Wednesday, 21 March 2018

When all seems lost

Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.” But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. Psalm 3:1-3

Have you ever noticed how important the little word “but” can be?

Just three letters, but they have the effect of turning things round: “We thought he wasn’t going to pull through, but the doctors did a wonderful job”. “At first she saw nothing in him, but look at them now - thirty happy years of marriage!” “It rained most of the day, but then the sun came out and we got a couple of hours’ cricket”. It was abc; but now it’s xyz.

This happens a lot in the Bible, not least in Paul’s letters. A good example is where Paul writes grimly about the spiritual deadness of everyone who is still in their sins: “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath...” Grim indeed! But then he goes on: “But... God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ...” (Ephesians 2:1-5)

That’s surely the greatest turnaround in the Bible. (What a wonderful expression that “rich in mercy” is!)

And here it is in Psalm 3.

The psalm is traditionally linked with King David, and to a time of great trouble in his reign. And there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be so. For the full story you need to go back to 2 Samuel 13-19, but the essence of it is this...

One of David’s sons, Absalom, has rebelled against his father and wants to be king. He wages a campaign to get support from the people, both great and small, till it reaches the point where David thinks it’s all over. He says to his officials, “Come! We must flee, or none of us will escape from Absalom” (2 Samuel 15:14).

And so we get the pitiful spectacle of the great King David, no less, the triumphant man of war, scurrying out of his capital city like the proverbial rat leaving a sinking ship. Surely the lowest point in his reign.

Going back to Psalm 3 (this time using The Message translation), he is overwhelmed by a sense of utter helplessness: “God! Look! Enemies past counting! Enemies sprouting like mushrooms...”  He has to endure their cruel mockery: “Hah! No help for him from God!” You’re finished, David!

But then comes the but... “But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the one who lifts my head high.” That’s verse 3 - and it’s a verse worth reading over and over again, a verse, as I once heard it put, worth sucking slowly like a sweet.

How has this transformation come about? We aren’t told. But David has certainly been praying, and he gets a wonderful assurance that his prayers are not wasted.

Look at the three aspects of this assurance.

First, God is his protection - “a shield around me”. Yes, he has felt outnumbered and fatally exposed; but now he sees that his loving God is far greater than all his enemies.

We too as Christians sometimes feel that we are outnumbered by our spiritual enemy, the devil. The church seems so feeble and small. Our faith is dismissed, if not actually mocked, by clever unbelievers. How good it is, then, to know that God is in fact a shield around us. He will protect and keep us as we hold on to him.

Second, God is his “glory”. You can take that in different ways. One commentary says: “My glory is an expression to ponder; it indicates the honour of serving such a master; perhaps, too, the radiance he imparts.”

Personally, I like that second thought; it links beautifully with another psalm attributed to David: “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame” (Psalm 34:5). David has reason to reflect that, for all the shallow glory of his earthly kingship, his true glory is what God imparts.

And it’s a deeply humbling thought for us, too, that as we go about our business day by day we can actually reflect the glory of God.

Lord, make me a mirror of your splendour!

Third, God is “the one who lifts my head high”. That’s a great expression! - especially if you compare it with 2 Samuel 15:30: “David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered (was he hiding his face?) and he was barefoot.” A picture of humiliation, if ever there was one - tears; bowed head; bare feet.

And God will, in time, “lift the heads” of all his suffering, humiliated, outnumbered, downtrodden people.

Are you going through a particularly tough time? All I can say is: pray - of course; read those chapters from 2 Samuel; read these beautiful verses.

And then look out for that wonderful “but”!

O Lord, in your kindness and mercy be my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head. Amen.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Build me up, don't crush me!

When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. He travelled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people... Acts 20:1-2

When Paul was on his missionary journeys he didn’t usually stay very long in one place. His method was to preach Christ to his fellow-Jews in the local synagogue, and of course to anyone else who would listen, to gather around him a group of new believers, and then to move on to the next place.

But he made an exception for the big, bustling city of Ephesus, a focal point of political, economic and religious power. We learn in Acts 19 that he stayed there for over two years; and his stay was anything but uneventful, to put it mildly. To cap it all, the city erupted into a riot - what Luke calls “uproar” - triggered by the preaching of the gospel, and Paul decided it was time he was on his way.

