Thursday, 10 October 2019

Are you a joyful giver?

Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints...

You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. 2 Corinthians 8:4,9

I heard a story - a true one, apparently - about a minister who used a sermon to tell his congregation off about the level of their giving.

So what’s new? you say. Isn’t this normal in many churches? “Come on,” says the preacher, “we need to do more to bump up the church’s income.”

Only... it wasn’t like that. No - the preacher was telling the people off because they were giving too much. Yes, really. They were mainly quite poor people, but such was their love for God and his work that they were giving so generously that they were leaving themselves short.

The Bible says that “God loves a cheerful giver”, of course. A week or two ago I wrote about what I called “holy extravagance”, focussing on the unnamed woman who poured a bottle of perfume over Jesus, much to the disapproval of the religious people watching. And I don’t go back on a word of that.

But in this case a time had obviously come when the people were giving over-extravagantly, and the minister felt it right to ask them to stop.

Something like this happened in Paul’s ministry. The “they” he is speaking about in 2 Corinthians 8 are members of the Macedonian churches - Gentile churches, probably Philippi and Thessalonica. And the “service” he mentions is that of raising money for fellow-believers in need.

Paul was keen to collect money from the churches he had planted in the Gentile world in order to help the Jewish mother-church in the Jerusalem area. These Christians had fallen on hard times (we aren’t told why) and they needed help. And Paul was bowled over by the sheer generosity of the Macedonian churches: “They urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service.” Note those words: urgently... pleaded... privilege... These people were anything but half-hearted! And this in spite of the fact that they themselves were experiencing “extreme poverty”.

A challenge to us all.

But it’s not really money I’m thinking about, important though our financial giving is. No, I’m thinking more about our overall attitude towards service for God.

Over my years in ministry I developed a little joke. When we made known a job needing to be done in the life of the church, I would  sometimes say, “Please form an orderly queue at the end of the service” - knowing, of course, that that was (to put it mildly) extremely unlikely to happen.
All right, a pretty feeble joke - but you get the point.

(Mind you, I do remember with great respect and gratitude one young woman in particular who would often quietly say “Yes, I think perhaps that’s something I could help with...” And if it did indeed turn out to be something that was right for her, she proved herself totally reliable. Thank God for people like her!)

I’m not saying this to pile guilt on us. No, of course, we’re living in days when everyone is frantically busy, and fitting in just the basic tasks of everyday life can be a struggle.

But could it be that some of us have slipped into a wrong mentality? A mentality where the immediate, unthinking, knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Not me! Oh no, that’s not something I could do! That’s for someone else”? - without even pausing for ten seconds to think and pray, “Lord, is this something you would like me to do?”

Here are two great Bible principles.

First, it is a joy and privilege to serve God in the building of his kingdom.

Regarding the Macedonian Christians, Paul spells this out: “In the midst of a very severe trial, their over-flowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (verse 2). And for us - well, what greater use of our earthly lives could there be than to offer our gifts and talents (and these are things we all have!) to the business of making more widely known the love of God shown in Jesus?

Second, it is through service that we grow.

Why are some Christians, even those of many years’ standing, spiritually flabby and slack? Often, I suspect, it’s because they have never rolled up their sleeves and committed themselves to the discipline and hard work of some specific task for God.

Why not read the whole passage (2 Corinthians 8:1-9), and ask yourself the question: Is there any area, whether involving money or not, where I need to take a leaf out of the book of the Macedonian Christians?

Even better, a leaf out of the book of Jesus himself, who “though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich”?

Oh use me, Lord, use even me,/ Just as you will, and when, and where,/ Until your blessed face I see,/ Your rest, your joy, your glory share. Amen.   (Frances Ridley Havergal)

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Meekness and majesty

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.”  Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him.  The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 

“Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” Then everyone deserted him and fled. 

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. Mark 14:43-52

How would I react if the authorities came hammering on my door at night, wanting to arrest me for being a Christian? Would I go to pieces?

Thankfully, living where I do, this isn’t a fate I need worry about too much - but that can’t be said of many Christians around the world, ordinary people like you and me; for them it is a daily possibility. May God prompt us to be faithful in prayer for them!

Well, here is Jesus, standing in the Garden of Gethsemane and confronting “a crowd armed with swords and clubs”, sent by the religious authorities. Patience has snapped, and they have come to get him.

Two things particularly strike me: Jesus’ heart-breaking aloneness, and his wonderful dignity. Go to pieces? Not him!
That aloneness...

Jesus has been in an agony of prayer, asking his disciples to stay awake and keep him company. But they fail, and he finds them asleep. Now, as the mob arrives, it turns out that they are headed by one of his own inner circle, Judas. He identifies Jesus (it’s dark in the garden) by kissing him. Then, after a brief and futile skirmish, in which one of them attacks the high priest’s servant (John’s Gospel tells us it was Simon Peter), “everyone deserted him and fled”.

As if to emphasise Jesus’ aloneness, Mark adds the semi-comical detail of a young man (Mark himself, according to an early tradition) who is so desperate to get away that, when they grab him, he slithers snake-like out of his tunic and disappears naked into the night.

So Jesus stands alone.

It’s been said that anything in this life is bearable if you have someone to bear it with you. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in that. Thank God for loyal family and friends who stick with us in our hard times!

But there’s no doubt that, tragically, this world is full of lonely people. So I must face the question, How loyal and caring am I to the lonely friend? Still more, how loyal and caring to the lonely stranger?

Lord, help me to see and love the lonely person, whoever they may be!

What about Jesus’ wonderful dignity?

At this pivotal moment in his life, he offers no resistance, either physical or verbal. “Why this show of force?” he mildly protests. “You could have come for me any time you wanted! I haven’t tried to hide myself away, have I?” So he is taken away, “led like a lamb to the slaughter”. Can you see the sad little procession, Jesus upright in the middle?

Where did he (fully human, remember, as well as fully divine) get this poise and dignity?

No doubt a life-time of self-discipline and deep spirituality fed into this. But the passage itself suggests two things which were particularly important.

First, he has just come through a time of intense, agonising prayer. Mark tells us that he was “deeply distressed and troubled”, Luke that “his sweat was like drops of blood”. He pleads with his Father to spare him the ordeal that lies ahead. But having come through that turmoil of prayer, he has found a new sense of peace and equilibrium.

