Holiness, Me and the Church – Part 8

Patience in suffering

Based on a sermon from Sunday 17th July 2022

James 5:7-12

Patience is a virtue.  Who has heard of that saying?  I said this often to my daughters when they were growing up.  They often wanted something there and then; they couldn’t wait.  “I want it now, Daddy!”  Patience is something we need to practice.  For many of us it doesn’t come easy!  How often have you got angry when things are not working out the way you want them to?  Perhaps someone has let you down, or some vital part you ordered has not arrived and you can’t complete what you are doing.  I get impatient when I can’t get something to do what it is supposed to do.  It causes me stress, like for example, when one of my first smart phones wouldn’t connect properly to the internet, and oh boy was I impatient!

This morning’s passage from the Epistle of James is entitled “Patience in Suffering”.  In the verses before this, James rebukes the rich oppressors and warns them that the Lord sees their evil.  Now James turns his attention to the believing oppressed, – those who are suffering unjustly in a broken and sinful world at the hands of broken and sinful people, – and he wants to encourage them not to give up.

There are times when I have experienced suffering at the hands of others and my natural reaction is to lash out, but this is not what James is teaching.  Instead, James is encouraging us to “be patient and stand firm”.  Anyone planting seeds has to be patient; they are not going to grow whilst you stand and watch them  You have to wait patiently for the land to yield its valuable crop!  The farmer doesn’t take matters into his own hands. He doesn’t get down on the ground and start berating the seeds for not growing.  He waits.  However, whilst being patient, waiting, we are to stand firm, i.e. we are not to waiver from what we know to be true about Jesus as found in Scripture, not to waiver from who He is and not to forget His promises to us, particularly that He will return, for “the Lord’s coming is near”!  Christ’s return will happen, we can be certain of this, and so we need to live in the certainty of this, a certainty that the Bible never questions.

The battle for us is often because we don’t live in this certainty, so we need to “stand firm” in Christ, and not to be tossed to and fro by every wind, difficulty and evil that comes our way.  We are to take a stand against the world, and the schemes of the devil, the prince of the air, by establishing in our hearts the promises and character of God.  Much of which we have been looking at over the last few weeks as we have journeyed through James.

We do this by walking in the way of Jesus, who Himself received the greatest level of oppression and mistreatment the world has ever known, yet for our sake he trusted in the promises and character of His Heavenly Father.  If we have hope of Christ’s soon return, we should cease petty conflicts to which James alluded in chapter 4.  As children in a school classroom look out for their teacher’s return, God’s children should be on guard for Christ’s return.  In so doing, good behaviour and mutual harmony are essential, so don’t “grumble against each other”.  When we grumble we turn inward, become selfish, and lose sight of the hope we have in Christ.

James reminds us that when we are being mistreated it does not give us license to sin.  The Christ we await with eager expectation is the same Christ who delivered us from the punishment and the power of sin.  So, establish your hearts with patient expectation.  Wait eagerly for Him to return and for Him to execute judgement.  That’s His job.  And just like the farmer has other work to do while he’s waiting for the rain, so do we.

As we wait, we are to persevere.  When we undergo trying circumstances may we be comforted to learn that others have endured worse situations.  “The prophets” stood loyal to their Lord, suffered for it, and now their experience encourages us.  James reminds us that, though they suffered, the outcome of their lives was worth it in the end.  So, the Lord honoured Job’s endurance and perseverance with multiplied blessings (cf. Job 42:12).  Job showed steadfastness, endurance, perseverance (hypomonēn, cf. James 1:3; Col. 1:11).  He “stood firm”. Yes, he lost property, family, and health, but his patience demonstrates the purpose of character of his Lord: that He permits suffering, because it leads to His excellent purposes (Rom 8:28; Phil 1:6).  Moreover, while critics blaspheme God because of human suffering, Job’s record shows the Lord to be compassionate and merciful.  Suffering, then, must be attributed either to the means for God’s ultimate purposes or, more often, man’s own doing through corrupt leaders or personal sin.

