Are you an enthusiastic Christian?

A teacher of the law came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Matthew 8:19-20

Enthusiasm is a great thing. There’s a man on television whose job is to tell us about economic affairs – now, what could be more boring and tedious than that? But he does it with such enthusiasm that you actually find yourself listening to what he is saying.

Enthusiasm is infectious – it rubs off on other people. I had a history teacher at school who taught in the dullest and flattest tones you’ve ever heard; history lessons were one dreary yawn. No wonder my interest in history took a knock. But one of the main reasons I became a Christian in my teens was because of a couple of young men who were, to use a cliché, “on fire for Christ”. Their love for him was so great that you instinctively wanted to be like them.

Well, I do hope all of us are enthusiastic Christians. Are you?

But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?) enthusiasm can also be dangerously misguided – witness the religious extremists who murder in God’s name. Even a good enthusiasm can burn out quickly, like a spectacular firework. It can be unrealistic, even a bit romantic. And that’s the case here, as Jesus encounters this teacher of the law.

In an outburst of enthusiasm, this man promises to go with Jesus to the very ends of the earth: “I will follow you wherever you go”. Now, that’s saying a lot! Can you see his eyes gleaming?

It’s interesting how Jesus replies. Perhaps better, it’s interesting how he doesn’t reply. He doesn’t say, “That’s really wonderful! Just collect your toothbrush and we’ll be on our way.” And neither does he say, “Don’t be so silly! There’s no way you’re ready for such a big step; go home and think it through properly and come and talk to me again in six months.”

No. He looks him right in the eye (or so I imagine, anyway) and pronounces, rather mysteriously: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man [that’s himself, of course] has nowhere to lay his head…”

As if to say, “Well, I’m very glad to hear what you say, but are you sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for? Are you prepared for a life on the road, a life of discomfort and hardship? Are you prepared to be worse off, in certain respects, than even the foxes and the birds? Are you prepared for the long haul? Are you prepared for the hard haul?”

I wonder what the man did? We aren’t told. But perhaps that’s the point. What became of him isn’t really what matters. What matters is what becomes of us. How do we respond to the call of Jesus?

In following Jesus, as in so many other far lesser things, what really matters is not so much how we start, but whether we carry on. Any reasonably fit person can complete a 100 metre sprint; but it’s a marathon that Jesus calls us to. It’s ultimately well worth it, let’s not be in doubt about that. But don’t let’s imagine it’s easy – not until this earthly life is over. As somebody once said, the key thing about the Christian life is to keep on keeping on.

So let me ask a question. Are you thinking about becoming a Christian? That’s great – I really hope you will. But please do so with your eyes wide open. The Jesus who calls you to follow him also calls you to take up your cross in doing so.

Another question. Are you a new convert to Jesus? Yes? Well, I hope you are enjoying that first joy of knowing the living God through faith in Jesus. But you do realise, don’t you, that there will be hard days ahead? Are you prepared for that?

Yet another question. Have you been a strong Christian many years? That’s wonderful. I trust you have many precious experiences to look back on. But don’t forget… What matters is to maintain that enthusiasm right to the very end. Don’t rest! – not until that great day comes when you see Jesus face to face.

Oh God, I wish I was more enthusiastic for Christ. Please help me, by your Spirit, to be so. Help me too to make sure that my enthusiasm is a steady shining light and not just a dazzling firework. Amen.

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Angry love

Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Isaiah 1:18

There was a football manager who was famed for giving his players the “hair-dryer treatment” when he was angry with them. It wasn’t something they enjoyed; it made them flinch.

Well, the first chapter of the long book of the prophet Isaiah is similar – fearsome stuff, a real blast of divine judgment for the people of Israel.

“Can’t you see that you are just bringing suffering on yourselves?” God shouts. “Can’t you see that things are just going from bad to worse because of your stubbornness and sin? I’ve had enough of you! Even your supposed worship is offensive to me! Why? because it’s all hypocrisy – fine on the surface, oh yes, but sheer falseness deep down. I don’t want any more of it! Go away!” (And if you think I’m exaggerating, just get your Bible out and read verses 11-17; preferably aloud.)

Phew. I’m glad I wasn’t around in the Jerusalem market place or temple when Isaiah first stood up to deliver this withering message from God. That football manager seems tame by comparison.

But then suddenly it all changes, when we get to this beautiful verse 18. Exactly like any loving parent who just can’t stay angry long, God makes a tender suggestion: “Look, let’s sit down and talk this thing through…”

Right out of the blue he promises his people purity and newness, innocence and fresh hope. Yes, their sins may very well be the colour of blood – crimson and scarlet. But not any more! They’ll be as white as thick, new-fallen snow, as beautiful as wool off the newly-shorn sheep.

