Are you past your use-by date?

Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:32

Grey hair is a crown of splendour. Proverbs 16:31

The righteous… will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green… Psalm 92:12-14

I preached recently in a church where there were some interesting visitors in the congregation. There were four of them, and they had the words “Street Pastors” emblazoned on their tee-shirts.

I had been asked in advance to give them a ten minute slot in the service, which I gladly did. One of them spoke very simply about the work of Street Pastors; she encouraged us all to support it – and to consider the possibility of getting actively involved in it.

Just in case you don’t know, Street Pastors is a Christian organisation which sends groups of volunteers out into city centres at weekends to make contact with the drinkers and druggers and clubbers. Their role is not out-and-out evangelism, but simply to be a Christian presence. They offer practical support and help – bottles of water, safe transport home perhaps, flip-flops for girls too drunk to walk in their high heels. Advice too, of course, if appropriate. A listening ear. Friendship.

Though not personally involved I have heard quite a bit about Street Pastors in recent years – and all of it has been good. They operate in full partnership with local police and other authorities, who gladly welcome their presence. Apparently it has a significant effect in lowering crime rates and bringing some peace and calm to situations that might otherwise get out of control.

So it was good to meet this little team.

But what particularly struck me – and the main reason for writing this blog – is that they were all… well, let’s not mince words, quite old. (One of them eighty-four, in fact.)

You might think this kind of ministry would be best exercised by younger people, people of the same generation as those they are wanting to help. In some places, for all I know, that might in fact be the case. But my impression is that older people form a real part of the backbone of Street Pastors. How refreshing is that!

We live, those of us at least in the western world, in a society that tends to dismiss and even mock the elderly: a society fixated on youth and glamour.

This is a total contrast to attitudes we find in the Bible – just take another look at the verses I have quoted. They prompt me to make two very simple pleas.

First, a plea to younger people: Don’t write off the old.

True, wisdom doesn’t come automatically with age – old people can be stubborn, stupid and infuriating (like members of any other generation). But the Bible makes clear that old people may still have much to offer. Just a couple of examples…

King Solomon’s successor, his son Rehoboam, got his reign off to a disastrous start by ignoring the wisdom of the grey-heads in the royal court. He sowed seeds of division in the nation which was never healed (1 Kings 12).

Luke’s Gospel introduces us to a quartet of deeply godly old people right at the beginning of the story of Jesus: Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist; and Simeon and Anna (not a couple), who greeted the new-born Jesus in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 1 and 2).

To ignore the wisdom of the old is not only disrespectful, but it is also to do yourself harm: you need that wisdom for your own growth and flourishing. Ignore it at your peril.

Second, a plea to the old: Don’t write yourself off.

It’s easy to fall in with the mockery of the young and start believing that you’re past your use-by date. But this is a big mistake. That verse from Psalm 92 is worth soaking up: you can “still bear fruit in old age”; you can “still stay fresh and green.”

You don’t have to volunteer as a street pastor to prove this in your own life, though that could be right for you. The fact is that ordinary, routine life affords opportunities to let the light of Jesus shine. None of this “Oh, I’ve had my day” or “I’ve got nothing to offer” nonsense, please!

After the service I spoke to another lady in that congregation. She was ninety-seven, and still going strong. We agreed that as long as God gives you another day of life, he has a use for you.

Yes? Believe it!

Lord, help me to cheerfully enjoy and serve you every day, whether I am a new-born baby in Christ or a grizzled veteran with the battle-scars of many years. Amen.

Trouble-shooter – or trouble-maker?

When they came to Geliloth near the Jordan in the land of Canaan, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an imposing altar there by the Jordan. And when the Israelites heard that they had built the altar… the whole assembly… gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them. Joshua 22:10-12

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9

We hear a lot these days about “conflict resolution”. Schools, businesses and even churches run courses on it – the skills required to settle disagreements without doing lasting damage to either relationships or efficiency.

Sadly, some of us seem to have a talent not so much for conflict resolution as for conflict creation – the art of making mountains out of mole-hills and pouring petrol on flames. (I heard of a man who grumbled about his wife on the grounds that “she won’t argue with me”.)

