Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The God of the scrap-heap



“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out...” Isaiah 42:1-3


“Oh, he’s well past his use-by date”... “Sorry, she’s just no good any more...” 


We’ve all heard remarks like that - perhaps even made them ourselves. They’re cruel words, words which write people off - and words sadly fitting in our harsh, throw-away society. If you no longer measure up, then you’re out: tough. And so we hear people describe themselves as “thrown on the scrap-heap”. Perhaps you even feel like that yourself as you read this.


If you do, these words from the prophet Isaiah are full of encouragement and hope.


Isaiah is describing God’s “servant”. And he highlights various things about this unnamed person: he is “upheld”, “chosen” and “delighted in” by God; he is indwelt by the Spirit of God; his ultimate role and destiny (just get this!) is to “bring justice to the nations”. 


That’s quite something! 


Yet, strangely, the manner of this remarkable person is quiet and undemonstrative: “he will not shout or cry out”... he isn’t one to “raise his voice in the streets”. His attitude is constructive rather than destructive: he won’t even “break a bruised reed” (presumably he prefers to mend it); he won’t even “snuff out a smouldering wick” (presumably he prefers to rekindle it).


Compare that with our brash, bullying, bombastic world! So coarse, so vulgar, so in-yer-face! Compare it with the mood of politics, of business, of sport, of show business - and of everyday life. What a contrast with this person the prophet is describing.


So... who is this unnamed “servant of the Lord”? Go back to Isaiah 41:8-9 for the answer: he is “Israel”, God’s chosen people, the “descendants of Abraham my friend”. 


It seems that when God called Abraham to follow him in faith, when he melded a rag-tag bunch of people together under Moses in Egypt, when he led them out to the promised land, when he gave them his law and sent them his prophets, when he gave them the kings they pleaded for... when he did all these things, this is the kind of nation he intended them to be: humble, possessed by God’s Spirit, a bringer of justice.


Oh, but how things went wrong! We only have to read the history books of the Old Testament to see how Israel became just like any other nation: corrupt, compromised, and out of step with God.


So - does that mean that Isaiah’s prophesy is just a fantasy, a make-believe? No! Go forward now to Matthew 12:18-21, where the prophet’s words are quoted almost exactly - and applied to Jesus. Yes! He is the ultimate “servant of the Lord”! He is the one who embodies the true calling of Israel! He is the one in whom these wonderful words have already partly found - and will one day fully find - their fulfilment.


This is the good news of the gospel: a king who will make good all those promises that are up to now so sadly unfulfilled. He will be a humble, lowly, gentle king - and yet the king of kings and lord of lords.


As a little boy in Sunday School I remember singing about “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. Just possibly those words, repeatedly sung, drip-fed into my child’s mind an image of a weak and feeble Jesus, and I had to learn that, while true, this wasn’t the whole picture. Jesus, I later discovered, could be angry - witness the incident when he threw the money-changers out of the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). And he could be ferocious in condemning hypocrisy - witness his blistering attack on the religious leaders in Jerusalem (Matthew 23:13-24).


But there could never be any doubting the essence of his character: love, compassion, forgiveness, gentleness. 


Is this the Jesus you know? Is this the God you know (for, remember, Jesus himself said that to see him is to see the Father (John 14:9))? This is the true God, the God who looks on us with aching tenderness.


I don’t know if you feel today as useless as a broken stick? Well, if you do, please believe that Jesus longs to mend you, not to throw you aside. Or if, perhaps, you might see yourself as a sputtering candle about to go out? If you do, please believe that Jesus longs to rekindle you, not to stub his thumb on you. Our God is a God who loves to pluck people off the scrap-heap, not toss them onto it.


He can do it. He will do it. Just ask him - he is waiting.


Oh God, thank you for your perfect servant Jesus. Thank you for his gentleness and love, for his patience with the weak and struggling, and for the kingdom of justice he will one day establish. Help me to become more worthy to be a servant of the Servant. Amen.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Faith - tool or ornament?

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. Hebrews 11:1-2

“I wish I had your faith,” a man once said to me. I don’t now remember what was going on in his life, but I’m sure things had been difficult for him. And there was I, not only a person of faith (some, anyway - if he did but know how little!) but actually a “professional”.

His remark made it sound as if faith is pretty much a matter of chance - like having blue eyes or a talent for football. I, as far as he could see, happened to be one of the lucky ones. And so he envied me.

It wasn’t the time or place to launch into a discussion in order to put him right. But I tried, just very briefly, to get across that faith is a gift of God, and because God is gracious, generous and kind, it is available to anyone and everyone who genuinely and humbly seeks it.

