An opportunity missed

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have… 1 Peter 3:15

“Always be prepared…” Those words have been haunting me for the last few days. Why? Because I failed.

I’ll tell you what happened. I’d gone to one of those wholesale warehouses to get a part for my electric shaver, and in the waiting room I got chatting with another customer. He was a friendly chap, and told me a bit about himself.

Life hadn’t been easy – he was hobbling painfully on a couple of crutches, and told me that both his legs had been smashed by a nasty car-crash some years before.

“Well,” he said, “I’m lucky to be alive really.” To which I replied with some banal remark about none of us ever being able to take a day of life for granted.

“That’s true,” he said, “it’s just matter of pot-luck really, isn’t it?”

And that was the moment…

That was the split second, when I could – indeed surely should – have made a suitable response. Nothing heavy, of course – not a standard three-point sermon on the uncertainties of life, or an improving lecture about the need to be ready daily for death.

No. Just something perhaps along the lines (with a smile) of “Well, personally I prefer to put it down to the will of God.”

All right, even that might have caused a slight touch of embarrassment for a moment. But we had talked for long enough to be at ease with one another, and I am fairly confident that he wouldn’t have gone home and told his family about “this religious nutter I met today”.

But anyway, the moment was gone, and of course once it’s gone it’s never going to come back.

You may, of course, feel I did in fact do best to miss the moment. But the more I thought about it the more I felt it was a good opportunity gone begging. After all, he had chosen to make a theological remark to me. Yes, I mean that! – even something as basic as “it’s all just a matter of pot-luck” is an expression of opinion about life, death and the universe. So why not respond to it with a theological statement in return?

And suppose I had caused real embarrassment? Is that necessarily such a bad thing? After all, we had never met in our lives before, and it’s completely unlikely that we will again. He could quite happily rinse me out of his mind.

But who knows?

Perhaps, just perhaps, he might have driven off thinking to himself “Mmm, interesting what that chap said…” Perhaps, just perhaps, my remark might have come after something else “religious” that had been said to him recently, something seen on television or heard on the radio. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a member of his family who is a sincere Christian.

Indeed, perhaps – just perhaps – we might have got involved in a good discussion right there and then. (Electric shavers can wait.)

A lot of perhapses! And here’s another couple: perhaps nothing whatever would have come of that brief conversation. But the point is that we will never know. Perhaps his whole life might have been changed by what was triggered in those few minutes. Didn’t Jesus speak about the tiny seed going into the ground and bearing great fruit?

If you wanted to be pedantic you could point out to me that in our Bible verse Peter suggests that we ought to wait first – he speaks about “everyone who asks you for the hope that is in you”. The other person should take the initiative.

Well, all right. But I think that’s a bit hair-splitting. After all, I would hardly have been ramming my beliefs down his throat, would I? And I think that’s probably what Peter is concerned about.

Peter goes on to remind us that anything we say should be said “with gentleness and respect”. Amen indeed to that. All I know is that, weighing it up in my mind as I drove away, I felt quite sure I had made a mess of it. Grrr.

Billy Graham wrote: “God will hold us responsible as to how well we fulfil our responsibilities to this age and take advantage of our opportunities.”

I wonder how many more opportunities I will have…? More to the point, I wonder how many of them I will grab hold of?

Lord God, give me eyes that see, a mind that responds, a tongue that speaks truth, and a heart that loves those still without Christ – and so help me to be a true ambassador for you. Amen.

A tax, a fish, and a coin

“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him [Peter]. “But so that we may not offend them [the collectors of the temple-tax], go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch, open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” Matthew 17:27

What’s this! Finding a coin in a fish’s mouth! What a very odd story. What’s going on?

A little background…

In Jesus’ day most Jewish men had to pay an annual tax for the upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem. The sum wasn’t massive, but it was an imposition that many people resented.

Peter, it seems, has been approached in the street by the local collectors in Capernaum: “Your teacher does pay the temple-tax, doesn’t he?” they ask. Peter assures them he does. So that’s fine. But this triggers a conversation between Jesus and Peter when he gets home about whether they really are obliged to do so.