But before he left there was something he was keen to do. Luke tells us that he “sent for the disciples” and “encouraged” them. He then tells us that, after leaving, Paul “travelled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people”.

Encouragement: that is the key word in these verses from Acts 20.

Remember, Paul is among people who haven’t been followers of Jesus for all that long, people who live in an area dominated by dark forces such as the worship of the goddess Artemis (or Diana) of the Ephesians, people whose society is corrupted by all kinds of immorality. If these infant Christians are to thrive after his departure - well, they need all the encouragement they can get!

If that was true then, it’s also true today. Whether you look at the “developed” or the “undeveloped” world, the powers of darkness, ignorance, superstition and sheer wickedness sometimes seem overwhelming. How can the people Jesus called his “little flock” (Luke 12:32) possibly survive, never mind thrive? Sheep among wolves indeed.

Encouragement is vital.

But what is encouragement? What does this quite common word in fact mean?

It’s an elastic word - you can stretch it in different directions. At its simplest: to encourage someone is to give them a boost. And this can be done in various ways... A simple word of thanks for something done. An arm literally or metaphorically round the shoulder. A word of advice, guidance or rebuke. Even perhaps bit of a scold (as long, of course, as it’s a loving scold). A practical gift to meet a particular need.

In essence, the person on the receiving end of encouragement will feel that they have somebody standing with them - somebody who loves and cares and who has power to help them. In the New Testament the ultimate encourager is the Holy Spirit himself: in John 14:26 Jesus calls him “the Advocate” (New International Version): but that word could be translated “Encourager”.

I’m afraid that in some Christian circles encouragement is in pretty short supply. A man turned to me once at the end of a service where the sermon had been basically a message of encouragement and said, “You know, it’s really refreshing to hear this kind of message. All these ‘challenging’ and ‘hard-hitting’ sermons we keep getting are all very well, but so often you just end up reeling, feeling guilty and a failure.”

Just as flowers blossom in the sunshine, so Christians blossom under encouragement.

Of course it’s not only preachers who can give encouragement in their sermons; in fact, they may be the people who need it most! - it can seem a thankless task preaching your heart out to what sometimes seems like a brick wall.

The fact is that encouragement should be like a perfume that fills the whole church, among ones and twos as well as throughout a congregation.

Just one word of warning, though: be careful not to confuse encouragement with flattery.

Flattery, at its worst, can be described as false praise, given in order to ingratiate yourself with someone so as to get something from them. That is obviously wrong.

But well-meaning Christians can also be guilty of false praise. Why? Because we don’t like hurting people’s feelings by being honest, so we imagine that by offering syrupy words of praise we are avoiding the problem and somehow doing them good.

This too is wrong. We need to learn how to speak the truth in kind and loving ways, ways that allow scope for further talk and, hopefully, solid building up.

I love the wise words of Proverbs 27:6 - that “wounds inflicted by a friend” can in fact be “trusted”; whereas the person who “multiplies kisses” is an “enemy”.

Worth thinking about, that!

Christian, make up your mind to be a Spirit-like encourager!

Father, help me always to speak the truth in love - and always for the good and growth of the person I am speaking to. Amen.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Good for a laugh?

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. Proverbs 17:22

I heard about an old man who was never anything but bright and happy. When someone wanted to know his secret he said, “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself a question. Am I going to be cheerful today, or am I going to be miserable? And I make the decision to be cheerful.”

Easier said than done, you might think. Indeed, somebody might well say, “You wouldn’t talk like that if you were going through what I’m going through...”

Fair enough. Cheerfulness isn’t just a tap you can turn on at will - any more than anxiety is a tap you can turn off just because of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25. Things aren’t quite as simple as that.

And yet... what that man said is worth thinking about. The fact is that we do have it within our power to take at least some control of our moods; we can adopt a basically positive or a basically negative attitude.

Some people seem to delight in being miserable. I have a friend who was breezing down the high street one day when he met someone he knew just a little and had always got on with all right. Being a cheery sort of soul he greeted him: “Morning! How are you today?” To which came the never-to-be-forgotten answer, “What’s it got to do with you?”

CS Lewis also tells the story somewhere about being on a train and asking a fellow-passenger if he knew what time they were due to get to Liverpool. The merry response was, “Ask the guard - it’s not my job to give you information.”

Oh well, they say it takes all sorts...

