Sunday, 28 June 2015

Are you an enthusiastic Christian?

A teacher of the law came to Jesus and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."   Matthew 8:19-20
Enthusiasm is a great thing. There's a man on television whose job is to tell us about economic affairs - now, what could be more boring and tedious than that? But he does it with such enthusiasm that you actually find yourself listening to what he is saying.

Enthusiasm is infectious - it rubs off on other people. I had a history teacher at school who taught in the dullest and flattest tones you've ever heard; history lessons were one dreary yawn. No wonder my interest in history took a knock. But one of the main reasons I became a Christian in my teens was because of a couple of young men who were, to use a cliché, "on fire for Christ". Their love for him was so great that you instinctively wanted to be like them.

Well, I do hope all of us are enthusiastic Christians. Are you?

But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?) enthusiasm can also be dangerously misguided - witness the religious extremists who murder in God’s name. Even a good enthusiasm can burn out quickly, like a spectacular firework. It can be unrealistic, even a bit romantic. And that’s the case here, as Jesus encounters this teacher of the law.

In an outburst of enthusiasm, this man promises to go with Jesus to the very ends of the earth: "I will follow you wherever you go". Now, that's saying a lot! Can you see his eyes gleaming?

It's interesting how Jesus replies. Perhaps better, it's interesting how he doesn't reply. He doesn't say, "That's really wonderful! Just collect your toothbrush and we'll be on our way." And neither does he say, "Don't be so silly! There's no way you're ready for such a big step; go home and think it through properly and come and talk to me again in six months."

No. He looks him right in the eye (or so I imagine, anyway) and pronounces, rather mysteriously: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man [that's himself, of course] has nowhere to lay his head..."

As if to say, "Well, I'm very glad to hear what you say, but are you sure you know what you're letting yourself in for? Are you prepared for a life on the road, a life of discomfort and hardship? Are you prepared to be worse off, in certain respects, than even the foxes and the birds? Are you prepared for the long haul? Are you prepared for the hard haul?"

I wonder what the man did? We aren't told. But perhaps that's the point. What became of him isn't really what matters. What matters is what becomes of us. How do we respond to the call of Jesus?

In following Jesus, as in so many other far lesser things, what really matters is not so much how we start, but whether we carry on. Any reasonably fit person can complete a 100 metre sprint; but it's a marathon that Jesus calls us to. It's ultimately well worth it, let's not be in doubt about that. But don't let's imagine it's easy - not until this earthly life is over. As somebody once said, the key thing about the Christian life is to keep on keeping on.

So let me ask a question. Are you thinking about becoming a Christian? That’s great - I really hope you will. But please do so with your eyes wide open. The Jesus who calls you to follow him also calls you to take up your cross in doing so.

Another question. Are you a new convert to Jesus? Yes? Well, I hope you are enjoying that first joy of knowing the living God through faith in Jesus. But you do realise, don’t you, that there will be hard days ahead? Are you prepared for that?

Yet another question. Have you been a strong Christian many years? That’s wonderful. I trust you have many precious experiences to look back on. But don’t forget... What matters is to maintain that enthusiasm right to the very end. Don’t rest! - not until that great day comes when you see Jesus face to face.
Oh God, I wish I was more enthusiastic for Christ. Please help me, by your Spirit, to be so. Help me too to make sure that my enthusiasm is a steady shining light and not just a dazzling firework. Amen.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Angry love

Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool." Isaiah 1:18

There was a football manager who was famed for giving his players the "hair-dryer treatment" when he was angry with them. It wasn’t something they enjoyed; it made them flinch.

Well, the first chapter of the long book of the prophet Isaiah is similar - fearsome stuff, a real blast of divine judgment for the people of Israel.

 "Can't you see that you are just bringing suffering on yourselves?" God shouts. "Can't you see that things are just going from bad to worse because of your stubbornness and sin? I've had enough of you! Even your supposed worship is offensive to me! Why? because it's all hypocrisy - fine on the surface, oh yes, but sheer falseness deep down. I don't want any more of it! Go away!" (And if you think I'm exaggerating, just get your Bible out and read verses 11-17; preferably aloud.)

Phew. I'm glad I wasn't around in the Jerusalem market place or temple when Isaiah first stood up to deliver this withering message from God. That football manager seems tame by comparison.

