Sunday, 4 March 2018

Wings of Refuge

I've been doing a small series at Livingston Free Church called 'Three Funerals and a Wedding - God's Faithfulness in Testing Times.  You can listen to the sermons here.

This morning we looked at Ruth 2 under the title of 'Grace and Gratitude'.  Among various points I spoke about the 'wings of refuge' in verse 12.  Ruth and Naomi had come to Bethlehem full of grief, in utter poverty and without hope.  In a patriarchal society they had both lost their husbands and therefore their protection, income and future.  As we see right throughout Ruth the Covenant God loves the stranger and the widow and graciously takes them under his care.

We often find the imagery of God being like the eagle.  In many ways this sums up the whole theme of the book of Ruth.  An isolated grief-stricken widow comes under the care and protection of the Covenant God of Israel.

Image result for eagles

The eagle imagery is used frequently in Scripture.  In Exodus 19 v 4 we read: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to myself.’  The imagery is of the strong eagle redeeming the Children of Israel by grace.  Interestingly the prequel to the Ten Commandments was all about God's grace towards his people so the idea that there is no grace in the law is wrong.  There is no grace to save in the law but God gave his laws in love to protect his people from sin and disobedience.  The whole context of Ruth is about God's covenant laws that protected and provided for the poor (Leviticus 19).  The whole reason Ruth gleaned in the field was because of God's law of love that obligated farmers to leave some of their harvest for the poor.  Boaz went far beyond the law in terms of his love an generosity and showered Ruth with blessing.  He is a picture of the grace and love that the ultimate kinsman redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, will shower on his people.

We see the eagle imagery used again in the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 v 11 ‘Like and eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him, no foreign god was with him.’  We see this beautiful imagery about God’s love for his people in that chapter when God says: ‘he kept them as the apple of his eye.’  There is a strong emphasis on God's individual love for his people.

We see this imagery of wings used in the Psalms.
Psalm 17 v 8 ‘Hide me in the shadow of thy wings, from the wicked.’
Psalm 36 v 7 ‘how precious is thy grace! Therefore in shadow of thy wings men’s sons their trust will place.’
Psalm 57 v 1 ‘Yea in the shadow of thy wings my refuge I will place, until these sad calamities do wholly overpass.’
Psalm 63 v 7 ‘In shadow of thy wings I’ll joy, for thine my help hast been.’

What do God’s wings demonstrate?  Well they certainly demonstrate safety, refreshment, stillness, help, rest and hope  Isn’t that just what Ruth needed?  This frightened, vulnerable widow with no sense of belonging finds rest under the wings of Jehovah the covenant God – a God who loves the poor and the stranger.  She is offered a place at Boaz table, a beautiful picture of acceptance and community.

Is that what you need today?  Shelter under the wings of the Lord.  God’s love for Ruth was personal not general.  As St Augustine says "God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love."  God loves outsiders, outcasts, strangers, the lost, the broken and the filthy.

He loves to cover sinners under his wings of love.  As A.W. Tozer said in a similar vein to Augustine; 'Jesus Christ came not to condemn you but to save you, knowing your name, knowing all about you, knowing your weight right now, knowing your age, knowing what you do, knowing where you live, knowing what you ate for supper and what you will eat for breakfast, where you will sleep tonight, how much your clothing cost, who your parents were. He knows you individually as though there were not another person in the entire world. He died for you as certainly as if you had been the only one. He knows the worst about you and is the One who loves you the most.'

Saturday, 17 February 2018

God is Stranger

I don’t know what its like in your house, but meals are pretty important in our house.  We have 5 boys ranging from 4 to 18 so we go through a lot of food on a weekly basis.  

In our house meals take place around our kitchen table.

But we don’t just eat around our table, we make memories.

Recently we celebrated by oldest son, James, 18th birthday around that table.  My parents and my sister came around and my sons new girlfriend sat around our table for the first, and I suspect not the last time.

I’ve written application forms for jobs on that table, we’ve organised our finances around that table.  Pictures have been drawn on that table, inventions have been created, sermons have been written, important conversations have taken place, big decisions have been made.

We have laughed, we have cried, we have argued, we have debated, and we have prayed, at times, some desperate prayers around our kitchen table.

Most of all we have welcomed strangers around our table.  Relationships have been made that have lasted for years.

The table, and the meals we enjoy are so much more than wood and food – lasting memories have been made, relationships have been formed and we hope, we have come to see Jesus a little more clearly as a result of those meals.

Meals are important in the book of Luke.  Tim Chester says in his book A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community and Mission around the Table: ‘In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.’

And that’s what we have in Luke 24 - we have three strangers gathered around a table, sharing food.  Two of them, Cleopas and his friend, start the meal broken and blind but leave with bursting and burning hearts.

Firstly we notice that two on the road to Emmaus were broken, Their dreams have been completely shattered.  Notice their disappointment in v 22 ‘But we had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel.’  

How often do we have our hopes disappointed? 

Maybe like these disciples you’ve invested everything into a relationship only to be let down badly.

Maybe a job hasn’t worked out, maybe a church has let you down, maybe you have a dark secret you’ve never told anyone – whatever it is you feel broken.

