She’s not the first monarch in such a speech to draw inspiration from her faith – she declared that the teachings of Christ had served as her inner light – and to highlight the importance of light in the darkness, where that light brings hope. Although the film, The King’s Speech, which was also on TV over Christmas, focuses on that part of the life of her father, King George VI, which culminates in his speech to the nation and empire at the outbreak of the Second World War, his more famous oration arguably came in his Christmas broadcast of 1939, just a week before the onset of a new year with all its threats, challenges and potential disasters and the course of which no one could foresee accurately and what might be foreseen was pessimistic and depressing. There are certainly some parallels with where we currently find ourselves.
The King, at that time, sought to rally his peoples with a call to faith that, in his own words, “the Almighty Hand may guide and uphold us all”. He quoted from a poem entitled God Knows by a Bristol-born poet, Minnie Louise Haskins, lines from which, in closing his address, he hoped would provide a message of encouragement. The words he quoted may be known to you already:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and
put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light
and safer than a known way.”
The Hand of God would provide a more secure basis for carrying on than any light which might allow one to see imperfectly the path ahead. The poem has more lines to it than those quoted by the King, and later read out at the funeral of the Queen Mother. There are those who say that the remainder does not possess the compelling quality of the opening lines but they serve, albeit in a changed verse form, to underline the importance of faith in our lives.
So I went forth,
And finding the Hand of God,
Trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone East. So heart be still!
What need our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.
God knows. His will is best.
The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.
Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.
The words of this poem were intended as a message of assurance to a nation at war. They were words of comfort in the loss of loved ones, and words of hope for a difficult time to end. They were words of truth that our God is in control and we need not fear. Later this week one of the daily readings is taken from Psalm 27, a paraphrased version of which is found in Hymn 14, written by James Montgomery (1771-1854) with whom I share a birthplace: Irvine. One of my previous posts underlined that, even in times of great challenge, we are not alone. As we face yet another period of lockdown and further enforced isolation, we can rely on that comfort, even on the darkest nights.
God is my strong salvation,
What foe have I to fear?
In darkness and temptation
My light, my help is near:
Though hosts encamp around me,
Firm to the fight I stand!
What terror can confound me,
With God at my right hand?
Place on the Lord reliance;
My soul, with courage wait;
His truth be thine affiance
When faint and desolate.
His might thy heart shall strengthen,
His love thy joy increase:
Mercy thy days shall lengthen;
The Lord will give thee peace.
Many people may well be happy to see the back of 2020, it's been quite a year hasn't it?
We probably all have different views about how last year has impacted on us individually. For Christina and I, it’s probably been a bit less stressful than many others, we've been working the whole time, we've not had to isolate, we've no children at school or college; it has been a very strange year but not a terrible one for us. Not so for so many others though, our own members included.
One of the things we've missed the most of course is our weekly trip through to Edinburgh – now that's not easy for a Glaswegian to say!! We've missed the fellowship we have together at our Memorial Service, sharing the emblems, ecclesial meals and all the other activities we used to share.
Enough of last year though, what about 2021? What new challenges might we face? Initially it looks like nothing is going to change too much, our meetings will continue to be virtual, whether our own or with other ecclesias. Probably the biggest challenge for us is staying positive throughout these troubled times. We may well all be carrying "extra baggage" that is pulling us down. What can we do then? We need to in the words of a well known Disney song "Let it go!" You're probably thinking "that's easy to say" but..........
There are many things in our lives that we need to let go of in order to grow in our walk in Christ. Far too many people walk around carrying heavy baggage from years of mistakes, hurt, pain, bad choices etc. We might carry around anger and bitterness from past experiences which then affect current relationships but we have to let it go, we have to choose forgiveness and repentance in order to be kind and loving towards others.
To let go of an issue we must first understand what the problem is. Ephesians 4:31,32 reads,
"Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you."
How can we identify what it is we are carrying around? Of course we can take it to the Lord in prayer and ask for help or perhaps talk to a Brother or Sister or a friend and see if there are any problems they can see.
Next step is to do something about it, let it go. As believers we need to constantly evaluate the "fruit" we are producing, if it is rotten fruit, baggage, we need to bring it into the light. To confess and ask for forgiveness or in some cases extend forgiveness to others. The process may not be simple though; it may well be a complicated process when we feel the baggage is too heavy. This is when we need to remind ourselves, with God all things are possible, we must be willing to trust the process.
Do we trust that God has a plan and purpose for us, that He will work it all together for good? Even when things might seem like they are far from good in our lives we need to realise that God will still use it for His good in our life.
If we do recognise this, then today, the 3rd day of this new year is a good day to start to let it go.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
It was one way of learning both the polite way to ask for something and also the need to be precise in the use of vocabulary. To distinguish between what is possible [can], and what is allowed or beneficial [may]. Once the lesson was learnt, they had a great time using their newly acquired knowledge when others made the ‘mistake’, if that is what it was, of saying ‘can’ when ‘may’ would have been more appropriate. For example “Can I help with the washing up?”.
Perhaps only a pedant would wish to emphasise the difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’. But very recently there was a good example from the Prime Minister and the First Minister of Scotland (and probably from the First Ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland as well). Soon after the five days of fewer Coronavirus restrictions over the Christmas period were announced, the message changed to distinguishing between what we could do within the guidelines and what we should do; or in other words the difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’. Our plans might well have been within the legal framework, but we were encouraged to think very carefully of the consequences of any actions we intended to take.
Of course, since the five day relaxation was announced, the situation deteriorated drastically, and it was no longer a case of ‘can’ and ‘may’; just basically ‘cannot’, not even ‘may not’.
But there is a lesson for each one of us as we finish one year (and what a year!), and start another. In response to something that was being said in Corinth, Paul replied to the early Christians there as follows:
"We are allowed to do anything," so they say. That is true, but not everything is good. "We are allowed to do anything” – but not everything is helpful.
1 Corinthians 10:23
It was Augustine (354-430AD) who put it in a slightly different but very challenging way:
“Love God and do whatever you please.”
He was not advocating that a Christian can do anything, or may do anything (because God is a God of love, and will forgive you). He is saying that once a person truly, deeply, loves God, whatever they do or want to do will be what Jesus would do and what God wants them to do. A real challenge, as we enter 2021 with perhaps a New Year resolution to be a better person than we were in 2020.
We conclude our last post of the year with another challenge from Augustine:
"Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you."
We all have our hopes and fears. Our hopes we cherish dearly, but what do we do with our fears? We don’t need to encourage them. They just won’t just go away. They can change and we can overcome some, but I think mostly we are stuck with them.
An example for me, which if anything has got worse as I’ve grown older, is fear of heights. This was none too handy at work on building sites when clambering around in the scaffolding. I wished I’d only ever designed bungalows. It’s so easy to get caught out with this affliction.
We’ve just had our chimney swept – I know that’s a bit old fashioned and obviously not a job for me. The stack is five floors up plus the height of the gable. As there are twenty-one pots on our stack, even if I tried I probably wouldn’t get the right one anyway. All went well until the sweep insisted that I go out into the street to see what a good job he had made of fitting a new cowl. My job was just to stand on the pavement and look up. There he was, sitting on the next pot to mine. And yet it was me who was majorly uncomfortable, just by looking. I got that old familiar queeziness. It was irrational of me, but it seems fear is often like that, and this was just me. Nobody around me was getting jittery, least of all the man up top.
Fears can of course protect us by stopping us doing silly risky things. So we cross roads carefully, and respect electricity. It can even motivate us to goodness for fear of damaging our self-esteem and reputations by failing to get a job done, thereby letting others down. But there has to be a better motivator than fear. We need to be positive, looking to our futures with confidence and hope not despair.
This is where the message of the angels to the shepherds is for us. Jesus calmed the storm when the disciples were all at sea. He invites us to “consider the lilies” in Luke 12. In other words, stop being anxious especially about wealth and possessions. God knows us and he cares. He tells us to hold our treasure in heaven where it will always be secure. Somehow we don’t achieve it but in 1 John we read that perfect love casts out fear, and there is perfect love. Jesus brought it and showed how God views us. For all our failings, he is on our side. If so, what is there to fear?
David, who was presiding, opened with the comment: “Welcome to our last meeting of the year”. We smiled wryly, mostly not taking his remark too seriously! But he was right, and since then, we are in a whole new world!
That shouldn’t worry us too much. The Wise Men set out to follow a new star, to greet a new king, who brought in the New Covenant in which we are a new creation. And we look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 5:13).
Our new situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has given us all a new life-style. Some is positive, some is not. And for some of us it has been comparatively easy and even to some extent enjoyable, while for very many, it has been worrying, painful, frightening, hard, and dangerous.
On the positive side, we have benefited by being able to meet on Zoom and other wizardly modern methods of communication. Our Bible class attendance has doubled. We have been able to go to Christadelphian meetings all over the country – even abroad, and enjoy the mix and encouragement of various styles of worship and discussion. We have walked more and used cars less; we have noticed new places, new plants, new sights because we moved about on foot. On the down side, we have not been able to meet each other in person; we have had to meet outside or not at all. For many people, there has been the worry of lost jobs, the problem of trying to work at home and look after young children, the collapse of healthcare and provision for people with special needs, the disruption to education, the pain of suffering the Covid-19 infection, and the loss of friends and relatives who have died because of Covid-19.
Such new and challenging situations may be new to us, but not in themselves. In 1645 plague struck Edinburgh. More than a third of the population died. In Leith over half died. After Word War 1, more people died from Spanish flu, than died in the war. If we think Covid-19 is bad, it is nothing compared to those earlier pandemics. Wearing face-masks is an inconvenience, but they are to protect others. On the positive side, there has been an increase in volunteering to help others, a great practical stress on the need for kindness and consideration, and much care in action. Our collection today is for the Bethany Christian Trust which for many years has worked with the homeless and the disadvantaged.
Today, at our online Zoom meeting, we celebrate a virtual Christmas meal and a virtual Christmas family service. Jesus enjoyed meeting and eating with others, while also stressing the need to care for the poor and the ill. Let us enjoy the good things in life, the good things in our new situation and thank God for them, while also continuing Jesus’ work of supporting, in whatever way is within our means, those in need and those who are not as well-placed as ourselves.
A & IMcH
Reference to mercy will always at some stage take me to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes …
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings
It is an attribute to God himself …
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.”
Mercy, unlike justice, isn’t based on an equation (eg if x happens, y must ensue). It is a step beyond where, as Portia argues, it benefits both recipient and donor and elevates the latter to a godlike status, since mercy is an attribute of God himself. Mary, in the Magnificat, refers to this attribute when, in Luke 1:50, she says that “His mercy is on them that fear Him from generation to generation”. How then is God’s mercy seen in the birth of Jesus? How does mankind receive mercy from this particular event?
Mercy is not a new attribute of God as seen in the birth of Jesus. It has been an attribute for ever. It is a companion to his grace. While his grace is the unmerited favour whereby he gives us what we do not deserve, so then his mercy is the way in which he withholds what we do deserve. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23): another kind of equation; a justice-like approach to the human condition. To this can be added the layer of mercy. It runs through the Old Testament: “To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgiveness though we have rebelled against him” (Daniel 9:9); “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed because his compassions fail not” (Lamentations 3:22). It is by God’s mercy that he withholds the logical judgement upon our sin.
But the judgement doesn’t entirely go unsatisfied. Enter Jesus upon whom God meted out his judgement of our sin. “He was made sin for us” and “bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). Christ has died for us, in our place, paying our penalty so that God can withhold from us our deserved judgement. Mercy awaits us and we go free from the moment we trust Jesus as our personal Saviour, trusting nothing of our own position or effort. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done but according to His mercy he saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
God’s commitment to a merciful approach sees a culmination in the birth of Jesus. Justice is an equation; mercy requires the giver to go that bit further. How much further could God go than in introducing his son as a factor in granting mercy, in tempering the justice we deserve? That particular step illustrates the lengths to which God was prepared to go to demonstrate his mercy and forgiveness. Just as, in a human parallel, when someone forgives a wrongdoer and does not press for the full weight of justice to run its course, the wrongdoer has an obligation to recognise that; to be grateful for that; and to respond accordingly, so then do we, in seeing God forgive us through the birth, life and death of his son, have an obligation to recognise, be grateful and respond, remembering that “the Lord is not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9).
There’s a theological argument to be had, I suppose, between the ultimate contribution to demonstrating God’s mercy between Jesus’ birth and his death. The old Christmas classic, Mary’s Boy Child, contains the line that “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day”. Some might argue the technological exactitude of that but we can recognise and appreciate the sentiments.
We know the message conveyed by the angels to the shepherds, captured in the traditional Christmas carol, Silent Night:
“Shepherds first saw the light,
Heard resounding clear and long
Far and near, the angel song.
Christ the Redeemer is here.
“Son of God, O how bright.
Love is smiling from Thy face!
Strikes for us now the hour of grace,
Saviour, since Thou art born.”
The hour of grace emphasises the occasion of mercy and, as we approach the Christmas season, at this Advent time, we would do well to focus as individuals on how God’s mercy can transform our lives and release us from an inevitable equation. Jesus Christ was the ultimate development in preaching the Gospel to the poor, in healing the brokenhearted, in preaching deliverance to the captives, in recovering sight to the blind, in setting at liberty them that are bruised (Luke 4:18). We can see just how much of himself God has invested in a merciful approach and consider our response to being healed, delivered, restored and freed, and our resultant prayer for mercy should teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.
In Christadelphian churches, like many ‘low church’ Protestant Christian sects and denominations, mainstream Christian “tradition” is often criticised. Usually in those circumstances, it’s a reference to customs or practices that are perceived as quaint, redundant, obsolete, or misguided. (Though in my experience, anyone declaiming the embedded customs and practices of other Christians is usually blind to their own embedded customs!) But when we talk about Christian “tradition” in an ecclesial or theological sense, what we’re really talking about are the ways in which a church community holds and enacts their beliefs: how they read, interpret, and apply the scriptures to their faith.
Every church has a tradition, a particular method and set of beliefs for practising their Christian discipleship. Even most ‘non-liturgical’ churches (including Christadelphian ones) have some kind of customary liturgy, even if it isn’t formally agreed or written down. But in ‘high church’ liturgical Christian traditions, seasons like Advent represent a conscious effort to focus mind, spirit, faith, and worship on some crucial truths. It’s a chance to refocus our God-thought in specific ways. I think that’s a healthy spiritual practice, so that’s what we’ll do this week.
The Eucharist, the Sunday memorial of breaking bread and drinking wine together, is not just a commemoration of Jesus’ last supper with his closest disciples before his judicial murder by crucifixion. In looking through this lens from the past we can see a different future, a future where we all are united with God (and with each other) in communion with our Lord Jesus. The Eucharist is a promise and an assurance combined, a reminder that
In Christ our release is secured and our sins forgiven through the shedding of his blood... in accordance with the plan which [God] determined beforehand in Christ, to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely, that the universe, everything in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.
The commemoration of the birth of Jesus at Advent is similar. We rejoice in the life of Jesus Christ now, but we see in it a new life to come.
Christians have a faith of hope, but not a faith full of platitudes. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t felt very hopeful these last few years. We’re all feeling things more acutely as we try to care for our neighbours and ourselves during a global pandemic, but it’s more than that. I often feel hopelessness for the times in which my children will grow up. So I appreciate the voice of the Psalmists, who frequently wrestle with this tension between the “now” and the “not yet”.
Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock. Shine forth, as you sit enthroned on the cherubim. Leading Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, rouse your might and come to our rescue. God, restore us, and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.
LORD God of Hosts, how long will you fume at your people’s prayer? You have made sorrow their daily bread and copious tears their drink. You have made us an object of contempt to our neighbours, and a laughing-stock to our enemies. God of Hosts, restore us, and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.
You brought a vine from Egypt; you drove out nations and planted it; you cleared the ground for it, so that it struck root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, and its branches were like those of mighty cedars. It put out boughs all the way to the sea, its shoots as far as the river. Why have you broken down the vineyard wall so that every passer-by can pluck its fruit? The wild boar from the thicket gnaws it, and wild creatures of the countryside feed on it.
God of Hosts, turn to us, we pray; look down from heaven and see. Tend this vine, this stock which your right hand has planted. May those who set it on fire and cut it down perish before your angry look. Let your hand rest on the one at your right side, the one whom you have made strong for your service. Then we shall not turn back from you; grant us new life, and we shall invoke you by name. LORD God of Hosts, restore us, and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.
