Wednesday, 20 November 2019

How simple is the Bible?

His (Paul’s) letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other scriptures, to their own destruction. 2 Peter 3:16

Boy, how glad I am that this verse is in the Bible!

Here is Simon the fisherman, no less - the man to whom Jesus said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”, the man who preached the first “Christian” sermon on the Day of Pentecost - and he’s frankly admitting that there are things in the letters of Paul that are “hard to understand”.

What’s so wonderful about that?

Well, for one thing, we know that Peter and Paul didn’t always see eye to eye - and that’s putting it mildly. More bluntly, there was a major bust-up between the two of them one memorable day in Antioch, as Galatians 2:11-14 makes clear. So seeing Peter describe Paul as “our dear brother”, and seeing the high regard he has for Paul’s God-given wisdom (verse 15), is very encouraging for times when we, sadly, fall out with fellow-Christians. Always hope for reconciliation!

But I like this little verse is for other reasons too.

First, it reassures me when I am unable to understand the Bible.

I first began reading the Bible for serious study over fifty years ago, but I have to admit that there are passages - many passages, and not just in Paul - that I still struggle to understand. That’s just a fact, and it would be dishonest of me to try to hide it, either from myself or from other people.

But if sometimes it threatens to get me down a little, I can think to myself “Well, even Simon Peter had the same problem!” That makes me feel a lot better.

The fact is that the Bible is not a simple book. True, there are many wonderful passages which yield up their meaning without any difficulty, and we can nourish our faith by feeding on them. But there are plenty of the other sort as well, so we might as well get used to the fact.

The written Word of God is at the heart of our faith as Christians; but I’m so glad that supremely we rest upon the living Word, Jesus himself.

Second, it keeps me humble.

When you’ve been reading the Bible for a long time there can be a danger of thinking that you’ve got it all sewn up - every i dotted, every t crossed. Yes, there may be different interpretations of various passages, but of course my interpretation is the right one; and of course the denomination, movement or school of thought I belong to is the one that has basically got it right.

So I tend to look down my nose at those poor saps who have been deluded into thinking something different - certainly, I don’t doubt their sincerity, but I’m afraid they aren’t really “sound” and you have to be careful of them.

In a word, it’s easy to become a bit smug, a bit arrogant.

Don’t get me wrong. Truth matters. To handle the Bible correctly is vital. And error is something we always need to look out for. But humility demands that we always allow that little inner voice to speak: “Of course, it could be you that’s wrong, you know...” I personally feel this particularly when I come across truly Christlike Christians who, I discover, see things very differently from me. Jesus said “By their fruit you shall know them”, after all (Matthew 7:16) - not by their perfect doctrine.

Third, it warns me about the danger of being deceived.

It’s striking that Peter, having mentioned these “hard to understand” parts of scripture, goes on to say that “ignorant and unstable people” may “distort” them.

I said a moment ago that we need to be careful about looking down our noses at people who may take a different view. Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people around who need to be treated with serious concern.

It’s a troubling fact that anyone who feels like it can set up a “church”, or, within another church, can bring their influence to bear on people who know even less than they do. They may have no training, or credentials, or wider recognition, and no overall grasp of biblical truth, but they do have a winning personality, a certain way with words - and bucketfuls of self-confidence. Result: people eager for teaching, and perhaps deeply impressionable through hard experiences, get well and truly suckered.

Peter says such teachers “distort” the scriptures, and that is a key thing to look out for. A Bible verse quoted totally out of context... a passage twisted to yield a meaning which just isn’t there... a promise offered or a claim made that go beyond scripture... a display of total certainty on matters which the cream of the church have been puzzling over for two thousand years... these are the things that can lead people astray.

Shakespeare wrote that “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” - and he wasn’t wrong! (You can see him doing precisely that by turning to Matthew 4:1-11.)

So thank you, Peter, for your honesty and humility - may it help me always to hold fast to Christ, and to be faithful to God’s word!

Amen!

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Something to shout about

Hallelujah! Revelation 19:1

If you were asked to guess roughly how often the word “Hallelujah” appears in the New Testament, I wonder what your answer would be. Perhaps a couple of dozen times? Given the way it has become almost a spontaneous cry of praise throughout the Christian church, you would certainly think so.

In fact, the answer is - just four. Even more remarkable, all those four instances are grouped in a single short passage - Revelation 19:1-6.

