Saturday, 29 July 2017

Hot, cold, or lukewarm?

The words of the Amen… “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Revelation 3:15-16

You know what it’s like – a baking hot day and you have a massive thirst. A big, long, ice-cold drink is just what you need. You take a mouthful and – ugh! – it’s tepid. You feel like spitting it out. Perhaps you do spit it out.

Or it could be a hot cup of coffee on a cold day – except that – ugh again – it’s not hot. It’s lukewarm, neither one thing nor the other. So disappointing!

The words of Jesus – called here “the Amen” – to the church of Laodicea are a ferocious judgment on them. As Christians they are lukewarm, apathetic, indifferent, neither one thing nor the other – use what words you like – and he detests it. So he threatens to “spit them out of his mouth”. He might just as well have said, “You make me sick.”

Why does Jesus choose this particular illustration? If you look at a map of the area where Laodicea was, you’ll see that it has a couple of neighbours, Hierapolis and Colosse. Here’s what one commentary says: “Hierapolis was famed for its hot springs; Colosse… was noted for a cold, clear stream of excellent drinking water…” Nice, in both cases.

But apparently Laodicea didn’t have a good water supply. It “had to use a long viaduct for its water, which was not only tepid but impure and sometimes foul, making people sick.”
Jesus has picked his metaphor to match his hearers. I think they will have got the message!

These words hit us, two thousand years later, with a real challenge: Are we like the Laodiceans? Are we lukewarm, neither hot nor cold? Do we deserve that Jesus should spit us out of his mouth?

I think it was the great Victorian preacher C H Spurgeon who said: “The trouble with many people is that they have just enough Christianity to make them miserable, but not enough to make them happy.” Ouch! Is that you? Is it me?

There’s a vital double truth here.

First, the love of God which he has shown to us in Jesus deserves our complete and total commitment – as an old hymn puts it, it “demands my soul, my life, my all.”

And if that sounds rather off-putting – a “very big ask”, as they say – well, that’s where we need the second truth: only this level of commitment yields true satisfaction and fulfilment.

Putting it very simply, the half-hearted Christian can only ever be dissatisfied with their life. If we are going to be Christians, well, let’s be Christians, no half-measures!

Here are the words of Jesus himself: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

We often think that when Jesus talks about “saving our life” he is referring to life after the death – and I’m sure that’s true. But he is also referring to life here on this earth. Full commitment to him is the only guarantee against an empty, meaningless earthly life.

Imagine getting to the end of your life. I don’t mean to be morbid, but there you are, literally on your death-bed, and you can’t get out of your mind the thought: what a wasted life! As you look back, it’s all a question of “If only…” And now it’s too late…

Paul talks about full commitment in a different way: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1).

As a Jew, Paul’s mind was soaked in images of sacrifice – which included animals killed and offered up to God on the altar. And that, he says, is us! Yes, we who are followers of Jesus are sacrifices – but with the massive difference that we are living sacrifices. Another old hymn comes to mind: “But we never can prove/ The delights of his love/ Until all on the altar we lay”.

Yes, we don’t just lay an offering on the altar: we lay our very selves.

Is it time for us to have a bit of a stock-take? Time to look again at our priorities?

The whole-hearted offering of ourselves to God has a fourfold effect: It makes us (a) pleasing to God, (b) useful to his church, (c) a good witness to the world, and (d) fulfilled in ourselves.

What’s not to like about that?

Lord Jesus, help me to love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my strength, and, in doing so, to find joy and fulfilment in you. Amen.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Can you pray too much?

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:6

I was still a very young, very new and very inexperienced minister, insecure and easily bruised. So a remark made by a keen young man in the church had a pretty demoralising effect on me.

As soon as he said to me, “Colin, you know what’s wrong with this church?” my heart sank. Whatever came next, I just knew it would make me feel a guilty failure. I wasn’t far wrong: “What’s wrong with this church is that we just don’t pray enough.”

Of course! As if I didn’t know!

Every now and then you would hear or read about churches that seemed to pray (and fast!) for days on end; ministers who spent hours in prayer before breakfast. And look at us! What puny, pathetic specimens we were! No wonder our little church was so lacking in spiritual vitality and power.

