Friday, 28 August 2015

A deep yearning

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" - Deuteronomy 6.5

This is the last of my Summer blogs, and I was unsure of what to do, until I came across this verse.

For the last few years, I have been mulling over the word yearning. It is very similar to the word mourning, since both speak of the pain that comes from something being absent and yet they are very different. With mourning the pain is of losing something we love - it looks back; yearning though is the pain of waiting for something for which we long. The first is like the child who has lost their teddy bear, the second like the one opening the first door of their advent calendar. If mourning is the pain of loss; yearning is the pain of hope. It pulls the heart forward - the heart stretches out for it. Yearning therefore is a fundamentally Christian experience.

One of the experiences that produces yearning is suffering. I love Don Carson's comment that suffering can give us a homesickness for heaven. It is that proper response to a world damaged by rebellion against God. Indeed that world itself waits with eager expectation for the revealing of the children of God. Likewise, we too groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8.18-25)

It is also my experience in my struggle with sin. I read Deuteronomy 6.5 and I so long for it to be true of me - that I should be wholeheartedly committed to God - just as Jesus was and is. It is also my deep prayer for the church I love in Wallington - that we might truly begin to live like this - to stop paddling around in the shallows of worship and service and to give ourselves wholly and unreservedly to him. That our smallest acts of service might be marked by such a joy and a zeal as we seek to serve those who are lost.

And so I find that my heart goes through the stages of yearning: grief that I am so far off; a longing that my heart should change more quickly; a deeper excitement that one day I will truly live like this. That one day I will see the Lord Jesus face to face and that he would use that vision of him to change me from glory into glory.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Eye catching hope

"always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you the reason for the hope that is in you." 1 Peter 3.15

I know this verse very well, but when I came across it recently, I was hit by the word hope. Why doesn't Paul say faith or belief. I think that the answer can help us get better at obeying Jesus' command in 1 Peter 3.

I think that there are a couple of reasons we struggle to live this out. The first is that we don't know how to explain what we believe. The second is perhaps the bigger one - no one is asking! I fear that the reason that no one asks is because they don't think I am any different from anyone else. I'm like the person on a diet who never loses weight (and I've been there several times) - no-one's going to ask me for the details of the diet!

So how does my faith make a visible difference? Is it that I am a better person than other people - people notice that I swear less, and am more generous etc. Perhaps, perhaps not. On their own those things can make us look more distant to people, or even holier than thou. The answer is not to stop living godly lives, but to make sure that it flows from our hope.

If my hope in eternal life becomes so real to me that my priorities change, then people will notice the difference. Think what a life that deeply believed in a glorious future with Christ would look like: 
  • I would be less desperate in this life to have everything and so I would be more generous with what I have; 
  • I would handle the prospect of death differently; 
  • I would sit more lightly to the judgments of others (real or imagined), because I know that there is a judgment day to come in front of the judge who gave his life for me; 
  • I wouldn't hold grudges because I know that I will one day see face to face the one who has forgiven me all things; 
  • self-control will be easier, because I have a hope of a bigger pleasure than that which temptation offers;
  • I will no longer live for my work - my work life will no longer be based around things which will only last a short time (like building sandcastles on a wobble board), but on the things which will last forever.
Hope truly changes everything.

So if we yearn to live out 1 Peter 3.15, the answer is not to do more revision - or try to work harder at crowbarring the gospel into conversations - it is to spend more time working out our hope in our lives, allowing it to shape our priorities. Then, Peter suggests, people will start asking questions. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

A Sweet Rebuke

"speaking the truth in love" Ephesians 4.15

In the Family service yesterday, I found it a real challenge when the preacher asked the question that God's word raised, "How good am I at being told off" - and I was the one preaching! In preparation for the sermon it struck me powerfully how appropriate it was that we were looking at this as part of a Family Service. I realised that I was much better at being told off, or set right when I was a child - I expected and accepted rebuke. I understood that that was part of learning. Now that I am an adult, I handle it much less well.

At the service I also promised that I would blog about the other side of rebuke. How do I know when and how to rebuke others. This is a bit of a mine field - most of us probably avoid rebuking, thinking that that is the more loving thing to do. Others of us will be too ready to rebuke and often inappropriately. How can we get this vital thing right?