Hallelujah is a Hebrew word, occurring frequently in the Old Testament, especially in the psalms (the last few psalms all begin and end with it). But in most translations you won’t actually find the word as we now know it, because it is translated into its literal English equivalent, “Praise the Lord!”. It is, quite simply, an excited exclamation of worship to God.

So what’s so special about Revelation 19?

It’s a turning point in the book, when the spotlight moves from the darkness of sin, wickedness and evil, and when John begins to see the light of the final victory of God over that darkness.

Look at the four hallelujahs, “shouted” (in the NIV translation) by the heavenly host.

The first two are closely linked to divine judgment: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments” (verses 1-2); and then: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever” (verse 3), where “smoke” implies destruction, and “her” refers to “the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries” (verse 2).

If you go back to chapters 17 and 18 you find that the prostitute is “Babylon”, one of Israel’s greatest historic enemies. In turn, Babylon almost certainly stands for Rome, the heart of the godless empire under which God’s people were suffering as John wrote. And, for us today, Babylon/Rome together stand for worldly society in general turned against God, with all its materialism, corruption and vice.

There is a beautiful contrast between the prostitute and another woman we meet in a moment.

The prostitute is “dressed in purple and scarlet... glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls...” She holds in her hand “a golden cup, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth...” To cap it all, she is “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people...” (Revelation 17:4-6).

Gross, gaudy, vulgar. The sexual imagery isn’t only to do with literal sex, but is a metaphor for total moral rottenness. Could you imagine a more devastating condemnation of humankind in rebellion against God?

This means that, for God’s people, his judgment is... good news, not primarily something frightening, for such rottenness needs to be dealt with. Just as, in the days of Noah, God lost patience with sinful humankind and cleansed the earth with water, so at the end of time he will bring all sin into judgment and it will be burned up by his holy wrath. This isn’t angry vengeance; it is perfect, just judgment.

And the other woman? She is “the bride of the Lamb”, and she is dressed simply in “fine linen, bright and clean” (19:8). What a contrast! - all purity and innocence. And who is she...? Well, of course, the church, God’s cleansed and holy people. You and me...

The third hallelujah is in verse 4, and is linked with another Hebrew word: “Amen! Hallelujah!Amen means something like “Yes! Truly! Let it be so”. No wonder that to this day we still use it to endorse a prayer uttered by someone else. Putting the two words together, the heavenly host are crying out, “Let it be so! Praise the Lord!”

The fourth hallelujah is in verse 6: “Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!...’”.

The darkness is gone. The book now builds, in chapters 19-22, to its triumphant climax.

No wonder that over the centuries the persecuted church has found such hope and comfort in this book that we often find strange and puzzling. However much there is that is difficult to understand, you can’t be in much doubt about what this wonderful vision means, can you?

Perhaps, like me, you’re not a very shouty type of Christian - a bit buttoned up, perhaps? Well, that’s no sin, as long as our hearts are right.

But if these things are true, make no mistake, there’s going to be some shouting done one day! Oh yes, some serious shouting! And what is it we will shout? “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.”

Praise be to God! Amen!

Heavenly Father, I am weak and often fail. My life is still disfigured by sin. But thank you that you have washed me in the blood of the Lamb. So bring me to that day when even I will be numbered in the crowd before your throne, shouting “Hallelujah” with all my heart. Amen!

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Danger - God at work!

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. Acts 4:31

I knew of a church once, many years ago, which had to close its balcony. It was one of those old buildings, perhaps not in the best state of repair, and the problem was that, in that heyday of the charismatic movement, when everyone was jumping around and getting very excited, there was a real danger that the balcony might collapse. (Which wouldn’t be a very good witness - imagine the headlines in the local paper.)

Such a humanly caused event is one thing. But the Bible does describe occasions when something similar, but of supernatural origin, takes place. And here in Acts 4 is one: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken” (verse 31). There’s no record of any injury or damage, but I imagine this must have been an unnerving experience - you’ll know only too well if you’ve ever been caught in an earthquake or tremor.

What was going on that day?

It’s shortly after the momentous events of Pentecost (Acts 2). God has poured out his Holy Spirit on the infant church, and this is accompanied, not by an earthquake, but by other strange signs (verses 1-4). The first followers of Jesus are transformed from lambs into lions; they spill out into the centre of Jerusalem; and Simon Peter preaches a powerful message.

It seems that for several dizzying days Jerusalem is rocking (though not literally) with God at work, including “many wonders and signs” (2: 43) and powerful preaching (3:11-26).

