Category Archives: witness

Divine discomfort..

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?…If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday.

(Isa 58.6&7,9&10)

You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground…you hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain…You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts….Seek good, not evil, that you may live…Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.

(Am 5.7,10,11-15)

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?….He has showed you , O man what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

(Mic 6.6&8)

“Then the King will say..,’Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…..whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

(Matt 25.34-40)

Reading recently through the prophecy of Isaiah, I was overwhelmed time and again by the contrast between the glorious future prophesied for God’s chosen people, and the reality in which they lived –  in which we live now. We are in-between people; saved and assured of an eternal life in glory yet still living in a broken and pain-riddled world. We live with the tension between God’s promised rest, fulfillment and security, and the appalling suffering which exists across the globe.

It is tempting to withdraw into a shell of comfort, shutting out troubling pictures of reality and thinking of our own security and hope of eternal life. But..the majority of Christians in the world today cannot do that, since they live without most of what we in the prosperous nations take for granted. They endure that tension, as poverty, war, violence and climate change make each day an ordeal in survival – all the while believing that God’s promises are to them, for their peace, their flourishing too. If we who are wealthy proclaim a faith that does nothing to address the reality of suffering, and the agonising tension between the ‘now and the not-yet’ of fulfillment, then we have nothing to offer our world, we have no ‘good news’.

I would make so bold as to say that any Christian who can live without being profoundly disturbed by the state of the planet – climate, ecology, society, economy – is ignoring God’s clearly revealed message in scripture.

We serve a God of justice – where then is our concern to see justice for the oppressed, the ones who have no voices, who suffer at the hands of unfair trading systems and corrupt governance?

We serve a God of compassion and mercy – where then is our concern for the people who are being exploited and broken – the trafficked sex-workers, the debt-slaves, the prostitutes and addicts, the mentally ill, the abused children, and the confused and frail elderly?

We serve a Creator God, we are his stewards commissioned to cherish his good work – where then is our concern for the flourishing of the planet on which we live; for the climate systems on which our lives depend, and which human greed is gradually destroying?

I have been profoundly challenged in these days by my complacency – to argue that the problems are too big for me is no argument at all. God doesn’t ask me to fix it, but he does ask whether I care? If my faith does not issue in works, it is dead. I am called not only to be a child of God, but a servant, a witness, a worker.

I am praying that I might be willing to live with the divine discomfort caused by a restless spirit, one unable to do nothing in the face of the brokenness of our world. I am praying that I might find where God wants me to use the small gifts I can offer – time, intellect and anything else I can bring – in bearing witness to the love of God for this world and all its people. I am praying that I might be willing to serve in a very small way, in a great campaign where I may not see the outcome, but be content in having obeyed the call.

 

Thy kingdom come..

“Praise be to you, Lord, the God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendour, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all..

(1Chron 29.10&11)

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

(Matt 6.9-13)

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit…You must be born again”

(Jn 3.5&7)

 We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

(Col 1.9-13)

Now and not yet – a kingdom come and coming.. The Old Testament stories are full of references to God as ruler, sovereign in his glory and a call to the people of Israel to live as loyal subjects of that kingdom. Their loyalty was designed to set them apart from other nations, so that they might demonstrate to the world just how wonderful their God was and so glorify his name. Sadly, the OT is also full of stories of how his people rejected his sovereignty and instead lived like people of other nations, loyal to other gods, giving lip service to their covenant God, and trusting in deeds and ritual instead of depending by faith on his love for them.

When Jesus came, preaching that the kingdom of God was near, many thought he meant a military power that would overthrow the tyranny of Rome. But once again, they had got the wrong idea, as Jesus taught repeatedly in his parables and directly, showing that God’s kingdom is not like a human kingdom. Its values are totally different, and ultimately we can enter that kingdom only by new birth, by becoming new creatures with a nature and life designed for that kingdom. Thanks be to God that in Christ Jesus, we are offered that new birth, that new life, and that God does everything necessary to establish us securely in his glorious kingdom of light!

This kingdom – inaugurated by the first coming of Jesus – continues to grow in the world today, but not as human kingdoms grow. Not by conquest, not by political or popular campaigns, not by adroit financial investment, bribery or coercion. Rather, this kingdom grows as heart, after heart recognises Jesus as Lord, and accepts his sovereignty in their lives. As this happens, that life becomes a place where the kingdom of God is realised in this world. My life, and yours, are to be lived examples of the values and atmosphere of the kingdom of God – where he reigns, our loving Saviour.

