A prayer for the turning of the year

I pray that out of his glorious riches the Father may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

And I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power… to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19

2016 is nearly over.

Time, then, for stock-taking – for reflecting on the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures, of the past year. Time too to look ahead, not asking to know what is going to happen, because that is not possible, but aiming to set our sights high so that we make 2017 as good a year as lies with us.

I suggest that we offer a very serious prayer to God: a prayer based on the rich, remarkable and tightly packed words Paul offers to his Christian brothers and sisters in Ephesus.

It’s too condensed to be opened up in full detail, but one thing that stands out is that it rests on a particular belief: what the Christian church would later come to call the “Trinity” – the persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit within God. Let’s skim it on that basis…

  1. God the Father is “gloriously rich” (verse 16).

He is the maker of all things, and all that he makes and does is good. The whole universe is at his finger-tips – he owns everything, and nothing happens without his knowing. And he it is who one day will bring everything to a wonderful conclusion.

Our God is not some weak and feeble God. He is perfect, holy and infinite.

  1. God the Holy Spirit is at work “in our inner being” (verse 16).

This can only mean that if we are Christians then God actually lives within us, for the Holy Spirit is God. Our very bodies – yes, weak flesh and blood though they are – are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). And the Spirit means, among many other things, power.

The very energy of God himself is at our disposal.

  1. God the Son is infinitely loving (verses 17-19).

He too is said to “dwell in our hearts through faith”. Faith means not only a mental assent to God – “Yes, I believe in Jesus” – but a glad acceptance of Jesus, a belief that his death and rising were for us personally, and a willing submission to him.

But the emphasis falls on his love, which is mentioned three times…

First: as Christians we are to be “rooted and established” (verse 17) in that love, like a healthy plant or tree growing in fertile soil, or like a solidly built house on a strong foundation.

Second: it is so great that we can never measure it – it is “wide and long and high and deep” (verse 18) – though Paul does pray for the Ephesians to be able to “grasp” at least something of it.

And third: it is a love “that surpasses knowledge” (verse 19), unlike any love that we can ever know in our human relationships.

In short, the man Christ Jesus is God’s love bundled up in a package we can see and recognise: didn’t he himself utter the staggering words, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)?

So… if you want to know what God is like don’t stare up at the skies – no, look at the baby in the manger, look at the Galilean workman walking the roads of Palestine, look at the man who fed the hungry and healed the sick, who calmed the storm and raised the dead, look at the servant washing the feet of the disciples, look at the agonised man sweating and praying in Gethsemane, look at the God-forsaken criminal hanging on the cross.

And look at the risen Lord standing in the garden on the first resurrection morning and saying “Peace be with you” to those who saw him.

Where else will you find such love, such power, such authority? No wonder the preaching of these things changed the world for ever – and still changes lives today.

Paul ends his prayer with an even more breath-taking hope: “that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God.” I don’t know how to comment on those words – just trying somehow reduces them to the commonplace and ordinary. Each of us must close our eyes and make a real mental effort to grapple with them.

But there it is: just a skim – nothing more. But enough, I hope, to prompt us to ask a question: “How then should I pray as I look to the coming year?” Well, here’s a suggestion…

O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, forgive me that my vision of you is so small and shrivelled, and my faith in you so weak. Enlarge my mind and heart by the Holy Spirit, and fill me to over-flowing with that divine love which cannot be measured and which never ends. Amen.

‘Tis the season to be grumpy?

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:33-35

… to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… John 1:12

When it comes to Christmas I am not (please believe me!) the “Bah! Humbug!” type. Not at all. A spot of fun and laughter, some nice food and drink, a present or two, not to mention some crackers and silly hats – you can count me in, no problem.

But I must admit that there are one or two things that I get a bit fed up with.

One of them is an over-emphasis on family. Anyone would think that the whole point of Christmas is the big jolly get-together round a table heaving with food, with at least half-a-dozen generations represented. This image is projected on card after card, in advert after advert, and on television show after television show.

