When forgetting is good news

I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. Hebrews 8:12

I put the radio on this morning while I was brushing my teeth, and heard some clever-sounding people (Professor this and Dr that) talking about memory. I didn’t grasp everything they said, but they burbled on about something called the hippocampus (which I always thought was a holiday resort for hippopotamuses, but which apparently is part of the human brain: silly me).

And the good news, apparently, is that our brains are designed to forget things. They take steps to ensure that they don’t get clogged with trivial and unimportant information. So instead of getting frustrated when we just can’t remember where we left our keys, or what that person’s name is, or what we just came upstairs for, we should accept it with a smile on our faces. It’s just the brain having a bit of a clear-out.

All right, it’s not so funny when memory-loss is a genuine sickness of the brain – something, which, I’m sure, we all fear. But in general I suppose it makes sense: if our brains are indeed like massively sophisticated computers, as we are told they are, there presumably comes a point of overload, and something needs to happen.

Well, if us forgetting things can sometimes be good news, it is even better news that God himself has a capacity for forgetfulness: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” says God in Hebrews 8:12 (quoting Jeremiah 31).

God, it seems, delights to have not just occasional fits of forgetfulness, but a permanent state of it. Forgetting is, in fact, a big part of his love, mercy and grace – because what he chooses to forget is our wickedness and our sins.

Perhaps this is something you badly need to hear. Perhaps scrolling through your memory is a sad and painful experience. Perhaps your conscience doesn’t let you rest at night. Perhaps there are things in the past that you would dearly love to be able to forget, but just can’t.

If so, it’s my privilege to be able to tell you that God is a forgiving God – for this talk of God’s forgetfulness is really all about God’s forgivingness.

Of course, if God really is God it’s hard to imagine him ever forgetting anything; but this is the Bible’s beautifully human way of describing his willingness to forgive: God has, if you like, a fully functioning hippocampus.

Micah, a fellow-prophet of Jeremiah from perhaps a hundred years earlier, basked in the same truth, but expressed it in a different form: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives…transgression…? You do not stay angry for ever but delight to show mercy.” And then he goes on: “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).

I love those down to earth images, don’t you? – God, like a big angry giant, “treading our sins underfoot” – stomp, stomp, stomp – and, like a discus-thrower in the Olympics, “hurling our iniquities” far out to sea.

We sometimes talk about “forgiving and forgetting” or about “letting bygones be bygones”. And I’m sure that’s good. But it can also be hard. Indeed, quite possibly we find it easier to forgive other people than to forgive ourselves. And sometimes, when we have made a genuine effort to forgive others (and remember, to forgive is an act of will, not a matter of feeling), we still find it hard to forget.

But with God’s help it’s wonderfully possible. True, he takes our sins with complete seriousness; but in sending Jesus to die for us he has provided a way whereby all that badness can be wiped out once and for all. What, after all, could be more serious than the cross? This is the good news; this is the gospel.

Only one thing stands in the way of his forgivingness: our refusal to ask for it; our stubborn denial that we need it. Even God cannot give us something we refuse to admit we need. A doctor may offer us medicine to make us better; but what if we refuse to take it? And God is the doctor supreme.

Here are the words of the apostle John – the same truth in New Testament dress: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). I can only ask again: is this a truth you need to take to heart, to absorb, to accept – and to delight in?

Thanks be to God for his glorious, heavenly forgetfulness!

Thank you, O God, for your merciful willingness to forget all my sins. Help me today to believe that I am forgiven by you, and to bask in the joy and liberty that that knowledge brings. Amen.

Not ashamed of the Gospel

By faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. Hebrews 11:4

All of us probably have people in our lives who, even though we never knew them, we can’t imagine not being there. For me, I instinctively think of (a) the Queen and (b) Bobby Charlton. (I’m not quite sure what that says about me! – especially as I am no great monarchist, and certainly no Man Utd supporter.)

And then of Billy Graham.

When I became a teenage convert in the 1960s Billy Graham was already a household name. And now he has died.

On the news everyone is queuing up to speak well of him: above all, of his integrity and humility. This includes people who certainly aren’t in sympathy with his brand of evangelicalism, indeed, people who aren’t in sympathy with Christianity full-stop. He seemed to have the ability to command respect and admiration right across the board.

