There is no doubt that Jesus in Galilee was of great concern to the religious authorities of the day. They took offence at his message, his claims, his behaviour, his heritage. Who did he think he was and who gave him the right to say the things he said, to give forgiveness? He had no great education, no heritage – a mere Galilean, no authority. They on the other hand were very precious of their breeding, their status and their authority. Their self-esteem didn’t need any encouragement. Jesus was a challenge – wrong footing them in public discussions and debates. He avoided their ambushes and the trick questions aimed at publicly belittling him.
The Jewish leaders were highly strung in the protection of their status whilst vehemently holding a faulty understanding of what God wanted of them. Indeed, they were so afraid of getting things wrong with God that they couldn’t even speak His name. The only exception was the high priest and only on a special occasion. Jesus on the other hand spoke directly to God as his Father and not distant and not forbidding. And certainly not one who permits only very special people to address Him by name. Jesus openly taught of God being caring and generous as in Matthew 7v11 – “if you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him.” When teaching the disciples how to pray, what we call the Lord’s Prayer, it doesn’t start with all sorts of fancy pompous titles. Instead it is simply – “Our Father…”
The apostle Paul made a breakthrough leap from being the arrogant self-righteous Saul – a hard-line traditionalist pharisee of his earlier career. His understanding of what God wanted led him to brazenly hunt down the early Christians in an attempt to eliminate Jesus’ followers. As Paul, he realised he was a child of God with no special credentials, able to call on God as “Abba” – the normal Aramaic word for father.
Realising that Jesus accurately represented what God is like (as he wrote in Colossians 1v15) had a profound impact on his understanding of what God really wanted. It required a huge change from him and made a great change for us. We are not trying to deal with an angry, fearsome even vengeful god who is quick to punish those who step out of line. That was a complete misunderstanding from the past. Rather He is like Jesus who called on his followers to see God as the great creator and to be in awe of him. Yet, astonishingly, to allow Him to be as close as a father can be.
In the other canonical gospels, Jesus barely speaks during either of the trials that preceded his judicial murder by the Roman state. But in John, Pilate and Jesus exchange more than light banter. Pilate seems intent on determining if Jesus and his followers were prepared to rebel against Caesar and take arms against Rome. Jesus’s words indicate that he does not teach armed rebellion.
Pilate then went back into his headquarters and summoned Jesus. “So you are the king of the Jews?” he said. Jesus replied, “Is that your own question, or have others suggested it to you?” “Am I a Jew?” said Pilate. “Your own nation and their chief priests have brought you before me. What have you done?” Jesus replied, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If it did, my followers would be fighting to save me from the clutches of the Jews. My kingdom belongs elsewhere.” “You are a king, then?” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “ ‘King’ is your word. My task is to bear witness to the truth. For this I was born; for this I came into the world, and all who are not deaf to truth listen to my voice.”
Pilate said, ‘What is truth?’ With those words he went out again to the Jews and said, “For my part I find no case against him...”
And yet Pilate himself acknowledges that “King of the Jews” is a title that has been attributed to Jesus. The gospels record that Jesus himself takes the title of “Lord”, and claims to be the “son” of God. In first century Rome, there was only one king, only one lord, and one divinely appointed leader: Caesar. Jesus proclaims “evangelion”– “good news” - a description usually reserved for tidings of imperial Rome’s military triumphs. And the substance of that “good news”? That the Kingdom of God is coming.
How could this message, and these claims, be anything but ‘political’? No wonder that the fourth gospel, likely written and first circulated around the turn of the second century CE, makes a point of presenting Jesus’s defence against the charge of sedition. Some Roman emperors and local governors throughout this time period were explicitly anti-Christian. Like Jesus their Lord, many Christians were imprisoned and murdered by the state for their faith. The Gospel of John presents a deeply religious, spiritual, philosophical Jesus, perhaps specifically to present another way to view the stark claims of the other Gospel writings: that the preaching of Jesus heralds the coming of a new kingdom.
The phrase “kingdom of God”, and especially “kingdom of heaven” used throughout the Gospel of Matthew, appear in Jewish literature from the Second Temple era (approximately 500 BCE – 70 CE). It described the time of restoration and redemption envisioned by so many of the prophets of the Jewish Bible (the Christian Old Testament). But in the Jewish world of Jesus, that time of restoration had taken on an apocalyptic character that was really only present in the Old Testament in the later chapters of Daniel.
In the book of Daniel, the prophet receives a vision of violent and destructive beasts, each more powerful than the last, representing a succession of implacable empires grinding the world - and the people of God - underfoot.
As I was looking,
thrones were set in place and the Ancient in Years took his seat; his robe was white as snow, his hair like lamb’s wool. His throne was flames of fire and its wheels were blazing fire; a river of fire flowed from his presence. Thousands upon thousands served him and myriads upon myriads were in attendance. The court sat, and the books were opened.
Then because of the bombast the horn was mouthing, I went on watching until the beast was killed; its carcass was destroyed and consigned to the flames. The rest of the beasts, though deprived of their sovereignty, were allowed to remain alive until an appointed time and season. I was still watching in visions of the night and I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven; he approached the Ancient in Years and was presented to him. Sovereignty and glory and kingly power were given to him, so that all peoples and nations of every language should serve him; his sovereignty was to be an everlasting sovereignty which was not to pass away, and his kingly power was never to be destroyed.
Daniel 7:9–14 (REB)
Here is the source of Jesus's claim to the title “son of (hu)man(ity)". He identifies with this messianic figure in Daniel 7 whose rule unexpectedly, dramatically, and irreversibly supplants the violent empires of the world. It is this vision of a new kind of ‘kingdom’ that John’s gospel picks up on as it records Jesus saying to Pilate that, “My kingdom belongs elsewhere”. A kingdom ‘not of this sociopolitical order’ (that’s my own gloss on the Greek word “kosmos”) certainly fits the description of what we see in Daniel, Revelation, and other Jewish apocalyptic writings.
Oppressive, autocratic regimes still exist in our modern world, of course. Christians still fear for their lives and die for their faith in some countries in the Middle East, Asia, and even Africa. To them, perhaps, the anti-imperial screed of Revelation and the radical inversions in Jesus’s teachings are more obvious. To those of us fortunate enough to live in countries where we are free to practice and preach? Not so much. How can we empathise with Judeans under the occupation of Rome, Greece, Persia, or Babylon? How can we understand the trauma of Israelites taken captive by Assyria, or enslaved in ancient Egypt? No more than we can comprehend the present daily reality of Coptic Christians in Egypt and Assyrian Christians in Iran, or even Christians in parts of India and China.
