Saturday, 25 March 2017

Is your conscience in good repair?

So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them. 1 Kings 21:11 

“A sleeping pill will never take the place of a clear conscience”. I like that, don’t you? Perhaps even better: “There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience”.

Conscience... Is there any part of us more important?

Before answering that question, perhaps we ought to be clear what the conscience actually is. One dictionary defines it as “a person’s moral sense of right and wrong... acting as a guide to one’s behaviour”.

I reckon that’s pretty good. My conscience is somewhere there within me, flashing a warning light when I am tempted to do something shameful or wrong. I simply can’t imagine being without it.

Not, of course, that conscience can’t be disobeyed or ignored. Of course it can. We can find all sorts of reasons for smothering that inner voice. And, of course, our consciences can be corrupted - we may truly believe that a wrong we are about to commit is not in fact wrong at all. But that will usually be because we have absorbed thoughts and ideas which have, little by little, poisoned our sense of right and wrong. The person who commits mass murder in the name of God is an obvious example.

We have a responsibility to keep our consciences in good working order, if I can put it that way. Saying, later, “I’m sorry, but my conscience misled me” is no excuse - any more than the driver whose brakes fail, causing a fatal accident, can excuse himself by saying that the car hadn’t been serviced for five years. Well, why hadn’t it?

I wonder: how were the consciences of the “elders and nobles” in 1 Kings 21:11 when they agreed to kowtow to Queen Jezebel?

They have just received a letter from her, in which she tells them to convene a kangaroo court and use it to get a man called Naboth killed. They are to persuade some men (would it be unchristian to call them human vermin?) to testify that he had “cursed both God and the King.”

Naboth, in fact, had done nothing wrong. Jezebel’s husband, King Ahab, fancied a vineyard which belonged to his family and - fair enough - made a good offer to buy it from him. But Naboth, entirely within his rights, said no.

And that should have been the end of the matter. But Jezebel finds her husband curled up in a foetal position on his bed and sulking like a monstrous child, and so takes matters into her own hands. The only problem is that she can’t get rid of Naboth without help: and this is where the nobles and elders of Naboth’s city come in...

I wonder what the meeting was like when they agreed to “do as Jezebel directed”? Did they meekly fall in line without a murmur? Was there a long, heated debate? Did just one person, perhaps, stand up and say “No! This is wrong! And I will have no part in it!” - only to be outvoted by the others?

We aren’t told. It’s easy to condemn them - but obviously they were afraid, and no doubt with good reason: Jezebel was not a woman to mess with. Perhaps there were a few mutterings about “only obeying orders”, or “what choice do we have?”, or “well, after all, the queen’s the queen...” You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for them. But that doesn’t alter the fact: a terrible thing was done as a result.

And what about after the deed? How did they answer their wives when they got home and were asked “What have you been doing today, dear?” “Oh, we just stoned that chap Naboth to death - you know, the one who cursed God and the King... What’s for supper?”

I wonder: how soft were their pillows that night?

Perhaps we have never been in a situation remotely like those elders and nobles. In which case, lucky us! - there are plenty of our fellow Christians around the world who are under daily pressure - at risk of imprisonment, torture and even death - to silence their consciences at the behest of power gone corrupt.

But I imagine most of us still know the niggling discomfort of a conscience not letting us rest. What then should we do? 

The good news is that our hearts can be “sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Hebrews 10:22). The blood of Jesus can do it!

But... there is a cost; and there is a challenge. The cost? That we come clean and humbly confess our wrongdoing. And the challenge? That we say “Never, never again!” - and really mean it. May God help us!

Lord God, the blood of Jesus was shed to wash away my sin and to give me the wonderful joy of a pure conscience. Please help me, by your Holy Spirit, to keep it pure day by day. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Lying - the devil's work

Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Psalm 34:13

Lord… You hate all who do wrong; you destroy those who tell lies. Psalm 5:5-6

He [the devil] is a liar and the father of lies. John 8:44

Do you ever tell lies? I suspect there aren’t many of us who could say an honest “No” to that question. Most of us probably avoid brazen, bare-faced lies, but lying comes in many shapes and forms, and that’s a very different matter.

Every time a footballer, untouched by the defender, falls down in the penalty area and appeals for a penalty, he is in effect telling the referee a lie: “Ref, he fouled me!” Every time we remain silent when something false is said about somebody else, we are in effect telling a lie just by allowing that falsehood to go unchallenged.