Certainly, he wasn’t perfect – and he, I’m sure, would be the first to say so. Yes, there were one or two points in his life which make one feel uneasy, and there were areas where he felt it necessary to issue apologies. But the overall picture is one of single-mindedness and honesty. (And who doesn’t have a skeleton or two in their cupboard?)

And then, of course, there are the quite stupendous statistics – the vast numbers he preached to; the presidents and monarchs, the film-stars and singers, whose confidence he won; the books he wrote; the ordinary people, many now in old age, who tell the story of how they came to faith in Jesus through him fifty or more years ago, and are still Christians today.

Like what he stood for or not, you can’t get away from the massive impact he had.

And the question naturally arises, How did he do it? What was his secret? After all, there has been no shortage of preachers who are equally biblical in their approach and perhaps technically better as preachers, but who have never had a remotely comparable effect.

I personally remember a big rally I attended thirty-plus years ago at a football stadium in Sheffield. We had gone as a party from the church I was minister of, and I remember it as a cold, dark evening. Graham and the rest of the “platform party” were just dots in the distance – this was in the days before big screens. There was a teenage girl in our party who, perhaps ten minutes into Graham’s sermon, turned yawning to her mother and wanted to know “When is Billy Graham going to preach?”

That just about said it all. Far from being the charismatic tub-thumper some people described him as, he had an ordinariness – I might even say a dullness – which left one distinctly underwhelmed, especially as he matured and took on board various comments and criticisms that had been directed at him.

But I haven’t finished that story. The other thing I remember is that when the sermon was over and the appeal to “go forward to receive Christ” was given, people flocked to the front in their hundreds. I watched in amazement. True, I suspect that many had attended that night with the intention, conscious or otherwise, of “getting converted”. But never mind: the fact is that they responded to the gospel message, and for many it was the big turning-point in their lives.

I don’t think there’s any answer to the question, What was his secret? Faithfulness to the biblical gospel? Yes, but as I said earlier, that would be true of thousands of preachers. The anointing of the Holy Spirit? Again, yes, of course, but that too would be true of thousands. Slick marketing and presentation? There may have been an element of that in his early career, but, especially as time went on, it became less and less marked.

Perhaps we just have to put it down to the mysterious ways of God, and not probe too deeply.

But after watching the television news last night I couldn’t help thinking about the words of the writer to the Hebrews about Abel: how he “still speaks, even though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4).

Billy Graham is dead. But he will continue to speak for a long time, I’m sure. Indeed, during these few days when he is in the headlines, I strongly suspect that he will be speaking powerfully to the hearts of many who never accepted his message, and who had quite possibly forgotten all about him. May we expect a spike in numbers of conversions?

I don’t know. But I suggest that as we reflect on the life of such a massively influential Christian figure, we should take those words about Abel as applying to… us as well.

Yes – if we make it our business to live Christ-centred, Spirit-filled lives, is there any reason why we too, small though we are, should not also be speaking long after we are dead and gone?

Oh God, thank you for raising certain Christians to national and even international prominence. Protect, keep and use them, and help them to maintain their integrity. But thank you too that you also use the unknown people in ways we cannot imagine. Use me, Lord, use even me! Amen.

How to be a somebody

Jesus said… “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour… take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place…” Luke 14:7-11

Some years ago now I was asked to help out a little at a church that didn’t have a minister. I was very happy to do this, because the church was pretty healthy and, to be honest, probably didn’t really need someone like me anyway. But they were wise enough to recognise that an outsider’s view might just come in handy.

In fact, a problem arose fairly early on. A man came along who seemed to be a mature and spiritually-minded Christian. He rolled his sleeves up and got well stuck into various responsibilities, and the church was obviously pleased. Just the sort of person churches are glad to welcome!

But it wasn’t long before he made an unexpected announcement at a regular church meeting. God (so he said) had called him to be the church’s new pastor. This rather threw them off balance. Was it a wonderful answer to their prayers? – he certainly seemed completely convinced. Or was this something they should treat with caution?

When they asked my opinion I had no doubts at all: don’t touch him with the proverbial barge-pole (or words to that effect). Given that I had only met this man a couple of times, and then only fleetingly, you may feel I was rather harsh. But subsequent events showed I was right.

