Sunday, 30 June 2019

Bad things in the Bible

Everyone who heard about it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done... Just imagine! We must do something!” Judges 19:30

My friend Chris has been reading the Old Testament book of Judges. When he got to chapter 19 he declared himself “pretty dismayed” and “quite shocked”. And I can’t say I blame him. In fact, I would be quite shocked if he wasn’t.

The events described invite all sorts of extreme adjectives - appalling, horrible, atrocious, vile, disgusting, to name just a few. But pile up as many as you like and they still don’t do justice to the utter wickedness of what happens. I’m not going to describe it - if you’re interested you can read it yourself. Suffice to say that in these days of “Me too” atrocities against women, if puts even them in the shade.

If there’s any crumb of comfort to be had, it might be that even the people living in those degenerate times were also shocked when it became known - see the words I quoted at the top.

What are we, as followers of Jesus, to make of passages like this, bearing in mind that this one is by no means alone in the Bible? If we believe that the whole Bible is God’s inspired word, then presumably we are meant to get some benefit out of it. But what might that be?

Two things come to my mind...

First, and most obviously, this passage sounds a serious warning.

The final verse of Judges says: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 20:25). In other words, anarchy ruled. Israel had, in effect, rejected their heavenly king, God himself, but had not yet got to the point of submitting to an earthly king - Saul, David, Solomon and the rest were still to come.

So the story of the Levite and his concubine virtually screams at us: “This is the kind of thing that happens when a society or nation cuts itself adrift from its spiritual and moral moorings.”

There are countries today where precisely this appears to have happened. Law and order have broken down and petty warlords rule the roost - though they are at war with one another. The result is death to any hopes of security and prosperity for ordinary people trying to live their lives.

Nor should we be complacent. Are we in Britain, and in the western world generally, heading in the same direction?
Horrific crimes are reported daily in our news media; we read of violence, stabbings and gun crimes in schools and town centres; the police, probation and social services are close to overwhelmed; vile things like “revenge porn” and other abuses of social media are commonplace, even among children.

Is it “alarmist” to talk like this? True, we mustn’t exaggerate, or overlook the good features of our society. But still, there seems to be plenty to be troubled about. The stark fact is that there are no depths to which human nature can’t sink.

We often grumble and complain about those who govern us. But perhaps it would be better to be thankful for such stability and order as we do have - and, of course, to pray for our nation, asking God to give us leaders of honesty, integrity and principle.

The second value of this shocking passage is simply described: it shows us that the Bible is an honest book.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was for a time the most powerful man in England. When the time came for his portrait to be painted, he told the artist to give a true representation of him, “warts and all”. All credit to him for his humility - no photo-shopping, thanks.

The Old Testament is, among other things, a portrait of God’s earthly people. And God has certainly painted it for us “warts and all”!

In a strange way this can even be an encouragement to us who seek to be God’s people today, for it reminds us that God has used some pretty shoddy human material in unfolding his purposes. Moses was a murderer, David a murderer and an adulterer, Solomon a serious compromiser in various respects, even the great Elijah could be a coward.

No plaster saints there! Nor, come to that, in the New Testament. While we don’t read of atrocities remotely on the scale of Judges 19, we do read of the disciples’ cowardice and lack of faith, of Peter’s denial of Jesus, of Paul and Barnabas having a major bust-up. No plaster saints there either.

This shouldn't make us complacent, as if moral and spiritual failings don’t matter. They certainly do, for God is a holy God and calls his people to be pure and holy.

But it reminds us that God is a gracious and forgiving God, who will not allow his will to be ultimately thwarted even in spite of the failings of his people.

We may, like my friend Chris, turn away with some repugnance from passages like Judges 19. All right. But let’s not fail to grasp the lessons - and make sure that we then turn to the only one who ultimately matters: Jesus himself.

Jesus, take me as I am,/ I can come no other way./ Take me deeper into you,/ Make my flesh life melt away./ Make me like a precious stone,/ Crystal clear and finely honed,/ Life of Jesus shining through,/ Giving glory back to you. Amen! Dave Bryant

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

To plan or not to plan?

Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow! ... Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ James 4:13-15

I heard it said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”.

I think, in fact, I would prefer the word “smile” to “laugh” because a smile can be affectionate, even loving, whereas laughter may well be derisory, and I don’t think God mocks his children.

But whatever, the point itself is a good one - if we form our plans without seeking God’s guidance first and foremost, then we are likely to come unstuck, as they say.

When I was a young Christian, fifty or more years ago, I can remember people who routinely qualified their hopes or expectations of the future with the words “God willing”. (Sometimes they even used the Latin words, “deo volente”, or “dv” - “The Sunday-School outing will take place on Saturday 21July, dv”.) That seems slightly comical now, certainly very old-fashioned. But the instinct was right: what supremely matters is not what I think is right, but what God knows is right.

It may be that James picked up the warning he gives (James 4:13-15) from his older brother Jesus. In Luke 12:13-21 Jesus tells the very similar story of the rich farmer who made elaborate plans to expand his business and looked forward to many years of luxuriating in idleness - but who never lived to see another morning. “You fool” says God to him: “this very night your life will be demanded from you.”