There are times when we too need to grit our teeth and pray our way through hard situations. When perhaps those we have relied on fail us, what can we do but throw ourselves on the fatherly love of God and pour out our hearts to him? We may not get what we ask for, but we do reach a place of peace - not just a negative sense of resignation, but a positive acceptance of what we know in our hearts is right: “... not what I will, but what you will...”.

I wonder if any of us today need a determined getting-to-grips-with-God session, a real outpouring of our hearts?

Second, we shouldn’t overlook his simple words: “The scriptures must be fulfilled” (verse 50).

From early days, certainly by the time he was twelve, when he debated with the teachers in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2), Jesus had had a deep sense of personal destiny. I have sometimes wondered at exactly what point in his young life he, reading perhaps Isaiah 53, realised for the first time, “This is... me!”.

We have no way of knowing. But we do know that all his life he had been reflecting on the scriptures, and now, even though even he could not know all the details, he sees the jigsaw pieces of prophecy clicking into place. To suffer and to die is what he came for - so he lets them lead him away. In the words of Hebrews 12:2: “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame...”.

You too have a personal destiny. As do I. May God help us, by his Spirit, to find it, to follow it - and ultimately to rejoice in it. Isn’t this how we are to give honour to the one we call “Lord”?

O what a mystery,/ Meekness and majesty./ Bow down and worship/ For this is your God. Amen.   (Graham Kendrick)

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Can extravagance be holy?

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me...” Mark 14:3-6

Would you describe yourself as an extravagant person? - spending money you don’t really need to spend? - perhaps even money you don’t actually have? Ever have your family rolling their eyes or muttering under their breath?

If you do, you probably feel guilty about it. You may even have promised yourself that you really will rein it in; but, of course, that’s easier said than done. And, jokes aside, we all know of lives that have been ruined because of an irresponsible use of money.

Yes, extravagance is a pretty stupid thing; very often, indeed, a sin.

But... Are there perhaps exceptions? The Bible gives us a number of examples of what we might call holy extravagance.

One of the best of these is the unnamed woman of Mark 14. She approaches Jesus at a meal-table with a jar of “very expensive perfume” - the sort of thing, I imagine, that would normally be used in little dabs. And what does she do? She “broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head”. If that’s not extravagance, I don’t know what is.

Her action causes a right stink (so to speak). The disciples and others at the meal give vent to their outrage, and turn ferociously on the woman: “What a waste! Think of all the help the poor could have received if this perfume had been sold on their behalf!”

They have a point, of course. But Jesus, in spite of his undoubted love and concern for the poor, hungry and helpless, just dismisses it: “Leave her alone... Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me”. Isn’t that one of the greatest things Jesus ever said? I can picture the woman, cowering under the onslaught of criticism, now standing up straight and looking them full in the face.

The point, of course, is that the woman’s action was done not to gratify herself, but out of love for Jesus. She herself got nothing out of it - except the pleasure of honouring the one she had come to love, respect and, I imagine, in due course to worship.

The challenge for us is very simple. Are there occasions when we too might perform an act of holy extravagance? Could God be prompting us to do so right now?

The widow with her “two very small copper coins” thrown into the temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44) is another wonderful example. Jesus tells his disciples that her giving is greater than that of the rich people, because “they all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on”.

And then there is Joseph Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37) who “sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet”. (Was that field intended as what we might call his pension-pot?)

In each of those examples, the act must have been prepared deliberately in advance - holy extravagance is not to be carried out lightly or impulsively.

Or - to digress for a moment - under any kind of pressure. Barnabas wasn’t alone in the early church to do such a thing; but there is no suggestion that it was demanded or expected of the first believers.
On the contrary, immediately after we are told about Barnabas, we are given another story: about a couple who wanted to be seen as extravagant, but who in fact weren’t. Ananias and Sapphira “also sold a piece of property”, but then “kept back part of the money... brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 5:1-11).

The problem wasn’t that they didn’t give the whole amount; no, that was fine. The problem was that they pretended to. Simon Peter made that very clear: “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”

While we admire the two women we have thought about, and also Barnabas, we can only feel deeply sad for this misguided couple. It’s sad that they wanted to be seen as something they weren’t - and even sadder that they saw nothing wrong in telling a lie. (Saddest of all, of course, is what happened to them - a solemn warning that it’s futile to lie to the God who knows all things.)

Holy extravagance isn’t only to do with money. It can take many forms - committing yourself to a new area of service, perhaps, or taking on a responsibility for something you’re not completely sure you can cope with. It is, putting it in a single word, risky. But isn’t faith often exactly that - taking a risk out of our love for God?

As I reflect on these stories, there’s an obvious question that nags away at my mind: When did I last (if ever) express my love for God in an act of holy extravagance? Or am I happy just being comfortable in my undemanding faith?

A question worth pondering...

Lord Jesus, please give me a loving heart, a wise mind, a generous spirit - and open hands. Amen.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Something even God can't do

Jesus said, If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Luke 17:3

I remember reading about a missionary family two of whose members were horribly killed by anti-Christian extremists. Within days of this atrocity they declared, “We have forgiven the people who did this.”

And I remember being both massively impressed and deeply humbled - what a glowing, Christlike act! Thinking about how I might have reacted to such a horror, it made me wonder if I was a real Christian at all.

But I found that along with this profound admiration, I somehow also felt uneasy deep down - “There’s something not quite right here...” It was a long time before I put my finger on what lay behind that feeling, perhaps because it seemed wrong to question in any way such a beautiful attitude. But my sense of unease refused to fade away.

And then I realised, very simply really, that the witness of those Christians, for all its wonderfulness, had failed to take account of a vital biblical theme: the link between forgiveness and repentance

Forgiveness is, of course, at the very heart of the Bible, both Old and New Testament. God is a loving and forgiving God, and you can quote passage after passage to demonstrate that supreme truth. But you don’t have to probe very deeply in order to see that that forgiveness is dependent on repentance - on us being truly sorry, and determined to turn around and re-boot our lives.