The religious authorities eventually decide that this must stop, so Peter and John are hauled up and told to do just that - stop this preaching and miracle-working! Peter (the man, remember, who had pathetically caved in under threats just before the crucifixion) looks them in the eye and tells them plainly that “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (4:20). In effect: Do with us what you like! - you could no more stop a waterfall than shut our mouths.

This episode of the shaken building then takes place as they go back “to their own people” (verse 23) and burst out into excited prayer.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something similar were to happen in our day or in our town? Something that couldn’t possibly be souped up by emotional manipulation, but something purely supernatural?

Well, we can’t, of course, “magic up” such an event, and Christians who try to do so are at best deluded and at worst dishonest. But we can notice the ingredients which combined to produce the events described in Acts 4. Especially, we can notice what the people involved were like.

Four things strike me...

First, they were fully confident in the Gospel message. They believed totally in Jesus crucified and risen, and they were convinced he was good news for every man, woman and child. They believed they had a message to change the world.

In comparison, do we come across as hesitant, timid and riddled with doubts? Do we need to pray, “Lord God, re-convince me! Set my heart on fire afresh with the wonder of the Gospel!”

Second, they were courageous. Peter and John - rough, uneducated men - stood up against authorities who were used to having their own way and being meekly obeyed. “If we have to disobey you, well, that’s exactly what we will do”, they said.

Do we have the courage to stand up staunchly - politely, of course, but staunchly - for what we believe is true and right, even at risk of becoming unpopular? Or do we weakly take the line of least resistance, and passively blend in with every trend - “go with the flow”?

Third, they took prayer seriously. Not just Acts 4, but all those early chapters of Acts demonstrate that fervent prayer was the life-blood of the church. True, they were  pretty well intoxicated on sheer excitement as history-changing events were going on around them, which is a million miles from where most of us are. So perhaps for them prayer was relatively easy and we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. But still, how anaemic our praying can often be by comparison!

Fourth, and most important, they were Spirit-filled. Luke spells this out in verse 31.

The Holy Spirit is the very breath of God, his energy and power, without whom we are bound to be feeble and ineffective. He comes to live within every child of God, so we can be thankful for that. And, of course, we can’t have more of him by snapping our fingers. But we can seek to be open to his presence and his movement in our lives. And, according to Jesus himself, we can always ask for more (Luke 11:13).

The joke about that church I mentioned was that it probably had a clause in its buildings insurance to safeguard it against  “acts of God” - which is sort-of-funny, I suppose, in a not-really-very-funny way.

As we read these early chapters of Acts, the question is this: Is it possible that we really have developed attitudes and practices which effectively combine to quench the fire of the Spirit - which virtually guarantee there will be no “acts of God”?

Heavenly Father, give me a hunger and thirst for righteousness, a passion for more of your Spirit, an appetite for prayer, and a longing to see Jesus lifted high in our world. Amen!

Saturday, 9 November 2019

A word for failures

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body... But ... they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee...’” Mark 16:1-7

It’s embarrassing, isn’t it, when you’re caught out as ignorant of something you should have known upside down, inside out  and off by heart for years. (Perhaps it happens to keep us humble.)

It happened to me recently as I listened to a sermon. The preacher was speaking from Mark 16 about Jesus’ resurrection. He had got to the point where the women reach the tomb and find it open. We are told they are “alarmed” when they discover an angel inside. But he tells them the good news that Jesus is risen from the dead.

And then he gives them a job to do: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter...”

And (here comes my confession) in all my lifetime of reading the Bible - not to mention preaching from it! - I had never really noticed those two words “and Peter”. (Actually, my wife tells me she has heard me preach on it, but I don’t remember it; I just hope she’s right.)

So... “and Peter”? Why do those two words matter?

Well, if nothing else they prompt a question: why would Mark include this mention of Peter - a mention which Luke, in his parallel account, doesn’t have? It’s true that in the early church there was a belief that Peter and Mark were very close - that Mark in fact shaped his Gospel around Peter’s memories. But why should he see fit to add these two words? Did he feel he wanted to put a special spotlight on Peter?

If so, there is a very simple reason for doing so. Peter had, just hours earlier, denied Jesus.

If you go back to chapter 14 you find this sad and shameful event described - in verses 29-31 Jesus predicts Peter’s betrayal, and Peter indignantly refuses to accept that he will ever do such a thing; and then in verses 66-72 the whole thing is spelt out in painful detail. It ends with a graphic, heart-breaking picture: Peter “broke down and wept”. (Can you see him?)

