Wednesday, 24 August 2016

A tax, a fish, and a coin

“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him [Peter]. “But so that we may not offend them [the collectors of the temple-tax], go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch, open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” Matthew 17:27

What’s this! Finding a coin in a fish’s mouth! What a very odd story. What’s going on?

A little background...

In Jesus’ day most Jewish men had to pay an annual tax for the upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem. The sum wasn’t massive, but it was an imposition that many people resented.

Peter, it seems, has been approached in the street by the local collectors in Capernaum: “Your teacher does pay the temple-tax, doesn’t he?” they ask. Peter assures them he does. So that’s fine. But this triggers a conversation between Jesus and Peter when he gets home about whether they really are obliged to do so.

In essence, what Jesus seems to say is: “Of course, it’s absurd and wrong that we, the very children of the God who owns the temple, should have to pay this tax. The temple has become a focal point of corruption, not really the house of God at all. But this isn’t the time to make a fuss. So - I tell you what, Peter - why don’t you go down to the lake and catch a fish. Just open its mouth, and you’ll find a coin which will be enough for you and me for the year...”

The essential point Jesus is making is clear: there are times to “make an issue” of something, and times not to - times to kick up a fuss, and times to swallow your resentment and do what is asked of you.

We know very well from other parts of the Gospels that Jesus was perfectly prepared to make a fuss when the time was right - after all, it won’t be long before he deliberately provokes a near-riot in the temple (see Matthew 21: 12-17). 

But... not here, in Capernaum! Not now, with some minor, small-town officials! That would just cause a distraction from what really mattered: his coming death and resurrection.

This suggests a principle for us today. There are times and circumstances when it is right and good to make an issue of something. But not at the drop of a hat! The history of the church is littered with tragic examples of Christians kicking up a fuss when it was damaging and unnecessary - and then turning a blind eye when they shouldn’t have.

We need to pray for spiritual discernment: “Lord, give me the gift of restraint when it’s best to say nothing, and the gift of courage when it’s time to speak up. And the wisdom, please, to know the difference!

I think that’s how to understand what’s going on in this episode. 

But of course as we read it we probably find that a big question hangs in the air: Did Jesus seriously expect Peter to do as he suggested? 

That may seem a strange - perhaps even a shocking - question to ask. Of course Jesus meant these words seriously! - why else would he speak them? 

But wait a minute. There are several things which suggest it’s not quite as simple as that.

First, we notice that Matthew doesn’t tell us that Peter actually did as he was told: “So Peter went off to lake and threw his line in, and sure enough...” or something like that. Always elsewhere, when Jesus works a miracle, that miracle is actually described. So why not here? Why is the story left hanging?

Second, if it did happen as Jesus seems to say, wouldn’t that be rather like a magic trick rather than a real miracle? Wouldn’t Jesus in effect be yielding to the temptation which, according to Matthew 4:3-4, he had resisted in the wilderness?

Third, throughout the Gospels when Jesus works a miracle it always has a deep, spiritual significance - it isn’t done to solve a relatively trivial practical problem. God doesn’t do miracles to make things easy for us - doing things for us we can quite easily do for ourselves.

I don’t know. But I must admit (and don’t worry, I fully believe in the miracles of the Bible!) that I am inclined to think that Peter, reading between the lines, got the message: “Look, Peter, there’s no problem here that can’t be solved with a bit of fishing...”. Which is what he then went off and did.

Remember, Jesus quite liked to say puzzling and sometimes quite provocative things. Did he seriously mean to refer to a woman in great distress as a “dog” (Mark 7:27)? Did he - the Prince of Peace! - seriously mean his disciples to arm themselves with swords (Luke 22:36)? 

So, regarding the coin in the fish’s mouth, the question is not “Could Jesus have done this?” Yes, of course. The question is “Would he have done this?”

As I said, Matthew doesn’t tell us: he leaves the story hanging. I think that will do for me too! How about you?

Lord God, thank you that your word is true, varied, strong - and sometimes demanding. Please help me, with the guidance of your Spirit, always to understand it aright. Amen.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Questions about prayer

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you... since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you ... Colossians 1: 3,9

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you... 2 Thessalonians 1:11

Whatever else he may have been, Paul was certainly a great pray-er. 

I’ve plucked just a couple of examples out of his letters which make clear how committed he was to praying for the churches on his heart. (It reminds me of something my wife-to-be said shortly after her conversion: she intended to be a “non-stop, walking, one-woman prayer meeting”.)

Well, the Bible regularly urges us to pray. Jesus set us a challenging example of commitment to prayer, and taught his disciples to pray. Nothing is more basic to biblical faith, Old Testament as well as New, than prayer.

But this is one of those areas where I would love to be able to question Paul a bit... 

What does praying “constantly” actually mean in practice? 

All right, you pray day by day for the Christians of Thessalonica, but how long does that take - an hour? five minutes? one minute? After all, I’m sure you’re praying too for the Galatians, and the Romans, and the Colossians, and the Corinthians (yes, especially those Corinthians, I suspect!), the Ephesians, the Philippians (no doubt the Athenians too, though you never got round to writing them a letter)...

