Why did you do that!

All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord. Proverbs 16:2 (NIV)

Humans are satisfied with whatever looks good; God probes for what is good. Proverbs 16:2 (The Message)

“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it…” So ran the opening line of a once-popular song.

There’s a real truth there. The way you do a thing can make all the difference: do you do it grumblingly and grudgingly, or cheerfully and willingly? conscientiously or carelessly? Psalm 100:2, for example, tells us to “worship the Lord with gladness”, and every time I read that verse I feel like adding “or don’t bother to worship him at all” – because, make no mistake, he won’t be listening.

So… there’s a challenge for us all straight away.

But I want to go a step further. I think that song-line suggests an even more important truth: It ain’t just the way you do something, it’s also the reason you do it. It ain’t just your manner – it’s also your motive.

That’s what Proverbs 16:2 is about. I like the translation given in The Message: “Humans are satisfied with what looks good: God probes for what is good”. Yes, appearance  is one thing; reality may be something very different.

In TS Eliot’s powerful play Murder in the Cathedral, “doing the right deed for the wrong reason” is described as “the worst treason”. The speaker is Archbishop Thomas Becket, who knew that he was very likely to be cut down by the swords of King Henry ll’s knights for standing up to him. Is it possible, he wonders, that even such a wonderful act as martyrdom – the supreme sacrifice! – can be tainted by the wrong motive? And he decides that it is…

The word “motive” doesn’t crop up very often in the Bible. But there’s no doubt that the idea is there as a common thread. Indeed, whenever the Bible talks about “the heart”, it’s very likely talking about motives. The prophet Samuel, for example, called by God to anoint the next king of Israel, is told: “Don’t consider his appearance or his height… The Lord doesn’t look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

And Jesus, of course, is blunt in condemning people who do the right deed for the wrong reason. That’s the message of Matthew 6:1-18. You’re “giving to the needy” (verse 2)? Great – but don’t make a song and dance about it. You’re “praying” (verse 5)? Very good – but do it quietly and privately. You’re “fasting” (verse 16)? Well done – but do it with a cheerful face.

Don’t do good deeds in order to make a display of what a wonderfully spiritual person you are!

If we ask, “But what constitutes a right reason, a good motive?” there’s no better place to look than 1 Corinthians 13 – Paul’s great poem about love. Nothing, he says – not even speaking in tongues, or prophesying, or explaining deep mysteries, or moving mountains by my faith, or giving away all my wealth – no, nothing at all is worth a scrap if love isn’t my motive. And (going back to Thomas Becket) that applies too to martyrdom: “…even if I hand over my body to be burned…” (verse 3, according to some translations).

If we then go on to ask, “Love for what, or who?” the answer of course can only be, “Love for God”. And that may take many practical forms – a love of justice, perhaps; a love of my neighbour; a love for the needy; a love of peace; a love for creation; a love for someone who hates me. Almost anything, indeed, apart from a love of my own reputation.

One of our problems, especially perhaps in our western world, is that we worry far too much about what other people think of us. And we Christians can unthinkingly get sucked into that mentality.

I used to work one day a week as a hospital chaplain. One person I got friendly with was one of the porters – always cheerful and ready for a bit of banter. I ran into him one day and did what I think is known as a double-take: was it really him? He seemed different somehow.

“Hallo! Have you had your hair cut?” I said, though it was certainly more than that. To which he replied “Yes, I decided it was time I changed my image”.

Time I changed my image. What a give-away phrase! I went away shaking my head and, to be honest, feeling rather sorry for him. But it soon occurred to me that, though I would never use such an expression myself, wasn’t I just as guilty of wondering what my “image” might be in the eyes of those who knew me? And just how much I did in order to gain peoples’ good opinion? Hypocrite!

Living the Christian life can be pretty accurately summed up as: Be like Christ – and be yourself. For, in the words of Thomas a Kempis (died 1471), “Man sees your actions, but God your motives”.

Father, help me to take seriously the fact that “motives are weighed by the Lord”. And so grant that, more and more and day by day, the inner me and the outer me will be one and the same person. Amen.

To think about, perhaps, if you have an idle moment: Which is worse, to do a good thing for a bad reason, or not to do it at all? I would love to know what you think…

Too good to be true?

When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30

Buying carpets can be an expensive business, so we had put down a deposit in advance, with the remainder due on completion of the job. Once the fitter had done his work we produced what we owed, he processed the money and handed us back our bill. The words “Paid in full” were written across it.

It was a nice feeling, to know that everything was in order, the work was satisfactorily done, and – most of all – we didn’t owe any money.

In the world in which Jesus lived, the Greek word for “paid in full” was tetelestai, which literally means “completed”, “finished”, “done”, “over”. And this is the word John uses to tell us about Jesus’ dying word on the cross: “It is finished”. One modern translator puts it, “It’s all done”.

So what was going on? Just this: Jesus was declaring in the most public way possible that he had completed the work his Father had sent him to do – the work of paying, once and for all, for human sin by his death on the cross.

