One day at a time, sweet Jesus…

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning… Lamentations 3:22-23

I like early mornings. Most days around 6.30 you might find me leaving the house to walk up to the post office for my paper. It’s relatively quiet and still – just a few friendly dog-walkers out and about. It’s fresh and unspoiled, a good time to adjust my mind to what the new day might bring, and to pray.

The little Book of Lamentations is, as the name suggests, full of sadness. For centuries Jews and Christians alike have believed it was written by Jeremiah, though the experts today generally think this is unlikely. But it certainly chimes in with Jeremiah’s long prophecy, written at the time of Israel’s catastrophic defeat by the Babylonians. The prophet pleads with God to forgive his people for their unfaithfulness, and to restore their fortunes.

But right at the heart of the book is one of the Bible’s little gems, a passage every Christian should know. It’s in chapter 3, verses 19-33, especially verses 22-23:Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning…

How beautiful is that? And how simple!

The writer wants us to know that there is nothing stale or second-hand about God’s “compassions”. No, they are “new every morning.”

A meal made of left-overs can be both tasty and nourishing, it’s true; hand-me-down clothes can be perfectly useful. But they are bound to feel a little, well, second-best. The grace and kindness of God are never like that. Each new dawn brings a fresh supply.

So we are encouraged to embark on each new day, whatever its demands and difficulties, with a confident hope that God is there – going before us, walking with us, and coming after us.

Let’s get this little mantra etched onto our spiritual DNA: new every morning… one day at a time…

This isn’t just a passage that we can cull from an obscure part of the Bible and tuck away in our minds. No, it’s part of a fuller thread that runs right through the Bible.

Think of the story of the manna (Exodus 16).

The people of Israel are wandering in the desert after being set free from slavery in Egypt, and they’re becoming grumbly and rebellious. They don’t like the food they are given, even to the point of wishing they had never left Egypt in the first place: “There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you (that’s Moses and Aaron) have brought us out into this desert…” (verse 3).

So God responds: You want more food? All right, more food you shall have! And so each evening he sends them quail to eat, and each morning a strange kind of bread they call “manna” (which sounds like the Hebrew word for “what is it?”).

But there is one proviso: the manna must be gathered one day at a time; they mustn’t keep it for the next day, and if they do it will go rotten – as “some of them” discovered to their cost (verse 20).

God is teaching them the same vital lesson as Lamentations 3: you can’t live on yesterday’s blessings; each day is a new start, and calls for a new commitment of faith. New every morning… one day at a time…

Mind you, it’s worth noticing that the manna did need to be “gathered” – it wasn’t landed plonk on their breakfast tables. And in the same way, while God’s new mercies are purely a gift from him, we are still responsible for making them our own.

How do we do this? In essence, by consciously and deliberately opening ourselves up to God through prayer, and by seeking to bring our lives into line with his holy will. (God says to his people in Psalm 81:10: “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it”. There’s a condition there, isn’t there? Have you ever tried to feed a baby with its mouth clamped shut? – then you know how God must sometimes feel.)

Paul, in the New Testament, had hold of this same truth: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). And as a result, “we do not lose heart”. New every morning… one day at a time…

And of course we mustn’t forget the words of Jesus: “Give us today our daily bread…” (Matthew 6:11). And, coming from a slightly different angle, the need to “take up our cross daily” to follow him (Luke 9:23).

New every morning… one day at a time… Are we getting the message?

New every morning… one day at a time...

New mercies, each returning day,/ Hover around us while we pray;/ New perils past, new sins forgiven,/ New thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven. John Keble (1792-1866)

Permission granted to pester God! (2)

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Luke 18:1-8

Last time we thought about the most obvious meaning of Jesus’ story of “the unjust judge” – the judge who is both like God (he has the power to put things right) and unlike God (he refuses to do so until the widow gets on his nerves) – it is a story to encourage God’s people to persevere in prayer: “they should always pray and not give up”. I hope it had that effect on all of us.

I did point out also, though, that while we should never “give up” praying in a negative sense (“Oh, I’m just wasting my time. What’s the point?”) there are times when it’s necessary and right to cross something off our prayer list, so to speak, because God has given us a clear “Sorry, but no – this is something I intend to use for your good”. The example of Paul and his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12) sprang to mind.

So far, I hope, so good.

