Sunday, 31 August 2014

Who is Jesus?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created... He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead... For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things... making peace through his blood, shed on the cross... Colossians 1:15-23

I imagine all of us have our pet hates, things that make us grind our teeth. One of mine is when people cheapen language by using exaggerated words - words like fantastic, incredible, awesome, mind-blowing, sensational - when “very good” or “excellent” or “outstanding” would do perfectly well.

What does it matter? Well, the trouble comes when something happens that really is fantastic, sensational, mind-blowing, incredible or whatever. You have used up all the words you might like to use. There just aren’t any left.


What has this got to do with Colossians 1:15-23? Well, for once all those extreme words really do apply. (I have only quoted bits from the passage - I would encourage you to get your Bible out and read these verses very carefully.) The incredible (or should I say “truly incredible”?) thing is that they were written about a man who just 25 or so years earlier was walking the hillsides of Galilee, a man with a tanned skin, sweaty brow and muscular arms, a man who could be lonely and tired and hungry, a man who could laugh and cry. A man who died by crucifixion. 

How utterly extraordinary that the early Christians could, so early on, see him in this way. Mind-blowing!

Who is this man Jesus, according to Paul’s description? I’ve boiled it down to five things...

First, Jesus is God made visible

He is “the image of the invisible God”. In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. This echoes something he himself said (John 14). One of his apostles, Philip, asked him (cool as you like!), “Lord, show us the Father and that will do for us”. To which Jesus gave the mind-boggling  reply, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” This man Jesus is God in the flesh. Put it like this: all the very “godness” of God is wrapped up in Jesus. Incredible!

Second, Jesus is the Lord of creation.

“By him all things were created...” Hang on, I thought God the Father was the creator. Well, yes. But it seems that God the Son was right there too. In fact, that word “by” could be translated “in”, which is, if anything, even more amazing. I can’t work it all out in my mind, but let’s just put it like this: Jesus isn’t part of creation; no, creation is part of him.

And not only did he make the creation, but he also sustains it: “in him all things hold together”. Just as our sun holds all the planets and the solar system together, so Jesus holds together the universe in which we live. Jesus really is Lord! Fantastic!

Third, Jesus is the head of a new creation.

That first creation went tragically wrong, which is why our little world is in such a mess. But God made up his mind to make a new creation. And it all started on that wonderful morning of the first Easter day, when Jesus, the new Adam, rose from the dead, never to die again. Ever since that marvellous heaven-lit morning, God’s new creation has been embodied in the church, the community of Jesus’ followers. If you are a Christian today, you are already part of the new creation centred upon the risen Christ. Isn’t that humbling - and sensational?

Fourth, Jesus is the ultimate peace-maker.

He “made peace through his blood, shed on the cross”. He is the supreme reconciler: God “was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” through Christ. I don’t think Paul means that every person or being that has ever lived will be finally brought to God; that teaching, known as “universalism”, is not found throughout the New Testament. But he does mean that a day will come when all evil and sin will be overcome and there will be perfect peace. And what will be the means by which this comes about? Answer: the blood of the cross. 

Have you yet been reconciled to God through Jesus’ blood?

Fifth, Jesus can be your saviour.

I didn’t quote any of the last part of the passage, verses 20-23. But they are truly wonderful, because they bring all this heavy-duty theology slap bang down to earth: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death...” 

In the earlier verses, 15-20, Paul doesn’t use the words “you” and “your” once. But in these verses he does so seven times. Yes - incredibly - it’s now all about you and me. 

Paul isn’t only talking about the majesty of God, the glory of Christ and the wonder of creation: he is talking about the salvation of your soul and of mine. Mind-boggling!

I have a number of scholarly commentaries on Colossians. Now, scholarly writers are not usually known for their exaggerated language; but one I have been referring to, a learned Cambridge professor no less, cannot resist using the words “staggering” and even “stupendous” to describe this teaching. Who am I to quibble with that? And wouldn’t you agree?

Soak up these words! Digest this description of Jesus! 

Christian, this is your lord, your saviour, your master, your friend, your prophet, your priest, your king: your everything. Fantastic!

Lord God, give me today a fresh vision and understanding of all that Jesus is. Amen.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Filled with the Spirit

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit... Acts 2:4

Be filled with the Spirit.  Ephesians 5:18

You know those “before and after” photos you sometimes get in adverts? Picture one: there's a man looking scruffy and stubbly, obviously in serious need of a shave. Picture two: there's the same man, his wife adoringly stroking his smooth-as-a-baby chin, looking immaculate... See what a new ---- shaver does for you! Picture one: a woman is staggering into her home, weighed down with the shopping. She drops everything and slumps into a chair. Picture two: the same woman is out cheerfully mowing the grass and singing a song. Amazing what a cup of ---- tea does for you! Magic!