In essence, what Jesus seems to say is: “Of course, it’s absurd and wrong that we, the very children of the God who owns the temple, should have to pay this tax. The temple has become a focal point of corruption, not really the house of God at all. But this isn’t the time to make a fuss. So – I tell you what, Peter – why don’t you go down to the lake and catch a fish. Just open its mouth, and you’ll find a coin which will be enough for you and me for the year…”

The essential point Jesus is making is clear: there are times to “make an issue” of something, and times not to – times to kick up a fuss, and times to swallow your resentment and do what is asked of you.

We know very well from other parts of the Gospels that Jesus was perfectly prepared to make a fuss when the time was right – after all, it won’t be long before he deliberately provokes a near-riot in the temple (see Matthew 21: 12-17).

But… not here, in Capernaum! Not now, with some minor, small-town officials! That would just cause a distraction from what really mattered: his coming death and resurrection.

This suggests a principle for us today. There are times and circumstances when it is right and good to make an issue of something. But not at the drop of a hat! The history of the church is littered with tragic examples of Christians kicking up a fuss when it was damaging and unnecessary – and then turning a blind eye when they shouldn’t have.

We need to pray for spiritual discernment: “Lord, give me the gift of restraint when it’s best to say nothing, and the gift of courage when it’s time to speak up. And the wisdom, please, to know the difference!

I think that’s how to understand what’s going on in this episode.

But of course as we read it we probably find that a big question hangs in the air: Did Jesus seriously expect Peter to do as he suggested? 

That may seem a strange – perhaps even a shocking – question to ask. Of course Jesus meant these words seriously! – why else would he speak them?

But wait a minute. There are several things which suggest it’s not quite as simple as that.

First, we notice that Matthew doesn’t tell us that Peter actually did as he was told: “So Peter went off to lake and threw his line in, and sure enough…” or something like that. Always elsewhere, when Jesus works a miracle, that miracle is actually described. So why not here? Why is the story left hanging?

Second, if it did happen as Jesus seems to say, wouldn’t that be rather like a magic trick rather than a real miracle? Wouldn’t Jesus in effect be yielding to the temptation which, according to Matthew 4:3-4, he had resisted in the wilderness?

Third, throughout the Gospels when Jesus works a miracle it always has a deep, spiritual significance – it isn’t done to solve a relatively trivial practical problem. God doesn’t do miracles to make things easy for us – doing things for us we can quite easily do for ourselves.

I don’t know. But I must admit (and don’t worry, I fully believe in the miracles of the Bible!) that I am inclined to think that Peter, reading between the lines, got the message: “Look, Peter, there’s no problem here that can’t be solved with a bit of fishing…”. Which is what he then went off and did.

Remember, Jesus quite liked to say puzzling and sometimes quite provocative things. Did he seriously mean to refer to a woman in great distress as a “dog” (Mark 7:27)? Did he – the Prince of Peace! – seriously mean his disciples to arm themselves with swords (Luke 22:36)?

So, regarding the coin in the fish’s mouth, the question is not “Could Jesus have done this?” Yes, of course. The question is “Would he have done this?”

As I said, Matthew doesn’t tell us: he leaves the story hanging. I think that will do for me too! How about you?

Lord God, thank you that your word is true, varied, strong – and sometimes demanding. Please help me, with the guidance of your Spirit, always to understand it aright. Amen.

Questions about prayer

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you… since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you … Colossians 1: 3,9

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you… 2 Thessalonians 1:11

Whatever else he may have been, Paul was certainly a great pray-er.

I’ve plucked just a couple of examples out of his letters which make clear how committed he was to praying for the churches on his heart. (It reminds me of something my wife-to-be said shortly after her conversion: she intended to be a “non-stop, walking, one-woman prayer meeting”.)

Well, the Bible regularly urges us to pray. Jesus set us a challenging example of commitment to prayer, and taught his disciples to pray. Nothing is more basic to biblical faith, Old Testament as well as New, than prayer.

But this is one of those areas where I would love to be able to question Paul a bit…

What does praying “constantly” actually mean in practice? All right, you pray day by day for the Christians of Thessalonica, but how long does that take – an hour? five minutes? one minute? After all, I’m sure you’re praying too for the Galatians, and the Romans, and the Colossians, and the Corinthians (yes, especially those Corinthians, I suspect!), the Ephesians, the Philippians (no doubt the Athenians too, though you never got round to writing them a letter)…

And quite apart from all that praying, you seem to have been quite a busy chap in other ways too – what with preaching, evangelising, church-planting, fund-raising, letter-writing, mentoring younger pastors…

To be fair, there are one or two places where Paul gives an idea of the content of his prayers – look up the rest of those verses from 2 Thessalonians 1, for example, or Ephesians 3:14-21.

