Saturday, 29 September 2018

A holy God and an evil spirit

Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. 1 Samuel 16:14

This is a verse that often troubles Christians: how can a pure and holy God send “an evil spirit” upon King Saul, however badly he had failed in his kingship?

We know, of course, that God is the Lord of all creation, including the powers of darkness, and nothing happens but by his permission. So he can, if he chooses, use even evil spirits for his purpose. But still the words “an evil spirit from the Lord” strike a somewhat jarring note.

The simplest explanation is that the word “evil” doesn’t mean what it often means in the New Testament when speaking about “spirits” - that is, malicious and wicked messengers of Satan. Several commentators suggest alternatives which are much less loaded: “injurious” or “harmful”, perhaps, rather than “evil”.

One Old Testament expert says: “What seems to happen is that Saul is afflicted from now on by a nasty spirit...” Another points out that ever since Saul was confronted by the prophet Samuel for his disobedience to God, he began to show signs of what today would probably be called a depression-type illness, with fits of extreme irrationality.

Some modern Bible translations reflect this way of taking the text. The Message translates: “a black mood sent by God settled on him” (though I’m not sure that the word “black” is very good in our modern world). The English Standard Version has “a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him”.

In other words, when we read in the New Testament about “evil spirits” we are in effect reading about the devil. But in Old Testament passages like 1 Samuel 16 there may be no moral tinge to the word - in essence it just means “bad”, a word which may carry moral implications, but not necessarily.

If, for example, we refer to “a bad man”, that obviously does imply moral judgment. But we might also talk about a bad free kick (“rubbish!”) or a bad smell (“ugh!”) or a bad dream (“disturbing!”) or bad weather “(oh no!”) or a bad headache (“pass the paracetamols!”) which don’t. That little three-letter word is very good at multi-tasking!

I think it helps too to notice the immediately preceding verse in 1 Samuel 16 - verse 13: “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him [David] in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.”

We are reading about an act of transfer by God: the Spirit of God is given in a special way to David - but this involves the withdrawal of the Spirit from Saul. It’s as if God is saying, “Sorry, Saul, but you lost your way, so now I am transferring my favour to David.”

I think this way of understanding verse 14 makes good sense.

Having said all that, though, we might still feel that a bit of a problem remains: why would God afflict anyone with something bad, even if it’s not to be understood in demonic terms?

The answer, I think, can only be this: if, as result of our disobedience, we forfeit the mercy of God, then as a sign of his judgment he allows us, so to speak, to stew in our own juice. That doesn’t mean he no longer loves us, or that we are cast off eternally, but is God’s way of bringing us to our senses. (Sadly, it would seem that that never happened in the case of Saul - the rest of his story describes him sinking into ever-deeper estrangement from God.)

This thought seems to be confirmed by other Bible passages. Paul, for example, in Romans 1, three times states that God “gave over” to sin those who refused to submit to the truth of God (verses 24, 26 and 28). Is that pretty much what happens to Saul? Another parallel can be found in 1 Corinthians 5:5, where Paul tells the Christians of Corinth to “hand over to Satan” the man guilty of sexual immorality - though (notice this, please!) “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord”.

I wonder, then, if Saul from his earliest days suffered with some form of depression which God protected him from when he made him king. But now that Saul has shown himself unfit for kingship, God, by withdrawing his grace, allows his weakness to re-assert itself.

Whatever, the fate of Saul is sobering and challenging. May such a grim punishment never befall us! Remember the warning of 1 Corinthians 10:12: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

Lord God, you are a holy and just God, perfect in all you do. And you love us enough to discipline us when we fall short. Help me, then, never to take your grace for granted, but to live a life of daily obedience. Amen.

I am grateful to my friend Sue for suggesting this topic. If there is a topic or verse you would like to suggest, just let me know. No promises! - but I'll do my best.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

My encounter with a militant atheist

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15

“Religion - if we all work together we can find a cure.”

So proclaimed the tee-shirt worn by a man sitting opposite me in the coffee-shop. (I’m in Waterstone’s bookshop in Birmingham, waiting for my train back to Nottingham.)

At first I’m not quite clear what the slogan means. Is it saying “If all us religious people work together we could find a cure for the world’s ills”? Somehow that seems unlikely.