What, then, can we say about the “Kingdom of God” when our daily civic and social life is so far removed from the experience of oppression and repression shared by all of the Israelite, Judean, Jewish, and Christian writers of our scriptures? How can we convey the significance of a ‘kingdom’ based on love and justice, rather than military and political dominance? And how can we underscore the radically inclusive message of Jesus, the Judean rabbi who healed Roman military slaves, debated with women in public, elevated children from the bottom of the social hierarchy, and ministered to those of other religions? What can we say that can convey the same message that broke barriers of nationality, ideology, sectarianism, class, gender, age, sex, social status, and imperial power?
When we come to the Lord’s table, the Eucharist remembrance, we often quote the apostle Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 11:26, that “every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.” What exactly are we proclaiming, and how can we describe the “good news” of his coming?
I think that our tendency is usually to focus on the future. We can look around at every terrible thing happening in our own country, and around the world, and long for a time of redemption and justice. Like the passage from Daniel 7, many scriptures describe this future intervention. It is a powerful promise and a potent hope.
I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had vanished, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice proclaiming from the throne:
“Now God has his dwelling with humankind! He will dwell among them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain, for the old order has passed away!”
The One who sat on the throne said, “I am making all things new!”
Revelation 21:1-5a (formatted after NRSV)
But this future hope is only half the story. It raises the question: why should anybody desire to live in this new society? What does the Lord’s table offer that a person should wish to accept? Who wants to live forever?
Consider the vision of the prophet Micah.
In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house will be established higher than all other mountains, towering above other hills. Peoples will stream towards it; many nations will go, saying, “Let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob’s God, that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.” For instruction issues from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will be judge between many peoples and arbiter among great and distant nations.
They will hammer their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning-knives. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will never again be trained for war. Each man will sit under his own vine
or his own fig tree, with none to cause alarm. The LORD of Hosts himself has spoken.
The people of the nations do not arbitrarily choose to follow “the word of the LORD from Jerusalem”. They are specifically going “to the house of Jacob’s God”. The people of the nations have seen the life of the people of God and decided that it is a life worth pursuing. When people look to us, and the table that we keep for our Lord, they must see that the life we follow is worth pursuing.
Our world, our societies, are no less polarised and divided than was the ancient world of Jesus, though it may be easier for some to overlook. Over the last few years, even the most oblivious of us can surely not have failed to see the injustices and inequities that have been here all along. But unlike the Roman province of Judea, and unlike some of the countries in which our Christian brothers and sisters live today, we have the freedom to openly reject this sociopolitical order. We can reject its intolerance and inequality, we can defy its social conventions and constructs. In that context, the challenge of Jesus to us is great. We can welcome everybody with the unashamed and unlimited love of God.
The Pharisees asked [Jesus], “When will the kingdom of God come?” He answered, “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is among you!”
The meaning of Jesus’s last sentence has been much debated, but probably does not describe a purely personal, individualistic, inner spiritual reality. Jesus - indeed all of scripture - never describes the kingdom of God in this way. The kingdom is a communal hope and a shared reality among the people of God. To convey this sense, French scholar François Bovon provides this translation in his three-volume commentary on Luke: "For, in fact, the kingdom of God is in the space that belongs to you."
What we teach and believe about the reign of God on earth is constituted not in what we say, nor even entirely in what we do in our personal life, but in how we set the Lord's table. Who do we invite? How do we, as a church, treat them and each other? What are we doing in the space that belongs to us? How we bring the promise of God's reign to life now is not only a question of study and teaching, but of interpretation and imagination. To accept the invitation to participate in the life and purpose of God - that is, to share in the spirit of God - is to accept that any other person considering that invitation may look to us. And the one who does so will decide from what they see if the news that we bring is actually "good"; if it is worth hoping for the kingdom, the reign, the redeemed society, of God.
Scripture quotations taken from the Revised English Bible, copyright © Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press 1989. All rights reserved.
I have just pulled off the shelf a book I read some 55 years ago, “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand, which got me thinking about its substance and author. Some of her ideas of self interest with the possible resulting hurt of others is obviously flawed from a Christian viewpoint and I do not intend to expand on her philosophy “Objectivism”. However one aspect stresses the importance of the individual struggling against the corrupting evil of political and even religious authoritarianism. This argues that we must be true to ourselves, free from pretence.
We should not worry about what others think of us and never be ashamed of our convictions. (Luke 9:26 “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the son of man will be ashamed of him.”)
Pretence is compromising our true selves. It comes down to the fact that we are not only being dishonest with others but we are also being dishonest with ourselves and our God. ( Luke 9:25 “What will a man gain by winning (let alone impressing) the whole world, at the cost of losing HIS TRUE SELF”.)
What is our true self? We are what we believe to be true. Clothes do not make the man. It is beliefs and convictions that make the man and it is essential that we live honestly in accord with self. We might learn to compromise in order to share and be fair but we should never compromise our beliefs. We should at all times be true to ourselves.
The Pharisee was the sort of man that Jesus warned would receive the severest sentence. The hypocrite who deceives himself. He thinks he serves God, he believes he is the disciple, and yet he lacks something essential. It is not just that he is not sufficiently humble and repentant, it is that he lacks integrity, he is dishonest to himself. While thinking he serves God he is concerned for his own image, he is worried about what others think of him and is anxious to conform. He may be concerned for others, for that is Gods will, yet he cannot stop looking after his own welfare.
We need desperately to be completely honest with our God and that means being completely honest with ourselves. We must be honest in our very essence, as individuals. Self is defined as that individual essence, – to be completely honest we must examine ourselves and strip away any pretence. God knows who we are and what we could be and it is up to us to live honestly.
I have always thought it unfortunate that we tend to look on self as something bad, something to deny and overcome.
If we see SELF as wrong, we endanger the credibility of the individuals that God made us.
World establishment belittles the common man, rejects individuality and elevates conformity. The worldly dictat is that we must sedate our will, our own being and sacrifice self, ostensibly for the good of all. The church is in real danger if it takes this doctrine and applies it to itself.
Let us consider the often quoted words of Jesus. “Not my will but thine.” Was he in fact saying that we should have no self will? I think not because Jesus accepted that HIS self was to be shaped and formed by the will of His Father and not by the desires of humanity. It was Christ’s will to embrace God’s goodness. That was who Jesus was. That was Jesus’ true self to which he had to remain completely honest. For the Christian, it is essential to ensure that our SELF is a Christ-like self. Then it is important that we ensure that what others see is what we are.