Fair enough, Christmas does have a bearing on families. The story in the Bible is precisely the story of one – the family of Jesus. And, fair enough again, there can be great joy in families coming together to share a special time.

But if it gets out of hand, this emphasis is simply wrong. And that’s exactly what often happens. Painful questions arise…

What about people who have no family? I know someone, now in old age, who has never had, so far as she is aware, a single relative. How do people like her feel?

What about families where there is a painful gap, an emptiness? – someone has gone away, or has to be in hospital, or simply has to be at work. Or, of course, someone has died…

What about the single, the divorced, the widowed? – rendered acutely aware of their solitude, their outsider status, in this merry atmosphere.

And what about families which are full of tension and even animosity? I knew a family once who had a door-mat with the message, not “Welcome to our home” or something similar, but “Oh no, not you again!” Only a joke, of course (they were lovely, welcoming people). But isn’t that exactly how many people feel as Christmas draws near and they face the prospect of having to be falsely nice to someone they really don’t like?

And, of course, reality never measures up to expectations. You eat and drink too much, so you get bloated, sluggish and tetchy, someone is felt to have taken the Scrabble game a touch too seriously, that bracing afternoon walk becomes a duty (insisted on by an infuriatingly bright uncle) rather than a pleasure – and the weather is cold and damp anyway. Oh dear…!

In the Bible, families are certainly important. But they are not all-important. Christianity is often mindlessly said to “uphold family values” (whatever they are). But is that really true? Not if we take the words of Jesus seriously – look back at the verses I have quoted from Mark 3.

And what about the boy Jesus in the Jerusalem temple? He spoke about “my father’s house” – but it wasn’t Joseph he was referring to. Worst of all (so to speak) are his words in Luke 14:26 – I’ll leave you to look them up; but be warned, the word “hate” appears in the context of family. Family values?

Yes, families matter, marriages matter, parenting matters, the mingling of different generations – all these things matter. But the family the Bible mainly focuses on is of a different kind altogether. It is “the family of God”, to which all who love and trust in Jesus belong. “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” as John 1:12 puts it.

Those two words – received and believed – are key. Literally, indeed, they are the key which opens the door into God’s eternal kingdom, God’s family which know no bounds.

So… if you are part of an ordinary human family, I do of course wish you great joy this Christmas. But if your family is far from the kind of ideal portrayed on the cards and in the adverts (and, in fact, even if it is that perfect), I remind you that you have a loving Father in heaven. He wants you to be part of his great family here on earth – and he has sent his own Son to make that possible.

May you and all yours – yes, including the grumpy ones – know God’s love and peace this Christmastime. Amen!

Don’t be over-spiritual!

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and buckler; rise and come to my aid… May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame… Psalm 35:1-3

Jesus cried out in a loud voice… “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34

I recently read an interview with a quite prominent Christian. He was asked, among other things, about his prayer life. To this he replied, “I never pray for myself; I only ever pray for other people.”

I wonder how that strikes you? My first reaction was to feel very small – I’m afraid I couldn’t make anything like the same claim! It led to a bit of soul-searching, a bit of self-questioning. Are my prayers in essence selfish? Do I need to rethink completely the way I pray?

But then I thought: hang on a minute! Is this man claiming to be better than many examples we find in both the Bible and in Christian history? Better, in fact, than Jesus? Is he right to never pray for himself?

In fact (look out! – confession coming up), I found myself starting to get a bit cross, even judgmental. Who does this sanctimonious, super-spiritual creep think he is (you can tell, just in case you don’t know me, that I’m not really a very nice person)? Isn’t saying “I never pray for myself” tantamount to claiming to be superior to us lesser mortals who do pray for ourselves?

And I thought of Psalm 35, and the words I have quoted. In the first three verses the words “me” or “my” occur five times (I’ll leave you to tot up how many more me’s and my’s there are in all twenty- eight verses). Psalm 35 is pretty much a random example – I could have gone for literally dozens of other places, not least Jesus’ prayer of agony on the cross.