Then I notice something else in smaller print - the name “Richard Dawkins”. Ah! So the man is a disciple of one of the most militant atheists in public life: religion is a disease which needs a cure.

I reflect as I drink my coffee. He’s quite a beefy chap - possibly a bit aggressive? But I think to myself “Given that he’s decided to preach (so to speak) his anti-religious message in this public place - which, of course, he’s perfectly entitled to do - why shouldn’t I politely challenge him?”

Only problem: how to do it? I’m not really the confronting-strangers-in-public-places type (I am English, after all). Yet it seems wrong to let the moment pass.

I pray, asking for guidance. The taking-the-bull-by-the-horns approach seems the best, so as I get ready to leave, gathering my things together, I address him with a smile: “You seem to be very confident in your unbelief.”

I’m not sure what I expected might happen. Might he deck me with one blow of his fist? Might he angrily respond “Yes, I am confident in my unbelief, so if you’re thinking of ramming religion down my throat, I’ll advise you right now not  to bother, you pathetic loser”?

Actually, neither of those things happened.

No. He smiled in a slightly embarrassed way.

And assured me that while he himself wasn’t a believer in any form of religion, he respected people who were (“Some of my own family are religious”).

He wouldn’t actually call himself definitely an atheist, but certainly an agnostic (which reminded me of exactly what my own father said when I told him I had become a Christian at the age of fifteen).

I remarked that indeed you need an awful of faith to be a real atheist; at which he smiled.

Apparently he had been put off religion by school assemblies (“led by people who didn’t believe a word of what they were saying”), and how disgusted he was by vicars who “don’t believe in their own Christianity” (apparently, so he said, a survey revealed that forty percent of clergy don’t believe in God: not sure how true that is!).

Time is running on and I need to get to the station, so I tell him that I fully share his dislike of religion: “I don’t really think of myself as religious, and I avoid the word as much as possible, but I am a follower of Jesus.” He slightly inclines his head, as if to say “Fair enough”.

Then he raises the old question: “Is religion the root of great evil?” which I wait with attention, expecting the standard answer about all the wars waged, all the blood shed (some of which, of course, we Christians can’t deny). But no. 

“Absolutely not!” he says, and refers to the kindness and compassion and good things done by many religious people.

I need to go. So as my parting shot I simply tell him that I became a Christian over fifty years ago, and that Jesus has been my guiding star ever since. Again he nods his head, and as we part he stretches out his hand and we shake with expressions of mutual respect.

Why am I telling you this story? Not, I beg you to believe, in order to show myself up in a good light - I have no doubt I could have handled the situation a whole lot better!

But perhaps for two reasons...

First, it reminded me of the New Testament call to be “always prepared to give a reason... for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). I’d like to be able to tell you that that man, at the end of our conversation (it only took about five minutes) had fallen on his knees crying out “What must I do to be saved?” But I’m afraid I can’t. But possibly - just possibly - a seed was sown in his mind which will one day come to fruition.

Second, it reminded me that just as Christians can experience doubts and go through questioning phases in their lives, so too can the strongest-seeming unbelievers. (I read recently about the totally non-religious poet Philip Larkin, who admitted that during a time of stress in his life he couldn’t help praying.)

So... That agnostic/atheist friend you have is nowhere near as rock-solid in their unbelief as they might want you to think. No; they too are just as much a bundle of doubts, questionings, prejudices and fears as everybody else! Behind a flinty exterior they may be crying out for peace and a purpose in living.

So pray for them with love and compassion, saying with Paul “I am not ashamed of the gospel”!

Lord Jesus, help me to see every person I ever meet not just as they appear, but as a potential convert, a follower one day of yours. Amen.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

For anyone wanting peace with God

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways, and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy upon them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. Isaiah 55:6-7

Are you at peace with God?

That’s a direct question, isn’t it! But I make no apology for asking it, because it’s the most important question we can ever ask ourselves, so there’s no excuse for beating about the bush.

The Bible tells us that not only were we made by God, but also for him. According to the creation story (Genesis 1-3) he made us in some unique sense like himself and intended us to enjoy an intimate and loving relationship with him. (I love that part of the story (Genesis 3:8) where God himself comes “walking in the garden” - the garden which he had given to Adam and Eve - “in the cool of the day”; what perfect peace and ease that conjures up!)

