Stop putting things off!

Don’t withhold good from anyone who deserves it, when it is in your power to act. Don’t say to your neighbour, ‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’, when you have it with you now. Proverbs 3:27-28.

Are you a putter-offer? Good at delaying things?

I’m afraid I am. “I really will get round to that,” I say to myself. “Tomorrow it’ll be easier to get that done.” Any excuse will do for not getting on with it right now.

The word, of course, is procrastination – putting off until tomorrow what you could do today. And it isn’t only the Bible that warns us about it. The well-known saying tells us that “procrastination is the thief of time”. There’s a Spanish proverb too, cleverly tongue-in-cheek: “Tomorrow is usually the busiest day of the week”. And, of course, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Ouch!

Psychologists tell us that a habit of procrastination can have serious consequences for our mental well-being – depression, low self-esteem, even self-hatred. Living with guilt, after all, is never healthy.

All very salutary and worth taking notice of.

But our quote from Proverbs 3 strikes another note too, what you might call a moral note. It’s about justice as well as self-discipline: we are not to “withhold good from anyone who deserves it.” It seems to have in mind acting promptly for someone we are under an obligation to. Perhaps, say, that “neighbour” lent us some money, and we’ve never got round to repaying it.

And so we are reminded that God’s people are called to be above any kind of moral reproach, not least on such a basic level as settling our debts and paying our bills promptly. (Is that a word for someone reading this?)

(A memory comes to mind… In my last pastorate we used to hire out rooms in our church for various groups – a slimming club, a children’s maths class, a nursery. We hardly ever had any problem with payment of rent; it was invariably prompt and cheerful.

But there was one group we did have problems with; they treated paying their rent in a completely casual way. Who were they? A Christian congregation who had no building of their own. Perhaps they thought that because we were fellow-Christians they didn’t need to bother too much – I don’t know. But it certainly wasn’t right.)

But back to our quote…

You might think, in fact, that it’s actually a little disappointing. Doesn’t it suggest that we should do good only to those who actually have some kind of claim upon us (“…anyone who deserves it”)? – as if we needn’t bother with anyone else?

Well, I don’t know if that is indeed the writer’s intention. But I do know that this is where taking the Bible as a whole is vital. The key is that word “neighbour”. Now, where else does that word crop up?

Ah yes, of course… In Luke 10 Jesus is challenged by a lawyer about what he must do to “inherit eternal life”. Jesus gives the standard Jewish reply: Love God, and love your neighbour. But the man isn’t satisfied with this; he goes on (and I suspect he soon regretted it!) to ask the fatal question “Who is my neighbour?”

And instead of giving him some wordy, theoretical reply, Jesus gives him one of the greatest stories ever told: the simple, challenging, powerful, beautiful story we call The Good Samaritan.

An unfortunate traveller has been attacked, beaten and robbed on a lonely road and left for dead. And… well, let’s allow Jesus himself to tell the story: “A Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine…”

No messing about there, eh? No procrastination there!

The Samaritan saw the need, felt the compassion, so rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job.

You will probably know the twist in the story’s tail: Jesus doesn’t say, “So there you are – the Samaritan realised that, though the attacked man was a stranger to him, he was, nonetheless, also his neighbour.” That would be good enough! But no: he goes further. He asks the lawyer: Who acted as a neighbour to the man left to die?

The point is simple. The question “Who is my neighbour?” is the wrong question. The right question is “Who can I be a neighbour to?”

And going back to where we started, the message is crystal clear: If there is good to be done – to anyone, at any time and anywhere – the time to do it is… right now.

Lord God, I know that I can never take for granted another day of life – so help me to do whatever good I can now, while I have the chance. And help me always to ask, not “Who is my neighbour?”, but “Who can I be a neighbour to?” Amen.

When I just can’t understand…

For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears… Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. 1 Corinthians 13:9,10,12.

Somebody said, “The more I know, the more I realise how little I know”. I know what they meant! Many of us, when we were young, thought we “knew it all”. And life, in one respect, has been a painful journey of discovering how wrong we were.

