To speak or not to speak?

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God… Exodus 20:7

Jesus said, Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my father in heaven. Matthew 10:32-33

It’s an awkward situation that I’m sure every Christian has to deal with from time to time, if not regularly: how should we respond when someone uses offensive language?

I was chatting the other day to a man I know very slightly. He seems a nice enough person, friendly, humorous and just “an ordinary bloke”. But his way of expressing surprise at some bit of news or whatever was to exclaim “Jesus Christ!”, which introduced a decidedly jagged edge into a light-hearted conversation. I’m sure he had no wish to offend – it was just his way of speaking.

But… how should a follower of Jesus react in that sort of situation?

If you turn a deaf ear you can’t help feeling you have let Jesus down, and have missed an opportunity for witness. And perhaps you think too of those words of Jesus about “disowning me before others”, with the threat of yourself being disowned before the Father in heaven.

All right, you haven’t in fact positively disowned Jesus – like Simon Peter before the servant girl (Matthew 26:69-75) – but it amounts to much the same thing.

But then, on the other hand, if you do decide to respond it’s very difficult to know what to say without coming across as self-righteous and sanctimonious – leaving them thinking “Oh, he’s one of those religious nutters.”

I heard of one Christian who would say, “Excuse me, but you are talking about my dearest friend…” Well, ten out of ten there for zeal and courage; but it does come across as a bit squirm-inducing, don’t you think? You could say something like “I would be grateful if you didn’t use that kind of language when I’m around,” but doesn’t that sound rather like the pompous over-reaction of a delicate little petal? – like those splendid Victorian ladies who would swoon in horror and have to be revived with smelling-salts if somebody said “Oh bother!”  There’s plenty of snowflakes around these days without us Christians swelling the numbers.

Tricky, eh?

Well, I’ll tell you what I did: I turned a deaf ear. I think that was probably a sensible, balanced reaction, proportionate to the kind of offence caused. But I must admit that the nagging thought that it was in fact an act of cowardice won’t entirely go away.

We live in a world where people being “offended” seems to have become an epidemic; you almost feel, with some, that as soon as they get up in the morning they’re looking around for something new to be offended by.

We Christians shouldn’t go down that path – quite apart from anything else, I suspect that God’s shoulders are pretty broad, and we can leave it to him to look after himself.

And, as some will point out, in a world where children go to bed hungry every night, and people are being bombed to pieces, and others are rotting in prison for no other reason than that they have the wrong religious or political opinions – in such a world, can we really afford the luxury of being “offended”?

People who say that certainly have a point. But that doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to what may seem relatively trivial faults (if indeed something that appears in the ten commandments can be called “trivial”). The way we talk matters; the way we talk about God matters. Year on year our western world becomes more accepting of obscenities, crudeness and blasphemies, and this can only accelerate the coarsening and vulgarity in which we find ourselves swimming.

The more I thought about my little interaction with that man, the more I felt that the real issue is the one about failing to witness. After all, our increasingly godless culture does need to be reminded (a) that there is a God and (b) that there are people around who take him seriously, and it did seem a shame not to have taken an opportunity to fly the flag, so to speak.

Let’s be positive. The best way through the awkwardness, surely, is to live a life of such Christlike attractiveness that people instinctively sense that certain forms of speech and behaviour are not appropriate. Putting it another way, our business is to be the kind of people who command respect without others necessarily knowing that we belong to Christ.

I dislike it when people apologise to me for coarse speech because they happen to have found out that I’m a minister. But it would be good if they refrained from such speech simply because, without even realising it, they are seeing something of the purity of Jesus in me. (If only!)

What do you think? I would be very pleased to hear your thoughts on this, and perhaps some stories you might have to share.

Father God, hallowed be your name. Help me, please, to know when to speak and when to be silent – and when I speak, to know what I should say, and to say it with clarity, simplicity and humility. Be glorified, Lord, even in me. Amen.

A beautiful you

Don’t you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? 1 Corinthians 6:19

Don’t get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filed with the Spirit… Ephesians 5:18

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22

Two blogs ago I wrote about how the Holy Spirit came on the disciples of Jesus on that thrilling, awe-inspiring, history-changing Day of Pentecost – how the Spirit “baptised” the church to give it the energy and vitality of God himself (Acts 2).

The focus there was the Spirit in relation to God’s people as a whole, not so much the Spirit in relation to individual men and women.

