David's Blog

Living in a passing world - Midweek Message 24th March 2021

 


Dear Friends,

For this world in its present form is passing away (1 Corinthians 7.31) 

Following up on some of the things we were thinking about last Sunday from James 4.13-17, I wanted to draw your attention to the writing of two different men from different times but both saying something relevant.

Firstly, I mentioned on Sunday Tim Keller’s recent article in The Atlantic online magazine ‘Growing my faith in the face of death’ in which he reflects very honestly and helpfully about his response to being diagnosed in February 2020 with pancreatic cancer. You can find the article here

Secondly, James was reminding us that life is short, transient, fleeting, especially when viewed in the light of eternity. Someone who had evidently reflected on that deeply was the Scottish preacher and hymn writer from the 19th century Horatius Bonar.  Like James, Bonar wanted people to take this reality into account in their life choices. Here’s an extract from a sermon he preached on the text quoted above and also from 1 John 2.17 The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.  (If you want to read the whole sermon you can do so here)

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 ‘The world is passing away — like a dream of the night. We lie down to rest; we fall asleep; we dream; we awake at morn — and lo, all is fled, which in our dream seemed so stable and so pleasant! So hastens the world away. O child of mortality, have you no brighter world beyond?

The world is passing away — like the mist of the morning. The night brings down the mists upon the hills — the vapour covers the valleys; the sun rises, all has passed away — hill and valley are clear. So the world passes away, and is seen no more. O man, will you embrace a world like this? Will you lie down upon a mist, and say: This is my home?

The world is passing away — like a shadow. There is nothing more unreal than a shadow. It has no substance, no being. It is dark, it is a figure, it has motion, that is all! Such is the world. O man will you chase a shadow? What will a shadow do for you?

The world is passing away — like a wave of the sea. It rises, falls, and is seen no more. Such is the history of a wave. Such is the story of the world. O man will you make a wave your portion? Have you no better pillow on which to lay your wearied head than this? A poor world this for human heart to love, for an immortal soul to be filled with!

The world is passing away — like a rainbow. The sun throws its colours on a cloud, and for a few minutes all is brilliant. But the cloud shifts, and the brilliance is all gone. Such is the world.

With all its beauty and brightness; 
with all its honours and pleasures;
with all its mirth and madness;
with all its pomp and luxury;
with all its revelry and riot;
with all its hopes and flatteries;
with all its love and laughter;
with all its songs and splendour;
with all its gems and gold — it vanishes away!

And the cloud that knew the rainbow knows it no more. O man, is a passing world like this, all that you have for an inheritance?

The world is passing away — like a flower. Beautiful, very beautiful; fragrant, very fragrant, are the summer flowers. But they wither away. So fades the world from before our eyes. While we are looking at it, and admiring it — behold, it is gone! No trace is left of all its loveliness but a little dust! O man, can you feed on flowers? Can you dote on that which is but for an hour? You were made for eternity — and only that which is eternal can be your portion or your resting place. The things that perish with the using only mock your longings. They cannot fill you — and even if they filled, they cannot abide. Mortality is written on all things here — immortality belongs only to the world to come — to that new heavens and new earth wherein dwells righteousness.

The world is passing away — like a ship at sea. With all its sails set, and a fresh breeze blowing, the vessel comes into sight, passes before our eye in the distance, and then disappears. So comes, so goes, so vanishes away this present world, with all that it contains. A few hours within sight, then gone! The wide sea o'er which it sailed, is as calm or as stormy as before; no trace anywhere of all the life or motion or beauty which was passing over it! O man, is that vanishing world your only dwelling-place? Are all your treasures, your hopes, your joys laid up there? Where will all these be when you go down to the tomb? Or where will you be when these things leave you, and you are stripped of all the inheritance which you are ever to have for eternity? It is a poor heritage at the best, and its short duration makes it poorer still. Oh, choose the better part, which shall not be taken from you!

The world is passing away — like a tent in the desert. Those who have travelled over the Arabian sands know what this means. At sunset a little speck of white seems to rise out of the barren waste. It is a traveller’s tent. At sunrise it disappears. Both it and its inhabitant are gone. The wilderness is as lonely as before. Such is the world. Today it shows itself — tomorrow it disappears. O man, is that your stay and your home? Will you say of it, "This is my rest!" There is an everlasting rest, remaining for the people of God.’

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That awareness of the passing nature of this world is not meant to cause us to despise it but paradoxically to help us enjoy it in the manner that God intended. A couple of quotes from Tim Keller’s article speak to this.

‘Since my diagnosis, Kathy (TK’s wife) and I have come to see that the more we tried to make a heaven out of this world—the more we grounded our comfort and security in it—the less we were able to enjoy it….. To our surprise and encouragement, … (we) have discovered that the less we attempt to make this world into a heaven, the more we are able to enjoy it….. the simplest pleasures of this world have become sources of daily happiness. It is only as I have become, for lack of a better term, more heavenly minded that I can see the material world for the astonishingly good divine gift that it is.’