When it comes to the things of God, the knowledge he has given us is wonderful. But it’s only a tiny part of what there is to know. G K Chesterton, novelist, poet and staunch defender of Christian belief, wasn’t bothered by this: “God’s riddles are better than man’s solutions,” he wrote.

Paul was a man of deep insight into the things of God. He knew of God through vivid experience – his conversion encounter on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), dramatic visions as he lived day by day in intimacy with God (2 Corinthians 12), divine verbal messages given in answer to prayer (Acts 16:6-10) – and also through the exercise of a powerful mind soaked in scripture. Yet he was the first to recognise that “we know [only] in part… we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”.

The riddles of Christian faith, the things we struggle to understand, come in many and varied forms. Here are a few which have taxed my faith over the years…

Why is there so much suffering in this world? Couldn’t God have arranged things in such a way that it wasn’t so acute?

If God ultimately controls all things, what place is there for human free will? How can we reconcile God’s supreme sovereignty with our choices and decisions?

Prayer… why do there sometimes seem to be so few answers, even after prolonged and persevering prayer? Why did God allow that child to die in agony – and yet find me a parking space when I was late for a meeting?

Healing… why don’t we any longer see miraculous healings on the scale of those described in the gospels and Acts?

How can we reconcile the reality of hell with a God of tenderness and compassion?

Not to mention little matters such as the Trinity. How can there be one God but three persons, three persons but one God?

We can’t be sure, of course, but I suspect it was some of these things Paul had in mind when he spoke of “knowing in part”. And what G K Chesterton had in mind when he spoke of “God’s riddles”.

There may have been times in your life when you have been tempted to give up being a Christian altogether – the mysteries are just too much to grapple with. But, if you are anything like me, you found you just couldn’t do it. Chesterton was right – living with these puzzles and questions is somehow more satisfying, more fulfilling, than surviving on just arid, sterile, man-made theories and ideas.

Paul ends this thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians with two massively encouraging – and challenging! – thoughts.

First, one day we will know. One day we shall “see face to face”, one day we shall “know fully, even as we are fully known”. His fellow-apostle John expresses the same thought wonderfully: “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Second, all our questionings fade away in the face of what matters most: love. Paul ends the chapter with these words: “These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”.

It’s Easter time, and we have been thinking of the cross. Could there be anything more mind-taxing than this? As Wesley’s hymn puts it, “’Tis mystery all, the immortal dies…” How can this be!

And yet it is. And the only thing that can remotely make sense of it is… love, the love of God for sinners like you and me. Ultimately, this is all that matters. Let other things bide their time.

Back to G K Chesterton. He was asked once, “Don’t you worry about all those things in the Bible you can’t understand?” To which he replied, “No. The things in the Bible that worry me are the ones I can understand”. Funny – and wise.

Karl Barth was a great thinker about the Christian faith. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that he wrote more books in his life than many people read. But when he was asked to sum up his understanding in a few words he quoted the children’s hymn: “Jesus loves me, this I know,/ For the Bible tells me so”.

Yes… When the mysteries, riddles and puzzles threaten to get to you, just fall back on the one thing that matters: the wonderful love of God.

Lord God, I long for wisdom, insight and understanding into you and your ways. Grant me these things, I pray. But grant me, even more, simply to know you as my loving heavenly Father. Amen.

What about those who can’t read?

Peter and John …were ordinary men of no education. Acts 4:13

The new season had recently started at the club, and our cheerful, smiling treasurer had been badgering us for our annual subscriptions: “I want you all here next week with your cheque books!” was the message.

So a mass cheque-signing session was under way. I noticed another member of the club rather awkwardly trying to catch my eye… “Would you mind just reminding me how to do this?” he said. I was puzzled, but of course happy to help. He later explained what his problem was…

This was the first time in my life that I had (knowingly) met a fellow-adult who could neither read nor write. It was a moment that caused me to stop short and do some hard thinking.

To me, as of course to most people in the developed world, literacy is as natural as breathing. So what must it be like to be one of that tiny minority who have simply never managed to master the skill? Imagine walking down the high street with virtually no idea what the shop-signs say or what those newspapers are telling us. You are shut out from the world most of your friends and neighbours inhabit.