But of course the Bible has much to say also about how the Spirit operates in each and every follower of Jesus: which means, if you are a Christian today, in you and me.

So last time we thought, first, about how we individually are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19), and, second, how the Spirit wants to “fill” us (Ephesians 5:18).

Today, the third in this little trio of verses (Galatians 5:22) tells us that the Holy Spirit makes us fruitful. He purifies us, purging out whatever is corrupt and sinful, and generates within us all the beautiful qualities we see in Jesus: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. (What a list that is! – well worth a few minutes of quiet reflection.)

Paul’s word “fruit” doesn’t just mean apples, oranges, pears and the rest. It’s fruit in the sense of what is produced: the New English Bible translates it as “the harvest of the Spirit”. So Paul is suggesting that we can see our lives as gardens or fields, and he is telling us that God wants to grow beautiful, Christlike things in us.

Not far from where we live there’s a well-known “visitor attraction” where you can spend a pleasant hour or two: in particular, a picturesque building and some easy country walking. And, of course, there’s also a little shop where you can drink your tea and eat your scones and jam.

Among the other things for sale – trinkets, guide-books etc – you can buy artificial fruit. Yes, a plastic pear can be yours for £2.50! (To fill a whole fruit-bowl you’d probably have to shell out £20.) But what’s to worry about? – it looks really, well, realistic.

And why not? It’s no crime to have nice things about the house. But, of course, it isn’t real: you’d crack your teeth if you tried to eat one of those pears, and you wouldn’t get much nourishment from them either.

Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” isn’t something we can produce artificially like plastic – a kind of stick-on holiness, a cosmetic beauty. No, it’s something that grows naturally from deep within us as we allow God to fill us more and more with his Spirit.

Most of us probably think we can spot insincerity a mile off – that oily smile, that sillily flattering comment. We instinctively recoil from it, simply because it’s false. The harvest of the Spirit isn’t like that – it’s simple and artless, it doesn’t have to be forced; the person who is producing it comes across as “comfortable in their own skin”. Natural – that’s the word. Organic.

But wait a minute… saying it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s automatic. It doesn’t mean that we can just fold our arms and put our feet up. No, we have to co-operate with what the Holy Spirit is doing – which means the regular disciplines of prayer and reflecting on God’s word, of joining our fellow-believers for worship, teaching and encouragement. It means regular self-examination to spot any weeds of sin sprouting within us.

Jack was a keen gardener, and extremely good at it; his garden was glorious, the envy of the whole village. One day, while he was hard at work, the vicar came down the road and stopped for a chat. Admiring the garden he said, “Isn’t it wonderful what the Lord can do!” Jack paused for a moment. Then he replied, “Aye, vicar, I’m sure that’s true. Mind you, you should have seen what it was like when the Lord had it to himself…”

We get the point. Becoming like Jesus is indeed the work of the Holy Spirit. But that doesn’t mean we have no part to play. There’s spiritual hoeing and weeding, chopping and cutting, to be done. And it takes time – indeed, a whole life-time.

The apostle John tells us that one day “we shall be like Jesus, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). In other words, the fruit of the Spirit will be complete and perfect in us.

That will be then. But the time to start is… right now.

Lord God, thank you that through your Holy Spirit you want to make me a beautiful, Christ-like person. Please give me that hunger and thirst after righteousness that Jesus spoke of, so that I become more like him now, not just when I see him face to face. Amen.

The Holy Spirit and me

Don’t you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? 1 Corinthians 6:19

Don’t get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filed with the Spirit... Ephesians 5:18

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22

I wrote last time about how the Holy Spirit came on the disciples of Jesus on that thrilling, awe-inspiring, history-changing Day of Pentecost – how the Spirit “baptised” the church to give it the energy and vitality of God himself (Acts 2).

The focus there was the Spirit in relation to the community of God’s people, not so much the Spirit in relation to individual men and women.

But of course the Bible has much to say also about how the Spirit operates in each and every follower of Jesus: which means, if you are a Christian today, in you and me. Paul is specially keen to highlight this, so I have picked three short verses from his letters which stress different aspects of what it means in practice. You can boil it down like this…

First: Christian, you are a temple (1 Corinthians 6:19).

Does that seem odd? How can a human being be a temple!

