Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The God who loves to forget

Who is a God like you, who pardons the sins and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry for ever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. Micah 7:18-19

Did you hear the sad story of the mother pleading with the police to wipe out a “sexting incident” from the permanent record of her 14-year old son?

I don’t know either the details of his offence (nor do I want to) or whether his mother was successful with her challenge. But that’s not the point. 

It’s a reminder of the danger of social media. How tragically easy it is, in a moment of stupidity, drunkenness, bravado, or whatever, to do something you can never, ever get rid of. For the rest of your life you know that somebody somewhere could turn up that text and cause you intense embarrassment or worse. And if you’re just a teenage boy... well, that’s a lot to live with.

Of course it doesn’t only apply to stuff we put on the internet. Speaking personally, I’m well aware that there are people around who could embarrass me by dredging up out of their memories things I did or said which I’m now thoroughly ashamed of.

I think too of letters I might have written (yes, letters with a handwritten address on the envelope and a postage stamp in the top corner! - remember them?) in disappointment, frustration or just plain anger. How I hope they have long since been destroyed.

What a joy it must be, then, to know that all our follies, mistakes and sins have been utterly and completely forgotten, never again to have any kind of hold over us.

Well, that is a joy which can be known by anyone who comes humbly to God. The prophet Micah says that God “will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).

I love those dramatic images, don’t you? I picture God himself in big hobnail boots stomping away energetically until every last shred of my sins is ground to dust. I picture him on a boat in the middle of the deepest ocean with a bowl full of my stupidities and flinging them over the water until they are sunk and gone for ever.

When Micah first spoke these beautiful words he was addressing not individual men and women but the small remaining group of God’s people Israel - the “remnant of his inheritance”. It was about 700 years before Jesus, and at a time when God’s people had sunk into a state which one writer describes as “moral rot”.

But there is no reason why words originally addressed to a group of people shouldn’t also apply to us as individuals. For what Micah is wanting to do is to tell us just what kind of God God is

In verse 18 he asks the question “Who is a God like you...?” (which, as it happens, is pretty much what his name “Micah” means). And he answers his own question with these words: a God “who pardons sins and forgives... transgression...” He is a God “who does not stay angry for ever” but “delights to show mercy.”

Is that how you think of God? Or do you think of him as harsh and taking pleasure in punishing sinners? 

True, God is a holy God and must therefore judge sin. But his deepest desire is to forgive and restore those who know their sin. Why else did he, seven hundred years later, send his Son Jesus? Remember what John says: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). If that isn’t “gospel” - good news - then I don’t know what is.

I certainly feel for that teenage boy and for his mother. I feel too for all those people, even those who may have committed gross offences, for whom past deeds are like a heavy millstone round their necks - even though perhaps they have paid the penalty for their crimes. I feel for every person who is troubled by conscience (and that, I suspect, includes you and me).

But whoever we are, there is good news. Amazingly, where this corrupt and fallen world, sadly, chooses to remember, almighty God, in his mercy, loves to forget.

Is this a message you need to digest? I invite you to take a cue from the prophet Micah and to picture God himself treading your sins underfoot and hurling your iniquities into the depths of the sea.

I invite you to reflect on Paul’s simple statement: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). 

And you know what? - “no condemnation” really does mean... no condemnation.

Lord God, help me to truly understand that though I am indeed a sinner, I am a forgiven sinner, and to rejoice in the fact that, as far as you are concerned, all my many sins are gone for ever. Amen.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Ever made a mess of things?

Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had gone there to make him king. When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard this (he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), he returned from Egypt. 1 Kings 12:1-2

Is there an event in your past where you got something disastrously wrong? - something which changed the whole  course of your life? You look back now, shake your head and say, “How could I have been so stupid? If only I could turn the clock back!”

Yes? Well, let me introduce you to someone you have a lot in common with. Meet King Rehoboam of Israel.

Rehoboam was a son of King Solomon, and we read that after Solomon’s death “Rehoboam... succeeded him as king” (1 Kings 11:42).

So far so good. But a problem arose in the shape of a man called Jeroboam. This man had impressed Solomon as “a man of standing” (1 Kings 11:26), and so had been promoted by the now-dead king. 

As far as we know, Jeroboam was entirely loyal to Solomon. But before Solomon’s death he had an encounter with a prophet called Ahijah (you can read about it in1 Kings 11:26-39). Very briefly, Ahijah told Jeroboam that he was destined by God to rule over ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. In other words, God’s chosen people would be torn in two, with Jeroboam ruling the major part, and Rehoboam left with just Judah and Benjamin.

King Solomon got wind of this and tried to kill Jeroboam. So he ran off to Egypt to save his skin. But many people in Israel, it seems, had decided that he was their man.

And now - and this was the new King Rehoboam’s problem - he came back to confront him at the head of a massive army. “Your father was a great king,” he told Rehoboam, “but he was also a hard man, even a cruel man. We’ve had enough of that! However, all you have to do is promise to be easier and gentler with us your people, and we will serve you loyally.”