Of course, because we weren’t there we can never know exactly how Jesus uttered that word. But Matthew in his Gospel mentions him speaking “with a loud voice”, and very likely that was it. One thing we can be certain of is that it was a cry of triumph rather than a whimper of defeat. Jesus wasn’t saying “It’s all over, I’ve had enough, I can’t take any more”. No, he was celebrating a victory that had at that moment been achieved.

This is massively important.

The human mind seems to be hard-wired to think that, if we are to be right with God – “saved” to use another Bible word – then we must try very hard to make ourselves right. The work belongs to us. And how do we do it? Well, obviously, by doing good deeds, by living a good life, by going regularly to church, by giving to charity. If we try really hard to do these things we might just do enough to squeeze into God’s favour – the credit side of the balance sheet will outweigh the debit side.

Completely obvious. And completely wrong.

If this is the way you instinctively think, can I ask you to really take on board that single word tetelestai? And can I urge you as a result to completely reboot your thinking processes on this vital subject?

When Jesus cried “It is finished” that meant that he had done it all; and if he had done it all, that can only mean that there is, quite literally, nothing left for us to do.

Put it another way: being right with God is a gift from Jesus to us. All we need to do – all we can do – is reach out the hand of faith and make it our own. It’s all summed up in that great Bible word “grace”, which has been defined as “God’s undeserved favour”.

You might be tempted to reply “But that’s just too good to be true!” Certainly, it seems like that, I must agree. But if Christianity is true, then it is plain fact – why else is the Christian message called “good news” (which is what “gospel” means)?

After all, it’s hardly good news to be told that you must work with all your might and main to earn forgiveness and salvation – and that even after you’ve done that there’s no guarantee of success; you might not “make the cut”.

No; to be offered salvation as a free gift from God purely on the basis of what Jesus did on the cross – well, that really is good news.

Does this mean that we needn’t bother with all that “good living” I mentioned earlier? – the going to church, the giving to charity, the showing love, forgiveness and generosity? No, it doesn’t. But the big difference is that we do these things as a response to God’s love, not as a way of hoping to earn it. This isn’t about becoming “religious”; it’s about becoming a new man or woman because Jesus has lifted the weight of your sin and washed you clean.

There’s a song, by Graham Kendrick, that sums up perfectly the invitation that we are offered: “The price is paid,/ Come let us enter in/ To all that Jesus died/ To make our own./ For every sin/ More than enough he gave,/ And bought our freedom/ From each guilty stain…”

Yes, it is finished! Is that word – tetelestai – the greatest word ever spoken?

More to the point, is it a word you still need to respond to? If it is, why not do so right now? Here’s a prayer you might like to pray…

Father God, thank you for opening my eyes to the meaning of the cross. Thank you for showing me that, though I am sinful and separated from you, Jesus has paid the price once for all on my behalf. Help me, right now, to reach out the hand of faith and to receive this wonderful gift. Amen.

What will we leave behind?

And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over. Deuteronomy 34:5-8

Monuments to the famous dead have been in the news recently. Most spectacularly, statues erected in honour of people once regarded as heroic, but now viewed as suspect in terms of racism and the slave trade, have been defaced or even toppled. Just this morning I read that the Church of England is planning a major look at the hundreds of memorials in its various churches: should some of them be removed?

Even though I grew up in London and have spent most of my life there, I must admit that statues, plaques and suchlike were not things I particularly noticed. They were just, well, there – little more than street furniture you walked past, to be honest. Yes, everybody knew about Nelson up his column, of course, but what he stood for… mmm, not so sure about that!

Recent events, though, make it clear that they can take on great importance for people who, rightly or wrongly, feel they have a cause to fight for.

Mulling over this turned my thoughts to the death and burial of Moses, described for us in Deuteronomy 34.

Moses has led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to the borders of Canaan, the “Promised Land”, which is to be their new home. But he personally will not cross the River Jordan into that land “flowing with milk and honey” because he has displeased God (even the very greatest of human beings are full of flaws!), and so, we are told, he “died there in Moab”. Rather sad, really.

The circumstances of his death are mysterious. For one thing, the writer (presumably not Moses himself, in spite of Deuteronomy being, according to tradition, one of “the five books of Moses”!) tells us that “he buried him there in Moab”.

But who is “he”? The natural meaning is God himself, though at a pinch the words could be more loosely translated “he was buried there”.

I doubt if we are to imagine that God appeared in some form or other (an angel, perhaps? complete with spade and shovel?) and did the job. More likely, I think, is that Moses went off one day, perhaps to be alone with God, and simply never returned. For the writer then goes on to tell us that “to this day no-one knows where his grave is”.

Now, why does the writer feel the need to tell us that? My guess is that he wanted to discourage those who, understandably, honoured Moses above all other human beings, from trying to locate his resting place, and thus turning it into some kind of shrine or place of pilgrimage.

This, of course, is the danger of such monuments, whether religious or not. I remember, before we left London, wandering around Highgate Cemetery, not all that far from where we lived. It is the home of that massive stone head marking the grave of Karl Marx which you’ve probably seen photos of. Still to this day (I think I’m right in saying) true communist believers gather at that spot annually to honour him. Again, rather sad, really.

