The light that cannot be quenched

When they [the wise men] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him”. Matthew 2:13

Christmas is all about love and joy, hope and peace. But right there in the Bible story there is a dark side too. It focuses on the brooding figure of King Herod, whose threats drive Joseph, Mary and Jesus to flee to Egypt.

I have to admit that in all my years as a Christian I have given very little thought to this episode. Only Matthew of the Gospel-writers mentions it, and it covers less than a dozen verses, so it’s very easy to slide over (though that’s no excuse, of course).

But once you start thinking about it, it makes you aware that while the world into which Jesus was born was massively different from the world we live in today, it was very much the same as well. Let me pick out two  points of similarity…

  1. It was a world of appalling cruelty.

Herod was a monster – a fact confirmed by writers outside the New Testament. Murder was second nature to him – he murdered his own wife (one of ten, anyway) and other members of his family as well as countless others. One writer tells us that when he knew he was dying he ordered the slaughter of leading citizens of Jericho – presumably to ensure that there would be plenty of weeping going on at the time of his funeral.

And he “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem… under the age of two…” (Matthew 2:16). Par for the course, really; all in a day’s work.

Cruelty today is everywhere, not least involving children. Much of it is hidden, going on behind closed doors – I think of a friend who told me that as a little boy he was routinely locked in the cupboard under the stairs for no particular reason.

But when cruel people get into positions of power, well, the scope is infinite.

So, a suggestion: let’s take the example of Herod as a prompt to pray for tyrants, despots and bully-boys around the world. May God give us men and women of humility, integrity and principle to lead our nations, east and west, north and south!

And another suggestion: make 1Timothy 2:1-2 a key text for 2019…

  1. It was a world full of victims.

Where there is cruelty there are, of course, victims. We naturally focus on the family of Jesus as they flee to Egypt. But let’s not forget the families of Bethlehem, as Herod’s brutal soldiers come and massacre those baby boys. (Our grandson would have been in that age-group; the mere thought is unbearable.)

Many of this world’s victims are not obviously so; they lead normal lives, perhaps holding down jobs and doing ordinary things. But deep down they are carrying wounds which will never completely heal – like my friend in dark, cold terror under the stairs.

Bad behaviour, of course, should never be excused. But perhaps sometimes we need to show more patience and make more allowance when damaged people act in ways we find it hard to accept or excuse.

And as for mass victimhood – well, where do we end? Pathetic groups of people heading in tiny boats for the coast of Europe, or trudging forlornly towards the American border… the Rohingya Muslims in Burma… the untold numbers (many of them Christians) in labour camps in North Korea… the Dalit people in India and Nepal… where indeed do we end?

It is part of our Christian duty not only to pray for victims, whoever they may be, but also to offer what practical support we can. There are many charities and other organisations which need our interest and our financial backing. (How’s that for a new year resolution idea?)

Yes, the world of the baby Jesus was a dark, hurting world. And so is ours. But there were rays of light as well.

I’m speculating now, but I think we can assume that the family of Jesus would have found kindness and hospitality when they got to Egypt. There would have been many Jewish people that they could identify with, for Egypt was a long-standing place of refuge for Israelites.

Did somebody offer Joseph a job? – they would, after all, have needed money to make ends meet during the period, quite likely two or three years, that they were there. Did local women, both Jews and Egyptians, rally round to help Mary as she got used to motherhood?

It would be fascinating to know more, but, well, we just don’t. The fact is that they survived their exile and, in time, returned to the land of Israel and the city of Nazareth: the eternal light of God couldn’t be snuffed out.

Yes, Herod stands for darkness. But light does shine in the darkness! And very often it glows brightest in small but precious acts of kindness.

Do we pray to be kind people?

Lord God, help me to be the light of Jesus day by day in this dark and hurting world. Help me to be kind. Amen.

Anyone for a laugh?

A cheerful heart is good medicine. Proverbs 17:22

… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance… Ecclesiastes 3:4

It is a fair, even-handed adjustment of things that, while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.

Do you know who wrote those words?

I know people who make a point of reading A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, every year as Christmas approaches. And I reckon it’s not a bad habit. It’s quite short, after all, this account of the sad life and wonderful rebirth of Mr Ebenezer Scrooge, and while the quote I’ve given is at the heart of it, there’s plenty more besides in this vivid, powerful tale.