But the fact remains – wouldn’t it be wonderful to know a little more about precisely how a man such as Paul exercised this vital ministry of prayer? Were his prayers for the various churches always detailed, or did he sometimes simply name them before God?

And one question especially I would love to ask: Paul, given that you pray so much, how do you manage to maintain a spirit of expectation in your prayers?

It’s not so long since I clocked up half-a-century as a Christian. Hardly a day has gone by since then without me praying in some form or other. And so there are people and situations which I must have prayed for hundreds if not thousands of times. And, let’s be honest about it, in many cases I seem to have little to show for it.

How easy it is for such prayers to become a mere routine, almost a ritual. Praying, but not really expecting. Having enough faith to keep going in prayer, but not enough to actually expect anything to happen as a result. Praying, yes, but subconsciously settling for the status quo.

You share my problem? If you’ve been a Christian any length of time at all, I suspect you do.

Well, I don’t know what Paul would say to me in reply, but here are a few things I say to myself…

  1. The alternative to praying is – well, not praying. And that surely is unthinkable if you take your faith seriously. So don’t give up!
  2. Remember Jesus’s words about faith like a grain of mustard-seed moving mountains (Matthew 17:20). What matters is not so much great faith (good though that of course is) as faith in a great God. The very fact that you are serious about prayer at all indicates that you do have at least that kind of minimal faith.
  3. Remember that you have simply no idea, as you pray, what is going on in the courts of heaven. I once heard a preacher say: “I have never been to China. I know nobody in China. China is in every sense a far-off land. But I believe that when I pray for China, something happens in China!” I’ve never forgotten that. Perhaps one day we will know the effect of even our feeblest, most routine prayers.
  4. Don’t worry about length. Long prayers are fine if the Spirit really moves you so. But have you ever thought that the Lord’s Prayer – yes, the very prayer Jesus himself taught us to pray – can be said, without rushing, in thirty seconds flat.
  5. Don’t worry about emotion, or the lack of it. Again, if the Spirit moves your heart in such a way, perhaps even to the point of tears, great. But the prayers recorded in the Bible suggest that prayer can also be – how shall I put this? – quite a matter-of-fact, sleeves-rolled-up business. As long as it comes from the heart…
  6. Don’t worry about being repetitive. It’s “vain repetition” that Jesus condemns in Mathew 6, not determined perseverance.
  7. Don’t be afraid to use “set” prayers – prayers written by others (there are plenty of good books available). Many such prayers are beautiful, deep and powerful. They can have the effect of “priming the pump” of our own prayers.
  8. Use the prayer material published by missionary societies and other Christian organisations. (Who knows, soon you’ll be able to pray for China with real knowledge!)

I could go on. There’s so much more that could be said. But perhaps I could encourage you to say it. I would love to hear from you.

Lord Jesus, teach me to pray! Amen, amen!

A word for sign-seekers

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied… “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. Matthew 16:1-4

Sign-seeking is a common feature of religious people. Some years ago there were excited reports of Hindu idols drinking milk left out for them. Every so often we hear of statues of Mary shedding tears. I remember once talking to a woman who seemed awestruck by the fact that someone she knew “spoke in holy tongues”.

Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have proof of what we believe! And very natural too.

But – sorry – it is folly. And sinful folly at that. Jesus makes this very clear in these few verses.

By his preaching and miracles he has become a serious threat to the religious authorities. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the two main parties among the Jews of his day; normally at loggerheads with each other, they now join forces to test him once and for all. They want to discredit him, to expose him as a charlatan.

But he refuses to play ball. “Signs?” he says – “No, there won’t be any signs. If that’s really what you want, go to your Bibles and read the story of Jonah.” He “then left them and went away.” He won’t waste time with them.

It may seem strange that, having done all sorts of miraculous healings – deeds which John’s Gospel sometimes actually refers to as “signs” – he should here speak so dismissively of such things. But the point is this: while he delighted to do great things as a sign of God’s love, mercy and power, he refused to be seen as some kind of spiritual conjuror, a popular purveyor of party-tricks done to order.