As ever, God points the way in his word. Perhaps the most helpful place to look is the verse from Ephesians above. From it, I think that we can develop good questions to ask as we consider giving a rebuke:
  1. Is it true? Do I know the whole picture, or am I only responding to part of the story? There are too many times when I have been so incensed that I have said something without checking the full facts. As my father used to joke when I was being particularly strident, "don't let the facts get in the way of a good argument!" As important, am I rebuking with truth? Can the person recognise Jesus in the rebuke?
  2. Is it humble? Jesus talks about the person who rebukes wrongly in Matthew 7.3. He compares them to the one who points out the speck in someone else's eye without noticing the plank in their own. I find this quite alarming as there is most of a log cabin in my own eye. There is always a danger, when I rebuke someone else, that I am in fact meeting a need of my own, rather than their need. I am trying to feel better about myself by pointing out the mistakes of others. So how can I ever rebuke? At the very least it will make me humble about my rebuke. If my rebuke leaves someone else with the impression that I am better than they are, then the rebuke has failed. So I must consider, how can I so word the rebuke that it is clear to the person that I am a forgiven sinner in need of rebuke myself. A key test before we rebuke someone else is this: when was the last time I responded positively to someone else's rebuke of me? If the answer is: "I cannot remember," then we need to think first about spending time doing some carpentry on ourselves before we take up eye surgery on others.
  3. Is it loving? Paul writes to us that we are to speak the truth in love. So good questions to ask include: Do I have a relationship of encouragement with that person? Do they value me as someone who blesses them with my speech? Is my hope that God will build them up through this? Is my goal that they should grow up into Christ? Am I doing this rebuke in the best possible way? Am I being gentle in how I rebuke, after all Jesus made sure that he would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick? Conversely, can I not give the rebuke and still be truly loving to that person - earnestly seeking their blessing? If the answer to any of these questions is No, then now is not the time to give a rebuke.
It is a daunting challenge, but the goal is glorious - so that we, "are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ". What a thought.

Friday, 21 August 2015

I'm feeling a bit challenged

"Cursed is he who does the work of the LORD with slackness..." Jeremiah 48.10

Now, I know that the Lord Jesus has taken the curse upon himself - and I do not need to fear the judgment he has borne, but it shows God is serious about how I do his work. It's a reminder of whose opinion really matters.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Disappointed with God

"And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not!" Jeremiah 44.5

I think that one of the most serious errors into which I keep falling, is the one of thinking that I can earn God's favour -  the idea that somehow God owes me something. It is one of those errors that is mostly unconscious. If you asked me, "Does God owe you anything David?", I would answer with Paul's great exclamation, "By no means!" And yet in practice I keep falling in to it. The reason I know that is my tendency to disappointment, discouragement and disillusionment. 

All three are 'dis'-s. They are about an appointment being missed, a courage being lost, an illusion being shattered. They all speak about something being found to be false. But when it comes to God, what is false? 

Is it God?

As I was reading Jeremiah 43.1-44.5 the other day I was struck that that was the conclusion of two people after the victory of the Babylonians and the flight to Egypt. The first person is actually the people as a whole who had fled to Egypt. They had decided to go back to their idol worship because they were disappointed with God. They had stopped their idol worship during the siege of Jerusalem, but in their words, "since we had left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine." In other words being faithful to God hadn't delivered for them, so they turned away from obeying his word. They certainly think that it is the Lord's fault.

The other person was Baruch. Baruch is another hero of the book of Jeremiah. He is Jeremiah's right hand man. But here he is rebuked. His is a different story. One of constant faithfulness to the Lord in the face of trouble, persecution and personal danger - and he is tired and discouraged. Serving the Lord has just brought trouble. So, he complains and laments, and the Lord rebukes him.

I tend to scoff at the first group - their turning to the Lord was no real turning at all. The direction of their life remained the same - their own comfort. They were still at the centre. The Lord is just a means to an end, a service provider and so their worship of him was not true worship it was merely flattery. Not all worship of God, is true worship of God.

Baruch though is much more unsettling. He's like Job. His case seems strong. I know that I fall into this: when I see that following Jesus makes many things harder; when I struggle that a Christian who seems less deserving than me enjoys greater success in his or her ministry.

