Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Is your religion a blessing or a burden?

Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low; their idols are borne by beasts of burden. The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary. They stoop and bow down together; unable to rescue the burden, they themselves go off into captivity.

Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob, all the remnant of the people of Israel, you whom I have upheld since your birth, and have carried since you were born. Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. Isaiah 46:1-4

Jesus said, My yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:30

Some years ago I witnessed a noisy religious celebration in the centre of Kathmandu in Nepal. A pillar a bit like a smaller Nelson’s Column was being carried through the centre of the city amid great excitement. It looked rather wobbly, and I feared that it might topple over and fall on the worshippers below. But that didn’t happen, and everybody seemed very excited. I didn’t find out for sure, but I think the pillar represented one of the Hindu gods.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us that “there is nothing new under the sun”. And that is certainly borne out when we read these graphic words from Isaiah 46.

The prophet is foretelling a day when the powerful Babylonians will be brought to nothing by God. He pictures their gods Bel and Nebo (their names are reflected in kings such as Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar) being carried off on pack animals, presumably strapped on their sides. They are burdens that have to be carried, though not now to a place of worship, as would usually be the case, but into captivity.

Isaiah then goes on to compare the one true God with Bel and Nebo. They are gods that have to be carted around like so much luggage, he says, but Jehovah God is a God who carries you. “I have carried you since you were born… I have made you and I will carry you…”

God here is addressing the nation of Judah as a whole, but he puts it in personal, even tender, terms, for what is true of the nation is true also of individuals: God watches over his people “since your birth”, into adulthood, and then “even to your old age and grey hairs I am he… who will sustain you”.

(Let that, by the way, be a comfort and a blessing to those of us who are feeling the weight of the years! You’re never too old to be loved by God – or to be used by him, come to that. God is as tender as the most perfect mother or father.)

Isaiah’s picture raises a challenging question: Is my religion a burden to me rather than a blessing? (Notice that that word “burden” crops up four times in the first two verses.)

We may be inclined to look down on the worshippers of Babylon as their gods go bumping up and down on the backs of asses or donkeys. We may be inclined (I admit I was) to look down on those Hindus in Nepal as that pillar was hauled through their streets.

But wait a minute – let’s be very careful. We may pay lip service to the belief that our God tenderly cares for us; but is that something that we know and feel in everyday experience? Do we really have that kind of relationship with him?

Earlier I referred to our religion, a word I dislike and do my best to avoid. But there are times when there is no alternative. And there are times when “practicing our religion” (another expression that makes me squirm) can seem terribly burdensome, a weight that we are carrying rather than an inner energy that makes us soar.

The devil whispers in our ear… Have you prayed enough? - as if prayer is nothing but a duty. Do you really have to go to that church meeting later this week? Must you agree to serve on that boring rota? Do you really have to go on being patient with that tiresome person? Can you afford to maintain your financial support for the church or that missionary organization? Isn’t being a Christian really an awful lot of hard work?

Of dear – it all seems so… well, burdensome. We might very well borrow the words of the great hymn-writer William Cowper: Where is the blessedness I knew/ When first I saw the Lord? / Where is the soul-refreshing view/ Of Jesus and his word? Where, indeed!

Let’s have no pretending that this is easy! Following Jesus does involve various duties and responsibilities. And the flame of our faith can burn low and God can sometimes seem far off.

The key is to keep firmly in our minds that precious word relationship. We are children of God, tenderly loved by him. We are followers of Jesus his Son who “walks with us and talks with us along life’s narrow way”.

There may be times to give ourselves a rest from responsibilities which are grinding us down – and that may even include a rest from our normal discipline of prayer or service. God loves to be surrounded by happy children, not miserable, clapped-out servants.

Yes, following Jesus does entail burdens we must carry – that much is clear from Matthew 11:30. But let’s never forget his promise in that verse: his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Is it time you prayed, very simply…?

Lord God, I’m thankful that you’re not a God who needs to be carried. Please help me to rest now and let myself be carried by you. Amen.