Much in all of this to reflect on,

Yours in that reflecting,

David

Another Dose of Hope! - Midweek Message 10th March 2021

 

Dear Friends,

 I hope you have received your copy of Jeremy Marshall’s devotional ‘Hope in the face of suffering’ and have this week begun to read the daily Bible readings and messages. If you have, you’ll know that today we’re looking at the story of Joseph and God’s painful, puzzling, yet ultimately wonderfully purposeful dealings which led Joseph to say so memorably to his brothers in regard to their maltreatment of him: you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good (Gen 50.20). Jeremy Marshall’s message concludes with an encouragement to us, ‘like small children (to) place our hand by faith in the hand of Almighty God’. One of the things I’ve really appreciated about  his devotional is the way in which, though he understandably makes regular reference to himself and his experience of cancer, Jeremy is always seeking to point his readers away from himself to the One in whom he has found real and sustaining hope.

Reading his devotional has prompted me to get hold of his other book, the one that preceded it, namely, ‘Beyond the Big C- hope in the face of death’1 which to quote the blurb on the back ‘chronicles Jeremy’s extraordinary relationship with cancer and more than anything, his extraordinary relationship with the person who promises life beyond the prognosis.’ It continues… ‘The essence of Jeremy’s story is that, despite sickness and disease present in the world, a life lived in light of Christ’s death on the cross means there is hope for the future no matter what.’ You can tell from that, again, his ultimate aim is to point away from himself.

As I read through the original book, which I have just got hold of, that’s what I found. It’s there on his opening page:

‘This is the story of my journey with cancer but as you’ll discover if you read on, it's not just about me. I am 56 years old and have had cancer for the last seven years. I want to share my experience in the hope that it helps you. As it's my story, some parts of it may be relevant to your experience, other parts may not. You can be the judge.

I am not a cancer specialist, nor am I an expert on living with cancer. This is not a book about how to cope with cancer, nor how to beat it. I don't want you to think that I'm some amazing person - because I'm not. Although I am a Christian, I am not an inherently ‘religious’ person who sails effortlessly from 1 high point to another. I have doubts and I am often afraid. There is nothing exceptional about me and I am very far from being a model for others. So why am I writing this short book?

I would like to introduce you to someone else - someone who has utterly transformed my life and someone without whom I couldn't survive a single day in this messed-up world.

Having incurable cancer seems a dead end but I believe there is hope beyond the Big C.’

As he begins the story of how his cancer came to light and his reaction to the diagnosis, at one point he is honest about his fear:

 ‘I want to be very open that I am afraid, sometimes very afraid. This is despite having a strong Christian faith. In fact, I would say that the dominant emotion I have felt since being diagnosed is fear. Fear of dying, and in particular, fear of the process leading up to death…..Each time I had a scan or a test after the initial diagnosis, my fear grew slightly, even as I hoped and anticipated getting the ‘nothing to worry about’ message confirmed. My fear started as a small nagging doubt. It grew silently. Each time, I felt it slightly more strongly, until, in the end, it became full-grown terror…. My ‘fear index’ has gone up and down over the last few years. The times I feel most acutely afraid are sitting in the waiting room, waiting for the oncologist to tell me the results of the latest scan. There’s even a name for this: ‘scanxiety’.’

But then he says:

‘What have I found to be the answer to my fear? Fear not just of cancer but, most of all, of death. I don't see an answer to my fear if I look at the world around me. Nor do I find one if I look within.

But as I said at the beginning, this book isn't just about me - it's also about someone else. And that ‘someone’ does have an answer to my fear. That someone is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, whom I believe walked the dusty roads of Palestine 2000 years ago - and whom, I believe, you and I can know today.’  

In the remainder of the book, as he engages with questions and the scepticism he knows his readers may have, he seeks to give good solid grounds for believing Jesus Christ can be known and can give hope in the face of suffering and death.

It is, as one reviewer from ‘The Spectator’ expressed it, ‘a moving and hopeful book’.  It’s the kind of book, like his devotional, I think you would find encouraging for your own faith but also one you could give away to someone you knew who was facing a situation similar to Jeremy Marshall’s,  or simply wrestling with questions and issues around the subject of suffering and death. Well worth reading!

If anyone would like a copy (or multiple copies) at £1 per book, please get in touch by email with myself or Doris in the office and I will send off an order in the next couple of weeks, with the intention that they are available from the Easter weekend. In the meantime, I hope we all keep reading and benefitting from his devotional!

Yours hopefully,

David

 

1 Beyond the Big C – hope in the face of death by Jeremy Marshall is published by 10Publishing, a division of 10ofthose.com. It was first published in 2019.

The silence of the Lamb - Midweek Message 3rd March 2021

 


Dear Friends,

 After listening to James talking about the taming of the tongue last Sunday someone said to me that they felt pretty bad. I suspect they were not alone. As James himself says, ‘WE ALL stumble in many ways (3.2) and the use or abuse of our tongues is for all of us probably one of the most common ways. There is no doubting it is an area in which we all require vigilance, especially when we take seriously the destructive power of the tongue as James highlights it (3.5-8). He does want us to consider carefully how we exercise our tongues. He wants us to be quick to listen and slow to speak (1.19) and to keep a tight rein on our tongues ((1.26). However, his ultimate desire is not to drive us to despair, but to Christ.