But that intimacy with God was broken by their disobedience, leading to a loss of peace and all sorts of misery and pain. In that same verse we read that Adam and Eve “hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden”; knowing that they had been disobedient, they were ashamed and frightened. (Not that “hiding” from God would do them any good, of course - how can you hide from the One who made all things and sees all things!)

Well, each one of us is Adam or Eve: we read in Romans 3:23 that all of us “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.

And so the question arises: Can that fractured relationship be mended? Can we know peace with God again? And the answer? Yes! - a thousand times yes! Which is why the gospel is “good news”.

This greatest of all truths is opened up for us fully in the New Testament, focussing on Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and his rising again on the third day. But it is beautifully expressed too in various parts of the Old Testament, supremely here in Isaiah 55:6-7.

So... if you know that you are not at peace with God, I encourage you to take very seriously what the prophet says. He outlines four steps which, if you take them, will bring you that peace.

Step one: “Seek the Lord while he may be found...”

Seek. To seek something or someone suggests a serious, determined searching. You will never find peace if you look for God only vaguely or half-heartedly. And the words “while he may be found” suggest an urgency in this - a time will come when there will be no more opportunity. The time is now! - so don’t put it off.

Step two: “call on him while he is near.”

Call. This amounts to pretty much the same thing, but it pinpoints especially the key element in seeking, for to “call” is, above all, to pray. From beginning to end the Bible tells us that God’s ears are always open to the prayers of those whose hearts are humble and genuine.

A time comes for all of us when we need to close the door, shut out the noises of the world, perhaps even fall on our knees, and cry out to God. Simple, plain words are all that are needed - as long as they come from our hearts, that’s all that matters.

Have you reached that point yet? Could today be the day?

Step three: “Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts...”

Forsake. To forsake something is to abandon it, to shun it - putting it bluntly, to dump it. This is part of what the Bible means by the word “repentance” - we not only feel bad about the things that separate us from God and destroy our peace; we also turn our backs on them and make up our minds to have nothing more to do with them.

It doesn’t happen all at once - repenting is in fact something we have to do every day of our lives. But this is the turning-point, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Step four: “Let them turn to the Lord...”

Turn. If forsaking is a turning away, here now is the turning to. Turning away from something that is bad is good, but it isn’t enough - we need also to turn to God, which means surrendering ourselves to him wholeheartedly and trusting ourselves to him.

Four steps - seek; call; forsake; turn.

And what happens when we take them? This... God will “have mercy” on us; he will “freely pardon”. No conditions. No ifs or buts. No heavy duties slapped on us, for Jesus has done all that needs to be done.

And why wouldn’t you have peace if you’ve been forgiven by God? Indeed, how could you not have peace!

So if you’ve never done so before, I invite you to take those four steps right now...

Lord God, I confess that I am a sinner in your sight. I turn away from all that is bad, all that separates me from you and spoils my life, and I put my trust in Jesus, who died and rose for me. So help me from his moment forward to live every day in glad obedience to you, and so to know your beautiful peace. Amen.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

You have awesome power!

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:10-11

Our world is awash with words. We listen to them or read them every day in their thousands. And we speak or write them too.

It’s a frightening thought, because though in one sense they are just sounds in the air or marks on the page, words are in reality more powerful than we can know. The writer Rudyard Kipling described them as “the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Words have effects. They do things.

Christianity is a faith focussed on words - or, to be more precise, upon the word of God.

How did God create the universe? By speaking words: “Let there be...” he said - “And it was so” (Genesis 1). How has he revealed himself to us? By causing certain words spoken by human beings to be gathered together into the inspired “word of God”, what now we call the Bible. How has he saved us? By causing his eternal word to “become flesh and live among us” (John 1:14).

Yes: in creation, revelation and salvation the word of God is key.

Nowhere is this better summed up than in Isaiah 55:11-12: God declares that just as rain and snow come down from heaven and water the earth to make it fruitful, “so is my word that goes forth from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

(Isaiah 55, by the way, is one of the most luminous, radiant passages in the whole Bible; if you haven’t read it recently I do recommend a re-read.)