Maybe you prayed for healing but your prayer wasn’t answered in the way you wanted.

Maybe you’ve begged Jesus to show up in your own ‘Road to Emmaus’ – a place of brokenness and disappointment but He never showed up.

Perhaps you’ve experienced a time when you were sure God was going to come through but in the end, He didn’t, at least in the way you wanted Him to show up.

As Krish Kandia says;

‘Sometimes it’s easier to believe in a God who never heals than to believe in one that does but won’t. Sometimes it’s easier to believe in a God who doesn’t intervene than to believe in one that does but hasn’t.  Sometimes its easier not to raise our expectations because there is less distance to fall when it all goes wrong.  Sometimes it is just easier to go home, shut the door and forget all about the God who has gone elusive on us, all the promises that evaporated.’

These disciples has seen their hopes dashed.  Their hero was dead.  They were hopeless, broken and alone, except for a stranger who had turned up uninvited.  

Image result for the road to emmaus

Secondly, as well as being broken, we also see that the disciples were blind.

Isn’t it amazing that in all their brokenness, when Jesus himself drew near in v 15 we are told that ‘their eyes were kept from recognising him’.

The incredible thing about the disciples on the Road to Emmaus is that Jesus was there all the time, walking with them but they couldn't see him.

Isn't that our own experience?  Often when God feels like a stranger, that is when He is nearest.

Remember in Gen 16 how the Lord met Hagar in the desert.  He approaches as a stranger when she was in desperate need with nobody to turn to.  Eventually Hagar called the well ‘Beer-lahai-roi’ – ‘the well of the living one who sees me’.  As a slave she had been invisible but the Lord sees her for who she is – He then gives her hope and a promise.

Remember in Genesis 18 when Abraham was camped at the ‘oaks of Mamre?’  Three strangers turned up and Abraham offered them hospitality.  Eventually one of them tells him that he will be back in a year by which time he will have a son. It was what theologians call a Christophany.

It also happened to Jacob, Gideon and to Daniels three friends in the furnace.  God turns up unannounced and (at least initially) unrecognised.

Why does God sometimes do this?  Why doesn’t he just appear and reveal himself and explain exactly what is happening?  Could it be that God sometimes wants us to wrestle with some tough questions about who He really is?  Isn't this why Jesus probes them rather than immediately offering them comfort?

We see this in Gen 28 when Jacob has a dream and suddenly awakes and says: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’

Could it be that like these disciples we are so close to Christ yet miss him entirely?

Jesus is striking at the heart of the problem for so many of his disciples.

These disciples were familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures but had failed to understand the central message that Christ, the Messiah would die and be raised to life.

So much of the Christian church uses the Bible like some kind of text book but fails to understand its central message, the good news of Jesus for the stranger, the outcast and the marginalised.

As Kirsh Kandiah says; ‘it is possible to love the Bible but miss its message. It is possible to know the Scriptures but miss the Saviour.  Jesus points out to both the disciples and Pharisees alike that taking the Bible seriously should help us recognise Jesus in the stranger.’

We are never more Christ like than when we show love to a hungry, thirsty and underfed stranger.  Of course they need so much more than love - they need the gospel, but in showing love we point them to Jesus who alone can save them.

The big question for all of us is ‘have we seen Jesus?’  Do we see him as a great prophet or do we see him a Saviour and redeemer?

The disciples were hungry for more systematic Bible study, so they compel this stranger to stay with them and share a meal.  Is is the simple act of hospitality that they start to see Jesus clearly.

Thirdly and lastly we see disciples with burning hearts.

Given the priority of meals in the Gospel of Luke, it is not surprising that Jesus makes himself known through a shared meal.

Jesus takes the bread and breaks it and suddenly the two hosts recognised Jesus for who he truly is.  Some commentators wonder of the two friends looked at Jesus' hands as he broke the bread and saw the marks of the nails.  We can't say for sure but the brokenness and blindness is gone and instead we read in v 32: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us on the road, ‘while he opened to us the Scriptures.’

Jesus had been there all along but they were so broken and blind they couldn’t recognise him.

Suddenly the Bible makes sense as Cleopas and his friend see the Old Testament through the mission and identity of Jesus Christ.

Jesus used meals to be socially disruptive – he knew that eating with outcasts, and the marginalised was a way of demonstrating social acceptance – table fellowship.  Eating in Jesus time was highly stratified – Jews wouldn’t eat with Gentiles, there were all sorts of Levitical food laws.  

As Tim Chester says ‘…meals expressed who were the insiders and outsiders.  Jesus turns all this…inside out.  Outsiders become insiders around the table with Jesus.’

Again, and again Jesus teaches that our welcome of others is the litmus test of our relationship with God.   How do we respond to the stranger who is hungry, homeless, thirsty, in prison, homeless, isolated, penniless and hopeless?

How do we respond to the sinner who, like the Prodigal Son, makes choices we don’t agree with?  Do we show them love and compassion as they seek refuge?  Or do we sulk in the garden and bring shame on our father?

You see it was as these disciples sought to bless a stranger that they were blessed.

This is what characterised the early church: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship. To the braking of bread and to prayer…And all who believed were together and had all things in common’ Acts 2 v 42

What changed the world in the first century was the good news of the gospel coupled with reckless, revolutionary hospitality and love of the stranger.

