A good way to ruin your life

You shall not covet… Exodus 20:17

Do you ever covet things? Hanker after things that belong to someone else? Are you ever prone to envy?

You would be very unusual if you didn’t, especially in the wealthy and materialistic world in which many of us live. And of course it’s not just a matter of coveting somebody’s money and possessions, though that is perhaps what we think of first. No; you might covet their health, or their looks, or their talents, or their success, or their marriage, or… oh, the list is endless.

I sometimes feel that the whole advertising industry is designed to stir up the poison of covetousness within us. “You deserve it…” the adverts coo at us. And, fools that we are, we believe them.

Why exactly does God tell us not to covet? Let me boil it down to some of the most obvious reasons…

First, it is essentially selfish.

It elevates what I want to the top of my list of priorities. It puts me and my needs (or should I say my wants?) before generosity, kindness and compassion. It’s all about getting rather than giving – and didn’t Jesus say there is more joy in giving than receiving (Acts 20:35)?

Second, it suggests a failure to trust in God for all we need.

God promises to look after those who trust in him, so if we covet it means, in effect, that we are saying to God, “Your provision isn’t good enough for me – I’m not really sure you will look after me.” It’s striking how often, in the Gospels, Jesus is saddened by lack of faith, by lack of simple, childlike trust; and delighted by its presence.

Third, it destroys peace of mind.

The more focussed you are on other people and what they’ve got, the more chewed up inside you will be because you lack those things. Covetous people are rarely happy people (plenty of novels and plays bear that out!). Some wise words from Billy Graham: “Envy takes the joy, happiness and contentment out of living.”

Fourth, it can lead to seriously damaging consequences.

Have you ever noticed how some of the Old Testament’s most graphic stories are about covetousness? – and how in each case havoc results?

Eve coveted the fruit God said she and Adam shouldn’t touch (Genesis 3) – and their relationship with him was fractured. Achan coveted the treasures of the Canaanites (Joshua 7) – and both Israel as a whole as well as Achan and his family suffered dire repercussions. King David coveted another man’s wife (2 Samuel 11) – and ended up feeling he had no choice but to have him killed. King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) – and likewise ended up hatching a murder plot into which he drew many other people.

Why not take another look at these stories, and see the carnage that resulted in each case? The fact is this: covetousness isn’t just something that lurks unseen in our minds and hearts. No, it spills over into all sorts of sin and ugliness.

Covetousness is, in the end, a form of idolatry – putting someone or something in the place that only God should occupy. And idolatry always ends badly.

But now let’s be positive…

By the same token, the person who has learned not to covet experiences real liberation. (Granted, the learning process can be painful – let’s be honest about that.)

If we have reached a point where we can say, with Paul, that we will be “content” with the basic necessities of life, whatever God may see fit to give us, then we can cheerfully shrug our shoulders at the world around us and get on with the business of living a Christian life. We’re free! And if someone has something we wish we had – well, good for them! And may God bless them.

Paul’s words are worth quoting in full: “Godliness with contentment is real profit [as opposed to the mere “financial gain” mentioned in verse 5]. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

That word “content” is important. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be ambitious in a good sense – ambitious, say, to make the most of our talents and abilities – but it does mean that we’re happy to leave our lot in this life in the hands of a God who is our heavenly Father, and who loves us more than we can know.

How are you doing in the class of those who are “learning to be content”? Don’t be in any doubt, the effort and discipline will be well worth while…!

Father God, as I seek to follow Jesus  – he who had none of this world’s wealth, not even anywhere to lay his head – help me to sit light to everything the world has to offer. Help me to learn to be content and also generous with what I have. Amen.

The only journey worth travelling

Enoch walked with God. Genesis 5:22

Before he was taken, Enoch was commended as one who pleased God.  Hebrews 11:5

It’s not a bad way to go down in history, is it? – he “walked with God”.

Could that, I wonder, be engraved one day on your tombstone? (not, I know, that you are likely to have a tombstone; but you know what I mean).

The Bible is quite fond of this way of describing our relationship with God. Adam and Eve, after the disaster of the fall, “heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). God, it seems, wanted to be with them, and wanted them to be with him.

