The God who loves to forget

Who is a God like you, who pardons the sins and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry for ever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. Micah 7:18-19

Did you hear the sad story of the mother pleading with the police to wipe out a “sexting incident” from the permanent record of her 14-year old son?

I don’t know either the details of his offence (nor do I want to) or whether his mother was successful with her challenge. But that’s not the point.

It’s a reminder of the danger of social media. How tragically easy it is, in a moment of stupidity, drunkenness, bravado, or whatever, to do something you can never, ever get rid of. For the rest of your life you know that somebody somewhere could turn up that text and cause you intense embarrassment or worse. And if you’re just a teenage boy… well, that’s a lot to live with.

Of course it doesn’t only apply to stuff we put on the internet. Speaking personally, I’m well aware that there are people around who could embarrass me by dredging up out of their memories things I did or said which I’m now thoroughly ashamed of.

I think too of letters I might have written (yes, letters with a handwritten address on the envelope and a postage stamp in the top corner! – remember them?) in disappointment, frustration or just plain anger. How I hope they have long since been destroyed.

What a joy it must be, then, to know that all our follies, mistakes and sins have been utterly and completely forgotten, never again to have any kind of hold over us.

Well, that is a joy which can be known by anyone who comes humbly to God. The prophet Micah says that God “will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).

I love those dramatic images, don’t you? I picture God himself in big hobnail boots stomping away energetically until every last shred of my sins is ground to dust. I picture him on a boat in the middle of the deepest ocean with a bowl full of my stupidities and flinging them over the water until they are sunk and gone for ever.

When Micah first spoke these beautiful words he was addressing not individual men and women but the small remaining group of God’s people Israel – the “remnant of his inheritance”. It was about 700 years before Jesus, and at a time when God’s people had sunk into a state which one writer describes as “moral rot”.

But there is no reason why words originally addressed to a group of people shouldn’t also apply to us as individuals. For what Micah is wanting to do is to tell us just what kind of God God is.

In verse 18 he asks the question “Who is a God like you…?” (which, as it happens, is pretty much what his name “Micah” means). And he answers his own question with these words: a God “who pardons sins and forgives… transgression…” He is a God “who does not stay angry for ever” but “delights to show mercy.”

Is that how you think of God? Or do you think of him as harsh and taking pleasure in punishing sinners?

True, God is a holy God and must therefore judge sin. But his deepest desire is to forgive and restore those who know their sin. Why else did he, seven hundred years later, send his Son Jesus? Remember what John says: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). If that isn’t “gospel” – good news – then I don’t know what is.

I certainly feel for that teenage boy and for his mother. I feel too for all those people, even those who may have committed gross offences, for whom past deeds are like a heavy millstone round their necks – even though perhaps they have paid the penalty for their crimes. I feel for every person who is troubled by conscience (and that, I suspect, includes you and me).

But whoever we are, there is good news. Amazingly, where this corrupt and fallen world, sadly, chooses to remember, almighty God, in his mercy, loves to forget.

Is this a message you need to digest? I invite you to take a cue from the prophet Micah and to picture God himself treading your sins underfoot and hurling your iniquities into the depths of the sea.

I invite you to reflect on Paul’s simple statement: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

And you know what? – “no condemnation” really does mean… no condemnation.

Lord God, help me to truly understand that though I am indeed a sinner, I am a forgiven sinner, and to rejoice in the fact that, as far as you are concerned, all my many sins are gone for ever. Amen.

Ever made a mess of things?

Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had gone there to make him king. When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard this (he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), he returned from Egypt. 1 Kings 12:1-2

Is there an event in your past where you got something disastrously wrong? – something which changed the whole  course of your life? You look back now, shake your head and say, “How could I have been so stupid? If only I could turn the clock back!”

Yes? Well, let me introduce you to someone you have a lot in common with. Meet King Rehoboam of Israel.

Rehoboam was a son of King Solomon, and we read that after Solomon’s death “Rehoboam… succeeded him as king” (1 Kings 11:42).

So far so good. But a problem arose in the shape of a man called Jeroboam. This man had impressed Solomon as “a man of standing” (1 Kings 11:26), and so had been promoted by the now-dead king.

