Sunday, 30 November 2014

When you are in the dark

Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God. Isaiah 50:10

We as a family went for a walk once in a large country park. There was a reservoir with paths circling it and it was tempting to see if we could get right round, even though it was four or five miles and some of the walk was heavily wooded. 

Everything was fine until we noticed that the afternoon was wearing on and it was getting quite dark. Our boys were still very young, and the prospect of ending up lost and in darkness became a frighteningly real one. Well, here we are today, so you can see that we made it all right. But it was a little nerve-wracking for a time.

The prophet Isaiah speaks about the person who "walks in the dark", who "has no light". Remember that in his day there was no such thing as artificial light, beyond candles and oil-lamps: no electricity. So the experience of being "in the dark" was one he will have known about far better than us. 

But of course he doesn't mean it in a literal sense; he is speaking about people who are living their lives in spiritual and emotional darkness, people who are in danger of losing their way in life. And he has only one word of advice for them: trust in God. It sounds so simple, but it can be very hard.

You might say, But of course this doesn't apply to us today. We have in Jesus the "light of the world". But if you read the passage as a whole it is clear that the prophet here is not talking about people who don't believe in God - he is addressing himself to his fellow-Israelites, fellow-believers, people who have received at least something of the light of God. It seems he is talking about people who, even though they belong to God, are in fact going through an experience of darkness.

And the same can be true of us. Yes, we do indeed have in Jesus the light of the world. But there are times when his light seems to be obscured for us. The fault may be ours: perhaps we have got out of touch with him through wilfulness, disobedience, sin. 

But that isn't necessarily the case. There are times when we feel ourselves "in the dark" in a particular situation for no reason that we can think of, even though we know in principle that Christ the light is with us. We find ourselves asking, How do I see my way through this particular dilemma? How can I make sense of what is happening in my life right now? All right, I do believe in Jesus - but I don't seem to be receiving the guidance and help I need at the moment. I am, in effect, "in the dark".

Isaiah's answer all those centuries ago remains true for us at times like that: "trust in the name of the Lord and rely on your God". Yes, I know it sounds all very general and rather vague. But there are times when faith simply has to trust in the face of the unknown. 

Indeed, isn't that very often what faith is - believing precisely when we cannot see? Isn't that exactly what Paul means when he says in 2 Corinthians 5:7 that we "walk by faith, not by sight"? Isn't that what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews means when he says that "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (11:1)? The fact is that if we weren't "in the dark" sometimes then we would have no need of faith. Faith is the key.

As we move towards 2015 do you find yourself rather "in the dark"? I know it's not an easy situation to be in - believe me, I've been there myself on many occasions. But I can only urge you to ponder Isaiah's simple words - perhaps pray them, so to speak, into your own soul. The day will come when the light will shine again and the darkness will be a thing of the past.

Lord, I feel at the moment that I am stumbling in the darkness. As I struggle to put my trust in you, please keep me from falling and bring me out again into the light. Amen.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Just like us

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence... Hebrews 4:15-16

Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are”. I wonder if we have ever allowed the full impact of that statement to sink into our minds?

It means that, in principle if not of course in every detail, there is nowhere I may have to go where Jesus has not been before me. He experienced physical torture. He knew extreme hunger. He knew ferocious satanic attack. All these are spelled out in the gospels. 

But presumably he knew also what it was to be subject to temptations suggested by the ten commandments; not to mention those we perhaps consider (wrongly?) to be fairly petty - jealousy, irritability, careless words, laziness, resentment, unjustified anger. But in all these situations he was “without sin”. 

I have to admit that I find it hard to understand how all this can be. Reconciling the divine nature of Jesus with his human nature is something that has taxed theologians throughout the Christian period - how could one person be both perfectly divine and genuinely human? But I for one am happy to let the theologians puzzle it out; what matters is this clear statement of scripture, and what it means in practice for us weak human beings.

Which is what, exactly? Let’s spell a few things out.

First, it means that Jesus is a massive challenge to us. 

His experience teaches us that temptation can be overcome - the story of his trial in the wilderness makes that clear. Many of us, I suspect, make do sometimes with a rather token resistance to sin. As long as we aren’t guilty of anything too glaring, we settle for an “Oh well, six out of ten isn’t too bad” attitude - overlooking the fact that God calls us to be “perfect”, “holy”. We settle for respectability rather than real godliness.

This wasn’t the way of Jesus, and it shouldn’t be our way either. Only the best!

But second, it means that Jesus is a massive comfort too.The writer uses expressions which can give us a tremendous boost.

