Saturday, 20 January 2018

Thinking about healing

Some men came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it, and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, "Son, your sins are forgiven."  Mark 2:3-5
Over my years as a minister I've known sermons interrupted by various things - a baby starts to cry, someone is taken ill, a phone goes off, and yes, just occasionally, there's the sound of gentle snoring. But somebody dismantling the roof to let someone down on a stretcher...? Not yet, I'm thankful to say.

Of course Jesus wasn't in a church or synagogue - he was speaking in someone's home. The house was packed, which is why the four men carrying their paralysed friend decided this was the only way they could get him to Jesus. The house probably had a flat roof where you could go up to enjoy the cool of the evening, and opening it up wasn't too big a job.

I wonder, by the way, if they paid afterwards for the repairs? Whatever, what a great example they are of loyal friendship - even quite a short journey carrying such a burden in the heat of the day would have been seriously demanding. It reminds us of a really important truth: that there are times in the Christian life when we have a duty (which is also a privilege) to carry a fellow-believer by our faith and prayers when they cannot carry themselves. And, of course, times when we need to let others carry us...

It must have been one of those hold-your-breath moments - hearing scraping noises, everybody looks up to see what's going on... the hole slowly widens in the roof... a face appears, sussing out the situation... the stretcher is lowered into the middle of the room. Can you see the crowd shuffling awkwardly backwards to make space? ("Hey, you're treading on my toes!") They quickly take in what's happening - the paralysed man was probably well known in the locality, so they knew how desperate his need was.

What will Jesus do? How will he handle this odd situation? 

Total silence. And then (roll of drums) Jesus speaks... "Get up! Take up your stretcher and walk..."  

Well, no actually - that is exactly what Jesus doesn't say. Not yet, anyway. He says what must have seemed the biggest anti-climax of all time: "Son, your sins are forgiven". Oh.  

I wonder if the man on the mat was tempted to put Jesus right? "Er, Jesus, it's really nice of you to offer me forgiveness. Please don't think I’m ungrateful. But actually that isn't what I came for. You may not have noticed it, but (ahem) the fact is that my legs don't work. To be honest, it was healing I had in mind... Forgive me for pointing it out..."

But of course Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and why. He knew, putting it simply, that the healing of the soul matters far more than the healing of the body.

Oh yes, he spent a lot of time curing people's physical ailments. He obviously regarded that as important. But it was never his top priority.

He came to deal with humanity's big problem: sin, separation from God. That was why he suffered and died on the cross. And he promised that all who put their trust in him will indeed be perfected one day, even if not in this earthly life: we will have sinless souls and brand new bodies fitted for eternal life in the kingdom of God.

Not, of course, that we should drive too sharp a division between our bodies and our “souls”, because the two belong together in a unity. We all know very well that our physical condition can affect us spiritually - if we are tired or sick it can depress our spirits; and if we persist in sin of any kind, it can make us physically ill.

Indeed, you can’t help wondering if the reason Jesus spoke to the man on the mat first of all about forgiveness shows that he knew that his paralysis was the result of some suppressed sin. Quite likely, I would think.

"How are you?" we say to one another, enquiring about our health. "Oh, not too bad," we answer. But the question that really matters is different altogether: How is your spiritual health? Can you say your sins have been forgiven? Are you walking with God day by day? If our answer is "Thank God, yes!" then our physical ailments, however serious they might be, fall into their rightful place.

First things first...! 

Lord, I confess that my aches and pains can get me down. I get frustrated that my body seems sometimes to be my enemy rather than my friend. But thank you for the promise of an eternity of perfect well-being. In the meantime, help me to know that my sins are forgiven, and that my soul is in your loving hands. Amen.  

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Lord, I don't understand!

He (Paul) writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other scriptures... 2 Peter 3:16

Are you the kind of person who likes everything cut and dried - no loose ends, no shades of grey, everything black and white?

If you are, then I have bad news for you: expect to find yourself often frustrated when you grapple with Christian teaching. 

Certainly, the essentials of the Christian faith are clear: the ultimate reality of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the coming in flesh of God’s Son to this world; the sinless life and atoning death of Jesus; his bodily rising from the dead; the gift of the Holy Spirit; the church as the body of Jesus on this earth; the final judgment and the reality of heaven and hell.

These core teachings have been common to pretty well every branch of the church for two thousand years.

But once you start delving into more detailed things it can get decidedly tricky, and we can be left scratching our heads. The Bible often blesses and challenges us in a way that changes our lives; but other times it can leave us puzzled. Honesty compels us, for example, to recognise that there are passages which seem to contradict other passages; or passages which raise awkward questions about certain actions of God (take a look at 2 Kings 2:23-25 if you want to know the kind of thing I have in mind).

