Beyond death – wishful thinking or hard facts?

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile… If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 1 Corinthians 15:17-19

I recently attended a secular funeral – that is, a funeral without any kind of “religious” content. No hymns or religious songs; no readings from the Bible or any other sacred text; no prayers. Purely reminiscences about the person who had died, threaded together with pieces of music or poems she had liked, or which were thought fitting for the delightful person she was.

There was much to admire and appreciate. The man who led the ceremony (the word “service” was not used) did so with a nice blend of dignity, warmth and informality. (He told me afterwards that he presided over this kind of gathering on request; perhaps he was a member of the local humanist society or something similar.)

As someone who has attended many Christian funerals – and indeed led even more – I was impressed. There was an honesty and simplicity which contrasted with the kind of religiosity which, I fear, can sometimes characterise religious funerals. Better honest unbelief than nominal, pasted-on faith!

But, of course, the one thing glaringly missing was the conviction that death has been defeated. And it reminded me afresh that the belief that Jesus Christ died and rose again is infinitely precious and infinitely important.

It was noticeable that even in such a secular gathering, religion – you might even use the word “theology” – kept sneaking in at the edges. The word “god” cropped up just before the end – you can’t get much more “theological” than that! And several things that were said assumed that our friend was still alive in some other dimension; indeed, that she was now “re-united” with a particular loved one. If that isn’t “theology” I don’t know what is.

But, of course, the basis for such a belief is flimsy, to say the least. What evidence is there for it? Is it anything more than a forlorn refusal to admit the terrible finality of death for those who have no red-blooded faith in the living God? A form of wishful thinking, in fact?

It all made me aware of the many times over the years when I have stood at the front of Christian funeral services and read the riveting, spine-tingling, stupendous words of the angels to the women who came to Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter morning: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Matthew 24:5).

Or the no-holds-barred claim of Paul to his friends in Corinth: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Make no mistake: if those words are true, then they are utterly life-changing, the most important words we will ever hear; and if they are false, then they are as cruel a hoax as has ever been inflicted on the human race.

Ah, but are they true? That is a fair question to ask; and, of course, no-one can prove it beyond the possibility of doubt.

But the story of the crucified and risen Christ is given to us in all four of the New Testament Gospels, and its significance is explored in depth in the various New Testament letters and other documents. The people who wrote these things down were not naive, gullible simpletons. They were down-to-earth men of the world who knew perfectly well that – well, dead people just don’t rise. Yet their whole world was turned upside down by the events of that day.

And millions since have had the same experience; millions of people like me, and perhaps also like you. The fact is that the resurrection is at the very heart of Christian faith; there simply is no Christianity without it.

What can I say?

First, a word to those who might call themselves honest unbelievers…

Could I encourage you to return to the Bible accounts and to ponder and explore them again with an open mind? Something remarkable happened that Easter morning, that’s for sure!

Second, a word to those of us who call ourselves Christians…

Do we value sufficiently this great jewel of our faith? – not just a tale to buck us up in the hardships of life, but hard truth based on solid evidence. A truth to be revelled in day by day; and a truth to be shared boldly with our friends and neighbours.

Yes, there was much to admire in that secular ceremony as we said good-bye to a much-loved friend. It was good to be there.

But there is so much more too – oh, so much more!

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for your sacrificial death, your triumphant resurrection and your promised return in glory. Help me to rejoice daily in these truths, and to be ready to pass them on to others who are still without solid hope in the face of death. Amen.

How can I find God’s will for my life?

He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

Let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25

When I was a teenage Christian one of the things we were taught was that “God has a purpose for your life”. I never had any reason to doubt this, and it was by following this conviction that my life took on the shape it did, and which I have never regretted.

It’s a belief that is supported by various Bible passages. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, was told by God: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:4-5).

Paul likewise believed that God “set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace… so that I might preach him among the gentiles…” (Galatians 1:15).

You could say of course that people like Jeremiah and Paul were special cases – people destined by God to change the course of history. It just isn’t like that for most of us!

But I don’t think that’s right. Each of us individually is a child of God, and it makes sense to think that our Father who loves us has some role for us to fulfil – call it a “vocation” or a “calling” if you like – even if it’s a lot less significant than for the great figures of the Bible and of church history.

If so, it raises the question: Yes, but how do I find God’s will for me? And then: What happens if I miss it? Suppose I go wrong? Does that mean I make a complete shipwreck of my whole life? (I heard once of a man who became convinced that God had called him to be a missionary when he was young, and he had failed to respond; this gnawed away at him as the years went by.)

