A cathedral, a temple – and Jesus risen from the dead

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, teacher!  What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Mark 13:1-2

Last weekend my wife and I were in the beautiful little Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds. The hotel where we stayed is in the shadow of the magnificent cathedral church of St Edmundsbury, dating from way back in medieval times as a monastic abbey.

Each morning I got up early and went for a walk around the abbey gardens or along the bank of the tiny River Lark. The view of the cathedral was wonderful, whichever angle I was looking from. (How did they manage to erect such buildings!)

Last night I watched on the news as Notre Dame de Paris burned. Onlookers on the spot were weeping. Some knelt on the pavement with their hands clasped in prayer. When the spire slowly toppled and fell there were gasps of dismay.

France, of course, is renowned as a secular – that is, non-religious – country. But you don’t need to be even remotely “religious” to be moved by that terrible sight of destruction.

The cathedral in Bury is slight in comparison with Notre Dame. But – you can see the way my thoughts are going – exactly the same response would take place if a similar thing were to happen there: shock, dismay, disbelief.

The next stop for my thoughts was something that happened two thousand years ago…

Jesus and his disciples are up in Jerusalem for the Jewish Passover – country bumpkins from Galilee soaking up the sounds, sights and smells of the ancient city and its wonderful temple. According to Mark’s Gospel they are pretty much overawed: “Look, teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

And how does Jesus respond? With what seems like a matter-of-fact, even cynical indifference: “Do you see all these great buildings?… Not one stone will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Ouch! Talk about sticking a pin into a balloon! Jesus isn’t exactly telling his disciples off for their enthusiasm; but he is bringing them down to earth with a bump, telling them cold, hard facts which they need to look right in the face.

Christians may disagree strongly about the importance of church buildings. For some, places of such splendour are a significant part of their worship and spirituality. I know someone who enjoys nothing more than visiting and savouring as many “sacred buildings” as possible; for them it’s a truly spiritual pleasure.

Others say no. Church buildings may certainly be useful as convenient gathering-places, but there is a real danger that the more splendid they are, the more likely to act as a distraction from God than a pointer to him.

I never tire of pointing out that in the New Testament no building is ever referred to as a church. Which means that once the congregation has left after a service, the church is no longer there; the building may still be there, but the church – the people – has scattered to be about God’s business.

But whatever view you take, I think you would need to be pretty boorish not to genuinely lament a sight such as the burning of Notre Dame.

Let’s go back to Jesus (never a bad thing to do). Why did he seem so indifferent to the coming destruction of the Jerusalem temple? Answer: because he knew it had passed its usefulness – and he anticipated a new temple altogether.

A new temple? Surely not?

But yes: pressed by his opponents about his attitude to the temple, he told them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days”. How strange is that! What could he possibly mean? Understandably his opponents responded with scorn and disbelief: “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”

At this point the Gospel-writer chips in with the explanation: “But the temple he spoke of was his body” (John 2:19-21).

Ah! Once Jesus is risen from the dead, John is saying, the focus of attention must be on him, not on any building, even that great building that had been venerated by the Jews for generations.

When John has his vision of the final glorious city of God, heaven itself, he makes a point of saying, “I saw no temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22). Suddenly everything becomes clear…

So let us, of course, lament what has happened to Notre Dame, indeed the damage or destruction of any man-made beauty and splendour. But let’s get it into our heads too that even if every such building on the face of the earth were to be destroyed, it wouldn’t ultimately matter (please note those italics!).

Why not? Because Jesus is risen. Because Jesus is alive, alive for evermore.

Fact!

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the pioneer and perfecter of my faith. Help me then to fix my eyes always on you, never on man-made things, however beautiful, which will ultimately pass away. Amen.

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Dead to sin – already, but not yet

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:24

A man I knew once was sitting on a beach in some foreign holiday resort. I don’t think he was doing very much – perhaps reading a book or just snoozing. But suddenly he sat up with a jerk. Why? Because his wife, sitting next to him, had gone berserk. She was thrashing around like a mad woman, smashing her fist into the sand. He was completely nonplussed. What was going on? But a moment later he knew. His wife was sitting by their new baby – and she had just spotted a nasty-looking snake near the buggy.

The moment that mother saw what was happening she acted out of pure instinct to protect her child. She didn’t stop and think, “Mmm, there seems to be a snake near my child – I wonder if I should do something about it? Well, perhaps when I’ve finished this chapter…” No! It was – kill! kill! kill! And so… one dead snake.

