Saturday, 15 June 2019

Let God pick up the pieces

Mordecai said, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” ... And Esther said, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I die, I die”. Esther 4:14-16

I was given a book not long ago which had me gripped pretty well throughout. It’s about the Nazi horror both before and during the Second World War. Especially, it focuses on two of the lawyers who played a major part in establishing what crimes the German leaders could be accused of at the Nuremberg war trials. What makes it particularly fascinating is that both of them were themselves victims of the Holocaust - and both of them came from the same city, Lvi v, situated today in Ukraine. If you’re interested, look out for East West Street, by Philippe Sands.

I was in the middle of this book when, in my daily Bible reading, I found myself in the Old Testament book of Esther. What struck me is how uncannily history repeats itself: the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews - and that, according to Esther, is exactly what happened under King Xerxes of Persia nearly 500 years before Jesus.
I won’t go over the story- you can read it again at your leisure. But in essence it’s about how God raised up a Jewish girl called Hadassah, or Esther, to become part of the king’s harem and to succeed in wrecking the wicked Haman’s plot against the Jews.

As you read books like these, you find yourself shaking your head at one of the mysteries of history: why have the Jews been so viciously hated down through the centuries? May God forgive us for any hint of racial prejudice that lurks in our hearts! - and especially, perhaps, for any hint of antisemitism.

I’m not competent to answer the question. I just want to highlight a pivotal point in the story of Esther, a point which remains relevant for us all these centuries later. It takes the form of a conversation between Esther and Mordecai, her uncle and guardian...

First, there is the moment when Mordecai gets her to see that it is no mere accident or coincidence that - completely out of the blue - she has risen to a position of power with King Xerxes.

True, a terrible emergency has arisen; true, all the Jews in Persia are threatened with mass murder. But... Esther is one of the king’s concubines! So she may be able to exert influence on him. Mordecai speaks these memorable words: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:14).

Though God is never actually mentioned in the book, its message for us is about his providence - how, in ways we cannot imagine, he works through the circumstances of our lives in order to bring his purposes to reality.

Do we believe this? Of course, most of us have a far more humdrum role in life than Esther. But God uses his people in all sorts of ways, so that even when things seem to be going wrong, his hand is, so to speak, on the tiller.

As we go about our ordinary business day by day, let’s remind ourselves: “It’s not just random or coincidental that I am where I am. God has a purpose for my life today - through the situations I find myself in, through the people I meet, even through the pains and difficulties I may have to face up to.”

And so let’s breathe a simple prayer: “Lord, don’t let me miss what you want of me today!”

How does Esther respond? The task Mordecai suggests is extremely uncertain, and fraught with danger. She may succeed, or she may fail, for strictly it is forbidden for her to approach Xerxes - on pain of death.

So what does she do? First, she asks Mordecai to get the people of Israel to fast and pray for three days and nights. And then this: “When all this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I die, I die.” (4:16).
There is a wonderful, if rather brutal, simplicity about those words: If I die, I die.

In essence what Esther is saying is: “My business is simply to do what is right - and leave the consequences to God.” She isn’t shrugging her shoulders in resignation; she is affirming her faith in God.

In my time as a minister I developed a little mantra for when we found ourselves in a particularly difficult situation. (I wish I could say I obeyed it at all times!) I remain convinced that it’s wise: Do what’s right and let God pick up the pieces.

Life sometimes throws up difficult and delicate situations which require hard answers. It can be easy to “take the line of least resistance” and go with the flow. It can be hard - and involve real pain and sacrifice - to stand firm for what is right.

To say with Esther, in effect, If I die, I die. So be it, Lord.

Do we have that kind of faith and courage?

Father, you tell us in your word to “put on the whole armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Give me, I pray, the faith, the courage and the wisdom to do that in every situation. Amen.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit... Acts 2:4

... be filled with the Spirit... Ephesians 5:18

So... Whit Sunday is over - Pentecost Sunday, the day when Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the new-born church.

Do we treat it rather as we treat Christmas? - no more of the familiar stories, the old carols, until next year? - the Christmas decorations packed away in boxes and stuck on a shelf in the loft? Likewise, now that Whit Sunday is gone, is that the Holy Spirit finished and done with for another year?

The answer is a very loud No!

The Spirit who came at Pentecost now lives day by day in the heart of every believer - so how can he possibly be for just one weekend a year? He is for us, with us and in us. Paul puts it bluntly in Romans 8:9: “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ...”, implying that if anyone does have the Spirit of Christ, well, they most certainly do.

If you are reading this as a Christian, are you really aware that God himself lives within you by his Holy Spirit? Do you not know that your very body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God (to slightly misquote 1 Corinthians 6:19)?

It’s helpful to focus on the two little snippets of the New Testament that I picked out at the beginning...

(1) “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit...” (Acts 2:4).

As we saw last time, Luke here is describing the essence of what happened to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost: this is “the baptism of the Holy Spirit”. It is a one-off event - as Simon Peter said, it is the long-awaited fulfilment of Joel 2:28-32.

You might think: If this was a one-off event two thousand years ago, can I say that I too have been baptised in the Holy Spirit?

The answer is clear. By faith in Jesus you have become part of him - part of what Paul calls “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). So when he baptised his church in the Spirit, that act included every member of the church, past, present and future - to quote Paul again: “For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body...” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

That doesn’t mean that you can’t also, as an individual, experience the kind of dramatic events or receive the kind of very obvious gifts, such as speaking in tongues, that we often associate with the Spirit. But it does mean that you are, so to speak, incorporated into Christ - just as we have “died with him” (Colossians 2:20) and “been raised with him” (Colossians 3:1), so we have shared in the one-off baptism he poured out on his church.

(2) “Be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).

The same word - filled - but with a different focus. Whereas Acts was describing an event, here Paul is issuing a command. If grammar is your thing, the point is that it’s the present tense that is used, the tense of the here and now. Which means that we are to be always, constantly, day by day, filled with the Spirit. This isn’t a one-off experience, but a permanent state, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.

But how can I be permanently filled with the Spirit? What must I do?

One thing is certain: there’s no formula to work through. Some Christians will tell you that you need to be on the receiving end of a special experience - tongues, or something mystical and trance-like, perhaps. Well, such things can and do happen; we mustn’t dismiss them out of hand.

But never forget that if God gives us a command, then the onus is on us to obey it - which is another way of saying that whether or not you and I are Spirit-filled is fairly and squarely up to us. And there is no short cut to it.

