Tag Archives: Matthew

On being confused…

The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple…Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me.

(Ps 119.130&133)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God..

(Matt 5.9)

Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men I will disown him before my Father in heaven. Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth I did not come to bring peace, but a sword..Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me;…and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

(Matt 10.32-38)

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word..Therefore ..it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you..so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

(Luke 1.1-4)

..these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

(Jn 20.31)

Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to come to the gospel without any background understanding or knowledge; no preconceptions or expectations, no ingrained bias or barriers to understanding..perhaps no one comes this way, since everyone has consciously or unconsciously made some deductions about how life works and what – if anything it means. But still I wonder, struggling to read the four accounts of Jesus life and ministry without hearing again the interpretations of past teachers, and trying desperately to learn for myself from the written record.

As a christian, Jesus is not only my role model for life, but also the one who by his Spirit lives in me to make that new life possible and desirable. I know, because the bible tells me so, that as I dwell on him, worship and love him, so I am being transformed into his likeness, and that this is for my highest good. But if this is so, then why do I find his teaching so puzzling? So much seems obscure, depending on years of study and intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (OT) to be understood. Is it really meant to be so hard? Why do we hear of non-believers reading the gospel accounts and coming to faith, when I frequently come away bewildered and wondering what I ought to have learnt?

Perhaps I am simply intellectually too lazy to do the necessary work; perhaps my heritage does truly hinder me, as I am so accustomed to learning from the preacher, and not from personal bible study. But the fact remains that while I can read much of the scriptures to great personal benefit, finding encouragement and direction, when I come to the gospels, I am often baffled.

But I persevere, trusting that even what seem like superficial observations are worth making, and that in my own confusion, I might identify with Jesus’ disciples, who must often have wondered..Who is this man who first commends peacemakers, and then claims to have brought a sword to divide the closest families? Who is this man who shows love to the outcasts, and shockingly rebukes the religious leaders?

One thing is becoming very clear as I read in Matthew….Jesus polarises opinion, leaving no middle ground when it comes to our response. It is not possible to say, “Oh he was a good man, a great teacher”. His teachings are puzzling, challenging and disturbing. He speaks more about judgement and hell than anyone else in the bible. He claimed to be the Son of God, equally divine, with full authority over creation and the spirit world.

If I will not accept Jesus on his terms – as God; as the physical manifestation of the Almighty and Eternal Judge as well as the loving and redeeming Saviour; as the only true Lord of my life, before whom every other human tie or principal must submit; as the Sovereign whose ways are utterly beyond my finding out, and who must be trusted, not understood – then, I am rejecting him utterly, and in so doing, I am putting myself beyond the reach of God’s mercy. This was the tragedy of the Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ day, that the Messiah whom they longed for stood before them, but because he didn’t fit their theology and expectations, they rejected him with merciless fury, and stood thus condemned before God.

Jesus says, “Take me, and you find God. Reject me, and God will not know you.” He will not force anyone to accept him, but if – as he claims – he is the only true way by which I may find hope, home and healing in God, then I must and will persevere in my quest to know and love him as he is. May God grant us humility and understanding as we feed upon his word, and are transformed by the Word into His likeness.

One story..in many chapters

Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name. Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me.

(Ps 119.129-133)

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”…. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom..

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

(Matt 4.17&23,5.17&18)

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

(Luke 24.25-27)

“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life….do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

(Jn 4.39&40,45-47)

One of the – admittedly few – disadvantages of growing up in a christian home, under a ministry of faithful biblical preaching, is that so much is familiar and absorbed unthinkingly. It can be a challenge to read and listen to God’s word without hearing and understanding through the lens of those who taught me, and I suffer from a real lack of confidence in handling the word responsibly for myself. For example, it is only recently that I have realised how significant Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 are for my own understanding of the bible! 

It can be tempting to dismiss or discount those parts of what we call the Old Testament which are dull, hard to understand, or difficult to reconcile with our own ideas of God’s character and purposes. We might want to pretend some of it was never said, or has nothing to do with the ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ of the gospel narratives. In fact, Jesus himself makes this impossible by his words to the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. 