If you read through the gospels and think about what came out of the mouths of his disciples at various times while he was with them, then you will understand that the Lord Jesus was, and is, very familiar with the sins of his people’s tongues. For example, there was the disciples’ doubting of his care for them in the boat in the middle of the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Mk 4.38); Peter’s rebuking of him when he announced he was going to the cross (Mk 8.33); their rebuking of parents bringing children to Jesus (Mk 10.13) their arguing about who was the greatest (Mk 9.34)  their bickering among themselves as to who would get the highest place in the coming kingdom (Mk 10.37,41)  their expressed desire for judgment to fall on a Samaritan village (Lk 9.44); and Peter’s triple and very public denial of Jesus (Mk14.66-72) These are but a few, and would remind us Jesus  is not taken by surprise by our personal sins of the tongue – the grumbling, the complaining, the gossip, the boasting, the profanity,  the white lies, the angry words, etc we may have indulged or engaged in.

When we are made aware and convicted of our failings in such things here is something to remember - not so much the words of Jesus but his silence. Why is it that the gospel writers mention the silence of Jesus in regard to the charges levelled against him during his trial before the Jewish authorities and Pilate? (see Matt 26.63; 27.12-14; Mk 14.61; 15.4-5; Jn 19.9-10) It is because they see in that silence the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah about the suffering servant of God: He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Is 53:7)    Why was Jesus silent? Why did he make no attempt to defend himself or justify himself? Because he knew that in that trial and in the sentence that followed it, he was answering not for his own sins but for the sins of his people. As Isaiah had just said in that prophecy, he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities (53.5) His silence was the silence of the Lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1.29)

Jesus was silent in his trial because he could not, and cannot, excuse or defend or justify our sins including the sins of our tongues (and we shouldn’t try either). However, he was also silent because he was more than willing to pay for them, to go silently and voluntarily to the cross there to offer himself on our behalf as the sinless sacrifice through which our lives and lips can be cleansed and forgiven and he can put a new song in our mouths, a song of praise to our God (see Ps 40.3)

In all our sins and failures - maybe especially of the tongue – never forget the silence of the Lamb! All our hope and healing is in Him.

Yours in Him,

David

Hope in the face of suffering - Midweek Message 24th February 2021

 


Dear Friends,

‘Perhaps the hardest part of the Christian life is dealing with the unholy and unwanted trio of visitors: fear, suffering and death.

Death, the Bible tells us, is the last enemy and we must all face it. Suffering usually comes before death and is a visitor we all dread. After all, who wants to suffer? Fear is normally the first of the trio to make our acquaintance, affecting our minds rather than our bodies.

Normally, of course, we don't like to think about these things. Suddenly, though, in the time of coronavirus these unwelcome visitors cannot be avoided.

The French mathematician and writer Blaise Pascal was reported to have said, ‘Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy not to think about such things.’

But suddenly such things are inescapable.

I have known this for longer than most. I have lived with cancer for seven years. Five years ago, I was told the cancer was incurable and that my death was imminent…’

So writes Jeremy Marshall in the introduction to his book ‘Hope in the face of suffering: 20 daily devotions for tough times’ which we are sending out to every home on our congregational mailing list in the run-up to Easter. You may remember the ‘Radiant Dawn’ Advent devotional we sent out before Christmas.  Unable as were we at that time to meet in large numbers, we wanted to be able to share together in the joyful good news of Jesus’ birth as we read & reflected on the opening 2 chapters of Luke. This time it is Easter that is approaching. Easter, for which Christmas was preparation. Easter, which takes us to the heart of the Christian faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Easter, which for the Christian has always been synonymous with hope, the foundation of all Christian hope.  Jeremy Marshall seeks to share that hope as he takes us in these 20 devotions through different passages of the Bible and reflects on them.

His own recent and life-threatening encounter with cancer ensures that we are not reading someone theorising about these difficult subjects of fear, suffering and death and yet he is keen to point out in the introduction: ‘I am not an expert on fear, suffering and death. I am not even …a clergyman. I am just a Christian, married with 3 adult children in the southeast of England, where I attend my local church. I make this point, he continues, only to say that these devotions are not about me but about three things that I have found we can use to defeat fear, suffering and death.’   

The three things he mentions are:

1) the Bible - which he describes as ‘God’s medicine cabinet where we can find treatment for our diseases’ That’s why each of the daily devotions are based on a biblical passage which has proved helpful to him over these last 7 years. (For anyone not familiar with the Bible there is a very helpful appendix at the end of the book which places each of the different passages selected in the bigger Bible story)

2) the one to whom the Bible points, namely, Jesus himself. He says at one point: ’We may find partial theological answers to fear suffering and death - and there is a place for that - but God’s ultimate answer is Himself.’  He means in the person of Jesus, who as our Truthtrackers children have been reminding us these last two Sundays is ‘Totally God, Totally man’.  As such, ‘He can save us from fear suffering and death’ says Marshall and continues, ‘I am living testimony that his presence can be experienced through his Word and my prayer is that you, too, will know his closeness as you look at His Word.’

