Let’s talk about hope

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

Hope… it’s a great theme, treasured by religious and non-religious people alike.

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast” wrote the poet Alexander Pope (though bitter experience teaches us that there are tragic occasions when it does in fact crack and give way to despair).

“Where there’s life there’s hope”… “If it were not for hope the heart would break”… there’s two non-religious sayings. And this from a Christian angle: “Other men see only a hopeless end, but the Christian rejoices in an endless hope” (Gilbert Brenken, about whom I’m afraid I know nothing). Hope matters; and it matters vitally.

This prompts a question: not “Am I a hopeful person?”, because “hopeful” is a very vague word, but “Am I a hope-filled person?”, which is a different thing altogether. If ever any person should be hope-filled, that person is the Christian, for hope is one of the crown jewels of the Christian faith. (In 1 Corinthians 13:13 Paul offers us that wonderful little trio, “faith, hope and love.”)

Here, as he draws towards the end of his long letter to the church in Rome, Paul wishes them the little benediction we find in Romans 15:13: and hope is at the heart of it. It tells us most of what we need to know about the nature of Christian hope – true hope. Let me boil it down to five headings.

First, true hope comes from God alone, for he is “the God of hope”.

Other philosophies, creeds and religions may aim for hope, and they may say some good and true things. But their visions of hope are man-made rather than God-given. Christianity alone offers the world hope based on a concrete historical event – the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Few things engender hopelessness more than the grim, unavoidable reality of death. So to know that just once in history that reality has been turned on its head is a wonderfully hope-giving thing. Death, what the Bible calls “the last enemy”, has been defeated! If that indeed is true, we can dare to hope in any and every situation.

Second, true hope comes as part of a package.

Paul brackets hope with “joy and peace” – two wonderful aspects of “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…”

Everyone wants joy; everyone wants peace. But where are they to be found in our spoiled and cruel world if not in Christ? Yes, we may know a temporary happiness through many experiences the world offers, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. And we may experience a calm and rest we call peace, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. But, beautiful though they may be, they don’t come close to the lasting joy and peace we find in Christ.

Third, true hope can’t be contained, but bubbles out of the person who has it. Paul’s prayer is that the Christians of Rome may “overflow with hope.”

The hope-filled person has a way of acting and talking – just a way of being – that sparkles with hope. Nothing shallow; nothing artificial or forced: but simply a personality that has been steeped in the hope that is in Jesus.

Fourth, true hope depends on faith.

All the beautiful things Paul wishes for the Roman Christians will come about, he says, “as you trust in him”. Those words are vital. No faith equals no hope. And faith is all about a conscious, deliberate determination to recognise the presence of God our heavenly Father with us every day, and to live in willing obedience to him.

Faith can falter, let’s be honest about that; it can be stretched to breaking point when things are hard. So let’s not feel guilty when hope dwindles and threatens to melt away. At times like that we need to look to our fellow-Christians to help us through. But as a general rule, strong faith means lively hope.

Fifth, true hope depends also on the Holy Spirit.

Paul finishes his benediction with the words “by the power of the Holy Spirit”. The Spirit is the energy, the very life, of God within us. He is the one without whom we haven’t the remotest prospect of living the Christian life. Which is why the New Testament tells us to “be filled with the Spirit”. Putting it very simply, if I am filled with “the God of hope” himself, how can I not be filled with hope? That just makes no sense.

I heard it said once that “peace is faith resting, joy is faith dancing, and hope is faith marching.” May we be able to testify to the truth of that as we trust in the God of hope!

Lord God, as I pledge myself to trust and follow you minute by minute and day by day, may the hope of Christ crucified and risen so fill me that it radiates out of me, bringing hope to everyone I meet. Amen.

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For anyone at their wits’ end

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you. 2 Chronicles 20:12

It’s a vital principle of Bible reading that we should be very careful about pulling a single verse or two out of their context and building some big truth on them.

There’s a story (all right, a very corny story) of a man who wanted to know God’s will. So he prayed, closed his eyes, opened his Bible, and stuck his finger on the page. On opening his eyes he saw that the verse he had picked out said “Judas went out and hanged himself”. Deciding that, ahem, something must have gone a bit wrong, he repeated the exercise: this time he came up with “Go, and do thou likewise”. How the story ended I don’t know…

The Bible can be made to mean just about anything if we abuse it. So as a general rule we should always set Bible verses in context, and let them speak to us on their own terms, taking them in as natural a sense as possible. (A word there not least for us preachers?)

But I am now going to break that rule. Why? Because there are some verses which, while of course they do indeed belong to a particular context, also capture a truth which is pretty well universal. And 2 Chronicles 20:12 is one such.

