Category Archives: witness

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.

Advertisements

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…

We must use our words….

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth..And God said,”Let there be light, ” and there was light…

(Gen 1.1&3)

After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward…..Look up at the heavens and count the starts – if indeed you can count them…so shall your offspring be.”

(Gen 15.1&5)

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I , the Lord your God, am holy.'”

(Lev 19.1)

Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures.

(Ps 119.89&90)

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins…

(Luke 1.76&77)

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?

(Rom 10.12-14)

 Humankind is driven by communication, the desire and ability which we have, in the image of God, to share and express ourselves. We think in words, and from the earliest age we teach our children to speak so that we can understand them and they can understand us. From the very beginning, God reveals himself as a God who speaks, who desires to know and be known by his creation. He does not leave us at the mercy of dreams and visions with uncertain meanings, but reveals his plans, his character and his commands through his words.

Perhaps we are so used to reading the words ‘And God said’, or ‘The Lord said’, that we no longer notice them, but we should. God speaks..he does not wish to be unknown. In the book of Leviticus, he speaks over and over again, laying out in detail the plans for the unique life and worship-witness of his people as they demonstrate his holiness and love before the world. We can be in no doubt about our God’s plans – although we may not always understand why he chooses to work in certain ways.

I remember saying to my children when they were young and upset about something, “Use your words”, encouraging them to give me the chance to understand what the  problem was. The fact is that we all need to use our words, all our lives, if we are to have healthy relationships and above all, if we are to bear witness to the good news about Jesus and our salvation.

While it is possible to live godly lives, to be generous and hospitable, charitable, forgiving and loving, none of these things in themselves will explain to anyone what our faith rests upon. No one can guess from watching a follower of Jesus serving the poor in their community, or facing extreme adversity with courage and faith, that they are motivated by the life, death and resurrection of a Nazarene carpenter 2000 years ago – we must tell them.

This is the point which first Zechariah, and then Paul make. Zechariah sings to his infant son – the future John the Baptist – of the unique role which he will grow into, the task of being the truth-teller about the coming Messiah. John’s ministry would have been nothing without his words! And Paul states quite categorically that no one can believe in something that they do not know about, that saving faith depends upon hearing the truth-words about Jesus.

This is why people learn the languages of those among whom they serve overseas, why they labour to create written forms of unrecorded languages so that text can be created – in order that the good news about Jesus may be heard in the heart-language of those who listen, so that they might believe and be saved. This is why in illiterate cultures, story-tellers are trained in the gospel narratives, and radio broadcasts and recordings of scripture are created – so that people might hear, believe and be saved…

So much effort is being expended across the world, to enable people to hear and respond, to call upon the one name by which they may be saved….What am I doing? All too often, I am saying nothing. Fearful of giving offence, of saying “the wrong thing”, of being rejected by my listeners; I keep the good news to myself.

Lord God, forgive my stubborn silence, my failure to share the good news. Liberate my speech, and so fill my heart with love for the lost and with the glory of Jesus that I MUST speak…

Thank Offerings…..

Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, and I will testify against you: I am God, your God. I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Sacrifice thank-offerings to God, fulfil your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honour me.

(Ps 50.7-15)

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures for ever. Give thanks…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. Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures for ever.

(Ps 136.1,23,24,26)

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)

I suspect few of us are familiar on a day to day basis with the sacrificial system outlined for the people of Israel, in the text known to us as the book of Leviticus, but I would commend it to you as worthy of attention – with a good bible guide to help you along! The whole pattern for worship and life for God’s people is laid out there, with the aim of enabling the nation to live under God’s loving care and authority, to thrive as their lives were rooted and guided by him, and also to be a visible witness to the nations around them, demonstrating the glory, love and supremacy of the Lord Almighty.

The sacrificial system in particular is of great interest to followers of Jesus, because it is this system which his death replaced – in a supreme once-for-all act to address the consequences of sin. So in Leviticus we learn about how different offerings are dealt with in particular ways, depending on whether they address the impact our sin has on God in his holiness, or the impact our sins have on others, and on ourselves – guilt and the long-lasting effects of living with unforgiven sin.

Under that system, one special group of sacrifices had nothing to do with sin at all, and everything to do with spontaneous praise of God by the worshipper, expressing gratitude and rejoicing in the fellowship which his people enjoyed with him. These are called the ‘fellowship’ or ‘peace’ offerings, and the particular offerings for thanksgiving fall under this heading. They reflect the delight which we have as God’s creatures when we are in a right relationship with him – because of his faithful love, and forgiveness towards us as we depend upon his mercy and acknowledge his sovereignty over us.

When God calls his people in Psalm 50 to sacrifice thank offerings, this is what he means – and how wonderful it is to see the consequences of that sacrifice. When we live thankfully with God, acknowledging our total need of him, he delights to hear and answer our prayers for deliverance. Not only this, but our response to that assistance is more thanksgiving from us, and honour given to God – we worship him, give him his rightful position in the world, when we are at his feet, exulting in his deeds and character, giving glory where it is due.