It’s when I find myself mystified like this that I am specially grateful for Peter’s words: that some of the things written by Paul (and this would apply to other parts of the Bible too) are “hard to understand”. So it isn’t all straightforward! And I find myself thinking, “Great! I’m glad it’s not just me!”

That drive for precision - getting everything nailed down - is very natural. But it’s also unrealistic. And it can in fact be dangerous.

For one thing, it can lead us to completely miss the point of the Bible. We can get the idea into our heads that what matters is having perfectly correct beliefs rather than living holy, Christlike lives.

Way back in the Middle Ages there was a movement in the church often now called “scholasticism”. This consisted of highly scholarly men who were said to debate endlessly on topics which now seem to us utterly pointless and sterile. (The joke - at least I hope it was a joke - was that they spent hours discussing questions like how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.)

And learned scholars then and later would write lengthy tomes - thousands of pages - which purported to sum up the essentials of Christian teaching. They might be either Roman Catholic or, after the Reformation, Protestant in conviction. But they had in common a desire to get everything tied own. And - let’s face it - who in this world can tie down God’s eternal truth?

In my own early days as a Christian I got in with a couple of groups in particular which felt strongly about certain issues. On the one hand were the “charismatics”, adamant that you needed to be “baptised in the Holy Spirit” and that the sign of this was speaking in tongues. On the other hand were the “Calvinists”, who believed Christian theology could be summed up under five headings beginning with the letters t,u,l,i,p - and, take it from me, the tulips weren’t the kind you could tip-toe through.

My problem was that both these groups argued strongly from the Bible, quoting left right and centre. So who had it right? Both? Neither? Who should I believe? There were times I felt my faith was quite wobbled; and only later did I wise up to the fact that it simply didn’t matter to have every i dotted and every t crossed.

Where is this leading? To this: that there are certain questions and mysteries that we have to leave dangling - and not to worry. Love, trust and obey the Lord Jesus Christ and you can’t go far wrong.

The Christian writer G K Chesterton was once asked if he wasn’t worried by those parts of the Bible he couldn’t understand. To which he replied “No! The parts that worry me are the ones I can understand!” Wise as well as witty.

And Karl Barth, who churned out theology by the yard, when asked what was the essence of the Bible’s teaching, replied: “Jesus loves me, this I know,/ For the Bible tells me so.”

If even the apostle Peter accepted that there were things that were “hard to understand”, well, all I can say is that that will do for me too. It’s not bad company to be in, is it?

Lord God, I very much want to be right in my thinking and understanding. So give me, please, by your Spirit, increasing insight into the truth of your word. But help me still more to be right and Christlike in my living. Amen.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

A vision of angels

When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord, what shall we do?” the servant asked. “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all round Elisha. 2 Kings 6:15-17

What do you do when you are at your wits’ end? Your problems are mountain-high, your resources have run dry, and you can see no way through. 

I am grateful to God that I have never been in that sort of situation, not remotely so. I would like to think that, if ever I were, I would be strong and resolute, trusting in God in the thick of whatever was happening to me. But honesty compels me to admit that I have my doubts! Panic or despair seem much more likely.

Elisha and his servant are being hunted by the King of Aram, who regards him as a menace and an enemy. If he is able to capture him he will probably kill him. So we can understand the hopelessness of Elisha’s servant one morning when he gets up and finds the town where he and Elisha are staying surrounded by an army: “Oh no, my lord, what shall we do?” Caught like rats in a trap - what hope is there for them? 

But Elisha the man of God is untroubled. He gives a word of massive reassurance: “Don’t be afraid... Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And then he prays: “Open his eyes, Lord, that he may see.” 

And God does...

If you’re anything like me you may find it hard not to respond to this story with “If only things like this still happened today! Oh to have some kind of vision, some kind of proof, that God really is there, and that he is with me!” 

True, every so often you do hear stories, perhaps from missionaries in extreme situations, or Christians suffering terrible persecution, where such things indeed happen - and thanks be to God for them! But they seem to be very much the exception rather than the rule, let’s be honest. Most of the time, for us, it really is a case of “walking by faith and not by sight”.

Was it angels that Elisha’s servant saw? We don’t know. But it’s hard not to think of angels as we read the story. 

I must confess that I feel slightly shocked at myself that over more than fifty years as a Christian I have never really given much thought to angels. Indeed, over more than forty years as a minister I’m not sure I have ever either heard or preached a sermon on them. Certainly I have mentioned them, because they do crop up regularly in both Old and New Testaments; but that’s as far as it’s gone. It’s hard to avoid the question, do I really believe in angels at all?