Remember that to the Jewish people of Jesus’ day the temple in Jerusalem was massively important. If God lived in heaven, then the temple was, so to speak, his headquarters on earth, his earthly dwelling-place. It was the place individuals would go when they meant serious business with God; and it was also the great gathering-place of the Jewish people as a whole.

But… Jesus predicted its destruction. When his disciples, like yokels up from the country, were gazing at it goggle-eyed, he popped their balloon with the words: “You see all these things? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:1-2).

The Jerusalem temple was doomed. And Jesus’ prediction came true about forty years later when the Roman legions came marching in. God no longer had need  of a temple, because the “place” to find him now was not in any building, but in Jesus himself. And his permanent presence, after Jesus went back to heaven, would be among his people: the followers of Jesus, through the indwelling of the Spirit, would now be God’s dwelling-place on earth – God’s temple.

This is a solemn and very wonderful thought: if you are a Christian, God lives in you. Which means that your very body is holy and sacred.

I feel like suggesting, “Repeat to yourself fifty times every day ‘I am a temple of the Holy Spirit’.” If only we could get that extraordinary truth deep into our hearts and minds!

Second: Christian, the Holy Spirit wants to fill you (Ephesians 5:18).

To have the Holy Spirit within us is one thing; but something even greater follows – we can be (and should be!) filled with the Holy Spirit.

By nature, our spirits are filled with all sorts of things, many of them bad: pride, greed, selfishness, lies, anger, lust, you name it. (In Ephesians 5:18 the one Paul particularly targets is drunkenness, but it’s worth turning back a bit and giving serious thought to the ugly lists in Ephesians 4:25-5:7.) These are the kind of things that ruin our lives and destroy our relationships.

And what Paul is saying is, “It doesn’t have to be that way! There is a better way! God the Holy Spirit living within you can turn you into the kind of human being you were meant to be. He can cleanse and purify you from the inside out, like having your heart and soul washed with beautiful clean water. But he can only do that if you let him fill you.”

How do we let the Holy Spirit fill us? By humbling ourselves every day – indeed, every hour – before God, and pledging ourselves to live in the light of his truth. When Paul says “Be filled with the Spirit” he is not talking about an event, a once-for-all experience; no, he is talking about a constant process – “be being filled with the Spirit” sounds a bit clumsy, but it captures his meaning.

Being filled with the Spirit is not an optional extra if we are Christians, like icing on an already very good cake; it is a command of God. And if God commands something, then it must be a realistic possibility. Not, of course, that we go around claiming to be Spirit-filled, for the more Spirit-filled we are, the more conscious we will be of our sins. “He/she is Spirit-filled” is always something said by another person, never something we say about  ourselves.

I picked out three verses from Paul, and I’ve only opened up two. But it’s time to stop! – so I’ll have to leave the third one till next time.

Let’s finish with this two-fold challenge: Christian, have you ever given serious thought to the fact that you are a temple of the Holy Spirit? And is it your main aim in life to be filled with the Spirit?

Why not close your eyes and reflect for a minute or two on those two questions?

Father God, thank you that you sent your Spirit to equip and empower the church. But thank you too that you send him today to strengthen and purify me. Help me to live such a life that he is able to fill me to overflowing. Amen.

Baptised – by the Holy Spirit!

When the day of Pentecost came, they [the disciples] were all together in one place. Suddenly the sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit… Acts 2:1-4

I love Acts chapter 2!

It’s the story of how the Holy Spirit came in supernatural power on the followers of Jesus fifty days after his rising from the dead. It’s one of the most dramatic and exciting chapters in the whole Bible…

Sitting in an upstairs room in Jerusalem for fear of what might happen to them, the disciples suddenly hear the sound of a gale-force wind. (Hey, where has that come from!) They see “what seemed to be tongues of fire” resting on them. (Where have they come from!)

The Spirit of God fills them, and they find themselves able to speak in languages they have never learned. They spill out into the streets and a curious crowd gathers. What’s going on! Are they drunk?

Simon Peter (the man who, seven weeks earlier, had cursed and sworn and denied that he knew Jesus) stands up and tells the crowd what has happened…

This is the fulfilment of a prophecy told by the prophet Joel way back in the Old Testament. This is the breath, the energy, the vitality, the very life of Almighty God filling weak and sinful men and women. This is the Holy Spirit!