Friday, 5 August 2022

Weasel words - and true feelings

At that time Marduk-Baladan son of Baladan king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and a gift, because he had heard of his illness and recovery. Hezekiah received the envoys gladly and showed them what was in his storehouses—the silver, the gold, the spices, the fine olive oil—his entire armoury and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them.

Then Isaiah the prophet went to King Hezekiah and asked, “What did those men say, and where did they come from?” “From a distant land,” Hezekiah replied. “They came to me from Babylon.” The prophet asked, “What did they see in your palace?” “They saw everything in my palace,” Hezekiah said. “There is nothing among my treasures that I did not show them.”

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord Almighty: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

“The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.” Isaiah 39

We had some friends whose front door-mat bore a message. It wasn’t Welcome to our home! or Home, sweet home or anything schmaltzy like that. It was Oh no, not you again.

They were in fact a lovely family and very welcoming, so we enjoyed their joke. But it did raise a serious point…

Do you ever say one thing while thinking something completely different? Perhaps I greet my neighbour Harry with a sunny smile and a friendly “How are you?”, but inside I’m thinking, “But Harry is such a crashing bore! Do I really have to be nice to him?” Does that mean I’m a hypocrite?

When I first started reading the Bible seriously Hezekiah became one of my earliest Bible heroes: a good and righteous king under whom Judah prospered. But Isaiah 39 tells a story about him and the prophet Isaiah - and when I discovered it I felt a real sense of let-down. (You can read his story in 2 Kings 18-20 or 2 Chronicles 29-32.)

Put briefly, Hezekiah has been careless and really pretty stupid in allowing a delegation from Babylon to have a thorough look around his kingdom. When Isaiah learns about this, he comes along and gives him a ticking off. In verses 5-7 he tells him in no uncertain terms that the day will come when Judah will suffer for this.

For me, reading about Hezekiah’s folly was bad enough. But the real killer verse was his response to Isaiah’s rebuke (verse 8). He sounds very “spiritual”, even devout: “The word of the Lord you have spoken is good”. But the writer goes on to tell us what he was really thinking: “There will be peace and security in my lifetime”. In other words, “I’m all right, Jack”, or, in the words (of some French king?), “Apr├Ęs moi le deluge”.

My hero suddenly seemed diminished, just ordinary rather than special.

(Mind you, perhaps I learned an important lesson that day: of course, by all means respect, admire, indeed love people who have truly blessed you; but don’t be shocked if/when the day comes that they let you down! Only Christ will never do that. Even the finest and most admirable Christians will, at some point, turn out to have feet of clay.)

I asked earlier the question: does saying one thing and thinking another make you a hypocrite?

Very often, no doubt, it does, if we are deliberately play-acting in order to deceive others or to vaunt ourselves.

But we need to be careful; a lot may depend on motivation.

Go back to Harry. True, he may not be the easiest person to have an interesting conversation with, so it may be a real effort of will to greet him and give him a few minutes of my amazingly precious time. But… if I truly want to be kind and friendly – if I genuinely want to be a kind and friendly person in my overall character – then taking the trouble to act that way may be the best way of learning to actually be kind and friendly. (I think that makes sense!)

In life in general, many of the things we force ourselves to do because we honestly want to become better people are hard work when we start out, but become second nature with practice. That applies to kindness, honesty, generosity, also to courage, humility, patience and good humour. The person who regularly loses his temper and shrugs it off with, “Well, sorry, but that’s just the way I am”, needs to start accepting responsibility – even if that means doing a bit of “acting”.

Of course, only God can judge Hezekiah for his behaviour that day. But surely he would have done better to look Isaiah in the face and say, “Yes, I am sorry! I was stupid in what I did. But those Babylonians were so friendly! and the message from King Marduk-Baladan was so sympathetic about my illness! And he sent a gift too! But I know that I have no excuse. Please pray, Isaiah, that what you have predicted won’t happen…” Wouldn’t that have been better than a mealy-mouthed pious-sounding platitude?

