When perfection comes…

Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. Isaiah 35:5-6

There is no such thing in this world as a perfectly healthy person. Even the super-fit, the person who runs a marathon every day before breakfast and cheerfully claims to be “as fit as a fiddle” – “never had a day’s illness in my life!” – will in fact have some little niggle somewhere. And at some point in our lives sickness or frailty will take their toll. Paul, ever the realist, says bluntly that “outwardly we are wasting away” (2 Corinthians 4). And he should know; he never made any secret of his own aches and pains.

And so it’s very natural for us to think “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every trace of physical or mental illness were banished! Wouldn’t it be great to be part of a world where perfection really was the order of the day!” And perhaps we then sigh: “Dream on!”

But this is in fact the prospect the Bible holds out for us. Our perfect God is intent on making a perfect new creation in which we will live with perfect new bodies and minds. The Bible begins in perfection – Adam and Eve in the Garden – and it ends in perfection – the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband,” where (just take this in!) there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21).

Do you believe in these prophecies – really believe? If you do, it makes a massive difference even in the here and now. It fills our hearts with hope, and gives us a whole new perspective on life. That’s why I love these joy-filled words of Isaiah. They simply explode with energy, vitality, exhilaration. They provide wonderful food for the imagination. You see that man hobbling painfully around on his zimmer frame? – well, picture him jumping up and down like a five-year-old! You see that woman groping her way up the street with her white stick? – well, can you see her gazing in wonder at that flower-bed?

But why should we believe these things? What can we say to the person who tells us it’s all just wishful thinking?

Well, you don’t have to read far in the Gospels to see how Isaiah’s prophecies did actually come true during the three short years of Jesus’ earthly ministry. When Jesus opened blind eyes (Mark 8:22-26), enabled the lame to walk (Mark 2:1-12), opened the ears of the deaf and the mute (Mark 7:31-37), why did he do these wonderful things? Daft question! you might say – he did it because he cared, because he was full of compassion. And you would of course be absolutely right. 
But there was even more to it than that. He was making a deliberate, conscious statement. He was saying to the people around – people who would have known their Old Testaments well – “You remember Isaiah 35? You remember what the prophet saw? You thought it was going to come true at the end of time, didn’t you? Well, just take a look at this! It’s happening now, right under your very noses!”

Those stories aren’t just fairy-tales. However sceptical you may be, there has to be some solid truth behind them. So why need we doubt that the prophecies which began to find their fulfilment during Jesus’ time on earth will one day come to full and total fulfilment? Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray that God’s perfect kingdom would come “on earth as in heaven”? (Is this, incidentally, why so many Christians seem to get drawn to be nurses or doctors?)

The Old Testament prophecies found partial fulfilment during Jesus’ earthly life. And they will find full completion when the end comes. Oh yes! If your trust is in Jesus there will one day be (don’t laugh!) a perfect you. And our business, as followers of Jesus, is to live this earthly life as joyful fore-runners of that perfection which is still to come – healed, and still to be healed; saved, and still to be saved.

Lord Jesus, thank you for the healing I received when I came to Christ, and thank you for the perfect healing to which I can look forward in your heavenly kingdom. Help me, as long as I am on this earth, to be an agent of healing to those I meet. Amen.

Can hatred be holy?

The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Psalm 58: 10.

There are times when, reading the Bible, I find myself feeling distinctly uncomfortable. I hope I’m not alone in this, but I have to admit that some parts leave me thinking “I really wish that wasn’t in the Bible!” This verse is one of them.

Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, to forgive those who wrong and hurt us. Yet here is the psalmist positively gloating in the prospect of triumphing over “the wicked”; however metaphorical the idea of “bathing our feet in their blood” may be (and I’m sure it is metaphorical), it isn’t exactly a nice sentiment, to put it mildly.

How should we who call ourselves Christians respond to such passages? I think that in practice there are three main options. (I assume that none of us would regard verses like this as justifying hatred and vengefulness in our own dealings with our “enemies”, so I don’t include that as a Christian option.) 

Option one is, I suspect, by far the most common: ignore them. When we come to these parts of the Bible (and they crop up, by the way, in the New Testament as well as the Old) they can easily activate an off-switch in our brains. We screen them out and hurry on to something more pleasant. Natural enough, I suppose. But it really isn’t honest, if we believe that the whole Bible, and not just bits of it, is the inspired word of God. No: we have to face them fairly and squarely.

Option two is to make excuses for them. “Ah yes,” we say, “but of course the person who wrote that psalm knew nothing of Jesus. He lived at an earlier point of history – he was a man of his time, so what can you expect?” But this response also really won’t do, for while, yes, there are places in the Old Testament where God in his justice decrees the destruction of Israel’s national enemies, there are also various passages where God’s people are commanded to love their personal enemies: that command didn’t originate with Jesus! I can’t quote them all here, but if you are interested in following it up, take a look at Proverbs 25:21 and Exodus 23:4-5. And Proverbs 24:17, in fact, could have been written with Psalm 58:10 especially in mind. 