Much the same is said of Noah (Genesis 6:9) (though, true, he also later messed things up pretty disastrously). Abraham is described as “God’s friend” (James 2:23), which is really just a different way of saying the same thing. Micah the prophet tells us to “walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8) (isn’t that a beautiful expression?). And Paul tells us to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25), which, again, means very much the same thing.

If we think of the expression “walking with God” as a parcel, what do we find when we unwrap it? I would suggest five things, though probably you can add to them.

  1. Companionship. To walk with someone suggests friendship and conversation. Probably some of the most precious moments in our human relationships have occurred while we have been walking. (A hundred or so years ago people didn’t “date” or “go out together”; they “walked out together”: read the novels of Thomas Hardy.)

In the same way, we should never let anything – not sin or laziness or distractions – jeapordise our minute-by-minute companionship with God. He wants our companionship; he wants us to enjoy him. If only we wanted it as much!

  1. Progress. To walk is to move; it is the opposite of being static. Genesis doesn’t say that Enoch sat in an armchair next to God, even though there is certainly a place for quietly resting in his presence. The Christian life is a journey: as the song puts it, “from the old unto the new, keep me travelling along with you.”

Are any of us stagnating a bit? Have we subconsciously decided we have reached our full potential? Have we stopped exploring, growing, learning, developing? Why not aim to see each new day as an adventure in moving on with God? Why not prayerfully explore the possibility of some new venture?

  1. Protection. There’s safety in numbers. As Jesus’ story of the man who fell among robbers shows, the lone traveller is especially vulnerable. And even in our modem world – perhaps especially in our modern world – if someone we love is travelling, we feel so much better if we know they are among reliable friends.

The Bible, both Testaments, knows simply nothing of the solitary child of God. And this is why Jesus draws his followers into communities, what we call churches.

Well, if we walk not only with our fellow-Christians but with Almighty God himself, how can we be anything but safe? Of course that doesn’t mean that bad things can’t happen. But ultimately we have perfect security in the hands of our loving heavenly Father.

  1. Effort. Even a pleasant stroll involves an element of exertion. And if you go for a ten mile hill-walk, well, you will know you have done it.

In the Christian life the journey is sometimes relatively easy – good health, a positive work-situation, a happy family life. But at other times the going is tough – sickness, disappointments, set-backs, even heartbreaks. That’s when we need to grit our teeth and cling especially tightly to God’s hand. Let no-one imagine that the Christian life is a doddle!

  1. A destination. We walk in order to get somewhere, even when we’re walking for leisure. Which makes it all the more satisfying when, after quite a tough time, we can take it easy and put our feet up.

That doesn’t mean that in heaven we are just going to lounge around. But the fact is that we are promised rest when our earthly journey is done: “There remains… a sabbath-rest for the people of God…” (Hebrews 4: 9). And Jesus told his disciples: “I am going to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).

This troubled world in which we now live is not all there is. No; there is something above and beyond us which is infinitely, unimaginably greater, and that’s where we’re heading.

Are you confident of your final, eternal destination?

So…  as we think about Enoch walking with God, the message is simple: Christian, keep walking! Keep hand in hand with God! Christian, enjoy your relationship with him!

Dear Father in heaven, please help me to walk with you minute by minute and day by day, until that day comes when I reach my destination and enter my heavenly rest. Amen.

When faith is tested by fire

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown by you into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up”. Daniel 3:16-18

Those verses from Daniel 3 consist of eighty-one words. But I want to focus on just four: “But even if not…” Four very ordinary little words: but they are deeply significant, because they are a turning-point in a wonderful statement of faith and courage.

What’s been going on?

Daniel’s three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, have fallen foul of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar: as faithful Jews, they have refused to bow down to the king’s golden statue. Nebuchadnezzar threatens them with a horrible death: “Just bow down to my image,” he says, “and you’ll be fine. But if you persist in refusing to do so… into the furnace with you…!”

I wonder what you and I would have done?

Well, that’s for each of us to ponder.

What they in fact do produces one of those spine-tingling moments you get occasionally in the Bible. First, they look the king right in the eye, and assert that their God is far greater than him, and perfectly able to “deliver” them. Then they declare their wonderful faith: “and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.” And then those stirring words, words of sheer defiance: “But even if not… we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

What makes that statement so striking is that, while it displays rock-solid faith in God, it also refuses to presume on his willingness to rescue them. They are convinced that he can, but open to the possibility that he won’t – as if to say, “Do your worst, King Nebuchadnezzar, we will stick with the God we trust. Even your cruel threats won’t break our loyalty!”

