Saturday, 15 June 2019

Let God pick up the pieces

Mordecai said, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” ... And Esther said, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I die, I die”. Esther 4:14-16

I was given a book not long ago which had me gripped pretty well throughout. It’s about the Nazi horror both before and during the Second World War. Especially, it focuses on two of the lawyers who played a major part in establishing what crimes the German leaders could be accused of at the Nuremberg war trials. What makes it particularly fascinating is that both of them were themselves victims of the Holocaust - and both of them came from the same city, Lvi v, situated today in Ukraine. If you’re interested, look out for East West Street, by Philippe Sands.

I was in the middle of this book when, in my daily Bible reading, I found myself in the Old Testament book of Esther. What struck me is how uncannily history repeats itself: the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews - and that, according to Esther, is exactly what happened under King Xerxes of Persia nearly 500 years before Jesus.
I won’t go over the story- you can read it again at your leisure. But in essence it’s about how God raised up a Jewish girl called Hadassah, or Esther, to become part of the king’s harem and to succeed in wrecking the wicked Haman’s plot against the Jews.

As you read books like these, you find yourself shaking your head at one of the mysteries of history: why have the Jews been so viciously hated down through the centuries? May God forgive us for any hint of racial prejudice that lurks in our hearts! - and especially, perhaps, for any hint of antisemitism.

I’m not competent to answer the question. I just want to highlight a pivotal point in the story of Esther, a point which remains relevant for us all these centuries later. It takes the form of a conversation between Esther and Mordecai, her uncle and guardian...

First, there is the moment when Mordecai gets her to see that it is no mere accident or coincidence that - completely out of the blue - she has risen to a position of power with King Xerxes.

True, a terrible emergency has arisen; true, all the Jews in Persia are threatened with mass murder. But... Esther is one of the king’s concubines! So she may be able to exert influence on him. Mordecai speaks these memorable words: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:14).

Though God is never actually mentioned in the book, its message for us is about his providence - how, in ways we cannot imagine, he works through the circumstances of our lives in order to bring his purposes to reality.

Do we believe this? Of course, most of us have a far more humdrum role in life than Esther. But God uses his people in all sorts of ways, so that even when things seem to be going wrong, his hand is, so to speak, on the tiller.

As we go about our ordinary business day by day, let’s remind ourselves: “It’s not just random or coincidental that I am where I am. God has a purpose for my life today - through the situations I find myself in, through the people I meet, even through the pains and difficulties I may have to face up to.”

And so let’s breathe a simple prayer: “Lord, don’t let me miss what you want of me today!”

How does Esther respond? The task Mordecai suggests is extremely uncertain, and fraught with danger. She may succeed, or she may fail, for strictly it is forbidden for her to approach Xerxes - on pain of death.

So what does she do? First, she asks Mordecai to get the people of Israel to fast and pray for three days and nights. And then this: “When all this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I die, I die.” (4:16).
There is a wonderful, if rather brutal, simplicity about those words: If I die, I die.

In essence what Esther is saying is: “My business is simply to do what is right - and leave the consequences to God.” She isn’t shrugging her shoulders in resignation; she is affirming her faith in God.

In my time as a minister I developed a little mantra for when we found ourselves in a particularly difficult situation. (I wish I could say I obeyed it at all times!) I remain convinced that it’s wise: Do what’s right and let God pick up the pieces.

Life sometimes throws up difficult and delicate situations which require hard answers. It can be easy to “take the line of least resistance” and go with the flow. It can be hard - and involve real pain and sacrifice - to stand firm for what is right.

To say with Esther, in effect, If I die, I die. So be it, Lord.

Do we have that kind of faith and courage?

Father, you tell us in your word to “put on the whole armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Give me, I pray, the faith, the courage and the wisdom to do that in every situation. Amen.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit... Acts 2:4

... be filled with the Spirit... Ephesians 5:18

So... Whit Sunday is over - Pentecost Sunday, the day when Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the new-born church.

Do we treat it rather as we treat Christmas? - no more of the familiar stories, the old carols, until next year? - the Christmas decorations packed away in boxes and stuck on a shelf in the loft? Likewise, now that Whit Sunday is gone, is that the Holy Spirit finished and done with for another year?