Jesus tells us that “blessed are the peace-makers”, and in our often tense and divided society, and also in our churches, I reckon that’s a word we can’t hear too often. Christian, be a peace-maker!

Joshua 22 gives us a good example of how easily conflicts can flare up – and, thankfully, how they can be resolved.

When the twelve tribes of Israel came into the land of Canaan, the majority of them settled west of the River Jordan. But two and a half of the tribes – Reuben, Gad and Manasseh (a “half-tribe”) – were allocated land east of the Jordan. The river, running north-south, must have created a barrier that was psychological as well as physical – rather like a busy main road that slices through a city in our modern world.

When the time came for the two and a half tribes to go off and take possession of their land, everything was fine – the nation was still united, and they went with the blessing of the western tribes. No problem.

But almost at once things turned tricky. Why? Because the two and a half tribes decided to erect “an imposing altar” (verse 10) on the banks of the Jordan. This, it seems, was entirely innocent – as they explained later (verses 24-28), they simply intended the altar to symbolise their solidarity with Israel.

But that wasn’t how the rest of Israel saw it. No, this was rebellion! This was treachery! There can be only one altar in Israel! – and that is in the tabernacle, the great portable shrine at the heart of Israel’s worship and, indeed, of their whole national life. So, quick as a flash, they “gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them.”

Well, you can read the rest of Joshua 22 to see how this critical situation was defused. But in this early part of the story there are two aspects which can help us to avoid trouble before it rears its ugly head.

First, be aware of how innocent actions can be misinterpreted.

The two and a half tribes meant no ill. But they failed to see how their action might appear to the rest of Israel. You get the impression that there was a fear, an insecurity, in Israel at this vital point in their history, and so the building of that altar was, as the saying goes, a red rag to a bull.

This can easily happen in church life. Somebody organises an event – without realising that such events really are the responsibility of someone else. A list is drawn up of potential helpers for a particular ministry – and some person’s name is missed off the list. Result: hurt, misunderstanding, a fractured relationship.

Are you a tactful, thoughtful, sensitive person? (It can be learned!)

Second, don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions.

An assumption was made about the motives of the two and a half tribes – and it turned out to be completely wrong.

To this day I burn with shame when I remember a pastoral situation many years ago. I listened to only one half of the story – and, having jumped to conclusions, ended up having to offer not so much an apology as a full, five-star grovel. I learned (oh, how I learned!) that before zipping into “Right!-this-is-war!” mode it really does help to, er, establish the facts, and to do so coolly and quietly.

Is this a word some of us need to hear?

All of us can be hot-headed and impulsive. Simon Peter lost his head in Gethsemane – with the result that the high priest’s servant lost his ear (John 18:10). Paul and Barnabas, giants of the early church, had a bust-up which led to the parting of their ways, at least for a time (Acts 15:36-40). And later on Paul felt the need to apologise for some pretty harsh words to the high priest (Acts 23:1-5). (Lesson: never be afraid to apologise!)

Better still, of course… don’t act in such a way as to risk such tensions and flash points.

May God grant us sensitivity, wisdom and grace!

Father, forgive me when I am insensitive to the feelings or perceptions of others, and when I am prickly at the way others act. Please help me to develop the Christlike skills of the peace-maker. Amen.

Partners? – or rivals?

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good-will… they preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? Philippians 1:15-18

I was a very young minister at the time, not long out of college, and with a lot to learn. I had joined a ministers’ fellowship; it was ecumenical, with Anglican, Methodist, Pentecostal and Salvation Army people as well as me. We used to meet every two months to talk, pray and share news.

One meeting we had a visiting speaker. He asked us a question: “How would you feel if God sent revival to this town?” Well, there was only one answer to that, wasn’t there? – Great! Bring it on! (as we might have said if we’d been Americans).

He smiled and said, “All right, now another question. How would you feel if God sent revival to this town, but did it through the church down the road, not your church?”

Ah. That was a bit different. We all said the right thing, of course – it wouldn’t matter a scrap! we’d still be delighted! But I’m not sure we were quite as enthusiastic – after all, my church was the best church, the most sound in doctrine and the most Spirit-filled. (Not, of course, that any of us would have dreamed of actually saying that out loud…)

Does it come as a surprise to you that Christian leaders can think that way? – that there can be a spirit of rivalry rather than of co-operation, even a spirit of jealousy?