The secret is simple to say but demanding to do: live, every day, a holy, Christlike, prayerful, pure and humble life. If you seek to do that, why would God not fill you with his Holy Spirit! Didn’t Jesus promise that just as human parents know how to give good gifts to their children, “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13)?

The essence of the Spirit’s work can be summed up in two words: purity and power. The Holy Spirit is the holy Spirit, and he enables us to live pure lives. And he imparts power - power to overcome sin and temptation, power to do and to bear God’s holy will.

You can’t have enough of the Holy Spirit! So don’t let him recede into the background just because Whit Sunday 2019 is fading into the memory!

Lord Jesus,  you promised your disciples the divine gift of the Holy Spirit. And you encourage us to seek more of the Spirit. As I empty myself of self and sin, and as I open myself up to the Spirit’s influence, may that purity and power be mine - all for your great glory. Amen.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Oh for a mini-Pentecost!

Jesus said, “For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit”. Acts 1:5

I wonder what the disciples of Jesus thought when they first heard him speak these words? Baptised with the Holy Spirit? - what on earth did that mean!

I’m sure they will have cast their minds back some three years to when John the Baptist was in full flow. According to Luke (the same person who wrote these words here in Acts) John had told his disciples: “I baptise you with water. But someone more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16).

Striking words, then - spoken first by John the Baptist, and now taken up by Jesus. But what do they actually mean?

Christians have often tied themselves up in knots trying to understand exactly what baptism with (or in, or by) the Holy Spirit is all about. But much of the confusion is completely unnecessary, because an obvious clue is given by Jesus with the words “in a few days”. He makes it clear that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is something that is about to happen.

So what can he possibly be talking about but the experience of Pentecost? This is vividly described in the very next chapter of Acts, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the infant church as it met together in the upper room. Just look again at the early verses of Acts 2 - that was the “baptism with the Holy Spirit”.

Where does this lead us? Should we say then that “baptism with the Holy Spirit” is purely and simply a one-off past event, never to be repeated?

The answer is No. If you read your way through Acts you find that while there was indeed only one Day of Pentecost, there were other experiences of a similar kind...

In Acts 8:4-25, for example, something rather similar seems to have happened in Samaria. Likewise in Acts 10, especially verses 44-48, to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his friends. And in the puzzling little account in Acts 19:1-7, a similar thing again to some people who seem never to have shifted their allegiance from John the Baptist to Jesus.

Certainly these could never be described as exact repetitions of Pentecost: but the expression “baptism of the Holy Spirit” fits all the same. And if you read church history you find that similar events have happened from time to time all over the world.

But what does this mean for us?

It means that, yes, what took place on that dramatic Day of Pentecost stands alone as the initial event of baptism with the Holy Spirit - but that doesn’t mean that similar things can’t still happen today. And if they can still happen today, why shouldn’t they happen to your church or mine? There is no reason in principle why our churches shouldn’t experience just such an outpouring of the Spirit - what I sometimes call a “mini-Pentecost”.

Why do we need to think about this? Because next Sunday is Whit Sunday, Pentecost Sunday. It’s on this day that the world-wide church celebrates those awesome, strange, frightening, puzzling, momentous, exciting, exhilarating (I’m choosing my words with care here!) events that are described in Acts 2. After Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Whit Sunday is surely the most important day in the Christian calendar.

If you wanted a single word that sums it all up, it would have to be power. This baptism with the Holy Spirit is the coming of divine, supernatural power upon the people of God - as Simon Peter explained in Acts 2:14-21, quoting the words of the prophet Joel.

And what does the church today need more than power? We are, so often, weak and feeble. The world passes us by with scarcely a nod. If not despised, and in some cases persecuted, we are simply ignored by most people.

We need power. And power comes from the Holy Spirit - where else? What better day is there, then, than Whit Sunday to pray for a mini-Pentecost. Will you do that?

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for that wonderful day all those years ago when you baptised your church with the Holy Spirit. Please do the same for us today. Amen!

Saturday, 1 June 2019

A new experience of worship

Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, young men and women, old men and children. Psalm 148:7-12

I wrote last time about the danger of drifting away from regular worship and fellowship, taking my cue from Hebrews 10:25: “...not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing...”. I specially linked this to the question of worshipping as usual even when we are away from home. We may, for example, be on holiday, but there is no such thing as being on holiday from God.

Well, last week my wife and I were away in a sleepy Warwickshire village, and as Sunday approached we had to choose between driving perhaps ten miles to the kind of evangelical church we are used to, or walking five minutes to the local parish church. No choice at all, really, for various reasons.

A notice in the church porch told us it was “Rogation Sunday”, about which we knew literally nothing, so we looked forward to expanding our knowledge as well as worshipping God and meeting with fellow-believers. (The service would be “followed by bacon butties and coffee” - though that didn’t influence us, of course.)

In the Anglican church calendar there are various “rogation days”. They are borrowed from originally pagan customs which involved processing through the fields to pray for the crops. Today, it seems, they are used to celebrate farming and harvest, and nature in general - the kind of thing the psalmist is rejoicing at in Psalm 148.

So we arrived at the church door and joined a little gaggle of mainly elderly people, some - presumably the choir - dressed in coloured robes, and proceeded to walk through the village, led by a man holding aloft a big metal cross.

Five or six times we stopped to sing (do you remember those old harvest hymns?), to pray and to listen to a scripture passage with a bearing on the miracle of creation.

We were loudly bleated at by indignant-sounding sheep, and vaguely surveyed by droopy-eyed cows. We prayed for pigs and sheep and bees (one of the party was a bee-keeper who sold his honey locally) and all manner of other creatures.

To an outsider we probably looked a pretty comical little bunch. But however far removed it was from what we were used to, we found the experience refreshing and enjoyable. The Bible passages took on a new meaning, and the hymns were a great reminder to us (city-people through and through) that “spring-time and harvest” are indeed worthy of our focus and appreciation.

The fellowship was good too. The eyes of the regulars fairly lit up at the appearance of these two strangers (“How lovely to have you with us today! Would you be willing to do a reading?” - no messing there). They took themselves anything but too seriously - there was plenty of banter and laughter at the end - and the mood was seriously good-natured.

We had some serious conversation too, mainly about the state of the church in such rural areas (the vicar was responsible for no less than six churches). We were able to share a little about where we were from, and about our understanding of what it means to be a church.

So all in all we were in no doubt that we had made the right decision about where to worship that Sunday.