We must live our religion honestly, true to ourselves. We will not need to give or to receive praise or reward from others. We will do things because our self conviction tells us it is right, not because it is convenient, easy, lucrative, or what will make us feel good. God gave us self-will, he did not wish for spineless clones. He created us with individual spirit, he wants self minded not mindless children. Children true to ourselves free from hypocrisy and pretence.
Jesus showed deference to no man. His life was lived with little regard for the opinions and standards of others. He was totally his own man and despised pretension and hypocrisy. He could have been idolised, popular and adored. He could have been the greatest of the A grade celebrities, the centre of attention. He could have impressed everyone and become the most popular and important man in the world.
However, Jesus was too honest for this world and was despised, rejected and finally killed by respectable society who were scared by his honesty and could not understand his priorities. The ironic thing is that in shunning all those things that the world believes is important, Jesus has still become one of the most influential, important and famous people ever to live.
The last shall be first.
We thank God that Jesus made his whole SELF subservient not to worldly approval but to reflecting the nature of His father. His rejection by the world made possible our acceptance by God.
Jesus foretells his rejection by the so called “important” people of the day. He predicts his suffering, death and resurrection. Jesus was Jesus, a truly honest man, true to himself and his father, even if what he had to do was hard and painful.
We remember just WHY his suffering was necessary, WHY God allowed his only beloved son to be sacrificed for a wicked, false and weak-willed world. If our desire is to be more like Jesus then let us examine ourselves candidly and vow to be strong willed and to live our lives honest to ourselves and our God, totally free from pretence.
Perhaps my days in Sunday School were deficient, but I suspect not. I have vague memories of studying Judah’s history, but the minute details have long been forgotten.
The same applies to much of what we learn at school. The further we are away from “the best years of our life”, the less we remember from all those years.
A recent survey, perhaps by the University of the Blindingly Obvious, found that many adults could not recall some of the basics they had learnt at school – such as Pythagoras’ theorem, a single line of any Shakespeare play or how to multiply decimals (without a calculator, of course).
But does it matter? Most of us can live without a detailed knowledge of trigonometry, but when it comes to knowledge of the Bible it might be seen as slightly different. Some people take great pride, in a good sense, in knowing Biblical facts: the order of the kings of Israel, how many Tamars there are in the Bible (not
to mention who the first Tamar’s husbands were), or the three angels mentioned by name. Such details have been described as Trivial Pursuit knowledge. A more up to date description might be knowledge suitable for the BBC television programme ‘Pointless’.
It is only since the invention of printing, by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 in Germany, that Bibles have become widely available. Before then, the possibility of owning a Bible was virtually nil. Even after 1440, many people were unable to read, so they still could not acquire that “Trivial Pursuit” knowledge. Their understanding of the contents of the Bible was acquired by looking at images in church, or watching Mystery Plays which told the important stories from the Bible. For an example of a modern interpretation of a Mystery Play about Adam and Eve, watch this YouTube video:
They were a good way to get the basic messages of the Bible across, but there was no possibility the ordinary illiterate person could acquire the detailed knowledge of the Bible which some of us have, or aspire to have.
But, and this is the important point, lack of that knowledge did not prevent them from being Christians, who in some cases would be willing to die for their faith. And nor should we be too concerned if we can’t remember the difference between Jehoiachin and Jehoiakim. What is really important is what is in a person’s heart, not their head. Knowing Jesus, not knowing about Jesus.
... but we leave it in a mess. More than that, we damage the complex ecosystems which sustain life on Earth.
God’s words were given to to Moses thousands of years ago as part of a set of egalitarian and ecologically sound laws which ensured that the fragile soil did not become exhausted and, because land ownership was controlled, everyone should have enough to eat. Even then, when the population was very small, people knew that their lifestyle had to be sustainable.
Some of these sustainability rules were dropped thousands of years ago. Others such as leaving fields fallow for a year, were practised in Europe until a few hundred years ago. However as industry and intensive farming developed, the land, the air and the ocean have been progressively damaged.
The COP26 conference to be held in Glasgow later this year will aim to get countries to sign up to targets to reduce the rate at which we are damaging the Earth. But what should we as individuals and as Christians do? There is no doubt that the problems are very complex and it is difficult to know what to do for the best. For example we have stopped using disposable plastic shopping bags and I now have a number of cotton bags. However cotton production is a very inefficient use of water and unsustainable in many areas where it is currently grown.
Maybe we should do nothing and trust God to put things right? That is not what the Bible teaches. It teaches us to act even when we know we cannot solve the problems as individuals. We are told to give to the poor, although Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). Climate change isn’t mentioned – it wasn’t an issue then. We now understand more and need to change what we do. We trust that God has a plan for the Earth but that involves people doing their part and doing their best to maintain his creation.
Sorry to disappoint you if you were expecting some advice about overcoming insomnia. The title was actually the heading of a recent article in a newspaper, which unlike this post actually did give some useful tips. But it ended up with these words:
Hearing this advice and nodding is rather different to putting it into practice.
I will ignore one of my bête noires (different to) and just be grateful that practice wasn’t spelt with an s.
But the message is very valid. We will all be familiar with it. The world is full of good advice, but how many people heed it? Global warming: no shortage of news items dealing with either the causes, the threats to human life or the remedies. But how much of the necessary changes in lifestyle have been (or will be) put into practice? And a rhetorical question – how much are you personally doing to improve the environment? If like me it’s not very much, it’s not because we haven’t heard the advice and the warnings. We’re all guilty of nodding and then moving on to something more interesting.
Our generation is no different from previous ones.
Tam O’Shanter in Robert Burns’ eponymous poem was not the ideal husband, to put it mildly. But his shortcomings were not from lack of advice, but rather from not putting it into practice:
Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
o think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthen’d sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises!
Many centuries earlier, Jesus had said:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 7:21
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” Matthew 7:24-27
The recent floods in Germany and China have tragically highlighted that buildings which seem secure are not necessarily so. I hope that none of our houses suffers the same fate. But I also sincerely hope that none of our spiritual houses is built on sand, but on sure foundations that can withstand the challenges which present themselves. That’s one reason why in normal times we meet together, to encourage us to put into practice what we know we should do. And that, as we all know, is the hard part.
So no more words. You’ll have heard plenty about leading a life acceptable to God. What we must all do is put the advice we have heard into practice.