Hope is not blind, nor naive. The plaintive cry, “God, restore us, / and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved” is part of the psalmist’s acknowledgement that present suffering is real, no matter what the future holds. The psalmist looks to the king appointed by God, “the one at your right side”, for that hope of restoration—but is also calling for God to “Tend this vine” and act now for the sake of God’s people.
The prophetic tradition of the Old Testament teaches us that the people of God are such because they follow in God’s way. If we expect God’s response to suffering, to “tend the vine”, then as we wait in hope we should expect to live by that hope as well. This is at the root of Paul’s appeal to the church in Corinth.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am always thanking God for you. I thank him for his grace given to you in Christ Jesus; I thank him for all the enrichment that has come to you in Christ. You possess full knowledge and you can give full expression to it, because what we testified about Christ has been confirmed in your experience. There is indeed no single gift you lack, while you wait expectantly for our Lord Jesus Christ to reveal himself. He will keep you firm to the end, without reproach on the day of our Lord Jesus. It is God himself who called you to share in the life of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and God keeps faith.
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
While we wait in hope, “expectantly”, for the advent of our Lord, the apostle reminds us that we have already been called to share in the life that has already arrived. We have been given grace; we must show grace. The Christian hope is an active one, a concrete ‘doing’ hope not just an intellectual ‘being’ hope. It is not lightly that Paul begins this letter with a reminder of the grace shown to us: if you keep reading he proceeds with an appeal to the believers to act on that grace within the church and in the world.
Paul issues an appeal for a unity that recognises diversity. Paul’s hope for his siblings is vested firmly in his confidence that, “By God’s act you are in Christ Jesus; God has made him our wisdom, and in him we have our righteousness, our holiness, our liberation” (v30). If we cannot acknowledge the life of Jesus in one another, or even in ourselves, then where is our hope? The life of Jesus has already arrived once. How can we sustain our hope for its second arrival if we cannot live that life while we wait?
We must live by grace in a world that lacks grace, but we have the apostle’s confident assurance that, “There is indeed no single gift you lack”. This isn’t a ‘prosperity gospel’ of platitudes and false hope. We know that life is hard (for some more than others) and, as the rest of 1 Corinthians shows us, living by grace and living in community is hard too. It’s in our choices as a community that we show to our world what our concept of Christian “hope” looks like.
So let’s go into this season of reflection and anticipation with new determination to “Tend the vine”.
I bought a little poppy plant at a Gowanlea Care Home sale a few years ago. They are lovely but usually flop all over the border. This year a number of the buds decided to poke through the clematis support – each through its own little square. What a lovely splash of colour, and all upright despite the strong winds we had!
This year the network of our church has helped us to remain upright and together.
The ‘job’ in question was our larder – a glorified name for a walk-in cupboard under the stairs. We’ve lived in our Victorian house for 49 years and 1 month and this area has had just one attempt at decoration in all that time. And back then, in the year dot, we did everything on a shoestring, so it was definitely not a thing of beauty – sagging ceiling, hasty superficial repairs, mismatched everything. Our walls are very old, thick and crumbly (rather like us!); remove the structures or layers supporting them and everything disintegrates, but here was a golden opportunity to make as much mess as we needed to, do as thorough a job as we had the stamina for, knowing for sure no one else would be inside our house for at least six weeks. Lead me to the sledgehammer!
All the contents were decanted into the dining room, and we set about a wholesale demolition job. It was therapeutic actually, tearing out the botched plasterwork and ancient fixtures, and once the dust cleared, we had a relatively stable if yawning hole. So far so good. But … we hadn’t bargained on the dearth of materials available during lockdown: our particular kind of plaster had achieved the status of gold-dust. Samples and products travelled snail mail. Delay followed delay. Weeks went by. Months.
But eventually the walls were smooth, lined and papered, cables were hidden, new matching fittings installed. Then a decision was made to replicate the original iron brackets and use solid oak shelving, which had to be tailor made, shaped, sanded and oiled. By this point, the tasks had moved well outside my domain. Progress slowed to occasional hiccup speed.
Now, as regular visitors to this blog know, in our household we live our lives to very different drumbeats. What began as an exciting joint venture now turned into a source of tension. When six weeks turned into six months waiting, patience (mine) stretched to wafer thinness, and in the end an ultimatum became the only tool left in my armamentarium. It was October, seven months after the starting gun was fired, that the flooring was laid, and we finally returned to a semblance of normality.
There were so many lessons to be learned from this experience.
We’re all unique and different
To some extent we have to accept each other as we are … easier said than done sometimes! But isn’t it fantastic that God does do exactly that?
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)
He doesn’t ask us to be identical clones. He doesn’t expect the same of all of us. Nor does he require perfection.
As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’. (Romans 3:10)
The Bible is full of stories of flawed people: think Abraham, King David, the apostles Peter and Paul. And yet God accepted them as they were. His grace wipes out all sins and failures. Hard to get your mind around that awesome fact, isn’t it? But that doesn’t mean we can sit back and not try to do our best.
None of us would or could do many of the things these worthies of old did wrong; but could we, would we, emulate the things they did right?
And are we as tolerant of others and their foibles as God is of us? Mea culpa.
People matter more than things
Long after our little DIY enterprise, we, in our house, still have to work and live together. We shall soon ignore a wonky shelf or a misaligned joint, but hasty words or personal criticisms can linger and hurt at a much deeper level. We all need to guard our thoughts and tongues; to forgive and forget - constantly; to keep love and kindness centre stage. It’s a blessing that we have two ears and one mouth: we need to be readier to listen than to speak. Hearing and understanding someone else’s perspective can make perceived wrongs seem much less corrosive.
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:9-10)
Time is relative
Our own much-loved Gordon MacRae used to ask, ‘What does this matter in the light of eternity?’ If we look at our little lives and worries and preoccupations in the light of God’s perspective, they assume a very different size and shape. The actual quality of the job we did in the larder was singularly unimportant to anyone else but us, and certainly to God; it was how we behaved while we did it that mattered. If we live in his time, and by his standards, we will grow in grace as well as faith – a blessing for today as well as eternity. And unlike ours, God’s patience will never run out.
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)
We need to measure our lives by the divine plumb line
Our house always necessitates compromises. If we use plumb lines and spirit levels, our eye and brain can’t always cope with the end result. But in our spiritual lives we need to set our sights by the absolutes that Jesus provides. Where he is involved, if things look wonky, we know for sure we’re the ones who need to adjust.
Remember the plumb line in Amos? Thus he showed me: Behold, the Lord stood on a wall made with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line’ Then the Lord said: ‘Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will not pass by them anymore.’ (Amos 7:7-8) We need that true standard today – God’s plumb line – as the perfect yardstick for everything we do.
Love is the most important attitude to bring to any task, any relationship
We’re all familiar with the high ideal of Galatians 5: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control … (vv22-23) But knowing it intellectually isn’t the same as owning it personally and putting it into effect. I needed to work, and keep on working, at maintaining perspective as the weeks became months through lockdown and beyond to the outskirts of the second wave of Covid restrictions … and still that wretched cupboard wasn’t finished … hanging on to the counsel of perfection in 1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (vv4-7)
Love of this purity is something we all need to work at constantly. Just like our larder, our whole lives are a work in progress, an exercise in patience.
Alone on deck it was as though I had the world to myself. It was one of the most memorable evenings of my life.
What stood out most, and I can still see it in my mind’s eye, were four lighthouses, which flashed their lights at predetermined intervals.
Forward, to the east, 20 miles away, the Ardnamurchan light.
Astern, to the west, 25 miles away, the Barra Head light.
To Port, in the north, 12 miles away, the Hyskier light and
to Starboard, in the southwest, 28 miles away, the Skerryvore light.
All of them continuing to shed light, as they have done for years, reassuring the traveller on the sea, in the dark.
It was both magical, and reassuring. Sure, technology has advanced so much that this crew were using different nautical aids, but the presence of these lights is just as essential today as it ever was.
As always, for me, an experience like that has spiritual significance, so it’s about lighthouses or light that I want to take lessons from today.
Look at it from just two angles:
- What are our lighthouses?
- How are we a lighthouse to others?
1) What are our lighthouses?
Or to put it in more modern parlance, what are our navigational aids?
Look at these amazing words from Job 29 when Job is reflecting on how his life used to be:
29 Job continued his discourse:
2 “How I long for the months gone by,
for the days when God watched over me,
3 when his lamp shone on my head
and by his light I walked through darkness!
4 Oh, for the days when I was in my prime,
when God’s intimate friendship blessed my house,
5 when the Almighty was still with me
and my children were around me,
6 when my path was drenched with cream
and the rock poured out for me streams of olive oil.
This poses several questions for us:
- Can we feel God’s light shining on us?
- Is God our intimate friend?
- Are we in a relationship with him?
- Is he our constant companion?
Job went through unimaginable hardship as we know. He even questioned if God was still with him. Yet God’s light still shone on him. He came through it to a greater future by the light of God.
Another obvious place to go is John 8 where Jesus is speaking to the people:
12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
In biblical language, ‘darkness’ is not only the night but also the evil that can lead us away from walking in the right direction, towards the light of life – Jesus who brings light into this dark world.
As soon as we turn to Jesus we come out of the darkness of life without God into the light of life with him. He leads us out of darkness, conflict and death into the light of life and love. He gives meaning and direction to our lives.
Jesus is our ultimate lighthouse. The lesson is to keep looking at him and we’ll live.
2) How are we a lighthouse to others?
How can we be navigational aids to help others?
Let’s go back to Job 29 and look at verses 21-25
21 “People listened to me expectantly,
waiting in silence for my counsel.
22 After I had spoken, they spoke no more;
my words fell gently on their ears.
23 They waited for me as for showers
and drank in my words as the spring rain.
24 When I smiled at them, they scarcely believed it;
the light of my face was precious to them.
25 I chose the way for them and sat as their chief;
I dwelt as a king among his troops;
I was like one who comforts mourners.
Again, some more questions for us:
- Do we have the light of the Gospel shining out of our faces?
- Are we always smiling?
- Do people see the fantastic future we have, shown on our faces?
We really can make a difference to the world around us. Our life, in Christ, can shine like light in the spiritual darkness in the world around us. As Martin Luther King put it, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’
Here’s a question – “Is there anyone around us, smiling on us, the light of whose face is precious to us”?
As Christians, we are called to be a community whose conduct shines as a beacon to others, illuminating the way that God intended life to be lived.
Here is a quote from Steve Jobs who was the CEO of Apple:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
I’m a firm believer that if we are able to convey to others how God is working, or has worked in our lives, then telling that story is one of the most compelling things we can do. This really is shining a light for others.
Two quick examples:
I love the story in John chapter 9 about the man born blind.
Having got over the questions about why the man had the disability, Jesus heals this man through his words and his touch. He touches him with deep love and respect. The miracle causes much excitement. Those who know the blind man begin to discuss the matter.
Some can’t believe it and think it’s someone else who looks like him!!
Some miss the point and get caught up in religious minutiae by saying Jesus can’t be from God as he healed on the Sabbath!!
What I love most is the man’s answer when he finally gets frustrated by all their scepticism and cynical questioning. He tells them he does not know the answer to all their questions, ‘But one thing I do know, that whereas I was blind before, now I see.’
As his eyes are opened, so too are his heart and his mind. He begins by knowing ‘The man they called Jesus’ (v.11). Then he sees him as ‘a prophet’ (v.17) ‘from God’ (v.33). Finally, he believes he is ‘the Son of Man’ and worshipped him (v.38).
This is the power of the testimony. It is an almost unanswerable way of dealing with objections: ‘Before I was like this… and now I am like this… This is the difference that Jesus has made to my life.’ You can be sure that this man talked about this miracle for the rest of his days.
Then there is the leper who came to Jesus recorded at the end of Mark chapter 1. Mark 1:40-44
Jesus healed him, and sternly warned him not to talk to anyone about it for the moment. The leper couldn’t help himself. Mark tells us that he talked freely and many people came to see Jesus.
You can be sure this man talked about it for the rest of his days as well.
Are we aware of where God and Jesus have made a difference in our lives and joined our dots in the past? Does it move us and compel us to tell others?
Like the blind man, we might not know the answer to all the questions but we can use our story to tell others what God has done for us and the faith it has given us. To them this will be a bright and shining light.
We think about Jesus, our light, our navigational aid as it were.
Just as a light is lifted up to the top of a lighthouse to give light, so Jesus was lifted up to be our light.
Jesus used a terrific analogy and applied it to himself when he was talking to Nicodemus, a confused religious leader in his day.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
God could have removed the deadly snakes, but instead, he left the snakes, but provided a remedy: Just look to the snake that Moses put up on the pole and you will live. That seemed absurd. It didn’t require anything for them to do except to look, in the faith that they would be healed. John shows us that believing in Jesus is equivalent to looking at the lifted up snake in the wilderness.
Everyone who looked was cured on the spot. No one who looked died. You didn’t have to crawl on your hands and knees over broken glass to go and look at the snake. You didn’t need to learn a difficult mantra that you had to recite perfectly as you looked at the snake. You didn’t need to take special classes to learn how to fight the snakes. No, all you had to do was to look and live.
It was a perfect cure for everyone who looked. The remedy is 100% effective. As Jesus says (John 6:37b), “The one who comes to Me, I will certainly not cast out.”
Also, this snake was a self-effacing remedy. You couldn’t take any credit for your cure. You couldn’t boast that you had fasted for days or deprived yourself of anything or done any good works or brought any offerings to the snake. You just needed to realise that you couldn’t cure yourself. You were doomed if God didn’t intervene. That was humbling to your pride!
So the question is, are we still looking to our bright and shining light, the crucified, risen, and exalted Lord Jesus, to save us from ourselves? And, just as importantly, are we reflecting that light, to those in darkness around us, so that they too may look and be saved?
When this happens it is easy to understand why decisions get postponed and little, even nothing sometimes, is achieved. I had an architect colleague who typically at the start of a project didn’t settle on an overall concept and then develop his proposals to suit. Instead he would get bogged down in endless research of possible alternatives. Failing to achieve some overall scheme for a new workshop or sports hall or whatever the project, he would turn to the easier option of providing detailed and dimensioned diagrams of the regulation basketball court or the shower facilities. These were fine in themselves, but the flaw was that they had no place to go. There was still no layout for a building to house any of the activities. His search for the perfect building design which would be functional, affordable and look good never came to fruition. It seemed he was locked in a permanent state either looking back over his shoulder in case he’d missed something, or searching around the next corner in case a better alternative popped up. A final plan of action never came. That was useless and no client was ever impressed to not receive a decisive solution.
I wonder what comments we would have made if Jesus, when choosing his disciples, had asked us for our opinion. What about Matthew? a tax gatherer so we might have noted that he was willing to work for the occupying army - not loyal to his own people, not trustworthy. Peter? we might have suggested he was not well educated, too impetuous. Simon the Zealot? too political, and too violent. James and John? sons of thunder, too loud and too ambitious. And so we could go on through all twelve and dismiss them all as not perfect for the job. But Jesus didn’t. They weren’t perfect but they were good enough – good enough for Jesus.
Looking at Jesus’ parable of the talents as in Matthew 25 I’ve long had a sympathy for the man given the smallest responsibility. Was he just lazy or was it that under the pressure of responsibility he couldn’t decide how to make anything of his “talent”? Or being in fear of his rather demanding master, he concluded that it would be better to opt out rather than to try, and so prove his limitations and confirm himself a failure
Jesus was forthright about the standard required of his followers. The disciples must have been unnerved when he said to them in Matthew 5v48 – “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect”. Oh dear, they knew they couldn’t match that. For us, we know we can’t either and never will be able to achieve perfection. But don’t forget that in the parable two servants were found to be “good and faithful” yet their achievements had not produced identical results. There was no fixed pass mark. Paul explains how God looked at Jesus and saw him to be perfectly righteous, and he looks at those who are in him and regards them as perfectly righteous. That is most remarkable. We would like to be perfect but we know we are not. Our inabilities, however do not stop God. Though he knows what we are like, such is his passion for his children he is merciful and gracious beyond measure. Jesus said that if we, though naturally flawed, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more does God know and give good gifts to his children.
But is this only true if we as his children have first hit the top flight and made ourselves, not just outstanding, but perfect? Well no, not according to Paul who tells us to remember that in Jesus the grace of God has appeared and offers salvation to all people as he told Titus in chapter 2v11. And he says that in Jesus we have the free gift to be regarded as perfect in God’s sight. Remember, this was the same apostle Paul who wrote that he should be regarded as the lowest, a poor performer and worse, and even bearing a track record for oppressing the fledgling early church with extreme violence – he described himself as a “wretched man”. However, despite all that he still found that he could be rescued, raised above all his imperfections. He says in Romans 7v24 “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord”.