3) Hope. I have found that fear, suffering and death can be redemptive because in Christ we have hope.  I have found that people are intrigued by the hope I have. It is nothing particular to me; every Christian has the same hope. Jesus stands in front of us in our fear suffering and grief and says ‘I am the resurrection of the life’ (john 11.25)

 Our prayer and desire is that reading and reflecting on these passages, plus Jeremy Marshall’s insight and encouragement, may be the means of generating and renewing hope in Christ in each of our lives. We have ordered extra copies and you are welcome to share these with anyone you think might benefit from it. (Just get in touch with Doris in the office if you would like extra)

The books will be sent out from the beginning of next week (as the current Church of Scotland guidance does not encourage us to deliver them in person) and the intention is to commence the first devotion on Monday 8th March and to read one a day, Monday to Friday, in the 4 weeks leading up to Good Friday on April 2nd

 Looking forward to sharing in this with you,

Yours in hope and expectation,

David

Blind spots - Midweek Message 17th February 2021

 


Dear Friends,

Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. (Psalm 19:12)

 You are driving along, approaching a corner when you see the warning sign: ‘Hidden entrance’. Or this time the road is straight, but undulating, and as you come to the brow of a hill, there is again a warning sign: ’Blind Summit!’. Both signs are warning of hidden dangers – things not immediately visible, out of sight - and if you are wise, and accept such signs are not there without good reason, you will exercise caution. You will be extra vigilant. The Psalmist in his prayer is recognizing the same kind of problem for the believer in the spiritual realm. He knows we can have spiritual blind spots where we fail to see the errors, the faults, the sins that threaten our walk, our witness and our welfare as a Christian believer. Wisely, he accepts his vulnerability and cries out to God for help.

In that connection, I also wanted to think about one way as a church family we can help one another in this difficult realm of discerning and dealing with the danger of hidden faults.  Joseph Rhea recently wrote an article1 in which he quoted and reflected on some passages from Dieterich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together. Rhea was writing in the wake of the Ravi Zacharias scandal and with Christian leaders particularly in mind, but what he says is relevant for all of us all because it is essentially about the nature and the depth of our fellowship as a church family.

It’s vital, says Rhea, that our churches are places where we are honestly able to admit to one another  our sins and struggles as Christians. He warns of the danger of a church being what Bonhoeffer calls ‘the pious fellowship’ as opposed to being what it actually is, a ‘fellowship of sinners.’

The pious fellowship says Rhea ‘encompasses most of what we imagine in healthy Christian community: corporate worship, prayer, service, and spiritual conversations. It’s easy to assume that someone engaged in these activities has a proper spiritual life…must be spiritually healthy’ The problem with the pious fellowship is that the ongoing presence of sin in the life of the Christian is never openly acknowledged. It is hidden. He quotes Bonhoeffer:

The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.

But that is not how church is meant to be. Remember Jesus response when people complained about the kind of people with whom he was meeting and eating It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Mark 2.17) Church is a fellowship of sinners, a gathering of those who have admitted to God and themselves that they are not spiritually healthy but sick and, unable to heal themselves, have therefore placed themselves under the care of the only one who can cure them, the crucified and risen Jesus. As Rhea puts it: ‘The fellowship of sinners (the church as it is meant to be) is marked not only by a striving toward worshipping God, but also by radical honesty about one’s sins and struggles. It is a community that practices deep confession and frequent repentance and celebrates God’s forgiving grace.’ 

He further quotes from Bonhoeffer:

‘In confession (admitting our sins and struggles) the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sins wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart.’

Rhea continues that it is this ability and willingness to admit our sins and struggles to one another that turns the merely ‘pious fellowship’ into a genuine ‘fellowship of sinners’ living under the grace of God in Christ. 

Again, he quotes Bonhoeffer:

The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. . .  Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ. Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God. He can confess his sins and in this very act find fellowship for the first time. The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ.

As Rhea then points out, this honesty and openness with one another is something that James encourages, as we will see later in his letter confess your sins to each other and pray for each other… (James 5:16)

I don’t know how we may respond to all this. Some of this may sound a bit scary to us and yet it is, I think, a wise and pastoral reminder that Christian believers are vulnerable (think of James’ warnings to professing Christians in his opening chapter of the danger of being deceived) - and particularly vulnerable where we find ourselves isolated and alone with our sins and our struggles because we feel we dare not admit them to anyone.  The Lord Jesus taught us to pray together: Forgive us our debts)…  and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6.12,13) He knows, as I hope we all know, we all sin and struggle with temptation and evil. He never intended that we fight such battles on our own. He calls us into the fellowship of his church, to which he has given birth through the gospel of his grace. In that fellowship, he intends not that we might have to pretend to be something we are not, but rather honestly admitting what we are, we might help one another continue to find his grace in forgiveness and repentance and thus step by step, be transformed into his nearer likeness,

Yours in that fellowship of sinners and the grace that is ours in our Lord Jesus Christ,

David    

 

1 You can read the original article here

Faith - a new way of seeing - Midweek Message 3rd February 2021

 

Dear Friends,

‘I once was blind but now I see’

I wonder how many times you and I have sung that familiar line from John Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’. Reading through the opening chapter of James and remembering who James was has reminded me of the way in which faith opens our eyes to see everything differently. It changes the way we see everyone and everything – or at least it’s meant to. We see everything newly and more importantly, truly – or again at least we are meant to.