The kernel of truth in what that man said is obvious enough: something is very wrong if we only, ever pray for ourselves. Of course! I hope none of us need to be told that. But let’s never be ashamed of the fact that we are in a deep, personal relationship with God, and at the heart of that relationship is conversation, dialogue, and dialogue means, among many things, talking to God about the things that excite or trouble or worry or puzzle us. How then can we not pray for ourselves? He is our father; we are his children.

I would sum it up like this: it is perfectly all right to pray for ourselves; but those prayers should not be selfish. How can that be? Here are two suggestions.

First, focus on holiness rather than happiness.

We all want to be happy, of course: that’s natural. But none of us has a right to happiness.

The top priority in the Christian life is to be made more like Jesus, and the fact is that in this slow, life-long, day-by-day process, one of God’s main tools is a dose, large or small, of unhappiness. The bumps, as they say, are what you grow on. If we pray only for our own happiness we are missing the point of life; and we will remain shallow (not to mention deeply unsatisfied) as people.

Second, focus on usefulness rather than personal fulfilment.

Again, there is nothing wrong with being keen, even ambitious, to make the most of the talents and gifts God has seen fit to give us (and these may be things which have nothing at all to do with “religion”). But if we are Christians our chief motive when it comes to “making something of my life” is to be of service to God. The nineteenth-century hymn puts it perfectly: “O use me, Lord, use even me,/ Just as thou wilt, and when, and where…” Amen!

One of the greatest things the New Testament says about Jesus is this: “Even though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God something to be taken advantage of, but made himself nothing (literally, emptied himself)” (Philippians 2:7). If we can boil that down and apply it to ourselves: you become somebody when you are happy to be nobody.

Holiness and usefulness… Aren’t these essentially what the Christian life is about? Other things certainly have a claim upon our prayers – health, work, money, family, you name it – but they find their rightful places if we keep these key priorities uppermost in our minds.

Father in heaven, thank you that you love me so much as to be concerned with all my worries and troubles, my joys and pleasures, and that I can talk to you about the biggest and the smallest. But help me always to put first the things that matter most, the heavenly and eternal things, and the needs of others. Amen.

Popularity – a mixed blessing?

Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!” “I have found you,” he answered… 1 Kings 21:20

Jesus said, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you…” Luke 6:26

Probably all of us want to be popular. And why not? To feel that you’re liked, appreciated, valued – well, it’s important to your sense of self-esteem.

You expect, of course, to be liked by your friends, but it’s good too to feel that your wider circle – people at work, casual acquaintances and the rest – also view you in a good light. We certainly don’t like to feel that anyone is our enemy, or that people are talking unkindly behind our back.

Yet Jesus said something which appears only here in the New Testament – something which, let’s put it this way, at least qualifies this. He warned, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you.” The Message Bible translates it (loosely but, I think, helpfully): “There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them.”

In a word, alarm bells should start ringing if we are universally popular: to follow Jesus is bound to attract a bit of dislike. If that doesn’t happen, it suggests we are not being entirely loyal to him. As he goes on to say: “For that is how their fathers treated the false prophets”.

Ah yes, the prophets! Read the history books of the Old Testament and you find the dreary story of a succession of largely corrupt kings and largely false prophets. Many of these prophets were virtually members of the royal court; and they became experts in telling the king what they knew he wanted to hear. Who cares about the truth?

But every now and then a prophet would come along who refused to tow the party line. And here in 1 Kings 21 is a perfect example. King Ahab comes eyeball to eyeball with the prophet Elijah. He greets him with the charming words, “So you have found me, my enemy?” And Elijah nods his head gravely and says, Oh yes, I’ve found you; I’ve found you all right, king or no king…

You know the story… Ahab has been looking out of his palace window, and he notices a pleasant field in the adjoining property which would make a perfect vegetable patch. Yes, I quite fancy that, he says to himself. So off he goes to do a deal with the owner. To be fair to him, he starts by making a reasonable offer: either I’ll give you a good price, Naboth, or if you like I’ll give you a better field. Can’t say fairer than that, eh?