The circumstances of most of us, I hope, are nothing like as threatening as those of the three Israelites. But even in the everyday business of life there are times when those words “But even if not” hang like a banner over our decisions and our prayers. We are to be trusting without being presumptuous.

You may have set your heart on a particular job. You feel it’s the perfect fit for you, and, in all modesty, you feel you could do it well. You pray, asking that God’s will be done, and really have high hopes. But those words are always there: But even if not, I will still trust and serve the Lord.

You have become very fond of someone, and decide you would like to marry them. You are convinced that it would be “a match made in heaven.” But… even if not

Or you or someone you love is seriously ill. You know from the Bible that God is well able to heal the sick, and of course you pray for that to happen. But here again… even if not

To walk by faith means, often, to walk a knife-edge. On the one hand, we are called to believe in a God of love and of amazing miracles: “Nothing is impossible with him” (Luke 1:37). We cling to the tantalising words of Jesus, “I will do whatever you ask in my name” (John 14:13) (probably puzzling over the exact meaning of “in my name”).

And on the other hand we cannot get away from the fact that the things we desire most are often denied to us. All right, Daniel’s friends were rescued by God from a cruel death. Wonderful. But what about those other saints who, for example, were “put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword…” (Hebrews 11:37)?

In the end we are left with the plain fact that God calls us to trust him and remain loyal to him even in the face of terrible disappointment. We can only pray that if such a crisis-time should fall to us, we would have the same glowing faith – and the same beautiful submission – as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

I said earlier that I hoped the circumstances of most of us were far easier than what we read about in Daniel 3. But I mustn’t forget that there are many thousands of God’s children who are in pretty much the same situation. Perhaps there’s no better way of ending than highlighting just one…

Leah Sharibu, aged 14, from Dapchi in Nigeria, was abducted from her school almost a year ago with 109 of her class-mates. She alone remains in captivity. Why? Because, like Daniel’s friends, she refuses to renounce her Christian faith; and the God who “is able to deliver” has simply not, so far, seen fit to do so.

Perhaps we might all bow our heads and pray for Leah – and the many thousands of other Christians in similar situations.

How well they know the solemn meaning of those words: “But even if not”…

Father in heaven, I pray for Leah and the many thousands of your children who today are in a similar situation, knowing the agony of choosing between loyalty to you and obedience to cruel and unjust authorities. Give them courage, faith and peace. And help me, if ever I should come into such a dilemma, to act with the same faith as them, the faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Amen.

Time to get a grip?

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called… 1 Timothy 6:11-12

As Paul gets towards the end of this letter to his protégé Timothy, he reels off a list of four things he wants him to do in order to be an effective pastor. But they don’t just apply to pastors: no, they are for anyone at all who wants to follow Jesus. In each case he uses a strong, muscular verb, and I think they are all worth focussing on…

  1. Flee from all this…”

Imagine you’ve popped up to the local shops to buy a loaf of bread. As you turn the corner you find that a lion is barring your way, and it’s looking rather hungry. What do you do? Answer: you run; and you run as you have never run in your life before. You flee.

When danger threatens, the natural instinct is to get away as quickly as possible. This is what Joseph did when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him (Genesis 39); it’s what the young man did in Gethsemane when he slithered out of his tunic to escape the lynch-mob (Mark 14:51-52).

And this, Paul tells Timothy, is what he must do when spiritual danger threatens: “flee from all this…”

What does he mean by “all this”? The immediate context is about money and its seductive power, with the famous and ever-relevant warning that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (verses 9-10). But if you go back a few verses you find him warning also about stupid arguments and discussions, the kind of windy disagreements that lead to tensions and unpleasantness.

“Run a mile!” he says. “You’re in danger!”

So… a word perhaps for some of us who are a bit dazzled by money? or prone to be rather argumentative…?

  1. “… pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness…”

Now imagine, as you reach the shops, that you notice not a lion but an old friend heading in the opposite direction, someone you haven’t seen for a long time. You’re so surprised and pleased that there’s no way you can ignore them or just let them walk off; so you pursue them. Perhaps puffing and panting, you catch up with them; it’s worth the effort.

And that, Paul tells Timothy, is how he must treat every beautiful, Christlike quality.