But I didn’t get round to another vital theme which runs like a thread through the story: justice. The passage is of just eight verses; but that word occurs no less than four times, in verses 3, 5, 7 and 8. So when Jesus speaks of “always praying and not giving up” he seems to have mainly in mind the importance of never ceasing to pray for justice.

God cares about justice. Throughout the Bible he is portrayed as a God of justice. From the beginning he warns his people that they will suffer injustice. And his promise is that ultimately he will see that justice is granted to them.

This means that if the judge stands for God himself, then the helpless widow stands for his people. This is spelled out in verse 7: “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?”

Have you ever struggled to understand the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation? If you have, you can feel comforted that you are in good company – for two thousand years of Christian history this strange book has perplexed generation after generation of readers.

But running through it, crystal clear, there is a stress on the fact that God’s suffering people will ultimately be vindicated by him. Whatever the exact meaning of all the metaphorical details, this stands out clearly.

There is a particularly moving example in chapter 6. The “Lamb” (obviously a reference to Jesus) has been handed a scroll which is sealed with seven seals. Each time Jesus opens one of these seals something dramatic happens. See what follows the opening of the fifth seal…

“…I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been killed because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained…”(Like the widow in Jesus’ story) “…they called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer…”

I love that detail about the white robe – signifying purity and godliness. It’s as if God is saying to them, “Yes, I’m afraid that you must be patient for a little yet, but be assured that you belong to me, and I will not fail you.”

See how this passage chimes in with Luke 18:1-8? Is it any wonder that while those of us who live in the comfortable western world scratch our heads over Revelation, the millions of the persecuted in many parts of the world seem to hug it to themselves as comfort and reassurance?

The challenge is obvious: If God cares so much about justice, what about us? Do we also? Or do we turn a blind eye, enjoying our comfort while millions suffer? Is it time, perhaps, to take a serious interest in one of the many Christian organisations and charities which exist to support and lobby for those suffering injustice? They greatly need our interest, our prayers, and our money. I think particularly of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Doors and Barnabas Fund, though there are many others to choose from.

Let’s remember too that justice is indivisible. While our main focus, understandably, is on our suffering fellow-Christians, the fact is that there are all sorts of other groups having it just as bad – some belonging to other religious groupings, some suffering for reasons of political conscience.

Terrible things are happening around our world. If we as Christians stand aloof, who will speak up for such people?

Jesus’ story ends with an abrupt and rather strange question: “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” The implied answer seems to be, “Well, if he does, it won’t be a lot!”

I suggest that as we reflect on all the implications of this little story, we make up our minds what our reply to Jesus’ question is… “If it’s got anything to do with me, YES HE WILL!”

Lord God, in a world that is full of corruption, lies, cruelty and injustice, help me, even in my own small world, to be a champion of truth, honesty and justice. Amen.

Permission granted to pester God!

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Luke 18:1-8

Do you ever help people not because you have particularly loving feelings towards them, or even because you feel it’s your duty, but in order to “get them off your back”?

I recently asked a congregation that question and – guess what? – just about everybody put their hand up. They looked a bit shame-faced as they did so (me too, I must confess), but all credit to them for their honesty. The fact is that some people just wear you down by their sheer persistence till you give in.

I can’t help smiling at the fact that Jesus could tell a story comparing God himself with a judge who gets so fed up with a widow who just won’t stop pestering him that he eventually gives her what she wanted.

Not, of course, that God is remotely like that! No, it’s one of those “how much more” stories – if a heartless, cynical man like that judge could eventually be prevailed upon by a helpless widow, how much more can our loving heavenly Father be prevailed upon by us his children?

What were “judges” like in Jesus’ day? Not as we imagine them today – bewigged, wearing elaborate robes, sitting on a throne behind a bench, presiding over a solemn court involving prosecutors, defenders, a jury – and the poor suspect in the dock. No. They were men who served in local districts to sort out disputes and remedy injustices – and anyone could call on them. Their job was, essentially, to listen to the case and then make a decision.

And widows? Well, if a woman had no family support or loving friendship circle, her situation was desperate: no pensions or social security for her! Hence their sometimes desperate need to get a judge on their side – hence too the fact that the Bible so often speaks of “widows and orphans” as the neediest people in society.

This is the background to Jesus’ story, and he told it for a very clear purpose: “…to show [his disciples] that they should always pray and not give up”. It is, in essence, a challenge about persevering in prayer. I suspect this is a challenge most of us need most of the time.