Why this dramatic change in tone? What has happened? Answer: nothing, not at least as far as we can see. And the fact is that very soon the hair-dryer will be turned on again.

But the message is clear: the mercy and grace of God have this irresistible way of breaking through his anger. God’s holiness is such that he cannot tolerate sin in any form. His judgment may indeed burn hot – and this is something we need to take seriously. But his tenderness and love constantly wax warm.

God loves nothing more than to forgive. Can I say that again? God loves nothing more than to forgive.

Jesus puts his own gloss on this wonderful truth in many places in the gospels. The great fifteenth chapter of Luke, the chapter which gives us the stories of the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son, is a great example.

Jesus describes the sheer joy of the woman who finds her coin, the shepherd who finds his sheep, above all the father who finds his son, and then adds very simply, “In the same way there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” That’s worth reflecting on… yes, the very vaults of heaven ring with laughter and gladness every time one miserable no-hoper like you or me comes to God and humbly says sorry.

Are you living with a guilty conscience? Are you lacking peace with God? Are you only too conscious of the mess you have made of your life? Well, here is good news. Isaiah 1:18 isn’t just for the nation of Israel two and a half thousand years ago. It’s for you too, and for me. Today. Now. Yes!

Oh God, I confess that so much of my goodness is just outward show and pretence. I know deep down that I am full of shame and guilt. Thank you so much for the offer of your free forgiveness. Help me to take it to myself this very day, to enter into the joy of heaven – and never ever to look back. Amen.

God’s wash-basin

God has spoken from his sanctuary: “In triumph I will parcel out Shechem and measure off the Valley of Succoth. Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my helmet, Judah my sceptre. Moab is my washbasin, upon Edom I toss my sandal; over Philistia I shout in triumph”. Psalm 60:6-8.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. Romans 16:20

Have you ever heard a sermon on the words “Moab is my washbasin”? No, neither have I – nor preached one either.

There are parts of the Bible which we Christians (including us preachers – perhaps especially us preachers!) tend to avoid. Sometimes the reason is that, in all honesty, we just don’t really like what it says, or can’t see what possible relevance it has to us today. Other times it’s because it just seems plain odd, like here – Moab God’s washbasin? Edom a place where God tosses his sandal? What on earth is this all about?

As always, when we read the Bible, we need to set it in its context. Psalm 60 is described as a psalm of David. Verses 1-3 make it clear that Israel has been going through a hard time; it’s as if God is punishing them for some sin or failure. So in verse 5 David cries to God for rescue, and in verses 6-8 comes God’s rather startling reply.

And the basic message is simple enough: “I am in control!”

God picks out six places which are part of the nation: Shechem, the Valley of Succoth, Gilead, Manasseh, Ephraim and, of course, Judah, David’s home territory. He declares that he, God, and no-one else, has power to decide how these territories fit into his plan, and what purpose they will fulfil.

But then come three places famous for being enemies of God’s people: Moab, Edom and Philistia. There were times when Israel was in dire fear of these nations. But God sees them as virtual non-entities; hence the dismissive mention of washbasins and places where sandals are tossed.

God is depicting himself as a military leader. We can piece together the train of thought…

The general of the army comes to his tent at the end of a hard day on the field of battle. He is tired, hot and dirty. So as he eases off his sandals – tossing them aside onto the shelf where they usually lie – he calls out to his servant for his washbasin to give himself a good freshening up.

As if to say: “You are frightened of these enemies? You needn’t be! As far as I am concerned they have this simple menial position in my purposes. Oh, and as for Philistia, don’t worry – it won’t be long before I am shouting in triumph over them”.

According to verses 9-11 David still isn’t quite convinced. But in the final verse his confidence comes surging back: “With God we shall gain the victory, and he will trample down our enemies.” Yes!

See it like that and perhaps it isn’t quite so odd after all.

There is a vital lesson here about how we should read the Bible. Put simply, we need to read any given passage according to the kind of literature it is. This psalm, like all the psalms and much of the prophets, is poetry. And poetry contains figures of speech, images, word-pictures by which it makes its meaning vivid and compelling.

Does God need a wash-basin? Of course not! Does God wear sandals? Of course not! But God is a heavenly warrior! And God is in control of the affairs of the nations. And God will ultimately prevail.

All books are books. But we would be very silly if we read them all in the same way. Would you read the telephone directory in the same way you read a detective novel? Would you read a car maintenance manual in the same way you read a book of poems?