It’s about guilt and shame; greed and materialism; loneliness and isolation; a wasted life and a hardened conscience. And it’s about redemption and new beginnings; innocence and purity; good humour and laughter.

What an imagination Dickens had! A Christmas Carol is a story to bring tears to your eyes – tears of sorrow and tears of joy. If you’ve never read it, I certainly recommend it.

I don’t know how much of a Christian Dickens was, but he certainly knew his Bible, and I think Proverbs 17:22 could well have been his favourite verse. I think too he would have nodded his head in approval of Martin Luther’s plain (if slightly shocking) statement, “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.”

Yes, “A cheerful heart is good medicine” is certainly a great Bible saying.

But of course no single verse tells the whole story. Didn’t Jesus himself teach that “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4)? Didn’t his brother James write, “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:9)? And what about Ecclesiastes 7:2-3 (just get this!)? “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting… Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.” Er, pardon me!

Are we confronted here with one of those many contradictions some people like to find in the Bible?

Of course not! The Bible is a big collection of books which were originally written for particular times and particular circumstances, and which reflect different aspects of truth, even when they’re hard to harmonise. Which is why we should do our best to read all of it, not just picking bits here and there as they happen to suit us.

There are of course times for mourning. When Jesus pronounced “those who mourn” as “blessed”, he wasn’t talking about people at a funeral. No, he was talking about people who are sad at the sinful state of their hearts – or at the sorry state of our fallen world, and the sufferings of the persecuted, the hungry and the lonely.

James 4:9 is explicitly addressed to “sinners” and “double-minded” people. And Ecclesiastes 7:2-3 is – this is my understanding, anyway – the words of a man shaking his head in pity and sadness over the shallowness and stupidity of so many of our efforts to “have fun”. It’s hard to see any other meaning in these sombre verses.

When the Bible commends laughter and cheerfulness, it is talking about the normal state of affairs for people who are living their everyday lives at peace with God and with their fellow-men and women.

They are sinners, of course; but they are forgiven sinners, and that makes all the difference. Their laughter will be of a healthy, and health-giving, kind: not coarse or crude, not sarcastic or wounding, not cynical or mocking. Their good humour will be like that of Mr Fezziwig in Christmas Carol, or that of Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew Fred.

God help us as Christians to keep our humour clean and wholesome!

I like the words of the seventeenth century Puritan writer Richard Baxter: “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers.” Amen to that! (Hey, I thought Puritans were supposed to be dour and humourless!) And the words of Sydney Harris: “God cannot be solemn, or he would not have blessed man with the incalculable gift of laughter.”

A couple of other thoughts strike me…

First, is it any accident that when Paul gives us his list of “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5), joy comes in second place, second only to love…?

Second, is it any accident that God’s eternal kingdom is compared to a party – the “wedding of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:7)…? Wedding receptions usually have a fair amount of mirth and merriment, don’t they?

So, as Christmas is almost upon us, let me borrow the words of Dickens’ Tiny Tim and say: “GOD BLESS US, EVERY ONE!”

Lord God, restore to me the joy of your salvation. Help me to be merry in Christ – and not only at Christmas time! And may that precious gift spill over to everyone I meet. Amen!

Head in the clouds – feet on the ground

Live in peace with each other… warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances…  Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. 1 Thessalonians 5:13-22

Paul has lots of good things to say about the church in Thessalonica, and he writes this, the first of two letters, to encourage them.

But there is one thing that troubles him: some of them, apparently, are getting rather confused – perhaps a little over-excited – about the belief that Jesus is coming again.

They’re worrying about Christians who have died – will they miss out on that event (4:13-18)? Possibly they are getting a bit fixated on calculating precisely when it’s going to happen (5:1-6). His second letter even seems to suggest that some of them are ceasing to work for a living because Jesus is coming back (2 Thess 3:6-13).

Paul wants to nip these misguided ideas in the bud. And one thing he does to achieve this – in order to keep them grounded – is to blitz them with a list of practical pieces of advice. This is what 5:12-22 is all about – a scatter-gun list of commands for them to chew over.

He doesn’t open them up in detail; and that leaves us free to put a little flesh on the bones, so to speak. So, starting in verse 13, can I invite you to take a few minutes to reflect on and to digest what he wants of them?

Live in peace with each other… Paul knows only too well that even Christlike people can have tensions and disagreements. Peace is like a beautiful but very fragile flower: easily crushed, easily destroyed.

So… Never risk the precious gift of peace unless there is some really good reason!