But a question arises: What exactly does “persevering in prayer” mean? Once we have committed ourselves to pray regularly for a particular person, situation or need, does God expect us to go on praying for it indefinitely? Should we literally “never take no for an answer”? At risk of seeming to contradict Jesus’ story, the answer to that question is, I think, No, not necessarily.

The fact is that sometimes God answers our prayers with a “no”, in which case it is surely right to rest the matter in his hands and move on.

Think of three examples from the experience of Paul…

First, and best-known, the episode of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).

We simply don’t know what this mysterious affliction was, but it was some pain or other problem – physical? psychological? mental? – given to Paul “to keep me from getting conceited” after receiving remarkable visions and experiences of God.

Whatever it was, it was extremely unwelcome: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me,” says Paul. But – and this is the point – God said, in effect, Sorry Paul, but this is something you are going to have to live with… “My grace is sufficient for you…” God was intending to use Paul’s “thorn” for his ultimate good.

And then there are Timothy and Trophimus, two of Paul’s colleagues in ministry.

Timothy seems to have been a rather sickly young man – Paul speaks of “your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23). But rather than promise to pray for him, or urge him to pray for himself, he advises him to “stop drinking only water” and to “drink a little wine”.

We aren’t told what was wrong with Trophimus (2 Timothy 4:20), but Paul states bluntly that “I left him ill in Miletus”. Given that he had supernatural powers of healing, it’s surely inconceivable that he hadn’t prayed for Trophimus (and of course for Timothy too).

But it seems clear that he accepted that God wasn’t going to grant them healing, so presumably he no longer prayed for it, but simply gave (in Timothy’s case at least) a little bit of homespun medical advice.

Paul, then, accepted a “no” answer to prayer – and I think that word accepted is important. The vital fact is this: we can stop praying for a particular thing either in a negative spirit, a shoulder-shrugging spirit of resignation – “Oh, I give up, I’m wasting my time” – or in a positive spirit – “All right, it seems that God is not going to grant this request, so I lay it at his feet and trust that he will bring ultimate good out of it.”

“Acceptance” and “resignation” are very different things. To accept a “no” answer in this positive spirit can be wonderfully liberating, setting us free from fretfulness and self-questioning, and allowing us to get on with our lives.

Is this something some of us need to do?

All these thoughts are prompted by Jesus’ story of the persistent widow. But there are other important things too in the story. We’ll have to return to them next time…

Loving Father, thank you that you are so unlike that hard-hearted judge in Jesus’ story – and yet so like him too, in that you really do have power to respond to my cries. Please help me, by your Spirit, to know when to persevere in prayer, and when to accept positively that you have another purpose for my life. Amen.

Poor me! The folly of self-pity

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked…

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, and have washed my hands in innocence…

When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you… Psalm 73:1-3, 13-14, 21-22

Do you ever give in to self-pity? Be honest! Perhaps you didn’t get the promotion you were qualified for and felt entitled to… Somebody else ended up marrying the person you were convinced was meant for you… Your expensive holiday was wrecked by bad weather or travel problems… Your health broke down…

And it’s: “Why me! It’s not fair! What have I done to deserve this?” All right, we may not utter those words – but haven’t we all felt that way? Poor me!

(By the way, there’s a big difference between self-pity and depression. The person wallowing in self-pity needs a good scolding – preferably administered by him or herself. The depressed person needs understanding, sensitivity – and love.)

Psalm 73 is by a man who teeters on the brink of self-pity, but who manages to pull back from it. I’ve only quoted bits from it, and really (as always with the Bible) it needs to be read as a whole. But I think it can be just what we need when we are tempted by the delicious misery of self-pity. Let’s ask a few questions…

First, what precisely was his problem?

Answer: envy. “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (verse 3). He’s looking (verses 4-12) at what today we might call the “idle rich” or “fat cats”, people who’ve “got it all” and who strut about with their infuriating air of entitlement. “I deserve that as much as them!” he cries. “They’re no better than me!”

Envy, or what Shakespeare called “the green-eyed monster” jealousy, is a disease common to all humanity – “if it were a fever,” says the proverb, “all the world would be ill.” Jesus includes it in that ugly list of “what defiles a person” (Mark 7:20-23); Paul too in Romans 1:29.

Which means, putting it simply, that it must not be indulged or tolerated. Stamp on it! Stamp on it hard!

Second, what did it do to him?

For one thing, it threatened to lead him completely astray: “My feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold” (verse 2). It seems that his envy became all-consuming – to the point that it dominated his whole life, destroying his peace of mind and ruining his focus on the things that really matter. In verse 13 he questions whether it’s a waste of time to live a good life.