As far as we know, Jeroboam was entirely loyal to Solomon. But before Solomon’s death he had an encounter with a prophet called Ahijah (you can read about it in 1 Kings 11:26-39). Very briefly, Ahijah told Jeroboam that he was destined by God to rule over ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. In other words, God’s chosen people would be torn in two, with Jeroboam ruling the major part, and Rehoboam left with just Judah and Benjamin.

King Solomon got wind of this and tried to kill Jeroboam. So he ran off to Egypt to save his skin. But many people in Israel, it seems, had decided that he was their man.

And now – and this was the new King Rehoboam’s problem – he came back to confront him at the head of a massive army. “Your father was a great king,” he told Rehoboam, “but he was also a hard man, even a cruel man. We’ve had enough of that! However, all you have to do is promise to be easier and gentler with us your people, and we will serve you loyally.”

And this is where Rehoboam made his big mistake. He asked the advice of the older men in his court, and they urged him to go along with Jeroboam’s reasonable demands. But then he turned to his own contemporaries – his cronies, you could say – and they said just the opposite: “Tell them… My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:11). Give them a hard time, Rehoboam! Crush the opposition out of them!

By taking this advice King Rehoboam succeeded in splitting the kingdom in two, just as Ahijah the prophet had said. In the years to come both Israel, the northern part, and Judah, the southern part, went from bad to worse.

There is a vital lesson we can learn from Rehoboam’s folly. It isn’t just that we should be willing to take advice from others when faced with a big decision. No; Rehoboam took advice, all right! But it was the wrong advice.

He failed to see that true authority calls for justice and humility, not for the iron fist of power. He chose to dominate rather than serve. Just think… he could have become a prototype of Jesus himself, the Prince of Peace. Instead, he sowed poisonous seeds of discord which ruined the people of God for centuries to come.

All right, not many of us are called on to make decisions about how to govern a nation! But when we do have decisions to make, especially decisions that affect the lives of people other than ourselves, may God help us to make those decisions in the humble spirit of Jesus!

There is something we can learn from Jeroboam too. He was promised the lion’s share of God’s people, so the question arises: should he have been prepared to quietly bide his time after Rehoboam’s rough rejection of his request?

If, as seems to have been the case, Ahijah was a true prophet of God, what need was there to take matters into his own hands?

This is something we can all be in danger of doing. Instead of praying and then patiently working towards what we believe is good, we try to force God’s hand, so to speak.

But God has his own ways of working out his purposes. The wise person is the one who says, with Jesus, “Not my will but yours be done.” Is that you? Is it me?

While I have stressed the foolishness of Rehoboam’s handling of this crisis, we mustn’t leave him without pointing out a happier ending. We are told in 2 Chronicles 12:12 that he later “humbled himself” and “the Lord’s anger turned from him.”

I hope that’s an encouragement to any of us who feel we have “messed up big time”.

God is forgiving. God can restore. All is not lost.

Lord Jesus, save me, I pray, from folly and pride, and teach me to order my life in the light of your great love and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Solomon, the Queen of Sheba – and Jesus

When the Queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon, and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the Lord, she was overwhelmed. 1 Kings 10:4-5

Jesus said, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.” Matthew 6:28-29

Writers and film-makers have always loved embellishing Bible stories. I remember, many years ago, Charlton Heston playing Moses in The Ten Commandments. And there was a film about Simon Peter called The Big Fisherman. And many more since, that I haven’t remotely kept up with.

Well, the Bible certainly gives us some very dramatic stories. But I must admit that the liberties taken by these later creations rather annoy me. Why not just let the Bible speak to us as it is!

You probably know all about the historic visit, about a thousand years before Jesus, of the magnificent Queen of Sheba (stunningly beautiful, of course) to the even more magnificent King Solomon of Israel. How she was overwhelmed by the splendour of his court, his city of Jerusalem, and the opulence of his buildings. How she melted adoringly into his arms, and how they fell passionately in love with one another and had one of history’s great romances. How (have I got this right?) they had a child who grew up to be… oh dear, I can’t remember now.

Yes? You remember that? Well, sorry, but a lot of it is pure moonshine.