A clear principle was at stake: be very careful of people who push themselves forward; they are likely to be dangerous in the life of any church. Dangerous, in fact, in any area.

In Luke 14:1-11 we see Jesus, along with others, as a dinner-guest of a “prominent Pharisee”. Jesus was a great people-watcher: we can picture his eyes roaming around as he took in every detail of the scene in which he found himself. And one thing he noticed was the way his fellow-guests jostled one another for the best seats. There was a definite pecking-order on such occasions, and these people “picked the places of honour at the table.”

Whereupon he delivered a little sermon about how foolish this was. His advice was that people should “take the lowest place”. For then – who knows? – they might just experience the pleasure of being invited to “move up to a better place.”

Was Jesus really in the business of offering advice about good manners, about the social etiquette of behaviour at a posh meal? Of course not! No, Luke in fact calls his words a “parable”, suggesting that we are meant to see a deeper meaning, a meaning relating to God and his kingdom. And that deeper meaning can be summed up in one word: humility.

Jesus’ parable finishes with these words: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” I like the way The Message puts that: “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Every church is familiar with people who have a high opinion of themselves, and who get the hump when the talents they believe they have are not recognised – Why aren’t we invited to join the church’s leadership! How can the church possibly thrive while we are left on the sidelines!

What they fail to see is that if God really does want their talents to be acknowledged and used by the church, then he is perfectly capable of making that happen. Let them be patient. Let them quietly get on with “lesser” tasks. Let them have faith. You can’t force God’s hand or bounce him into doing what you want. God acts and moves in his own perfect time.

This doesn’t mean that ambition, properly understood, is wrong. Not at all. All of us do indeed have gifts and talents, and we should be keen to see those gifts and talents put to good use for God’s glory. This is exactly the point of another of Jesus’s parables, in Matthew 25:14-30, which suggests we should be truly scared of failing to fulfil our talents. Sometimes, indeed, it is necessary to push one or two doors to see if they might open. Nothing wrong with that. Just not in the aggressive and manipulative way that man acted.

Ultimately, the message is simple: let God be God. And remember: the true way to be someone is to make yourself no-one.

Isn’t this the way of Jesus himself? – according to Philippians 2:7 he “emptied himself” or “made himself nothing”.

If that’s good enough for him, shouldn’t it be good enough also for you and me?

Lord Jesus, thank you that though you came from the glory of heaven, you were prepared to empty yourself and make yourself the lowest servant. Help me to want nothing more than to follow you in this. Amen.

Just – love!

Then Jesus went up and touched the bier… and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. Luke 7:14-15

Of all the miracle stories in the Gospels, those about Jesus raising the dead are among the best known and the most loved.

The raising of Lazarus probably comes first in most people’s minds – it takes up most of a long chapter (John 11), and it’s shot through with teaching about life, death and resurrection in a much wider sense. And then there is Jairus’s daughter (Matthew 9 and Luke 8), which perhaps is specially touching because it’s about a young girl.

But what about the son of the widow of Nain? I suspect this story comes a very poor third in many of our minds – and I think that’s a shame. Perhaps we would know it better if either the widow or the son were named: but they’re not. (The town, yes: but not the people!) It appears in Luke’s Gospel only, and it takes up exactly seven verses (Luke 7:11-17) – blink and you miss it.

But how much drama is packed into those verses!

Let’s imagine a clear blue sky and a hot sun over the dry Galilean countryside…

Nain was a small town near Nazareth. Jesus has decided to pay it a visit, along with “his disciples and a large crowd” of other followers, no doubt intending to do some teaching. But as they approach the town-gate they meet a crowd coming out that’s probably even bigger: it’s a funeral procession, which just about everybody would have joined, in order to support the mother of the man who has died.

I picture Jesus and his party holding back out of respect. But as soon as he sees a widow at the head of the cortege he reads the situation – her sheer, sad aloneness – and is unable to just stand by: “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry’”.

Then he did a shocking thing: he “touched the bier”. Shocking because according to Old Testament law any contact with a dead person caused ritual uncleanness (see, for example, Numbers 19:11). Obviously Jesus didn’t let this bother him – like when he reached out his hand to touch people with leprosy.

Luke then tells us that “the bearers stood still”. I’m not surprised! They were probably slightly scandalised (imagine someone deliberately stepping in front of a funeral car today), but what choice did they have?

