Thursday, 30 April 2015

Living for God's glory

So ...whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.   1 Corinthians 10:31.

A simple question: What are you living for?

When you put your feet on the floor by your bed in the morning, what motivates you? Is it mainly a sense of duty and responsibility? The need to make money? The desire to enjoy yourself? A commitment to your work? None of these things, of course, are bad. But should they be our top priority?

According to the Bible as a whole, and spelt out here by Paul, we are called to live first and foremost "for the glory of God". Note that word “whatever” - which means “anything and everything”.
Glory: it’s a hard word to pin down. It conjures up the idea of God's majesty and power made known on earth, the outshining of his being - as when Moses saw him on Mount Sinai, or when the disciples saw the glorified Christ at the transfiguration.
In the Old Testament glory has a root meaning of "weight", "heaviness". Heavy things often tend to be worth more than light things. Nina and I have a set of dinner plates given us as a wedding present - and they are heavy. You only have to pick one up to sense its quality. So the glory of God is to do with his worth, his value, his sheer importance.

In the New Testament glory can have the sense of "reputation". I find this a helpful way to understand what Paul is talking about in our verse.
It may seem strange, but he is referring here to the most ordinary thing you could imagine - eating and drinking. (I said that word “whatever” is important!)
He says that Christians may have differing views on, say, being or not being vegetarian. "But don't worry about it!" he says. "Just make sure that whatever you eat and drink you do it to the glory of God." In other words, in your attitude to this most ordinary thing, remember that God's reputation is at stake.

What we need to get into our heads is that in all the everyday things of life we have the duty and responsibility to ensure that God's reputation - his name - is unsullied. This means we need to ask ourselves a few questions...

Do I do my supermarket shopping to the glory of God? Am I polite to other customers? Do I exchange a friendly word with the person at the check-out? Do I drive my car to the glory of God? Am I courteous to other road users (not least pedestrians!)? Do I let the bus out first? Do I jump the lights? Do I keep to the speed limit? Do I do the house-hold chores to the glory of God? Cheerfully or grumblingly? Whole-heartedly or shoddily? And what about my day-time job, assuming I have one? Do I do a fair day's work for a fair day's pay? Do I try and get away with the bare minimum required, or really give of my best?
And in life’s bigger things... How do I conduct my relationships? Patiently? Kindly? Sensitively? Is my way of speaking good? Is my humour wholesome? Am I strictly honest? Do I look out for the stranger, the person the rest of the world passes by?

I could go on. The seventeenth century poet George Herbert put it like this: "Teach me, my God and King,/ In all things Thee to see,/ And what I do in anything/ To do it as for Thee... A servant with this clause/ Makes drudgery divine:/ Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws/ Makes that and the action fine". Yes, we can even “make drudgery divine” if we have a truly God-glorifying attitude.

In fact (here's a thought) there's only one thing in our lives which we can't do to the glory of God. What is it? Sin. A person who aims to do everything to the glory of God will make every effort to get rid of every trace of sin from his or her life. God is sinless, so we should be too. No compromises!

If only we could adopt this attitude consistently day by day - it would make new people of us. And it would make a real impact on the people who know us. Let's go out this week and do all things - yes, literally all things - for the glory of God.

Father, forgive me that my life tends to be so me-centred. Through the power of your Holy Spirit please teach me to live for your glory, and your glory alone.  Amen.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

When life seems cruel

"Don't call me Naomi," she said. "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter."  Ruth 1:20

In Hebrew naomi means "pleasant", mara means "bitter". So there is a world of sadness in Naomi's words here.

What has happened? Something like this...

Naomi and her husband Elimelech seem to have been an ordinary couple living in Bethlehem about 1000 years before Jesus was born there. They had two boys, Mahlon and Kilion. Famine came to Bethlehem, and they decided to make a new life for themselves in Moab, a land on the other side of the Dead Sea. They were, in effect, economic migrants, like so many millions of people today.

I imagine life was hard for them - it can't be easy to uproot from your home country and go and live in a foreign land. This, of course, is something to remember if ever we are tempted to get angry about unfortunate people who make their way to Britain looking for a better life - not to mention the tragic asylum-seekers willing to risk the waters of the Mediterranean in order to get to Europe. But at least Elimelech and Naomi had one another.

Then... Elimelech died. This was a terrible blow to Naomi - but at least she still had her two boys with her. Eventually they married Moabite girls, Orpah and Ruth. Can you picture the weddings? I'm sure there was great rejoicing, the only shadow being "If only Elimelech was here!"

Naomi got on well with her new daughters-in-law, and they were a happy family group.

But then there was a double blow - Mahlon and Kilion died. We don't know why. Perhaps there was a plague. Or did some enemy attack, and lots of the young men get killed?

Whatever, Naomi suddenly finds herself alone in this foreign land with just her two newly-widowed daughters-in-law. She decides to head back to Bethlehem, and Ruth, though a Moabite, insists on going with her. Orpah prefers to look for a new husband in Moab (and we needn’t blame her for that).