Both make the mistake of thinking that the 'dis' is a result of a failure on the part of God as opposed to a failure on the part of the expectation. The reason I remain faithful to God is not because he has promised to make my life better, make me great, but because he is God. If I believe the former, I will suffer a lifetime of 'dis'-s The reason I am a Christian is not because it works for me, but because it is true. Once I get that, I am ready to hear the other part of what God says to Baruch - the promise of his protection and salvation. 

I have a great reward to look forward to. For now though, God calls me to follow and serve him, not for reward, but because he is God, because he is true, because nothing else is worth worshipping.

Monday, 17 August 2015

An unexpected hero

"For I will surely save you... because you have put your trust in me." Jeremiah 39.18

I have discovered a new Bible hero - his name is Ebed-melech - it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. One of the great things about reading through the whole Bible, is that you discover jewels you never noticed before. Ebed-melech is one of them. He could also prove useful in a really hard Bible quiz!

The book of Jeremiah and the story of the prophets life is captivating. He is called to such a difficult task at such a dangerous time. By chapter 38, Jerusalem is surrounded by an invading army, that is set to overwhelm her. All the prophets of Jerusalem are prophesying the Lord's deliverance - preaching 'Peace, peace'. The ruling elite of Jerusalem, must have loved it - the prophets were a fantastic propaganda machine! Of course, when I say all the prophets were saying this, that doesn't include Jeremiah. No, he is telling the people of Jerusalem to surrender to the Babylonians, because the Lord God has given them victory as part of his judgment on his people.

Jeremiah, unsurprisingly, finds that he has made some powerful enemies in Jerusalem. He is seen as a fifth columnist, someone who will damage the morale of the people of Jerusalem. A traitor in their ranks who will weaken resolve and cause others to defect. It's difficult to imagine just how unpopular that must have made him. The upshot is that the king is persuaded to allow his nobles to put Jeremiah in a pit in the ground - in which he will certainly die. 

In walks our hero Ebed-melech.

He is a surprising hero. He is not from Israel, but is an outsider, an Ethiopian. More than that, he is a eunuch. This is a double reason for being an outsider as eunuchs were not permitted to enter the Temple - they were cut off from the direct presence of God.

Yet he trusts in God's word and is willing to risk unpopularity and hostility by standing up for Jeremiah before the king. At least Jeremiah had heard God's voice. Ebed-melech recognised God's voice in the words Jeremiah spoke. So one doubly on the outside shows more courage and faith than the rest of God's people. That made me think.

Am I willing to hold to God's word if it makes me unpopular? Am I willing to stand by and stand up for others who do likewise.

The end of the story is that in the midst of the terrifying and humiliating carnage of the fall of Jerusalem, God promises to protect Ebed-melech. But of course he does. Against all appearances Ebed-melech had backed the winner.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Fearful forgiveness

"...therefore you are to be feared" Psalm 130.4

I have a new favourite children's song. It can be found here:

It is a song all about how we don't, as Christians, need to hide. There is nothing to fear. In particular there is nothing to fear from the things we have done wrong. Why is that? The answer is in the chorus:

    Blessed is the one who fears the Lord
    And admits his sin
    Blessed is the one who trusts the Lord
    Who alone forgives
    Jesus died so I don’t have to hide anymore.

I like it because it sums up one of the most surprising verses in the Bible. When you read the verse above "...therefore you are to be feared" what did you think came before?

The answer is this: "With you there is forgiveness of sins... therefore you are to be feared".

The psalmist when he thinks about God's great mercy and forgiveness, which I surely don't deserve, he trembles. But what a wonderful trembling. So wonderful that as the children's song says, we don't have to hide, we don't have to be ashamed. So incredible that it gives us hope. 

Why is that? God has promised it. 

In the psalm, the psalmist says, "in his word I put my hope". How do I know I am forgiven? Because I don't think my sin is that bad? No. Because I feel forgiven? No. Because someone else tells me I'm forgiven? No. Because I persuade myself it wasn't wrong in the first place? No.