And in this respect the Bible is no different. Some parts are intended to be read as straight, factual accounts – 1 Kings, say, or the Gospels. But others certainly aren’t – Proverbs, for example, or the Book of Revelation. Paul’s writings are letters. Ecclesiastes is an account of one person’s attempt to fathom the mystery of life. Job is a long dramatic poem, indeed almost a play.

Burrow behind the form of the passage, and search for the basic meaning. And in the case of Psalm 60 that message is as relevant to us today as it was to David and his nation…

In our world there are many things we quite naturally feel afraid of. But if our trust is in God we need not be afraid. He is in control, though it may not always seem like it. The day will come when his reign will be supreme.

And those things we were so afraid of? Pah! – of no greater significance than a mere wash-basin!

Father, thank you for the promise of your word that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under our feet. Please help me to believe it. Amen.

Stop the noise!

Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out; no-one will hear his voice in the streets. Matthew 12:18-19.

One of the saddest features of our modern world is that it has become so noisy, so loud – the din of traffic, the sirens of police cars and ambulances, the thudding music belting out of peoples’ radios, even from their head-phones on the bus or tube, voices raised in the streets in the early hours of the morning, sometimes in anger, sometimes in celebration.

No wonder the world seems to be going mad. It often seems that it’s those who shout loudest who get their way. I confess I know next to nothing about the “Noise Abatement Society”, but I’m glad such an organisation exists. May it prosper!

These words of Matthew are taken straight from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (42:1-4). They refer originally to a mysterious figure called “the servant of the Lord”: mysterious, yes, in Isaiah’s day, but the early Christians had no difficulty in applying them to Jesus.

And how true they are of him. There is no doubt that there were times when Jesus got angry, especially against hypocrisy, religious abuse and exploitation. But he was never a quarrelsome or argumentative kind of person. He didn’t “do” aggression and confrontation, not at least until he was absolutely forced to it.

As a child I used to sing about “gentle Jesus, meek and mild…”, which sounds beautiful. But there can be a problem with those words – they can suggest that Jesus was weak, a bit spineless and wishy-washy.

But of course meekness is very different from weakness. If you aim to be meek – that is, truly self-effacing, refusing to insist always on your own rights, preferring to listen to the voices of others first – if you aim to be truly meek in that sense, you do in fact need to be a very strong person.

When Jesus was before his accusers, just hours ahead of the crucifixion, we read that he chose to keep silent (Matthew 27:14). Given that he was being lied about, shouted at, mocked and abused, that took some backbone, didn’t it? His quiet manner was a sign of deep inner strength.

“He will not quarrel or cry out. No-one will hear his voice in the streets”. How do we measure up to this?

There are, perhaps, two main types of noisiness. Some of us just have loud voices and always want to be heard. We drown other people out. That’s bad enough. But combine that with the noisiness that comes from being aggressive, argumentative and quarrelsome, and it’s far worse.

There’s a great saying in Proverbs 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath” – or, as The Message puts it, “A gentle response defuses anger”. That’s well worth pondering. The verse, though, has a sting in the tail: “… but a harsh word stirs up anger”. Mmm – haven’t we all found out sometimes the bitter truth of that?

(Have you recently dipped into Proverbs, by the way? “Life coaches” and counsellors are all the rage these days, and I don’t say we don’t need them. But so many of our problems could be solved by meditating on the words of this ancient book. Why not give Proverbs a try?)

God speaks in Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God”. Time to turn off the television? to stop talking and start listening? to calm down and allow space for peace?

Dear Father in heaven, please forgive me for the times I have added to the world’s noise and tension, its anger and hostility, by failing to “be still”. Please help me to be a peacemaker, like Jesus, in every sense of that word. Amen.

Hot? cold? or in between?

Jesus said, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength… and your neighbour as yourself. Mark 12:30-31.

Because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Revelation 3:16.

Nearly all my life I have been a keen supporter of Crystal Palace Football Club. (Some of my friends, I can’t think why, seem to think this is rather amusing.)

Well, I say “keen”, but I have to admit that perhaps that word isn’t really right. If the mighty Palace win, yes, I am pleased. But if they lose, to be honest I tend to swallow my disappointment quite quickly, shrug my shoulders, and get on with life. I’m not, I suppose, a real fan. (“Fan”, of course, is short for “fanatic” – and the real fan is the person who is absolutely over the moon when their team wins, and as sick as a parrot when they lose). I’m a bit lukewarm, really, if the truth is told.

Mind you, this isn’t a lukewarmness I feel particularly guilty about. But I can’t say that of other areas of my life. Why? Because when it comes to things that really are important lukewarmness is a major fault.