The Book of Proverbs is a fascinating part of the Bible. In the Good News Bible translation of 17:22 it reads: “Being cheerful keeps you healthy. It is slow death to be gloomy all the time.” The Message translation has: “A cheerful disposition is good for your health; gloom and doom leave you bone-tired.”

Whichever translation you prefer, the verse raises a question (one which, in fact, applies to many verses in Proverbs): Is it simply a statement of fact, an observation, or is it intended to be a challenge to the reader? In other words: are we supposed to respond by shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Yes, that’s true, that’s the way it is”, or by perking up and saying “Yes! It’s time I stopped being such a misery-guts!”

It isn’t clear. But if you are a Christian you will surely want to take something positive from it - something to make you a better person.

Anyone who can make us smile is a real tonic. Just yesterday the death of the British comedian Ken Dodd was announced, and all the tributes being paid were along the same lines: he was “life-enhancing”; it was impossible to be gloomy in his presence. (Apparently he claimed never to reply to letters from the Inland Revenue, on the grounds that (wait for it) he lived by the sea-side. Geddit...?)

I know that humour can be a tricky thing: so often it depends on either cruelty or crudity; either it invites you to enjoy somebody else’s misery, or to wallow in what is coarse and vulgar. But a wholesome humour is truly a gift of God.

There have been times in history when Christians have been renowned for their sombreness. The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, the man who wrote Treasure Island, once recorded in his diary: “Went to church this morning - and was not depressed!” - as if it was the most amazing thing in the world. This, surely, cannot be right. Doesn’t Paul list joy at number two in his description of the fruit of the Holy Spirit? Isn’t a joyless church, or a joyless Christian, an absolute contradiction in terms?

Here are one or two quotes which, I think, could well be described as proverbs...

Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers. (The Puritan writer Richard Baxter, 1615-1691)

If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there. (Martin Luther, 1483-1546) (Mind you, I’m not quite sure where he might have preferred to go...)

The person who is always laughing is a fool; the person who never laughs is a knave. (Spanish saying) (Yes, over the years I have learned to be very wary of people who never smile or laugh; they often seem to point to trouble ahead.)

On balance I think I’ll aim to learn from that cheerful old man we started with. What about you?

Lord God, your word tells us that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. Help me always to know the difference! And thank you for those lovely Christians who lift my spirits by their cheerful faith. Amen.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Living word - or dead letter?

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 1Timothy 4:13

There have been times when I have sat in church and been more than usually gripped by what was going on up front. A particularly powerful sermon? Yes, of course, that sometimes happens; but that’s not what I’m thinking of. Music of exceptional quality? Yes, that too; but that also isn’t what I’m thinking of. A specially Spirit-led prayer? Again, yes; but...

No: what I’m thinking of is something so routine and ordinary that we hardly even think about it: what Paul calls “the public reading of scripture”. (Actually, to be strictly accurate, he simply wrote “reading”, and so could possibly be encouraging Timothy to take study seriously; but it’s pretty certain that he is talking in the context of corporate worship.)

I remember one occasion when the reading was delivered with such clarity, understanding and penetration that I would almost say that I was transfixed as I listened; the hair on the back of my neck went prickly.

An obvious question arises: do we take seriously the fact that the Bible is God’s word to us, and that therefore the reading of it should be treated as a key element in our worship services? Putting it in a more negative way, do we, perhaps subconsciously, regard it as just something we need to “do” in the service, almost as a duty? Have we let it become little more than a preliminary to the real business, the meaty stuff: what Paul calls the “preaching and teaching”?

I fear we have. So I want to remind us that the simple reading of God’s word has power to change lives; just by listening we can be instructed, comforted, challenged, rebuked, scolded, and plenty more besides.

To me this seems obvious. But it raises a slightly delicate question: who should be invited to read the scriptures in our services? Is it something anyone who can read should be encouraged to do? Or should it be kept for those with a special gift for it?

Over my many years as a pastor there has been a trend against the idea of the minister as a “one-man band” - that is (in the context of worship) that only he or she is qualified to lift up their voice to lead the congregation (apart, of course, from the notices; mustn’t forget that...).

I think this trend is, in essence, good: surely we want to encourage participation as much as we can.