The answer is a very loud No!

The Spirit who came at Pentecost now lives day by day in the heart of every believer - so how can he possibly be for just one weekend a year? He is for us, with us and in us. Paul puts it bluntly in Romans 8:9: “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ...”, implying that if anyone does have the Spirit of Christ, well, they most certainly do.

If you are reading this as a Christian, are you really aware that God himself lives within you by his Holy Spirit? Do you not know that your very body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God (to slightly misquote 1 Corinthians 6:19)?

It’s helpful to focus on the two little snippets of the New Testament that I picked out at the beginning...

(1) “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit...” (Acts 2:4).

As we saw last time, Luke here is describing the essence of what happened to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost: this is “the baptism of the Holy Spirit”. It is a one-off event - as Simon Peter said, it is the long-awaited fulfilment of Joel 2:28-32.

You might think: If this was a one-off event two thousand years ago, can I say that I too have been baptised in the Holy Spirit?

The answer is clear. By faith in Jesus you have become part of him - part of what Paul calls “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). So when he baptised his church in the Spirit, that act included every member of the church, past, present and future - to quote Paul again: “For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body...” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

That doesn’t mean that you can’t also, as an individual, experience the kind of dramatic events or receive the kind of very obvious gifts, such as speaking in tongues, that we often associate with the Spirit. But it does mean that you are, so to speak, incorporated into Christ - just as we have “died with him” (Colossians 2:20) and “been raised with him” (Colossians 3:1), so we have shared in the one-off baptism he poured out on his church.

(2) “Be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).

The same word - filled - but with a different focus. Whereas Acts was describing an event, here Paul is issuing a command. If grammar is your thing, the point is that it’s the present tense that is used, the tense of the here and now. Which means that we are to be always, constantly, day by day, filled with the Spirit. This isn’t a one-off experience, but a permanent state, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.

But how can I be permanently filled with the Spirit? What must I do?

One thing is certain: there’s no formula to work through. Some Christians will tell you that you need to be on the receiving end of a special experience - tongues, or something mystical and trance-like, perhaps. Well, such things can and do happen; we mustn’t dismiss them out of hand.

But never forget that if God gives us a command, then the onus is on us to obey it - which is another way of saying that whether or not you and I are Spirit-filled is fairly and squarely up to us. And there is no short cut to it.

The secret is simple to say but demanding to do: live, every day, a holy, Christlike, prayerful, pure and humble life. If you seek to do that, why would God not fill you with his Holy Spirit! Didn’t Jesus promise that just as human parents know how to give good gifts to their children, “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13)?

The essence of the Spirit’s work can be summed up in two words: purity and power. The Holy Spirit is the holy Spirit, and he enables us to live pure lives. And he imparts power - power to overcome sin and temptation, power to do and to bear God’s holy will.

You can’t have enough of the Holy Spirit! So don’t let him recede into the background just because Whit Sunday 2019 is fading into the memory!

Lord Jesus,  you promised your disciples the divine gift of the Holy Spirit. And you encourage us to seek more of the Spirit. As I empty myself of self and sin, and as I open myself up to the Spirit’s influence, may that purity and power be mine - all for your great glory. Amen.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Oh for a mini-Pentecost!

Jesus said, “For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit”. Acts 1:5

I wonder what the disciples of Jesus thought when they first heard him speak these words? Baptised with the Holy Spirit? - what on earth did that mean!

I’m sure they will have cast their minds back some three years to when John the Baptist was in full flow. According to Luke (the same person who wrote these words here in Acts) John had told his disciples: “I baptise you with water. But someone more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16).

Striking words, then - spoken first by John the Baptist, and now taken up by Jesus. But what do they actually mean?

Christians have often tied themselves up in knots trying to understand exactly what baptism with (or in, or by) the Holy Spirit is all about. But much of the confusion is completely unnecessary, because an obvious clue is given by Jesus with the words “in a few days”. He makes it clear that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is something that is about to happen.

So what can he possibly be talking about but the experience of Pentecost? This is vividly described in the very next chapter of Acts, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the infant church as it met together in the upper room. Just look again at the early verses of Acts 2 - that was the “baptism with the Holy Spirit”.

