The Cross of Christ

Psalm 22 and 23

Image by kalhh from Pixabay

The order of the Psalms is not random.  They have been carefully arranged, and with all texts we are more familiar with certain parts than with others.  In general, I would say that we’re far more familiar with Psalm 23, but to get the most out of this Psalm we must go through the suffering of Psalm 22 first.  By doing this we then get to the peace and rest of Psalm 23.  But Psalm 22 is not about our suffering, it’s about Jesus’ suffering.  It opens with the cry of Jesus on the cross “My God my God why have you forsaken me?  He may even have recited the entire Psalm for it ends with His last words “it is finished” (John 19:30),for when you look at the full Hebrew text for the last verse of this Psalm, the words “He has done it” could just as accurately be translated “It is finished”! (See the Amplified Version of the Bible).

I see this Psalm as holy ground, and we can only look on in awe for this Psalm outlines in great detail what crucifixion was really like for Jesus.  In fact, there is no other passage in the Bible, including the Gospels, which outline in such detail what Jesus experienced as Psalm 22 does.  Jesus’ suffering on the cross was more than just physical pain.  He experienced the fullness of the wrath and total abandonment of God.  This relational trauma, physical pain and spiritual torment is beyond our imagination and experience.  No wonder He hoped to avoid it, (Matthew 26:38-39).  Yet Jesus managed to endure all this for the “joy set before Him” (Heb. 12:2)Because He endured the cross there is light at the end of this tunnel, for this Psalm also speaks of the dawning of a new day and, what the result will be for believers, Israel, and the ends of the earth.

Martin Luther said about this Psalm, “God forsaken by God – who can understand it?”. Why is He forsaken, alone, His communion with His Father totally interrupted?  Well, because God is of such purity that He cannot look on evil.  God sees the sin that His Son takes and He, God, has to turn away.  And what sin does He see?  Our sin!  We rightly deserve the consequences of sin and even though, as I have said before, our suffering is often not the direct consequences of our sin, nonetheless the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

But there is also amazing balm here for the suffering and fearful, for “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).  This “gift of God” is because Jesus stood in our place, was rejected and abandoned by all, (Psalm 22:6-8 &12-18)including His Father.  This action of Jesus Christ teaches all who have accepted who He is that we, His family, have a way out of suffering.  We shall look at Psalm 23 in a minute to see this, but looking at Psalm 22 we see that Jesus, still in his utter abandonment, says twice “My God”.  And the name of God He invokes here is sometimes translated “Mighty God”.  So even in His suffering, even when God appears humanly to be as far away as possible, He is still God and He is still mighty to save.  Jesus asks questions of God in His suffering and so can we.  Often we do not know why something terrible is happening, but God wants us to know this truth of the Christian faith: Jesus was abandoned by God so that we will never be abandoned by God!  The cross towers over us casting a mighty light on our way, for the cross throws no shadow, it can only radiate the pure light of the pure goodness, mercy and love of God.

Where are we going on our journey here on earth?  As we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) we are going home.  Now let’s look at Psalm 23 which is best accessed through Psalm 22.  This is the entry to our safety in the cross. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”. Our life here on earth oftentimes seems to be a dry desert in which we wander, but the Lord has gone ahead to make a home for us (John 14:1-4)and what a place that will be!  The Anglican martyr John Bradford who was burnt at the stake under Queen Mary is reportedly to have said to the trembling young man being burned with him “Be of good comfort brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night!”

We are on our way to something mind-blowingly “merry” and good.  En-route there is comfort.  A verse in the Bible that has been of great help to me when I feel in trouble is this: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me”.  Many years ago when I was ill and very low with post virial fatigue, that verse repeatedly impressed itself on my mind like a burning light in the dark valley, and it still does today, as it has done for countless other people for hundreds of years.

Each of us must walk through that valley and it is a valley of shadow.  It is dark and I know that.  There is evil prowling about (1 Peter 5:8).  But for there to be a shadow, there must be a light beyond.  That light is streaming from the face of Christ.  It leads us on and He, the Good Shepherd, is not just ahead holding the door open nor behind on the cross having suffered in our place.  No, most amazingly He is with us right now, walking with us, talking with us, and He has, if you like, two divine “sheepdogs” with him, one called mercy/love and one called goodness.  Evil has to slink away.  So this little party, a sufferer, (that’s you & me), a Saviour and two ministering angels struggle on to glory.

Note finally that v6 of Psalm 23 says “all the days of my life”. This refers to the evil days and the good days, the days of suffering and the days of joy. God in his goodness supplies everything we need in suffering, and his mercy/love on the cross means that we don’t get what we deserve – eternal suffering and separation from God.  Amazingly rather we daily receive a free gift – the presence of the Lord God Almighty through His goodness, mercy and love all the way home.

Based on a sermon first delivered on Sunday 23rd August 2020

Overcoming fear

Luke 22:39-46

Have you ever been caught up in moment when you’ve agreed to buy something and you suddenly panic and think “have I got enough money to pay for this?”.  This may be something you’ve felt when you’ve gone to the supermarket.  The trolley is full to over-flowing, but have you enough to pay for it?  Perhaps you like to go to auction houses and bid on items that you collect and the bidding spirals upwards and you cannot keep you hand down!

That feeling of panic can incite fear into the depths of your very being.  You may well think, “What am I doing?” At times our human nature doesn’t always know when to stop.  It can be like trying to stop a large ship, it can take miles.  So, can I pay the bill?

The Lord Jesus is just like us.  He is fearful as to his human nature; “Take this cup away from me but let not my will but your will be done” (Luke 22:42).  These words are a source of encouragement, a source of hope, for when we are in fear we can recall that the Lord himself in his humanity faced fear too; fear far worse than any we will ever face.

But He is not like us for He has a choice.  Even when He says, “I am He” as he is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane (John 18:5) this invocation of the divine name causes the soldiers to fall on the ground in terror.  They thought that they had come to arrest a meek peasant, but instead in the dim light they were confronted by a truly majestic person.  Often we have no choice in our suffering, but the Lord has both the means to escape suffering – one angel is terrifying while a legion would be overwhelming – and the grounds for escape, for He, unlike us, is totally innocent of any wrong-doing.  Death has no jurisdiction over Him, yet death is lingering in the shadows.