No. We have to go for option three: try to understand the sentiment behind these ferocious words, however imperfect it may be, and use it to become better people

What do I mean by that?

Well, let’s be brutally honest with ourselves: however sweetly we may smile, there are times when we feel towards someone else the sort of anger and resentment displayed by the psalmist. All right, we would never dream of expressing it in the same lurid terms: God forbid, we’re far too polite and well brought up for that! But it’s there, lurking deep in our souls. Can any of us honestly claim to have spirits cleansed of every trace of spite and retaliation?

In other words, let’s at least give credit to the psalmist for being honest – there is no hypocrisy here, no plastic love, no pretended virtue: things which, I suspect, we all too easily cultivate. What actorswe can become! This man is one of those embarrassing people who tend to say what the rest of us only think. He cares about wickedness, enough to long for the destruction of those who perpetrate it. There is no indifference here, no shrugging of the shoulders. 

If nothing else, this psalm can challenge the way we tend to turn a blind eye to the injustices of our world – rather as we switch television channels to something entertaining when we really don’t want to think about the horrors we are confronted with. 

So… No, I don’t think we can excuse the man who wrote the psalm. And I certainly don’t think we are meant to follow his example. But I do think that a man crying out in anguish at what he has witnessed – and perhaps himself experienced – has something good to teach us about honesty, about caring, about a passion for justice and rightness.

And hopefully such thoughts can also lead us closer to the one who, in his great suffering, prayed to God: “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they are doing”.

Oh God, give me a holy hatred of all injustice and wickedness. Empty me of all indifference. And fill my heart, I pray, with the forgiving spirit of Jesus himself. Amen.

Too good to be true? No!

When he had received the drink Jesus said, “It is finished”. With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30.

We had a new carpet fitted some time ago. The shop asked us for a deposit at the time we made the order, and then the rest of the payment when they came to do the work. On that second payment the bill was stamped “Paid”. This was the official confirmation that we had settled the bill fully. It was a nice feeling to know that everything was in order: the work was satisfactorily done and – most of all – we didn’t owe any money.

In the world of the New Testament, the word “Paid” would have been the Greek tetelestai, which literally means “finished”, “completed”, “done”, “over”. And this is the word John uses in telling us about Jesus’ dying word on the cross: “It is finished“. Jesus was declaring in the most public way possible that he had at last accomplished the work his Father had sent him to do, the work of making atonement for the sins of the human race.

Of course, because we weren’t there we can never know exactly how Jesus uttered that word – very likely it was with “the loud voice” mentioned in the other gospels. But I think we can be absolutely certain that it was a cry of triumph rather than a whimper of defeat. Jesus wasn’t weakly saying “It’s all over, I’ve had enough, I can’t take any more.” No: he was celebrating a victory.

This is massively important. The human mind seems to be hard-wired to think that, if we are to be right with God, then we must try very hard indeed to put ourselves right. The work belongs to us. We must be “religious”. We must go to church. We must do good deeds. We must give money to charity. If we manage to do all these things, we might just be lucky enough to squeeze into God’s favour – the credit side of the balance sheet will outweigh the debit side. Have you ever found yourself thinking this way? Is this perhaps the way you think now?

If it is, can I offer you that great word tetelestai ! It reminds us that when Jesus died for us on the cross he left us absolutely nothing else to do. He did it all. All we need to do is receive that forgiveness and salvation as a perfectly free gift. This is the meaning of that other great Bible word “grace” – which has been defined as “God’s undeserved favour”, or more simply as God’s mercy, generosity and love.

“But isn’t that just too good to be true!” somebody might say. Certainly it seems like it, I agree. But that’s the way it is, thank God. Why else is the heart of the Christian message called the “gospel”, which means “good news”? After all, it’s hardly good news to be told that you must work with all your might and main to achieve salvation – and even then you still might not make it. But to be offered salvation as a free gift from God because of what Jesus did on the cross – well, that really is good news.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that we needn’t bother with living good lives, being involved in worship, showing love and generosity and all the rest. The point is that we do these things as a grateful response to God’s amazing grace. We do these things not in order to be saved, but because we are saved.

We sometimes sing, “The price is paid,/ Come let us enter in/ To all that Jesus died/ To make our own”. Yes! It is finished. Is this the greatest word that has ever been spoken?

Father, thank you that the work of salvation is a finished, completed work. Thank you that this takes away my insecurity about where I stand with you. Help me daily to enjoy my status as a forgiven child of God – and to live worthy of that status! Amen.

Get, get, get!

You shall not covet…  Exodus 20:17

Do you ever covet things?