Where does this lead us? Should we say then that “baptism with the Holy Spirit” is purely and simply a one-off past event, never to be repeated?

The answer is No. If you read your way through Acts you find that while there was indeed only one Day of Pentecost, there were other experiences of a similar kind...

In Acts 8:4-25, for example, something rather similar seems to have happened in Samaria. Likewise in Acts 10, especially verses 44-48, to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his friends. And in the puzzling little account in Acts 19:1-7, a similar thing again to some people who seem never to have shifted their allegiance from John the Baptist to Jesus.

Certainly these could never be described as exact repetitions of Pentecost: but the expression “baptism of the Holy Spirit” fits all the same. And if you read church history you find that similar events have happened from time to time all over the world.

But what does this mean for us?

It means that, yes, what took place on that dramatic Day of Pentecost stands alone as the initial event of baptism with the Holy Spirit - but that doesn’t mean that similar things can’t still happen today. And if they can still happen today, why shouldn’t they happen to your church or mine? There is no reason in principle why our churches shouldn’t experience just such an outpouring of the Spirit - what I sometimes call a “mini-Pentecost”.

Why do we need to think about this? Because next Sunday is Whit Sunday, Pentecost Sunday. It’s on this day that the world-wide church celebrates those awesome, strange, frightening, puzzling, momentous, exciting, exhilarating (I’m choosing my words with care here!) events that are described in Acts 2. After Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Whit Sunday is surely the most important day in the Christian calendar.

If you wanted a single word that sums it all up, it would have to be power. This baptism with the Holy Spirit is the coming of divine, supernatural power upon the people of God - as Simon Peter explained in Acts 2:14-21, quoting the words of the prophet Joel.

And what does the church today need more than power? We are, so often, weak and feeble. The world passes us by with scarcely a nod. If not despised, and in some cases persecuted, we are simply ignored by most people.

We need power. And power comes from the Holy Spirit - where else? What better day is there, then, than Whit Sunday to pray for a mini-Pentecost. Will you do that?

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for that wonderful day all those years ago when you baptised your church with the Holy Spirit. Please do the same for us today. Amen!

Saturday, 1 June 2019

A new experience of worship

Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, young men and women, old men and children. Psalm 148:7-12

I wrote last time about the danger of drifting away from regular worship and fellowship, taking my cue from Hebrews 10:25: “...not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing...”. I specially linked this to the question of worshipping as usual even when we are away from home. We may, for example, be on holiday, but there is no such thing as being on holiday from God.

Well, last week my wife and I were away in a sleepy Warwickshire village, and as Sunday approached we had to choose between driving perhaps ten miles to the kind of evangelical church we are used to, or walking five minutes to the local parish church. No choice at all, really, for various reasons.

A notice in the church porch told us it was “Rogation Sunday”, about which we knew literally nothing, so we looked forward to expanding our knowledge as well as worshipping God and meeting with fellow-believers. (The service would be “followed by bacon butties and coffee” - though that didn’t influence us, of course.)

In the Anglican church calendar there are various “rogation days”. They are borrowed from originally pagan customs which involved processing through the fields to pray for the crops. Today, it seems, they are used to celebrate farming and harvest, and nature in general - the kind of thing the psalmist is rejoicing at in Psalm 148.

So we arrived at the church door and joined a little gaggle of mainly elderly people, some - presumably the choir - dressed in coloured robes, and proceeded to walk through the village, led by a man holding aloft a big metal cross.

Five or six times we stopped to sing (do you remember those old harvest hymns?), to pray and to listen to a scripture passage with a bearing on the miracle of creation.

We were loudly bleated at by indignant-sounding sheep, and vaguely surveyed by droopy-eyed cows. We prayed for pigs and sheep and bees (one of the party was a bee-keeper who sold his honey locally) and all manner of other creatures.

To an outsider we probably looked a pretty comical little bunch. But however far removed it was from what we were used to, we found the experience refreshing and enjoyable. The Bible passages took on a new meaning, and the hymns were a great reminder to us (city-people through and through) that “spring-time and harvest” are indeed worthy of our focus and appreciation.