It’s the same God and the same Jesus now. That’s good enough and more for us.
In these days of lockdown, we are lacking joy in our lives, so maybe thinking of joy in the scriptures, would help us.
PTL 277 – To be in your presence. Click here to listen.
Paul – Galatians 6 v17
At the end of Galatians it says “he bears in his body the marks of Christ”. Acts 9 v16 “shows him how great things he will suffer”. Acts 14 v19, at Lystra Paul was stoned and left for dead. 2 Corinthians 11 v24-27, Paul refers to the things he did suffer. Then in Philippians 3 v21 he refers to his body as being vile. Paul counted his body as being nothing, unlike today where they worship their bodies, in reality TV shows etc. Galatians 6 v14 Paul says “God forbid that I should glory save in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul lived to preach. 2 Timothy 1 v4 may be filled with joy. Paul Philippians 4 v1 my Joy’s crown – the Church.
King David after being anointed spent some ten years pursued by Saul (1 Samuel16 v13 David anointed). The Lord God says to David in 2 Samuel 7 v9 “I was with thee” and then the question is - Did David know this? and the answer – yes. David was a prophet-priest and king.
1. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and staff they comfort me.
5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Psalm 27 v4 – To dwell in the house of the Lord.)
It is the best known of all the psalms. A psalm of comfort speaks of God’s loving care to his followers. It is a psalm that shows God as a caring, all-powerful presence in the life of David. It’s here that David reflects on the concern and care which he had for his father’s flock and he sees God doing the same for him.
When we look at David in the psalms, despite his unceasing troubles, we see that these could never dim David’s Joy in God. Time and time again we read sing, shout for Joy – Rejoice.
What is Joy?
A vivid emotion of pleasure.
Things that cause delight.
1 Chronicles 23 v5
David had an orchestra of some 4,000. They had string instruments – harp and psaltery, wind instruments – flute, pipe, horn, trumpet, percussion – cymbals and timbrels, all coming together to sing and Rejoice before God. Psalm 30 v1-5 – I will extol thee – Joy cometh in the morning.
Singing and Joy are to be found with God. At creation Job 38 v4-7 “when all the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for Joy” and then at the birth of Jesus Luke 2 v13-14, we have the angels praising God.
What is Joy? – Things that cause delight
Job 38 v25-27 Rain on the wilderness – purely for the Joy of it bringing forth life.
David rejoiced in the praise of his God unlike Israel of old Deuteronomy 28 v47 – not with Joy, fullness and gladness.
David rejoiced in the fact that Joy comes in the morning. The night of sin and pain having passed Psalm 30 v5.
David was beset by his enemies Psalm 5 v1-12.
Then in Psalm 145 v1 and 3 we have the Joy of praise.
Green Hymn Book 395 – Joy cometh. Click here to sing along to the accompaniment.
Then in Psalm 56 v1-4 – I will not fear what flesh can do.
Psalm 34 v1-5 David shows complete confidence in God.
Psalms 56–60 are called “Michtam” that is a record of memorable events.
Psalms 95-100 are normally called Theocratic psalms. Praising God.
Psalms 146-150 are Hallelujah psalms – “Praise ye the Lord” – making a joyous end to the psalms but it does not end there because Revelation 19 v1-3 refers to Hallelujah and 19 v 4-7.
David in Psalm 23 v6 -his hope was to “dwell in the house of the Lord” – which is our hope.
A year ago, at mid-term, we were away together with our daughters, their husbands and our grandchildren. We paid visits to museums, and cafes and sites of interest.
This time, we are under the strictest confinement instructions in the UK. So, we stay at home (mostly), wear masks, don’t travel too much, and we keep away from our own family as we do from other people.
A strange world!
It’s not a new thing to look back fondly to the past. Remember the Israelites after they had escaped from slavery in Egypt:
… the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”
(Number 11:4-6, NIV)
In fact, despite all the restrictions, we are very well off, even though present conditions are particularly hard for some people.
If you look at the history of plagues in Europe, times in the past were really awful.
For example in Venice in 1576-77 about 50,000 people died of plague – a third of the population. In 1645 half the population of Edinburgh died of plague, and more than half of the population of Leith. That would mean that you lost half of your friends, and half of your family (on average). No anaesthetics, no hospitals, no medicines. Grim times.
So the measures to protect us and our families and friends are worth it, by comparison.
For many people, nevertheless, life is much harder now than it used to be.
I expect Abraham felt the same when he moved to an unknown country, but he did so in faith:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
(Hebrews 11:8-10, NIV)
I am sure our Iranian brothers and sisters (here in Edinburgh and in the rest of the UK) must have mixed feelings. They left families and comfortable homes, and have had to escape as refugees.
Life is different and difficult here.
But they, like Abraham, like ourselves, are all in reality “foreigners and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13). Our lives are limited, and as Paul said:
… we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
(2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Meanwhile, let us enjoy new things in new ways. By Zoom, emails, telephone we can contact people we might not otherwise speak to very much. Let us do our best to look after each other, and to care for those who are finding things grievously difficult. Let us be grateful that we live in a world where for all its faults, our government seeks to save lives and help people to come through the present pandemic.
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him [Christ] who gives me strength.
The events of the past few months have, for me at least, brought to the forefront the age-old debate between safety and freedom. Namely how much freedom should be given away (or forcibly removed) to achieve a level of protection against some threat. I’m sure you could scrawl through the history books for examples and find current day examples also of where a lack of protection has resulted in terrible exploitation and injustice – indeed does James not challenge us that the quality of our “civilisation” is in a large part demonstrated by our care for “orphans and widows” i.e. the most vulnerable in our communities?
Conversely though, we don’t have to go too far to find examples where too much “protection” has led to terrible oppression and other injustices. And so we find ourselves in the middle of a similar debate – have governments gone too far? Have they gone far enough?
Government representatives and media outlets like to tell us about the sacrifices we have all made, and maybe you agree with that description. For my part, though perhaps these changes to our lives have been necessary, I struggle to think of them as “sacrifices”, partly because my own personal circumstances are really not that bad but partly because of the element of compulsion and threat of punishment for non-compliance.
The Bible presents us with a useful example of the conundrum we have been talking about in the story in 1 Samuel of the people of Israel demanding a king just like those of the surrounding nations. What they got was a big, powerful figure who would provide them with a protection of sorts from their enemies but who would extract a price for providing this protection. Samuel warned them against following this path in 1 Samuel:10-18 but they had their hearts set on this solution and would not be deterred.
I suppose the moral of the story of Israel and its kings is that people are limited in how well they can protect others, even with great resources at their disposal, but will more often than not misuse the powers that have been given to them and squander those resources. Sometimes this will be out of selfishness and greed, sometimes out of malice, sometimes out of panic and fear, sometimes out of incompetence, sometimes a combination of these.
But it isn’t government action I’m interested in focusing on too much here but instead the role of protection and freedom in the relationships between God, Jesus and ourselves.
Firstly, observe the role of choice in God’s dealings with people. Just in Genesis we have Adam & Eve given a choice about whether to eat that fruit or not, Noah’s choice in building an ark, Abraham’s choice of travelling to Canaan, Lot’s choice in leaving Sodom. Each time there is choice but there is also a threat, sometimes explicit, sometimes more subtle. The choice God presents to these and others (and us) is summarised nicely in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 where God invites the Israelites to “choose life”.
At this point I invite you to dig a little and have a think about some of these and other examples. Often, I suspect these choices do not come completely unexpectedly or on a whim but as an answer to prayer. So think of the “cry” that went up to God about Sodom – who made that cry? Think about the “cry” that went up to God from Israel in Egypt and the eventual choice about whether to listen to Moses and follow him or not. Think too about the conversations between God and Cain.
Extend the idea of a connection between choice and prayer further and reflect on the story of Mary and the conception of Jesus. Mary’s use of the prayer of Hannah in her “Magnificat” is suggestive that the choice of Mary as the mother of Jesus was partially her own (Luke 2 :46-53).
God, obviously, can provide as much protection as he likes, so why not just fully protect? Why such a key role for choice? The only answer I can come up with is that it is a part of God’s character and his plan for us is that we develop this character.
We all have a tendency to focus on the outside and the flaws, the threats and the problems that are “out there”, but God is really only concerned about the inside and the threats to our character and our thinking. Can too much “protection” at the same time be a threat? Perhaps physical protection can be a threat in other ways? Perhaps true protection only comes from true freedom? (think freedom in Christ). Perhaps the ultimate freedom is to choose to give that freedom up and submit to the will of God? –the seemingly contradictory choice of becoming a “slave to righteousness”. Not being able to look at things with God’s perspective can easily lead us to complicate things.
How much choice did Jesus have in his own sacrifice? The Bible seems to imply that it was “necessary” for his own personal salvation (a discussion for another time) but that it was also a central part of the “manifestation” of God – a humble self-sacrificing act driven out of love. So an apparent contradiction. Well no, not really – we know that God looks on the heart and this sacrifice was acceptable and perfect therefore we can be sure it was indeed entirely driven by love and not at all driven by self-protection.
But just reflect on what an awful position Jesus must have been in – the path to be followed is the one of self interest but if you follow this path out of self interest you will fail. It must be love holding him to the cross – how sure can he be that in those dark moments to come that his purity of purpose would hold up?
Think of the time it took him to be “ready” and the steps he took to bolster his love – why wait until he was 30 years old to begin his ministry? Why surround yourself with people so often and spend so much time with the sick and the poor and the outcasts? Why spend so much time with his Father in prayer? Why such sorrow and doubt in the Garden?
Reflect on the temptations in Matthew 4 with this challenge in mind. Can I love enough to take the difficult course? What if I fail? Would it not be better to take the opportunity to do a great deal of good now with this power rather than trying and failing to take the more difficult path and so doing little good?
Reflect also on the fact that despite the barrage and vitriol he faced in his last hours, despite the fact that most of those whom he had surrounded himself with forsook him and fled, despite the agony and suffering that it was indeed love which held him to the cross.
Such is the strength of the love of Christ.
When Philip is near the chariot he asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian said, “How can I unless some explains it to me.” He invited Philip to join him and the passage he was reading is found in Isaiah 53. Philip started there and told this man the story of Jesus and what it meant to be saved. At some point in time, the Ethiopian saw a body of water and wanted to be baptised.
What did he do when he got back to Ethiopia though? His joy was real. His hope of salvation through Jesus changed his life, but what happened when he got home? We don’t know, but he was probably alone in his new faith in Jesus. That joy could have turned away quickly, or perhaps he could have taken his story and shared it with others.
Today, we may well feel spiritually isolated. Instead of getting better, things are getting worse. We're not able to meet face to face and break bread together as an ecclesia. I don't know how you feel but we definitely miss this. We've been joining online with Kings Heath or Bournemouth Winton on a Sunday morning but it's just not the same, is it? I even gave an online Skype exhortation for the Irvine Ecclesia. Obviously with the current situation seeming to worsen it's just not possible to meet together in the hall for a good few months. We have the joy of our hope in Christ, but lack fellowship because of the current pandemic that we face. These feelings of isolation that many may well be feeling are real, but we need to remember that the feeling of spiritual isolation is not new, even though it is new to many of us. There have been Christians around the world that have had to meet in house churches or “underground” just to be safe when they gathered. There are others, like the Apostle Paul, who were often alone spiritually throughout their lives.
In 2 Kings 5 we read of a man who was actually the commander of the army for the king of Syria; not really a friend of Israel. His name, we all know, was Naaman and he had a deadly and scary disease that was put in the general category called leprosy. How severe a case of skin disease he had, we don’t know. What we know is a young girl who was captured by the Assyrians and became his wife’s slave spoke about a man who could cure him. To make a long story short, after being told to dip seven times in the Jordan River, and finally being willing to do it, he found himself clean from the leprosy. Now this is the part where the story gets interesting.
If you heard that we came up with an instant cure for COVID-19 how excited would you be? How much would a cure be worth to the people of the world right now? If it was your spouse, child or parent who was sick to the point of death, how much would an instant cure be worth to you financially?
The interesting part is, this gift of an instant cure was offered free of charge. Here is what Naaman learned. There is no God in all the world except the God of Israel. To say that Naaman believed and was filled with joy is an understatement. But there was a problem; the king of Syria was not a believer in the God of Israel. So Naaman asked for a second gift. Two mule loads of dirt.
He had already received a cure, but here is his second request in verse 17. Here is a man who knew he would be spiritually isolated. A man who had a job in a world that didn’t believe, yet he became a believer. He didn’t want his spiritual isolation to end his relationship with God. Isn’t that where so many of us are today, with not being able to gather in a church building, praising God in hymns, sharing the emblems together as a family, reading from God's Word, approaching Him in prayer. There may even be a fear that the church won’t exist for a very long time because of COVID-19. It’s time for us then to get our two mule loads of dirt.
We know there is no other God. The creator of the heavens and earth. Through His love, His grace, His mercy we have a great hope in our lives. We’re not alone even if you are physically right now. We’re not alone, even if this time of isolation keeps us apart for several more months or longer. Let's keep affirming our faith in God.
The ground in Israel was no more holy than the ground in Syria. But Naaman knew he was going to be alone in a spiritually sinful world and didn’t want the king’s worship of idols to keep God from seeing his worship. So what did he do with all that dirt? Maybe it was to be a reminder of his cure and God. Maybe he took it back to have a place where he could worship God. He certainly must have felt that isolation.
We need to get our two mule loads of dirt. By that I mean it’s time for us to make sure we stay connected to God and as a church family. We have the opportunity online with Zoom Bible Class, Coffee mornings, fraternals, conferences and so on. Too often for ourselves we let work get in the way, we need to try harder to keep in touch with our Brothers and Sisters. Perhaps we could follow other Ecclesias and have an online Sunday Service since it may be several months yet before we can meet together?
Just because you are not in the building doesn’t mean you are isolated from God though. God will never leave you nor forsake you. Our connection right now is more through technology or a good old fashioned phone call than it is person to person. But we are never alone. We need to take our spiritual earth/soil and keep our ground holy in worship of God.
In conclusion, we miss you all. Online gatherings can be a great source of strength and connection but let us not forget that God’s message of salvation was not meant to be kept in isolation.
Perhaps now is the time for us to offer help to others, perhaps now is the time to be reaching out to our neighbours or family and friends who have not come to know God and the Lord Jesus as we have. Share your story and perhaps they'll come to realise that there is something missing in their lives.
God be with you until we meet again.
I’ve spoken to you before about my bike riding, haven’t I? Well, during lockdown, I’ve made the most of the extra time because of not having to commute into the office, and have done quite a lot of cycling. In the past I’ve attempted to wear earphones but have never liked the feeling of not being able to hear my surroundings, but I’ve bought myself some ‘bone conducting’ headphones that allow me to listen to recordings but also to be able to hear the passing traffic, and as a result I feel much safer. Since then, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, mostly of a religious nature, and there is a wealth of really interesting content on the internet. I’m going to share just a very small amount of this with you now…
If I was to say “O.M.G.” or “Oh my God” to you, what would your reaction be? As Christians, I think we can have quite strong feelings about phrases such as this. I’ve been brought up from a young child not to say this sort of thing. It’s ingrained in me!
I work in IT, so I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes come out with a few choice words, things my mother wouldn’t approve of! But I would never say “Oh my God”. This, of course, has its roots in the 10 Commandments. Exodus 20:7 says:
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”
So I don’t say God or Jesus in any sort of a phrase that brings them down to my level. And that’s clearly a good thing. But in doing this, are we actually obeying the 3rd Commandment in full?
What does taking God’s name in vain actually mean? As Christians, we have taken on the name of Jesus in baptism. And in the time of Moses, the Jews did something similar: in the previous chapter they accepted God’s covenant. They took on the name of God. Right from the first chapter of Genesis. Firstly to bear God’s image and then to take on his name is an immense responsibility. It’s much more than just promising not to say “O.M.G.” or such like, it means to show God (and Jesus, of course) in the best possible light to all those whom we come into contact with.
Thinking about things in this way, this commandment isn’t just about not doing something: it’s not something we can tick a box for and then just tut at the people on TV and around us who say things we don’t like. Instead, we are seen by God as ambassadors for his Kingdom. This is an immense responsibility, and we will inevitably fail, but by the grace of God and because of the obedience of Jesus, we have the hope of eternal life.