Yes, we take literacy pretty much for granted. And this of course is reflected in our church life. Our services and meetings are dominated by the printed word, whether in books, on PowerPoint, or whatever. We urge people to read the Bible day by day. And this of course is perfectly right: God has given us a book, so presumably he means us to read it. But do we think enough of those for whom this is just not possible?

I read recently that, according to the experts, perhaps just one in ten people in Jesus’ world could read and write. If that figure is even roughly correct – and some people think it’s too high – it means that just one or perhaps two of Jesus’ original twelve could do so.

Is it significant that when Jesus challenges his disciples regarding their knowledge of the scriptures he says “You have heard…” (Mathew 5:21, 27, 31, 38, 43), but when he challenges the scribes and Pharisees he says “Have you not read…? (Matthew 12:5, 19:4)? The disciples are later described as “ordinary men of no education” (Acts 4:13); the scribes and Pharisees, of course, would be highly literate.

Where do these thoughts lead us? I suggest a few things worth pondering.

First, be aware of those who can’t read. You might meet one tomorrow. Sensitive and tactful support from somebody like you could change that person’s life.

Second, be aware of those who can read, but to whom reading doesn’t come easily or naturally. There was a famous footballer who told the papers that he had only ever read one book in his life; I suspect he isn’t as rare as we might imagine.

Third, very obviously, don’t look down on those who are limited in this way. They may be highly intelligent – and, anyway, they are as precious to God as you are.

Fourth, remember that the reading, and therefore the hearing, of scripture in our meetings is vitally important. It needs to be done regularly and systematically and, as far as possible, it needs to be done well. Just as not every Christian, however sincere, is capable of leading a congregation in prayer, neither is every Christian necessarily gifted for the public reading of scripture, however keen we might be to encourage participation.

I mentioned earlier the first time I met an adult who couldn’t read or write. Well, some years later I met a second.

Joseph was gravely ill, facing death in fact, and he felt the need to make his peace with God. His sister asked me if I would visit him. Which, of course, I did. We talked and prayed and I tried to explain the gospel to him. After a few visits I felt it was appropriate to take him one or two pieces of Christian literature and suggest one or two Bible passages he might like to read. What could be more obvious?

It was at this point that his sister took me aside one day and said “Colin, I need to tell you something. Joseph can’t read…” Ah..!

Joseph died not long after. But I like to think he had indeed found peace with God – in spite of never having read a word of the Bible.

When we think of “the Word of God” we tend to think of the written word, the Bible. But that in fact is a very limited view. The most important form of the word is the living word, Christ himself – the Word who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

But don’t forget also the spoken word – which, after all, is all that most of the first Christians had.

Yes: the written word, the Bible, that you carry in your head is very important. But not as important as the living word, Jesus, that you carry in your heart.

Thank you, O God, that knowing you doesn’t depend on an educated mind, but on a humble heart. Amen.

My big mouth

Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. Psalm 141:3.

There’s a proverb that says “A word rashly spoken cannot be brought back by a chariot and four horses”.

Graphically put! And even though such a vivid illustration wouldn’t naturally occur to most of us, we know immediately just what it means – and, I’m pretty sure, we whole-heartedly agree with it. Hands up anyone who has never regretted something thoughtlessly or foolishly said. I thought not.

It’s the same with the psalmist’s prayer. The idea of the mouth as a door that needs a guard seems a little strange, but we get the point.

When we think of our mouth we probably think mainly of what goes into it, and that’s natural enough – what we eat and drink is important. But the Bible’s emphasis, here and in many other places, is what comes out of it.

Listen again to Jesus. “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew12:34). “What goes into someone’s mouth does not make them ‘unclean’, but what come out of their mouth, that is what makes them ‘unclean’” (Matthew 15:11). “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a person ‘unclean’” (Matthew 15:18).

In that last quote Jesus explicitly connects the utterances of the mouth with what goes on in the heart. And it is the heart, the seat of our deepest thoughts, emotions, motives and desires, that God is concerned about. Quite possibly someone with really iron self-discipline (or of course somebody who chooses hardly to speak at all) can give a good impression to the world around. But God knows the heart, and that’s what matters.