Was this church one that we would feel inclined to join if we lived in the area? No, I don’t think so. Was it a church where the gospel was clearly preached and the Bible taught? We mustn’t judge, of course, especially on the basis of such a brief experience, but to be honest I very much doubt it.

But we felt at home among these people - and who would we be to doubt that they were our brothers and sisters in Christ? Yes, their background and traditions were very different from ours, but we felt that we learned good things from being among them. No doubt when we meet in heaven we will see them in a very different light - as they too will see us.

So, back to where we were last time... Are you planning to go away this summer? Good! Then make sure to meet up with the local believers. It may be your privilege to be a real blessing to them. Still more, expect to be blessed yourself through them. God’s people come in all shapes and sizes...

(Oh, and the bacon butties weren’t bad, either. Nor the cake and coffee...)

Father, thank you for your world-wide church, scattered in communities large and small, and worshipping in a wide variety of ways. Thank you too for making me a part of it through faith in Jesus. Help me to value and love my fellow-believers, however different their ways may be from mine. Amen.

Friday, 24 May 2019

A bad habit we need to break

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing... Hebrews 10:25

One of the pleasures of church life is welcoming new people. This isn’t so that we can pounce on them in the hope that they might be able to serve in some particular way. No, it’s simply good to see fresh faces - perhaps Christians who will strengthen the fellowship and even become lifelong friends, perhaps not-yet-Christians who we are going to have the privilege of leading to faith in Christ.

I do hope this happens fairly regularly in your church.
The down-side, of course, is when the opposite happens - when those who used to be regularly with us are not any more. We find ourselves saying to one another “We don’t seem to have seen so-and-so much recently?” or “Do you know what’s become of so-and-so?”

People go missing from church life for all sorts of reasons.
There might be a problem - a disagreement, a personality clash, a misunderstanding, practical difficulties like transport or changes in a work routine, perhaps just a feeling of not being entirely happy with the way the church is going. Sometimes - don’t forget this - there may be a spiritual crisis going on in somebody’s heart.

But in my experience it’s very likely to be simply a matter of what I call spiritual drift. We just get out of the habit. Other pressures come crowding in and threaten to squeeze God out. Somebody I once hadn’t seen for a bit responded to my enquiry with an embarrassed laugh: “Oh, I’ve been finding it hard to get out of bed recently!”

The fact is that initial enthusiasm can fade. As the New Testament puts it, we can lose our “spiritual fervour” (Romans 12:11).

If it’s any consolation, Hebrews 10:25 tells us that the same problem existed in the early days of the church. We are tempted to imagine that in those far-off days everyone was bursting with red-hot zeal for God. But not so: there were apparently those who were “giving up meeting together” (possibly for fear of persecution - which at least would be an understandable excuse). And this is a danger we can fall into.

You’ve probably heard the standard sermon illustration... The church can be compared to an old-fashioned wood fire. If you take a stick off a roaring fire it will carry on burning for a time, but very soon it will die out and become just a bit of cold, charred wood.

And we are like that. If we get separated from the church we won’t suddenly stop being Christians: no - but little by little the glow will fade until there is nothing left. Sad!

Do you ever find yourself thinking “Perhaps I’ll give church a miss today”? Or that some television programme is more attractive than a mid-week prayer-meeting or house-group? 

Of course you do! We all do. We’re only human, and our faith is far - very far in many cases! - from perfection.

But it’s at times like that that we need to be careful. And this is where Hebrews 10:25 is the jolt we need. (Bear in mind also that often, having made the effort in spite of our lukewarm feelings, we end up saying, “Well, I certainly didn’t feel like going to the meeting today - but I’m so glad now that I did!”)

We’re heading for the summer holiday season. Here’s a direct question. If you are planning to go away for a week or two, will you make a point of being in worship on the Sundays? Or do you think of holiday time as a holiday from church?

That can’t be right! It can in fact be refreshing to go along to a church other than the one where you feel familiar and comfortable - perhaps a church with a completely different style of worship and spirituality. Not to mention the encouragement you can bring to that church by making yourself known and even bringing greetings from your own church.

See it not as a duty to be carried out, but as a positive area of service and an opportunity to grow and learn. You won’t regret it.

One last thought. It may be that you are in fact one of those who has gone missing - who has “given up meeting together”.

What can I say? Just this: It would be great to see you back. The church needs you. And, believe it or not, you need the church!

Lord, it is my chief complaint/ That my love is weak and faint./ Yet I love Thee and adore;/ O for grace to love Thee more. Amen. (William Cowper (1731-1800)

Father, I remember how Jesus went regularly to the synagogue in his time on earth. Help me to be like him, in this as in all things. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Ascension Day? What's that?

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Acts 1:9-11

I would guess that most ordinary Christians barely give a thought to the “ascension” of Jesus - the occasion when he was “taken up” (or “ascended”) into heaven.

There are probably two main reasons for this.

First, to be fair, the New Testament barely mentions it. Of the Gospel writers, only Luke describes it - here, in Acts 1, and, even more briefly, at the very end of Luke 24. Apart from that, there are just brief references to it scattered in the various New Testament letters.

Second, it didn’t take place on a Sunday. So while churches very naturally celebrate Easter Sunday for Jesus’ resurrection, and Whit Sunday, or Pentecost, for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Ascension is rather tucked away: on a Thursday, in fact - forty days after Easter, and eleven days before Pentecost. Easy to miss.

So let’s not feel too guilty if we have given little thought to the Ascension! But the fact is that - well, it happened, so it can only be good to reflect on it.

Let’s ask the question: What does this strange and supernatural event mean, and what difference does it make?

Here are a handful of answers to that question.

First, it signifies that Jesus’ work on earth was over.

As he died on the cross Jesus shouted “It is finished”. By paying the price for our sins he had completed the work of reconciling humankind to God.

But Jesus remained on earth - or, at least, appeared on earth - for some six weeks after his death and resurrection, and he still had work to do - especially in giving final teaching to his apostles.

Ascension Day marks the fact that that work too was finished - and never from that day to this has Jesus ever been seen on earth. A whole era was over and a new one began - history turned on a massive hinge.

Second, it confirms that, as Paul said later, “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Our eyes haven’t seen Jesus, nor have our ears heard him. But we are called to believe in him and trust him every minute of every day, and it is in so doing that we find him to be a living reality.

Third, it comforts us with the hope of one day joining him.

Before he went to the cross Jesus spent time reassuring his disciples, who were understandably troubled. Among the many things he said were these words about “my Father’s house”: “I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). He left the disciples not in order to abandon them, but in order to pave the way for them - a great assurance for us when we think about death.

