Wednesday, 31 October 2018

On the brink of despair... (2)

Darkness is my closest friend. Psalm 88

Last time I encouraged us to reflect on Psalm 88, the saddest of them all. Unique among the150 psalms, it has no real glimmer of light or hope.

I said that it prompted two questions to my mind, but I only had space for the first: Why does the psalmist (named as Heman the Ezrahite) feel this way? I suggested three possible answers: first, he was afraid of dying; second, he felt God was angry with him; and third, he was unbearably lonely. Please go back to the previous post if you are interested in seeing these thoughts opened up a little.

The second question is: What can we today take from his psalm? Again, I suggest three answers...

First: It encourages us to be honest and realistic.

For me, the greatest thing about Psalm 88 is that it is there at all. Isn’t the Bible supposed to be about joy and hope? Aren’t the psalms, in particular, supposed to be prayers bursting with faith?

Well, yes, of course. But not everywhere! Life in general simply isn’t always like that - and the Bible reflects that plain fact. And so there are many passages like this which give us permission (if I can put it that way) to be honest about times of sadness, depression and utter misery. Heman calls out to God in verse 15, “I have borne your terrors and am in despair.” How’s that for honesty!

I wonder how many of us Christians today take the trouble to read the Book of Job? - a man crying out in protest to God, feeling that he is being treated unjustly. How many of us reflect seriously on, say, 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, where the apostle Paul - yes, the great apostle! - declares how, in difficult circumstances, he “despaired of life itself... we felt we had received the sentence of death...” (verses 8-9).

Not to mention, of course, the agonised cry of Jesus himself on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

There are Christians - well-meaning, I’m sure - who simply refuse to accept this: if you are really Spirit-filled you will always be happy and joyful!

You wonder if they have ever read these passages, for when they say things like that - things which are true neither to scripture nor to life - they end up making the rest of us feel guilty and inadequate. You wonder: are they in fact wearing a mask, simply pretending something that isn’t true?

So, let Psalm 88 teach us to be honest and realistic.

Second: this psalm stirs up compassion. Or should do, anyway.

One of my main faults is that I tend to lack sympathy for people in trouble. My own life has generally been so easy that I can find it difficult to be patient with people who are struggling in the depths.

So to me this psalm is deeply challenging: how would I have reacted to Heman the Ezrahite if I had heard him pouring out his desolation? I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so crass as to tell him to “snap out of it” or “pull himself together”, but I fear, to my shame, that that thought might have been lurking there in my mind.

Reading his words makes me feel I want to go to him and sit with him in his ash-heap, to say “I will be your friend!” But would I in fact do so? Or would I rather turn my face the other way - like with those rough sleepers in the shop doorways in the city centre?

I can’t think of a more perfect prayer than Graham Kendrick’s beautiful little song: “Soften my heart, Lord,/ Soften my heart./ From all indifference/ Set me apart,/ To feel your compassion ,/ To weep with your tears./ Come soften my heart, O Lord,/ Soften my heart.”

Do you too need to pray for the gift of compassion?

Third: this psalm stimulates faith. Or, again, it should do.

There’s one vital thing I haven’t mentioned - perhaps because it’s so easy to miss the obvious. The fact is that Heman the Ezrahite is still praying!

That makes me shake my head in sheer admiration. Where I might have long since given up, he prays “day and night” (verse 1), “every day” (verse 9), “in the morning” (verse 13). He pleads with God that “my prayer should come before you” (verse 2). His faith, however stretched, is still alive.

He’s a wonderful example of the old saying that “when it’s hardest to pray, that’s when you need to pray hardest.” Corny? Maybe. But true!

I can only encourage anyone reading this who is “in the lowest pit” (verse 6) to battle on in prayer. Perhaps all you can offer are groans, sighs and cries, but please persevere: your prayers are not in vain.

I can’t help wondering if, when I get to heaven, I might meet dear Heman the Ezrahite. Will he come up to me, dancing, jumping and glowing with joy, and say “Yes, I’m the man who wrote that psalm! - that psalm you wrote a blog about. Oh, I was going through a tough time then! But isn’t it wonderful to be here now; isn’t it just wonderful?”

And I think I’ll find myself agreeing with him...

I’m being completely fanciful, of course. But... who knows?

Dear Father in heaven, please help me to cling to you even when you seem far away. And help me too to be a true friend to those who are in the depths. Amen.

