New hope for a new year

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

Hope is a little word with a big meaning. The Bible speaks of it often, but so does the world in general: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”; “While there’s life there’s hope”; “Hope for the best!” – you don’t have to be a Christian to recognise the universal human need for hope.

But it is especially important for the Christian, for it is an essential part of the bundle of rich gifts that God gives to the person who trusts in Christ. Hence this beautiful doxology Paul sends to his Christian readers in Rome. It doesn’t tell us everything there is to know regarding Christian hope, but it certainly tells us a lot.

1 Hope begins and ends with God.

Paul describes God as “the God of hope”. Yes, of course he is supremely the God of love, of grace, of power, of wisdom. But hope too is a key aspect of his character. The Bible is full of stories of people who were hope-less, on the verge of despair, but whose hopelessness was turned to hope.

You think of the Israelites on the shore of the Red Sea, expecting to be cut to pieces by the Egyptians – only for God to open up the waters before them. You think of Israel, in despairing exile under the Persians – only for King Cyrus of Persia – a pagan king! – to command that they be allowed to return to Israel and rebuild their temple. You think of the sick, the grieving, the demonised, the lepers of Jesus’ day – only to be made whole by his loving power. You think of the disciples, broken by his death on the cross – only to meet him again, more alive than ever, on resurrection morning.

Surely, yes, God is a “God of hope”!

The god-less person is ultimately a hope-less person – for if there is no God how can you possibly have any reason to hope? The world says “While there’s life there’s hope”; but the Christian replies “No: while there’s God there’s hope”.

Which raises the obvious question: Is God a reality to you?

2 Hope depends on faith.

Paul makes clear that hope is only a reality to the Christian “as you trust in him”. This is vital: if we don’t trust in this God of hope how can we expect to experience the hope he gives?

To trust is to believe, to actively and consciously rely on someone or something. True, it is sometimes hard to believe in God when bad things are happening. But if you have come to the faith that there is indeed a God, that he is all-powerful, and that he loves you personally, even the tiniest seed of hope will carry you through the darkest times.

It’s good to have great faith. But it’s even better to have little faith in a great God.

3 Hope comes as part of a package.

Paul prays that God will fill the Christians of Rome “with all joy and peace as you trust in him”. I picture hope as a person walking along the road. His right hand is holding the hand of joy, his left hand that of peace, and they are walking together. Isn’t that a trio you would be happy to meet!

The essential moods of the Christian life are here: hope is faith dreaming; peace is faith resting; joy is faith dancing. Even in the darkest times these three are our companions on the journey through life.

4 Hope flows out of us.

Paul prays that his readers will “overflow with hope”. What God pours into us so generously then flows out of us for the good of everyone we meet.

In other words, hope isn’t something we hug to ourselves, like a millionaire who possesses great works of art that only he ever sees, or a miser who never shares a penny of his riches. No, hope flows and glows. It turns us into true optimists, people who don’t just “hope for the best”, but people who demonstrate by the way we live that all is not lost, that there are great things ahead.

The true Christian, then, is never cynical or gloomy, but radiates a beautiful and irresistible confidence in the purposes of God for the future. He or she is a person of conviction; when he prays “May your kingdom come, may your will be done,” he actually believes that the day is coming when that prayer will be wonderfully answered.

So thank God for the gift of hope! May we ourselves enjoy it. And may we, through it, bring hope to everyone around us. Amen!

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The biggest decision you will ever make

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God... John 1:11-12

Jesus, the very Word of God made flesh, must be received.

That’s the essence of these great words from the opening of John’s Gospel. Every time I hear them read – which is pretty often around this time of year! – I hope to hear that second “did” declared in ringing, joyful italics, so to speak: Jesus’ own people did not receive him; but there were those who did, thank God!

And the question we can’t avoid is: are you numbered among them? Have you or have you not “received” Jesus?

Just in case we aren’t sure what receiving Jesus actually means, John spells it out for us: those who receive Jesus are those “who believe in his name”. And believing in his name means accepting him for who he is, the divine Son of God, our saviour, lord, king and friend.

To believe in this sense – not just cold, detached, mental assent – is a life-transforming thing; nothing can ever be the same again. It means that you have had your sins forgiven; that you can be sure of eternal life; and that you have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. You become, as John goes on to make clear, a “child of God”. (It just gets better and better, doesn’t it?)