But it can raise problems. The fact is that not everybody has the ability to read in the kind of way I have been suggesting. They may be perfectly literate, indeed, very intelligent; but for various reasons they just don’t have what it takes to put the reading across convincingly. In such circumstances a vital opportunity to hear God’s word is simply lost - the Bible passage might just as well not have been read at all, and so the living word is reduced to a dead letter.

Yes, it’s good to encourage participation in every aspect of church life; but, quite sensibly, we do look for certain “qualifications” before anyone is let loose, so to speak.

Or we should...

Many years ago I got involved with a church which didn’t have a minister. The music was led by a small and enthusiastic singing group, which sounds great. But unfortunately one of its members simply couldn’t sing. Oh yes, she was enthusiastic all right; ten out of ten for that. It wasn’t only that she didn’t have a particularly good voice; no, she just couldn’t sing in tune - and of course she was blissfully unaware of the fact and belted it out at top volume. It made your toes curl, like when someone runs their finger-nail up a blackboard. And everybody was so wonderfully Christian that they couldn’t bear to take her aside... Oh dear...

Something hinges on how we view our Sunday gatherings. If we see them as, in essence, “in house” occasions designed for those of us who “belong”, no major problem. As in any healthy family, we cheerfully accept and tolerate one another’s foibles.

But if we see them as “public” events - as, in effect, the church’s shop window for the world outside, the occasion when we are likely to welcome outsiders, unbelievers, perhaps even sceptics - then that’s rather different.

When we read Paul telling Timothy to “devote himself to the public reading of scripture” we certainly get the impression that he expected this particular component of worship to be done with great care and - dare I say it? - even expertise. 
Now, how we translate that to our particular circumstances I’m really not sure. But is it something we need to think about?

Let’s take the public reading of scripture with real seriousness!

Lord God, help me to see in a new way the value of your written word - whether studied in private or read in public. Amen.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Rotten to the core?

As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one;
     there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
 All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.”
 “Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
     ruin and misery mark their ways,
 and the way of peace they do not know.”
     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Romans 3:10-18

It always happens at times like this - and it’s always reassuring and heart-warming.

What times am I talking about? Crisis times, that’s what. Over the last few days in Britain the weather has been unusually severe, with cars stuck on motorways, houses without water or electricity, and people falling on the ice and breaking bones. Even, sadly, some deaths.

But set against this are the lovely stories of selflessness and heroism - like the doctor who walked ten miles through the snow (and presumably ten miles back) to get to the hospital where he worked. Or people giving out hot drinks and sandwiches to motorists stranded in their cars. Beautiful stories: and you think “There’s a lot of good in people after all!” 

And then you read the verses above. 

Sorry about the unusually long quote, but it all hangs together, and it’s not until you read it right through that you get the full impact. It’s basically a string of Old Testament verses, mostly from the Psalms, that Paul uses to illustrate the essential sinfulness and corruption of human nature.

And you feel like saying, “Hang on a minute, Paul! Aren’t you going a bit over the top? Even when things are pretty normal, I still find that, well, the way you describe people just isn’t the way I usually find them. Most of the people I rub shoulders with day by day are pleasant, friendly and helpful. So when you say that ‘no-one does good’, that ‘the poison of vipers is on their lips’, that ‘their throats are open graves’ and that ‘their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness’ - well, I’m sorry, Paul, but I find it hard not to feel that you’re guilty of serious exaggeration, to put it mildly. Is human nature really that bad?”

If we are Christians, we believe that the Bible is in some sense God’s inspired word - which means that when Paul wrote these words he did so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But what, then, are we to do when it seems so alien to our day-to-day experience? We don’t want to question God’s word. But at the same time we have to be honest with ourselves. We have a problem...

Various possible solutions come to mind.

First, let’s grant that Paul is using rhetoric here. And rhetoric (defined as “The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques”) involves exaggeration for maximum impact. Paul wants his readers to sit up and pay attention - and I suspect this passage is pretty successful in that respect!

Second, it’s right to recognise that each of these damning quotes belonged originally to a particular time, place and situation. For all we know, things really were extremely dire when these words were originally written, and as Paul looked around him at the rottenness of the Roman Empire, he simply felt that they were indeed a good match for how things were.

Third, in order to get the full picture, remember that the Bible recognises in other places a certain “natural goodness” (sometimes referred to by theologians as “common grace”) which many people possess even though they have no knowledge of God. It’s been said that we in the western world are living on the diminishing capital of our Christian past - which means that many of us still act relatively “Christianly” even without a living faith in Christ.