All this is common knowledge to every Christian - or should be. But I think it leads to an exciting consequence: that our words, too, when spoken in the Spirit of Jesus, can have a similar power to achieve things. Not, of course, to the same extent as the word of God in scripture, but to a real extent nonetheless.

I can think of words spoken to me many years ago which I have never forgotten, which have become part of the furniture of my mind, and which have played an important part in making me the person I am. In shaping me as a Christian, in fact. And (to my amazement) people tell me that even some of my words have had a similar effect on them.
As I said earlier, words do things.

But if good words do good things, there’s no doubt that the opposite is also true: bad words do bad things. Words spoken in anger, jealousy or spite can cut and hurt. They can leave wounds which never entirely heal - perhaps you can point to scars on your own personality to this day many years after the hurt was inflicted?

Blaise Pascal (1623-1663), the French scholar, scientist and theologian, wrote this: “Cold words freeze people, and hot words scorch them, and bitter words make them bitter, and wrathful words make them wrathful. Kind words also produce their image on men’s souls; and a beautiful image it is. They smooth, and quiet, and comfort the hearer.”

And the American writer Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914 - admittedly no Christian) wrote, somewhat tongue in cheek: “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret”.

There are of course situations where strong words are necessary. You only have to think of the ministry of Jesus himself - some of his words, particularly those directed at people who, in error themselves, were guilty of leading other people into error, were anything but “meek and mild”.

But even hard words, which on the surface may seem negative, can have a positive effect. Paul tells the Christians of Ephesus that we are to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), and that sums it up perfectly. We are to speak the truth; and we are to speak it in love. To speak the truth in anger or hatred, even though it is the truth, is more a curse than a blessing. But even hard truths can be spoken in love. Motive is everything.

Let’s remember this as we mix with people today... If the word that goes out of the mouth of God “does not return empty”, the same, albeit to a much lesser degree, is true also of us.

Yes, a word spoken today, on 19 September 2018, might still be affecting and even changing somebody’s life on 19 September 2028. Or 19 September 2048. Or...

 A thought both frightening and rather wonderful!

Lord God, may the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be always pleasing in your sight. Amen.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

When someone "loses their faith"

On hearing it, many of Jesus’ disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”... From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. John 6:60-66

“Have you heard? - Jack has lost his faith!” “No! Really? I find that very hard to believe. How sad!”

Have you ever been involved in a conversation like that? If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time I would think you probably have. Sometimes, to be honest, you’re not that surprised - you rather saw it coming. But other times it comes as a real shock.

Losing your faith... In some ways it’s a strange expression. A friend about whom it had been said told me that he really didn’t like it. He meant, I think, that it made him sound either (a) careless - as in “Oh dear, I’ve lost my car keys”, or (b) unfortunate - as in “Oh dear, she’s lost her memory”.

Neither carelessness nor misfortune applied to him. No: he had simply... well, ceased to believe. Doubts about God and the Christian faith had slowly built up over many years until they reached the point where they seemed stronger than his convictions. So he had simply decided - not “I have lost my faith”, but - “I can no longer honestly call myself a Christian.”

However we describe it, the fact is that it happens: people who once claimed to be followers of Jesus cease to be.
It shouldn’t surprise us. It happened, after all, during the ministry of Jesus. In John 6:60 we read that many of his “disciples” (yes, that word is used: they weren’t just hangers-on) found his teaching too hard to take, and “from this time they turned back and no longer followed him.”

Jesus himself prepared his disciples (and us too) for it. In his story of the sower and the seed he describes three types of ground - the pathway, the rocky soil and the thorny ground - which receive the seed of God’s word and at first look good for fruit-bearing, but which turn out to be barren (Matthew 13:1-13).

Why does it happen? That is a question to which the only ultimate answer is “God knows.” For, indeed, what goes on in the secrecy of a person’s heart only God fully understands. In Jesus’ story he mentions “trouble or persecution” stifling a person’s faith, or perhaps “”the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of riches”, but no more detail is given.

Paul knew about it. He seems to have made up his mind pretty firmly about his former friend Demas, who “because he loved this world, has deserted me...” (2 Timothy 4:10). Materialism - “worldliness” - seems to have been Demas’ downfall. (True, he speaks of Demas deserting him, Paul, not Jesus, but that seems to be implied.)