The actual story is told in1 Kings 12 (and the parallel passage in 2 Chronicles 9), and takes up just thirteen verses; the slushy stuff simply isn’t there. In the New Testament King Solomon is mentioned only a handful of times, and the Queen of Sheba not at all.

So forget what the later story-tellers have done with the story: what does Jesus make of it?

Matthew 6 is part of the Sermon on the Mount, and in verses 25-34 he is telling his followers to keep their minds free of worry. Don’t be anxious about food, drink and clothes, he says. Won’t your heavenly Father look after you and provide for you? He points to the wild flowers growing in the fields and on the hill-sides. Aren’t they beautiful? he says. They look magnificent – and do you think they ever worried about how they would look? Of course not! And then: “Even Solomon in all his splendour was not dressed like one of these.”

Staying free of worry is not easy; most of us find anxiety gnarling away at our innards, especially when things get tough. The key, of course, is to believe – to really believe; to really, really believe – that God is our loving heavenly Father.

But that kind of faith can only take root within us as a result of experience: we take the risk of faith over perhaps relatively minor things in our lives, and then, as we discover that the promises of God really are reliable, we move on to a greater depth of faith. Trusting God, which once seemed naive and unrealistic, becomes a habit of mind, and our whole approach to our lives changes. For most of us this process takes time – but, like most things, with time and practice it actually happens.

Apart from the call to trust God as our Father, three other things strike me about Jesus’ use of the Solomon/Queen of Sheba story.

First, Jesus knew his Bible.

It was instinctive to him to reach for a scriptural passage to press home his point, and that can only have happened because his mind was soaked in scripture. Could that be said of you and me?

Second, Jesus obviously took delight in the beauty of nature.

In order to encourage us not to give way to anxiety he uses the birds of the air and the flowers of the field as examples. Do the birds “sow or reap or store in barns” (verse 26)? Of course not! Do the flowers “labour or spin” (verse 28)? Of course not! How good are we at opening our eyes and our ears to see and listen to all the miraculous things God has surrounded us with?

Third, Jesus clearly refused to be over-awed even by great King Solomon.

Quite likely he, like many others, had gasped with wonder when he first saw the later, even more glorious, temple in Jerusalem.  But his words here show that he doesn’t let himself be dazzled by this sight – in fact, he goes on to sadly predict the destruction of this temple too (Matthew 24:1-2).

And so we are reminded that while man-made beauty – architecture, art, music, sport, the rest – is wonderful and worthy of admiration, what ultimately matters is the beauty of the human soul and character.

Oh yes, they were great temples, those ones built in Jerusalem by Solomon and then by Herod. But where are they now? Gone.

As Paul points out (1 Corinthians 6:19), the temple that matters most is your own body – for it is nothing less than “a temple of the Holy Spirit”.

Now, that really is something to marvel at!

Lord God, even if I never remotely rival King Solomon in all his splendour, may I learn from the birds of the air and the flowers of the field to live a life free from anxiety and fear. Amen.

What matters most

Better a dish of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred. Proverbs 15:17

Jesus said: “… I tell you, love your enemies…” Matthew 5:44

Jesus said: “A new command I give you: love one another.” John 13:34

God is love. 1 John 4:16

I suspect that in the ancient world no-one opted to be a vegetarian as a life-style choice, as many do today (and all respect to them). No: people who ate only vegetables did so because they couldn’t afford meat – it was a sign of poverty.

So what the writer of Proverbs is saying, of course, is: “It’s better to have only the basic necessities of life, as long as you are both loved and loving, than to be rich and live a life poisoned by hatred.”

It’s hard to say anything about love without descending into clichés and platitudes. So we can be grateful to people like the poet Robert Browning, who put it with some originality: “Take away love and our earth is a tomb”. He wasn’t wrong, was he? (I must admit I rather like also the Jewish proverb: “Love your neighbour – even when he plays the trombone.”)

“God is love,” says the apostle John, implying that love is, quite simply, the greatest, most wonderful and most precious thing there ever can be. Greater than power, greater than wisdom, greater than wealth, greater than fame or human happiness. It is the topmost thing, the supreme value.

