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.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

What a Friend...!

If, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Romans 5:10

If you want to grasp, in a nutshell, the basic meaning of the Easter weekend, I don’t think you could do better than soak your mind in this short verse.

The key word is “reconciliation” - “becoming friends with someone who used to be an enemy”.

It’s a beautiful word because, when it happens, it can lead to tears of happiness. You think, for example, of fighter pilots who flew for Britain and Germany during the Second World War. Each was aiming to destroy the other, to blow them out of the sky: they were “enemies”. But then you see them on television today, old men shaking hands, sharing a drink, and reminiscing about those sad, dark days.

Or it could be something as simple as falling out with a friend, quite likely over something petty. But after apologies have been exchanged (isn’t “Sorry” a wonderful little word!) you are friends again. (Is it time some of us said “Sorry” to somebody?)

Paul tells us that there was a time when we were “God’s enemies” because of our sins. (Note, by the way, that he doesn’t say that God was our enemy; he has only ever loved us, in spite of all our sins.)

But now we have been “reconciled to him”. And the means by which that has happened is “through the death of his Son” - which takes us, of course, straight to Good Friday. Jesus died on the cross to deal with our sins and make us friends of God.

This raises a very obvious question for each of us: have I been reconciled to God? Can I say that I am a friend of God? Or am I still in a state of enmity, still under “God’s wrath”, as Paul puts it in verse 9? If I am, it’s time I said sorry to God and, by simple faith in Jesus, took what he did on the cross as applying to me.

Is this a word for somebody reading this today? Please don’t put it off!

Paul doesn’t leave it there, though. He goes on to say that if indeed we have been reconciled to God, “how much more... shall we be saved through his life!”

Though he doesn’t explicitly mention the resurrection, Paul is obviously talking about the risen life which Jesus entered into on that wonderful first Easter morning. (I love that “how much more”, don’t you? - as if to say, “If God has already done the first bit, the “reconciliation” bit, we don’t need to doubt the “saving” bit!)

So that’s Easter in a nutshell: We are reconciled to God by Jesus’ death; and we are saved by God through his resurrection.

You might ask, What’s the difference between being “reconciled” and being “saved”? To which the answer is, to all intents and purposes, not a lot! After all, if you are reconciled to God you must surely be saved. And if you are saved, how can you not be reconciled? It’s two different aspects of the same thing.

But if you wanted to drive a wedge between these two words, you could put it something like this...

Reconciliation gives us a new status. We often say, and quite rightly, that we are children of God (and that’s some status!). But it’s also true to say that we are friends of God. We are in a happy and harmonious relationship with him, exactly as he originally intended every man and woman to be (think Adam and Eve in Eden before sin came in).

Salvation, on the other hand, gives us a new state. It makes us different people, because we have been raised with Jesus into the new, pure and holy life of the resurrection. The old life of sin and failure is behind us, and we are “born again” into new life.

That doesn’t mean that we are perfect immediately. No, a whole lifetime of wrestling with our weaknesses lies before us. This is why Paul uses the future tense when he talks about our salvation: “how much more... shall we be saved through his life.”

So it seems that we can say both “I am saved” and also “I will be saved”.

Put it like this... In one sense we are already saved, through the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus and our trust in him; in another sense we are in the process of being saved, as we seek to walk with God day by day; and in yet another sense we will be saved, when at last we enter God’s final and perfect kingdom. It’s that third sense Paul has in mind here.
So, back to where we started... Can you, this Easter-time, read Romans 5:10 and say “Yes! That applies to me!”
I do hope so!

Lord Jesus, thank you for dying for me to make me a friend of God. Help me now to live for you, as someone truly saved. Amen!

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

A cathedral, a temple - and Jesus risen from the dead

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, teacher!  What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Mark 13:1-2

Last weekend my wife and I were in the beautiful little Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds. The hotel where we stayed is in the shadow of the magnificent cathedral church of St Edmundsbury, dating from way back in medieval times as a monastic abbey.

Each morning I got up early and went for a walk around the abbey gardens or along the bank of the tiny River Lark. The view of the cathedral was wonderful, whichever angle I was looking from. (How did they manage to erect such buildings!)

Last night I watched on the news as Notre Dame de Paris burned. Onlookers on the spot were weeping. Some knelt on the pavement with their hands clasped in prayer. When the spire slowly toppled and fell there were gasps of dismay.

France, of course, is renowned as a secular - that is, non-religious - country. But you don’t need to be even remotely “religious” to be moved by that terrible sight of destruction.