We can trust Christ in suffering and even remain faithful to His calling in our lives because He is good for it!  His character is proven.  His promises are sure.  Even in a fallen world living with the opposition of fallen people, we are called to faithful endurance.  Establish your heart with patient expectation … with faithful endurance …

This passage from James is, at its core, an invitation. 

  • It invites us to see and trust that Christ is faithful to His promise — He is coming back to defeat the wicked and to deliver the waiting.
  • It invites us to see His character — His compassion and mercy, His love and justice, His uncompromising holiness.
  • It invites us to follow in His footsteps. –- He is the one who shows us what it looks like to “stand firm”.

Standing firm is what Jesus did when He “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) as His time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven. 

  • His was a determination to go to Jerusalem to take the condemnation that you and I deserve.
  • His was a steely resolve to bear the weight of brokenness that your sin and my sin caused.
  • His was an inner persistence to trust in the Father’s plan, knowing that one day He would return and finally put all our enemies under His feet.

He stood firm and established His heart to accomplish yours and my salvation.  He has promised to bring it to completion on His return.  The invitation for you and for me is to trust the work He has already done, and patiently endure until He returns.

Living thoughts

This is an opportunity to spend time alone with God.  The more time you spend with Him the more you will get to know Him as He reveals more of who He is to your heart, soul and spirit.  This time will be personal and wholly unique to your faith journey with Him.

Re-read the Bible passages above and the sermon before considering these questions…

Digging into God’s word

  1. Why does James use the example of a farmer to illustrate the principle of patience (5:7)?
  2. What does the “coming of the Lord” have to do with patience (5:8)?  Is it merely about awaiting His arrival, or is it also relevant to how we decide to act now?
  3. Why is complaining against others detrimental to Christ’s work among us (5:9)?  What happens to us when we complain against others?  What risks to we run?
  4. In what ways is God calling you to persevere (5:10)?
  5. What message does God have for you in the story of Job?  What does Job’s story teach us about God (5:11)?

Prayer Response

Lord, we praise you for your straightforwardness.  You make it plain to hearts that want to know what you are saying and foolish to those who just want to fight you.

We thank you for the power we have in Christ, to choose peace even when peace is not offered from others.  We always have the choice of how we will react; whether to sow peace or harshness.  May we believe your truth and put it into practice: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word provokes anger.”

Give us the strength, wisdom, and courage to sow in peace so we can reap a harvest of righteousness.

In the One who was tortured for our sins, yet still asked for us all to be forgiven, realising we didn’t know what we were doing – Amen.

Making sense of suffering

1 Peter 4:12-19

Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

Since mid-June I’ve been preaching about what the Bible says about suffering, so if there is a God who is loving, why does He allow such suffering?  Can we avoid suffering by being ultra-cautious?

Well, first of all suffering wasn’t part of God’s original plan.  The world was made by God and it was very good.  There was no suffering or death.  So, what happened?  Well, suffering results from what Christians call “the fall” – human beings deliberately deciding, when presented with a choice by God, to choose evil.

And the Bible explores the human experience of being caught up in suffering.  The Old Testament devotes an entire book (Exodus) to the experience of an enslaved people and their journey from slavery in Egypt to the challenges of being a nomadic people.

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah writes of his people exiled and oppressed by a foreign power.  The generational oppression of invasion and foreign rule is expressed by the psalmist who laments “by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept” (Psalm 137).

There is a whole book of the Bible devoted to an exploration of grief and lament for a people ravaged by war, violence and death – it is called Lamentations.

So the Old Testament shows us that God allows suffering, that He allows bad things happen to good people as seen in the Book of Job.  This is a mysterious book that deals head-on with the question of suffering.  It shows us that God is in control of everything, including evil. In it, Job questions God, and says something along these lines to his accusers… “I am suffering.  I haven’t done anything really wrong.  Therefore God is unfair”

God eventually answers Job out of the storm, but He only gives him a partial answer. Because of Jesus today we can see the big picture behind God’s purposes while Job couldn’t.