The reason I know I am forgiven is because God has said he will forgive me - "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness". The God who knows just how badly wrong I've gone, forgives me - and at such cost. The Psalm finishes with - "He himself will redeem Israel (which includes all of God's people) from all their sins." When the psalmist said that God himself would redeem us, did he know that God would use himself as the price for our redemption? That is something so wonderful that it makes me tremble.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Pride Busting

'Chosen by grace' - Romans 11.5

I have been preparing the Bible reading for next Sunday night and hit again by how wonderful grace is. The truth that God's saving of me is in no way based on me - my goodness, spirituality, success, lack of skepticism or anything else. It is simply and solely his grace.

At first look, the language of God choosing to show me grace can sound incredibly arrogant, but I think that is because our experience of being chosen or not, has always been a reflection on our abilities. Even when people with the lottery - which really is a choice not based on ability, people often explain how they chose the numbers - as if it were not totally random.

I was the child who at school was last to be chosen for a team. In fact, so poor were my abilities that by the time it got to me, the captains were choosing based on who would do the least damage. I joke, but it was horrible.

Grace is different. It is unlike anything else we have experienced, or known. God chose me because of what is in him and not what is in me. That has huge implications, but one which Paul draws out again and again, is that it leaves no room for pride: "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, so that no one can boast." This is one of the most tremendous memory verses for me to remember.

Sometimes I am tempted to judge someone else and then I remember Ephesians 2.8-9: I was not saved because I am better than anyone else. Sometimes I am tempted to despair about my inadequacies and then I remember Ephesians 2.8-9: I was not saved because I am worth it. Sometimes people accuse Christians of arrogance for saying that Jesus is the only way of being saved and then we can remember Ephesians 2.8-9: we cannot take credit for being saved.

So I will keep on holding on to this pride busting, hope giving truth of God's grace.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Double Measures

"With the measure you use it will be measured to you and still more will be added to you." Mark 4.24

Second helpings can be a tricky area. Do you just ask, or wait to be asked? What if there is only so much left and lots of people want more - should you pretend that you don't want anymore? What about third helpings? Aaaagh!

How great it is then, when the host immediately offers more of the Banoffie pie and then, when a forest of hands goes up, says 'don't worry I've got another one in the fridge' - what joy, what (as the hymn goes) transport of delight (I always thought that that must be a train and a half - presumably not part of the London Underground).

This verse I read recently, offers us massive dollops of helpings. More even than we were expecting - certainly more than we merit. But what is it a generous measure of, and what is the measure we use? Is it financial? Does this promise that if we are generous with our money - God will more than repay us? Is it about being rewarded for our service to God, his people and those who are not his people?

The answer is in the context. Jesus has been speaking about how we listen to Jesus. He has described through the parable of the Sower (which we heard at the excellent Monday Fundays last week) how different people react to him. 

The introduction to the verse above us is a command that Jesus is speaking directly to us: "Pay attention to what you hear". Jesus is saying to us that we need to work hard at listening to him. I am challenged by that. 

How hard do I work at listening to him? Do I sit listening to a sermon based on his word and roll my sleeves up? Do I see it as time to do some work - or do I sit back and expect it to have an impact by osmosis. When I read the Bible, do I work at it - do I look for the things which rub up against me, and not just the things which I like? Am I looking for Jesus in every word of his word? 

If someone asked me, do I want to hear from Jesus? Do I want to bear fruit for him? I would say 100% yes. Jesus then makes a startling promise. How hard we work at listening, will affect how much we hear Jesus and how much we are transformed by him. For the disciples that meant, in particular, that when they didn't understand something (such as the parable of the Sower), they did not drift away, but that went back to him.

Then we discover something wonderful - huge dollops of Jesus' voice piled onto our plates, more than we deserved, more than we imagined.

Friday, 7 August 2015

A peaceful sleep

For you alone O Lord make me dwell in safety - Psalm 4.8

This is one of my favourite memory verses, not least because I quite often have trouble sleeping. Sometimes it is just because my mind is buzzing (especially after a PCC!). Other times it is because worries start crowding in on my mind. 

There is something about the silence, stillness and darkness, that seem to give my worries the confidence to come out of hiding. The fact that my mind has rested from its task focus, allows it to drift on to thinking about the future. That's when my worries seize the initiative. It can feel like my brain has been hacked and unwanted thoughts won't go away.