So much for human planning! As the old saying puts it: “Man proposes; God disposes.”

Does this mean it’s always wrong for Christians to plan in advance? Not at all. Life is a complicated business, and to fail to plan, with a breezy “Oh, I’m happy just to let God guide me each day”, while it may sound very spiritual, is in fact simply irresponsible.

Some of those older Christians I mentioned earlier had, I suspect, been rather misled by the old “Authorised Version” of the Bible - what nowadays we more accurately call the “King James Version”. They didn’t understand that that word “authorised” referred to King James I (not to God), and that Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25, “take no thought for your life...” are better translated “do not worry about your life”, a different thing altogether.

No, it is wise and prudent, indeed essential, to make plans for the future, especially on big issues like family life and matters to do with work and finances. What matters is that we never assume that we have got it right, especially when we have very strong ideas of what we would like to do. God knows best, and he may have other ideas!

The apostle Paul was constantly moving around in order to exercise his ministry. He is a good example of prayerful planning. At the end of a visit to Ephesus he assured them that he would come and see them again “if it is God’s will” (Acts 18:21). Or, writing to the church in Philippi, he “hopes to send Timothy to them”, but that is only “in the Lord Jesus” (Philippians 2:19); indeed, he is “confident” that he himself will revisit them - but again only “in the Lord” (2:24).

That little phrase “in the Lord” is key; it means, in effect, “subject to the Lord’s will”.

Once we have got hold of this, two important things need to be added.

First, we should never allow questions of God’s guidance to, in effect, paralyse us.

I have known Christians who were so anxious that they might get it wrong that they ended up doing virtually nothing at all. This can’t be right! - take that caution to extremes and you would never so much as cross the road.

No: sometimes, after prayer, talking to trusted friends, and carefully weighing up all the pros and cons, we are left to take a deep breath and take the plunge. As long as our hearts are humble and sincere, why should God our Father not lead us, even if at first it seems a little hair-raising? (I wonder how Abraham felt when God first called him to go out into the unknown?)

Second, we should never let past mistakes ruin our peace of mind or wreck our lives.

Somebody reading this might be thinking “Yes, this is all very good and true - but it’s too late for me. I made a mistake some years ago - a big, life-changing mistake - and there’s no way now I can turn the clock back.”

This may be true, and it’s right to look at it head-on. But remember, God is your Father, and he loves you and is delighted to forgive you. He is both very able and also perfectly willing to give you a fresh new start.

The only place to move on from is... well, just where you are. (Where else can you move on from!) So - stop looking to the past and start to look ahead.

Your heavenly Father has a bright new future for you!

Loving Father, thank you that at the most critical moment of his life Jesus prayed that simple prayer “Yet not my will, but yours, be done”. Help me, I pray, to make what he prayed in his crisis time the motto of my everyday life, in matters great and small. Amen.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Talking back to God

The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. In the citadel of Susa, the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men. Esther 9:6

The Jewish festival of Purim (Esther 9:26) celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people in Persia, some 500 years before Christ, from the evil plans of Haman. I’ve never experienced it myself, but I read that in synagogues even today “every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the Purim liturgy congregations respond with loud banging, shouting and stamping of feet, and ‘Haman’s hats’ (triangular cakes) are eaten...”.

Great fun, I’m sure. And nothing wrong with that.

But the reality at the time was pretty grim. Esther 9:6 tells us of the deaths of five hundred men in Susa. And a few verses further on (9:16) we read that, outside Susa, some seventy-five thousand people were killed. Mmm... this was a big-scale massacre, and it’s hard to read about it without something of the gloss coming off the story.

Two questions come to my mind...

First, how is this kind of whole-scale vengeance compatible with the spirit of Jesus?

The simple answer is: it isn’t. Jesus, the “prince of peace”, told his followers to “love your enemies”, and prayed “Father, forgive them” for the people who crucified him. So from a Christian perspective, the aftermath of the Haman plot leaves a slightly nasty taste in one’s mouth.

It’s true, of course, that if this hadn’t happened, the bulk of God’s Old Testament people would have been wiped out: it was a dog-eat-dog world, and even God’s chosen people couldn’t help but be a part of it. The coming of Jesus was still a long way off. But still...

It’s not for us to judge or condemn the Jews of Esther’s day - we must bow to the justice of God, trusting that he knows what he is doing throughout history, and be thankful that we live in the days since the earthly life of Jesus.

Thanks be to God, though, for the clear-cut command, “Do not take revenge... but leave room for God’s wrath...” (Romans 12:19).

(Is that text a direct word to someone reading this?)

How radically and wonderfully Jesus changes everything!

The second question puts a rather different slant on the Esther story: if God could raise up an Esther to influence King Xerxes, why not another “Esther” to influence Hitler and his people?

That question rattles around in my mind because I have recently been reading various books about the Nazi horror - and there’s no doubt that the more you learn the worse it gets.

There are those who would say that we shouldn’t even ask the question. You may be one of them - and, indeed, there’s a large part of me that feels the same way. Paul’s challenge haunts me: “Who are you, a human being, to talk back to God...?” (Romans 9:20). Who indeed?