But if you’re still looking for a remedy for sleeplessness, try the old fashioned way of counting the sheep in this video clip:
Each entrant has qualified to take part over months and even years before the event by winning in other competitions in their own country and around the world. But how did they begin? Listen to comments made by some of these talented folk and it seems they have dreamed of taking part since early childhood and in some case followed the success of their heroes and tried to emulate them.
A single line from a film I have watched quite recently has stuck with me. “If you dream alone your dream remains a dream.” And it’s so true isn’t it?
How many athletes have made it to the top entirely on their own? Probably none. Let’s think for a moment just how many people might be involved in making it possible for a gymnast, a tennis player or a swimmer to reach the top of their sport.
Parental approval and the support of family and friends come first perhaps with the longterm commitment of fetching and carrying a child to places of learning and tuition. Teachers and trainers encourage and help students to improve their skills, technique and attitude. Physiotherapists, medical advisers and even psychiatrists and psychologists may also play a part preparing, soothing and repairing both body and mind.
Medallists in the games have their moment of glory, and create memories which will last for a lifetime. Their achievements are everything they dreamed of. The team of supporters are rewarded simply in the knowledge that they played a part, however small, in making it happen. It is the team working together which really brings about success, and not just the talent of the competitor, although that must of course be admired. Some of them take part for years before finally securing a medal, whilst others return to defend their titles from previous Olympics. There will be many who return home without having secured a medal, perhaps feeling defeated and saddened, but who at least took part and did their best for themselves and for their country.
The same team playing and team spirit apply in many other walks of life too. I personally had missed, during lockdown, my weekly meetings and rehearsals with my choir. Singing on my own was not nearly as rewarding as being with others and blending our voices in harmony. When we met again a few weeks ago, despite being socially distanced in a large hall, some of us were moved almost to tears at being together again. We all had different parts to sing but bringing them all together made us complete and sounded beautiful.
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:12
This tells us that the body is a unit but continues by saying it is made up of many parts, each with its own part to play. While every part works within the unit as it should all is well, but it only takes one small part to malfunction and then the entire body is affected. That might well apply within a sports team, or my choir, or, as most of us will have experienced at some point in our lives, our motor car. I recently took my car to the local garage. It was running really well, but had begun making a noise I couldn’t understand and didn’t like. I was glad I took it in as the brakes needed some attention and now all is well.
And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 1 Corinthians 12:28
Here is a list of appointments made in the early church by God himself. Apostles, prophets, teachers, healers, administrators – all with their part to play, and all coming together to make the unit complete. Perhaps the tasks in our church today have changed somewhat. We might add in secretary, treasurer, welfare officer, technical support person, audio or video co-ordinator or even charity administrator. The tasks are numerous and far too many for one person to undertake.
Ephesians 4:11-13 reiterates what is said in the Corinthians passage:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Wow! Can I really play a part in that? Well - no - not on my own, but with your help I might just be a small cog which helps to turn a wheel somewhere and keep things moving in the right direction. As a young Christadelphian I used to beat myself up mentally because I didn’t get involved in Bible mission work, and I had enormous respect for those that did. But I had no desire to visit hot countries, had no language skills and only a simple faith which was enough for me at the time, but probably not sufficient for a preaching role. I accept now that Bible mission work just wasn’t my calling and that perhaps my outreach started much closer to home.
If you dream alone then the dream remains a dream. If you work alone the task can seem daunting and thankless. We need each other, to work as a team, to support each other. It doesn’t matter how small a part we have to play – every little thing counts. Thank you all for being there for me and for so many others who need you. I am humbled by the good works of the people around me and pray that those works continue while the Lord is away. Together we are going for gold; not glory for ourselves or our country, but for our Father God and the Lord Jesus Christ whom we represent in everything we do.
Recently, my daughter and I mapped out our expedition to Bannockburn. We agreed on the time to get up in the morning, then the time to leave the house, the trains have an hourly frequency whereas before they ran every half hour. We needed to catch a bus at Stirling bus station to continue the journey. Our plans were executed beautifully until we stopped for a snack and missed the bus by seconds. I was filled with panic that we were going to be late. I looked at my “bus app” and realised that the next bus was not due for some time and had a more meandering route than the one missed. We would be extremely late, and I did not want to disappoint mum or put the staff out by arriving after our agreed time.
Plan B, get a taxi to complete the journey. It is more expensive but much faster. We ran to the taxi rank nearby. The drivers were standing by their parked cars gassing, blethering, chewing the fat (engaged in idle chit chat). I sensed a frustration in myself as I wanted to finish my journey and be as close to on time as possible, but these drivers appeared in no hurry to start work. After a minute or so, which felt even longer to me, the driver of the first taxi in the rank walked to his car and we got into the back. Before we could let him know where we were heading a woman walked past the rank. Our driver called out to her “Aunty Mary”. They then began a conversation as if we were not there. We could not help but overhear that she had moved home during the pandemic, and it appeared they had lost touch with each other. I desperately wanted to interject that we were in a hurry to make our appointment time. I never did as I was being too British. Then I him heard give her his news that shocked me like an icicle down the spine. He told her that “he had the big C” a euphemism for cancer. This driver was a man who urgently needed love and support. I realised my frustrations and focus were all wrong.
So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:18
We went on to have a lovely hour with Mum, with my timely lesson learned.
Soon after I came to Edinburgh I found myself with a free day. I still had my own car so I set off towards the West. Eventually I found myself on the brow of a hill near the West Highland Way overlooking Loch Lomond. There was a lonely phone box and I thought I would use it to surprise someone in Yorkshire. The snag was that I had no phone list with me and, having no memory for numbers, I found it difficult even to remember my sister’s number.
It seems that most people are either numerate or literate. It must be good to have both gifts.
At Sunday school we had to learn proofs. I can still remember that my very first one was on a sticker showing lilies. It said ‘Consider the lilies!’ When I was a bit older I learned ‘Remember thy creator in the days of thy youth while the evil days come not nor the years draw nigh when thou shalt say I have no pleasure in them’. We were expected to recite chapter and verse but I could only remember that it is Ecclesiastes. The important thing is to do as instructed.
I knew a brother who admitted that he didn’t know the words of a single hymn. Why didn’t I ask him what kind of things he did remember? Thinking about these things makes me a bit more sympathetic to those who busy themselves with working out such things as the date of the Lord’s return to the earth. They are probably more numerate than literate and enjoy manipulating figures.
I can’t remember the number of a single hymn. I love the traditional hymns that we have in the green book and don’t have any problem with the archaic language. I find an exhortation in almost every one. A hymn that has helped me during the Pandemic is ‘Here O my Lord, I see thee face to face’. One of the verses says
‘I have no arm but thine to lean upon’.