Let me offer you a couple of before-and-after pictures out of the Bible.

Picture one: a group of frightened disciples of Jesus are sitting in an upstairs room; they’re hiding away from the authorities; they're wondering where the risen Jesus has gone; and they're anxious about what is going to happen to them next. Picture two: the same group of people are standing in an open space in Jerusalem and preaching to a great crowd of strangers. 

In the space of an hour or so a massive religious revival has broken out and everybody is shaking their heads in amazement. The world will never be the same again.

And what has happened to bring about this change? Here it is, in the words of Luke... "They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them."

This is Pentecost. This is the fulfilment of John the Baptist's prophecy to his disciples some three years earlier: "I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire..." (Matthew 3). Water baptism is important (perhaps it's time you asked for it?) - oh yes. But what is water baptism compared to this! To be inundated with the power of God through the Holy Spirit - that, surely, is, as the Americans say, "something else".

It's true that our experience of the Holy Spirit is rarely as dramatic as what happened on that momentous day. It's important to recognise that what happened then was a group experience - there is no suggestion anywhere in the New Testament that such a thing is likely to happen to every believer individually.  

Paul later uses the rather less dramatic expression "be filled with the Spirit." But whichever passage we focus on, what matters is that the Holy Spirit means change, transformation. From weakness to strength; from fear to boldness; from mice to lions - that's what we are seeing here. And that, in principle, is true for us too.

But - and this is the big question - how can we be sure of being filled with the Holy Spirit in our routine lives?

One thing is certain: there's no formula to be worked through. Some Christians will tell you that you need to have some kind of very special experience - it may be speaking in unknown languages, as in the Pentecost story, or it may be some mystical or trance-like experience such as we occasionally read of in the Bible. Well, such things can and do happen - we mustn't dismiss them out of hand.

But never forget that in the Bible "Be filled with the Spirit" is a command, and if God gives us a command, presumably he means that we should obey it. In other words, whether or not you and I are filled with the Spirit is fairly and squarely up to us. And there is no short cut to it. The secret is simple to say but hard to do: live, every day, a holy, Christ-like, trusting, humble, obedient, pure life. If you seek to do that, well, why would God not fill you with his Holy Spirit! (Have a quick look at Luke 11:13.)

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

You can never have too much of the Holy Spirit. So... no excuses!

Lord Jesus, you encourage us to ask for more of the Holy Spirit. As we empty ourselves of self and sin, and as we open ourselves to the Spirit's influence, may that purity and power be ours - all for your great glory. Amen.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

A debt we can never pay off

How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfil my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. Psalm 116:12-13

Have you ever found yourself saying to someone “I really don’t know how to thank you enough!”? And you meant exactly what you said. There are simply no words to express your gratitude, and the mere suggestion of some kind of financial payment is out of the question - how could you possibly put a monetary value on a kindness shown or a favour done?

Well, this is how the psalmist feels as he writes this lovely little prayer. He has been through a hard time (look back at verses 3-11), right to death’s door in fact, but God has rescued him, and he is simply glowing with gratitude. 

This is a prayer which Christians can easily take on our lips not just for some particular blessing received or prayer answered, but for the whole “salvation package” which is ours in Christ. How could we possibly recompense God for the blood of Jesus shed on the cross, for the gift of forgiveness and of eternal life, and for the resurrection life we enjoy now. Unthinkable!

And yet... the psalmist does mention a couple of things he intends to do. I think they are still relevant for us.

First, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord”.

This is obviously poetic, metaphorical language. It can be taken in one of two ways.

On the one hand, he could be saying “I intend to drink deep of this great gift of salvation that God has given me! I intend to enjoy my relationship with God to the very full, praising him with all my heart as I go along!” If we take it this way it highlights the gospel idea of the grace of God: salvation is a gift from God, received freely from his hand, and ours to delight in.

Personally, I like this interpretation. As I look back in my life I am immensely glad that God made me his own in my teenage years, and that he has kept me through all the years since. Not only could I never repay his grace and mercy - I could never even begin to tot up all the blessings received since that “happy day that fixed my choice / On thee, my Saviour and my God”. 

But the other interpretation is also possible. By “lifting up the cup of salvation” he could mean “I am offering a sacrifice to God”, even “I’m raising a toast to God!” In this interpretation the praise element is to the fore. I want to tell God that I love him!