Over the centuries many branches of the church have given in to this need to erect physical memorials to the dead. If you go to St Peter’s basilica in Rome you can see a statue of the apostle Peter, seated, where one of his feet has had the toes worn away by the kisses of millions of adoring pilgrims.

Of course, those who have died are to be respected, and there is something restful and sobering in a traditional graveyard. But how easily things can turn to superstition! Jesus himself warned his fellow-Jews about this; addressing the scribes and Pharisees as “hypocrites”, he says, “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous…” (Matthew 23:29).

Even paintings and statues made with the sincere aim of stimulating thought and prayer can “go bad”, so to speak. It’s worth reflecting that the “bronze snake” Moses was commanded to make by God himself (Numbers 21:4-9) had later to be destroyed by the good king Hezekiah because people had got into the habit of “burning incense to it” (1 Kings 18:1-4).

Is there any good thing in your life or mine which we have in effect turned into an idol?

What really matters when we think about monuments to the dead is this: the only legacy any true Christian should want to leave is the legacy of Christlike character, holy memory and pure example.

Deuteronomy tells us that the people of Israel “grieved” for Moses with “weeping and mourning for thirty days”. Acts 8 tells us that after Stephen was stoned to death “godly men buried him and mourned deeply for him”. But statues? shrines? No!

It was said of Abel, the man who brought a good sacrifice to God, that “he still speaks, though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4). Still more, we read in Revelation 14:13 of a heavenly voice speaking: “… ‘blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes’, says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds follow them’.”

That, surely, is all that matters. I wonder if it will be said of us in decades to come that we “still speak” and that “our deeds follow us”…?

Dear Father, as I seek to live my earthly life for the glory of Jesus, so may my remembrance, when I am long gone, be also only for his glory. Amen.

Stop beating yourself up!

Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ Mark 6:31

Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ Matthew 11:28

Facebook has this habit of digging up things you posted in the past and sending them back to you as “memories”. Just recently there was a blog I wrote a year or two ago which, reading it over again, I felt missed something important. So I’m returning to it now.

The post was about “enjoying God” – a reminder that God isn’t simply to be believed in, trusted, and obeyed, but actively enjoyed. I took as my starting point the lovely invitation of Psalm 34:8: “Taste and see that the Lord is good”.

Much of what I wrote was about things that spoil our enjoyment of God. I picked out (1) sin (the most obvious one), (2) anxiety (something most of us have to wrestle with throughout our lives), and (3) busyness (a bane of so much modern living). All true, I still think.

But, as I say, I feel I missed something important: what you might call an over-sensitive conscience.

What I mean is this: there’s a danger that we are so concerned – rightly, of course – to live a really committed Christian life that we condemn ourselves unnecessarily when we feel we have fallen short. The in-phrase, I think, is that we “beat ourselves up”.

As I look back on my life I would certainly say that I have fallen into this trap. As a young Christian I used to hear sermons about the importance of prayer, for example, and, as a result, I found it difficult, every time I prayed, not to feel a failure. I won’t say exactly that I would pray with my eye on the clock, but I think that sometimes I came pretty close – I haven’t prayed long enough! I haven’t prayed hard enough! John Wesley used to pray at least seven hours every day, so what’s so wrong with me that I struggle to manage ten minutes!

It was other things too… Why don’t I read the Bible more often! When did I last bring someone to faith in Christ! Why do I sometimes not feel like going to church! Why do I sometimes find it so hard to love my fellow-Christians! Why do I still get crabby with the children? Why can’t I get on with that person at work?

And so on… Oh, Lord, I’m just useless!

I wonder if you can identify with that? If you can, you will know that the idea of enjoying God is pretty remote. Without meaning to, we are treating him not as our loving heavenly Father, but as an old-fashioned school-teacher always looking over our shoulder because we’re falling short and it’s just not good enough.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we should ever be soft on sin: God isn’t, and neither should we be. But I am not talking about sin, which is deliberate disobedience to God. No, I’m talking about the very natural frailties and weaknesses which continue to mark even our new-born Christian natures.

Putting it in a nutshell: Are there times when God is far gentler with us than we are with ourselves? Or putting the same question the other way round: Are there times when we are far harder on ourselves than God is?

Hard on our sins; gentle with our weaknesses – that sums up the nature of God towards his people. There’s a great Bible story which illustrates that truth.

According to 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah won a spectacular victory over the false prophets of Baal (that’s chapter 18), immediately followed by an equally spectacular collapse at the threats of Queen Jezebel (that’s chapter 19)…

“Elijah was afraid and ran for his life… He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord… Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors’” (verses 3-5).

In plain English: “I’m no good, Lord; I’m a miserable, wretched failure. I’d be better off dead…”

So what did God do? Scold him? Condemn him? No. He sent him an angel who “touched him”. He provided beautiful fresh-baked bread, a pitcher of healthy clean water, the gift of refreshing sleep – oh, and a dramatic revelation of himself, followed by a recommissioning to God’s service (verses 5-18).

Isn’t it interesting that God ministered to Elijah’s bodily needs before attending to his “spiritual” needs? He knew that Elijah was utterly spent, drained, exhausted. Oh yes, he had failed all right; no doubt about that. But God dealt with him tenderly and gently.