Well, I’m afraid it’s nothing new. Paul makes this clear in these words to his Christian friends in Philippi.

The background is this… He is “in chains” for preaching Christ (quite likely in Rome), and he doesn’t know if he will ever get out. And he learns that while he is therefore unable to preach the gospel, other evangelists – yes, fellow-Christians! – are preaching pretty much out of spite.

Why would they do this? Paul doesn’t tell us in any detail, but, reading between the lines, it seems that he wasn’t completely popular with the Christian community in Rome (or wherever he was). He was the new kid on the block, a Johnny-come-lately to their city, and they rather preferred things the way they were before he turned up. So they took advantage of his absence from the scene to put him in his place by demonstrating what better preachers they were.

Sad? Yes, I think so too.

But see now how Paul reacts to this: “But what does it matter?” (verse 18). Who cares! And then this: “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached, and because of this I rejoice.”

How generous-spirited is that! No bitterness. No grumbling. No sulking. On the contrary, just rejoicing because Jesus is being made known.

I see here two main things: a challenge, and an encouragement.

First, the challenge: How generous-spirited are we?

Are we so obsessed with our own importance or talents that we are jealous or resentful of what others are like or what they are doing?

Here’s another story from that ministers’ fellowship. A new minister came to the town, and linked up with us. The first time he came he told us in very plain terms how he viewed the progress of God’s kingdom in the area: “We are praying to become the biggest church in this town,” he told us, full of fervour. Not, notice, the most Christlike church; or the most obedient church; or the most Spirit-filled church; or the most sacrificial church. No: the biggest church.

Well, that put the rest of us in our places, didn’t it? It showed very clearly the way his mind worked: “I don’t care about you lot – I’m going to be Mr Big around here.” (In fact, he was gone within a year, leaving behind a mess.)

If we are Christians, we are brothers and sisters of all who love and follow Jesus, even though there may be areas of disagreement. So it’s vital that we co-operate, and show humility, even taking pleasure in the “success” of others. Is that you? Is it me?

Second, the encouragement: God uses very imperfect people.

The beautiful thing about Paul’s response to the animosity directed towards him is that he just doesn’t care. “What does it matter?” he says. All that matters is that Christ is preached. It’s the message that matters, not the messenger.

Of course, Christ’s messengers should be above reproach: the attitude of Paul’s enemies was wrong, and no doubt God would judge them for it when the time was right. But for the present moment Paul was just delighted that more people were hearing about Jesus.

God uses very imperfect people. Mmm… come to think of it, when I look at myself, and perhaps when you look at yourself, that’s just as well, really, isn’t it?

Lord God, drain out of my heart every drop of rivalry, envy, jealousy and resentment. Teach me to delight in every work of the gospel, wherever it is done – and whoever it is done by. Amen.

The voice of faith in a world of doubt

Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t go up against those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report… Numbers 13:30-32

The Israelites have come out of Egypt under Moses. After many years of wandering in the wilderness they have reached the borders of the land God has promised them, the land of Canaan.

God tells them to send a reconnaissance party (let’s call them spies; it’s shorter) into Canaan to report on the type of land that lies before them. They come back carrying a big clump of grapes on a pole, plus some pomegranates, figs and no doubt other goodies too. (Take a look some time at the logo for the tourist ministry of modern Israel.)

Yes, this is a good land! – it “flows with milk and honey”.

But… (there would have to a but, wouldn’t there?). Of the twelve spies, ten “bring a bad report”. True, they say, the land as such is wonderful, but the people are big and powerful, the cities are well-built and have strong defences. And so: “We can’t go up against these people; they are stronger than we are.” Gloom and despondency.

Only one voice is raised against these pessimistic words: that of Caleb (though it emerges later that Joshua was with him in this). Caleb is positive and optimistic: “we can certainly do it… the Lord is with us. Don’t be afraid of them…” (13:30, 14:9).

Caleb is mentioned several times in these early books of the Bible, but this is what he is mainly remembered for: the voice of faith protesting against the voice of doubt.