When politicians and others get into trouble through what they say they tend to excuse themselves by claiming they were “misquoted” or their words were “taken out of context”.

And sometimes no doubt that is the case – our news media are not particularly scrupulous about how they report people’s words: anything for a good story, after all. But very often it’s hard to avoid the embarrassingly glaring nature of those damaging, incriminating and self-revealing words which are now beyond the reach of even that chariot and four horses. And are we supposedly ordinary people any better?

What does all this mean in practice? Well, we all have our own weaknesses, even leaving aside obvious things such as out-and-out lies, blasphemy and foul language. Here are a couple of possibilities – I imagine both of them might apply sometimes to most of us.

Gossip… it’s been said that what poison is to the blood-stream, gossip is to communities. It can be devastatingly destructive. It can ruin reputations. It can destroy relationships. It can cause deep wounds and hurts. Yes, the person who spreads gossip has a lot to answer for – and let’s not forget that the person who listens to it is not much better. Remember another saying: “Be sure that whoever gossips to you will also gossip about you.”

Inappropriate humour… I wrote in my last post about the joy of laughter (even though I briefly feared for my life!). But there is no doubt that laughter, and humour in general, are two-edged swords.  Much of what makes us laugh most can be categorised as either crude or cruel.

Perhaps the best Bible antidote to crudeness is Paul’s beautiful list in Philippians 4:8 (“whatever is true… noble… right… pure… lovely… admirable…think about these things”). And as for cruelty, we need go no further than the mockery thrown at Jesus at the crucifixion (“Hail, king of the Jews! …Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God”, Matthew 27:29, 40). All great fun, of course.

Different Christians will have different levels of tolerance over what might or might not be appropriate humour. Mild sarcasm, jibes, faintly sexual innuendo, even humour with a religious undercurrent – one person might be offended, while another sees it all as innocent. (I’ve just re-read what I have written and I find that twice I have used sarcasm – I wonder if anyone was offended as they read?)

Perhaps the only safe rule is to err, if at all, on the side of caution. I know that the expression “good clean fun” seems a bit dated – but is there actually anything wrong with it?

Whatever, whether we’re thinking of gossip or of inappropriate humour, it won’t do any of us any harm to echo the psalmist’s prayer – the one we started with, and the one below. Does your mouth need a stronger guard? Does mine?

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

I nearly died laughing

There is a time for everything… a time to weep and a time to laugh… Ecclesiastes 3:1,4

I read something recently which reduced me to a state of helpless laughter. It was an article in the Church of England newspaper The Church Times (yes, really), and it was about a bishop of a bygone generation who had a wonderful if sometimes waspish sense of humour. Absolutely hilarious – it took me several minutes to regain control of myself. If ever you have had “a fit of the giggles” (and if you haven’t I feel really sorry for you) you will know what I’m talking about.

But the following day this article nearly caused me death by drowning. All right, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but for a moment it was decidedly dodgy.

I was doing my regular twice-weekly half-mile swim in the local pool (feel free to utter a gasp of amazement and admiration) when one of the bishop’s gags came unbidden into my mind. Whereupon I found myself floundering, spluttering and barely able to breathe. I wondered if I was about to suffer the same fate as that man who died of a heart-attack while rolling about in laughter at a Morecambe and Wise television programme. (If you aren’t familiar with Morecambe and Wise, they were a famous comedy duo way back in the 1970s.)

Well, here I am now writing this, so you will realise that I did in fact survive the experience. But it made me do some thinking about laughter. Is there a specifically Christian view of laughter?

Only indirectly. The Bible has very little to say about it – this verse in Ecclesiastes 3 is about the nearest we get. There are, true, indications elsewhere that God delights to see his people laughing – have a look, for example, at Psalm 126:2 and Luke 6:21. But the laughter mentioned here is laughter from sheer happiness rather than at jokes or wisecracks. There’s not much at all about what we call “a sense of humour”. Still, these verses do remind us that God loves to see his people happy. (Is that a reminder you need?)