But Jesus is treated as a criminal. He willingly takes the cup of suffering that we deserve, the cup of God’s judgement on our sin, and He freely drinks it for the love He has for us.

My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). Where does sorrow and suffering come from?  From sin.  From our sin.  Yet Jesus is sinless!  Is it from this moment in the Garden that Jesus starts to feel the weight of carrying our sorrow and our sin to the cross?  One thing we do know for certain is that as the man of sorrows Jesus is acquainted with any sorrow and suffering that we too go through.

So Gethsemane shows us that Jesus is a man of sorrow.  Gethsemane also shows that Jesus is a man of prayer.  What is prayer?  Well one thing I think that these verses tell us is that prayer is a confession of weakness!  Think about it.  Godly prayer is a recognition that we are totally dependent on our Heavenly Father.  When we know this,  we see our weaknesses, and led by the Holy Spirit we want to confess them so we can be rid of them.  But Jesus was also God so why did He need to pray?  Well, Philippians 2 gives us a clue: He humbled himself becoming a servant.  I still find praying on my own very hard.  Over the years I have improved, but there are times when I feel ashamed at how weak it is.  We can learn so much from Jesus and his constant prayer, but at times we feel daunted to pray.  Are any who are reading this in trouble, in fear and suffering?  Maybe you’re facing death?  Then like the Lord we must ask for help, for in our weakness we are made strong.

Your will be done” (v42), which is of course a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer; the will of the Father was that Jesus would be the sacrifice for our sins, a sacrifice for my weaknesses and frailties.  He alone can pay the bill.  We are bankrupt.  But how much must we be conformed to Him as He prayed that God’s will would be done.  He is a man of prayer.  His prayer is the prayer of faith and so must ours be.  He shows obedience to His Heavenly Father in suffering and so must we.  But this can be very, very, hard to do.  I don’t think it’s wrong at all to pray that God would relieve us of our suffering, but it may be that He will not, or at least not for a time.  And this is very hard to accept.  I know from my own experience, particularly when our 11-month old son laid in a coma in a hospital bed.  Having had corrective heart surgery which had been successful seven days later he got an infection which led to his death.  At times Barbara and I felt bewildered, and found praying at all, let alone praying “let not my will but yours be done” so difficult to do by ourselves, but the Spirit helped us and the knowledge that many people were praying for us also sustained us.

Hugh Martin a 19th century Scottish Minister said this, “Be in prayer beside the Saviour, mingling your crying and tears with his: when Jehovah looks on his anointed, he will lift on you the light of his face.”  (book “The Shadow of Calvary).  This urges us to join the Lord in Gethsemane, and so go the way of Christ, which is the way of the cross – the way to death.  For in death we find life!

We must go down into the Jordan to come up into the promised land and “Jordan’s river is chilly and wide”.  But the Saviour bids us follow in his footsteps.  He has paid the bill which was our bill and which we can’t possibly pay, and He has drained our cup of suffering and He will ferry us safely to the other side.

I’m going to close with words from a song by a Christian rock band called White Heart, which I believe encourages us to do as the Saviour bids and follow in His footsteps of suffering.

And the river will flow
the river will flow
through all the times of your life
the river will flow
and the river is love
the river is peace
and the river will flow
through the hearts of those who believe

So put your hand in mine
oh, put your hand in mine
and let us all go down
and kneel by the river’s side
we’ll cry our tears of joy
cry our tears of pain
we’ll let them fall down from our eyes
to be washed in the sacred stream
even the secret tears
buried in our memories
let them all be swept away
to the depths of the endless sea.

Based on a sermon first delivered on 16th August 2020

Getting to know Him

Mark 4:35-41

What’s our biggest problem as Christians? I suggest it is this: that we don’t know God enough, we don’t trust him enough, we don’t love him enough and that we don’t pray to him enough.  But this is not a new problem and in a strange way, we should find that encouraging.  For another group of Christians had the same problem – Jesus’s disciples.  Remember they were with the Lord himself for three years and their general slowness should encourage us that God is patient and loving and always seeking to draw us nearer to Himself. 

Jesus knew exactly what was coming.

Why do I say He knew what was coming, what was going to happen?  Well, first of all He only ever did what He saw His Heavenly Father do in Heaven.  Secondly He just knew what was going to happen next, he knew what people were thinking and going to say next.  Thirdly – A few weeks ago I spoke about “The Just in Time God” – He turned up at the appointed time for His birth, and at the appointed time He meet the widow of Nain.

So Jesus knew exactly what was coming – He knew there was going to be a storm. He deliberately placed His followers in harm’s way.  Being close to the Lord is no guarantee of a trouble-free life – rather the reverse!

Perhaps we should look at this time of Covid-19 in terms of trusting that God knows what He is doing, despite the suffering and disruption we are seeing and experiencing personally.  My life experience has clearly shown me that God does lead us into suffering so that He may show us more of Himself.  Twice I was made redundant when I had a young family, our son died at 11 months old, our older daughter put us through the ringer due to her mental health issues, I had a prolonged illness that meant I was off work for a year.  And I could go on!  Such things are often seen as situations sent to cause harm, but I believe God has meant them for good.  The uncertainty, the difficulties for my family, the pain, the frustrations, and fear, were all there, but it was a joy to know that God was utterly with me.  It was wonderful to know the joy of being involved in the Lord’s work, of seeing Him at work in and through those situations. In fact, these circumstances have given me many opportunities to share my faith.

Where is the ultimate place we see evil turned to good?  When we stand at the foot of the cross. The devil and all the forces of hell meant it for evil, but God used it for our good.

I am sure the disciples did all the things that experienced sailors would do when the “furious squall came up” – turn the boat into the wind, trim the sails, head for shore, bail out the water. But they didn’t do the one blindingly obvious thing that we as readers with hindsight should have done – ask the incarnate God who was right at hand for help.  Even when they did ask,  they did it in desperation and used rough words: they said, “Don’t you care?” (v38).