… warn those who are idle and disruptive… Perhaps some members of the church were saying, in effect, “Well, if Jesus is coming back, why bother to work? We’re heading for heaven! Why not just trust in him?” Which sounds very spiritual – but which Paul suggests amounts to the sin of idleness. Such attitudes are bound to be “disruptive” and harmful to others, especially others who aren’t quite so sure of themselves.

So… While, yes, we must always be peace-makers, there may be times when we need to take such enthusiastic people aside for a quiet word.

… encourage the disheartened, help the weak… Not all Christians, however deep and sincere their faith, are robust, either emotionally or physically. They need encouragement, not criticism or contempt.

So… Be a builder-upper, not a putter-downer!

… be patient with everyone… In our busy, go-getting world this command is one of the most challenging of all: patience is in pretty short supply. “Count to ten before you speak”, we are told. Or “Engage your brain before putting your mouth into gear.”

Wouldn’t our world (not mention our churches) be very different if we all took that advice?

Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong… The desire for “getting my own back” is a powerful (and natural) one. But we must never excuse it; it needs to be well and truly squelched.

Don’t we follow the one who prayed for his tormentors, “Father, forgive them…”? Doesn’t the Bible tell us that “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord”?

… always strive to do what is good… Getting rid of bad things – impatience, vengeance, idleness, whatever – is no use if we don’t replace them with good things. Paul says elsewhere, “Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

So, beware… Leave any kind of vacuum in your life, and the devil will make sure it fills up pretty quickly.

Rejoice always… Easier said than done, this one! But it reminds us that followers of Jesus have much to be thankful for, and that we are always (as the saying goes) to “accentuate the positive”. A gloomy, pessimistic Christian is a contradiction in terms.

A moment later he fleshes this out with… give thanks in all circumstances… where “all” really does mean all!

… pray continually… Typical Paul! If ever a man lived a life soaked in prayer, it was him. Pray continually – even when you don’t feel like it… even when your prayers don’t seem to be answered… even when you have to pray alone.

So… Be a one-man/woman walking prayer-meeting!

Do not quench the Spirit... Christians often divide into two camps when it comes to the Spirit. There are those who, in effect, limit the Spirit to the Bible; and there are those who believe so strongly in the freedom of the Spirit that they elevate supposedly Spirit-inspired utterances over the Bible.

So… Remember the wise saying: “The Word without the Spirit puffs up… the Spirit without the Word blows up.”

Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all… Christian, don’t be a cynic – but don’t be a sucker either.

… hold on to what is good; reject every kind of evil… Or, as Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”. No compromises, no half-measures, no settling for second best.

So ends our whistle-stop tour. Any bones there for you to pick over and put into practice?

Lord God, as your Spirit fills me and your word instructs me, help me to live a life of lively, loving and solid obedience. Amen.

What do you think of Mary? (2)

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing near by, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son”, and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. John 19:25-27

They [the apostles] all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. Acts1:12-14

Last time I invited us to check if we might be guilty of, in effect, airbrushing Mary out of the gospel story – afraid, perhaps, of allowing unbiblical and even superstitious ideas about her to creep in. I suggested that as long as we limit ourselves strictly to what the New Testament actually says, there is a lot we can learn from Mary’s life and experience.

I aimed to focus on four “snapshots”, but I only had space for two: first, Mary the ecstatic young mother-to-be; and second, Mary the middle-aged woman, anxious, troubled and even perhaps doubting what Jesus was doing. These snapshots speak to us about the highs and lows of being a child of God.

Now for snapshots 3 and 4.

Snapshot 3 is Mary in emotional torment at the cross (John 19:25-27).

Of the four Gospels, only John explicitly mentions her as being present at the crucifixion. He doesn’t dwell on what must have been going on in her heart and mind, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination…

Standing in a little bunch of Jesus’ followers, she has the unspeakably horrible experience of looking up and watching her son slowly tortured to death.

I imagine that the thought of anybody being tortured appals and horrifies us; but to witness this happening to someone you deeply love – well, there are no words to express it, are there?

When Jesus was a new-born baby, brought by Joseph and Mary for blessing in the Jerusalem temple, the godly old man Simeon had spoken a word of prophecy about his destiny. And he had added a word too for Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). What that “sword” might mean in practice Simeon didn’t say; but surely this terrible moment must have been the deepest cut of all.

Can this part of Mary’s experience apply in any way to us?