To put it bluntly, if we are not willing to repent, even God himself cannot forgive us.

Does that seem a shocking thing to say? Isn’t God “almighty”? Can’t he do anything? If that’s how we react, it shows that we have never really grasped the nature of the God revealed in the Bible. The point isn’t that he is unwilling to do so - certainly not! - he longs to forgive. No: it’s because to do so would go against his own holy nature, and even God cannot contradict himself. It would be like saying, “Sin doesn’t really matter that much, so I’m happy to turn a blind eye.”

The German writer Heinrich Heine is supposed to have said, “Dieu me pardonnera - c'est son metier” - “God will forgive me - it’s what he does”, which sums up perfectly a cynical, shallow and casual response to a deadly serious problem: “Forgiveness? Oh, don’t worry about that - that’s God’s job”.

Jesus makes the truth very clear. In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12) he teaches us to pray for forgiveness: “Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us”. And immediately afterwards he adds a note of warning: “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”. Could that be plainer?

That’s not God being grumpy or vindictive; it’s him saying, “Sin is a serious thing, and it needs to be dealt with, not ignored - even I can’t just brush it under the carpet”.

And in Luke 17:3, we shouldn’t miss those vital words “if they repent...”: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them”. Implying, “But if they don’t repent...” (you don’t need me to spell it out).

Does this mean that that missionary family were entitled to nurse anger, or harbour a grudge, against the people who killed their loved ones? No, not at all. If someone has wronged us, the willingness to forgive - indeed, a desire to forgive - must always be there. But by stating so boldly “We have forgiven the people who did this”, however well-meaning that was, they were in fact cheapening the whole idea of forgiveness. They were conveying to the killers that, in essence, right and wrong just don’t really matter that much.

It seems wrong to imply criticism of such a well-motivated desire to be like Jesus. But the fact is that we can be well-meaning to the nth degree - but still mistaken. Our need for forgiveness was bought at a great price - Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. It is not for us to cheapen that sacrifice.

Let’s imagine that that family had issued a different statement...

“In spite of our grief and distress at what has been done to us, we would like to reach out a hand of love and reconciliation to those who have hurt us so deeply. Our prayer is that they will recognise the wrong they have done, take hold of our hand, and enter into an experience of the loving forgiveness of God, purchased by his son Jesus on the cross.”

That wouldn’t have been easy - no easier than “We have forgiven these people”. But it would have reflected more accurately the totality of what God is like: deeply loving the sinner, but remorselessly hating the sin.

And perhaps it would have gone like an arrow to the hearts of those killers.

Heavenly Father, please give me your loving and forgiving heart - never to harbour grudges or nurse bitterness against those who have wronged me. Help me also to love and pray even for those who refuse to repent. Amen.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Is healing a gift for today?

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and illness. Matthew 10:1

A key moment has arrived in Jesus’ earthly ministry.

We aren’t told exactly how long his twelve disciples have been with him, but it’s been long enough for them to have heard his teaching and also to have witnessed his miracle-working powers. They have seen him heal people with leprosy and other diseases, cast demons out of people, and even raise the dead (Matthew 8 and 9).

They are awe-struck by what they see. “What kind of man is this?” they exclaim when he demonstrates his power even over the forces of nature (Matthew 8:27). What kind of man indeed!

And perhaps they sometimes thought, deep down, “Thank goodness he is here! Thank goodness we don’t have to do these things!”

Well, if they did think like that, they’re in for a bit of a shock.

Matthew tells us that he “called them to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and illness.” He says, in effect, “You see this divine authority I have from my Father? Well, now I am vesting it in you. For a time I’m not going to be with you - not physically, at any rate. But you will have the same authority as I have. So... get out there and use it!

And they did.

True, they didn’t have that authority to the same full extent, and there were times when they failed - Matthew 17:14-21 is a good example. But they had it nonetheless, and we are given various examples in the book of Acts, after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

This raises an intriguing question: Does the authority of Jesus extend to those who came after, or did it stop with the apostles? Does it even extend to us today?

As so often happens, sadly, Christians tend to go to opposite extremes on this question.

On the one hand, there are those who say, “Yes, we today should expect just the same power to work miracles of healing. Isn’t this exactly what’s promised in Isaiah 53:4, which Matthew has already quoted: ‘He took up our infirmities, and bore our diseases’ (8:17)?” There is, they will insist, “healing in the atonement” - in other words, Jesus’ sacrificial death accomplishes not only the forgiveness of our sins but also the healing of our bodies.

On the other hand, there are those who interpret verses like that in a non-literal sense. They maintain that while ultimately, of course, we will indeed be made perfectly whole, the supreme work of Jesus was to deal with the spiritual disease from which we all suffer - the disease of sin.

The New Testament makes at least two things very clear...

First, the authority of Jesus was not limited to the twelve.

Luke tells us that, after sending them out, Jesus also sent out “seventy-two others” - people over and above the first disciples. Giving them instructions for their mission, he includes the command, “Heal those who are ill and tell them ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’”. And it happened... “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name’” (Luke 10:8-17).

The church of Corinth, several years later, was a sorry mess in various respects. But when Paul teaches its members about “the gifts of the Spirit”, he includes “gifts of healing” (1 Corinthians 12:9). He obviously doesn’t think that such gifts ended with the twelve - even a bunch of problem Christians like the Corinthians might have miracle-workers among them.

But second, there can be no doubt that miraculous gifts become less prominent as time goes on.

There are examples of Christians not being healed... Timothy is told to "drink a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (note that, frequent illnesses!). Paul tells us that he “left Trophimus ill in Miletus” (2 Timothy 4:20) - this is the Paul who was actually used by God to raise the dead! And Paul himself, of course, had his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), which God told him he must learn to put up with it.

So... Should we expect to see miraculous gifts today?

There is no biblical reason why not. Certainly, if we are sick, we should pray for healing (perhaps with the laying on of hands and anointing with oil; James 5:14 means exactly what it says). And if we know someone who is sick, we should pray for them (without neglecting the God-given gift of medical science, of course).

The key is to be neither presumptuous (“God must heal if only I have enough faith”) nor defeatist (“Certainly, I will pray for a person’s spiritual needs, but not for their physical needs”).