This is what God calls us to today.  Our world is more divided that ever before.  The time is ripe for us to respond to God’s call to show radical hospitality and show people Jesus through the simple sharing of food of very ordinary tables.

When we do this, we see a glimpse of a future worth longing for, where there will be no more strangers.  Heaven, will be the great weeding feast, when everyone will finally be equal and where we will all see Jesus clearly.  

As Krish Kandiah says; ‘The hospitality we show now. Sharing our lives with the needy, gives the world an enticing taste of what is to come.’

That is one table I am looking forward to sitting at.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

2017 The Good, the Bad and the Utterly Amazing

The Good

As an old man with five increasingly strapping offspring, I love nothing more than talking about how fast time flies.  Everything seems to be getting faster and more frantic these days.  Daniels words in Daniel chapter 12 v 4 seem very apt; 'many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall increase.'  In a frantic world we desperately need to slow down and reflect on the past and think about the future.

This year, if we are spared, my ever patient wife and I will be celebrating 20 years of marriage and I will be officially entering my mid-late 40's.  How did that happen?  A few days ago my small army of children were screaming and shouting on Bayble Beach where it feels like only yesterday Kirsteen and I were sitting and chatting the night before our wedding which took place in the wee Bayble Mission House in 1998.  She is like a fine wine that gets better with age and she has lost none of her Island charm and beauty.

For the first time in 8 years we find ourselves up in Lewis over Christmas.  The last time we drove up we had 4 children including a 6 month old baby, a Jack Russell from South Lanarkshire with an attitude problem (no major developments in that department) and we drove up through 6 inches of snow at about 4am in the morning to get the ferry.  The tactful Cal Mac guy at the car park in Ullapool said 'your 5 minutes late' seemingly oblivious to the worst weather conditions in decades.  Over the last 20 years Lewis has always been like a haven.  A place to recharge and refocus after a busy time at work.  I'm still missing my trips to Point but gradually adjusting to the big smoke of Stornoway.

Last year has had many highlights.  It is a joy to see my boys growing up to be young men. Like all siblings they fight and scrap but generally they are a pleasure to be around and love each other dearly.  The two oldest boys in particular dote on their wee brothers and I love seeing the wee ones snuggle up to James and Calum for stories in the evening.  The boys are very resilient and generally are very content with what they have.  There are many wonderful moments as a parent where you get to drop some reassurance into a child's life or give them a hug when they least expect it.  

Highlights last year were taking my boys to see some great music and, as always, getting to some great shinty games.  Calum and I sped up to Killin in June to see the amazing Tidelines and a slightly larger posse made the trip to the Best of the West Music Festival in September to see Argyll's brightest new band Heron Valley and the incredible Skippinish.  It was great to see my boys play in a senior match for the  'dubh is gorm' (Lewis Camanachd) despite being hammered at Kilmallie.  It is wonderful as a parent to be a 'memory maker' and so often with kids it is the journey rather than the destination where the memories are made.  David and I have great times at the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum on the way up and back to shinty games.  James and I also had a great day at the 'Beast Race' in Inverness in September and Kirsteen and I were delighted with his profession of faith which I wrote about here.

A couple of small but significant things happened in the last 12 months.  Around Easter time we started a Celebrate Recovery group in Livingston Free Church.  It has been a real roller coaster ride but it has been a privilege to journey with a small group through their brokenness and recovery.  I feel blessed working alongside a dear brother from Elim Pentecostal Church in Livingston and we have a great unity in the gospel.  I think the best word to sum our discussions around the Bible are 'authentic'.  There is a reality in the recovery community that I have rarely come across in any other circles. I am constantly humbled by the brutal honesty of the members of that group.

Another small change I made in May/June 2017 was to go completely gluten and dairy free.  It's amazing how this has changed my life in all sorts of ways - from going out to restaurants to visiting people.  I have also given up beer and whisky which I should have done a long time ago.  My waistline is much smaller than it was and I spend a huge amount of time studying ingredients!

Two big highlights stand out over the last year.  The first was the Skye Shinty Camp.  For years I have wanted to organise and run a camp where kids could enjoy the amazing sport of shinty in a good environment where they can also hear about the good news of the gospel.  It finally happened in July/August this year.  Almost half the camp had little or no church background which made it very challenging but all the more rewarding. You can read about all the ups and downs here.  Amazingly the emotional scars have healed quickly and plans are well underway for next year.

Another highlight of last year was celebrating a certain lady's 40th birthday.  I could write a short book on my negotiations with the behemoth that is the Dalmahoy Country Club but the night went off well with Kirsteen surrounded by close family, good food and music.  The setting was beautiful and was a suitably special occasion to mark 40 years of a remarkable woman.  We never know what is ahead of us so family occasions are so precious.

The Bad

As I look back over the last year I made the classic mistake of pushing through exhaustion for weeks and months towards the end of the year.  I had to cancel my October holidays for various reasons and fully intended to take the time back but it just never happened.  Despite decades of hard lessons that I am not Superman, I thought I could work long hours, speak most weekends, be out most evenings and somehow everything would be still standing at the end.  As has happened so often before, my family and particularly my marriage suffered.  I forgot that while relationships are resilient, they are also fragile and need to be nurtured and treasured.