So finally, what’s the opposite of “in vain”? Well, just to take a few words from the dozens suggested by an online thesaurus, let’s all take the name of God in a profitable, powerful and fruitful way.
Recently we have been proofreading a book on the work of Edinburgh Direct Aid which started in the early 1990s helping war victims in Bosnia. We were struck again by the horror of war as we read the different chapters on the start of the war, the convoys and the danger they were in. We read a particularly telling account of one of the refugees. She lived through terrible times, soldiers took over her village, her husband had to flee and was eventually captured and murdered. She had two children to care for, living in ruined houses and then escaping through woods at night with soldiers shooting the refugees or the transport they were in. She eventually got to safety and to this country, and we now know her quite well. Some of those doing the killing, raping, torturing were neighbours, the school teacher and former friends! When we read about what she suffered and others like her, I think we can understand those who want retribution and those who want revenge. The reasons for war are varied and complex but seeking revenge is often one of the reasons why conflict continues and continues. But that is not the Christlike way. We can see from this how vital an attribute being peace-loving is and yet we wonder what we can do to help.
War is not just something that happened in the 1990s. We know that throughout the centuries there have been many, many wars and we know that there are a number of wars going on at the moment. We ponder what we can do? Help the victims. Perhaps we can help the charities that work to give aid. It is a start.
But what about ourselves. I read this on one of the discussions on “Peace” on the internet.
No Jesus, no peace.
Know Jesus, know peace.
Jesus taught us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in Heaven” (Matthew 5:44). I question whether I could do that but it is what many Christians over the centuries have done and it is Jesus’ way and the way of peace. The Apostle Paul in Philippi was flogged and imprisoned and put in chains, but he praised God, saved the jailor’s life and taught him and his family about Jesus. He experienced opposition but without retaliation. The Apostle Paul said in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone”. So far I have not had to deal with war, violence and imprisonment, abuse of any kind. Anything I have had to deal with has been on a much smaller scale. There are times when we feel annoyed when we sense an injustice or people are rude or unkind. What do we do? Do we want to retaliate or do we turn the other cheek as Jesus tells us to? In Matthew 5 we are told that anyone who is angry will be subject to judgement. We know from Proverbs 15:1 “A gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger”. But it is not easy. We are told in the Sermon on the Mount “Blessed are the peace-makers for they will be called children of God”. That is what we want to be, we want to be “children of God” and we think the only way to work towards this is with God’s help. Pray for patience to be able to cope with difficulties but not just pray for ourselves but for the victims of abuse and injustice and for a change of heart of the perpetrators. When the opportunity arises we can be a non-judgmental listening ear. This is “knowing Jesus”.
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” What did Jesus mean by his peace? I don’t think that in this context it means stopping war or violence, or preventing people from being rude or unkind, but I think it means peace with God, peace because we are working with God and Jesus in the purpose they have for human beings. Jesus gives us the confidence to try to heal broken relationships, or do as much as we can to work towards that, giving us the courage to stand up for right, to support the oppressed and to see God’s activity in the world through people who try to be peace-loving.
So, Jesus’s peace means we try to be peace-makers. It is frequently not easy and we are in danger of failing. God is a loving God and understands our failures, either when we are angry or when we do not manage to make peace with others. We need to turn to him, ask for help and to try again. Jesus suffered violence and a cruel death but he said, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. We pray to develop understanding and forgiveness like that. And if we do, it should help us to be peace-makers.
“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. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)
A fuller, audio version of this talk will be published as a special episode of the four cubits and a span podcast, and will be available at https://bit.ly/4QS-LS3 (or wherever you get your podcasts). All scripture quotations from the Revised English Bible, copyright © Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press 1989. All rights reserved.
We live in a changing world. Truly I don’t think there’s a time when the world is not changing, but it can be unsettling to live through times like these when so many aspects of our social landscape seem to be shifting. Our society here in the Western world is shifting, moved by tides that have been building for many years. As Christians we look to scripture during unsettling times, and our faith tradition can be comforting and reassuring.
But when we come to the Bible, we are coming to a collection of books written by and for a particular people, in a particular time, and in a particular place. How many ways has society changed since then? How different is our context from the context of our sacred scriptures? And how often do we think about this when we come to it, looking for guidance on navigating change? Are we looking for an instruction book, a manual for life? Navigating times and places so different to our own is challenging, and - just like navigating change - it may not be easy to do.
But the Bible can guide us if we allow it to. Scripture itself expects us to experience change, because change leads to growth. To a community struggling to accept new ideas, the writer of Hebrews has this criticism:
About Melchizedek we have much to say, much that is difficult to explain to you, now that you have proved so slow to learn. By this time you ought to be teachers, but instead you need someone to teach you the ABC of God’s oracles over again. It comes to this: you need milk instead of solid food. Anyone who lives on milk is still an infant, with no experience of what is right. Solid food is for adults, whose perceptions have been trained by long use to discriminate between good and evil. Let us stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity. We ought not to be laying the foundation all over again: repentance from the deadness of our former ways and faith in God, by means of instruction about cleansing rites and the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgement. Instead, let us advance towards maturity; and so we shall, if God permits.
Hebrews 5:11 – 6:3
The writer clearly expected the believers to grow in maturity on a personal level, to learn more and allow their perspective to change as they did so. But Christianity is not just about individuals, not just about people who follow God; it’s about community, a people (group) of God. Scripture expects communal growth as well. Here’s what Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, as followers of God in Christ:
And it is he who has given some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip God’s people for work in his service, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity inherent in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God — to mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ. We are no longer to be children, tossed about by the waves and whirled around by every fresh gust of teaching, dupes of cunning rogues and their deceitful schemes. Rather we are to maintain the truth in a spirit of love; so shall we fully grow up into Christ. He is the head, and on him the whole body depends. Bonded and held together by every constituent joint, the whole frame grows through the proper functioning of each part, and builds itself up in love.
Change leads to growth. In new times and new circumstances we are confronted with new perspectives and ideas. We can choose to resist change, or we can choose to learn, grow, and respond with a Christian conscience; we can exercise the mind of Christ. Scripture encourages us to confront these tensions and learn more about following God. As our examples, to guide us into wisdom, we have both the people in the scriptures and the people of the scriptures.
Take the story in Genesis 22, where God commands father Abraham to take his son of promise, Isaac, and sacrifice him on a mountain top. In the Christian tradition, we usually refer to this as ‘the sacrifice of Isaac’. This is a story from an ancient time where sacrifices were a way of life. The earliest stories of Genesis describe blood sacrifice as one of the first practices of human culture. And as Christians we can easily read this story as a story about resurrection. We can see Jesus in this story, the beloved son of the father who goes to sacrifice and lives by an act of God’s deliverance.
But our Jewish cousins have a very different view of this story. It’s one of the most debated stories of the Hebrew Bible, the subject of thousands of years of Jewish commentary. In Jewish tradition, it’s (more accurately) known as ‘the binding of Isaac’, or simply ‘Akedah’ (the Hebrew word for "binding"). It’s a story that forces the reader to ask the most uncomfortable questions.
Why did God make this demand of Abraham? Child sacrifice is an abomination throughout the Hebrew Bible. Sacrificing children to Molok is one of the behaviours of the Canaanite nations given in Torah as reason for the Israelites to prosecute a genocide. In 2 Kings, the great sin of King Manasseh of Judah was sacrificing his own children to Molok, and his sin is so abominable that Judah falls to Babylon. It’s the ultimate act of idolatry and immorality in the Hebrew Bible. So why did God issue that command?
Indeed, why did Abraham follow it without question? Just a few chapters earlier, Abraham withstood God and, at least in the narrative of the story, changed God’s mind. Announcing the destruction of the cities of the plain to Abraham, God allows Abraham not only to object but to barter with God, to argue and bargain with God. And no wonder: the sanctity of life is at the core of the Hebrew Bible. It’s enshrined in the first law code in Genesis, the Noahide laws in Genesis 9. So why did Abraham follow God’s command without question?
These are the most obvious questions to ask, and yet the text passes no judgement and offers no answers in either case. So perhaps it is not the answer that’s important, but the act of asking the question. Abraham learns something about God. He learns that this God that he followed out of his homeland is not like the gods of his homeland. He grows and his perspective changes, even as God stays his hand and literally forces him to change his point of view to see the ram caught in the bush.
And this is not the last thing that the people of God have to learn about sacrifice. The Law given to Moses frames the sacrificial system as something more than atonement by blood. In Leviticus 5 we read that the act of offering reparation to God for sin is more important than the method. It enshrines economic justice: those who could not afford to bring an expensive animal to sacrifice could bring less valuable animals; those who could not afford that, could bring flour.
In Leviticus 6 we see one of the most significant strands of Torah sacrifice: uniting the people of God around a system of justice.
When any person sins by false use of the LORD’s name, whether the person lies to a fellow-countryman about a deposit or contract, or a theft, or wrongs him by extortion, or finds lost property and then lies about it, and swears a false oath in regard to any sin of this sort that he commits — if he does this and realizes his guilt, he must restore what he has stolen or gained by extortion, or the deposit entrusted to him, or the lost property which he found, or anything at all concerning which he swore a false oath. He must make full restitution, adding one fifth of the value to it, and give it back to the aggrieved party on the day when he realizes his guilt. He must bring to the priest as his reparation-offering to the LORD a ram without blemish from the flock, valued by you, as a reparation-offering. When the priest makes expiation for his guilt before the LORD, he will be forgiven for any act for which he has realized his guilt.
This is about reparation. One can’t be reconciled to God until one has addressed the harm that one has done to others. Later scriptures go even further, focusing even more on the underlying aspects of community and justice.
“O Israel and Judah, what should I do with you?” asks the LORD. “For your love vanishes like the morning mist and disappears like dew in the sunlight. I sent my prophets to cut you to pieces— to slaughter you with my words, with judgments as inescapable as light. I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings."
In fact, this is the attitude of the rabbis towards Torah that shaped the Jewish world in which Jesus lived and taught, A minor tractate of the Talmud preserves words attributed to a leading Rabbi just 40 years after the time of Jesus’ ministry. When the temple in Jerusalem is destroyed, the centre of liturgical Jewish religion ceases to exist. There can be no more sacrifice and no more priesthood, on which a significant majority of the ritual, religious law relies. It’s a cataclysmic and sudden change, but this is how the Jewish tradition adapts to it:
It happened once that Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai was coming out of Jerusalem, followed by R. Joshua, and he beheld the Temple in ruins. "Woe to us," cried R. Joshua, "for this house that lies in ruins, the place where atonement was made for the sins of Israel!" Rabban Johanan said to him, "My son, be not grieved, for we have another means of atonement which is as effective, and that is, the practice of lovingkindness, as it is stated, ‘For I desire lovingkindness and not sacrifice.’"
from Avot Rabbi Nathan (5)
That’s the quotation from Hosea 6:6, there at the end of that passage. What do you do when your temple is destroyed and your entire society changes irrevocably, but your religion is still vibrant, and meaningful, and connects you to God? You change your perspective. You don’t read Torah without Hosea, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Amos. You reframe your worldview, in continuity with your tradition.
So why did I tell you this big long story about Jewish scripture, interpretation, sacrificial systems? Because we are a part of this story, and these stories are a part of our faith heritage. As Christians, we’re part of that same tradition of following the trajectories of our scriptural heritage, the practice of growing, and changing, and finding new meaning.
The famous 13th century Jewish writer, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (also known as Maimonides, or simply Rambam) explicitly taught that sacrifices were always supposed to have been a temporary provision for a particular time to lead God’s people away from sacrificial systems. If Jesus remains away, where will our faith tradition be in a thousand years?
Change is important, new ideas and new situations are important, because it pushes us to examine our faith and change our behaviours.
Teacher and writer Jared Byas has a snappy phrase. He says, “All theology has an adjective.” What he means is that we find it very easy to label and box different views/perspectives that are different to ours, without realising that we live within our own box. In talking about what it means to be a Christian, we could talk about Black theology, feminist theology, womanist theology, queer theology, liberation theology; about other Christian communities and worship practice. But more than that, Jared’s quip challenges me to ask what adjective describes my Christian faith. My white, Western (and very male) theology is not more significant, or even more historical.
We all have a lot to learn, from each other, and from people whose experiences of life and faith are different to ours: whether economically or socially, or by race, gender, nationality, or any other aspect that makes up the diversity of a humanity made in the image of God. Just like Abraham and the ancient Israelites, just like the priests and prophets of the Old Testament, we will face conflicting thoughts/ideas. We have a choice about how we focus our faith tradition, how we worship God, how we continue the story of the people of God.
We may find we need to radically change our focus or even repent, as we try to heed the apostle's call to grow together, as individuals and a community, into the fullness of Christ. Dr James Cone, was a 20th century Black theology writer and teacher, and a civil rights activist from the 1960s until his death just a few years ago. Cone was a Christian leader too, and here’s what he writes about the power of the gospel.
I believe that Christian theology achieves its distinctive identity when it takes on the issues of those who are struggling to be human in an oppressive world. Christians believe that their faith has something to say about this world and about the human beings in it – something that can make a decisive difference in the quality of life. It is therefore the task of theology to demonstrate the difference that the gospel can and does make in human lives, using the resources of the scriptures and traditions of the churches as well as other modern tools of social, historical, cultural, economic, and philosophical analysis.
James Cone, For My People (1984)
I can’t read this without thinking of the words of the apostle Paul, back in Ephesians 4 where we started. I can’t help but believe that this expansive vision of Christian community, and its responsibility to shine into this world the light of the gospel of life in Jesus Christ, exhorts us continually to grow through change.
...you must be renewed in mind and spirit, and put on the new nature created in God’s likeness, which shows itself in the upright and devout life called for by the truth.
This may seem a long way from our usual approach. A very long way. But it challenges me in two ways. Firstly, it makes me ask myself how I measure up in the praise department. Psalm 149 tells me clearly that ‘… the Lord takes delight in his people’, but exactly how delightful to him is my praise when I compare it to the images in these two short psalms? When I praise God am I radiating the kind of fulsome and unabashed joy and wonder that these Psalms describe? Would someone alongside me know for sure that God is really the greatest and most wonderful thing in my life? Would it make someone want to share in the joy that faith brings? And secondly, have I been generous in my heart to those who do praise in this way (probably not, to be honest). Of course, it is easy enough to point to other passages in search of justifying a quieter approach to praise, but it remains that dance was an integral part of worship for Israel and as such should we be setting it aside?
So, do I think we should all now start dancing down the aisles? Well, let us ask ourselves a different question first: is our heart so full of praise for God we at least feel like we want to? When we consider what God has done for us, and will do for us, are we not astonished, filled with wonder, filled with joy? I hope so. And no, I do not think that we all HAVE to dance before the Lord, I am sure that we can express our praise in different ways and God will delight in us if we are indeed filled with the joy of knowing him and what that means for us. But if there are those who want to dance before our God, then let us make room for them as they delight in the Lord, let us see them as God’s ‘faithful people (who) rejoice in this honour and sing for joy on their beds’ (Psalm 149), and if you feel you want to join them, then do so, go ahead and ‘praise his name with dancing’.
Over the last few months we have been out walking in places I have known since my childhood. You can imagine my astonishment at coming across two harbours which I didn’t know had ever existed yet both within twenty miles of Edinburgh and on a very familiar route.
One was in Aberlady Bay. All that can be seen now are wide mud flats of the nature reserve. When the tide is out the sea cannot even be seen. But unlikely as it now appears, in the 16th century there was a harbour and it was important, serving the county town of Haddington. Only the customs and stores building remains. The pier has long gone – invisible and forgotten. Looking now at the miles of sea marsh and mud, who would have thought ships could ever have sailed from there?
The second was near Musselburgh, substantial and built in stone. Dating from 1526 and first built by monks, the port became busy during the industrial revolution and was used for exporting bricks, pottery, glass and coal from the adjacent mine. Over the centuries ships from France, Portugal and even America visited. But not now. It is buried in the Cockenzie landfill and is only just visible breaking the surface of the new ground level. The last ship to visit, the Topaz, was abandoned when it became stranded on the silted harbour bed. No funds were found to dredge the harbour and it never left - all that productive endeavour, skill and engineering standing against the stormy sea, all gone. So, another example of the seemingly permanent and invincible – but now invisible, barely recognisable and forgotten. All things do indeed pass.
What about us? It’s uncomfortable to consider feeling forgotten or being unrecognisable to friend or even foe. It makes us feel isolated, adrift and valueless, discarded, futile. Jesus used some strong words in Matthew 7:21-23 of false disciples.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Their style was to prioritise human ideas instead of God’s, following a compromised lifestyle and indulging in selfishness and self-exaltation. They were not recognised when they knocked on the door. There is discomfort here for us. We can recognise ourselves in their failings.