And so the day comes when two travel-weary women, one old, one young, walk into Bethlehem. People look up from whatever they are doing as they approach. At first they assume they are total strangers come to town. But then someone, looking very hard, whispers in disbelief "Is that... Naomi...? Surely not!" And we know what Naomi said in reply: as if an Englishwoman might say “Yes, my name indeed is Joy - but you might as well call me Sorrow”.

Sad, sad, sad!

No doubt there are millions of people all over the world who could echo Naomi's words: "God has made life very bitter for me". Pain and tears are part of our human destiny. No-one, ultimately, escapes.

There is a lot one could say. But perhaps the most important thing is this: Naomi's story has a happy ending. I won't tell you what it is: the little Book of Ruth is only four chapters long, so you can read it for yourself! But God cleansed away the bitterness and tears, and there was joy once more. You may remember stories from when you were a child, and how they ended "And they all lived happily ever after." Well, it really is a bit like that.

Yes, life can be desperately painful and hard. But it is no exaggeration to say that for the child of God every story has a happy ending. A day will come when God will "wipe every tear from our eyes" (Revelation 21). Do you believe that?

It’s worth noticing too that not only does Naomi’s personal story end happily, but God even weaves it into his larger purposes: Ruth’s future son, Obed, becomes the great King David’s grandfather and thus, amazingly, takes his place in the family-tree of Jesus.

And so, too, even our little lives can have a big place in the working out of God’s plans.

I heard recently from a friend I had had no contact with for over 30 years. Life has dealt cruelly with him. He did a job that required excellent eye-sight. Then, in mid-life, his sight failed and he was registered blind. Mara, bitter!

But a remarkable thing happened. He has always been a gifted pianist, playing purely by ear. And this beautiful gift suddenly took a leap forward, and he has been playing in major venues round the country. No compensation for losing his sight, I know. But a reminder that God has this remarkable way of bringing good out of bad.

May God help us to believe it!

Lord, in the bitterness of hurt, disappointment, pain and grief, help me to cling to you by faith. And so bring me to that glorious day when all tears will be for ever wiped away. Give me also a heart of compassion for those whose tears still flow. Amen. 

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Time for decision?

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied “Repent, and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins...’ Acts 2:37-38

“Don’t just stand there - do something!” Has anyone ever shouted that at you? 

It’s a totally normal day, and then some sudden emergency arises - a fire, someone taken ill, a child running into the road - and you are paralysed with indecision. You know something needs to be done, but you just can’t think what the best course of action is. Result? You dither, perhaps hoping that somebody else will come along and take charge. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that the crowd who listened to Simon Peter on the Day of Pentecost were in exactly that position. The sheer power of his words had “cut them to the heart” and convinced them that they were in a hopeless situation - rebels against God, and actually guilty of putting his Son to death.

Like someone who has at last faced up to a fatal disease, or a driver who suddenly realises his brakes have failed, they see their situation in a totally new light: putting it plainly, heading for destruction.

So they cry out those words of despair and helplessness, “What shall we do?” As if to say, we know we must do something, but... what?

How does Peter reply? Well, he gives them two commands, and then offers them two promises.

The first command is to “repent”.
The basic meaning of this quite theological-sounding word is actually very simple: turn around. Peter tells them that like a driver driving the wrong way on a motorway they are heading - disastrously - in the wrong direction. And if you are heading in the wrong direction, well, the obvious thing to do is to turn round. 

The people Peter is talking to have, in effect, rejected God, his truth and his light. This seemed fine while it lasted, but the day of reckoning is now upon them and it’s time for action.

And that’s how it is for us. Living without God may seem a pretty good idea for a while, but it can only be for so long. So Peter’s words are for everyone: stop! turn around! start again! now! before it’s too late!

Are you ready for a u-turn in your life?

The second command is to “be baptised”.
Baptism, being dunked in water, was, so to speak, the badge of membership of the people of God. It was the way you identified yourself with the infant church. Like a person taking a bath you were symbolically washed clean of your sins. Like a person laid to rest in the tomb and then raised up again, you were “born again” to a whole new life of purity, power and holiness.

Is it time you were born again?

Peter, then, is talking about the biggest turnaround you will ever experience in your lifetime. That, and nothing less.

But then he goes on to the two promises which, after this massive crisis of conversion, will mark you out for the rest of your life.

First, you will receive “the forgiveness of your sins”.
God is holy and will not compromise with sin; ultimately it must come under his judgment. But the good news is that God loves to forgive our sins; he is merciful and loving. And because we have humbled ourselves and put our trust in Jesus he treats our sins as if they were never committed. The cross has dealt with them.

Can you say with confidence today, Yes! My sins are forgiven?

Second, you will receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit”.
You might say, “All this sounds absolutely wonderful, but I’m sorry, I just don’t have what it takes to enable me to live this new God-centred life.” Well, no. And neither do I. And neither does anyone else. 