Jesus own ministry is explicitly placed in the context of the Hebrew scriptures – Law and Prophets – and he claims not to be replacing, but fulfilling them. In other words, everything which had been written, was part of God’s revelation towards this point when the Son of God would inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth. I find this a great encouragement to me – both in my appreciation of the many places where I find comfort and instruction; and also in my wrestling with the places where the message is painful, and even apparently contradictory. Jesus refuses to rub out anything. The God revealed in the Law and Prophets is his Father; there is no inconsistency between what has gone before, and what he will reveal through his life and ministry. Rather, he comes to wrap it all into a coherent and cosmos-shaking mission, by which the future of the world and its people is forever changed.

The God of the Hebrew Scriptures (the OT), is loving, passionate, slow to anger and intimately concerned in his children’s lives. The Son of God revealed in the gospels is loving, passionate, denouncing unbelief, exhorting with tears but unflinching in his proclamation of the eternal separation and judgement which will come on those who insist on having their own way. One God, in three persons, telling a unified story of redemption, transformation and new creation.

I have – in our combined scriptures – God’s good gift to me of revelation, of faith-food for life, all that I need in order to live with and for him. Let me grow in hunger for and reliance on that word, rejoicing that I can trust it to be nourishing and sustaining, even if – and maybe especially when – I have had to really search and wrestle to understand!

 

 

Famous last words…

Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!

(Ps 150)

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

(Matt 28.18-20)

Therefore, dear friends….be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen

(2 Pet 3.17&18)

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star. The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”..Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life…He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

(Rev 22.16,17&20)

Intelligent writers and speakers know that their closing words will influence how people remember and respond to their messages. An effective summary, or an exhortation that follows from the content of a speech or written piece can enthuse, galvanise and equip for action.

All these scriptures close their respective books, and leave the reader in no doubt about the essential message intended by their authors. The Psalms close in a cacophony of celestial and earthly praise to the Lord who reigns on high; the perfect and ultimate King of his people, in whom alone lies security and where they find forgiveness, peace and wholeness. It is almost the Old Testament equivalent of the exhortation to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ which is found in the letter to the church in Thessalonica.

Matthew chooses to close his record with the commissioning of the church to make disciples, coupled with Jesus’ assurance that he will be with us to the end of all things. We are left in no doubt of our task, and of the resources – in Jesus – to accomplish it. The letters of the apostles often end in passionate exhortations based on theological teaching,  to make sure that their hearers are in no doubt about what it means to live as followers of the risen Lord – again combining comfort and encouragement with instruction. And Revelation itself ends in a glorious statement  of Jesus’ authority, of the gift of life which he alone can offer, and the promise that he will come soon – comfort for a persecuted church and to God’s people ever since as we wait in faith..

In church services, we refer to the ‘benediction’ – which might be translated as the ‘good word’ –  spoken over the congregation by the pastor or leader in closing public worship. These words  often remain in our minds and – if well chosen – can bring lasting blessing. I want to share with you two such ‘good words’, one which focuses on the immediate task of the church, and the other on its hope for the future.

We have a faith that is real, in a gospel that is true, about a Saviour who has come and is coming again, and has given us work to do. So let us go, and the blessing of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be upon you and remain with you, now and evermore…

May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest among you and remain with you until the day breaks and the shadows flee away…

Dear friends, we are called by the Saviour who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords to bear witness to him in a world of shadows, pain and darkness. He is the light, we the light-bearers; He is the healer, we the stretcher-bearers. We are able, because He is with us in the darkness and is the light within. We are weak, but He is strong and works in and through us. He will not rest until the dawning of the day when His kingdom comes in all its glory and all the shadows flee away; the day when he will come to dwell with his children in love and joy and fullness.

Amen, Come Lord Jesus!

[ my thanks to Stuart Smith for the first, and the late James Philip for the second benediction]

Seasonal labour..

I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy.

(Ps 123.1&2)

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.

(Ps 126.4-6)

Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.