How hard it was for them to pray!  How small was their faith!  How hard it is for us to pray and how small is our faith!

Corrie Ten Boom said, “When a Christian shuns fellowship with other Christians, the devil smiles. When he stops studying the Bible, the devil laughs. When he stops praying, the devil shouts for joy.”

And Charles Stanley said, “If satan can get you off your knees, nothing else matters. He doesn’t care what happens then.”

Instead of thinking “It’s too hard to pray” let us be encouraged to pray.  Do you see how kind the Lord is towards the disciples, how patient; yes, He reproves them, but He is always doing so out of a love so deep that it has no end.  God is so kind and patient towards us despite all our serious shortcomings.  Psalm 103 v13 says “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those that fear him.”  God sees all the things that are wrong with us – our laziness, our weak faith, our lack of love, our secret sins, our cold hearts and our prayerlessness, and what does he do?  He is full of what the Bible calls in Hebrew Ches-ed (Chesed) which the Reformers of the sixteenth century translated as a “loving-kindness full of the attributes of grace, benevolence, and compassion”.

Out of this loving-kindness comes amazing divine power!  Billions and billions of molecules are rearranged and suddenly there is a dead calm.  Winds may drop but a storm-tossed body of water takes a long time to drop.  In a second all is quiet, all is still.  Such is the power of the divine word.  It utterly transforms their circumstances.

What is the disciples’ reaction?  They are even more afraid!  What’s the answer to fear? More fear!  Psalm 111:10 says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom“.  In Mark’s gospel this is early on in Jesus’ ministry.  The disciples have seen Jesus teach with an authority they have not experienced and heard before.  They have seen Jesus heal people, again things they have not seen before.  You would have thought that they would have fully realised that they were in the presence of an awesome person.  But through this incident in their life it begins to dawn on them who this ordinary-looking man asleep in the boat is.  When they left the boat they knew him more than when they got in.  Isn’t that what we need?  To know the Lord more, to love him more, and to pray to him more.  For as the Puritan preacher Thomas Goodwin says, “The person who knows Christ best is the person who will pray best.”

So how are you going to get to know God better?

Prayer:

Lord God, you know that we are in the midst of such dangers and that we cannot always stand upright because of the frailty of our nature: grant us your strength and protection to support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations so we get to know you better, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

Based on a sermon first delivered on 9th August 2020

A matter of life or death

Genesis 3:1-19

Photo by Jason Betz on Unsplash

The Bible tells us that death, and his two sidekicks fear and suffering, act like intruders in our lives. We know all too well that the world is full of death, fear and suffering arising in various forms.  It might be in the form of disease and natural disaster, or in the form of the moral evil that resides within people, – within each of us.  The truth is this; one sin leads to another and the destination is clear, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  I’m sure when you look back over your life you can see that this is so true, one sin leads to another, “Oh what a tangled web we weave”!  There’s a TV series that became a smash hit called “Breaking Bad,” in which a respectable teacher becomes a drug dealer and unleashes a trail of death and suffering on everyone, and even destroys his own family.  What a tangled web he weaved!

That TV series shows us how easily it is for us to become a hired person for the devil.  So how did we end up being hired by this employer?  The Bible tells us that in the beginning the “house”, the world, was good.  How did moral evil enter the world?  Genesis 3 tells us that humanity suffered a catastrophic fall.  Evil in the form of a serpent tempted Adam and Eve.  They fell into sin and unleashed a wave of suffering, fear and death on themselves and their descendants: humanity.  The consequences of the fall are the unleashing of fear, death and suffering, who roam the world freely.  The very first emotion the newly fallen couple experience is fear (Adam says, I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I naked” v10).  As we heard, Adam and Eve (v 16-19) will suffer in specific ways and anyone who has been through childbirth, or work, knows that this is still true to this day.  And what is the end?  Death.  Back to the dust from where we came.

Genesis clearly teaches us that the devil, satan, is real and is the enemy of humanity.  He will do anything to get us to follow his evil deadly plan.  Adam and Eve chose a particular course of action – disobedience – and then God chose His.  As a holy God He could only respond in a way that was consistent with His perfect moral nature.  He could not let sin go unchecked; He had to punish it.  Adam and Eve’s chosen path set in motion the world’s tendency towards disobeying God.  That is why we sin today: every human being ever born, with the exception of Jesus, has inherited the sinful nature of Adam and Eve (Romans 5:12-21).  The punishment metered out by God reflects how seriously He views sin of any kind.

So the damage is done.  If you like, Adam and Eve were “patient zero” in a Wuhan wet market, once the virus broke out it could not be stopped!

But wait!  There is amazing hope.  For as by one man came death so by another will come life.  And strangely enough that hope involves that same evil trio.  From a woman a deliverer will come who will kill that old serpent the devil.  He will obliterate the snake by stamping on his head despite the devil’s best efforts and repeated attempts to defeat this person.  This person will also have to suffer himself in order to defeat the devil.  v15, “He will crush your head”, foreshadows satan’s, defeat when that rescuer rose from the dead. 

That rescuer of course is Christ and the rest of the Bible is the story of how that happens.  The Bible is the amazing story of God’s rescue plan for His creation.  That story leads to a hill outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago, to an old rugged cross and near its foot a new hewn tomb.  Isn’t it amazing that right at the beginning of the Bible God was revealing His plan to defeat satan and offer salvation to the whole world through His Son, Jesus Christ?  So the only answer to all the questions we have about life, moral evil, natural evil is Jesus!

But what comfort may we take from this when we are experiencing such suffering, discomfort and disruption?  I believe that there are many, and they include:

  • God doesn’t give us what we deserve.
  • Before the creation of the universe, God purposed a Saviour to save us from the three intruders; fear, suffering and death.

Yet still many, both Christians and non-Christians, ask the question “How can a loving God allow suffering?”