I can’t remember, all these years on, what I said in reply. Probably not much, preferring to slope off and lick my wounds.

But it wasn’t long before a nagging question entered my mind: all right, no doubt we didn’t pray enough, but how much prayer precisely would constitute “enough”? An hour per day? Three hours per day? A weekly night of prayer and fasting? Or what?

Which raised another question: was God up there in heaven holding a stop-watch while we prayed to see if we were measuring up? Should we picture him shaking his head sadly after a prayer session and saying, “Oh dear, they’ve only managed seventeen and a half minutes! They really will have to do better than that.”

And I realised how meaningless, though well-intended, that young man’s comment was.

I’m not questioning that there may be times in our lives when we pray at length and perhaps with great intensity. Just this week I’ve been reading about Samuel, the part where it says he “was angry, and cried out to the Lord all that night” (1 Samuel 15:11). And there’s plenty more like that in the Bible, not least in the experience of Jesus himself.

But there’s plenty too in the same vein as Paul in Philippians 4:6: “Don’t be anxious about anything, but… present your requests to God.”

Literally, Paul tells his Philippian friends to “make their requests known to God” (as if God doesn’t know them anyway!). What strikes me about that is his very matter-of-fact, down-to-earth tone. You could even describe it as business-like: there are things on your mind? – well, tell God about them then. What’s your problem?

Once you start thinking along these lines it’s hard not to think about the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).

Have you ever thought how short it is? Even if you pray it very slowly, it takes less than sixty seconds. I realise, of course, that it’s good to flesh it out, so to speak, rather than simply repeat it as if it’s all the praying we need to do.

But the fact is that it’s extremely concise and condensed: those words “business-like” and “matter-of-fact” come to mind again. Indeed, you could almost see the Lord’s Prayer as a tick-box exercise: “… may your name be hallowed (tick)… may your kingdom come (tick)… may your will be done on earth as in heaven (tick)… give us today our daily bread (tick)… forgive us our trespasses (tick)…”

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that we should pray the Lord’s Prayer in this way. But you get the point.

Here’s another story from those early days in my ministry. A young woman, a new convert, was talking to me about her struggles in prayer. Praying as long and hard as she knew how, but not seeming to get very far, a day came when she suddenly realised that – to use her own words – “I wasn’t really praying at all; what I was really doing was just worrying in prayer”.

Yes! Prayer, which we think of as such a spiritual activity, can in fact become nothing more than a “holy” form of fretting or brooding. And could it be that God up in heaven is thinking, “Oh, I do wish you would stop praying and get on and do something!”

“Present your requests to God”. If it takes faith to come to God in prayer (and it does), may it not also take faith to stop praying? The faith to say: “All right, I’ve told God all the things that are on my mind; I’ve laid them at his feet. Now it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get on with the business of the day.”

Pray in faith. And when you have said all that needs to be said, have the faith to stop praying, confident that you have been heard.


Lord God, please teach me to pray! Amen.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Pure souls and smelly feet

Jesus said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” John 13:14

Basil of Caesarea lived about three hundred years after Jesus. He was a great theologian and a champion of monastic living, but he also had a strong concern for practical Christianity - his monastery, for example, offered accommodation to the homeless and also housed a hospital.

The story goes that an earnest young Christian told him about his intention to withdraw from the world and devote himself to growing his personal spiritual life. (I wonder if perhaps he was wanting to impress Basil?) Basil replied with a devastating question: “But whose feet will you wash?”

A great reply! Whose feet indeed? 

Yes, of course it’s vital that we should all take time to build our own relationship with God; but not if that means no longer serving others in meeting their needs. This is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that they should wash one another’s feet: today, not many of us do that in a literal sense, but hopefully we are willing to help others lovingly even in the most humbling and demeaning tasks. (The washing of guests’ feet after they had come in from walking the dirty roads fell to the lowest slave in the household.)

Christians have sometimes driven a wedge between the “spiritual” and “practical” aspects of the Christian life.