It’s possible to live a lie. I knew a man who was thrilled to get a new job. But within a few weeks it came to light that he had falsified details on his application form, and he was sacked. But he couldn’t bring himself to tell his wife. So every morning he would leave their flat at the same time and, so far as I could tell, spend the day walking the streets until it was time to go home. He brought it on himself, of course, and I don’t know how long he was able to keep up the pretence. But I have to say that that man was among the most wretched, abject and pitiful people I have ever known, and I ended up feeling sorry for him.

In 2016 the Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as their “word of the year”. We live, it seems, in a “post-truth society”.

What does this mean? In essence, that when we speak it doesn’t particularly matter if what we say is true; what matters is the emotional impact it has on our hearers. We can, in effect, make up our own “truth” as we go along; news we share might very well be “fake” news.

Putting it bluntly, lying is OK.

The idea of “post-truth” is usually applied to politics: President George W Bush was responsible for the Twin Towers atrocity; President Obama wasn’t in fact an American citizen (and of course he was really a Muslim); on this side of the Atlantic, the  statement during the Brexit debate that membership of the European Union costs Britain £350 pounds a week.

All rubbish, of course. Lies. But so what if it helps to turn an election or influence a vote?

The truth matters – and not just in political circles. Just read again those Bible verses I put at the top, especially the words of Jesus in John 8: the devil himself, no less, is “a liar and the father of lies”. Every time you and I lie we are doing a satanic job. Something to think about there…?

It isn’t only the Bible that gives us this warning. Plenty of wise people throughout history, Christian and otherwise, have had good things to say. Here’s a sample – I invite you to give them a few thoughtful minutes of your time…

He who permits himself to tell a lie once finds it much easier to do it a second time and a third time till at length it becomes habitual. (Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826, statesman and President of the United States).

If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it. (Marcus Aurelius, 121-180, Roman Emperor.)

A lie can travel half-round the world while truth is pulling its boots on. (Mark Twain, author of Huckleberry Finn, 1835-1910, and others). (Especially appropriate for this internet age!)

Truth is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it; ignorance may deride it; malice may distort it; but there it is. (Winston Churchill, 1874 -1965, British Prime Minister.)

Truth’s a dog must to kennel. (The Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear – he has just told the King something he doesn’t like…)

And here are some proverbs from around the world: The grave of one who dies for the truth is holy ground… Tell the truth and run… Time discovers truth… Truth is God’s daughter… No honest man ever repented of his honesty… Truth will out.

In a world awash with lies and half-truths, we who claim to follow Jesus are called to be men and women of total integrity and cast-iron honesty. Didn’t the one we follow tell us that “I am the way, the truth and the life…” (John 14:6)?

So… “Post-truth”? Pah!  “Fake news”? Bah! Not, I hope, while we’re around!

Father, thank you for our Lord Jesus Christ, the very embodiment of truth. Thank you too for honest men and women all round the world who are prepared to suffer persecution, torture and even death for the sake of truth. Help me to live my life with total commitment to the truth. Amen.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

A God-given responsibility

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Genesis 2:15

There was a news item in today’s paper about a man who was up in court charged with... guess what? Killing a butterfly.

Does that strike you as strange? Probably so. It did me. But on reflection I couldn’t help feeling glad. The butterfly in question wasn’t just any old butterfly (though some might feel that even killing any old butterfly would be just as bad). No, it was a very rare butterfly - part of an endangered species. And Britain is a nation where there are laws about these things. To me, that is a sign of a nation that hasn’t become completely uncivilised.

I am no gardener. I just don’t enjoy it, and my biggest claim is that, so far at least, I have managed to keep the garden out of the house (though sometimes it’s been a bit touch-and-go).

I feel a little guilty about this, especially when I read a Bible verse like the one above: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” I excuse myself by the fact that I grew up in a second-floor council flat in London where we simply had no garden and therefore no incentive to take an interest in gardening.

But it’s not much of an excuse, is it? The world of plants and flowers and birds and trees and insects - not to mention butterflies - is wonderfully beautiful, and my relative blindness to it all does me little credit.

Where is this taking us? It is simply a reminder that we human beings have been charged by God our creator with the task of looking after the planet on which he has placed us. Earlier in Genesis we read that God made the human race and said: “Be fruitful and increase in number. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (1:28).

That word “rule” doesn’t mean “dominate” or “exploit” or “destroy”: it means that, under God, we were made to exercise a wise and loving stewardship of our wonderful planet.