The Christian answer to this question and the unholy trio who afflict us so badly, fear, suffering and death, is not ultimately theological propositions, helpful though they can be.  Rather, the answer is the rescuer I have mentioned above… Jesus!  He has shared in our suffering, He experienced fear, He sweated droplets of blood on the eve of His crucifixion, and then He died for us, for you and me.  The Son of God was crushed; He is a man of sorrows and so is acquainted with grief. Yet, He has turned these three imposters, fear, suffering and death, on themselves. Even Death, who is their terrible king, has himself been utterly defeated and will one day be completely destroyed, “He (God) will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4).

Life in the Garden of Eden was like living in heaven.  Everything was perfect, but the moral sin of Adam and Eve destroyed that.  If God had not punished them, and they’d continued to live in the Garden and eat from the tree of life they would live for ever.  But eternal life in a state of sin would mean for ever trying to hide from God.

We are all like Adam and Eve, we have sinned and are separated from fellowship with God.  But the good news is this; because of Jesus we do not have to stay separated for ever!  God is preparing for His people a new heaven and a new earth in His eternal paradise (Revelation 22).

Let us pray…

Lord God, the unfailing helper and guide of those whom you bring up in your unmovable fear and love, keep us, we pray, under the protection of your good providence and give us a continual reverence and love for your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

Based on a sermon first delivered on Sunday 2nd August 2020

What are you doing here?

1 Kings 19:1-16

Photo by Matt Walsh on Unsplash

Elijah has been on a set course, a course set by God.  He knows his purpose, destination and how he is going to get there.  He arrives there as God once again proves beyond a doubt that He is the Lord God of Israel and that He reigns with power, might and authority in Israel.  But still people are bent on pursuing their own agenda, despite hearing what God has done, and despite many declaring, “The Lord – He is God!  The Lord – His is God!”  Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife, who introduced pagan religion into Israel, is bent on pursuing Elijah to death.  No wonder he fled into the desert.

When we speak words, we count on other people understanding what those words mean.  But language is deep mystery.  What someone says to us and what we hear can be a universe apart.  No two people think alike.  No two contexts or histories that inform perspective are the same.  So even common language spoken between people can seem alien at times.

Even in tranquil periods, the world of conversation can quickly slant towards the law of the jungle when people get mortally wounded by words, or misunderstand them.  Introduce adversity and layered trauma into the complex mix of being human, as we are experiencing now with Covid-19, and what’s brewing can be a recipe for calamity… or can it be opportunity for something better?

As I continue to explore the theme of suffering through reflecting on 1 Kings 19, I am struck by the power of God’s grace in the timing of a question He twice repeats: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verses 9 and 13).  I have a great friend who often uses that phrase when he finds me doing something that they can’t quite understand why I am doing what I am doing.  “What are you doing?” they say.  Such a query is compelling; it brings me up short. 

The same question asked by God is also compelling, especially as God lacks no insight – He knows exactly what we are doing!  Initially, the chapter could seem a continued chronicling of the prophet Elijah’s story.  But it doesn’t take long to realise the account is a deeply revealing narrative about God, and about how He responds when His struggling people do all their bungled, human things.

Shortly after the chapter begins, Elijah is summoning his end. He is acting out of character.  God has just given the prophet mass victory in battle with a powerful demonstration of His sovereign rule.  So Elijah isn’t unfamiliar with God’s faithfulness or awesome power.  But when a vengeful queen decrees a 24-hour notice on his life, Elijah is done.  Afraid and exhausted throughout, discouraged within, he departs his helper, tracks deep into the desert, lays under a scrubby bush and prays to die.

To cut a long story short, that doesn’t happen.  It doesn’t happen because God doesn’t do as we say and He doesn’t think or act the way we do, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9).  Neither does He take us at our word without considering the worlds we’re carrying inside us.  Amazingly and majestically, He isn’t easily offended by our broken places and unique individual ways of processing life experiences.  Thankfully God isn’t offended when we don’t process our life experiences through His divine supernatural ways.  He is saddened and disappointed like any parent, but He doesn’t throw His toys out of the pram when we follow natural ways and not godly ways.   So, we read that God is gentle with Elijah. Amongst other things, He sends a tending messenger, then twice queries the prophet, fully knowing he’s stuck.  Elijah just isn’t going to get back on the correct course until he’s worked out the tightly wound universe inside him using a profusion of flawed language.

What’s amazing is God lets him.  He doesn’t silence, discipline or lecture Elijah.  He doesn’t shame or move away from him.  He lets the prophet try twice to answer His question, then without further reference to it, moves him onward to his next assignment.

As lockdown here and in different parts of the world is being lifted we are hearing of spikes of infection occurring in communities here in the UK and many other parts of the world.  In a number of places these spikes have led to localised lockdowns.  We are living in fragile times.   COVID-19 continues to be a threat.  It has a matrix of uncertainties, tragedies and restrictions. 

What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Overwhelmed, traumatised people – everywhere – often say things that seem clumsy or unclear at first pass.  Sometimes they communicate nonstop.  Sometimes they go silent.  Or like Elijah, they just may choose words or actions inconsistent with their typical nature or character.

In these days we need to remain focused on God through Jesus.  As we do this we will be shown individually and corporately how we are to practice the peace and hope that God alone freely gives to all who seek His Kingdom.  I know that there aren’t easy answers.  But did you notice what God said to Elijah whilst he was in the depth of despair?  The Lord said to him, ‘Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.  Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.

He’s moving Elijah onwards.  God also wants to move us onwards (remember a rolling stone gathers no moss!).  He has new assignments for us as individuals and corporately here in our own communities.  Our role, therefore, is to listen to God, He will come in a gentle whisper.

You see, the wind, earthquake and fire in this context can symbolise God’s judgement of destruction on His people, yet it was not God’s will to do so at that moment.  Neither do I believe that it is God’s desire to bring His devastating judgement on us right now.  I do believe, however, that He has every right to do so because for too long we have gone about our daily life ignoring Him. 

Instead God is calling us, in a gentle whisper, to continue to find ways of listening to Him so that when He asks us “What are you doing here?” we can say “Because you have led me here.” 

