Thursday, 31 December 2015

You need never walk alone

Enoch walked with God. Genesis 5:22 

It’s not a bad way to go down in history, is it? – he walked with God. Enoch was obviously a special person – the same words are repeated in verse 24.Could they, I wonder, be engraved on your tombstone?

The Bible has many ways of describing our relationship with God: loving him, trusting him, obeying him, fearing him. And they are all important.

But it is quite fond of this metaphor of walking with him. Much the same is said of Noah (Genesis 6:9) and Abraham. Micah the prophet tells us to “walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). And Paul tells us to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16, though the NIV puts “live” instead of “walk”).

Think of “walking with God” as a parcel of ideas – what comes tumbling out if we unpack it?

First, companionship. To walk with someone suggests friendship, conversation; it is an act of sharing. I suspect some of the most precious moments in our relationships with other people have occurred while we have been walking.

Never let anything – sin, carelessness, laziness, distractions – jeopardise your minute-by-minute companionship with God.

Second, progress. People who are walking are moving, not static – Genesis doesn’t say Enoch “sat in an armchair” at God’s feet (though no doubt there is a place for that). The Christian life is a journey: “from the old unto the new, keep me travelling along with you”, as the song puts it.

Are any of us stagnating a bit? Have we decided we have reached the limit of our potential? Have we stopped exploring, growing, learning, developing? Think of each new day as an adventure in moving on with God.

Third, protection. There’s safety in numbers, the saying goes, and that was specially so in the ancient world. As Jesus’ story of the man who fell among robbers shows, the lone traveller is specially vulnerable. (This, of course, is one reason why Jesus draws his people into churches, communities – the Bible knows nothing of the solitary Christian.)

Well, if we walk with God how can we be anything but safe? Of course, that doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen to God’s people. They do. But in the ultimate sense we have perfect security in the hands of our loving heavenly Father.

Fourth, effort. Even a pleasant stroll involves an element of exertion. And if you decide on a ten-mile hill walk, well, you’re going to know you’ve done it. In the Christian life the way is sometimes relatively easy – good health, a positive work situation, a happy family life: the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the ground is level.

But at other times the going is tough – sickness, disappointments, set-backs, even heartbreaks: dark clouds, ferocious winds and soaking rain. That’s when we need to cling especially tightly to God’s hand. Let no-one imagine that the Christian life is always a doddle!

Fifth, a destination. Of course, we may sometimes choose to stroll around somewhere just for the sake of it – something I must admit I quite like to do if I am in a place, especially abroad, where I have never been before.

But generally we walk in order to get somewhere. That’s why it’s all the more satisfying when, after quite a tough time, we can take it easy and put our feet up.

Well, I don’t want to give the impression that in heaven we are just going to lounge around. But the fact is that we are promised “rest” when our earthly toil is done (the letter to the Hebrews especially speaks about this, in chapters 3 and 4). Jesus said, “I am going to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).

This world in which we presently live is not all there is. There is something above and beyond us which is infinitely, unimaginably greater. And that’s where we’re headed.
And so, especially as we stand on the brink of a new year, the message is clear – keep walking!

Dear Father in heaven, please help me to walk with you minute by minute and day by day, until that day comes when my walk is done and I enter my heavenly rest. Amen.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

One day at a time...

Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. Matthew 16:24

Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. Mark 8:34

Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me they must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”. Luke 9:23

Hallo! - is this man Colin Sedgwick losing his grip? He’s typed out the same verse three times! All right, he’s taken it once from Matthew, once from Mark and once from Luke, but still, it’s the same words. Oh dear! - poor chap.

Did you think something like that when you opened this blog? Well, it’s understandable if you did. But in fact - sorry, you were wrong. Please read again...

See it now? Yes, just one little word: daily. Luke has it, but Matthew and Mark don’t. Matthew and Mark make it seem that “taking up your cross” might be just a once-for-all event. But Luke explicitly makes it an everyday occurrence.

Well, I don’t think we need to choose between the different gospel writers, because they are all correct, and we need them all. (It does remind us, by the way, that they saw themselves as editors as well as reporters, happy to put a different slant on what they were reporting, according to the emphasis they wanted to bring out).