The fellowship was good too. The eyes of the regulars fairly lit up at the appearance of these two strangers (“How lovely to have you with us today! Would you be willing to do a reading?” - no messing there). They took themselves anything but too seriously - there was plenty of banter and laughter at the end - and the mood was seriously good-natured.

We had some serious conversation too, mainly about the state of the church in such rural areas (the vicar was responsible for no less than six churches). We were able to share a little about where we were from, and about our understanding of what it means to be a church.

So all in all we were in no doubt that we had made the right decision about where to worship that Sunday.

Was this church one that we would feel inclined to join if we lived in the area? No, I don’t think so. Was it a church where the gospel was clearly preached and the Bible taught? We mustn’t judge, of course, especially on the basis of such a brief experience, but to be honest I very much doubt it.

But we felt at home among these people - and who would we be to doubt that they were our brothers and sisters in Christ? Yes, their background and traditions were very different from ours, but we felt that we learned good things from being among them. No doubt when we meet in heaven we will see them in a very different light - as they too will see us.

So, back to where we were last time... Are you planning to go away this summer? Good! Then make sure to meet up with the local believers. It may be your privilege to be a real blessing to them. Still more, expect to be blessed yourself through them. God’s people come in all shapes and sizes...

(Oh, and the bacon butties weren’t bad, either. Nor the cake and coffee...)

Father, thank you for your world-wide church, scattered in communities large and small, and worshipping in a wide variety of ways. Thank you too for making me a part of it through faith in Jesus. Help me to value and love my fellow-believers, however different their ways may be from mine. Amen.

Friday, 24 May 2019

A bad habit we need to break

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing... Hebrews 10:25

One of the pleasures of church life is welcoming new people. This isn’t so that we can pounce on them in the hope that they might be able to serve in some particular way. No, it’s simply good to see fresh faces - perhaps Christians who will strengthen the fellowship and even become lifelong friends, perhaps not-yet-Christians who we are going to have the privilege of leading to faith in Christ.

I do hope this happens fairly regularly in your church.
The down-side, of course, is when the opposite happens - when those who used to be regularly with us are not any more. We find ourselves saying to one another “We don’t seem to have seen so-and-so much recently?” or “Do you know what’s become of so-and-so?”

People go missing from church life for all sorts of reasons.
There might be a problem - a disagreement, a personality clash, a misunderstanding, practical difficulties like transport or changes in a work routine, perhaps just a feeling of not being entirely happy with the way the church is going. Sometimes - don’t forget this - there may be a spiritual crisis going on in somebody’s heart.

But in my experience it’s very likely to be simply a matter of what I call spiritual drift. We just get out of the habit. Other pressures come crowding in and threaten to squeeze God out. Somebody I once hadn’t seen for a bit responded to my enquiry with an embarrassed laugh: “Oh, I’ve been finding it hard to get out of bed recently!”

The fact is that initial enthusiasm can fade. As the New Testament puts it, we can lose our “spiritual fervour” (Romans 12:11).

If it’s any consolation, Hebrews 10:25 tells us that the same problem existed in the early days of the church. We are tempted to imagine that in those far-off days everyone was bursting with red-hot zeal for God. But not so: there were apparently those who were “giving up meeting together” (possibly for fear of persecution - which at least would be an understandable excuse). And this is a danger we can fall into.

You’ve probably heard the standard sermon illustration... The church can be compared to an old-fashioned wood fire. If you take a stick off a roaring fire it will carry on burning for a time, but very soon it will die out and become just a bit of cold, charred wood.

And we are like that. If we get separated from the church we won’t suddenly stop being Christians: no - but little by little the glow will fade until there is nothing left. Sad!

Do you ever find yourself thinking “Perhaps I’ll give church a miss today”? Or that some television programme is more attractive than a mid-week prayer-meeting or house-group? 

Of course you do! We all do. We’re only human, and our faith is far - very far in many cases! - from perfection.

But it’s at times like that that we need to be careful. And this is where Hebrews 10:25 is the jolt we need. (Bear in mind also that often, having made the effort in spite of our lukewarm feelings, we end up saying, “Well, I certainly didn’t feel like going to the meeting today - but I’m so glad now that I did!”)