Think of James: he was brought up alongside Jesus of Nazareth – under the same roof – sharing the same mother, possibly the same bed. Throughout his childhood and adolescence James was reared in a household where daily he rubbed shoulders with the incarnate Son of God and yet he didn’t recognise Jesus as such. He didn’t see him for who he truly was.  John confirms that when he recounts the sceptical and even cynical reaction of all Jesus’ brothers to his decision not to perform miracles more publicly before the crowds flocking into Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacle. He tells us: For even his own brothers did not believe in him (John 7:5) Yet that changed for James. When exactly his eyes were opened,  we don’t know. Possibly, it was after Jesus resurrection. Paul indicates the risen Jesus made a personal appearance to him (Then he appeared to James 1 Cor 15.7) Whenever it was, James certainly looked on his half-brother with new eyes, for what else explains referring to himself at the beginning of his letter as a servant … of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1.1) or again as our glorious Lord Jesus Christ (2.1) If you have a brother with whom you have been brought up you will understand what remarkable language that is!

That change in the way James saw Jesus, which then resulted in his trusting and bowing to him as his Saviour and his Lord, subsequently impacted the way he saw everything else and as we said earlier that is meant to be the case for every Christian believer. The evidence for that change of perspective is there in his opening exhortation to Christians to reckon trials as something to be welcomed rather than resented. That is a very different way of seeing. Or consider what he says to Christians in the churches to whom he writes who find themselves at very different ends of the social and financial spectrum:  Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. (1:9-10 ESV) Whatever exactly James is saying there, we can’t help but be aware that what he is advocating is not the ‘normal’ way of seeing poverty and wealth. (We didn’t touch on that the other Sunday because James has much more to say on these subjects later in the letter) Furthermore, in relation to the trustworthy goodness of God in time of trial and temptation, and at the other end,  the dangerously deadly nature of some of our desires, again we hear James’ loving pastoral concern that we see clearly – that we are not deceived (vs13-18)

So, in the light of James’ words, it’s worth asking ourselves – How is my sight? Am I seeing clearly? Am I seeing in the way James sees? Have I seen in Jesus, our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? Do I see myself as his servant? How do I see my current circumstances, especially my trials? How do I see my wealth or lack of it? Am I seeing and resting in the goodness and love of God in time of trial? Am I recognising and, with God’s help, resisting the deceitful nature of my self-centred desires?

Remember Jesus, the Son of God was sent by the Father to bring ‘recovering of sight to the blind’ (Luke 4.18) Remember that Paul the apostle was sent to preach the good news of Jesus to Gentiles in order to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God (Acts 26:18) Remember that through this gospel God….has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus and his gospel is all about giving new sight, true sight.  It makes good and wise sense, therefore  to keep on praying in the words of the Psalm Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law (119.18) or echoing for ourselves what Paul prayed for the Ephesians:  I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,

It’s not that seeing is believing but rather  believing (in Jesus) is the way to true seeing or as  CS Lewis once said: I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun is risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.

Yours in Him

David

 

 

 

Welcoming trials as friends and being a friend in trials - Midweek Message 27th January 2021

 

Dear Friends,

When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realise that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. (James 1.2-3 JB Phillips)

 I recently listened to a small group of Christian people relating some of the hardships they have encountered over lockdown and was struck by the variety of things that were mentioned: everything from the daily relentless demands of having school age children, and younger, at home; to health issues; to temptations to laziness and eating the wrong things; to the frustration of not being unable to sing Christmas carols; to coping with painful bereavement. Each of these would readily come under the category of ‘all kinds of trials and temptations’ that James speaks of in the opening verses of his letter (from JB Phillips paraphrase). I’m sure you could add to that lockdown list and probably with your additions, you would also echo the theme that was regularly repeated alongside these different trials and temptations and which compounded them, namely, the inability to meet and speak with others, especially in the context of the church family. There was, and is, that ongoing and aching sense of separation and isolation.

Given all of that, it would not be difficult to resent all these different trials and temptations as intruders and it could sound crazy and masochistic to welcome them as friends and yet, as we were considering last Sunday, that is what the Lord Jesus through his servant James ( see James 1.1) calls his followers to do.  On Sunday, we looked at 3 reasons from what James says as to why you might do that:  

a) what trials (in the hands of God’s good though sometimes hidden purposes) produce in us

b) where they point us,

c) what they expose in us 

(if you haven’t listened to the sermon, you can do so here)

However, in the wake of both James’ words and listening to these fellow Christians speaking of their own personal trials in lockdown, two further things came to my mind to bring to yours.

Firstly, at the beginning of Sunday’s sermon I quoted from an article Joni Eareckson had written about the process of her coming to accept and embrace the deep and painful trial of her disability as being part of God’s mysterious and yet good purpose for her life.  In that article she mentioned prayer, deep study of God’s Word and the encouragement and support of Christian friends coming alongside her, as being vital factors in enabling her to welcome the trial of her disability as a friend, rather than resenting it as an intruder. Significantly, for ourselves in our lockdown, it is one of the major frustrations and challenges in all that we are coping with that  our friends cannot come alongside us – at least not physically. However, it struck me as I listened to that small group of Christians (all of whom I knew) sharing their personal trials of lockdown I was now in a better position as a friend to pray for each of them. Of course, you could argue that with a bit of imagination and empathy I probably could have guessed what might be challenging for them in the current situation! That is true and yet somehow actually hearing them say it, and share it openly and honestly, brought home the need in fuller measure and I hope will inform and fuel my prayers for them. It is one of the best things a Christian friend can do for another – bring them and their needs to the Lord in prayer.