This is why Jesus told his disciples that love was to be the hallmark that the world would know them by: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). And why he gave them the almost outrageous command to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

And this is why Paul composed his wonderful poem in praise of love (1 Corinthians 13): “… these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (verse 13).

I happened to switch on the radio this morning while I was brushing my teeth. The BBC reporter Frank Gardner was speaking from Egypt, where Christians, in particular those belonging to the ancient Coptic church, are being particularly badly treated by their opponents: the burning of church buildings, and the threatening and even the murder of Christian people are tragically common.

And one after another these Egyptian Christians were expressing their refusal to hate their persecutors; on the contrary, they were determined to forgive. Talk about “loving your enemies”!

What made it specially striking was the reaction of Frank Gardner himself. For he knows very well what it is like to be the victim of random violence. In 2004, in Saudi Arabia, he was shot and permanently disabled by Islamist terrorists while doing his job as a journalist; today he spends much of his life in a wheelchair.

And (all credit to him for his honesty) he simply couldn’t get over the gracious love of these Egyptian Christians. He very frankly admitted that, personally, he was incapable of such an attitude.

As I listened, I was hoping in my heart that the words of those followers of Jesus would be heard and absorbed throughout this country and beyond.

Love can be hard. It isn’t (not only, at any rate) a mushy, slushy thing that makes us go bendy at the knees – though no doubt there’s a place for that! It isn’t even the natural affection and tenderness we feel for those precious to us, beautiful though that certainly is.

No: it may very well be entirely down-to-earth and matter-of-fact, involving a decision that we make. It can be an act of will. We decide to not only wish people well (that’s good, but it doesn’t amount to love), but also to do them good. And in doing so, we may find ourselves acting against all our strongest natural instincts.

John, once again – the great apostle of love – puts it pretty clearly: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). If ever we imagine that true heavenly love is easy, I suggest another visit to the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46) might be a good idea.

We’ve come a long way from Proverbs 15. But all these examples are linked in simply demonstrating the glorious supremacy of love.

Love changes lives. Love can change the world. Love makes life not only liveable but also beautiful. Love, as somebody said, is the only thing that you get more of by giving it away.

Let’s make it our business today, then, whatever else we may do, to increase this troubled world’s stock of love. Yes!

Lord God, please, by your Holy Spirit, drain out of my heart every hint of hatred, jealousy, malice, anger and vengefulness, and fill me with Christlike love. Amen.

God can pick up the pieces

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate… And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 1 Corinthians 5:1-2

Crisis at Corinth! It sounds like a cheapo paper-back, doesn’t it? Or a headline from a trashy newspaper: Sex Scandal Rocks Corinth Church!

Well, it is a scandal, and Paul is horrified when he hears about it. Never mind the details, let’s just say it was a case of gross sexual immorality – gross enough, it seems, to shock even the non-Christian people of this ancient, far-from-holy, Roman city, never mind God’s holy people.

I hope this is the kind of situation you and your church never have to deal with. For Paul tells his readers that the guilty person should be thrown out of the church (“excommunicated”, if you want the technical term). In verses 4-5 he sets out some kind of solemn ceremony for the Corinth Christians to carry out, in which the man will be “handed over to Satan” – which presumably means something like “expelled from the light of God’s church and thrust back into the darkness of this fallen world”.

Paul’s hope, it’s true, is that this severe treatment will result in the man being restored (verse 5); but whatever, this was obviously a grim and unhappy episode.

Sadly, there are times when churches need to exert discipline on their members. I was still in my teens, just a new-born Christian, when there was a church meeting that had to deal with the wrong-doing of one of the leaders. He was a taxi-driver, and the headlines of the local paper declared one day that he had been found guilty of fiddling his fares. There were strong opinions aired about what, if anything, the church should do – kick him out? turn a blind eye? or somewhere in between?

The decision to discipline a fellow-Christian is especially difficult, of course, because – well, aren’t the rest of us sinners too? Of course! So true humility is vital, not to mention sensitivity and compassion. And the ultimate aim, as here in Corinth, must always be not to crush or destroy the wayward person, but in the long run to bring them back into fellowship.