Today’s paper had another item. Apparently the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia is, slowly but surely, being ruined. All 1,600 miles of it. It’s made of coral, which is extremely beautiful, but also fragile and susceptible especially to changes in water temperature. Shouldn’t this sadden us? The fact is that as a race we are guilty of poisoning the atmosphere and polluting the sea and the land.

This is a tricky thing to get your head round. God has gifted us with scientific and technological skills which enable us to invent amazing things, things which help to keep us alive, as in medicines, and things which make life infinitely more comfortable, interesting and enjoyable (for those of us, at least, who are fortunate enough to benefit from them).

But these great advances come at a cost: they require power stations belching smoke, and fuel-guzzling planes flying across the skies, and massive machines burrowing into the earth to extract materials. 

Read your Dickens novels and see the angry protest against what we now call “industrialisation”. Read (or watch the films) about Tolkien’s Middle Earth - that glorious, idyllic, peaceful world threatened by the ugly encroachments of the land of Mordor. You can’t help admiring people like these great novelists. And yet this is the price we unthinkingly pay for “the march of progress”.

Jesus and the apostles never spoke about “environmentalism”; it simply wasn’t an issue in their day as it is in ours. But Jesus did speak about the beauty of nature: he told us to notice and admire “the birds of the air” and “the flowers of the field”. The Bible has many references to the stars and the majesty of the night-sky.

The essence of the Christian faith is the love of God for every man and woman. It is about making God’s love - the love shown in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - known to everyone we can, with the prayer and hope that they will come to trust and love him.

But that doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to other matters. Here’s a question I put to myself, and I invite you to do the same: “Could I - should I - be doing more to care for God’s beautiful creation?” And, being purely practical, what in particular might ordinary people like most of us do? I’d love to receive your ideas...

Creator God, thank you for the wonderful world in which you have placed us. As we await the promised “new heaven and new earth”, help me to take seriously my own responsibility for the environment. Amen.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

How are you feeling?

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it”. Luke 11:27-28

Do you like being praised? Go on, admit it! Don’t we all? It makes us feel better about ourselves. 

When I was a very young minister a man came to the church for a bit, and, Sunday after Sunday, he used to quite embarrass me by his overdone words. “Colin, how do you do it?” he asked me on one occasion, shaking his head in awestruck admiration. Don’t worry, I told myself very firmly that I wasn’t to take this too seriously (though deep down I was grateful for the confirmation that I was, of course, the greatest preacher since Peter on the day of Pentecost). That man didn’t last long - probably went off to some other church where he did the same to the minister there.

There’s nothing wrong with praise, as long as it’s sincere and balanced. (If the word “praise” doesn’t seem quite right, let’s just say that we all need encouragement: is that better?) Do you, as a Christian, look for opportunities to give your fellow-Christians a bit of a boost with a genuine word of encouragement? How easy it is simply to take other people, and the contribution they make, for granted. I think there’s a challenge for us all there.

Well, what about the woman who shouted out to Jesus in the crowd? “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and who nursed you!” she cries out. Can you hear her? Can you picture her? She is responding to Jesus, it seems, on a purely emotional level - what a wonderful man you are! how I wish I had a son like you!

One commentary I looked at was, I thought, a bit hard on her. It described her words as “an extravagant compliment”, “sheer sentimentality” and a “pious effusion”. But is that fair? She has been listening to Jesus teaching some quite difficult things, and she is obviously impressed by his power, wisdom and boldness. Why shouldn’t she give vent to this heartfelt, spontaneous outburst?

Perhaps she herself had a son. Perhaps a son who had been a sadness and disappointment to her. Can we blame her if, as she looked at Jesus, she felt this strong stirring in her heart?

Well, we can only speculate what was really going on inside this woman. But what we know for a fact is that Jesus was not inclined to preen himself when he heard her! His response wasn’t exactly a put-down, but it was, let’s say, a bucket of cold water: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” Ouch.

As if to say: “Well, thank you very much. But please don’t get carried away. What ultimately matters is not gushing feelings, however genuine they might be, but solid obedience to God and his word.”

Tricky things, feelings, aren’t they? Some people, including Christians, seem to lack them, so they come across as cold and perhaps rather hard: Christianity is all about correct doctrine and right behaviour. This, surely, is sad. But other people - the so-called “touchy-feely” type - are at risk of going a bit “over the top”. They think something’s wrong if they aren’t floating on a spiritual high every minute of every day. Which is equally tricky, for feelings are notoriously like the British weather: changeable and unreliable. 