Well, I’m sure we all approve of the qualities he mentions: “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness”. Of course! But do we perhaps vaguely hope that they will fall nice and conveniently into our laps, like ripe fruit off a tree? – rather than that we make the effort to chase them and make them our own?

Well, they won’t, so we’d better get used to the idea. Growth in godliness calls for discipline, prayer, self-examination and self-discipline; it calls for a serious intention to be the best that we can be for Jesus’ sake. Christianity is a sleeves-rolled-up faith.

A word, then, perhaps, for some of us who have become a bit sluggish and lazy when it comes to imitating Jesus…?

  1. Fight the good fight of the faith…

The word Paul uses here is one that gives us our English word “agony” – think perhaps of the weight-lifter straining to get that bar above his head, or the runner stretching every muscle to touch the tape.

“Timothy,” Paul is saying, “the Christian life is a battle. There is an enemy, a tempter, and he loves nothing more than to get the victory. True, we don’t have to fight him on our own – oh no! we are given the weapons for spiritual warfare, and the armour we need to protect us. But what use are weapons that we don’t pick up? What use is armour that we don’t put on? What use is an army where the soldiers don’t fight?”

How do you think of the church? A club where we can feel at home? A hospital where we can find healing? A holiday camp where we can rest and recuperate? There’s an element of truth in all of these, thank God. But let’s get it into our heads too – the church is a barracks. And guess who the soldiers are…?

  1. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called…

“Get a grip!” we sometimes say, when perhaps someone is guilty of rather pussyfooting around. And this too is something Paul tells Timothy – and us.

Eternal life is the gift of God’s grace to all who put their trust in Christ. If you’ve done that, then it’s yours already, here and now, not something that has to wait till after death.

But… have you got a grip on it? Do you, every day, “take hold” of it? Are you energetically working it out as a practical reality in the normal business of life?

Four simple but strong and challenging verbs. I invite us all to ponder them for a few minutes…

Lord God, inspire me by your word, and energise me by your Spirit, so that every day I will follow Jesus in a purposeful, effective and fulfilling way. Amen.

Whoever said life was fair?

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11 (NIV)

I realised another thing: that in this world fast runners do not always win the race, and the brave do not always win the battle. The wise do not always earn a living, intelligent people do not always get rich, and capable people do not always rise to high positions. Bad luck happens to everyone. Ecclesiastes 9: 11 (GNB)

Well, that’s depressing, isn’t it? Just what you need to cheer you up if, like me, you’re in the middle of a cold, grey, gloomy English winter.

In essence: life has no meaning – “time and chance” make nonsense of our hopes and plans. Even worse: life has no fairness – you might get something like what you feel you deserve; and then again, you might not. Nice if you do; tough if you don’t. That’s life, folks!

Examples come tumbling into one’s mind. Like the Manchester schoolboy, way back in the days of Charlton, Best and Law, who was offered a trial by Manchester United. His mother picked up the letter, read it and decided that she wanted her son to get a proper job – none of this football nonsense – so put it in the bin. The boy never knew that offer had been made, not at least until it was far too late. Who knows what might have been!

Or the nuclear scientist, a world-leading authority in a Russian university in the days of the Soviet Union. He fell foul of the authorities and spent much of his life as a lavatory superintendent. (Nothing against lavatory superintendents, of course, but… well, you get the point.) Oh the meaninglessness! Oh the injustice! Oh the stupidity!

You could go on… The teenage girl who develops a debilitating illness which, while it doesn’t threaten her life, renders her unable to go regularly to school, sit her exams and explore all the options her school-mates are getting excited about. The person who just happens to be born into one of the world’s most needy countries and ends up risking their life to migrate to another part of the world…

Ecclesiastes 9:11 is, of course, simply an elaboration of the bald statement with which the book starts: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’.”

But if we are Christians, something in us protests at this. “No!” we want to cry, “everything isn’t meaningless! If there is a God in heaven who made the world and who sent his Son to suffer and rise again to save it, then there must be a meaning!” At the deepest level this is surely right.

But those words “at the deepest level” are important, for the fact is that, however strong our faith, and however close our walk with God, there are times when the “meaning” is completely lost to us: we simply don’t understand. And if we are honest – which I assume we should be – we ought to frankly say so.