One is that Jesus is “able to sympathise” - which doesn’t just mean “feel sorry for” but “to suffer alongside”. Jesus doesn’t talk down to us from a great height. No, he is right in the thick of things, just where we are. He doesn’t only offer advice or even a good example, though he does of course do that; no, he shares our troubles. 

And this truth is reinforced by those other wonderfully comforting words, “just as we are”. Picture Jesus wearily wiping the sweat from his brow after a hard day out teaching the crowds. Picture him easing himself into bed, dog-tired. Picture him, acutely thirsty, asking the Samaritan woman for a drink from her bucket. Just like us. 

Third, it gives us hope. The writer tells us we can “approach the throne of grace with confidence”. Come boldly into the presence of God!

Many religious leaders in history have been stern and forbidding. They have crushed and intimidated those who look to them by the severity of their demands, keeping them at arms’ length. But not Jesus. His arms, outstretched on the cross, form a posture of welcome. And that is exactly how God sees us: “Come!” he says, “come! I love you. I want you to be with me!”

I don’t know what your particular weaknesses and temptations are. They may be things you are so ashamed of that you can’t share them even with your best friend. They may have dominated and poisoned your life for many years. Well, if these verses mean anything, they mean that Jesus knows all about them yet still loves you

For there is something else here we haven’t yet mentioned explicitly. Jesus isn’t only your friend who sympathises with you, your fellow-human who is just as you are; no, he is also your high priest who has acted on your behalf. He has offered a once-for-all, perfect sacrifice for sin. Whatever your sins may be - however shameful, humiliating, disgusting, cruel, spiteful, degraded - his blood is sufficient to deal with them. Yes, really.

So why hold back? Why not “approach the throne of grace? Why not come? Why not come today?

Lord Jesus, thank you for loving me even in the worst of my sins and the hardest of my trials. Thank you for the perfect sacrifice of your blood shed on the cross. Thank you for ushering me into the presence of the all-holy God. Lord Jesus, I come, I come! Amen.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

True and false religion

I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Isaiah 6:1

The angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in flames of fire from within a bush. Exodus 3:2

We are often told that people are wide open to the idea of the “spiritual” - the “religious”, the “numinous”, call it what you like - but they have no time for “organised religion”. And so the churches are emptying while they pursue their quest elsewhere.

Well yes, organised religion (I detest that word with all its negative connotations, but sometimes you have to make do) can be a curse, no doubt about that. It can become a habit, almost a drug or a prison. I heard of a minister who, having conducted his last service before retirement, never entered the doors of a church again. His religion had, presumably, been operating on auto-pilot and when the plane eventually landed he couldn’t run away quickly enough. 

But while recognising the dangers of such barren religiosity, it is worth asking what people who “have no time for organised religion” actually want. Unorganised religion? Disorganised religion? 

I suspect that what they are in fact looking for is private religion - that is, religion they can practice with minimal interruption to their normal routine, and without having to bother about burdensome responsibilities. "I want the feelgood factor, but not the cost of commitment" - I hope I’m not judging too harshly, but that, in reality, is what such people are saying. Putting it even more bluntly, private religion is essentially selfish religion. 

It is, after all, far easier to burn incense at home in a dimly lit room, or sit meditatively in an empty church, or scan the stars on a solitary hillside walk than it is to help with the washing-up at the end of a service, or play table-tennis with the local yoof on a Friday night after a hard week, or turn out on a cold evening for a difficult church meeting. But these things, in reality, are a large part not only of what organised religion is about, but, more to the point, of what true religion is about. 

True religion is inescapably corporate and unashamedly down-to-earth. Yes, it starts in a personal, intimate encounter between the individual and God. But it never ends there. Christian baptism, for example, the sacrament of initiation, is initiation not only into Christ, but also into his community. You cannot become a Christian without becoming part of the body of Christ, the church: it’s part of the “package”. By choosing Christ you choose the church. 

And the church is not some nebulous, mystical entity. No, it is people - and, very often, precisely those people you have to learn to love, even if you do not particularly like them: that man with the maddening habit of talking too much, that woman who never stops grumbling. And it is responsibility: working, serving, sacrificing. 

This is not to dismiss the reality or the importance of the numinous: God forbid! There are indeed precious times of intimacy with God, even of awe and wonder. But it is to locate those times precisely where they belong - in the sheer ordinariness of life in general, and of religious observance in particular. 