Fourth, it opened up a whole new ministry for Jesus.
It’s natural for us to ask “What exactly is Jesus doing in heaven?”

Well, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that “he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12). Metaphorical language, of course, akin to the Book of Revelation.

But it conveys the fact that Jesus really is Lord, and reigns with his heavenly Father over the whole of creation. The suffering, crucified Jesus is Lord of all! - and a day is coming when every knee will bow to him (Philippians 2:10).

There is another ministry too in which the ascended Jesus is engaged. Stressing his priestly role, the writer to the Hebrews says: “he always lives to intercede” for us (Hebrews 7:25).

I must admit that I’m not very clear exactly how to imagine this. But who cares! - the message is that in Jesus we have an eternal, heavenly high priest who prays to God the Father on our behalf. He is on our side! - let’s remember that when we are feeling low.

The Ascension, then, brings to mind these four great truths - plus others there is no time to mention.

Why not take a few minutes to pray through them?

But I’ve left till last one other vital thing: Jesus’ ascension makes possible the coming of the Holy Spirit on the infant church.

Here is more of his farewell teaching to the apostles: “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate [that is, the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

“It is for your good that I am going away”! Jesus blesses us by “leaving” us! The apostles are being encouraged to look forward to the coming of the Spirit.

And shouldn't we do the same?

So... when Ascension Day comes (Thursday 30 May this year), take time to reflect on this pivotal event - and let it whet your appetite for the awesome events of 9 June, Holy Spirit Sunday.

Heavenly Father, thank you that, before he returned to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples such rich and wonderful promises. Much as I would love to have seen the earthly Jesus, help me to understand that, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I am in fact better off without his physical presence. Amen.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Feet of clay...?

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:8-9

I wrote last time about the mixed nature of the church - it is a community of saved sinners and sinful saints. Each of us is both of those things.

Which means, among other things, that we shouldn’t put Christians we admire on a pedestal. We may be perfectly right to admire them - but we need to keep in mind that they aren’t perfect, any more than we are.

No sooner had I posted this blog than I read - with quite some shock - about a clear example of this truth. An obituary in the paper outlined the life of a man who was well-known in Christian circles as an academic theologian, a writer of both popular and heavyweight books, and a sparkling speaker and enthusiastic evangelist.

I heard him speak on a number of occasions, and had a chat with him once or twice. He was a man you instinctively looked up to and admired.

So what was it that shocked me? Well, it seems that at one stage of his life he and his wife experienced serious marriage problems. To quote the paper: “... his lack of attention and understanding and her anger led to ‘stormy years’... including physical scuffles between the pair.”

“Physical scuffles”! Goodness me! I found that really quite difficult to believe of this man that I had looked up to. (On the good side, the article went on to say that they attended counselling sessions and learned to love one another again.)
Reflecting on this, I felt that there were various lessons we as Christians can draw.

First, and most important, let Christ alone be the focus of our worship and adoration.

As I said earlier, there’s nothing wrong with admiring fine Christians who have influenced us. The writer to the Hebrews, indeed, tells his readers to respect those “who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (13:7). That’s fine. But he then immediately adds: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” - as if to say, But never let them take the place of Jesus!

Do you have a favourite preacher or pastor? A favourite Christian musician, perhaps? A favourite writer? Even, if you’re the egg-head sort, a pet theologian? Or just somebody in your church who can do no wrong in your eyes? That’s fine - but don’t be naive; they are sinners too! Expect, at some point, to be disappointed...

Second, I felt encouraged by the thought: So God uses sinful people, then!

This wasn’t exactly a new revelation. Of course, I knew perfectly well that God uses sinners! - when you stop and think about it, he hasn’t got a lot of choice, has he?

This doesn’t mean he condones or turns a blind eye to our sins. Of course not. But given that we are all imperfect, the plain fact is that he has to work with (how shall I put this?) some pretty ropy raw material. Think, for just a couple of examples, of King David in the Old Testament and the apostle Peter in the New.

What it does mean, though, is that he wants to use you and me as well.

Never say “I am not good enough to be used by God!” No: if your heart is sincere, and if you truly hate your sins and weaknesses (David and Peter again), then God can make you an instrument of his usefulness. Just work out what he wants you to do, then roll up your sleeves and get on with it.

Third, after the shock had worn off a bit, I felt a sense of real admiration.

For one thing, this couple had had the wisdom and humility to seek counselling. None of this stiff-upper-lip-we-can-manage-perfectly-well-by-ourselves-thank-you-very-much stuff. They recognised that they needed help, and they went looking for it.

Is that a word to some of us?

And I couldn’t help admiring also that they had obviously been willing to make their difficulties known even beyond the counselling room. That, I am sure, can’t have been easy. But it’s as if they were wanting to make the very point I started with: “We aren’t Mr and Mrs Perfect! We are sinners too! So don’t put us on a pedestal.”

Let’s go back to those great words of John that I quoted at the beginning: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Plenty to ponder there, I think, as we look at others - and as we look at ourselves...

Our Father in heaven, thank you that you are a God who loves and uses sinners. Give me, please, the wisdom to value godly Christians without idolising them, and the humility to hate the sins within my own soul. Amen.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Saved sinners - and sinful saints

So when you are assembled... hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

What should a church do when one of its members is guilty of a particularly bad sin? Somebody commits a crime, say? Or falls into sexual immorality? Or gets heavily into drugs or alcohol? What about men (it’s usually men) who are exposed as addicted to pornography?

It happens. Let’s not fool ourselves that all Christians live above-reproach lives, only ever guilty of trivial failings. No: in spite of outward appearances, this may very well not be the case, for we learn to be skilled actors.

Churches tend to opt for one of three main responses: turn a blind eye and hope the problem will go away; wag a scolding finger and hope the individual in question will mend their ways; kick the offending person out of the church altogether.

About 300 years after Jesus, a grouping of Christians called Donatists sprang up in North Africa (named after a leader called Donatus Magnus). They were extreme hard-liners - and not only when it came to moral failure. They felt that severe measures were necessary for church members who had buckled under persecution and denied Christ; in particular, church leaders who had done this should only be re-admitted to the church after undergoing humiliating punishment.

To be fair, the persecution the church in North Africa had suffered was grim, so it is understandable that those who had remained faithful to Christ should not look too kindly on those who hadn’t. The dispute between the Donatists and the mainstream church rumbled on for some 400 years before Donatism faded away. But questions of church discipline never go away, even if we tend to meet them mainly at local level.