And yet there is an honourable Bible record of people who did “talk back to God”. The “Why?” question crops up repeatedly in the psalms - for example, 10:1, 22:1 and 88:14. The remarkable book of Job is full of it. So is the little book of Habakkuk: “Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?” (1:3); “Why do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:13).

Supremely, of course, we have Jesus himself, who cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

It seems that God respects and honours those who, out of genuine anguish of heart, cry out to him in this way - always assuming, of course, that our hearts are humble and that our questioning reflects honest perplexity rather than rebellion.

We need to accept, too, that we’re not likely to receive an answer in any theoretical, intellectual sense. No, God does not offer to satisfy our curiosity, however genuine.

But the great thing is this: the honest questioner may very well get something far, far better than that - a whole new experience of the glory of God. Just contrast the endings of Job and Habakkuk with their beginnings! - in both cases a journey is made from confusion, frustration - even anger? - to radiant faith. Above all, contrast the glory of resurrection morning with the darkness of the crucifixion!

No, I don’t know why God acts in one way at one time, and in another way at another. I don’t know why he seems, from our perspective, to stand by while terrible things happen. But I do know this: that his ultimate purpose is to banish all evil from this beautiful world that he has made. 

And when that day comes I suspect we will all want to say with Job: “I am unworthy. How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth” (40:4).

Not a bad place for it, I think.

Lord God, your ways are shrouded in mystery, and the question “Why?” is often on our lips. Help me to be humble even if indignant, and submissive even if angry. And so bring me to that day when all my questionings will fade on my lips. Amen.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

The woman who refused to come

But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come... Esther 1:12

I wrote last time about the book of Esther, and how God intervened in the crisis confronting the people of Israel when the Persians threatened them with extermination. Especially, how he used Esther, an ordinary young woman, to bring about their rescue.

The story featured three main characters, apart from Esther - Xerxes the king, who stupidly allowed the plot to be hatched; Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and guardian, who advised her and used his influence with the king; and Haman, the cruel official behind the whole thing.

It’s a powerful and stirring story.

But wait a minute... Isn’t there someone else? Someone else it’s easy to overlook? Isn’t there another woman as well as Esther?

Yes, there is. Queen Vashti disappears from the story after the first chapter. But if it hadn’t been for her the whole thing would never have happened.

The story is simple... King Xerxes, drunk on his own power and magnificence, puts on a massive, garish display for around six months, and then throws a fantastic party that goes on for seven days. As a climax to the festivities - when he is “in high spirits from wine” (note that!) - he decides it would be a good idea to put his beautiful wife, Queen Vashti, on display for everyone to gawp at. He sends a group of servants to fetch her.

But... “Queen Vashti refused to come.” If ever there were five explosive words, there they are.

I wonder what Xerxes’ face looked like when they told him? “Sorry, my lord, but her majesty says she won’t come...” “She won’t come! What are you talking about? Of course she’ll come. Bring her here immediately!”  He is “furious and burns with anger”.

But no... Queen Vashti refused to come.

As a result she is banished from the palace - and the way is opened up for a replacement. Enter Esther... and the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s hard to exaggerate the courage of Vashti in this episode. Throughout the ancient world women were expected to be subservient to men, especially wives to husbands. And when your husband is the king...! and such a king as Xerxes...!

In recent times especially, Christians have argued over exactly how the New Testament verse “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22) should be applied today. I don’t think the Vashti story should be pressed into service in that debate - the historical and religious context is completely different.

But even so, I’m glad that the Bible itself gives us this striking example of a woman who, well, simply refused to submit to her husband. And I find it hard to imagine anyone reading the story at any point in history without responding with a heart-felt “Good for you, Vashti!”

How far Xerxes and Vashti are from the innocence and purity of Eden before the fall, when Adam and Eve worked together as equal partners in God’s clean, beautiful, new creation. How far too from those other New Testament words of Paul: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...” (Ephesians 5:25). For Xerxes, it seems that Vashti was just a piece of property, not a partner to be cherished and valued. A trophy wife if ever there was one.

What a stain on human history is the disgusting brutishness with which untold numbers of men have treated women - and still do, of course. And what a burden - and privilege - rests upon the church to demonstrate to our fallen world something of what God intends for relationships between husbands and wives in particular, and between men and women in general.

If Vashti hadn’t “refused to come”, we can only guess what might have happened. Presumably Haman would have gone ahead with his plan and his genocidal intentions would have been carried out.

But God saw the end from the beginning, and just as he had Esther lined up to play a key role in the deliverance of her people, so also he had Queen Vashti lined up to set the ball rolling. If Esther was courageous in the way she acted (“and if I die, I die”), you could say that Vashti was even more so.

I wonder if Queen Vashti can stand as an example to some of us today, men as well as women, as we find ourselves confronted by cruelty, stupidity, injustice and prejudice.

Whatever, how about a round of applause for perhaps the bravest woman in the Bible: the woman who refused to come.

Lord God, hear our prayers for all people, men and women, individuals and groups, who are victims of bullying, prejudice and injustice. Give them the courage of Vashti and Esther, and give us the concern to stand for them in any ways we can. Amen.

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.