The thing that strikes me is this: what Caleb saw in the land of Canaan was exactly the same as what his fellow-spies saw. How come, then, that his reaction was so different to theirs? The answer, of course, is that he had greater faith. But that simply leads on to another question: Why did he have this greater faith? Where did it come from?

If we look at one or two of those other references I mentioned we get the answer. In Number 14:24 we read God’s verdict on Caleb: he “has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly.” (See too Numbers 32:12 and Deuteronomy 1:36.)

All twelve of the spies were, I imagine, loyal and patriotic Israelites. They believed in God and wanted to do his will. But there was that something extra, a “different spirit”, about Caleb. For him, faith in God wasn’t some extra quality “bolted on”, so to speak, to his character. No, it was part of the very essence of his being.

And it’s as true today as it was all those hundreds of years ago: bold, robust faith arises from a deep relationship with God. Even today it’s found in people who are able to declare, with Caleb, “the Lord is with us!”

That “different spirit” God praises him for was not the Holy Spirit as we today understand the Spirit in the light of Jesus and the New Testament. But it was a way of describing a mentality, an attitude which dominated and controlled Caleb’s whole life. The Message translates Deuteronomy 1:36 this way: Caleb “was all for following God, heart and soul.”

At this point in his life Caleb was eighty-five. We know next to nothing about how his faith had grown and matured into this life-controlling mentality. Perhaps he had suffered, and had to cling to God through hard times. Perhaps he had simply heard God’s word and allowed it to penetrate deep into his soul rather than let it run off his back. Perhaps he had been deeply influenced by some specially godly person.

Whatever, this was a man for whom God was by far the most real factor in his existence: not just a name or a theoretical belief, but a burning reality. A man who thought and pondered and reflected. A man of depth. A man of prayer.

The young man mainly responsible for leading me to faith in Christ when I was a teenager used to talk about being “on fire for God”. I’ve never forgotten that dramatic expression, and it still challenges me today. It chimes in with Paul’s words to the Christians of Thessalonica, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19), where the word “quench” conveys the idea of putting out a fire.

Caleb was on fire for God, while others mumbled, hesitated and examined their toes. They looked at Canaan – and saw problems. He looked at Canaan – and saw the power and the purposes of God.

When we are confronted with obstacles and discouragements, what do we see?

One thing is for sure: Churches need Calebs…

Lord God, forgive me that I am so easily discouraged by obstacles and problems. As I cling to you with all my strength, may I demonstrate the kind of faith you found so pleasing in your servant Caleb. Amen.

When it’s time to die

For to me, to live is Christ, to die is gain… what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Philippians 1:21-23

I read about a man (a very rich man) who got angry with his doctor. What had his doctor done wrong? He had told the man that he was sorry, but “there is nothing more we can do for you.”

The very rich man simply couldn’t accept this. He was rich! He could pay whatever was asked! He lived in a country where medical science and technology was second to none! Of course they could do something for him! How dare the doctor suggest otherwise?

But the doctor was speaking the plain, sober truth. No amount of either money or medical expertise could save the man’s life: so he had to get used to the idea.

And then there are people (very strange people) who spend millions of pounds to have their bodies frozen after death, so that in years to come, when medical science has developed still further, they can be unfrozen (eek!) and restored to life.

Physical life is all that matters. We human beings have an entitlement to health and many years… That’s the mentality behind those two examples. Extreme examples, of course – most of us are more sensible and realistic – but it’s the way we are all tempted to feel.

The weekend papers don’t help. Every fortnight there’s another article on how to live longer, how to stay fit into old age, how to maintain optimum health (cue wagging finger: are you eating your five – or is it now seven – a day?).

How refreshing it is, then, to read these striking words of Paul: “to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain… to depart and be with Christ… is better by far.” See how The Message puts it: “Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose.”

We mustn’t misunderstand this. It’s not wrong to value this earthly life, even to the point of clinging to it – that desire, that natural instinct, is part of the way we’re made. No way, needless to say, should we head down the road of the Islamist extremists and their gruesome death cult. And it’s certainly not wrong to eat and live wisely and healthily – after all, our bodies, if we are Christians, are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) .