Lacking much to go on in the Bible, I’ve been doing a bit of rummaging around in Christian history to see if some of the church’s wise heads have much to offer. And I have been impressed by the things they have to say.

Here is Martin Luther, short and to the point: “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there”. (I suspect, mind you, that that isn’t one of his more deeply thought-out theological utterances.)

Here is Richard Baxter, a seventeenth century puritan pastor and scholar: “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers”.

Amen to that! I recently spent a morning in the company of a group of volunteers stuffing publicity envelopes for the Africa Inland Mission, and it really was a laugh-a-minute business: completely silly, perfectly innocent – and very uplifting.

And here is somebody called Sydney Harris: “God cannot be solemn, or he would not have blessed man with the incalculable gift of laughter”. Yes?

And somebody called Grant Lee: “Shared laughter creates a bond of friendship. When people laugh together they cease to be young and old, master and pupil, worker and foreman. They have become a single group of human beings, enjoying their existence”. I think that’s worth a second read… laughter is a great leveller, ironing out the inequalities and breaking down the barriers between people.

Of course it isn’t only Christians who have good things to say.

Here is the Jew Philo, who lived around the time of Jesus: “God is the creator of laughter that is good”. That last bit is important, of course – sadly, this world is not short of ugly, nasty, spiteful, vulgar laughter, and as Christians we should not be guilty of it.

And here are a couple of proverbs: “He is not laughed at that laughs at himself first”. I like that! How good are you at laughing at yourself and your own quirks, idiosyncrasies and ridiculousnesses? Do you take yourself too seriously? Lighten up!

And from Spain: “One who is always laughing is a fool, and one who never laughs is a knave”. Well, perhaps that word “knave” is a bit harsh; some people are naturally humourless without being bad people. But certainly there is something a little disturbing about people who can’t laugh.

I’ll finish with a word of advice, just in case you might need it one day: It’s not a good idea to combine (a) swimming with (b) having a fit of hysterical laughter. Trust me; I know.

Meanwhile, a note to self: Must laugh more.

Father in heaven, thank you for the wonderful gift of laughter. May my laughter always be pure, wholesome, health-giving – and honouring to Jesus. Amen.

By the way, did you hear about the scarecrow who was awarded a prize for being outstanding in his field?

Boom boom.


Life with a purpose

The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me… Psalm 138:8

One of the first things I was taught as a teenage convert was that God had a purpose for my life.

This conviction has never seriously wavered over the succeeding half-century. In fact, it has been so much part of me that I have rarely even so much as thought about it.

That doesn’t mean it has always been easy. There have been times when I have wondered just what God’s purpose for me was. Times when I have feared that I have drifted away from it. Times too when it has been very hard to understand how things that have happened can possibly be part of his purpose.

But the fact that there is a purpose – that, I have never seriously doubted. I hope you can say the same.

For me, this bedrock conviction of every Christian is neatly summed up in these simple words from Psalm 138.

All right, somebody could say, “But Psalm 138 was written by David, the great king of Israel, the ancestor of Jesus himself! Of course God had a purpose for his life! But me – well, I’m not remotely in that league!”

You could say the same thing about other great Bible characters. There’s the prophet Jeremiah, for example: “The word of the Lord came to me – ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart. I appointed you as a prophet to the nations’” (Jeremiah 1:4-5). I don’t know what the Hebrew is for “Wow” plus half a dozen exclamation marks, but I reckon Jeremiah must have said something very like it when he received that word.

In the New Testament there is Paul. Of him it was said: “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Another wow moment.

Great stories. But… we mustn’t let them cow us into feeling insignificant. All right, most of us are not chosen by God to be world-changing prophets or apostles. But we are chosen to live out, and to work out, his purposes for us.

If these thoughts are right, where are they taking us? I suggest two thoughts.

First, life isn’t just an arbitrary, meaningless muddle.

Sometimes you look at people who have no faith in God or hold upon him, and, without wishing to judge or criticize, you wonder what kind of sense they make of life. It seems to be just a case of “Stuff happens”, and they don’t expect to see any pattern or meaning to it.