What do you think? I hope I’ve got the biblical balance about right.

But who knows... if we are people of real faith, and filled with Holy Spirit, if we are people who pray with expectation - who knows when the Holy Spirit may come in power and you or I may be used in a miraculous way?

Don’t dismiss the possibility!

Lord God, I pray daily to be used by you in the bread-and-butter business of life. But give me also the faith and vision to believe that, by the empowering of your Holy Spirit, you might also use me in exceptional and even miraculous ways. Amen.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Christian, you are a work of art!

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no-one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-10

Anyone who has ever tried to grapple with Paul’s letters will know that there are times it can be hard work.

What does such-and-such a verse mean? Why is this argument so hard to follow? People are sometimes asked in interviews, “If you could sit and have a conversation with some figure from the past, who would you choose?” Well, for me, Paul would come pretty near the top of such a list - oh to be able to ask him for a bit of clarification!

But this is what makes it so refreshing when you come across a passage (and there are plenty of them; he isn’t all difficult!) which shines out like a clear, steady light. I think Ephesians 2:8-10 is a perfect example. If you like to decorate your walls with challenging and encouraging words to read while you brush your teeth, I don’t think you could do better than make a poster out of this luminous little passage.

In verses 8 and 9 Paul bangs fairly and squarely on the head any notion that our salvation is our own doing. No! - “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - not by works...”
Then in verse 10 he sums it all up by telling us pretty much everything we need to know about ourselves...

First, he tells who we are: “God’s handiwork”.

I know someone who is a talented artist. All right, you won’t see his pictures in some famous gallery, but to the untrained eye they are impressive, seriously impressive.

Perhaps you are good with your hands - making things, doing home improvements. In which case you will know the feeling when you stand back and look at what you have done and think “Yes, not bad, not bad at all! That’s my handiwork!”

Handiwork. This is the word Paul uses to describe how God sees us. You could translate it, “We are what he is making us.”

Do you think of yourself as God’s handiwork - a beautiful living work of art, a renewed human being remodelled on the likeness of Christ?

Second, Paul tells us how we’ve come to be what we are. It’s because we have been “created in Christ Jesus”.

God’s original creation went badly wrong, starting with the sin of Adam and Eve in Eden. So he plans to make a new creation. And this was begun on the morning of Christ’s resurrection - he is “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), a second Adam, a new Adam.

And the great thing about putting our faith in Jesus is that, as a result, he gathers  us into himself, so to speak - we become part of him. If you read Paul carefully you find that often he describes God’s people as being “in Christ”. And that is why he says here that we have been “created in Christ Jesus”.

Do you see yourself as not only a new creation in yourself personally, but as part of the whole new creation that God is bringing into being in his Son?

Third, Paul tells us what it’s all for: we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works”.

Notice what he doesn’t say... Not that we are created in Christ Jesus so that we can rejoice that our sins are forgiven and that we are reconciled to God (wonderfully true though that is)... Not that we are created in Christ Jesus so that we can be sure that when this earthly life is over we shall be eternally with him (wonderfully true though that is too).

No. We are created in Christ Jesus “to do good works”, and these are works pre-planned by God precisely for us: “prepared in advance for us to do”. That could be translated “pre-planned so that we might walk in them”, where “walking” suggests a whole new way of life, and the good works are part and parcel of it.

But what sort of good works does Paul have in mind? Is he talking primarily about prayer, evangelism, mission? Is his emphasis purely on the “spiritual” needs of men and women?

I don’t think so. Vitally important though those things are, I suspect he has in mind deeds of Christ-like love, for which opportunities crop up every day. People aren’t simply souls to be saved, they are human beings who need to see - and to experience - the love of God in practical ways.

You could sum up Paul’s message in these three verses: Good works can never lead to salvation; but they are bound to lead from it.

People can’t eat prayer... and nor can they understand a gospel that isn’t demonstrated in deeds. Is this a truth we need to take to heart?

Lord God, thank you for making me a new person in Christ. And thank you that you have prepared good works for me to walk in. Help me to earn the right to speak your gospel to those who don’t yet believe - and to do so by filling my days with those good works. Amen.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Christians with wacky views?

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 

On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus.  When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. Acts 19:1-7

It’s around 52 AD, some twenty-odd years after Jesus was crucified, and after the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church on the day of Pentecost. And it’s in Ephesus, a major city of the Roman empire, about 600 miles from Jerusalem.

That’s the setting for a very odd story.

Paul has paid an earlier, fleeting visit to Ephesus (Acts 18:19-21), but now he returns for what will turn out to be a far longer stay. And no sooner has he arrived than he comes across a puzzling group of people. Luke refers to them as “disciples”, which generally means “Christians”, but in the story I’ve quoted above it appears that they might be better described as “disciples of John the Baptist”, not of Jesus at all.

How so? Well, they have never received any baptism apart from the one given by John (verse 3); it seems they haven’t been baptised into Jesus. Indeed, the way Paul mentions Jesus makes you wonder if they knew his name at all. But then, neither have they ever heard of the Holy Spirit (verse 2)! – in spite of the clear teaching of John as recorded in, say, Mark 1:8. How confusing is this!

You can almost hear Paul’s mind whirring into gear: “Mmm, there’s something not quite right here! Something missing!” 

As a result, he does two things. First, he baptises them again, but this time “in the name of the Lord Jesus”; and second, he prays for them with the laying on of hands so that that they not only believe in the Holy Spirit, but actually experience him in a very tangible way, namely with “tongues” and “prophesy”.

The story bristles with intriguing questions…

Who were these men? Members of some kind of “John the Baptist sect”? If so, how come it had survived for over twenty years since John’s death? And how come these men were located in a big centre of imperial Rome, six hundred miles from Galilee, Judah and Jerusalem?

Still more… Were these men “Christians”? Or should we call them “not-quite-Christians”? or “sort-of-Christians”? or, perhaps, “half-Christians”? If they really were disciples of John the Baptist, how come they had missed the fact that all he was bothered about was to point people to Jesus, not draw them to himself? Wasn’t this the man who spoke those wonderful words, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30)?

What’s going on?

I wish I knew all the answers. I don’t, of course – but in that respect I find I’m in good company among Bible-teachers and real experts. Still, this strange episode suggests two or three lessons worth noticing.