Many-a-time, even when using a walker, I have needed an arm to steady me but we are not allowed to touch.
So I ask the numerate people what form their meditation takes. Have they got a mind well-stocked with thoughts and memories which help them when they are alone and in the dark?
Over a year ago, I witnessed a significant and delightful change in my nearest and dearest, which I’d like to tell you about.
Pete and I have a grandson called Leo, who is now 10 years old. At the start of the lockdown restrictions, when we knew we couldn’t see our grandchildren regularly, Leo and Pete began daily story sessions over the phone. Pete would read a chapter of a novel to him. It became an enjoyable part of the new daily routine for them both and they loved their daily chat too. They are still enjoying this almost daily activity 15 months later; Pete has read more than 30 children’s novels to Leo. The amazing thing about this is the change. As a youngster Pete never read more than a handful of books and in adult life too he found he was so disengaged by the printed word that it was a sure way to send him to sleep. Books were not for him.
For me witnessing this small transformation has been a powerful lesson about how we can bring about change in ourselves in unexpected ways, often in service to others.
When all our lives changed fundamentally last year in March, people took to writing helpful stuff about how to cope with the changes happening all around us.
There were many practical pieces of advice and new Government rules about what we could and couldn’t do and about changes we could and should make. So we learned how to make and wear our own face masks, we learned how to take exercise in a more limited environment, we learned special deep cleaning techniques, we learned to share our own good fortune with others in new ways, as Pete and Leo did.
The Bible is full of remarkable characters who are faced with fundamental change and take it on in good faith. Change brings pain as well as blessings. Think of Abraham, who was challenged by God to completely change his life by moving to an unknown foreign land – and the blessings of generations which ensued (Genesis 12:1-3).
Or think of Mary, who became the mother of Jesus. She was told to take on shocking changes when she was a young woman, engaged to be married to Joseph – the pain of social disgrace but then unimaginable blessings came to her through her trust in the Lord.
Jesus challenged people to change. Here’s just one example – the encounter with the rich young man who asked Jesus what he should do to gain eternal life. He thought he had it sorted but Jesus asked him to change his value system, to take on the true Christian core values (Matthew 19:16 onwards). He couldn’t do it. This man will always be remembered as the one who turned away from Jesus – because he wouldn’t change.
It may be like that in our Christian experience too. We may be struggling with changes right now.
Hopefully we are able to put our hands in Jesus’ outstretched hand and embrace the changes which will make us more secure in following Him. I like the way it is expressed in The Message Bible in Romans 12:1 and 2:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.
The Letter to the Hebrews, our reading of which, according to the Bible Companion, starts today, might well be called the letter of the great unknown. No one knows who wrote it. Away back in the third century the early Christian theologian, Origen, said: “Who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews? God alone knows”. How then did it become attached to Paul’s name? When the New Testament came to be put together as a book, the test of what was to get into it was whether it had been written by an apostle, or at least by someone who had been in contact with the apostles. No one knew who had written Hebrews but it was seen as far too great and far too valuable to omit and to lose. So it was, as it were, put under the protection of Paul, the great letter-writer, and was included with his letters.
Five hundred years before the writer to the Hebrews wrote the letter, Plato the Greek philosopher had spoken of a doctrine that left a deep mark on Greek thought. He had spoken of forms or ideas. There were, he said, the perfect ideas, the perfect forms, the perfect patterns, the perfect archetypes of all things laid up in heaven. Everything on earth was a pale and imperfect copy of these forms and ideas; and the task of life was to get from the world’s imperfections to heaven’s perfections, to get from earth’s unreality to heaven’s reality. As the writer to the Hebrews saw it, in Jesus heaven’s perfection had come to earth.
Before Jesus everything had been fragmentary and ephemeral (1:1) but Jesus is greater than everything that went before. He is greater than the angels (chapter 1). He is greater than Moses (chapter 3). He is greater than Joshua (chapter 4). Everything that had been foreshadowed and hinted at came to perfection in Jesus.
But in one respect, in the greatest of all things, this was especially true. The priest had a very special position in ancient religion. The Latin for priest is pontifex, which means a bridge-builder. The priest was the person who built a bridge between God and man. In particular the Jewish High Priest had a very special function on the Day
of Atonement. No human being ever went into the Holy of Holies in the Temple, except the High Priest, and even then, on only one day in the year. The priest on behalf of the people went into the presence of God. To the writer to the Hebrews the ancient priesthood is only the imperfect shadow of the real thing. Jesus is the real priest, the priest who himself can go into the presence of God and who can open the way for others to follow.
So the writer to the Hebrews tells how Jesus is the perfect priest. Two things are necessary for any priest – having sympathy with people and being divinely appointed (chapter 5). That was supremely true of Jesus.
There are things which show the obvious imperfection of the old priesthood. The old priesthood had to offer sacrifice for its own sins before ever it offered sacrifice for the sins of the people. Jesus does not need to do that because he has no sin (7:27). The old sacrifices had to be made over and over again, day in and day out throughout the years. But the sacrifice Jesus made is made once and for all and never needs to be made again (10:1-3).
The imperfection of the old sacrifices is obvious. If they were really effective, they would not need to be made over and over again. The blood of animals can never really make atonement. But Jesus is not only the perfect priest, he is the perfect offering too; and the offering he brings is himself and his perfect obedience (10:5-14).
There is nothing surprising in this because the new covenant, the new relationship to God, had already been foretold (Jeremiah 3:31-34; Hebrews 9:15-18) and the new kind of priesthood, the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17-21; Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 7) had already been foretold too.
So Jesus is both the perfect priest and the perfect offering and therefore, in him, the way to God is open wide. So for the writer to the Hebrews two things are to be said to the Christian:
First, let us go in. The access to God is wide open because of what Jesus the great High Priest has done. Let us then draw near (4:16; 10:19-22).
Second, let us go on. Those to whom he was writing had become a little weary, a little regretful for what they had left, a little discouraged and they were on the verge of turning back. But to them there comes the invitation to go, not backwards but forwards, and to go in faith (5:11-6:12; chapter 11). For those of us who may, in the environment of the current pandemic, have become weary and discouraged, this is a strong exhortation for us to go on, to persevere:
“10 God will not forget all that you did, and the way in which you showed your love for him in your past and present service of his dedicated people. 11 It is our earnest desire that each of you should allow the same eagerness in your efforts to reach the full and final realisation of your hope. 12 You must not become lazy. You must take as your examples those who through faith and perseverance are entering into the promises of God.” (Hebrews 6:10-12)
So then we can take to heart the twin rallying-calls of the great unknown who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews: let us go in and let us go on.