So could it be that the reason for that “and Peter” was in order  to close the chapter on those sad events? Or, at least, to pave the way for it to be closed?

Look at it this way... The disciples were told to head north to Galilee, their old stamping-ground, to meet the risen Jesus there. But we can well imagine Peter being so shattered by what had happened that he just wouldn’t want to go - “I’m not worthy! I let him down! You go without me. I’ll stay here..”.

But when he heard those special words of the angel, “and Peter”, wouldn’t that have set his mind at rest? Those words say, in effect, “And don’t be in any doubt, Jesus wants to see Peter with you. Yes, he got it badly wrong, but Jesus still loves him and wants him there with you all.”

(Some people have suggested that the special mention of Peter was simply because he was, of course, the leader of the original twelve. And that is possible. But if so you would expect the wording to be “Peter and the disciples” rather than “the disciples and Peter”.)

We can’t prove anything. But  it’s hard to disagree with the conclusion of one commentator: “Poor fallen Peter was specially included in the word of hope”. Such is the tenderness and compassion of Jesus.

And a word thus directed at Peter can, of course, speak powerfully  also to other Christians burning under a sense of failure. One of the problems the early church had to grapple with was what to do about believers who had denied Christ - given that others had heroically stood up to torture. And so the same commentator goes on: “Did Mark perhaps see this as a special word of comfort for Christians who had broken under persecution, at Rome or elsewhere?”

If we turn to John’s Gospel, we find that his account of the resurrection is very different from those of the other three. Among other things, it gives us a story the others don’t include - a long conversation between the risen Jesus and Peter in which Peter is restored fully (John 21:15-24). So it seems that that long story in John, and the angel’s two words “and Peter” in Mark, point in the same direction - there is hope for those who have failed!

A friend once said to me that he had “messed up big time” in his walk with God, and felt unworthy to hold his head up and call himself a Christian. I imagine we have all been in that place. It’s at times like that that we need to notice “and Peter”. 

Jesus doesn’t cast us off; he continues to love us and to have a purpose for our lives.

Is this a message you need today?

Loving Father, as I look at my life I seem to see so much failure - I am often ashamed of the ways I have let you down. Thank you for the tenderness of Jesus towards Peter. Insofar as I am truly sorry, please may I also know that tenderness. Amen.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Picturing God

Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”. John 14:9

A Jewish rabbi startled a study group he was leading by inviting them to draw their “concept of God”. How did they picture God?

Most Jews interpret the first of the ten commandments - “You shall not make any graven image” - so strictly as to rule out any kind of representation at all, so the rabbi wasn’t surprised that the members of his group were rather taken aback. But, all but one, they allowed themselves to be persuaded. And they came up with a variety of drawings which represented different aspects of God.

An eye... God sees all things. A tree... God is the creator of nature. A hand... God is active in the world he has made. A stone tablet... God is the supreme law-giver. A mobile phone... God is always there for us to talk to.

(Somebody, apparently, drew a supermarket checkout worker, on the grounds that  God “waits patiently as we wend our path through the aisles in the supermarket of life, choosing some options and rejecting others, but ultimately having to reach the end point, when what we have is assessed and needs to be paid for”. (Wow!))

Well, there’s a fair bit in those suggestions that I think Christians can go along with. Personally, I’m rather with the Jews in not really liking visual representations of God. Those great paintings, for example, of “the Madonna and Child”, or statues of Jesus being laid in the tomb - not to mention films depicting Christ - leave me pretty cold and vaguely uncomfortable.

What the Bible offers us, of course, are words which describe human beings that we can compare God with. He is the King. He is “the Lord of hosts” - that is, a God of armies. He is “my shepherd”. He is “our Father in heaven”. He is our friend. He is our Judge. He is the “still, small voice” that we might hear calming our fears (or pricking our consciences?).

None of these words remotely do justice to the reality of God, that goes without saying - God isn’t just a perfect human being, even if multiplied by a million. But at least they give us something to work with.

I imagine that throughout history people have asked the question “What is God like?” And what could be more natural? Even in materialistic, non-religious days such as we live in, people have this curiosity about “the unseen world”: surveys show that superstitions, occultism, spiritualism, and a whole mass of “religious” views - quite apart from established religions - are still held by many.

So... what is God like?

This very question was asked of Jesus. In John 14:8 we read that Philip, one of his disciples, asked him outright, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us”. And how did Jesus respond? With these remarkable words: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”.