The cathedral in Bury is slight in comparison with Notre Dame. But - you can see the way my thoughts are going - exactly the same response would take place if a similar thing were to happen there: shock, dismay, disbelief.

The next stop for my thoughts was something that happened two thousand years ago...

Jesus and his disciples are up in Jerusalem for the Jewish Passover - country bumpkins from Galilee soaking up the sounds, sights and smells of the ancient city and its wonderful temple. According to Mark’s Gospel they are pretty much overawed: “Look, teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

And how does Jesus respond? With what seems like a matter-of-fact, even cynical indifference: “Do you see all these great buildings?... Not one stone will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Ouch! Talk about sticking a pin into a balloon! Jesus isn’t exactly telling his disciples off for their enthusiasm; but he is bringing them down to earth with a bump, telling them cold, hard facts which they need to look right in the face.

Christians may disagree strongly about the importance of church buildings. For some, places of such splendour are a significant part of their worship and spirituality. I know someone who enjoys nothing more than visiting and savouring as many “sacred buildings” as possible; for them it’s a truly spiritual pleasure.

Others say no. Church buildings may certainly be useful as convenient gathering-places, but there is a real danger that the more splendid they are, the more likely to act as a distraction from God than a pointer to him.

I never tire of pointing out that in the New Testament no building is ever referred to as a church. Which means that once the congregation has left after a service, the church is no longer there; the building may still be there, but the church - the people - has scattered to be about God’s business.

But whatever view you take, I think you would need to be pretty boorish not to genuinely lament a sight such as the burning of Notre Dame.

Let’s go back to Jesus (never a bad thing to do). Why did he seem so indifferent to the coming destruction of the Jerusalem temple? Answer: because he knew it had passed its usefulness - and he anticipated a new temple altogether.

A new temple? Surely not?

But yes: pressed by his opponents about his attitude to the temple, he told them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days”. How strange is that! What could he possibly mean? Understandably his opponents responded with scorn and disbelief: “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”

At this point the Gospel-writer chips in with the explanation: “But the temple he spoke of was his body” (John 2:19-21).

Ah! Once Jesus is risen from the dead, John is saying, the focus of attention must be on him, not on any building, even that great building that had been venerated by the Jews for generations.

When John has his vision of the final glorious city of God, heaven itself, he makes a point of saying, “I saw no temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22). Suddenly everything becomes clear...

So let us, of course, lament what has happened to Notre Dame, indeed the damage or destruction of any man-made beauty and splendour. But let’s get it into our heads too that even if every such building on the face of the earth were to be destroyed, it wouldn’t ultimately matter (please note those italics!).

Why not? Because Jesus is risen. Because Jesus is alive, alive for evermore.


Lord Jesus Christ, you are the pioneer and perfecter of my faith. Help me then to fix my eyes always on you, never on man-made things, however beautiful, which will ultimately pass away. Amen.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Dead to sin - already but not yet

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:24

A man I knew once was sitting on a beach in some foreign holiday resort. I don’t think he was doing very much - perhaps reading a book or just snoozing. But suddenly he sat up with a jerk. Why? Because his wife, sitting next to him, had gone berserk. She was thrashing around like a mad woman, smashing her fist into the sand. He was completely nonplussed. What was going on? But a moment later he knew. His wife was sitting by their new baby - and she had just spotted a nasty-looking snake near the buggy.

The moment that mother saw what was happening she acted out of pure instinct to protect her child. She didn’t stop and think, “Mmm, there seems to be a snake near my child - I wonder if I should do something about it? Well, perhaps when I’ve finished this chapter...” No! It was - kill! kill! kill! And so... one dead snake.

Anything that threatens life needs to be ruthlessly destroyed. There can be no compromise. And that is why Paul speaks about “the flesh” being “crucified”. It’s hard to imagine a more ruthless way of killing someone than by nailing them to a cross - as we are being reminded in these days leading up to Good Friday.

When you become a Christian, Paul is saying, your whole attitude to life and your whole way of living changes radically. The “flesh” is no longer just a bit of a nuisance, or something to be vaguely indulged if you feel like it. No; it’s something that will destroy you if you let it, and it’s got to go.

There are two things about Paul’s words which are a little puzzling.

First: surely if God made our bodies - our physical flesh - then flesh must be good! All that God makes, after all, is good, indeed “very good” (Genesis 1:31). And Jesus himself, when he came to earth, came not as a ghost or a phantom, but in human flesh.

Yes, indeed. Which is why the Bible tells us to care for our bodies and to treat them with respect. But Paul here is using the word flesh to mean “our fallen, sinful nature”, for flesh, or our earthly humanity, is the way in which sin makes its destructive entry into our lives and ruins us. There is nothing wrong with the human body as such. But it so easily becomes a channel for corruption and sin.

