Saturday, 31 January 2015

Something that can never be repeated

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Hebrews 10:11-12

Every year in August my wife and I celebrate our wedding anniversary. Not terribly original, you might think - don’t the vast majority of married couples do that? Well, yes, they do. And a very good custom it is too.

But there is something we don’t do: we don’t repeat our wedding ceremony, we don’t actually marry one another again. 

The very idea is ridiculous, of course. And no doubt illegal too. Why? Because there are certain things in life which are simply and literally unrepeatable. Marrying again the person we are already married to is one of them.

Life contains many things that are repeatable, some of them very important, and some which can never be repeated, which are likely to be even more important. The writer of this Letter to the Hebrews is talking about a repeatable event which featured in the life of the Jewish people: animal sacrifice, including the shedding of blood.

Every day of the year animals were slaughtered in the Jerusalem temple and the blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. This, as you can imagine, required quite a little army of priests to cover all the services - notice those words “day after day” and “again and again”. 

But suppose a new priest appeared who was qualified to offer a once-for-all sacrifice, one which never needed to be repeated? Suppose the blood he offered to God was somehow able to deal with all human sin totally, completely and for ever? Wouldn’t that be something! Wouldn’t that be absolutely sensational good news?

Well, says the writer, that is in fact exactly what has happened! Just pause to take in his words: “...this priest has offered for all time one sacrifice for sins.” 

If you ask who this remarkable priest was, the answer is simple: Jesus Christ. And if you ask what blood it was that he offered, the answer to that is simple too: his own, shed on the cross on the first Good Friday. Jesus is both priest and sacrifice.

This is the staggering claim - this and nothing less - that the first Christians proclaimed when the Christian church was born. What the Jewish sacrificial system had been faithfully anticipating by constant repetition for centuries had come to an end. No more sacrifice! Why? - because there’s no need: a perfect sacrifice has been made for all time. This explains why Jesus, at the very moment he died, cried in triumph “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Repeating those historic sacrifices would be like getting married over and over again to the same person. What would be the point? 

If ever there was good news, this is it. All of us have guilty consciences; as the Bible puts it, we are all “sinners”, aware of bad things we have done throughout our lives. If we ever think about God’s final judgment on us at the end of time - and this is something the Bible tells us we must expect - then this thought is bound to make us feel seriously afraid.

But if the sacrifice made on Christ’s cross really has dealt once and for all with all human sin - well, what better news could there possibly be! All my sins are dealt with, even the ones buried long in my past or deep in my conscience! I needn’t fear the day of judgment! This, of course, is why Christians talk about “the gospel”, a word which simply means “good news”.

If all this seems a bit heavy, a bit “theological”, let me sum it up in a few simple sentences: We are all sinners... We all need saving... We cannot do anything to save ourselves... Jesus has done all that is needed... So all we need do is accept for ourselves what he has done once for all

This is the gospel. Can you say with confidence, Yes, my sins are forever forgiven, and I am at peace with God? I do hope so.

Lord God, thank you for the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice that Jesus offered for me on the cross. Help me to grasp its wonder and to live humbly and gratefully in its peace. Amen.

Is today the day you should ask God to forgive your sins once for all?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The sadness of wasted talents

May the God of peace... equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ... Hebrews 13:20-21

“Oh, I could never do that!" We very likely say that when someone suggests a new task or venture. "I haven't got what it takes!"

Well, if we're talking about learning to speak Mandarin, or swimming non-stop across the Atlantic, or training in retirement to be a part-time brain surgeon, we may have a point. But I wonder if sometimes we say it too quickly. I suspect that most of us probably could do a lot more with our lives than we allow ourselves to think. We limit ourselves unnecessarily.

The writer to the Hebrews offers a prayer that, in effect, God will enable his people to do things they never dreamed of doing. He prays that God will "equip you with everything good for doing his will..." Focus, please, on that word equip.

When I was quite a young Christian I learned a catchphrase which has stuck with me ever since: If God calls, he also equips. God isn't like the pharaoh in Exodus who told the people of Israel to get on with baking bricks even though they had no straw to do it with. That was both stupid and cruel. And God is neither stupid nor cruel. He will never ask us to do anything which is beyond our capabilities. But if he does ask us to do something, we can be sure he will supply everything we need for the task.

But what exactly does the writer have in mind? Probably two things.

First, the general business of living the tough and demanding Christian life. We certainly need God’s equipping for that.

But also, I think, he is referring to jobs, activities, indeed sometimes big steps of faith.