But then suddenly it all changes, when we get to this beautiful verse 18. Exactly like any loving parent who just can’t stay angry long, God makes a tender suggestion: “Look, let’s sit down and talk this thing through...”

Right out of the blue he promises his people purity and newness, innocence and fresh hope. Yes, their sins may very well be the colour of blood - crimson and scarlet. But not any more! They'll be as white as thick, new-fallen snow, as beautiful as wool off the newly-shorn sheep.

Why this dramatic change in tone? What has happened? Answer: nothing, not at least as far as we can see. And the fact is that very soon the hair-dryer will be turned on again.

But the message is clear: the mercy and grace of God have this irresistible way of breaking through his anger. God's holiness is such that he cannot tolerate sin in any form. His judgment may indeed burn hot - and this is something we need to take seriously. But his tenderness and love constantly wax warm.

God loves nothing more than to forgive. Can I say that again? God loves nothing more than to forgive.

Jesus puts his own gloss on this wonderful truth in many places in the gospels. The great fifteenth chapter of Luke, the chapter which gives us the stories of the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son, is a great example.

Jesus describes the sheer joy of the woman who finds her coin, the shepherd who finds his sheep, above all the father who finds his son, and then adds very simply, "In the same way there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." That's worth reflecting on... yes, the very vaults of heaven ring with laughter and gladness every time one miserable no-hoper like you or me comes to God and humbly says sorry.

Are you living with a guilty conscience? Are you lacking peace with God? Are you only too conscious of the mess you have made of your life? Well, here is good news. Isaiah 1:18 isn't just for the nation of Israel two and a half thousand years ago. It's for you too, and for me. Today. Now. Yes!

Oh God, I confess that so much of my goodness is just outward show and pretence. I know deep down that I am full of shame and guilt. Thank you so much for the offer of your free forgiveness. Help me to take it to myself this very day, to enter into the joy of heaven - and never ever to look back. Amen.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

God's wash-basin

God has spoken from his sanctuary: “In triumph I will parcel out Shechem and measure off the Valley of Succoth. Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my helmet, Judah my sceptre. Moab is my washbasin, upon Edom I toss my sandal; over Philistia I shout in triumph”. Psalm 60:6-8.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. Romans 16:20

Have you ever heard a sermon on the words “Moab is my washbasin”? No, neither have I - nor preached one either. 

There are parts of the Bible which we Christians (including us preachers - perhaps especially us preachers!) tend to avoid. Sometimes the reason is that, in all honesty, we just don’t really like what it says, or can’t see what possible relevance it has to us today. Other times it’s because it just seems plain odd, like here - Moab God’s washbasin? Edom a place where God tosses his sandal? What on earth is this all about?

As always, when we read the Bible, we need to set it in its context. Psalm 60 is described as a psalm of David. Verses 1-3 make it clear that Israel has been going through a hard time; it’s as if God is punishing them for some sin or failure. So in verse 5 David cries to God for rescue, and in verses 6-8 comes God’s rather startling reply. 

And the basic message is simple enough: “I am in control!”

God picks out six places which are part of the nation: Shechem, the Valley of Succoth, Gilead, Manasseh, Ephraim and, of course, Judah, David’s home territory. He declares that he, God, and no-one else, has power to decide how these territories fit into his plan, and what purpose they will fulfil.

But then come three places famous for being enemies of God’s people: Moab, Edom and Philistia. There were times when Israel was in dire fear of these nations. But God sees them as virtual non-entities; hence the dismissive mention of washbasins and places where sandals are tossed. 

God is depicting himself as a military leader. We can piece together the train of thought...

The general of the army comes to his tent at the end of a hard day on the field of battle. He is tired, hot and dirty. So as he eases off his sandals - tossing them aside onto the shelf where they usually lie - he calls out to his servant for his washbasin to give himself a good freshening up.

As if to say: “You are frightened of these enemies? You needn’t be! As far as I am concerned they have this simple menial position in my purposes. Oh, and as for Philistia, don’t worry - it won’t be long before I am shouting in triumph over them”. 

According to verses 9-11 David still isn’t quite convinced. But in the final verse his confidence comes surging back: “With God we shall gain the victory, and he will trample down our enemies.” Yes!

See it like that and perhaps it isn’t quite so odd after all.