And certainly there are Bible passages which might seem to justify this. A favourite is the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), whose home in Bethany Jesus visited. Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he said”, while Martha “was distracted by all the preparations” needed for a meal - and got cross with her sister for not helping. But Jesus gently rebuked her, telling her that “Mary has chosen what is better”.

For some Bible teachers, Mary stands for the “contemplative” life - the life of prayer, study and devotion - while Martha stands for the “practical” life; and the implication is that the contemplative life is superior to the practical.

Personally, I don’t think that interpretation is right. I prefer to think that Jesus wasn’t laying down some kind of principle for all time, but simply saying that in that particular place and on that particular occasion Mary had chosen a better use of the time than Martha.

The same applies to Acts 6:1-7. The apostles asked to be released from responsibility for the practical affairs of the infant church in order to concentrate on “the ministry of the word of God”. Were they too “spiritual” to get their hands dirty serving the practical needs of the rapidly growing church? 

No: but the plain fact was that they were the only people who could offer leadership and exercise pastoral care for all the new converts - so their decision was a purely sensible one.

People sometimes say that what we need to do is “get the balance right” between the spiritual and the practical. (We Christians tend to be very fond of that word “balance”! -  and no doubt it’s often appropriate.) But I’m not sure it’s quite the way we should think about this particular relationship.

I prefer to put it like this: The more we develop our personal relationship with God, the more we will also grow in practical usefulness and service. Putting it another way, we shouldn’t play these two vital aspects of the Christian life off against one another: to grow in one is to grow in both.

Living the Christian life is all of a piece: it can’t - or, at least, it shouldn’t - be put into compartments. Even the most “spiritual” of Christians should, like Jesus himself, be happy to serve others in whatever ways may be necessary. And even the most “practical” Christian should be truly Christlike, prayerful and Spirit-filled.

So (while I have to admit that monasticism is not something I have ever felt remotely enthusiastic about) I do think that Basil of Caesarea had it absolutely right in his conversation with that devout young man.

Walk close with God, yes of course. But never stop asking yourself that vital question: Whose feet can I wash today?

Lord Jesus, please print indelibly on my imagination that amazing, electrifying moment when you took the bowl of water, wrapped a towel around yourself, and knelt to wash the disciples’ dirty, smelly feet. Help me never to begrudge such service, but to see it for what truly is: my spiritual worship. Amen.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

"I didn't know what to say..."

Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15

Have you ever found yourself lost for words when you’ve been trying to help someone? Perhaps they were in a seriously distressing situation, and you just couldn’t think of anything to say.

You felt you had failed. Perhaps you felt guilty: What’s wrong with me? Why couldn’t I find any words?

Probably most of us have been there at some point in our lives. If so, I think the beautiful, simple verse above is worth digesting; it reminds us that there are times when there just aren’t any words anyone can say – no, not even the wisest, maturest, most Christlike, most Spirit-filled person you can imagine. Times when just being there is the vital thing.

The key word is that tiny “with”. It doesn’t necessarily mean being physically close to someone; if that’s not possible, you can be “with” someone via a letter or an email or a phone call. But it suggests sharing their sorrow in whatever way we can. “I’m with you” can mean “I’m on your side,” “I’m there for you”.

One of the most humbling things about being a minister is when people say to you, perhaps as the dust settles after a tragedy, “I just want to thank you for everything you did.” You feel like replying, “But I didn’t actually do anything! I was just, well, around.” And if you do attempt to say something like that, back comes the reply, “Never mind – it meant a lot to us…”

Two memories spring to mind…

First, I’m sitting in the home of a dying man. Everyone knows that he is dying, and the neighbours – bless ‘em! – have popped in to express their sympathy. This is very good of them, of course; what else are neighbours for?

But they haven’t grasped that they don’t actually have to say anything at all beyond the usual few sympathetic words. So out come the clich├ęs: “Don’t worry, old chap, we’ll soon have you up and running about again…”; “Keep looking on the bright side – it’s amazing what they can do these days…” 
And I’m wishing (Lord, forgive me!) that I could strangle them on the spot. Sorry, I don’t mean to be unkind, because I know they mean well. But all they’re doing is filling the room with unreality, with falseness; putting it bluntly, with lies. And what can be the good of that?