Does that remind you of anyone in the New Testament?

What about Simon Peter? Did he too fail miserably? Not half he did (see Matthew 26:69-75)! And did Jesus give him a scolding? Not half he didn’t! No, he put his arm round his shoulders and stood him right back on his feet (see John 21:15-19).

So the message is..?

Do you and I sometimes fail? Yes, we do. Do we feel miserable, wretched and useless? Yes, we do. But does God stop loving us? No, he doesn’t.

So… are there times we need to stop beating ourselves up? Yes! Yes, I rather think there are, don’t you?

Loving Father, sometimes I feel that my life is just a long list of failures and defeats. Thank you so much that you still love me even when I hate myself. Amen.

Hope – wishful thinking or solid reality?

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed… Romans 4:18

It’s been said that if you lose hope you lose everything. I’m sure there’s truth in that. To be without hope is to give up, to despair. And what could be grimmer than that?

Two images of hopelessness come to my mind. First, there are the people pathetically surveying the ruins of their homes after a flood or a fire – everything they have built up over many years destroyed in a matter of minutes.

And then, even worse, there are the emaciated mothers in refugee camps with their cruelly under-nourished babies, babies they cannot feed themselves.

That overdone word “heart-rending” fits these two scenarios. As it does also the many suffering most acutely, whether physically or mentally, through the pandemic.

Who could dream of criticising or judging such people if they reached the point of despair? – their circumstances are appalling. The role of those of us whose circumstances are relatively comfortable is simple: to keep the tiny flame of hope alight in any way we can – by prayer and by whatever practical means are possible. It’s amazing what hope even tiny gestures can engender.

It was the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) who wrote that “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” That isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course: sadly, there are situations where hope doesn’t in fact “spring eternal”, but flickers and dies. But there’s enough truth in it to have turned it into a proverb, quoted by people who have never heard of Pope or read a word of his poetry.

What better example of hope could there be than Abraham? Says Paul, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” (Romans 4:18) – or, as The Message translation puts it: “When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway…”

The background is this: God had promised Abraham that he would be the father – the ancestor – of many nations numbering untold millions. Yet he and his wife Sarah were childless, and well past the age of having children. God’s promise seemed a mockery: how could it possibly be fulfilled? Yet we are told in Genesis 15 that Abraham did in fact continue to believe – which can only mean he looked to God for a miracle.

Well, it took a long time coming! – but come it did. Abraham’s persistent faith was rewarded.

The God of the Bible is the God who does the impossible, a miracle-working God. We probably don’t think of answers to prayer, hard-won after perhaps many years, as “miracles”; but they are the work of God nonetheless. From our point of view it’s a matter of clinging to him by the skin of our teeth. After all, if we don’t cling to him, who will we cling to?

I don’t know what kind of faith, if any, Alexander Pope may have had. But I suspect that, when he spoke of “hope springing eternal”, many readers will have seen that as a vague “hoping for the best” or just “wishful thinking”. There are many phrases that have captured that spirit of optimism through repeated use: “Keep your chin up”, “Things can only get better”, “Always look on the bright side of life”, “Keep smiling through” (as Vera Lynn used to sing).

Well, such sentiments are better than slumping into despair, and I wouldn’t mean to dismiss them. But what makes the kind of hope Abraham had different is that it rested in a person with whom he had a relationship – with no other than God himself. And that applies also to everyone who has learned to trust in God through faith in his Son Jesus.

Perhaps, as you are reading this, you are living with a disappointed hope, a shattered dream. Something you were looking forward to with all your heart has disappeared, and all you have left is dust and ashes.

That’s hard – so hard. But I would encourage you to take your cue from Abraham and muster up every scrap of faith in God that you can – not vaguely “crossing your fingers and hoping for the best”, but calling out to him as your loving heavenly Father. (Never forget, his shoulders are plenty big enough to carry all your frustration, anger, fear and even despair.)

I mentioned people close to despair as they survey the wreckage of their home, or long desperately for food for a starving child. Yes, those scenes are indeed heart-breaking.

But sometimes – just sometimes – the television cameras are back a year or two later, and what do we see? Answer: the same people in clean, renovated homes or holding chubby, healthy children. Which holds a message we need to repeat constantly to ourselves: The present dark moment isn’t the end of the story.

No, if our trust is in God, the words of an old hymn really are true: “Through the love of God our Saviour, all will be well”.

Father, please help me to bring hope to the hopeless by my compassion and practical support. And when I myself am tempted to lose hope, grant me the grace to hold on to you by faith, however hard it may be, and however impossible my circumstances may seem. Amen.

Resting in God

My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore. Psalm 131

When it comes to reading the Bible, there are times to get your teeth into stuff that is often demanding and difficult. Some of the Old Testament prophets, or what to us are strange, alien books like Leviticus, are good examples; so too some of the New Testament letters or the Book of Revelation. If we are serious about growing in the Christian life we need to roll our sleeves up.

But there are other times when we need to lay that aside and simply rest in God: when we need milk rather than meat – times, say, when we’re specially tired or stressed or overworked. And it’s so that we can do that that the Bible contains little gems like Psalm 131.