And of course there is the supreme example of Judas, who not only betrayed Jesus, but actually took money in order to do so.

The writer to the Hebrews has stern words to say about the danger of “falling away” (see Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-31). Those warning words need to be taken seriously. But it is not our business to decide when any particular person has fallen under their strictures; leave that to God.

One thing that strikes me is that no mention is made of people “losing their faith” through genuine intellectual doubts. Perhaps this is because, in Bible times, some sort of belief in God - or in a god, or in many gods - could be pretty much taken for granted. It simply wasn’t an issue that arose.

But our world today is massively different. We swim in a sea of sheer unbelief and are confronted daily by a vast range of competing and contradictory convictions - just about every -ism you could think of. People expressing these often anti-Christian beliefs may well be highly intelligent and occupy prominent positions as “public intellectuals”; they can come across as extremely convincing.

So why would we be surprised if thoughtful Christians sometimes have doubts? And who can be surprised if sometimes those doubts threaten to become overwhelming?

If ever there was case for leaving God to do the judging, this surely is it. When my friend insisted that he hadn’t “lost his faith” but had simply stopped believing, I felt very sad, of course. But I also felt a respect for his honesty - and I suspect that God does also.

A sad subject. But there is good news too. There can be a way back from lost faith to renewed faith.

Here are two New Testament passages to encourage us...
First, Simon Peter denied Jesus with cursing and swearing (Matthew 26:69-75). But Jesus lovingly and gently restored him (John 21:15-19) - and made him the human head of his church!

Second, listen to James the brother of Jesus: “... if one of you should wander from the truth [yes, it can happen!] and someone should bring that person back [yes, that can happen too!], remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their ways [yes, that too!] will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

So... I encourage all of us who feel secure in Jesus and in our faith to lift up a prayer for those we know who have “lost their faith.”

Lord Jesus, who spoke those wonderful words of promise and hope, “Seek and you will find”, I pray for people I know who have turned away from you - whether through yielding to temptation, through honest doubts, through fear of consequences, through personal pain and sorrow, or through simply drifting. Use me, Lord, to win them back. Amen.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Marriage - man-made or God-given?

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Genesis 2:20b-24

I read a newspaper article recently about a couple who had entered into an “open marriage”. This was some time ago - the woman writing was, I think, well into her middle or even later years, and she was writing about the “permissive” days of the 1970s and 80s.

What is an “open marriage”? In essence, a marriage in which, while the couple may regard themselves as committed to one another, they also regard themselves as free to enter other relationships as well, sometimes sexual, sometimes not. There is only one “rule”: total honesty on both sides - this is thought to reflect their maturity, and to set them free from petty and negative restrictions.

Apparently, in this case, it had worked fine for a time. But then a day came when the husband decided that, after all, he had fallen in love with someone else and wanted to be with her. Suddenly the beautiful simplicity of the open marriage didn’t seem quite so simple after all. A lot of pain, culminating in divorce, followed.

The story didn’t end there. The wife entered a new relationship, and she and her new partner decided to marry. But this time they opted for a more “traditional” approach, whereby their marriage bond involved total commitment - “till death us do part”, as the old-fashioned wording of the marriage service puts it.

The writer couldn’t help but reflect, a touch ruefully, on the fact that, though not a Christian, and though quite modern in her general attitudes, she and her husband had in fact come to realise that the traditional model of marriage - indeed, the biblical model - is the one most likely to lead to fulfilment and satisfaction.

And I couldn’t help but think: how sad that she and her first husband had had to go through a painful and bruising experience on the way to discovering the value of the pattern laid down in the Bible, a pattern so beautifully depicted in the Adam and Eve story - and a pattern which for many millions of people has stood the test of time.

A very simple lesson emerges from that article: God really does know best.

The illustration often used is that of the car maintenance manual: the people who made your car are the people best qualified to tell you how to drive it and how to keep it in good condition.

 And, by the same token, marriage is not simply a human invention, but a beautiful gift of the God who made us and who loves us, and who therefore is the best person to listen to when it comes to living it out.