Now things are starting to open up again we're getting our freedom back; we're allowed to meet with more people, eat out in restaurants, do 'non-essential' shopping. Hopefully soon things will be back to what we previously knew as 'normal'.
Back in the Old Testament, when God chose his people Israel, he gave them a set of rules to cover things they could and couldn't do. The basics were written in the 10 commandments but there was a lot more detail besides that. Over the years, the rulers of Israel continued to add to the rules – so much so that Jesus accused them in Luke 11:46 of “load[ing] people down with burdens they can hardly carry.”
We know, however, that Jesus came to release the people from all those rules and give them freedom. The people were burdened by the idea expressed in James 2:10 that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
What a relief to hear Jesus’ new message of freedom. Paul summed it up in Galatians 5:1 when he said that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Not only are we eagerly awaiting freedom from Covid restrictions, but also “we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope.” The way we express that faith is through love, so as we march towards new physical freedoms let’s also show our spiritual freedom through love.
M and RC
Two things sprang to mind straight away, my work and my unworthiness or guilt!
I've been in Pharmacy for 40+ years and the first 30 years were by and large good but over the last 10 years the profession has got progressively harder and harder. It's not just Covid, but staff cuts and increased workloads have greatly increased the stress levels for all staff. Customer expectations as well, "I ordered my prescription yesterday, is it not ready yet?" Only last week I was verbally abused and felt threatened by a customer whose prescription wasn't even with us yet from the doctors: he thought I was keeping it from him. Increased stress and pressure of work lead to a tired body, both physically and mentally and dim my light too! Some might say that stress however is a lack of faith, if we truly put our trust in God then we shouldn't worry but that's still a work in progress for me.
Life can be hard at times can't it? Do we at any time think or feel that when things go wrong for us that we are being punished for our sins? It's probably quite normal, blame someone else, but it's certainly not accurate. God doesn't punish us when we fail, in fact He says,
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." 1 John 1 v 9
God is a God of love,
"But you, my Lord, are a God of compassion and mercy; you are very patient and full of faithful love." Psalm 86 v 15
We all make mistakes, some more than others We rely on God's grace, which connects with my second bowl, my feelings of not being worthy.
First of all, what is God's grace? It's the love and mercy given to us by God, not because we deserve it or have done anything to earn it but because God desires us to have it. So straight away that feeling of unworthiness shouldn't come into it, we can never really be worthy!
I'm sure we're all truly thankful for God's grace in our lives, and for ourselves we're so thankful for the love and support of our Brothers and Sisters in the Kendal and Edinburgh Ecclesias.
With all this in mind, the next day I put my music on and the first song played went like this:
"What reason do I have to wake up with the rising sun
And not be held down by the weight of all the things I've done?
What reason do I have to feel this hope instead of hurt?
How can it be I don't receive the judgement I deserve?"
The chorus continues with the answer –
"Wave upon wave of grace upon grace
Endlessly washing my sins away.”
Soon after another song:
"Now the man who needed grace still knows how to make a mess
There's never been a day that you found me perfect
All the grace just keeps on showing me exactly what it is
A gift that goes to those who don't deserve it
And nothing I could ever do
Compares to what's been done for me"
It's amazing, God's love for us and the hope that we have through the Lord Jesus.
I read an acronym for GRACE: God's Riches at Christ's Expense.
Don't think I've heard that before, what do you think?
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,
5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved.
6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,
7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God —
9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:4 - 10
The gift of God, is it then an excuse to continue to sin? Paul tells us in Romans 6 "God forbid". Of course it's not, a wilful desire to continue in sin shows a lack of understanding of God's abundant grace and contempt for Jesus' sacrifice. But that "God forbid”, is that a straight no or is it actually a "Why would you want to do that?" Sin hurts us, it destroys relationships, our health, our finances, our jobs, our emotions, the list goes on and on..... Why would we want to continue to do that? However at times we still do!
I know I should do better, I'm sure we all could to some extent. So what can we do to make our lights shine brighter for those around us?
:- Smile - a great way to share your light, you never know how much you can brighten someone's day with a smile.
:- Be there for a friend - your light could lift them from a dark place they might be in.
:- Be positive - negativity is everywhere so if we focus on being positive and showing our gratitude then hopefully we can be a light to someone.
:- Listen carefully - most listen to respond rather than listen for the sake of listening to help someone.
:- Give genuine compliments - words have so much power, they can make or break someone's day. Compliments share kindness and compassion.
:- Give to charity - give what you can, not out of compulsion but out of sincerity and generosity.
I'm sure we can think of plenty of other ways to shine and do better in our life in Christ.
God created us in His image, He wants us to live a happy life and spread His light and joy to those around us. He doesn't want us living in darkness, instead be a light to those around us and be happy with the life He has given us.
Films are notorious for taking real characters and depicting them in a way that suits the film maker, not letting the facts get in the way of a good film. There is no indication of his character in the one reference to him in the Bible:
Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Genesis 4:22
Even those of you who did already know who he was might be unaware that there is a statue of him – and it’s right here in Edinburgh, in Nicolson Square, about a mile from our church building. It was built for the 1886 International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art, and was the exhibit of the Edinburgh and Leith Brass Founders: Tubal-Cain was the first brass worker.
The makers of “Noah” could not be accused of unconscious bias. They openly admitted they chose Tubal-Cain to represent all that was wrong with the world in Noah’s time because he was a descendant of Cain, the first murderer. But as noted above we have no idea what Tubal-Cain the person was really like.
Unconscious bias has been defined as:
Unconscious biases, also known as implicit biases, are the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people unconsciously attribute to another person or group of people that affect how they understand and engage with a person or group.
The Royal Society has a very good short video clip about unconscious bias:
This week the Commonwealth War Graves Commission admitted it had been guilty of unconscious (or was it conscious?) bias; they did not treat soldiers from foreign countries who were killed in the First World War with the same recognition as British soldiers. And now, 100 years later, they’re doing something about it.
