Little man – big impact


When Asa heard these words, and the prophecy of Azariah son of Oded the prophet, he took courage. 2 Chronicles 15:8

I suspect that, since you are reading this Bible-based blog, you will probably have heard of various Bible characters – Old Testament figures such as Abraham and Moses, Elijah and Isaiah, David and Solomon, and New Testament ones like Mary, Peter, Paul and Stephen. But I wonder if the name of Azariah son of Oded means anything to you?

To be honest, Bible figures don’t come much more obscure than him. He pops up out of nowhere, appears for just eight verses (there are about 31,000 in the whole Bible), and then disappears into the mists of time. We know his father’s name – Oded – but that’s just about all. To add insult to injury, he is one of no less than twenty-five (!) Azariahs in the Old Testament.

But I like him. He has been like a friend to me for many years. So I want to introduce him to you, in case you have never met him before. (It won’t take you long to read 2 Chronicles 15 to get the full story.) In essence, he was a prophet who spoke to Asa King of Judah when Asa was returning from victory in battle. 

Broadly, he gives Asa a threefold message. First, there is a challenge and warning (verse 2): God is with you, Asa, if you are with him – but make sure you stay close to him or it will be the worse for you! Second, there is a potted history lesson(verses 3-6): learn from the past, Asa, because even though God loves you, he is not to be trifled with! And third, there is a word of encouragement (verse 7): Asa, the future’s bright if you are wholehearted in your loyalty to God!

There are two main reasons I like Azariah son of Oded.

First, he shows great courage. Prophets who dared to confront kings could come to a sticky end, and often did. But see how bold Azariah is in addressing Asa: “Listen to me, Asa and all Judah and Jerusalem…” There’s no mincing of words there, is there? The Spirit of God was in his heart, and the word of God was on his lips – and that’s a pretty powerful combination. It gave him a stature that impressed even the king.

God needs people like that today, in a world where so many are indifferent to him at best and hostile to him at worst: men and women of stature and authority, not because they hold any particular position in life, but because of their Christlike courage and sheer presence. Is that you? Is it me? In our workplaces? In our neighbourhoods? The message is simple: get seriously into the Bible, and be filled daily with the Holy Spirit. The spiritual stature will follow. 

And let’s never forget the many thousands of such people around the world today who haven’t had such a favourable response as Azariah got from Asa, and who are stuck in prisons, or made to suffer in other ways (take a look at Hebrews 13:3). They need our daily prayers, so don’t let’s fail them.

Second, I like Azariah because his obscurity doesn’t limit his usefulness. He reminds me that even “little” people can have a big impact. It’s not too much to say that Azariah changed the course of history. Even though Asa was at heart a good king, there was still a lot needing to be done. And after the encounter with Azariah – well, didn’t he just get on and do it!

He initiated what I can only call a spiritual spring-clean (verse 8). In fact, he brought about a revival in the nation of Judah. This is beautifully summed up in verse 12: the whole nation “entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul.” Granted, later on the nation slipped back into their bad old ways, and even Asa, sadly, lost his way. But that wasn’t Azariah’s fault. 

Azariah did what God called him to do, and he did it without fear or favour. What more can be asked of anyone? I hope the same can be said of us. So I invite you to reflect on the ministry of this little-known man; may he be an inspiration to you, as he has been to me.

Father, thank you for the big, well-known figures we meet in your word, and the inspiration they are to us. Most of all, thank you for our Lord Jesus. But thank you too for the little-known people, people like Azariah son of Oded. Please give me the courage to witness boldly for you, confident that my efforts will not be in vain. Amen.

Advertisements

Truly sensational


If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile… 1 Corinthians 15:17

When I was a teenager there was a radio discussion programme in which questions were put by members of the public to a panel of experts. As you might expect, the questions were almost always political. But the final one, to which the panellists were expected to give short and hopefully funny answers, was of a more light-hearted kind. Well, on the occasion I’m thinking of, that final question was, “If there was just one question you would really like to know the answer to, what would it be?” I distinctly remember one panellist pausing for just a moment and then saying, “I would love to know for sure if Jesus Christ really rose from the dead.”

I have no idea if that person ever came to a definite answer in his own mind, but there’s no doubt that he would have had Paul’s agreement about the massive importance of the question. Without the resurrection, says Paul, the whole of Christianity is “futile” – that is, nonsense, pointless, a waste of time. And, make no mistake, Paul is not talking about some “spiritual” or “metaphorical” resurrection. No: he is talking about Jesus’ bodily rising from the dead.