It’s hard to draw many positives from this train of thought. But there is, I think, at least one which is particularly important: the meaninglessness of life puts us on all fours with our non-Christian friends.

In other words, when these things happen, whether to us or to our friends, we don’t have to pretend to a certainty we don’t honestly feel. We don’t have to find something profound to say. Above all, we don’t have to – indeed, we mustn’t! – trot out the pious clichés which convince nobody.

Certainly, we will want to share the fact that we do believe in God, and that therefore we cling to the hope that one day we will understand. But I suspect we will carry more conviction with those who don’t believe if we also frankly say, in effect, “Look, you and I are in the same situation here. I don’t know why this has happened, and it’s only my tried and tested faith in God as my heavenly Father that keeps me holding on. ..”

(Depending on the nature of our relationship with the other person, that might be a suitable moment to suggest something like this: “I wonder if you would be happy for me to say a short prayer on behalf of both of us…?” Might that not be a real breakthrough moment?)

In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul makes one of his great statements of faith: “For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face…”.

I’m no expert, but I do wonder if the use of the English word “mirror” is slightly misleading here, for modern mirrors do of course give us a virtually perfect image. But the whole point Paul is making is that the “mirror” into which we look in our perplexity is not perfect: no, it gives us only a “dim” or “obscure” image (Paul uses a word which literally means “enigma” or “riddle”).

In fact, I must admit that I prefer the way The Message puts it: “We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist…” And then this: “But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then…”

Yes! Meaninglessness will finally give way to meaning. Faith will give way to sight! Thanks be to God!

Lord God, help me to trust you through thick and thin, even when everything seems to be a senseless, meaningless mess. Amen.

Soft hearts and hard heads

Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need… No widow may be put on the list unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds… 1Timothy 5:3, 9-10

The early church took seriously its responsibility for the practical care of members who were in need. You’ve only to read the wonderful second chapter of Acts to see that (especially verses 44-45). This applied particularly to widows.

Certainly this was the case in the church at Ephesus, where Timothy was the pastor, for here in 1Timothy 5 Paul has quite a lot to say on the subject. It seems that there was some kind of official or semi-official register (“the list”) of such women, and that it was quite strictly controlled.

You need to read verses 3-16 as a whole to get the details. It’s not my aim to go into it, but simply to highlight a principle that applies to many other situations as well. It can be summed up like this: the church should have a soft heart but a hard head. By which I mean, simply, a heart full of compassion – and a head that’s realistic.

Times have changed enormously over two thousand years, and we need to remember as we read these verses that in the world of the New Testament an elderly widow who was “left all alone” (verse 5) was in a pretty desperate state. There were, of course, no state pensions or social security, no lunch clubs or food banks. How would such widows manage if not with the support of the church?

Paul takes for granted that Christ-like compassion must be shown to them – of course: but he also makes clear that the church shouldn’t become a soft touch for those who are just out for what they can get. Hence the quite strict “qualifications” he suggests for “widows who are really in need” (verse 3).

I remember how, many years ago when I was a new minister in my mid-twenties, and no doubt very naive, I sometimes gave money to people who came to me with hard-luck stories. Some, perhaps, were genuine, and the money was well-used. But I soon discovered that on other occasions I had simply been taken for a ride – and that the command of Jesus to “give to the one who asks you” (Matthew 5:42) needed to be treated with – shall we say – a little discretion!

Of course, Paul is not talking here about one-off acts of kindness. No, he explicitly mentions that “list” of widows who might be entitled to help (verse 9), suggesting ongoing support. So perhaps I shouldn’t feel too bad about my misplaced generosity – after all, surely it’s better to be taken for a ride now and then than to miss a real opportunity to show the love of Jesus? Better to err on the side of generosity than of meanness.

But the principle remains. The church’s business is primarily to proclaim the good news of Jesus crucified and risen; it is not, as I’ve heard it described, “the religious arm of the welfare state”.

This principle doesn’t only apply to money. At one time I was involved in quite a thriving church youth club. Intended mainly but not exclusively for church kids, it gave them somewhere safe to be together, to enjoy themselves, and to build relationships – and, we prayed, to feel the love of Jesus.

But then things changed. A number of local youngsters began to come along, and some of them had serious problems. Quite suddenly we were in a new and very difficult situation. But… we were Christians! It was our duty to make these youngsters welcome! Which we genuinely tried to do.