When Jesus spoke of not being recognised he knew the force of it and what it felt like despite his being the very best. But he did not and does not want that for anyone. He promised to be with us always and in the bread and wine he asks us to remember him – why? Because he makes all things new, even us. Paul reflected on this in 2 Corinthians 5:17.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
Yes, we do compromise ourselves, we do let God down. But, through looking to Jesus we are a new creation now, in his grace, and even as in verse 21, the righteousness of God.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
And yes, this is timeless.
So, as you can tell, the pandemic has done wonders for the state of mind. When Pete emailed to say you might appreciate some words from me for today, I rang him to clarify.
“Oh no, we don’t need your thoughts, just a few words leading us up to the emblems.” So, leaving aside thoughts on boosting one another’s self-esteem for a later date, some words leading up to the emblems.
Furlough has been a welcome break for many, a strange extended holiday to be paid for by this generation and the one to come. It has, though, come with more than just a financial cost. Those of us furloughed increasingly wonder whether there will be a job to return to at any stage. Further, we look at colleagues who have been brought back in to work and wonder if they are somehow higher up the pecking order now, even if purely by dint of place and circumstance, despite assurances from senior leadership. The whole question of identity, certainly in relation to work, but also stigmatisation by postcode vis a vis the virus, has become an issue.
So consider the Lord Jesus. How could it be that the identity of the Son of the Most High could be inextricably linked with the role of divinely ordained human sacrifice? Could the mighty king, the Son of Psalm 2 really be the suffering servant of Isaiah 52 and 53? The Lord Jesus’ own mind played tricks on him around this theme – “If you’re the Son of God...”
No furlough for the Son of God. Times of rest and recuperation only serving to allow for prayer and communing with the Father, seeking after strength to continue, and guidance as to the way to go. Exhausted to the point of sleeping through the storm that threatened to sink the boat full of terrified but seasoned sailors, only to rise and quell the storm. “Peace, be still.”
Until at last, on the cross, the cruel jibes rang in his ears to echo his own thoughts: “If you’re the Son of God...”
Jesus’ unspoken response to the disciples in the boat was effectively,“Yes, of course I care that you’re perishing, I will give my life to save you, but storms will still come. Don’t let go of your trust in me and the Father.”
The anchor rope may feel like it’s slipping through our hands at times, but blessed is the one who holds fast to the end.
Readings for the Day – I Kings 3, Jeremiah 30, Mark 4
1 Thessalonians 5v17 – ‘Pray without ceasing’ – When we look at Scripture Enoch/Noah/David/Jesus/Paul all put their trust in God through prayer.
Before the Battle of Bannockburn (23 June 1314) King Edward II rode out to survey the enemy, some 15,000 Scots, having some 25,000 English troops. When they came near the Scottish lines, he was amazed to see how few were ready to resist the initial onslaught. Then he saw bowed on one knee the main army of men ‘praying’. The general with him said “Yon men will either win or die”.
Some years later (1542-1587), Mary Queen of Scots was said to have feared John Knox in prayer more than 10,000 soldiers.
It is a common mistake to miss the fact that God’s presence is always with his people.
Jesus said “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” Matthew 18v20.
2. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
3. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
4. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
5. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day.
6. Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
7. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
8. Only with thine eyes shalt though behold and see the reward of the wicked.
9. Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation.
10. There shall be no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
11. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in thy ways.
So Psalm 91 speaks about destruction and fear of the ‘pestilence’, but Moses, the writer of this Psalm, knew the power of God through his angels. Psalm 34v7-8 speaks about the angel of the Lord encamping around them that fear him.
Moses knew this through experience Exodus 23v20-21
The Lord said to Moses:
20. Behold I send an angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.
21. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions; for my name is in him.
The angelic power being with Moses.
Just as the Lord God was with Elisha II Kings 6v15-17. Verse 16 ‘Fear not’ Elisha prays for his servants eyes to be opened: ‘They that be with us are more than that be with them’.
So God is always at the side of the believers Hebrews 13v5 the Lord God says ‘I will never leave nor forsake you’.
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, said in Matthew 26v53 he could call twelve legions of angels to his help through prayer and communication with God.
In Mark 4v38, we find Jesus asleep in the rear of a ship resting on a pillow. Jesus trusted completely in God, his father. Philippians 4v7 speaks about “the peace of God which passes all understanding”.
So the hardened fishermen wake Jesus up, totally afraid. They say “carest thou not that we perish”.
John 17v9 Jesus “I pray for them”.
John 17v21 ‘That they all may be one; as thou Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us’.
This is the one who cared more than they knew for he gave himself for them and us!!
A couple of weeks ago Christina and I stayed up in Dundee for a short break. On a less than warm Sunday afternoon we went to Carnoustie for a wander and after sheltering from the rain under cover on the station platform we headed down to the beach. The tide was in so there wasn't too much sand on show but we could see that on a nice day it would be great for the grandchildren with plenty of rock pools, ideal for a paddle and "everyone loves a paddle", don't they? That particular day, there was a cold wind blowing and we didn't have a towel tucked away so it was just a very brief notion but perhaps another day.
What's so enjoyable about a paddle though? Rolled up trousers, sand between the toes, that initial excitement that makes you get straight back out the water when it first hits your feet then straight back in just waiting on that searing ankle pain until your body gets accustomed to the cold water. After that it's all good, the freedom to explore those rock pools and feel the waves lapping on your legs. You're in the sea but it's nice and safe, no danger of being swept away, the water's not even up to your knees.
We like nice and safe in all parts of our life even in our life in Christ. Too often we are happy to stay in the shallows, not get too involved.
In 1 Thessalonians 1 we read about the great example of the Brothers and Sisters there. Paul remembers their work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in the Lord Jesus, they received the Word with joy even amid much affliction. They became an example to all the believers in Macedonia, their faith in God going forth everywhere. Sounds like the Ecclesia in Thessalonica were doing pretty good, living a truly Christian life.
As we go through the letter we see Paul praying for them, praying that the Lord will make their love increase and strengthen their hearts, basically telling them they're doing a good job but they need to do better still, they need to go deeper in their life of service to the Lord.
Isn't that true for us too? Do we too need to go deeper, to leave those comfortable shallows, to challenge our comfort zone and do more? We are all different, we have different abilities, different amounts of confidence, what can we do, what do we need to do?
Paul tells us frequently to live our lives to please God, conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel, to bear fruit and grow in the knowledge of God. Why should we do this? Hopefully because we love the Lord God and His Son, Jesus Christ.
We are also called to be Holy, different from the World, to become more like the Lord Jesus. Our lives should be a song of praise to the Lord. Yes we may well make mistakes, get a word or two wrong along the way or even in some cases a whole verse. Too often we dwell on the negative side of our lives, refer to ourselves as sinners, which we are, but instead let us focus on the positive, we are chosen, friends of God and the Lord Jesus, that's something to rejoice about. We do need to strive to do better in all aspects of our lives in Christ, to go deeper, to leave those comfortable shallows where we can simply and safely paddle around.
If we remain in the shallows too, there is much more chance of being pulled back in to the world around us and all its attractions, maybe less so at the moment though! It might be a bit scary heading out into the deeper water, our faith may be tested but remember what it was like when we were learning to swim, clinging to the side, staying where our feet could still reach the bottom then as time went by and our confidence gradually increased we were soon doing "cannonballs". This is what the Lord wants, a full life in the Lord not just a safe paddle. I've said before, the Lord wants us to thrive not just survive, to be lifesavers not just someone who knows just about enough not to drown.
That's our challenge then, to stop holding back from the Lord, have the faith to step out into deeper waters or if we feel we are not confident enough to dive deeper into God's Word.
"ALL Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
What and where is this? Or more realistically, what was this (it’s still in the same place)? The large pile of broken slates may give you a clue, provided you know something about the Scottish slate industry.
It is the pier at Ellenabeich on the small island of Seil, a few miles south of Oban. The district, and especially Easdale the island at the top of the picture, had a thriving slate industry, which at its peak exported worldwide 9 million slates a year. But in 1881 a disastrous combination of wind and high tides flooded the quarries, which in some cases went as deep as 80 metres below sea level. Fortunately none of the 500 quarriers were in the quarries at the time, and no lives were lost. But almost all the livelihoods were. The industry never recovered, and production finally stopped around 1914. And so what was once a busy thriving pier became redundant. There was nothing wrong in itself, it had just outlived its usefulness, through changed circumstances.
You might think there is no connection between the pier and Coronavirus, and in one sense you’re right. But there is. The lives of the quarrymen were changed in an instant. Our lives have been changed over the course of a few months. But for us (though I suspect not for the quarriers) there is a silver lining: it has made us rethink so many aspects of our lives. What is really important? What were we doing, just because we always had? What had become redundant and should be left behind? Things we did might have been very useful in the past – necessary even – but now no longer serve any useful function. The pier became obsolete overnight. We have had a few months to consider the questions.
As Christians, we are encouraged constantly to examine our lives and think where we could improve. As John put it in his first letter:
If we claim that we’re free from sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant* nonsense. (1 John 1:8 The Message Bible)
Since lockdown, most of us have become acquainted with doing things differently; in particular the use of Zoom and other methods of communicating virtually. Would we be doing so now, if we hadn’t been forced into it? For me, no. I had never even heard of Zoom before March. But so quickly we can see the benefits, and we should be careful not to lose them. It will mean working and worshipping in different ways, but as someone said, “God is big enough to cope with that”.
Hymn 393 in the Green Hymn Book is rarely sung, but each verse starts with a line that has never been more true:
Change is our portion now
The implication is perhaps that change is not to be welcomed. If the author was thinking of advancing years and ultimately dying, he was right, but the message is correct and important in other ways.
Those who met Jesus had their lives changed radically:
- Zacchaeus, who changed from being a dishonest money-grabbing tax collector
- Some ordinary fishermen, who became church leaders and preachers
- The woman at the well in Samaria
- Those who were healed of physical or mental illnesses
- The apostle Paul, changed from a persecutor to a leading evangelist
The list could go on. Our lives are unlikely to be so dramatically affected, though there are accounts of some today whose lives have been turned round completely by following Jesus. Most of us have the blessing of living in a supportive family, in a civilised society and in a relatively safe country. But perhaps that can lull us into a false sense of security. Do we take for granted
- the houses we have?
- the money we have?
- the family and friends we have?
- the food and drink we have?
- knowing not just about Jesus, but knowing that we are loved by him and God?
- the freedom to worship God as we wish?
Are we in danger of not really thinking about what we do and why? There are probably many things we could do better if we stopped and thought. Someone gave us a flip-over collection of sayings about getting old (can’t think why). One of them is “Progress was fine when I was young, but now it’s gone on far too long”. There is a danger that we get set in our ways, and think that is the only and correct way to do things. If we look back, not into history but into our own earlier days, we can see how things at the time that were frowned upon, or even strongly resisted, have now become accepted:
- using you instead of thou and thee in prayers
- sitting instead of standing in church for prayer
- having a television
- going to the theatre, or worse, the cinema
- using a piano instead of an organ to accompany hymns
So change is not always to be resisted, but rationally evaluated and embraced where helpful.
As followers of Jesus, we should be changing and progressing throughout our life to become more like him. Paul realised that he had still got some way to go:
I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have made it. But I am well on my way, reaching out to Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. (Philippians 3:12-14 The Message Bible)
I don’t know what happened to the quarrymen after the disastrous flooding. Nor do I know what will result from the severe disruption to our lives caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. But let us be optimistic that from enforced change will come new better ways of doing things and leading our lives more as God would like them to be. As Sir Winston Churchill said:
A pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.
So things shouldn’t be the same again, they should be better.
And remember that finally “we will all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51 NIV)
*Is this word American for ‘arrant’ – complete and utter? Or its usual meaning in Britain of ‘behaving wrongly’? Both seem to fit.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 and the follow-up recorded in Matthew 25 underscore for us areas upon which we should be thinking. The criteria that he lists for judgement tell us what it is that we, as Christians, should be about: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, taking in the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner, and whatever else contributes to the 21st century equivalent of this “pure religion and undefiled” taken up by the Apostle James later in the New Testament.
Jesus’ words encourage us to be mindful of what is expected of us and to be watchful that, in an ever-changing world, we remain conscious of whose we are and whom we serve. With the passage of time – and there’s an allusion to that within the context of Moses and the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai in Matthew 24:48-49 – we need to be careful not to lose focus on these important things.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 24/25, leading up to the Last Supper, set the scene and provide the context for us and within which we operate. We are all familiar with the context that Jesus has provided us with in these words but the difficulty is frequently that, in the hurly-burly of life, that context isn’t always at the forefront of one’s mind. We are, as a result of the way in which society has developed, more often than not in danger of being tied up entirely with the here and now and hardly at all with the hereafter. I’m not suggesting that we become so heavenly-minded as to be no earthly good but we are threatened with only seeing the small material picture, while ignoring the larger, spiritual canvas.
We plan our lives. Sometimes, depending on our position in life, we plan aspects of the lives of other people and we can become, if we’re not careful, too involved in the mundane elements of that. But these plans can quickly go awry. I am sure that many families, like mine, will have made plans, both short- and long-term, both nebulous and firmed-up and will have seen those plans upset and overturned by the current pandemic; all too often and for all too many, with devastating and tragic effects.
We still need to make plans. We have responsibilities both to ourselves, our families and those with whom we come into contact that demand a kind of planning. We cannot go about our everyday lives within the too chaotic constraints of accepting in advance that “the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley”. There has to be planning but not presumption. That is what James appears to be saying in James 4:13-15 (NIV) – 13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 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. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” – echoing in part the sentiments of Job, a man who knew more than most about what can happen to your life’s plans.
Our understanding of what Jesus says in Matthew 24/25 helps us to avoid such presumption. What we do is hedged about by what we know; by what we understand of what God expects from us; of what he has prepared for us. Generally in the society in which we currently live that can be difficult to achieve. Apathy towards God and towards Christian values and expectations has tended to see a good deal of presumption attached to people’s plans. Jesus foresaw such apathy in Matthew 24:12: “because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold”.
We have to try and avoid such apathy. We have to try to keep God, Jesus and the promises that have been made to us at the forefront of our thinking. To help us we have the example of Jesus whose very existence and whose every movement within that existence were underpinned by what he knew lay ahead of him and the various stages that that would take. Nevertheless he gained the necessary strength when he felt ill-prepared for the task ahead. And why?
In John 16:32, he says “I am not alone”. Neither are we. The comfort for Jesus was that he had God with him. Our comfort, and that has never been more obvious in these recent, strange self-isolating times, is that we have God and Jesus with us, against whom we should not and cannot presume and, conscious of the context that they have prepared for us, we should frame our preparations and plans, and fit the picture of the Christian disciple who, at all times, fulfils their obligations and expectations. 45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions” (Matthew 24:45-47 NIV).
A young friend recently asked this question: “What is God made of?” Those who have been long in the faith might smile fondly at this youthful query, having spent many years contemplating the mysteries of God’s inscrutable nature, but her question is neither naive nor misguided. As humans, we try to make sense of the world by relating it to our own experience. We project ourselves onto the world as we most easily relate to things in terms of our own senses.
So when we want to relate to God - whom we cannot see, or touch, or hear - we want to know what God looks like. What does God sound like? What colour is God? Does God see and taste as we do? If we could enter heaven, as our Lord Jesus has, would we be able to hug God? Would we be able to look God in the eye, and converse with God as a friend or a parent? As adults, and as we grow in faith, we may come to accept that we cannot answer these questions, at least not in this life.
Yet the writers of scripture address questions just like these, and more. Sometimes the questions are phrased differently, with a wisdom and understanding from which we can learn to ask better questions; and what answers there are, are not always the kinds of answers we were looking for.
The creation story in Genesis 1 puts this question right at the climax of the narrative. After creating the cosmos and filling the sea, and the sky, and the earth with life of all kinds, God sets Godself to rule over it in the most unexpected way:
Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness, to have dominion over the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, all wild animals on land, and everything that creeps on the earth.’
God created human beings in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God will not personally live or rule in this new world. Instead, God’s presence - God’s image - will be present in human beings. This is a great responsibility, but also very surprising. God shares with humans the authority and privilege that belongs to God as the creator and sustainer of the cosmos.
This is not an act of condescension so much as partnership, an act mirrored in the following creation story in Genesis 2-3. Here, there is only one human in the beginning, and God creates for the human a partner with an equal capacity, because no other creature in the cosmos can stop the human from being alone.
