Category Archives: witness

How shall they hear?

The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got – all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols….”It is plain to see that you Athenians takeyour religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, TO THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with.

(Acts17)

This is the core of our preaching. Say the welcoming word to God – “Jesus is my Master” – embracing, body and soul, God’s work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That’s it. You’re not “doing” anything; you’re simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That’s salvation…It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help….but how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if  nobody tells them?

(Romans 10)

Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy.

(1Peter 3)

All from The Message – the New Testament in contemporary language

When Paul stood up in the Areopagus in Athens, to direct the attention of this diverse and intelligently curious people to the ‘unknown god’ whom they worshipped, he faced a major challenge. Which language should he use?

As a Pharisee – a teacher of the Jewish law – he was skilled in using all the technical language which grows up around faith and the literature on which that faith is built. The terminology was second nature to him, and he was adept in drawing on scripture for his arguments. In his new life as an apostle, and a church-planter and teacher, these skills were hugely significant, equipping him to articulate and elucidate all the implications of the coming of Jesus Christ as the long- awaited Messiah.

But as he moved further from Jerusalem, and as the Holy Spirit moved him further from Jewish populations, he had to articulate and teach faith to people who had no background in the books and culture of Judaism, and no family history of observance to inform their understanding. Paul had to learn new ways to communicate this world-changing faith, this good news about Jesus Christ, which would be understood by people of completely different religious backgrounds. His speech to the Athenians as recorded in Acts 17 is one such attempt, and is often cited as a model for evangelistic addresses in places where there is no history of christian faith (and he didn’t hesitate to call for repentance in light of coming judgement!)

In studying this passage with folk at church recently, we agreed that in order to effectively share our faith with our neighbours – a thing we agree is right – we need to purge our speech of all the technical jargon which followers of Jesus tend to adopt. We need to have thought clearly about what is meant by salvation, about the incarnation and the divinity of Jesus, about resurrection and sanctification – all these big words which we use so lightly!

It can be helpful to read regularly in versions of the bible such as the Message, because they use contemporary language for complex concepts, and we learn how to express ourselves in the words of daily life when sharing our faith. I was challenged by this study, to think how readily I talk in an almost coded ‘faith-speak’ which would be incomprehensible to a person without a long experience of the bible. In the same way that I lack the knowledge to ‘read’ ancient religious mosaics, so my hearers will fail to understand me. I may well be speaking truth, but the message isn’t getting through!

If I am serious about sharing the good news of a new start in life, a real healing for brokenness and hope for the future, then for the sake of my neighbours, I need to put in the work and learn to talk simply and courteously about Jesus.

How shall they come to faith in God, if no one tells them about him? And if the words I use, and the life I live is too remote from their experience of daily life, then they will not hear, no matter how earnestly I speak to them.

May I become in this more like Jesus, who lived among us, full of grace and truth, and in his words and actions, spoke directly to the hearts of his hearers.

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A new look?

With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him…But..Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God – truly righteous and holy.

(Ephesians 4.17&18, 21-24)

Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

(Romans 12.2)

He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will not longer live for themselves….This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

(2Corinthians 5.15&17)

No one carefully reading the letters of the apostles written to the early church, could make the mistake of thinking that Christian faith is simply a matter of being nice and having a warm, comforting feeling about life and the future.. Our faith is not a matter of instinct, habit or gut feelings; it is action, constant struggle and an endless ache for things we as yet do not see. It is a daily contest between the remnant of our sinful self – the voice that bewitchingly says we are “worth it”, when temptations come our way; that beguiles us into selfish behaviour and thought on the basis that meeting our needs is obviously the priority for our lives – and the new person we are becoming through the life we now live in Christ Jesus.

The apostles use a variety of images to help their readers – that’s us too – to understand what it means to live as believers in Jesus, as those who have been forgiven and restored to fellowship with God, who are being transformed into his likeness. One of the most striking is the idea of a garment being put off or on.

