Wednesday, 7 June 2023

How not to read the Bible

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you! Take me away with you – let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers. Song of Songs 1:2-4

I was lent a book recently and asked what I thought of it. It’s not as if I’m any sort of expert, of course, but, being a minister, I think it was felt that I might have a “professional” opinion. It was in effect a small commentary on the Old Testament “Song of Songs”.

Well, that’s fair enough, I thought. The Song is famous for its difficulty and I’m always keen to learn. Then I noticed the subtitle: “A Devotional Study of some Portraits of Christ in the Song of Solomon”. I thought, “Hang on a minute! – portraits of Christ? Surely not! How can Christ be found in The Song?” It’s hard to follow the thread of the story as it is, but it reads very like a love poem – starting with a young woman longing to be kissed by her lover, and to be “taken away” by him “into his chambers”.

I knew that such interpretations of this book were quite common a hundred or so years ago, but I had no idea that there were people today who still propose them.

I’m sure the author is a delightful Christian man and, glancing through his book, there’s no doubt he has succeeded in culling together all sorts of truths and lessons about Jesus.

But the question can’t be avoided: do those truths and lessons lie naturally on the surface of the text, or are they – if I may use a blunt word – in fact foisted on it? Putting the question another way: Is the book meant to be interpreted in this way? Is it really about Jesus?

Reading the blurb on the cover, I came across what I suspected was a give-away sign: the author’s aim, apparently, was to discover “Christ in all the scriptures”. This is an expression we find in the story of the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:27). The risen Jesus, the mysterious stranger, explains to his companions on the road how the words of Old Testament scripture point towards him.

I’m sure all Christians will gladly accept that: the Old Testament scriptures, as a whole, do indeed lead up to Christ; and the New Testament scriptures lead on from him. But… and this is the big “but” – does that mean that every single verse of the Bible is about Jesus? Including the Song of Songs? Surely not!

I started this blog with some words from the Song of Songs; but that’s not really what I’m concerned about. Really, it’s about the much bigger picture of Bible interpretation as a whole. When we hold the Bible we have in our hands a whole library of books, some long, some short, some straightforward, some mysterious, some factual, some poetic, some simple, some complex. And the key is to read them according to their kinds, recognising that the Bible is humanly written as well as divinely inspired.

Read the New Testament letters the same way you read Kings and Chronicles and you are going to come unstuck. Read the psalms the same way you read the book of Revelation, and likewise… You wouldn’t read a thriller the same way you read a car maintenance manual because, while they’re both books, that’s pretty much all you can say. And it’s no different with the books of the Bible.

I’ve used the Song of Songs as an extreme example of how fine Christian people can get, as I believe, into a muddle because they are determined to find certain things in a text, even though those certain things simply aren’t there. I may be wrong, that goes without saying. But once an interpreter starts forcing an unnatural meaning onto a text, I think we’re wise to be a bit suspicious.

Here’s a simpler example…

I can’t remember when I first really noticed Psalm 1, but I expect it was before I was twenty (I became a Christian at fifteen). It’s been a favourite ever since: short, easy to understand, and with that lovely picture of “the tree planted by streams of water” and “yielding its fruit in season”.

I was talking to a friend about it, and commented how glad I was that in the first line of the NIV Bible the “man” who walks in step with God has become the “one” who does so, thus allowing it to be a woman as well as a man. (The word “man”, after all, can mean “a member of the human race”, male or female, not a male as opposed to a female.)

But my friend was unconvinced. He felt that the word “man” should have been kept, “because, of course, it’s really about Jesus”.

At first I thought I hadn’t heard him right. I had been a Christian some sixty years, and I had always taken that little psalm at face value – as a pen-portrait of a “righteous” person. To be told that it was “really” about Jesus seemed well-nigh incredible.

The lesson learned? When we read the Bible, let’s read what is there – not what we think ought to be there, or what we would like to be there, or what some impressive preacher or teacher tells us is there. The natural interpretation is likely to be the right one.

Putting it another way… When we read the Bible, our business is to read out of it what’s there, not to read into it what isn’t.