But… if Jesus’ victory over death means anything… if the promise of eternal life means anything… if the New Testament’s vision of the heavenly Jerusalem means anything – then how utterly foolish is a fixation with this earthly life!

I must admit that I write this with some hesitation, because I can’t claim to practice what I preach as well as I would like.

Confession time: I don’t want to die! I quite like my earthly existence, thank you very much. I have not the remotest desire to say good-bye to my family and friends, to the work I am able to do in retirement, to my music-listening and my chess-playing (what a nerd!), to my reading and study, to writing these blogs, to laughter and banter, to supporting Crystal Palace (who’re staying up: wahay!), to just strolling up the street for my paper at 6.30 in the morning.

Yes, I’m still a million miles short of where Paul was when he wrote to his Philippian friends. But that doesn’t mean that what he said isn’t true.

Perhaps my problem (problem?!), and possibly yours too, is that my life is too easy: prosperous, comfortable, pleasant in all sorts of ways. Perhaps if I lived in some harder part of the world, or under some more oppressive government, I would feel different: looking forward to death, like Paul, rather than shrinking from it. Over my time as a minister I have had people asking me to pray for them that “the Lord would take me”: perhaps that will be me one day.

Whatever, the fact is that Christian faith holds out this assurance: that if your trust is in Jesus, you can only gain by dying. Death, which Paul describes elsewhere as “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26) can become a friend.

Two or three hundred years ago Christians were often urged not only to live well, but also to die well. It was seen as an act of Christian witness and testimony; there are stories of people being converted through the manner of some Christian’s dying.

A whole new take on dying! Isn’t that something our this-world-fixated culture needs? – and something we, in Christ, can offer?

Lord Jesus, help me to live – and to die! – to your glory. Amen.

The Bible – surplus to requirements?

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4:4

As he taught them, Jesus said, ‘Is it not written in your law…?’ John 10:34

Jesus said, ‘You have heard that it was said…’ Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43

Do you ever fail to see the obvious? It’s right there in front of your nose, yet somehow you miss it. I think this can happen to all of us, for a variety of reasons. Very likely it’s because we’ve known something so well and for so long that its impact has gone.

Here’s a statement of the obvious for Christians: the Bible, the written word of God, is supremely important.

Why do we need that statement? Well, surveys suggest that most church-going Christians hardly read the Bible at all, apart from when they’re in worship on a Sunday. Otherwise it’s very much hit or miss, when the mood happens to take them, or when there is some special need. Regular, systematic Bible-reading is a rarity.

This is nothing short of scandalous – it suggests that a vital and precious God-given gift is simply not valued at all by many Christians. So I think it’s worth reminding us…

First, Jesus was steeped in the Bible.

Of course, he didn’t have a “Bible” as we have it today. He would have had “the Hebrew scriptures”, part at least of what today we call “the Old Testament”.

But what he had, he knew! – you only have to read the Gospels to see that. Right at the start of his earthly ministry he was tempted by Satan three times; and three times he rebutted Satan’s temptations with the words “It is written…” followed by an appropriate Old Testament text. He knew the scriptures; and he used them.

Are we better than him? Are we in effect saying to God, “Lord, I know that your Son Jesus Christ depended heavily on the scriptures, but personally I don’t think they’re that important for me.” How dare we neglect what mattered so much to him?

Second, Jesus assumed that his fellow-Jews would know their scriptures.

This applied both to his friends and his opponents.

In the Sermon on the Mount, teaching his disciples, he introduced revolutionary new teaching with the words “You have heard that it was said…” followed by an Old Testament quote. He does this no less than five times.

Elsewhere, when debating with his opponents, the scribes and Pharisees, he makes the same assumption. “Is it not written…?” he asks – the clear implication being “You know perfectly well it is!” Mark 11:17, about the desecration of the temple, is a good example.

The point of this is simple: the God Jesus came to make known is a God who has spoken through his word; whatever else he is, he is a speaking God. He hasn’t given us the Bible for fun, as an optional extra for the Christian life. You might even go so far as to say that it is an insult to him to treat it with indifference.