Background…

Jehoshaphat is one of the good, godly kings of Judah. But he and his people are in serious trouble; they are under attack from “the Moabites and Ammonites with some of the Meunites… a vast army” (verses 1-2). Jehoshaphat is “alarmed” (verse 3), so he does the right thing: he calls the people to pray and fast. He then offers a public prayer to God (verses 6-12) – a prayer which ends with these gloriously simple words, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

See what I mean about some verses being universally applicable? Haven’t we all, at some point in our lives, spoken at least the first half of that sentence: “I don’t know what to do!” (Hopefully we have also gone on with the rest!) We, in our little lives in 2018, could hardly be more remote from King Jehoshaphat, caught up in a major geopolitical conflict in the middle east some 850 years before Jesus. But boy, don’t his words resonate with us!

I wouldn’t mind betting (except, of course, that I don’t bet) that somebody reading this is in exactly Jehoshaphat’s shoes: you simply don’t know what to do.

Perhaps it’s a matter of work or career; should you go for a particular job? Perhaps it’s a personal matter; where do you want a particular relationship to go? Perhaps it’s an awkward situation; how do you handle a seriously unwelcome responsibility? It may be a major crisis: a serious illness; bad family news; financial problems; you name it. The possibilities are literally endless.

For Jehoshaphat the answer to the dilemma came quite quickly – “tomorrow” in fact (verse 16). (You can read about the reassuring words of the prophet Jahaziel son of Zechariah, and then how the critical episode was resolved, by reading down to verse 30.)

It is, I think, rarely like that for us. For us it may be very different – days, weeks, sometimes even years. But the great, universal truth is clear: God does hear the cry of his people; he does answer their prayers. If not, then (dare I say it?) God is a liar, for the Bible is full of this promise.

I’ve focussed on the first part of that snippet from Jehoshaphat’s prayer: “We don’t know what to do”. But of course we need to notice the second part too: “but our eyes are on you.”

This is where good King Jehoshaphat stands as an example to men and women of faith in every generation, 2018 AD as well as 850 BC: he looked to God and, however dire the situation seemed to be, he kept his trust in him. Easier said than done, of course. But by God’s grace, and with the support of praying friends, it can be done.

The hymn-writer George Matheson (1842-1906) wrote the magnificent hymn “O love that will not let me go”. It contains this radiant verse: “O Joy that seekest me through pain,/ I cannot close my heart to Thee;/ I trace the rainbow through the rain,/ And feel the promise is not vain/ That morn shall tearless be.”

Are the words “I don’t know what to do!” your testimony today? Then, as you keep your eyes fixed on him, may it not be long before you too can “trace the rainbow through the rain”.

Amen!

Heavenly Father, when I’m confused, torn between different options, out of my depth, tempted to anxiety and even despair, please help me to keep my eyes fixed not on the problem but on you. And so bring me, in your good time, to the same place as Jehoshaphat so long ago – at peace, secure in you, and delighting in your answer to my prayer. Amen.

Are you a hypocrite?

Jesus said: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known…” Luke 12:1-2

“The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well.”

So wrote the great comic writer P G Wodehouse.

Sorry if golf isn’t your thing (nor is it mine, in fact). But the point he is making, golf or no golf, is clear enough. An acid test of character is this: Do I routinely do what is right, even when no-one is watching me?

That man playing golf sees two things: first, his shot has landed him in trouble; second, there is no-one around to see if he gives his ball a tiny sneaky nudge so he can hit it from a better place. So what does he do? Does he strictly obey the rules of golf? Or does he give in to temptation?

Jesus’ word is a word about hypocrisy, and he is talking more about things we say rather than things we do. But the same principle applies, and we could put it like this…

There are two you’s and two me’s. There is the you who behaves honestly and properly when you know (or suspect) that someone is watching. And there is the you who behaves very differently when you think you are alone. If those two you’s are in fact in perfect alignment with one another, then you are a person of honesty and integrity. If they are not, then you are guilty of hypocrisy.

As a youngster I remember plaques that some families used to have on the wall as you entered their house: “Christ is the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.” It seemed a bit threatening, even spooky, intended to put the frighteners on you; as if Jesus was “big brother watching you”. I doubt if Jesus intended it that way with this warning – but certainly he is giving us something to think about.

A friend of mine used to be a travelling salesman, and this often involved him staying overnight in motorway hotels. He was puzzled, and troubled, by the number of pornography channels available on television in the rooms. When he queried this at reception he was told, rather apologetically, that that was the kind of material people apparently wanted to watch in the privacy of their rooms – if the hotel removed those channels their bookings simply fell away, so they had no choice (they felt) but to provide them.