Second, a friend is going through a crisis in his life. In desperation he rings a friend who lives some thirty or so miles away and pours out his heart. The friend says “Hang on – I’m coming round” and puts the phone down. He jumps in his car and does just that, arriving within the hour.

My friend’s response was very striking: “It wasn’t anything he said… it was the fact he was prepared to go to that trouble for me…” (On another day, of course, it might not have been practically possible; but I’m sure that even then he would have had time to listen for a few minutes, and just that might have made all the difference.)

When we look at Jesus, we understandably focus mainly on either his deeds or his words. And quite right too!

But have we ever stopped to think about his tears? The Son of God himself knew what it was to “weep with those who weep”. He did so as he came to the tomb of Lazarus (John 11), grieving not mainly because his friend had died, but because of the hopelessness and despair of Mary, Martha and the neighbours. “Jesus wept” (verse 35).

Can you see him?

He mourned as he looked over the doomed city of Jerusalem, knowing the suffering which its people were going to endure: “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41).

Can you see him?

The Writer to the Hebrews tells us (Hebrews 5:7) that during his earthly life he “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears...”  Loud cries and tears!

Can you see him? Can you hear him?

Tears are part of the very nature of the God who is made known to us in Jesus: “I weep, as Jazer weeps, for the vines of Sibmah. Heshbon and Elealeh, I drench you with tears,” he says (Isaiah 16:9). And we probably think: Jazer? Sibmah? Heshbon? Elealeh? Who on earth are they? But that’s the whole point – people of no importance to us today, and quite likely of little importance in their own day; yet they draw forth the tears of our compassionate God.

So… You have nothing to say to that suffering friend? So be it. Perhaps “I just wanted you to know how sorry I am, and that I’m around for you if you need me” is all that’s needed. Just being there for them.

(So long, of course, as you mean it…)

Loving Father, thank you for the tears of Jesus. Please give me grace, when there are no words, to weep with those who weep. Amen.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

God's great and precious promises

“Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honour me I will honour, but those who despise me will be treated with contempt…” 1 Samuel 2:30-31

Does God always keep his promises?

You may find that question slightly shocking. Of course he does! How can you suggest otherwise? Isn’t the Bible full of declarations of God’s faithfulness to his word? Doesn’t Peter delight in his “great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1:4)

Yes indeed. In Numbers 23:19, for example, the prophet Balaam declares: “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfil?” Great words.

But as so often when we read individual Bible verses, the truth is not quite as simple as at first appears. In the passage I have quoted, the words “I promised” are quickly followed by the words “But now.” Those little words turn everything round; if words mean anything, God is going back on his promise.

Before trying to make sense of that, let’s fill in the background…

The speaker is an unnamed “man of God” (verse 27) and the person he is speaking to is Eli, the priest of God. We’re way back in the days – the bad, dark days – of the judges, after Moses and Joshua but before Saul, David and the other kings.

The story of Eli is about as sad as any you will find anywhere in your Bible (you can read it through in just a few minutes in chapters 1-4 of 1 Samuel). Eli is at heart a good man who truly loves God. He has a long track-record (according to 4:19 he has led Israel for forty years), which suggests that he has much good about him, and that God is very patient with him.

But… he is weak. He has two corrupt and wicked sons who are behaving in scandalous ways, and he is unable to rein them in. At last God decides that the situation can’t be allowed to go on any longer. Eli’s track-record counts for nothing, and the axe must fall: “the time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house” (verse 31).

It seems as if weakness can be as blameworthy as wickedness.

There are times, I have to admit, when I have looked at my own life and wondered if I have been a bit of an Eli. A fellow-minister I talked to once felt the same way: how easy it is to go with the flow, to turn a blind eye, to adopt the line of least resistance – put it how you like. And it’s not only ministers and other leaders; this can apply to all of us at different points in our Christian lives.

Let the sad story of Eli be a warning to us.