I write knowing that I have no right to judge Hezekiah. When you reach your seventies, as I have, it’s very easy to look at the world’s sorrows – wars and rumours of wars, rampant wickedness, immorality and corruption, widespread disease, floods and fires, poverty, persecution, you name it – and think, “Oh well, I’ve not had it so bad, and I’ll be dead soon and with the Lord, so all that’s no real concern of mine”.

Wrong! It is still a concern of mine. Until the day I die I am called to be active in the service of God. True, I may not live to see the grim things of twenty or thirty years hence, but does that mean I shouldn’t care any more?

Oh, and another thing occurs to me. Could it be that in fact boring old Harry has far more to teach me than I have to teach him?

Father, please protect me from the sin of hypocritical play-acting. But help me too to cultivate habits of holiness by self-willed, Spirit-led and cheerful discipline. Amen.

Monday, 1 August 2022

A man, an angel, and a new destiny

The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The Lord answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.” Judges 6:11-16

There are times when reading the Bible makes me smile – even when I’m not quite sure it’s meant to be funny. Here’s a case in point…

Israel is in deep trouble at the hand of the powerful Midianites. And here is Gideon, a man of no importance, pathetically trying to thresh out wheat, not in an open space where the wind can carry the chaff away, but in a winepress, would you believe, “to keep it from the Midianites”.

While he is doing this he notices a man - who turns out to be “the angel of the Lord” or simply “the Lord” - sitting watching. The stranger starts a conversation: not “Yes, these are bad days, aren’t they, Gideon?” or “You’ve got quite a job on your hands, haven’t you?” or even “Can I give you a hand?”, but “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior”.

Gideon may have thought that there was something slightly mad about this man, that he could say such an odd thing: that “God is with him”! that he is a “mighty warrior”! But he somehow senses that he needs to take him seriously.

So twice he questions these strange statements: “Pardon me, Lord…” (more polite than “Do me a favour, will you!” or “You must be joking!”). And back comes the answer: “I will be with you, and you will strike down the Midianites…”

The rest, as they say, is history, and you can follow up the story in Judges 6-8 to see how the angel’s words came true.

There are several lessons we can learn from this story. Let me pick out three, and then finish with a question.

First, God can turn things round.

Israel’s fortunes were about as low as they could possibly be. Many people must have been tempted to despair. And yet, what the angel predicted did in fact happen.

This is a recurring theme in Judges, a book which records the dark ages of God’s people; repeatedly we read that they fell away from the Lord, then cried out to him in prayer, and then received a deliverer such as Gideon.

As you read this, are you perhaps on the brink of despair? It may be to do with your personal circumstances, or to do with the sorry state of our world – or anywhere in between. But things look grim.

Well, the Gideon story holds out the message: dear child, hold on! Trust in God even through gritted teeth; after all we never know what infinite resources he has up his sleeve. He is a God of hope, and will, sooner or later, make all things right.

Second, God uses the most unlikely means.

Gideon was a nobody: yet God chose him. That really says it all.

This is often his method. Moses was a murderer, yet God made him  Israel’s hero and law-giver… David was a shepherd boy at the tail end of a queue of brothers, also a killer and an adulterer, yet God made him Israel’s greatest king… Mary was an unknown country girl, yet God made her the mother of Jesus… The original twelve apostles, several of them fishermen, were “unschooled, ordinary men” (Acts 4:13), yet God used them to “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

Fact: God loves to take and use those the world despises.

And why shouldn’t that include you and me? The great thing is that God sees not just what we are, but what we can be and what we might be. Even, dare I say it, what we should be… And the key promise is the wonderful, simple words: “I will be with you” (verse 16). If we know that, do we need to know any more?

Third, God is wonderfully patient.

Reading on through Judges 6 we find that on two occasions God props up Gideon’s faltering faith by sending him spectacular signs. It reminds us of the experience of Moses in Exodus 4, when he stretches God’s patience to the very limit – even to the point where “God’s anger burned against him” - yet is still used by God.

We need to be careful here, for Jesus expressly condemns people who “ask for a sign”: they are “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39). But the examples of Gideon and Moses remind us that as long as our hearts are humble and sincere we need not fear to press God a little. Remember Job.