While we will not see this kingdom fully realised until God winds up time and ushers in the newly re-created earth and heaven, we are living in its light, by its time, and by its values. In effect, we are part of the answer to the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to say – “thy kingdom come….”, and we are also part of the work in realising the kingdom as we witness, pray and serve the Lord in our own turn.

Thank you Father, that by the gift of faith in Christ, I live now under his sovereignty, a subject of your heavenly kingdom. Thank you that a glorious day is coming when that kingdom will be visible, tangible and supreme, wiping out all trace of this shadowland where your reign is still disputed.

Let my life truly be a little part of that heavenly rule – a place where the Spirit dwells as honoured sovereign, unquenched, active and in charge. Let me live as one honouring my inheritance, delighting in my name and stake in your promised land. Let me in all things acknowledge and exalt my king, treasuring his word, engaging with his work, delighting to introduce him to those who have never met him, and resisting his enemies.

Even as the seed sown bears fruit a hundred fold, Lord so may your kingdom seed be fruitful in many lives; invisibly taking root, and then bursting forth in newness of life to your glory and the hastening of the day when all shall be finished and Christ return in glory!

 

when the picture is not clear..

The Lord is the strength of his people, a fortress of salvation for his anointed one. 

(Ps 28.8)

Seek the Lord and live, or he will sweep through the house of Joseph like a fire..Seek good and not evil, that you may live..Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts

(Am 5.6,14&15)

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?…He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

(Mic 6.6&8)

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth..

(1 Tim.2.1-4)

I am a Scot, I live in the United Kingdom, and for the last 47 years, I have been part of the European Union. Our laws and institutions, our culture, our political and social priorities, our very society itself, has been profoundly influenced by membership of this particular economic union, this family of nations, birthed in the aftermath of war with a vision of unity, peace and prosperity.

And now, my nation has decided to leave, to loosen the ties and pursue an independent course in the world. Some of our people are very glad, others deeply distressed, and many like myself unsure because the future is so uncertain. We all live with uncertainty – the bible makes it clear that none of us can presume on our tomorrows in any way – but political and economic change on this scale is particularly unsettling, and I want to reflect on my duty as a believer in this situation.

Ultimately, these great national events are a challenge to my perceptions of security – in what do I hope and trust? If it is democratic government, established institutions, economic prosperity and growth, then I have good reasons to fear what might happen. Our world is troubled; unresolved tensions are re-shaping political loyalties, and power is wielded by invisible forces beyond the influence of democracy.

The prophets of the Old Testament knew all about these uncertainties, as did the apostles in the New Testament. Both groups call repeatedly for faithful people who know God to focus on him as their only true security, to seek to live according to his word and to represent his character in the world. What does this look like for God’s people?

We live lightly in the world – knowing that we have an abiding home with God in the yet-to-be-revealed glory of a new creation. The troubles and trials of this world cannot steal that inheritance from us, and so we are not cast into despair by them as those who have no hope. The looming giants of this world do not strike terror into our hearts, because we know that our God is on the throne, and Christ has triumphed over them. Their speech may be loud, but God’s still small voice is stronger.

We live responsibly in the world – knowing that we are stewards of creation, with responsibility to use all God’s gifts for the blessing of all his people. Our attitudes to our own consumption, our choices, the impact of our lives, should be driven by a desire for righteousness in every relationship, for justice, and with compassion for those who suffer because of the greed of others.

We live gladly in the world – rejoicing in the abundance and sharing our joy with the Giver of good gifts. We live as those who have good things to share – because we do! In addition to our material wealth, we have the infinitely greater treasures of the gospel itself to share with all mankind. We have been commissioned to speak good news – is not salvation our most precious possession, the best thing we can possibly share with our neighbours?

So as I in my small place consider how God calls me to live in the new, post-EU Scotland, I will remember my calling.

I will pray for those who rule; that we might have peace and freedom to proclaim the gospel of truth in our land. I will remember that our leaders are frail and sinning human beings, just as much in need of God’s love and forgiveness as I am.