I would never feel easy about asking God to reveal an angel to me - it would seem too much like what Jesus called “asking for a sign”, which we are forbidden to do (Matthew 12:39). But I wonder if perhaps we should seek to develop the kind of spiritual antennae that make us more aware of unseen spiritual forces, angels or otherwise - the kind of spiritual antennae that Elisha obviously had. 

And how do we do that? It can only be by going deeper each day in our relationship with God. And that should never be a means to an end; it’s something we either want or don’t want for its own sake - so take an honest look inside.

The essential message of the story, of course, is very obvious and very simple: as I heard it put once: “One person plus God is a majority.” Easy to say; hard to really believe. 

But even if most of us have never been in the shoes of Elisha’s servant, one good way to put this story to use in a practical way comes to mind.

The sad fact is that there are many people - thousands upon thousands - who have, and indeed who are in those shoes even as you read this. 

Many Christians - and others too, of course; let’s not forget them - are in prison cells and torture chambers; many are driven from home and suffering grinding poverty, cruel injustice and untreated sickness; many are desperately lonely and sad, perhaps unable to feed their children, having to watch events unfolding and unable to do anything about them. Their cry may be silent; but it is the same as that of Elisha’s servant: “What shall we do?” And there seems to be only silence in reply.

So could I encourage us all to pause for a few minutes and think about such people, and then to pray Elisha’s prayer...?

Heavenly Father, I think of all those who today are in the depths of hopelessness and despair, and I cry out to you on their behalf: Open their eyes, Lord, so that they may see. Yes, even give them at this very moment a vision of angels! Amen.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Be kind!

Then Ruth told her mother-in-law... “The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz”... “The Lord bless him!” Naomi said... “He has not stopped showing kindness to the living and the dead...” Ruth 2:19-20

Love is patient, love is kind... 1 Corinthians 13:4

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness... Galatians 5:22

Just recently I heard a sermon largely about kindness. It was based on the story of Ruth and Boaz, one of the world’s oldest, simplest and most beautiful stories.

The young woman Ruth has arrived as a visitor in Israel. She is with her mother-in-law Naomi, and they come, both, as widows. Way back, when Naomi and her husband Elimelech were young, they had moved to the land of Moab along with their two small sons. Ruth, a local girl, had eventually married one of those sons, but he, along with both his brother and Elimelech, had died.

So Naomi and Ruth are alone. There is nothing left for them in Moab, and they decide to head back to Israel, to Bethlehem. Will the land where Naomi and Elimelech had met and married be able to provide them with a home, work - and a new life?

We aren’t told how welcoming the people of Bethlehem were when they turned up one day out of the blue; only that “the whole town was stirred... and the women exclaimed, ‘Can this be Naomi?’” (Can you see them whispering behind their hands?) Their arrival was a talking-point, no doubt about that; but perhaps the gaunt and bitter Naomi was not the kind of person who invited rejoicing. Nothing more is said, anyway.

And this is where Boaz enters the story. Ruth decides to try and earn some money, or at least some food, by following the reapers round the harvest fields picking up scraps. The writer tells us that “it so happened” (as if it was just coincidence!) that she found herself in a field owned by Boaz. Boaz notices her and, cutting the story short, takes steps to ensure that she is safe and well provided for (this, incidentally, before any question has arisen about him eventually marrying her).

Very simply, he chooses to be kind because it’s a right and good thing to do.

All sorts of things follow: I’ll leave you to finish the story for yourselves. But don’t neglect some time when you are in the New Testament, to read the family tree of Jesus in Matthew 1. There, in that long list of very Hebrew names, who do we find? - “Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was... Ruth”. Yes, the lonely young gentile widow finds her place in the centuries-old unfolding of the purposes of God.

Suppose Boaz had chosen to take no interest in Ruth, to harden his heart against her? One of those things we will never know...

What do you need to make you a kind person? I suggest two basic things.

First, eyes that see the needs of others

If kindness, in essence, means offering help to someone who needs it, well, obviously you can’t do that if you haven’t seen that need. Our problem, very likely, is just that we are so self-obsessed that we see only our own needs.

So let’s look up and look around us!

Second, hands willing to act for that other person.

True, sometimes real kindness can be shared simply by a word or a smile - greeting a stranger in the street, taking a moment to pass the time of day with the person at the super-market check-out, pausing to ask after the sick relative of a fellow-employee - but often there is a cost involved; action is required, great or small.