After his experience with Cornelius the Roman centurion, Peter appreciated that he had been unconsciously biased about who was acceptable to God:
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Acts 10:34 and 35
And us? We are not immune either. The first step is to be aware of it and then to make a conscious effort not to let it influence how we react to people. That’s not easy. It took a vision from God for Peter to realise it. We have the benefit of hindsight, but too often our eyesight and our thinking can be blinkered. But God wants us to have open eyes, open brains and open hearts:
Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. Isaiah 32:3
I [Paul] keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people... Ephesians 1:17 and 18
He suggested that in many ways it was hard to be certain and consequently there was no such thing as definitive truth, each person’s truth is likely to be different. This is quite probable even in simple matters but when it comes to belief (in Gods existence, the truth of what is written in the Bible, in miracles, that God hears our prayers and the resurrection of Jesus) it is not hard to understand that what people consider to be truth is so disparate. Let’s face it what we as Christians believe in faith seems completely incredible if not impossible. It is small wonder that we have doubts and so many others dismiss God as being a fabrication.
We must thank God that we have paused to reflect on what is true and ask questions. Personally, in my late teens and early twenties I considered several philosophies and religions and decided that I had to question the existence of God if I was not going to believe in Him. I did not belong to a religious family but through various sources worked to disprove Christianity in particular. It is written that if we seek we will find.
I do not believe for one minute that I have understood and found everything that is true, accepting that each person’s truth is likely to be different and that we will all be amazed on the day when all truth will be made known to us. We see things through a glass darkly. We can never PROVE God, we are only able to accept Him through faith. The finite mind trying to understand the infinite is pathetic but we can trust like little children and accept God’s love for us. We must learn to have faith enough to understand our hope, our relationship with our Father and must have the utmost confidence in our salvation through Jesus.
However, that salvation depends totally on one thing. We might historically know that Christ lived, was tortured and died on the cross but unless the improbable, the impossible, happened, unless Christ was resurrected our faith is all in vain.
I found Jesus while trying to disprove him, and another man came to the realisation that Christ was raised while setting out to write a book to deny it. “Who Moved the Stone” a book by Frank Morrison has probably already been read by many but is in my opinion well worth reading. While we may not agree with everything he says (truth is not definitive) the evidence, (which must be considered if our faith is to be propped up,) is well presented and while it may not seem as strong as the sound of a distant falling tree is nevertheless compelling.
Ephesians 2v8 “By grace you are saved through faith”. Jesus said to Thomas as he says to us, the doubters of today “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed”. Remember and believe that through Jesus we can be forgiven, we can be helped in our disbelief. Through Jesus we can hold on to the seemingly unbelievable yet undeniable fact that whatever or wherever our heavenly Father is, the supreme, omnipotent life and law giver not only exists but also loves us.
The poem Come as You Are, by Angela McCrimmon, hits the nail on the head, I think. Click here to view it being beautifully declaimed by Malcolm Churchill from the Maidenhead church. (You’ll need to stop the video manually at the end of the poem, as it’s part of a longer event.)
If this infinitely patient and generous God is on our side, what have we to fear?
During their meeting, Jesus told Nicodemus,
This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.
Jesus implied that in choosing to come during the hours of darkness, Nicodemus lacked moral courage. Although he had come seeking the truth, he avoided the light for fear that his meeting with Jesus would become known. Are we sometimes like Nicodemus, afraid or ashamed to witness to Christ, concerned about what people might say about us, and that we might lose esteem in their eyes?
Jesus says in Luke chapter 8 verse 16,
No one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.
The apostle John tells us in his first letter that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all”. He goes on to say,
Walking in the light doesn’t mean walking sinlessly before God; only the Lord Jesus Christ has been able to do that. Instead, it means being open with ourselves, with those around us, and with God; not trying to hide our faults, or imagining that God doesn’t see them, but confessing them and seeking forgiveness through Jesus.
The apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Thessalonians,
You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self- controlled ... since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.
David wrote in Psalm 119,
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path”, conveying a picture of someone walking at night by the light of a lamp. But although we may dislike or even fear the darkness of night, with electric lighting in our streets and in our homes, we rarely experience true darkness.
Imagine living in David’s time, when at night the only light came from moonlight (if there was any), or from flickering oil lamps (candles hadn’t been invented yet). David must have recalled times when, as a shepherd-boy, he was alone at night with his flock, trying to find his way about in the dark. In the same way, without the light of God’s word, we would be living in spiritual darkness, like many in the world around us.
Jesus proclaimed to the people,
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
He told his followers, in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world”. God has made his light shine in our hearts; we too should be as lights in this dark world.
Jesus went on to say,
A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
By the mercy of God, we have come through the darkness of winter. As we read in Solomon’s Song of Songs, “See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come”.
We see around us the signs of spring, with the singing of birds and the return of life and growth where everything seemed dead. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans,
The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.
I’d like to conclude with a quotation from Isaiah chapter 60:
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
When I was 17 I was asked to learn and recite a very long poem for the Christmas Day prize giving at Milnsbridge Sunday School. One of the elderly sisters had requested it. It was called ‘The Lonely Watcher’ and was about a young woman watching all alone on top of a tower for signs of the Lord’s return. She was exhorted not to descend as there was a danger of her soiling her pure white garments. It was a long-winded way of warning us against becoming contaminated by the world, but it painted a picture of loneliness and endless inactivity. Poor girl! There was no mention of her being relieved by another watchman at the end of her shift. We used to sing hymns like ‘Watchman, tell us of the night’. Now we don’t often speak about watching for the Lord’s return.
Watchman, tell us of the night, what its signs of promise are.
Traveller, what a wondrous sight: see that glory-beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray news of joy or hope foretell?
Traveller, yes; it brings the day, promised day of Israel.
On the other hand whoever would have thought that in these days we are all metaphorically watching on our towers and trying to deal with self-isolation for the safety of others as well as ourselves.
The other story is about Antarctic exploration. [Click here to read the story in full.] I remember seeing a video about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s unsuccessful third polar expedition on the Endurance. They set sail from London in August 1914, but before they reached their destination the ship became stuck in polar ice and eventually broke up and sank. The explorers and crew managed to salvage a lot of supplies and three boats so that the 28 men could set up camp on the pack ice. Eventually they set off rowing towards the South Shetland Islands and reached Elephant Island where they were still completely stranded.
Photo by henrique setim on Unsplash
In April 1916 Shackleton set out in a rowing boat with five men to try to reach a whaling station on South Georgia in the hope of finding help to make a rescue attempt by sea. I will leave his epic journey and think of the men left on the island.
Home on Elephant Island was built of two upturned boats joined together where 22 men lived “like semi-frozen sardines side by side”. They lived there from April 24th to August 30th (129 days).