This episode goes to the heart of several things we need to grasp about Jesus.

First, he despised the idea of being a celebrity.

As you read the Gospels you find that on various occasions he deliberately chose to fade out of the limelight rather than risk being turned into an idol. Certainly, he sometimes created a stir by saying what he said and doing what he did, so much so that his disciples urged him to build a big following by riding the crest of the wave – “Come on, everyone’s looking for you!” (Mark 1:37). But he said no. He had already confronted that particular temptation in the desert before embarking on his public ministry (see Matthew 4:4-7).

Fame, glitz, glamour, adulation – these are heady drugs, and they seduce many people. But the way of Jesus is the way of lowliness and humility, of service and sacrifice.

The lesson for us is clear: Be happy to be nothing, for only then can God make you something.

Second, the main thing he demanded of his followers was faith.

Again, as you read the Gospel stories you see how thrilled he was when he found faith in unexpected places. Think of the Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13) or the woman with the flow of blood (Matthew 9:18-26); as you read these stories you can almost see him smiling with delight.

But then, of course, you see also how sad he was when he didn’t find faith where he felt he might expect it. Think of the disciples in the storm (Mark 4:35-41) or of followers who were prone to anxiety (Matthew 6:30). To ask for a sign is to ask, in effect, for proof, and that simply isn’t on offer. Paul sums it up perfectly: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

A question: I wonder if I ever put a big smile on Jesus’ face because of my faith?

Third, he pointed forward to the resurrection.

This is the point of his reference to Jonah. He has in fact already opened up the meaning in Matthew 12:38-42: there he likens his coming experience of death, burial and resurrection to the miraculous experience of Jonah and the great fish.

And so we are reminded that Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus on that wonderful first Easter day.

This isn’t to deny or question the reality of other remarkable things – healings, tongues, you name it. Not at all. But it is to place the emphasis exactly where it belongs: Jesus died, Jesus rose again, Jesus is Lord! It takes faith to make that declaration, and it’s a faith that will not be disappointed.

It’s often said that “seeing is believing”. But that just isn’t true – look at Matthew 28:17 for an amazing demonstration of that fact.

No, we don’t believe because we have seen; we see because we have believed.

Lord Jesus, please deepen, sharpen and enlarge my faith so that my eyes are opened and I see things hidden from ordinary sight. Amen.

Jesus and joy

The fruit of the Spirit is… joy… Galatians 5:22

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Philippians 4:4

Would you describe yourself as a joyful Christian?

That can be a hard question to answer, because joy isn’t something that comes naturally. Yes, some people seem to be born with a cheerful, sunny, optimistic disposition, and that’s good – just as others seem naturally glum and Eeyore-like, and still others suffer from depression and other psychological conditions. But that sunny disposition is a different thing from joy. Which, of course, is why Paul describes it as “the fruit of the Spirit“.

When the New Testament talks about joy, then, it’s talking about a supernatural thing. Left to our own moods, most of us probably swing every day from feeling pretty good and happy, to feeling dejected, worried and possibly quite miserable. But Paul’s words imply that if we are Spirit-filled people then joy should be part of our daily experience.

“Joy” is different from “happiness”. There’s nothing wrong with happiness – of course not. But the problem with it is that it depends almost entirely on circumstances or temperament. Say your life is going well – you have a warm home, a full stomach, a fulfilling job, a settled family life, a good circle of friends, reasonable health… well, why wouldn’t you be happy?

But all that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with God or the Holy Spirit. Anyone can be happy when life is treating them kindly. But if suddenly things begin to go wrong, then happiness has a habit of flying straight out of the window.

Remember the prodigal son? – I bet he was happy when he broke free from the shackles of home and headed off to the big bad city with his wallet stuffed with money: Wahay, world! – here I come! But once he’d run through all that money it was a very different story. It’s not easy, I imagine, to be happy in a pig-pen.

Joy comes from within us. Why? Because the Spirit is within us. However we may be feeling as a result of our external circumstances, nothing can alter the fact that we are children of God, that our sins are forgiven, that eternal life is secure, that our lives have a direction and purpose. That is what joy is all about – it’s a deep, settled knowledge that because I am safe in the tender love of God I need fear nothing.