So back to the key question: have you received Jesus? Make no mistake, this is a clear-cut event in your life; it is a decision, an action. It doesn’t just creep on you without you noticing it – any more than, say, getting married does. Either you’ve done it or you haven’t.

This is where some of the hymns and songs we sing at this time of year are especially precious. I could quote several, but let me just make do with two.

First, O little town of Bethlehem. This was written by Phillips Brooks in the latter half of the 1800s, but its message remains absolutely up to date:

No ear may hear his coming;

But in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive him, still

The dear Christ enters in.

Yes, yes! The “dear Christ” does indeed “enter in” every time a “meek soul” chooses to receive him. I did this very quietly when I was fifteen, and it was the event that changed my life for good. But you could be fifteen, fifty or a hundred! I simply hope you can say the same.

Having described how receiving Christ happens, the carol then becomes a beautiful prayer:

O holy child of Bethlehem,

Descend to us, we pray;

Cast out our sin, and enter in;

Be born in us today.

A great prayer to hear any congregation sing. But the person who can turn “us” into “me”, “our” into “my”, and “we” into “I” is praying the most powerful and significant personal prayer he or she will ever pray. The sheer simplicity by which we receive the grace and mercy of God stands out like a beacon.

Second, Make way, make way. This was written by Graham Kendrick in the later years of the 1900s. Where Philips Brooks reflected the very personal, intense nature of receiving Christ, Kendrick captures the excitement and exhilaration involved, the mood that might go with a baptismal service or other public declaration of faith:

Make way, make way, for Christ the King

In splendour arrives.

Fling wide the gates and welcome him

Into your lives.

I love that “fling wide”, don’t you? Once you have really understood who Jesus is, and all that he has done, how can you not want to fling wide the gates of your heart!

You don’t just open the door a crack and nervously admit perhaps a little bit of Jesus. No: you welcome him whole-heartedly, as decisively as you might reach out your hands and receive a gift from a friend.

And then? Well, you let him make you a new person, the person God always intended you to be. It won’t always be easy – the road can be long and sometimes hard. But you won’t regret it.

Receiving Jesus... Christmas means next to nothing until you have done that. It may involve offering a quiet prayer while you kneel at your bed-side; or it may mean the excitement of a public confession of faith. It is a once-for-all, life-changing thing. And, of course, for those of us who first received him many years ago, let’s not forget that it’s also a daily thing.

I wish you a Christ-filled Christmas!

Lord Jesus Christ, I gladly receive you today. Do in me, with me, and through me whatever you want to do! Amen.

When “all” means all!

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquity. Psalm 51:9

My memories of the many Christmases I’ve seen are almost all happy. But there is just one, from childhood, that rather haunts me.

It was Christmas morning. In our home our parents didn’t hang up Christmas stockings; they spread our Christmas presents out on the dining room table. My brother and I would get up early and revel in the job of exploring everything that was there. Our parents would stand watching us, smiling and enjoying our excitement.

I remember, that day, that once we had explored everything in sight I turned to my parents and said, “Is that all?” To be fair to me, I was only a small boy and all I meant was “Have we found everything, so that now we can get on and enjoy playing with all this?” – completely innocent. But, of course, it didn’t come out that way – not to my parents, at any rate. It sounded as if I was disappointed and ungrateful – almost like a reproach: “Huh, I don’t think much of this! Is this really all you’ve got us?”

To this day I can still see their faces fall, I can still see their smiles disappear: I had said a hurtful, wounding thing. The fact that we weren’t a very well-off family, and that they must have struggled to buy what they did, only makes me feel worse.

I never said sorry – when you’re a child you just don’t see things as you do later, do you? And now my parents have been dead for many years.

Well, I’m sure all of us know what it’s like to regret something we’ve said or done. If only we could bite back that careless word! If only we could undo that stupid act! It’s hard when you feel bad about something, but the person you hurt isn’t around any more. There’s no way you can put things right.

Well, forgive the cliché, but there’s no point living with vain regrets. What can’t be done can’t be done. But this is where the words of the psalmist can help us: “blot out all my iniquity”. I love that very practical down-to-earth expression blot out. It means that what was previously there – something embarrassing, shameful – just isn’t there any more. It can no longer be seen. Indeed, it isn’t just covered over, like a mistake scribbled out in an exercise book, it is actually washed away once for all. No, we can never undo the hurt we caused; but in some way we cannot understand God can take care of it.