Moses had an encounter with God in a bush that burned but wasn’t consumed. A numinous experience if ever there was one. But where did he have it? Out in the fields while he was getting on with his day job of minding his father-in-law's sheep. And what did it lead to? Work. Responsibility.

Isaiah had an awesome vision of God that changed his life for ever. Where did he have it? Well, it’s not made explicit, but mention of “the temple” suggests he was going about the normal business of worship. And what did it lead to? Work. Responsibility. 

Luke 4:16 tells us that Jesus went to synagogue every Saturday, "as was his custom". Perhaps he didn’t always feel like it; but he went, obeying the call of, yes, organised religion. In the days before he went to the cross he did plenty of praying and agonising; but we also find him kneeling down and washing the smelly, dirty feet of his disciples. Not much numinousness there. 

"I want God, but I don't want organised religion." It sounds fine. Who, in their senses, wants to be like those poor saps on the leadership team of a church, with difficult people to deal with, tricky decisions to make and long agendas to work through? 

But, sorry, you can’t have it that way; God is simply not available on those terms. True religion is about rolled up sleeves as much as about bended knees. Get used to it!

Almighty God, thank you that you meet with us in the nitty-gritty of everyday life. Help me to rejoice in routine activities, whether explicitly “spiritual” or down-to-earth “practical”. Amen.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Let God pick up the pieces!

“...if I perish, I perish.” Esther 4:16

Esther finds herself in a tricky position. The Persian king, Xerxes, has rejected his wife, Queen Vashti, and Esther has been chosen to replace her. What Xerxes doesn’t know, and what Esther has no reason to tell, is that she is Jewish, and so belongs to a foreign community in the Persian empire.

Everything is fine until Haman, Xerxes’ right hand man, develops a vicious hatred of the Jews and persuades the King that they should be destroyed. The king foolishly agrees - not realising that this must inevitably involve his own senior queen. 

Esther has a guardian, her uncle Mordecai. He becomes aware of what is going on and tells Esther she needs to act on behalf of her Jewish compatriots. “For all we know it was for just this time that you have come to be queen. Go and talk to the king!” (4:14) But there is a problem: in spite of her high position Esther cannot do this; she has to wait to be summoned.

But is she then just to sit around doing nothing? This seems absolutely intolerable, so she makes up her mind: “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” You can almost see her shrugging her shoulders.

The rest is history. Esther’s courageous decision turns out well, and her people are saved from destruction.

Our circumstances are, I imagine, totally different from Esther’s. But there is a principle here which can equally apply to us as Christians, even though in much less dramatic ways: there are times in our lives when we just have to take a deep breath, do what is right, and leave it to God to pick up the pieces. To do nothing is to do wrong.

An obvious example is that brave person we hear about from time to time, the “whistle-blower”. This is the person who sees something wrong going on in their place of work and who feels in conscience that they cannot remain silent. Yes, if they blow the whistle it could cost them their job, but they feel they cannot do anything else. And “If I perish, I perish.”

You can probably think of other possible scenarios in your own situation. What, for example, if the boss tells you to lie to someone on the phone?

Certainly our fellow-Christians in countries where the church is persecuted can face this kind of thing on an almost daily basis. There is the pastor who is forbidden to hold a service next Sunday... the mother who is told her child will be thrown out of the school if she doesn’t renounce her faith in Jesus... the employee, with his family totally dependent on his small pay, who is threatened with dismissal if he doesn’t convert to Islam. What are these people to do?

When I read the Esther story, and when I hear about these other harrowing situations, it prompts various thoughts in my mind.

First, that I will never criticise or condemn people who, under such pressure, end up doing what seems wrong. Not until I have stood in their shoes will I pass judgment.

Second, to pray that if ever I should find myself in such a situation I would have the courage to do what my Spirit-directed conscience tells me.

Third, to give all the support and prayer I possibly can to people, both Christians and others, who suffer for conscience’ sake. The writer to the Hebrews tells us: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3).

If I perish, I perish... That’s pretty much what Daniel's friends said to King Nebuchadnezzar when threatened with the furnace: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods...” (Daniel 3:17-18). Don’t you just love that “even if he does not...”!

And it’s also pretty much what Peter and his fellow-apostles said to the authorities who were trying to muzzle them (Acts 4:19-20): “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Don’t you just love that “we cannot help speaking...”!

And it’s pretty much what many Christians find themselves having to say today.

What price are you prepared to pay to keep your Christian conscience clean?

Lord God, in many parts of the world your people are risking their very lives to stay loyal to Jesus. Protect, comfort and keep them, I pray. And help me to give them whatever support I can. Amen.