Second: why does Paul here use the past tense - “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh...” - as if it’s all finished and done with? Why “have crucified”? Shouldn’t he have said, “need to crucify” or “should crucify” or “are in the process of crucifying”? For any of those expressions would certainly be true.

He chooses to use the past tense because he wants to remind us that conversion to Christ brings about an actual change the moment it happens. We are “born again” (John 3:3) as new people; and birth is, after all, a once for all event. We become part of Christ - we are “in him” as he so often loves to say (for example, Romans 8:1). It follows, then, that if we are “in Christ”, and he has died once for all, then we too have died once for all.

So there is a paradox here, and in Colossians 3 Paul puts both parts of it together. In verse 3 he tells the Colossian Christians that “you died” (past tense) but then in verse 5 that they must “put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (present tense).

A simple way to put it is this: in the Christian life there is an “already” and there is a “not yet”. The destruction of our sin through the cross is already an accomplished fact - which is why Jesus died with the triumphant cry on his lips “It is finished!” Praise God for that.

But it is not yet completed. And that is something for which we are responsible - we can’t just fold our arms and expect God to do it without us. Like that mother on the beach we must act decisively and ruthlessly.

Or you could put it like this. In principle our victory over sin is complete because of the cross. But in practice there is still a lot of hard work to do.

How are things with you and your “flesh”, your “fallen nature”? Have you become a little careless, a little indulgent, perhaps? Is Jesus calling you to take a hard look to see if there are certain things that still need to be crucified?

Let’s never forget: if we don’t destroy “the flesh”, it will destroy us. And let’s think of this as we watch Jesus being crucified this Friday...

Father God, thank you for Good Friday, and for Jesus’ final and complete victory over sin. Thank you that through faith in him I am already a new person. Now help me day by day to “put to death whatever belongs to my earthly nature” in whatever ways may be necessary. Amen.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Don't leave me alone!

Jesus said to them [the disciples], “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me”. Matthew 26:38

James Cracknell, Olympic rower and “iron man” supreme, suffered a brain injury which seriously changed his personality. His wife Beverley found life with her “new” husband intolerable, and, offering advice to others in a similar situation, encouraged them to look for help wherever they could find it: “Even if the situation is ultimately hopeless, it helps if you aren’t carrying the burden alone.”

It helps if you aren’t carrying the burden alone - or, as somebody else once said, “Anything is bearable - as long as you don’t have to bear it alone.”

I’m very thankful that I have never been in such a desperate situation. But as I watched the suffering of the thousands of people affected by the south-east African cyclone - loved ones lost, homes, crops and livestock washed away, livings destroyed - I could only trust that those people derived some comfort from the fact that they weren’t alone: all around them others were in the same situation; and, hopefully, it wasn’t long before still others arrived with practical help and support.

“Moral support” isn’t just an empty phrase! Which is why “support groups” for people enduring similar trials are so enormously helpful. And why “just being there”, even though it sounds pretty feeble, can be a true life-saver.

Suppose you’ve just had an operation. You come round from the anaesthetic, perhaps groggy and confused, and there is no-one around - all the staff are busy at that moment with other patients. In your helplessness you feel a tremendous sense of aloneness in this unfamiliar place, with its bleeping monitors and tubes and bottles and other bits of slightly alarming equipment.

But suppose that on opening your eyes the first thing you see is a familiar, friendly face sitting by your bed? You immediately feel comforted - I’m not forgotten! I’m not alone!

Thinking along those lines makes Jesus’ suffering before the crucifixion even more acute. His words to his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane are really quite pitiful: “Stay here and keep watch with me...” In other words, “I need you now more than I have ever needed you before. I know there is nothing you can do to make this cup of suffering more drinkable, but... be there for me. I want to be able to look up from my praying and see that you are with me...”

And what did he find? They were fast asleep.

The first time it happened he took Simon Peter to task: “Couldn’t you keep watch with me for just one hour?” But the second time Matthew tells us simply that “he left them and went away once more and prayed...” As if to say, “There’s no point in disturbing them again - the fact is that I’m not going to get any support from them in my time of struggle.” So “he left them and went away...”

Can you see him: his head bowed, his shoulders drooping, all the body-language of agonizing disappointment? He prays on, completely alone.