Christians have many things in common with people of other faiths, and indeed, of no faith at all. And that is good. But in the resurrection we have something which is peculiar to us alone. Christianity stands or falls on the story of the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus to his friends.

We can’t prove it. But the evidence is solid, and there are indeed various modern stories of hard-headed unbelievers, some of them with a legal training, who have examined it closely and come to life-changing faith as a result. 

It is desperately sad that for millions of people, when the word “church” is used, what comes to mind are all sorts of negative images – decaying buildings, strange rituals, irrelevant preachers, impenetrable quarrels, appalling scandals, you name it – rather than the sensational good news that Jesus Christ is alive, that death has been overcome.

So… how should we respond to this great story? I suggest four things.

First, believe it! All right, I know that you can’t simply make yourself believe it by an act of will; of course not. But what you can do is open your mind to it and explore it as deeply and honestly as you can. The light of faith will dawn for the sincere and humble person.

Second, rejoice in it! If ever there was good news (that, of course, is what “gospel” means) this surely is it. The defeat of death gives us joy and hope. We have them here and now, right in the middle of life’s hurts and pains; and we have them also for the life to come. The resurrection quite literally changes everything about how we view life and death.

Third, preach it! Good news is for sharing. Many people go through life pretty much crushed and defeated – and that includes, by the way, clever, rich, talented, successful people as well as so-called “ordinary” people. The old American spiritual “Ol’ man river” has the powerful and deeply sad words “I’m tired of living and scared of dying.” And that just about sums it up for millions of people. All right, you may not be a preacher in any formal sense. But if you believe in the resurrection, what possible sense does it make to keep it to yourself?

And fourth, live it! The resurrection isn’t just a one-off miracle – all right, very nice for Jesus, but so what? No. At the heart of the Christian faith is the idea that all who believe in Jesus are, so to speak, gathered up into him to become part of him. His resurrection becomes ours too. In Colossians 3:1 Paul says that we “have been (not “will be”!) raised with Christ”. True, our resurrection isn’t yet perfect and final; but it is real nonetheless. And that means that we are to live our day-to-day lives as risen-from-the-deadmen and women, whatever that might mean in practice – faith, joy, peace, hope, love, integrity, strength, humility, forgiveness, sacrifice… To put it at the very lowest level, the resurrection should make us far better people than we would otherwise be. 

The resurrection isn’t just an idea, a “doctrine”. It is a once-for-all event with consequences tumbling down the centuries for every single person who comes to believe in Jesus, the risen one. So I don’t think I can finish any better than by saying again… Believe it! Rejoice in it! Preach it! Live it!

Yes!

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you that in your rising from the dead I have found new joy and hope. Please help me to live, day by day, a life which is inspired and transformed by this greatest of all events. Amen.

Keep it simple!


Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do something really difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’?”  2 Kings 5:13

“Keep it simple!”

Have you ever been offered that advice? I’m afraid that often when we have some kind of problem we tie ourselves in knots of anxiety. If only we would calm down a little and quietly think it through we might find that it wasn’t actually as difficult as we feared. Keep it simple!

This was the advice that Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram (that’s Syria), needed. He was desperate for a cure for his leprosy, and was persuaded to visit the Israelite prophet Elisha who was known for his supernatural powers. He came in all his splendour and armed with fantastic sums of money. But he ended up in a rage. Why? Because, first, Elisha sent a mere servant to him instead of coming himself and performing some dramatic healing. And, second, because Elisha told him to go and wash in the River Jordan. “Huh! Doesn’t he know who I am! Why doesn’t he come and produce some real fireworks? Why should I dip myself in the muddy little Jordan – aren’t our Syrian rivers far better?” He stomped off in a huff.

It was only when his servants came and had, ahem, a tactful little word with him that he realised how foolish he was, and changed his mind. And what do we read? He did the simple thing: “… he went and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became like that of a little child”. Yes, you could say if you like that he ate a large helping of humble pie, and in public too. But I don’t think he ever regretted it, do you? (Why not read again the whole story in 2 Kings 5?)

I think that thoughtful Christians, and especially those of an intellectual type, often find themselves walking something of a tightrope. The fact is, on the one hand, that we have to grapple with difficult and puzzling issues – the idea of the Trinity, say, or predestination, the mystery of evil and suffering, the pain of seemingly unanswered prayer, to mention just a few. And I think God does expect us to grapple with these things. He has given us minds so that we should use them.