The basic question is: How “pure” should we expect the church to be? Or, putting it the other way around, to what extent should we accept that it is “mixed”?

When I was a new, teenage Christian there was something of a scandal in the church I belonged to. One of the leaders, a taxi-driver, was found guilty of fiddling his fares. This got into the local paper - just the kind of thing non-Christians love to read about. What should the church do? My recollection (many years on!) is that he was removed from his leadership position, but not thrown out of the church. I suspect this was probably about right, assuming that he expressed sincere repentance.

In my own time as a pastor there was a situation where one of the deacons got into a wrong relationship with the non-Christian husband of a fellow church member. She was quite brazen about this, and the relationship continued.

What should we do? We felt we had to ask her to leave. Did we do right?

Of course the church should be pure. It is, after all, “the body of Christ” on earth (1 Corinthians 12:27), and its members are called to be holy.

But, hang on a minute, Christians are sinners as well as saints! - saved sinners, of course, but sinners all the same. I once saw a witty wall-poster in a church hall: “Be patient with me: God hasn’t finished with me yet!” Very good!

The church in Corinth was, in various respects, a total shambles. Just read Paul’s first letter to them and you end up shaking your head - members were taking one another to court on various issues; people were using the communion service to eat and drink to excess; the worship services were often chaotic, with an abuse of the “spiritual gifts”.

So Paul has some severe things to say to them.

But it’s interesting that nowhere does he suggest they should all be thrown out of the church, or even that they aren’t true Christians. No, he seems to accept them as brothers and sisters in Christ, warts and all.

In only one case - the “immoral man” of chapter 5 - does he recommend expulsion. And even here it’s important to notice that he expects the man to be restored as a result - “that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (5:5).

Repentance is the key word in all this. If somebody who has “gone astray” remains fixed in their sin, then, yes, perhaps (after time spent praying to God and pleading with the individual) they have to go. But our hearts should be filled with pain, and the hope must be that they will come back.

In the meantime, it’s up to the rest of us to examine our own habits and feelings - and those hidden inner lives we all have. Are we perfect? Are we worthy to belong to the church of Jesus Christ?

Never forget the old saying: If you ever find the perfect church, whatever you do, don’t join it. You’ll only spoil it.

Thank you, Lord God, for the great privilege and joy of belonging to your church, sinner though I am. Help me by your Holy Spirit to strive towards true Christlikeness, and to be a challenge, a help and a comfort to others who fall short. Amen.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Anyone for a laugh?

A cheerful heart is good medicine. Proverbs 17:22

I read recently about a man who, since 2007, has kept a record of every time he sneezes. “He logs them by location, strength and activity when it happened,” it said in The Times. Apparently Sneeze Number 5126 was recorded as: “Bathroom, moderate to strong, cleaning teeth.” (Aren’t you just glad you know that?)

And don’t you just love people with a wacky sense of humour? Like the man who decided his house address was a bit boring, having only a number and street name: 44 Acacia Avenue or whatever. It ought to have a name to itself! he declared. Something to distinguish it! So after deep thought he came up with... Ocean View.

Now, isn’t that beautiful? You can almost see the sun sparkling on the waves, the gulls wheeling overhead, the boats sailing by on the horizon, the children paddling in the water. Beautiful.

Never mind that he happened to live in the suburbs of Wolverhampton. (In case you’re not familiar with the geography of England, let me just say that there are few places in the country more distant from the coast.) Hats off to that man, I say!

Or the football fan who refused to admit that his team had lost. “No,” he said, “we didn’t lose, we just ran out of time while we were temporarily behind.” (All right, have it your own way...)

I could go on. What about the person who has made himself an authority on the history of tomato ketchup? Or shipping containers? Or... whatever?

Where would we be without jokes and laughter, banter and leg-pulling? In a pretty bad way, that’s where. Humour is a wired-in part of human nature: after all, a new-born baby doesn’t have to be taught to either cry or laugh. We need light-heartedness: an adult who is never downright silly is a sorry specimen.

Of course, “religious” people have sometimes tended to be suspicious of humour. And that has included Christians - or, at least, the kind of Christians who see God mainly as hard and stern.

You can understand them to some extent. Much humour derives its effectiveness from being either cruel - making somebody else feel bad about themself - or crude. (There are some television programmes which seem to me simply disgusting, and I find it hard to understand how any Christian can enjoy them. I’m not sure who to feel sadder about - the people up front peddling this stuff, or the people in the audience howling their heads off as crudity follows crudity. I know that feeling this way exposes me to the danger of seeming self-righteous, but - well, so be it.)

A lack of humour can be a sign of danger. “Those whom the gods would make bigots, they first deprive of humour,” said James Gillis. True, there are good people who just don’t see the funny side of things, and that’s fine; but it can be genuinely worrying when even innocent humour is regarded as suspect. I doubt if there are many belly-laughs among religious extremists who believe that it’s right to kill in the name of their god.

As I look back on the bad old days of soviet communism, and picture those granite-faced men who rose to the top of the political ladder, it’s hard to remember any of them smiling, never mind laughing.

The Bible doesn’t have much to say about humour. But it does tell us to be good-humoured and cheerful. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. The Book of Proverbs - a lot of good earthy sense there - says that “a cheerful look brings joy to the heart” (15:30), and “a cheerful heart is good medicine” (17:22). I think modern psychology would go along with that.

Down through the centuries Christians have testified to the God-given nature of humour...

“God cannot be solemn, or he would not have blessed man with the incalculable gift of laughter”, wrote Sydney Harris.

Martin Luther went so far as to say, “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.”

And Richard Baxter (1615-1691), who belonged to that grouping of Christians who became known as “Puritans”, wrote, “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers.”

Yes! I used to help out with “mag-packing” for a missionary society - retired people like me were roped in to get magazines ready for posting. It could be a tedious task. But one of our number had this marvellous gift of reeling off wisecrack after wisecrack to keep us entertained as we toiled. He had us almost falling about - and I think that Baxter’s dictum was well borne out.

The message has to be: Christian, cultivate holy humour and godly laughter! You will feel better yourself. And you will make this world a better place.

Loving Father, help me to take an innocent and joyful delight in the many good things I enjoy from your generous hand. And help me to lighten the heaviness of others by my good nature and appropriate cheerfulness. Amen.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

The forgotten person of the Trinity

Jesus said, “John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit”. Acts 1:5

They said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. Acts 19:2

Sermon-class was nearly over - and I had been the preacher. Now it was time for “constructive feed-back”, when everyone in chapel could pile in and comment on how I had done.