These are genuine questions, and they can cause sensitive Christians real anxiety.

In a nutshell, we have to walk a narrow line between believing (a) that, yes, God has a purpose for our lives, but (b) that finding it isn’t something we should allow to weigh us down.

So how can we do this?

My suggestion would be: If you want to find God’s purpose for your life, don’t go searching for it. Certainly, pray from time to time that God will lead you in the way he wants you to go; but don’t get stewed up about it.

In a sense every Christian has the same calling: to walk with God minute by minute and day by day; to get up every morning and say to ourselves, Right, how can I best do God’s will today? What does it mean today to live a Christ-centred, Spirit-filled life?

If we do this, what serious risk can there be that he won’t lead us in things both small and big? Why shouldn’t he? Why wouldn’t he? Doesn’t he love us? If you’re walking hand-in-hand with someone, you’re not going to be separated from them. And isn’t the Christian life in essence a matter of walking hand-in-hand with God?

And then – when the day comes for the big decisions that we all have to make from time to time, we can quietly trust that through prayer, reflection and talking to trusted friends, God’s will will become clear.

The fact is that throughout two thousand years of the church, the majority of Christians simply haven’t had the luxury of being able to “find God’s purpose” for their lives. Why? Because they had no say in the matter.

Suppose you were born in New Testament days to a couple of slaves in a Roman household? If you were lucky you might be reasonably well treated; but the fact is that you were in effect a “living tool”, entirely at the disposal of your master.

Or if you were born into the Dalit (“Untouchable”) people today in India. Very likely your life would consist of nothing but menial and even degrading jobs, with little chance of escape.

Or simply in some remote community in an undeveloped country with few educational opportunities and little health-care. (I don’t suppose they talk much about “career opportunities” and “job satisfaction” in places like that, do they?) If you are a Christian there, what more is there to do than aim to live each day to the glory of God? What greater “purpose” or “meaning” or “calling” can you expect?

Summing it up: If we make it our business to focus on the little, everyday things, we can trust our Father in heaven to take care of the big picture.

Oh, and if we do sometimes lose our way – as, of course, we all do – then we can trust that God is well able to weave afresh the damaged fabric of our lives.

He is infinitely adaptable; he is wonderfully versatile.

Father, thank you for your servant Enoch, who “walked with God.” Please help me to do the same, in matters both great and small, and so to find a true meaning for my life. Amen.

Praying your way out of the depths

I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy. I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble… Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life. Psalm 142:1-2, 5

Psalm 142 is quite short – just seven verses, in fact. Yet in those seven verses the words “I”, “me” and “my” occur twenty-eight times. If my sums are correct, that’s an average of four times per verse.

That’s a lot! Once I had done the totting up I found it quite surprising.

We are often told that, when we pray, our prayers should be God-centred rather than me-centred. And that, surely, is right. But this little psalm (and there are plenty of others like it) puts a different angle on it. Let’s put it bluntly: there are times and places for self-focussed prayer. (I’m avoiding the word “self-centred” because it has such a negative feel.) Putting it more gently: it isn’t wrong for us to pray for ourselves.

I read an article in a Christian paper in which a prominent Christian was interviewed about his life. Among other things, he was asked about his prayer life, and one of the things he said was: “I never pray for myself”.

At first this made me feel pretty depressed. How spiritual this man must be! What a giant! And by comparison what a feeble, miserable failure I must be – because while I certainly aim to pray mainly for others, I must admit I have never had any qualms about praying for myself.

But after thinking about it for a bit I actually began to feel quite cross with that man. I found myself wondering if his claim was really a bit of spiritual one-upmanship, a touch of the holier-than-thous. Was he claiming to know better than the Bible? Was he saying that he knew more about prayer than the psalmists, the prophets and the apostles? More even than Jesus? For all these, beyond any doubt, prayed for themselves at various times.

So why shouldn’t we?

Just to be absolutely clear… Yes, it is bad if our prayers ever become completely self-absorbed. You might say that the writer of Psalm142 teeters on the brink of that in verse 4. Is he in danger of slipping into self-pity? “… there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.” Poor me!

But whether that’s so or not, there’s a lot in this psalm that can help us, especially when we’re finding the going hard. In verse 1 he tells us that he “cries aloud” to the Lord, that he “lifts up his voice”. Can you hear him? In verse 2 he tells us that he “pours out his complaint” to God. Can you picture him, perhaps down on his knees?

The psalmist’s self-focussed prayer is obviously very emotional, and its great merit is its total honesty. He doesn’t seem to worry about upsetting or offending God; he believes that God’s shoulders are broad enough to take it.