Friday, 26 October 2018

On the brink of despair... (1)

Darkness is my closest friend. Psalm 88:18

How sad are those words! They form the terrible closing line of a psalm that it simply sad, sad, sad from beginning to end. If you have never reflected on it before, I do encourage you to do so. Give it time; let it sink in - it is, after all, as much part of God’s word as Psalm 23, John 3:16 or 1 Corinthians 13.

According to the psalm’s title, it reflects the mood of a man called Heman the Ezrahite, about whom we know next to nothing. But reading his words, perhaps some three thousand years after he wrote them, I feel I know him, for his feelings are as common today as they were in his day.

Two questions come to mind.

The first is: why does he feel this way? I can think of three possible answers...

First, he is afraid of dying. This comes across particularly in verses 3-6 and 10-12.

The Old Testament as a whole has little to say about an afterlife; true, there are hints of something wonderful to come - but only hints. Not until we get to the resurrection of Jesus do we find the solid and glorious hope of death defeated and eternal life in the presence of God.

Heman faces death with little relish: “I am counted among those who go down to the pit” (verse 4) - and judging by the rest of what he says, the thought of “the pit” brings him no hope.

If you are a Christian, aren’t you glad you live on this side of the resurrection? Even if the prospect of dying is understandably daunting, aren’t you glad you can say with the apostle Paul, “For to me to live is Christ - and to die is even better” (Philippians 1:21)? Aren’t you glad for that wonderful first Easter morning, when they went to Jesus’ tomb - and found it empty? For the breath-taking words of the angels: “He is not here; he has risen...”?

God help us to live every day not in fear of “the pit”, but in anticipation of endless and unspoiled joy!

Second, he feels God is angry with him.

“Your wrath lies heavily on me” (verse 7); “I have borne your terrors” (verse 15); “Your wrath has swept over me” (verse 16).

Was God really angry with him, or is this just the way he feels? We don’t know. But perhaps there are times when we too find ourselves feeling this way. Sometimes people say, “I must have done something really bad... God must be really angry with me.”

No doubt there are occasions when God is indeed angry with us (though only as a loving Father with his child), and rightly so - this is one of the reasons he has given us that mysterious thing called “conscience”.

But sometimes too this feeling amounts to little more than superstition, and we need to drive it out of our minds.

Remember that time when people asked Jesus about the blind man: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus’ reply began with the plain word, “Neither...” (John 9: 1-3). Remember too the time they asked him about some Galileans who were slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers in the very act of worshipping God. Jesus asks, Does that mean they were worse sinners than everyone else? And again the answer is a clear No! (Luke 13:1-3). Or the people crushed by a collapsing tower... No. (Luke 13:4-5).

A proper sense of guilt and shame when we have done wrong? - yes, of course. But no superstition! Remember the great statement of Paul in Romans 8:1: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus...” No condemnation! How poor Heman would have loved to hear those wonderful words!

Third, he is desperately lonely.

Anyone who can describe “the darkness” as their “closest friend” is obviously in a pitiful state. Is there no-one to comfort him? No-one to hold his hand? No-one just to sit with him? Apparently not: “You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them” (verse 8) (did he have leprosy, perhaps?).

It’s said that anything is bearable if you have somebody to bear it with you. Those of us who have never been seriously lonely can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to feel we have no-one - literally no-one - to share our troubles (or our joys, come to that).

The challenge is obvious: Can you think of someone who needs your companionship? You could be, quite literally, a life-saver.

I said Psalm 88 prompted two questions to my mind. I’ve glanced at the first: Why does Heman the Ezrahite feel this way? But I’ve run out of space, so I’ll leave the second till next time: How can Psalm 88 help us? I hope you’ll join me...

Lord God, when I am in the depths of doubt and loneliness, and close to despair, help me to “trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain, that morn shall tearless be”. Amen.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

A wasted life?

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:59-60

I worshipped recently at a church that was founded some seventy years ago in memory of a young church member. She was, apparently, a radiant Christian, and had felt called by God to serve as a missionary nurse in India.

From the moment she arrived she felt at home - she described the place where she was sent as a “ripping” hospital (no doubt today she would have said “incredible”, “fantastic” or “amazing”).

But... within a couple of months she was dead, struck down by disease.