I’ve printed the whole psalm above; it’s just three verses. But in those few words it conjures up a beautiful picture, that of a small child (“weaned”: not just a baby) at peace in its mother’s arms. I invite you to see yourself in verses 1-2 – and to see your “mother” as God himself.

The psalmist starts by claiming to be humble: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty…”

Now, you could find a problem with that straight away! Isn’t there a certain pride precisely in claiming to be humble? Even if you haven’t read Dickens’ novel David Copperfield (it isn’t short!) you may well have seen a film of it, and the wonderful name Uriah Heep is very likely known to you. He’s the nasty, unctuous, creepy, nauseating character who is always wringing his hands in mock lowliness and declaring how “umble” he is. Ugh!

But I’m sure the psalmist isn’t remotely like that. Whereas Uriah Heep is putting on an elaborate show to achieve his own ends, the psalmist is truly humble. He knows that God sees right through all pretence, and so he makes no great claims for himself.

He says his eyes “are not haughty”. That’s a very vivid word – you can almost see the proud person looking literally right down his nose at his “inferiors” as if they’re an annoying speck of dirt (there’s a perfect example in Luke 18:11-12). May God help us never to develop a superior attitude to other people, whatever their roots, their social class, their appearance or educational background! A word to some of us?

Then the psalmist recognises his own limitations: “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”

I’m content, he says, to live out the life God has allotted me. I’m sure he would also say that if he felt God calling him to something “higher” he would be quick to respond – his words here aren’t a cop-out from taking on heavy responsibility or playing his part in sorting out knotty problems. But he is not ambitious in a wrong sense.

The proper Christian attitude to ambition can only be: “All I want is to find, and then to do, what God wants me to do.” There’s an important warning there – how many people have wrecked their lives by overreaching themselves and ending up humbled because they refused to be humble?

There’s a hint in the psalm that this attitude towards life hasn’t always come naturally. The psalmist tells us that he has “calmed and quieted his soul”, which suggests that there have been times when he has been anything but calm and quiet – times when he’s had to take himself in hand.

Some years ago now there was something of a fad: people were teaching that the secret of the Christian life was to “let go and let God”, as if knowing God was some kind of spiritual “trip” where you just floated away on a heavenly cloud nine. But that is wrong. True, the psalmist can describe himself as “content”. But (like the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:10-13) this is something he has “learned”. Hard experience can sometimes be our best teacher.

What is the secret of true contentment? I would suggest four vital ingredients… One, I know God loves me. Two, I know God has saved me. Three, I know God has a place for me in his purposes. And four, I know I am, right now, in that place, however hard or easy it may be.

And so the psalmist can simply say “like a weaned child I am content”. Is that something you can say?

The psalm changes gear in the final verse. From talking to God, the writer now talks to his fellow Israelites: “Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and for evermore”.

I think of that as an invitation rather than a command. And it is an invitation for us, the new “Israel”. God is our loving heavenly Father-and-mother. So trust him! rest in him! enjoy him!

Loving Father, please save me from a proud heart or haughty eyes. Please help me to want only the purpose you have for me in this earthly life – and so teach me what it means to be content. Amen.

A not very nice story

Now on the way, at a place where they stopped for the night, the Lord met Moses and sought to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off the foreskin of her son and touched Moses’ feet with it. She said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” referring to the circumcision.) Exodus 4:24-26

Believe me, this is not a passage I would normally even dream of writing a blog about! I am doing so because I have been challenged to. “You only write about the easy, uncontroversial parts of the Bible – what about the really tricky, difficult parts? Why don’t you tackle them sometimes? What about that very strange story in Exodus 4:24-26?” Though not in so many words, that in effect is what was said to me.

So I thought, “Fair enough! I’ll give it a go.” I can only hope you might find it helpful.

Exodus 4:24-26 is certainly a hard one! The basic question is straightforward enough: What actually happened?

Moses, his wife Zipporah and son Gershom are travelling from Midian, where they met and married, to Egypt. That is where Moses spent his early years, and where he is going to be used by God to lead the people of Israel out of slavery.

That’s clear enough. But something happened one night at a “lodging place on the way”. “The Lord”, we are told, “met Moses and was about to kill him”.

What can that possibly mean? The best guess is that God was angry with Moses and struck him down with some kind of illness.

But why would God do something so drastic? Well, the next thing that happened was that Zipporah took it on herself to circumcise Gershom, suggesting that this is something Moses had failed to do – and that this was why God was angry with him.

Zipporah obviously wasn’t happy, to say the least – if ever there was job for the father rather than the mother, this was it. And Zipporah wasn’t even an Israelite, so why should she have to bother herself about circumcision? But for some reason she knew it had to be done, so she did it.

Then she “touched Moses’ feet with the foreskin” (personally, I can’t help picturing her furiously throwing it at him, her hands red with Gershom’s blood), and called him a “bridegroom of blood”. As a result, “the Lord let him alone” – that is, spared his life – and the crisis was averted.

Having looked at a variety of books on my shelves, that’s about the best I can come up with. (There are other complexities I haven’t mentioned.) If you have a better explanation I would love to hear from you.

But now another question: Does this strange story have anything to say to us today? I think it does.