In light of that, let me encourage you to consider doing a couple of things. Maybe in these challenging days there is someone within the church family or indeed beyond you might look for an opportunity to ask – is there something I might be praying for you just now? Or indeed is there someone you might approach and let them know of something you are finding a particular trial and ask them to pray for you?  There is always a risk in opening up in these ways to someone else but these are simple and yet potentially hugely significant ways of supporting and being supported during the trials of lockdown and also in living the Christian life in general. Such mutual, prayerful support is meant to be part of the fellowship of faith, as James will point out to us as we go through his letter.    

Secondly, I wanted to mention was something I came across just this morning as I went to write this message. The Good Book company sent out an email about a new devotional book by Tim Chester that has just come out in which he quotes words and prayers from Christians from earlier centuries, particularly the 16th and 17th centuries. In the advertising material some words from William Bridge (1600-70) from his book A lifting up of the downcast sounded wise and encouraging for us in our different trials, and perhaps especially in our sense of isolation:

If you want to avoid being discouraged in any condition, then never link your comforts to your condition … Hang a cloak or garment upon a rotten peg, and the peg will break, and the garment will fall. Now there is no condition that is not like a rotten peg. Every condition is alterable. No condition is so firm and fast that it is not exposed to many changes or to a rotten hold. God, however, is a pillar … If you build upon Christ himself and upon God himself then you build upon the Rock. And, though the floods and storms and winds rise and beat upon you, yet you shall not lose your comforts because they are built upon a rock.

Our trials during lockdown, and in life, will have served us well & proved good friends to us, if they drive us deeper into Christ, who in the words of another 17th century Christian, Isaac Ambrose (1604-64)  is ‘the centre of heaven’s happiness – beauty to the eyes, music to the ears, honey to the mouths, perfume to the nostrils, health to the bodies, joy to the souls, light to the understanding, contentment to the wills’  of his people.

 

Yours in Him,

 

David 

Dealing with Dark Days - Midweek Message 13th January 2020

Dear Friends,

I was thinking about writing about something else for this week's message when I came across this article by Christopher Ash on the Gospel Coalition website.  I found it so relevant to the current moment and helpful personally that I decided to share it. Christopher Ash was ordained in the Church of England and has ministered in various churches. He currently works at Tyndale House, Cambridge which is a research institute which seeks to equip 'the churchgoing and non-churchgoing public to better understand the Bible'  He is the House's writer-in-residence. The original article was entitled, Spiritual disciplines for Dark Days and can be found here. (It was written in the first place for a North American audience hence the explanation of the UK context of COVID restrictions. I've also anglicised the spelling!)

David

***

We had just driven home after a wonderfully happy Christmas Day with some of our family. (Our government allowed us to mix on that one day, but we had to drive home that evening ready for the next spell of tight COVID restrictions.) As I was sorting things out at home, tears welled up in my eyes. Why? After all, it had been a lovely day, full of family harmony and joy.

Well, to the naturally dark days (for us in the northern hemisphere) and grey, wet weather (of which we’ve had plenty) was added the sadnesses of COVID restrictions, the misery of social distancing, the disruption of church, and the uncertainties about when we could next see precious family or friends.

There is nothing particularly special about my sadness. But it prompted me to ponder what spiritual disciplines would be beneficial to me, and to others experiencing the darkness.

I hang them on five words.

1. Lament

Lament focuses on three truths: the character of God, the truth about myself, and the sadness that lies at the root of all our sorrows.

There is all the difference in the world between shedding tears and pouring out “tears to God” (Job 16:20). For when I weep in the presence of God, I do so before the face of infinite love, unerring wisdom, unchanging faithfulness, and unfailing kindness; before the Father who sent his Son to save me; before the Son who loved me and gave himself for me; in the power of the Spirit who pours love into my heart. Weeping can feel lonely; weeping to God never is.

But biblical lament (for example, in the Psalms or the songs of Lamentations) also presses me to remember who I am as the mourner. By nature, I am a rebel in a world under sin. And yet in Christ I am not merely fallen but justified—a sinner for whom there is no condemnation, a sinner whose sins are borne by the death of the Lord Jesus.

When I weep in the presence of God, I do so before the face of infinite love, unerring wisdom, unchanging faithfulness, and unfailing kindness.

So why, in Christ, must I grieve? Perhaps Romans 8:17 puts it most crisply: “We suffer with Christ in order that we may also be glorified with him.” In this world, we expect to suffer. Whether in sickness, frustration, bereavement, and weakness, or—for so many—in persecution of one kind or another, suffering ought not to surprise us. But it is wonderful to remember that we do not suffer alone. Our sorrows bring us into fellowship with Christ.