I've been enjoying Bill Hybels book 'Simplify' recently.  It has been a word in season to me.  Two of my top five strengths or traits are 'responsibility' and 'arranger'.  This basically means I feel incredibly responsible for everything and constantly take on too many responsibilities!  I find it hard to say no.  While this can be exhilarating when I have energy, when I get depleted, what Hybels calls 'toxically depleted', the results are not pretty.  As Hybels points out in his book the two biggest traits of being depleted are irritation and resentment.  Over the last few weeks I had both of these traits in spade loads.  I tend to withdraw further and further into myself and quite happily avoid time with family while all the time making very legitimate excuses.  

This quote from Hybels hit me like a bus;

Sometimes, people derive a disproportionate amount of their self-worth from being over achievers.  They keep doing and doing, thinking that what matters most is the end product not the process.  Sometimes, people feel an undercurrent of guilt for taking time to do things that fill their buckets, as if somebody will judge them for having fun or for spending time doing something for themselves rather than for others.  This is especially true of those who work in compassion related fields.

The result was I started the Christmas holidays with full blown flu and complete exhaustion.  But often when God flattens us he reminds us of our frailty and utter dependence on himself.  The last two weeks have been a time to kick back, rest and refill a very empty bucket.  I've been thoroughly enjoying getting to grips with my new ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible.  Space and time to read, pray and listen to God have been a life saver.  Reconnecting with Kirsteen has also been critical.  Being around somebody and being present with someone are two very different things.  

This blog post entitled 'Fighting for your Wife' was another word in season for me.  Most of us only get one marriage.  We will have lots of jobs and will probably attend several churches, but we have one marriage and we need to fight for it.  Great marriages don't just happen, we need to work hard at communication and affection.  When you have kids you need to fight for time with each other with so many competing priorities.  I've resolved to love my wife better in 2018.

The Utterly Amazing

Last Sunday morning in Stornoway FC  we were treated to a great on sermon on Matthew 13 v 24-33 on the 'little leaven that leavens the whole lump'.  Often leaven is used in scripture to describe the widespread and insidious effects of sin, but in this passage it is used very positively.  It is incredible to think with all our flaws and failings that God still chooses us to build His kingdom in this earth.  Leaven or yeast is such a minor and insignificant ingredient and yet it can and does have a transformational effect in baking.  As we go into into a New Year my prayer is that I am used more in his kingdom to bring transformation and change in my family, in my church and in wider society.  I need to remember I am not Superman, I need rest, I need recreation and I need to keep my family close.  It is when I drift from the Lord that I get my priorities all wrong.  I can only stay focused if I stay close to the Lord and His word.  

I was reading a few days ago in 2 Chronicles 34 about the reforms of Josiah and I was greatly struck by verse 27; 

because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants, and you have humbled yourself before me and have torn your clothes, and wept before me.  I also have heard you, declares the Lord. 

My prayer is for a tender and humble heart to serve the Lord in 2018.  What is your comfort and hope as we start a New Year?  Who knows what is ahead for any of us.  God is offering you the greatest gift of his son the Lord Jesus Christ.  I am sustained by the amazing fact that God loves me and gave himself for me.  As J.I. Packer says in Knowing God; 'What matters supremely is not the fact that I know God but the larger fact that underlines it - the fact that he knows me.  I am graven on the palms of his hands (Is 49 v 16).  I am never out of his mind.'  What a great thought to take us into a new year.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Joy for the Helpless

Through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.  Luke 1 v 78, 79.

An Expectant People?

One of the many things missing from our faith in 21st Century Scotland is a sense of expectancy.  Most of us don't expect very much at all.  We don't expect our situation to change any time soon, we don't expectantly look for God to work in a powerful way in our lives or in our churches and if most of us are honest we don't expect God to show up in our family life most of the time.  We don't think that our prayers will be answered  Most of us plod along, going to church, listening to sermons with little sense of expectancy.  

I wonder if this was Zechariah's problem in Luke 1?  Does this explain his reluctance to hear the good news the angel brought? He was a faithful man but not an expectant one.  

A Priest of the order of Abijah
Luke tells us quite a bit about this man whose incredible song at the end of Luke chapter 1 beautifully encapsulates what will happen when Jesus is born.  We know that Zechariah was a priest of the order of Abijah.  There were 24 different priestly divisions who helped out in the temple so he would only have been on duty for one week twice per year.  Zechariah was married to a priests daughter called Elizabeth.  Luke tells us they were both old and they were childless so beyond the age of hope for children.  The last thing we know about Zechariah and Elizabeth is that they were righteous and blameless.  So far so good.

A Priest without a Platform
Zechariah had been chosen to offer incense in the temple.  This would have been a career high point for the priest.  Other priests would have gone in to the holiest place but then they would have retired and left him alone.  It is here, all alone, that Zechariah comes face to face with a messenger from God.  We are told that the angel was Gabriel who said 'I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.'  Gabriel says this after Zechariah had questioned the news that he and Elizabeth were to have a son called John but by then the damage was done.  Zechariah had questioned God's messenger and therefore God's message or 'good news'.  So the priest is struck dumb.  God switches his microphone off.  He becomes a priest without a platform. 
Somehow he had domesticated God.  He believed that the messiah was coming, just not today, or this week or this month.  