And it’s all to do with a man called Jesus – “a man accredited by God to you” – who was crucified and raised from the dead. Through him, says Peter, you can find forgiveness of your sins, be reconciled to God, and receive this very same gift of the Holy Spirit – and a whole new life to live.

In awed response to this message, “about three thousand people” became believers that day and were baptised (that must have taken some organising!).

And so the church is born, and the world is never the same. If ever there was a turning point in history, this was it.

Can you see why I love this story so much? – and not just because it gave me the opportunity, when still in full-time ministry, to preach a big, fat, juicy sermon on Whit Sunday opening up all these thrilling themes. No; this is a story we in the church need, to challenge and inspire us – and to remind us of the One who has been called “the forgotten member of the Trinity”.

But (there’s always a “but”, isn’t there?) one big question dangles over the retelling of the story: why are things so different today? Where is the life and vitality today? Why, even in our strongest and liveliest churches, are events remotely like these so conspicuously missing?

Answer: God only knows. And given that he is God, we have to humbly bow our heads and accept his will.

But the Bible does give us some clues.

For one thing, it suggests to us that God’s method in directing the course of human history often involves one-off, unrepeatable events that are then followed by more ordinary, mundane events…

The calling of Abraham to be the father of many peoples… Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea under Moses… the anointing of David as king of Israel… supremely, of course, the great “Christ-event”: Jesus born to be our saviour, his baptism, his earthly ministry, his death on the cross and his resurrection.

Pentecost, when the infant church was baptised not just with water but with the Holy Spirit, falls into this pattern. And the Book of Acts itself shows us how that sense of “settling down” into a more routine “ordinariness” quickly takes place. After the wind and the fire, there is…  suffering and persecution; the sheer slog of evangelism and church-building; sadly, disagreements, tensions and divisions.

Putting it simply, the white heat of Pentecost Day quickly cools. And while Pentecost-type days can and do still happen (the church tends to refer to them as “revivals”), the events of Acts 2 are unrepeatable.

So what does this say to us as Christians today in our relatively “ordinary” churches?

First, we mustn’t let this thought of things “settling down” make us complacent – as if to say “Oh well, that’s all right, then, we’re OK as we are”.

No. No! Acts 2 is given, as I said, to challenge and inspire us, to make us hungry and thirsty for more of God, his love, his power and his Spirit. Pray for a mini-Pentecost! Yes, really.

But second, we mustn’t become disheartened. It’s easy for spiritually-minded Christians to “beat themselves up” over our comparative weakness… We don’t pray enough! (but how much would be “enough”?). We don’t love God enough! (but who does?). We are still sinful and compromised in our faith! (yes, but where will you find the perfect Christian or the perfect church?).

Sometimes, I suspect, we can be harder on ourselves than God himself is.

Our calling, especially if we are living in a spiritually barren climate, is simple enough: love God; trust God; enjoy God. And roll up our sleeves and get on with the, routine, day-to-day business of living this wonderful, holy Christian life.

Who knows when the Spirit might fall on us afresh?

Come, Holy Spirit, to cleanse and renew us:/ Purge us of evil and fill us with power:/ Thus shall the waters of healing flow through us;/ So may revival be born in this hour. Amen.  (R D Browne)

Come, Lord Jesus, come, Lord Jesus,/ Pour out your Spirit we pray./Come, Lord Jesus, come, Lord Jesus,/ Pour out your Spirit on us today. Amen!  (Gerald Coates and Noel Richards)

A problem or an opportunity?

Jesus said “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  Matthew 28:19

Did you hear about the first ever Islamic mosque to be built on the Isle of Lewis?

In case you don’t know, Lewis is about as northerly as you can get in the British Isles – keep going for an hour or two and you hit the north pole (all right, just a touch of exaggeration there). It belongs to islands called the Outer Hebrides, and its capital has the wonderful-sounding name of Stornoway which, to me, perfectly conjures up images of grey seas, big skies, of wildness and remoteness.

I’ve never been there, though I have a friend who was brought up there (Hi, Sam!), and he has given me an impression of the kind of place it is – very different from the cities I am familiar with!

The population is less than 20,000. And among those 20,000 there are some 60 Muslims. Apparently a Muslim community has been there for about 60 years, and most of them feel they are real Hebrideans.

But they have never – until last week – had their own place of worship. So the opening of this quite modest building (a renovated cottage) is a significant event.