Let’s not shy away from the fact that the Bible isn’t always an easy book. No, there are parts which are difficult to understand (Peter actually says as much about the writings of his friend Paul: 2 Peter 3:15-16). And it isn’t always a comfortable book – there are parts which, if we are to be honest, we might wish weren’t there at all. (I’m thinking here of the genocidal wars God commanded Israel to wage in the Old Testament.) And there are parts which seem irrelevant or just plain boring – family-trees, lists of names, the dimensions of Noah’s ark or the Jerusalem temple.

No, it’s not always easy. But, far more, it also contains treasures which can and do change people’s lives for ever. I was going to suggest a few, but then I realised that they were so many that I wouldn’t know where to start – or to finish. Why not draw up your own list?

So, again, the message is simple…

Read the Bible! It matters!

The ideal is: little and often – a period spent every day focussing seriously on God’s word. Use the helps that come through Bible-reading notes and commentaries.

But from time to time, why not a longer period? How about an hour in an armchair reading right through Acts, or one of the Old Testament prophets, or one of the New Testament letters? Don’t worry about the hard bits; just absorb the feel, the atmosphere, just take in the general sense. Get the Bible into your very blood-stream.

Only when we do this will we be equipped to feed our own souls, teach our fellow-Christians, and confront the unbelieving world.

Time to get our sleeves rolled up?

Lord Jesus, thank you for setting an example of valuing and trusting in your Father’s written word. Help me to follow that example. Amen.

What must I do to be saved?

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all is family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those who were in need and prayed to God regularly. One day about three in the afternoon he had a vision… Acts 10:1-3

I do like Cornelius.

To get the full story you need to read Acts 10 right through. Summing it up very briefly…

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, has a dramatic vision. He is told by an angel to send for a man called Simon Peter – who has also received a vision to assure him that it’s all right to go and visit Cornelius, even though he is a Gentile.

Peter comes and tells Cornelius about Jesus – whereupon the Holy Spirit falls on him, his friends and family. They speak in tongues, and are baptised in water.

The full works! A mini-Pentecost! A wonderful experience for all those involved – but also a turning-point in the life of the growing church. If a Gentile Roman soldier can be saved, why not anybody? As Peter himself had preached on the Day of Pentecost: “…anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21).

A great word, saved. But it can be misused. I know someone who has a habit of pronouncing very definitely on whether or not a particular person is saved. “He’s a nice person,” she might say, “but he isn’t saved”.

What she means, I think, is either (a) that he hasn’t put his trust explicitly in Christ, or (b) that he claims to have done so, but doesn’t really believe the right things. Whatever, he isn’t saved.

This makes me feel uncomfortable.

Who are we to pronounce so definitely on who is or isn’t saved? Isn’t this something that, ultimately, God alone knows? Let’s face it, we’ve all known people who seemed for many years to be as saved as you could imagine – but then, sadly, turned out to be anything but. And anyway, isn’t there a slightly ugly hint of judging others in talking like that?

What about Cornelius? At what point precisely was he “saved”? Acts 10 ends with him filled with the Spirit and baptised in water. No doubt there, then – he was saved, all right!

But go back to what was said about him at the beginning of the chapter. He was “devout” and “God-fearing”. He “gave generously” to the poor and “prayed regularly” (verse 3). The angel who visits him tells him that “your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God” (verse 4).

If those words mean anything, they mean – surely – that even at this point in his life, Cornelius was a man of God. God knew him; God heard his prayers; God recognised his good deeds. But he had not yet believed in Jesus because he hadn’t heard the gospel. Was he, then, not saved?

Suppose (if I may put it this way) he had popped out for a loaf of bread an hour before Peter turned up to tell him about Jesus, got run over by a chariot and been killed, would he then have been eternally lost? That would certainly seem rather strange.

You may very well say, “But that couldn’t have happened! God had it all in hand.” And of course you’re right. But – well, you get the point. It almost seems as if the coming of Peter to make Christ known explicitly was basically a matter of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.

In general, the idea of being saved simply isn’t as cut-and-dried, as black-and-white, as my friend suggests by her remarks.