I will raise my voice and use my words in support of justice, and the extending of mercy to the victims of oppression and inequality. I will remember that those who oppress are also broken people, sinners for whom Christ died.

I will remember that I am small, and that God is great; and I will boast only in Christ, not my own wisdom. I will remember that I am a sinner, and only God is perfect. I will pursue godliness, humility and faithfulness – not so that by these I may be saved, but because by them, others might see Christ in me, and find salvation in him.

I do not need to see the big picture, because God has given me a job to do which is within my reach, and I choose to trust him with all the rest!

 

Learning to speak…fluently!

Then Abraham approached [The Lord] and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?…far be it from you to do such a thing…Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

(Gen 18.23&25)

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven….”O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name….”

(Neh 1. 4&11)

Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” – and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him.

(Ps 32.5&6)

Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I…

(Ps 61.1&2)

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.

(Phil 4.6&7)

what is prayer?

Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will in the name of Christ with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.

(Shorter catechism, Question 98)

Jesus taught his disciples about prayer both in formal exhortation, and also through his own example – he gave them what we now call ‘the Lord’s prayer’, and they were present on many occasions when he prayed aloud. They could also testify to his habit of spending prolonged hours alone in prayer. They learnt that when they spoke to God, they came as beloved children to a Father who cherished them; they learnt that prayer could be short and confident – as when Jesus spoke before the raising of Lazarus – and also that it could be prolonged, agonised pleading – as in Gethsemane. They heard for themselves the final words addressed to God from the cross, prayers for forgiveness, of lament and cries of desolation.

It is clear from the record of the Acts of the apostles, and from their letters, that the disciples embraced prayer as integral to their lives as believers – and the foundation for the work which God called and anointed them to do. They prayed for one another’s faith and witness; for the work of God in far off lands and also close at hand; they prayed against the power of evil, and faithfully offered sacrifices of thankful prayer no matter what their circumstances might have been.

We don’t really need to know much about how they prayed – sitting, kneeling or standing; eyes shut or open; hands raised or clasped before them; aloud or silent; in a group or alone. The point is, that within a very few weeks of Jesus’ death and resurrection, these uneducated men were praying – fluently and confidently, in the face of attack and in times of rejoicing. We have much to learn from their example, if we too desire to honour God and bear fruit for him as faithful, obedient disciples.

If we have not learned to submit ALL our desires to God in prayer, and to share with him everything that is on our hearts, then we may find it hard to begin when we face severe trials. If we have never practiced prayer in the easier times of life, then the crises may find us woefully inadequate, unable to articulate our thoughts, and more seriously, unable to call to mind the promises of God, the teachings of scripture about his character and plan for kingdom building, and new-creating. We may find ourselves unable to echo Christ’s words in Gethsemane – “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”(Luke 22.42)

Cultivating fluency in prayer is not about eloquent speeches, but is about knowing by experience how readily we can bring all our thoughts, fears and hopes to God – and doing it. Prayer is not some emergency helpline for believers, which we call on only when we can’t cope ourselves, it is the language of the kingdom, and one of the primary means by which we grow in faith and dependence on God. Failure to grow in prayer, leaves us stunted and vulnerable as believers – with only ourselves to blame for the trouble that may bring upon us.

I fear that I have yet much to learn about persevering, faithful prayer; but I rejoice in the ways that God has taught me through godly friends and leaders. May I not give up, but rather press on earnestly, growing more fluent in prayer, that I might fulfill what God is calling me to be and do for his glory in our world. Lord, teach me to pray!

(photograph courtesy of Peter Geddes, 2019: Carloway, Lewis)

Growing old, or growing up?

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah….

(Ps 95.6-8)

“Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear: should you not fear me?” declares the Lord.

(Jer 5.21)

“I could not address you as spiritual but as wordly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.

(1Cor 3.1-3)

I have a lot more to say about this, but it is hard to get it across to you since you’ve picked up this bad habit of not listening. By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again….so come on, let’s leave the preschool finger-painting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place…God helping us, we’ll stay true to all that. but there’s so much more. Let’s get on with it!