Zechariah reminds me a little of Gideon in Judges 6.  In verse 7 the people of Israel cry out to the Lord on account of the Midianites.  The Lord sends a prophet to call them to repentance and then sends an angel to call Gideon.  God answers their prayers but how does Gideon respond?  'Please, Lord, how can I save Israel?  Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my fathers house.'  When the Lord answers the prayers of both Zechariah and Gideon one responds with doubt while the other responds with self pity.  

I don't know about you but that speaks powerfully to me.  We like a fairly predictable Christianity without too many surprises.  The last thing we want is for God to call us to fulfil his purposes.  We don't want to be pushed out of our comfort zone.  Zechariah's faith although real, had become domesticated.  His God was too small.  As William Phillip says in his wonderful book 'Songs for a Saviours Birth': ‘He [Zechariah] had lost sight of the sheer size and scope of God’s designs on this universe of ours’.  Somehow in all his rituals and routines, Zechariah had lost his sense of God working in his everyday experience.

A Promised Visitation
After a few months, Zechariah's tongue us unloosed and he breaks into song about the coming messiah.  By faith he saw that the coming messiah was the one that had been promised over many thousands of years.  The Israelites were an oppressed people and they were longing for a messiah.  They could echo the hymn writers words;

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Jesus had been promised and now he was coming!  Far from being a departure from the Old Testament, Jesus was the fulfilment of the everything.   As it says in Luke 24 v 44 ‘Then he (Jesus) said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’  The incarnation, the en-fleshing of God, is all about God keeping his covenant promises made through Abraham and David.  This is a God who can be trusted and followed.  He promises a redeemer and he sends one.

Sunrise on a beautiful frosty winter day 4 by MT-Photografien

A Powerful Visitation
What do we need to be saved from during this visitation?  Well Luke 1 tells us that we will be saved from fear and death (Luke 1 v 74 and 79).  Isn't it amazing how often the words 'fear not' are repeated during the incarnation?  We have an angel appearing to Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah and the shepherds and each time they are told to 'fear not'.  Jesus has come to banish fear.  So why do we so often live our lives in a spirit of fear?  Why do we some Christians continue to attend churches here there is a climate of fear?  This is not why Jesus came, he came to set us free from fear.  Jesus is the fulfilment of Zephaniah 3 v 15-17: 'The King of Israel is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.'

The wonder of the incarnation is that this powerful deliverer will visit us from on high. Zechariah is seeing the powerful fulfilment of Malachi and Isaiah who both prophesied about the dawning of this great light: 'The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light: those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness on them the light has shone.  Isaiah 9 v 2.

A Personal 
Zechariah’s great song of praise is about a new dawn for the whole world.  But Zechariah’s song is not just about ‘out there’ is also about ‘in here’ – in our hearts, in our personal experience.  This is where the ‘Christmas card’ version of the incarnation and the Biblical account part company.

You see this baby didn’t just come to be born and live a good life.  He didn’t come so we could all have sweet sentimental carol services and nativity plays. He came to die for sin.  His birth must always be linked to his mission. We must never talk about the incarnation without talking about why Jesus came into this world.

He came because of darkness and sin – he came as the sunrise to dispel the darkness.  The incarnation is God coming into our midst – coming near to us so He could save us.  Christs visitation from on high enables many visitations into the hearts of those who, Like Zechariah, believe the good news about Jesus.  Who trust in Him and follow Him.  The incarnation – God dwelling amongst us is to give light to those who sit in darkness.

The incarnation is a glorious doctrine, but it is more – it is personal invitation.  The child in a manger became the Saviour on the cross.  There is a path all the way from Bethlehem to Calvary.  This baby had a mission and that was to save sinners like you and me.  It was all because of the tender mercy of God – literally Gods ‘inner parts’ were moved with love to send Jesus as the sunrise that would light the whole world.

Renewing our sense of Expectancy 

Zechariah's song is wonderful but it only happened after the Lord chastised him for his lack of faith.  While he was righteous and blameless I think Zechariah had stopped looking, had stopped expecting that the messiah was actually going to show up in his lifetime.  The news that his son was to be the forerunner to this incredible saviour was a total shock to Zechariah.  He was shocked that his prayers had been answered - he was shocked that the Lord was to perform a miracle in giving a long awaited child to Elizabeth.  I wonder if you have stopped expecting God to show up in your life?  Have you lost your sense of expectancy?

Is there joy for the helpless?  Absolutely!  The incarnation is all about hope for the hopeless.  In this dark and evil world we can sing with joy:
O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.

As William Phillips says:

The message of Christmas is both simple and beautiful: God is calling out from heaven and saying, ‘Come to the sunrise! Rejoice in the light of my beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and the sun will surely rise in your life, bringing the dawn of a new day that never ends, of a sunset that never comes, of a light that is everlasting.’