Simple!

Father, I thank you that you that your word is often so beautifully simple and clear. But I have to confess that often I find it difficult to understand, and even obscure. Please help me to read it right, to find and make use of skilled teachers and interpreters, and so to live in the light of its truth day by day. Amen.

Sunday, 4 June 2023

Jesus' continuing work

Jesus said, “John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit… ” The two men dressed in white said, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven”. Acts 1:4-11

Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of the Father and is also interceding for us. Romans 8:34

Therefore Jesus is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Hebrews 7:25

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Ascension Day, remembering the extraordinary occasion when Jesus left his disciples and returned to his heavenly home to be with his Father (Acts 1:10-11).

Does that mean that his engagement with planet earth, and with the human race, was finished? You might think so, for from that day to this he has never again been seen on earth. But that would be a mistake, for the New Testament makes clear that he still had three great ministries to exercise.

 The first and most obvious was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the infant church in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), just ten days after the Ascension .

Realising how sad they were to know he would be leaving them, he reassured them: “But… it is for your good that I go away. Unless I go away, the advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…, and you will receive power” (John 16:6-7, Acts 1:8). That’s what I focussed on in that earlier blog, but I ran out of space, so today I want to return to the topic and to highlight the other two areas of ministry…

Second, there is his work of intercession.

In some ways this seems a slightly strange idea. After all, if God is our loving heavenly Father, and if he knows everything about us, what need is there of more prayer in heaven? Perhaps that’s one of those mysteries that it’s not for us to ask. (It’s interesting that in Romans 8:26 Paul attributes the same ministry to the Holy Spirit rather than to Christ, but then attributes it again to Christ in Romans 8:34! Clearly the three Persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – have not a scrap of rivalry between them, but work together in perfect harmony for all eternity.)

But the key point is that, though we cannot see him, Jesus hasn’t, so to speak, washed his hands of us. He remains our Saviour and our Friend. In partnership with the Father and the Holy Spirit, he continues to care for us and love us.

Is this a mystery some of us specially need to be reminded of today? Our problems are mountainous; God seems far off; our prayers seem to bounce of the ceiling… We feel discouraged, confused and, perhaps, simply afraid.

Well, let’s spend a few minutes reflecting on this strange but wonderful truth… in heaven Jesus constantly intercedes on our behalf.

So… The first ministry the ascended Christ performed was a one-off event: the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The second is ongoing: never-ending prayer for us. 

The third, of course, is another one-off event: his ultimate return in glory.

Those mysterious “two men dressed in white” (Acts 1:10-12) stated very clearly: “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven”.

If the truth concerning Jesus’ never-ending ministry of prayer for us is only sparsely mentioned in the New Testament, the truth concerning his eventual return in glory couldn’t be more different – it’s easy to find in the Gospels, Acts, the letters and, of course, the Book of Revelation. Jesus is coming back!

The state of our world may sometimes tempt us to despair – wars and rumours of wars; climate change; desperate people willing to risk their lives to find a new home; poverty and starvation; disease; and so we could go on. “Will it ever end?” we might ask.

A good question – and it has a clear answer. For when Jesus returns, all these horrors and miseries will be brought to an end, and the kingdom of God will at last be established “on earth as it is in heaven”, as Jesus taught us to pray.

So we mustn’t lose heart. Our duty as Christians is two-fold: first, to live in expectation of that day; and second, to live such Christlike lives that through our day-to-day presence a little aroma of heaven is spread wherever we go.

Live in the present; but look to the future!

Lord Jesus, thank you that after returning to heaven at the Ascension you poured out the power of the Holy Spirit upon the church. Thank you too that until you return at the end of time you will be praying for us as we seek to walk with you. Please help me to live in daily expectation of that momentous day. Amen.

Monday, 29 May 2023

The God who turns things round

I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me…

His anger lasts only a moment, but his favour lasts a lifetime; weeping may linger for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning…

You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy… Psalm 30:1,5,12

A very simple truth today: God is great at turning things round.