2. Thank

Once when I was feeling quite low and rather full of self-pity, a friend wrote me a letter telling me how helpful he’d found the discipline of daily thanksgiving. Rather than rebuking my bad attitude, he listed some of blessings for which he gave thanks and implicitly commended the practice to me. I have never forgotten his kindness or his counsel.

Thanksgiving coexists in the life of faith with lament, as we so often see in the Psalms. It pervades the prayers of the apostle Paul. Not to give thanks is one of the foundational markers of idolatry in Romans 1:21. It seems clear from the Scriptures that thanksgiving is not a discipline simply for when I feel thankful, but a discipline for dark days as well.

Thanksgiving is not a discipline simply for when I feel thankful, but a discipline for dark days as well.

And so I am stirring my soul afresh to give thanks to God. From him flows every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3)—all that we possess in Jesus so that, in the words of a wonderful song, “there is no more for heaven now to give.” Having given Jesus, God has given me all I need for life and godliness.

This then stirs me to make my thanksgiving more particular as I explore God’s providential ordering in my life, working all things for the honour of Jesus and for my good.

3. Rejoice

Following thanksgiving is the discipline of rejoicing. Again, this often coexists with tears in the paradox of the life of faith (“sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” 2 Cor. 6:10). I need to allow myself to be reminded, to be stirred, to be warmed afresh by the truths I know about God my Saviour—the truths heralded and proclaimed to me in the gospel of the Lord Jesus.

I need to allow myself to be reminded, to be stirred, to be warmed afresh by the truths I know about God my Saviour.

I don’t want to be afraid to be refreshed. I have been pondering that strange exhortation in the letter of Jude: “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). Or, to paraphrase: Go on and on and on being loved by God! Let yourself be loved. Don’t wander from being loved. It is a strange exhortation, but it is necessary because my natural tendency is precisely and madly to wander away—whether into a legalistic misery of desperate activism, or a vain search for happiness away from God, or a belief that his law is repressive and crushing.

4. Intercede

Recently, I preached 2 Corinthians 8:9 and was struck by the flow of divine grace: Jesus became poor to give us riches, which then moves us to pour ourselves out for others so they too may become rich. When Paul describes his own ministry as “poor, yet making many rich” (2 Cor. 6:10), it sounds remarkably like the pattern of his Master. Our present darkness can turn us in upon ourselves (at least, it does for me), but the gospel of Jesus enriches us and turns us outward.

For me this means a renewed discipline of intercession for others. I suspect that most authentic service toward others has its roots in intercessory prayer for them. Praying for others keeps us from destructive introspection and self-pity.

5. Obey

Finally, as I have struggled on some dark days to get out of bed and get going on the day’s tasks, it’s been helpful to remind myself that, as long as there is life, there are good works prepared for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10). So often I think this is “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5): simple obedience that believes God has set the good works before us and that trusts him to give strength for what he calls me to today.

And so often it is starting that is the key. For where there is a beginning, there can be a continuing, until at the end I may look back at a day well spent, however little I think I have achieved.

 ***

Christopher Ash is writer-in-residence at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England. He has written numerous books, including Psalms for YouTeaching Psalms (vols 1 and 2) and Bible Delight.


A Prayer for Christmas 2020 - Midweek Message 23rd December 2020

 

There’s no specific Midweek Message for this week but given the challenging circumstances of this particular Christmas, here’s a prayer for grace from Scotty Smith which I hope might prove helpful. If you want to read and use more of his prayers, you can find them  here

****

Grace for the Challenges of our 2020 Christmas

“The time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” Luke 2:6-7

Lord Jesus, your birthing experience often wrongly gets turned into an opportunity to shame an inhospitable inn-keeper—who isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Or it’s used as a moral imperative, urging us to make room in our hearts for you.

But we don’t make room for you, Lord Jesus. You make room for us. From (your) fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (John 1:16). Indeed, as Paul stated, you are the one who “fills all things everywhere” (Eph. 1:23). The Gospel is your glorious, grace-full welcome to us… Hallelujah!

But, perhaps, this is the year to draw encouragement from the less-than-ideal circumstances of your birth. Today, my own state of Tennessee begins a 30-day stay-at-home admonition from our Governor. My dear friends in the UK are presently under much greater COVID-stress and restrictions.

Here’s our prayer, Lord Jesus. You specialize in broken stories, messy situations, and giving “grace for the moment” (Heb. 4:16). Of course, we long for the day of no-more-virus; even more so, the Day of your return. Until both, grant us grace to live and love to your glory. Wisdom, safety, and neighbour-love are the order of this day.

Jesus, you also specialize in redemptive surprises, and doing beyond all we can ask or imagine. In ways, perhaps we can’t imagine, make this Christmas one of the most treasured ones, ever—a feast of grace, a celebration of kindness, creative loving for each other; not just daily, but moment by moment mercy. VERY amen, we pray, in your tender and triumphant name.