Again, if deep-down we are just plain selfish, that simply isn’t going to happen. And we need to remind ourselves of Jesus’ great word: “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving” (ask Boaz!).

Kindness is, of course, a universal thing, by no means confined to Christians. But if we are followers of Jesus, surely we above all should stand out as kind people. The poet Wordsworth wrote about “That best portion of a good man’s life-/ His little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love.” “Little, nameless, unremembered acts” perhaps; but who can ever guess or calculate their value?

There’s a Japanese proverb that says, “One kind word can warm three winter months”. I like that! And this too: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Yes, people may look unfriendly, cold and aggressive; but deep down inside they are very likely timid and insecure, silently crying out for just a little touch of kindness.

Lady Macbeth scolded her husband for being “too full o’ the milk of human kindness”. She meant it as a rebuke; but personally I find it hard to think of a greater compliment. How about you?

Lord God, fill my heart with Christlike kindness for everyone I meet, and especially for those, like Ruth, who are sad, lonely and far from home. Amen.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

A reality we can't avoid

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgement, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many... Hebrews 9:27-28

I read in the paper recently that you can buy an app for your smart phone which will remind you five times every day that you are going to die. Ninety-nine pence it will cost you. Cheap at the price?

In the world of ancient Rome a victorious general returning from battle might have a slave standing behind him in his chariot whispering in his ear, “Remember you must die”. The idea was to keep him grounded while the crowds roared their admiration and sang his praises. Surely you don’t need to be among the high and mighty to benefit from such a reminder? 

We live in a culture where most of us prefer to brush the whole subject under the carpet. Just a week or so ago I was chatting to someone I don’t often see, and remarked that we ought to keep in closer touch because “We don’t know how much time we’ve got”. I was being a little light-hearted, to be honest; but she quickly replied, “Oh, I don’t think about things like that.” I got the impression that I had touched a raw nerve.

The people who have produced the app make it clear that they don’t mean to be morbid. No, on the contrary, their very positive view is that we could all live more productive and focussed lives if we only took our own mortality more realistically. And that, surely, is right: there is at least a chance that our lives would be more balanced, that we would use our precious time better, and that in the end we would achieve more.

The only weakness I can see in that app is what it doesn’t say. Yes, we would do well to look firmly in the eye of death; but as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, we are not only “destined to die once” but destined also “to face judgment”

Ah... judgment! Doesn’t that give it a whole different dimension?

The Bible never encourages the belief that after we die, that’s that: end of story. No: death is a prelude to more - and solemn - things. We will stand before God, and the lives we have lived while on this earth will be subject to his scrutiny: our deeds, our words, even our thoughts. Paul puts it with crystal clarity: “... we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

If you believe in Jesus you might protest against that idea - doesn’t the same Paul tell us that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)? Isn’t the whole point of Jesus’ death on the cross that he has paid the price for our sins? Don’t these verses in Hebrews 9 make that very point: he “was sacrificed once for all to take away the sins of many”?
Yes, of course. But there is a difference between “judgment” and “condemnation” (in fact, they are two related but distinct Greek words). Condemnation - well, that speaks for itself; it means judgment which results in a bad outcome. Judgment - that means simply a just verdict. 

Which means that when we Christians face divine judgment, the lives we have lived will be exposed to God’s eye, even though our sins are forgiven. There will indeed be “no condemnation”, as Paul says - but I suspect that, for most of us, there may be plenty of room for shame. Putting it another way, I don’t think many of us - certainly not me, anyway - will feel particularly comfortable on that day.

If the idea of judgment makes us feel this way, perhaps we should ask ourselves the question: Would we prefer that there is no judgment at all? Would we rather that God were simply to turn a blind eye to sin and wickedness? Would we be happier if even great evil were forever unpunished?

If that’s the way it was, it would make nonsense of any notion of right and wrong - just “eat, drink and be merry”, for what does it matter? It would make nonsense of conscience; it would take the shackles off self-control and self-discipline, and the result would be sheer moral chaos. The difference between good and bad would be dissolved - don’t grumble, for example, if somebody lies to you or does you a bad turn, for, well, why shouldn’t they? And why shouldn’t you do the same to them?

The fact that there is judgment to come is, though it seems strange, ultimately good rather than bad news. It means that God intends at last to straighten this crooked world out. 

So - all credit to the people who produced that app. All we need to do now is listen to the Bible, move on that vital step further - and take seriously that final Great Day.

Lord God, bring me to that place where Paul found himself: able to rejoice that to me to live is Christ - and to die is even better. Amen.