Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The few and the many

Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation and tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. Revelation 7:9

Do those two New Testament quotes contradict one another? 

In Matthew 7, part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to be saying that the number of the saved will be a small minority of the human race - “only a few”. But John’s vision in Revelation 7 talks about “a great multitude that no-one could count” who worship God and the Lamb.

You could say, I suppose, that even if only a small number from each generation are ultimately saved, that would add up, over the centuries, to a pretty big total. But that doesn’t seem to be quite what the Revelation passage suggests: it’s all about the ultimate victory of God, and the impression is given that a vast mass of humankind is there to celebrate it.

And, indeed, Jesus himself goes on to convey the same idea a little later: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).

That’s one of the great Bible themes. You can trace it right through from Genesis to Revelation: a wonderful gathering of the nations - the gentiles - into the eternal kingdom of God.
Look, for example, at the staggering promise God gave Abraham in Genesis 15:1-6 and 22:17 (and then see if you can calculate not only how many stars there are, but how many grains of sand on just a single beach!).

Ultimately, of course, we will have to wait and see. The fact is that the Bible gives us both solemn warnings (as in the Matthew 7 passage) and wonderful encouragements (as in the Revelation 7 passage). We need to hold them in balance until that day when all things are made plain.

We certainly need the warning words of Jesus. How easy it is to follow the crowd, to “go with the flow”! To enter into the eternal life that Jesus offers is a great thing - but let no-one imagine it’s the easy option.

Anything but! The little gate he speaks of admits people only one at a time (and you have to bend to get through it; think about that). It leads to the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice and hardship, the way of unpopularity, perhaps, and of the contempt of others.

The broad gate is seductive - the crowd sauntering cheerfully through are full of laughter and fun, not worrying too much about issues of right and wrong, not bothering their heads about the big questions of life - like “What kind of person should I be? Why am I here on this earth? What will happen to me when I die?” No wonder Jesus called it “the broad road that leads to destruction”.

(The great thing is that it takes only one step to cross from the broad road to the narrow road: that step is called repentance and faith in Jesus. Have you taken it yet?)

But we need too those encouraging words, whether from Jesus himself or from Genesis or Revelation or many places in between. We need them particularly at a time of great instability and turmoil in our world. They remind us that God is in control, in spite of appearances, and that he will bring all things to a glorious climax.

I suspect that many of that “great multitude” before God’s throne never set foot in a church in their lives. But who knows what goes on between an individual and God in the private place of that person’s heart? Who knows how many “death-bed conversions” there may be?

But we do know that God is a kind and gracious God - and (oh, thank God for this!) we have too the beautiful conversation between Jesus and the dying criminal next to him on the cross, the conversation that climaxes with Jesus’ words, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). That man knew nothing of “doctrine” or “theology”; he simply reached out to Jesus for mercy, and Jesus did not turn him away.

The last word on this topic must surely be with Jesus in Luke 13:23...

Apparently some people asked him exactly the question we have been thinking about: “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” And you know what? Jesus didn’t give them a direct answer. No, he told them to... make sure they were saved.

As if to say, “Don’t get too snarled up with difficult and hypothetical questions: make sure you are right with God!”

What more is there to say?

Lord Jesus, thank you for your little flock here on earth, and for my privilege in being part of it. And thank you too for that great multitude that will stand before you in worship at the last day. Help me day by day to be worthy to be part of that too. Amen.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Down with religion!



Jesus said... “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, was a carpenter. That’s worth remembering as we read these words. It’s surely very likely that Jesus as a boy and young man spent time in the carpenter’s workshop (in fact, in Mark 6:3 he himself is actually referred to as “the carpenter”, not just “the carpenter’s son”). And one of the things carpenters made in the world Jesus lived in was yokes

If, like me, you’re very much a city person, you may never have thought much about yokes. But we’ve all probably seen old pictures of milk maids with a long wooden pole or collar across their shoulders, and a milk bucket hanging off each end. That’s a yoke. It was simply a device to ease and balance the strain of carrying.

But it also applied to a much bigger kind of contraption: this would be fixed over the shoulders of a pair of oxen to enable them to pull the plough in tandem. The vital thing here was that it should sit comfortably on the oxen’s shoulders - otherwise it would rub and chafe, and there would soon be raw, bleeding flesh.

Is it possible that Jesus had made a speciality of perfectly-fitting yokes?