And quite apart from all that praying, you seem to have been quite a busy chap in other ways too - what with preaching, evangelising, church-planting, fund-raising, letter-writing, mentoring younger pastors...

To be fair, there are one or two places where Paul gives an idea of the content of his prayers - look up the rest of those verses from 2 Thessalonians 1, for example, or Ephesians 3:14-21. 

But the fact remains - wouldn’t it be wonderful to know a little more about precisely how a man such as Paul exercised this vital ministry of prayer? Were his prayers for the various churches always detailed, or did he sometimes simply name them before God?

And one question especially I would love to ask: Paul, given that you pray so much, how do you manage to maintain a spirit of expectation in your prayers?

It’s not so long since I clocked up half-a-century as a Christian. Hardly a day has gone by since then without me praying in some form or other. And so there are people and situations which I must have prayed for hundreds if not thousands of times. And, let’s be honest about it, in many cases I seem to have little to show for it.

How easy it is for such prayers to become a mere routine, almost a ritual. Praying, but not really expecting. Having enough faith to keep going in prayer, but not enough to actually expect anything to happen as a result. Praying, yes, but subconsciously settling for the status quo.

You share my problem? If you’ve been a Christian any length of time at all, I suspect you do.

Well, I don’t know what Paul would say to me in reply, but here are a few things I say to myself...

1. The alternative to praying is - well, not praying. And that surely is unthinkable if you take your faith seriously. So don’t give up!

2. Remember Jesus’s words about faith like a grain of mustard-seed moving mountains (Matthew 17:20). What matters is not so much great faith (good though that of course is) as faith in a great God. The very fact that you are serious about prayer at all indicates that you do have at least that kind of minimal faith.

3. Remember that you have simply no idea, as you pray, what is going on in the courts of heaven. I once heard a preacher say: “I have never been to China. I know nobody in China. China is in every sense a far-off land. But I believe that when I pray for China, something happens in China!” I’ve never forgotten that. Perhaps one day we will know the effect of even our feeblest, most routine prayers.

4. Don’t worry about length. Long prayers are fine if the Spirit really moves you so. But have you ever thought that the Lord’s Prayer - yes, the very prayer Jesus himself taught us to pray - can be said, without rushing, in thirty seconds flat.

5. Don’t worry about emotion, or the lack of it. Again, if the Spirit moves your heart in such a way, perhaps even to the point of tears, great. But the prayers recorded in the Bible suggest that prayer can also be - how shall I put this? - quite a matter-of-fact, sleeves-rolled-up business. As long as it comes from the heart...

6. Don’t worry about being repetitive. It’s “vain repetition” that Jesus condemns in Mathew 6, not determined perseverance.

7. Don’t be afraid to use “set” prayers - prayers written by others (there are plenty of good books available). Many such prayers are beautiful, deep and powerful. They can have the effect of “priming the pump” of our own prayers.

8. Use the prayer material published by missionary societies and other Christian organisations. (Who knows, soon you’ll be able to pray for China with real knowledge!)

I could go on. There’s so much more that could be said. But perhaps I could encourage you to say it. I would love to hear from you.

Lord Jesus, teach me to pray! Amen, amen!

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

A word for sign-seekers

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied... “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. Matthew 16:1-4

Sign-seeking is a common feature of religious people. Some years ago there were excited reports of Hindu idols drinking milk left out for them. Every so often we hear of statues of Mary shedding tears. I remember once talking to a woman who seemed awestruck by the fact that someone she knew “spoke in holy tongues”.

Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have proof of what we believe! And very natural too. 

But - sorry - it is folly. And sinful folly at that. Jesus makes this very clear in these few verses. 

By his preaching and miracles he has become a serious threat to the religious authorities. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the two main parties among the Jews of his day; normally at loggerheads with each other, they now join forces to test him once and for all. They want to discredit him, to expose him as a charlatan.

But he refuses to play ball. “Signs?” he says - “No, there won’t be any signs. If that’s really what you want, go to your Bibles and read the story of Jonah.” He “then left them and went away.” He won’t waste time with them.

It may seem strange that, having done all sorts of miraculous healings - deeds which John’s Gospel sometimes actually refers to as “signs” - he should here speak so dismissively of such things. But the point is this: while he delighted to do great things as a sign of God’s love, mercy and power, he refused to be seen as some kind of spiritual conjuror, a popular purveyor of party-tricks done to order.

This episode goes to the heart of several things we need to grasp about Jesus.

First, he despised the idea of being a celebrity.
As you read the Gospels you find that on various occasions he deliberately chose to fade out of the limelight rather than risk being turned into an idol. Certainly, he sometimes created a stir by saying what he said and doing what he did, so much so that his disciples urged him to build a big following by riding the crest of the wave - “Come on, everyone’s looking for you!” (Mark 1:37). But he said no. He had already confronted that particular temptation in the desert before embarking on his public ministry (see Matthew 4:4-7).