(Heb 5.11-6.3: The Message; Eugene Peterson)

Much as we may enjoy and even cherish the infant stages of life, we would be deeply disturbed if they never passed into something else – it would be a sign that something was wrong, and cause for great concern. We are designed to grow up, to mature, to become capable of bearing responsibility and in time, nurturing the next generation. This is just as much true in our spiritual lives, as in our human bodies, as these words from an understandably exasperated apostle illustrate!

Each of us must make our own response to God’s word – we are charged to work out what God is saying to us, and then to do it. We are commanded to meditate on the word, letting it dwell in our hearts so that our thoughts and actions are transformed. God’s word can be resisted, we can close our hears and minds to his loving command and if we do so long enough, we become unable to hear him.

Is this not a terrifying prospect? I don’t believe that I can fall utterly away from God’s safe keeping, but I long to be found responsible in my handling of all the good gifts which I have received, to know that I have glorified God by bringing every aspect of my life under his command to be used as he pleases.

The bible teaches us in so many ways, that God is continually seeking to draw his people closer to him in faith and obedience, and that it is through their witness that his name is honoured. The people of Israel brought dishonour on God when they doubted him in the desert after leaving Egypt; they dishonoured him when they turned again and again to the worship of idols; they dishonoured him when – in Jesus’ day – they worshipped the observance of the law and temple procedure instead of the holy One himself. Am I bringing dishonour on Jesus by refusing to let him work out his purposes in  my life, closing my mind to what he says?

As a ransomed, new-created and holy child of God, I am called to grow out of my infant diet; to progress from the early stages of understanding my new position to working out in detail just what difference God makes in my life, and how he does it. Mine should be a mature faith which can stand the test and grow, stepping forward to embrace trials as a means by which God shows his love and manifests his glory. It is maturing faith which can step into positions of responsibility, and be entrusted with the pastoral care of others. It is mature faith which can say with Job – “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him”

I know that the days, months and years which God has yet for me will include difficult times, pain and suffering – my own, that of my loved ones and of the wider world. I do not want to be like a vulnerable infant, dependant on the people around me to look after me, but rather a responsible adult, one who can do the task for which God has called and enabled me. I want to grow up in my faith as I grow old in my body, making the most of the time that I am granted to serve my gracious God as faithfully as I can.

May God keep my spirit soft to receive his teaching, and my ears sensitive to his voice. Although I may weary of my own imperfections and repeated failings, God does not give up on me, and I ask for a persevering spirit to continue to grow in faith and to press on towards the glory which he has promised.

Serving in sending

Just as each of us has one body with many members…so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a person’s gift is…serving, let them serve;…if it is encouraging, let them encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let them give generously….Love must be sincere. …Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…Share with God’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality….

(Rom 12.4-8,9&12)

Dear friend, I am praying that all is well with you and that your body is as healthy as I know your soul is. Some of the brothers recently returned and made me very happy by telling me about your faithfulness and that you are living in the truth. I could have no greater joy than to hear that my children live in the truth.

Dear friend, you are doing a good work for God when you take care of the travelling teachers who are passing through, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church here of your friendship and your loving deeds. You do well to send them on their way in a manner that pleases God. For they are travelling for the Lord and accept nothing from those who are not Christians. So we ourselves should support them so that we may become partners with them for the truth.

(3 Jn 2-8)

I believe it is easy to underestimate the power of small things, of seemingly trivial or insignificant words and actions, but that when we harness them in the cause of the gospel, God is glorified and his kingdom enriched and advanced…what am I thinking of here? It is the ministry of hospitality, of sharing what we have in order to encourage and bless other members of the body of Christ.

If we are able to offer a place to sit, some food and drink, and the precious gift of a listening ear and a loving heart then we can serve one another in hospitality…it is one of the most basic and practical ways of loving and building one another up, of sending one another out in a ‘manner which pleases God’ as John said when he commended Gaius for his generosity. Whether or not we are able to contribute financially to the work of gospel ministry, of overseas mission or local outreach, we can all offer our presence, our homes, as an encouragement to God’s servants so that they go on their way strengthened and refreshed in spirit.

Such actions testify very practically to the unity of the church of Christ, as we welcome strangers and discover in them new brothers and sisters with whom we will spend eternity adoring our Lord and God. Our hospitality is a witness to our common life, and shows our non-believing neighbours and communities what it means for there to be no distinctions in God’s family. A willingness to share may prove the beginning of a lifelong friendship, or it may be that we never meet again this side of glory, but either way we have obeyed our Lord by offering what we have in the service of his people and kingdom.