(Ps 127.1)

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:..a time to plant and a time to uproot…a time to tear down and a time to build…a time to mourn and a time to dance..a time to search and a time to give up..a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate…

(Eccl 3.1-8)

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

(Matt 28.18-20)

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labour For we are God’s fellow-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

(1 Cor 3.7-9)

I was blessed this week to spend time with a wise woman – one who has walked long with God and proved his faithfulness – who encouraged and helped me as I wrestled with the heaviness of these days. God grant that I may be such a friend in turn to others in their need, as he uses us to bless one another! Two things in our conversation were particularly helpful and also connected with recent readings in the Psalms, and I share them with you now.

Firstly, the idea of seasons. As a gardener, I come close to the rhythm which God has placed at the very heart of our planet, and the mysteries of soil, water and life. I know that a seed must die if a plant is to live and bear fruit; I know that ground must lie fallow in between crops; I know that rain, cold and time must be allowed to do their work on soil which has been cleared and fertilised. There are activities which are proper to each season, and it is pointless and even destructive to engage in the wrong labour for that time – where would be the use in digging up daffodil bulbs to see if they are going to flower only 3 weeks after planting them? Those days call for expectant and patient waiting, not faithless digging!

As one who believes in a God who declares himself both Almighty and Sovereign, so that EVERYTHING that happens comes within the sphere of both his knowledge and great plan and purpose, I choose to trust him for this season in our world’s existence. I cannot know how long it will last, nor what will follow – perhaps there will be a time of glorious harvest as many find faith and hope in Jesus, what joy that would be! But this whole time – the political, economic, ecological, moral and social turmoil across the globe – is under his dominion, is part of his plan. I will only find peace in this season as I choose to accept that sovereignty, trust that He will prove his goodness and justice one day, and look for the ways He is already at work in it.

And this brings me to the second idea we spoke of – the choice to focus on what CAN be done in this season, rather than on what CANNOT be done! Yes, there are many restrictions on us, and our lives are not what we expected at this time. But that doesn’t mean that we are helpless and aimless, that God has nothing for us to do! I cannot say what your particular tasks in this season will look like – each of us has a unique place and a particular calling as God’s fellow workers – but they will be there.

Listen – to God’s word, ponder and be open to correction and surprises..to the stories of God’s people around the globe, let the stories of your brothers and sisters inspire and encourage and motivate you.

Pray – talk to Him about everything and everyone, asking for direction to be active and in tune with His plans.

Live – act on what you read and hear – love those around you, reach out to encourage and bless; rejoice in the life you have been given, instead of resenting what is withheld.

We look to God, as to our master, to see where He would have us act; remembering that it is He who builds, not us, He who gives life and increases the kingdom, not us. We may weep as we sow, but God can still grant fruit and we may hope for joy in harvesting .

Not our will, but yours O Lord….

Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is not breath in it. But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. …Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.

(Hab 2.18-3.2)

“What about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you..for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

(Matt.16.15-18)

..You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord…His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Eph 2.19-21, 3.10&11)

One of the hardest lessons in the great narrative of the bible is that God consistently acts in ways which bewilder his people; they stumble and falter as time and again, he works through gross evil and hostility to accomplish his purposes. We consider the role which Pharaoh played in the great redemption story of the Exodus – how the adamant resistance and pride of that ruler played directly into God’s plan to reveal the full magnificence of his power to deliver the people of Israel. 

Perhaps most shockingly, and hardest to keep in focus for those like me who have known the story all their lives, is the role of the Jewish establishment and Roman authorities in crucifying Jesus and thus bringing about the salvation which God had ordained from the very beginning. The injustice, malice, and concentrated evil which was at work to overcome Jesus acted instead to achieve exactly what had been intended, and from apparent defeat, God drew absolute victory. 

What happened next? The sustained persecution of the new believers in Jerusalem sent them far across the known world, spreading the gospel as they went and bringing hope to every people whom they met. Our God IS working out his purposes – but how ready we are to assume that those must be the same as our own, and how wrong we may be!