The Bible is full of this. The crisis of Israel during slavery in Egypt was turned around by the miracle of the Exodus. The tragedy of Judah led off to captivity in Babylon was turned around by the remarkable restoration under the pagan King Cyrus. And supremely, of course, the horror and sadness of the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus was turned around by the wonder of his resurrection.

God is great at turning things round.

This is true of big history-changing events – but also of the personal lives of individual believers in God. If you are a Cristian it’s very likely that you can look back in your life to times when you were pretty much in despair – all seemed lost – but God turned everything round and brought you through. And here you are today.

Psalm 30 is a great example of this. I have quoted just three verses out of  the 12, but of course the whole psalm needs to be read and digested in a prayerful spirit (don’t rush it!). The title added in our Bibles associates this Psalm with King David, and that’s quite possibly true. But it could also be by an anonymous writer (people who read Hebrew will tell you that the phrase “Of David” could also be translated “For David” or “About David”).

At face value it’s the prayer of a man who has been healed from serious illness – God has “lifted him out of the depths”, like a bucket drawn up from a deep well. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that God “brought me up from the realm of the dead”.

But what, to me, makes this psalm so memorable are two poetic phrases which in their different ways capture the sheer joy and exhilaration of God turning things round.

First, weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning (verse 5). Isn’t that beautiful?

As with many parts of the Bible, of course, it isn’t to be taken in a woodenly literal way – the Bible is full of poetic language, figures of speech, and so on. We all know very well that there are nights full of weeping – which are then followed by mornings which are… well, full of still more weeping. Even the night after Jesus’ crucifixion was followed by what must have been the bleakest, most wretched, most miserable Saturday anyone could imagine.

But the psalmist has latched on to a poetic phrase in order to convey a truth at the very heart of Christian faith: the future of every man or woman whose hope is in God is a future of pure, unadulterated joy and sheer exhilaration.

True, the “morning” in question may, ultimately, turn out to be the morning of final resurrection with Jesus. When that day comes the “night of weeping”, however long it lasted, will be nothing but a distant memory – and perhaps not even that.

Paul sums up this truth in 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all”. You may feel sceptical about that: “If Paul knew just half of what I’m going through he wouldn’t speak so glibly of ‘light and momentary troubles’!”. But, don’t worry, you only have to read Acts and Paul’s letters to see that, oh yes, he knew all about troubles and pains all right!

The second poetic phrase I find particularly beautiful is: You turned my wailing into dancing… (verse 11).

I must admit that dancing is something that has never remotely appealed to me. My wife and I recently went to the wedding anniversary celebrations of Christian friends. We were delighted to be invited – but slightly put off to learn that it was going to take the form of a “caeli”, which of course is a form of vigorous dancing in which everyone is expected to take part. Oh dear!

But we needn’t have worried. There was no coercion (perhaps being now old and decrepit helped) – and in fact it was a real pleasure to sit and watch. There was a wonderful innocence in those who danced; the great thing was that they were all smiling with sheer pleasure, as if to say, “Yes, we know we look a right bunch of ridiculous plonkers prancing about like this – but, who cares, we are happy”. Everyone – dancers and spectators alike – were smiling.

I find now that I remember that occasion every time I read about dancing in the Bible, especially in the Book of Psalms. Dancing figured in the worship of the people of Israel, and is a symbol of the joys that await all God’s people in heaven. All “wailing” will be ended, every tear dried, every sorrow healed (just take a few moments to soak up Revelation 21:1-4).

So, if anyone reading this feels presently in the depths of despair, I do hope and pray that reflecting on this little psalm will give you a real lift. I can only urge you to hold on to God if only through gritted teeth. The morning will break with rejoicing, and it may be far sooner than you can imagine. And ultimately your wailing will be turned into that wonderful, blithesome dance of heaven.

For… God is great at turning things round.

Loving Father, I feel desperately low at the moment, truly in the depths. I simply cannot see a way through my difficulties. Please help me to hold on to you, and bring me soon into the sunshine of your grace, knowing that even that is only a foretaste of the glorious dance of heaven. Amen.