If nothing else, it reminds us that God is to be taken seriously.

Circumcision had been commanded upon the people of Israel, as a sign of God’s covenant with them (go back to Genesis 17). Moses had failed in following this through, and God felt he needed to be taught a lesson.

Thankfully God doesn’t normally treat us today in such a fashion when we are disobedient, though there are New Testament examples of him acting pretty severely (the obvious ones are Acts 5:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 11:30).

Actions have consequences! But so does inaction. And that applies to us in our dealings with God. So… How serious are we about our relationship with God? Are we, if the truth were told, spiritual triflers?

Putting it another way, let’s be careful not to abdicate our responsibilities.

Zipporah ends up doing Moses’ work for him, and is understandably angry. All credit to her, of course – for the way the story unfolds suggests that if she hadn’t stepped in Moses would have died and God’s plans would have been derailed.

So the question arises: how many times have I left it to others to take on responsibility for things I should be doing? In particular, focussing again on the role of the woman in the story, I can’t help wondering how many churches there are where we men are guilty of taking a back seat and leaving it to the women to take a lead – where women are serving faithfully in all sorts of ways while their husbands are on the fringes or absent altogether. (Looking at many churches, it’s often a case of “Thank God for the women; pray God for the men!”)

Do any of us men need to take a good look at ourselves?

Oh, there is something else. Passages like this make it very clear that the Bible is not always an easy book. Far from it!

Sometimes you come across Christians who will tell you that “I just take the Bible as it stands; whatever it says, I just believe it.” That sounds all very fine, but is in fact often a sign of shallowness and laziness. (A suitable response, I would suggest, might be to administer a good sharp punch on the nose – in Christian love, of course.)

No. Exodus 4:24-26, along with a host of other passages, reminds us that once we have asked the most basic question, “What does this passage say?” we then need to go on to ask a second question, “What does this passage mean?”

And that isn’t always quite so straightforward! So let’s not kid ourselves that it is.

Father God, thank you for those who cheerfully and without complaining shoulder heavy responsibilities in the life of the church. Forgive me for those times I have increased their burden by my carelessness and neglect. Teach me the joy of whole-hearted, sacrificial service. Amen.

Was Jesus colour-blind?

Jesus said… People will come from east and west and north and south and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God… Luke 13:29

They sang a new song, saying, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation…” Revelation 5:9

A memory from very early childhood…

In the room where I went to Sunday School there were pictures on the wall. One of them showed Jesus sitting in the middle of a group of children, welcoming them and teaching them. You could tell by their appearance and clothing that they came from many different parts of the world.

And there was a song we used to sing: Jesus died for all the children,/ All the children of the world./ Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight./ Jesus died for all the children of the world.

What an amazing thing is the human mind! I saw that picture and sang those words before I could properly read and write. Yet to this day, in my seventies, they remain fresh and clear, tune and all.

I never said to myself, “That’s a really wonderful truth – I’ll tuck it away in my mind and try to live by it.” No. But it stuck. And it has helped to shape my very life – for just recently I found myself singing that song under my breath for no particular reason I could think of.

There’s an important lesson there for all of us who spend time with children – parents, teachers, grandparents, and many others: Never underestimate the mark you can make on a child’s mind. What to you or me is just a casual, off-the-cuff remark can go deep, radically affecting that child’s understanding and development. So let’s take great care that we only say what is right, good and appropriate! God forgive us if we are guilty of feeding into a child’s mind anything false or damaging. (See the solemn words of Jesus in Matthew 18:1-9.)

But that’s by the way; it isn’t what I’m thinking about today. No, I’m puzzling over what brought that picture to mind and what triggered that song. And it hasn’t taken me long to work out that it’s the killing of George Floyd in America, and the resulting demonstrations and rioting in various parts of the world. It’s all to do with race and colour, of course – and so those simple words popped out of my subconscious: “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.”

The experts tell us that we all have racial prejudices, even if we bend over backwards not to. Perhaps we needn’t feel too bad about that – after all, human beings naturally gravitate towards “their own”, and feel comfortable in that company. The little bit of foreign travel I have done certainly confirms that: how reassuring it is to see somebody “like me”, somebody who speaks the same language and shares the same background.

To feel that way is no sin. But it still leaves the question: Deep down, do I in fact despise or look down on those other people simply because they aren’t “like me”? Do I act towards them differently because they aren’t “one of us”? Do I make any attempt to consciously train myself to remember the love of Jesus for all mankind? – yes, even if they talk in a funny language, eat funny food. And, of course, have a different colour skin…

In Luke 16 Jesus predicted that people would come “from east and west and north and south and take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God”. Yes, their places: every bit as much as mine. One day we are going to eat in the presence of Jesus in the company of all those “strange” people (no social distancing then!). One day we will stand with vast crowds, as John sees it in Revelation 5, who are “from every tribe and language and people and tongue”.

Well, if that, by God’s grace, is the way it’s going to be, hadn’t we better make a start here and now? And hadn’t we better do all we can to make sure that our churches reflect this wonderful vision, however inadequately and imperfectly?