You are tempted to think, “What a waste of a life! What was the point? There she was, just beginning her life’s work - and for no reason it’s suddenly cut short.” You might be tempted to go on, “Where was God in this? Was he there at all?”

Such thoughts are very natural. And, of course, there can be no clear or easy answers. But it’s a plain fact that some seriously bad people live to be a hundred, while many good people, including fine Christians, have their earthly lives cut cruelly short.

I find myself thinking of Stephen.

We are introduced to him in Acts 6:5 as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”, and we read in Acts 6:15 that under threat of death “his face was like the face of an angel”. And we say goodbye to him in Acts 8:2: after his stoning “godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.”

True, we aren’t told anything much about Stephen beyond those few details. How old was he? Was he married? Did he have children? We simply don’t know. But we get the impression of a man in the prime of life. And one thing we do know is that he had been a Christian (though the word “Christian” hadn’t even been coined at this time) for a matter probably of just a few weeks.

Acts 7 makes it clear that he had powerful speaking gifts, and even in those early days he had been given a leadership position in the church. The impact he might have had! He might have ended up greater than Peter or Paul!

So you think, as with that nurse, “What a waste...” How much good Stephen might have done if God had given him another twenty, or even just ten, years!”

But no. We have no choice but to accept that God had other ideas; and who are we to question him?

It’s a sobering thought that some people achieve more for God in just a year or two than some of us do in a whole lifetime. In Stephen’s case, Acts drops us an intriguing little detail that we shouldn’t miss... Apparently there was a young man standing by as they prepared to kill him, and while he wasn’t involved in the stoning he did look after their coats: Luke tells us that he “approved” of what they did.

And what was his name? Saul, that’s what. Saul of Tarsus. Saul, who would soon become Paul, the apostle to the gentiles. Saul, who would be used by God to change the course of history.

Saul’s conversion to Jesus is described a couple of chapters later. We can’t say for sure that witnessing Stephen’s Christlike death had affected him. But I don’t think you’re sticking your neck out too far if you say “Oh, surely, it must have; it must have!”

And who knows how many lives were transformed by having known, however briefly, that nurse we started with?

We tend to measure the quality of a life by its length: “She had a good innings,” we say, of someone who has just died in her nineties. And so indeed she may have done.

But even if she did, that way of assessing a life is the way of the world, not the way of God. What matters is not how many years I have, but what I do with the ones I am given.

Jesus himself, after all, once the period of his childhood was over, spent some twenty years preparing for his life’s work and then some three years - just three years! - fulfilling it.

But who would dare to say “Think of the even greater good he could have done if he had lived to seventy!” The very thought verges on the blasphemous.

No. God knows what he is doing. May he give us grace to accept it - even if we can’t understand it.

Lord Jesus Christ, whether my life be long or short, sad or sorrowful, exciting or routine, inspire me to fill it with glad service for you. Amen.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Did the apostle Paul wear glasses?

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand! Galatians 6:11

Did the apostle Paul wear glasses? Of course he didn’t, you idiot! - they didn’t have glasses in those days. Oh, of course... silly me. Well, do you think he might have worn glasses if they had been available? Haven’t  a clue. What are you burbling on about?

(As Paul himself once said: “I hope you will put up with me in a little foolishness” (2 Corinthians 11:1)...)

It’s just that as Paul brings his letter to the Galatian Christians to an end, he suddenly bursts into an almost childlike excitement: “See what large letters I use...!” He’s like a child running out of school waving a piece of paper: “Mummy, look what I did today!”

Could it be that Paul’s “large letters” indicate that he had an eyesight problem? I received an email not long ago from a friend I hadn’t seen for some years, and was surprised by the enormous font he used. Then, it dawned on me - yes, of course, he had always had bad eyesight; I later discovered that he was now in fact registered blind.

This is pure speculation, of course. But there are in Paul’s letters one or two little indications that this might have been the case with him too. So I invite you to reach for your Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass and deer-stalker hat and join me as we follow up these clues...

For a start, we know that when Paul first came preaching in Galatia he had some kind of illness; that this illness was “a trial to you”; and that in fact “it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you” (whatever exactly that may mean). (Galatians 4:13-14.)

Paul doesn’t tell us the nature of his illness. But... wait a minute, what’s this in verse 15? - “I can testify that if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me...”

When you stop and think about it, isn’t that rather a strange thing to say? Why would he choose this particular way of expressing how much they loved him? It certainly suggests that his illness could have been some kind of eye problem.