Still more dramatically, Jesus then addresses the dead man: “Young man, I say to you, get up!” And… he does precisely that.

What a moment that must have been! No wonder the mood changes in an instant from tears and grieving to awe and praise: “God has come among us!”

I’ve already mentioned how Jesus was indifferent to the requirements of the law under such circumstances – a good reminder, perhaps, that sheer compassion takes precedence over “religious observance” for us too today. Let’s not be too bothered about getting all our religious i’s dotted and t’s crossed, especially when faced with human suffering.

But there are at least two other things that stand out.

First, Luke tells us that Jesus “gave the young man back to his mother.”

So what? Wasn’t that the obvious thing to do? Well yes; but does Luke’s choice of words remind you of anything? How about 1 Kings 17:23, where we read that the prophet Elijah, having restored to life the son of the widow of Zarephath, “gave him to his mother”?

It’s as if Luke wants us to grasp that this miracle at Nain wasn’t just a one-off  wonder which Jesus felt it right to do at the time, but part of a pattern which stretches way back into centuries gone by. God has been slowly and gradually revealing himself among his people from time immemorial, and Jesus is in effect making a claim to walk in the same shoes as Elijah. No wonder the people of Nain exclaimed “A great prophet has appeared among us”. A great prophet indeed – and, as hopefully they will later come to see, far more than just a prophet…

Jesus is Lord! Can you echo that cry?

Second, there is something missing from this story which, strange though it may seem, makes it specially striking. And what is that something? Faith.

Elsewhere, almost always when Jesus works a miracle, he requires faith as virtually a condition (see for example the previous story, Luke 7:9). But not here. He acts simply out of pure compassion: as Luke puts it, “his heart went out to” the widow, and it’s as if he couldn’t not act. She, on her side, is completely passive.

The words of one of the greatest hymns of all time come irresistibly to mind: “Jesus, Thou art all compassion,/ Pure unbounded love Thou art;/ Visit us with Thy salvation,/ Enter very trembling heart.”

When you think of Jesus, is it his holy, heavenly, overflowing love that comes first to mind? I do hope so!

Yes, Lord Jesus, however weak our faith may be, have mercy upon us and upon all those with trembling and broken hearts today, just as so long ago you had mercy upon that unnamed widow at Nain. Amen!

Does God change his mind?

The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to [Hezekiah] and said, “This is what the Lord says: put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover…”  Before Isaiah left the middle court the word of the Lord came to him: “Go back and tell Hezekiah… I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you… 2 Kings 20:1-6

It’s a big day in the life of King Hezekiah. He is ill, and God’s servant, the prophet Isaiah, pays him a visit. He doesn’t mince his words: “This is what the Lord says: put your house in order, because you are going to die: you will not recover.”

That’s pretty stark, isn’t it? No ifs, no buts.

And Hezekiah does what many of us might well do in such circumstances: he prays and “weeps bitterly” (verse 3).

But he can’t have prayed for long – for Isaiah is only just on his way out of the palace grounds, no doubt heading for home, when God turns him right round with another message for the king: “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you…”

A completely contradictory message!

God, it seems, has undergone a total change of mind – and all, it seems, in the space of perhaps half an hour.

Good news for Hezekiah, of course. But wait a minute – doesn’t the Bible make it clear elsewhere that changing his mind is one thing God simply doesn’t do? “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind,” declares the prophet Balaam (Numbers 23:9). And if Balaam was a little dodgy, it’s worth noticing that his words are echoed later by one of God’s greatest prophets, Samuel (1 Samuel 15:29).

So, is there in fact a contradiction here? I’m sure there isn’t.

When the Bible says that God doesn’t change his mind, that’s its way of saying that because God is God, he isn’t fickle or flaky: his words can be relied on, and his purposes will unfold. You can’t twist him round your finger, certainly not by the sort of spells and incantations that many false priests and prophets might have used in those days.

Which means that when we do read about him changing his mind, something very different is going on. And the key factor in the Hezekiah story, of course, is prayer.

Not that we should think of prayer as being mainly about changing God’s mind anyway – it’s more about building and deepening our personal relationship with him. But we make a mistake if we go too far down that track and stop expecting any kind of change at all in answer to our prayers. Putting it bluntly, if prayer doesn’t change anything, there’s not really a lot of point in doing it, is there?