We pray in the Lord’s prayer that God’s will would be done and his kingdom come “on earth as it is in heaven”. But of course it’s plain hypocrisy to pray that prayer without doing all we can to bring it about in practice. After all, doesn’t God often call us to be the answer to our own prayers?

An afterthought about that picture… Yes, the children were very obviously from the four corners of the earth. But what about Jesus? What did he look like? Answer: he could have been a good-looking, tall, white Englishman dressed in a long robe…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure the person who drew the picture would have been horrified at any suggestion that he or she was racially prejudiced. I wouldn’t dream of criticising them. But it’s a fact that the earthly Jesus simply wouldn’t have looked like that. So… I wonder why he was portrayed that way?

It makes you think, doesn’t it?

Dear Father, I recognise that, even though I try to hide it, even from myself, I am infected with prejudice of many kinds. Please help me to take that seriously and to root it out of my heart. Please grow in me the same desire for justice, peace and love for all that Jesus had. Amen.

Anyone feeling angry?

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down!” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!” Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. Psalm 137:7-9

A question: Do you tend to get cross easily?

Life is full of things to get cross about, isn’t it? – whether it’s a neighbour who parks his car awkwardly, or a parcel delivery that doesn’t come, or being kept on hold for ever.

Another question: What about anger? The Bible tells us that God is “slow to anger”. But could that be said of you?

Again, there might be many reasons for anger. Those stupid people in north-west London – some 500 of them – who decided to have a street rave to celebrate an easing of the lockdown, thus ensuring that the corona virus is allowed to spread… A father who bullies his children… A driver who treats motorways as a racetrack…

A third question: What about rage?

You could define rage as extreme anger that is out of control – or threatening to get out of control. It’s an all-consuming emotion that can easily rob us of our judgment and prompt us to act in ways that we will regret later.

I certainly know what it is to be cross (oh yes!), and sometimes angry. But out-and-out rage… no, I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that. But then my life has been so comfortable and easy that I’ve never had cause, for which I’m thankful. So there’s no reason for pride there.

Nowhere in the Bible is sheer rage reflected more vividly than at the end of Psalm 137.

Israel’s historic city Jerusalem – “Zion” – has been invaded by the ferocious Babylonians, its beautiful temple destroyed, and many of its people dragged away into slavery. To make matters worse, we learn from verse 7 that the people of Edom, one of Israel’s bitterest enemies, looked on gloating and egged the Babylonians on.

And then we get that raw, naked, enraged cry for revenge in verses 8-9. The writer declares “happy” anyone who is able to get hold of Babylonian children and dash their brains out.

What a shocking, appalling thing to say!

It used to trouble me that those words were in the Bible at all. But I think I have learned differently. Whether or not the person who wrote this psalm would have actually done what he describes I don’t know, though I very much doubt it; it’s just the way he feels at the moment. But I have come to think that it’s good that this sentiment is expressed in God’s word. The Bible is an honest book and – especially in the psalms – it reflects just about every mood of which we are capable. (The fact that the Bible reflects a mood doesn’t necessarily mean it approves of it.)

You can probably see where I’m heading. Much of America is on fire –  with rage. A man died in Minneapolis under utterly shocking circumstances; racial hatred and injustice came to the surface in a way that hardly bears thinking about.

That doesn’t, of course, justify the rioting and destruction that has followed. But it certainly helps to explain it. It is a way of people crying out: Notice us! Listen to us! We are people! Give us justice!

Being cross and being angry are generally things we can do something about, so we can channel them into some kind of positive response. But rage is different. What gives it its dangerous power is its helplessness, its impotence. It is, in effect, a way of saying: What happened was wrong! wrong! wrong! And there is nothing I can do about it – except to let my feelings explode in this manner. What else will make you listen to me?

So now the question is: Will America do that? Will the world as a whole do that? Will George Floyd’s death end up as “just another example” of a deep-seated disease? Or will it lead to real change? – and not only in America but in Britain too and throughout the world, for aren’t injustice, cruelty and prejudice to be found everywhere?

The fact is that there are times when it is wrong not to feel rage. And this is surely one of them. Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) was an English clergyman and writer. He wrote: “Anger is one of the sinews of the soul: he that wants it [that is, lacks it] hath a maimed [that is, a diseased] soul.” Yes, if we have lost the capacity to be angry, and even enraged, at wickedness we are sick indeed.

Even if much of our anger, and certainly our rage, takes a sinful form, we ignore it at our peril.

Let’s go back to the Bible. Let’s take seriously the fact that the perfect, sinless Jesus was sometimes angry. Let’s take to heart Paul’s words: “Be angry but don’t sin” (Ephesians 4:26).

And let’s pray to God:

Lord God, help me to know when anger is sinful – and when it is sinful not to feel angry. Help me to know how to channel my anger positively. Above all, please grant that the anger and rage that are seething today in our world will lead to change, justice, reconciliation, and hope. Amen.

 

Want to think some more…?