We shrink back: "Oh no! - ask someone else! that really isn't me!" And God smiles and replies, "But how do you know? You haven't tried it yet!" Moses said there was no way he could lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. But guess what he then did...? Mary said there was no way she could possibly become the mother of God's Son. But guess what she then did...?

I have known people in church life absolutely adamant that some work or responsibility was way beyond them: teaching a class or leading a group, organising some event, using some hidden or forgotten gift or talent, developing powers of leadership, engaging in some area of community involvement... I could go on. And guess what they then did?

Sometimes, it's true, these people needed a bit of persuasion. But once they realised that this wasn't just their own or someone else's fantasy, they rolled their sleeves up and got on with it. And they never looked back: "I would never have dreamed it was possible! But look at me now!"
I have also, sadly, known Christians who have some real talent, but who have chosen to sit on it rather than use it for the enrichment of the church. I think of a young woman who had a glorious folk-style singing voice, plus the ability to back it with beautiful guitar playing. But could I persuade her to sing in church...? I have known people with gifts in teaching, pastoral care, administration or finance, but who kept them under wraps.

Is this a word to someone reading this? Would you take a few minutes to pray about it? Would you be prepared to open your mind (yes, I know, a frightening prospect!) to new possibilities?

The key thing, as so often, is balance. On the one hand we mustn't get arrogant - "Bring it on - no problem, I can do that!" On the other hand we mustn't be over-humble - "beating ourselves up", as the saying goes. God may have other ideas.

There was once an old song which had these words: "There's a work for Jesus none but you can do". That's stuck with me too. Would you like to ponder it also?

Lord, please forgive me for any wasted, unused talent that lies sleeping within me. Help me to seek your perfect will for my life, and when I have found it, to take a deep breath and step out into the unknown -  always confident that you are a God who equips if first you call. Amen.

What talent or ability are you sitting on today?

Sunday, 25 January 2015

When a little is a lot

Jesus said, I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.  Mark 9:41

When she was British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was said to have had a simple way of assessing potential political allies; she would ask the question: “Is he/she one of us?”

One of us... It’s a really give-away phrase. Putting it crudely, it raises  the question whether or not a particular person is part of our in-crowd, our clique even. A group in an office, a factory, a hospital, a school might regard someone outside their circle as “not one of us”. Or a football fan doubtful about someone’s true allegiance. Or a strict vegetarian about someone’s commitment to the cause. 

Most of us have probably had unpleasant experiences of feeling excluded from a particular group. And (let’s not forget!) perhaps we too have been guilty of making other people feel that way.

In our passage the disciples of Jesus have just been involved in a situation which highlights this question. Let’s imagine the scene...

They are walking along the road together, but Jesus isn’t with them. They see a crowd of people near the roadside; something out of the ordinary is obviously going on. They go over to have a look. They see a man standing over someone on the ground and chanting some kind of prayer. Oh yes - they have seen this kind of thing before: this is an exorcism! The standing man is trying to cast demons out of the man on the ground.

As followers of Jesus who have seen him do this many times they naturally take an interest. What sort of technique or method is this person using? What words? Well, there’s quite a lot of noise going on, but to their dismay they distinctly pick up... the word Jesus

Yes! This man is using the name of Jesus - their Jesus, their master, their teacher - to work this miracle.

So the question becomes: who is he? They scan his face. Someone Jesus has healed? Someone they have seen in the crowds around him? No, they have no recollection of him at all. He is a complete stranger, an outsider. This is outrageous!

They are in no doubt what to do. They step into the middle of the crowd and tell the mysterious stranger to stop at once: how dare he use the name of Jesus in this way! They may not say the exact words, but their indignation is obvious: You are not one of us.

Well, did they do right or wrong? When they come to tell Jesus what has happened they are obviously pretty sure of themselves: “We told him to stop” - as if expecting the reply “Well done, my friends.”

But no. Jesus in fact rebukes them. Leave this man alone! He has done a good thing! And what is more, he will actually receive a reward from God - this is the clear implication of verse 41.

The main lesson of the story is very clear: as followers of Jesus we had better be careful not to dismiss or condemn others who are doing Christlike things just because they don’t happen to belong to our particular circle. Yes, there are people around who act and preach in ways we aren’t quite comfortable with. But God alone knows their hearts, so it is only wise to suspend judgment and leave him to do the judging. 

That’s the main point. But there is something else here worth focusing on: that word “reward”. Jesus states plainly that “anyone who gives you a cup of water (never mind casting a demon out of you!) in my name... will not lose his reward.”