I wonder if many of us, when things begin to pile up on us, have a tendency to bottle it all up. If so, perhaps, like the psalmist, we sometimes need an “outpouring” session, a conscious attempt to unburden ourselves – to get it all off our chest.

Is it time you had such an outpouring session? A time when you aim to be undisturbed? A time to throw off “holy” language, the sort that perhaps we normally reserve for prayer: time to “tell it like it is”. (God knows anyway, remember.)

It might even be helpful to jot down on a piece of paper a list of all the things that are causing you distress or anxiety. It might be good to return to this list every day for a week or so to keep it fresh in your mind. And then, when you feel that you are “prayed out”, to destroy it in an almost ceremonial way, perhaps by putting a match to it? As if to say, “Right, I’ve laid all these things before God – they’re gone! And by his grace I won’t let them trouble me anymore!”

Just a thought.

Whatever, take hope from this psalm. True, it doesn’t rise to any great heights at the end, but the writer does a have real glimmerings of deliverance to come, especially in the final lines: “the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me”. He knows his prayer will be answered!

I don’t know about you, but I find it encouraging and heartening to picture him: smiling, liberated from his misery, and surrounded by his friends.

God will bring you through! There will be a happy ending!

Lord God, help me, by your grace, to hold on to you in the hard times. Amen.

All things to all people?

Though I am free and belong to no-one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 1 Corinthians 9:19-22

I was on a crowded tube train in London, and having difficulty getting off when we reached my station. A bunch of teenagers on the platform blocked the doors completely. As I stretched my hand out to try and get through, an ill-mannered girl looked at me and said with a note of triumph, “You can’t touch me!” (not, of course, that I had the slightest wish to touch her). She knew her rights, and was enjoying the fact.

“I know my rights!” This has become a common cry in recent years, often spoken defiantly and angrily, as if to say: “Don’t mess with me – I know how to stand up for myself, and I’m willing to do so!”

One of the marks of the Christian is that he or she is willing to forgo their rights – especially if doing so helps to promote the gospel.

This is at the heart of what Paul is saying in these verses. Oh, he had his rights, all right! – he was a free man. For a start, he was a Roman citizen, a real privilege and status in the Roman Empire. And he had the rights of a follower of Jesus: he had been set free by Jesus from the bondage of sin, and, though proud of being a Jew, was also free from the bondage of the Old Testament law.

But he didn’t “stand on his rights”, as we might put it. If you read the whole passage (I’ve only been able to quote bits) this comes across very clearly. For example, if he was trying to make Jesus known to his fellow-Jews, he was perfectly happy to turn the clock back, so to speak, and to adopt Jewish customs and obey Jewish laws again.

Whereas if he was preaching to gentiles – that is, to non-Jews, or pagans – he was happy to sit light to his Jewish pedigree and to view the world through gentile eyes.

He was a man of strong conscience. If he was invited to a meal and there was meat on the table it would never occur to him to ask if it was kosher. Who cares? But if there was a fellow-Christian with him who was still attached to Jewish traditions, he would be happy to go vegetarian for the occasion in order not to risk confusing or troubling that friend.

Does this attitude make Paul a hypocrite? Does it mean he was two-faced, that he veered every way the wind happened to blow him? No. He was completely open about it, and if you were to confront him he would happily explain the sheer sense behind what made him tick.

Not hypocritical. But – let’s put it this way – extremely adaptable. As far as he was concerned, all that ultimately mattered was the gospel of Jesus – Jesus crucified, risen, ascended and one day coming back. All the rest was of purely secondary importance. And he saw that if you wanted to get the message of Jesus across to someone from a different background you might need to turn a blind eye to certain things that were important to you.

This is something we all have to do every day if we are to witness for Jesus. You wouldn’t preach a thirty minute sermon to a group of small children (well, I hope you wouldn’t, anyway); but every time you plonk your ageing bottom on a mat to talk about Jesus to that group of children you are being adaptable for Jesus’ sake.

You wouldn’t use even perfectly good Bible words like “justification” or “atonement” or “sin” when chatting to someone in your workplace; but you might talk about questions of right and wrong, or the sadness of people falling out with one another, as a way in to explaining the gospel.

Hudson Taylor, a nineteenth-century missionary to China, came in for a lot of criticism from his fellow-Christians when he made the decision to “go Chinese” in his dress-style and hair-style. How shocking! they said. But he penetrated Chinese culture – and Chinese hearts – in a way that previous missionaries had failed to do.