That theme of partnership is one that permeates the story of the people of God in scripture. It continues in the story of the Exodus, where the God of liberation frees the Israelites to be a people dedicated to the name of God; not as servants but as priests, the ones who bring others closer to the divine.
Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, ‘This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I have carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you here to me. If only you will now listen to me and keep my covenant, then out of all peoples you will become my special possession; for the whole earth is mine. You will be to me a kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” Those are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.’
Shortly thereafter, Moses and Aaron and the elders of the people climb Mount Sinai and see in a vision a representation of God who sits enthroned - but who also shares a meal with them. Ezekiel envisages the same God, and so does John the Revelator: a God who sees, and who knows, and who invites countless others to join with God at the throne (Exodus 24:9-10; Ezekiel 1; Revelation 4, 7:9-11).
When Moses leads the Israelites through the wilderness, the glory of God rests in a tent at the centre of the encampment. Moses goes inside to commune with God, and when he comes out his face is shining like the sun, a physical reflection of the God in whose image he is made. The people of Israel are so terrified that Moses covers his face.
Moses is transformed when he comes closer to God, and the apostle Paul picks up on this powerful imagery in his letter to the church in Corinth. This is the kind of transformation he envisages for the resurrection when the earthy body is transformed into a heavenly body, which he also describes as a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45-50).
In 2 Corinthians it is this spiritual glory that Paul focuses on, which he calls a spirit of liberation. Here, he reminds us directly of Moses in the wilderness, reflecting the glory of God, and he calls us all to that same transformation.
READ: 2 Corinthians 3:7-18
Paul is choosing his metaphors and examples very carefully in drawing on the Moses story. Moses is described as “the most humble man on earth” (Numbers 12:3), whereas most of the others who lead God’s people after the time of Moses and Joshua are characterised either as flawed leaders or as outright cruel tyrants and unjust rulers.
The prophets chastise the kings of Israel and Judah in the most uncompromising terms. In Amos 5, for example, the prophet observes of Israel that, “She has fallen, to rise no more, / the virgin Israel, / prostrate on her own soil / with no one to lift her up” (v2). This is a dirge for Israel, and the prophet explains why the nation has fallen to the ground to be trampled: because it is responsible for trampling its own people into that same soil.
You that turn justice to poison and thrust righteousness to the ground, you that hate a man who brings the wrongdoer to court and abominate him who speaks nothing less than truth: for all this, because you levy taxes on the poor and extort a tribute of grain from them, though you have built houses of hewn stone, you will not live in them; though you have planted pleasant vineyards, you will not drink wine from them. For I know how many are your crimes, how monstrous your sins: you bully the innocent, extort ransoms, and in court push the destitute out of the way. In such a time, therefore, it is prudent to stay quiet, for it is an evil time.
In the prophets’ rhetoric, those who used their power to dominate and exploit and cast down instead of nurturing and lifting up, reap the violence that they sowed.
If Moses’ humility is his defining characteristic, and this is the kind of person who reflects God, then we can draw some conclusions about the leadership of Jesus, whom we as Christians are supposed to be following and reflecting.
He is the radiance of God’s glory, the stamp of God’s very being, and he sustains the universe by his word of power. When he had brought about purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of God’s Majesty on high, raised as far above the angels as the title he has inherited is superior to theirs.
This is the man who made himself a servant to all, who leads not by domination but by example; who is a shepherd, not a tyrant. He is one who empowers and invites people to partner with him in shining the light of God into the world
The parable of the good Samaritan is based in this tradition of liberation, where the freedom that comes with a life following God is not the freedom to do whatever you want for yourself: it’s the freedom to make others free. It’s the freedom to lift each other up in a community - a society - where no person wields authority over any other.
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
This is why Jesus washes his disciples’ feet at the last supper, saying, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14-17). Christians should be trying to project into the world a reflection of the Lord whom they serve, who was himself a servant.
Reflecting God into the world is not about making everybody more like us. It’s about making ourselves - in all of our natural, human diversity - more like Jesus. This is why Jesus always centred other people, not only respecting the image of God in others but drawing attention to it and allowing it to shine out into the world. Jesus honoured women and foreigners and the poor. He touched those with diseases and disabilities. And, like the prophets he sharply criticised those ‘leaders’ who spent their energy flouting their own power instead of empowering others.
What do people see when they look at us? If we claim to be driven by the spirit of God, then our claim will be easily tested. Proverbs 27:19 reads, “As someone sees his face reflected in water, so he sees his own mind reflected in another’s.” Our thoughts and intentions are reflected in the way that we relate to others.
Do we reflect Jesus, as ambassadors? Jesus is the word - the heart and mind of God - embodied in a human being. If we are reflecting Jesus Christ, then we are showing the heart and mind of God, and what is in our hearts will always show in our actions. I think this is what the writer of 1 John describes in chapter four of that letter.
God has never been seen by anyone, but if we love one another, he himself dwells in us; his love is brought to perfection within us.
This is how we know that we dwell in him and he dwells in us: he has imparted his Spirit to us. Moreover, we have seen for ourselves, and we are witnesses, that the Father has sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is God’s Son, God dwells in him and he in God. Thus we have come to know and believe in the love which God has for us.
God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God, and God in him.
(1 John 4:12-16)
If our hearts are filled with the love of God - if the spirit of the Lord dwells in us - then that way of living and thinking that was epitomised by Jesus will be reflected out into the world. As the Elder writes just a few verses later,
But if someone says, ‘I love God,’ while at the same time hating his [brother or sister], he is a liar. If he does not love a [brother or sister] whom he has seen, he is incapable of loving God whom he has not seen. We have this command from Christ: whoever loves God must love his [brother or sister] too.
(1 John 4:20-21)
So if somebody asks us what God looks like, or what God sounds like - if somebody asks, “What is God made of?” - we might honestly answer, “I don’t know… but everything that God wants you to know about Godself can be seen in humans like Jesus.” And if we’re following Jesus well, and honouring the image of God in this world, then we can invite people to look for God embodied in our humanity: in bodies of all colours and genders and abilities; in children as well as adults; in the care of a stranger for another human; and in the love of a family, whether by birth or of choice.
We may not look God in the eye in this life, or hug God, or converse with God as to a friend or parent. But as we grow in faith, we may come to accept that God wants us to see God’s glory unveiled in the mirror of each other, where the spirit of the Lord is transforming us and leading us all to freedom and liberation.
However, with lockdown, I have been enjoying (looking at) the garden more, and have come to appreciate better the marvel of how things grow.
I am also surprised how fast changes take place: the leaves in spring, the flowers, and in no time at all (it seems) the flowers die and the fruits start to develop.
The words of Paul at Iconium come to mind:
“God has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:16-17)
The process of growing, flowering, fruiting gives us our food, as well as much pleasure en route as we see the pretty colours.
It is part of the cycle of life. And we are part of that too. We are born, we grow up, we flourish for a bit and hopefully produce some good fruit, and then we die!
What is the purpose? As far as plants are concerned, it is to carry on the plant life. The main plant dies, but the fruits produce seeds, the seeds grow, so the plant as a species carries on.
And what of ourselves? The same could apply to us, that we live on in our children!
But it is more than that. For human beings, the purpose is greater and grander.
At the time of Jesus, there were two schools of thought.
There were the Sadducees, who believed that this life is all. Death is the end.
There were the Pharisees, who believed that those who had died would be raised by God to new life.
Jesus had confrontations with both the Sadducees and the Pharisees. But when he was challenged over the subject of life after death, he sided with the Pharisees. However, he produced an argument, as far as I am aware, a new argument. Certainly, I have never seen it used elsewhere before Jesus used it. To the Sadducees, Jesus said this:
“You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.
… about the resurrection of the dead — have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matthew 22:29,31,32)
Now, my understanding of what Jesus meant is this. The famous ancestors of the Jewish nation, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – all long dead – had a relationship with God. It doesn’t make sense of the world or of that relationship, if death puts a final end to that. If God is eternal, if God worked with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as their God, then He must have a purpose with them beyond this life.
And that is our belief too. It is why we gather as a church, it is why we have the Life Training Club — to train us for a good, God-serving life now, and for a purpose in life that has greater meaning for the future. “Life Training” is for us all. Someone was once asked “When did your education end?”. He replied, “It didn’t end. I’m still learning!”
That commitment should be for each of us. And likewise, the hope of a bright future in the Kingdom of God, for as it says in John’s Gospel:
“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)
During the Coronavirus lockdown I have had time to enjoy the countryside around where I live. This has demonstrated to me the wonder and beauty of God’s creation.
Less than ten minutes from my house is Carron Dams nature reserve. This was originally part of the Carron Iron works 1759-1963. 57 years ago, this area would not be that pleasant to visit. The main dam held water diverted from the River Carron to provide water to cool the forge in the Carron Ironworks. But that is long ago, and nature has reclaimed the land. The lake is almost completely covered in reeds and bullrushes. Trees have self-seeded and wildlife has moved in – deer, foxes, grey squirrels and ducks. As I have walked through the park, I have particularly noticed the trees. They have not been managed – they have been allowed to do their own thing.
I noticed several large trees with branches extending precariously away from the main trunk a huge distance. They have not chosen the best or easiest path and have made life difficult for themselves. Despite the seeming mistake they continue and make the best of it producing a good crop of leaves. This reminded me of Elimelech and Naomi in Ruth. They made the decision, no doubt prayerfully to leave the promised land and move to Moab due to a famine. They were godly people and I suspect were convinced this was the way GOD was leading them. Although this looks to us, and no doubt to many others at that time, to be a wrong move, it was indeed GOD’S will. If we had provided advice to them, although it seemed sound to us – it would have been wrong! There is a lesson for us to accept decisions made by brothers and sisters since we may not understand how GOD is guiding them. The result in Ruth is that Ruth marries Boaz and is an ancestor of Jesus. The lesson is to be guided by GOD and make the best of whatever situation you find yourself in. Remembering that even if you get it wrong, as we so often do, GOD will never leave you or forsake you.
I have also noticed trees have a great ability to live and get on together – at one point there is a silver birch and a beech tree growing together with their trunks touching. Amazing how different trees can grow and flourish together, a great lesson for us to be tolerant of each other. Philippians 2:1-4. We should accept each other. As we come around the table to break bread we remember Jesus gave us the command to LOVE ONE ANOTHER. John 13:34-35.
Our family loves bread – it’s often the best bit of a meal for us. The breaking of bread is the most important part of our church activities, and Jesus says in John 6:48 “I am the bread of life.”
Over the past few years, we’ve periodically tried to make our own sourdough starter but have never done so successfully. Then lockdown came and we were running low on yeast so (inevitably) turned to the internet for help. Lo and behold, you can buy starter that’s guaranteed to work.
Since that special day when it arrived, we have eaten more sourdough than anything else. Some days have been successful, some not so much – but every attempt has taught us something. It’s like our spiritual journey in so many ways…
Once our starter was well fed and joyously alive, we made sure to freeze some and dry another batch just in case something happened and our original lot died. It’s always good to have some spiritual juice in reserve for when we need it; for each of us, we get this in different ways. Sometimes an uplifting Zoom session will do it, other times it’s hearing bird song or a lovely hymn.
The way sourdough works is simply by mixing flour and water together and leaving it so that the natural yeasts develop. In order to keep it alive, some of this mixture is discarded and replaced with fresh flour and water.
The ‘discard’ is then used to make something. In our spiritual lives, we need a central source of life – and as the hymn says, “for this, we have Jesus”; just like he saw the outcasts from society and saw their worth, it’s the sourdough discard that actually makes the delicious bread. But it’s not just bread that it’ll make – anything that requires water and flour can be given the sourdough treatment and it’ll turn out tasty. We might not think we’re impressive enough to be a showy big loaf of bread, but everyone loves pancakes just as much.
If you search the internet, you’ll find hundreds of recipes to make sourdough bread. We tried a few but weren’t overly happy with the end result – they were still perfectly edible, but not quite what we wanted. In the end, it turns out the least amount of effort and plenty of time left alone gave us a loaf that was light and airy with just enough sourdough tang. All the mixture needed was to given a few pulls every now and then, and just left to get on with its job. When dealing with other people, it’s hard to know when to interfere and when to leave well alone.
The baking process starts by having the loaf hidden from sight. It’s such a sense of satisfaction to remove the lid part way through and see how it’s risen and started to turn golden. Our efforts with others often don’t bear fruit straight away, and then something happens and it all feels worthwhile.
Sharing our new-found love of sourdough making is something that comes naturally because we’ve been excited about it and enthusiastic about the end results. Imagine sharing the joy of God’s message in an equally enthusiastic way to anyone who asks. Just as others have gone and bought their own starter after our recommendation, how lovely it would be if others came to know God and Jesus because of our passion.
We learnt so much on our sourdough journey – we needed help to get started and couldn’t do it on our own; the starter needs fed regularly; it’s the discarded bit that is valuable; and sharing the joy gives great satisfaction. The same principles apply when we (virtually) share the bread and wine, and throughout our journey to the Kingdom.
When we think about the way Jesus spoke about sin, we remember that he put a price on our sin against each other and against God. Read Matthew 18 v 21-22.
Then follows the parable of the unforgiving creditor, read Matthew 18 v 23-27. The sins against God, depicted here as the King, were represented by a debt of ten thousand talents. To put that into context,1 talent was equal to 6,000 denarii and a denarius was a man’s wages for 1 day. 10,000 talents are therefore equal to 60m denarii or equivalent to about 164,000 years of wages for one man. That is the size of our debt to God – HUGE. The parable continues in v 28-35. Our sins against each other are represented by a debt of 100 denarii, or just over 3 months wages. Our debt to God is impossible to repay compared to any trivial debt owed to us. If our debt to God was in monetary terms, it is more than we could ever repay. Our sins against each other are as nothing by comparison. Verse 35 is a warning about the penalty for not forgiving others when our sins are forgiven by God.
When we live in Christ, all OUR debt is wiped away and we are justified freely by God’s grace. This is nothing that we deserve. Cancelling our debt is God's free gift to us. It costs us nothing though we deserve none of His grace.
Because we have been freely forgiven and justified, let us be thankful for God's grace on us and freely pass on the blessings to others as we forgive them for what they may have done against us.
Notice that we have been “justified freely” It is one thing to be “justified” but the emphasis here is that it is “without price as it is written in Isaiah 55 v 1 “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat”. Bible echoes are found in Revelation 22 v 17 “…let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.” Without a price, because Jesus has paid the price on our behalf. Consider how we have been redeemed.
Redemption means to deliver someone or something by paying a price. Redemption is spoken of many times in the OT. Animals were offered as a sacrifice for sin. The 1st animal sacrifice was to cover the sins of Adam & Eve and they were covered with animal skins.
In Egypt God’s people were saved by the blood of animals. Read Exodus 12 v 12 – 14. It pointed forward to the deliverer of all people as the perfect Passover lamb. John the Baptist announced “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
We see another example of redemption in the OT in the lovely story of Ruth and how Boaz acted as her redeemer. The redeemer had to be a relative, and so Boaz purchased the land that had belonged to Ruth’s husband and with it Ruth herself and she became the great Grandmother of David from whose line our Lord sprang. The redeemer had to be a relative and pay the price in full. Jesus is our brother and paid the ultimate price for our redemption.
Ephesians 1 v 7 “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.”
Romans 5 v 19 tells us “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” It promises a new relationship with God. 1 Peter 3 v 18 “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God”, and it promises a new life in Christ.
The Priests in the Tabernacle and the Temple offered animal sacrifices for the people’s sins, but Hebrews speaks of a better sacrifice. Read Hebrews 9 v 11-15 & v 25-26. By this sacrifice of himself, Jesus put away sin which is something that was absolutely impossible for the Levitical sacrifices to do v28.
Conclusion - Romans 3 v 22 – 24 “the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. No one (except one) has lived up to what God created us to be; we all fall short. We cannot save ourselves because as sinners we can never meet God’s requirements. Our only hope is faith in Jesus Christ. Those who believe are justified, that is declared righteous, freely, without cost, by God’s grace. Jesus died to provide redemption; he died to pay the price required to ransom sinners. And so we, who were once without hope and estranged from God can approach His throne and be restored to a proper relationship with Him.
Ephesians 2 v 12 – 13 “Remember that you were at one time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” v18 “For through him we both have access in one spirit to the Father.”
So, to answer our original question – is there something for free that has been offered to us? Yes, but not because of us, but because of our Lord and his sacrifice, for our redemption.