I think that we are all “Job” – we are in the suffering story and often we struggle to see any rhyme or reason in it.  However, when we meet God face to face everything, I believe, will click into place.  But how do we live in the meantime?

Job senses his need of a person to help with his suffering, a friend, an advocate, and a mediator, someone to represent him, someone to help him, someone to get alongside him.

Now, finally, here comes the good news for all of us experiencing suffering. God didn’t leave us (as we deserve) to the consequences of our own sin and to deal with suffering on our own.  He intervened with a rescue mission to offer us a way out of suffering.  And that rescue mission involved God himself suffering.

The four Gospels show us how God in the form of His Son Jesus suffered.  This Son was born as a Jew into an occupied territory, the child of a refugee teenage mother, who goes on to be unjustly accused and tried by a powerful and corrupt system of collaborators and Roman oppressors.

So the pain of suffering and injustice is not ignored or swept over by the Bible.  It is a prominent concern in both Old and New Testaments, and a significant focus of the ministry of Jesus.

But as we heard in our reading from Peter we are told to rejoice because of our sufferings.  Let me say that again, so I can check myself even as I read it!  We are, Peter says, to rejoice because of our sufferings, (v.12-13). Why?  Because fiery trials are designed to test us by proving to ourselves and to others the genuineness of our faith.  As we endure, what we believe becomes more precious to us. So rejoice. 

Secondly, we are not to be ashamed of our sufferings.  Privately we are to rejoice because of them, publicly we are not to be ashamed of them.  Instead we are to consider ourselves blessed to suffer as a Christian because then the Spirit of glory and of God rests on us.

Peter says if you want to see someone upon whom the Spirit of glory actually rests, don’t look to their successes, look to their struggles and see how they are enabled to endure.  Your endurance is evidence that God is at work; He is near, even resting upon you.

Finally, Peter says we are not simply to rejoice and consider ourselves blessed because of our suffering. Instead it ought to make us fearfully entrust our own souls to God in the midst of it. This is completely in keeping with Peter’s theology of grace.  We are unconditionally loved but this should never lead us to presume on the lover.  Verses 17-18 are ultimately intended to point out the end of all those who oppose God and his people; they shall not be saved, no matter how strong they look today.

You see God is the faithful Creator who cares for all who take refuge in Him, but He is also the undeniable, unassailable judge, and here Peter says His judgement has already begun.  What? Where? Where are we to see God’s judgment today?  Peter says among those who profess His name.  It is in God’s household.  But why?  Why is God seated in judgement over the church?  Well, His judgement is seen on the sufferers who turn away from Him.  Those who do this are exposed as having shallow roots.  This is why suffering is to take on a refining edge, to cause all who call upon God out of a pure heart to entrust themselves more and more to him.  Suffering acts like a great wedge that is driven into the church, sometimes with small taps, at other times with great heavy blows, separating the true from the false believer.  “Therefore, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (v.19).

Peter’s uncommon strategies for enduring suffering are of course only echoes of how Jesus Himself endured when He suffered on the cross for us. Not only are we to live by Him, but we are also to live increasingly like Him. Revelation 21 clearly describes our reward for doing this:

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.  And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:4,5)

In some ways this reminds me of our oldest daughter Rachel.  She was ultra-cautious.  But one day as a small child she fell off her tricycle.  As her father I ran to her, as I could see that it was going to happen, and I sat her on my knee, took care of the wound, and with a tissue wiped away her tears.  She was comforted and soon stopped crying and got back on her tricycle.

Isn’t this an amazing, and indeed staggering, image that we find right at the very end of the Bible.  God himself will ‘sit us on his knee’ and wipe away all our tears and pain.  All suffering and pain and even, I suggest, the memory of suffering, will be removed.  Everything that’s gone wrong will be made right, for evil itself has been defeated and destroyed!

How? Through Jesus’s death on the cross.

Why?  Because He loves us

What should our response to this be? Trust in the suffering servant – the Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen

Based on a sermon first delivered on Sunday 30th 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

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

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