Fame, glitz, glamour, adulation - these are heady drugs, and they seduce many people. But the way of Jesus is the way of lowliness and humility, of service and sacrifice. 

The lesson for us is clear: Be happy to be nothing, for only then can God make you something.

Second, the main thing he demanded of his followers was faith.

Again, as you read the Gospel stories you see how thrilled he was when he found faith in unexpected places. Think of the Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13) or the woman with the flow of blood (Matthew 9:18-26); as you read these stories you can almost see him smiling with delight. 

But then, of course, you see also how sad he was when he didn’t find faith where he felt he might expect it. Think of the disciples in the storm (Mark 4:35-41) or of followers who were prone to anxiety (Matthew 6:30). To ask for a sign is to ask, in effect, for proof, and that simply isn’t on offer. Paul sums it up perfectly: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

A question: I wonder if I ever put a big smile on Jesus’ face because of my faith?

Third, he pointed forward to the resurrection.

This is the point of his reference to Jonah. He has in fact already opened up the meaning in Matthew 12:38-42: there he likens his coming experience of death, burial and resurrection to the miraculous experience of Jonah and the great fish.

And so we are reminded that Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus on that wonderful first Easter day.

This isn’t to deny or question the reality of other remarkable things - healings, tongues, you name it. Not at all. But it is to place the emphasis exactly where it belongs: Jesus died, Jesus rose again, Jesus is Lord! It takes faith to make that declaration, and it’s a faith that will not be disappointed.

It’s often said that “seeing is believing”. But that just isn’t true - look at Matthew 28:17 for an amazing demonstration of that fact. 

No, we don’t believe because we have seen; we see because we have believed.

Lord Jesus, please deepen, sharpen and enlarge my faith so that my eyes are opened and I see things hidden from ordinary sight. Amen.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Jesus and joy

The fruit of the Spirit is... joy... Galatians 5:22

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Philippians 4:4
Would you describe yourself as a joyful Christian?

That can be a hard question to answer, because joy isn't something that comes naturally. Yes, some people seem to be born with a cheerful, sunny, optimistic disposition, and that’s good - just as others seem naturally glum and Eeyore-like, and still others suffer from depression and other psychological conditions. But that sunny disposition is a different thing from joy. Which, of course, is why Paul describes it as "the fruit of the Spirit".

When the New Testament talks about joy, then, it’s talking about a supernatural thing. Left to our own moods, most of us probably swing every day from feeling pretty good and happy, to feeling dejected, worried and possibly quite miserable. But Paul's words imply that if we are Spirit-filled people then joy should be part of our daily experience.

"Joy" is different from "happiness". There's nothing wrong with happiness - of course not. But the problem with it is that it depends almost entirely on circumstances or temperament. Say your life is going well - you have a warm home, a full stomach, a fulfilling job, a settled family life, a good circle of friends, reasonable health... well, why wouldn't you be happy?

But all that doesn't necessarily have much to do with God or the Holy Spirit. Anyone can be happy when life is treating them kindly. But if suddenly things begin to go wrong, then happiness has a habit of flying straight out of the window.

Remember the prodigal son? - I bet he was happy when he broke free from the shackles of home and headed off to the big bad city with his wallet stuffed with money: Wahay, world! - here I come! But once he'd run through all that money it was a very different story. It's not easy, I imagine, to be happy in a pig-pen.

Joy comes from within us. Why? Because the Spirit is within us. However we may be feeling as a result of our external circumstances, nothing can alter the fact that we are children of God, that our sins are forgiven, that eternal life is secure, that our lives have a direction and purpose. That is what joy is all about - it’s a deep, settled knowledge that because I am safe in the tender love of God I need fear nothing.

And nothing can alter the fact that even our problems and difficulties are within the will of a God who loves us more than we can ever know, and that he can turn them to our good if we consciously trust in him. The assurance that God is our Father gives a stability, a foundation, to our daily lives.

In fact, joy is very closely related to peace, even that famous "peace of God that passes all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). I don’t know who said this, but I’m glad they did: peace is joy resting; joy is peace dancing. Good, yes?

CS Lewis had a big thing about joy, though I’m not sure he ever formally defined it. He described his experience of finding God as being “surprised by joy”. And joy itself, he said, is “the serious business of heaven”. I think I know what he meant. After all, Jesus said that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need to repent” (Luke 15:7). So when Paul urges us in Philippians 4 to “rejoice always”, he is in effect urging us to echo the voices of the angels themselves.

What it all comes down to is this: joy depends on the closeness of our relationship with God. If we drift from him we may well be "happy", at least for a time, but we will never be joyful in the Christian sense. It's no good sticking a plastic smile on our faces, so to speak - that’s about as convincing as a false moustache.

No, you can’t magic up joy; either you have it or you don't. The challenge is to get ourselves into such a place with God that joy is just - well, there. Are you in such a place? Am I?

Oh God our heavenly Father, as we seek to walk with you today, may the joy of the Lord fill our hearts - and then overflow to others. Amen.