetness in these pieces.

The picture of a tree full of fruit and goodness is an attractive one, and for the Christian, the image immediately conjures up the tree of the Garden of Eden – of the knowledge of good and evil – where humankind first rebelled against God and rejected his authority in their lives. But the tree of life is described in detail in Revelation 22, with its continual fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations. This tree is not a source of curse and loss, but of healing and life! And we know that it is in Christ, by his work on the cross, that we are healed and restored to newness of life.

The beauty of Christ’s love for us, that heart-piercing loveliness which brings us to our knees in adoration of the one who counted us worth dying for, makes this tree the one above all which we cherish, and prefer. Nowhere else are we so satisfied as here, and here we rest, as in the shade of a tree on a hot day. In Christ we rest, because all the labour of our salvation was his, not ours, and he has extended to us all the privileges of glory to treasure.

And so we live by his fruit, because it is the forgiveness which he won for us which lifts us out of darkness into light and God’s favour; it is the new life which is ours in him that enables us to live in hope in this world and with confidence for the next; it is the constant presence of his spirit within us, like the food which nurtures our bodies, that feeds our souls, our faith, our walk with God. If I do not eat, I die; and if I refuse the fruit of my precious Lord, then surely I will starve and waste away, and the life which Christ died to give me will be a travesty, a ghost and dreadful to see.

So as I anticipate the feast of Christmas, celebrating the coming of Jesus, God with us, I will feast on the great images which deepen my understanding of him – the Shepherd; the Gate; the Water of Life; the Bread of Life; the Alpha and the Omega; the bright morning star; the Messiah; the son of David… and the apple tree!

May we be richly nourished in the days ahead..

It’s all just so… wrong!

O God, do not keep silent; be not quiet, O God, be not still.

See how your enemies are astir, how your foes rear their heads. with cunning they conspire against your people; they plot against those you cherish.

(Psalm 83. 1-3)

Do you ever get really desperate with God about the mess that things are in? I do, I find myself full of questions and anger that so much beauty, love, and goodness are being assaulted, wasted and destroyed on a daily basis. I get furious that God’s people across the world are being oppressed, attacked and martyred every month. I despair over the ways that the family of God, the church, the body of Christ, manages to misrepresent the truth about its Lord – we fight and quarrel, we stand over in judgement against one another; we acquire wealth and status, and love to sit in the seats of power, while neglecting to love our needy neighbours and to wear the garment of humility in all our dealings with men.

It is therefore with great relief that I turn to the Psalms, to the book of songs recorded for the people of God to use in worship and in prayer, and from which generations have been blessed. These songs are not like many of those we sing nowadays, which might give the impression that being a Christian is an easy or instantly fulfilling life. Very few of our modern writers manage to accurately mirror the truth about our life of faith, with all its struggles, doubts and darkness – which are not a passing phase, but things we will live with until God takes us home and makes us new.

But the psalmists know real life. Their songs speak to my own situation, and give me words to use in prayer and worship as I come before God, as I live before him in daily life in this broken world. Do you ever think of your lament as a form of worship? I believe that it is, a most profound act of surrendering our questions, doubts, fear and anger to the one who above all has the power to heal, answer and quieten our storms. The throne of the almighty is THE place of justice, of appeal against wrong and evil. We give the Lord of Hosts his rightful place when we call upon him to put right all that is so painfully wrong in his world. It is when we recognise our own pitiful limitations and cast ourselves entirely upon him that we truly worship – give him his full worth. So let us not hold back, but come often to lay down our burdens of grief, discouragement, fear and anger at the ways which our world and particularly our race, are damaged.

It is good to be sufficiently alive to the goodness, glory and love of God that we see and feel most keenly the evil, darkness and hatred of this world. I didn’t say it was comfortable! The greater our understanding of God, the more deeply we will mourn over the ways in which his children have rebelled against him and are destroying all the beauty he has given them.

As we grow in our understanding of God’s love for us, in the riches which are available to us through faith in Jesus Christ, so we will become more and more tender-hearted toward our fellows in their need to be saved. John tells us in his gospel that “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”(Jn 3.19) Do we not see this? People reject the witness of Jesus’ followers, they shut their ears and will not listen to the offer of life, forgiveness and restoration, because they do not want to see the truth about their deeds. They would rather remain in the darkness – and how heart-breaking is that for our Father God?

When we grieve and lament over the broken lives, and corrupted world we inhabit; when we come before the One who made all things to be good and share something of his pain; when we receive a fresh vision of his love and mercy towards the lost, then we find that our witness becomes more urgent, our prayers more fervent, and our rejoicing in daily blessings more whole-hearted.

How right the psalmists were, to bring their grief and anger to God, who can use these experiences to strengthen and equip us to be more faithful servants, and to live even closer to him. Praise the Lord, O my soul!

Doing it all… Or not!

P1020171Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm,

let sense be dumb, let flesh retire, speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,

o still small voice of calm!

These words are the climax to a well loved hymn by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92) , which is a heartfelt prayer for God to be present and speak to us so clearly that we recognise and are thrilled by his voice. The reference to earthquake, wind and fire are from the story of Elijah, who in a time of great personal weariness and despair was  blessed by an encounter with God which would invigorate him and direct his future. It was not the terrifying fire from heaven, nor the invisible power of the wind, nor even the shaking of earth’s foundations which conveyed God’s presence in this instance, but rather a ‘gentle whisper’ as the bible tells us in the nineteenth chapter of the first book of Kings.

Sometimes, it is through great signs of power that we perceive God’s presence and are reassured, but at other times, we need a tender and intimate touch. Elijah was utterly at the end of his resources, and which of us has not felt this way? Firstly, God had provided food, and sleep, so that the body was nourished – a lesson for all of us who stay busy when we perhaps ought to stop. Next, came this astonishing visitation by God, as he takes time to question the disgruntled prophet, and tease out exactly what is going on in his mind! Elijah was utterly discouraged, convinced that he alone was on God’s side, and that the task ahead was simply too much for him.

Do we fully realise just how intimately our God is concerned with our thoughts? This is such an encouragement to share all that is in our hearts, the sorrows and joys, discouragements as well as triumphs. Our own thoughts and emotions can easily become a storm, bewildering us, leaving us unable to see the best way to act or decision to take. Here we see the way that God quiets Elijah’s personal storm, and then, once he has the prophet’s attention, speaks clearly. He speaks truth into Elijah’s confused understanding of the situation, and gives instructions which indicate very plainly that God remains very much in control and there is every reason to keep on believing in and serving him. Far from everything depending on Elijah, God tells the weary man that he is one of over 7000 faithful servants, among them the young Elisha, who would become Elijah’s successor! God was on the job, and it did not depend on the ability or strength of one frail human being.

What a wonderful God we have, what a relief to know that we matter to him so much, and that his care is so personal. May we learn to recognise his voice more and more clearly as we listen for it and bring our storms to his calming presence! There, we find that we are not alone, and are reminded that it is not our strength which matters, but that of the almighty God whom we serve. All praise to Him!