This vital adaptability does have its limits, of course. All right, Paul may say that to the Jews he became as a Jew, and to gentiles he became as a gentile. But he doesn’t say “To adulterers I became as an adulterer” or “To bullies I became as a bully” or “To greedy people I became greedy”. No, sin remains sin.

Rock solid on the essentials; infinitely adaptable on the trappings; and wise enough to know the difference. Is this something you pray to be?

Lord Jesus, teach me how to hold fast to the essence of the gospel while willingly adapting my method to the setting I find myself in. Amen.

A neglected duty?

I urge then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 1Timothy 2:1-2

I was at school in 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis took place – a stand-off between the Soviet and American governments. I hadn’t a clue what it was all about, but I can still remember a real tension in the air. Was something truly terrible about to happen? Was the world about to be plunged into nuclear war? It went on for about a fortnight, until some kind of agreement was cobbled together which allowed both sides to save face. The world breathed a sigh of relief.

Some political writers think that something similar is happening today, this time between America and North Korea. Could North Korea’s threats to launch missiles into various American territories actually be carried out? And what might the Americans do in response? Could the unthinkable happen?

Most of us (certainly me, anyway) are in no position to express an opinion. But I can’t view the situation without being driven back to Paul’s words to Timothy: that it is the duty and responsibility of the Christian church to pray “for all people – for kings and all those in authority”.

Paul and his protégé Timothy lived under the rule of the pagan Roman Empire: which was in fact the cradle into which Christianity was born. Comparing the infant church with mighty, cruel, ruthless Rome is like comparing a mouse with a lion; it could be crushed in five minutes flat. And so Paul urges Pastor Timothy “first of all” to make sure that “kings and all those in authority” are soaked in the prayers of God’s people.

Nothing has changed in two thousand years. But the question arises: is this something that we Christians do today? Is this a command that we take seriously? The fact is that, if Paul’s words mean anything at all, we can have an influence on world affairs. And this is not only a privilege; no, it is much more – it is a duty.

Praying for ourselves, our personal needs, our families and friends, our churches and localities, is fine. But it’s not enough. Not if we want to be true to God.

There are other places in the Bible which highlight the entanglement of God’s people in the big events of their time. Two other letters, in fact, chime in with Paul’s letter to Timothy.

First, about six hundred years before Jesus…

The people of Israel are exiled in Babylon. Their beloved temple in Jerusalem has been knocked down and the bulk of the people carted off into captivity (you can get a feel of their misery if you read Psalm 137).

There is a danger that they might just wallow in self-pity. But then they receive a letter. It comes from the prophet Jeremiah, back home in Judah, and tells them to accept their fate for the foreseeable future and to make the best of it (Jeremiah 29:1-6). And then Jeremiah adds these words: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers you too will prosper” (verse 7).

The second letter is from an unlikely source – in fact, from a pagan king, Cyrus the Persian.

Cyrus has toppled the Babylonians and, amazingly, has given God’s captive people permission to return to their homeland, and, even more amazingly, to rebuild their temple. (Who says prayers aren’t answered! Who says miracles don’t happen!)

When God’s people (now referred to as “the Jews”) set about this task, they are given a hard time by local rulers who try to oppose Cyrus’ wishes. So Cyrus sends these rulers a severe letter. Don’t you dare try and stop the Jews in their rebuilding work! he says. No, give then all the help they need! And then this: “… so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons” (Ezra 6:1-12).

Cyrus had the wisdom to see that, although he himself didn’t believe in the God of the Jews, he needed the prayers of that God’s people.

You see the link with Paul’s words to Timothy?

And you see the link with us today?

Paul’s words are directed, of course, to a fellow pastor, a church leader. So perhaps this message is especially for those of us in leadership. Let’s make sure that such prayers are reflected regularly in our public services of worship! Yes, pray for Theresa May, for Kim Jong-Un, for Donald Trump (whatever you may think of them).

Whether we are leaders or not, the essential fact stands out as clear as crystal: this troubled, hurting, dangerous world needs our prayers.

Let’s not fail it.

Lord God, you rule over this world and everything it. Be at work, I pray, in the minds and hearts of all those who occupy positions of power and influence. Bring to the fore men and women of honesty, integrity and courage to make the big decisions that affect all our lives, so that we might indeed “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”. Amen.

A neglected duty?

I urge then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 1 Timothy 2:1-2

I was at school in 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis took place – a stand-off between the Soviet and American governments. I hadn’t a clue what it was all about, but I can still remember a real tension in the air. Was something truly terrible about to happen? Was the world about to be plunged into nuclear war? It went on for about a fortnight, until some kind of agreement was cobbled together which allowed both sides to save face. The world breathed a sigh of relief.