Finally, the question: Is it possible that you and I are limiting God by failing to respond in faith to his call? Like Gideon, we have got used to our humdrum lives and simply never imagine that he has something else in store for us.

Not, of course, that there is anything wrong with living a humdrum life, so long as we live it in the power of the Holy Spirit and for the glory of God. But, well, just wondering…

God said, in effect, to Gideon: “You see what you are, but I see what you can be”. Is he saying a similar thing to you today?

Father, I recognise that in the world’s eyes I am, like Gideon, little more than a non-entity. But I glory in the fact that you love me as your child and that you can make me an instrument for your use. And I glory too that the day will come when, by your grace, I will be all that you intend for me to be. Thank you! Amen.

Friday, 29 July 2022

What about our unbelieving loved ones?

 

Jesus 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. 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 in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Matthew 7:21-23

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 3:9

After preaching recently I was told that somebody had been upset by something I said. This, in my experience, doesn’t happen often (though possibly people are just too polite to say). But when it does it bothers me. Perhaps what I said was wrong? Perhaps what I said was right, but said in the wrong way? Perhaps I just hadn’t made my meaning clear, and caused misunderstanding and hurt? Oh dear.

I had been speaking about the story of “the wise and foolish bridesmaids” (Matthew 25:1-13), where Jesus (the “bridegroom” obviously stands for him) warns us to be ready for his return because the opportunity to respond to God’s love will not last for ever. In the story, the bridegroom delays his coming for a long time, but after he does come “the door was shut”, leaving the foolish bridesmaids - their torches unlit and with no oil to re-light them – outside and in the dark. It’s a story about exclusion.

I didn’t harp on this part of the story (at least, I hope I didn’t). But it’s there – indeed, it’s central to the story - and it would have been dishonest to gloss over it. The lady who was upset was thinking about her husband, an unbeliever, and was - understandably - fearful for “the door being shut” on him.

It was hard to know what to say. Surely every Christian has people in their circle of family, loved ones and friends who don’t believe in Jesus, and we find the thought of them being excluded from God’s  eternal kingdom painful. But we don’t have the right to airbrush this aspect of the truth out of our understanding of the gospel.

The fact is that the Bible often leaves us to juggle uncomfortably with statements that seem at odds with one another. There are, for example, many passages as well as Matthew 25 which render “universalism” - the belief that in the end everyone will be saved - impossible. Jesus certainly didn’t teach it, as we know from his solemn warnings about the day when “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (eg, Matthew 13:42, 50).

But then along comes his first apostle, Peter, who tells us that God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Paul says something very similar: God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Some Christians try to wriggle out of the plain meaning of such verses, but they are far better taken at face value.

Putting comforting verses like those side by side with Matthew 7:23 or the story of the ten bridesmaids doesn’t create a contradiction. But it can be difficult to reconcile (a) a God who excludes certain people from his kingdom, and yet (b) wants everyone to be included. Does this mean that human free will can ultimately thwart the will of God? It’s hard to avoid that conclusion - that God in his extraordinary humility takes our freedom with such deadly seriousness as to allow his purposes to be defeated. (Will he too be weeping on that day…?)

My response to the lady who was upset was twofold.

First, that she should persevere in prayer for her husband – that, I’m sure, went without saying.

There are many stories in Christian history of conversions that took place years after a loved one had been persistently praying for them. The conversion of Augustine (354-430), the north African teacher and bishop, is a well-known example. His devout mother, Monica, who died in 387, never gave up in praying for her wayward son. (Her husband, too, was converted on his death-bed, so she lived to see the conversions of both husband and son.) Never give up hope!

Second, that she should trust in the perfect justice of God, however hard it might seem. In Jesus’ story it could seem as if the bridegroom rejects the foolish bridesmaids. “Rejects” sounds harsh. But perhaps it is too strong a word. Certainly, they are excluded; but it would be more accurate to say that they are self-excluded by their own carelessness. They were, after all, invited to the wedding banquet, and, indeed, given an important role to play in it.