But sometimes, on the other hand, a point comes when we have to accept that we are never going to find a clear answer to all these questions – we have reached the end of our resources. Ultimately it all boils down to faith, to simple child-like trust. This isn’t being lazy; it’s being realistic. But it is amazing how often that step of child-like faith leads to peace – and sometimes wonderful surprises.

I don’t know, to be honest, how true this story is, but it is said of the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth – one of the mightiest intellects of Christian history – how he would sum up his years of academic study. His reply was to quote the hymn some of us learned in Sunday School: “Jesus loves me,/ This I know,/ For the Bible tells me so.”

Are you, perhaps, getting all stewed up over some problem at the moment? Well, you certainly have my sympathy. I’ve been there – many times! – as well. But perhaps you need to take a leaf out of Naaman’s book. He eventually did the right thing, the simple thing. And God honoured his step of faith. 
Is it time to stop fretting, to start trusting, and to leave it all in the hands of your heavenly Father?

Dear Father, forgive me that I so often complicate things unnecessarily. Grant me, please, the gift of child-like faith, and so bring me through my doubts and fears into the light of peace and hope. Amen.

"Get behind me, Satan!"


Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, “Don’t be afraid; only believe”. Mark 5:36

When I was a child I was taught that it was rude to ignore people. If someone spoke to you, you should reply. And that is surely right.

But there are times too when it’s right to – let’s put it like this – turn a deaf ear. And here is a case in point. Jesus is heading for the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader, whose small daughter is desperately ill. On the way some of Jairus’ neighbours meet them with bad news: the girl has died. What does Jesus do? He “ignores what they said”. No, he wasn’t being rude. But his act of ignoring is important, and it suggests to us that there are times when we should do the same.

What sort of times? Well, the most obvious example would be when there are voices of gloom and despondency, as here. Of course, in our situations there is no way we can just brush bad news aside – it would be foolish and irresponsible to do so. This instance is an exception, because Jesus knew something no-one else knew – that God was going to use this grim situation to do something very special. A miracle was on the way.
But the fact is that there often come into our minds voices of doubt, fear and even despair, and that is when, as those who trust in Jesus, we need to learn to block our ears. I love to imagine that preciously personal moment when, having overheard the news, Jesus turns quietly to Jairus and says, perhaps in a whisper, “Don’t be afraid; just believe”. And so with us. When those doubting, negative voices come into our heads, we need to listen for Jesus as he speaks those words to us.

It might be to do with our personal circumstances – “Oh, you’ll never get that job… you’ll never pass that exam… you’ll never find the happiness you’re looking for… you’ll never make a success of that ministry you felt God had called you to…” It’s so easy to listen to those voices rather than to the voice of Jesus. 
 
Or
it might be to do with bigger events, especially regarding the life of the church – “Oh, the Christian church will be as good as dead in thirty years… you’ll never hold on to the children and young people… other religions are on the march, there’s no way you can compete…” This, putting it bluntly, is the voice of the devil, and it can be very plausible and seductive. But once again, if only we have ears to hear, there is also the voice of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid; just believe”.
There’s just five words there. The first three are a comfort, the other two a challenge, but both the comfort and the challenge are a command. And we need to give weight to both of them. But if we do, who knows, we could be paving the way for a miracle.

One of my favourite Old Testament characters is King Hezekiah. He and the people of Jerusalem were on the receiving end of arrogant,
demoralising bullying from Sennacherib, King of Assyria. We read that Hezekiah told the people not to reply to Sennacherib’s messengers – just keep a dignified silence. In effect, ignore him. But Hezekiah himself “went into the temple of the Lord” to pray. When, later, a threatening letter arrived, he “went up to the temple… and spread it before the Lord”. (Why not take a few minutes to remind yourself of the story – 2 Kings 18 and 19 – and don’t stop till you get to 19:35-37!)?

The message for all of us is simple, though not always easy to carry out: block your ears to the voice of the enemy; open your ears to the voice of God. You might just have a miracle heading your way…

Dear Father in heaven, please forgive me that I so easily become anxious, fearful and cast down. Help me to block out the voices of doubt and discouragement, and to hear those beautiful words of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid; only believe”. Amen.

The Spirit-filled life


The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22

When the New Testament talks about the Holy Spirit it’s likely to be talking about one of two things: power, or purity.

Power is what was shown on the Day of Pentecost – the Spirit came like a gale-force wind and tongues of fire. Wind inspires, blowing away the cobwebs and breathing new life. Fire purges, burning away the dross of sin and compromise.