Some political writers think that something similar is happening today, this time between America and North Korea. Could North Korea’s threats to launch missiles into various American territories actually be carried out? And what might the Americans do in response? Could the unthinkable happen?

Most of us (certainly me, anyway) are in no position to express an opinion. But I can’t view the situation without being driven back to Paul’s words to Timothy: that it is the duty and responsibility of the Christian church to pray “for all people – for kings and all those in authority”.

Paul and his protégé Timothy lived under the rule of the pagan Roman Empire: which was in fact the cradle into which Christianity was born. Comparing the infant church with mighty, cruel, ruthless Rome is like comparing a mouse with a lion; it could be crushed in five minutes flat. And so Paul urges Pastor Timothy “first of all” to make sure that “kings and all those in authority” are soaked in the prayers of God’s people.

Nothing has changed in two thousand years. But the question arises: is this something that we Christians do today? Is this a command that we take seriously? The fact is that, if Paul’s words mean anything at all, we can have an influence on world affairs. And this is not only a privilege; no, it is much more – it is a duty.

Praying for ourselves, our personal needs, our families and friends, our churches and localities, is fine. But it’s not enough. Not if we want to be true to God.

There are other places in the Bible which highlight the entanglement of God’s people in the big events of their time. Two other letters, in fact, chime in with Paul’s letter to Timothy.

First, about six hundred years before Jesus…

The people of Israel are exiled in Babylon. Their beloved temple in Jerusalem has been knocked down and the bulk of the people carted off into captivity (you can get a feel of their misery if you read Psalm 137).

There is a danger that they might just wallow in self-pity. But then they receive a letter. It comes from the prophet Jeremiah, back home in Judah, and tells them to accept their fate for the foreseeable future and to make the best of it (Jeremiah 29:1-6). And then Jeremiah adds these words: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers you too will prosper” (verse 7).

The second letter is from an unlikely source – in fact, from a pagan king, Cyrus the Persian.

Cyrus has toppled the Babylonians and, amazingly, has given God’s captive people permission to return to their homeland, and, even more amazingly, to rebuild their temple. (Who says prayers aren’t answered! Who says miracles don’t happen!)

When God’s people (now referred to as “the Jews”) set about this task, they are given a hard time by local rulers who try to oppose Cyrus’ wishes. So Cyrus sends these rulers a severe letter. Don’t you dare try and stop the Jews in their rebuilding work! he says. No, give them all the help they need! And then this: “… so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons” (Ezra 6:1-12).

Cyrus had the wisdom to see that, although he himself didn’t believe in the God of the Jews, he needed the prayers of that God’s people.

You see the link with Paul’s words to Timothy?

And you see the link with us today?

Paul’s words are directed, of course, to a fellow pastor, a church leader. So perhaps this message is especially for those of us in leadership. Let’s make sure that such prayers are reflected regularly in our public services of worship! Yes, pray for Theresa May, for Kim Jong-Un, for Donald Trump (whatever you may think of them).

Whether we are leaders or not, the essential fact stands out as clear as crystal: this troubled, hurting, dangerous world needs our prayers.

Let’s not fail it.

Lord God, you rule over this world and everything it. Be at work, I pray, in the minds and hearts of all those who occupy positions of power and influence. Bring to the fore men and women of honesty, integrity and courage to make the big decisions that affect all our lives, so that we might indeed “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”. Amen.

The fool, the hot-head and the peace-maker

David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day…” 1 Samuel 25:33

I would guess that many Christians rarely, if ever, read the Old Testament. All right, well-known passages like Psalm 23 and Isaiah 53 may be exceptions, but in general they find it hard to grapple with and distant from their everyday lives.

This is a shame, because along with the difficult parts there is much to fire our imaginations, and much which we can learn from. So today I invite you to read the whole of 1 Samuel 25. Yes, it’s nearly fifty verses, but is that really so long that we can’t find a few minutes to think about it?

It’s a story which features three main figures: Nabal the fool; David the hot-head; and Abigail the peace-maker. And though these events took place some three thousand years ago, make no mistake, there are still Nabals, Davids and Abigails around today. (Why, you may even be one of them…)

David has been anointed by Samuel as Israel’s future king, but Saul is still on the throne, and is doing his best to kill David. So David has become, in effect, an outlaw, on the run from Saul with a large group of supporters.