We’re heading for the summer holiday season. Here’s a direct question. If you are planning to go away for a week or two, will you make a point of being in worship on the Sundays? Or do you think of holiday time as a holiday from church?

That can’t be right! It can in fact be refreshing to go along to a church other than the one where you feel familiar and comfortable - perhaps a church with a completely different style of worship and spirituality. Not to mention the encouragement you can bring to that church by making yourself known and even bringing greetings from your own church.

See it not as a duty to be carried out, but as a positive area of service and an opportunity to grow and learn. You won’t regret it.

One last thought. It may be that you are in fact one of those who has gone missing - who has “given up meeting together”.

What can I say? Just this: It would be great to see you back. The church needs you. And, believe it or not, you need the church!

Lord, it is my chief complaint/ That my love is weak and faint./ Yet I love Thee and adore;/ O for grace to love Thee more. Amen. (William Cowper (1731-1800)

Father, I remember how Jesus went regularly to the synagogue in his time on earth. Help me to be like him, in this as in all things. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Ascension Day? What's that?

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 1:9-11

I would guess that most ordinary Christians barely give a thought to the “ascension” of Jesus - the occasion when he was “taken up” (or “ascended”) into heaven.

There are probably two main reasons for this.

First, to be fair, the New Testament barely mentions it. Of the Gospel writers, only Luke describes it - here, in Acts 1, and, even more briefly, at the very end of Luke 24. Apart from that, there are just brief references to it scattered in the various New Testament letters.

Second, it didn’t take place on a Sunday. So while churches very naturally celebrate Easter Sunday for Jesus’ resurrection, and Whit Sunday, or Pentecost, for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Ascension is rather tucked away: on a Thursday, in fact - forty days after Easter, and eleven days before Pentecost. Easy to miss.

So let’s not feel too guilty if we have given little thought to the Ascension! But the fact is that - well, it happened, so it can only be good to reflect on it.

Let’s ask the question: What does this strange and supernatural event mean, and what difference does it make?

Here are a handful of answers to that question.

First, it signifies that Jesus’ work on earth was over.

As he died on the cross Jesus shouted “It is finished”. By paying the price for our sins he had completed the work of reconciling humankind to God.

But Jesus remained on earth - or, at least, appeared on earth - for some six weeks after his death and resurrection, and he still had work to do - especially in giving final teaching to his apostles.

Ascension Day marks the fact that that work too was finished - and never from that day to this has Jesus ever been seen on earth. A whole era was over and a new one began - history turned on a massive hinge.

Second, it confirms that, as Paul said later, “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Our eyes haven’t seen Jesus, nor have our ears heard him. But we are called to believe in him and trust him every minute of every day, and it is in so doing that we find him to be a living reality.

Third, it comforts us with the hope of one day joining him.

Before he went to the cross Jesus spent time reassuring his disciples, who were understandably troubled. Among the many things he said were these words about “my Father’s house”: “I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). He left the disciples not in order to abandon them, but in order to pave the way for them - a great assurance for us when we think about death.

Fourth, it opened up a whole new ministry for Jesus.
It’s natural for us to ask “What exactly is Jesus doing in heaven?”

Well, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that “he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12). Metaphorical language, of course, akin to the Book of Revelation.

But it conveys the fact that Jesus really is Lord, and reigns with his heavenly Father over the whole of creation. The suffering, crucified Jesus is Lord of all! - and a day is coming when every knee will bow to him (Philippians 2:10).

There is another ministry too in which the ascended Jesus is engaged. Stressing his priestly role, the writer to the Hebrews says: “he always lives to intercede” for us (Hebrews 7:25).

I must admit that I’m not very clear exactly how to imagine this. But who cares! - the message is that in Jesus we have an eternal, heavenly high priest who prays to God the Father on our behalf. He is on our side! - let’s remember that when we are feeling low.

The Ascension, then, brings to mind these four great truths - plus others there is no time to mention.

Why not take a few minutes to pray through them?

But I’ve left till last one other vital thing: Jesus’ ascension makes possible the coming of the Holy Spirit on the infant church.