Gaius offered hospitality and expected no return other than the approval of his Lord; but he was surely blessed and encouraged himself by the gentle commendation which John gives him, and also filled with gladness to know that his own faithful service has brought such joy to the old apostle! Do we not rejoice when those whom we revere in the service of Christ, those whose example inspires us, take time to commend and encourage us in our own obedience by saying how much they see in us of holy and Christlike living?

The devil loves to see Christians paralysed by self-doubt and condemnation, so John’s words were a strong weapon to release Gaius from doubts, and to inspire his ongoing service and obedience. We too can exercise this ministry for one another, taking the time for a message, a phone call, or a face-to-face conversation when we share how much a friend’s life and example speaks of Christ, showing his love and the transforming power of the Spirit.

As we partner with one another for the truth of Christ’s redeeming work, for the good news of hope and forgiveness, let us not neglect the ministry of encouragement – by our words and hospitality – so that the body might be strengthened in unity and God be glorified among his people.

One plus one, makes one..

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

(Gen 2.20-24)

Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church – a love marked by giving not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her…and that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favour – since they’re already “one” in marriage. No one abuses his own body does he? No, he feeds and pampers it. That’s how Christ treats us, the church, since we are part of his body. And this is why a man leaves father and mother and cherishes his wife. No longer two, they become “one flesh”, This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it at all. What is clearest to me is the way Christ treats the church. And this provides a good picture of how each husband is to treat his wife, loving himself in loving her, and how each wife is to honour her husband.

(Eph 5.25-33, The Message)

It is an uncomfortable truth that the hardest place to live out our faith consistently is within the walls of our own home, among people who know us inside out, and see every up and down of every day. I may be the most patient person in my workplace, but my family know only too well how short my fuse is at the end of a long day, and suffer from my bad temper and moods.

Family life, and the intimacy of marriage is where our true colours come to light, and the extent to which God’s continuing work of transforming us to be like Christ is seen. It is here that we have the chance to put the gospel into practice every day – forgiving and extending grace to others even as we depend upon God’s forgiveness and enabling. As I contemplate our son’s forthcoming marriage, I am only too painfully aware of the many ways in which I have failed to set a good example for him.

I rejoice that God is able, by his grace, to deal with the messes I have made, and thank him that my family are precious to him, so that nothing I have done or failed to do can prejudice his will for them. But I am also conscious of the need to pray for my son and daughter-in-law as they embark for themselves upon this high calling – of loving one another faithfully, through sickness and health, poverty and wealth, till death should part them. It is only by God’s help that they can do this, in a way which witnesses to the power of the gospel and to God’s love.

I rejoice that God has brought them to this commitment; and tremble at what might lie ahead for them. I rejoice in the faith that they share; and tremble as I know that they will be under assault as they explicitly pursue Christian marriage and ministry. I rejoice that my son has been given a woman who is committed to Christ first,  who knows that marriage is to be undertaken earnestly and with dependence on God; and I tremble as I know that she will be giving my son the power to nourish and cherish her, or to wound and weaken her – he is no more perfect than she!

No human marriage can reach the perfection of Christ’s love and care for his bride, the church; but we take courage from Paul’s insistence that this is the model on which we seek to live as spouses, and to pray for other marriages. God is at work for the good of his children, the church and the world through our relationships, and we can confidently depend upon him to strengthen and keep us as we ask for his help. Marriage is God’s idea, and his purpose is that it be for blessing.

As I watch my children set out on this wonderful, frustrating, exhausting, and mysterious relationship, I commit them to the Lord who loves them even more than I do, and know that they are in the safest place. As I renew my own vows in my mind, I thank the Lord for his keeping of my marriage – in spite of so much failure and sin – and pray on for his blessing of us, and through us, his church. To him be the glory, in all things!

He never said it would be pretty…

Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt…they put slave masters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labour..but the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. ..then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every [Israelite]boy that is born you must throw into the Nile…”

(Ex 1.8,11&12,22)

In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel…Ahab..did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him..he married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him….Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him…

(1 Kings 16.29-33)

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour, he was enraged. yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

(Esther 3.5&6)

“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you though him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross..God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact..