And this is where Rehoboam made his big mistake. He asked the advice of the older men in his court, and they urged him to go along with Jeroboam’s reasonable demands. 

But then he turned to his own contemporaries - his cronies, you could say - and they said just the opposite: “Tell them... My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:11). Give them a hard time, Rehoboam! Crush the opposition out of them!

By taking this advice King Rehoboam succeeded in splitting the kingdom in two, just as Ahijah the prophet had said. In the years to come both Israel, the northern part, and Judah, the southern part, went from bad to worse.

There is a vital lesson we can learn from Rehoboam’s folly. It isn’t just that we should be willing to take advice from others when faced with a big decision. No; Rehoboam took advice, all right! But it was the wrong advice. 

He failed to see that true authority calls for justice and humility, not for the iron fist of power. He chose to dominate rather than serve. Just think... he could have become a prototype of Jesus himself, the Prince of Peace. Instead, he sowed poisonous seeds of discord which ruined the people of God for centuries to come.

All right, not many of us are called on to make decisions about how to govern a nation! But when we do have decisions to make, especially decisions that affect the lives of people other than ourselves, may God help us to make those decisions in the humble spirit of Jesus!

There is something we can learn from Jeroboam too. He was promised the lion’s share of God’s people, so the question arises: should he have been prepared to quietly bide his time after Rehoboam’s rough rejection of his request?

If, as seems to have been the case, Ahijah was a true prophet of God, what need was there to take matters into his own hands? 

This is something we can all be in danger of doing. Instead of praying and then patiently working towards what we believe is good, we try to force God’s hand, so to speak. 

But God has his own ways of working out his purposes. The wise person is the one who says, with Jesus, “Not my will but yours be done.” Is that you? Is it me?

While I have stressed the foolishness of Rehoboam’s handling of this crisis, we mustn’t  leave him without pointing out a happier ending. We are told in 2 Chronicles 12:12 that he later “humbled himself” and “the Lord’s anger turned from him.”

I hope that’s an encouragement to any of us who feel we have “messed up big time”. 

God is forgiving. God can restore. All is not lost.

Lord Jesus, save me, I pray, from folly and pride, and teach me to order my life in the light of your great love and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Solomon, the Queen of Sheba - and Jesus

When the Queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon, and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the Lord, she was overwhelmed. 1 Kings 10:4-5

Jesus said, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.” Matthew 6:28-29

Writers and film-makers have always loved embellishing Bible stories. I remember, many years ago, Charlton Heston playing Moses in The Ten Commandments. And there was a film about Simon Peter called The Big Fisherman. And many more since, that I haven’t remotely kept up with.

Well, the Bible certainly gives us some very dramatic stories. But I must admit that the liberties taken by these later creations rather annoy me. Why not just let the Bible speak to us as it is!

You probably know all about the historic visit, about a thousand years before Jesus, of the magnificent Queen of Sheba (stunningly beautiful, of course) to the even more magnificent King Solomon of Israel. How she was overwhelmed by the splendour of his court, his city of Jerusalem, and the opulence of his buildings. How she melted adoringly into his arms, and how they fell passionately in love with one another and had one of history’s great romances. How (have I got this right?) they had a child who grew up to be… oh dear, I can’t remember now.

Yes? You remember that? Well, sorry, but a lot of it is pure moonshine.

The actual story is told in1 Kings 12 (and the parallel passage in 2 Chronicles 9), and takes up just thirteen verses; the slushy stuff simply isn’t there. In the New Testament King Solomon is mentioned only a handful of times, and the Queen of Sheba not at all.

So forget what the later story-tellers have done with the story: what does Jesus make of it?

Matthew 6 is part of the Sermon on the Mount, and in verses 25-34 he is telling his followers to keep their minds free of worry. Don’t be anxious about food, drink and clothes, he says. Won’t your heavenly Father look after you and provide for you? He points to the wild flowers growing in the fields and on the hill-sides. Aren’t they beautiful? he says. They look magnificent – and do you think they ever worried about how they would look? Of course not! And then: “Even Solomon in all his splendour was not dressed like one of these.”

Staying free of worry is not easy; most of us find anxiety gnarling away at our innards, especially when things get tough. The key, of course, is to believe – to really believe; to really, really believe – that God is our loving heavenly Father.

But that kind of faith can only take root within us as a result of experience: we take the risk of faith over perhaps relatively minor things in our lives, and then, as we discover that the promises of God really are reliable, we move on to a greater depth of faith. Trusting God, which once seemed naive and unrealistic, becomes a habit of mind, and our whole approach to our lives changes. For most of us this process takes time – but, like most things, with time and practice it actually happens.

Apart from the call to trust God as our Father, three other things strike me about Jesus’ use of the Solomon/Queen of Sheba story.

First, Jesus knew his Bible.

It was instinctive to him to reach for a scriptural passage to press home his point, and that can only have happened because his mind was soaked in scripture. Could that be said of you and me?

