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.