But where is he to find provisions for his men? Answer: he operates what looks a little bit like a protection racket, offering his “services” to local land-owners and expecting food in exchange. And this is how he meets Nabal, a “very wealthy” farmer.

Unfortunately, when he sends some of his men to ask for supplies, Nabal proves to be what his name apparently means: he is a fool – loutish, boorish, churlish, take your pick – and he responds to David’s request with flat rejection: “Why should I take my bread and water… and give it to men who come from who knows where?” Push off, David – we don’t want your sort round here.

David’s response is immediate. He tells his men to strap on their swords and get ready for a nice juicy bit of wholesale slaughter: “not one male of all who belong to Nabal” will be left alive. I think that qualifies for the description hot-headed, don’t you?

Nabal has a wife called Abigail, “an intelligent and beautiful woman”. You might wonder how she ever came to be married to Nabal, but of course, given the culture of the time, she might not have had much say in the matter.

Anyway, it turns out that God’s providence is at work here, because Abigail gets wind of what David is planning to do, and goes to extravagant lengths to calm him down. Especially, she puts it to him that if he carries out his massacre he will put himself badly in the wrong with God: but if David follows her advice “…my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed…”

David, to his credit, sees at once the sense of what Abigail says: “May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed and from avenging myself…”

(This, incidentally, is one of the attractive features of David’s character. True, he could be hot-headed, but he was also quick to recognise his faults and humble himself: a perfect example of this is his response to the prophet Nathan’s rebuke after he had Uriah the Hittite killed and committed adultery with his wife Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12).)

To round off the story… Nabal is felled by what today might be diagnosed as a stroke, and Abigail becomes one of David’s wives. I’m not sure you could exactly say that “they all lived happily ever after”, but at least for the moment commonsense prevails and a major crisis is averted.

Well, what about it? Do you see yourself anywhere there?

I trust none of us are Nabals: ill-mannered, oafish and clearly out of step with God and what he is doing. But, let’s be honest, it’s not impossible. As Jesus said: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (or, putting it more bluntly, if the cap fits, wear it).

I suspect that “hot-headed” might well describe some of us: like David, tending to act quickly without stopping to think and pray things through. So much hurt, harm and danger could be avoided if only we would train ourselves to put our brains into gear before we open our mouths or start swinging our fists.

What about “peace-makers”? Well, we all know the words of Jesus: “Blessed” are they. But do we put them into practice?

Things for us all to think about. But whatever, thanks be to God for the Abigails, both female and male, of this world!

Lord God, in this world so full of anger, confrontation and violence, help me to be a true follower of the Prince of Peace. Amen.

Tessa

The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot. Proverbs 10:7

I shared this week in the funeral celebrations of a person who has been one of the most influential in my life.

I first met Tessa nearly fifty years ago. I was a very young and very immature single minister in my first church, and the relationship never faded, even though in recent years we saw one another only occasionally. Judging by what other people at the funeral said I was one among many.

What made her so extraordinary? Answer: her sheer ordinariness. I know that sounds odd, but it’s true. She was just… Tessa: kind, loving, humble, generous, hospitable, full of fun. No pretensions, no affectations; what you saw with Tessa really was what you got.

She was no hide-bound traditionalist, but she saw her role in life largely as wife and mother; she was the heart-beat of a truly happy home.

Most of my memories are of little, ordinary things – the mugs of coffee I have drunk there, the meals I have eaten, the games of Scrabble I have played, the laughter I have enjoyed. Tessa, her husband Maurice, and their three sons, are the kind of people you only have to think of to feel better.

One memory sticks with me in a particularly vivid way.

Tessa felt that I was acting badly towards somebody; and a time came when she decided I needed to be told. So one memorable day she invited me to sit, coffee in hand, on a stool in the kitchen; and very quietly but very firmly she told me what she thought.

I didn’t like it – who would? But it didn’t take me long to realise that what she said was true. I hope I mended my ways accordingly, though at this distance in time I’m really not sure.

(That little episode illustrates a vital lesson, by the way: if truth is spoken – especially spoken in love – it has a way of taking root, of biting, even if at first it is rejected. In every area of life our business as Christians is to speak the truth and believe that, however long it might take, it will bear fruit.)

But the point is this. Doing for me what she did that day can’t have been easy for Tessa – taking somebody else to task is something we all shrink from. It was an act not only of love and friendship, but also of courage, taking seriously Paul’s words in Colossians 3:16, that we should “teach and admonish one another”. (That rather old-fashioned word has a range of meanings, from “instruct”, to “advise”, even to “scold”.) I have never forgotten – and never regretted – being “admonished” that day.