Could that be clearer? Jesus is making a claim that, coming from anybody else, would suggest serious mental illness. “You want to know what God is like?” he says. “Well, look no further - he is right here, right now, standing right in front of you.”

Jesus claimed to be God in the form of a man.

And what sort of man? A man like any other man, fully human - yet perfectly holy. A weak man, like all the rest of us. A man who wept and hungered and grew weary. A man who could be angry and disappointed. A man who experienced loneliness and extreme pain of body and mind. A man who died out of compassion and tenderness for his fellow-men and women. A man of purest, unlimited love.

This isn’t a complete pen-picture of God, for there is also supernatural power, infinite knowledge and... well, a whole host of things we can barely imagine. But this, and nothing less, is wrapped up in the staggering claim, “Look at me, and you are looking at God”.

So I don’t think we have any need of drawings on a piece of paper, however useful they might be to stimulate discussion. Or of the paintings and sculptures I mentioned earlier. We have a living, walking, breathing - and dying - picture in Jesus.

Of course, he didn’t come only to show us what God is like, but also to carry out a rescue plan for each one of us, a plan which the Bible calls “salvation”. Paul puts it crisply in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself”; and Peter tells us how he did it: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).

So if I really did have to draw a picture summing up my understanding of God, I think I would end up quite simply drawing... a cross. That may seem pretty traditional and conventional, and, no, it doesn’t say everything.

But does anything sum up better our infinitely loving and infinitely suffering God?

Heavenly Father, thank you that you are a God not only to be believed in and wondered about, but a God to be experienced. Please help me to know you as my king, my lord, my judge, my father, my friend - and as my saviour, Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

The book that refuses to die

So Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to the scribe Baruch son of Neriah, and as Jeremiah dictated, Baruch wrote on it all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them. Jeremiah 36:32

I had just got the document as I wanted it on my computer, and was about to send it off when... it disappeared. Oh the horror of a blank screen instead of those carefully thought out words! After spending a lot of time trying to recover it (“Oh, it’ll still be there somewhere on your hard drive” my nerdy friends assured me) I had no choice but to type it out again from scratch.

If you use a computer I’m sure you will have had a similar experience. (I once heard a professional theologian describe how, after he had completed the first draft of his new book on hundreds of sheets of paper, his little girl found them and decided they would make very good confetti...)

Words are amazing things, and virtually indestructible if those who utter or write them are serious about them. And if that applies to words in general, it certainly applies to the word of God.

I don’t think the prophet Jeremiah had a computer. But a point was reached in his long ministry when God told him to commit his message to writing, so with the help of his faithful scribe Baruch he did just that, he dictating, Baruch writing on a scroll. It wasn’t the whole Bible, of course. But a significant chunk of it.

Jeremiah is under a kind of house arrest, so the job of reading the scroll to the people falls to Baruch. This creates quite a stir, not least among some of the officials of King Jehoiakim. They are so struck by what they hear that a reading to the king is arranged, done by an official called Jehudi. All credit to those sympathetic officials who insisted that the king should hear God’s word.

But it was no use: “It was the ninth month and the king was sitting in the winter apartment, with a fire burning in the brazier in front of him. Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the brazier, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire” (Jeremiah 36:22-23).

So that was that, then.

Actually, no, it wasn’t. Read on to the end of Jeremiah 36 and you find that Jeremiah and Baruch simply go through the same procedure all over again - only this time adding still more words, some of which have a message especially disagreeable to the hard-hearted, cynical king (verses 30-31).

Sorry, King Jehoiakim, but God’s word can’t be got rid of as easily as that!

This dramatic story - of the inspired prophet, the faithful secretary, the humble officials and the godless king - contains a very simple message: God’s word, ultimately, cannot be silenced. It has life and power. As the Writer to the Hebrews says: “For the word of the Lord is alive and active. Sharper than any two-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

I suspect that all of us who are Christians will be able to look back on times when God’s word spoke directly and powerfully to us in a way that changed our lives. And how grateful we are today.

So... what?

Let’s make up our minds to take the Bible deeply seriously. Have we become a little casual about reading it, or about hearing it taught and preached? Shame on us if we have - there are Christians dotted around the world who own just a few scattered pages of God’s word, if that, while we have enough copies of different translations to bend our book shelves.

What else? Let’s be thankful for those who, under God, put his word down in writing. Just imagine if we had no Gospels, no Psalms, no Letters...

Let’s be thankful for those who devote their lives to the study of the Bible, learning to read its original languages, and thus throwing new light on it to make its meaning clear for the rest of us.