 

Your life in his hands - Midweek Message 16th December 2020

 


Dear Friends,

 ‘Christian faith is not a negotiation it is a surrender. It means to take your hands off your life’

We quoted these words Sunday past in our last sermon from Habakkuk. I read them firstly on a Tim Keller tweet to discover subsequently that they came from his book, ‘Hidden Christmas’ in a chapter entitled Mary’s Faith.  There, he reflects on Mary’s response to the astonishing news from the angel Gabriel that she was to be the virgin mother of God’s own Son, Jesus. They sum up how her trust in God expressed itself as she concluded her conversation with Gabriel with those memorable words: "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." (Luke 1.38 ESV) She had taken her hands off her life, placed that life into the hands of her God and said, ‘Your will be done’. Had she any idea at the time what that would mean for her? Do any of us when we respond in similar fashion to the call of God through Jesus?

This last couple of days as we have read Luke 2.1-7 alongside Tom Parsons ‘The Radiant Dawn’, I’ve found myself reflecting on what it came to mean for Mary. Consider these lines from Mary’s point of view:

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem ….  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,  and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7)

The time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. I have little knowledge of the normal circumstances for the birth of a child in 1st century Israel, but I think we can safely say this was not it  - certainly not from Mary’s (teenage?)perspective. I’m sure she would have dreamed of becoming a mother, but that dream would never have included travelling  90 or so miles (a 3- or 4-day journey on foot) from Nazareth to Bethlehem, heavily pregnant. If she had dreamed of one day having her own child, I’m sure in her mind the baby would have been born in her own community with her mother and perhaps other supportive family members beside her but here she’s far from home with only Joseph present and in a lonely, alien environment, an overcrowded Bethlehem. Furthermore, all the indications are that Mary and Joseph came from relatively poor backgrounds so in her dream there would have been no expensive or unrealistic expectations but surely, she could never have anticipated  laying her firstborn in an animal’s feeding trough!  And all this happens, not ultimately because of a decree from Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man on the planet,  but because of a decree from the highest authority of all, God himself that His Messiah, His Son, be born in Bethlehem, in fulfillment of the words of His prophets. It is therefore all a direct consequence of Mary saying in faith to God the Father in relation to Jesus: ‘Your will be done.’

In all of this we have said nothing of the tongues that must have wagged and the brows that must have frowned in disapproval on the streets of Nazareth and the surrounding community, once news of Mary’s pregnancy outside of wedlock broke.  The scandal, as well as the squalor,  associated with Jesus’ birth  also comes as a direct result of her taking her hands off her life and placing it in her Maker’s. Mary is quickly learning that faith comes with a cost, that Christian discipleship really does involve denying yourself and taking up your cross. Mary is sharing in the humiliation of the Son of God. She is where she is, in that stable, in that outwardly scandalous situation, enduring what she does, all for Jesus sake. In order to come to earth as Saviour, Jesus exchanges heavenly glory and riches for earthly shame and poverty. He exchanges life in heaven where he is at the centre, for life and death on earth where he  finds himself on the outside. And Mary is tasting something of that as she seeks to be faithful to him and to his Father. In fact, as we read on to the end of chapter 2 we see Simeon taking the infant Jesus in his arms and speaking of the painful opposition and rejection he was to provoke and then tenderly warning of the sword that would pierce Mary’s soul. (2.34-35)  How deep that sword of suffering and sorrow would pierce both son and mother at the Cross!

You think on all that and you want to ask Mary: Is it worth it? Is Jesus worth it? Is faith wise? Is the Christian life worth it? Is it wise to take your hands off your life, allow God to place his hands on you and say to Him, ‘Your will be done’?

After the birth narratives we don’t read a great deal about Mary. She features on one or two occasions and it would seem at times she struggled, as of course did Jesus disciples, to come to terms with what God the Father had called him to be and to do (see for example Luke 2.48; Mark 3.20-21;  John 2.3-4) However, there are for me at least 3 biblical indications, two explicit and one implicit, that, however costly,  Mary never regretted saying to Gabriel, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."

The first direct one comes just after Jesus has initially rebuked her for bringing to his attention the matter of the wine running out at the family wedding at Cana. Mary humbly accepts her son’s rebuke and says to the servants present: Do whatever he tells you. Clearly, she had learnt that the very wisest course of action when it came to Jesus was to pay close attention to his words and put them into practice - whatever that might involve.

Secondly, it is surely significant that when Luke opens his second book, Acts, with an account  of Jesus ascension and then describes the subsequent gathering of Jesus disciples, he names the 11 apostles and then he says: They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers (Acts 1.14).  Mary is there with Jesus disciples. She too is a disciple. She has seen her son through the trauma of the cross and she has witnessed his resurrection as her Lord. She knows that however painful the path of following the plan and purpose of God, it ends ultimately in triumph and glory. She knows it is worth it. She knows He is worth it.

And the third indirect indication is the very existence of these accounts in Luke of the birth of Jesus. It was surely Mary who was Luke’s source for these. She wanted to tell the story.  It was one way of recording and affirming that even though faith had come at a cost, the gains were so much greater. She would still gladly sing: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour   he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-47, 49)

Therefore, if having taken your hands off your life, said to God, ‘Your will be done’ and trusted and followed Jesus,  you find yourself today in a painful place, a lonely place, a puzzling place, a place you would never have chosen for yourself, Mary I’m sure would be able to identify and empathise with you but I’m sure she would then say to you: Do whatever he tells you or give you every encouragement she could to say to Him: I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word

Yours in Christ,

David

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