I find it hard to think of Tessa without thinking: how this world needs people like her!

So much anger and aggression, hatred and violence, greed and selfishness! All of us probably have imagined how wonderful it would be if we could change things single-handed – “If I ruled the world…” as the song went.

Well, we can’t, and that’s something we have to accept. But Tessa was a perfect example of a vital fact: that while we individually can’t change the world, we can change our little bit of the world.

And if all of us who call ourselves Christians were to do that, the difference would be massive: what starts in the individual heart, and then saturates home and family, can spread further than we will ever know.

I’m not suggesting that only Christians are the kind of people who can change the world; we don’t have a monopoly on love and kindness. But there is that extra ingredient, that special something, which only God’s people possess: the gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom the love of Jesus is made real in our world.

Tessa was a Spirit-filled person. Her whole life was shaped by her love of Christ. That, ultimately, is what made her so special.

George Eliot (real name, Mary Ann Evans) wrote a novel, Middlemarch, about an unassuming woman called Dorothea. The closing words of the novel, summing up the impact of Dorothea’s life, apply perfectly to Tessa: “…the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts: and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

All right, Tessa’s life, though certainly “lived faithfully”, may have been “hidden” in the sense of not making headlines. Her “acts” may have been “unhistoric”. But what a difference that life made! More than we will ever know.

“The memory of the righteous is a blessing.” Yes, indeed!

Thank you, O God, for all your saints who have gone before us. Help us to learn from them and to be inspired and challenged by them. And, by your grace, may we too leave the same legacy behind us. Amen.

An easy yoke? A light burden?

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

My wife and I recently received an invitation to a meal from some friends. And a good occasion it turned out to be – easy and relaxed, with plenty of laughter and banter, plus the opportunity of sharing one or two more serious things.

To receive an invitation like this is always heart-warming. It’s as if the people who gave it are saying: “We’re planning this special occasion – and we thought of you. We would like you to share it with us. Can you come?” And, of course, it’s the sort of thing you would only turn down if there was some really good reason. Of course we’ll come!

A simple point today: Jesus offers us an invitation.

It’s expressed in the most beautiful and loving way imaginable: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus knew well the meaning of those words “weary and burdened”.

Everywhere he went in Galilee and beyond he saw it in people’s faces – people working hard for little reward, people experiencing physical pain and sickness, people grieving over the death of loved ones, people suffering under cruelty and injustice.

He knew it too in his own experience. In Mark 6:3 he is referred to as not only “the carpenter’s son” but as himself “the carpenter”. He knew the weariness that comes from hard physical labour; no doubt there were times when a tricky piece of work required special time and effort, or when a deadline was hard to make without extra hours in the workshop. And John invites us to picture him sitting by the well in Sychar, “tired as he was from the journey” (John 4:3), having walked several miles under the hot sun.

Not to mention his later agony in Gethsemane, and on the cross itself.

Jesus doesn’t rescue us at an aloof distance. No, he comes among us and shares every aspect of what it means to be a human being in a fallen and troubled world. So these words of invitation are words he has the right to offer.

But how do they square with those other words about “taking up” something – the invitation to take up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24)? The cross! That doesn’t exactly sound “easy” and “light”! Is there a contradiction here?

The clue is the word “yoke”, in verses 29-30, a word we probably have little occasion to think about. It means the wooden frame that was put over the shoulders of oxen to keep them together and enable them to haul the plough; or one that helped people to carry buckets or other heavy loads by spreading the weight.

The Jewish teachers of Jesus’ day spoke about “the yoke of the law”, that collection of do’s and don’ts which had built up over the centuries, and which faithful Jews were expected to obey.

Jesus spoke explicitly about this particular yoke when he warned against “the teachers of the law and the Pharisees”: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders…” (Matthew 23:4).

It is this kind of weariness and burden-carrying that Jesus has in mind in Matthew 11:28-30 – not just the daily hardships of life.

He is not inventing a new kind of “religion” to replace the Judaism that he and his people were born into. No, true religion was never meant to be so burdensome in the first place. It was always meant to be a matter of “acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with your God”, as Micah 6:8 beautifully puts it. The law was there to remind people of God’s holy character, and to draw them to him for forgiveness when they failed: not to crush them.

So yes, of course, the cross is indeed a heavy burden to carry. But as Jesus himself demonstrated, it is the way that leads to resurrection and true life.