True, even the most committed Christian’s life might sometimes seem to be an arbitrary and meaningless muddle; but a pattern asserts itself over time, and the purposes of God stand out clearly. And even when that takes longer than we would like, it is the role of faith to trust that that day will come. That much-quoted verse, Romans 8:28, really is wonderfully true: “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him…”

Second, God’s purposes don’t only involve easy things.

Not at all! – sometimes they takes us “through fire and water”, as the psalmist put it (Psalm 66:12). That beautiful verse is well worth quoting in full: “You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.” (Don’t miss those first two words, “You let…”)

I quoted earlier the words spoken about Paul in Acts 9:15 – that he was God’s chosen instrument to bring Jesus to the gentile world and its rulers. But I didn’t go on to the next verse: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Ah! – to be living within the purposes of God is no guarantee of an easy life: on the contrary.

Whenever I read the story of the man born blind in John 9 this truth strikes me afresh. “Why was this man born blind?” the disciples ask Jesus, assuming that his parents (or even he himself!?) must have done something bad. To which Jesus replies, Sorry, you’ve got it all wrong: “… this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”

And I stroke my chin and think, “Mm, that poor chap certainly drew the short straw! Yes, God clearly had a purpose for him – I’m just glad it wasn’t me.”

I hope you share my belief in God having a purpose for your life. The message is simple… Find it through prayer, follow it by faith – and trust that (borrowing the words of a great hymn) even though the bud may have a bitter taste, sweet will be the flower.

Loving heavenly Father, thank you for countless generations of people who have believed in your purpose for their lives; please count me worthy to be numbered among them! Amen.

The voice of Pilate’s wife

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal in a dream today because of him.” Matthew 27:19

“That innocent man” is, of course, Jesus.

He is standing before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, the man who has power of life and death over him. The Jewish authorities have brought him before Pilate, and they want him executed.

By all accounts Pilate was a seriously not nice man. Philo, a well-known Jewish writer of the time, describes him as “by nature rigid and stubbornly harsh…”, guilty of “bribes, acts of pride, acts of violence, outrages, cases of spiteful treatment, constant murders without trial, ceaseless and most grievous brutality…” Pilate is a man with blood-red hands.

He operates according to no real principles – all he cares about is getting his own way as easily as possible. He knows Jesus is innocent of any crime, but the best he can do is “wash his hands” of him, saying in effect, “All right, I’ll crucify him if that’s what you really want, but don’t hold me responsible” (verses 24-26). (If only we could shuffle off our responsibilities as easily as that…)

Picture, then, the moment the message from his wife reaches Pilate. He is sitting there on his judge’s seat, at a loss to know what to make of this strange character Jesus. He, Jesus, professes to be a king, though anyone less king-like it’s hard to imagine. But even a brutal man like Pilate senses there is something strangely impressive about him, so he hesitates to put him to death.

Then the messenger arrives – let’s say with a written note. Pilate glances at it, knowing instinctively that what his wife says is true. Which means he has a decision to make: should he, in spite of the inconvenience, do what is right and just? or should he go for the easy option?

Well, we all know which course he took. A decision which literally changed the course of history. A decision in which he revealed his true self and condemned himself.

I believe the voice of Pilate’s wife, so to speak, can come to us too, though no doubt in different forms. I find two main challenges.

First, it is the voice of conscience. What else does conscience do but (a) tell us the truth (especially the truth we don’t want to hear), and (b) urge us to make a decision (though probably a decision we don’t want to make)?

I don’t doubt for a moment that there had been many times in the past when Pilate had drowned the voice of his conscience. And, of course, every time he – or we – do that, our consciences become that little bit more calloused and insensitive. We are in the process of slowly hardening and destroying our own souls.

Here’s a question to put to ourselves: At what points in my life have I taken this decision to silence the God-given voice of good and truth within me? It may have become a settled habit with me, so much so that I really don’t notice any more that I’m doing it.

If that is the case, the sooner I wind back the reel of my life and start to put it right the better. However far gone I may be, God is gracious and will delight to pluck me off the road to destruction and set me right. But I must have the willingness, and the humility, to ask.