I think so. It reminds us that there is a cost to following Jesus. Yes, Mary knew exhilarating joy; but she also knew excruciating pain. And there may be times when we too find that the cost of discipleship is almost more than we can bear.

Isn’t this why Jesus told his disciples to “count the cost” of following him? Isn’t this why he told them they must “take up their cross” to follow him (Luke 14:27-28)?

Keep well away from people who teach that true followers of Jesus should experience nothing but joy, health, wealth and happiness! They are wrong, and it’s time they read their Bibles!

And let’s be careful about praying, “Lord, I will go wherever you want me to go, and do whatever you want me to do, and give whatever you want me to give” – yes, be careful, for he might just take us up on those fine words, and we might get rather more than we bargained for…

And so to Snapshot 4: Mary secure and at peace in the body of the infant church (Acts 1:12-14).

Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t make much of this. But he does choose to mention it, and I am very glad of that – that after the resurrection of Jesus, and before the momentous coming of the Holy Spirit, Mary was there in the “upper room” in Jerusalem where Jesus’ followers gathered. Yes, Mary became a founder-member of the church to which we belong today.

This shouldn’t surprise us. For one of the most beautiful details we are given about the crucifixion is that, as death approached, Jesus committed his mother to the care and protection of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 19:25-27). And so she was surely also there at Pentecost, and took her place among the first believers.

We are reminded of how vitally important the church is. Jesus didn’t found it for nothing! It is his “body”; it is the family of God; it is God’s chief instrument in bringing his love, peace and hope to the whole world; and in it we are all equal, all brothers and sisters, whether modern twenty-first century Christians or the very mother of Jesus.

Do you value your membership of this wonderful family?

Yes, I love to picture Mary enfolded to the heart of this group of people. I don’t imagine for one moment that they ever referred to her (as did my college tutor) as “Our Lady” or, even more, that they ever directed prayers to her. But I am sure they loved, honoured, cherished and respected her.

Should we do anything less?

Father, thank you for Mary’s willingness to be simply “the servant of the Lord”. Thank you for keeping her through joy and pain until you took her to be eternally with you. Grant, I pray, that the same destiny will be mine. Amen.

What do you think of Mary? (1)

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary said. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Luke 1:38

I’ll always remember the first time I heard someone refer to Mary as “Our Lady”. At first I was just puzzled – “Our Lady? – who on earth is he talking about!” And then it dawned on me, “Oh, of course, he means Jesus’ mother!” He wasn’t a Roman Catholic, but presumably he must have been a fairly “high” Anglican: to him, if Jesus was “Our Lord” then Mary was “Our Lady”.

To an evangelical Protestant like me it seemed very strange, even slightly shocking. Still does, in fact. Any suggestion of putting Mary remotely on a par with Jesus is, surely, just plain wrong.

But we need to be careful. Is there a danger that we over-react to this kind of theology and, in effect, air-brush Mary altogether out of the gospel story? She does, after all, occupy a massively important place in God’s dealings with the human race: the mother of the Son of God!

Her experience, at face value, is a million miles from anything we could possibly identify with. Yet, on reflection, there is much that we can learn from it. Here are four episodes – four snapshots, if you like – which are worth pondering.

Snapshot 1, of course, is Mary the exhilarated, awestruck, excited (not to mention frightened), young girl (Luke 1).

The angel Gabriel visits her (she is of course still a virgin) and tells her that “the Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

Once she has recovered from the shock we can picture her, her face radiant, her eyes shining, as she shouts out loud what, if you are an Anglican, you will know as The Magnificat: “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour… the mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name…!”

Well, I have never been anywhere near where Mary was on that day, and I imagine the same is true for you. But all of us, I hope, have experienced times in our lives when the reality of God was overpoweringly wonderful.

It may very well have been like that when we were first converted – truly “born again” into a whole new life. And there have, I hope, been lesser experiences along the way ever since – unexpected events, coincidences (that weren’t!), wonderful answers to prayer, providences great or small – which have made us feel “Yes, the hand of God is truly on my life! Thank you, Lord!”

So Mary speaks to us of those spiritual “highs” which punctuate the often routine progress of our spiritual lives. We are not, of course, to go looking for such highs – but we can certainly be grateful for them when they come.

And I think we can learn from Mary that even at such times we should remain both humble and obedient. Putting it another way, we should never allow exciting events in our lives to make us arrogant or proud. “I am the Lord’ servant,” said Mary. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Doesn’t that strike a perfect note of submission to the will of God?