The message of the story, then, is that God is just too serious to be taken lightly. But whatever happens to our unbelieving loved ones, we can be sure it will be right and good, for God is a just, holy and loving God. And we will see it in that light, for our own understanding will be perfected, and our perceptions will be like those of God himself.

Lord God, as I think of the people I love who do not know you, I cannot help but feel unhappy. Please help me to see them through your eyes, and to find comfort in your perfect justice and your unbounded love. Amen.

Friday, 22 July 2022

Stayed on God?

You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Isaiah 26:3

I have reached that stage in life where sometimes it seems you remember things from fifty years ago better than from six months ago. Here’s a case in point. In Sunday School we sang a chorus which I remember (KJV, of course) as “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee”.

I don’t know when I discovered that this was a verse straight out of Isaiah 26, but even as I write, the tune is still running through my head (isn’t the brain an amazing thing?). The Thee’s and Thou’s have gone in the NIV, of course, as have the capitals for God and the masculine pronouns - which is fine by me, because the more modern translations capture the sense very well: there is a promise of “perfect peace” for the person with a mind “steadfastly trusting” in God.

The chapter as a whole is full of trust in God – indeed, it is one of the rare places in the Old Testament which holds out a hope of bodily resurrection (verse 19). So it’s worth dwelling on as a whole. But the promise of verse 3 is specially beautiful.

Mind you, it raises the question: what does it mean in practice to have “a mind stayed on God”?

That question used to trouble me because, perhaps like most of us, my mind rarely “stays” on anything for much longer than five minutes flat. There are just so many distractions!... how is the cricket going?... that phone call I’ve been meaning to make… that book I’m halfway through… the war in Ukraine… that music blaring from next door… If ever anybody had a butterfly mind, that person is me.

Going back again to my early years, there was a thing called a “quiet time”, a period each day when we were encouraged to switch off from all “worldly” activities and focus on God, and prayer, and the Bible. A great idea – and one I have been happy to try and maintain throughout my life.

But easier said than done, even in those quieter days! What if you didn’t have a physical space which was yours alone? What if you were the only member of your family who was a Christian? What if…? oh, a million other factors!

It’s easier to say what a mind stayed on God isn’t rather than what it is. It isn’t a 100 percent focus on God 24/7 (to use today’s jargon). That just isn’t a practical possibility, with life to be lived and multiple things to be grappled with. And God doesn’t expect it of us. (After all, you don’t stop being a Christian when you’re asleep, do you?)

I read a story from the days when monasticism was regarded as the highest form of Christian spirituality. An eager young man, his eyes aglow, approached the head of a monastery and declared his intention of joining his order and spending every minute of the rest of his life doing nothing but praying and meditating. To which the wise old man replied “Well, that’s wonderful. But then whose feet will you wash?”

Bringing it more down to earth for us… If the day comes when I’m lying on an operating table, I would be very happy to learn that the surgeon rummaging around in my innards is a Spirit-filled Christian; but I’m not sure I want her focussing consciously on God while she’s on the job, thanks very much. Or that the person driving the bus I’m on is a strong member of a local church – but I don’t really want him meditating too deeply on Sunday morning’s sermon when he’s supposed to be thinking about the next set of traffic-lights.

That kind of non-stop focus on God can wait until we are in his immediate presence in heaven – when it will be pure joy and no effort.

For us in the here and now it’s more about a cast of mind, a basic God-centred mentality, what Jesus called a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). It’s a “mind-set” which we begin to grow and develop from the day of our conversion, and which we go on growing right until the day we see him face to face (1 John 3:2).

Which means… We can have a mind stayed on God while we’re hurrying around the supermarket, or changing the baby’s nappy, or making love to our husband/wife, or enjoying a football match, or sitting through a tedious meeting. (Or, of course, “washing somebody’s feet”.)

The whole of life is sacred, soaked in Christ, even though we may not be consciously thinking of him. While of course it’s good to turn and focus specially on him when we can, a mind stayed on Christ is not something we switch on at particular moments or for particular events.

No, it’s a matter of my very personality, the very essence of what and who I am, simply what makes me me. Far from perfect now, of course; but one day to be perfected.