Very likely the people watching those channels were outwardly respectable family men. (Were some in fact stalwart members of their local churches? The Pharisees Jesus is attacking were, remember, deeply religious people). Before we judge them too harshly, though, let’s search our own hearts and probe the kind of people we are when no human eye is upon us. It’s not only the Pharisees who can be guilty of hypocrisy…

One writer I read on this passage, G B Caird, commented so clearly and helpfully that I don’t think I can do better than repeat his words…

“The hypocrite is one who, consciously or unconsciously, has sacrificed truth to appearance…” Yes: does how I appear to others matter to me more than the truth?

“… he is more taken up with what people think of him than with the actual state of his soul…” Yes: do I worry too much about other people’s opinion of me?

“… he is so busy living up to his reputation that he has no time to be himself…” Yes: am I, in essence, living a lie?

(Quite apart from the rights and wrongs of hypocrisy, to live a false life is draining and exhausting. Ask any actor: acting is hard work!)

Every now and then there are bursts of outrage at the seeming hypocrisy of politicians or religious leaders. A politician, say, has passionately advocated the virtues of state schooling – only then to send their child to a public school. A bishop preaches about the supreme value of “family life” – only then to be exposed as sexually immoral.

The outrage is justified, no doubt. But what if it applies to us too, if only people did but know?

Jesus goes on to warn us: “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

As he said elsewhere: “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”

Or, as he might have said, “If the cap fits…” well, we know what to do with it, don’t we?

Lord God, you know each of us through and through. Please help me to be strict with myself, so that the inner, secret me is no different from the outward, public me. Amen.

Deep spirituality – and rolled up sleeves

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.  Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Matthew 17:1-4

Sometimes you see something absolutely wonderful – a baby laughing, a beautiful piece of countryside, someone you love receiving a prize or award. And your immediate instinct is to “capture the moment”. So out comes your camera and – click! – you have a photo which can bring you pleasure for years to come.

Except, of course, that you haven’t really captured the moment at all; only an image of it. The moment itself becomes part of your memory, part of that strange and haunting country we call “the past”, and so recedes remorselessly with every passing moment.

Certainly, a photo is better than nothing. But the moment itself is gone, and gone for ever.

Peter, James and John have just experienced something utterly beyond their dreams. Jesus has taken them up a mountain – and not to admire the view. No; they witness a strange and awesome transformation of him: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (can you picture it?).

They can’t take in what’s going on. And I assume that that’s why Peter, in a state of confusion and shock, makes his offer to “put up three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah”. (Luke tells us that “he didn’t know what he was saying”.)

Somewhere deep down in Peter’s soul, was there an urgent voice saying “This moment is too wonderful to let it pass! Hold on to it! Capture it! Make it permanent!”? Not having a camera, he splutters out this slightly pathetic suggestion.

He gets no answer. Not that Jesus deliberately ignores him, but “while he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them and a voice from the cloud said ‘This is my Son, whom I love… Listen to him’”. Peter’s clumsy voice was simply swamped by the voice from heaven. Who wants to think about building shelters at such a time!

Among lots of other things, the disciples are receiving a lesson which they will digest later if not immediately: no moment or experience, however wonderful, can be frozen, so to speak, or put in a bottle. Just as your camera can only freeze a memory before it begins to fade, so Peter had no way of making this experience last, never mind become permanent.

It’s human nature to want to cling to special moments. And we can even make the mistake of wanting every moment to be special: every service must be a very foretaste of heaven; every sermon must throb with the power of the Holy Spirit; every prayer time must involve spiritual rapture. And so we can be disappointed when this simply doesn’t happen. Life, even a deep spiritual life, just isn’t like that.

We know that later on Peter had other extraordinary visions – take a look, for example, at his roof-top experience in Acts 10. And we know too from Revelation 1 that John had a vision that topped even the transfiguration. But  both Peter and John had to wave those experiences good-bye: Peter came down from the roof-top to meet Cornelius the centurion, and John only saw for a limited time the glorious figure standing among the golden lampstands.

The lesson can be summed up very simply: there is still work to be done. When the disciples come down from the mountain they will find a situation of desperate need awaiting their attention: a boy suffering from seizures. Still more, when Jesus himself comes down there will soon be another hill for him to climb: a hill called Calvary or Golgotha, the Place of a Skull…

Work still to be done indeed! – and work can be demanding and draining, tiring and sometimes painful. No wonder we want to cling to the mountain-top moments.