God, our Father, patiently tended Elijah.  May we have courage to let Him help us serve Him with patience, gentleness and compassion.  Through divine wisdom and revelation may we move toward conclusions that reveal God’s glory, power and love amidst these complex times and circumstances.  May we allow God to teach us to wait upon Him and practice His peace by being eager to listen and slow to speak. May we continue to allow the Holy Spirit to convict and lead us, guide us in all truth, help us in our weakness, and intercede for us in agreement with the will of God.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit Amen.

Based on a sermon first delivered on 26th July 2020

Weeding out sin

Photo by Jamie Cleaver

I was doing some gardening last week, and as I did this I thought how weeds are like sin in our lives.  There are some weeds in my garden that I don’t really deal with.  I ignore them and they have free reign to grow.  There are others that I tolerate and get rid of a few of them.  Then there are the ones I go after all the time.  As soon as they pop their head up, they’re pulled out and on to the compost heap. 

That’s the same with my attitude toward sin.  There are things I don’t deal with, partially deal with and some that I really try and deal with.  But I believe that God wants us to deal with all the sin in our lives, not just the ones we feel we can deal with, or can readily confess.  However, I think that sometimes sorting out the sin in our life needs us to exercise patience with ourselves if we find it hard to sort things out. 

Thankfully God has infinite patience with me.  Yet still I need to confront the sin I have not dealt with.  What I have found is that He waits patiently until I can recognise it, and it’s at this point that I am in a much better place to deal with it through confession.  But I need to do more.  Having confessed I then need to be prepared to receive God’s forgiveness, followed by rebuking the schemes of the enemy that are driving that sin in me and then replacing that sin with God’s beautiful alternative.  As I do this I experience God’s amazing grace for me.

This morning’s Gospel is the parable of the “wheat and weeds”, or “tares”, depending on the version of the Bible you have, (Matthew, 13: 24-30). Of course, Jesus isn’t giving a talk on farming here, and in fact He is most probably speaking to urban dwellers who, while they might have grown a bit of food for themselves, might rely mostly on the wages they earned as day labourers in vineyards or olive groves or on building sites.

Jesus’ audience may have laughed to hear about the plight of the landowner who wakes up one morning to find that weeds have been sown among his crops.  On the other hand, however, if the crop was spoiled, the price of wheat and bread would likely rise, so the poorest workers and their families would struggle and might well go hungry.

In His explanation, Jesus goes on to talk not of spoiled crops but of patience in the face of finding that weeds have been sown among the wheat.  He foresees a time when order will be restored and justice will be done.  Sorting out the wheat from the weeds can’t be rushed, says Jesus, because that would result in too much damage to the wheat and would incur a huge loss.

From my experience of recognition of the sin in my own life, if God expected me to confess all my sin at once it would be too much for me.  Do you remember how Peter the fisherman reacted to Jesus after Jesus had helped them catch a large amount of fish, having fished all night and caught nothing?  He fell on his knees and begged Jesus to go away (Luke 5) because he recognised he was in the presence of such a godly person and he felt that he simply wasn’t good enough to be in His presence.  Peter said this, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

You see, if all my sin is exposed at once it would just be too much for me to cope with, emotionally, spiritually and physically, such is the wretchedness I carry.  However, the truth is this: God doesn’t rush in and pull up the weeds, but tenderly gardens with patience, encouraging me to know and cherish my part in the journey I am making with Him.  In response to Peter asking Jesus to go away, Jesus moves things on – he doesn’t agree with Peter, condemn him by listing his sins he simply said to him, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.”  With that Peter left everything and followed Jesus.

Rushing in to pull up the weeds won’t work.  Rather, it takes careful and thoughtful, prayerful and active, participation of journeying with God and Jesus to remove my sin when the time is right in Jesus’ sight.  The truth is this: Jesus came to save and thus give life, and a full life at that.  He did not to condemn.  (John 12:44-50; Luke 19:10; John 3:16-17; John 10:10)

I can know for myself God’s promise to be there with me all the time, as together we do the slow and careful work of restoration that my life needs.  The promise that God will hold my hand as I work at dealing with my sin is enough to give me the courage I need to continue to let Him point out the weeds in my life that need removing.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit Amen.

Based on a sermon first delivered on 19th July 2020

Help with suffering – just in time!

Image by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay

There is a manufacturing method called Just in Time ((JIT).  To cut a long story short this method works by making sure that the items you need from your suppliers to make your product arrive at the assembly line immediately before they are needed.  The advantage of such a method is that you don’t have to tie up large sums of money stocking the different parts you need to make your product.

Jesus’ ministry was full of “Just in Time” moments. Let’s consider this question… “Where do we go for help with fear, suffering and death?”

It’s a simple question with a simple answer… Jesus!

Why is the answer Jesus?  Well, it’s all to do with what He is like.  He is trustworthy, faithful, always present, ever reliable.  We find this out when we get to know Him.  It’s the same for anyone we get to know, the better we know them the more we are likely to trust them, assuming, that is, that they are of good character. I have a deep trust in some very close friends because I know them extremely well.

What is the Lord Jesus like?  Well, for one thing, He operates on the “Just in Time” principle.  In a short account of one of his miracles, (Luke 7:11-17) we see first of all that Jesus meets us “Just in Time” in our grief and sorrow.  When Jesus starts the long walk from Capernaum to Nain, which is about 25 miles, the young boy is still alive.  Perhaps His disciples were puzzled – why go to that small, out of the way place?  They don’t know, but Jesus does, because as the maker of the universe He knows He has an appointment with a grieving widow.  She doesn’t know who He is, but He knows all about her, … and he knows all about us.

However utterly insignificant we feel, the maker of the universe makes a bee-line for us when we are suffering.  Our eyes may be filled with tears and we can’t think of any help, but the fact is this, Jesus is right in front of us, waiting for us.

We can see how perfect Jesus’ “Just in Time” method is.  A few minutes either way and the two processions don’t meet.  But “Just in Time” Jesus is there, standing in the way of death like a road block.  Did you notice how the people carrying the dead body stand still as this ordinary looking man blocks the procession on its way down to dusty death.