A further clue is that Paul, sometimes at least, used a scribe - a kind of personal secretary - to write his letters for him at his dictation: on one occasion this person even pops his head above the parapet and tells us his name: “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Romans 16:22).

True, this would not have been unusual in the world in which Paul lived. But, certainly, having someone on hand to do the donkey-work would have been very helpful for a man with poor eyes.

Well, all this is only speculation, of course. And ultimately it doesn’t really matter very much.

But there are, I think, a couple of ways in which it can help us to build up a picture of the early church.

First, it helps us to see the “big names” of the New Testament more clearly.

Christian tradition over two thousand years has tended to put people like Peter, John, Mary, Paul and the rest on a pedestal - not least by giving them the misleading title “Saint”. (Every follower of Jesus, including you and me, is a “saint” in the true sense of a person set apart for the service of God).

I suspect that many people, when they hear mention of “Saint Paul”, picture somebody they have seen in a cathedral’s stained-glass window. Very possibly he will have a halo round his head and an expression of rapt adoration on his face.

But this simply isn’t what Paul and the rest were like. They were ordinary human beings like you and me, with similar physical frailties and problems - possibly including weak or diseased eyes.

Second, focussing on these hints of physical weakness in Paul reminds us that bodily deterioration is just a fact of life. So let’s get used to it!

Yes, God can heal; and yes, sometimes God does heal. But clearly he didn’t heal in the case of Paul’s problems in Galatia. Nor, come to that, did he heal in the cases of Trophimus (2 Timothy 4:20) or of Timothy himself (1 Timothy 5:23). (And, regarding illness in general, is it any coincidence that Paul regularly travelled with a doctor - Doctor Luke...?)

No. As long as we are on this earth we are subject to what the old hymn called “change and decay”. Listen to Paul again in 2 Corinthians 4:16: “... outwardly we are wasting away”. (There speaks a man conscious of his physical decline!)

But what does he go on to say? “... yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day”.

Yes! - a day is coming when that daily inner renewal will give way to a final, complete renewal - we will be perfect in body, mind and spirit. Just like Jesus himself, in fact.

So, whatever the frustrations and difficulties, let’s aim to keep praising!

Lord God, thank you for the many frailties of the great men and women you chose to serve you in key moments of history. Thank you indeed for the weakness and weariness of Jesus himself. Help me to remember this when I get anxious or frustrated with my body, and to remember that “I shall be like him, for I shall see him as he is”. Amen.

Friday, 12 October 2018

How can I be like Jesus?

... for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Galatians 3:27

... clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 13:14

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you... Galatians 4:19

I’ve plucked three little snippets from Paul’s letters, about 40 words in all. Yet how much they give us to think about!

The basic theme is clear enough: being like Jesus. Going a little further, they are suggesting that Jesus should be seen in us - that when people look at us, they should see him.

Putting it like that makes us aware of the massively high calling we have - to be “clothed with” Christ!... to have Christ “formed” in us! There’s plenty of scope for reflection there: is that how I see myself? (More to the point, is that how others see me?)

Take the “clothed with Christ” picture first.

In Galatians 3:27 Paul links this with baptism: “When you got baptised you put on Jesus,” he seems to be saying. It was a one-off event, in which you declared to everyone who saw it that you now have a new allegiance, a new identity.

When I was baptised, many years ago, it was the custom for the men to wear a white shirt and trousers, and the women to wear a long white gown. (Some experts think that something similar happened in the early days of the church, though we don’t come across it in the New Testament.)

It was, in fact, strangely moving, seeing people you knew well wearing clothes that you had never seen them in before, and never would again (except, perhaps, on the cricket field). It prompted the thought of a new-found purity; it highlighted the fact that something very special had happened to these people.

Why not take a few moments to look back to the day of your baptism, or the time when you first pledged to follow Jesus? Is it time to shake off weariness and sluggishness, to renew the promises you made that day - to “clothe yourself with Christ” afresh?

In Romans 13:14 Paul uses the same picture, but in a rather different way. He is comparing the way of Jesus with the way of the world, and says that instead of “carousing and drunkenness, sexual immorality and debauchery, dissension and jealousy” (verse 13) we should clothe ourselves with Jesus.

In other words, he is telling us that we have a responsibility to take ourselves in hand, so to speak, and consciously make it our aim to reflect the purity of Jesus right in the middle of our godless, immoral and corrupt world. Not self-righteous, of course; but certainly “righteous”.