Paul himself knew this only too well. He offers wise words to his fellow-Christians in Galatia: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently…” And then he adds: “But watch yourselves or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

I haven’t the slightest doubt that if the immoral man in Corinth had been truly sorry, Paul would have felt no need to suggest expulsion.

The point, though, is this: there are times when this difficult duty has to be carried out; the alternative is to let sin continue unchecked, and thus the purity of the church (such as it is; of course it’s far from perfect) is jeopardised.

But it’s not easy! Paul says the people in the Corinth church were “proud” of their complacent attitude, suggesting that there were those who were actually on the man’s side, and who presumably wouldn’t like Paul’s advice one little bit. So… Would the church split? Would people leave in protest? Would there be a succession of angry church meetings? Oh dear!

What if, having been expelled the previous week, the man had turned up as usual, bold as brass, the next Sunday? Should there be a heavy brigade of spiritual bouncers guarding the door? And if there were, would they even be expected to resort to violence? Surely not! Again, oh dear!

Well, we can only speculate how events panned out in Corinth.

But I must add that, while my own experience of this kind of tension has, thankfully, been very limited over my many years in ministry, there have been times when things have got a little tricky and uncomfortable. Dark rumours have swirled around: “If such-and-such happens, I’m afraid Fred and Jacky will leave the church…” “If Fred and Jacky leave, I’m told they’ll take half the church with them…”

Things never once turned out remotely as badly as the doom-mongers liked to think, and I trust the same will be true of any awkward church situation you find yourself in.

But my experience has left me with two rock-solid principles that I think can be applied in any tricky area of life, not just church life.

First, never swing into action until you are absolutely sure you are right. If you do, it could lead to untold harm and damage.

And second, if you really are sure action is necessary, just make it your business to do what is right – and let God pick up the pieces.

He can. He will. Trust him.

O God, you hate sin but love sinners. Help me to be the same. And help your church always to get the balance right in such circumstances. Amen.

When God seems silent

O God, do not remain silent; do not turn a deaf ear, do not stand aloof, O God. Psalm 83:1

God speaks.

That simple statement is at the very heart of Christianity. We believe in a God who, down through history, has spoken to men and women “at many times and in various ways”.

He speaks through Jesus, the word of God: he “has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). He speaks through creation. He speaks through our consciences. He speaks through other people. Whatever anybody may doubt about the Christian faith, this is one thing about which there cannot be any doubt: our God is a God with a voice.

Ah, but what about times when he doesn’t speak? – or, at least, seems not to speak. What about times when God seems to be silent?

This is the situation the psalmist is in here: “O God, do not remain silent.” And it is a situation where many of us may very well say, “Yes, I have been there too.” Situations where the silence of God seems far more real than the voice of God.

My wife and I heard today from a friend for whom this has been a harsh reality for several years. There is sickness in the family. It is not, I think, life-threatening, but it is certainly life-changing, even life-dominating. And the fact is that, in spite of intense, sustained prayer plus the best medical skills available, nothing has changed. If anything things seem almost to be getting worse. God seems silent.

What, in general, are the possible reasons for God’s silence? Let’s run through the options.

First, God doesn’t speak because he just isn’t there. There is no God, and we are deluded if we think there is.

This is the conclusion many people feel driven to, especially in the godless world in which we live. Obviously, it isn’t a route we as Christians can take. But I think we need to be careful not to condemn or criticise those who do, especially those who are humble and genuine. They aren’t all hard-hearted, cynical atheists, and they need our love, sympathy and prayers.

Second, God doesn’t speak because he is unable to help. Oh, he exists all right – but that is about as much as you can say. He may have created this world, but now it seems to be beyond his control. He is feeble.

Again, we as Christians obviously cannot go this way. Our God is “almighty God.” He can do all things; his power and might are infinite. He created the world! He raised Jesus from the dead! But we must be honest and recognise that, well, it doesn’t always seem that way.

Third, he doesn’t speak because he doesn’t care. This is an option the psalmist does seem to toy with. Is God “turning a deaf ear” or “standing aloof”?

I don’t think he really believes this to be the case. But again, we can only respect his honesty in asking the question. And let us be honest too: there are times – let’s put it quite brutally – when God seems to be not so much “our heavenly Father” as “our cruel creator”; for is it not cruel to turn away from someone crying out for help?