There is a vital lesson here about how we should read the Bible. Put simply, we need to read any given passage according to the kind of literature it is. This psalm, like all the psalms and much of the prophets, is poetry. And poetry contains figures of speech, images, word-pictures by which it makes its meaning vivid and compelling.

Does God need a wash-basin? Of course not! Does God wear sandals? Of course not! But God is a heavenly warrior! And God is in control of the affairs of the nations. And God will ultimately prevail.

All books are books. But we would be very silly if we read them all in the same way. Would you read the telephone directory in the same way you read a detective novel? Would you read a car maintenance manual in the same way you read a book of poems?

And in this respect the Bible is no different. Some parts are intended to be read as straight, factual accounts - 1 Kings, say, or the Gospels. But others certainly aren’t - Proverbs, for example, or the Book of Revelation. Paul’s writings are letters. Ecclesiastes is an account of one person’s attempt to fathom the mystery of life. Job is a long dramatic poem, indeed almost a play.

Burrow behind the form of the passage, and search for the basic meaning. And in the case of Psalm 60 that message is as relevant to us today as it was to David and his nation...

In our world there are many things we quite naturally feel afraid of. But if our trust is in God we need not be afraid. He is in control, though it may not always seem like it. The day will come when his reign will be supreme. 

And those things we were so afraid of? Pah! - of no greater significance than a mere wash-basin!

Father, thank you for the promise of your word that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under our feet. Please help me to believe it. Amen.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Stop the noise!

Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out; no-one will hear his voice in the streets. Matthew 12:18-19.

One of the saddest features of our modern world is that it has become so noisy, so loud - the din of traffic, the sirens of police cars and ambulances, the thudding music belting out of peoples' radios, even from their head-phones on the bus or tube, voices raised in the streets in the early hours of the morning, sometimes in anger, sometimes in celebration.

No wonder the world seems to be going mad. It often seems that it's those who shout loudest who get their way. I confess I know next to nothing about the “Noise Abatement Society”, but I’m glad such an organisation exists. May it prosper!

These words of Matthew are taken straight from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (42:1-4). They refer originally to a mysterious figure called "the servant of the Lord": mysterious, yes, in Isaiah's day, but the early Christians had no difficulty in applying them to Jesus.

And how true they are of him. There is no doubt that there were times when Jesus got angry, especially against hypocrisy, religious abuse and exploitation. But he was never a quarrelsome or argumentative kind of person. He didn't "do" aggression and confrontation, not at least until he was absolutely forced to it.

As a child I used to sing about "gentle Jesus, meek and mild...”, which sounds beautiful. But there can be a problem with those words - they can suggest that Jesus was weak, a bit spineless and wishy-washy.

But of course meekness is very different from weakness. If you aim to be meek - that is, truly self-effacing, refusing to insist always on your own rights, preferring to listen to the voices of others first - if you aim to be truly meek in that sense, you do in fact need to be a very strong person.

When Jesus was before his accusers, just hours ahead of the crucifixion, we read that he chose to keep silent (Matthew 27:14). Given that he was being lied about, shouted at, mocked and abused, that took some backbone, didn't it? His quiet manner was a sign of deep inner strength.

"He will not quarrel or cry out. No-one will hear his voice in the streets". How do we measure up to this?

There are, perhaps, two main types of noisiness. Some of us just have loud voices and always want to be heard. We drown other people out. That's bad enough. But combine that with the noisiness that comes from being aggressive, argumentative and quarrelsome, and it's far worse.

There's a great saying in Proverbs 15:1: "A gentle answer turns away wrath" - or, as The Message puts it, "A gentle response defuses anger". That's well worth pondering. The verse, though, has a sting in the tail: "... but a harsh word stirs up anger". Mmm - haven't we all found out sometimes the bitter truth of that?

(Have you recently dipped into Proverbs, by the way? "Life coaches” and counsellors are all the rage these days, and I don't say we don't need them. But so many of our problems could be solved by meditating on the words of this ancient book. Why not give Proverbs a try?)

God speaks in Psalm 46: "Be still, and know that I am God". Time to turn off the television? to stop talking and start listening? to calm down and allow space for peace?

Dear Father in heaven, please forgive me for the times I have added to the world's noise and tension, its anger and hostility, by failing to "be still". Please help me to be a peacemaker, like Jesus, in every sense of that word. Amen.