Certainly, the New Testament does speak of it as a past, completed event. In Ephesians 2:5 and 8, for example, Paul tells his readers that “by grace you have been saved” – something already enjoyed, something to rejoice in. But in Romans 5:9-10 he speaks of the certainty that we “will be saved” – emphasising the future aspect, the fact that there remains so much more to look forward to.

In other words, salvation is sometimes viewed as an event, an experience, at other times as a process, a journey. And as people progress along that journey it is indeed God alone who knows at what point the word “saved” can be applied to them.

I wonder how many Corneliuses there are in our lives?

Salvation is through Christ alone – no ifs or buts there. But I just wonder if, when we get to heaven, we may be in for a surprise or two. Will there be people we meet to whom we feel like saying (though, of course, we won’t, because our manners will be perfect then), “Fancy seeing you here!” Perhaps so.

(And who knows? – perhaps they will look back at us and say “Fancy seeing you here…”)

Lord Jesus, thank you for your gift of salvation. Please help me to live as someone who has been saved in the past, is being saved in the present, and will be saved in the future. Amen.

Just a bad Lot?

For if God… rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless… then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials… 2 Peter 2:4-9

…Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the people of Sodom were wicked… Genesis 13:12-13

So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. Genesis 19:36

What are we to make of Lot?

He doesn’t appear much in the Bible, but most of what we read isn’t very impressive. In Genesis 13 he parts company with his uncle Abram because the two men need space to expand their growing flocks and herds. Abram invites Lot to take his pick of the land, and he opts for the Jordan valley because it was “well-watered, like the garden of the Lord” (13:10) – disregarding the fact that this meant heading in the direction of Sodom, a byword for wickedness and depravity.

After God’s judgment falls on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) he is rescued by angelic visitors. His wife (hankering after the attractions of Sodom?) looks back as they escape and is turned into a “pillar of salt”. Lot (how are the mighty fallen!) ends up living in a cave with his two daughters – by whom he proceeds to father sons.

True, that last bit happened because the daughters were (understandably) desperate for children and, in the absence of men about the place, conspired together to get Lot drunk so they could have sex with him. Not entirely his fault, you could say – but the very fact that he could so easily be got drunk doesn’t exactly impress.

That’s Lot, then. At best, weak; at worst, immoral and corrupt. End of.

But no, in fact that’s not the end of the story. In 2 Peter 2 he is described as “a righteous (!) man… distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless… tormented in his righteous (!) soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (verses 7-8).

And we can’t help asking, How could Peter possibly say that! It seems to flatly contradict the Genesis story. For those of us who believe that the Bible – the whole of it, not just the “easy bits” – is God’s word, it’s a genuine problem.

There are two things we absolutely mustn’t do when we hit a problem like this.

First, we mustn’t turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not there. Honesty demands that we look such difficulties fairly and squarely in the face. (That’s one reason, by the way, why I decided to tackle this blog, in spite of misgivings).

Second, we mustn’t scratch around looking for solutions which can only end up unconvincing. I looked at various commentaries, and none of them came up with an explanation which makes you say “Yes! Of course – that’s it!”

(It’s worth noticing – though I’m not sure it helps us much – that at the time Peter was writing there was a tradition in Jewish literature which upheld Lot as a model of righteousness. If you happen to have an Apocrypha to hand, look up Wisdom of Solomon 10:6. Was that the strand Peter was drawing from? If so, it means that he was “upgrading” a statement from outside scripture into his letter. You might say, Well, why not? But that doesn’t alter the fact that what Peter wrote and what we find in Genesis seem to be in clear disagreement.)

There is no easy answer. Assuming that the whole Bible is indeed inspired by God, the best I can offer is this…

Lot was indeed a deeply flawed man – but his heart was right. Yes, he really did hate the corrupt morality which he was surrounded by in Sodom. But he lacked the strength to break free from it, and in the end it almost (but for the grace of God) overwhelmed him.

Putting it simply, 2 Peter 2 gives us the real Lot, the Lot known to God, while the Genesis narrative gives us – well, the other Lot.

Any good?

Before we dismiss that suggestion as over-simple, let’s remember that all of us, however long we have known Christ, are deeply “conflicted” people. We too fail. We too lack moral and spiritual backbone.