It was winter. I don’t know what supplies they had left or whether they had to go out hunting and fishing. They watched Shackleton and his party set off but had no means of communication. All they had was faith in a good leader, hope and prayer. They say that every mariner calls on God when in extremity. Their prayers must have been often and fervent. Although there must have been a lot of sea ice you can imagine that every day they would scan the horizon hoping to see a ship.
They wouldn’t know that Shackleton had successfully reached the Stromness Whaling Station and made three rescue attempts by various ships. Each time they were turned back by sea ice. On the fourth attempt they reached Elephant Island and picked up all the men. None was lost.
During the present Pandemic everyone is hoping the vaccines will succeed in halting the virus. Yet there could be more immediate help if our Lord returned. Are we praying for his return? Are we watching for signs? Are we letting others know of our hopes? No, we probably aren’t voicing them. Our reason is that there have been too many false alarms in the past which have discredited the preachers. Jesus will return when he is least expected. He expects us to ‘occupy till he come’ (Luke 19:13). We hope others will see our good works and believe.
There are many stories of people who were scared in the Bible – Elijah was being chased by Ahab and Jezebel but he turned to God for some calm. God wasn’t in the loud, showy places; he was a quiet whisper that encouraged Elijah. Jesus took himself off for some peaceful prayer in the garden of Gethsemane to give him some much-needed calm to face the next events.
The calm that God offers is reinforced by Philippians 4:4-7. It reminds us that when tensions build up, prayer is a release. So too is rejoicing; whilst dancing in the streets isn’t appropriate just now, smiling at others (or even just to ourselves) is a sure way to spread some joy. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Use your smile to change the world; don’t let the world change your smile.” Mother Teresa took this further when she said, “Peace begins with a smile.” That’s peace for us as much as spreading joy to others. When all around us seems to be out of our control, we can at least smile.
Our rejoicing helps us choose to place our confidence in God. With God as our central focal point, our personal stress can be reduced. This is our choice to make.
This coming week, let’s choose to be calmer through three practical ways: 1. Pray to God to give us calm. 2. Focus our thoughts on God. Try having some silence after your prayer - He will become bigger and our problems become smaller. 3. Rejoice by smiling a bit more.
We aren’t alone in this stressful time; God and Jesus are here with us to help us through.
At the start of 2010 I found myself at the beginning of a new adventure. After some months of deliberating we moved house from suburban Kenilworth in Warwickshire to the small town of Wigtown in south west Scotland. We felt privileged and well blessed coming to such a beautiful area where the views from the front of our house looked east across the bay to the Galloway hills.
My husband was keen to secure the garage and workshop as his space – a man cave – a place he could call his own, and so a small shed was erected at the top of the garden where I might have my own space, room to sow seeds , pot up plants and store my gardening tools. I was delighted to have this and spent many happy hours up there in the spring preparing seedlings for the flower and vegetable garden. My uncle had trained at Kew, my mother was in the land army during the war and my sister also had a career in horticulture, so I guess gardening runs through my veins.
Working in the garden one fine, breezy day I went to the shed to fetch a pair of secateurs; they were hanging on a nail on the shed wall. I opened the door and stepped inside, looked up and saw just what I was looking for. As I stretched up for them the breeze blew the door shut behind me and I found myself standing in deep gloom with just a tiny window shedding enough light to help me grope for the secateurs I needed. With them securely in my hand I reached for the door handle. Missed. I reached again. Missed again. I began to feel my way around the door area and within a few moments broke into a cold sweat as it dawned on me that there was no door handle! My clever husband had put a handle on the outside of the door, but not on the inside!. I was stuck, imprisoned, at the top of the garden where no-one would hear me, and I just hate being confined in small spaces!
I’m pleased to say I wasn’t there for long. With the help of the very tool I had picked up earlier I was able to grasp the rod where the missing handle should have been attached and, after several attempts, I managed to rotate it enough to activate the mechanism and the door opened. Phew! Never had I been more relieved to feel the air fresh on my face, and see the brightness of the sunlight.
Have you ever found yourself to be a prisoner? There are so many ways in which you might find yourself to be a captive. Perhaps, like me in the shed, you’ve been stuck in a place you didn’t want to be, or found yourself in circumstances which you would like to change but can’t. Maybe you’ve been in an abusive relationship and didn’t know how to end it; or lived under a corrupt government where your freedom of speech and movement were restricted, and your life threatened if you dared to stand against corruption. Physical and mental illness can leave people feeling imprisoned within their own bodies. Slavery is another type of imprisonment which has been a disgraceful and despicable use and misuse of human labour for centuries but accepted as the norm in many parts of the world.
It is true of course that, being human, we may make bad decisions in our own lives and are obliged to live with the consequences of those decisions, leaving us trapped and unhappy; a type of imprisonment brought upon ourselves. We have to accept responsibility for our actions and make the best of a situation which is not perhaps what we dreamed of. That’s not the same as being forced into captivity by another power, although it might just leave us feeling as though it were, and not knowing how to move on.
Currently, as the pandemic continues to take its toll, both close to home and far afield, I would suggest that we are all imprisoned to some degree, and each person handles that situation in a different way. Some are able to get out for daily exercise and appreciate the good things around them whilst others are shielding at home, perhaps depressed or fearful. Some praise the good work done by volunteers and carers, helping those in need, whilst others criticise those who have perhaps made a mistake by breaking a rule. Some reach out to others with caring calls and messages, while others turn in on themselves and think only of themselves. Staying positive somehow seems to lessen the impact of the restrictions we are all undergoing. With the administering of a vaccine now underway we at least have hope of things improving in the not too distant future.
Hope. This is something we all need to keep us feeling positive
Isaiah 40 ends by saying:
Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not grow faint.
What a lovely picture is conjured up in those words – renewed strength, freedom of movement, no more fainting or tiredness.
Matthew 12 also quotes Isaiah in verses 18 and 21 and speaking of Jesus says
Here is my servant whom I have chosen —
In his name the nations will put their hope.
God knows just how things are with us. He understands our frustrations more than any of our friends or family can. We can share our thoughts, fears and hopes with friends and family perhaps, but only God sees the complete picture. He alone has the keys to our personal prison, and can decide when we might be released from our sentence. It is however up to us to ask, and ask in the Lord’s name, for our freedom from whatever situation is holding us prisoner. We read in Acts 12:1-11 of Peter’s miraculous release from prison and that the whole church was praying for him. I wonder if we sometime underestimate the power of prayer.
I have chosen some of the words of Psalm 139 to round off my thoughts. They reassure us of God’s closeness to us. When we need help we only have to reach out to Him in prayer. He will answer.
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand —
when I awake, I am still with you.
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
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.