Jesus came as he promised, he came powerfully and today he comes to you personally.  He is freely offered to you in the gospel.  Receive Christ with the empty hands of faith.  Whatever gift you receive this Christmas will not compare with this Saviour.  Maybe like Zechariah you have rejected his words in the past, but today God, in His tender mercy is offering you the most precious gift of all – the Lord Jesus Christ.  He has visited from on high – but the great question is – has He visited your heart?

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Discipline of the Interrupted Life

I love my family, but I would be lying if a wee solo 24 hour trip to Manchester 2 weeks ago didn't fill me with a little excitement.  I love travelling.  I love all the arranging and organising and I really enjoy travelling by train (except the TransPennine Express which is absolutely awful).  I arrived in Manchester around 8pm on a dark cold November night and immediately got lost.  I walked up increasingly dark and deserted streets while google maps kept re calibrating or in my case not calibrating at all. Trams in Manchester seem to come from nowhere and I was almost flattened several times.  I was amazed to find a tent pitched on a postage stamp of grass next to a railway bridge and I met several people who were clearly homeless.  Despite all my confidence and resources I felt like a stranger in a strange land and not a little scared.  I didn't quite shout for my mummy but what I wouldn't have given to find a friendly face that night to guide me to safety.  The thought  of aimlessly walking those dark streets every night without the prospect of a warm meal and a hotel at the end was unimaginable.  Eventually the dim orange glow of my budget hotel came in to view.

It was my first time in an easyhotel which is essentially like a bed with 'walls'.  It would have probably been quieter without the wafer thin walls - at least if it was open plan you could at least shout at people for being noisy, but then there could have been some privacy issues.  I 'unpacked' in my tiny space and began to wish I had paid extra for luggage storage.  The orange glow of my room was beginning to feel like I was sharing a room with Tommy Sheridan so it was time to have a wander round the mean streets again.

My big challenge these days is eating.  Having decided to go gluten and diary free a few months ago, food involves a lot of forward planning.  After meticulous research on the TransPennine nightmare I decided I would hike across town to the Handmade Burger Co for their gluten free menu.  Having been in social work for around 26 years it takes a wee bit to shock me but my walk across town was like walking through a Charles Dickens novel.  The homeless were everywhere.  I saw young women slumped in doorways, lifeless bodies in sleeping bags on the street and huge packs of homeless people on the hunt for warmth and shelter. Beggars were everywhere. 

I arrived at my restaurant devoid of all gluten (and customers) and thoroughly enjoyed my piri piri chicken burger.  It was slightly eerie being in a restaurant completely on my own.  I wondered if perhaps there was some civic emergency that everyone knew about apart from me.  I figured that whatever disaster was coming it was better to face in with some piri piri chicken than on an empty stomach.

My walk back to the hotel was filled with more emaciated figures hovering between life and death on a freezing November night.  The contrast with some of the trendy bars and restaurants in a renewed and vibrant Manchester was very stark.  Bourgeois bars served unpronounceable European beers at exorbitant prices while 100's of 'Manchester's forgotten' shuffled through the night.

The following morning I had a couple of hours to kill before my meeting.  Recent research by Street Soccer here suggests that 41% of people in Scotland are frightened to talk to rough sleepers, 66% have never stopped and talked to a homeless person and 33% of people dismiss homelessness as a self inflicted.  As many people who are homeless say, the highlight of their day is when somebody stops and talk to them, reaches out in friendship and shows some genuine compassion.

The two men I ended up talking to had a familiar story.  Both had been on the streets for over a year.  One came to Manchester on the promise of work which fell through while the other, Scott, had been evicted after rent arrears accumulated.  Scott had spent the night in a multistory car park but had been kicked out by the staff in the morning.  Both were cold and damp by 8am and the next few hours would be a test of endurance both physically and emotionally.

In David Crouch's book 'Playing God - Redeeming the Gift of Power', he talks about the 'discipline of the interrupted life'.  We live our lives so driven and self absorbed that we don't always allow ourselves to be interrupted particularly by those who don't have power.  We are sometimes too busy building God's Kingdom for Him we forget who God prioritised for love and compassion in the Bible: the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan.  I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that not only do many Christians not allow themselves to be interrupted by those who lack power in our society but if the widows and orphans walked in to many of our churches they would not feel welcome.  The poor and the powerless make us feel uncomfortable which is why so few of our churches are in poorer areas.

Jesus didn't mind being interrupted.  He lived a pretty disciplined, God focused life and yet he was interrupted all the time.  We see in Mark 5, that Jesus steps off a boat and is immediately met with a  demon possessed man.  Next Jairus approaches him about his very ill daughter.  On the way to the religious leaders house a ceremonially unclean woman with an issue of blood touched Him.  Jesus didn't just allow interruptions he welcomed them.  He had time for the marginalised, the unclean and the outcasts.  Jesus didn't throw His power around as so many Christian leaders and Christians organisations do.  He didn't sit in an ivory tower or a book lined study, he was out amongst the people showing everyone exactly what power looks like.  The Kingdom of God has a very different power dynamic to the world, it cares about the people the world dismisses.  Its followers love the unloved and care for the downtrodden.  Jesus doesn't bully, threaten and scare people because they speak out or ask questions, he welcomes the lost, the lonely and left behind. We may not be able to solve all the worlds problems but we can learn the disciple of an interrupted life.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Ad Fontes: Martin Luther and the Source of all Theology

My knowledge of the great reformer Martin Luther is rather limited so I am really enjoying The Legacy of Luther, ed RC Sproul and Stephen J Nichols.   Luther is much maligned and misunderstood, partly because we don't view Luther with 16th century eyes and we don't understand the times he lived in.  Luther could, at times, use extreme language.  When somebody complained about Luther's harshness the Catholic scholar Erasmus replied 'Because of the magnitude of the disorders, God gave this age a violent physician.'  Don't be put off studying Luther by the fog of misinformation that swirls around his legacy, study him for yourself.