That is when I use this verse. It is my weapon to seize back control of my mind from my anxieties - to obey the Spirit's command - "Do not by anxious about anything" Philippians 4.6. Sometimes it is enough simply to recite it over and over again until I drift off to sleep. Sometimes I need to start mining its truth. I start with the 'For you alone, O Lord' and confess all of the other things to which I have looked, for safety or comfort; the idols in which I have put my trust . Those idols might be my own ability, the help of others or distractions such as tv or games.

I then thank God for those aspects of his character which ensure my safety: His faithfulness, power, all-knowingness, goodness, love, presence with me. I then thank him for the number 1 time when all of his character was shown in all its glory - the cross and resurrection.

I don't always immediately drift off to sleep, but I am nearly always struck with a deep peace. More than that, I know that I have been part of God's victory over the world, the flesh and the devil in my life. My sleeplessness moves from being a frustration to being a triumph.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Delicious Words

"The words of a gossip are like choice morsels" Proverbs 18.8

Over August we have two Family Services at St Patrick's and this year I thought that I would choose things with which I personally struggle and look at what God's word says. Last Sunday our service was about watching what we say (Psalm 141.3) and we focused on gossip in particular. 

We thought a little bit about how damaging gossip is - how it is the perfect crime. We can cause damage without anyone knowing that it was us. The reason for this is that gossip is hidden and secretive - it is why the Hebrew word behind the verse above is better translated whisperer. I think that it is for this reason that the Devil likes using it so much. God's work is to bring out into the open, what is said in secret (Matthew 10.26). 

The Bible also speaks about how delicious gossip is - I suppose that's why we call it juicy. There is a thrill when someone tells us a bit of information and we bring pleasure to others when we tell them, thereby winning their friendship.

We also thought about how gossip is not just about people, but about communities. The church is greatly damaged when false things are passed around, regarding what is going on in the church.

We saw that the Lord Jesus in Mark 7.14-23 tells us that gossip really betrays what state our hearts are in. He never gossiped because his heart never wanted to. 

The reason for the blog though, is to share a helpful check-list that I try to use to guard my mouth against speaking gossip:
  1. Is what I am about to say true? Do I know that, or am I just basing it on the word of one person? Do I know that that person knows because they have witnessed it, or have they just heard from someone else? (2 Cor 13.1)
  2. Does it need to be passed on at all?
  3. Am I telling someone who can do something? If what I want to say matters (and if it doesn't, why am I passing it on) - do I really want something to change? If so then I need to talk to someone who can do something - not just think that a whispering campaign will help - it never does.
  4. Would I be happy if the whisper was said out loud? What if the person who was being spoken about, heard that I had passed this information on?
  5. Am I acting out of love? This is a hard one to judge, because we are bad at reading our own hearts - so praying on our own is a good starting point. If I am about to make a criticism, how am I going to bless the one whom I am about to criticise?

Monday, 3 August 2015

Ordinary Power

"I did not come to you with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God" 1 Cor 2.1

I have just come back from the Keswick convention, which was a great time of refreshing challenge from God's word. They have this thing at Keswick that we see something of God's general revelation in the greatness, majesty and beauty of his creation, but we supremely hear his saving revelation in the Bible. Keswick does the first outstandingly well. It is really something special to come out of a Christian meeting and look up at Skiddaw mountain or across Derwent water towards Cat Bells or Borrowdale. 

The Keswick convention also makes God's word a priority and I was really struck by one talk in particular. If I am honest the speaker was not very charismatic, he made few jokes, he seemed quite nervous at the start, there weren't a tremendous amount of illustrations and yet God spoke to me very powerfully in the talk. Why? Because the speaker simply explained God's word. In a later talk by the same person, I felt myself welling up as I heard God speak in his word.

It illustrates for me Paul's point in 1 Corinathians 2.1-5. Preaching's power does not come from how well crafted a sermon is, or how entertaining it is, but whether it is God's word. Is it his testimony or simply that of the preacher? That I think means two things: Is it from God or the preacher and is it about God or the preacher. Whichever side of the sermon I stand (either the preacher or one of those the preacher is serving) a good question to ask is this: If all the stories, illustrations, anecdotes, illustrations were stripped away - how much would be left and is it from God's word. For in that lies the power of the sermon.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Spiritual Adultery

"They whored after other gods" - Judges 2.17

The main source for this summer blog is going to be the passages I read in my daily Quiet Times as I work through the Bible. One of the blessings of reading through the whole Bible is that you don't get to cherry pick the bits you like. That is why I was brought up short by this verse from Judges. It is particularly stark in the words of the ESV translation of the Bible.