Friday, 19 May 2023

You will receive power...

Then the disciples gathered around Jesus and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Acts 1:6-11

“So, did you mark Ascension Day in any way?”

“Pardon?”

“Ascension Day – it was last Thursday.”

“Fraid not – never really thought about it, to be honest. Tell me more.”

“Well, it’s the day, always a Thursday, when the church remembers how the risen Jesus returned to heaven. Why not have a look at Acts 1:1-11?”

That’s a made-up conversation, of course. But perhaps you can identify with it. Most Christians, one suspects, simply never notice Ascension Day, unless they happen to belong to a church which takes seriously matters of liturgy and the historic church calendar.

It falls on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, the day when Christians traditionally rejoice in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. And it’s ten days before Whit Sunday (28 May this year), when we remember the dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the newly-born church in Jerusalem.

It marks the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry… birth; circumcision; baptism; three or so years of teaching, preaching and miraculous deeds; crucifixion; resurrection – and all now crowned by ascension, a remarkable supernatural event when “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).

It marked the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, yes. But that doesn’t mean he had finished with this poor, groaning world. Far from it. He had still a threefold ministry to fulfil, each part of which is vitally important…

First, a one-off event: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

This is described in Acts 2, one of the Bible’s most dramatic, exciting and wonderful chapters, sometimes referred to as “the birthday of the church”.

Earlier in Acts 1 Jesus had given his disciples the promise: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you”. As if to say: So far you know only the water-baptism of John the Baptist, but “in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit”. And Acts 2 describes that spectacular baptism, linking it with the words of the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32).

It's been said that, regarding Pentecost, Christians fall into two distinct categories. That, I’m sure, is an over-simplification. But I think there’s truth in it.

There are those who take it almost too seriously (if indeed that’s possible). I heard of a preacher once who liked to say that Acts 2 was always the first part of his Bible to fall out – he preached on it so often. To me that suggested a lack of balance in Christian teaching. Certainly, Pentecost is a vital part of scripture – but more so than Good Friday? or Easter Sunday? or the Sermon on the Mount? or 1 Corinthians 13? or… well, where does one stop?

But on the other hand there are Christians who almost seem to run scared of Pentecost. Perhaps they are nervous about the possibility of various forms of excess that we associate (rightly or wrongly) with Pentecostalism or the charismatic renewal.

This is desperately sad, for while God never repeats himself - so there will never be another Acts 2 in any precise sense - is it not absolutely clear that a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the modern church’s greatest need? Where, today, is our power? Where is our cutting edge? Where is our evangelistic thrust? Personally I am no charismatic, but that doesn’t mean I have the slightest inhibitions about praying, “Oh God, baptise your church afresh in the Holy Spirit!” Whatever exact form the answer to that prayer might take, can it be anything but wonderful?

May that be our prayer, then - and may God answer it exactly as he sees fit, not according to our pre-conceived ideas!

And if I can direct an appeal to my fellow-preachers… Please, make sure to prepare a big, fat, meaty sermon on Acts 2 for Whit Sunday, May 28! – the transformation, the excitement, the wonderment, the refreshment, the sheer power!

I said earlier that Jesus’ ministry after his ascension was three-fold, but I find I’m running out of space with two still to go. The second is an on-going ministry: intercessory prayer. And the third is in fact not so much a ministry as a further one-off event: his final return in glory. But I’ll have to come back to them next time. Please join me!

Come, Holy Spirit, to cleanse and renew us;/ Purge us of evil and fill us with power;/ Thus shall the waters of healing flow through us;/ So may revival be born in this hour. Amen!   R D Browne

Tuesday, 16 May 2023

Worried about worrying?

Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:34

There are various wise and witty sayings that do the rounds and nobody really knows who first said them. Here’s one I particularly like, spoken supposedly by an old man approaching death: My life has been full of troubles. Most of them never happened. Was that Winston Churchill? Or Mark Twain? I’ve heard it attributed to both those illustrious men, but nobody seems to be sure.

Never mind. What matters is, Is there wisdom there that we ought to take to heart? Answer, Surely Yes.