But purity is the focus of this challenging list in Galatians 5. God’s Spirit comes to live within us and produce in our characters a harvest (that’s pretty much what the word “fruit” means) of beautiful qualities. A good way to grasp the importance of what Paul is saying is to ask the question: What sort of world would planet earth be if every human being produced this fruit? The answer is simple: a paradise!

Wouldn’t we all love to make the world perfect? Of course! But that’s not going to happen. So our chief concern as Christians must be to live in such a way that we bring just a little hint of that paradise into our tiny corner of the world. 

As I think about Paul’s list three main thoughts come to my mind.

First, fruit is something that grows naturally or not at all. You can’t force it. You can, if you like, go out and hang plastic pears or cardboard grapes on their respective trees. They may look very nice; at a distance they might even look real. But it won’t take anyone long to discover that they’re fake.

And in the same way we can all train ourselves to put a nice veneer on our personalities; this is called being civilised, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it. But it isn’t what Paul is talking about. He is talking about something that grows, as it were, organically, from deep within us. And it does so because it is essentially the work of the Holy Spirit. 

You can always tell a truly Spirit-filled person because they are natural, easy, unassuming; they don’t give the impression of forcing things, of trying to be something they’re not. This is why it is so important to let the Spirit fill us day by day; only then will the fruit flourish.

Second, this isn’t an optional list. Have you ever sat an exam where you have to tackle only a certain number of questions – four out of ten, say? You can safely ignore the other six; it won’t count against you. Well, that isn’t how Paul’s list is to be treated! You can’t say: “Well, I have to admit that I’m not much good when it comes to love, patience and self-control; but joy, gentleness, kindness and faithfulness – well, I reckon I’m not too bad there. And let’s face it, four out of nine isn’t bad!”


No! These beautiful characteristics are intended to grow together, all of them, side by side. You never get any of them truly “sorted”; you can never tick any of them off. And neither can you act as if some of them don’t matter. Indeed, examining them in that kind of way is completely artificial, for the fact is that only someone else is really qualified to judge how far we have progressed in this business of being filled with the Spirit. (I would go so far as to say that anyone who says “I am filled with the Spirit” shows by that very claim that – they aren’t!)

Third, there’s a sting in the tail. If you look through the list you get the impression of a very gentle type of person. But bringing up the rear is something much more muscular, if I can put it that way: self-control. Do you find yourself thinking “Ouch! that really is a weak spot of mine!”? I suspect that many of us do. I’m glad Paul put it in, because some Christians give the impression that being Spirit-filled is a bit like floating along on a spiritual cloud nine, complete with an angelic smile on your face. Again, no! Growing the fruit of the Spirit requires real determination and seriousness about following Christ. This is no Christian equivalent of a drug trip.

As I said, it’s not for us to assess ourselves when it comes to being Spirit-filled – that’s for others to do. But what we can do is give this list serious thought and ensure that we allow ourselves the conditions for such growth. Jesus said: “Remain in me” – in effect, Make your home in me. That’s the heart of it; that’s how to produce the fruit of the Spirit.


Lord God, make my life like a harvest field, producing in me all that is pure, holy and Christlike. Amen.

A word for Pentecost


The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. Genesis 2:7

Jesus breathed on the disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”. John 20:22

What a strange thing breathing is! That quiet little motion – in-out, in-out, in-out – that we hardly notice most of the time, but without which we cannot live. How many millions of times do we do it throughout our lives? How often do we stop to think about it?

To breathe is to be alive. To stop breathing is to die. Breath is life.

Well, forgive me for stating the obvious. But there are times when the obvious, the absolutely commonplace, can also be very wonderful. And if that’s true of just “ordinary” breathing, how much more is it true of the scene John gives us? Picture, please, that moment when Jesus, risen from the dead, appears to his frightened disciples and breathes on themwith the simple words “Receive the Holy Spirit”.

When we think about the coming of the Holy Spirit we probably think most often of Pentecost and the dramatic events described in Acts 2: the “rushing mighty wind” and “what seemed to be tongues of fire”. And quite right too. That was the event that kick-started the Christian church, and it was massive. 

But I for one am really pleased that we have this other account too. It speaks to me of the fact that you can’t lay down hard and fast rules about how the Spirit comes. Sometimes he comes quietly, even privately, a breath; and sometimes he comes with the power of a volcanic eruption. 

How do these two stories – these two comings – relate to one another? Was the one described by John a kind of symbolic coming, paving the way for the real thing in Acts 2? That’s a question the scholars debate, and I certainly wouldn’t dare to offer a strong opinion. But the clue to the John passage lies, surely, in the link with Genesis 2, where we read how God “breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living being”.