First, it corrects any idea we may have had that early Christianity, even in New Testament days, was completely uniform.

It wasn’t! Quite apart from Acts 19, the book as a whole makes clear that there were various “schools of thought” among different Christian groups – perhaps especially between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians (you can follow that up in Acts 15 and in Galatians if you like).

Second, it suggests that if that was the case in the earliest days, how much more is it likely to be the case today!

Our world is far more complicated than theirs, with a massive multiplicity of religious ideas, some pretty much Christian, others barely so, and others decidedly not. So let’s not be surprised if we come across “Christians” with somewhat wacky views.

Third, it warns us to be very careful about nailing our colours to rickety masts.

I don’t have any doubt that dear, faithful, Jesus-centred John the Baptist would have been utterly horrified to know that there were “disciples of John the Baptist” so long after Easter and Pentecost. (I suspect too that Martin Luther would be bemused if he knew that a whole denomination was named after him; or John Calvin, that there is a branch of Christianity which likes to call itself “Calvinist” – hear Paul on this sort of thing in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17!)

Pigeon-holes are, no doubt, very useful things for letters, keys and such-like (maybe even for pigeons!), but they aren’t designed for people to be squashed into. People are individual, varied and different, with messy lives, messy views – and sometimes messy doctrines. Let’s get used to it.

But… not too used to it!

We mustn’t miss the fact that once Paul had spotted the odd situation of the “disciples” in Ephesus, he decided to do something about it. He wasn’t content to let it rest as if it didn’t matter. And neither should we.

So… If we come across “sort-of-Christians” who are obviously confused, untaught or half-taught on various matters, it is the responsibility of those who have a reasonable grasp of Bible teaching to help them towards a fuller understanding – with, of course, patience, sensitivity and love.

Only may God grant us the grace and power of the Holy Spirit to do it well!

Lord God, enable me always to say of Jesus, “He must become greater, I must become less”. And help me too to patiently and lovingly lead others to say the same, however strange some of their ideas might be. Amen.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Need a new start?

Then Saul said, “I have sinned... Surely I have acted like a fool and have been terribly wrong”. 1 Samuel 26:21

Regrets... Do you have any? I think you would have to be either very special or very foolish to say No. To say “I have no regrets” is, after all, pretty much the same as saying “I have lived a perfect life”.

No: as we look back on our lives there are bound to be things where we wish we could turn the clock back. You made some silly remark - perhaps not meaning any ill, but it damaged a relationship. You missed a golden opportunity to do something good. You have had for a long time a relatively petty weakness which you just can’t master and which clouds your life. Trivial things, perhaps, but real all the same.

Other regrets are more serious. You took a disastrous career decision, or entered a completely wrong relationship, or got drawn into some kind of seriously bad behaviour. It changed your life for ever, and now it’s too late to put it right. You can echo the words of King Saul: “I have sinned... I have acted like a fool and been terribly wrong”.

I’ll leave you to read for yourself what Saul had done to make him feel that way. For us, the question has to be: “What can I do about my regrets? Can I in fact do anything?”

In essence we have two options.

First, we can slump into a kind of despair, even into a really destructive bitterness. We can go over and over in our minds our folly and stupidity. We can let it blight our lives.

Some people, tragically, do indeed allow their lives to be ruined by vain regrets. At worst, it may lead to hatred and malice towards themselves and/or others - in extreme cases, even to suicide. This can only be described as a victory for the devil, who loves nothing more than to wreak havoc on us.

But there is another way.

This is what the Bible calls repentance. We come to God and hold nothing back. We admit our sinfulness. We recognise that there is nothing now that we can do. We humble ourselves.

The turning point comes when, by an act of faith, we ask for and receive God’s forgiveness. And then we discover that along with that forgiveness comes something wonderful - the chance to start all over again.

“Forgive and forget” we sometimes say. Easier said than done! But what we need to grasp is that God loves to forgive even when we are unable to forget.

This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care about the wrong we have done and the hurt we have caused - he does, he cares very much, and he knows that a price has to be paid. But the good news is that the price has been paid. Why else did Jesus die on the cross?

Nor does it mean that we don’t need to make amends if that is practically possible - forgiveness may be free, but it isn’t cheap, something dispensed from a heavenly slot machine into which we put a coin that says “Sorry”. The cost to us may range from a costly act of restitution to a simple but humiliating word of apology. But it has to be done - and when it is done it lifts a heavy burden from our souls.

I wonder if anyone reading this is living with vain regrets? Can I remind you that our loving God is the master of the second chance, the new beginning. He always has a bright new future for those who are truly sorry. Moses was guilty of murder; David committed adultery; Peter denied Jesus. But each went on to play a big part in God’s purposes. So why shouldn’t there be a bright new future for you too?

I don’t think we ever forget the wrongs we have done and the mistakes we have made. Nor would it be good if we did, especially if they caused pain to others. But repentance, ultimately, is all about that most wonderful of God’s gifts - hope. So go forward as a forgiven sinner, and let the hope of God fill your heart!

In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus told his story of the lost son - the “prodigal”. Why not take fifteen minutes to sit down and read it, and cast yourself in the role of the son. Take on your lips his words (the same as the words of King Saul): “I have sinned”. And then picture God throwing his arms around you and kissing you (verse 20). Yes, really!

You may also find it helpful to picture another act of God described in wonderfully physical terms, from Micah 7:19: “You will again have compassion upon us; you will tread our sins underfoot (stomp, stomp, stomp!) and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea (splash!!!)”.

Those regretted acts are gone, gone, gone!

Dear Father, as I look back in my life there is much I feel ashamed of. But thank you that you still love me and want only good for me. I pray for any people I have hurt or damaged - if there is any recompense I can make, then help me to make it. But thank you for a new start. Help me now to go forward, not looking back, and to live a life of Christlike holiness. Amen.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Welcome the outsider! - even to the Lord's Table

Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 1 Corinthians 11:28
Jesus said: “...whoever is not against us is for us”. Mark 9:40

Last time we thought about a common misuse of scripture - when Paul’s severe warning about taking communion “in an unworthy manner” - and thus “eating and drinking judgement” on yourself - is taken to refer to non-Christians sharing in the communion service. This is simply wrong. Paul’s warning is directed at Christians, and has nothing to do with unbelievers at the Lord’s Table.