Thomas a Kempis, the fifteenth century monk who wrote the classic The Imitation of Christ, said: “Do not trust your feeling, for whatever it is now, it will be quickly changed into something else.” Yes, indeed: one day we may feel great, and think that that will never change; but the next day the grey clouds come rolling in and pull us right down.

There is feeling - sentiment - in Christian living, and that is as it should be. Our faith is all about love, after all; and while, yes, there is a lot more to love than feeling, it would be wrong to disregard it altogether - emotion is a vital part of human nature. (I’ve just been leafing through the Good News Bible, with its wonderful little pictures, and couldn’t help smiling at the drawing that rounds off the Book of Psalms: no shortage of feeling there!) 

But feeling must always be subordinate to that day-by-day desire to know God, to trust him, and to walk with him in humble obedience - however we may be feeling. That is true love.

Heavenly Father, I want to love you with all my heart, my soul, my mind and my strength. And I want my will to be conformed to yours. Please make me daily more like the person you want me to be. Amen.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Jesus and the strong man

Jesus said, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armour in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters”. Luke 11:21-23

Jesus liked to say puzzling things. He used illustrations, parables and figures of speech. Sometimes he helped his hearers by adding a clear explanation of what he was getting at - the classic example being his parable of the sower, where he spells out exactly what he meant by the seed and the different kinds of soil (Luke 13:1-23).

But other times he left it hanging, so to speak, presumably to prompt his hearers to think it through for themselves and come to their own conclusions. This saying about the “strong man” is a good example. 

We read these verses and end up scratching our heads. Who is this “strong man”? What is the “armour” referred to? What does “his house” represent? What are his “possessions”? Above all, who is the “someone stronger” who “overpowers” him, “takes away” his armour and “divides up his plunder”?

Good questions. And if we want to find good answers we need to set Jesus’ words in their wider context. So, if we look at verses 14-26 as a whole, what do we find?

Simple answer: it’s all about demons and Satan (called here “Beelzebul”). 

The casting out of demons was a known feature of Jewish life in Jesus’ day. He was by no means the only person who exercised this power - he readily concedes (verse 19) that the disciples of his opponents did so too, and the story of the “seven sons of Sceva” in Acts 19:13-16 gives dramatic confirmation of this.

But his opponents claim that it is “by the prince of demons” that he casts out demons (verse 15). In other words, all is not as it seems. Oh yes, on the surface Jesus seems to be doing a wonderful thing in releasing people from dark powers. But in reality he himself is in league with Satan, and deceiving the people. In verses 17-20 Jesus points out that this idea is simply absurd: why would Satan help him, Jesus, to overcome Satan’s own agents!

It’s at this point that we get the story of the strong man. And in the light of this background it’s not too difficult to answer the questions we posed earlier.

The strong man is Satan. His armour is his demonic powers. His house is his evil empire in the world. His possessions are the people enslaved to him (that’s the whole human race). And the stronger one who overpowers him and divides up his plunder is, of course, Jesus himself.

In plain terms, Jesus is declaring that his mission in this world is, among other things, a waging of war against the powers of evil. And this is why he adds (verse 23) the challenge that “whoever is not with me is against me”. There is a war going on in which neutrality is not possible: we are called to take sides and to identify ourselves wholeheartedly with Jesus. No fence-sitting! 

In our modern world, talk of demons and Satan can make us feel rather uncomfortable. Do we really believe in these things in our scientific, technological society? Different people take different views, some of them seeing demons as purely symbolic representations of evil. Well, whoever is right on that, the presence of evil in our world is undeniable.

I wonder if anyone reading this feels you are especially in the grip of the “strong man”? If you do, I can only encourage you to cry out in prayer to Jesus, the “someone stronger”. 

Throughout his earthly ministry he did great deeds of deliverance - from sickness, from demonic powers, even from death itself. We have to face the fact that today such deeds tend to be a lot less immediate and a lot less dramatic. 

But the power is still there, and there are millions of people all over the world who can testify, “Yes! Jesus set me free!”

What all of us need is not just a bit of cosmetic tidying up on the outside, but a deep and radical re-creation of our very lives and personalities. And this is something that only Jesus can do.

He calls us all to join him in waging this war, whether it’s in the world outside or in the world of our inner beings. How serious are we about putting on what Paul calls “the armour of light” (Romans 13:12) and, day by day, putting the powers of darkness to flight?

Thank you, Oh God, that you sent the Lord Jesus to overcome the power of the evil one. May that power be daily destroyed within me, and may I allow the greater power of Jesus to flow out of me. Amen.