No one puts on clothes by accident; you don’t just wake up and find yourself dressed for a day in the office! It requires at the very least a routine of laundry, and a modicum of organisation to present oneself appropriately attired for the day. And this is the point for believers: we too have to be actively involved in our daily life of faith, in preparation and organisation, so that we are fit to be seen as God’s witnesses in the world.

The person who believes in Jesus, and desires to be actively growing in maturity as a believer has a job to do – God has given us the privilege of being his fellow-labourers, as he by his spirit works in us. We are given many promises, but what good are they to us if we do not – by faith – choose to act as though we believed them? It is all very good to read of the peace of God, but unless I actively strive to put off my anxiety and trust God, then peace remains only a dream.

I choose to believe that I am forgiven, to accept and rejoice in that forgiveness and therefore to put away, or cast off, any clinging and debilitating guilt.

I choose to believe that I have a purpose in God’s great plan for the world, and therefore look actively for ways in which he is already at work where I can offer myself in service, rejecting the self-pitying and discontented spirit which resents my present circumstances.

I choose to believe that God is indeed at work in me, that he will complete that work so that I shall be transformed into the Christ-version of myself which was God’s original purpose. And so I give thanks even in times of struggle, weariness and pain, trusting that he is forming treasure within me and none of it is wasted.

It is a battle..so often I am ambushed by my own thoughts and feelings, and find I have failed to put off the things which are not of Christ, but cling to them instead! I do not have that single-minded focus which keeps my eye on him – the author and perfecter of my faith – but, when I am thinking clearly, I know that God wants this focus for me too, and therefore even as I strive for it, he is strengthening my gaze.

All praise to him, who keeps us from falling, comforts and forgives us as we stumble and wander, and who provides such riches for our clothing – that we might be found arrayed in all the glorious, spotless robes of Jesus. Let’s get dressed!!

Not of my choosing..

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”

(Luke 9.23&24)

“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.”

(Matthew 11. 28-30)

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long O Lord, how long? Turn, O Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love…The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.

(Psalm 6.2-4,9)

When my late father was undergoing treatment for cancer, he discovered – much to his chagrin – that a great deal of the good temper and exemplary patience which he had enjoyed all his life had been due to his excellent health! When that health was undermined, he discovered that perhaps it was not so easy to be gentle, forbearing and always cheerful, and found a new sympathy with those whose health had never been good.. In the same way, a person who has never experienced real deprivation may lack sympathy for those who truly suffer from it, may not have compassion for their anxiety and may even judge them for a lack of hope and confidence..

God sees clearly those areas of our lives where we are most proud of ourselves, where our self-esteem is most deeply rooted, and where we are least dependent on his sustaining power. I believe that at times he permits those very dear things to be undermined, in order that we might learn to cling to him alone in a new and closer way, accepting that EVERYTHING we have is only ever a gift, which may be withdrawn, and which cannot be relied upon for our peace of mind and sense of worth. These things are in danger of becoming idols in our souls, displacing Christ from the place of pre-eminence which is his right, and weakening us in our life of faith and witness. It is grace when God in his wisdom chooses to uproot them.

I do not have permission to choose the cross which I am called to take up daily, and which requires me to deny, to silence those voices which cry out against God’s will and clamour for my own way in everything. Will I trust my God for this trial, this cross? Do I believe him, when he promises to sustain me through it, even to glorify himself in my life as I lean hard on his arm for strength? Am I willing perhaps NEVER to see how God uses my experience for good, but to believe that he will because he has promised it?

At the moment, I am experiencing a particular trial – a gentle undermining of my health which has gone on for over four years now, in various guises, preventing me from doing things which are important to me. My estimation of myself is diminished, I am tempted to despise the rather feeble person I am become, as I try to live within the limitations imposed by my body. Is God any less delighted with me as his daughter, because of these things? NO! Am I in any way less able to pray for his work, to witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ? NO! And yet, and yet, I fret and mourn for what cannot be, tempted to despair instead of rejoicing in all I am and have in Christ.