The ‘church’ is the people of God – those privileged to be citizens of heaven, members of God’s family – and our ultimate purpose is to demonstrate to the heavenly powers that God is good and wise and powerful, not that we are! It is God who is building, not us. It is God who sustains and inspires, and his Spirit which breathes life into those who are dead in their sins – not our strategies, or missions, or institutional magnificence. We are being built up together in Christ – not into a human organisation – and our purpose is to be the place where God’s presence dwells in the new heavens and the new earth. 

We are not there yet….by a long way, and I am just wondering whether part of God’s purpose in these days of global turmoil is to shake us as believers completely out of the complacency which continues to trust in human institutions. Is it possible that all the trappings of Christianity which we still cling to – buildings, hierarchies of clergy, denominations, ritual and pomp – all these have been hindering us from seeing and obeying God’s call? As we are forbidden to meet together, and are forced to take responsibility for our own spiritual lives in unprecedented ways, is God pruning off dead wood? This trial is revealing whether people are putting their faith in God, or in the human institution which we call the church, but which perhaps never really merited the name…

Let us pray in these days that God will find us ready to listen to his direction; to obey his call; to put away those things which are hindrances to gospel living and loving. Let us cry to him for direction and above all for encouragement that through this trial, he will reveal his power at work in building his church – in spite of all the obstacles which our ‘church’ has put in his way. 

When the world shrinks..

Yet I am always with you, you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

(Ps 73.23-26)

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 given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

(Matt 6.31-34)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. …I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

(Phil 4 4-6,12&13)

Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

(Jas 4.14&15)

One of the most interesting lessons to come out of these strange days when the entire world is almost ‘on hold’, is the sense of learning to live one day at a time. For many believers in the developing world, this is a reality which they have no trouble inhabiting, since poverty, climate change, war and other factors make each day a fight for survival. Their faith in the God who loves and sustains them is humbling, a quiet rebuke to those of us whose lives are clothed in (to them) unimagineable luxury and security, and whose faith is perhaps less vigorous as a result.

Do I really mean it when I sing with the psalmist that ‘earth has nothing I desire beside you?’. Am I really choosing to live each day as if it were my last, and I am mindful only to be glorifying and enjoying God?

All of us are facing a very real grief for aspects of our lives which have been lost in the current situation. I think it is important to recognise and allow this to happen – the important thing is to bring the grief to God and ask him to keep the wounds healthy and clean, free of resentment. We will not get these days back again – days which should have been spent with loved ones, getting to know new babies, saying farewell to the dying; days set aside to be holidays and festivals, celebrations and joyous experiences; days which should have been spent away from home pursuing particular interests, opportunities for service.

We have a choice, in our confined condition, as our world has shrunk to our four walls, our immediate neighbourhood, to a future void of plans and only the shadows of anticipated pleasures which will not now be ours. We can choose to accept that since God is sovereign, good and just, he knows and is control of all that is happening. He knows our grief and loss, but he also knows that we can cope with his help, and find contentment – trusting that even our wounds can be a blessing. Or we can choose to resent all that we have lost, to disbelieve God’s goodness and faithfulness, and infuse our mourning with bitterness and self-pity.

Heavenly Father, thank you that we can come to you in our grief for all the many things which are not to be ours after all; for the days which cannot be recovered and which we had anticipated with so much pleasure. Thank you that you know how we are made, and you understand the wounds we carry and the temptation to resent what you are permitting in these days, to wallow in self-pity and choose sullenness.

Lord, in your mercy help us to choose instead to delight in what you have given – to remember our riches in Christ first and foremost, but then also to see so many other good things which are ours. Help us to accept with humble and reverent hearts that your will is the best place for us, even though we may not understand it, and even as we grieve, may we do so in a way that glorifies you and honours you. In Jesus’ precious name we pray, Amen.

A turning of the tide..?

For our offences are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offences are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: rebellion and treachery against the Lord, turning our backs on our God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived. So justice is driven back and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.

(Isa 59.12-15)

Jesus replied:”‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

(Matt 22.37-40)

Jesus…said to them, “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

(Jn 8.7)

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

(1 Jn 1.8)

Imagine…living in a society where no one assumed on the basis of a person’s colour that they were shiftless, dangerous, amoral or greedy.