There is a holy anger, excited by zeal, which moves us to reprove with warmth those whom our mildness failed to correct. Jean-Baptist de la Salle (1651-1719)

He that would be angry and sin not must not be angry with anything but sin. Thomas Secker (1693-1768)

However just your words, you spoil everything when you speak them with anger. John Chrysostom (?347-407)

Without anger a man cannot attain purity; he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy. Isaiah the Solitary (died 490)

If we are attempting to hear God’s word, we must listen to anger as carefully as we listen to joy, peace, fear and fatigue. Kathleen Fischer

Anger denied subverts community. Beverly Wildung Harrison (1932-2012)

Justified anger is far better than lazy indifference.

Breathe on me, breath of God

Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” John 20:21

… be filled with the Spirit… Ephesians 5:18

Is the Holy Spirit (a) an article of Christian doctrine to be analysed, discussed and possibly fallen out over, or (b) the very life, energy and breath of God living inside us and inspiring us to live holy, Christlike lives?

All right, that’s not an entirely serious question (if anybody answered (a) I would suggest that you fix up a chat with your minister pretty sharpish, because you have a serious problem).

Of course, the Holy Spirit is God himself living within us! Yet sadly he has too often become a battleground between different Christian factions each of which is convinced that they are right and that anyone who disagrees with them is wrong.

As we come to Whit Sunday – Pentecost – I suggest that a good way to think about the Holy Spirit is through worship, and not least through the songs and hymns that have been written in effect as prayers either about him or perhaps to him. I want to share a handful that have meant a lot to me in over fifty years of seeking to live this wonderful Christian life. You may not know them – certainly not all of them – but, whether you do or not, you might find it helpful to turn them into your own prayers.

Here’s one which takes its cue from that momentous meeting in which the risen Jesus met with his disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday (John 20:21-22)…

Breathe on me, Breath of God,/ fill me with life anew,
that I may love what thou dost love,/ and do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,/ until my heart is pure;
until with thee I will one will,/ to do and to endure.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,/ till I am wholly thine;
until this earthly part of me/ glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, Breath of God:/ so shall I never die,
but live with thee the perfect life/ of thine eternity.

I say it takes its cue from Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples. But there’s another Bible verse also that comes to mind: when God created the first man (according to Genesis 2:7) he “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being”.

This suggests that when Jesus rose from the dead, he was a new Adam, bringing into being a whole new human race – so that everyone who receives the gift of the Spirit is a member of that new humanity. I hope that makes us feel both wonderfully privileged and deeply humble.

Here’s one of the most beautiful sung prayers I know. I love it for its childlike simplicity. It doesn’t in fact mention the Holy Spirit by name, but there’s no doubt that each verse reflects a different aspect of his work within us…

May the mind of Christ, my Saviour,/ live in me from day to day,
by his love and power controlling/ all I do and say.

May the Word of God dwell richly/ in my heart from hour to hour,
so that all may see I triumph/ only through his power.

May the peace of God my Father/ rule my life in everything,
that I may be calm to comfort/ sick and sorrowing.

May the love of Jesus fill me/ as the waters fill the sea;
him exalting, self abasing:/ this is victory.

May I run the race before me,/ strong and brave to face the foe,
looking only unto Jesus/ as I onward go.

May his beauty rest upon me/ as I seek the lost to win,
and may they forget the channel,/ seeing only him.

Both those songs are prayers for the Spirit to work in us as individuals. But the Day of Pentecost, of course, is much more about the church as a body.

So here are two more which plead with God to come upon the church today in the power of the Spirit…

O Breath of life, come sweeping through us,/ revive your church with life and power;
O Breath of Life, come, cleanse, renew us,/ and fit your church to meet this hour.

O Wind of God, come bend us, break us,/ till humbly we confess our need;
then in your tenderness remake us,/ revive, restore, for this we plead.

O Breath of love, come breathe within us,/ renewing thought and will and heart;
come, Love of Christ, afresh to win us,/ revive your church in every part.

Revive us, Lord! Is zeal abating/ while harvest fields are vast and white?
Revive us, Lord, the world is waiting,/ equip your church to spread the light.

And then this: a rousing cry to God to give his church a whole new Pentecost…

Great is the darkness/ that covers the earth,
Oppression, injustice and pain. Nations are slipping/ in hopeless despair,
Though many have come in Your name,
Watching while sanity dies,/ touched by the madness and lies.

          Come Lord Jesus, come Lord Jesus,
Pour out Your Spirit we pray.
Come Lord Jesus, come Lord Jesus,
Pour out Your Spirit on us today.

May now Your church rise/ With power and love,
This glorious gospel proclaim./ In every nation/ Salvation will come
To those who believe in Your name.
Help us bring light to this world/ That we might speed Your return.

          Come, Lord Jesus…

Great celebrations/ On that final day/ When out of the heavens You come.
Darkness will vanish,/ All sorrow will end,/And rulers will bow at Your throne.
Our great commission complete,/ Then face to face we shall meet.

          Come, Lord Jesus…

Please don’t gallop through those songs or just skim them – they’re worth giving time to in drawing near to God.

And may God enable us, by his Holy Spirit, to add a heart-felt Amen to each of these beautiful prayers!

Dear Father, thank you for giving me the gift of the Holy Spirit. Help me day by to become more worthy of this privilege. Amen.

(The writers quoted are, in order, Edwin Hatch, Kate Wilkinson, Elizabeth Head, and Gerald Coates/Noel Richards.)