The religious teachers in Jesus’ day had another meaning too for the word: they talked about “the yoke of the law”. All the rules and requirements that had been accumulating over the centuries added up to a massive total - something, in fact, quite impossible for anyone to obey successfully. Laid like a yoke, so to speak, on people’s shoulders, they would soon crush anyone who was serious about being right with God.

Of course, Jesus never said that following him would be easy - the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 makes that plain. But in these very beautiful words he claimed that what he asked of his followers was a whole lot easier than hopelessly struggling to keep rule after rule and law after law; in comparison with that, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”.

Unlike the religious leaders who piled great weights on ordinary people, he claimed to be “gentle and humble in heart”. That wasn’t a boast! What he meant was something like this: “I’m not a teacher like those scribes and Pharisees. I have no wish to load you up with burdens you cannot bear. No, I will be gentle with your weaknesses and frailties, I will walk with you as your friend and brother. I want you lifted up, not ground down!”

Sometimes people say to me “Oh, you’re religious, aren’t you?” And I feel like replying, “No! I’m not religious! I detest  the very word religious! No, I am simply a follower of Jesus!” And that’s a totally different thing.

What about you? Is your “religion” in reality a dreary round of duties and obligations? Or is it a comfort, a blessing, a hope, and a practical support in the everyday business of life? Is it a set of rules - or is it a loving, personal relationship with God through faith in his Son Jesus? That’s “Christianity” - never mind “religion”!

Oh yes, it can be hard to follow Jesus. He also told his followers to “take up their cross” in order to follow him - an infinitely worse piece of woodwork than the yoke! But even the cross we must carry is far easier than the cruel weight of barren religion. It is a yoke made by the master carpenter, tailor-made to rest upon our shoulders and ensure no chaffing, no rubbing, no soreness. 

Following Jesus does involve various obligations: the church is important; so is regular worship; so is faithful and sacrificial service done in Jesus’ name. But we carry out these obligations as a loving, glad response to the one who died and rose again for us, not as duties which will win us God’s favour.

It’s in the light of all this that we must read the wonderful invitation that Jesus offered at the beginning of our quotation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest...”

If you are bowed down by the hardships of fife - or by the grinding duties of religion - it’s time to gladly say “Yes” to that invitation. Stop being religious - start following Jesus!

Lord Jesus, thank you that your yoke is easy and your burden light. Help me to bear them gladly and joyfully out of love and gratitude for the burden you bore for me on the cross. Amen.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

No turning back!



That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! ... Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt”. Numbers 14:1-4

Here’s a question that calls (please) for a strictly honest answer: Have you ever wished you had never become a Christian?

It may not have been for long; maybe just a brief phase. But you thought to yourself: “Hey, this Christian life is pretty tough going! When I first got converted it was all so exciting, so new, so fresh! But today...” 

Perhaps you thought of all those prayers faithfully prayed, but which never seem to have been answered. Or the meetings you went to on dark, rainy evenings, when hardly anyone else bothered to turn up. Or the tensions and disagreements which flared up from time to time. You might even have thought of all the money you had given over the years to the church and other good causes - boy, tot all that up and perhaps you could have had the same sort of car as sits on your neighbour’s drive...

And you looked back and remembered the things you enjoyed in your pre-Christian days, but which you chose to sacrifice for Jesus’ sake. Were they really so wrong? You looked at your non-Christian friends and family and thought, “They seem to get on perfectly well without God.” Mmm.

It happens. It happened in the early church. The whole of the Letter to the Hebrews is concerned with this very thing. Didn’t Jesus talk about it in the parable of the sower (see Matthew 13:18-23)?

So if your answer to my question was “Well, yes, to be honest I have sometimes felt that way”, you can at least take some comfort from the fact that you are in good (or perhaps I should say bad!) company.
 
And here it is, tucked away also in the Book of Numbers. Remember the story... 

God’s chosen people have been slaves in Egypt, but, under Moses and Aaron, God has given them a dramatic and miraculous liberation: the cruel tyrant Pharaoh has been humbled; the very sea opened up before them to give them a route out! They head into the desert with the faith that God will lead them to a wonderful new homeland, truly a “promised land”.

But... it won’t be quite yet. No, there will be a period of journeying in the desert, and that won’t be easy. 

And guess what? They get disappointed and disillusioned. 
And that leads to grumbling and discontent. And that, in turn, leads to outright rebellion.