The college principal gave me a severe look and said “I’m sorry, Mr Sedgwick (things were a lot more formal all those years ago), but I’m afraid you are a binitarian.”

Gulp. What on earth was a binitarian? Was he accusing me of being some kind of heretic, like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses?

In fact, he wasn’t being entirely serious. No, this was his way of pointing out that throughout the whole service there hadn’t been so much as a mention of the Holy Spirit. Not in the hymns I had chosen, nor in any of the readings; not in the prayers or in the sermon. Mmm.

In terms of doctrine, Christians are trinitarians - that is, we believe that in God there are three (“tri-") persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are certainly not unitarians, believing that God is simply one (“uni-") person.

So what the principal was telling me was that I was guilty of believing in only two (“bi-") persons in God, the Father and the Son. But not the Holy Spirit.

This happened some fifty years ago, when I was callow, brown-haired and luxuriously bearded. But I suspect that for many genuine Christians not much has changed. If you were to ask them “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” they would be horrified: “Of course! - I’m a sound, orthodox Christian!” But for all practical purposes they are binitarians (not much different from those “disciples” in Acts 19). The Holy Spirit barely figures in their thinking at all.

May I ask: What about you? Could it be that you are a binitarian?

I suspect there are two main reasons for this sorry state of affairs.

First, it’s not easy to put into words or pictures who the Holy Spirit is, so we tend to neglect him.

Everyone has at least some idea of what a “father” is. And of course it’s not difficult to imagine God the Son - Jesus is wonderfully pictured for us in the Gospels.

But the Holy Spirit? How should we think of him? The breath of God? The supernatural life of God? The comforter? The peace-giver? A dove? The Holy Spirit is very hard to pin down! - like trying to grab a beautiful aroma with your fingers.

And, in fairness, many churches in those far-off days probably failed to give much teaching concerning him: he was acknowledged in principle, but not really in practice. (So perhaps I could be excused for my failing.)

The second reason for our neglect of the Holy Spirit can be summed up in a single word: fear.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the church suddenly woke up to the Holy Spirit through what became known as the charismatic movement. And, putting it bluntly, it frightened many people. Puzzling questions were being asked, like, “Have you been baptised in the Holy Spirit?” or “Are you filled with the Holy Spirit?”

Disturbing things started happening - things which previously we had only associated with those strange “Pentecostals” who, as everyone knew, were, ahem, slightly dodgy. People were claiming miracles and healings. People were “speaking in tongues” (or “gabbling”, as someone expressed it). Meetings and services were getting out of control, sometimes highly emotional.

All very alarming. It was, as some saw it, Pentecostalism spilling out of Pentecostal churches and into the more “mainstream” churches - Anglican, Baptist, even Roman Catholic. And so the shutters went up in many circles - as if a cursor had been placed over the Holy Spirit and the delete button pressed.

The last fifty years has taught us that yes, indeed, the charismatic movement brought with it many excesses, and there is no doubt that lives have been damaged by it. But the church as a whole has succeeded in absorbing what started out seeming wild and dangerous and which has now become mainstream.

But that nervousness remains in many quarters - deep down, we like things comfortable and predictable, don’t we, nicely pinned down? And so mention of the Holy Spirit can still make us jittery.

Which is tragic! - if indeed the Spirit really is as vitally important as the Gospels, Acts and the letters of the New Testament make clear.

Well, it will soon be Whitsun - that time in the Christian calendar when churches all round the world will be celebrating the wonderful events described in Acts 2. The first Christian Pentecost! - the events promised by John the Baptist: “I baptise you with water, but he (that is, Jesus) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).

I am no Pentecostal or charismatic: I think important aspects of the theology are wrong. But there’s no doubt in my mind that, however sound our doctrine might be in theory, a bit of self-examination might be in order for some of us: am I - are you - to all intents and purposes a binitarian?

Loving Father, we cry out to you that, even as Whitsun approaches, you would fill your church with the love of your Son - and baptise it with the power of your Spirit. Amen!

Saturday, 4 May 2019

A woman it would be nice to know

After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. Luke 8:1-3

Jesus had many prominent female disciples.

It’s easy for us to overlook that fact, given that the world in which he lived was entirely male-dominated, and that this was bound to be reflected in the ministry he exercised.

But it’s true. In this tiny passage we read the names of three such women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza, and Susanna. But Luke also mentions “many others”. He tells us two significant things about them: first, they “were with him”, along with the apostles; and second, they “were helping to support” Jesus and the twelve “out of their own means”.

Mary Magdalene and Joanna are mentioned again by Luke in 24:10 as part of a wider group who stood at the foot of the cross as he died, and then, on Easter Day, as being the first to bring to the twelve the news of his rising.

These women obviously mattered to Jesus; they mattered very much. (To them, after all, was entrusted the greatest news the world has ever heard!) The obvious implication is that godly woman should matter very much to the church today as well. What this implies for questions of female leadership and ministry is a big topic, but that’s not what I want to focus on today.

No, I want to think in particular about just one of these women: Joanna, who is described as “the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household”. (Far too much has already been written about Mary Magdalene, much of it nonsense which has no basis in the Bible.)

When you think about Jesus’ early followers, do you tend to have in mind the poor people - the “ordinary people” - from the villages and small towns: the sort of people who flocked in large crowds to “listen to him with delight” (Mark 12:37)? I must admit I do.

But, wonderful though that is, it isn’t the whole picture, for Joanna and her companions were obviously pretty well-to-do, and probably quite cultured and educated: how else could they support him “out of their own means”?

Joanna’s wealthy status probably arose from the fact that her husband Chuza was a prominent official, “the manager of Herod’s household”, no less.

Who was Herod?

The Herod family was a dynasty of Jewish rulers who came after Herod the Great, the man responsible for building the temple that we read about in the Gospels. (They ruled totally under the thumb of the Romans, of course.)

The Herod we meet here was one of his sons, Herod Antipas, who governed the region of Galilee. It was he who reluctantly and stupidly killed John the Baptist, probably while he was full of drink (Mark 6:14-29) - and it was he to whom Jesus once referred as “that fox” (Luke 13:31-32)!

It is striking that Joanna’s husband should be in the employment of this powerful man. No doubt the couple had a very nice house in the region of Galilee (Capernaum perhaps?), complete with plenty of slaves and all mod cons.

It raises interesting questions: did Chuza know that his wife was a follower of Jesus? Or did she have to keep it secret because it might get him into difficulty with his boss?