When he says “I am gentle and humble in heart” that isn’t an empty boast, but a promise to be with us in our cross-carrying. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees – hard taskmasters – who loaded the yoke of the law onto people’s shoulders but “were not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4 again), Jesus is with us all the way, dealing gently and lovingly with us. That’s the kind of “task-master” he is.

The Christian way is not easy, and with his invitation Jesus doesn’t mean to suggest that it is. But it leads to “rest for our souls” and to life as it is meant to be.

Well, that tender invitation – “Come to me…” – still stands after two thousand years.

Is it time you accepted it?

Father, thank you for the easy yoke and the light burden Jesus invites us to bear. Help me, in doing so, to find true life, joy and fulfilment. Amen.

Jealousy

When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine [Goliath], the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lyres. As they danced, they sang: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”

Saul was very angry… “They have credited David with tens of thousands… but me with only thousands…” And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David. 1 Samuel 18:6-9

Are you prone to jealousy?

My dictionary defines it as “the state of mind arising from the suspicion… or knowledge of rivalry.” The key word is rivalry. We see someone who is, say, better-looking than us, or more intelligent, or more gifted, or more popular, or better off, or more successful. And, putting it simply, we don’t like it.

It damages our self-esteem; it makes us feel inferior. And before we know what’s happening it starts to gnaw at our innards, creating resentment and even hatred towards that other person.

Well, the actual word jealousy doesn’t occur in this passage, but there’s no doubt that that’s what Saul’s problem was. He, the king, has taken the young man David under his wing. David is a gifted musician, and his playing helps lift the dark moods which descend on Saul from time to time. So “David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much…” (16:21).

But then things take a turn that Saul finds hard to handle: David begins to outshine him in war, and he starts to look rather like yesterday’s man. The women, especially, seem to like David. And so we read those ominous words, “Saul kept a close eye on David”. You bet he did!

References to jealousy are scattered throughout the Bible, and almost always it’s portrayed as petty-minded and mean-spirited: an ugly and sinful frame of mind. So what should we do if we find it taking root in our heart? I suggest three things.

First, take an honest look at yourself. Perhaps that other person is more gifted or more popular than you. That, I’m afraid, is life – it simply isn’t always “fair”. True, we are all of equal value in the sight of God (halleluiah!), and equally loved by him (halleluiah again!); but we aren’t all equal when it comes to talents and personality. Get used to it!

Second, make up your mind to make the very most of what gifts you do have. On the judgment day that is what will matter: not, “how many gifts did you have and how great were they?” but “what did you do with the gifts you had?” A person who makes the best use of quite limited gifts pleases God more than the one who fritters away much greater ones.

Third, pray for grace to delight in the greater gifts of others, not to resent them. In other words, pray to be generous-spirited rather than mean-spirited. Greet your rival with a smile – and wish them well from your heart. The Holy Spirit will enable you to do this.

I said that in the Bible jealousy is “almost always” portrayed as bad and sinful. But that isn’t quite the full story. In 2 Corinthians 11:2 Paul tells the Corinth Christians that he is jealous for them “with a godly jealousy”. And that reminds us of those parts of the Bible where, yes, God describes himself as “a jealous God”. Exodus 20:5 is the first example of this. And – quite startling, this – in Exodus 34:14 his very name is said to be “Jealous”.

How can we make sense of this?

Clearly, there is good jealousy as well as bad. The difference is that bad jealousy is all about self-love – I am jealous of that other person because I am obsessed with myself: That was Saul’s problem. But good jealousy is about love of another person.

If you are married and see your husband or wife getting into a relationship with someone else, wouldn’t it be a bad sign if you didn’t feel jealous? It would suggest that your love for your marriage-partner is weak.

If you are the parent of a teenage child and you see your child being drawn into bad circles – drink, drugs, sex, or perhaps some kind of cult or extreme political views – again, wouldn’t here be something wrong with you if you didn’t feel jealous?

These are just two obvious examples of “godly” jealousy. No doubt we could all think of others.

So… Paul is jealous on behalf of the Corinth Christians because he loves them, and doesn’t want to see their faith corrupted.

And God himself is jealous for his people for the same reason: he loves us and has made us his own, and it grieves him to see us being seduced by false gods.

It seems, then, that jealousy isn’t a completely simple thing – it’s something we need to think and pray through. But given that when we feel jealous it’s likely to be the ugly kind that Saul felt for David, let’s just say this: be careful, be very, very careful.

Father, by your Holy Spirit please purge my heart of every hint of mean-spirited jealousy. Help me to understand that I am loved by you just as I am, and to delight humbly in all that you see in me. Amen.