As I read this news item my immediate thought was, “But places like Lewis are Christian through and through! How will the bulk of the local people react to this?”

Well, most of them, it seems, have been supportive and welcoming. But the type of Christianity represented by the island is of a staunchly conservative kind. So it was no surprise to read that not everyone is happy…

A local minister was quoted in the paper as fearing that the mosque would represent a threat to Lewis’s Christian way of life. He feared that it would “lead people astray” and “endanger their never-dying souls.” Mmm.

I do have some understanding of how he feels. In my London days I used to preach occasionally at a church whose building was completely dwarfed by a massive, ornate Hindu temple directly opposite, and it was difficult to be there without thinking, rather frowningly, “Yes, things have certainly changed in recent years…!”

I remember too the opening of the Regent’s Park mosque in London in 1978 and finding it difficult to restrain the instinctive, knee-jerk reaction, “What’s that doing here!”

So I certainly have no right to be critical of that minister – I don’t stand in his shoes. No doubt, also, he said far more than was quoted in the paper, and perhaps some of it was of a more positive kind (and yes, perhaps there will be some who are “led astray”). But whatever, his comments certainly came across as essentially negative.

But wait a minute… if we really believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), and if we believe that one day “every knee will bow” to him (Philippians 2:10), is there any true reason to be fearful? Even if we are convinced that Islam is indeed a false teaching, is it not a more positive – not to say a more biblical – approach to say “Here are people with whom I can share the good news of Jesus!” rather than “Here are people who might adversely affect our way of life”?

The fact is that nothing in our world ever stays the same, and we have to get used to that idea and adjust to it. But shouldn’t we, by faith, see “problems” as opportunities?

Jesus told the apostles to “Go and make disciples” (emphasis on the “go”). But I’m sure he could also have said “Make disciples of those who have come” (emphasis on the “come”).

The Christian faith was born into a melting-pot of religious faiths and traditions. The Roman emperor himself was virtually an object of worship, and there were gods and goddesses aplenty wherever you went, as Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 20) makes very plain. The first believers had to fight in order for their faith in Jesus to find a foothold; and the fact is that, by God’s grace, their fight met with remarkable success. Where are all those gods and idols now?

And that’s exactly how it is for us today, whether we live on a remote island or in a teeming city. God calls us to have faith that the truth as it is in Jesus will ultimately conquer – and, until that “ultimately” arrives, to busy ourselves with the task of making Christ known at every opportunity.

This cannot be done, at first, simply through words. Truly Christlike living – honest, kind, loving, humble, generous, hospitable, sacrificial – is a beautiful and attractive thing (perhaps it is what drew you to Christ in the first place?) and it is what earns us the right to speak of our faith.

So I would like to think that the large Christian majority on the Isle of Lewis, far from being disheartened, will pray to live such Christ-centred, Spirit-filled lives that their Muslim neighbours will be drawn irresistibly to Jesus – mosque or no mosque.

Father, we pray for our Muslim friends and neighbours. In this season of Ramadan, as many devote themselves to special fasting and prayer, we ask that some, even perhaps to their own amazement, will find that the answer to those prayers is Jesus, crucified, risen and one day returning. Amen.

Who’d be a leader?

David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, “Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan… so that I may know how many there are.” But Joab replied… “Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?” The king’s word, however, overruled Joab… 1 Chronicles 21: 2-4

Leaders are important people. Very important people. They can make or destroy a nation, a business, a school, a sports team… a church. Which is why the Bible takes them very seriously.

David is God’s appointed leader of his people Israel, a man beautifully described elsewhere as “after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14: could you be described that way?). But he was far from perfect, and the Bible is honest in describing his various lapses and sins. (It’s encouraging too in the way it describes his willingness to confess and repent of these sins – one of the very things, I imagine, that made him a man after God’s own heart).

In 1 Chronicles 21 David allows Satan to seduce him into sin: he decides to carry out a census of the people of Israel. Why this is wrong isn’t explained, so we needn’t bother to speculate. But it draws a protest from Joab, David’s right-hand man, who says very plainly that it will “bring guilt on Israel”.

We then read, sadly, the key statement: “the king’s word, however, overruled Joab.” The rest of the chapter describes the appalling consequences of this stubbornness: by his sinful folly David, in effect, dragged the whole nation down with him.