God gave the gift of marriage to make us happy, not in order to restrict our freedom and cramp our instincts. And that remains true even if the climate of opinion in which we are living is so dramatically different from the one experienced by generations gone by.

No one in their senses will pretend that this is always easy. Not at all. Talk to couples who have been married for many years and - if they’re honest! - they will probably tell you about the times when their commitment to their marriage vows was stretched even sometimes to breaking point.

But there is a special beauty about the relationship of older people who have been through the hard and lean times - yes, sometimes bearing the scars of battle - but who can continue to testify to the joys and blessings they have received.

Different Christians may take different views about various aspects of marriage today - especially regarding the question of divorce. The Bible speaks with a voice that sometimes seems mixed - the God who states flatly in Malachi 2:16 (in most translations, anyway) that he “hates divorce” does seem also to permit divorce under certain circumstances (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:9 and1 Corinthians 7:15).

But there can be no doubt about the ideal that God has given us. The fact that we sometimes fail does not mean that God ceases to love us or is unwilling to give us another start: he is a gracious and forgiving God.

If ever there was an area in our confused and restless modern world where we as Christians are called to offer a clear witness to those around us, this surely is it. So much pain could be saved! - so much contentment gained!

Marriage is to be honoured, cherished and valued, not taken for granted or treated with cynicism or casualness. Let those of who are married do our utmost to be true to the commitment we have made. 

And let all of us, whatever our situation may be - single, married, widowed or divorced - make it our aim to live lives which glorify God. And which bless those who don’t yet share our faith.

Lord God, help me day by day to live such a life as to show those around me that you are a God of love and grace who wants our happiness, and that in all things your way is best. Amen.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Did God really hate Esau?

“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you ask, “How have you loved us?” “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, and Esau I have hated…” Malachi 1:2-3

Last time we took a kind of overview of the book of the prophet Malachi – how he ministered in spiritually dreary times when the people had drifted from God and lost their spiritual focus. Even though he holds out some mouth-watering hopes for them, the basic tone of his book is pretty grim.

And nothing strikes us as more grim than this stark statement right at the start of the book. The idea of God hating anybody sits uneasily with us, especially given the Bible’s constant emphasis on his love. So how can we make sense of this?

We need to grasp at least three vital facts.

First, in the Bible the word “hate” doesn’t always have the same black-and-white meaning that we give it.

The experts tell us that this is a Hebrew way of expressing preference. To say “I love (a) and hate (b)” is a way of saying “I prefer (a) to (b).”

In fact, we don’t really need the experts to tell us this. Doesn’t Jesus himself do the same? – “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

Jesus telling us to hate our very nearest and dearest? Surely not! After all, he told us to love even our enemies!

Yes indeed. So this can only be his way of driving home the point that loyalty to him takes precedence over every other loyalty.

This is borne out too by his words in Matthew 10:37, a parallel passage: “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…” No mention of “hating” there! – it’s as if the wording has been softened in order to avoid misunderstanding.

So… when Malachi reports the words of the Lord, “I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated”, he is saying that the Lord chose to take and use Jacob in preference to Esau.

Second, these words have nothing to do with personal, individual salvation.

God isn’t talking about his feelings for Jacob and Esau as men; as if he has taken a dislike to Esau while favouring his twin brother Jacob. He is not saying “I have chosen Jacob to be saved and to spend eternity with me in heaven, while I have chosen to cast Esau out into the darkness.”

No. When Malachi speaks of “Jacob” he doesn’t mean Jacob the man, but Jacob as representing the nation of Israel, of which he was a forefather. And likewise with “Esau”, who was the forefather of the people of Edom.

We need to put these words into context…

As we saw, right at the start of Malachi God assures his people that he loves them (1:2). This, surely, should count as good news. But no. Back comes the grudging answer, “How have you loved us?” As if to say, “Huh! We don’t see it. Look at the mess we’re in!”

To which God says, in effect, “Look, Jacob and Esau were brothers, weren’t they? Yes? And you’re Jacob’s descendants, aren’t you? Yes? So how come through hundreds of years I have protected and guided you, while Esau’s descendants (Edom), have languished in the side-lines of history? If that isn’t a sign of my love for you, I’d like to know what is!”

That is what is packed into that startling statement “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.”