But what about the mystery of God seeming to go back on his promise?

Well, of course it isn’t really such a mystery as I have made out. Putting it simply, God’s promises are conditional on our obedience – and we need to remember this even when it isn’t explicitly stated. God doesn’t write blank cheques, if I can put it that way.

This is true on the practical, day-to-day level. We rejoice in the fact that God promises to guide us and provide for our needs. And so indeed he does. But we still need to work to earn our living. If we want to pass an exam then we need to get our heads down and work hard. If we want to have a good marriage then it’s up to us to work on our relationships when the going gets a bit tough.

It’s true too on the bigger level. A church, or even a nation, may believe that it has received promises of blessing from God. And so indeed it may. But those promises are forfeited if they fall into disobedience.

This is a lesson that Israel – God’s chosen people, no less – had to learn in painful ways.

Their leader Joshua spelled it out very clearly in their earliest days. As he approached death he reminded them that God had made wonderful promises to them; but then he added the words “But if you turn away…” (Joshua 23). That little “but” again. And, sure enough, the coming centuries told the grim story again and again.

As individual Christians we can get very casual about our relationship with God. As somebody once put it: “God will forgive me. That’s his job!” But be very careful…

The writer to the Hebrews tells us (Hebrews 12:29) that our holy God is “a consuming fire”. God is to be trusted, oh yes – but he is not to be presumed upon. God is to be relied on, yes – but he is not to be taken for granted.

Let none of us say we haven’t been warned.

Heavenly father, help me by your grace to match your solid and wonderful promises with my obedience and faithfulness. Amen.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Time to move your tent?

I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. 2 Peter 1:13-15

A question: Have you ever thought of your body as a tent?

No, nor me neither. I suspect that it’s not a picture that springs naturally to most of our minds. In fact, it’s extremely rare in the Bible too: just here in 2 Peter 1 and in 2 Corinthians 5.

Why does Peter see his body as a tent that he is “living in”, a tent that he will soon be “putting aside”? Given that he was a fisherman who lived in a house, rather than, say, a nomadic shepherd who might live in a tent, it seems strange.

We can only guess. Two simple things come to my mind.
  1. Unlike houses, tents are not made to last.
All right, no doubt a really well-made tent would last a few good years, but obviously it’s not in the same league as stone or bricks and mortar.

And so Peter wants to remind us that these bodies of ours, wonderful things though they are, are in fact very short-lived. You might survive on this earth until you are ninety – but what’s that in comparison with the whole history of the human race? What’s that in comparison with eternity?

Our modern western world sometimes seems to have a fixation with keeping our bodies forever young – even, in the case of those really odd people who believe in deep-freezing their corpses for the future, forever alive.

Talk about wishful thinking! How absurd it all is. I think it was the veteran politician Shirley Williams – Lady Williams – who said that all the face-lifts and Botox in the world achieve nothing but to simply rob your face of its true character, indeed of much of its personality and charm.

Of course it’s right that we should look after our bodies: the Bible tells us that they are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and should be “honoured” as such. We are to live healthily. But the wise person accepts the reality of how short our earthly lives are; they make it their business to fill the years God gives them with good things. There just isn’t time for all this cosmetic messing around!

It’s interesting, in fact, how matter-of-factly Peter speaks of his own approaching death: he describes it in verse 15 as his “departure”. True, departures can be painful (Peter didn’t expect an easy death – see John 21:18-19), and are usually very sad. But to accept the inevitable with faith and hope… isn’t that the way of Christ?

Would it do us all good to reflect occasionally on the reality of death? Not in order to be morbid and gloomy – no, we are assured of glory to come! – but to help us to get our earthly priorities into perspective.
  1. While houses don’t move, tents do.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but there’s a vital message there.

In Old Testament days God’s people were a pilgrim people; until they arrived in the Promised Land they lived in tents and were often on the move. Indeed, their first ever “church building” was a tent (a “tabernacle”, to give it its traditional name). In other words, they had a portable shrine, not a permanent one, because God was always moving them on.