Of course we don’t have to choose between those two interpretations. Why not do both? Christian, live a life of revelling in the grace of God, of course; but couple it with heartfelt praise.

The second thing the psalmist intends to do is to “fulfil my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people”.

To me this suggests two vital aspects of the spiritual life.

First, obedience. Vows are serious things. They imply commitment, determination, a never-looking-back attitude: think marriage or baptismal vows. They imply that I mean business with God; as Jesus put it so clearly, that I want to “love the Lord my God with all my heart, my soul, my mind and my strength... and to love my neighbour as myself” (Mark 12:30-31). So far we’ve focussed on the joyful aspect of walking with God. This now helps to sober us up if we are tempted to get a little over-excited. Don’t dabble with this Christian life.

Is it time some us renewed our vows to God?

Second, it reminds us of the public nature of being a Christian; the psalmist says he will fulfil his vows “in the presence of all God’s people”. To be a Christian is a wonderfully personal thing. But God forbid that we should ever let it become a purely private thing. Jesus tells us that we are to be unashamed of him as we go through life (Mark 8:38). No, we are not to ram our faith down people’s throats, of course not; but equally we are not to miss any opportunity to make Christ known, as long as we do it in a humble and gracious way. Call it what you like - witness, evangelism, testimony - but public declaration is vital.

Is it time some of us “went public” with our faith?

I invite you to slowly read Psalm116, and to make whatever applications may be especially relevant for you.

Lord God, help me day by day to enjoy you, to trust you, to praise you and to obey you - and always to be open and unashamed about my faith in Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Times of testing

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out, so that you can stand up under it. 1 Corinthians 10:13

There are times when life just seems too hard to bear. "I can't take any more," we say, "I've had enough." We are tempted to despair. We feel like giving up.

It's times like this that Paul is talking about here. Please bear with me as I get a bit technical for a moment... 

His words can be taken in two ways: that word "tempted" can also be translated "tested". In other words, Paul could be thinking of times when we are enticed into sin by the devil (that's "tempted"), or of times when we are hit by the hardships and circumstances of life (that's "tested"). (The same thing happens, incidentally, in the Lord's Prayer. The old translation said "Lead us not into temptation"; several new ones say "Do not bring us to hard testing".) Perhaps the two meanings come together in this sense: our testings can seem so severe that we are tempted to lose faith and to lose touch with God. Every testing situation brings the danger of temptation. And, of course, every temptation is a testing.

All clear? Well, however we take it, Paul is offering a strong ray of hope, and that is what we need to focus on.

First, he makes the point that testing is a common experience of the whole human race. I don't know what the Corinthian Christians had been going through, but Paul reminds them that their experiences are "common to man", that is, part of what it means to be a human being. True, that isn't much of a consolation to us in the midst of our troubles. But perhaps it helps us to get things in perspective. Others have been here before me, and have won through. Others are going through this right now - perhaps even worse. So don't get too self-absorbed!

Second, he makes the plain statement that "God is faithful". In other words, whatever the trials may be, God is with us and he will not abandon us. And, still more, he will not test us beyond breaking point - "beyond what you can bear". 

"Huh!" we might respond, "that's easy enough to say! But words are cheap - how does Paul know what I am going through?" But remember, Paul was no stranger to temptation and testing. He knew what it was to suffer - you only need look at 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 and 11:21-29 to be made aware of that. So when he says "God is faithful", that is a conviction born out of personal experience. Paul was no armchair Christian.

Third, he promises that God will provide "a way out". In other words, temptation and testing need not imprison us; there will be a way of escape. True, it may take some time to find it. True, it may prove hard and rocky. But it is there.

What might this "way of escape" be? Well, if we are talking of "temptation", it may be a decision
to remove ourselves resolutely from any situation that might cause us to weaken; to share our difficulty with a trusted Christian friend; to confess our weakness and failure; to ask God for forgiveness; to ask others for prayer and encouragement. 

If we are talking of "testing", it may be a conscious summoning up of faith, a renewed determination to trust as never before - a deliberate flexing of our spiritual muscles, so to speak. It may involve recruiting friends in prayer and support. A lot will depend on the particular circumstances. But the way out - or the way through - will be there if only we look for it.

Many, many Christians can testify to the truth of these words. As they look back, they say, "I really didn't think I would make it through - I just couldn't see a way out. But here I am today! And I have discovered again that God indeed is faithful".

May that be the witness of all of us as we face testing, and tempting, situations.

Dear Father, thank you for that simple statement, "God is faithful". Whatever my circumstances, help me to prove that it's not just empty words, but real and wonderful truth. Lord, please be my help at all times. Amen.