So where does this leave us? Should we simply shrug our shoulders and not bother if we see people taking the bread and wine even though they have never yet confessed Jesus as Lord?

No, I don’t think so.

For one thing, there’s no getting away from the fact that this remembrance meal was indeed intended by Jesus for his followers. And for another, there’s no getting away from the fact that taking communion is a serious business, not something to be done lightly: “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup”, Paul warns in verse 28.

Communion is not something to be casual about!

The whole issue, I think, boils down to our basic attitude of mind when we take communion.

After the first post in this little series a friend contacted me about someone he knew who, despite being a declared unbeliever, came to church regularly and took communion routinely. When challenged about this he replied, “Well, since I’m going to hell anyway, I might as well.”

How seriously this was meant I don’t know. But certainly, anyone who shares in communion for, so to speak, a bit of a laugh, must surely fall under Paul’s warning.

But I would guess that most non-believers who come to our churches do so from much better motives - perhaps they have friends or family members who belong to the church; perhaps they are lonely or troubled and find the atmosphere welcoming and loving; perhaps, above all, they are genuinely seeking God. Anyone in such a situation surely doesn’t come under God’s judgment for taking communion.

We need to remember that the communion service is, so to speak, an acted sermon. Nobody can sit through it and listen to the “words of institution” (Jesus said “this is my body... this is my blood”) without hearing the gospel - this is the price he paid for our sins! Nobody can watch the bread being solemnly broken and the wine poured without being drawn to the cross. And if Paul’s words of warning are read out as well, it’s hard to imagine anybody partaking flippantly or light-heartedly.

In brief, the Lord’s Table can be not only a reminder to believers of what Jesus did for them, but also an announcement to unbelievers that he did it for them too. Please don’t quote me, but I think I read somewhere that John Wesley, the great evangelist and founder of Methodism, actively encouraged unbelievers to take the bread and wine. He saw it as an evangelistic opportunity - it could be a means of grace to them, a milestone in their spiritual journey.

There’s a little episode in Mark 9 that’s worth thinking about. In verses 38-41 the disciples tell Jesus about a man they came across who was “driving out demons in your name” (what a cheek!). They “told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

He was not one of us - what revealing words those are! The disciples obviously thought they had cornered the Jesus-market, if I can put it like that. They expected a pat on the back for their zeal in safeguarding his reputation.

But a pat on the back is exactly what they didn’t get! “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no-one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me...” And then this: “... for whoever is not against us is for us”.

The disciples imagined they had Jesus in their pockets; and they needed to learn that they were wrong.

Are there times we today need to learn the same lesson? Those words have nothing to do with communion, of course. But they reflect a generosity and kindness of spirit in Jesus that is lacking if we say to our non-Christian visitors, in effect, “It’s really good to have you here - we do warmly welcome you. But don’t you dare to share in our meal!

So... what to do about that unbeliever at the Lord’s Table? Perhaps a simple inner prayer is all that’s called for. Beyond that, once some kind of relationship has been built up, I would suggest a quiet word of welcome and explanation.
Who knows, before you know where you are, you might have a wonderful conversion on your hands!

Lord Jesus, thank you for leaving with us this simple meal as a reminder of all that you have done for us. Please help me to value it for myself, and also to take any opportunity that arises to explain it lovingly to anyone who doesn’t yet understand the cross. Amen.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Damned for taking communion?

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.  1 Corinthians 11:27-29

Last time I asked the question, “Should we expect to feel a certain way when we ‘take communion’? Is there something wrong with us if we don’t have some kind of spiritual ‘high’?”

My answer was No - as long as your heart is humble and sincere and you genuinely mean business (so to speak) with God, that’s what matters. Nothing wrong with warm feelings, of course; but God looks for trusting obedience first and foremost.

But I said I wanted to tackle two questions, so here’s the second: Should it trouble us if non-Christians take communion?

When I was a teenage convert, over 50 years ago, the church I belonged to had the practice of separating “communion” from “the main service”. You would go to church as usual and share in the regular service, but on “communion Sundays” that service would finish and you only “stayed to communion” if you chose to do so. The assumption was that any people who were not yet Christians would quietly leave, while the believers would share in the bread and wine.

For all I know, there are still churches where some such system operates, but in my circles it has long since died out and communion is integrated into the main service. And quite right too, I would say!

The problem with this, of course (if indeed it is a problem), is that anybody and everybody might take communion. So what about people who have never professed faith in Jesus, never been baptised, are not members of the church? Is it right that they should take part in an act which Jesus clearly intended for his followers?

The passage quoted by those who felt strongly about this was the one I put at the top: 1 Corinthians 11:28-29, and especially verse 29, where Paul warns: “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” In those far off days we still used the King James Version of the Bible, which made those words even more solemn, and actually quite alarming: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.” It was that word “damnation” that did it, I think. Were non-Christians who took communion really eternally damned as a result of doing so? It genuinely worried me.

But I came to see that it needn’t have, and I hope I can explain why.

The people who quoted those words from Paul were fine Christians and completely sincere; but they were in fact misusing scripture. They failed to see that the people Paul was troubled about were not non-Christians at all, but Christians.

1 Corinthians 11 has a lot to say about communion, but - and this is the point - it has absolutely nothing to do with the question of non-Christians partaking. No! The problem is Christian people who were abusing the Lord’s Table by, in effect, turning it into a bun-fight.

Just look back at verses 20-22. It appears that some church members were arriving early and helping themselves to all the food and drink - even to the point of getting drunk (verse 21). Amazing, perhaps, but apparently true. (Remember that, in the early church, communion was a proper meal, not simply the token meal we expect today.)

No wonder Paul is shocked and angry. These are the people who are guilty of eating the bread and drinking the wine “in an unworthy manner”; these are the people guilty of failing to “discern the body of Christ”. Yes, Christians!

So Paul tells them in no uncertain terms that they are fooling themselves if they seriously imagine they are really sharing in communion. No, he says, it isn’t the Lord’s Supper you are eating at all (verse 20)! You think you are coming to receive a blessing from God - but no, in reality you are inviting his judgment on you (verse 29)!