If we rule those three options out, as Christians surely must, only one possibility remains: God is continuing in silence, and allowing our suffering to continue, in order to do us ultimate good. He loves us and has purposes for us which we can’t even begin to imagine, and those purposes are glorious. For the moment we can only pray for the gift of faith to be able to see the hard times through.

I personally have had a very trouble-free life – I have no idea why; I certainly don’t deserve it – so I’m hardly in a position to hand out advice to those experiencing things I know little of. But one or two suggestions occur to me, so I dare to offer them, even if very hesitantly. (You’re probably already doing them anyway.)

First, muster as much prayer support as you can. You may feel as if you yourself are “prayed out”, so the more of your brothers and sisters who are praying the better.

Second, take courage from the testimony of other Christians who have been where you are – and who have indeed come through. There are good books on the market which tell wonderful stories – not to mention many “ordinary” fellow-Christians.

Third, look for areas of your life where you can see the hand of God at work, and where you do hear his voice. Hopefully, this might put the dark side of things into a clearer perspective.

Fourth, look back to the times when God was unmistakably present in your life, working his work and speaking clearly. Were those times all illusions?

If Christianity is true, then a day of glory and rejoicing is on the way. Cling to that, remembering faithful Job.

And remembering above all the One who, on the cross, felt not just that God was “silent” or “had turned a deaf ear”, but had actually abandoned him: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

O God, do not remain silent; do not turn a deaf ear… Please hear this prayer, not just on my own behalf, but on behalf of all those who feel today that you are standing aloof from them. Amen.

Can Christians ever fight wars?

Many peoples will come and say… “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob…” He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many people. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more. Isaiah 2:3-4

Jesus said, “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen…” Mark 13:7

Will you (assuming you are British) be wearing a poppy this coming weekend, in remembrance of those who died for their country in various wars? Or will you feel uncomfortable about doing so, afraid of seeming to join in an act which glorifies war?

It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?

I assume that every Christian hates the very idea of war. Isn’t Jesus, the one to whom we give our loyalty and promise our obedience, “the Prince of Peace”? Doesn’t he call us to be “peace-makers” (Matthew 5:9)?

Doesn’t the Bible hold out for us the truly wonderful vision of Isaiah 2? – a picture of people (as I imagine it – bear with me!) finding in some forgotten corner of their home an old sword, and laughing, and thinking, “Goodness, I didn’t know I still had this! Well, I certainly won’t need it again. Shall I throw it away, or see if someone will buy it? No! – it would be a shame to get rid of it – there’s good metal there, even if it’s a bit rusty. I know – let’s hammer it into a plough-share for the oxen…”

“Nation will not take up war against nation, nor will they train for war any more.” A mouth-watering vision indeed for our troubled world. No more war. And that is the way it one day will be.

But then there is Jesus himself, stating very bluntly that there will be “wars and rumours of wars”, and that “such things must happen.”

He is, of course, simply predicting what is to come, not suggesting that this is something he welcomes or takes any pleasure in.

This is typical of the Bible in many places: it is both gloriously idealistic and also starkly realistic. And we who believe in the Bible must hold the two strands in balance, for both are true and both are important.

So… how should we view the grim subject of war? Should a Christian ever be willing to fight for his or her country?

The strict pacifist takes a very clear line: it is grotesque to imagine Jesus holding a rifle, sitting at the controls of a war-plane, or operating a grenade-launcher – so, if we claim to be his followers, shouldn’t it be impossible for us too?

Put like that, it’s hard to disagree. There is just one place in the New Testament where Jesus is portrayed as a warrior leading his army into battle – but it’s hard to imagine any thoughtful Christian treating Revelation 19 as remotely literal.

Yet many Christians feel they must disagree.

They point out that, whether we like it or not, we Christians are citizens not only of God’s heavenly kingdom, but also of a country here on earth. We have a foot in two camps, and will until the day we die. And the fact is – as Jesus explicitly said – wars will continue until the end of time, when he returns in glory to wind up the affairs of this world. So the question is: if/when war breaks out, what should we do?