True, that came to an end when they got to Canaan and built the Jerusalem temple under King Solomon. But the essential truth of a people always on the move remains, and it’s true for us who are Christians as well as for the people of Israel.

Putting it simply: if you are a follower of Jesus you should always be looking for ways in which God is leading you on. Quite likely that won’t mean physically leaving your present home. But it certainly will mean discovering new things about God, and opening yourself to the possibility that he wants you to embark on some new adventure of faith.

The “tent” picture, then, reminds us that we must not allow ourselves to stagnate. We might talk about being “settled” in our physical home, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But never “settled” in spiritual terms! No, our walk with Christ is fresh and new every day.

Is it time you sat down, prayed, and thought about your life? Time you said to God, “Lord, here I am. What do you want me to do? Where do you want me to go? Where do you want me to pitch this tent of mine next?”

Yes, even if you’re ninety!

Father God, thank you for the wonderful gift of life – for every precious minute of every precious day. Help me to live it to the full in fellowship with you, and then to say, with the Lord Jesus himself: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The man who drew the short straw

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him…’ John 9:2-3

This is often called the story of “the man born blind.” Fair enough. But could it also be called the story of “the man who drew the short straw”? Bear  with me for a moment…

The disciples see this unfortunate beggar, and they immediately jump to a conclusion: for him to be like this somebody must have sinned. And who could that somebody be, if not either his parents, or he himself while still in the womb? It stands to reason.

But Jesus dismisses this idea completely: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” That sounds pretty final to me.

So much for superstition. Superstition of any kind is completely ruled out by the Christian faith. End of!

But then Jesus goes on to say something else: “this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Do you see what I mean about the short straw? It almost sounds as if God deliberately set this man up, so to speak, to suffer in this way. And “I’m glad it wasn’t me,” we might say. Tough luck, mate.

Is that what Jesus meant? I don’t think so. For one thing, those words “so that” could be understood as “with the result that” (there is a difference!). And also, it might suggest that God is a cold and calculating manipulator, which simply isn’t how the Bible as a whole portrays him.

It’s not as if God deliberately picks on certain individuals in order to put them to the test in some special way. No: it’s more that in a world full of suffering, pain and tears there are those who seem to come off worse than most. But even these God may choose to treat as recipients of his special grace and mercy: people in whom “the works of God are displayed”.

Make no mistake, there must have been plenty of other blind people around whom Jesus didn’t heal – just as there were plenty of people with leprosy, or disabilities, or… well, you name it.

It’s true that Jesus worked many wonderful miracles. But his purpose in coming to earth was to usher in the eternal kingdom of God, and when he performed his miracles it wasn’t just (just?!) a way of showing his power and compassion, but a way of giving a glimpse, a faint hint, of what one day will be.

All who have reached out to God in humble faith will be gathered to be with him. Let’s never forget the glorious, luminous, radiant words of Revelation 21:3-4: “They will be his people, and he will be with them and be their God…” As if that’s not wonderful enough, these words follow: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes… “ (can you see it?) … “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain … (can you imagine it?) … “for the old order of things… (that’s blindness and disease and heartbreak and all the rest) … has passed away.”

So that day two thousand years ago – somewhere, presumably, in the vicinity of Jerusalem (John doesn’t even bother to tell us where) – people saw a tiny foretaste of that great future.

What this suggests to us is this… Whoever we are, God has given us a part to play. That part may be fairly easy and undemanding – in which case, never forget that Jesus also said, “Those to whom much is given, of them much will be required” (Luke 12:48) – words designed to make us sit up and take notice.

And if the part we are called on to play is specially hard, may there be consolation in the idea that “the works of God might be displayed” in us.

I think of a teenage girl I know who has developed a condition which may become “life-changing”. It’s possible she will have to radically re-adjust her hopes, ambitions and dreams. This in her teenage years! – just as she’s setting out on life. That thought must be bitterly hard to take.

If it does come to that, I can only pray and trust that she will find a peace within her heart that, in spite of everything, God has her in the palm of his hand and will use her to work his works – and so to give her fulfilment and even joy. 

Concerning this earthly life the French writer Paul Claudel wrote: “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with His presence.”