Why some people come relatively easily to faith while others struggle is a mystery. For myself, I didn’t grow up in a Christian home: my parents, certainly good people, rarely went to church and never, to my knowledge, prayed; and there was never any sign of “religion” in our upbringing.

But they decided that my brother and I ought to have some kind of religious foundation to our lives, so every Sunday afternoon we were packed off to Sunday-School at a local church. And we both became believers; looking back now, I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t have some kind of faith.

But the step of coming to faith was by no means easy; nor have all the millions of steps of faith since. Doubts, struggles, failures - they all form part of the “faith package”, as far as my experience goes, along with the comfort, peace and joy.

So yes, faith can be hard; and yet Jesus requires it of us. And yes, faith is a gift; and yet we are expected to have it. Putting it the other way round, it seems that lack of faith is worthy of a rebuke: as his disciples struggle with the storm, for example, he chastises them: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40).

So, a question: How do we gain faith if we are the kind of person it doesn’t come easily to?

I suggest two answers.

First, ask for it.

Sorry if that seems like stating the obvious, but  that is sometimes what we need. To give them credit, it’s worth noticing that the disciples weren’t afraid to do just that: “Increase our faith!” they said (Luke 17:5). And Jesus gave that wonderful reply about faith no bigger than the mustard seed, proverbial for its tininess - as if to say: what matters most is not so much great faith, but faith in a great God.

Second, act on such faith as you have.

In our homes we have both ornaments to make the place look nice, and working tools to do practical things with. Well, faith is a working tool, not an ornament, and we need to put it to work. And that means making decisions, adopting attitudes and doing things which might not necessarily be logical and common sense, but which rest on the belief (after prayer, of course) that God is in them and behind them. We sometimes refer to this as “stepping out in faith”, a phrase that implies boldness. (Somebody once said that the word “faith” is spelled r-i-s-k, which I think makes the point.) The great thing is that as we consciously act on faith it quietly grows, like a muscle that is regularly exercised.

Here’s a second question: What difference does it make to our lives when we learn to live by faith?

This is where Hebrews 11:1-2 can help us. Again, it suggests two answers.

First, faith puts backbone into us. Note those three great words in verse 1: confidence, hope, and assurance. We cease to be the kind of people who just get blown around by every wind of fashion and opinion; we become people with vision and purpose, people of principle. How such people are needed in our modern world!

And second, it puts us in wonderful company, for “this is what the ancients were commended for”. Yes, the man or woman of faith joins the ranks of Moses and Abraham, of Hannah and David, of Elijah and Ruth - people who are precious in God’s eyes; people who make a difference.

So why not join the disciples in their prayer...

Lord, increase my faith! Amen.

... and then brace ourselves to be ready for whatever may come!

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Terrible pain - and a happy ending



After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. He said, “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’ That day - may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it, may no light shine on it... May those who curse days curse that day...” Job 3:1-4, 8

You know those times when you are having a completely unimportant chat with someone, and somehow it takes on quite a serious, even solemn, note?

It happened to me once with a friend I’ll call Ellen. A lovely Christian, Ellen has had a hard, painful life. Our chat began to touch on this, and I think I must have said something like, “Well, we have to thank God for the good things - when all is said and done there’s a lot in life to be thankful for.” Her reply left me rather lost for words: “Yes, I suppose so. But I must admit that I would have preferred never to have been born.”

I didn’t know what to say. At one level her remark seemed almost blasphemous: if life is a gift of God, how could it possibly be right to say that you’d prefer never to have had it? (It occurred to me later, of course, that if you had never had it, then there wouldn’t be a “you” to know that you hadn’t had it. But I decided not to follow that line of thought...) Her words were spoken without any bitterness or anger; they were just a plain statement of fact. I couldn’t possibly have judged or criticised her.
 
And then I thought of Job - like Ellen a godly and greatly respected person.

Job 3 must surely rank as one of the oddest passages in the Bible. 

In his terrible suffering, Job calls down bitter curses on “the day of his birth”. Which seems, surely, slightly crazy - how can you curse a day that is long gone? How can such a day perish? How can you wish a day ill in the way Job does in verses 2-9? Indeed, there is a moment here which seems, to me at least, almost comical: “May those who curse days curse that day” (verse 8) - as if there are people around, along with bus-drivers, teachers and office-workers, whose role in life is “cursing days”!

Well, of course, it’s all very emotional, poetic language: we may find fault with Job’s logic, but I think we know very well what he means! And it certainly puts Ellen’s mild, matter-of-fact remark into perspective.