I think it’s important to look after ourselves, physically, mentally and of course spiritually. If we are looking after ourselves, do we sometimes feel that it is selfish? “I don’t want to be selfish!” “I want to be kind, isn’t kindness always better?!” we might ask ourselves. But is taking time to look after ourselves un-Christlike?
I get it. We want to be loving, kind and gracious toward others. And those are good things. What we often don’t realise is that love, kindness, and graciousness flow from a heart that has received those qualities first. John put it this way “We love, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4 v19)
We need to remember that if we don’t love ourselves then how can we love others? An inability to give self care immediately makes it more difficult to care for others as YOUR tank is already empty.
There are pitfalls which we can fall into (funnily enough!) I’ve learnt this as I learn to be a therapist.
1. We can start to appease or over indulge others without helping them grow.
2. We can take on others’ problems as our own instead of listening and enabling them to deal with them.
When we are run down within ourselves then we may want to help others but we may take the easiest but least helpful route for them as we simply don’t have the means within ourselves to help.
So we need to look after ourselves too. God loves us, He wants to see us glorify and love him but he wants to see us WELL, loving ourselves and loving others more easily because of that. How can we know how to be kind to others if we aren’t kind to ourselves?
Ephesians 2:10 “For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
I’m reminded of Jesus taking himself into the wilderness to pray; Jesus went out to a mountain to pray; Jesus sent the disciples away to pray before he was crucified.
He took himself away and gave himself the nourishment he needed from His Heavenly Father before he gave his very life in the ultimate act of love the world has ever seen.
We know that we look to Jesus and try to emulate him; look after yourself, pray and love others. We all need to think about these things as we take the bread and wine this morning.
Much love to you all,
Lewis, Kat and Reuben xxx
PS. Signs you might be needing some self care
1. You’re irritable and short with everyone around you
2. You feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities.
3. You want to be kind, but you can’t muster the energy.
4. You’re struggling with decisions and worried about letting others down.
What to do about it...
1. Plan a day off and get out of your house. (if current government rules and health allow!)
2. Take a walk with yourself. Turn off your phone and spend some time noticing your thoughts and feelings. Talk to God about it.
3. Ask a friend, counsellor, to just listen. It’s amazing what happens when our hardest thoughts and feelings are witnessed by a loving “other”. (And guess what? Those loving others are probably getting care for themselves, too.)
(Advice taken from Alison Cook PhD)
When Alan Witcutt returned from visiting his son Paul in New Zealand he was straight in to lockdown. He had been thinking of adding more anecdotes to his book “Nine Lives and More” and so he took the opportunity of being at home to write these down. He then sent them and his exhortation on forgiveness for me to type. It is from these that I plan to select a “Thought” for today.
The murder of his wife Christine by a sniper in Sarajevo while delivering much needed supplies with Edinburgh Direct Aid during the war there was a shattering blow to Alan and his family. Throughout Alan’s exhortation on forgiveness he says how difficult it was to put forgiveness into practice. He says, “I also am struggling daily to fulfil Christ’s commands.” He says, “The way of Jesus had become costly and painful to me. It imposed on me an almost impossible discipline of love. To my shame, I founder on occasions.” The grief was there but it was in the background. He finishes one part of the exhortation with “Daily prayer is my only answer to solving this problem of how to forgive.” And I think this is a lesson for us.
What did we see of Alan when he chatted to us on a Sunday morning or he entertained us or we him? We saw someone who was cheerful and ready to relate anecdotes that would entertain and inform us. Grenville Kleiser (a North American author on personal development 1868-1935) said, “Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keeps friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.”
Jesus used humour in his storytelling and we can learn lessons that we can remember.
Matthew 7:3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?” This gives a very vivid picture of how we can be critical of others whilst not realising our own faults.
During the lockdown we have been receiving WhatsApp messages with lots of entertaining videos. The aim of these has been to lighten our mood, take our mind off our problems and give us something to laugh about.
Alan tells the entertaining story of his cousin who had a problem with a smoky chimney which needed to be swept. “To save the expense of having it done professionally she decided that she would do it herself. Unfortunately, she had no knowledge of the procedures and it is very important to do it correctly.” She borrowed the brush and poles from a neighbour. “She was not aware as to the importance of turning the poles continuously in a clockwise direction to prevent the brush head from becoming loose and detaching from the pole screw thread.” At this point Alan’s mother arrived and the draught of the door opening brought soot pouring into the room. She was asked to go and see if the brush was poking out of the top of the chimney. It wasn’t but the pole without the brush was. “The disaster was now complete. She unscrewed the poles, but the brush had become lodged in the chimney. She had no option but to phone her plumber and explain the difficulty.” Instead of saving money, Alan’s cousin had to buy a new brush and pay the plumber to remove the old one. Alan says, “Sometimes, even I have had to admit defeat when trying to save money attempting to do a repair myself in or outside my house.”
So I think there are some lessons for us. It is not always easy, especially in difficult times, to put into practice Jesus teachings but with prayer and God’s help we can daily try. Sometimes we have to accept our dependence on other people and we have had to do that perhaps more than usual in this time of pandemic.
Springtime never ceases to amaze me - all these different plants erupting into fabulous displays of colour and scent; all the instructions for their blossoming into cherry or rhododendron or choisea or daffodils inside them, only needing rain and warmth and light to make them realise their full potential. We have within us the potential to be fully realised spiritually if we soak up the right nourishment and bask in the light of the world. And picking up John’s thoughts about light, what a difference sunshine makes.
We might not feel like flamboyant or even beautiful plants sometimes, but we can still quietly and effectively make a difference, just as an understated clematis adorning railings, or cascading over plain trees can transform them. What do people see when they look at me in action, I wonder … or you?
Even an unassuming weed, like this herb robert, can brighten a dreary spot and tell its own story about motivation and allegiance.
It might seem difficult to be any kind of Godly example in these days of isolation and social distancing, but even small acts of kindness can speak volumes, and open up an opportunity to reveal God in action today … through us, his hands and feet. Certainly I've personally had far more interaction with our neighbours during this last two months than I’ve had in all the busy years before lockdown.
Even if our scope for showing God’s love is limited, we still need to nourish and care for our spiritual selves, too, looking forward to a time when we can be more active - much like this apple tree that promises us baskets full of lovely fruit in the autumn if it’s fed and watered now. I've certainly benefitted greatly from the imagination and hard work of others streaming services and good ideas for anyone who cares to link in to them online.
So huge thanks to everyone who is posting exhortations for us while we’re confined to our homes. Several people have commented that they welcome the chance to re-read the thoughts and pick up on ideas they missed first time round. We’re learning valuable lessons for life from this pandemic.
During these dark days of “Lockdown” when so many have lost their lives, and so many mourn their passing, we take “hope” in the words of Jesus when he said “I am the light of the world”. He that follows me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life – John 1 v4. In Jesus was life and the life was the light of men and women.
Matthew 5 v16 shows us that we possess the knowledge of Eternal Life, Jesus tells us “let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in Heaven”.
Matthew 5 v14 and 15 tells us quite powerfully that “you are the light of the world”. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.
V15 Neither do men Light a candle and put it under a bushel but on a candle stick and it gives light unto all that are in the house”.
2 Peter 1 v19 Light shining in a dark place. Jesus is the light/dark place (our hearts), day dawn (Christ in our hearts)/day star arise (Jesus in our understanding).
Isaiah 58 v8 tells us that a time will come “when thy light breaks forth as the morning and thine health shall spring forth speedily and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy re ward.
But before this time many things possibly have to be endured. The apostle, Paul, in Acts 16 v12 in Philippi, here smeets with Lydia.
Acts 16 v22 Magistrates commanded Paul and Silas to be whipped and thrust into the inner prison feet fast in stocks. At midnight they came around and sang praises to God and the prisoners heard them. So here in this stinking cold prison, pitch dark/not able to lie down/backs cut and bleeding. They sing to God.
V26 tells us a great earthquake shook the prison, all bands loosed, doors open. The prison guard seeing the situation, drew his sword so to kill himself.
V28 Paul stops him.
V30 This man asks “Sirs what must I do to be saved?”
V33 Paul preaches Jesus. The man and his family believe and are baptised.
So Paul and Silas were sent specifically for this one man and his family.
Paul writes to exhort Timothy, 2 Timothy 4 v2 to preach in season and out of season.
Exhort with all long suffering (pain and suffering) to the end we glorify God.
Righteousness: By Faith in Jesus Christ Romans 3 v22.
Romans 5 v18 Righteousness “free gift” to us through Jesus and so we look forward to that time when we shall all join together and sing Hymn 294 “Hail to the brightness of Zion’s glad morning”.
In the Bible we are encouraged to put the past behind us and press forward "to the mark of our high calling”. Perhaps this refers to past mistakes.
As many of you will know, I am very interested in recollecting hymns that express my thoughts and aspirations. Hymn 155 in our green hymn book came to mind. "Lord, who Thyself hast bidden us to pray for daily bread.” The words of verses 4 and 5 are:
We could not bear to hear complete the tale,
If it were told;
Enough to know Thy mercies cannot fail,
Nor love grow cold.
So, day by day, Thy never-failing love
Our soul shall stay;
So let us be content Thy love to prove,
Each passing day.
Both the words and music were written by an Anglican priest called George Wallace Briggs, who lived from 1875 to 1959.
Do you remember not that long ago when we were able to meet but it was not thought prudent to shake hands and give a hug? It affects us all a bit differently – Kathy is really missing the opportunity to hug our family especially after the death of her father.
Our exhortation this morning is a little reflection on the direction of our lives.
The daily readings over the past couple of weeks or so (if we choose to read the word of God that way) have been dealing with new beginnings.
In Deuteronomy there we have a record of the Children of Israel just before they move into the promised land. The first 4 verses of Chapter 12 of Deuteronomy detail what they were required to do once they moved into the land. They were not to worship the Lord God in the same way that the nations in the land worshipped the multiplicity of their gods and remove all high places. And yet these clear and unequivocal commands were never followed through completely. Even in the reign of good king Amaziah of Judah, we read in 2 Kings 14v3,4, “And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, yet not like David his father. He did in all things as Joash his father had done. But the high places were not removed; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places”.
In Acts we have been reading of the beginnings of Christianity. It started all really well when we read in Acts 2v42-47 “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
But soon all sorts of problems emerged!
Each week we start with a new beginning but it never seems long until things go wrong and we forget about what we are remembering today.
Even though we are no longer servants of sin (after our baptism) we still are affected by our sin. As we start a new week, and as we perhaps begin to contemplate a change in our freedom with lockdown being eased, we need to be careful to remember God’s love and the love of Jesus Christ for you and me and use that as a restraint in our daily lives. We need to cease to serve self and be servants of God. God gave his own son to present to us the wonderful opportunity of a new beginning in His kingdom. Jesus devoted his life to always serve His Father and give us the opportunity for that renewed beginning. We remember the sacrifice made for us in the Bread and cup which we now are about to share.
Since the lockdown started Ros and I have been out every morning for a run. We started off running around The Meadows but quite soon got bored of that every day and have been finding new routes around Edinburgh, in particular looking for nice streets and houses. When I was at university studying architecture and building construction, I preferred modern architecture but as I run around Edinburgh now, the old buildings are my favourites.
As we run round, we see nice streets and houses and think it would be nice to live in there. It could be easy to get jealous of other people’s houses and where they live but all we can see is the outside. Although they look nice, most of the time we’ve no idea what they are like inside or what it’s like to live in a particular house. We do know that burglary is an issue when you have a large house in a nice area.
In a similar way when we look at other people we only see what’s on the outside, but it’s still easy to judge them based on that view, either by looking down at them and thinking how much better we are or by looking up to them and thinking we’re not worthy because we don’t appear to behave like them. We may get glimpses of what they are like on the inside, like looking though a house window, but we don’t really know. God knows though – he can see what we are all like on the inside and how we really think.
The only person we should be looking at and comparing ourselves to is Jesus; we know his Father saw the inside and declared he was pure on the inside as well as the outside. We’ll never reach his standard, just as I’ll never get to live in the perfect house in Edinburgh (that I’m sure doesn’t actually exist), but that shouldn’t stop us looking to him, and trying to follow his example.
One place we have run past a number of times is what used to be Donaldson’s School in Edinburgh; it’s a grand building that has now been converted into flats and around the back of the school the developers have built some modern flats, which don’t look special themselves but have lovely views of the old building. I’ve pondered if I’d rather live in the fabulous old building or in the modern ones looking at it, concluding I’d probably prefer the view.
It has also occurred to me that if I use this as a parable, we could see our lives at the moment as living in the ‘ordinary’ building looking at Jesus, in his perfection, but from the outside. However, really I think we are on the inside – we are part of the house of God now and we can put our trust in God. Being part of God’s house is a lot to live up to, but we know he is a merciful and gracious God.
As brothers and sisters of Jesus we are living inside the beautiful house and it’s a place of safety and security. We might be tempted by what’s outside but it’s not the best neighbourhood right now. However, we need to go out to do the work of God in the world, to show others what God’s house is like on the inside and to try to reflect the behaviour of our Saviour.
So let’s not look at others, like we might look at houses and judge them from the outside. Let’s stay inside God’s house, enjoy his love and only venture outside (metaphorically) to help others and show them what it’s like inside.
I would like us to look at ‘pictures’ in the Bible, to be exact, Luke chapter 15.
A favourite chapter.
Some of you will know that I’m a ‘Yes - But’ person, and I am with this chapter.
These parables are often described as being about the ‘lost’ sheep, coin, son, – or – about the ‘found’ sheep, coin, son. There is the alternative of ‘the forgiving father’ which is good.
‘Yes, But’ I say, ‘I see these parables’ punchline as JOY!’
The point of these parables, see verses 1 & 2, is that the religious leaders were rejecting these ‘sinners’:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Luke 15:1-2
SO Jesus was finding! Restoring them; a cause for JOY! Like finding hidden treasure; or that perfect indescribable pearl, the joyful knowledge of the Kingdom when we do find it. Search for it, or find it given us by heritage.
Another ‘But” is that the word ‘prodigal’ was ruined for me by its use here for a title. It’s a heading, an addition, as is the ‘importunate’ widow. (To restore the meaning of prodigal; generous, overflowing, burgeoning, see ‘Prodigal Summer’ by Barbara Kingsolver.)
The picture of the lost sheep is familiar. It is a relief to restore one to the flock, joyfully carried home. It says ‘Rejoice with me’. And see here, 99% of the ecclesia is still safe. See verse 7: those 99% ‘do not need to repent’.
See “For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners .” Matthew 9:13
I suggest, that when we have been baptised, accepted Christ, had sins forgiven, ‘we are no longer sinners’. Potential stumblers maybe.
The scene of the anxious woman seeking one coin, although she still has 9.
A pause in the tale, in the gloom, – then exultation, joy, calls her friends and neighbours; “Rejoice with me!” Yes it was lost, it was found, but I see the jolt of joy being the message.
Lydia, my wife, lost all trace of a lovely watch recently. It just vanished. Phone calls, retracing journeys, steps, activities; where have we been? Till one day, out of the blue – there it was! What relief! What joy!
Now, the scene of the younger, reckless, wasteful son and brother.
The estate was secure. Father, older son and their workers were there. No word of mother. The absent son was missed. Father hadn’t gone to fetch him, then - we love that line “When he came to his senses”. So often we have imagined it. When his father saw the distant figure moving wearily closer, I see him dusty, he ran, hugged and kissed him! (That pleasure denied us at present.)
The message? Less ‘he was lost’; less ‘he was found’, but, running, spilling over, that surge of absolute joy. That ‘prodigal’ joy! Before that confessing son could blurt his rehearsed line “make me as one of your hired servants” his father restored him: he had come home!
In these scenes we have the descriptions ‘joyfully’, ‘rejoice’, ‘rejoicing’, ‘safe and sound’, ‘celebrate’ ‘celebrate’, ‘be glad’, and the only mention in the gospels of ‘music’!
The religious leaders are the older brother; but let’s imagine, as it’s a parable and not fact, that the elder brother came round; after all, his father had said “All that I have is yours!” He had lost nothing, like the labourers in the vineyard, ‘I give as we agreed”.
The younger son ‘your brother’ was dead, now alive; lost, now found; because of his restoration there was celebration and music and gladness. That is – Joy.
We can bring that joy here. Jesus was dead and is alive again; was lost to the disciples and found resurrected! He was led from temptation and testing; delivered from evil.
We know of the execution of Jesus which he endured, and the joy of his resurrection. That was the joy set before him.