(Acts 2.22-23 &32)

We are easily overwhelmed by the rampant violence, evil and brokenness of the world in these days of the 21st century, and wonder just where God is in the midst of the chaos? We hear those who do not follow Jesus exclaiming that ‘if there was a God, surely He would not let such things happen!’, and struggle to know how to respond ..at least I do.

I have been helped recently through a series of sermons on some of the truly evil, powerful and apparently uncontrolled characters of the bible narrative, thinking about what their stories have to teach me – about our world and God’s plans for us. I should say at this stage that I am not setting out to give easy answers to the big questions about evil, only to share some insights which have helped me to be less afraid of the questions.

We find that from the very beginning of the great story of redemption, evil was active in humanity, and that God never claimed to be in the business of addressing every wrong at the moment it occured – or even of preventing things which appeared utterly contradictory to his promises and plan.

The bible shows that God is so far above our thoughts that we simply can’t begin to understand how love and goodness can be expressed in the ways which he chooses….how could a good and loving God permit generations of Israelites to suffer and die under brutal slavery in Egypt, and finally see a form of genocide enacted against them? How could he permit his people to be led astray by king after king, into idolatry which would bring judgement upon them? How could he permit the destruction of all he had promised, and the people’s exile under threat of extinction from the scheming Haman?

His ways are beyond our understanding, and although sometimes we receive glimpses of his working – as when Joseph speaks of God’s planning for good through his brother’s evil plot; and when Esther is made queen and therefore empowered to protect her fellow Jews – we are more often called to trust. When we demand that God be accountable to us, abiding by our definitions of love and goodness, we only demonstrate how limited is our grasp of his greatness, and how selfish our understanding of our own role in the unfolding fulfilment of his plans. We want to feel safe…he wants to make us glorious, in his coming kingdom!

We should never be surprised when things don’t work out smoothly and easily; when God’s people go through great tribulations; when death, disease and suffering of every sort appear to be afflicting increasing numbers of the world’s population. God never said that it would be beautiful in our eyes; but he did say that he would bless the whole world, every people and nation, through the one who would come from Abraham – the Christ whose life and death once for all defeated the power of evil in the lives of God’s children. That is why our good and loving God permitted the suffering and death of the only perfect man who ever lived; why the Son of God willingly entered the unimaginable darkness and pain of separation from his Father.

On the cross, we find the place where God declared his love and goodness, and evil appeared to triumph, only to be defeated by it’s own plans, as God’s infinitely greater wisdom and power overcame death and showed us that no matter what is happening, the things that really matter are safe in his keeping.

How thankful I am, that I have a God who is so much greater than all that evil can do, so much purer than I can imagine, with a love that knows that suffering is not all bad, and that the glory and eternal goodness which await are worth the fight. May I learn more and more to trust him in the darkness, and not to be surprised by evil, but to rejoice in its defeat in Christ.

Grace – it’s God’s gift to share, not ours to keep…

Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin…”

(Ex 34.5-7)

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.

(Rom 5.1&2)

Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak…All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God

(2Cor 5.13&15)

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

(Col 3.12-14)

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord…….But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ..

(2 Pet 1.2 & 5.18)

What is this ‘grace’ of which the New Testament of our bibles is so full? Was it invented by the church retrospectively to explain what was going on, or is it part of the great narrative of time?

Grace is understood – in the context of God’s revelation of himself – to be the free and unmerited favour which He (as supreme and superior to us in every way) chooses to show us, mere creatures, and in rebellion against Him. That favour is compounded of many things, well beyond the scope of a brief piece of writing, but the word itself is basically shorthand for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

Grace is represented in God’s choosing of Abram, and the making of a covenant with him – one in which all the promises were on God’s side, and which God kept in spite of Abram’s failings and sin. Grace is seen in God’s powerful deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt – and especially in his bearing with them all through their sulking, rebellious and uncooperative wanderings in the wilderness. Grace is seen in their establishment in a land which was rich and plentiful. Grace is seen in God’s faithfulness to David, in spite of David’s adultery and murder of Bathsheba’s husband. Grace is seen in God reaching out to the people of Nineveh in their sin, with the offer of salvation. Grace is seen in God’s ministry to his people even in their exile in Babylon, where the prophets spoke of God’s presence among them and promise to restore them to their land.