But, even more, I love that little word “all”. Why? Because it really does mean all. God loves to blot out even our most glaring sins: yes, even murder, adultery, theft, you name it. But he loves too to blot out the ones where it is now impossible to put things right. His only requirement, if I can use such a clinical-sounding word, is that we humbly recognise them and ask for his forgiveness. His divine but merciful finger is always hovering over the “delete” key.

Not, of course, that we should rest idly if there are situations where we can make amends. Is there somebody in your life entitled to an apology, even some material recompense? Let’s face facts: if we don’t do it now, the chances are that we never will. The Bible makes it clear in many places that if there is good to be done, the time to do it is now. If there are kind words to be spoken, the time to speak them is now.

But back to the main point… God forgives us all our sins! – this is the gospel, the good news.

Happy Christmas!
Dear Lord, you know there are times I would love to take back something I said or did, but am not able to. And it is too late to say sorry. Please help me to learn from my mistake, but to leave it now at your feet, so that it haunts me no more. Amen.

A time to think

Mary treasured up all these things, and pondered them in her heart.  Luke 2:19

How good are you at “pondering?

I rather like that word: it’s somehow so gentle and quiet. The Greek, in fact, means literally “to throw together”, as if you are making a conscious effort to collect up as many thoughts as you can to have a good look at them. To ponder is not a negative thing, like gazing vacantly at the wall-paper. No, it is to reflect, to muse, to allow something to germinate and grow in your mind, to “turn something over”, as we sometimes say. Putting it at its simplest, it is to think with a view to action.

Well, if ever anyone had plenty to ponder, that person was Mary. Luke gives the impression that the immediate drama of Christmas is over. The baby Jesus is safely born. The shepherds have come and gone.

Now there is a little breathing space for Mary and Joseph to get used to what has happened. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know what they talked about together..? “Are we fit to be the parents of this child? What shall we do next? What do the gold and incense and myrrh really mean? What are we to do with the gold, incense and myrrh! What can the future possibly hold for us?”

I don’t mean to be sentimental, but I can picture Mary, still as a statue, sitting there by Jesus’s manger and allowing the full wonder of what has happened to her to soak into her mind.

This wasn’t the last time Mary pondered. Later in the chapter we read the story of Jesus getting lost in the temple as a boy of 12. Every parent’s worst nightmare! “Where’s Jesus?” “I thought he was with you…” “No! I thought he was with you…!” All ends well, of course, as they discover him debating with the learned scholars in the temple. But Luke tells us this time that “his mother treasured all these things in her heart” (verse 51).

And I suspect it carried on, as Jesus grew up to be a man. Read Mark 3:31-35 and I think you’ll agree with me that she still had plenty of pondering to do – and it wasn’t always of an easy kind. Not to mention, of course, the heart-breaking John 19:25…

So back to my original question: are you good at pondering? Do you allow yourself time and space to stop and reflect on what God is doing in your life? When you get to the end of a day do you ever stop and “throw together” into your mind the events, the words, the successes and the failures, the people you have met, the things you have heard, the pleasures and the irritations, and seek to make some sense of them?

When I was a young Christian we were encouraged to have a daily “quiet time” in which to get alone with God and give him the breathing-space to work in our minds and hearts. Sadly, that practice seems never to have become part of many Christians’ lives.

I think we are the poorer for it. Indeed, the psychiatrists and doctors (not necessarily Christians) suggest that we would have far fewer nervous breakdowns and heart-attacks if only we could learn to build such pondering times into our lives. Life is just too frantically busy. We are daily bombarded with input from television, papers, books, the social media, plus the normal duties and demands of life, which we never allow ourselves time to “process”.

So picture for a moment, please, the pondering Mary. Think yourself inside her skin. Why not make a conscious effort to follow her example?

Dear Father in heaven, I never expect to experience anything remotely like what happened to Mary. Yet I do believe that you are at work in my life. Help me to learn the skill of pondering, of being quiet in your presence while I digest what you are saying and doing, and so become a deeper and wiser follower of Jesus. Amen.

A time to be miserable?

Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. James 4:9-10.

What! What!

Doesn’t the Bible tell us to rejoice in God? Aren’t we supposed to be a happy, worshipping and joyful people? Surely! So what can possibly have got into James here? He sounds a right misery, to put it mildly: “Grieve, mourn, wail” – oh dear! “Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom” – surely not! What’s going on? What’s your problem, James?

These verses remind us of a vital rule for Bible-reading – never pluck just a verse or two out of its context and make it out to be the whole truth.