Just one problem: Naboth refuses to sell. What to Ahab is – well, just a field, is to him part of his family inheritance, handed down from father to son over many generations.

Cutting the story short… Ahab, in a fit of childish petulance, has a tantrum: “He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.” Poor little petal. But his wife Jezebel eggs him on to take action, and within a short time Naboth is dead, stoned to death after a set-up trial.

A sadly typical story: the rich and powerful bullying the ordinary man or woman. Tyrants, dictators, big-money men, business tycoons, global enterprises: we mustn’t tar them all with the same brush, but we hear and read enough to know that the description seems to fit uncomfortably often.

And who cared, in Naboth’s case? Answer, it seems: nobody. Nobody, that is, except this strange fanatical figure from out in the desert: Elijah, the man who was prepared to risk his life not only for a small person crushed by power, but for a principle – the principle of truth, honesty and integrity. No wonder Ahab regarded him as his “enemy”.

The challenge for us is obvious. Do we have the courage to “speak truth to power”? Or are we go-with-the-flow types, mealy-mouthed, morally gutless?

Please don’t get me wrong. No way do I want us all to go and set out to make ourselves unpopular. Let’s be honest, sometimes we Christians do this not by speaking the truth (if only!) but by being a thorough pain in the neck to everyone in sight. We very likely fall under one of two criticisms: either hypocrisy (“Your life doesn’t live up to your words!”), or over-enthusiasm (“Will you please stop banging on at me about your religion!”).

That’s not what Jesus is talking about here! – nor what the prophets were about.

No. If – when – we do have to be unpopular, let’s be very sure that it’s for a good reason: a reason which brings credit to Jesus.

Father, I like to be liked, and I thank you for those who do seem to like and respect me. But give me strength never to buy popularity at the cost of honesty, or of denying all that your son Jesus is about. Amen.

A brother I never knew

So it is with Christ… we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 26

I read a couple of days ago about a Chinese Christian who had died in prison.

Nothing particularly new there, you might think. No indeed. But the news item struck me forcibly, because his name was Peng Ming, and over the last two years I have sent him occasional cards and letters, and prayed systematically for him.

I knew about him through a Christian organisation that lobbies for persecuted Christians (and others) in many parts of the world. It encourages us in the western world to make contact with people like Peng Ming in order to let them know that they are not forgotten.

He will never read my short note; I wrote it on November 28 and he died, it seems, on November 29. I don’t even know if earlier messages ever reached him; who knows what Chinese prison authorities do with prisoners’ mail?

But in a strange sort of way I feel that I almost knew him – even though my background, my upbringing, my language, just about everything about me in fact, are totally different from his.

Paul tells us that “we are all baptised by one Spirit into one body”. That truth immediately connects me, in England, with Peng Ming, in China. And with every other person too on the face of the earth who believes in the name of Jesus. This blog I write: it doesn’t get that many “hits” – but just in the last week or so there have been visits from Oman, from Ireland, from France, from Canada; even, in the more distant past, from Venezuela, from Russia, from Nigeria (and… yes, from China).

And so, a question: how wide is your understanding of that word “church”?

I am afraid that for many of us it means little more than the building we go to on Sundays, and the people we meet there. But this is hopelessly inadequate. The church is the world-wide body of Christ, and all who belong to it are brothers and sisters. Talk to any missionary you meet (they know far more about this than I do!) and they will tell you of the massive privilege they feel in actually working among, worshipping with, and laughing and crying with fellow-believers from the four corners of the earth.

And the church extends across time as well as place. I know, for example, that the old hymns from centuries gone by are well out of fashion now in many churches, but I still love to sing some of them.

There was a man called Bianco da Siena, about whom I know next to nothing (except that he died around 1400). He wrote a favourite of mine: “Come down, O love divine,/ Seek thou this soul of mine.” Translated in the nineteenth century, it contains the beautiful words: “Let holy charity/ Mine outward vesture be,/ And lowliness become mine inner clothing…” Archaic language perhaps – but isn’t that a prayer we can still pray today?