My mind automatically asks the question, What might that reward actually be? And I have to admit that I don’t really know the answer to that. It certainly can’t be forgiveness or salvation, for Jesus makes very clear elsewhere that we can never earn God’s love or mercy by doing what is right (see, for example, Luke 17:7-10).

Perhaps it’s not what really matters anyway. What does matter is that, apparently, God sees and values even the tiniest act of kindness done in his name, even just the offering of a cup of water to a thirsty person.

And how relevant is that to our everyday lives! It means that every day there are opportunities to do some simple thing that brings happiness and healing into the life of some unfortunate person - and in so doing, to bring a smile to the face of God himself.

So while I take away from this episode various questions and some real challenges, I take away also a very beautiful paradox: You don’t have to do a lot to do a lot...

Lord, strengthen me, that, while I stand/ Firm on the rock and strong in thee, /I may stretch out a loving hand/ To wrestlers with the troubled sea. Amen!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A case of all or nothing

Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple... Luke 14:26

If I had to make a list of the ten words I most dislike I think “hate” would be right up there at the top. It conjures up in my mind a snarling face and a contemptuous attitude. It seems to be saying “I couldn’t care less about you”, even “I wish you were dead”. Hatred is as negative a sentiment as you could wish not to meet.

Which makes it all the more troubling to find it here on the lips of Jesus. And puzzling too. Doesn’t Jesus tell us elsewhere to love even our enemies? Yet here he is advocating hatred for our loved ones. What’s going on?

To make good sense of these words I think we need to grasp two basic points. At first sight they may seem to contradict one another, but I hope you will end up agreeing with me that they don’t.

First, these words are not to be taken literally.

Jesus is all about love, not hate. Yes, we are indeed to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44)! 

And when it comes to family life, the Bible consistently tells us to value it. According to the ten commandments (Exodus 20) we are to honour father and mother. Marriage is to be held as a sacred, holy relationship: this is made beautifully clear in Genesis 2:24, and Jesus himself reinforces it in Matthew 19:2-6. Paul in Ephesians 6:1-4 implies strong support of family ties. 

So why does Jesus speak like this? Because it is a powerful, expressive way of ramming home the fact that following him comes before all other allegiances. In the Bible “love” often means “put first”; “hate” means “never let this take precedence”. 

Sometimes we all need to be shocked into sitting up and taking notice of what is being said; this is what Jesus is doing here. (If you want confirmation of that, turn to Matthew’s softer version of the same command in Matthew 10:37-39.)

But second, in spite of what we have just seen, we mustn’t wriggle out of the sheer seriousness of what Jesus is saying.

He goes on in the following verses to talk not only of hating loved ones, but even of hating our own lives. He speaks of “taking up our cross” to follow him - and remember that the Romans under whom Israel suffered at this time were experts in the gruesome, cruel art of crucifixion, so this was no mere metaphor. 

Let’s put it like this: the “Jesus project”, if I can call it that - nothing less than the establishing of God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” - is an all-consuming thing. You can’t be half-hearted about it. It’s all or nothing. It involves sacrifice, even possibly danger.

In recent weeks some very brave people in the medical field have been travelling out to areas afflicted by ebola. Thank God for them! When they made the decision to go they knew that they were putting themselves at risk: some have indeed suffered. But they believed strongly enough in the urgency of the need to be willing to jeapordise their own lives. 

I think that’s not a bad analogy for what Jesus is saying here: “Follow me! - whatever the cost may be”.

This poses to us the question: all right, we may never be called on literally to face crucifixion or to set aside the claims of family life, but how much does the call of Jesus really mean to us?

So much for making sense of a hard saying. But I think there is a third point also worth mentioning: Jesus’ words put a whole new complexion on the idea of “family life” and “family values”.

It’s fashionable to hear people, both Christians and others (perhaps especially politicians in the build-up to a general or presidential election?), laying a great emphasis on the family. And that surely must be right.

But as Christians we have to be careful. We mustn’t - if I can put it this way - out-Jesus Jesus. It was he, after all, who told his troubled earthly parents that he had to be “about my father’s work” (Luke 2:49). It was he who must have caused Mary and his siblings pain by his words recorded in Matthew 12:48-50.

The message is clear: even a good thing - yes, even a beautiful, holy, sacred thing (and family life is certainly all of these) - can become an idol.

Any idols in your life or mine?

Lord God, help me right now to weigh up the priorities in my life. Help me to value all that is good and ordained by you. But help me never to turn even the best of them into an idol. Amen.