I've never actually counted, but I am pretty confident that the #1 way the Bible speaks of our sin is as adultery. And it is no common or garden adultery - it is a form of adultery that is desperate, repeated and for personal gain. It is whoredom. It is the turning away from God and instead seeking from other things what we can only truly find in him. It is taking all that he has given us, in his abounding grace, and then using those things to worship something else, or even ourselves.

In the Bible, spiritual adultery is always linked to idolatry. In the Old Testament (the part of the Bible leading up to Jesus' birth), that idolatry was obvious. People would make a statue and start to worship it and give it things. They hoped that the god, whose idol it was,would give them security, blessing, purpose. 

Even in the OT though, it was clear that idolatry went further than this and started to include making treaties with nations who did not worship the LORD, rather than trusting in him. By the New Testament (the story of Jesus and his first disciples), idolatry included money and anything else which we might live for, instead of or in addition to God.

There is loads to be said about this idea of idolatry - how it promises much but never delivers - how it enslaves. But why does God use the notion of willful adultery as a way of describing it. Why does he cast himself as a husband who has been cheated on, by his wife. One thing it emphasises is that sin is not primarily the breaking of some legal code. Instead, in the words of one preacher, sin is primarily an offence against love.

So our love for other things more than, or instead of, or alongside God, is ultimately a rejection of his love. So when I live for money, or reputation or my work, or drugs and alcohol, and that love leads me to lie, be proud, cheat or simply forget God, the problem is not that God is cross that I've broken some command, but that I have rejected the one who made and saved me.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Spiritual Science

"He upholds the universe by the word of his power" Hebrews 1.3

Right up until the last minute I was all set for a path of science. It was only at the eleventh hour that I chose to do History at 6th Form rather than Physics to go along with my Maths and Chemistry. The rest was history. I have always had a fascination with both science and history. History because, as the saying goes, it is His Story. I love the fact that I can use my historical education to look at the events of Jesus life and in particular the resurrection - it is also why I loved Chris Sinkinson's talk at our church in April.

I love science for its wonderful logic, its striking patterns, its ability to predict, but most of all because as I read about it I am hearing something of the voice of Jesus. Psalm 19 speaks of this, before going on to rejoice in God's written word. Hebrews 1.3 though says it in a still more remarkable way. 

There is a false view of God sometimes called Deism. It says that when God created the universe it was like a massive clockwork device, with each part obeying certain unchangeable laws. He then stood back and let it run. This is a view of the universe that makes miracles very hard to accept. It also leaves the universe as cold and unyielding. 

More significantly, it runs counter to God's witness to himself in the Bible and especially in Hebrews 1.3 (also Colossians 1.17). Here we have the Lord Jesus intimately involved in every part of his creation. It carries on, because he commands it to - every second, every nanosecond of every day and night. We can talk of laws, governing how the atoms of my body behave, because every day he commands them to keep on obeying his word. The reason my atoms keep on making the bonds necessary for the complex molecules that make up my physical body, rather than atomising - or doing wildly unexpected things - is because the Son of God goes to the trouble of telling them to do so - that is truly miraculous.

Does this blow your mind? How great God must be to sustain everything, every moment of the day. Suddenly the universe is not merely fascinating, but alive with God's word. Science, is not just rewarding and a means to an end, it is part of the deepest relationship we could ever have.

Monday, 27 July 2015

The end of the matter

"The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man." Ecclesiastes 12.13

I've just come to the end of Ecclesiastes in my Bible Readings and at first glance, you might think "Phew!" For much of the church's history, it's not really known what to do with the book of Ecclesiastes. But the truth is that Ecclesiastes is a book for our age, because it deals with meaninglessness. 