And it was to get even worse. Being let down by your friends is bad enough. But what was it Jesus cried out on the cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Throughout eternity Jesus had been in intimate relationship with his heavenly Father. But as death approached that relationship was broken. This is an aloneness we can only begin to imagine. But it is the price that had to be paid for our sins. The perfect holiness of God on the one hand, and the heavy weight of human sin on the other, cannot co-exist, so a great wedge is driven between God the Father and God the Son.

Easter weekend is very close. Why not pray that God would give you a fresh appreciation of what Jesus suffered? An old hymn asks the question, “Died he for me, who caused his pain, for me who him to death pursued?” And the answer is... Yes. Yes, really for you!

But... All right, I believe it. But how little I feel it!

Let’s pray too to be the kind of friends that others can rely on when they are passing through their Gethsemane-times. May these beautiful words by Richard Gillard reflect our sincere intention:

I will hold the Christ-light for you/ In the night-time of your fear;/ I will hold my hand out to you,/ Speak the peace you long to hear./ I will weep when you are weeping,/ When you laugh I’ll laugh with you;/ I will share your joy and sorrow/ Till we’ve seen this journey through.

Lord God, I have known so long the story of Jesus in the garden, and Jesus on the cross, that it no longer moves me as once it did. Please refresh my vision of what happened at that terrible but wonderful time so that my love will be stirred and refreshed. Amen.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Good news for failures

And he (Peter) went outside and wept bitterly. Matthew 26:75

Have you ever felt you were a total, abject, utter, miserable failure? You’ve got something badly wrong - about as wrong as you possibly could have. If you’ll pardon the cliché, you’ve messed up big time.

That was how Peter felt that day. A few hours earlier he had declared his undying loyalty to Jesus: “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you!” (Matthew 26:35).

But while Jesus was on trial he had been challenged by a servant girl in the courtyard outside: “You’re one of this man’s followers, aren’t you? I can tell by your accent!” And Peter had denied all knowledge of him - not just once, not just twice, but three times - using angry and violent language: “He began to call down curses, and swore to them, ‘I don’t know the man!’” (Matthew 26:74).

At that moment came the sound of a cock crowing - the very sound Jesus had said would signal his failure. No wonder Peter broke down. No wonder he “wept bitterly”.

I imagine we can all identify with Peter to some extent.

For me, two main things stand out from this sorry episode.

First: Big talk is easy, but what matters is what you do.

I don’t doubt that when Peter promised Jesus his loyalty even unto death he meant exactly what he said. But when it came to the crunch he couldn’t follow it through.

Do you ever “promise more than you can deliver”? How often does the alcoholic declare, “Right, I’ll never touch another drop!” Or the adulterous husband or wife, “That’s it. Never again! From now on I’ll always be true to you...”. On a smaller scale, how often does the habitual late-comer promise to be more organised, or the overweight person to really cut back? But somehow it just doesn’t happen...

Paul writes (1 Corinthians 10:12), “If you think you’re standing firm, watch out that you don’t fall”. Wise words. It’s better not to make a promise at all than to make it and then break it.

Second: We can never know how our faith and loyalty will stand up until we are tested. This is the thing I find most challenging.

We regularly hear reports of Christians in different parts of the world being imprisoned, tortured, even killed for their loyalty to Jesus. And I find myself thinking “Mmm, suppose that was me? Would I stand up as bravely as that? Or would I cave in and renounce my faith?” I know what I would like to think is the answer, but in all honesty I have my doubts: serious doubts.

A tree may look deeply rooted. But you don’t know until it has withstood a hurricane. A bridge may look completely immovable; but suppose there was an earthquake?

In spite of our sometimes grumbles, we Christians in the western world have it pretty easy. But watch out for complacency or arrogance! How many of us really know our true selves?

Challenging stuff. But the story of Peter has a wonderful aftermath.

Here he is, this no-hoper, this big mouth, this failure, sobbing his heart out in public. But where do we find him in literally a matter of days? Answer: preaching Jesus in the centre of Jerusalem to a massive crowd (Acts 2). He has become, humanly speaking, the head of the church.

God doesn’t cast us off! Not if we are truly sorry. He is the God of the second chance - and the fourth, the fifth and the sixth. Of course, we mustn’t let that wonderful truth lead us to be careless or complacent. But I suspect there aren’t many of us for whom it isn’t good news.

Let me add two little footnotes that deepen the impact of this story...

First, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that at least Peter was there, in the courtyard of the high priest. Where were his fellow-apostles? - keeping their heads down, that’s where.
It reminds me of the time Peter tried - and failed - to walk on the water (Matthew 14). All right, yes, he failed - but at least he tried. The other eleven didn’t so much as get out of the boat.
Credit where it’s due...
Second, a question: how did this embarrassing incident about the leader-to-be of the church find its way into the Gospels? Surely it’s the kind of thing that the early church would have wanted to hush up?
Answer: it’s there because the Gospel-writers wanted their readers to know the plain unvarnished truth, however bitter and humiliating - and Peter himself, it seems, made no attempt to suppress it. Again, credit where it’s due.
We are all sinners and failures. So let’s face up to the fact with humility, trusting that God will treat us with the same mercy as he did Simon Peter. Because that’s what he loves to do.
Father God, thank you that your word shows up in such an unflattering light the man who was to become the human foundation stone of the church. Thank you for the hope this gives me. Deal gently with me in my failings, Lord! Amen.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

The extraordinary life of an ordinary woman (2)

They [the apostles] all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. Acts 1:14

Last time we thought about Mary, and what I called “the extraordinary life of an ordinary woman”. I suggested that though Mary’s experience was in most respects a million miles from anything you and I can know, there are several points of connection - points where we can in fact identify with her.

I had five such points in mind, but I got no further than the first two.

First, she had a life-changing experience when she was chosen to be the mother of God’s Son. And we too have our lives changed, by the experience of conversion. Second, she grew through reflecting on, and puzzling over, things that were hard to understand, as happened after Jesus as a boy went missing in Jerusalem. And we too grow and mature through grappling with things that are hard to understand.

So, to carry on where we left off...

Third: Mary endured a crisis of faith.

Is that an exaggeration? Just possibly; but there’s no doubt that an incident took place which reveals her as overwhelmed with doubt and anxiety. Go to Mark 3:21-31, where we read that Jesus’ family seriously wondered if he was “out of his mind” (verse 21).

From early in his ministry Jesus attracted large crowds - and they weren’t always supportive. Here, he gets into a debate with “teachers of the law... from Jerusalem” who suggest that he is, in effect, demon-possessed. Mary and his brothers are so alarmed that they set out to bring him home (they may have needed to travel several miles to do this). A point has been reached where they feel the need to step in and take control.

Well, you can read the rest of the story yourself. But - how far this anxiety-ridden, middle-aged woman is from the girl who received the message of the angel thirty years earlier!

The point for us is clear: however clear-cut our conversion was, however strong our faith is, and however real our experience of God over the years has been, we too can suffer dark times - days when it all seems to dissolve and turn to ashes.

We need then to cling to God, even if just by our finger-nails, to be completely honest with both him and with our friends, and to wait for the clouds to move and the sun to break through again. Pray to “trace the rainbow through the rain”, as hymn-writer George Matheson put it.

Fourth, and continuing this rather sombre theme, Mary experienced agony of heart.

I’m thinking here, of course, of the crucifixion: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).

Who can begin to imagine the anguish that filled Mary’s heart as she stood looking up at her dying son, and as she shared the agony he endured? There are some who can, of course: parents of a desperately ill child undergoing drastic medical treatment, perhaps; or a mother who is unable to feed her starving child. But mercifully most of us are spared this kind of torment.

But we are not spared every kind of pain, any more than anyone else is; being a Christian is no insurance policy against the buffetings of life. God promises to bring us through such times - but he makes no promise to lift us out of them. (Steer clear of that poisonous “prosperity gospel” nonsense!)

It’s a solemn thing to picture Mary at the foot of the cross. But, thank God, this isn’t where the gospel story leaves her.

No. A fifth point of contact is this: Mary ends up in the loving security of the new family of Jesus.

Little details are worth noticing here. First, even at the cross she was surrounded by friends, those other Marys. Thank God for friends who are with us in our darkest times!

Second, Jesus committed her to the care of “the disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26-27). Even in his death throes he has time to think of the mother to whom, as we have seen, he caused much pain.

And third, our last glimpse of Mary is within the fellowship of the infant church. According to Acts 1:14 she was there with the apostles in the upper room after the ascension; presumably she was there at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell. What a massive comfort that must have been.

Mary’s story, then, brings her from the early days of that tiny earthly family in Nazareth - Mary, Joseph, Jesus and his brothers and sisters - to that new, heavenly family in Jerusalem. And even there, there is an application for us, for we too, however precious our earthly family may be, are offered a place in God’s eternal family. Jesus said: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).

Are you yet numbered in that family?

Mary certainly knew heights of joy and depths of pain. But God brought her through them all.

As he will you. And as he will me.

Loving Father, I remember that when Jesus called me to follow him he told me to take up my cross to do. Help me, please, in those times when it seems too heavy to carry. Help me too to be there for my brothers and sisters in Christ who presently are unable to “trace the rainbow through the rain”. Amen.