And nothing can alter the fact that even our problems and difficulties are within the will of a God who loves us more than we can ever know, and that he can turn them to our good if we consciously trust in him. The assurance that God is our Father gives a stability, a foundation, to our daily lives.

In fact, joy is very closely related to peace, even that famous “peace of God that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I don’t know who said this, but I’m glad they did: peace is joy resting; joy is peace dancing. Good, yes?

CS Lewis had a big thing about joy, though I’m not sure he ever formally defined it. He described his experience of finding God as being “surprised by joy”. And joy itself, he said, is “the serious business of heaven”. I think I know what he meant. After all, Jesus said that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need to repent” (Luke 15:7). So when Paul urges us in Philippians 4 to “rejoice always”, he is in effect urging us to echo the voices of the angels themselves.

What it all comes down to is this: joy depends on the closeness of our relationship with God. If we drift from him we may well be “happy”, at least for a time, but we will never be joyful in the Christian sense. It’s no good sticking a plastic smile on our faces, so to speak – that’s about as convincing as a false moustache.

No, you can’t magic up joy; either you have it or you don’t. The challenge is to get ourselves into such a place with God that joy is just – well, there. Are you in such a place? Am I?

Oh God our heavenly Father, as we seek to walk with you today, may the joy of the Lord fill our hearts – and then overflow to others. Amen.

Are you a spiritual wrestler?

Epaphras… is always wrestling in prayer for you… Colossians 4:12

When I was young we didn’t have a television in our home. I used to feel quite envious of my friends. But sometimes on a Saturday afternoon my brother and I used to visit a friend’s house, and we’d make up a bit for what we didn’t have at home.

And what were they showing on television? Often it was wrestling, and quite a grotesque spectacle it was: overweight, misshapen men in odd outfits grunting and sweating as they threw one another around the ring. Sometimes they would thump the floor in what seemed absolute agony – I really thought someone was going to end up dead.

Of course, I soon learned that a lot of it was fake. In fact, even the crowd didn’t seem to take it too seriously – everyone seemed to accept that it was just a show.

Real wrestling is a different matter altogether: two people pitting their raw strength against one another, no doubt using all sorts of skills and tricks to bring their opponent to the bitter point of submission. It was a popular sport in the ancient world.

I don’t imagine that Paul often went to watch wrestling bouts, but he obviously knew something about them. And one thing they reminded him of was – would you believe it? – prayer. Yes, Paul saw prayer as a kind of spiritual wrestling match.

And he commends his friend Epaphras for being a keen wrestler. He tells the Christians of Colosse that Epaphras is “always wrestling in prayer for you”. (Epaphras is one of those minor Bible characters it would be wonderful to have known. Why not take a few minute to read all the New Testament references to him? – there are only three.)

Which leads to a very obvious question. I assume that all of us pray (how can you be a Christian and not pray?). But how many of us know anything about wrestling in prayer? What do we know of getting into a no-holds-barred clinch with God himself?

You might say, “But surely God doesn’t need to be treated in this way!” Well, not always, of course: sometimes our praying might be quite calm and gentle. But I find I can’t avoid that little word “always” that Paul uses here – apparently this kind of praying was by no means unusual to Epaphras. So even if our praying isn’t necessarily literally “always” of the wrestling kind, you can’t help wondering if this is something we should take seriously.

Two other Bible passages come to my mind.

First, there is the story of Jacob and the angel in Genesis 32.

Jacob – scared and aware of his bad behaviour in the past – is met by a mysterious stranger who engages him in a prolonged wrestling match. Somehow Jacob senses that his very life depends on it, and when the angel asks him to let him go he grits his teeth and says (what magnificent words these are!), “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And the angel, somehow representing God himself, does just that. Jacob “struggled with God and overcame”. Quite a story.

The other passage is about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his crucifixion (Luke 22:41-44).

Luke tells us that “being in anguish, Jesus prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground”. The word Luke uses for “anguish” is the same as Paul uses for Epaphras “wrestling” in prayer – and it’s the word we get our word “agony” from. Putting it another way, just as Jesus “agonised” in the garden, so Epaphras “agonised” in prayer.