What kind of roadblock is this man?  He is full of compassion.  “Don’t cry” he says to the grieving mother, no doubt her eyes full of tears.  The Greek speaks of Jesus’ intestines being twisted.  Yes, the Lord is deeply moved by our suffering.  Yes, though we feel as if we have been forsaken and abandoned, He meets us in our grief.  And not just with words; there is also touch – He touches the bier.  He connects with the dead body.  Something no normal rabbi would do for it makes him ritually unclean.  God is not only moved He touches us in our suffering.  His touch is saying “I am with you”. 

We’ve been created to be social beings, and this means that touch is part of our makeup, part of our DNA.  This is one reason why lockdown has been so hard, we haven’t been able to hug, shake hands, have any form of physical contact with those outside our immediate bubble.  This has been hard, particularly when we’ve known someone to be in pain.

This story therefore, reminds us that Jesus wants us to let Him touch us with His holy divine supernatural presence on a daily basis.  Touching in a tender way shows compassion.  But if our God was only compassionate that simply wouldn’t be enough.  One of the things the Bible clearly shows us is that through His Son Jesus, God has a colossal life giving power.  This life giving power very much includes power over death. 

Did you notice how Jesus demonstrated this power over death?  With just a few spoken words the dead boy is brought immediately back to life.  It’s worth thinking about this question: “What is death?”  It is many things.  But I think the hardest thing is that it is separation from a person you once held, spoke to, spent time with, shared good and hard times with together.  You see, death causes a separation that means you will never be able to do the things you used to do again with that person.  That’s the hardest thing about death.

Miraculously the boy comes back to life and immediately starts talking!  The “Just in Time” method of Jesus turns death round 180 degrees. Apparently Nain is on a hill.  You can get a sense that death is carrying off his prey downwards, but Jesus holds the keys of life and death and turns the whole thing around and leads the boy back upwards alive! 

So it is with us.  Death is a terrible enemy but the Good News is this, the Lord owns it due to His “Just in Time” method.  Death will one day be carrying off our body, but we will also meet Jesus standing in the way.  “That person is mine and I am the resurrection and I am the life” He will say, and Death will have to give up its captives and our bodies will be gloriously resurrected.

During the affliction that this time is causing let us comfort each other, and ourselves, with the knowledge of the character of the Lord Jesus and his love for us His children.  So what do we need above all things?  To know Jesus more, and through that to trust him more.  What is Jesus like?  In all areas of our life He meets us “Just in Time”.  “Just in Time” He is full of compassion and kindness.   “Just in Time” He touches us in our infirmities.  He has total control over death and “Just in Time” he will raise us all gloriously.

“Just in Time” He helped the widow of Nain 2000 years ago.  He helps me today. He helps you today and He will help us tomorrow and for all eternity!

Alleluia! What a Saviour!

Based on a sermon first delivered on 12th July 2020

Love and suffering

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

In this life we often don’t know why illness happens, but this we do know: that God is sovereign over all things and is working all things together for his purposes.  Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, the public enemy number 1 of Israel, was reached by God using disease to speak to him.  He ultimately came to realise that there was but one God in the world – the LORD the GOD of Israel, (2 Kings chapter 5).

God controls all things and works them together for his purpose.  This includes absolutely everything – matters political, financial and personal, … and pandemics.  God allows terrible evil to happen, but He may also use the evil to achieve His purposes.  The greatest example of all is Jesus’s death on the cross, which the devil intended to use to destroy the Son of God, but was actually the means whereby God would liberate His people.

I believe that there are two alternatives before us.  Either God is regulating the affairs of humanity or events are just happening randomly.  My reading and understanding of scripture is that the Bible leaves no room for uncertainty on which of the two is true.  The early 20th century English Bible teacher AW Pink wrote just after the Great Depression, “The Bible affirms again and again that God is on the throne of the universe… that every day God is ruling and reigning.  Without doubt a major crisis is at hand and everywhere men are alarmed, but God is not.  He is never taken by surprise.  It is no unexpected emergency which now confronts Him.  Although the world is panic-stricken, the word to the believer is “fear not”.  All things are moving in accord with his eternal purpose.

Naaman was a great man, but he had leprosy. Where do we find the gospel in this story of a great man suffering from a terrible disease?  In a highly unlikely source; a little slave girl.  She was snatched from her family (presumably they were God-fearing otherwise how would she know what to say to Naaman?)  It’s a reasonable surmise that her family was killed – parents don’t usually let their children be sold into slavery without force.

Surely this could not be part of God’s sovereign plan?  Someone so weak and defenceless.  Someone so insignificant as a lowly foreign slave girl.  Someone from God’s own chosen nation.  We know she is insignificant because she is not mentioned by name.  Yet she demonstrated a sincere desire to live by Biblical principles; she desired to serve her master well.  Jesus said in Matthew 5:44 “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.  And she offered her service “as if you were serving the Lord, not people” (Ephesians 6:5–8).

This Hebrew child had clearly been taught that God’s hand was on her life.  Despite being in the midst of a pagan setting, she was securely committed to Yahweh as a God of mercy.  Despite living in an atmosphere of war and oppression, this young girl appears determined to reveal the superiority of Israel’s God over the pagan gods of Syria.  Her story is an exercise of simple faith which testified to God’s power to heal leprosy.  The result of which, not only miraculously saved her master’s life but also is his introduction to the power of the God of Israel.  Her persevering testimony led Naaman to submerge his pride and make the decision to put his faith in the God of Israel.

So, the Good News is that this insignificant foreign slave girl is very much part of God’s sovereign plan to turn evil for good.  The Good News is that to this disease-ridden world God sends ordinary, obscure, suffering Christians armed only with a wonderful message of hope.

As I read and study the Bible, I see time and time again how God allows people to experience evil and suffering.  So how are we to respond to this?  Well, I think that it has to start with how we react to the times of suffering we find ourselves in.  How we react is our responsibility.  It is our responsibility to react to suffering in the way that God wants.  Now that’s very hard as I know from my own experience with experiencing redundancy, the death of our son John and getting over a long-term illness.  And I can list many more occasions when I have experienced suffering in my life, but suffice to say I could not have got through any of these times without the help of God, because humanly we can’t get through such times without being badly damaged.  To negate this damage, which can so easily lead to isolation from God, we need His help.