Still more, he feels reduced to the level of an animal: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant: I was a brute beast before you” (verses 21-22). That’s pretty damning, isn’t it?

In short, his envy robbed him of all that makes men and women admirable, attractive and even remotely Christlike. He has become withered, shrunken and self-obsessed, a pathetic shadow of true humanity.

Third, what saved him from disaster?

As so often in the Bible, this psalm has a key turning-point, a hinge on which the whole passage turns. It comes in verses 16 and 17: “When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply, till I entered the sanctuary of God”.

Ah! A moment came when he realised it was high time to bring God into the situation. I don’t know if he means that he literally visited “the sanctuary”, but I’m happy to picture him almost running into the temple and getting down on his knees in order to pour out all the bile and bitterness which have been poisoning him.

And as he does this, suddenly he sees things in a completely new light: he understands the “final destiny” of those people he has been envying (verses 17-19). “Oh, what a stupid, stupid fool I’ve been!” he cries. “All right, they’ve got it all now – but what about how they’re going to end up: unending misery! How could I have been so foolish as to envy them?”

Thank God that everything changes when we invite him to re-focus our eyes!

Fourth, how does he himself end up?

Answer: all right, no better off materially, but who cares? – he is at peace with God, and therefore at peace within himself.

I’ll leave you to read verses 20-28 for yourself. But, summing up, he feels as if he has woken up from a nightmare (verse 20). He has a new and wonderful sense of security: “I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory” (verses 23 and 24).

And then this: “God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever” (verse 26). Wonderful.

Is that something you and I can say? I do hope so!

Yes, Psalm 73 is definitely the go-to psalm when that nasty little snake of self-pity rears its head. Let’s tuck it away in our hearts and minds.

Lord God, there are many times when life just doesn’t seem fair – when, indeed, I might be entitled to complain. Please help me, at such times, to remember that you are my loving Father, and so to remain positive, trusting and cheerful. Amen.

Are you a joyful giver?

Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints…

You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. 2 Corinthians 8:4,9

I heard a story – a true one, apparently – about a minister who used a sermon to tell his congregation off about the level of their giving.

So what’s new? you say. Isn’t this normal in many churches? “Come on,” says the preacher, “we need to do more to bump up the church’s income.”

Only… it wasn’t like that. No – the preacher was telling the people off because they were giving too much. Yes, really. They were mainly quite poor people, but such was their love for God and his work that they were giving so generously that they were leaving themselves short.

The Bible says that “God loves a cheerful giver”, of course. A week or two ago I wrote about what I called “holy extravagance”, focussing on the unnamed woman who poured a bottle of perfume over Jesus, much to the disapproval of the religious people watching. And I don’t go back on a word of that.

But in this case a time had obviously come when the people were giving over-extravagantly, and the minister felt it right to ask them to stop.

Something like this happened in Paul’s ministry. The “they” he is speaking about in 2 Corinthians 8 are members of the Macedonian churches – Gentile churches, probably Philippi and Thessalonica. And the “service” he mentions is that of raising money for fellow-believers in need.

Paul was keen to collect money from the churches he had planted in the Gentile world in order to help the Jewish mother-church in the Jerusalem area. These Christians had fallen on hard times (we aren’t told why) and they needed help. And Paul was bowled over by the sheer generosity of the Macedonian churches: “They urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service.” Note those words: urgentlypleadedprivilege… These people were anything but half-hearted! And this in spite of the fact that they themselves were experiencing “extreme poverty”.

A challenge to us all.

But it’s not really money I’m thinking about, important though our financial giving is. No, I’m thinking more about our overall attitude towards service for God.

Over my years in ministry I developed a little joke. When we made known a job needing to be done in the life of the church, I would  sometimes say, “Please form an orderly queue at the end of the service” – knowing, of course, that that was (to put it mildly) extremely unlikely to happen.

All right, a pretty feeble joke – but you get the point.

(Mind you, I do remember with great respect and gratitude one young woman in particular who would often quietly say “Yes, I think perhaps that’s something I could help with…” And if it did indeed turn out to be something that was right for her, she proved herself totally reliable. Thank God for people like her!)

I’m not saying this to pile guilt on us. No, of course, we’re living in days when everyone is frantically busy, and fitting in just the basic tasks of everyday life can be a struggle.