When we take bread and wine as they did, we take of that joy.
PS Recently we read from Proverbs 29:3 NIV
“ A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth”. I wondered what relevance it has.
It does fit remarkably well with the retort of the older brother.
“But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
Luke 15:30 NIV
But, as we know, ‘he came to himself’.
“Amen” is related to the Hebrew for “truth”. When we say “amen” after someone offers a prayer, it means we concur with what has been said; we echo the requests and sentiments expressed on our behalf.
It’s likely that brothers and sisters in the early church also did this. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:16 about speaking in tongues, and how important it is to speak or pray in a language that others understand:
"If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified."
We might not speak or pray in tongues (other languages), but if we’re asked to offer prayer on behalf of others, it’s important that they understand and agree with what we pray. Prayers ought to be addressed to God, offering praise, or thanksgiving, or asking him for something. Paul’s comment above implies that what we say should also edify (build up) those on whose behalf the prayer is offered. I’m sure we all appreciate it when someone offers a prayer on our behalf that expresses our feelings and requests more effectively than we could in our own words, so that we can sincerely and thankfully say “amen” to the prayer.
When we say “amen”, we’re using a Hebrew word that has been incorporated into the English language (the correct Hebrew pronunciation is actually awmane). The Greek text of the New Testament also borrows the word “amen” from the Hebrew. One writer tells us:
... “amen” is a most remarkable word. It was transliterated directly from the Hebrew into the Greek of the New Testament, then into Latin and into English and many other languages, so that it is practically a universal word. It has been called the best known word in human speech. The word is directly related – in fact, almost identical – to the Hebrew word for believe, or faithful. Thus, it came to mean “sure” or “truly”, an expression of absolute trust and confidence.
The very last word in the Bible is “Amen”; many New Testament letters close with “amen”. Sometimes an important saying or prayer in the body of a letter finishes with “amen”.
The gospels record more than seventy times that Jesus used the word “amen” to introduce key teachings. This isn’t always obvious in English translations, which use expressions such as “I tell you the truth” or “Verily I say unto you” to represent the phrase “Amen I tell you” in the original text. “Amen I tell you” emphasises that what Jesus is about to say is true and reliable.
In John’s gospel, Jesus always repeats the word “amen” for emphasis: “Amen amen I tell you”. The King James Version indicates this by repeating the word “verily”, as when Jesus says
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”
Other Bible versions render these double amens of Jesus in other ways, such as “truly, truly, I say to you”, or “most assuredly, I say to you”. Although “amen” is a Hebrew word, it’s actually used more often in the Greek New Testament than in the Hebrew Old Testament.
Of the 24 times “amen” appears in the Old Testament, half are in the same chapter: Deuteronomy 27, describing how a series of curses was recited loudly by the Levites to all the people of Israel, who were commanded to say “amen” in response each curse. In fact, in the Old Testament the word “amen” is used most often in exactly this way: as a response, or a confirmation, following a statement, or a command to do something. In 1 Kings 1:36, for example, when King David gave instructions to Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet and Benaiah son of Jehoiada to anoint his son Solomon king of Israel,
"Benaiah son of Jehoiada answered the king, 'Amen! May the LORD, the God of my lord the king, so declare it.'”
Even today, we might hear a similar expression, when someone says “amen to that”.
But as we’ve seen from its use by the Lord Jesus, “amen” means more than just “I agree” or “roger, understood”. In Isaiah 65:16, the prophet writes
"Whoever invokes a blessing in the land will do so by the God of truth; he who takes an oath in the land will swear by the God of truth. For the past troubles will be forgotten and hidden from my eyes.”
The Hebrew word translated “truth” here is in both cases amen. Isaiah literally refers to “the God of Amen”.
The essential idea behind the word amen is of someone standing steady and upright, with his feet firmly planted on the ground – by contrast with someone whose stance is unstable, his feet slipping or stumbling. This notion of a man standing steady and upright developed into the metaphor of one who is faithful, trustworthy, loyal and dependable.
So the Hebrew word amen that we commonly – and perhaps unthinkingly – use to close a prayer can mean truth, faith or trust. Other closely related Hebrew words mean steady, stable, loyal, dependable.
We saw that amen is also used to describe the character of our heavenly Father: the God of truth, the God of Amen. It’s even used to refer to the Lord Jesus Christ. In Revelation 3:14, the apostle John is commanded to write to the angel of the church in Laodicea:
"These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation."
This title “the Amen” applied to our Lord sums up so many facets of his character: faithful and true, steady, unwaveringly loyal and dependable before God, his Father, and to his bride, the church.
We saw that Jesus, the Amen, the faithful and true witness, frequently emphasised the truth of his teachings using the formula “verily I say unto you”, or “I tell you the truth”: literally, “amen I say to you”.
The Greek word for “truth” occurs twenty times in John’s gospel, and seventeen times in his letters – showing the importance that he attaches to the truth of the gospel and the teachings of Jesus. John particularly contrasts truth with lies and falsehood. One example is in John 8:44, where Jesus told those who were questioning his authority and teaching,
"You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!”
Similarly, in 1 John 2:3
"We know that we have come to know him [that is, Jesus] if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him”, but does not do what he commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
Indeed, if we claim that we know and follow Jesus, but don’t do what he commands, he may well deny knowing us at the judgement.
But, brothers and sisters, we have all responded amen to the call of Jesus, and his teaching, when we were baptised into his saving name; we undertook to follow “the way, the truth and the life”. Whenever we say amen at the end of a prayer, we should try to remember its wider meaning: acknowledging truth, showing faithfulness, and standing firm as witnesses to Jesus and to the word of God.
I’d like to conclude our thoughts by quoting from John chapter 6. As we find so consistently in John’s gospel record – four times in this chapter alone – Jesus emphasises the truth and importance of what he’s about to say by stating
ajmh;n ajmh;n [“amen amen”]: “verily, verily”, “I tell you the truth”.
Jesus says in John chapter 6, at verse 47,
"I tell you the truth [amen amen I say to you], he who believes has everlasting life.
"I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
At school during World War 2 our teacher told us about the first rainbow from the Bible (Genesis chapter 9) and in the art class we painted one and put the words of Genesis underneath (chapter 8 verse 22):
‘While the earth remaineth, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’
We read the story of the first rainbow:
‘And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I have made between me and you and every living creature that is with you for perpetual generations. I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.’
We don’t use the King James version of the Bible much nowadays but we children understood those words very well and they were a comfort to us. Somehow we remembered them in bed when the sirens sounded to tell us that bombers were on the way.
Coronavirus is the new enemy, one which we can’t see or hear. In wartime we were told to take many precautions, using gas masks and blackout curtains. Signposts had been removed – even the sign over shops that mentioned the name of the village.
The day came at last when war was over. Slowly, over several years, life got back to normal.
I have always liked Easter time, warmer days and lighter evenings. But if we stop to reflect on what happened to Jesus after what we call the “Last Supper” it’s really too horrible to dwell on. So, contrary to our other thoughts of springtime, the brightness of the flowers, lambs in the fields and birds singing in the blossom-filled trees and all bathed in warm sunshine, we see only horrific suffering and callous behaviour from which we shield our thoughts and imagination.
If we can put ourselves in the sandals of the Disciples, and witness the last few days of Jesus’ life and how it ended we can only see and feel total shock, disaster, catastrophe. And we would be totally distraught. How could this be? Jesus had only just been seen riding triumphantly into Jerusalem and all that it symbolised (Matt 2:1-11).
The disciples had found being with Jesus exhilarating, sometimes puzzling, but certainly exciting. They’d given up everything. They couldn’t quite grasp the enigma of this teacher and friend. Above all he was strong yet caring, and performed signs confirming his close relationship with God. He was popular with the ordinary people. The disciples had realised that here was the Messiah (Matt 16:20). He was not the kind of messiah they had expected, but they had vowed their allegiance to him.
Even though he had warned them of hard times ahead, now they felt badly let down. Surely this had been God’s best chance to re-establish his position with his people, and yet Jesus’ mission had collapsed – a public and ignominious failure. God, the almighty creator had let the worst happen. Why? And what was the point any more?
No wonder they had failed in their promises to Jesus. They were crushed and afraid.
After Jesus’ death the disciples kept together for mutual support but in fear and behind a locked door (John 20v19). Events didn’t stop. The disciples heard a report that Jesus was alive and had been seen and they found it to be true – amazing.
My shortcut kind of reading might come in at this point and I’d be thinking Jesus had a brilliant start, and look how it turned out so well, which of course it did. But this misses so much. The point of it all and the lesson and potency for us are the demonstration of the love of God and of Jesus. Here we see a direct appeal to all mankind. It is to get a grip on reality, to see the bigger picture of our nature compared with God’s, and to choose to be on God’s side overcoming – destructive pride like that of the pharisees – conceit and vicious envy as displayed by the leaders of the people – harshness of uncaring overlords, in this case the Romans. And more than this, to see evil overcome by good – the healing of the downcast and broken, the giving of new sight to the blind, and the releasing of the captives from their hopelessness and fear. This after all is God’s way as Jesus emphatically demonstrated and confirmed when he emerged triumphant having conquered even the very worst. That’s why we want to remember him as he asked.
What is he doing talking about joy at this time? What have we got to be happy about just now?
You may well ask! Well let's see.
My thoughts came initially from James 1 v 2-4
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,
3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
and Psalm 30 v 5
5 For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favour lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
I have to admit that I didn't actually do anything else until I read last Sundays exhortation. I then listened to some music, putting it on a random shuffle setting. The first song was "Smile" and the second was "Joy", yes really!
For me they were a great reminder to hold on to God's promises through thick and thin and it's got to be good to be able to express happiness in the middle of a struggle.
A key line from one of the songs is " there's always a reason to always choose joy" Joy can be found in the midst of everything we go through and now more than ever we must put our trust in the Lord.
Psalm 28 v 7
7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.
At this time when we may well be in isolation or lockdown, we may be off work worrying about when we will get another wage or on the opposite side we may be working on the front line so to speak with a constant fear of contracting the virus. How we respond in these difficult circumstances is actually our choice, we can wither away in fear and doubt or we can go confidently into this unprecedented challenge knowing that when we hold on to the Lord Jesus and his promises, there is always a reason to smile. We still have so many blessings to count and when we smile we show that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
We may well feel we are in prison just now, remember Paul and Silas and remember one of our greatest witnesses is for us to live our lives with a positive attitude and a joyful heart. Something that shows those around us that they too can have the hope and joy of God's love.
God doesn't promise to spare us from pain, but we do need to trust in Him and the Lord Jesus and recognise that nothing compares to the greatness of knowing our Father and our Saviour.
So then in these difficult times we need to remember the joy we have in the Lord and smile, whether it's to ourselves, to someone 2 metres away from us or to someone at the other end of a video call, just smile.
When you think you can't
Get up and dance
There's a bigger plan
The storm only lasts for a while
The mat explained “kintsugi” the Japanese art of mending broken pottery. On the odd occasion I’ve dropped a plate or a mug on the floor and it’s smashed into pieces, I’ve had no hesitation in (carefully) picking up the bits and binning them. But if it was something of great value (not likely in my house, I would add), it may perhaps have been taken to a specialist who could repair it with little or no evidence of what had befallen it. But in Japan, it might be done very differently. The cracks could be joined with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver or platinum. So the plate is restored to use, but the cracks remain there, to remind the user of its past history.
Matthew uses a quotation from Isaiah, where the reference is to Cyrus, the Persian king, to describe the mission of Jesus. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out” (Matthew 12:20).
The Coronavirus pandemic reminds us all that we can easily become bruised reeds or candles burning very dimly, easily extinguished by the lightest puff of wind. And we may have felt like that even before the crisis. That’s why we should be truly thankful that God sent Jesus: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Whatever may happen to us, good or bad, God knows about it and cares about it. “…even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:31).
When we start a new life in Christ, we are not instantly made perfect. Our physical appearance is the same. Inside ourselves we have the same difficulties and anxieties. Our nature is still the same, though we would like to think it is becoming more Christ-like in steady increments -– a ‘work in progress’.
As a youngster growing up surrounded by people who seemed to have a far greater knowledge and understanding of Christianity than I had, I thought my failings and lack of knowledge were simply due to my youth, and assumed (or hoped?) in my latter years that I would know all that I needed to know and would have mastered the art of Christian living. Now, many years later, I realise that humanly speaking that was an impossible dream. No matter how many years we have been following Jesus, we will have much still to learn, and much to improve. Our cracks will still be very visible – certainly to God, probably to others and hopefully to ourselves as well.
Chapter 6 of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome is often read at baptisms. It talks about being dead to sin, alive in Christ: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). But in the very next chapter Paul confesses to his own weaknesses: “I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway” (Romans 7:18 and 19 The Message Bible).
Paul reminds us that there is still hope for us, bruised reeds and flickering flames though we are: “Jesus Christ acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different” (Romans 7:25 The Message Bible).
When we think of Jesus giving his whole life so that we may be persuaded to lead lives which please God, we can be truly thankful. Our cracks still show, and perhaps remind us of both how far we have come, and how far we have still to go. We can be sure of one thing, through God’s grace:
“We shall be like him” – pure in heart and sinless;
But his redeeming mercy ends not there;
These bodies like to his shall then be fashioned,
And we his resurrection glory share.
And if you’re wondering, though it’s not really relevant, the restaurant we were expecting to go to had a queue stretching out the door of people waiting for a table. Wagamama next door had plenty of available tables.
It can’t be bad just once a year
To spoil and treat your mother dear
With tea in bed or floral posy
And make her day completely rosy.
You take for granted all her fussing,
Extended freely, without cussing
The endless laundry and the noise
Of diabolic war-game toys,
The messy bedrooms, purple hair,
And teenage moods most hard to bear,
Her worry when the curfew time
Expires and you don’t give a dime,
Exams which tax her more than you
Because she knows the end in view –
That adult individual who
Emerges from the chrysalis,
Confident, competent sir or miss.
All this being so, it’s not absurd
To shout tomorrow, “Mum’s the word!”
These amusing lines may well strike a few chords re the role that mothers have, both at the giving and receiving ends, in the lives of their children. Mothers are there to care for us and see us through to the end point, when we emerge from the chrysalis. It’s a role too that the Lord Jesus performs in guarding and guiding us through our Christian journey, emerging in a sense from another chrysalis.
My own mother, for many years, liked to read the ‘In Memoriam’ section of the local newspaper to check, I suppose, on whom she knew. There seemed, as I recall, to be a limited selection of verse that could be chosen, at least in the files of The Irvine Herald, in order to remember a loved one, and my mother’s favourite, which she used to recite to us, her children, when clearly we weren’t sufficiently recognising or respecting her role in our lives, went:
Those who have a mother
Cherish her with care
For you’ll never know her value
’Til you see her empty chair.
These words, as in the first poem, again underline and advise against taking our mothers for granted; our lack of appreciation. That same lack of appreciation can sometimes be applied by us, in our ever busy and challenging lives, to the Lord Jesus. It’s not so much the empty chair as the empty tomb that helps us to appreciate his real value, and what he has done for us.
We mark Mothers’ Day once a year but we should be grateful for our mothers, and the influence they will have had on our lives, every day. We remember Jesus’ sacrifice once a week but should be grateful for that sacrifice every day.
Today’s readings in Psalms encourage us to praise God and to thank him in all things and at all times. In normal circumstances our Sunday service would help set the tone for that. We are, however, not living through normal circumstances and as the world, literally, faces unprecedented challenges and ever-growing uncertainty, we, as individuals, will also be challenged as we are forced to consider changes to the lifestyle that we have grown accustomed to. All of us, whoever we are, will be affected in different ways and we need to try and face these effects with equanimity. All of us – “young men and women, old men and children” (Psalm 148:12 NIV) need to try to praise God, as exhorted by the Psalmist. In all of that we will have to rely on our God for strength and support. The Psalmist equally exhorts us that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging” (Psalm 46: 1-3 NIV). Though we may not be faced with the earth literally giving way, we do stand on the edge of major global reverberations and an appreciation and a recognition of God being our refuge and strength, and of Jesus being the way that we come to God, valuing just what the empty tomb means for us, can provide us with the comfort that we need as we move outwith our own comfort zone and into possibly increasing isolation.
We may not be able to meet as we usually do, and as we would want to, but we can be together, if not in body, certainly in spirit, remembering, as God said to Moses, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6 NIV). So, whether we’re reading this alone, or in a couple, or in a bigger group, we know that we’re never really alone and we can value and appreciate that more fully at this time.