Imagine…living in a society where the process of justice was applied fairly to everyone, regardless of their colour, background, education and wealth.

Imagine….living in a society where people were able to make fresh starts, to be forgiven and given grace to put the past behind them.

Imagine….living in a society where we could celebrate the marvellous things which make us different, because in every way they enrich us as a whole.

I believe in a kingdom where this kind of justice reigns; where this kind of love and forgiveness is available; where this kind of society can exist. And I recognise with deep sadness just how very far I am from being the kind of person who belongs in that kingdom – my place there is assured to me solely on the basis of Jesus’ sacrificial death on my behalf. I acknowledge with shame that I am part of a nation and culture whose wealth and privilege is built upon the suffering and exploitation of other human beings, and that those people have been ignored in our telling of history – it has not been true. Hypocrisy, greed, pragmatism and disdain for the image of God in our fellow human beings has been the characteristic of so much national and individual behaviour. And I have chosen to ignore the stories which tell the truth, in order to avoid being upset by it – where is my love for my neighbour, that I cling to my own comfort at the expense of their pain being prolonged and disregarded?

The sin of suspecting, mistreating and exploiting my neighbour must be recognised, called out for what it is, and repented of. I know that it may take me the rest of my life to root it out, but I also know and thank God that I may be forgiven for this sin too, and enabled to live differently in the future. Racist thoughts and actions are not beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness, and I believe that in my life – and perhaps at last in society at large – the tide may begin to turn and this gross offence against the image of God in each of his children will finally begin to be addressed.

I am not proud of the truth of my nation’s history in abusing my brothers and sisters around the world. But I am able to boast of a gospel which comes to each of us with hope for forgiveness and transformation, and which will bring God’s children from every nation, colour and tongue to worship at his throne one day.

I have been privileged to worship with fellow believers from Asia, Africa and Latin America, and to receive their loving welcome and hospitality to me, to be loved and to love in return. They choose to receive me as a sister, not to make assumptions about me based on my race – and I humbly thank them for not re-telling stories of exploitation and oppression, or assuming that I will behave in the same ways.

May I be quicker to listen, and slower to speak; eager to learn and less willing to teach; keen always to honour God by loving his children and by doing what is in my power to change my culture and see the values of God’s kingdom being lived out.

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.

 

Observation..or celebration?

Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath..for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.

(Ex 20.9&11)

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)

I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. My soul will boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.

(Ps 34.1-3)

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath..

(Matt 11.28;12.8)

One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord.

(Rom 14.5&6)

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you ear or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality however, is found in Christ.

(Col 2.16)

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no-one will fall..

(Heb 4.9-11)

One of the benefits of this strange time is the extra opportunity to learn from the bible, to think about what it means to live in a fallen world where I am called to witness and work for God’s glory and kingdom. It can be easy to let the preacher think for us, instead of learning in the life-changing way which comes by personally wrestling with the truth. There can be challenges, as the truth is not always obvious, perhaps not what we have always assumed it to be. But what riches are found when we put in the effort, as the whole of scripture begins to speak with a unified voice, all leading to Christ and glorifying him!

The idea of ‘rest’ is one of the unifying themes of scripture. Did you realise that from the very beginning, God designed us to dwell with him in a place where he had done all the work? That is what Eden and the first day of rest was all about. And with the Fall, that divine rest was lost to humankind – we are on a continual quest for it, unable to find it because ultimately until we are at peace with God again, we cannot rest.

The commandment to remember the seventh day (because on that day the Lord rested), was a call to lay aside all human labour, to recognise that God has made all things; is sustaining them, and ultimately only He will provide the rest for which they were designed. It was always meant to be a day pointing to God, to his great love and mercy, to his promise to save his people if they would only depend on him and not on themselves.