But could it be that some of us have slipped into a wrong mentality? A mentality where the immediate, unthinking, knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Not me! Oh no, that’s not something I could do! That’s for someone else”? – without even pausing for ten seconds to think and pray, “Lord, is this something you would like me to do?”

Here are two great Bible principles.

First, it is a joy and privilege to serve God in the building of his kingdom.

Regarding the Macedonian Christians, Paul spells this out: “In the midst of a very severe trial, their over-flowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (verse 2). And for us – well, what greater use of our earthly lives could there be than to offer our gifts and talents (and these are things we all have!) to the business of making more widely known the love of God shown in Jesus?

Second, it is through service that we grow.

Why are some Christians, even those of many years’ standing, spiritually flabby and slack? Often, I suspect, it’s because they have never rolled up their sleeves and committed themselves to the discipline and hard work of some specific task for God.

Why not read the whole passage (2 Corinthians 8:1-9), and ask yourself the question: Is there any area, whether involving money or not, where I need to take a leaf out of the book of the Macedonian Christians?

Even better, a leaf out of the book of Jesus himself, who “though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich”?

Oh use me, Lord, use even me,/ Just as you will, and when, and where,/ Until your blessed face I see,/ Your rest, your joy, your glory share. Amen.   (Frances Ridley Havergal)

Meekness and majesty

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.”  Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him.  The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 

“Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” Then everyone deserted him and fled. 

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. Mark 14:43-52

How would I react if the authorities came hammering on my door at night, wanting to arrest me for being a Christian? Would I go to pieces?

Thankfully, living where I do, this isn’t a fate I need worry about too much – but that can’t be said of many Christians around the world, ordinary people like you and me; for them it is a daily possibility. May God prompt us to be faithful in prayer for them!

Well, here is Jesus, standing in the Garden of Gethsemane and confronting “a crowd armed with swords and clubs”, sent by the religious authorities. Patience has snapped, and they have come to get him.

Two things particularly strike me: Jesus’ heart-breaking aloneness, and his wonderful dignity. Go to pieces? Not him!

That aloneness

Jesus has been in an agony of prayer, asking his disciples to stay awake and keep him company. But they fail, and he finds them asleep. Now, as the mob arrives, it turns out that they are headed by one of his own inner circle, Judas. He identifies Jesus (it’s dark in the garden) by kissing him. Then, after a brief and futile skirmish, in which one of them attacks the high priest’s servant (John’s Gospel tells us it was Simon Peter), “everyone deserted him and fled”.

As if to emphasise Jesus’ aloneness, Mark adds the semi-comical detail of a young man (Mark himself, according to an early tradition) who is so desperate to get away that, when they grab him, he slithers snake-like out of his tunic and disappears naked into the night.

So Jesus stands alone.

It’s been said that anything in this life is bearable if you have someone to bear it with you. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in that. Thank God for loyal family and friends who stick with us in our hard times!

But there’s no doubt that, tragically, this world is full of lonely people. So I must face the question, How loyal and caring am I to the lonely friend? Still more, how loyal and caring to the lonely stranger?

Lord, help me to see and love the lonely person, whoever they may be!

What about Jesus’ wonderful dignity?

At this pivotal moment in his life, he offers no resistance, either physical or verbal. “Why this show of force?” he mildly protests. “You could have come for me any time you wanted! I haven’t tried to hide myself away, have I?” So he is taken away, “led like a lamb to the slaughter”. Can you see the sad little procession, Jesus upright in the middle?

Where did he (fully human, remember, as well as fully divine) get this poise and dignity?

No doubt a life-time of self-discipline and deep spirituality fed into this. But the passage itself suggests two things which were particularly important.

First, he has just come through a time of intense, agonising prayer. Mark tells us that he was “deeply distressed and troubled”, Luke that “his sweat was like drops of blood”. He pleads with his Father to spare him the ordeal that lies ahead. But having come through that turmoil of prayer, he has found a new sense of peace and equilibrium.

There are times when we too need to grit our teeth and pray our way through hard situations. When perhaps those we have relied on fail us, what can we do but throw ourselves on the fatherly love of God and pour out our hearts to him? We may not get what we ask for, but we do reach a place of peace – not just a negative sense of resignation, but a positive acceptance of what we know in our hearts is right: “… not what I will, but what you will…”.

I wonder if any of us today need a determined getting-to-grips-with-God session, a real outpouring of our hearts?