You can read about the grumbling in (among other places) Numbers 11:4-6. Influenced by “the rabble” (presumably hangers-on who had joined Israel to get out of Egypt), they hanker after those lovely cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they enjoyed in Egypt. They get fed up with that boring, tasteless manna stuff (heavenly bread, in fact) which God sent to feed them. “Give us meat and fish!” they cry. 

The rebellion is described here in chapter 14. This Moses is rubbish! Why don’t we just die right here in the desert (don’t worry - that’s exactly what they will do)? And then these shocking words: “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.

What? What! They’ve witnessed the plagues in Egypt, from which they were protected by God. They saw with their own eyes the waters open up for them. They have rejoiced in the miraculous bread from heaven. They’ve met with God in truly awesome fashion at Mount Sinai. They’ve seen demonstrations of both God’s mercy and his severe judgment. And yet they can say, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt”. Can you believe it?

Suppose for a moment they had gone back to Egypt, tails between their legs, humbling themselves before Pharaoh. I can’t really imagine what life would have been like. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: it wouldn’t have been long before they were grumbling again. After all, they’ve got plenty of “previous” when it comes to that: see, for example, Exodus 15:24).

For us Christians, the issues are generally two-fold when we are tempted to “go back to Egypt”. It’s either the seductions of this corrupt world; or it’s the sheer hardship of the cross-bearing business of following Jesus. (We’re not talking here about intellectual difficulties regarding our faith, or about the kind of spiritual crisis that sometimes happens: they’re a different matter altogether.)

I can only say: if that temptation does rear its head, the thing to do is sit down with a cool, clear mind, to pray with an honest heart, to remember the emptiness of the time before you followed Jesus, to remember too the many blessings you have received. And then to - once more - pick up your cross. You won’t regret it.

Heavenly Father, thank you for the day you changed my life as I came to believe in Jesus and follow him. However hard the way may sometimes be, help me to remain faithful to him until that day I enter the promised land of your eternal kingdom. Amen.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

A big fat false god



We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that... Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God... Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share... 1 Timothy 6:7-8, 17-18.

Aren’t some things just so annoying!

I’m writing on “Black Friday”, and my inbox this morning was loaded with adverts telling me to take advantage of this great opportunity to get something cheap. This, half-price! Twenty per cent off that! Your last chance! Only twenty-four hours to go! Hurry, hurry! 

Oh, GO AWAY!

Black Friday? What’s that anyway? What indeed! I hadn’t even heard of it till a few weeks ago. But of course it’s the latest import from across the Atlantic (I live in England), joining Halloween as a major annual event. It’s the day after Thanksgiving Day when people in America are still off work and thus free to do some more than usually crazy shopping.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not a complete kill-joy - I like a good, honest bargain as much as anyone. But that really isn’t what all this is about, is it?

Now, if you happen to be reading this in America, please don’t take offence! I am the first to recognise the many good and admirable things about your country, mainly on the basis of the delightful Americans I know and three brief but memorable visits. But...

What on earth are we in Britain doing celebrating something that belongs to you over there? What fools we are! How can we fail to see that it’s all about making money?

There was an article in the paper this morning saying that half the bargains people buy on Black Friday end up in the rubbish (or should I say garbage?) bin. We buy things, it seems, not because we need them or possibly even particularly want them - but because they are there, and we really must go with the flow. Bah!!!

And so to the words of Paul, all wisdom, sanity and common sense... “We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” He urges Timothy to preach that one sign of a child of God is contentment with the basic needs of life (remembering too, of course, that there are millions in this world who lack even these).

The Bible tells us in many places to stop worshipping in the temple of the great god mammon (mammon means money, or material things in general). Jesus told the famous story of “the rich fool” (Luke 12:13-21). Having devoted his time and energy to getting richer and richer, he decides to stop, put his feet up, and enjoy the fruits of his labour. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” 

Death makes the billionaire and the beggar totally equal with one another.

Going back to 1 Timothy, it’s typical of the Bible not only to tell us what we shouldn’t do - the negative side of things - but also to outline what we need to replace it with: “Command [the rich] to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”

To be personal for a moment, I must confess that I don’t really think of myself as rich. I’ve never earned much money, but I’ve got along pretty well and never lacked for anything I seriously needed. But if I am completely honest I have to face the fact that in the context of the world’s population I am rich. Very likely you are too.

So these words apply to me and you. The Bible is telling us: Be a giver, not a getter! Cultivate a generous heart and an open hand! As Jesus put it, “don’t store up treasures on earth”, where they are prey to decay and death, but “store up treasures in heaven” - where nothing passes away, because it is only good (Matthew 6:19-20). 