The precise meaning of those expressions - “in an unworthy manner”, “discerning the body of Christ”, and “drinking judgment” on themselves - is open to different interpretations. But that doesn’t matter for the moment; all that matters is that they are expressions directed not at non-Christians but at Christians. We need to get that clear in our minds.

So... should we simply not worry when we see unbelievers taking communion? Is it a matter of complete indifference?

No, I’m not saying that. But instead of looking around for any non-Christians who might happen to be there, perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to look first at ourselves - could I be guilty of taking part in communion in such a way as to “eat and drink judgment on myself”?

I’ve run out of space again! - so I’m afraid I must ask you to come back a third time. Please be patient with me!

Lord God, teach me never to treat holy things - and not only the Lord’s Supper - in an unworthy way, but always with seriousness and respect. Amen.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Taking communion - a duty or a joy?

And Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you”. Luke 22:19-20

I must have been around 24 - nearly 50 years ago - and a newly ordained minister, but I remember it well.

I noticed that a lady in the church, an absolute regular, didn’t take the bread and wine at communion. I must have asked her why this was, and she replied: “I don’t think I’m good enough.”

This alerted me to the fact that there are people who come regularly to our churches who, if I can put it bluntly, haven’t got a clue about various things - among them the “communion service”. That lady obviously hadn’t understood that there is nobody “good enough” to take the bread and wine! - the whole point of Jesus’ crucifixion is that it is for sinners, and that means every single one of us. And so the meal that commemorates it is also for sinners.

I suspect that many of us regularly take communion pretty much as a matter of course - just something we do - without giving it much thought. I’m certainly guilty of this myself - and I’ve often been the one doing the leading!

Communion - or “the breaking of bread”, the “eucharist”, the “mass”, the “Lord’s Supper”, whatever you call it in your particular church tradition - is a big topic, and there’s no space to go into it in depth. But I want to focus on two questions, taken almost at random, which I think demonstrate how limited our understanding can be.

First, should I expect to feel a certain way when I take communion?

It might be more honest to put the question a different way: Is there something wrong with me if I don’t feel any particular emotion? Should that bother me?

There are those, in various church traditions, who would say that communion is “the central act of Christian worship” or something similar, the most sacred moment in what we do. Some churches, I believe, have a “communion season” just twice a year, when several weeks’ preparation is required before partaking in this solemn act.

But if this is so, shouldn’t I be feeling something emotional, even mystical, as I take the bread and wine? Shouldn’t every communion service be a spiritual “high”?

Even after all these years, I must admit that this question still vaguely niggles away at me. I obediently eat the bread and drink the wine, but there is that little inner voice: “So what? What was that about? What was the point? Has it made any difference?”

And then I have to give myself a bit of a talking to!

I remind myself that emotion is a very unstable thing. Putting it another way, feelings are not things we can control: they just happen to us. An urge to laugh - or, come to that, to cry - can’t be controlled. We all know what it’s like to have a “fit of the giggles”, or to be unable to control tears which we didn’t even realise were anywhere near the surface.

But if feelings can’t be controlled, neither can they be souped up - manufactured, so to speak - to order.

When I was a very small boy I had an aunt who was infuriatingly bossy, and if she thought you were looking a bit glum (which I may well have been, to be honest, precisely because she had decided to pay a visit) she would try to jolly you up a bit: “Come on, give us a smile!” And she wouldn’t let it go until you had forced yourself to produce a completely false, plastic smile: “Now then, that’s better!” she would say. Grrr!

Forgive the trivial example, but it does apply. For by the same token you can’t force yourself to feel “spiritual” just because you’re in a communion service. True, if you routinely share in such a service with a heart that’s stone-cold towards God, then perhaps you need to have a look at your whole spiritual life and your relationship with him. Something may be wrong.

But the fact is that what you are doing, in essence, is simply obeying a clear command that Jesus gave: “do this in remembrance of me”. As long as you are sincere, and truly want to be drawn closer to him, as long as you take the bread and wine in honest faith and humbly want to be a better Christian, what do feelings matter?

Loving, obedient trust is everything. So, I would say, receive the bread and wine with a grateful and peaceful heart!

That’s my take on this matter. But I would love to hear from you, of course, if you feel I have missed something...

I said I had two questions I wanted to tackle, but I’ve run out of space, so I must leave it till next time. But in order, hopefully, to whet your appetite, let me tell you what the other question is: Should it bother us if non-Christians take communion?

Father God, thank you for the word of Jesus: “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” Please help me to show my love by my obedience, and so to let my feelings take care of themselves. Amen.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

A world-weary cynic and a man of God

Herod... had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Mark 6:17-21

Have you come across the word “conflicted”? It seems to be getting more and more common.

It means to be in two minds about something; in effect, to be confused and unsure. When Crystal Palace (my team) plays Liverpool (my wife’s team), I am conflicted about who I want to win (sadly, I can’t say the same for my wife...). You may feel thoroughly conflicted over the Brexit debate. You may have strong anti-abortion views - until you hear about a teenage girl who is pregnant through rape.

I reckon all of us are conflicted, more or less seriously, over all sorts of issues that crop up in our lives.

Well, Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea in the days of Jesus, was a conflicted man if ever there was one. And it was all to do with the firebrand preacher John the Baptist.

John had the guts to confront Herod over his marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias, which was illegal under Jewish law. Herod had John imprisoned, but that wasn’t enough for Herodias; she wanted him killed. (Which is exactly what happened in the end - read the whole passage, Mark 6:14-29).

What makes this sorry story fascinating is that Herod, tyrant though he was, clearly had a strong respect and even a liking for John. He “feared John and protected him” (perhaps putting him in prison was in fact a means of keeping him safe?). He “knew him to be a righteous and holy man”. When he heard John “he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him”.

Conflicted indeed! - he obviously felt a sense of loyalty to his wife, yet he couldn’t escape the fact that John really got through to him. He seems to have been somewhat in awe of him, and when Herodias insisted on his death he was “greatly distressed”.