In a word, this verse is not about a single landmark event - baptism - but about our general behaviour and life-style.

Perhaps it would be good, again, to pause and ask ourselves the question: Is there any aspect of my day to day life where I wear the grubby clothes of sin rather than the beauty of Jesus?

What about Galatians 4:19? This is a different picture altogether and, I think, even more challenging.

Paul is seriously troubled about the members of the church in Galatia: having come to faith in Jesus, they are now slipping back into their old ways of thinking and acting. Remarkably, he actually compares himself to a woman in labour: “I am again in the pains of childbirth(!) until Christ is formed in you.”

The reason I find this specially challenging is that Paul is speaking here of something going on inside us - Christ being “formed in us” - rather than something outward and eternal - being “clothed with Christ”.

Isn’t there something truly profound about the idea of Jesus being formed in us? - our very inner essence being shaped according to his likeness. I find it very thought-provoking in the sense that it’s not something we do, like getting dressed, but something that happens to us - quietly, secretly, mysteriously - as we grow in Christ, and are more and more filled with the Holy Spirit.

Yes, this is something that “happens to us”. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that we are purely passive in the process. No: as followers of Jesus it is our responsibility to make sure that the conditions for this “formation” are maintained day by day - and this means prayer and reflection, Bible-reading and worship, all the different “means of grace”.

It means being daily “filled with the Holy Spirit.” For what this is all about, in a single word, is holiness.

I asked earlier if perhaps we need to renew our baptism vows; and if we need to review our daily behaviour patterns.

But I won’t ask if we can sense Christ being formed in us. Why not? Because if he is... we won’t be aware of it.

But other people will. Oh yes - other people will! And, ultimately, isn’t that all that matters?

Lord Jesus, I humbly pray that as people look at me, they will, amazingly, see something of you. Amen.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Doing good in Jesus' name

When Peter saw him [the disciple whom Jesus loved], he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “... what is that to you? You must follow me.” John 21:27-28

Did you see the BBC television programme last Friday about CAP (Christians Against Poverty)?

If you’ve never heard of CAP, it’s a Christian ministry dedicated to helping people out of debt and setting them on their feet. It gets alongside people in times of desperate need, offers practical support, works out budgeting schemes, and teaches life-skills. And it unashamedly offers them Jesus as the ultimate answer to their deepest needs.

There’s no pressure or coercion, but the people they work with are invited to join in a short, simple prayer and encouraged to get along to a local church. (CAP insists that if somebody isn’t interested in the “spiritual” side of their work that makes no difference; they continue to offer support as long as it is needed.)

The heart of the programme was the stories of two or three individuals who have been helped to the point of becoming debt-free. Given that some were originally hundreds, even thousands, of pounds in debt, that was cause for rejoicing indeed, and it was intensely moving to see. Some of them have also decided to follow Jesus.

I have had a very slight acquaintance with CAP over recent years - I have a friend whose life was turned round with their help. But I had no idea how big it has grown, and how professional it is in the way it goes about a massively difficult and draining ministry. I could only sit, watch and admire what the programme showed.

All credit, too, to the BBC for broadcasting a documentary which showed up Christians in a good light (that isn’t always the case with the media, as we all know!). The tone was respectful throughout.

There was, perhaps, just one slightly jarring note: the interviewer hinted at questioning CAP’s motives, wondering if perhaps their debt-relief work was, so to speak, a cover for winning converts - that that was what they were really interested in.

The answer was, in effect, that of course they would like to see people coming to faith in Christ - what’s wrong with that! - but that the help they offer comes without strings. It made the questioning seem unnecessarily cynical.

It also raised the old issue of Christians getting involved in “social work” as opposed to “pure evangelism”.

Some Christian organisations do good work without any attempt at winning converts; others are so focussed on simply spreading the good news of the gospel that they take no interest in people’s practical day-to-day needs.

But surely there should be no wedge between the two. The history of the church has demonstrated this, with its schools and colleges, its hospitals and clinics, its efforts to abolish slavery, its orphanages, its support for the persecuted, its fight against the sex trade, and its alcohol and drug initiatives. Doing good in the name of Jesus - how can that not be good!