Over the whole book, hangs the dark curtain of death - it's fair to say that it is not a laugh a minute! The writer explores what would life be like if death is the end, the great full stop. His answer is vanity, or meaningless, or pointless - depending on your translation. The reason is that death negates all human achievement. Even if we look to make a name for ourselves, such that historians record our great or dark deeds, even history itself will one day find death's curtain drawn across it. It is very moving and quite troubling to walk through a graveyard and read the inscriptions on the more modern gravestones. One of the most poignant phrases often repeated is, "Always in my heart". It is a lovely testimony to the enduring love we have for those who have died. And yet strictly it is not quite true, because my heart will one day stop beating.

This sense of pointlessness matters, because we are inevitably drawn to try to judge what a good life looks like. There is something innate in us that seeks to do something meaningful. The problem is that every judge we might seek to please, will one day die. So, if I am sitting in my workplace, worried by what my boss, customer or pupil will think of my work, I am living for a good opinion which will one day die. If my hope is that one day my children will turn out to be a vindication of my life, that too is only temporary. If I live for the esteem of those whom I esteem, it is pointless, because we will all die. Someone told me of a person whose ambition was to die a millionaire. What a pointless ambition. If death is the end, then better to die having been a millionaire!

Ultimately, the book of Ecclesiastes is not as depressing as it sounds. There are holes in the curtain, through which sparkling light pours and the last verses are an example of this. It's final verse speaks of something beyond the grave - it is a judgment. We normally think of this as bad news, but once we've read Ecclesiastes it gives it a new flavour. That judgment gives meaning to our lives - it denies the dread power of death. Knowing that, means that we can now live for a judgment that will not die. And so the writers conclusion is to fear the one who holds that judgment. Not cowering fear, but wonderful fear. This fear is one which gives hope and meaning, purpose and life to our lives. It helps put all other judgments on our lives into perspective. 

So I will try, whenever I am worried about some judgment on my life to ask this - will this judgment last forever, or will it go the way of all flesh? Then I will try to look to the judgment of the one who holds the keys of death and Hades, who has risen again and who has promised to return to bring all his people to the new heaven and the new earth.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Worshipping feet

"They came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him." Matthew 28.9

I've just come to the end of Matthew in my Quiet Times and had one of those moments with a familiar reading, in which you are struck by something you've not noticed before. In this case it is that Matthew records that the women, when they saw Jesus risen, took hold of his feet. I suppose that, until now, I've not really visualised what this means. It's not an easy thing to take hold of someone's feet - not unless they are sitting down or you rugby tackle them! Certainly a toddler can grab their parent's feet and ask to be dragged along - but for an adult!

So for the women to do this would mean lying on the ground amidst the dust, stones, grass etc. What would cause them to do this? We don't read that they did this to the angel, whose entrance and appearance seems much more dramatic - earthquake, lightning, dazzling light. He simply inspires fear and causes the guards to collapse. With Jesus they fall at his feet, not as though dead like the guards, but in worship. Seeing Jesus standing among them is more amazing to them than all of the visible signs surrounding the arrival of the angel. 

Why is that? The obvious answer is that they knew that people did not rise from the dead. Sometimes people suggest that the accounts of the resurrection were by people who were gullible, who did not realise that resurrection is impossible. But the actual accounts testify that the exact opposite was true (look ahead to v.17 in which Matthew records that some doubted even after seeing the risen Jesus - that really is an illogical scepticism).

The real opportunity of this passage as we look on at the women lying in the dust filled with awe, wonder, love, worship and fear, is to get a glimpse, though their eyes, of just how wonderful Jesus is. If we were to meet him now, we would hurriedly get down on the floor - (some of us with more difficulty than others!). I'm now 42, 6'5", 16 stone, with an arthritic hip, and I know what a big deal it is to get down on the floor. As I was reading this, I was trying to imagine actually doing it. Despite all this though, I would do it because he is so amazing, so glorious; his resurrection is so wonderfully, awe-inspiringly true, that I would fall down (or at least creakily lower myself to the ground) to worship him.