I trust we all get the point… Many of our worries and anxieties exist purely in our minds. We would save ourselves a lot of time and inner peace if we could train ourselves to face them down and keep them firmly in their place.

That’s easier said than done, of course, especially if you are – for whatever reason – the worrying type. (I knew somebody very fondly once who just had to be worrying about something or other in order to be happy. We used to joke – only affectionately, of course – that if she had nothing to worry about she would worry about not having anything to worry about. Whereupon she would smile…)

But wait a minute… Are we right to say we don’t know who spoke those words? Never mind Churchill or Twain or whoever, what about… Jesus? What about Matthew 6:34? Certainly, the thought is framed in different words, but isn’t the thought pretty much the same?

Jesus wasn’t being original in this respect. Being himself a Jew, he was drawing on many centuries of Hebrew wisdom: go to Proverbs 12:25 or Ecclesiastes 2:22. Certainly, Jesus spelled it out most clearly, but he wasn’t the first to give this warning.

But… once again, wait a minute: a question of interpretation arises. In other words, what, in practice, does Jesus mean when he tells us not to worry? After all, when it threatens to dominate our minds, worry isn’t something we can idly swat away like an irritating fly; it’s more like a rampaging elephant threatening to overwhelm us.

We can do great harm and hurt if we glibly quote “Oh, Jesus said, Do not worry!” to somebody in the depths of fear or crisis or anxiety. Worry is an emotion, and you can’t just switch it off like turning off a tap; no, it needs to be confronted realistically and, with God’s help, to be dealt with. And that process may take time and effort, in the course of which we need the prayers, love and practical support of others.

I think there are at least two important things that need to be said as we try and think through Jesus’ words here.

First, “Do not worry” is not an order or a command. It is not in the same category as “Do not kill” or “Do not steal” or “Do not covet”. Putting it another way, to slip into worry may be a weakness, but it is not a sin. On the contrary, Jesus’ word is more like an invitation or a reassurance: as if he is saying, “My dear child, trust me! I have your interests at heart. I love you, and I will bring you through this testing time”.

A loving parent will say to a distressed child “Don’t cry!” and you could interpret that as an order: “Stop crying, or I will be cross with you!” But of course that isn’t what the parent means. “Don’t cry” is a word of comfort, as the tone of voice makes clear. It is all about love and care.

If – when – we give in to worry we are likely to feel bad, to feel that we are failing to trust God enough. And that may be true. But the word “Do not worry” is all tenderness and compassion. Whatever we do, let’s not hear it as hard, cold judgment.

Second, this word of Jesus is spoken in the context of everyday life, not in the context of crisis or extreme pain.

I have quoted just the last verse, verse 34, of what you might call a mini-sermon. If we go back to verse 25 we find that Jesus is talking about the basic necessities of life – food, drink and clothing. The same applies to verse 31.

Putting it another way, I don’t think Jesus would have said “Don’t worry, just trust in God!” if the people in front of him were literally starving to death. And in the same way, it would be grossly insensitive for us to urge people “Don’t worry, just trust in God!” at a time when, say, bombs were falling all around them, or a vital harvest had failed, or a diagnosis of terminal disease had been received.

I think that James, very probably the brother of Jesus, had something important to say about that (see his letter, chapter 2:14-17).

Of course, even at such traumatic times we are called to trust in God and not give in to worry. But we needn’t pretend, either to ourselves or to other people, that that is easy or automatic. Far from it: it may well be a battle we have to fight on a daily, even an hourly, basis. It’s a battle which may have to be fought through gritted teeth – but we may be sure that our loving heavenly Father will bring us through.

Loving Father, when worry rears its head I find it so hard to trust in you. Please forgive my weak faith, and please help me to hold on tight until the storm is over. Amen.

 

Wise words about worry…

Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength. C H Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Worry is interest paid on trouble before it falls due. William R Inge (1860-1854)

Beware of anxiety. Next to sin, there is nothing that so troubles the mind, strains the heart, distresses the soul and confuses the judgment. William Ullathorne (1806-1889)

Friday, 12 May 2023

Time for a rest?

Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30

Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest. Mark 6:31

Just reading these verses is enough to give you a lift – and how we need that, especially at the time we are living through at the moment in Britain.

The cost of living crisis… strikes, it seems, just about everywhere we look… covid officially over, but still lurking in the shadows… wars, violence, political instability and poverty in many parts of the world… sexual violence and confusion… floods and droughts… the possibility of roasting heat in the coming months… Yes, these are hard times – and yet we know that we are having it far easier than millions of our fellow human beings.

In many ways things were just as bad, probably far worse, in the days when Jesus walked this earth. Certainly, in the intervening twenty centuries, the human race has made massive material progress, for which we should be thankful, but… there is still that big “but”, isn’t there?

Yet he could utter these remarkable words, words which either belong in the world of total fantasy, a cruel too-good-to-be-true deception, or which are breath-takingly true. Let’s take them apart, and then make sure to put them back together again…

First, they are an invitation: “Come…”

Invitations imply interest, a welcome, warmth, love. They are the direct opposite of the experience of so many: rejection, the closed door. I picture a smiling Jesus standing and beckoning to anyone who will heed, rather like Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8-9.

Second, they are an invitation offered by a particular person: “Me…”

It may seem surprising that he doesn’t point people to God. That, surely, is what any other prophet or teacher might do; anyone who invites people to turn to “me” may be accused of staggering arrogance - or be possessed by some kind of religious mania - or, in fact, be God himself in human form. And that, of course, is exactly the claim Jesus made, and the claim that the church has been making for these twenty centuries. He is the key to the universe.

Third, they are an invitation to a particular type of person: “all you who are weary and burdened…”

Does that mean that Jesus isn’t concerned for the reasonably comfortable and successful? No, of course not; he welcomed anyone and everyone. But he had - and still has - a special heart for those for whom life is particularly hard.

The word “burdened” is striking. If we turn on to Matthew 23 we find Jesus criticising the religious leaders of his day. According to verse 3, his hearers should be obedient to “the teachers of the law and the Pharisees”, but they “should not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads (that’s the same word as “burdens”, in Matthew 11:28) and put them on other people’s shoulders…”.

It seems that Jesus isn’t talking only about the  “weariness” and “burdens” which come from the normal hardships of life – earning a living, bringing up a family, coping with stress or illness or difficult relationships, important though those of course are – but is referring also to what might be called “religious” burdens.

He invites his hearers to “take my yoke” on them, with the claim that it is “easy” and “light”, not crushing and demoralising. Jewish literature at the time referred to the Old Testament law as a yoke which they were privileged to carry – well yes, but oh, how heavy it could be!

But Jesus, the carpenter’s son who must have made many wooden yokes in his apprenticeship, offers a totally different kind of spiritual yoke – one that eases the troubles of life, not one that adds to them.

This raises a question for us Christians today: Is my “religion” just another burden I have to carry? Is my Christianity crushing me rather than supporting me? Is it all do-this-do-that-do-the-other?

Have I turned it into a big list of duties to be performed – must pray more… must read the Bible more… must volunteer for more at church… must give more financially… - to the point of sheer exhaustion?

That is never what Jesus intended, for his beautiful promise of “rest for your souls” isn’t only about heaven, be sure of that! It’s about now. Jesus wants us to enjoy our walk with him, not find it a wearisome slog. If that is what it has become, then it’s time to stop and take stock. Time to rest , to take a deep breath, to close your eyes, time to just be in the arms of God.

That may require change, if only for a time. It may require a slackening of the strings, and without feeling guilty. However impractical it might seem, is it time to do as Jesus suggests – to find a “quiet place and get some rest”?

Loving Father, I am sorry I have allowed my walk with you to become a treadmill. Please teach me to enjoy my relationship with Jesus, and to find refreshment every day. Amen.

Sunday, 7 May 2023

Our hands-on heavenly Father

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. Hosea 11:1

The Old Testament prophets are among the most difficult parts of the Bible to read.