No married person should be lukewarm about their marriage. None of us should be lukewarm about work or family. We shouldn’t be lukewarm when it comes to helping those in need, or standing up for those who get a raw deal in life. We shouldn’t be lukewarm about honesty or other matters of personal morality. These things matter, really matter, and they deserve our wholehearted commitment.

And so it is with Jesus. The verses I have quoted, about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, are what could be called “a big ask”. And as for loving your neighbour as yourself – that too takes some doing. Have we ever seriously pondered what Jesus is asking of us?

And it isn’t just Jesus. Paul tells us to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God” (Romans 12:1). As Christians we are called to be “perfect” – holy – “as our Father in heaven is holy” (Matthew 5:48). Only the very best is good enough.

It sounds a bit forbidding. Who can possibly measure up to this calling? But what we need to grasp is that it is this attitude towards life and to God which brings fulfilment and joy. An old hymn put it like this: “We never can prove/ The delights of God’s love/ Until all on the altar we lay.”

Go back to football. As a rather lukewarm fan I know very little of the despair some people feel when their team loses. Fair enough. But then… neither do I know anything of the ecstasy when they win. It’s all a bit flat, really.

And so, again, it is with Jesus. The half-hearted Christian won’t experience much of the struggle, the wrestling, the pain, the agony, of following Jesus, because he or she will just breeze along as comfortably as they can. But neither will they know anything of the joy, the pleasure, the delight, of prayer at last answered, of spiritual battles won, of perseverance in faith yielding lasting results. It’s all a bit flat, really.

Somebody once put it like this: Many of us have just enough Christianity to make us miserable, but not enough to make us happy. To put it another way, we fall between two stools; we end up with the worst of both worlds.

When I was a teenage Christian I knew someone who had a favourite expression for the kind of disciple the Bible is talking about: such a person, he used to say, is “really on fire for God”. That expression has stuck with me ever since. It may seem a bit corny, but in fact it is based on a New Testament expression, where we are told not to “put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

So what about it? Just enough Christianity to spoil life, but not enough to enrich it? What a sad state for us to get ourselves into!

Lord God, you are worth the very best I can give. If over the years I have become careless and lukewarm in my love for you, please forgive me and help me to consecrate myself afresh, holding nothing back. Enable me to lay my life on your altar, truly a living sacrifice. Amen.

Are you oppressed by things undone?

I will sing of loyalty and justice… I will study the way that is blameless… I will walk with integrity of heart within my house; I will not set before my eyes anything that is base. Psalm 101:1-3

Psalm 101 consists of just eight verses. But no less than ten times the words “I will” (or “I will not”) occur – I have just skimmed off the first three or four.

So the psalm as a whole (said to be written by King David) adds up to a declaration of intent. It’s on two distinct fronts: “this is the kind of person I long to be, and this is the kind of ruler I long to be”. It’s about both personal integrity and day-to-day efficiency.

Do you often say “I will…” (or more likely “I’ll”)? “I’ll give you a ring…I really will break that bad habit… I’ll deepen my prayer-life… I’ll invite so-and-so round for a coffee… I’ll work on the exercise bike at least three times a week… I’ll increase my giving to good causes… I’ll watch my diet…”

Intentions… they’re so easy to declare, but of course declaring them is no use at all if we don’t then carry them out. At Christmas I received a number of cards, letters and emails which I was determined to reply to. Well, it’s now June – and they are still sitting on my desk. Oh dear.

A few suggestions about intentions that hopefully can save us from the frustration of failure…

1 Intentions should be realistic.

There is no point in intending to do something which simply isn’t within our reach. I could say, “Right, next year I’m going to run the London Marathon”. But just a moment’s thought should be enough to tell me that it simply isn’t going to happen. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t have the desire or motivation (not to mention the capacity!).

Or I might say, “Once a week this year I’m going to devote myself to three solid hours of prayer, over and above my usual times – John Wesley used to pray for six hours every day, so why should that be beyond me?” But deep down I know that I’m no John Wesley, so that kind of “I will” also is just unrealistic.

2 Intentions should be planned.

That pile of Christmas greetings on my desk – if I really mean business about responding to them it’s no good saying “I’ll start by replying to two of them this week”.

“Two of them this week” is vague; I need to decide on a definite day and time. And it’s no good saying “I really will ring Jack soon” if I don’t pin it down to “I’ll ring Jack as soon as I get in from work on Thursday…”

This, of course, is where a “to-do” list can come in handy. And what a sense of satisfaction you get when you have worked through your list and – wahay! – done them all! (I have a friend who actually adds to her to-do list anything she does which wasn’t originally on it, for the sheer pleasure of crossing it off.)