Bianco da Siena’s life will have been as remote from mine as Peng Ming’s; yet he too is a brother in Christ. We still need his voice and his testimony, along with the witness of the untold millions who have gone before us down through two thousand years. This is what is called, in the ancient creeds of the church, “the communion of saints” (yes, every Christian is a “saint”!). God forgive us if we let our perception of the church become so shrivelled, so parochial, so limited!

A little later in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul goes on to say that, if one part of that body suffers, “every part suffers with it.

Well, it would be ridiculous for me to claim to have suffered much with Peng Ming, but I certainly feel it was a privilege to know about him, and to try and do something, however tiny, to extend the hand of Christian friendship. The fact is that those of us who know virtually nothing about suffering for Jesus’ sake are in a small minority when set against the backdrop of the world-wide, centuries-spanning body of Jesus.

So why not take another look at John’s great vision in Revelation 7:9 – the “great multitude that no-one could count… standing before the throne”? That’s you, and me, and the whole universal church of Jesus Christ, God’s crucified, risen and ascended Son, who will one day return in glory.

Let’s lift up our eyes beyond our little local church, however important that certainly is, for we all need one another.

And why not visit the website of an organisation such as I have mentioned to get your vision widened, your prayers informed, your heart stirred – and your hands working?

Lord God, thank you for your universal church, the body of Christ, spanning all the centuries and stretching across all the continents. Help me to be more worthy to be part of it, until that day when I stand in that countless crowd before the throne of the Lamb. Amen.

Figs, faith and fruitfulness

Seeing in the distance a fig-tree in leaf, Jesus went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, ‘May no-one ever eat fruit from you again’… In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig-tree withered from the roots. Mark 11:12-14, 20

If I had to draw up a list of New Testament passages which are hard to understand, this “cursing of the fig-tree” would certainly come in the top ten. It simply bristles with difficulties…

For a start, it is a story of destruction, and this seems completely alien to the kind of healing, life-giving things Jesus normally did.

Second, taken at face value it could be seen as portraying Jesus in a bad light. Had he (as we sometimes put it) got out of bed on the wrong side that morning? Was this just an act of tetchiness and ill-temper? To make matters even worse, Mark actually goes to the trouble of informing us that “it was not the season for figs”. How unreasonable, then, for Jesus to get grumpy when he finds none! (Matthew’s account of the same incident omits that detail: was he being tactful?)

Third, the sequence of events in Mark 11 and the parallel passage in Matthew 21 is very difficult to follow. Both accounts are linked with the story of “the cleansing of the temple” in Jerusalem, but the timing of the various events is hard to harmonise.

You might end up thinking “Would we be better off without this story? What can we really learn from it?”

Well, all I can say is that the early church obviously saw fit to preserve it, so presumably they didn’t think it showed Jesus up in a bad light. Still more, especially for those of us who believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, the Holy Spirit saw fit to ensure that it found its way into the Gospels. So God, it seems, wants us to puzzle out some positive lessons.

I can’t pretend to sort out the various difficulties I have mentioned: if I tried, it would be a waste of your time and mine. If you want to do so, then you must look to someone far cleverer and more expert than me!

But I think it’s true to say that one lesson here is clearly stated by Jesus, and that another is strongly implied.

The clearly stated lesson is about faith and prayer.

If you go to Mark 11:22-25 you find Jesus’ response to Simon Peter’s exclamation, “Rabbi, look! The fig-tree you cursed has withered!” Jesus replies: “Have faith in God…” He then speaks about how such faith can “move mountains” (this was a common saying among Jewish teachers to refer to remarkable and miraculous events). And he goes on to say that “…whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

That striking statement alone also raises some big questions! But however exactly we are to take it, if nothing else, it reminds us of the miracle-working power of prayer.

So let’s at least take this away: those prayers we pray day by day, sometimes quite repetitively, sometimes almost out of a sense of duty, are a vital part of God’s purposes for this world. One day they will explode with power! One day they will come to a wonderful fulfilment!

So… pray! And keep on praying!

The strongly implied lesson is about the curse of fruitlessness.