No, James isn’t just a gloom merchant, determined to squelch all the happiness out of Christian discipleship. If you go back a few verses you will see that he is talking about a very particular situation. Apparently people have been falling out with one another in a pretty dramatic way, fighting, quarrelling, coveting – even killing. They have been compromising themselves with the corrupt standards of the outside world – so much so that James describes them as “adulterers”.

We don’t know the details, but it’s clear that something really bad has been going on among the people James is writing to. And so, he says, it’s time for a bit of heart-searching and repentance. It’s a time for tears rather than laughter.

Didn’t James’s big brother, Jesus himself, say something a little similar: “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4)? He wasn’t talking about people “mourning” in the sense of having lost a loved one through death; no, he was talking of people looking at the sins within them, and no doubt all around them too, and feeling deep sorrow and regret.

Let’s be really clear. I’m glad, and I hope you are too, that the dominant note in the Bible is that of joy. Sadly, there have been times in history when God’s people have forgotten that. One of my favourite quotes is from the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (born 1850), the man who wrote Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and My Hyde. One Sunday he wrote in his diary, “Went to church this morning, and was not depressed ” – as if that was the most amazing thing in the world. How sad! Yes, we Christians of all people have much to be happy about – thank God for that.

But it isn’t the whole story. If we lapse into sin, if we lose touch with God and do things which are against his will – if we fall into pride or materialism or immorality or dishonesty or greed or self-centredness or malicious thoughts or jealousy – then a bit of mourning is called for.

Repentance is all about honest soul-searching, turning round in our minds and hearts. It’s about tears; it’s about pain. In one of Jesus’ most powerful stories he talks about the man who went up into the temple to pray. He felt so utterly wretched in the presence of a holy God that “he would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ “. I suspect that James knew that story his brother had told…

No, James 4:9-10 doesn’t say it all, not by a long way. But there are times when it is precisely what we need – even, perhaps, in the run-up to Christmas. A word to you today? A word to me?

And let’s never forget this: once we have taken this painful step, real joy is not far behind. The last words of verse 10 are important: if we do truly grieve and repent of our sins, God “will lift you up”. Rejoice in that!

Oh God, forgive me when I am shallow and trivial, when my life is full of hollow laughter, and I am deeply in sin. Please give me tears of true repentance, and so restore to me the joy of your salvation. Amen.

 Is there something in your life today that calls for tears of repentance?

Pray before you speak

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires. James 1:19-20

I received an email recently that made me angry. I won’t bore you with the details, but something I had written was twisted so as to mean something completely different from what I intended.

My immediate thought was to email back as soon as I could. I would put the writer straight, oh yes! – and I started thinking of some telling phrases I could use to make my point. In fact, my anger largely gave way to a feeling almost of enjoyment at the prospect of a bit of a battle. In essence, I would chew the other person up, swill him round my mouth, and spit him out onto the floor (in Christian love, of course). (Do you ever have those moments when you realise what a nasty person you are?)

Well, my day was a busy one, so I didn’t get round to it before going to bed. But even while my head was on the pillow I was still working on what I would say.

But then a strange thing happened. When I woke up the next morning I found that my anger was gone completely, and that even though I still felt annoyed at being wrongly treated, I could smile, shrug my shoulders and say to myself “Oh, leave it! It’s not worth it.”

So that email never got written. And I am glad. It would only have made matters worse, a case of pouring petrol on the flames.

James tells us to be “slow to speak”. The person who takes his or her time before opening their mouth can save a lot of trouble and defuse a lot of anger.

Well, they didn’t have emails, tweets etc in James’s day. But I can’t imagine a message we more desperately need than this. Almost every day we hear of some politician, footballer or other celebrity who has shot off a hasty message into cyberspace, only to end up having to apologise and say that his message “was taken out of context” or something.

And, of course, it applies to ordinary everyday speech as well, at work or school or just round the neighbourhood. Is there anyone reading this who could claim never to have spoken a word that they instantly regretted: “Oh, my big mouth…! Why did I say that! How could I be so stupid!”

Words spoken in anger can do untold damage. They can cause deep pain. They can demolish a person’s confidence. They can destroy a relationship. They can start a nasty argument – or give new life to a dying one. James does, in fact, enlarge on this whole theme in chapter 3 verses 1-12. He compares the thoughtless word to the tiny spark that starts a forest fire: “The tongue… is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body… It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison…”

Of course, there are times when it is right to respond to some situation we feel angry about (anger in itself is not necessarily wrong). But it must surely be right first to wait until we are cool and have had a chance to really digest what it is that’s troubling us. And it can only be right, if we are Christians, to stop, take a deep breath and pray before we speak.