If ever there was a Bible book that demands to be read right to the end, surely it must be Job. And though it can be quite a difficult read at times, I think we must thank God that this strange book has found its way into scripture.

Two key questions arise in my mind regarding Job.

First, how does he confront his miserable, wretched suffering?

The answer that must spring to the mind of anyone who knows their Bible at all is: with massive patience. James the brother of Jesus (in James 5:11) speaks of Job’s “endurance” (NIV) or his “staying power” (The Message). And that must surely be right. Sheer stickability is a precious thing. Do you have it? - do I?

But there is another vital thing about Job that he deserves recognition for: his extraordinary honesty. Job can’t understand why what is happening to him is happening - and he decides to say so, loud and clear. He refuses to swallow the shallow, trite explanations of his so-called comforters. And he is even prepared to stand up to God himself, so to speak - take a look, for example, at 13:20-27.

It is, certainly, right for human beings to be respectful and humble in the presence of God. Of course. But Job teaches us that God respects us when we are totally honest with him; he has no time for platitudes, clich├ęs and truisms. Is this a lesson some of us need to learn?

The second question is: How does Job’s story end?

And the answer, of course, is: in triumph and joy. This is why I said we absolutely must read the book right through.

I don’t imagine for one minute that all the catastrophes of Job’s earlier life were simply blotted out of his memory by the time we get to chapter 42; where there have been wounds there must, after all, be scars. But the fact is that “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part” (42:12). He ends up with massive prestige and stupendous wealth (not to mention three fabulously beautiful daughters).

I would sum up the great truth of this book like this: there is no such thing as a child of God whose story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Yes, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 21:4) - yours, mine - and Ellen’s too, of course.

Father God, I think of all those who feel today as Job felt so long ago. Give me, please, eyes to see, a heart to feel, and hands to help them in their troubles. Amen.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Thinking about healing



Some men came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it, and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, "Son, your sins are forgiven."  Mark 2:3-5
 
Over my years as a minister I've known sermons interrupted by various things - a baby starts to cry, someone is taken ill, a phone goes off, and yes, just occasionally, there's the sound of gentle snoring. But somebody dismantling the roof to let someone down on a stretcher...? Not yet, I'm thankful to say.

Of course Jesus wasn't in a church or synagogue - he was speaking in someone's home. The house was packed, which is why the four men carrying their paralysed friend decided this was the only way they could get him to Jesus. The house probably had a flat roof where you could go up to enjoy the cool of the evening, and opening it up wasn't too big a job.

I wonder, by the way, if they paid afterwards for the repairs? Whatever, what a great example they are of loyal friendship - even quite a short journey carrying such a burden in the heat of the day would have been seriously demanding. It reminds us of a really important truth: that there are times in the Christian life when we have a duty (which is also a privilege) to carry a fellow-believer by our faith and prayers when they cannot carry themselves. And, of course, times when we need to let others carry us...

It must have been one of those hold-your-breath moments - hearing scraping noises, everybody looks up to see what's going on... the hole slowly widens in the roof... a face appears, sussing out the situation... the stretcher is lowered into the middle of the room. Can you see the crowd shuffling awkwardly backwards to make space? ("Hey, you're treading on my toes!") They quickly take in what's happening - the paralysed man was probably well known in the locality, so they knew how desperate his need was.

What will Jesus do? How will he handle this odd situation? 

Total silence. And then (roll of drums) Jesus speaks... "Get up! Take up your stretcher and walk..."  

Well, no actually - that is exactly what Jesus doesn't say. Not yet, anyway. He says what must have seemed the biggest anti-climax of all time: "Son, your sins are forgiven". Oh.  

I wonder if the man on the mat was tempted to put Jesus right? "Er, Jesus, it's really nice of you to offer me forgiveness. Please don't think I’m ungrateful. But actually that isn't what I came for. You may not have noticed it, but (ahem) the fact is that my legs don't work. To be honest, it was healing I had in mind... Forgive me for pointing it out..."

But of course Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and why. He knew, putting it simply, that the healing of the soul matters far more than the healing of the body.

Oh yes, he spent a lot of time curing people's physical ailments. He obviously regarded that as important. But it was never his top priority.

He came to deal with humanity's big problem: sin, separation from God. That was why he suffered and died on the cross. And he promised that all who put their trust in him will indeed be perfected one day, even if not in this earthly life: we will have sinless souls and brand new bodies fitted for eternal life in the kingdom of God.

Not, of course, that we should drive too sharp a division between our bodies and our “souls”, because the two belong together in a unity. We all know very well that our physical condition can affect us spiritually - if we are tired or sick it can depress our spirits; and if we persist in sin of any kind, it can make us physically ill.