Certainly, there are many wonderful passages. There is, for example, Isaiah 40:18-31, climaxing in that great promise, “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength”. There is Jeremiah 31:31-34, where God declares the promise of “a new covenant”, written on the minds and hearts of men and women, not just on stone. There is the rather weird, even slightly comical, vision of the “valley of the dry bones” in Ezekiel 37 – life born out of death. There is the prediction of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Joel 2:28-32, when “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. And plenty more besides.

But there is also a lot which is difficult and puzzling, not to say completely baffling.

One regular feature of the prophets is the way passages of comfort and hope are set cheek by jowl with passages of fierce anger and judgment – and it isn’t always easy to see why. The simplest explanation is that when the prophets’ words came to be edited into the books we now onknow, different “sermons” were copied onto the page without titles or gaps or other ways of making clear where one ends and another begins – it’s simply up to the reader to bring their own judgment to bear. (We must remember that the Bible was humanly written as well as divinely inspired.)

Whatever… Hosea 11 is just such a puzzling passage. I encourage you to read it right through (it’s only 12 verses).

Verses 1-4 introduce one of the Bible’s greatest themes – the loving fatherhood of God: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”. It was in the captivity in Egypt, described in the book of Exodus, that God moulded a rabble of slaves into what would become his holy people.

True, the pull of paganism remained too strong for them (verse 2): “But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the baals and they burnt incense to images”. But this only confirmed God’s tender love for them.

Anyone who has ever taken a small child by the hands, bending down gently to lead them (ouch, my back!); anyone who has ever lifted that child up for a kiss; anyone who has spooned food into a child’s mouth (yuk!) will be able to identify with the words of verses 3-4. This is hands-on fatherhood! And this is God!

We are sometimes told that we need to be sensitive in using God’s fatherhood to try and make him real to non-Christian friends – their experience of their own father may be full of pain and bitterness. I’m sure that’s a warning we need to heed. But the fact remains that the tender love of God is there for all time and for all people, and we can pray that, given time, they will find in God – the almighty God, the creator of the universe! – the father they never knew.

That theme of tenderness recurs in verses 8-11: “How can I give you up, Ephraim (that is, in effect, another name for Israel), how can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim? My heart is changed within me, all my compassion is aroused…” (verse 8).

Never mind who Admah and Zeboyim are (you can look them up, if you like, in a Bible dictionary; you won’t find much). The thing to notice is the sheer emotion of God; he is virtually pleading with his wayward people; I don’t think I’m being sentimental in saying that you can almost see the tears in his eyes – oh, the agony of the parent whose child has lost their way! That’s an agony God himself knows.

Theological scholars tell us that God is unchanging and unchangeable (“immutable” is the technical word); it’s not correct doctrine to speak of him having emotions. Well, perhaps in some ultimate sense they’re right. But Hosea 11:8 isn’t going to go away; it’s right there in God’s word, and always will be. And why is it there? For our comfort! – why else? The very thought of casting off his children breaks God’s heart.

And so it continues in verses 9-11. God promises not to “carry out my fierce anger” after all. But then, as if to guard against the danger of being seen purely as a kindly, cuddly father, he gives the people the bracing reminder that “I am God, and not a man – the Holy One among you”. As if to say: “By all means, enjoy basking in my tender love – but no lapsing into sentimentality, please!” He even, rather frighteningly, compares himself to a lion (verses 10-11), but even that is good news: his children may come “trembling like sparrows” – but at least they will come, to be “settled in their homes”.

So… A chapter of good news. But how then do verses 5-7 and 12 fit in?

If nothing else, they reinforce that reminder that we are not to sentimentalise God: the tender, loving Father is also a God of judgment and wrath. Not until the end of all things will we see clearly how those two strands are reconciled.

But what we can take deep comfort from is that, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to address God as “Our Father…”

Have you ever stopped to reflect on what an extraordinarily wonderful thing that is? Why not do so now?

Dear Lord God, please help me to live my life day by day in the clear faith that you love me with a perfect, holy, tender and fatherly love. Amen.