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.