Grace does not arrive with Jesus…but, John tells us that Jesus – as God’s perfect representation in the flesh – showed us more clearly than anything had done beforehand just what grace looks like.

Grace is to love people when they despise you; grace is to bear with people when they misunderstand and misjudge you; grace is to go to the cross, bearing all the appalling weight of a world of sin and grief, so that those who have rejected you might be saved from the consequences of their own sin. This is what God’s grace – in the person of Jesus – did. He did not wait for us to recognise his worth; did not wait until he was popular and liked; did not require that salvation be earned by lavish good works, acts of extreme piety or self-sacrifice. He died, while we were still utterly estranged from and hostile to him, so that we might live never to be estranged again from God.

If I, as a follower of Jesus, and one who calls him Lord, am not willing to show grace to others as it has been shown to me – not willing to allow the riches of God’s forgiveness and love to be offered – then I am not worthy to be called a christian. This free gift – encompassing all of God’s riches – was lavishly poured on me, and continues to be my daily portion. How dare I then choose to whom I will show it? I am no more worthy to receive God’s riches than anyone else – and no less worthy.

Lord God, forgive me when I judge that someone is not worthy of grace, when I choose to condemn instead of being compassionate; to hold a grudge instead of forgiving; to withhold love and kindness instead of reaching out. Your grace outraged the religious leaders of your day, because it was freely offered to the wheeler-dealer Zaccheus, to the disgraced woman who anointed your feet with her tears, to the lepers and the maimed, the socially marginalised. And it was offered to those who thought themselves above you, above needing forgiveness.

You invited everyone to come and receive grace, may I follow your example, and by my words and actions make it clear that all are welcome..

It’s all about him..

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth…I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies.

(Ps 57.5,9-11)

“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….” This is what God the Lord says- the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people and life to those who walk on it: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness..I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.

(Isa 42.1,5-8)

After Jesus said this, he looked towards heaven and prayed: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life; that they may know you, the only true God

(Jn 17.1-3)

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sin, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven

(Heb 1.2&3)

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep..Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet..when he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

(1Cor 15.20,24,25&28)

Recently I was privileged to be among a gathering addressed by one of the most eminent and respected christian scholars of the last fifty years, and was particularly struck by some comments he made regarding God’s stated aim throughout scripture – to be glorified in all creation. Why, he asked, should we worship God and give him the pre-eminent place? Firstly, because unlike every other being – human or spirit – he is good, powerful, perfect, holy and just, in ways that we cannot begin to conceive. But secondly, because “the universe is made that way”!

All creation – springing from the heart and word of God – has a fundamental principle upon which it is founded, namely that God is supreme, and everything will operate perfectly, in its right place, only when that principle is observed. When humanity rebelled and tore God from the throne of their lives, we violated that founding principle and have been paying the price ever since – all creation became and remains indeed out of balance, unstable, and flawed.

The gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news which comes to us through his life, death and resurrection, is not some sticking plaster remedy for our rebellion, nor some panacea for its bad side-effects. The idea that Jesus died solely for our benefit, to make us happy and to solve our personal problems is a sorry misrepresentation of the magnificent truth. Jesus came to restore order to the universe, to make it possible for EVERYTHING that has ever existed to be in a right relation to God once again. Only by defeating sin and death on the cross, paying the price for our rebellion, could that fundamental imbalance be addressed. But by doing this, Jesus has drawn us into a narrative of unimaginable breadth and majesty – our small lives are now transformed into part of this rising crescendo, this relentless march towards the day when we shall see Christ in all his glory laying everything at his father’s feet.

Until then, we catch only glimpses of what is to come, we hear echoes and distorted chords of the triumph song. But on that day, we will be part of the perfect song which rises for ever in fitting praise to the God who is utterly worthy; we will know ourselves part of a new earth and new heaven which are flawless, and in a perfect submission to God from which springs eternal life of a quality and intensity which we cannot now imagine.

May God, in his mercy, continually raise our eyes to this vision of perfection so that we might see all that happens to us in that light – what does it do for the kingdom, for his glory? When trials come, let us seek to glorify him and see His name lifted high through them. When others look at our lives, may the question on their lips be “Who is this Jesus, who is the God whom you call upon? ”

Let us be all about him…