Snapshot 2 is very different: Mary in confusion and doubt.

Fast-forward to Mark 3. Jesus now is fully embarked on his ministry: preaching, healings, cleansing of evil spirits. And not everyone is happy. Indeed, some of the religious authorities think he is a messenger of Satan rather than of God: “He is possessed by Beelzebul [a name for the devil]! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons” (verse 22). This (understandably) unsettles Mary and Jesus’ siblings: when they hear about it, “they went to take charge of him, for people were saying, ‘He is out of his mind’”.

“They went to take charge of him”: oh dear, Jesus has clearly become a worry and an embarrassment to them.

How different from the ecstatic girl we saw in snapshot 1! You could even ask how someone who has had such an awesomely supernatural experience could possibly experience such doubt or disillusionment.

But Mary did: and that suggests that it can happen to us too. I personally, over many years of ministry, have seen people who have had wonderful “mountain-top experiences” plunged, later, into the valley of depression and doubt.

The anxious, troubled, middle-aged Mary, then, serves for us as an encouragement: even the strongest and most mature of God’s people can go through such times.

If that is you today, please take heart!

I said I had four snapshots of Mary in mind. But I have run out of space, so I will have to return to her next time. I hope what I have said so far convinces you that her story is well-worth a second visit…

Lord God, thank you for Mary – her life, her humility, her ordinariness, and her simple trust in you. Help me not only to admire her but to learn from her even though the footsteps in which I walk are so radically different from hers. Amen.

A good sing?

I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 1 Corinthians 14:15

Christmas carols… I don’t know about you, but I have rather mixed feelings about them.

On the one hand, some of them are really good – their words are meaningful and convey solid teaching, and their tunes too are attractive.

Others, though, are schmaltzy and sentimental, and bear very little relation to what Christmas is about. They sometimes even contain false ideas – my all-time non-favourite is “Away in a manger”, with that line about “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”. Every time I’m expected to sing that, I want to stand up and shout out, “What do you mean, no crying he makes? Of course he cried! He was a human baby as well as the Son of God! Needed to have his nappy changed too, just in case you’re interested.” (Anything to enhance the Christmas spirit, you understand.)

But my main problem is twofold. First: we only get to sing Christmas carols for a very brief period of the year; once Christmas is over we pack them away, so to speak, with the tinsel and decorations, and it’s a whole year before we sing them again. And second: when we sing them, we sing them even more mindlessly than usual, precisely because we know them so well. When was the last time you ever seriously thought about the words you were singing?

All right, enough of the grumpy stuff. I do in fact want to make a positive point: that our songs and hymns can nourish our souls in wonderful ways if only we can learn to focus on the words and take them to heart – “singing with the understanding”, as Paul puts it. I’ve got space for just two examples…

First, O little town of Bethlehem, by Phillips Brooks (1835-1893).

True, there is a little bit of sentimentality here, but in the main it’s good stuff. I find the third verse especially helpful…

How silently, how silently/ The wondrous gift is given!/ So God imparts to human hearts/ The blessings of His heaven./ No ear may hear His coming;/ But in this world of sin,/ Where meek souls will receive him, still/ The dear Christ enters in.

The essence of the gospel is there: our world is fallen and sinful, but salvation is offered to us, as a gift, purely by the mercy and grace of God. All he asks is that our “meek souls” should “receive him.” Humility, repentance and a childlike trust – it is these that open the door for God himself to enter our lives.

Second, From the squalor of a borrowed stable, written by Stuart Townend in 1999.

All right, the experts will tell you (and no doubt rightly) that it probably wasn’t a “stable” at all, that it probably wasn’t “borrowed”, and that it very likely wasn’t “squalid” either; but let’s allow a bit of a nod to the story as traditionally told!

In fact this lovely song isn’t strictly a Christmas carol at all, because although it starts with the birth of Jesus, the remaining verses take us right through his earthly life and finish with him crucified, risen from the dead, and “standing in the place of honour”. Yes, you can sing it all year round! – but I wonder how many of us do?

Every verse is full of meat, and worth reflecting on. But for me perhaps the most powerful words are the ones that speak of Jesus as “filled with mercy for the broken man”. It then goes on: “Yes, he walked my road and he felt my pain….” I love the sheer simplicity of that. Just ten words, each of one syllable, yet somehow they convey perfectly that Jesus came to share our earthly troubles and to suffer not just for us but also with us.