And what we pray for that girl we can pray too, of course, for every person, known to us or not, who may seem to have “drawn the short straw”.

Will you do that now?

Lord Jesus, thank you for the wonderful way you healed that blind man. I pray that you will draw near today to all who suffer greatly, and, even though you may not heal them, that you will help them to see that the works of God can be displayed in them. Amen.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Are you a loyal person?

Ruth said to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me”. Ruth 1:16-17

In the world of football it’s said that the only people who are loyal to their team are the fans. Not the players - oh yes, they love to “kiss the badge”, but, with very rare exceptions, they’re easily persuaded to look elsewhere in search of bigger opportunities or more money. And not the managers - they too seem often to have their eye on the next career opening. Only the fans show decades of loyalty.

Which is sad. For loyalty is a beautiful quality.

Ruth stands as a moving example. Remember the story...

Naomi and her husband Elimelech have travelled from Israel to Moab in time of famine, and they make their life there. But Elimelech dies, and Naomi is left with two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, who eventually marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. But then the two boys also die, and Naomi, grieving and bitter, decides to head back to Bethlehem, where she and Elimelech originally came from.

So what is to become of the daughters-in-law? It is to the credit of Naomi that she doesn’t play the misery card: “Oh, you will come with me, won’t you? You’re all I have left, after all...” No emotional blackmail. When both girls declare that they will go with her, she pleads strongly with them to stay at home in Moab: “Your future is here! You are young enough to find new husbands. But I must return to my own people...”

Orpah decides that Naomi is right. She kisses her mother-in-law and takes her sorrow back with her to her Moabite family. We never hear of her again.

But Ruth refuses to obey: with the beautiful words I have quoted, she insists on sticking with her mother-in-law, and the two women start out on the long journey to Bethlehem.

Why does Ruth make this decision? It must have been heart-breakingly difficult - and would turn out to be totally life-changing. She commits herself to be loyal to Naomi until death parts them, and even then to stay in the land of Judah.

One very obvious possibility, of course, is love. Perhaps Ruth had come to love Naomi deeply, and simply couldn’t imagine life without her.

But there are hints of something more. I’m sure Naomi must have talked about the God of Israel with her sons and their wives, and perhaps Ruth had become convinced that the God of Israel really was the one true God. It’s worth noticing that when she takes that oath to stay with Naomi, she does so with the words “May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” The Moabites had a god called Chemosh, but she doesn’t make her vow in his name.

Whatever, she has made her decision, and solemnly declares that she will abide by it.

(I don’t think, by the way, that we should be too hard on Orpah. She was under no kind of obligation to stay with Ruth, and she probably felt a strong sense of loyalty to her Moabite family. I just hope she was able to make a happy life.)

The message is very simple if we let Ruth speak to us down through the centuries. Are we loyal people? Loyal to God, of course. Loyal To Christ. Loyal to our husbands or wives. Loyal to our family and friends. Loyal to our church.

Or are we the kind of people for whom loyalty is just a word? People who flit about from one commitment to another, happy to drop people if it no longer suits our purpose to stay with them? People who pick up with someone or something new if that seems to be in our own interest? 

Most of us can probably look back over our lives and say “Thank God for those dear people who have proved loyal to me! What would I have done without them?” But then we must go on to ask ourselves the question: “Have I shown the same kind of loyalty to others?”

I’m not forgetting, of course, that there is a limit to loyalty. If loyalty to a friend means disloyalty to God, then we’ve got a hard decision to make. 

Remember those deeply troubling words of Jesus about the need, sometimes, even to “hate” the very closest members of our own families (see Luke 14:26). God brooks no rivals! (Otherwise, how would he be God?) Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth century mystic, wrote: “Cursed be that loyalty which reaches so far as to go against the law of God.”

But while we keep those hard thoughts in mind, let’s say thank God today for Ruth - the heathen woman whose wonderful loyalty in dark days led to her name appearing, almost incredibly, in the family tree of Jesus. Yes, really! - just look up Matthew 1:5.

Lord God, teach me the meaning of true, Christlike loyalty. Amen.