Let’s be thankful for Bible translators and publishers - there was a time, remember, when you simply wouldn’t have been able to read it if different people hadn’t risked their lives to put it into our mother-tongues. And there are still organisations, like Wycliffe Bible Translators and Bible Society, who work constantly to make the Bible available to people throughout the world. How many hundreds and thousands of Bibles have received the Jehoiakim treatment over the centuries? Yet still we have it today.

Let’s be thankful for those who faithfully preach it to us Sunday by Sunday and week by week, and for those who lead study groups and teach children and young people.

And this too: let’s pray that God will use each of us day by day to make his truth known through casual conversations.

God’s word changes people! So let’s respect it, get to know it, obey it - and pass on its message to others.

Lord God, thank you for your word - the written word of the Bible, pointing to the living word of your son Jesus. Teach me to value and cherish it, to understand and believe it, and to communicate its truth to others. Amen.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

One day at a time, sweet Jesus...

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning... Lamentations 3:22-23

I like early mornings. Most days around 6.30 you might find me leaving the house to walk up to the post office for my paper. It’s relatively quiet and still - just a few friendly dog-walkers out and about. It’s fresh and unspoiled, a good time to adjust my mind to what the new day might bring, and to pray.

The little Book of Lamentations is, as the name suggests, full of sadness. For centuries Jews and Christians alike have believed it was written by Jeremiah, though the experts today generally think this is unlikely. But it certainly chimes in with Jeremiah’s long prophecy, written at the time of Israel’s catastrophic defeat by the Babylonians. The prophet pleads with God to forgive his people for their unfaithfulness, and to restore their fortunes.

But right at the heart of the book is one of the Bible’s little gems, a passage every Christian should know. It’s in chapter 3, verses 19-33, especially verses 22-23:Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning...

How beautiful is that? And how simple!

The writer wants us to know that there is nothing stale or second-hand about God’s “compassions”. No, they are “new every morning.”

A meal made of left-overs can be both tasty and nourishing, it’s true; hand-me-down clothes can be perfectly useful. But they are bound to feel a little, well, second-best. The grace and kindness of God are never like that. Each new dawn brings a fresh supply.

So we are encouraged to embark on each new day, whatever its demands and difficulties, with a confident hope that God is there - going before us, walking with us, and coming after us.
Let’s get this little mantra etched onto our spiritual DNA: new every morning... one day at a time...

This isn’t just a passage that we can cull from an obscure part of the Bible and tuck away in our minds. No, it’s part of a fuller thread that runs right through the Bible.

Think of the story of the manna (Exodus 16).

The people of Israel are wandering in the desert after being set free from slavery in Egypt, and they’re becoming grumbly and rebellious. They don’t like the food they are given, even to the point of wishing they had never left Egypt in the first place: “There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you (that’s Moses and Aaron) have brought us out into this desert...” (verse 3).

So God responds: You want more food? All right, more food you shall have! And so each evening he sends them quail to eat, and each morning a strange kind of bread they call “manna” (which sounds like the Hebrew word for “what is it?”).

But there is one proviso: the manna must be gathered one day at a time; they mustn’t keep it for the next day, and if they do it will go rotten - as “some of them” discovered to their cost (verse 20).

God is teaching them the same vital lesson as Lamentations 3: you can’t live on yesterday’s blessings; each day is a new start, and calls for a new commitment of faith. New every morning... one day at a time...

Mind you, it’s worth noticing that the manna did need to be “gathered” - it wasn’t landed plonk on their breakfast tables. And in the same way, while God’s new mercies are purely a gift from him, we are still responsible for making them our own.

How do we do this? In essence, by consciously and deliberately opening ourselves up to God through prayer, and by seeking to bring our lives into line with his holy will. (God says to his people in Psalm 81:10: “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it”. There’s a condition there, isn’t there? Have you ever tried to feed a baby with its mouth clamped shut? - then you know how God must sometimes feel.)

Paul, in the New Testament, had hold of this same truth: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). And as a result, “we do not lose heart”. New every morning... one day at a time...

And of course we mustn’t forget the words of Jesus: “Give us today our daily bread...” (Matthew 6:11). And, coming from a slightly different angle, the need to “take up our cross daily” to follow him (Luke 9:23).

New every morning... one day at a time... Are we getting the message?

New every morning... one day at a time...

New mercies, each returning day,/ Hover around us while we pray;/ New perils past, new sins forgiven,/ New thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven. John Keble (1792-1866)