I will hopefully blog more about Luther as I try and digest what I am reading but I just wanted to do a quick blog on one passage I came across.  Ultimately, the reformation was about power and authority.  Who saves?  Who forgives?  Who mediates?  Who has the final authority?  This was the battle ground of the reformation.  Is the church and tradition the final authority or is it Christ and His word?  Thankfully for us, under the blessing of God, Luther and his colleagues prevailed and brought Europe out of darkness and corruption.  Luther prefaced his Ninety- Five Theses with these words: 'Out of love for the truth and a desire to bring it to light.'  Luther's allegiance was to God and His word, not a corrupt and abusive church.

When the vicar general of the Augustinian Order, Johann von Staupitz sent Luther on a Pilgrimage to Rome in 1510 he thought it would strengthen and confirm the young monks faith as well as reaffirming the credentials of the monastery in Erfurt.  Far from confirming his faith, Luther's visit to Rome exacerbated his 'Anfechtungen' (the German word for a deeply seated struggle of the soul).  The contest between sins and merits that was meant to lead to Luther's salvation was leading Luther to extreme anxiety and torment of soul.  His worship of St Anne, the mother of Mary the mother of Jesus brought him no peace and comfort.  His visit to Rome compounded the torment in Luther's soul.  As Stephen Nichols says in the first chapter: 'By the time Luther made his way down to the Basilica of St John Lateran, he would have seen enough to make his stomach turn. Prostitutes, public lewdness, and hawkers of all sorts of wares would have pestered him along the cobbled city streets.'

Luther would have queued with others and paid his money to shuffle up the scala santa on his knees.  These were the twenty-eight marble steps believed to have been the steps that led up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem.  The Emperor Constantine had the steps moved to Rome as a gift to his mother Helen.  When Luther reached the top there was no spiritual awakening, there was no peace of conscience.   Later Luther would say of Rome: 'The city has become a harlot.'

What lay at the very heart or Rome's corruption was the practice of penance.  Original sin was atoned for in Baptism, and all that was left was actual sins and these could be dealt with through the sacraments and penance.  This involved going to confession and receiving absolution (as long as the tasks prescribed by the priest were completed).   Having done penance one could attend Mass and receive the Eucharist.  The other option was to skip these elaborate steps and purchase an indulgence.  

When Luther eventually nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg on October 31st 1517, the process of illumination had started much earlier.  A year earlier Erasmus has published the New Testament in Greek as a parallel text with the Latin Vulgate.  As Stephen Nichols says:

'This was an unprecedented publishing event.  And it led Luther right back to the source of all theology, right back to the original text.  When Luther examined the Greek text, he noticed something striking at Matthew 4 v 17.  The Latin Vulgate translated the Greek word meaning 'repent' as poenitentiam agite, or 'do penance'.  Luther knew this to be a mistranslation.  Penance is about an outward act, or multiple outward acts.  Repentance is a whole-souled heart change that results in outward acts of obedience.  This mistranslation of the Vulgate set up a domino chain that fell  in a tragically wrong direction.  Instead of falling in line in the next domino in the chain, Luther want back to the source and began building his theology from there' Sproul R.C., Nichols S.J. (2016), The Legacy of Luther, Sanford FL, p 24.

This is why the first thesis declares, 'When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said 'Repent,' in Matt 4 v 17 he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.'  He continues with the second thesis: 'This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.'  Luther had just lit the fuse on an explosion that would be felt for many centuries to come.

The great battle cry of the Renaissance was ad fontes, 'to the sources.'  This is what happened at the Reformation.  Men like Luther want back to the fountainhead of all theology, God and His word. Luther want back to the source and saw the error.  He brought truth to the light and it transformed a continent.  That first plank of the reformation sola Scriptura was absolutely critical in exposing a corrupt and abusive church.  As Luther said 'I did nothing, the word did everything.' 

Monday, 18 September 2017

Real Faith is Enduring Faith by Rev J.J.Murray

There are many misconceptions of faith abroad today. Some think of it as a commodity. They say:'I wish I had your faith'. Others think of it as simply the means of salvation, to deliver us from hell. Much of the evangelistic preaching in recent years has been directed in that way. 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved'. A decision is made and it is as if there were no further implications for an on-going life of obedience. Many are under the impression that there exercise of faith frees them from the law. 'Once saved, always saved.' Such faith is superficial.

Is this the faith that is so highly extolled in Hebrews 11 in particular? In that eulogy on faith Abraham is given the chief place. He is more fully portrayed than anyone else in the gallery. He is the father of the faithful. Reference is made to him some ninety times in the New Testament. He is the pattern we are to follow. There are three things in particular in his life that demonstrates the nature of true faith.