I never sent off that self-justifying email, but I can claim no credit for that: I simply didn’t have the time. But I am thankful to God that that night’s sleep made so much difference to the way my mind was working. The old advice “Why not sleep on it?” has a lot to be said for it.

I find that two other sayings come back to me from my own childhood, both of them bits of advice I wish I had followed better through my life.

First: “Count to ten before you speak…” One to ten can be a surprisingly long time!

Second – and this chimes in with James’s remark that we should be “quick to listen” as well as “slow to speak” – “Why do you think God gave you two ears but only one mouth!” If only most of us listened twice as much as we speak.

Do any of us need to give a little thought to the way we use our tongue – or our computer, our phone, or whatever?

Lord God, forgive my foolish tongue! Help me to use it only to do good, never harm. Amen.

Lot’s wife

“Remember Lot’s wife!” Luke 17:32

I think I first learned the story of Lot’s wife as a child in Sunday school. I found it quite frightening, and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for this unfortunate woman.

Just in case you don’t know the story, here’s the background.

Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and his wife are living in the wicked city of Sodom. This is right by the Dead Sea, which to this day is an area of semi-toxic chemical deposits; not at all a healthy place to be, in spite of the luxurious life-style it seems to have given Lot. God decides the time has come to destroy the city by what seems a kind of volcanic eruption. Lot is told to get his family out of the city before the disaster falls – quick! now! there’s no time! So they start to run.

And then… “The Lord rained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah… But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26).

This seemed a bit harsh to me. Here is this poor woman, forced to flee from her home and leave behind all that was precious to her, just taking a quick glance over her shoulder, and pow! – God zaps her and turns her into something fit for the British Museum.

Actually, I suspect it wasn’t really like that. In all probability Lot’s wife lingered, unable to tear herself away. I can imagine the rest of the family, further up the path, urging her to move: “Come on!” She hesitates. She dithers. And then it is too late; while they look on in horror she is engulfed by this deadly stuff falling out of the sky. A living woman becomes a pillar of salt.

Impossible? Well, if ever you visit the ruins of Pompeii, in Italy, you can see plaster casts of victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. They are caught, frozen in time, in the physical posture they were in when the ashes fell. Like Lot’s wife they too had had warning of what was to come, but they were either unable or unwilling to get away to safety.

Whatever… Jesus in our passage chooses to use Lot’s wife as a warning to the people of his own time. He is speaking of disaster to come on “the day of the Son of Man”: “On that day no-one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no-one who is in the fields should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!” (Luke 17:31-32).

Disaster is coming. It came for Jerusalem some forty years later when the Romans invaded the city, destroyed the temple and carried out mass slaughter. And it will come at the end of time when Jesus returns in glory.

There are times for running away. Joseph ran away from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39). The prophet Jeremiah urged his people to “run away from Jerusalem” before the Babylonians came (Jeremiah 6:1). Paul told his friends in Corinth to “run away from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14), and his young friend Timothy to “run away from” materialism (1 Timothy 6:11) and from “the evil desires of youth” (2 Timothy 2:22).

So how does Jesus’ warning apply to us today?

In essence it is a word about urgency. We imagine there is all the time in the world to get right with God and to ensure that we will be right on the final day of judgment. But, sorry, there isn’t. We imagine that we can put off making a clear decision to follow Jesus until tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow… But, sorry, we can’t. Jesus certainly didn’t think so – just take a look at Luke 9:60-62.

Two future events are absolutely certain – and they could happen today. One is death, the other is the return of Christ. The wise person will live daily in the light of both.

The warning of Lot’s wife is also a warning about looking back. We find as we go on in the Christian life that perhaps it isn’t quite as easy and enjoyable as we had imagined. And so we find ourselves looking back, hankering after the days when we were secure (as we thought) in this world – rather as the Israelites did when they were delivered from Egypt and found themselves in the grim desert. How tempting to give it all up and merge back into the world!

Yes, there are various circumstances in life when we need to hear the voice of Jesus echoing down the centuries: “Remember Lot’s wife!”

Is this a word you need today?

Lord God, help me please never to make the same mistake as Lot’s wife. Amen.

Has there been a time in your life when you heeded this warning – or a time you wished you had?