Put it another way: prayer is not superstition. We can’t, and mustn’t try, to use it to manipulate God. If we do, we’re going to be disappointed anyway.

No, prayer is far deeper and more mysterious than that – it is, somebody once said, God’s way of giving to human beings the dignity of playing a part in the unfolding of his purposes. But from our human, earth-bound point of view, it causes things to happen which otherwise wouldn’t have done.

Here are two quotations. I wonder if you could have said one of these things – and if so, which one it would be.

First… The church has been burgled and lots of valuables stolen. As the minister announces this on Sunday morning he asks the congregation to make this a matter of prayer. And then he adds: “Though I don’t suppose it’ll make any difference, as they’re probably out of the country by now.”

Is that you? Do you have that kind of, er, lack of faith?

Second… The preacher is encouraging his congregation to pray for anything and everything, near at hand and far away. The climax of his appeal is: “I believe that if I pray for China, something happens in China!

Is that you? Do you have that kind of faith?

I frankly admit that I personally wish far more of our prayers were dramatically answered in the way that Hezekiah’s was. But the fact is that they aren’t – not for most of us, anyway. But if I allow that fact to deter me from praying, or to sap my prayers of their conviction, then I’m giving the devil a victory, and that’s a temptation I must resist. Prayer does change things. Pray does make a difference.

Or, as Jesus put it: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7).

And when those situations arise where God does indeed do the thing he is supposed not to do (!), and seems to change his mind, well… so be it.

Don’t try and work it out. Just be thankful.

Heavenly Father, give me the faith and perseverance to believe that, though I cannot understand it, prayer is the most powerful and practical weapon in my spiritual armoury. Amen.

What about mindfulness?

Jesus… appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out… Mark 3:14

If you love someone, you’re happy just to be with them. It doesn’t matter that much what you are actually doing – just being with them is enough.

I wonder if Mark meant us to think like that when he wrote that Jesus “appointed the twelve that they might be with him”? Perhaps I’m reading too much into the passage; but the fact is that when Matthew and Luke recorded the same event they didn’t mention this tiny detail. So I like to think Mark was led to do so in order to encourage us to focus on it…

Before they were “sent out”, it seems, before they did any preaching, before they worked any healings or delivered any demon-oppressed people, Jesus wanted the twelve simply to spend time with him. To listen; to talk; to enjoy meals; to share day-to-day experiences; no doubt sometimes to joke and play games: just to be with him.

And the point is very simple: isn’t it the same for us? And the question that arises is also very simple: how much time do and I you spend just being with Jesus?

I got back today from a ministers’ conference, and one of the subjects we heard about was “mindfulness”.

Mindfulness is very much the “in-thing” at the moment. One definition I read described it like this: “the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment”. Which means, pretty much, being still and focussed; not letting your thoughts zip about here there and everywhere; taking notice of the posture of your body and the regularity of your breathing.

You may feel that sounds rather like meditation, even yoga. And you would be right. Throughout history human beings have looked for ways of settling their restless hearts and calming their troubled minds. Some of these may be harmful, and we need to be careful.

But what we were hearing about at the conference was specifically Christian mindfulness. While mindfulness as such has no particular religious content (it is presently being studied in universities, and used by the National Health Service) there is no doubt that there are strong points of contact with the Bible and various Christian traditions and practices.

When I first heard of mindfulness a year or two ago I was pretty sceptical – just a fancy name for an age-old interest and practice, I thought. And, if I am to be completely honest, I would have to admit that my scepticism hasn’t gone away, in spite of the many interesting facts and helpful insights we were given at our conference.

I even wonder if it could turn out to be one of those fashions the church has a habit of adopting from time to time – if perhaps in twenty years’ time we will look back and say “Do you remember that ‘mindfulness’ business that was all the rage a few years back…?”

I don’t know; time will tell. But there’s a saying: we mustn’t throw out the baby with the bath-water. And the conference certainly challenged and helped me to reflect a bit on my own mechanical and often rushed attempts to enjoy my relationship with God. Perhaps my thoughts can help you too.

The Bible tells us that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). And, thinking of mindfulness, I can only say a big Amen to that.