(The unnamed centurion of Luke 7:1-10 is a good example of what you might call a “godly pagan”: he has earned a reputation for good deeds, and he shows wonderful humility and faith.)

These three considerations are worth bearing in mind when we read Paul’s ferocious words.

But having said all that, by far the most important things is this: God alone knows the truth about each of our hearts.

The basic point Paul wants to make in these early chapters of his letter to the church in Rome is that every human being is sinful. And that applied equally to Jews, the earthly people of God, and to Gentiles or “pagans”. As he puts it in Romans 3:23: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.

Most of us are pretty skilled at putting on an appearance of goodness: we know how to be “civilised”. But when we come to look into the depths of our own hearts... ah, what we see may be very different. It’s at times like that that we feel the force of the words of the Old Testament writer: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Jesus too doesn’t have a very high opinion of human nature: in what seems pretty much a throwaway remark, he addresses his hearers with the words “If you then, though you are evil...” (Matthew 7:11).

A long, honest look into our own hearts may help convince us that perhaps Paul’s scorching indictment is - well, not quite so over the top as we first imagined...

Search me, oh God, and know my heart. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Amen.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Are you a good team-player?

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel... Philippians 1:3-5

Did you hear about the mountaineer who decided to go it alone?

He was with a group who had planned to do a winter climb of K2, the world’s second highest mountain. This meant they had to complete the ascent by the end of February - and if you think weather conditions in Britain over the last few days have been difficult, well, I dread to think what they must have been like on that mountainside.

Unfortunately, there were various delays - nobody’s fault in particular - time was running out and they had barely got going. Disagreements and tensions flared up about what they ought to do. Whereupon the go-it-alone climber decided to do just that - to go it alone. He didn’t discuss it with his team-mates; in fact, he didn’t even tell them what he intended to do. He just went.

Did he make it to the top? No. Did he make it back to the camp where the others were? Yes. Did he apologise for his action? No. Did he stay with the team for another try? No. He headed back down the mountain - and I don’t think his colleagues were sorry to see him go.

The reaction from the mountaineering community as a whole was largely critical. Most climbers felt he had been reckless and selfish, and had let the team down. I doubt if he will receive too many invitations to join climbing parties in the future. You can admire his bravery, of course; but it’s hard to feel any great sympathy.

If you’re part of a team, you must function as part of that team - that is, as they say, the bottom line. And this principle is vital when the New Testament talks about the church. You can define the church in various ways - as a body, as an army, as a family, for example - but the idea of a team is also good.

Paul had a very soft spot for the church in Philippi; his letter to them is full of affection and appreciation. And he hits that note right at the start, telling them how he thanks God for “your partnership in the gospel”. The Greek word he uses is koinonia, which is often translated “fellowship”, and which certainly includes the idea of team-work. It’s obvious that he greatly valued the support and co-operation of the Philippi church.

This implies that if we are Christians, God expects us to be good team-players. Does that describe you? If not, I suggest that you need to do some serious thinking.

The Bible simply knows nothing - either New Testament or Old - of solitary believers: either you were part of the community of Israel, or of the community of the church. No loose cannons, no prima donnas, no individualists. It’s no accident that when Jesus sent out the twelve to preach the gospel, he sent them out in twos; we never read of him sending out anyone alone.

Two thoughts occur to me, one negative, one positive.

The negative thought first: the church is a community of people who don’t necessarily like one another. What matters is that they are joined together in a task they all care about and believe in. Yes, hopefully they will all get on well, and there will be much Christ-like love. But there are bound also to be differences of opinion and tensions, and the key thing is not to pretend they aren’t there, but to handle them in a gracious, mature and loving manner.

I read somewhere that Gilbert and Sullivan, the composers who wrote those massively successful comic operas in the Victorian age, couldn’t stand the sight of one another in their personal lives. The same has been said of footballers who form a brilliant goal-scoring combination. Both of which examples show what can be done. Let not the church fail where the “world” can succeed!

The positive thought is this: when Christians do succeed in working lovingly and harmoniously together, the sense of achievement is one of the most fulfilling things you could ever imagine. It may be the “spiritual” work of faithfully praying together or leading a children’s group; or it may be the “practical” work of running a food-bank or doing the cleaning - whatever the work is, it joins us together in a deep and satisfying relationship.