But, putting it briefly, they pretty well wrecked the place – not in a physical sense (though there was bit of that), but in terms of mood and atmosphere. The original members began to stay away, and the club ceased to be what it was intended to be.

Don’t get me wrong. “Open” youth work, designed for young people with no church background or affiliation, is a great, indeed vital, ministry – but it needs to be done by those who are called and qualified to do it. And the fact is that that just wasn’t us. We simply weren’t equipped.

Our hearts, I’m sure, were right. But we lacked know-how and realism, and as a result we came unstuck. Our efforts were of no value to the church – and (much more to the point) they were of no value to those needy young people. I suspect they just ended up laughing at us.

You can probably add your own examples. It’s up to all of us, as individuals and in our various churches, to ask God for guidance as to how to get this delicate balance right.

The basic rule has to be: soft hearts, yes – but not a soft touch. And hard heads, yes – but never stony indifference.

Lord, help us to get it right!

O God, give me the faith of Abraham, the courage of Moses, the passion of Elijah, the wisdom of Solomon – and, above all, the love, tenderness and compassion of Jesus. Amen.

Trusting God in the hard times

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word… It was good for me to be afflicted, so that I might learn your decrees… I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. Psalm 119:67, 71, 75

Hindsight… it’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? “If only I’d known then what I know now!” we say. Or perhaps, more positively, “Looking back, I can see now how everything worked out for the best.”

Whoever wrote Psalm 119 gives a perfect example of hindsight. He’s been having a hard time – three times in a handful of verses he talks about being “afflicted” (“humbled” or “corrected” are other possible translations).

He doesn’t tell us what these afflictions were: an illness? a family problem? money worries? some kind of spiritual crisis? Perhaps he had drifted from God and his disobedient behaviour had got him into trouble.

It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that, looking back, he can see that the experience, ultimately, has done him good: “it was good for me to be afflicted…”

I’m glad that we aren’t told exactly what his difficulties were, because that leaves us free to look at our own “afflictions”, and to apply to ourselves the lessons he has learned. And what were those lessons? I think we can highlight at least two…

First, he has come to a new appreciation of God’s word.

“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (verse 67). He has “learned your decrees” (verse 71). He has grasped, perhaps for the first time, that “your laws are righteous” (verse 75).

I must admit that there have been times in my life when, if you had asked me if I believed the Bible was really the word of God, I would have said, “Of course! I’m a Christian, aren’t I? I read a bit of it every day. I’m always glad to hear it opened up in services and meetings. How can you ask?”

But when it comes to practical day-to-day obedience, I wonder if claims like that were much more than lip-service. Was my daily Bible-reading really just a matter of doing what I thought was my duty? Did I take the time and trouble needed to think it through and digest it, to soak up its glories and to grapple with its difficulties?

It seems as if the psalmist’s afflictions forced him to take God’s word more seriously. And if our afflictions have the same effect on us, that can only be good. Is it time some of us got to grips in a new way with our Bibles?

Second, he has come to a new appreciation of God’s love.

“I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.” He sees his troubles as permitted, or indeed inflicted, by the faithfulness of God, not his indifference or coldness.

It’s easy to think, when we are passing through times of difficulty, that it’s all arbitrary, a matter of pot-luck. We may even get a bit aggrieved: “What have I done to deserve this?” And, let’s be honest, there are times when things happen to even the most faithful children of God which seem completely meaningless: life’s like that.

But the psalmist, with the benefit of hindsight, can see that it was “in faithfulness” that God afflicted him. In other words, even during those dark times, God was acting as his loving Father, not as some cold, uncaring and distant god. God is always faithful to his children, even in the times when he seems farthest away.

In a word, the psalmist’s troubles have brought him into a fresh and deeper relationship with God. And if that could happen to him, why not to us too?

The psalmist’s words find a very clear New Testament echo in Hebrews 12:4-11. That whole passage is well worth mulling over, but here are some key parts: “… do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves… Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children…”

And then this: “… God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” That last part is absolutely vital: the fact is that God is remaking us as people – remaking us in the holy likeness of his Son. And that is a life-time process (never in fact complete in this life) which entails the enduring of hardship.

Put it this way… God is a doctor, a spiritual surgeon, and his plan is that we will eventually be perfectly healthy. But just as no operation is pain-free, and no medicine pleasant to take, so God’s loving “treatment” of us is bound sometimes to involve suffering.