As I reflect on this, I can’t help thinking of the world of politics, especially what is going on presently in both Russia and America. If I weren’t a Christian, and therefore a believer in God’s sovereign rule over the affairs of humankind, I think I would feel quite frightened. And of course I think too of our own prime minster here in Britain and the great avalanche of problems she has to contend with. I find myself wondering how often, in our churches, we obey the command of 1Timothy 2:1-2 to pray for Theresa May and other world leaders…

But what about church life? Can the disaster of 1 Chronicles 21 help us?

I suggest three things.

First, and stating the most obvious, recognise the sheer importance of leadership. If we are called to be leaders, let’s take this privilege and responsibility with the greatest seriousness. And if we are among those who are led, let’s make sure that we pray and care for those God has set over us.

Let’s be under no illusions: just as David’s sin had dire repercussions for the whole nation, in the same way bad leadership affects everyone – it drags into the mire not only the leader, but also the people who look to him or her.

Second, in appointing leaders, look for the kind of qualities God originally found, presumably, in David. Not perfection, of course, because that would be asking for the impossible; but – to pick out just three – humility, teachability, and a willingness to admit it when he got it wrong.

Sadly, in this instance David failed in the areas of humility and teachability – he obviously was too proud, or too self-absorbed, to seek God’s guidance regarding the census in the first place, and he compounded this by refusing to listen to Joab’s wise rebuke.

But give him credit for his simple words in verse 8: “I have sinned greatly by doing this… I have done a very foolish thing.” No leader is to be trusted if he or she isn’t prepared to say “Sorry, I was wrong.”

Third, set leadership in the context of teamwork.

In the world that David lived in, kings were supreme and that was that. Yes, there were those – Joab in this case, elsewhere prophets like Nathan – who were on hand to offer wise advice and sometimes sharp rebukes. But “teamwork” isn’t a word that springs to mind when we think of the way kings operated in the ancient world

But the New Testament church was a very different case. It’s clear from Acts that the churches had groups of people (sometimes called “elders”) who directed their affairs. Paul, for example, starts his letter to the church in Philippi with the words “to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus in Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons” (NIV translation). In 1 Timothy 2 he sets out the kind of qualities leaders should have; certainly Timothy appears to be “the leader of the leaders”, but he will just as certainly have worked in close partnership with these people.

It’s hard not to wonder – would David have been saved from the census disaster if he had had such a group around him? “One-man (or woman) leadership” is dangerous and unbiblical.

Whether we are leaders or led, are there things in this sorry episode that we need to give serious thought to?

Thank you, Lord, for those you appoint to serve as leaders in the church. Help them to be good and faithful under-shepherds to the Good Shepherd himself, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Do the right thing at the right time

But I tell you, love your enemies…  Matthew 5:44

It’s heart-warming, the way everyone in the football world has been queuing up to send messages of support to Sir Alex Ferguson. (In case football isn’t your thing, Ferguson is possibly the most successful manager in the history of the game, but a few days ago he was taken to hospital for urgent brain surgery.) Everyone is wishing him well, which of course is good.

But the striking thing is that many of those sending their good wishes have been serious enemies of Ferguson over many years. And I don’t think the word “enemies” is an over-statement: they have been more than merely “rivals”.

Like any walk of life, football can be pretty nasty: sporting rivalry can become bitter and personal, and things are said which should never be said.

It’s much the same with another legend of the football world, Arsene Wenger. He is just finishing after a long period as manager of Arsenal, and, like Ferguson, has generated hatred and animosity in many quarters. Yet on the occasion of his send-off, many of those enemies of yesterday are praising him to the skies.

It happens too in politics. Have you ever smiled a little cynically when, after a leading politician’s death, all their political foes come piling in to say what a wonderful person they were, and how great their achievements were?

This prompts a very simple thought: if we are prepared to be nice about somebody when they’re in trouble – or actually dead – why not be nice about them while they’re still alive?

Jesus told his disciples to love their enemies. “Love” is a strong, rich word: perhaps the greatest word there is in any language, for what ultimately matters more than love?

We’re so familiar with Jesus’ command that we fail to notice how revolutionary it is: he doesn’t tell us, for example, to tolerate our enemies, or to turn a blind eye to them, or to treat them with a stiff and dutiful courtesy: no, we are to love them. And that means, at the very least, wishing them well, doing them any practical good that may be possible, and certainly praying for (not just about!) them.