I do not need to feel happy to be thankful; my situation may be grim, may appear without hope, but I can still choose to honour God by giving him his rightful place – the source of my life, my salvation and my eternal home. I can still be in fellowship with this great and holy God, can know that he delights in me – not because of all I give him or achieve for him, but because he loves and has saved me. Here is surely a great source of peace, a place of rest and nourishment for my soul, as I feast on all his goodness and the blessings which come from being his redeemed and beloved child.

His love endures for ever….Alleluia, Praise the Lord!

Seeing straight, seeing true?

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God…show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and my hope is in you all day long.. My eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare….Look upon my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins.

(Ps 25. 1,4,15&18)

One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

(Ps 27.4)

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be give to you as well. 

(Matt 6.31-33)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it…’

(Matt 16.24&25)

Dearest Lord, forgive my poor vision, and restore my sight. It seems that every day is passing in a fog; I see only my own poor self, with all the weaknesses and scars of past failures and hurts. I cannot get past the blinkers of selfishness, and am blinded by self-pity and despair. I know that out there, somewhere, there is great light and freedom, a picture of glory and beauty which can transform my life and make it shine for you…and yet I cannot seem to see it. Oh Lord, mighty God, have mercy on your child and help me to fix my eyes upon you, each and every day; seeing ever more clearly your power and will to save, and the beauty of your love and forgiveness. Only that vision has power to burn away all shameful self-preoccupation, and only you can give it!

Heavenly Father, forgive my narrow vision and restore my sight. I live in a community of people whom you love, and for whom your son, my saviour, died. I live among people who have known great trouble and sorrow; people who have rejected what they think is the truth about you because of the pain they see in the world; and also people who never give you a thought, living only for the moment and the things of this world. I know that I fail to see these people as your precious and beloved children, as those trapped in a darkness of which they are almost unaware, and in desperate need of a saving hope. O Lord, loving and gracious, merciful and forgiving, I pray that I might see as you see, so that I might love as you love and serve in your name. Shift my gaze from my own burdens to see those of others;  displace my love for myself with your holy and pure love for others.

I praise you, my God and King, that you have paid the price for my sins and broken the power of sin and guilt and death over my life. I thank you that you have put your life into my heart; that by your spirit, I am a new creation and not bound by my past. Let me see ever more clearly what that means, and live as if I believed it! Let the truths of forgiveness bring healing and transformation, so that the shadows cast by the past are driven away, and I see more clearly that I am accepted, loved, filled with a new purpose and power for living – the best purpose there is, to worship and serve the one true God.

Set me free from myself, Lord, break the chains and bring me into the light of your love,. In that light, I see others clearly; in that light, I am utterly focused on you and forget myself; in that light, may I live, as one consumed by a single passion –  the glory of Jesus Christ, my Saviour!

They don’t have to be perfect…

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.

(Romans 12.3-6)

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

(Col.3.23&24)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.

(Eph. 1.3-8)

Some of you may know that over the last year, I have undertaken some further study – returning to academic labours after nearly 30 years – and have found the process more than a little challenging. It has been very illuminating to discover just how much latent pride in my own achievements continues to lurk – and there is no other explanation for the way I react to a less than excellent grade in my assignments. Classmates and lecturers assure me that I am doing extremely well, but for some reason, I cannot rest in “good enough” and instead fall prey to disappointment that I have failed to excel. Deep in my spirit, there is some seat of judgement which holds everything I do up to a standard of perfection, and then condemns me to the bitterness of failure when – of course – I do not reach it.

I am ashamed at this behaviour, and hope that as I progress with the course so I will also find that this inner judge is dethroned, and replaced instead by the only one whose opinion of me really matters – my heavenly father. I believe that as a follower of Jesus, it is not right for me to be so unreasonably severe on myself – to fail to show to myself the grace, acceptance and forgiveness which is so freely offered by God, the perfect one, himself. If he does not condemn me for less than perfect grades, then I must not do it for myself!! I have spent years telling my children that I love them not for how well they do, but for who they are – and does my heavenly father not love me in this way too?!

I have my own gifts, character, strengths and weaknesses; I also have my own work to do in the place to which God has called me – and I am utterly secure in his love, forgiven for all my sins and failures, everything taken carefully into account in God’s perfect plan for me, so that I am free to work hard, sin and fail, strive and achieve, all with a peaceful and cheerful heart! I DO NOT HAVE TO BE PERFECT, and I am praying that I might learn more fully what that means for daily life, so that I can be free from the bitterness of inappropriate disappointment with myself.

May God in his mercy be at work powerfully to transform my understanding, so that I might show in my life the freedom which is mine through Christ – the freedom of a daughter of the King of kings, who may hold her head high knowing that no matter how strong the feelings of being unloved, unworthy and inadequate might be, they are only feelings. The fact of my status in Christ remains, and on this I stand, amazed, overjoyed, and free…