Or was Chuza perhaps a follower of Jesus himself? It has been suggested that he might be the “certain royal official” mentioned in John 4:46-54, whose son was healed by Jesus. John tells us that “he and his whole household believed”, and also that they lived in Capernaum. True, the only healing that Luke mentions is that of Joanna herself, not of any son; but it’s an intriguing possibility.

We can only speculate. But, true or not, it’s clear that there were people from the higher ranks of society who believed in Jesus. And this puts a new light on his ministry.

I don’t imagine that Joanna and her friends travelled around with Jesus anything like as much as the apostles; perhaps they simply made a point of turning out when he was in their vicinity. But the fact is that he was obviously glad to welcome their presence and their support, even at risk of causing scandal among the strict rabbis - who would never so much as dream of having female disciples in their entourage!

Joanna is certainly a woman I would like to have met. If nothing else, what little we know about her prompts important questions for us today.

First, are women in our churches recognised and valued for the roles they play? Second, are their gifts and talents fully used? And third, do we aim to build churches that are thoroughly mixed in terms of sex, social status and educational background?

Happy is that church which is “multi-generational”, both male and female, and a genuine cross-section of its local community!

Lord, thank you for unsung heroes like Joanna. Thank you for all those who love and serve Jesus in quiet and unobtrusive ways. And if that is my role in the life of the church, help me to fulfil it cheerfully and reliably. Amen.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

In praise of a sweet tooth

Eat honey... for it is good; honey from the comb is sweet to your taste. Proverbs 24:13

I once dropped a slice of toast and honey (yum yum) on the floor - and you’ll never guess what happened. It landed honey side up. Wahay! I thought, this really is my lucky day.

Well, I don’t know if you like honey. But I hope you do, because the Bible says you should eat it. (Mind you, I can’t quite believe that on the Day of Judgment God is going to look disapprovingly at anyone and say, “Well, I’m sorry, but as I scrutinise your earthly life I can’t help noticing that you didn’t eat honey regularly. Would you care to explain this disobedience on your part?” No. I suspect that he may be more interested in such little matters as pride, greed, anger, honesty, moral purity, don’t you?)

I find the Book of Proverbs intriguing. It’s great for dipping into: there are some profound and thought-provoking verses - and some others which, if I am to be completely honest, seem odd, even a bit wacky. And this is one: why would God tell us to “eat honey”, of all things?

One thing is certain: this isn’t a text which should be taken literally - though I have a nasty feeling that somewhere in the world there is a church called “The Church of the Faithful Honey-Eaters”, or some such thing. (A bit like those crazy churches which release venomous snakes into their services, on the basis of Mark 16:18, a verse which probably isn’t part of the original Bible anyway. Yes, such churches really do exist.)

No, this is a verse intended to spark off a train of thought. Let me share one or two of mine. The first is, I must admit, a bit of a stretch; the second is at least plausible; and the third gets us to the heart of it.

First, is it meant to get us thinking about our diet? Honey is a health-giving food, so this command can prompt the question, Am I a healthy eater?

Many of us live in parts of the world where junk food is everywhere available - and very tempting. Obesity is reaching epidemic proportions. How many of us are risking damage to our health through bad eating habits? The New Testament tells us that if we are Christians our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). So shouldn’t we take care to look after them well?

Many Christians are very strict when it comes to drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Which is good. But there are plenty of other health-damaging habits we can get into, aren’t there?

Second, perhaps this verse speaks to us about enjoying the good things of life. Honey, after all, is sweet and energising.

In 1 Samuel 14 Jonathan and his troops are fainting for lack of food in the midst of battle. But they find honey in the woods, so Jonathan “dipped his staff” into the honeycomb and “raised it to his mouth”, whereupon “his eyes brightened”.

So could God be suggesting to us that there is nothing wrong with an occasional treat? Life is pretty grey if we never have special things to look forward to.

Jesus wasn’t ashamed to go to dinner-parties. Indeed, according to Matthew 11:19 he was accused of over-indulging in alcohol. Of course we mustn’t take anything to excess (see Proverbs 25:16 for an important companion verse to this one), but God doesn’t expect his people to be sour and stone-faced. He wants us to enjoy the good things he has provided.

Third, and this is surely the main point, this verse speaks about wisdom.

We have focussed on Proverbs 24:13 - but what about the next verse? “Know also that wisdom is like honey for you; if you find it there is a future hope for you...”

Ah! - it seems that the writer is using honey as a metaphor for wisdom. Just as honey is good for your body and your spirits, so wisdom is good for your soul. Convincing? I think so.

But... how do we get wisdom? In essence, by giving God time in our lives - time to pray, to think, to talk with wise fellow-Christians, to read his word and to reflect on it.

Wise people are desperately needed in our troubled and restless world, which is so awash with shallowness, lies, fake news, sensationalism, celebrity-worship, coarseness and vulgarity, you name it. But such people are in short supply. Where are they ultimately to be found if not among the people of God? And that means - yes - you and me.

Perhaps you can come up with some other applications for this funny little verse. Please let me know if you do. But if we resolve to become men and women soaked with God-given wisdom, I think we will have got a vital truth from it.

Lord God, thank you for filling this beautiful world with good and enjoyable things. Help me to make use of them in a Christ-like way. And, most of all, may I grow in wisdom day by day.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Confused? Then read Habakkuk!

The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received. How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you “Violence!”, but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Habakkuk 1:1-3

When we read the Old Testament prophets, we often find them giving the people a scolding on behalf of God. But when we read Habakkuk, it’s almost as if he is giving God a scolding on behalf of the people! - or at least on behalf of himself.

“Why don’t you listen to me?” he grumbles in 1:1-4. “Why don’t you step in to save your people? Why must I put up with watching all these bad things going on while you seem to be just twiddling your thumbs?”

Habakkuk is not a happy man! - and it is Almighty God that he is not happy with.

So... who was Habakkuk?

Usually the books of the prophets start with the prophet’s name, plus perhaps his father’s name, the name of the town or village he was from, and the names of the kings during whose reigns he lived. This enables us to plot him on a time-chart of Israel’s history.

But not Habakkuk. He is a mystery man, springing out of nowhere.

The experts tell us that in all probability he lived about 600 years before Jesus. This was a time when the northern kingdom of Israel (strictly called “Israel”) had been swept away by the Assyrians, and it now looked as if the same thing was going to happen to the southern kingdom, “Judea”, only this time at the hands of the Babylonians (1:6).