Jesus makes it clear that he came to fulfill the law, to offer the promised rest  in himself. This rest is founded on peace with God, and Christ alone as the perfect sacrifice could create that peace. As Lord of Sabbath, he proclaims himself the king of rest, the one with absolute power to introduce a new creation where his people could live in the reality of that ‘rest’-ored relationship with God. The old regulations about Sabbath observance were now redundant, because the promise or fore-shadowing of rest had been fulfilled in Christ.

When we enter God’s offered rest, in Christ, we in turn rest from our own works – all our attempts to gain salvation and peace through rule-keeping; rituals and rites. To turn again to rigid ‘sabbath observance’ is therefore a dangerous nonsense! I am free in Christ to celebrate every day as a gift from God, graced with forgiveness and the liberating truth that it is all by his work that I am saved and welcomed into the Sabbath-rest which is the heritage of God’s children.

I am free to especially mark a particular day in appropriate ways in order to focus on the rest which is mine in Christ – but I am not free to impose on others or to judge them for their choices. I am free to celebrate – and for many of us this will be on a day when we can meet with other believers, and take extra time to enjoy God’s good gifts, perhaps Sunday, but perhaps another day depending on our culture!

I am also free to serve, expecting nothing in return, because God is all in all to me, and has promised to care for me. And significantly, I am free to sacrifice – to forgo my expressions of freedom if they cause another to stumble in their faith.

I do not observe the Sabbath. I celebrate the day which the Lord has made; the salvation which he has won; the sure hope of eternal life with him which is mine; and the daily reality that – no matter what is happening to me, within me, and around me – I am at rest with God forever. I have peace, Thanks be to God!

 

Tell me the old, old story

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from days of eternity….He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. and they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.

(Mic 5.2&4)

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth..to Bethlehem…to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son…and there were shepherds living out in the fields near by…An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them..But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord..”  So [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in a manger…The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

(Lk 2.4-6,8-11,16&20)

You are to give him the name Jesus [or Messiah], because he will save his people from their sins..this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means “God with us”

(Matt 1.21-23)

Like a movement caught only on the edge of my vision; a whisper on the edge of my hearing; there are intimations of a glory unimagined in this beloved story. I cannot remember a time when I did not know the words, and yet I know that I will never tire of hearing it again.

This birth, in a small town in a dim corner of empire, is the culmination of centuries of God working out his promises and purposes. It is the focal point of a multitude of lives and events fashioned down the years so that at just the right time – in every sense of the words – this woman gave birth to this child in this place. How many hundreds and thousands of people played their part in the great drama? How many had any idea that their lives were of such eternal significance? Does this not give me courage and inspiration for my own small life – seemingly insignificant – that within the purposes of God, I matter! I may not see the big picture yet, but I can trust that my God – the God of Mary and Joseph, of Abraham and Isaac, of Ruth and Rahab, of David, Solomon and Isaiah – has me in exactly the place which he desires for his glory.

This birth, in a land under enemy occupation, to a people without power to govern themselves, a people divided against themselves and lacking leadership, was the beginning of a new kingdom – the rule of Christ the King of Kings. The circumstances suggested anything but such a future for this child, and yet the reality – the truth – was that God had inaugurated the reign of the Shepherd King, who in himself would bring true peace to his people. And that people would reach around the world and throughout time, until every nation, tribe and tongue will be represented in his flock.

Our world is as dark, threatening, confused and pain-filled as it was then. The people of God today remain a minority, threatened on all sides, divided within themselves, and losing their way under false leaders. But shall we not find hope in the old, old story? Our God remains on the throne, and his arm is still mighty to save and establish believers, to build up the church and to keep it until the end. The circumstances remain unpromising – but I believe in the God who was at work in Bethlehem, and in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago.

The vision of glory which is our eternal future; dwelling in uninterrupted and joyous fellowship with Jesus our Lord, and finally realising our beauty as the unified church, the bride of Christ – this vision is no daydream. It is guaranteed to us by the God of Bethlehem, whose glory shone upon the shepherds, whose plans cannot be thwarted, and whose timing is perfect. Let us rejoice today in this old, old story and in the timeless truth which it teaches, for our encouragement and to the glory of God.