2016 is almost with us, and people everywhere will be making their New Year resolutions. It’s strange, really, that they do so, because you constantly hear them confessing with a rueful smile that those resolutions probably won’t last beyond the end of January. 

But I think that at this time of the year it’s Luke’s slant, with that word “daily”, that most of us probably need most.

Certainly, yes, taking up your cross to follow Jesus is a once-for-all event, even if you can’t pin it down to a precise date. Many of us can look back and remember that event with great gladness. For me, it was when I was baptised as a fifteen-year-old boy. For you, it might have been your confirmation, or simply the day in your life when you “committed your life to Christ” or “made a decision to follow Jesus”, or “were born again”, or however it was expressed in your particular circles. Such memories can only be precious to any Christian. 

But let’s be clear: that great, life-changing decision to follow Jesus must never be only a once-in-a-lifetime thing. No, as Luke’s account makes clear, it is a decision for every new day.

CS Lewis wrote somewhere that as Christians we must start every day as if it were from scratch. We can benefit from the past, of course, and hopefully we all do, but we can’t live on its capital. Like the people of Israel in the desert, yesterday’s manna is no good to us.

(This, incidentally, is why “words of testimony” in a meeting can be unhelpful. We’ve probably all heard people recalling their conversion-experience. But very often it’s ten, twenty or thirty years ago, and as you listen you find yourself thinking, “OK, this is great - but what about today, what about yesterday, what about now?”)

I can pretty well guarantee that if you make a New Year resolution along the lines “In 2016 I will be a far better, more committed Christian!” then you will fail. And then you will end up feeling guilty and depressed, like the drinker or gambler who vows to break their habit for the next year and then can’t keep it up. 

No: the thing to do is to renew your commitment - to “take up your cross”, as Jesus puts it - each and every day, perhaps even every hour. If our Christian experience isn’t fresh and up-to-date, then it’s nothing.

There’s an old hymn (like the CS Lewis quote, I can’t place it now: perhaps you can help me?) that contained these words: “High heaven that heard the solemn vow, /That vow renewed shall daily hear...”

Yes! Let’s make that our aim.

So... What about New Year resolutions? Well yes, by all means make them if you really feel they can help you - at least it shows good intentions, and that can’t be bad. But here’s something far, far better - New Day resolutions. Less dramatic, certainly; less exciting, that too. But far more realistic. And, ultimately, far more satisfying and fulfilling.

One day at a time, Lord Jesus, one day at a time - help me to aim for nothing more, and to expect nothing less. Amen.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The key to a happy Christmas

Jesus said: You’re far happier giving than getting. Acts 20:35 (The Message)

Christmas was coming, and I was feeling pretty fed up. 

My problem was this: I was still single at the time (this was many years ago!) and I was planning to go to my recently widowed mother’s for a few days. I had it worked out in my mind - we would go to church on Christmas morning, come back home, exchange presents, have a good dinner, probably watch a bit of television, perhaps go for a walk - and no doubt do a bit of pretty serious snoozing.

Sorted. I had been working really hard, and the thought of such an easy, relaxing day was perfect.

But then my mother rang. “Colin, I hope you don’t mind, but we’re doing a special Christmas day lunch at church for the older people, and I’ve offered to help out. Will that be all right by you?”

Well, there wasn’t much I could say, was there? Of course I couldn’t back out of the visit altogether, and nor would I want to. But neither could I head off to Mum’s flat after the service and leave them to it. No, I would have to be in there too, being all bright and jolly with a load of elderly people I didn’t know. 

Bang went my nice lazy Christmas Day. Thanks a bunch, Mum.

I won’t say I went to church that Christmas morning with a resentful spirit; no, I prayed that God would help me to be generous-spirited and cheerful, and I think he did. But I can’t pretend I was looking forward to the event all that much. It was a case, really, of “Oh well...” (sigh).

And what happened? It was one of the best, happiest, most enjoyable and most rewarding Christmas days I can ever remember. 