Habakkuk doesn’t question that this is exactly what Judea deserves, given their wretched failure to be true to God. No problem there.

But what he can’t swallow is that God should make use of the godless and cruel Babylonians to do the job. Punish the wicked by all means, but surely not by using others who are even more wicked! I just don’t understand, Lord!

I don’t think I would find it easy to address God in quite such a bold way. But it’s refreshing to see this man refusing to speak to God in smooth, conventional ways, and, in effect, getting this load of frustration and confusion off his chest.

What can we learn from this mysterious prophet?

1. Most obviously, perhaps, this: given that God knows exactly what goes on in our hearts and minds (we can’t hide it, can we?) we might as well speak to him just as we feel. Do we too feel frustrated and disappointed, even angry, with God? Well, let it out! His shoulders are big enough to take it.

Habakkuk questions God - but from a position of faith; and as he does so he works his way toward some kind of solution to his problem.

The same thing is often true for us: we don’t get immediate answers to our questions, but somehow things gradually clear over time as we persevere in faith and prayer.

2. Notice that in 2:1 he adopts a spirit of expectation - “I will stand at my watch... I will look to see what he will say to me”.

Could we say that? How much do we expect answers to our prayers? When we pray, do we really believe that God hears and that he will answer; or do we just pray out of a sense of routine or duty, expecting nothing or very little?

3. We can be encouraged that, in 2:4, Habakkuk seems to receive at least a partial answer to his questioning: “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness [or ‘his faith’]”. (The apostle Paul famously quotes this rather throw-away line, albeit in a slightly different sense, to back up his doctrine of “justification by faith” (Romans 1:17).)

Habakkuk is saying: there are times when God’s faithful people can do no more than devote themselves to God, trust in him whole-heartedly, and wait to see the unfolding of his purposes. Christian, be patient!

Is this a message we specially need in our time of political and social uncertainty? The wonderful, simple words of 2:20 - “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” - remind us of God’s total control and lordship. In spite of appearances, our world, and our own affairs, are in good and holy hands.

4. Whatever we do, don’t put Habakkuk aside without soaking up the powerful prayer of chapter 3 - a passage that harks back to the dramatic events of the exodus, God’s great rescue act for his people.

What a climax we come to in verses 17-18! - that sequence of “thoughs”, culminating in one of the Bible’s thrilling “yets”: “Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the sheepfold and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord...”

And then, “I will be joyful in God my Saviour.”

Faith, and even joy, in the teeth of discouragement! - if that doesn’t shoot a few thousand volts into our spiritual systems, I’m afraid nothing will.

Lord God, I confess that often I feel confused at what’s going on in my life, and in the world around me. Please help me, by your Holy Spirit, to hold on to you through thick and thin, to speak to you out of the fulness of my heart, and so to come to the same place of peace, hope and joy as your servant Habakkuk. Amen.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Meet Oscar the dog

… for you alone know every human heart… 1 Kings 8:39

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were with them in prison, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering. Hebrews 13:3

Do you ever wonder how you would react in a time of crisis? I like to think that I would play the part of the fearless hero, “rising to the occasion”, as they say. It’s times of testing that show what we’re really like, not just how we want to appear, or even how we like to think we are ourselves.

Well, the real, inner me took a bit of a bruising recently…

Nina and I were walking round a lake at a local beauty spot when we happened upon a mini-drama. A dog – one of those big, fluffy, lolloping ones – had gone into the water and couldn’t get out. The bank was only three or four feet high, but it was quite steep, and Oscar (we soon discovered his name from his owner’s anguished cries) couldn’t get a grip. Just when you thought – yes! – he’d made it at last… no, he sank back into the water. I don’t think he was in any danger of drowning, but he was obviously in distress.

Then his owner, an elderly lady, decided to try to get to him, and slipped on the rocks.

A perfect moment for Hero Colin!

But no, I’m afraid not… While I dithered – intending, of course, to leap in at any moment, but not feeling the moment was quite right – a man (who may have been even older than me), came brushing by and rescued the lady. And then a couple of young blokes (who I think quite fancied themselves in the role of hero) took their shoes off and got down into the water and bodily lifted Oscar to safety.

As we cheered and applauded and heaved sighs of relief, Oscar decided it was time for an epic shiver’n’shake, thus treating us all to a lovely muddy shower while we scattered, shrieking, to all points of the compass.

But… Oscar was safe. His owner was restored to the perpendicular. Everyone was smiling. Crisis over.

But no thanks, I’m afraid, to your hero Colin…

Oh the gap between the outer me and the real me!

I’ve just finished a big book on how the church in Germany responded to Hitler’s coming to power in the 1930s – a time of testing, if ever there was one. It didn’t make for easy reading.

Yes, there were the heroes – but not many of them (Pastor Martin Niemoller is perhaps the best-known name). The majority of Christians seem to have dithered, like me with Oscar, while things took shape. When war came many signed up for the forces, convincing themselves that they were fighting for “the Fatherland” rather than for “the Fuehrer”. Still others, though, were completely dazzled by him; some allowed him to confirm an anti-Semitism which was already deeply rooted within them; some even declared that he was sent by God, virtually a messiah figure.

Yes, Christians! Many looked back years later with bitter regrets. But by then it was too late.

How easy it is to shake one’s head in disbelief. If it had been me, of course…

Forgive me for putting together two such vastly different scenarios, one relatively trivial (no disrespect to Oscar), the other immeasurably grave. But they make, in their different ways, the same point. Not only do other people not know the true us, even we don’t know the true us. Not till we are tested. And it’s no credit to us if we are never seriously tested; we are just the fortunate ones.

The writer to the Hebrews told his readers: “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were with them in prison, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3). Jesus spoke of the time when “I was ill or in prison and you did not look after me” (Matthew 25:43).

Throughout the world untold millions of people are being put to the test for conscience’ sake. Many of them are Christians (I am writing in the aftermath of the bombings in Sri Lanka). Those victims of persecution, false accusations, social ostracism and the rest, are no different from you and me; it’s just that they have been put to the test, while we haven’t. Quite likely they could have kept their heads down and pretended to be something they weren’t. But, God bless them, they chose not to.

Let’s pray for them. Let’s support them in every way we can. And pray too that, if we should one day be brought to the test, we will not fail.

O God, you alone know every human heart. You alone know the real, true me. Help me, by your Holy Spirit, to be in reality the person I portray to others. And lead me to be a true brother or sister to those who are being put to the test today. Amen.