One day we will really see him, and as Philippians 2 tells us, we will bow our knees. In the meantime, the women help us to hold on to his majestic risen glory even as, at the moment, we cannot see him.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015


"The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him." Psalm 34.7

Over the past few years I have come to value massively the discipline of memorising passages of the Bible. I'm just working through Psalm 34 and have got to v.7 - test me when you next see me! - there's an incentive for me to keep learning. Memorisation is a lost skill in our culture - what's the point when you have the world at your thumb-tips. But as I saw somewhere recently - whilst Google helps you find what you are looking for, it can't help you know what you need to find. Bible memorisation gives me Scriptures that will spring to mind when I am in the middle of a crisis or temptation, or overcome with joy. It is also a way of helping God's word work deeply into my life - not just going in one ear and out the other, but taking root along the way. Why not have a look at this blog on 10 reasons why it is worth doing. Another big aid to me has been Scripture Typer - it is available on Google Play - according to it I am at present no. 1773 at Bible memorisation in the world!

One key help I have found is to set out to learn off by heart bits of the Bible which have meant a lot to me, or hit me hard when I hear them in a sermon or in my Quiet Time. Psalm 34 is one such text. It speaks of God's protection for his people, who it describes as those who fear the Lord. The fear of the Lord is a massive theme of the Bible and amongst other things means tha act of placing ourselves wholly in the hands of God, looking to him alone for our security, hope and peace.

v.7 has a particular power for me. It is a great image of the mighty angel of the Lord, encircling God's people who have placed their trust in him. It is a protection which is mostly unseen (except briefly in 2 Kings 6.17), but is powerful beyond human conception. After all, one angel destroyed Sennacherib's army (2 Kings 19.35). What a comfort when faced with enemies of any type, whether human, or medical, or economic. When I have been afraid, repeating these words have been the life jacket to which I have clung - "The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him"

Is there significance in the fact that the angel of the Lord camps around us rather than building walls around us. One of the difficulties of Psalm 34 is that it can, on first glance, appear as if the one who fears God will be spared all suffering, but there is a stunning verse hidden at the end - "he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken". This was a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus at his crucifixion (John 19.36). What a strange choice of Bible reference for John to use. At the moment when Jesus is being brutally executed, John quotes from a Psalm talking of the Lord's protection of his people. The point is this: God's protection is not from trouble, but through trouble. His protection is not that of the city wall that repels all trouble, but that of the convoy which sees his people through trouble - "even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death". So whatever trouble we are walking through today, why not spend a moment looking up and imagining God's mighty angel encamped around you. No one can see him, but God's word promises that he is there, encamped around those who fear him.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Beautiful Worship

"She has done a beautiful thing to me" Matthew 26.10
This phrase leapt out at me as I read through this account of Jesus being anointed just before his death in Jerusalem. Would Jesus ever describe my worship of him as beautiful? 

In Matthew's account, we are not told anything about the woman's background; we are not told anything of her previous encounters with Jesus. The only thing we know about her, the only way we can judge her is by her actions. And the disciples do judge her - they were indignant. Why do they judge her? Their own words suggest that it is concern for the poor. My immediate reaction is to find more sinister motives in some sort of pop psychological analysis - perhaps they are reacting with indignation to cover up their fear that their own worship doesn't measure up. But in doing so, I am trapped by my own judgmentalism.

What is more striking to me is the idea of cost. The disciples focus on cost, the woman doesn't seem to. On first reading, I thought that a central point of the story was that beautiful worship should be costly. Maybe not just in monetary terms, but still costly. I don't want to pray today, but I should; I don't want to go to church, I want a lie in, but I should...

Now, though, I am not so sure. Only the disciples speak of cost. The whole impression of the passage is that the woman doesn't regard the gift as costly. She doesn't count the financial cost, nor the risk of such a public display of worship at a time of such growing hostility to Jesus. It is simply a delight to her. It is not extravagant, but wholly inadequate as an expression of her worship of Jesus. But look at what it achieves - something far greater than the cost of the expensive ointment. She gets the unique privilege of preparing Jesus for his death. As he hung on the cross, the aroma of the perfume might well have drifted into his nostrils, reminding him of her worship. She also will be remembered. We remember great Christians for any number of reasons, but to be remembered for loved filled, beautiful worship, that would be something. And what is striking is that her worship is complete - we don't know her name. We remember her in order to be reminded of how precious Jesus is. 

How can I be so captivated by Jesus, that my worship becomes heartfelt and wholehearted, rather than routine and ritual? How can I prepare for Sunday worship, so that I recognise how precious it is? How can I so focus on him, that my concern about what others think, or the cost of my worship dissolves?