So it’s not enough to keep clear of Black Friday and all the nonsense that goes with it. That’s only a start. Our business is to look at what wealth we have and say, “Now, Lord, what good can I do with this? How can I turn these pounds/dollars into blessing for someone else?”

Jesus tells us that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20: 35). And you know what? He actually meant it. Let’s prove it true!

Heavenly Father, thank you for the word of Jesus, “You can’t serve God and Mammon.” Forgive me if I have been trying to do that, and help me to make you lord and master of all I own. Amen.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

When sex gets corrupted



Jesus said... Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matthew 5:8


Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Hebrews 13:4


Finally... whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about these things. Philippians 4:8


I’m sure you can see a link between these very challenging and very beautiful verses. They’re all about purity.


They’ve been rattling around in my mind for a week or so, since I attended a Christian seminar on the theme of pornography. Purity, of course, isn’t only about sex - it covers all of our living, speaking and thinking. But certainly sex has a big place, and absorbing the facts and figures from this seminar was a salutary business. I don’t think I learned a lot that, in principle, I didn’t already know. But it was good to get it all spelled out in an hour or two.


First, though, a working definition of pornography: “Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.” 


I don’t want to bombard you with loads of statistics, but just a few will help us to get our minds focussed...


One porn site boasted 18.5 billion views in 2014 - that’s 2.1 million visits per hour or 35 thousand per minute.


79% of men and 76% of women (this isn’t only a male problem!) aged 18-30 said they watched porn at least once a month. (They wouldn’t call it porn, probably, but some stupid euphemism like “adult material”.)


95% of people who would call themselves evangelical Christians say they have viewed porn.


Even more alarming are the stats that relate to children and young people. For example, 90% of 8-16 year olds have viewed porn on line, usually while doing their homework. A third of 3-10 year olds have viewed porn on line.


Two words kept cropping up with depressing regularity.


One was availability. There was a time when people looking for porn would resort to seedy clubs in back streets - or even just the top shelf in the newsagents. But today, with all the phones, laptops and other devices, it really is a case of “any time, anywhere”.


The other word was normalisation. Sexual explicitness would once be greeted with a sharp intake of breath and a solemn shaking of the head. But a point has been reached where it is regarded as entirely normal. I know a teacher who told me that in her primary school class there were children who routinely watched porn with their parents. Once the unthinkable becomes thinkable, it’s not long before the thinkable becomes do-able...


Given that regular use can physically change the brain (it’s all to do with a brain chemical called dopamine), it can lead to an addiction similar to tobacco, alcohol and drug addiction; and given that children’s brains are naturally more vulnerable to change than adults’, this is sobering indeed. There are reports of boys and young men who are physically incapable of truly “normal” sexual activity because they have become dependent on the kind of stimulus provided by porn. 


I’m not sharing this experience of the seminar just in order to get us all shaking our heads with a what’s-the-world-coming-to? frown, or in order to be alarmist, but in order to put us on our toes - me as much as anyone else. Let’s finish with a word to three categories of people.


First, let’s all of us resolve, by God’s grace, to keep our sexual lives (such a precious gift from God!) scrupulously pure.


Second, to those of us in leadership of any kind, let’s not only be aware of the situation ourselves, but also set out to make sure others are too. One simple way of doing this might be to include the various organisations that seek to combat this evil in Sunday morning prayers of intercession. Doing this will flag up to the congregation that the church is aware, and that this is something that can be talked about - and also perhaps encourage those who struggle in this area to share their problem with someone who will counsel them in a loving, sensitive and accepting way.


Third, to anyone reading this who has fallen into the grip of porn, especially if you’re feeling helpless or despairing... the positive thing that came out of the seminar was that change is possible, and a healthy and wholesome sex life can be achieved. Even (I quote) “the damage to the brain can be undone when someone gets away from unhealthy behaviours.” It’s time to share your problem and get help!


God doesn’t only call us to be pure; by his Holy Spirit he really can make that possible.


Lord God, thank you for your call to purity of thought, word and deed. I know I can’t achieve this by my own will power, but I humbly pray now that by your grace, and with the support of others, I will find victory. Amen.


The seminar drew heavily on the work of two Christian organisations. Why not explore further?


CARE (Care for the family): care.org.uk. Click on “our causes”.


The Naked Truth: info@nakedtruthproject.com