A key question is: Is this a just war? – that is, a war which aims to right a great wrong, and to prevent evil spreading and growing? Assuming that to be the case, is it then right for Christians to stand back and, in effect, allow others to do the fighting for them? – you could even say, to do their dirty work for them? Putting it another way, if all Christians agree that war is always an evil, are there times, nonetheless, when it is the lesser of two evils, as the time-honoured expression puts it?

It is up to each of us to think and pray it through and make up our own minds.

I hope it goes without saying that when Jesus says “Don’t be alarmed, for these things must happen”, he is not suggesting that when it comes to war we can simply shrug our shoulders and treat it with indifference. War means suffering – immense suffering, terrible trauma. And how can we be indifferent to that?

No. He is telling us that we mustn’t let these things undermine or wobble our faith. God is ultimately in control. So whatever conclusion we come to regarding war and peace, it goes without saying too that we must both work for it and pray for it.

However peace is to be achieved and, hopefully, maintained, Christians can only ever be “peace people”.

Lord God, look with mercy and compassion upon our troubled, warring world, and cause the name of Jesus the Prince of Peace to be lifted high. Amen.


Jesus said, “Give, and it shall be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Luke 6:38

As you look at your life, can you think of people who have shown you great generosity?

I certainly can. In fact, I find myself wondering how I would have managed without them. I thank God for them.

Generosity can take many forms. The most obvious one is money, or material things in general: people who give or lend when our need is great. But there are other types too: generosity with time, with emotional support, with sympathy and understanding, with hospitality, with forgiveness when we’ve behaved badly. To this day I still shake my head with gratitude as I think of people who were generous to me for no particular reason even many years ago.

When we think of the generosity of others we’re bound (I hope, anyway) to ask ourselves how generous we are. Well, if Jesus’ words here mean anything at all, an ungenerous Christian is a contradiction in terms. “Give,” he says, and then adds some words to encourage us to do so.

He uses an illustration which perhaps for many of us today doesn’t immediately connect. He talks about a “measure”, presumably of grain, “pressed down, shaken together and running over” being poured into our “lap”. (Wouldn’t it all just fall to the ground? – especially if we are wearing trousers.)

We have to imagine, perhaps, a Palestinian market-place in the ancient world – or, indeed, a market-place in many parts of the modern world. Your “lap” was a kind of pouch formed by a flap on the front of your tunic (the older versions translate lap as “bosom”). Think kangaroo.

A modern equivalent might be a large sum of money transferred electronically into your bank account – or a home-cooked meal in a bag on your doorstep.

Whatever, Jesus tells us to be generous. And he adds that word of encouragement. Putting it crudely, it’s in your own interest, because you will get back even more in return: “Give, and it shall be given to you… with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”.

Great stuff! But I think we need to be careful as we read this. For two reasons…

First, we mustn’t think that Jesus is encouraging us to give in a calculating way: “Right, I suppose I had better be generous, then, because if I’m not I won’t get anything back in return.”

No! the Bible tells us that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Perhaps Paul here is drawing on the Old Testament. In Exodus 25:2 we read that offerings should be received from “everyone whose heart prompts them”, not from anyone who’s looking after their own interests. In the same way, the people of Israel are told to give “without a grudging heart” (Deuteronomy 15:10).

Generosity brings rich rewards, yes. But those rewards are a spin-off, a by-product, not a conscious incentive. We give, if we give at all, “asking for no reward, save that of knowing that we do God’s will”, as the Anglican prayer book put it.

Second, we mustn’t imagine, anyway, that what we get back will be in the same form as what we gave – that if we give lots of money, say, then we are bound to get even more money back .

Again, no (in spite of what some preachers are heard to say)! Material generosity might very well result in spiritual rewards. Christian history gives us examples of people who gave away even large fortunes – and who remained poor for the rest of their lives. But they never regretted it.

Sum it up like this… To get right to the heart of what Jesus is saying we need to stop thinking about acts of generosity alone; what he is really talking about is a whole attitude, a whole life-style.

We live in a world which emphasises getting, getting, getting. But Jesus calls us to a whole new life of giving, giving, giving. And that results in a happy, cheerful, joyful, care-free, adventurous mind-set.