Go back to the story…

Jesus has come to Jerusalem, God’s chosen “capital city” on earth. And he has come to the majestic temple, God’s chosen “dwelling place” on earth. And what has he found? Answer: a dearth of spiritual life, an absence of godly witness.

Oh yes, the city and its greatest building looked splendid on the outside – just as that fig-tree looked beautiful at a distance with its full sprouting of leaves. But where was the fruit?

When Jesus “cursed” the tree and declared that no-one would ever eat fruit from it again, was he saying the same thing – in the form of a dramatic, acted-out parable – as when he “cursed” the activities of the people hurrying about their business in the temple? He quoted the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’” – and then added the devastating words: “But you have made it a den of robbers”.

As if to say: “Yes, you are God’s chosen people. Yes, this building means everything to you. But your day is done! Something new and revolutionary is here…”, pointing, of course, to himself and to the coming cross and resurrection. (This raises questions about the place of Judaism today in the purposes of God – but that’s a topic for another day.)

A warning about fruitlessness? Yes, indeed. But let’s not imagine this only applies to Israel. What about the church? What about you? What about me?

Father, give me please the faith to pray and pray and keep on praying; and also the blessing of a truly fruitful life. Amen.

The few and the many

Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation and tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. Revelation 7:9

Do those two New Testament quotes contradict one another?

In Matthew 7, part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to be saying that the number of the saved will be a small minority of the human race – “only a few”. But John’s vision in Revelation 7 talks about “a great multitude that no-one could count” who worship God and the Lamb.

You could say, I suppose, that even if only a small number from each generation are ultimately saved, that would add up, over the centuries, to a pretty big total. But that doesn’t seem to be quite what the Revelation passage suggests: it’s all about the ultimate victory of God, and the impression is given that a vast mass of humankind is there to celebrate it.

And, indeed, Jesus himself goes on to convey the same idea a little later: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).

That’s one of the great Bible themes. You can trace it right through from Genesis to Revelation: a wonderful gathering of the nations – the gentiles – into the eternal kingdom of God. Look, for example, at the staggering promise God gave Abraham in Genesis 15:1-6 and 22:17 (and then see if you can calculate not only how many stars there are, but how many grains of sand on just a single beach!).

Ultimately, of course, we will have to wait and see. The fact is that the Bible gives us both solemn warnings (as in the Matthew 7 passage) and wonderful encouragements (as in the Revelation 7 passage). We need to hold them in balance until that day when all things are made plain.

We certainly need the warning words of Jesus. How easy it is to follow the crowd, to “go with the flow”! To enter into the eternal life that Jesus offers is a great thing – but let no-one imagine it’s the easy option.

Anything but! The little gate he speaks of admits people only one at a time (and you have to bend to get through it; think about that). It leads to the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice and hardship, the way of unpopularity, perhaps, and of the contempt of others.

The broad gate is seductive – the crowd sauntering cheerfully through are full of laughter and fun, not worrying too much about issues of right and wrong, not bothering their heads about the big questions of life – like “What kind of person should I be? Why am I here on this earth? What will happen to me when I die?” No wonder Jesus called it “the broad road that leads to destruction”.

(The great thing is that it takes only one step to cross from the broad road to the narrow road: that step is called repentance and faith in Jesus. Have you taken it yet?)

But we need too those encouraging words, whether from Jesus himself or from Genesis or Revelation or many places in between. We need them particularly at a time of great instability and turmoil in our world. They remind us that God is in control, in spite of appearances, and that he will bring all things to a glorious climax.

I suspect that many of that “great multitude” before God’s throne never set foot in a church in their lives. But who knows what goes on between an individual and God in the private place of that person’s heart? Who knows how many “death-bed conversions” there may be?

But we do know that God is a kind and gracious God – and (oh, thank God for this!) we have too the beautiful conversation between Jesus and the dying criminal next to him on the cross, the conversation that climaxes with Jesus’ words, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). That man knew nothing of “doctrine” or “theology”; he simply reached out to Jesus for mercy, and Jesus did not turn him away.