As my running shoes remain unused, and mountains remain untrodden, I am drawn to cling to my God, to pour out my regrets and fears to the God who knows and loves me so tenderly, who gave me a desire to run and climb in the first place! He knows the burden which he is asking me to bear at this time, he knows how much it is costing to pick up that cross daily and then to walk with it cheerfully.

When we bring our crosses into that loving presence – whatever they may be – we find one who knows how we struggle, and who himself bore burdens beyond our imagining . And he comes alongside to bear us, to draw the sting of anxiety and dread, to give us for every pang the sweetest assurance of his presence and love.

In our daily carrying of our individual crosses, may we find the fellowship we enjoy with Christ so dear, so sustaining, that the burden does indeed become light, since we bear it for his sake and with his strength. In our weakness, may his power be made abundantly plain, and our delight in his grace towards us grow ever greater!

We are the Resurrection people!

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I , and not another.

(Job 19.25-27)

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him…and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.

(1 Thessalonians 4.13,14&18)

How wonderful it is, to have such incredible good news to celebrate and to share on this Resurrection day! We have a saviour who died, yes, and who was raised from death. God demonstrated with great power that the divine plan for dealing forever with the forces of evil and their hold on humanity had succeeded.

Jesus had cried aloud upon the cross in his obedient agony, “It is finished!” There was absolutely nothing else needed, no human endeavour to be added to this divine passion for justice and mercy. And so God, in his loving kindness to us, knowing that we are weak and frightened easily, raised Jesus to life, showing the way that is now open to us as his followers, into eternal life in a resurrected body, like and yet unlike any we have known.

This is the point which Paul makes as he writes to reassure the Thessalonian believers, who are grieving for fellow christians who had recently died.. Look, he says, see what Jesus has done, and be comforted because this will be our experience too! We may not understand the mysteries which unite our temporal reality with an eternal future; but of this we can be absolutely sure – we will enter into that future with bodies; with hands to serve and voices to praise and eyes and hearts to adore our Lord.

The experience of death in this world, dreadful though it undoubtedly can be, is not the end, the power of the grave is broken. It can no longer hold those who call upon the name of Jesus, and we are sure of being gathered into his arms and of seeing him, with our own eyes. I was privileged to see for myself the power which this hope gives to those facing death, power to yield themselves up in peace and confidence to the Lord who has gone before and has promised to carry them through this last trial. For both of my parents, their steadfast faith was the anchor and joy of their last months, making it so easy for us as their children to release them to a future which they longed to see.

As I rejoice at the empty tomb, sharing in the soul-shaking joy of Mary at her master’s feet, I repent of my frequent bouts of despair, and ask God’s help to live more and more in the light of this sure and certain hope which that empty tomb gives me. I believe in the resurrection of the body – so why do I fear anything at all?! I believe that I shall see my adored Saviour with my own eyes – so why am I not overflowing with this good news to all those who are in my life?

My God has given me so much in this world already, out of his goodness pouring blessings one after another into my life – and I can relish each one to the full, knowing that there is an eternity of even better to come..This life is NOT all there is, I need NOT resent the passing of youth, health or wealth, because EVERYTHING good and glorious is already stored up for me in my Father’s house, and as I fix my eyes upon my Jesus, following him down into the shadow of the valley of death, so I will surely be led after him out at the other side.

What on earth is going on?

Jesus took the twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be turned over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”  The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

(Luke 18.31-34)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me?…All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads:..I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me….They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing….

(Psalm 22. 1, 7, 1, 14 &18)

Bewildered, but loyal; unable to see what was in store beyond the certainty of trouble for the man whom they loved and had followed for years, yet willing to go with him for a little longer. Do you ever wonder how the disciples made sense of the last weeks of Jesus’ life, what did they tell themselves was happening? The methodical author of Luke’s gospel leaves us in no doubt, and presumably he has it on good authority from one who heard the disciples themselves tell the story… They had no idea what Jesus was up to, it simply made no sense to them at the time! I doubt whether we would have done any better in their place given our limited understanding of God, and poor grasp of his big plan for the world.