Nothing new; but what you might call rediscoveries. In recent years we have had a spate of worship songs designed to help us cultivate closeness to God: “Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here…” “To be in your presence,/ To sit at your feet,/ Where your love surrounds me,/ And makes me complete./ This is my desire, O Lord…”

Beautiful. And it brings back memories of my Sunday School days nearly seventy years ago, when we were taught to sing, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus,/ Look full in his wonderful face,/ And the things of earth will grow strangely dim…” When we prayed we were encouraged, “Hands together, eyes closed”, a posture to help focus and concentration.

Call it mindfulness, call it meditation, call it “having a quiet time”, call it “drawing near to God”, call it your “devotions”, call it what you like – the fact is that, especially in our restless, noisy, troubled, angry, violent world, this is something we desperately need, and something we harm ourselves by neglecting. As the tee-shirt slogan says “Just do it!”

So… Jesus called the twelve “that they might be with him” – I trust we’ve got hold of that.

But what comes next? Ah, this too is vitally important: “…that he might send them out…”

Don’t overlook that. Oh, don’t overlook that!

Lord Jesus, my life is so busy and my responsibilities so heavy that I find it hard just to be with you. By your Spirit, please help me! Amen.

Beware the snake!

Hezekiah… broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the people had been burning incense to it. 2 Kings 18: 4

If you have ever visited the Basilica of St Peter in Rome, the central church of Roman Catholicism, you will probably have seen the famous statue of Peter. He sits enthroned on a plinth; and what particularly catches the eye is his right foot. Why? Because much of it has been worn clean away by the millions of pilgrims (it’s been there for eight hundred years) who have touched and kissed it as they have come to pray. (Peter is, of course, regarded by Catholics as the first pope.)

Personally, I would question whether such a statue should ever have been made in the first place. But certainly the fact that it has become an object of veneration, almost of worship, seems worrying. Isn’t this just plain superstition?

Human beings seem so often to need physical objects as props to their religion. Well, it happened to the nation of Israel in Old Testament days as they fell away from pure spiritual worship. And Hezekiah, one of the few good kings we read about, decided to do something about it.

2 Kings 18: 4 tells us that he “removed the high places [sites of unauthorised worship], smashed the sacred stones [stones set up to mark places where people felt they were specially close to the gods], and cut down the Asherah poles [likewise, objects viewed as holy and sacred].”

Good for Hezekiah! we might say. But then… what’s this? Hezekiah also “broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made…” What’s this about!

If you go back to Numbers 21:4-9 you find that this bronze snake was made by Moses at God’s command centuries earlier as a means of healing from venomous snake bites. So how can it have been right for Hezekiah to destroy it? – something created at the command of God!

Well, the writer of Kings explains it for us: “… for the Israelites had been burning incense to it.” Ah! That bronze snake had become an object of veneration, attracting superstitious attention – rather like Peter’s stone foot. So – it had to go!

You may feel I am wrong to compare the bronze serpent with that statue in Rome. If so, I respect your conviction, and mean no offence. But I think there is a parallel which can be a real challenge to all of us, Roman Catholics or not.

Putting it simply, each of us may have a personal “bronze snake” in our lives – perhaps, in fact, several such snakes. By which I mean this: it’s tragically easy for us to allow something good and wholesome, perhaps something given by God himself, to become a little idol, something which whittles away at our worship and service of God.

It could be something healthy that you are particularly good at or particularly interested in – a sport, perhaps, or a skill like playing an instrument or creating some form of art. At first this was something you simply enjoyed, part of your God-given pleasure in life. But little by little – oh so gradually! – it took over the lion’s share of your time and squeezed out your devotion to God.

It could be something quite surprising. A Christian couple can become so besotted with one another that they gradually forget and neglect the God who brought them together in the first place. A parent may become so proud of, and obsessed with, a gifted child that they pour all their time and energy into that child’s development, and God is pushed more and more to the sidelines. Yes, even precious relationships can descend into idolatry.

Or, of course, it could be much more routine things – money, career, material prosperity, physical fitness, beauty, health. (I once knew a group of fine Christians who got hooked onto the need to keep our bodies fit as homes for the Holy Spirit. That, surely, was in principle a good thing. But then it reached the point of them running a leaflet campaign in the neighbourhood aimed at persuading people to avoid caffeinated drinks… and, even if you feel that caffeine is indeed best avoided, it was hard not to think something had gone seriously wrong.)