If you missed the programme, you can catch up with it on BBC iPlayer. It’s called The Debt Saviour and it was broadcast on BBC 2, Friday 5 October. You might end up feeling you want to support CAP. (You might one day find you need it...)

Mind you, if you’re anything like me there could just possibly be one “down” side (though it isn’t really a down side at all).
You might find yourself watching in admiration, and thinking “Mmm... why have I never done anything like this? Something adventurous? Something calling for a real risk of faith? How conventional, how safe, has my life and ministry been!”

Watching any kind of exciting pioneer ministry can easily make us feel inadequate.

To which, I think, there is only one answer... God has a call and ministry for each one of us, and we are to rejoice in whatever he has called us to do, not worry about what others do.

Simon Peter talked with the risen Jesus and asked him about “the disciple whom Jesus loved” - “Lord, what about him?” To which Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you. You must follow me.”

As if to say: “Simon Peter, mind your own business! His future is in my hands. And so is yours. So make it your business to follow me heart and soul - that’s all that matters.”

So yes, watch the CAP programme by all means: I recommend it. But let it not stir up feelings of inadequacy. Rather, let it challenge all of us to reject half-heartedness and lukewarmness, and inspire us to follow Jesus and serve him in whatever our situation might be - even if that seems rather dull and ordinary.

Thank you, Father, for those whom you have called to serve in unconventional and even risky areas. Give them all the vision, wisdom and energy they need to be faithful to you. And help me too, whatever my sphere of ministry may be, to give always of my best, confident that I too can be of use to you. Amen.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

When words fail us

The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with wordless groans. Romans 8:26

Do you ever find it hard to know how to pray? You know you ought to pray. Indeed, you genuinely want to pray. But for various reasons you just don’t know how to put your prayer into words.

I’d be surprised if your answer was No. Setting aside the question of praying in tongues, I’m pretty sure that this is a difficulty most Christians struggle with.

There could be many reasons.

Perhaps you’re going through a time of crisis - a serious health issue or a family problem. You may even be in a state of shock, unable to think straight, never mind put your thoughts into words.

Or perhaps you want to pray for someone or something that you have prayed for dozens, even hundreds, of times before. Somehow just repeating the same words seems feeble, and there comes a point where, in all honesty, you wonder if really you’re just going through the motions.

Or perhaps you want to pray for a situation you have no personal knowledge or experience of. I am sure that just recently we have all wanted to pray for the victims of the Indonesia tsunami - but how exactly do you put your prayer into words? “Lord, bless the suffering people of Sulawesi”, however heart-felt, seems hopelessly vague. Or you hear news of some terrible persecution of Christians on the other side of the world... Or you feel as a responsible citizen that you ought to be praying about Brexit, and for our government... I could go on.

Well, if this is indeed our experience, Paul has encouraging words for us. He presumably shared the problem, for he uses the words “we” and “us”, and he tells us that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”

I’m not sure I understand fully what Paul means by that expression. But I find it intriguing, don’t you? Putting it simply, he seems to be saying that our deepest and most powerful praying may well consist of... groaning! Yes! not polished, beautifully structured prayer, not triumphal faith-filled prayer, and not prayer in “unknown languages” or “tongues”, but groaning payer.

Does that come as a surprise? It shouldn’t really, because whatever precisely “groaning” means, it certainly has to do with pain. And Paul is acutely conscious that just as Jesus the Son of God endured terrible pain in purchasing our salvation, so we too as his followers are called to share his pain.

Groaning, in fact, is a key thought in this passage: in verse 22 we read that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pain of childbirth right up to the present time”; and in verse 24 that we too “who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship...”  (The same thought is expressed in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, by the way.)

Fact: our fallen world is a groaning world, and boy don’t we know it as we look around us. And even we who are part of the church, the very body of Christ, and assured of eternal salvation, also have plenty of groaning still to do. The world is waiting for the day of redemption - and we are waiting with it.

Did anyone ever tell you that the Christian life was easy? that it’s victory and rejoicing all the way? Well, forget it! Oh yes, there are times of joy and triumph, thank God for that - but the way of Jesus is the way of the cross, and it’s a way he tells us to follow him in: “take up your cross and follow me”.

Not, of course, that when you find it hard to know how to pray, you should force yourself to groan - that would be artificial. But take Paul’s words in the sense that even the weakest, the most stuttering, the most fumbling, garbled and repetitive prayer, is taken by the Spirit and presented to God as a perfectly formed intercession.