The disciples had all the clues – as Jesus reminds them when he points out that all which is to come had been foretold – and yet they remained so wedded to the popular Jewish idea of a military and political deliverer as their Messiah, that it all passed them by. How patient Jesus continued to be with his foolish followers, and how lonely it must have been..When we face great trials, are we not much comforted by sharing our apprehension with trusted friends and praying with them? There was no one who understood, no one except his Father. As it says elsewhere in Psalm 22..”Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no-one to help.”

 For love of his friends, for love of all those who would one day follow their journey into faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, for love of me, he chose to walk that lonely road. Each day brought the final trial closer, more clearly into focus. Each step of the journey that was gradually drawing him closer and closer to Jerusalem was a triumph of his will to obey his Father, and a demonstration of the power which is available to us now, his followers, as we live in him.

Even in their confusion and ignorance, Jesus’ disciples were still so dear to him, so precious, and he knew that their participation in the events which were to unfold was crucial. These men would be the witnesses, the recorders and preachers of all that they had seen, and in time would found the church, that body of redeemed humanity which is Christ’s beloved and for whom he died. He was full of compassion for their weaknesses, and bore with their foolish, misguided ambitions, and above all, he loved them well enough to complete his work. His presence alone would never have been enough to atone for their sins, or ours; we needed his death – what a humbling thought. His teaching alone cannot change our hearts or avert the right anger of a holy God against rebellious people. We needed his death, and he knew and determined to love us to that uttermost extent.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who from the beginning of the world had purposed to pursue his fallen children and to restore them, spotless and pure, to fellowship with him.

Praise be to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who submitted himself entirely to the planned work of redemption, for love of his people, and held nothing back in meeting our utmost needs. 

May we be found fully submitted to Christ, to his transforming power in our lives; so moved by and indebted to his love for us that we hold nothing back in our turn, as we seek to live for and glorify him.

My heart is full of thankfulness..

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. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart..

(Ecc 5.18-20)

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

(1Tim 4.5&5)

As someone who lives in a relatively very rich country (in world terms), and who has not been required to find paid employment in order to keep a roof over her head and food on her table, I am well aware that I occupy a very privileged position – and as a follower of Jesus, it is not a very comfortable position! What am I to do with all I have? What is it for? I can’t send away everything I possess, it is not solely mine to give, and much of my riches consist of things which cannot be physically shared – good health, loving friends, the beauty of the natural world, the gift of music, and above all my salvation and heritage as a child of God.

For this reason, I was delighted in the course of a recent time of preparation for a bible study, to come across this passage in Ecclesiastes, a challenging but ruthlessly truthful portrayal of the futility of human existence apart from God. It seems to sit very comfortably alongside Paul’s advice to Timothy, the young pastor, exhorting him to accept and enjoy God’s  generous provision – and to teach his congregation also to do so.

God has indeed made and given us lavishly of good things, how ungracious and foolish it would be if we were to reject them! Imagine presenting someone with a carefully chosen gift, reflecting your love for and relationship with them, only to see them shrink from accepting it, because they had already received a gift from someone else, or because they felt they did not deserve it..

None of what we have is earned, or deserved. All is a gift from our good and gracious God, given that we might enjoy it, and return thanks to him as the source, all the while recognising that our ultimate satisfaction is in the Giver, not the Gift. When I am receiving God’s gifts with a thankful heart, using them to return glory to him and to bless others in any way which I can find, then I find I can accept and be content with the life God has called me to. A disposition of thankfulness is a great aid to a cheerful and contented heart, and in keeping a godly perspective on life and “stuff”! Perhaps that is what is referred to at the end of the quote from Ecclesiastes, where the gladness of a man’s heart in what God is giving him now, enables him to live very much in the present, not dwelling regretfully on the past, or anxiously on the future.