1 True faith changes our whole perspective

In God's dealings with Abraham we have the beginning of the redemptive activity that will lead to the unfolding of the Covenant of Grace. We see three things:
1 The Divine initiative   Abraham is a shining example of the divine initiative. At the time of his call he was living in Ur of the Chaldees, 'worshipping other gods' (Josh 24.2), and in pagan darkness.  He had no thought of the true God. Suddenly, as we are told in Acts 7.2, by the  martyr Stephen: 'The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia'.  He is described as the 'the God of glory' because His glory is His self-manifestation. What kind of reaction this must have produced in Abraham's mind! It was like the revelation that Isaiah had in the temple. It was a sovereign revelation and call, and he was given grace to respond to it. So it is for everyone that 'born of the Spirit'.

2 Absolute obedience  'By faith Abraham, when he was called...obeyed.' (Heb 11.8) It was an efficacious call.  He had not fulfilled the purpose of his creation, which is to glorify God. He had dethroned the living God and set up idols of his own imagination. God's call was to bring Abraham back to allegiance to Himself and there must be an immediate and unqualified response.  He had to come out from among the pagan worshippers and make God his own God and his inheritance. The Word of God became everything to him. He did nothing that was not by the command of God. As Thomas Manton observes: 'Faith is the life of our lives, the soul that animates the whole body of  obedience'.

3 Separation to God  Abraham's whole perspective changed. He was living for the things of this life and the riches and honours of it. He began to live life in terms of his final destiny. He was set free from the desire to make this world his home. God promised him an inheritance. This inheritance was a 'better country' and 'a city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God'. It is the fatherland or the homeland where God dwells. He has prepared it for His people and He is their ultimate inheritance. The whole plan is beautifully portrayed in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, where we see Christian fleeing from the City of Destruction and journeying on to the Celestial City.

2 True faith stands on the promises of God

The second characteristic of true faith is trusting in the promises of God. The writer is still talking about the faith of Abraham but he brings in Sarah.  Both had to be committed to the promise because it pertained to their offspring. 'Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed' (v 11).  It seemed an impossible situation. Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90. She was past the age of child bearing. When first hearing the news of an heir, her faith wavered: 'Sarah laughed within herself' (Gen 18.12). Unbelief had a temporary hold. 'And the Lord said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is anything too hard for the Lord'. (Gen18.13-14). What brought the change? She stopped looking at the problem and started looked to the Lord, 'because she judged him faithful who had promised' (v11). She took her mind of the problem to the Promiser. He became the object of her faith. 'True faith', says Sinclair Ferguson. 'takes its character and quality from its object and not from itself'. Is anything too hard for the Lord? He created the world out of nothing. (Heb 11.3). He promised and He will bring it to pass. Isaac was conceived in  the normal way.

3 True faith is tested

The third characteristic of true faith is that it is tested. 'By faith Abraham when he was tried, offered up Isaac'. (11.17). There is a Jewish tradition that Abraham was tested on ten different occasions. If so, certainly this must have been the most painful. The commandment forbade the taking of life. Isaac was the best gift God had given to him. In Isaac he had everything he longed for, and yet he was to be taken away. It was through him the promise was to be fulfilled. Is providence going contrary to the promise? But Abraham believed that the God who had promised was able to raise him even from the dead. He did in effect offer him in will, heart and affection. God accepted the will for the deed, 'for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me'  (Gen 22.13). 'From hence also he received him in a figure' (v19).

As Christians we should not be afraid of trials and troubles. Indeed an undisturbed life is great cause for concern. James begins his Epistle with the words:  'My brethren count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations (trials) (James 1.2). It is the great common experience of the Redeemer and the redeemed. There is a purpose in it. 'Knowing this that the trying of your faith works patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect an entire, wanting nothing'. ( v 3-4).  Trials and tribulations blow away the chaff and produce endurance in a life of undivided obedience.   Peter, in his First Epistle, speaks of rejoicing in our great salvation,  and then he  brings in a caution, 'though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations. That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ' (1 Pet 1.6-7). The genuine element in the faith is proved by a  process similar to that of metal-refining and is found to be something more precious than the precious metals. The result is what meets the approval of God and redounds to His glory.  

Many passages of Scripture warn us of the dangers of a temporary faith and a faith that fails. The faith of the Hebrew Christians was wavering,  'Cast not away your confidence' (Heb 10.35). The writer goes on to say, 'we are not of them which draw back' (v 39) and then immediately introduces to us the gallery of faith, of whom it is said 'these all died in faith' (Heb 11.13). Faith dominated their lives while trials abounded. As John Calvin says their achieving such triumphs with limited resources ought to put us to shame. Luther puts it in his own way: 'When Abraham shall rise again at the last day, then he shall chide us for  our unbelief, and will say:I had not the hundredth part of the promises which ye have, and yet I believed' (Tabletalk, 2009, p233).

The 'cloud of witnesses' are there to stir us up to endure unto the end (Heb 12.1-4). This faith, as Luther maintained, is an operative grace, it is an overcoming grace  and ultimately it is a victorious grace. God grant that it may be ours!