I don’t know if there’s anyone in your life who you might regard as an enemy. I hope not – but it’s always possible that somebody once did you a serious wrong or caused you real pain. Even if not, I’m sure there are people who, as we say, “I haven’t always seen eye to eye with”, people who “really get up my nose”. Yes?

Well, the time to act is now. Jesus didn’t tell us to love our enemies when we hear that something bad has happened to them, or when they are seriously ill, or even when they’re dead. No: love them; and love them now.

This may sound like a truly elevated spiritual thing to do. And perhaps it is. But it’s also very practical and down to earth. Think of it like this… If I harbour a grudge against someone or nurse hatred in my heart, I’m not (a) doing them any harm or (b) doing myself any good. The energy poured into that animosity is literally a waste of time – not to mention a poisoning of my own soul. What’s the point?

By the way, please don’t think I’m suggesting that the former enemies currently praising Alex Ferguson are insincere; I’m not saying they’re hypocrites – no doubt they mean what they say. I’m just saying how sad it is that their praises had to wait for something sad to happen.

The time for generosity of spirit – the time for loving our enemies – is… right now. Don’t leave it till it’s too late!

Lord Jesus Christ, please drain out of my heart every trace of anger, animosity, malice and hatred. Teach me to love even those who have hurt and wounded me, just as you have loved me. Amen.

Soften my heart, Lord!

I speak the truth in Christ – I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race,  the people of Israel.  Romans 9:1-3

If you are a Christian I am pretty sure that there will be people close to you who are not. And I am sure too that you will pray for them regularly, and look for opportunities to be a witness for Christ in word and deed.

In a word, you care. But here’s a question: How much do you care? On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is “hardly at all” and 9 is “with red-hot passion”, how would you estimate the extent of your caring?

Sorry if that’s a rather crude way of making the point, but it’s a question worth challenging ourselves with. I certainly find it so, anyway. There are people close to me, people I love very much, who are not believers in Jesus, and I certainly do care. But… if I probe further, and if I’m totally honest – well, I’m not so sure how much.

Thinking along these lines makes Paul’s words at the beginning of Romans 9 all the more striking. This is Paul at his most emotional; real agony of spirit oozes out of his words.

He is writing about the Jewish people, his people, the people of Israel. Remember that Paul was a Jew – and he never ceased to think of himself that way, even after he came to faith in Christ. And he is heart-broken that so few of his fellow-Jews have recognised in Jesus the long-promised Messiah.

So what does he say? Here are his striking, almost frightening, words: “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people…”

Sometimes, when people see someone they love suffering, they say, “I would do absolutely anything to help them…” Perhaps donate a kidney to heal a disease, or come up with a large sum of money to pay a ransom, or adopt a child the other person can no longer look after. They mean it too – there are wonderful stories of people going to such lengths: “absolutely anything”, indeed.

But… forfeit your own salvation? Now, wait a minute…!

The fact is that Paul here is saying nothing less than that: he would be willing to be “cursed and cut off from Christ” if only that led to the Jews accepting Jesus. I’m not sure I could say such a thing regarding my non-Christian loved ones. Could you?

Is Paul deliberately exaggerating in order to make the point? Possibly, I suppose, though if you read the whole passage it doesn’t sound much like it.

Is he perhaps consciously echoing the feelings of Moses nearly fifteen hundred years earlier?

Moses, remember, led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and took them to Mount Sinai. He goes up the mountain in order to receive the law from God’s hand, but when he comes down he is appalled to find that the people have started to worship an idol, a golden calf, and to have a wild, riotous party.

Furious, he smashes the tablets of the law in front of them and gives vent to his horror. But then he prays: “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed!… But now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exodus 32:32). Does that remind you of Paul?

His passionate words trigger two thoughts in me.

First, and most obviously, they prompt me to pray for a softer, warmer heart. It’s easy to become lukewarm to the point of indifference, isn’t it? I love the little Graham Kendrick song: “Soften my heart, Lord,/ Soften my heart./ From all indifference/ Set me apart,/ To feel your compassion,/ To weep with your tears;/ Come soften my heart, O Lord,/ Soften my heart.” Amen!

Second, they remind me that our evangelism – the business of seeking to win people to faith in Jesus – must always be motivated by love. This may seem too obvious to need saying – but I think it does. Why? Because it’s possible to evangelise out of wrong motives.