I’m pretty sure that’s what Isaiah meant, aren’t you?

Father, please grant me grace to develop daily a mind which is stayed on you, until that day comes when I shall see Jesus as he is. Amen.

Wednesday, 20 July 2022

Calling all worms!

I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. Psalm 22:6

I think it was the poet Philip Larkin who joked (I hope it was a joke, anyway) “I don’t have enemies – I just have friends who don’t like me”. Ha very ha.

I thought of that bit of self-mocking humour when we received an on-line message from someone we used to know. An open message to all his friends, it consisted of just six words: “It’s OK – I hate me too”. Again, ha very ha – except that this time I fear it wasn’t a joke…

Plenty of people rallied round with messages of reassurance that his friends did in fact love him, and I hope that brought him comfort. But, if you allowed those six words to sink in, you realised how truly painful they were. What must it be like to reach such a pit of bitter depression and self-loathing?

We are living at a time when more and more people seem to be suffering with “mental health issues”, including “low self-esteem”. Some of us find that hard to understand – our problem, if anything, is precisely the opposite, excessively high self-esteem, which, of course, we don’t see as a problem at all because we’re just too full of our wonderful selves.

The person who wrote Psalm 22, traditionally regarded as David, had that problem: “I am a worm and not a man…” he miserably, wretchedly declares, convinced that he is rejected by both God and his fellow human beings. (No wonder that it was the opening words of this psalm that Jesus took on his lips as he was dying on the cross.)

There is a strand of Christianity which tends to emphasise our sinfulness, even after we have come to true faith in Jesus. I think of it as a kind of grovelling Christianity, which seems determined to “beat yourself up”.

It’s at odds with another strand – one that emphasises the great truth that by faith in Jesus we become God’s precious children, born again to a holy and victorious new life.

This strand is well reflected in 1 Peter 2:9-10: Peter tells his readers that “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession… Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy”. Great, great truths! But is there a danger that they can be taken in such a way as to lead to over-confidence, even arrogance?

I wonder if you see yourself in either of those characterisations? – the wormlike nonentity? or the smug triumphalist? The truth about what it means to be a Christian lies, surely, somewhere right in the centre.

The great reformer Martin Luther had a phrase for it. A deeply religious man in his early years, he had an agonising sense of his own sinfulness, so intense as to lead him to enter the monastic life. But once he had discovered the great truth that we are “justified” – that is, put right with God - purely by God’s grace through faith in Christ, everything changed. It was the most wonderful discovery of his life, and it eventually changed not just him but history, as it was essentially the simple truth that kick-started the protestant reformation.

But… Luther didn’t lose his sense of being sinful. The phrase he came up with to describe his new state was, to use his own Latin, simul justus et peccator, which translates as “at one and the same time both justified and also a sinner”. Packed into those four words is a simple testimony: “Yes, I am indeed a sinner – but now I am a saved sinner, saved through the price Jesus paid for us by his death on the cross”.

In the Bible it was the apostle Paul who did most to open up and explain this truth, in passages such as Romans 3. But Jesus, who loved to tell stories, brought it vividly to life in his “parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector” (Luke 18:9-14).

The Pharisee is a man who looks in the mirror and is mightily impressed by the person he sees: “… not like other people - robbers, evil-doers, adulterers – or even like this tax-collector” (you can almost see his lip curling in contempt, can’t you?). The tax-collector, on the other hand, as wormlike as the man in Psalm 22, has no prayer to offer but “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.

And what does Jesus say? “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God”. Could you wish for a clearer illustration of simul justus et peccator?

My wife and I tried to convey this truth – as unpreachily as possible, of course - to our friend who wrote that sad, self-hating message. We haven’t hear back from him. All we can do is pray that seed sown will bear fruit in helping him to find the love of God. The great miracle is that God knows the very worst about us – yet still he loves us.

Perhaps, if this truth has changed your life as well, you might join us in praying for our friend. Thank you.

Father, thank you that in your sight I am “clothed in the righteousness of Christ”. Help me to live day by day in the light of this truth. Amen.