I reckon that in the materialistic world we live in you’d be very unusual indeed if you didn’t. To covet is to wish for things which we have no right to, especially things belonging to other people. It means refusing to be content with what we have.

You may covet somebody’s money, or their health, or their looks, or their marriage, or their talents, or their possessions, or their success … I could go on for ever. I sometimes think that the whole advertising industry is designed to stir up covetousness within us. That sleek new car… that exotic holiday… that latest gadget… “You deserve it…” the adverts coo at us, “Because you’re worth it”. And, fools that we are, we believe them.

But why exactly is it wrong to covet?

First, it’s essentially selfish – it elevates what I want  to the top of the list of priorities. It puts me and my needs before God-like qualities such as generosity, kindness and compassion. It’s all about getting rather than giving – and didn’t Jesus say that there is more joy in giving than receiving (Acts 20:35)?

Second, it suggests a failure to trust in God for his provision. God promises to look after those who entrust themselves to him, so if we covet it means, in effect, that we are saying to God, “Your provision isn’t good enough for me – I’m not really sure you will look after me”.

Third, it destroys peace of mind. The more focussed you are on other people and what they’ve got, the more chewed up inside you will be because you don’t have them. Covetous people are rarely happy people. They’re angry inside.

Fourth, it can lead to disastrous consequences. Some of the Old Testament’s most powerful stories are about covetousness – and in each case havoc results. Eve coveted the fruit God said she and Adam shouldn’t touch (Genesis 3). Achan coveted the treasures of the Canaanites (Joshua 7). King David coveted another man’s wife (2 Samuel 11). King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). Why not read these dramatic stories again – and see the carnage and misery that resulted in each case?

Covetousness is, in the end, a form of idolatry – putting something or someone in the place that only God should occupy. By the same token, the person who has learned not to covet (and the learning process can be painful – let’s be honest about that) experiences real liberation. 

If we have reached a point where we can say, with Paul, that we will be content  with the basic necessities of life, whatever God may see fit to give us (1 Timothy 6:8), then we can cheerfully shrug our shoulders at the world around us and just get on with the business of trying to live a Christlike life. We’re free! And if somebody else has something that we would like – well, good for them! I’m pleased for them! And may God bless them!

“I have learned the secret of being content,” says Paul (Philippians 4:12). Content… isn’t it a great word? It doesn’t mean we can’t be ambitious in a good sense. But it does mean that we’re happy to leave our lot in this life in the hands of a God who is our heavenly Father, and who loves us more than we can know.

And never forget, there are “treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20) for those who truly love God. The child of God is actually a billionaire!

Dear Father, I am sorry that I allow the poison of discontent to corrode my soul. I promise now that, with your help, I will entrust myself wholeheartedly to you and let you lead me wherever you want me to go, and give me whatever you want me to have. Amen.

A Lesson Learned

When I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10

If you had happened to be in Bangalore Airport one Thursday morning a few weeks ago you might have seen a grey-haired man being ferried around in a wheel-chair, accompanied by some extremely efficient medical people and some extremely anxious-looking friends. You might have given him a brief thought: “Poor old bloke, I wonder what’s wrong with him. Not much fun being taken ill in a place like this…” And then, very naturally, got on with your own business.

Well, that poor old bloke was me. I had had a case of Bangalore Belly for a couple of days and had brought the experience to a dramatic climax by keeling over in the duty-free shop. As it turned out the medical people gave me a quick once-over, decided there was nothing much wrong with me and told me to board the plane. Here British Airways took over and ensured for me the most comfortable journey they could manage.

But oh the humiliation, the embarrassment! For that short period I was triply dependent: on my friends, who were as loyal as friends could be, on the medical team, who were magnificent, and on the BA staff, the very model of professionalism.

I didn’t like it, don’t worry about that. And that wasn’t only because I was so unwell. No, it was that sense of total dependence. I could do nothing for myself. I had, so to speak, to take orders (not that anybody gave me any, but you know what I mean). I was helpless, quite literally, in the hands of those looking after me. 

After all, all my life I have been the strong one! Isn’t that what men in general and minsters in particular are?  Mine has been the shoulder other people cry on. I have been Mr Reliability when others have lost heart. (Well, something like all that, anyway…) And now this! Oh dear.

But looking back, I have decided to treat it as a positive experience, however unpleasant. I learned a lesson we instinctively forget – that in reality we are all dependent on others (not to mention God) twenty-four hours a day. What happened that morning was just an extreme case that threw that reality into sharp relief.

The fact is that none of us can live without relying on others in a million and one ways. And the fact is also that for each of us a day will come when that reliance will be right there for all the world to see. So it’s just as well to recognise it now and silence any pride that whispers, “Oh, but I’m different…”

I’m just old enough to remember the declining years of Winston Churchill. Here was this powerful man, a man who had led Britain through terrible years of war, a man who changed the course of history. And I remember him hunched up in his wheel-chair surrounded by a cluster of doctors.