I don’t think there’s any point in asking why a kind and fatherly God should want to bring us to such a pitch. And I know that “agonising” isn’t something we can or should turn on like a tap, or work up by sheer will-power.

But I know too that these passages are there for our good, to stir us up and make us think. So I wonder – do we perhaps need to get down to the business of prayer with a new determination, a new seriousness, and a new intensity?

Father God, please forgive the shallowness of my praying. Take me to a new level – even to a new depth – so that I might experience the kind of victory you gave to Jacob, and for which Epaphras longed. Teach me to pray like Jesus himself. Amen.

When God goes into hiding

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? Psalm 10

That great question “Why?”

Jesus asked it on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Job asked it as he staggered under an avalanche of personal tragedies: “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?” (Job 3:11). Habakkuk asked it as he despairingly surveyed the state of the nations: “Why… do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:13).

And I would be very surprised if you have never asked it. Unless you are an out-and-out atheist, adamant that the whole idea of God is nonsense, there are certain to be times when this agonising question forces its way into your mind. Even if that isn’t the case today, I’d hazard a pretty confident guess that there is somebody in your circle who is in just this place.

And even if that is not the case either, can any of us be unaware of – or indifferent to – the plight of millions? The child dying of an incurable disease. The refugees fleeing their bombed city. The innocent victims of a terrible atrocity… Why, Lord, why?

It’s years now since I read CS Lewis’s “A Grief Observed”, the memoir he wrote following the death of his wife Joy. A man who had written so much to explain the Christian faith and to make sense of mysteries like prayer and pain – here he was, floundering, angry, lonely and bewildered, in an ocean of misery. What sticks with me is that question, almost an accusation: why is it that when you need God most he just isn’t there?

Well, the Bible never gives us a fully satisfying answer, and nobody in the twenty centuries of Christian history since has succeeded in doing so either. So what hope is there that I can say anything helpful? Not a lot! But here goes.

Some things are, I hope, obvious.

First, no platitudes!

My dictionary defines a platitude as “a flat, dull or commonplace remark or statement; especially one uttered with an air of importance”. We Christians can sometimes be guilty of trotting out truths (yes, no-one’s saying a platitude can’t be true) in such a way that they come across as just empty words. Even the great truth of Romans 8:28, for example (“…in all things God works for the good of those who love him…”), can seem like so much self-righteous verbiage.

Wasn’t this the problem with Job’s “comforters”? Much of what they said was quite correct, no problem. But it didn’t connect with the state Job was in – it didn’t, as the saying goes, scratch where he itched. The Bible encourages us to be brutally honest in expressing our doubts, even our feelings of anger at God. He understands. His shoulders are big enough to take it.

Second, no judging!

There’s a strand of religious thinking that assumes that if something terrible is happening to you, it must be somebody’s fault. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” ask Jesus’s disciples (John 9:2). To which Jesus replies straight away, “Neither…”.

If someone is living in the world of Psalm 10:1, the last thing they need is a great load of guilt dumped on their shoulders. Certainly, if there is wilful, unconfessed sin in our lives, we must expect to feel the absence of God. But that isn’t what Psalm 10, or those other passages I’ve quoted, is talking about.

The greatest truth of all in this whole question is one that needs to be demonstrated in action rather than put into words. It is that God in fact hasn’t gone away, but is only “hiding himself” for a time. He will ultimately act on behalf of his own. And that is the point when understanding of his purpose will be given: “we’ll understand it better by and by”, as the old song puts it.

I was reading the story of Joseph in Genesis just this morning. I’ve got to the part where he is sitting wretched in prison, the victim of cruelty and malice. But, of course, I know what he at that point doesn’t know – how the story ends. The sunshine of God’s love will shine on him again, and he will be vindicated.

And that’s how it is for all of us. The fact is this: if the gospel is true, then every Christian’s story has a happy ending. Jesus himself is the supreme example. Yes, the man who cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” was raised from death and rules now as lord of all creation.

But wait a minute… haven’t I just done what I said earlier we shouldn’t do? Haven’t I just trotted out great truths and turned them into platitudes? Well, perhaps.

So let’s suggest some action – and I hope it doesn’t sound irreverent. If somebody is living in Psalm 10:1, then it’s your job and mine to stand in for the God who is absent. Simply by being there for them, and with them, they can know that the hidden God is there after all, and will bring them through.