It was hard work, mind you. I was just a general dogsbody, helping wherever needed. This was the days before churches routinely had dish-washers, so I seemed to spend until early evening up to my elbows in the washing up bowl.

But the laughter, the fun, the banter, the silliness, not to mention one or two serious conversations... I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And don’t worry - when serious-snooze time came around, we were well ready for it.

The lesson was clear. While we fallen human beings are hard wired to think first of our own pleasure and enjoyment, it really is true that putting others first yields a greater and deeper satisfaction.

At this time of the year we hear a lot in sermons and elsewhere about “the true meaning of Christmas”. That phrase covers a lot - above all, about God’s great love for humankind shown in the sending of Christ to be our teacher, our friend, our example, our sacrifice, our saviour, our lord.

And part of his example is his willingness to “spend and be spent” for our sakes, to give of himself to the very uttermost. 

I sometimes think there is a sense in which “the baby of Bethlehem” gets in the way of what really matters. Yes, he was born as a baby - after all, how else could he have been? But he grew to be a man. And it’s what happened then that really counts.

Paul puts it like this: “...though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Whereas it is so natural for us to think only or mainly of ourselves - what we like, what we want - he thought only of us, even to the extent of giving his very life for us.

Here’s Paul again: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Yes, I thought my mothers’ plans for me that Christmas day were for my loss. But I learned that they were in fact for my gain. Even my slightly grudging service for others made me happy - as well, I hope, as doing some real good for people who are precious in God’s eyes.

Well, I don’t know what kind of Christmas you are anticipating this week. But I offer my little reminiscence in the hope that it might just possibly give you, as it did me, a new perspective on where happiness really comes from.

What is joy? - Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. Yes?
Happy Christmas!

Father, thank you for the great love you showed at the first Christmas in giving Jesus to live, die and rise again for sinful people. Help me not only to enjoy that love myself, but, still more, to share it with others. Amen.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Go God's way!

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it". Isaiah 30:21

One Sunday morning in church someone was blindfolded and asked to walk round the building. It meant negotiating plenty of chairs, turns, legs, not to mention a step, an umbrella or two, and perhaps a baby buggy. But he did it, and with very little difficulty (and he even seemed to know when he had reached the place where he could aim a friendly kick at his wife).

How did he manage it? Simple: someone else was walking behind him and whispering instructions into his ear - "Left turn here, two steps forward, right foot up here...”.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw a day when the people of Zion - that is, Jerusalem - would hear the voice of God in their ear: "This is the way, walk in it".

I love the simplicity of those words. Originally they applied to God’s people as a whole, the nation of Israel. But they also  apply, I believe, to every individual child of God, to you and to me. God has a way for each of us to go, if only we will hear and obey. The secret of fulfilment in life is to walk trustingly in the way of God.

Of course, it isn't always as easy in practice as it sounds. There are times when we genuinely don't know which way is God's way. We get puzzled and even confused. At times like that we need to rely on four key things.

First, scripture. If our minds are soaked in God's word then we are more likely to sense his leading at vital times, even if there is no specific Bible text that relates precisely to our concern.

Second, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit lives within us, and we can ponder and reflect on his will for us through prayer.

Third, common sense. Christians shouldn't be afraid of applying this. Certainly, there are times when God asks his child to do something that seems pretty strange - not common sense at all! - but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Fourth, the wisdom of others. If we bounce our uncertainty off a trusted and mature Christian friend, their advice is likely to help us. A book or some other written material may set us off down the right track.

Whatever, the fact is that if we are humble and genuine in our search for God's way, he will make it clear to us in time. Why wouldn't he? If he loves us, why would he want us to go wrong?

Jesus spoke of the wide gate and the broad road that "lead to destruction", and of the narrow gate and the narrow way that "lead to life" (Matthew 7). As if to say, "Don't just go with the crowd! Don't opt for the easy way, don't take the line of least resistance!" The narrow gate may be harder to find, and the narrow way more difficult to tread - but it really is the difference between life and death. How many lives have been ruined because someone decided to step outside God's chosen way! How sad that is.