Indeed, you can’t help wondering if the reason Jesus spoke to the man on the mat first of all about forgiveness shows that he knew that his paralysis was the result of some suppressed sin. Quite likely, I would think.

"How are you?" we say to one another, enquiring about our health. "Oh, not too bad," we answer. But the question that really matters is different altogether: How is your spiritual health? Can you say your sins have been forgiven? Are you walking with God day by day? If our answer is "Thank God, yes!" then our physical ailments, however serious they might be, fall into their rightful place.

First things first...! 

Lord, I confess that my aches and pains can get me down. I get frustrated that my body seems sometimes to be my enemy rather than my friend. But thank you for the promise of an eternity of perfect well-being. In the meantime, help me to know that my sins are forgiven, and that my soul is in your loving hands. Amen.  

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Lord, I don't understand!



He (Paul) writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other scriptures... 2 Peter 3:16

Are you the kind of person who likes everything cut and dried - no loose ends, no shades of grey, everything black and white?

If you are, then I have bad news for you: expect to find yourself often frustrated when you grapple with Christian teaching. 

Certainly, the essentials of the Christian faith are clear: the ultimate reality of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the coming in flesh of God’s Son to this world; the sinless life and atoning death of Jesus; his bodily rising from the dead; the gift of the Holy Spirit; the church as the body of Jesus on this earth; the final judgment and the reality of heaven and hell.

These core teachings have been common to pretty well every branch of the church for two thousand years.

But once you start delving into more detailed things it can get decidedly tricky, and we can be left scratching our heads. The Bible often blesses and challenges us in a way that changes our lives; but other times it can leave us puzzled. Honesty compels us, for example, to recognise that there are passages which seem to contradict other passages; or passages which raise awkward questions about certain actions of God (take a look at 2 Kings 2:23-25 if you want to know the kind of thing I have in mind).

It’s when I find myself mystified like this that I am specially grateful for Peter’s words: that some of the things written by Paul (and this would apply to other parts of the Bible too) are “hard to understand”. So it isn’t all straightforward! And I find myself thinking, “Great! I’m glad it’s not just me!”

That drive for precision - getting everything nailed down - is very natural. But it’s also unrealistic. And it can in fact be dangerous.

For one thing, it can lead us to completely miss the point of the Bible. We can get the idea into our heads that what matters is having perfectly correct beliefs rather than living holy, Christlike lives.

Way back in the Middle Ages there was a movement in the church often now called “scholasticism”. This consisted of highly scholarly men who were said to debate endlessly on topics which now seem to us utterly pointless and sterile. (The joke - at least I hope it was a joke - was that they spent hours discussing questions like how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.)

And learned scholars then and later would write lengthy tomes - thousands of pages - which purported to sum up the essentials of Christian teaching. They might be either Roman Catholic or, after the Reformation, Protestant in conviction. But they had in common a desire to get everything tied own. And - let’s face it - who in this world can tie down God’s eternal truth?

In my own early days as a Christian I got in with a couple of groups in particular which felt strongly about certain issues. On the one hand were the “charismatics”, adamant that you needed to be “baptised in the Holy Spirit” and that the sign of this was speaking in tongues. On the other hand were the “Calvinists”, who believed Christian theology could be summed up under five headings beginning with the letters t,u,l,i,p - and, take it from me, the tulips weren’t the kind you could tip-toe through.

My problem was that both these groups argued strongly from the Bible, quoting left right and centre. So who had it right? Both? Neither? Who should I believe? There were times I felt my faith was quite wobbled; and only later did I wise up to the fact that it simply didn’t matter to have every i dotted and every t crossed.

Where is this leading? To this: that there are certain questions and mysteries that we have to leave dangling - and not to worry. Love, trust and obey the Lord Jesus Christ and you can’t go far wrong.

The Christian writer G K Chesterton was once asked if he wasn’t worried by those parts of the Bible he couldn’t understand. To which he replied “No! The parts that worry me are the ones I can understand!” Wise as well as witty.

And Karl Barth, who churned out theology by the yard, when asked what was the essence of the Bible’s teaching, replied: “Jesus loves me, this I know,/ For the Bible tells me so.”

If even the apostle Peter accepted that there were things that were “hard to understand”, well, all I can say is that that will do for me too. It’s not bad company to be in, is it?

Lord God, I very much want to be right in my thinking and understanding. So give me, please, by your Spirit, increasing insight into the truth of your word. But help me still more to be right and Christlike in my living. Amen.