By telling the story this way John seems to be saying something like this: “In the beginning God created all things. The climax of his creation was man. But he was a purely inanimate object – clay, dust – until God chose to breathe into him his divine breath. Only then did he live. And now see what Jesus is doing! His rising from the dead marks the start of a new creation. The first one went badly wrong; but instead of washing his hands of Project Humanity, God decided to start again, and it is his son Jesus who gives supernatural life to the first members of a whole new human race. He, the Son, does what the Father had done at the beginning with the breath of his mouth, so a new creation is launched, and new life is given.”

Fine. But what does this mean for us? Lots of things! But in essence this: as followers of Jesus we aren’t just people who have developed a taste for “spiritual” matters and so come to faith and become part of the church. No! We are that, if you like, but we are also far more. We are (please read the next bit really slowly…) members of a whole new race; we are a new humanity; we are being remade by God in the likeness of Christ; we have the very life of God within us; we have been born again by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Which leads to a simple but vital question: Does it show?

Here are some famous words from Paul, but translated in a strictly literal way: “If anyone is in Christ – new creation! The old things have gone. Look, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Well, how does your life, how does mine, match up to that?

Breathe on me, breath of God,

Fill me with life anew;

That I may love what thou dost love,

And do what thou wouldst do. Amen.

Get praying!


They all joined together constantly in prayer… Acts 1:14

I had a strange conversation once with a man after preaching in his church. I can’t remember now what I had been talking about, but I must at some point have touched on the subject of prayer. “You know,” he said to me, “I don’t go along with all this business of corporate prayer.” I assumed he meant that prayer should be offered either “officially” from up front in a service, or individually at home. The idea of praying together in a small group seemed wrong to him.

I was rather taken aback – praying with others has been so absolutely vital to my life as a Christian over 50 years that I didn’t really know what to say. But I’ve a feeling that many Christians, while they would probably never be quite as open as that man, in practice have pretty much the same attitude. The idea of praying with other Christians is alien to them. Go to a prayer-meeting? – what are you going on about!

Well, I think this verse teaches us better. It’s talking about the members of the early church in that strange “gap” period between the resurrected Jesus ascending to heaven and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But I can’t imagine for one minute that it was a practice that ever faded out of the church over the years.

All the words Luke uses are worth thinking about…

“They all joined together…” This wasn’t just the eleven remaining apostles. Indeed, Luke makes a point of continuing, “along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers.” A few verses later he mentions an approximate number: “about 120”. Praying together is for all Christians, not just the leaders or a select elite.

“They all joined together…” This suggests that they made a special point of meeting – it didn’t just happen by chance. They may not have called it a “prayer meeting” in the way we might. But that’s what it amounted to.

“They all joined together constantly… It didn’t just happen now and then. Of course, these people had other things to do in their lives, just as we do today – they had to do the shopping, look after their children, do their jobs. Life had to go on. But “constantly” implies that it was a real and serious commitment whenever possible. These people knew they needed to be faithful in prayer – and they acted accordingly.

All right, let’s admit that starting to pray with others can be difficult. Let’s be realistic – we may be be a bit shy, a bit self-conscious. But – and I’m talking now to anyone who has never tried it – once you have broken the ice and got used to it, it becomes entirely natural.

And people sometimes say, “But I wouldn’t know what to say!” That’s fair enough too. But there are at least two good answers. First, don’t feel you have to say anything. Silent prayer is still received by God. No-one is forced to do anything they don’t want to. Second, why not write a prayer out in advance and simply read it? Or read a few verses from the psalms or some other part of the Bible? Easy!

Let’s admit too that gatherings for prayer aren’t always the most exciting of times – especially, perhaps, on a wet February evening when there’s a big football match on television. But never mind! God calls his children to pray, and that’s it.

Praying with others is one of the great privileges of the Christian life. Even if, yes, it sometimes seems just a duty, the fact is that duties carried out for love of God have a wonderful way of turning into joys. And there is a closeness that slowly builds up between people who pray together which (and I mean this quite seriously!) is a tiny foretaste of heaven itself.

Praying together… It’s good for the individual, and it’s essential for the church. When all is said and done, it’s just a group of God’s children coming together to talk to their loving heavenly Father. God loves to hear his people pray!

Are you in some kind of regular prayer group? No? Well, may I put it bluntly? It’s time you were! Why deny yourself one of the joys of everyday Christian living?


Dear Father in heaven, thank you for the wonderful gift of prayer. And thank you for placing me in a community of people who are my brothers and sisters in Christ. May we know the joy of coming together regularly into your presence. Amen.