Third, and leading directly on from this, the Bible is concerned about the destiny of nations as well as the destiny of individuals.

As Christians, we tend (quite rightly) to focus on the question of individual, personal salvation: Am I saved? Have my sins been forgiven? Can I be sure of eternal life?

But this is very much a New Testament emphasis – the Old Testament has only very little to say about an afterlife, and Malachi is no exception.

God has, so to speak, a this-worldly project under way: it is regularly referred to as “the kingdom of God”. (Jesus, remember, taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”) And in order to bring this great project to completion, he has chosen to use one particular people, the people of Israel (ie, Jacob), to bring his light and love to the whole world. And this project climaxes in Jesus the Messiah, their one and only perfect King, to whom we belong by faith.

But, of course, if God chooses to use one nation, then he must inevitably “not-choose” the others, including Edom (ie, Esau)!

That, I think we can confidently say, is what is meant by those stark words: “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.”

Thank you, O Lord, for creating Israel to be a light to lighten the nations. And thank you that, where Israel failed, Jesus the perfect Israelite succeeded, by his life, death and resurrection. Help me by your grace to be a worthy follower of his. Amen.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

When God's people go to the bad

Judah has been unfaithful. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem... Malachi 2:11

Being a prophet of God in Old Testament days was no easy task.

You could expect to be rejected and abused by the people, especially by the religious establishment - this was the fate of, for example, Amos and Jeremiah.

You might feel that the job God had given you was mission impossible and, like Jonah, decide to run away as fast as you could.

You might find the strain so great that, even after a period of triumphant ministry, you collapse into exhaustion and depression: that’s Elijah.

Or you might feel, like Daniel, that all the weight of Israel’s failure rested on your shoulders, and spend hours and days fasting, weeping and praying.

I could go on. But it would be good if just this little sample whetted our appetites to get to know these strange, driven, slightly frightening men better: wedded as we are to our comfort and security, they are a reminder to us that serving God can be a life-consuming and painful business. Don’t worry if you can’t understand every word or every passage; just get a flavour, a feel, of what was going on in their sometimes tormented lives.

What about Malachi? Well, we know next to nothing about him.

We can’t even be sure of his name, because “Malachi” simply means “my messenger”, and there are no details such as “son of so-and-so... from such-and-such a town.”
We don’t even know for sure when he was active, but (as fits his position right at the end of the Old Testament), he seems to have belonged in that twilight period - after the kings are long gone, after Judah has been in captivity in Babylon, after the people (or just a pathetic remnant of them) have returned to the promised land and rebuilt their ruined temple, but before the appearance of John the Baptist and the coming of the promised Christ.

Remembering the glory days of Solomon and David, how flat these times must have seemed.

Mind you, Malachi’s prophecy ends with a stirring foretaste of great things yet to come...

“Test me in this” - God throws down the gauntlet - “and see if I won’t throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that  there will not be room enough to store it...” (3:10). What a marvellous image that is - can you picture God ripping wide the sluices on his great celestial dam? Can you imagine this massive cascade of blessing tumbling onto the earth?

And here’s an even more wonderful promise: “For you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays” (4:2). Not water this time - but beautiful, health-giving, warming, comforting, healing sunshine.

Wonderful stuff - and very naturally these are the parts of Malachi that we are drawn to.

But in the early stages he has the thankless task of rebuking a carping, grumbling, complaining people who have lost any sense of God’s holy and powerful presence among them: “You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favour on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask ‘Why’...?”

Oh, poor little you! says Malachi - how pathetic you are with your grovelling crocodile tears! You really want to know why God has turned his face away? Well, listen up and I’ll tell you (2:13-14)!

And he laces into them for their shallow, showy worship, for their lack-lustre praying, for their shoddy sacrifices. These are sorry times indeed.

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that there is a clear message here for many of us today, living as we do in what the Bible calls a “day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10).

As I read Malachi’s scorching words I can’t help being reminded of the message of the risen Jesus to the corrupted, compromised church of Laodicea through his servant John (Revelation 3:14-22): “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 cold nor hot - I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Not nice.

We can’t, of course, ever deserve God’s blessing: but at the same time why should he bless us if our spiritual state is much like that of Malachi’s Israelites, or John’s Laodiceans?