Second, the voice of Pilate’s wife can be a voice of hope.

How so? Well, it’s worth noticing that even in a dark place like Pontius Pilate’s palace a glimmer of light was shining. Somebody there had seen the truth. Somebody there had spoken the truth. Somebody there was concerned to see justice done.

In that situation God used a dream to communicate. (And why shouldn’t the same be true today?) But God is not limited in the means he uses.

So I dare to hope that somewhere in the dark places of our troubled word – the inner counsels of Isis or Boko Haram, the governments of godless nations, the board-rooms of corrupt business empires – that in these dark places the voice of truth is being heard, and the light of goodness is shining, however feebly.

Pray – pray hard! – that those who speak those words and shine those lights will get ever stronger until they prevail.

Lord God, thank you that the light of love and goodness cannot be ultimately extinguished. Give courage and strength to those who speak truth to power, and bring the day when they will prevail. Amen.

The two Adams

As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive… So it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45.

I wonder how many names or titles for Jesus you can think of in the New Testament. There’s no shortage…

Lord, Saviour, Messiah (Christ), King, Shepherd, Son of Man, Son of God, the Resurrection and the Life… I could go on.

But I wonder how many of us would have said Adam, particularly “the last Adam”?

It seems strange, doesn’t it? To be fair, it’s not a title that occurs very often – just here in 1 Corinthians 15, in fact, plus a slightly different angle on it in Romans 5:12-21. But it seems to have been an important part of Paul’s understanding of the gospel.

Adam is presented to us in the Bible as the founding father of the human race. Never mind for the moment how literally we are supposed to take the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden: the story yields up its meaning to us however we take it, and it conveys key truths.

Adam stands for the beginning of human creation, the most important creature God has yet made, because he was made, as Genesis puts it, “in the image and likeness of God”. Adam and Eve were to be the first parents of a race that would perfectly reflect the glory of God.

But, to use the modern jargon, they messed up big-time. They disobeyed God. As a result they brought a curse on the earth, and the consequences – sin, corruption, death – are with us still today. Genesis 3, the story of the “fall”, makes sad reading – and it’s no surprise that it is followed immediately in chapter 4 by the story of the first murder.

God’s beautiful creation has been spoiled, corrupted. And the question obviously arises: can it be put right again?

This is where Paul and his teaching about Jesus as a second Adam, “the last Adam”, comes in. By his perfect obedience to God his Father he cancels the curse, and puts into reverse the trail of the first Adam’s destruction. His death by crucifixion is God’s chosen way to bring this about. As Paul puts it in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”.

Putting it another way, just as the first Adam was the founder of a creation which quickly became broken and fallen, a creation subject to death, so the last Adam is the founder of a new creation, a creation bursting with new and, indeed, never-ending life. That’s why Paul says that while the first Adam was “a living being”, the last Adam was far, far greater, “a life-giving spirit”.

So… what? What difference does all this make to us?

The heart of it is that while God of course loves and cares for each individual man and woman, his vision and ultimate objective extends far further than simply the salvation of you and me. He is in the business of bringing into being a whole new creation, you could even say a whole new race.

The Adam who fell to temptation is replaced by the Adam who stood firm. The Adam who died is replaced by the Adam who lives for ever. The tragedy of the Garden of Eden is replaced by the miracle of the Garden of Resurrection. The Adam who lost the “image and likeness” of God is replaced by the Adam who bears that image and likeness perfectly.

And he doesn’t just bear it himself. No – and this is the point we’re leading up to – he also restores it to those who love, trust and follow him. If we are followers of Jesus we aren’t just smartened up sinners, people God has applied a few spiritual cosmetics to. We are new people, growing more Christlike day by day.

There’s a favourite verse, 2 Corinthians 5:17, where Paul writes: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” That’s a great truth. But in fact it isn’t quite what Paul wrote. His words, translated literally, are: “If anyone is in Christ – new creation”. Which suggests that not only are we new creations individually, but we have also become part of the great new creation that God is making in his troubled, fallen world.