I said earlier that one of the down-sides of the carols is that we know them so well that we sing mechanically without noticing the words. But it occurs to me that there is perhaps an up-side too – because we don’t have to look at the words, we can close our eyes as we sing. And this can give us a stronger focus and help us not to be distracted. And that, in turn, may help us to pray with a deeper intensity.

Go back to “O little town”. The final verse is a prayer direct to Jesus: O holy Child of Bethlehem,/ Descend to us, we pray!/ Cast out our sin and enter in,/ Be born in us to-day./ We hear the Christmas angels,/ The great glad tidings tell;/ O come to us, abide with us,/ Our Lord Emmanuel!

Words worth treating as a prayer? I think so! Words worth closing your eyes for? I think so! Here’s a suggestion: next time you sing those words, close your eyes and sing them as if you’ve never heard them before.

Happy Christmas!

Thank you, O God, for the men and women gifted with poetic and hymn-writing talents over two thousand years of Christian history. Help me to value and appreciate them, and to benefit from what they wrote. Amen.

A day that changed your life for ever?

Paul came to Derbe, then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish, and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey… Acts 16:1-3

Can you think of a day when your life changed for ever?

Probably most of us can. If we are Christians the most obvious moment will no doubt be the day we decided to follow Jesus. But other days also may have great significance – starting a new job, getting married, moving to a new location. Losing somebody precious to us, of course.

What about the day we met somebody whose influence was so great that it shaped everything we have done since…?

Timothy is a young man living in a quiet town called Lystra in what today is Turkey. We know nothing about his father, not even his name, only that he is a “Greek” – that is, not a Jew. His mother, on the other hand, is a Jewish Christian (we learn from 2 Timothy 1:5 that she is called Eunice).

Some months earlier their town had been visited by two strangers called Paul and Barnabas, who came preaching about a man called Jesus. There had been a dramatic healing of a man lame from birth – a healing which had sparked opposition and rioting by people who didn’t like what Paul and Barnabas were saying. (You can read about this in Acts 14). But Eunice and her mother (she is called Lois) were persuaded by the message and became believers in Jesus. Young Timothy also believed.

And now Paul and his companions have returned, though this time Barnabas has been replaced by Silas. They probably weren’t around long – but long enough for Paul, one day, to take Timothy aside and drop a bombshell: “Timothy, how would you feel about joining our team…?” I imagine Timothy will have been, if you will pardon the expression, absolutely gob-smacked. Nothing was ever the same for him again…

In telling Timothy’s story I’ve done a bit of reading between the lines; but it must have been something pretty like what I have described. (Is it time somebody turned Timothy’s story into a novel? – how’s that for a challenge for someone?)

There are many things we can learn from this episode in the life of the early church. Let me pick out three.

First, it speaks to us of the excitement of the unknown future.

Trace Timothy’s story in the rest of the New Testament and you find that he occupies an important place in the spread of the gospel. The last we hear of him is as pastor of a congregation in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3) – so he has developed from being a sidekick to Paul to being a leader in his own right.

We may sometimes look at the sheer ordinariness of our lives and think that nothing will ever be different. And so indeed it may be: just faithfully serving God in our locality. But – who knows? – God may have other ideas! The question is: How open am I to new possibilities?

Second, Timothy’s story has much to say about the preciousness of relationships in Christian service.

When he joined Paul’s team Timothy entered a network of companions. Paul describes him as “my fellow-worker” (Romans 16:21), “my son, whom I love” (1 Corinthians 4:17),”our brother” (2 Corinthians 1:1), my true son in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2), “my dear son” (2 Timothy 1:2) – and there are more where they came from!

Paul’s letters make very clear how important to him his fellow-workers were. You could do an interesting Bible-study under the heading of “Friends of Paul”: lots of quite obscure names mainly tucked away in his letters. He was anything but a one-man band!

To be part of the church is a massive, precious privilege. Do we value as we should the men and women God has placed us among? Are we enjoying their fellowship, sharing their troubles and co-operating with them in their work? If the answer to that is “To be honest, no not really” then we are missing out on so much…

Third, Timothy’s story has something to say about the need for people of the highest character when it comes to Christian service.

When Paul invited Timothy to join his team he didn’t just think “Mmm, seems a nice young man – yes, he’ll do.” No. Luke tells us (Acts 16:2) that “the believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him.” Paul “took up references”, if you like.