Herod was a morally feeble man, a man of little principle, the man to whom Jesus referred as “that fox” (Luke 13:32). Yet it’s hard not to feel slightly sorry for him. Deep down he knew that John the Baptist was a man of stature and integrity. Yet he connived at his death, feeling himself to be backed into a corner (pretty much like Pontius Pilate, who enters the story much later, and who we know far better).

The relationship between Herod and John has much to teach us. Above all, it suggests that the man or woman who, through a life-long practice of prayer, worship and sincere commitment to God, is bold in upholding the truth - that that person can have a significant impact even on people who couldn’t care less about God.

The days in which Herod lived were deeply superstitious - all sorts of religious beliefs were on the go. And likewise with us today.

We are often told that religion is a dying force in modern society, and there is truth in that, if by religion we mean organised, established, traditional practices. Yet surveys suggest that most people still pray in some way or other, especially, of course, in times of crisis. Most people expect that death will be marked by some kind of religious ceremony. New-born babies are routinely taken to a place of worship, Christian or otherwise, to mark their arrival in the world.

It’s easy to dismiss such residual religiosity - and, of course, it’s a million miles from pure Christianity. But it’s not nothing! And it can be a wide-open entry-point for honest and humble witness for Christ.

How often do we hear people describe the time of their conversion as being sparked by an ordinary Christian in their circle of acquaintances?...  “I didn’t really understand what made her tick,” they say about someone in their work-place, “but somehow I sensed that she had something I didn’t have - and I began to see that it was something I needed and wanted...” Or: “At first, to be honest, I thought he was a bit of a nutter, but over time he somehow got through to me and it started to make sense...”

It’s true that we never read of Herod Antipas undergoing any kind of “conversion” experience. But who knows what might have gone on in his heart, especially a few years later (AD 39, to be precise), when, after being dumped out of office, he was thrust into exile by the emperor? By that time he will have known the full story of Jesus, never mind John the Baptist...

Herod saw that John was “righteous and holy.” He just couldn't help it. He was “greatly puzzled by him”; yet he “liked to listen to him” He couldn’t resist his appeal.

May something of the mysterious, magnetic beauty of Jesus be seen even in us. Who knows what wonderful changes it might lead to in somebody’s life?

Lord God, I know that of myself I am nothing. But I do desire to follow Jesus, and I know that your Holy Spirit is in me. I pray that in some wonderful way others may see in me something that I don’t even see in myself. Amen.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Can hatred be holy?

Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. Psalm 139:21-22

I heard a top world sportsman being interviewed on television. Asked about one of his rivals, he said bluntly, “I hate so-and-so”. It was like a slap in the face, all the more so because it was said in such a matter-of-fact way, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world.

The word hate, surely, is one of the nastiest and ugliest in the English language - it conjures up all sorts of spite, malice and anger, the very worst feelings we are capable of.

This is why, while we may feel hate for somebody (let’s be honest!), we tend not to express it. And this is why that sportsman’s words came across as so shocking - and why the psalmist’s words do so as well here in Psalm 139.

The psalm as a whole is a very challenging prayer - about the fact that God knows everything about us, even the secrets of our deepest hearts. It tells us there is no way we can escape from his all-seeing eye - we can, as they say, run, but we can’t hide. All strong, bracing stuff; it makes you think, but hopefully in a positive way.

But then these verses come like a kick in the teeth. How can the Psalmist say such a ferocious thing! How did these words find their way into the Bible?

Some people try to explain it on the grounds that it is Old Testament, not New. “Oh well,” they say, “there’s loads of anger, judgment and hatred in the Old Testament - but the New Testament of course is different, and that’s what we as Christians draw from.”

But that just isn’t true. Who was it who said, “Love your neighbour as yourself”? Why, Jesus, of course. Wrong! It’s there in Leviticus 19:18 - Jesus was just quoting it. And what about Proverbs 24:17: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice...”?

No: there’s plenty about forgiveness and love in the Old Testament (and, come to that, a fair bit about God’s anger and judgment in the New). So you could say that the man who wrote Psalm 139 was in fact ignoring his own scriptures.

How can we, as Christians, apply these verses? Let me share two ways in which I personally have tried to do so.

First, they encourage me to be honest with God.

As I said earlier, most of us would never talk openly about hating people. But haven’t we all felt such emotions in our hearts? Have we never wished somebody ill?

Let me come clean. I was badly cut up by a fellow-driver once - his driving could have caused a serious accident. I found myself muttering and fervently wishing that he would wrap himself and his car round the nearest available lamp-post. I didn’t say it, of course; I’m much too nice and well brought up for that. But there’s no denying: the thought was there.

So can I claim to be any different from the psalmist? Hypocrites that we are, we can hide murderous thoughts behind smiling faces. At least the psalmist was honest, putting into words what the rest of us only think.

God knows us through and through: “Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely”, says verse 4 of this same psalm. Well, if this is so, why not give up any silly pretence of keeping secrets from God? He can take it! Get it off your chest!

Second, these words challenge me as to where my ultimate loyalty lies.

How so?

Well, it’s important to notice that this isn’t just an overflow of petty personal spleen (like me in the car that day), but an explosion of outrage that people should be so disobedient to, and disrespectful of, almighty God. The people the writer feels so angry towards “speak of you (God) with evil intent” (verse 20); they are those “who hate you,” those who “are in rebellion against you” (verse 21). It’s not about him; it’s about God.

The Psalmist is declaring which side he is on - nailing his colours to the mast, if you like. This is a man who knows exactly where he stands in the greatest question any of us have to face: are we for God or against him, “on the Lord’s side” or not? There is no middle way.

We sometimes talk about “righteous anger/ indignation” - times when it would be a sin not to be angry. But if there is such a thing as righteous anger, may there not also be such a thing as “holy hatred”?

And so the question arises: As I look around me at the world and all the wickedness in it, how much do I care? Enough to be angry? Or do I just shrug my shoulders?

Could it be that having strong feelings - even perhaps wrong strong feelings - is better than spineless indifference or turning a blind eye?

Lord God, I remember those times when our Lord Jesus was angry. Guard me, I pray, from every hint of sinful anger. But help me too to know when anger is appropriate and right, and show me how to channel that anger for good. Amen.