Almost anything can become a bronze snake. I sometimes wonder about the majestic buildings around our world which, for all I know, really were created originally to honour and glorify God. How magnificent many of them are! But what if they have now become little more than working museums, complete with turnstiles, queues of camera-toting tourists and souvenir sales? I sometimes wonder how Jesus views these places? – the same Jesus who viewed the glorious Jerusalem temple and sadly predicted its destruction.

Well, we must leave that to the judgment of God.

The question for us is: Is there a bronze snake in my life? And if there is, is it time I took a sledge-hammer to it?

Lord God, please show me any habit, taste or activity which has become part and parcel of my life without me realising that it has hardened into a little idol – and give me strength to deal with it as vigorously as Hezekiah dealt with the bronze snake. Amen.

A tale of two footballers

We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. Hebrews 6:12

The year I left school and went to college was the year England won the football World Cup. I can still reel off the names of those players – Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and the rest.

There was one player, though, who didn’t figure in that final, even though he had been an England regular, and, for a time, team captain.

I can’t remember now if this is because he was past his best, or if he had an injury, but there’s no doubt that Jimmy Armfield was a great player. And, following his recent death in his eighties, vast numbers of people, both in the football world and not, have been queuing up to pay him tribute.

Everyone seems to describe him as a “gentleman” and a thoroughly sportsmanlike player. And much has been made of his Christian faith: a committed member of his local church, he was even the church organist (I doubt if that could be said of many footballers!).

This outpouring of praise has been heartening – like the one for Cyrille Regis, also a great player and a Christian, who died even more recently. It’s good and right to recognise and praise people who set an example the rest of us can aim for.

But amid all the outpouring of admiration, there’s one thing I have missed. Wouldn’t it be great to hear somebody in the glitzy, money-soaked, celebrity-obsessed world of football not only praise the likes of Armfield and Regis, but also declare an intention to imitate them? Isn’t imitation, in fact, by far the truest way to honour people we admire?

I’ve no doubt there were times when Jimmy Armfield committed fouls; I’m sure he wasn’t perfect. But I’d be fairly confident that when he did so it was the result of a mistimed tackle, not a cynical decision to stop an opponent in his tracks (even if that means “taking one for the team” – boy, how I hate that expression!).

How much more beautiful the “beautiful game” would be if players stuck by a code of conduct that meant (can you imagine this!) no shirt-pulling or grappling with opponents, no diving, no snarling and swearing at referees or opponents, no claiming a throw-in when you know the ball went off you. Dream on!

But hold on – I’m running away with myself… This isn’t really about football: it’s about imitation.

So, to the Bible: the writer to the Hebrews tells his readers not so much to praise but to imitate those who set a Christlike example. And this is a theme that crops up in various parts of the Bible.

It goes without saying that ultimately it is Jesus himself who is our model: of course. But that doesn’t mean that lesser examples can’t also be a challenge and inspiration to us.

As I look back on my life I can think of many people who have influenced me deeply, not only by the things they have said and done, but, perhaps even more, just by being who they were. They would be amazed and embarrassed if I were to tell them now “You’ve made a big difference to me – you really have changed my life in various ways”, but the fact is that it’s true. I could never measure or calculate the effect they have had on me. My only regret is that I didn’t imitate them better.

What it boils down to is this: If I praise someone without letting their example improve me, then my praise is shallow and hypocritical. If, on the other hand, I treat them as a gift of God to help me become a better person, I not only do myself good, but also make the world a better place.

The American nineteenth-century evangelist Dwight L Moody said: “A holy life will produce the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns; they only shine.” I think that’s beautifully true. And I think that in a world where there’s no shortage of shallow people loudly blowing horns, we desperately need to pay attention to those who simply shine a steady light – as long as we don’t just leave it at that.

“Let us now praise famous men” wrote a Jewish wise man called Jesus the son of Sirach. (He lived a couple of hundred years before the Jesus we follow. If you have a copy of the Apocrypha, you’ll find it at Ecclesiasticus 44:1.)

Amen to that! Let us indeed. But let’s not forget to imitate them too!

Thank you, Lord, for those who have been for me a challenge, an inspiration, a shining light – and perhaps also a rebuke. Please help me to imitate them, so that I may follow Jesus more closely. Amen.