3 Intentions are vital for a fulfilled life.

I saw an advert once from a holiday company. It showed an elderly couple sitting rather glumly on the settee in their living-room. The husband was saying to his wife, “Do you remember that time we nearly went to Majorca?”

Nearly: it can be a truly sad word.

How sad it must be to get to the end of your life and say, “I remember that time I nearly volunteered to help with the children’s work at church. And there was that time I nearly invited that lonely couple round for a meal. And what about the time I nearly got involved with Street Pastors?”

I’m not quite sure about the theology behind the old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, but there’s certainly a nugget of truth in there somewhere.

Have I depressed you with all this? I do hope not! Never forget that God is always the God of new beginnings. It’s not too late to roll your sleeves up and get to grips with things afresh. The prophet Joel has that lovely verse, written in the aftermath of a locust attack, which promises that God “will restore the years that the locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25) . Believe it! Claim it! Make it happen!

And always keep in mind perhaps the most important truth of all about intentions: they need to be renewed every day. You can’t live on yesterday’s capital; every day you start again from nothing.

Personally, I think that truth is both a bracing challenge and a great comfort. How about you?

Dear Master, in whose life I see
All that I long, but fail to be,
Let thy clear light for ever shine,
To shame and guide this life of mine.

Though what I dream and what I do
In my poor days are always two,
Help me, oppressed by things undone,
O thou, whose deeds and dreams were one. Amen.

(John Hunter, 1848-1917)

Beautiful people for a beautiful message

We are … Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God. 2 Corinthians 5:20

My minister recently made what I thought was a clever and thought-provoking remark in a sermon. Talking about people who don’t believe, he said that if anyone is an atheist it’s likely to be for one of two reasons: either (a) they have never met a Christian, or (b) they have met a Christian.

I’m sure you’ll get the point. If someone has never met a Christian, either in person or through books, films or some other way, obviously they can’t be expected to become a Christian themselves. But sadly, there are occasions when a non-Christian does meet a Christian – and is so completely put off that they say, “Right – if that’s Christianity, it’s something I can do without, thank you very much”. Sad indeed.

Paul tells us that “we are Christ’s ambassadors”. By “we”, strictly speaking, he means himself and his fellow-apostles, but I don’t think he would disagree that in a broader sense every Christian is an ambassador for Christ. Once you are known to be a Christian, people will judge you accordingly.

I remember a story of a test match cricketer who was well-known as a Christian. On one occasion he touched the ball to the wicket-keeper (which means, if you don’t know about cricket, that he was out) but refused to head back to the pavilion. He was, in effect, lying to the umpire, saying “I didn’t touch that ball”. Whereupon one of the opposing fielders looked him in the eye and said “I thought you were supposed to be a Christian?” Not good.

So if you profess to be a Christian today the question arises, What kind of ambassador am I? – one who truly represents Jesus, or one who just puts people off?

The main job of an ambassador is to convey messages from the government they represent to the government where they are working. So it’s important that they fully understand what those messages are and can put them across clearly, respectfully and persuasively.

What does this mean for us? Very simply, that we need to have a good grasp of our message – the gospel, the good news, of Jesus crucified for our sins, raised to give us new life, and one day returning in glory to take us to himself.

Paul sums this message up in one of the New Testament’s most beautiful words: reconciliation. In just a few verses he repeats that word several times:

“God… reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We beg you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God” (verses 18-20).

Reconciliation, even just on a purely human level, is a lovely thing. Think of a couple whose marriage was falling apart with bitterness and acrimony – and then see them, perhaps after weeks of painful talking, pledging themselves to one another once again “until death parts them”. Or the teenage son who just can’t get on with his parents and storms out of the home – but who returns and makes a new start, with tears all round. Or two people in a work-place who have long had a tense relationship, but who have a “clear the air” conversation, and promise to one another to start again… I could go on for ever!

But how much more wonderful is the miracle of reconciliation with God. And this is the heart of the message we Christians have been entrusted with for our sad and broken world: reconciliation of sinful men and women with God is possible!

The only problem is that we might well have the message right – oh yes, we know our Bibles, and we have been Christians for many years – but still be bad ambassadors.

What if the way we present the message, or the way we live our lives, or the kind of habits we have, or the way we come across to other people, leaves them saying “Thanks but no thanks”?

When an ambassador is appointed in world diplomacy they have to show their credentials – official letters to confirm that they are indeed the mouth-piece of their government. We too need to have clear credentials in order to be Christ’s ambassadors.

And what are those credentials? Simple: a blameless, holy and Christlike life.

Lord God, help me please to be a true ambassador for Jesus Christ today. Amen.