Someone might say, "But this is too late for me. It's years ago now that I took a wrong turning and lost my way. There's no possibility of retracing my steps. My life is ruined!"

But no. God has this wonderful knack of giving us a new start at any point in our lives, even right towards the very end, in our old age. He can even weave the follies and mistakes of the past into a new pattern which will turn out beautiful.

So don't despair! God is the God of new beginnings. True, the past can never be undone, but it can be reshaped into a new purpose and meaning.

So let's be careful how we walk. To step out of God's way is to step into trouble, danger and sorrow - to step, in fact, into deep darkness. Has anyone reading this done that? Is anyone actually doing it at the moment...? Yes? Well, it’s time to stop and take a long, hard look at where we’re going.

To walk with God is to walk in the light. Are you always straining to hear that quiet voice: "This is the way; walk in it"?

Lord Jesus Christ, you said "I am the way". Help me to take that simple word seriously, and so help me to walk with you every minute of every day, until that day comes when I will see you face to face. Amen.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Heading for the garbage-pile?

Jesus said, You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.  Matthew 5:13
For some years now I have been careful about the amount of salt I eat - after all, the medical people tell us that too much salt can cause serious disease, even things like strokes. But we all need some salt, both for health and for the sheer enjoyment of food.

In the ancient world salt was especially important, not something to be taken for granted. Roman soldiers received a certain amount of their income, their salary, in the form of salt, or in money to buy salt with. (Have you ever wondered where the word "salary" comes from? - the Latin word for salt is "sal".)

Well, Jesus tells his followers that we are "the salt of the earth". That means that we impart to this often dreary, grey, hard world flavour, zest and taste. And like salt before the days of refrigeration, we also help to stop the rot in society by living Christlike lives.

So it's especially sad when Christian people "lose their saltiness", as Jesus puts it here. That can mean a lot of things, with all sorts of application. 

But in essence Jesus is talking about times when we act just like everybody else, following the habits and practices of the world around us. Not that we are called to be different just for the sake of being different, but our lives should demonstrate that in matters both large and small there is a better way, a heavenly way.

Some years ago there was a top cricketer who was known as a Christian. In one innings he touched the ball to the wicket-keeper - which means (in case cricket isn’t your thing) that he was out, "caught behind". But he stayed where he was, not actually saying anything but, in effect, lying to the umpire: "I didn't touch the ball". One of the opposing players looked at him and said, "I thought you were supposed to be a Christian." A case of the salt losing its saltiness?

A prominent politician found himself in court a few years ago and ended up in prison for fiddling his expenses. He too was known as a Christian. Another case of the salt losing its saltiness?

A well-known church leader is found guilty of sexually abusing children... Sadly, I could go on.

Of course it's easy to point the finger at other people, especially the sort of people who are prominent enough to get into the papers. But, as has often been pointed out, every time you point a finger at someone else you are also pointing three at yourself (try it! - it's a fact).

And this raises the challenging question, "How 'salty' is my life?"

Jesus says that tasteless salt is fit only to be be "thrown out and trampled underfoot". The Message version of the Bible puts it in pretty down-to-earth language: "Let me tell you why you're here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage." Mmm!

What Jesus doesn’t mention here is two bits of good news. 

First, if we realise how far we have fallen, and how tainted we have become, and if we are truly sorry, and are determined to change, then our saltiness can in fact be restored. But we do need to mean business - and we need to accept that change can be painful. Are we prepared for that? 

But let’s be clear, none of us needs to “end up in the garbage”!

Second, the process does of course work the other way round too. How often have you heard someone talk in this sort of way about how they became a Christian: “Well, there was this man in my office, and I didn’t really know what it was about him, but somehow he made a real impression on me. I suppose I found myself wanting whatever it was he had...” 

And what was it he had? Well, what else but the “salt and light factor” Jesus is talking about here?
Lord, you don't ask us to be different just for the sake of being different, but to show the world that there is a better, more satisfying, and more fulfilling way of being human than people realise. Please show me by your Holy Spirit if there is any area of my life where I have lost my saltiness. Amen.