I remember Muhammad Ali, thought by many to be the greatest boxer in history, the man who “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee”. And I see him now barely able to walk or lift up his hand.

I could easily go on… Stephen Hawking, the man with the brain that encompasses the universe… Nelson Mandela, dead now but still so fresh in everyone’s memory… Even the strongest, whether physically or mentally, are weak. Do you feel strong today? Good! Enjoy your strength and make the most of it! But do remember that in the context of life as a whole it is only an illusion.

Paul, in the New Testament, wrote some wonderful words: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” What did he mean? That it is when we are obviously weak that we are forced to rely on God and his supernatural strength. He also wrote: “My strength is made perfect… in weakness”. Strange! But true: it’s when we face up to our essential weakness that we find real strength.

Jesus knew utter weakness. They seized him, beat him up, flogged him and nailed him to a cross in full public view. Could you get more helpless, more humiliated than that? 

I can’t pretend I saw it this way while riding around Bangalore Airport, but I do now: in my lowliness I was in the care not only of wonderful friends, skilful doctors and efficient flight staff, but also of one who knows more about plumbing the depths than anybody else ever has or ever will.

Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of all creation, thank you that you were willing to experience the lowest depths of pain and dependence for my sake. Amen.

Is anyone listening?

Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ “ Matthew 4:4

I know someone who doesn’t speak. I don’t know why this is, and it’s no business of mine to ask. Perhaps it’s a physical problem with his mouth, or some kind of psychological blockage. But if you say Hello to him he will smile and shake your hand, but he doesn’t say anything. As you can imagine, this makes communication enormously difficult, indeed, pretty well impossible. Whereas most of us (let’s be honest) talk far too much, so everyone knows only too well what’s in our minds, with him you just never know. Strange, and rather disturbing. 
But now here is something of massive importance… Our God is a God who speaks.

The third verse of the whole Bible tells us that “God said…”. And constantly, throughout both the Old Testament and the New, God is speaking. It’s a theme you just can’t get away from.

Suppose God never spoke? How would that be? Suppose we simply had no way of ever knowing what was going on in his mind? We would be completely helpless as to what life is all about, and how we are supposed to live it.

The big question then is: How does God speak? Well, in various ways. 
First, through the created world around us. The Psalmist tells us that “the heavens declare the glory of God… Day after day they pour forth speech” (Psalm 19). Look at creation and reflect on the power and beauty of God!
Second, through our consciences. Don’t we all sometimes hear that inner voice warning us about something we are tempted to do? Conscience isn’t a perfect guide – like human nature as a whole it is corrupted by all sorts of bad influences. But if we bring it before God it won’t lead us far astray. 
Above all, of course, God speaks through his son Jesus. This is why the Bible refers to Jesus as “the Word made flesh” (John 1). Every time you focus on Jesus you are in effect hearing God speak. He is the living Word of God.

But God also speaks through scripture – the Bible, as we usually call it. This is why Jesus, when he was tempted by the devil, sent him packing by quoting the words of scripture, “it is written…”, three times. The devil has tempted Jesus to turn the stones around him into bread – a pretty serious temptation, given that he had gone without food for forty days! But Jesus refuses to give in: the greatest need of human beings, he says, is not physical food, however vital that may be, but God’s word. This is a direct quotation from Deuteronomy 8. Jesus knew his Bible! – and he knew how to use it.

Could that be said of you and me? God speaks, that’s for sure. But are we listening? Do Bible texts and passages spring naturally to our minds to help us in the normal circumstances of our lives? Or is our knowledge of the Bible hazy, patchy, hit-or-miss?

I hope all of us are good listeners. I imagine that most of us listen specially carefully if the person speaking is someone we regard as particularly important – someone we love, someone who is in an important position. Well, people don’t come more important than God, do they! So close your ears to him at your peril.

God has given us a book. We call it the Bible. Certainly, it can be a difficult book: there are parts we find hard to understand, parts that really don’t seem relevant, parts, let’s be honest, that even seem to us offensive. Yet through it as a whole he speaks to us. So not to listen to it is sheer folly. 
Are you serious about your Bible? Is it time to get to grips with it in a fresh way? Think about it. Reflect on it. Pray over it. And not just the nice bits, the easy bits – no, every chapter, every verse. If you are serious about God, how can you not be serious about his word?
Putting it another way, not wanting to bother with the Bible is tantamount to not wanting to bother with God. As Jesus put it, we don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Father, forgive me that though you are constantly speaking, I am so rarely listening. Thank you for the gift of the Bible. Please help me to take it seriously, and to make it my daily food. May I hear your voice as I read today. Amen.