The last word on this topic must surely be with Jesus in Luke 13:23…

Apparently some people asked him exactly the question we have been thinking about: “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” And you know what? Jesus didn’t give them a direct answer. No, he told them to… make sure they were saved.

As if to say, “Don’t get too snarled up with difficult and hypothetical questions: make sure you are right with God!”

What more is there to say?

Lord Jesus, thank you for your little flock here on earth, and for my privilege in being part of it. And thank you too for that great multitude that will stand before you in worship at the last day. Help me day by day to be worthy to be part of that too. Amen.

Down with religion!

Jesus said… “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, was a carpenter. That’s worth remembering as we read these words. It’s surely very likely that Jesus as a boy and young man spent time in the carpenter’s workshop (in fact, in Mark 6:3 he himself is actually referred to as “the carpenter”, not just “the carpenter’s son”). And one of the things carpenters made in the world Jesus lived in was yokes.

If, like me, you’re very much a city person, you may never have thought much about yokes. But we’ve all probably seen old pictures of milk maids with a long wooden pole or collar across their shoulders, and a milk bucket hanging off each end. That’s a yoke. It was simply a device to ease and balance the strain of carrying.

But it also applied to a much bigger kind of contraption: this would be fixed over the shoulders of a pair of oxen to enable them to pull the plough in tandem. The vital thing here was that it should sit comfortably on the oxen’s shoulders – otherwise it would rub and chafe, and there would soon be raw, bleeding flesh.

Is it possible that Jesus had made a speciality of perfectly-fitting yokes?

The religious teachers in Jesus’ day had another meaning too for the word: they talked about “the yoke of the law”. All the rules and requirements that had been accumulating over the centuries added up to a massive total – something, in fact, quite impossible for anyone to obey successfully. Laid like a yoke, so to speak, on people’s shoulders, they would soon crush anyone who was serious about being right with God.

Of course, Jesus never said that following him would be easy – the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 makes that plain. But in these very beautiful words he claimed that what he asked of his followers was a whole lot easier than hopelessly struggling to keep rule after rule and law after law; in comparison with that, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”.

Unlike the religious leaders who piled great weights on ordinary people, he claimed to be “gentle and humble in heart”. That wasn’t a boast! What he meant was something like this: “I’m not a teacher like those scribes and Pharisees. I have no wish to load you up with burdens you cannot bear. No, I will be gentle with your weaknesses and frailties, I will walk with you as your friend and brother. I want you lifted up, not ground down!”

Sometimes people say to me “Oh, you’re religious, aren’t you?” And I feel like replying, “No! I’m not religious! I detest  the very word religious! No, I am simply a follower of Jesus!” And that’s a totally different thing.

What about you? Is your “religion” in reality a dreary round of duties and obligations? Or is it a comfort, a blessing, a hope, and a practical support in the everyday business of life? Is it a set of rules – or is it a loving, personal relationship with God through faith in his Son Jesus? That’s “Christianity” – never mind “religion”!

Oh yes, it can be hard to follow Jesus. He also told his followers to “take up their cross” in order to follow him – an infinitely worse piece of woodwork than the yoke! But even the cross we must carry is far easier than the cruel weight of barren religion. It is a yoke made by the master carpenter, tailor-made to rest upon our shoulders and ensure no chaffing, no rubbing, no soreness.

Following Jesus does involve various obligations: the church is important; so is regular worship; so is faithful and sacrificial service done in Jesus’ name. But we carry out these obligations as a loving, glad response to the one who died and rose again for us, not as duties which will win us God’s favour.

It’s in the light of all this that we must read the wonderful invitation that Jesus offered at the beginning of our quotation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…”

If you are bowed down by the hardships of fife – or by the grinding duties of religion – it’s time to gladly say “Yes” to that invitation. Stop being religious – start following Jesus!

Lord Jesus, thank you that your yoke is easy and your burden light. Help me to bear them gladly and joyfully out of love and gratitude for the burden you bore for me on the cross. Amen.