Second, Jesus obviously took delight in the beauty of nature.
In order to encourage us not to give way to anxiety he uses the birds of the air and the flowers of the field as examples. Do the birds “sow or reap or store in barns” (verse 26)? Of course not! Do the flowers “labour or spin” (verse 28)? Of course not! How good are we at opening our eyes and our ears to see and listen to all the miraculous things God has surrounded us with?

Third, Jesus clearly refused to be over-awed even by great King Solomon.

Quite likely he, like many others, had gasped with wonder when he first saw the later, even more glorious, temple in Jerusalem.  But his words here show that he doesn’t let himself be dazzled by this sight – in fact, he goes on to sadly predict the destruction of this temple too (Matthew 24:1-2).

And so we are reminded that while man-made beauty – architecture, art, music, sport, the rest – is wonderful and worthy of admiration, what ultimately matters is the beauty of the human soul and character.

Oh yes, they were great temples, those ones built in Jerusalem by Solomon and then by Herod. But where are they now? Gone.

As Paul points out (1 Corinthians 6:19), the temple that matters most is your own body – for it is nothing less than “a temple of the Holy Spirit”.

Now, that really is something to marvel at!

Lord God, even if I never remotely rival King Solomon in all his splendour, may I learn from the birds of the air and the flowers of the field to live a life free from anxiety and fear. Amen.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

What matters most

Better a dish of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred. Proverbs 15:17

Jesus said: “... I tell you, love your enemies...” Matthew 5:44

Jesus said: “A new command I give you: love one another.” John 13:34

God is love. 1 John 4:16

I suspect that in the ancient world no-one opted to be a vegetarian as a life-style choice, as many do today (and all respect to them). No: people who ate only vegetables did so because they couldn’t afford meat - it was a sign of poverty.

So what the writer of Proverbs is saying, of course, is: “It’s better to have only the basic necessities of life, as long as you are both loved and loving, than to be rich and live a life poisoned by hatred.”

It’s hard to say anything about love without descending into clich├ęs and platitudes. So we can be grateful to people like the poet Robert Browning, who put it with some originality: “Take away love and our earth is a tomb”. He wasn’t wrong, was he? (I must admit I rather like also the Jewish proverb: “Love your neighbour - even when he plays the trombone.”)

“God is love,” says the apostle John, implying that love is, quite simply, the greatest, most wonderful and most precious thing there ever can be. Greater than power, greater than wisdom, greater than wealth, greater than fame or human happiness. It is the topmost thing, the supreme value.

This is why Jesus told his disciples that love was to be the hallmark that the world would know them by: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). And why he gave them the almost outrageous command to love your enemies (Matthew 5:44). 

And this is why Paul composed his wonderful poem in praise of love (1 Corinthians 13): “... these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (verse 13).

I happened to switch on the radio this morning while I was brushing my teeth. The BBC reporter Frank Gardner was speaking from Egypt, where Christians, in particular those belonging to the ancient Coptic church, are being particularly badly treated by their opponents: the burning of church buildings, and the threatening and even the murder of Christian people are tragically common.

And one after another these Egyptian Christians were expressing their refusal to hate their persecutors; on the contrary, they were determined to forgive. Talk about “loving your enemies”!

What made it specially striking was the reaction of Frank Gardner himself. For he knows very well what it is like to be the victim of random violence. In 2004, in Saudi Arabia, he was shot and permanently disabled by Islamist terrorists while doing his job as a journalist; today he spends much of his life in a wheelchair. 

And (all credit to him for his honesty) he simply couldn’t get over the gracious love of these Egyptian Christians. He very frankly admitted that, personally, he was incapable of such an attitude.

As I listened, I was hoping in my heart that the words of those followers of Jesus would be heard and absorbed throughout this country and beyond.

Love can be hard. It isn’t (not only, at any rate) a mushy, slushy thing that makes us go bendy at the knees - though no doubt there’s a place for that! It isn’t even the natural affection and tenderness we feel for those precious to us, beautiful though that certainly is. 

No: it may very well be entirely down-to-earth and matter-of-fact, involving a decision that we make. It can be an act of will. We decide to not only wish people well (that’s good, but it doesn’t amount to love), but also to do them good. And in doing so, we may find ourselves acting against all our strongest natural instincts.

John, once again - the great apostle of love - puts it pretty clearly: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). If ever we imagine that true heavenly love is easy, I suggest another visit to the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46) might be a good idea.

We’ve come a long way from Proverbs 15. But all these examples are linked in simply demonstrating the glorious supremacy of love. 

Love changes lives. Love can change the world. Love makes life not only liveable but also beautiful. Love, as somebody said, is the only thing that you get more of by giving it away.

Let’s make it our business today, then, whatever else we may do, to increase this troubled world’s stock of love. Yes!

Lord God, please, by your Holy Spirit, drain out of my heart every hint of hatred, jealousy, malice, anger and vengefulness, and fill me with Christlike love. Amen.