The faithfulness of God in providing good things for us to receive thankfully, and enjoy generously, gives us confidence that at every stage of life, we can trust his care. He is our Father, who loves and knows how to give us good things – even though we may not at the time see in what way they are good for us!

Such contentment is indeed a gift from God, and one which we might usefully seek, by learning to rejoice in what we have and receive daily, so that there is a deep wellspring of joy – of delight in the God who gives so lovingly and personally to each of his children. When to this daily provision we add the unspeakably precious gift of forgiveness, redemption and hope which we receive through Jesus Christ, we have a continually refreshing source of thanksgiving. Let us say with the Psalmist:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures for ever.

Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures for ever.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures for ever….

to the One who remembered us in our low estate, His love endures for ever;

and freed us from our enemies, His love endures for ever,

and who gives food to every creature. His love endures for ever..

(Psalm 136. 1-3,24-26)

Solomon…in all his glory

And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. 

And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

(Matthew 6.28-30)

Solomon…a name which conjures up images of wealth, splendour and majesty on a scale which was never duplicated in the history of Israel. He was the King who carried his nation to giddy heights of prosperity and influence, achieving great fame for his building projects, his wealth and also for his understanding and wisdom.

Wisdom and wealth, two things which we aspire to, thinking that in them we will find security and peace. And yet here we find Jesus dismissing Solomon’s greatness as nothing beside the fleeting yet breath-taking beauty of the flowers  growing wild in the hills of Galilee. Jesus’ words give the idea that God himself has designed the colours, shapes and textures of every flower with just the same care as the most exacting fashion designer. It is God’s infinitely creative nature which is at work all around us, revelling in the possibilities, and improbabilities that he has at his disposal.

The bible teaches that all of creation, all that we have discovered and are yet to learn about our world and the incredible cosmic context within which it is held, everything was made to provide humanity – the pinnacle of God’s handiwork – with a home, a place to belong and to share with him. How easily we dismiss such thoughts, forgetting to take time to wonder at what has been made for us to receive from our loving Father. Every single part of this creation bears the fingerprint of the maker, reflects his character and expresses his inherent qualities. He has literally taken limitless trouble to provide for us – and has delighted to do so.

In the same way that a master craftsman will take great pains with even those parts of a design which are unseen, because the perfection of the whole depends on that inner integrity: so also our God has seen fit to bestow his detailed attention on the humblest elements of the world he has made for us. It all matters.

And so, Jesus makes his point to the listening group, do we! In fact it is clear from the words he uses that he is trying very hard to make them realise how much more we matter than these other beautiful things.

The wealth and wisdom of Solomon did not prevent him from losing sight of the truth about God, that he must reign alone in our hearts, and we must never place a higher value upon anything else. In time, that great monarch would permit the worship of other gods, and it is sadly recorded that he followed his many wives in such idolatry – surely a warning to us to be alert to our own particular tendencies to rely on ‘other gods’.

Nothing on earth, and no one in the world will ever, or can ever, love us like God does. So why do we so readily value anything else above him? Why do we chase after even modest wealth, and pursue wordly wisdom – the latest techniques for self-improvement, for making friends and influencing people, the best ways to resist ageing and fight disease?! The list of alternatives to God’s ways is very long, we are forever adding to it, and losing sight again of the truth. The truth as revealed in our world, and ultimately in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is that God cares passionately about us, and we can and must trust him passionately, the only one who really cares about our lives.

Let these diamonds, strewn liberally over the wayside flower yesterday morning by the rain, remind me of the riches which God has in store, and which are freely available in Christ – forgiveness, new life, hope for the future, strength for today, and a joy in living which surpasses all that wealth and wordly wisdom can supply.

We are so much richer than Solomon…in all his glory, let’s enjoy it, and thank our bountiful God for all his grace!