But the good news, again, is that you don’t need it - it is provided by God himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit.

You can describe the Holy Spirit in various ways, but a favourite way of mine is to say that he is the energy, the breath, the very life of God himself, breathed into our souls. It is the Spirit alone who enables us to be the new people God intends us to be. 

Put it like this: if baptism gets you going, the Spirit keeps you going.

All this is why the gospel is essentially “good news”, the best in fact that you will ever hear. But remember, the great change Peter is talking about starts with action, with a decision. The question those people asked on the Day of Pentecost is one we must ask too: What shall I do

Time to stop dithering?

Lord God, right here and now I turn my back on my life of sin and disobedience. I humbly and gladly accept the sacrifice Jesus made for me on the cross, and I claim the promise of sins forgiven and the power of the Holy Spirit. So help me to live this beautiful new life until the day I see Jesus face to face. Amen.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Buildings - blessing or curse?

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left upon another; every one of them will be thrown down”. Luke 21:5-6

Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again”. John 2:19

I know someone who loves old buildings, especially churches. His idea of a good holiday is not so much a pub-crawl as a cathedral-crawl. He will plan a trip around the various cathedrals he would like to visit.

Well, I have to admit that that wouldn’t suit me! 

Of course I can admire the splendour and magnificence of great buildings, including non-Christian ones. I am not greatly travelled, but I have stood in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Christian church which is now a museum, not to mention the marvellous Blue Mosque. I have visited St Paul’s Cathedral in London and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I have wandered in the Parthenon in Athens. I have removed my shoes to enter the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and likewise the massive Hindu temple just a mile or two from where I live in north-west London.

All these have been moving experiences. But I don’t think I could summon up the kind of enthusiasm my friend has.

If ever I feel a bit guilty about this I take comfort from the seeming indifference of Jesus towards the coming destruction of the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. 

It’s easy to picture the scene. Jesus’ disciples, country boys up from Galilee, are dazzled by the sight of the Temple: “Wow, isn’t it incredible! Look at those decorations! What a fantastic building!”

To which Jesus replies “Yes, marvellous, isn’t it? - and very soon it will all be knocked down.” Talk about pouring cold water on someone’s enthusiasm! And what he predicted did in fact come true some forty years later, when the no-nonsense Romans marched in and razed everything to the ground.

I’m sure Jesus, in fact, wasn’t indifferent. In common with his fellow Jews he would have believed that the Temple was the most important building in the world. It was the earthly dwelling-place of God, the place where heaven and earth came together. 

But what really broke his heart wasn’t the destruction of a beautiful building - no, it was the judgment of God that that destruction represented on a stubborn and disobedient people. The loss of the building was a terrible calamity - but nothing like as bad as the failure of God’s people to share his glory with the rest of humankind.

This little conversation between Jesus and his disciples triggers in my mind questions about two big topics: buildings, and beauty.

First, buildings.

The early church, of course, had no buildings. The first Christians met for worship and fellowship in hired halls or in people’s homes. Only later did they start to erect special buildings.

And the question arises, Was this a good development? Did Jesus ever want his followers to put up special buildings, whether splendid cathedrals or modest little mission halls? When it comes to the church’s mission, worship and evangelism, are special buildings a blessing or a curse?

My answer would be: they can be a blessing, but too often become a curse. They consume large amounts of money and energy in upkeep and maintenance. And, especially in the case of the very beautiful ones, they can become a distraction from God rather than a pointer to him. Worse, they can give to the outsider, the non-Christian, a very wrong impression of what Christianity is all about.

And so I find myself torn in two. I can stand in St Paul’s, for example, and hear myself talking with two contradictory voices: First, “Isn’t this glorious!” And second “Why oh why did they ever build this place!” (Can anybody help me, please, to harmonise those two voices?)

Second, beauty.

All that is beautiful is to be valued and appreciated. After all, where does beauty come from if not from God? In Revelation 21:24 we are told that “the kings of the earth will bring their splendour” into the new, the heavenly, Jerusalem. (Something to think about, that!)

Beauty matters. Art matters. Human creativity matters. And this is a truth that we as Christians should affirm, especially perhaps in our western world where there is so much cheapness and vulgarity, shallowness and triviality. 

But what matters most is the beauty of character which the Holy Spirit produces within us. The reason Jesus didn’t lament the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was because he believed that he had come to replace it. Isn’t this what John 2:19-22 means?

And isn’t it significant that Paul speaks of both the universal church and the individual Christian as “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (put together 1 Corinthians 6:19 and 2 Corinthians 6:16)? 

Yes, we Christians, both corporately and individually, are meant to be the reflection of God’s supreme beauty, a “place” where people can meet with him.

Is that how you see yourself? A living, breathing, walking temple?

Enable me, Lord God, to value and appreciate all that is beautiful and fine in this world. But enable me still more to be, by the power of the Holy Spirit, a beautiful, Christlike person, a true “temple of the Holy Spirit”. Amen.