What was the slave girl’s attitude to Naaman’s illness? Not the attitude of “At last God is punishing these wicked Syrians for enslaving me”. Not by keeping her head down; “It’s not my problem”. Not by being worried about crossing religious and national borders; “Yahweh is for Israelites only; the Syrians have their own God”. Not by helplessness; “What can I do, a mere slave girl?”. No, her attitude was one based on a wonderful love and compassion for her enemy; ‘If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria.  He would cure him of his leprosy.’

She had love for her enemy. Love can be spelt a different way – RISK.  And boy did she take some risks – what if the advice had gone wrong?  The risk was huge.  We know this from the greatest Bible teacher of all times – the Lord Jesus.  Yet, despite being the greatest teacher of all times Jesus, as we read in Luke 4 was rejected by His own people in Nazareth.  And verse 27 of Luke 4 tells us that in his time Naaman was the first person to be cured of leprosy.   What courage this girl had!  If she could recommend the prophet Elisha then cannot we recommend one far, far greater than Elisha – the Lord Jesus? This is the answer when people ask us for help – Jesus.

Christians should expect to suffer. If you are not suffering, thank God, but the “norm” is suffering.  We must love the suffering people around us and tell them, “if only you would seek Jesus of Nazareth.  He will cure you of sin and evil”.

Remember this truth.  God is never alarmed at what He sees in the world He created.  He is never taken by surprise. It is no unexpected emergency which now confronts Him.  Although the world is panic-stricken the word to the believer is “fear not”.  All things are moving in accord with His eternal purpose.”

Let us pray…

Lord God, strengthen all who put their trust in you, and mercifully accept our prayers.  Because through the weakness of our human nature we cannot do anything good without you, grant us the help of your grace by the Holy Spirit, so that in keeping your commandments we may please you, both in will and deed through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Based on a sermon first delivered on 5th July 2020

Sharing suffering

Photo by Jack Sharp on Unsplash

The book of Job shows how not to help others who are suffering.  Job’s comforters get so many things wrong.  They try and take control.  But if the storm is raging, only God can calm the storm.  Our role is not to take hold of the tiller and try and steer the boat, but to be in the boat with our friends.  Everyone feels pain and suffering in a different fashion, meaning it’s dangerous to use generalities.  God is a personal God who deals with His children equally but differently.  God has no “one size fits all”. Sometimes all that can be done is to be quiet and listen.  We tend to shy away from people in suffering because we feel awkward and embarrassed.  We need to overcome and accept this feeling and reach out to them.  It’s also fine if – as is more often the case – we don’t know the answers.  Sometimes just our presence is good enough.

Weeping and crying is good: Jesus weeps at the tomb of Lazarus.  I have wept on many occasions with people as I have ministered to them and when I have been ministered to.  Sometimes it is because of their story, sometimes it is because of my story!  We may feel its “unbiblical” to cry. But grief is godly and natural.  Sadly, our culture doesn’t like mourning.  But Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).  In the process of walking through pain and suffering it is not up to us to tell the sufferer when they are done.  Sometimes people will never stop grieving.  But ‘God gave His people a counsellor who wept with them, put the pain of their loss into words, ministered to their guilt and grief, and brought hope and healing from the ashes of their loss.’  (Colin Smith, senior pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church).

As I’ve said before, the Bible doesn’t shy away from suffering.  On its pages we find suffering from natural disasters, suffering from other people, suffering from disease, suffering from relationships, suffering we bring on ourselves, and many more scenarios.  So, when we experience suffering what are we to do?  Well, there is no better place to start than with God’s word.  It could be helpful to read to a suffering friend suitable Bible passages.  For me the best place to start in the Bible is the Psalms which cover the whole gamut of human emotions.  These words were prepared by God thousands of years ago and have been used ever since to provide comfort in times of need and suffering.  Sometimes in Psalms there isn’t even an answer.  Last year I spent time reading the Psalms, starting at the beginning and going through to the end.  At times I was shocked as some seem to end bleakly.   Psalm 88 is one such example, it ends bleakly, without even the hint of an answer let alone a ‘happy ending’ and that’s true sadly sometimes in life.  The Bible doesn’t flinch from reality and it doesn’t always wrap things up neatly.

One thing Job does is he shows us that If we feel angry or upset with God, we can tell him.  God is big enough to cope with our emotions.  It is very striking that Job is angry with God, going well beyond anything that the majority of us would otherwise consider reverent or proper, yet God rebukes his comforters at the end by saying “You haven’t spoken well of me, as my servant Job has“.  We need to get over the feeling that, “I’m helping you by being strong”.  Actually, suffering will impact us all, we are all sufferers; we all need Christ’s presence.  In my previous Chris writes… I shared about the suffering we experienced through the life, birth and death of our son John.  One thing that struck me about John was that Christ shone out of him.  In his suffering he still trusted us and at the same time truly helped others through their suffering.  On one occasion he flung himself at a friend who was have a hard time of getting a job.  He’d literally just told us that he hadn’t been successful, again, and John leapt out of our arms (he was only 9 months old) and hugged our friend.  No words were spoken the hug was all that was needed for us all!  

To me this illustrates that often there is little or nothing that we can do except be present and pray. Prayer is a wonderful privilege.  A 19th century hymn sums this up so well.  The composer, Joseph Scriven, experienced suffering when his fiancée died just before they were to get married.

Oh what needless pains we bear
All because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.

There is a story of a badly deformed person with leprosy who was very bitter and who very nervously went to a local church where a man just patted the space next to him on the pew, indicating that he should come and sit next to him. This simple act deeply touched the suffering man.