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

We'll understand it better bye and bye

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” John 13:2-7

Of the four Gospels, only John tells us about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.

We shouldn’t let our familiarity with this story blunt a sense of wonder – by doing this Jesus wasn’t just giving a lesson in humility; he was saying something truly breathtaking about the very nature of God. Short of the cross itself, where else might we see such a vivid demonstration of the sheer, tender love of God? - Jesus on his knees; Jesus wrapped in a towel; Jesus with a bowl of water; Jesus taking the part of the lowliest, most menial slave – Christian, here is your God!

No wonder Simon Peter protested: this was – well, it was just all wrong. “Lord, there’s no way you can wash my feet! I won’t allow it!” “No?” says Jesus; “well, in that case I’m afraid you can have nothing to do with me”. Whereupon Peter changes his mind…

That’s the essence of the story. But there’s a detail that perhaps we tend to gloss over, but which is worth reflecting on because it applies not only to that one particular event just before the crucifixion, but to all sorts of events in the life of any and every Christian, including you and me. Jesus said to Peter, “You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand”.

Later you will understand… That, surely, is a beautiful promise to every person who is serious about following Jesus; something to give us comfort and hope.

Peter just couldn’t understand what Jesus was doing that day. And in the same way, there are times when we simply can’t see what God is up to in our lives. “Why, Lord?” we cry; “I just don’t get it!”

It may be a serious disappointment. We really had thought God was shepherding us in a particular direction, perhaps work-wise or marriage-wise. And then it all falls apart and life seems to have lost its zest and meaning.

It may be illness or even tragedy. Something happens that we won’t “get over in time”, but which will change life permanently, leaving us to make a massive and painful adjustment, possibly tempting us to bitterness and self-pity.

It may be something completely random, out of the blue, something for which we weren’t responsible and over which we have no control. And, very understandably we cry, “Why me, Lord?” (It’s hard not to think about the ordinary people of Ukraine at the moment…)

As we survey the sadnesses and mysteries of our lives we might very well shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well, that’s life!” And we would be right: that is life.

But this is where trust in a loving God makes all the difference – the difference between resignation and acceptance.

Resignation is essentially negative: “Oh well, that’s life, I suppose – there’s no understanding it, and nothing I can do about it, so I’ll just try to put up with it”. But acceptance is positive: “True, that’s life. And no, I don’t understand it, and I’m not pretending I like it, because I don’t. But if the God I believe in – the God made known to us supremely in Jesus - really is my loving heavenly Father, then I will cling to him by my very finger-nails and cry out to him even if through gritted teeth”. Spot the difference?

The great Bible example, of course, is Joseph, son of Jacob (Genesis 37-50).

He is hated by his older brothers. True, you could say that some of his troubles he brought on himself, but he certainly paid a big price for it. His brothers plan to kill him, and end up selling him into slavery in Egypt.

He becomes a servant of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him, and when he resists her she tells Potiphar lies about him. Result: he lands in prison.

Here he meets two more of Pharaoh’s servants, his baker and his cupbearer, and becomes friendly with them. On the cupbearer’s release he pleads with him to mention him to Pharaoh; but “the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him” and left him to rot in prison for two more years.

Then comes the big turnaround. Joseph has the gift of interpreting dreams, and when Pharaoh is troubled by dreams the cupbearer at last remembers him and tells Pharaoh about him. The result this time: he is appointed to be second only to Pharaoh in the whole of Egypt. Rags to riches indeed.

Joseph probably thought he would never see his brothers again. But he does: in time of famine they come to Egypt begging for food, and Joseph is the official they find themselves dealing with. He recognises them, but they don’t him.

The climax of the story comes in chapter 45, when Joseph, weeping, makes himself known to them. And he does so with these wonderful words: “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…” (verse 5).

How often had Joseph, in his earlier misery, asked that big question: Why, Lord?

We don’t know. But what we do know is that the great word of Jesus to Simon Peter came true for him: “Later you will understand”.

And so will we!

Father, thank you that in your purposes all things really do work for the good of those who love you. Please help me to hold on to that through thick and thin. Amen.