And if it should be you that is living in Psalm 10:1… may there be those also who will do this beautiful thing for you.

O God, please make yourself known, please come out of hiding, for those who are in despair at this moment. Amen.

A flashpoint in the church

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned. Galatians 2:11.

Wow! (as they say) – this must surely be one of the most explosive statements in the whole New Testament.

Cephas is another name for Simon Peter. And there’s no point mincing words: Paul and he had a major bust-up in the church at Antioch. A public bust-up (verse 14).

Let’s get the picture straight in our minds… Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles in the early days in Galilee. As intimate with him as anybody could be.  The man who made that great declaration of faith at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God”.  The man to whom Jesus said “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:16-18).

Yes, there were times he got things wrong, and Jesus put him right. But being put right by Jesus is one thing: being put right by Paul – Paul the upstart, the Johnny-come-lately, the man who never even knew Jesus during his earthly life, the man who fanatically persecuted Jesus and his church – well, that’s altogether different.

But that’s exactly what happened.

So what’s been going on?

Antioch in Syria, about 350 miles north of Jerusalem, was a hot-spot in the early church. It was there that one of the most significant developments took place: for the first time, non-Jewish people (“Gentiles” or “Greeks”) began to hear and respond in numbers to the gospel, and to become followers of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.

It must have been quite a congregation! The Jewish members were no doubt recognised by their particular dress, and many were still wedded to Jewish customs and laws. While the Gentiles… well, let’s just say they would have been very different indeed.

But, so far as we know, everyone got on well: all one in Christ Jesus, after all! Worshipping together. Witnessing together. Praying together. Eating together.

But then something seriously bad happened… A group of Christians who were still very traditional in their Jewish ways came to Antioch and started to teach that, even though everyone was a follower of Jesus, it was wrong for Jewish Christians to eat with Gentile Christians.

This was bad enough; but what made it even worse was that, almost incredibly, Simon Peter allowed himself to be persuaded by them. He “drew back and kept himself separate” from his Gentile brothers and sisters. Sad, sad, sad.

And so Paul stood up and denounced him. Can you imagine the atmosphere in the meeting?

Well, this episode is now all ancient history. But there are important things we can still learn from it. Let me highlight just two.

First, Christian leaders can get things wrong.

No surprise there, you might say. But the fact is that it’s very tempting for us “ordinary” Christians to put our leaders on a pedestal and treat them as “six feet above contradiction”. Certainly, it’s right that we should respect, support and pray for those God has set over us (I hope we all do that in our various churches). But they are not infallible. And, like Peter here, they can go wrong.

What makes it most puzzling is that Peter had had a dramatic object-lesson from God – a vision, no less! – to teach him this very truth: all men and women are equal in God’s sight; the old Jew-Gentile divide is abolished in Jesus. (Read about it in Acts 10.)

So, if such a thing could happen to Peter, it shouldn’t surprise us if it happens to those we trust and look up to. It could be a matter of teaching, as here. Or it could be a case of morality, behaviour. Whatever, it can happen.

And that reminds us that when we say or sing “Jesus is Lord”, we really do mean it! Ultimately our trust and faith are in him alone.

Are your eyes fixed firmly upon him? Is your confidence only in him?

Second, there are times in church life when it’s right to kick up a fuss.

I say that with real hesitation! Nobody hates more than me the thought of arguments and confrontations within the church. Aren’t there enough shocking, shameful divisions already?

Each of us should make it our business to bend over backwards to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Jesus, remember, declared “peace-makers” to be “blessed” (Matthew 5:9).

But… and here it comes… In cases where a vital principle is at stake we need to have the courage to lift up our voices and say “No!”. Paul knew that such a principle was at stake here. If he hadn’t made a stand, the early church could have split into two fundamental factions – Jewish Christians on one side, Gentile Christians on the other. And that would have been a denial of all Jesus came to do.

All I can add is this: If you have strong, perhaps angry, feelings about something in the church, don’t act unless, after much thought and prayer, you are (a) really, really, really sure you’re right, and (b) really, really, really sure that it matters that much anyway…

O God, please bless those who lead our churches, giving them wisdom, humility and strength. And help us who are led to do all within our power to preserve God-given unity. Amen.