Speaking personally, I can only say what joy I have known over my life as a Christian - plenty of fun and laughter as well as the more serious stuff - through the people it’s been my privilege to work with.

I can’t help feeling sorry for that go-it-alone mountaineer, however irresponsibly he acted. I wonder if, deep down, he already regrets what he did. But I feel even more sorry for the solitary Christian: how much joy he or she misses!

Make no mistake, any Christian who opts to go it alone will one day regret it bitterly. Just make sure it’s not you!

Lord Jesus, teach me to be a loyal, responsible and enthusiastic member of the team you have gathered about yourself, loving my fellow team members, and rejoicing in the task you have called us to. Amen.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

When forgetting is good news

I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. Hebrews 8:12

I put the radio on this morning while I was brushing my teeth, and heard some clever-sounding people (Professor this and Dr that) talking about memory. I didn’t grasp everything they said, but they burbled on about something called the hippocampus (which I always thought was a holiday resort for hippopotamuses, but which apparently is part of the human brain: silly me).

And the good news, apparently, is that our brains are designed to forget things. They take steps to ensure that they don’t get clogged with trivial and unimportant information. So instead of getting frustrated when we just can’t remember where we left our keys, or what that person’s name is, or what we just came upstairs for, we should accept it with a smile on our faces. It’s just the brain having a bit of a clear-out.

All right, it’s not so funny when memory-loss is a genuine sickness of the brain - something, which, I’m sure, we all fear. But in general I suppose it makes sense: if our brains are indeed like massively sophisticated computers, as we are told they are, there presumably comes a point of overload, and something needs to happen.

Well, if us forgetting things can sometimes be good news, it is even better news that God himself has a capacity for forgetfulness: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” says God in Hebrews 8:12 (quoting Jeremiah 31).

God, it seems, delights to have not just occasional fits of forgetfulness, but a permanent state of it. Forgetting is, in fact, a big part of his love, mercy and grace - because what he chooses to forget is our wickedness and our sins.

Perhaps this is something you badly need to hear. Perhaps scrolling through your memory is a sad and painful experience. Perhaps your conscience doesn’t let you rest at night. Perhaps there are things in the past that you would dearly love to be able to forget, but just can’t.

If so, it’s my privilege to be able to tell you that God is a forgiving God - for this talk of God’s forgetfulness is really all about God’s forgivingness.

Of course, if God really is God it’s hard to imagine him ever forgetting anything; but this is the Bible’s beautifully human way of describing his willingness to forgive: God has, if you like, a fully functioning hippocampus.

Micah, a fellow-prophet of Jeremiah from perhaps a hundred years earlier, basked in the same truth, but expressed it in a different form: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives...transgression...? You do not stay angry for ever but delight to show mercy.” And then he goes on: “You will again have compassion on us: you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19).

I love those down to earth images, don’t you? - God, like a big angry giant, “treading our sins underfoot” - stomp, stomp, stomp - and, like a discus-thrower in the Olympics, “hurling our iniquities” far out to sea.

We sometimes talk about “forgiving and forgetting” or about “letting bygones be bygones”. And I’m sure that’s good. But it can also be hard. Indeed, quite possibly we find it easier to forgive other people than to forgive ourselves. And sometimes, when we have made a genuine effort to forgive others (and remember, to forgive is an act of will, not a matter of feeling), we still find it hard to forget.

But with God’s help it’s wonderfully possible. True, he takes our sins with complete seriousness; but in sending Jesus to die for us he has provided a way whereby all that badness can be wiped out once and for all. What, after all, could be more serious than the cross? This is the good news; this is the gospel.

Only one thing stands in the way of his forgivingness: our refusal to ask for it; our stubborn denial that we need it. Even God cannot give us something we refuse to admit we need. A doctor may offer us medicine to make us better; but what if we refuse to take it? And God is the doctor supreme.

Here are the words of the apostle John - the same truth in New Testament dress: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). I can only ask again: is this a truth you need to take to heart, to absorb, to accept - and to delight in?

Thanks be to God for his glorious, heavenly forgetfulness!

Thank you, O God, for your merciful willingness to forget all my sins. Help me today to believe that I am forgiven by you, and to bask in the joy and liberty that that knowledge brings. Amen.