The psalmist has grasped this. May God give us grace to do the same – even without the benefit of hindsight!

Father God, give me faith and grace to see your hand in my life even when things are “going wrong”. And give me ears to hear what you are saying – even if it is unwelcome. Amen.

Jesus, Egypt, and the mothers of Bethlehem

… so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet…” Matthew 2:15

Something a little different – even a little technical – this time.

That prospect might put you off! – but I hope you will fasten your seat-belt and stick with me, because it’s all about how we should read and understand the Bible, not least various passages which we tend to skim over without really thinking about them – and passages in which people sometimes see a problem.

Last time we looked at the story of the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt to escape the murderous venom of King Herod (Matthew 2:13-23). The story is clear enough: no problem there.

But three times in just eleven verses Matthew quotes Old Testament passages and states that they find their “fulfilment” in the events he is describing. Christians have, as a result, often referred to these passages as fulfilments of “prophecy” – in other words, that events predicted by the prophets are now coming true in Jesus.

But is that so? The fact is that in none of the three cases are the prophets’ original words looking to the future. So how can they be said to be predictions of things that happened to Jesus?

Let’s take them in turn…

  1. Matthew 2:15: “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’.”

The quote is from Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I have called my son.”

It’s very clear that Hosea is looking not forward to Jesus, but backward to the events of the Exodus under Moses. The word “son” refers not to Jesus, but to Israel as the people of God.

  1. Matthew 2:18: “A voice is heard in Ramah… Rachel weeping for her children…”

This quote (I’ve only quoted part of it) is from Jeremiah 31:15. This long chapter is one of the gems of the Old Testament, bursting with hope and joy and climaxing in the wonderful promise of a “new covenant” (verses 31-37). But tucked away in the middle is this solemn verse about “mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children… because they are no more”. In the original context it probably refers to the mothers of Israel heart-broken as they see their sons led away into captivity by the Babylonian army.

  1. Matthew 2:23: “… he will be called a Nazarene”.

This is a mystery – the words “Nazarene” or “Nazareth” simply never appear in the Old Testament! Yet Matthew says that these words were “said through the prophets”. Really, Matthew? What prophets?!

Various theories have been put forward to explain this, and I don’t have the space (not to mention the competence!) to open them up here: if you want to do so, I would simply encourage you to get hold of a couple of good commentaries and do your own research. (And if you find a convincing explanation, please let me know!)

But what about the other two quotes?

The answer is in fact fairly straightforward: when the New Testament talks about events in Jesus’ life “fulfilling” Old Testament passages it doesn’t necessarily mean that those passages directly predicted those events.

No: it means that those Old Testament references somehow prefigured, or hinted at, things that would happen in the life of Jesus. (The technical word for this is “typology”.)

We could put it this way: while of course God never simply repeats himself, his workings in history often take on a pattern, a “type”, which, so to speak, shows his finger-prints. “God is at work! God is on the move!” the writers seem to be saying – “and we sense this because memories are stirred of things that happened in the past!”

So… as Matthew reflects on the fact that Jesus spent time in Egypt, it reminds him that ancient Israel too spent time in Egypt; and just as Israel was liberated from captivity in Egypt under Moses, so the new Israel will be liberated from sin under the new Moses, God’s Son Jesus.

And so, for him, Hosea 11:1 glows with a new significance; it receives a new “fulfilment”.

Likewise, as he reflects on the terrible story of Herod’s “massacre of the innocents” and the heart-break of the parents, Jeremiah 31:15 springs to mind: “Rachel weeping for her children”. Another verse takes on a whole new significance, a new “fulfilment”. Yes, God will deliver his people: but there will be pain and sorrow along the way.

So there isn’t in fact a problem at all – we just need to understand how the minds of the Bible writers worked as they pondered the way God acts in history.

If nothing else, Matthew’s use of these Old Testament passages – seeing “fulfilment” where we might see only coincidence – reminds us that God is, indeed, “working his purpose out as year succeeds to year”, as an old hymn puts it.

As we stand on the threshold of 2019, perhaps we too should look for God’s finger-prints in world events today!

Lord God, you are sovereign over all creation. Help us to see your hand at work in the unfolding of human history – especially when events are confusing and you seem to be far away. Amen.