True, Timothy never became one of the “stars” of the early church: he was no Peter or Paul, no John or James. He had weaknesses, and needed encouragement (why else did Paul write him two letters?). But he was solid and reliable – the kind of person God builds churches with.

And this, surely, has something to say about the kind of people we should be looking for to serve in church life.

And also, of course, the kind of people we ourselves should aim to be…

Thank you, Lord, for the unsung heroes – the Timothys and Phoebes – of the church. Help me to value and encourage them, and, by following their example, to become more like Jesus. Amen.

Something to have in mind…

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. Romans 8:6

What sort of mind do you have?

I don’t mean by that, Are you a really high-powered intellectual – someone who can speak fifteen languages fluently, or understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? (Or even understand Brexit?)

No. I’m not asking how clever you are; I’m asking about what we might call the shape, the basic character or essence, of your mind. Lazy or active? Open or closed? Teachable or dull? Selective or gullible? Stubborn or flexible? That sort of thing…

As Christians we often talk about our “hearts” – as in “giving our heart to Jesus”, perhaps, or “loving God with all our heart”. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But do we tend to relegate our mind to a back seat, and treat it as if it doesn’t really matter? When did you last consciously think about your mind? Do you value it? Do you do everything you can to keep it, so to speak, in a good state of repair?

Sorry to bombard you with questions. But in the Bible the mind is treated as extremely important. Indeed, when Jesus speaks about the “heart”, often it’s what today we would call the mind that he is really talking about.

Paul too has some very challenging things to say: for example, that we are to be “transformed by the renewal of our minds” (Romans 12:2), and to “set our minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2). Perhaps most striking of all: “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

In Romans 8:5-7 – just three verses – he refers to the mind five times. Verse 6 sums up well what he is driving at: “the mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace”. (By “the flesh” he doesn’t simply mean our physical bodies, and sex in particular, but the whole of our human nature which has been poisoned and corrupted by sin.)

It seems that having a new, strong, clean, efficiently functioning mind matters!

So we can add to that earlier list of opposites – lazy or active, stubborn or flexible and the rest – another pair: “according to the flesh” or “according to the Spirit”? Are our minds still groping about in the darkness of this fallen world’s values? Or are they indeed being “renewed” through the power and purity of the Holy Spirit?

This wonderful “renewal of the mind” is the work of the Holy Spirit. But that doesn’t mean we can leave it all up to him. No: we too have a part to play, and it can be hard work. Above all, it involves that most difficult task of all: resisting temptation.

You will almost certainly know people who strike you as being particularly gracious and Christlike. There is, well, something about them that impresses you; you can’t quite put your finger on it or put it into words, but it’s just there.

If you ask, “How did he/she come to be like this?”, the answer is that it isn’t just a matter of luck, or upbringing, or good genes, but that, probably for many years, that person has been taking the character of their mind seriously and making a conscious effort to mould it to a Christlike shape.

They’re tempted to be gossipy or bitchy? – then they will clamp their mouths shut as quickly as possible. They find themselves feeling jealous? – all right, they will give themselves a telling-off. They do something good which stirs up in them feelings of pride? – they will immediately remind themselves that, no, it is God alone who deserves any credit or praise. They hear something a bit questionable or doubtful? – all right, they will set their mind to think about it, not just swallow it whole. And if they feel their temper beginning to flare up because of somebody’s stupidity or selfishness, they will breathe a silent prayer under their breath.

All of which involves putting their mind to work.

Always before their eyes they will hold a mental picture of Jesus, and remember that it is he, and not some passing fashion or opinion, who is to dictate the workings of their mind.

Putting it simply, such a person will develop the discipline of censoring their own mind in order to keep it “according to the Spirit.” They will always remember that just as we need to watch the kind of food we feed our bodies with, even more do we need to watch the kind of “food” we feed our minds with. Rubbish in, rubbish out, remember…

They won’t always succeed, of course; no, there will be times when they fail. But when that happens, instead of letting themselves feel crushed and useless, they will claim from God the forgiveness which he promises  to those who are truly sorry (1 John 1:9).

There’s a lot more that could be said. But perhaps it’s time to go back to the question we started with: What kind of mind do I have…?

It matters. It really matters.

May the mind of Christ my Saviour/ Live in me from day to day,/ By his love and power controlling/ All I do or say. Amen.

Kate B Wilkinson (1859-1928)