According to the next verse, “the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with God’s will.” True, we may not know what God’s will is - but there is someone who does, and he lives right inside us!

Put it like this: the God who is within us - the Holy Spirit - prays to the God who is above us - our loving heavenly Father. (And, of course, there is only one God.)

Isn’t that encouraging? Let’s never weaken, then, in this wonderful duty and joy of prayer.

Holy Spirit, thank you that you know my heart, and that you can turn my wordless groanings into powerful prayer. Amen.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

A God of surprises

This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of... Isaiah 45:1

We all know something (I hope!) about Abraham and Moses, David and Hezekiah, Elijah and Jeremiah. They are all key characters in the Old Testament.

But... Cyrus? Who on earth was he?

According to Isaiah 44:24-Isaiah 45:7 he was the king whom God would use to bring about history-changing events for the people of Israel: Cyrus the Great of Persia, as he is known to history. God calls him “my shepherd”, who will “accomplish all that I please”. He is the man who will order the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians (Isaiah 44:28).

He will be massively rich and awesomely powerful, and given by God “a title of honour” (Isaiah 45:2-4).

Obviously quite a man! The Bible actually enables us to hear his voice. Go to 2 Chronicles 36:23 (repeated in Ezra 1:2-4): “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah...

Cyrus lived from about 600 to 530 BC, and he turned the kingdom of Persia into the greatest superpower of the time. Israel was living under the rod of Babylon, but in 539 BC Cyrus defeated the Babylonians at the Battle of Opis - and everything changed.

Yes, he not only allowed the people of Israel to return to their homeland, he actually encouraged them to do so. He not only allowed them to rebuild their sacred temple, he actually helped them to do so. For once, that much over-used word “incredible” fits.

But the most startling thing about King Cyrus is that God calls him his “messiah”. Yes, really!

“Messiah” is the Hebrew word for “person anointed by God” - the New Testament equivalent is “christ” (I haven’t given that a capital C because at this point in history it is a title rather than a name). In the Old Testament the title “anointed one/ messiah” is generally given to kings, who were literally anointed with oil at their coronation.

So the prophet Isaiah would have been aware of what a remarkable thing he was saying about Cyrus in Isaiah 45:1, given that he “did not acknowledge” God (verses 4 and 5). Nowhere else in the Old Testament is anybody outside the people of Israel referred to in this way.

Did Cyrus ever come to the point of bowing the knee to the God of Israel? Those verses at the end of 2 Chronicles and the beginning of Ezra might give the impression that he did. But there is no record of that ever happening.

The fact seems to be that he was simply an enlightened king who believed in ruling his subject-peoples with toleration and respect - the generosity he showed to Israel he showed also to his other subjects, though the Bible understandably makes no mention of these. (The Jews gave him a place of honour in their history: to this day you can go to a “Cyrus Street” in Jerusalem.)

If all this is true, you might feel like saying “Why have I never heard a sermon about this man! Why isn’t he better known?” Good questions! (Perhaps they highlight our failure to get to grips with the Old Testament as well as the New.)

To me, there are at least two things about King Cyrus which make him an exciting figure.

First, he reminds us that God is indeed the Lord of history, which is really what this passage is about. Kingdoms rise and fall at his say-so. The Old Testament people of God lived under the heel of various pagan powers: the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, here the Persians, then the Greeks and, in the days of Jesus, the Romans. But where are they today?

We look at the superpowers of our time - America, Russia, China - and sometimes we may feel alarmed, as Israel did all those centuries ago: what is going to become of us! But the story of Cyrus reminds us that truly “our God reigns”.

Second, it reminds us that God has resources up his sleeve that we know nothing of. Who would have guessed - who would have dreamed! - that God would take a pagan king, someone who didn’t even know him, and use him as his instrument? That God would even refer to him as his “anointed one” - his messiah?

I imagine that all of us who are Christians have from time to time received answers to prayer which we could never have begun to imagine - perhaps blessing us through people who make no claim to be Christians. We have found ourselves shaking our heads in amazement and wonder.

So the message has to be: Don’t put God in a box! Don’t pre-judge what he can or might do. Keep your trust in him, for you never know when he might be about to spring a jaw-dropping surprise...

Lord God, you did wonders for your people when they were in their darkest hour. Help me never to doubt you and never to limit what you might do today, whether my circumstances are bad or good. Amen.