Come to think of it, aren’t those the very characteristics which make the memories of the generous people I mentioned earlier so precious to us?

Let’s be generous, then! – not because of what we hope to get out of it, but simply because this is the way of Jesus, our generous Saviour.

Lord Jesus, please take away the fear of loss, please show me the misery that comes from being mean-spirited and tight-fisted, and so teach me the joy of generosity. Amen.

No condemnation!

Jesus… asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?” “No-one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” John 8:10-11

Condemnation… It’s an ugly word, isn’t it? But its meaning is familiar to all of us.

Being found guilty of something can take various forms.

A person in court, if the charge against them is proved, is condemned to suffer some punishment. Somebody in the workplace who offends his or her colleagues and gets cold-shouldered as a result, may say “I felt everyone was condemning me.” There was a time (still is, in some cultures) where a woman who became pregnant outside marriage, was condemned by her community (quite likely including her church).

Especially painful is when it’s our own conscience that does the job. We have a dark secret. But no-one knows about it, so that’s all right – except, of course, that it’s not all right, because we can’t shrug it off or wipe it out. Deep down we feel we deserve condemnation; we are self-condemned.

If you believe in God, that makes it even worse. The Bible tells us clearly that, while God hates to condemn, there are times when he has no choice. Because he is holy, he cannot turn a blind eye to our sins; a sin overlooked is a sin condoned, and what kind of God would that make him?

Just reading this might stir up in your mind uncomfortable thoughts – thoughts of guilt and shame. But there is good news…

The woman in John 8 was condemned by the religious leaders for her adultery. They bring her before Jesus (where was the guilty man, we wonder?) to expose and humiliate her. She stands there, alone, her head bowed, enduring the harsh gaze of her accusers.

They invite Jesus to join them in their condemnation. But he refuses. He bends down and writes something in the dust with his finger (what was it he wrote! – wouldn’t we love to know?). His silence as they keep badgering him becomes embarrassing, and in the end he stands up straight and says, in effect, “All right, she’s guilty; adultery is indeed a grave sin. Stoning to death is a just penalty, so go right ahead…” But then he pauses, fixes the crowd with his eye and adds: “But you will make sure, won’t you, that the first stone is thrown by someone who has never sinned…”

And then? Silence. Not a stone is thrown; and that angry crowd slowly melts away. When it’s just the two of them, this little conversation about condemnation takes place between Jesus and the woman.

I wonder what happened to her? Did she indeed “leave her life of sin”? Or was she sucked back into it? We aren’t told – and that’s because it’s not what matters. What matters is how we respond to this beautiful story. What about our condemnation, our guilt, our shame?

The German poet Heinrich Heine famously said: “Dieu me pardonnera, c’est son metier” – “God will forgive me; that’s his job.” (I’ve no idea why, being German, he said it in French; but never mind.)

Very witty, Herr Heine. Ha-very-ha. But wrong, totally wrong. It’s not God’s “job” to forgive, and anyone taking that kind of casual attitude is in for a rude awakening. Sin matters, because it wrecks our relationship with God, damages our human relationships, destroys our peace of mind, and jeopardises our eternal well-being.

But having said that, we must immediately add: “But it is God’s delight to forgive!” Nothing gives God greater pleasure than to pour out his forgiveness on the person who is honestly, truly, humbly sorry. Jesus said that when that happens the very vaults of heaven echo with the sound of rejoicing (Luke 15:3-7).

This is the wonder of God’s grace. Grace means God giving us what we don’t deserve – instead of condemnation, love and acceptance; instead of rejection, welcome, hope and a whole new life.

Are you bowed under a weight of condemnation? Well, if so then it’s my joy to be a bringer of good news – I hope I’ve said enough for you to know what to do!

To hammer the point home even deeper, here are a couple of other wonderful statements from the New Testament…

“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).

“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

“No condemnation”! Why not? Because Jesus, by dying on the cross, has taken it on our behalf.

Thank God for that!

Lord Jesus, thank you that “in my place condemned you stood”. Help me to understand and to delight in the wonder of forgiveness – but never to take it for granted. Amen.