Here is more of his farewell teaching to the apostles: “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate [that is, the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

“It is for your good that I am going away”! Jesus blesses us by “leaving” us! The apostles are being encouraged to look forward to the coming of the Spirit.

And shouldn't we do the same?

So... when Ascension Day comes (Thursday 30 May this year), take time to reflect on this pivotal event - and let it whet your appetite for the awesome events of 9 June, Holy Spirit Sunday.

Heavenly Father, thank you that, before he returned to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples such rich and wonderful promises. Much as I would love to have seen the earthly Jesus, help me to understand that, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I am in fact better off without his physical presence. Amen.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Feet of clay...?

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:8-9

I wrote last time about the mixed nature of the church - it is a community of saved sinners and sinful saints. Each of us is both of those things.

Which means, among other things, that we shouldn’t put Christians we admire on a pedestal. We may be perfectly right to admire them - but we need to keep in mind that they aren’t perfect, any more than we are.

No sooner had I posted this blog than I read - with quite some shock - about a clear example of this truth. An obituary in the paper outlined the life of a man who was well-known in Christian circles as an academic theologian, a writer of both popular and heavyweight books, and a sparkling speaker and enthusiastic evangelist.

I heard him speak on a number of occasions, and had a chat with him once or twice. He was a man you instinctively looked up to and admired.

So what was it that shocked me? Well, it seems that at one stage of his life he and his wife experienced serious marriage problems. To quote the paper: “... his lack of attention and understanding and her anger led to ‘stormy years’... including physical scuffles between the pair.”

“Physical scuffles”! Goodness me! I found that really quite difficult to believe of this man that I had looked up to. (On the good side, the article went on to say that they attended counselling sessions and learned to love one another again.)
Reflecting on this, I felt that there were various lessons we as Christians can draw.

First, and most important, let Christ alone be the focus of our worship and adoration.

As I said earlier, there’s nothing wrong with admiring fine Christians who have influenced us. The writer to the Hebrews, indeed, tells his readers to respect those “who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (13:7). That’s fine. But he then immediately adds: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” - as if to say, But never let them take the place of Jesus!

Do you have a favourite preacher or pastor? A favourite Christian musician, perhaps? A favourite writer? Even, if you’re the egg-head sort, a pet theologian? Or just somebody in your church who can do no wrong in your eyes? That’s fine - but don’t be naive; they are sinners too! Expect, at some point, to be disappointed...

Second, I felt encouraged by the thought: So God uses sinful people, then!

This wasn’t exactly a new revelation. Of course, I knew perfectly well that God uses sinners! - when you stop and think about it, he hasn’t got a lot of choice, has he?

This doesn’t mean he condones or turns a blind eye to our sins. Of course not. But given that we are all imperfect, the plain fact is that he has to work with (how shall I put this?) some pretty ropy raw material. Think, for just a couple of examples, of King David in the Old Testament and the apostle Peter in the New.

What it does mean, though, is that he wants to use you and me as well.

Never say “I am not good enough to be used by God!” No: if your heart is sincere, and if you truly hate your sins and weaknesses (David and Peter again), then God can make you an instrument of his usefulness. Just work out what he wants you to do, then roll up your sleeves and get on with it.

Third, after the shock had worn off a bit, I felt a sense of real admiration.

For one thing, this couple had had the wisdom and humility to seek counselling. None of this stiff-upper-lip-we-can-manage-perfectly-well-by-ourselves-thank-you-very-much stuff. They recognised that they needed help, and they went looking for it.

Is that a word to some of us?

And I couldn’t help admiring also that they had obviously been willing to make their difficulties known even beyond the counselling room. That, I am sure, can’t have been easy. But it’s as if they were wanting to make the very point I started with: “We aren’t Mr and Mrs Perfect! We are sinners too! So don’t put us on a pedestal.”

Let’s go back to those great words of John that I quoted at the beginning: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Plenty to ponder there, I think, as we look at others - and as we look at ourselves...

Our Father in heaven, thank you that you are a God who loves and uses sinners. Give me, please, the wisdom to value godly Christians without idolising them, and the humility to hate the sins within my own soul. Amen.