As things are at the moment, the old creation brought down by the first Adam exists side by side with the new creation raised up by the second. But not until Jesus returns in glory will the new creation be finally completed.

So the question for us is this: During this “overlap” period, which of these two creations are you, and I, living in?

Lord God, help me to become daily more worthy to be part of your wonderful new creation, remade in the likeness of Jesus. Amen.

Time for a good cry?

Immediately a cock crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the cock crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly… When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse… Matthew 26:74-75; 27:3.

I have to confess that I’m not really the tearful type. I use the word “confess” there deliberately, because I see this as a failing in me. I comfort myself by thinking that probably I’m just (a) too English and (b) too male, but I’m not sure that’s much of an excuse. Tears, surely, can be a good and healthy thing.

So there’s a bit of me that quite envies those who cry easily. And that must include Peter here.

It’s been a bad, bad day. Peter has seen his master Jesus led away for trial. He can sense what is going to happen: the unspeakable horror of crucifixion. He sees that all the hopes he has pinned on this man are about to be brought to nothing.

And even worse, from his own personal point of view, he has done the very thing Jesus had said he would do, and which he had vigorously rejected; he has disowned Jesus three times (26:34-35). The crowing of the cock, foretold by Jesus as the signal of his failure, penetrates his heart like a knife.

And so (what vivid words these are!) “he went outside and wept bitterly”. As The Message puts it, “he cried and cried and cried”. Can you see him…?

Poor Peter!

And yet at the same time, surely, happy Peter. His tears are healthy, showing the depth of his sorrow and anguish. And it won’t be long before the risen Jesus takes him quietly aside with words of comfort, healing and restoration (John 21:15-19). No recriminations. No stern “Didn’t I tell you?” No finger-wagging “Remember this next time”.

No. Just “Do you love me? Feed my lambs… Feed my sheep…Follow me.” It doesn’t actually say so, but I can’t help wondering if Peter shed some more tears – tears of a totally different kind – on that occasion.

With Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus to the Roman soldiers in Gethsemane, it’s different. Certainly, he repents – after a fashion. But Matthew uses a different word from the normal “repent”: “he was seized with remorse”. He returns the money he was paid, and he confesses his treachery: “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood”.

But there is no mention of tears such as Peter shed. We are left to speculate that Judas was angry and frustrated with himself, sorry about what has happened, but not really sorry for his sin. And, sadly, he feels he has no alternative but to kill himself.

A wonderful new start for Peter. A terrible, tragic end for Judas. How many human lives over the centuries have followed one or other of those trajectories?

I long ago gave up trying to make sense of what might have gone on in Judas’ mind. There’s bit of me that wants to say to God: “But, Lord, he was sorry for what he did! He did confess his sin! He did give the money back. Can there be no forgiveness for him?”

I ask myself: suppose Judas had fought his way through to Jesus, thrown himself at his feet and cried out for forgiveness… might things have been different? But then, of course, he didn’t…

In the end I give up. God is God, and who am I to question his ways? His justice and his mercy are perfect. We read in his word that “he is not willing that anyone (including, presumably, Judas) should perish, but that everyone should come to repentance”. (And who said that? Peter! – in 2 Peter 3:9. Who should know better than him?).

The destinies that overtake different human beings are truly a mystery. I read in the paper this morning about the young student recently murdered in Egypt. It appears that before they killed him his murderers tortured him for a week. Can your mind or mine fathom how fellow members of our human race could do such a thing? Or why such a thing should happen to that young man?

And then I read of lives wonderfully transformed by the power of God’s grace – gang members, say, whose eyes are opened to the wickedness and futility of their life-styles, and who devote themselves to promoting peace and reconciliation.

Yes, in sinful human nature (and that means yours and mine, of course) there are depths beneath depths beneath depths – but also unimaginable and wonderful heights for those who truly repent.

No, I don’t really know what to make of Judas, but then it isn’t for me to second-guess a just and holy God. But I do know what happened to Peter! And I thank God for his outburst of tears.

May someone reading this find the same release, the same repentance, the same restoration.

The same forgiveness. Amen.