If nothing else the Book of Malachi can prompt us to some serious self-examination. Are you due for a bit of that?

But wait a minute... isn’t it Malachi who also gives us those uncomfortable words about God “loving Jacob” and “hating Esau”? Yes, indeed. But I’ve run out of space - must leave that till next time...

Meanwhile, here’s a prayer of the hymn-writer William Cowper (1731-1800) which fits well the sombre mood of the Book of Malachi...

Lord, it is my chief complaint/ That my love is weak and faint;/ Yet I love Thee and adore;/ O for grace to love Thee more! Amen.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

The habit of gratitude

One of them (the ten lepers), when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him - and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Luke 17:15-18

Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything... Ephesians 5:19-20

I wonder if you share with me a childhood memory? - being nagged (or perhaps I should say encouraged) by your parents to say “Thank you” for a present. In my day that involved the tedious business of actually writing letters (who writes letters these days!), and it took away some of the pleasure of the present you had received.

Tedious perhaps - but it is of course a good habit to get into, the habit of gratitude. The fact is that if you don’t say thank you now, the chances are you won’t say it at all. Good intentions, as we all know only too well, have a nasty habit of quickly melting away.

Paul tells the Christians of Ephesus to be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything”. And the little story of Jesus healing the ten men with leprosy shows him expressing disappointment that only one of the ten (and him one of those hated Samaritans!), turned back to say thank you on being healed.

So the obvious question is: How good am I at remembering to be grateful?

When the Bible speaks of thankfulness it is usually being grateful to God that it has in mind. And most churches, I suspect, are quite good at that (indeed, there are times when I wonder if, in the course of a service, God actually gets a bit weary of being repeatedly thanked, especially if it’s always for the same thing). But the habit of gratitude to others is surely also a good thing.

I recently read an extract from a book by Paul Swann in which the author quotes scientific findings which suggest that people who remember to be thankful are likely to be happier and less prone to depression. Says Swann: “Gratitude is powerful because it undoes pride and despair, both of which are poison to the soul.”

It “undoes pride and despair”? I didn’t really understand that at first, but on reflection it began to make sense.

Gratitude undoes pride because it means recognising our debt to others, and accepting that we aren’t as perfect and self-contained as we would like to think. And it undoes despair because it means focussing on what good things we have, few though they may be, thus saving us from seeing things too negatively.

Put that into Christian language, and it is in essence a way of stirring up, first, humility (“I need God and other people; I am not self-contained”) and, second, faith (“I will see the hand of God in my circumstances”), both of which are healthy states of mind.

But - and this is the main point - gratitude doesn’t always come naturally: not, at least, in terms of the routine, everyday things. If we experience something bad, we immediately record it on our mental hard drive - it’s virtually impossible to forget. But things which are good, even if relatively ordinary, tend to slip out of our minds very quickly if we don’t make a conscious effort to reflect on them and digest them. This is part of the value of prayer which isn’t simply a string of requests, but which involves silent meditation as we reflect on our experiences.

Back again when I was a child there was a little song we used to sing in Sunday School: “Count your blessings, name them one by one./ Count your blessings, see what God has done./ Count your blessings, name them one by one,/ And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”

Corny, perhaps, but true. Counting our blessings is a discipline we need to get into, and like every discipline it takes time and practice. A simple way to start is to spend a few minutes every evening before going to bed reviewing the day and recalling the good things.

To avoid any misunderstanding, let’s spell out again that we aren’t thinking here about a kind of shallow, forced optimism: “put on a happy face”, “always look on the bright side of life”, or just “accentuate the positive”. Millions of people, after all, have appallingly heavy burdens to carry, so there’s no place for trite slogans. No, we’re talking about a whole cast of mind, something deliberately and intentionally developed through reflection, meditation and prayer.

So... where does this lead us?

For one thing, we are reminded that gratitude gives pleasure to God, and lack of it saddens him. We are reminded too that a grateful spirit makes us more positive, more truly optimistic and more aware of how little most of us give in comparison with what we have received.

I invite you to join with me in a prayer of priest and poet George Herbert (1593-1633)...

Thou hast given so much to me... Give one thing more - a grateful heart. Amen.