So… relish such moments, of course; savour them. Lock them away in the treasure-trove of your memory; they can strengthen and inspire you when the going gets tough.

But don’t let them dominate your thinking or shape your expectation of what the everyday living of this wonderful Christian life is like. Very often – let’s put it bluntly – it can be just sheer grind, sheer slog. (Isn’t that why the New Testament tells us to cultivate qualities such as “perseverance” and “patience”?)

William Blake (1757-1827) wrote a tiny poem called “Eternity”: “He who binds to himself a joy/ Does the winged life destroy;/ But he who kisses the joy as it flies/ Lives in eternity’s sun rise.”

Yes! Catch hold of a beautiful butterfly, and it will quickly die; enjoy it as it flutters by, and it will point you to “eternity’s sunrise” – when such joys will never fade away.

Lord Jesus, help me to live joyfully in the moment with you, but also to be happy to let each moment pass. And so bring me to that day of joys that never end. Amen.

Do you ever doubt Jesus?

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Matthew 11:2-3

Why would John the Baptist feel the need to ask Jesus this question?

However you look at it, it’s strange. This, after all, is the man who had first declared to the world who Jesus was, with the wonderful words (and the pointing finger), “Look, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The man who declared himself unworthy even to untie Jesus’ sandals (John 1:27). The man who baptised people with mere water, but who prophesied that Jesus would “baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). A man of total, burning conviction.

Yet here we see this brave prophet (remember, the reason he was in prison was because he had denounced Herod, the local ruler, for his immoral behaviour) – we see this fierce, uncompromising man expressing what sounds seriously like… doubt!

And I don’t think there’s any getting away from it: doubt is exactly what it was.

Why he should have doubted is a matter of guesswork – all sorts of suggestions have been put forward. To my mind they come down to two, both of which start with d.

Was it depression?

We tend to think of depression as a modern sickness, often if not always brought on by all the stresses and strains of modern living. But that is wrong. All right, it may have gone by different names (a couple of hundred years ago it might have been diagnosed as “melancholy”), but make no mistake, depression is as old as humanity.

And John the Baptist had good reason to be depressed. If nothing else, for a man who was used to being out in the open to be cooped up in some horrible cell must have been utterly crushing to his spirit.

Perhaps, too, he was suffering a reaction from his heroic confrontation of Herod the tetrarch. He reminds me, in fact, of the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 18 we read about Elijah’s spiritual battle, single-handed, with 450 prophets of the god Baal, a battle in which he completely trounced them. What a high! How his adrenaline must have been pumping!

But as soon as the evil Queen Jezebel threatens to kill him, what does he do? He crumples like a tin can: “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life” (1 Kings 19:3). He sits himself down under a tree and prays to God that he might die: “I have had enough, Lord” – surely the very voice of depression.

Here is a fact that we need to take seriously: even godly, faith-filled men and women can give way to depression. Never think it couldn’t happen to you.

The other d is disillusionment.

Is it possible that John was simply disappointed in the kind of messiah Jesus turned out to be? Oh yes, Jesus was powerful all right. But was it the kind of power John expected? He had told his followers what they might expect from Jesus: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). A ferocious messiah. A judging messiah.

But what did he get? A messiah who touched the lepers and healed the sick, who comforted the poor and fed the hungry, who wept in the face of people’s despair and who (though John didn’t live to see this) died a death of excruciating pain and total degradation.

No wonder if John found himself wondering, Did I get it wrong? Was I mistaken all the time?

Sometimes people become Christians because convincing preachers or writers sell them unreal expectations. (A hymn I used to sing as a child promised us that, once you decide to follow Jesus, “now I am happy all the day”. Which I soon discovered simply isn’t true.)

Certainly Jesus promises joys and blessing beyond our imaginations; but he makes big demands too. Among other things he tells us to “take up your cross and follow me.” He warns would-be disciples to “count the cost” (Luke 14:27-28) before committing themselves. Ignore such sayings and disillusionment will very quickly set in.

I assume that Jesus and John the Baptist must have often talked together as they shared their sense of God’s destiny for their lives. But even that may not have prevented John the Baptist from nursing unreal expectations and thus experiencing a sense of disillusionment.

Whatever… one value of this story for us is simply this: remember poor puzzled John, please, when either (a) you experience doubt yourself and are tempted to feel guilty; or (b) when a Christian friend shares their doubt with you and you are tempted to criticise or condemn.

Remember the doubt of John the Baptist!

Lord, I believe – but sometimes I doubt. Sometimes depression creeps over me and drags me down. Touch me with your loving hand and help me to trust you, whether the sun is shining or the clouds are dark. Amen.