Sometimes we, in effect, see evangelism as a recruitment drive, an activity designed to “keep the church going”. Or we do it to make ourselves feel better – to chalk up good numbers in the church’s members’ list so that we can boast about how “successful” we are. Or we do it purely out of a sense of duty – because the Bible (or the preacher) tells us we should.

But all that is wrong. If we are keen to spread the good news of Jesus, let it be because our hearts ache that people are missing out on the greatest thing that can ever happen to them: receiving the forgiveness of God, being reconciled to him, and being made a new person in Christ.

Could it be that our efforts at evangelism are so often unfruitful because we have an accountancy mind rather than a compassionate heart?

Saviour of men, our humanity sharing/ Give us a passion for souls that are lost./ Help us to follow, thy gospel declaring;/ Daily to serve thee and count not the cost. Amen.    (R D Browne)

A truth we can’t hide from

All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. Psalm 90:9-10

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many… Hebrews 9:27-28

I was chatting recently to someone I have known pretty well all my life. She is now in her eighties, and we agreed that we ought to fix up some time to meet. I added, joking really, that “After all, we don’t know how much time we’ve got left, do we?” Whereupon she laughed nervously and said, “Oh, I don’t think about things like that.”

I suppose her attitude is understandable if you aren’t a Christian, and have no belief or assurance about what happens after death – turn a blind eye; bury your head in the sand; pretend it just isn’t going to happen.

But it really isn’t wise, because if there’s one thing the Bible is brutally honest about, it’s the reality of death.

It’s right there in the beginning as a solemn warning: God tells the man and woman that if they eat the fruit of the forbidden tree “you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17). And it’s right there at the end, though this time as a wonderful promise: “There will be no more death…” (Revelation 21:4).

In between Genesis and Revelation it’s clear that death is an enemy: Paul describes it as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Psalm 90, likewise, is an extended meditation on the sheer shortness of life in comparison with the eternal existence of God. The picture it paints (admittedly only a partial picture) is gloomy: “… we finish our years with a moan. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”

A life lesson that we all learn while young (hopefully!) is that a problem or sadness – any problem or sadness, large or small – doesn’t disappear through being ignored. No: it will just lurk there in the shadows of our minds, and in the end force itself on us; and so the only sensible way to deal with it is to look it fair and square in the face right now. And that is what the Bible encourages us to do when it comes to death.

If Psalm 90 gives us the bad news, Hebrews 9:27-28 is just one of many places that (thank God!) give us the good.

It speaks plainly about the once-for-all nature of death: “… people are destined to die once…” (no doctrine of reincarnation here), and then goes on to describe what follows: “… and after that to face judgment”.

Yes, we are all answerable to God our maker, and he will pass our lives under his holy scrutiny.

But if the idea of standing in all our sinfulness before God is frightening, this is where the gospel really is good news. For it tells us that “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). Paul expresses the same thought with beautiful simplicity in Romans 8: “… there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.

Certainly, the idea of death remains a solemn and disturbing thought; but if these words are true, its horror is taken away.

When we are young, life seems never-ending: we simply can’t imagine being old. But as time goes by it gets shorter and shorter: now, perhaps, we can hardly remember being young! Seventy years seems like the blink of an eye. (I remember the day it dawned on me that I had reached an age where I was older than my father was when he died – a sobering moment, that: how did that happen!)

But that’s the way it is. And if we learn no other lesson from it, surely it has to be this: to make good use of every day that is given. I don’t mean by that ticking off items on a “bucket list” (“one hundred things to do before you die”), but taking seriously that as long as God gives me another day of life, he has something for me to do, some ministry for me to exercise. Time for rest and fun and joy and laughter, of course; but, above all, time to know God ever more closely and to serve him ever more faithfully.

I mentioned at the start a friend who tried not to think about “things like that.” But I remember too another very elderly lady, a lady of deep faith in Jesus, who, in extreme old age, physical weakness and sheer weariness, used to say “Colin, please pray that the Lord would take me.” Which, of course, I did. And which, of course, he did.

And I remember standing at her grave-side with a handful of friends and gladly resting her in the hands of her Father God.

However unsettling the thought of approaching death may be, when that day comes may it be like that too for you and for me. Amen!

Lord, teach me to number my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom. Amen.