As you read through the Book of Job you see that he is continually looking for a friend, an advocate, someone to represent him, someone to support him.  We now know that he was looking for Christ.  God’s ultimate answer to suffering is not a philosophy or even theology but a person.  When nothing else makes sense, and nothing else is left, Jesus is there, and He will hold us fast.  This also means that if we are not sure what to do, we won’t go far wrong if we follow Christ’s example in dealing with suffering, above all in showing compassion. James in his letter says:

As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:11).

Suffering helps us to develop perseverance and steadfastness.  Romans 5:1-5 says tribulation leads to perseverance, and perseverance in turn develops character, which gives us hope.  When we choose not to give up during difficult circumstances, and look to the person of Christ, we allow God to build up good qualities in our life that will keep us going in the long term.

As we suffer did you know that we participate in the sufferings of Christ?  So nothing should be more valuable for us than to know Christ (Phil. 3:8-11), and to truly know someone we have to relate to their life and experiences.

God at times allows us to suffer so we can humbly recognise how much we need Him.  When we trust His will, He uses those trials in amazing ways.

Prayer:

Lord God, You are the strength of all who put their trust in you.  Mercifully accept our prayers and, because through the weakness of our human nature we cannot do anything good without you, by the Holy Spirit grant us the help of your grace so that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Based on a sermon first delivered on 28th June 2020

Understanding suffering

Suffering, – what is that all about? Many ask “Why does God allow it?  After all, isn’t He a God of love?”

Well, in my life, which is no different to many others, I have experienced suffering on numerous occasions.  Often self-inflicted through my own wilful nature, many other times simply because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time or I was caught up in circumstances beyond my control.

I remember when we told some friends that our unborn child was going to be born with a major heart defect, they quickly said “How could God let this happen to you, especially as you are training for ordained ministry?”  My response was, “Why not us?  Why should I expect God to treat me any differently from the next person?”

It is not to say that I haven’t asked those questions, but there is no easy answer.  Even though the situation ended in the death of our son John I can truthfully say I’ve never felt angry with God, but I’ve often wondered “why me?”. I think we all feel this in suffering and fear.

The Bible does not shy away from suffering and I think that the story of Joseph in the Old Testament can be of real help here.  It shows us very clearly that God’s ways in suffering are mysterious and far, far, beyond our understanding.  I have found personally that the more I see of God’s plans the more mysterious they are.  And I shouldn’t be surprised about that because in the Bible God says “my thoughts are not your thoughts and nor are my ways your ways” (Isaiah 55:8).  God doesn’t tell us to try and understand what’s going to happen to us:  He just asks us to trust Him.  We are the clay and He is the Potter.

One important truth that the story of Joseph reveals is that Christians should expect life to bring them thorns as well as roses.  While Joseph wasn’t perfect (he boasted to his brothers) in general he tried to live the virtuous life.  It would have been easy to succumb to temptation when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him.  He rightly resists – and is promptly “rewarded” by being slung into jail.  The irony of it!  Jesus invites us to take up our cross daily and follow him.  Don’t forget the cross was a symbol of torture.  The Prosperity Gospel message that Christians should always expect good health, wealth and happiness is no gospel: it’s a lie from the enemy.

Another truth is that God’s timing is perfect.  God is always teaching me things about His character.  Something I’m not always that good at is patience.  This tends to be around the things I selfishly want to do for myself.  I want to get out there and go for a ride on my motorbike… but things can get in the way.  Joseph had to wait 24 years between being sold into slavery before he could reveal himself to his brothers.  Oh, there must have been many times when he yearned to be free.  Whilst in jail he helped Pharaoh’s cupbearer interpret his dream – only to be promptly forgotten by the man who had promised to put a good word in for him to the King.  The cupbearer promised to help so Joseph was most probably eagerly expecting to hear the key in the door of his cell for his release.  For two long years nothing happened because the cupbearer had forgotten him. But, GOD hadn’t forgotten him, and nor will God ever forget us, even when we are in a dungeon of suffering.

A third truth is that we can see how God turns evil for good.  When, after their father’s death, Joseph’s brothers plead with him for mercy he reassures them: “you meant selling me into slavery for evil against me, but God used it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Where else do we ultimately see God using evil for good?  At the cross.  Joseph can be seen as a “type” of Christ, like a signpost to Jesus.  Like Christ, Joseph is betrayed by his brothers, sold for 20 pieces of silver, unjustly sentenced for something he didn’t do and he is “resurrected” from prison to be the saviour of multitudes.  I find this so helpful.

Yet Satan wanted the death of our son to stir up angry emotions in me that would be vented towards God in a destructive way.  He wanted me to lose faith and turn from the vocation God had placed on me.  But I believe that God has used our son John’s death for good.  By sharing our story, comfort, encouragement and hope have been received by the listeners.  For throughout John’s short life he was an amazing witness for God.  Barbara and I have a certainty that John gave His all for God which we saw in countless different ways; in a variety of ways he touched the heart of all who met him with joy. 

One thing suffering does is it makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability can open people up to hear about the man we have found so helpful – Jesus Christ.  I am sure that this is true for many of you.  However, if you feel this isn’t true for you, look for Jesus in your suffering.  You will find Him, and you can put your hand into His hand.  We simply don’t understand all that has happened to us, but of this Christians can be sure: that ultimately we are all part of God’s plan, and I believe that you and I will only know the true extent of the part we’ve played in that plan when we meet Him face to face in heaven.  So we have to seek God’s face on a regular basis to ensure that we are on the right path, continuing to walk in the plans God has for us.  Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?  I think that we will only get a full answer to that question when we are in heaven, for when we are there everything will suddenly drop into place and we will fall to our knees in love, amazement and praise to the one Triune God.  As we are on our knees, we won’t need to ask any questions – we will just know!

One day we will bless completely, through praise and adoration, the hand that has blessed us throughout our lives.  In the meantime, we must like a small child place our hand by faith in the hand of Almighty God, trusting that He has everything under control even when all seems lost and desperate.

Let us pray:

Lord God, the unfailing helper and guide of those whom you bring up in your unmovable fear and love, keep us, we pray, under the protection of your good providence and give us a continual reverence and love for your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Based on a sermon delivered on Sunday 21st June 2020