Second, we shouldn’t overlook his simple words: “The scriptures must be fulfilled” (verse 50).

From early days, certainly by the time he was twelve, when he debated with the teachers in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2), Jesus had had a deep sense of personal destiny. I have sometimes wondered at exactly what point in his young life he, reading perhaps Isaiah 53, realised for the first time, “This is… me!”.

We have no way of knowing. But we do know that all his life he had been reflecting on the scriptures, and now, even though even he could not know all the details, he sees the jigsaw pieces of prophecy clicking into place. To suffer and to die is what he came for – so he lets them lead him away. In the words of Hebrews 12:2: “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame…”.

You too have a personal destiny. As do I. May God help us, by his Spirit, to find it, to follow it – and ultimately to rejoice in it. Isn’t this how we are to give honour to the one we call “Lord”?

O what a mystery,/ Meekness and majesty./ Bow down and worship/ For this is your God. Amen.   (Graham Kendrick)

Can extravagance be holy?

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me…” Mark 14:3-6

Would you describe yourself as an extravagant person? – spending money you don’t really need to spend? – perhaps even money you don’t actually have? Ever have your family rolling their eyes or muttering under their breath?

If you do, you probably feel guilty about it. You may even have promised yourself that you really will rein it in; but, of course, that’s easier said than done. And, jokes aside, we all know of lives that have been ruined because of an irresponsible use of money.

Yes, extravagance is a pretty stupid thing; very often, indeed, a sin.

But… Are there perhaps exceptions? The Bible gives us a number of examples of what we might call holy extravagance.

One of the best of these is the unnamed woman of Mark 14. She approaches Jesus at a meal-table with a jar of “very expensive perfume” – the sort of thing, I imagine, that would normally be used in little dabs. And what does she do? She “broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head”. If that’s not extravagance, I don’t know what is.

Her action causes a right stink (so to speak). The disciples and others at the meal give vent to their outrage, and turn ferociously on the woman: “What a waste! Think of all the help the poor could have received if this perfume had been sold on their behalf!”

They have a point, of course. But Jesus, in spite of his undoubted love and concern for the poor, hungry and helpless, just dismisses it: “Leave her alone… Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me”. Isn’t that one of the greatest things Jesus ever said? I can picture the woman, cowering under the onslaught of criticism, now standing up straight and looking them full in the face.

The point, of course, is that the woman’s action was done not to gratify herself, but out of love for Jesus. She herself got nothing out of it – except the pleasure of honouring the one she had come to love, respect and, I imagine, in due course to worship.

The challenge for us is very simple. Are there occasions when we too might perform an act of holy extravagance? Could God be prompting us to do so right now?

The widow with her “two very small copper coins” thrown into the temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44) is another wonderful example. Jesus tells his disciples that her giving is greater than that of the rich people, because “they all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on”.

And then there is Joseph Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37) who “sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet”. (Was that field intended as what we might call his pension-pot?)

In each of those examples, the act must have been prepared deliberately in advance – holy extravagance is not to be carried out lightly or impulsively.

Or – to digress for a moment – under any kind of pressure. Barnabas wasn’t alone in the early church to do such a thing; but there is no suggestion that it was demanded or expected of the first believers.

On the contrary, immediately after we are told about Barnabas, we are given another story: about a couple who wanted to be seen as extravagant, but who in fact weren’t. Ananias and Sapphira “also sold a piece of property”, but then “kept back part of the money… brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 5:1-11).

The problem wasn’t that they didn’t give the whole amount; no, that was fine. The problem was that they pretended to. Simon Peter made that very clear: “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”

While we admire the two women we have thought about, and also Barnabas, we can only feel deeply sad for this misguided couple. It’s sad that they wanted to be seen as something they weren’t – and even sadder that they saw nothing wrong in telling a lie. (Saddest of all, of course, is what happened to them – a solemn warning that it’s futile to lie to the God who knows all things.)

Holy extravagance isn’t only to do with money. It can take many forms – committing yourself to a new area of service, perhaps, or taking on a responsibility for something you’re not completely sure you can cope with. It is, putting it in a single word, risky. But isn’t faith often exactly that – taking a risk out of our love for God?

As I reflect on these stories, there’s an obvious question that nags away at my mind: When did I last (if ever) express my love for God in an act of holy extravagance? Or am I happy just being comfortable in my undemanding faith?

A question worth pondering…

Lord Jesus, please give me a loving heart, a wise mind, a generous spirit – and open hands. Amen.