But so, come to think of it, did Abram. And Moses. And David. And Solomon. Not to mention Simon Peter, who wrote these words. Each of us is still incomplete. We are all “works in progress”. Perhaps we are closer to Lot than we like to think.

Whatever… there are certainly two very clear lessons we can draw from the sad story of Lot.

First: it’s desperately hard to maintain our godliness and purity if we choose to immerse ourselves in the godless culture of our day. A warning to any of us?

And second: quoting verse 9 exactly, the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials. That, at least, is good news!

Whoever has ears to hear, let’s hear…

Thank you, O God, that you alone know the hearts of each one of us. Forgive me when, like Lot, I am weak and fall into sin, and please give me a new determination to be holy and Christlike. Amen.

Godly people – or just good actors?

There is nothing concealed that will not be exposed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner room will be proclaimed from the roofs.  Luke 12:2-3

 God says… “What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips? You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you.” Psalm 50:16-17

So… another celebrity gets exposed for the failings of his personal life. His attempt to keep things hushed up by means of a “super-injunction” fails. The whole world now knows what he has been up to.

I don’t know what you think about revelations like these, mainly to do with film stars, footballers and politicians. You may agree with me that the whole business is tawdry and squalid, just plain tacky. Wherever you look there is fault. The celebrities who behave badly are at fault. The people who take delight in exposing them are at fault. And the millions of us who grub around to gloat over these revelations are at fault. Hopefully anyone who claims to be a Christian resists the temptation to wallow around in this stuff.

But the fact is that in this world of ubiquitous social media, secrecy has become virtually impossible to guarantee. There is an old saying, “Truth will out”, and never has it been more obviously true.

The sort of events I’ve referred to bring to mind these words of Jesus: “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner room will be proclaimed from the roofs.” He makes it clear that nothing can be hidden from the eye – or the ear – of God.

Why did Jesus choose to offer this sobering warning? Was it just to put the frighteners on us all, so to speak? (I have to admit that I for one don’t relish the thought of all my many failings and sins being exposed to the whole world.) Is that really the kind of God God is?

Well, we need to notice the context in which Jesus is speaking. He is talking about hypocrisy: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees…” he says in verse 1: and then adds “… which is hypocrisy”.

What is hypocrisy? The dictionary talks about acting, playing a part, pretending: “The assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness… especially in respect of religious life or belief…” The sort of thing we get an extreme example of in the quote from Psalm 50. Jesus’ immediate target was the Pharisees, who seem to have specialised in outward displays of religious zeal.

Now that really is rather frightening, for it suggests that religious people are especially prone to hypocrisy. Hands up if you have never been guilty of pretence?

The strange thing about hypocrisy is that we hate and despise it when we see it in others, but we excuse it when we see it in ourselves. Why? Because, of course, we don’t see it in ourselves – we think we could never be guilty of it. Oh no, not me!

But we’d better be careful. Sometimes we are so used to playing the part – wearing the mask – that we’re no longer aware we are doing so. The fact is that nobody ultimately “gets away with” anything. There is to be a final judgment before the throne of God, when not just the celebrities exposed in the papers, but every single one of us will be stripped bare, so to speak, before the holy eye of God. Sin and hypocrisy matter – and there is no carpet so vast that we can brush everything under it. God knows all things, and he is too holy too turn a blind eye.

What should a celebrity caught out in this shameful way do?

The answer is simple – make a clean breast of it. What’s the point of carrying on the pretence when the whole world knows the truth?

And exactly the same thing applies to us and to our sins. Come clean with God!

It’s what the Bible calls “repentance” – and the good news is that he promises to forgive our every sin, large or small. If we come clean with God, God makes us clean and pure through what Jesus did on the cross. In the graphic and beautiful words of the prophet: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow…” (Isaiah 1).

That’s a promise – a promise from God himself. Is it a promise you need to grab hold of today?

Dear Father in heaven, please help me to take seriously the horrible reality of sin. I know that this alone can separate me from you. Thank you that Jesus shed his blood on the cross to deal with the sins of the whole world. Help me to live in the light of his grace and love, so that when I stand before you on the judgment day I will have nothing to fear. Amen.