Anything that threatens life needs to be ruthlessly destroyed. There can be no compromise. And that is why Paul speaks about “the flesh” being “crucified”. It’s hard to imagine a more ruthless way of killing someone than by nailing them to a cross – as we are being reminded in these days leading up to Good Friday.

When you become a Christian, Paul is saying, your whole attitude to life and your whole way of living changes radically. The “flesh” is no longer just a bit of a nuisance, or something to be vaguely indulged if you feel like it. No; it’s something that will destroy you if you let it, and it’s got to go.

There are two things about Paul’s words which are a little puzzling.

First: surely if God made our bodies – our physical flesh – then flesh must be good! All that God makes, after all, is good, indeed “very good” (Genesis 1:31). And Jesus himself, when he came to earth, came not as a ghost or a phantom, but in human flesh.

Yes, indeed. Which is why the Bible tells us to care for our bodies and to treat them with respect. But Paul here is using the word flesh to mean “our fallen, sinful nature”, for flesh, or our earthly humanity, is the way in which sin makes its destructive entry into our lives and ruins us. There is nothing wrong with the human body as such. But it so easily becomes a channel for corruption and sin.

Second: why does Paul here use the past tense – “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh…” – as if it’s all finished and done with? Why “have crucified”? Shouldn’t he have said, “need to crucify” or “should crucify” or “are in the process of crucifying”? For any of those expressions would certainly be true.

He chooses to use the past tense because he wants to remind us that conversion to Christ brings about an actual change the moment it happens. We are “born again” (John 3:3) as new people; and birth is, after all, a once for all event. We become part of Christ – we are “in him” as he so often loves to say (for example, Romans 8:1). It follows, then, that if we are “in Christ”, and he has died once for all, then we too have died once for all.

So there is a paradox here, and in Colossians 3 Paul puts both parts of it together. In verse 3 he tells the Colossian Christians that “you died” (past tense) but then in verse 5 that they must “put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (present tense).

A simple way to put it is this: in the Christian life there is an “already” and there is a “not yet”. The destruction of our sin through the cross is already an accomplished fact – which is why Jesus died with the triumphant cry on his lips “It is finished!” Praise God for that.

But it is not yet completed. And that is something for which we are responsible – we can’t just fold our arms and expect God to do it without us. Like that mother on the beach we must act decisively and ruthlessly.

Or you could put it like this. In principle our victory over sin is complete because of the cross. But in practice there is still a lot of hard work to do.

How are things with you and your “flesh”, your “fallen nature”? Have you become a little careless, a little indulgent, perhaps? Is Jesus calling you to take a hard look to see if there are certain things that still need to be crucified?

Let’s never forget: if we don’t destroy “the flesh”, it will destroy us. And let’s think of this as we watch Jesus being crucified this Friday…

Father God, thank you for Good Friday, and for Jesus’ final and complete victory over sin. Thank you that through faith in him I am already a new person. Now help me day by day to “put to death whatever belongs to my earthly nature” in whatever ways may be necessary. Amen.

Don’t leave me alone!

Jesus said to them [the disciples], “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me”. Matthew 26:38

James Cracknell, Olympic rower and “iron man” supreme, suffered a brain injury which seriously changed his personality. His wife Beverley found life with her “new” husband intolerable, and, offering advice to others in a similar situation, encouraged them to look for help wherever they could find it: “Even if the situation is ultimately hopeless, it helps if you aren’t carrying the burden alone.”

It helps if you aren’t carrying the burden alone – or, as somebody else once said, “Anything is bearable – as long as you don’t have to bear it alone.”

I’m very thankful that I have never been in such a desperate situation. But as I watched the suffering of the thousands of people affected by the south-east African cyclone – loved ones lost, homes, crops and livestock washed away, livings destroyed – I could only trust that those people derived some comfort from the fact that they weren’t alone: all around them others were in the same situation; and, hopefully, it wasn’t long before still others arrived with practical help and support.

“Moral support” isn’t just an empty phrase! Which is why “support groups” for people enduring similar trials are so enormously helpful. And why “just being there”, even though it sounds pretty feeble, can be a true life-saver.

Suppose you’ve just had an operation. You come round from the anaesthetic, perhaps groggy and confused, and there is no-one around – all the staff are busy at that moment with other patients. In your helplessness you feel a tremendous sense of aloneness in this unfamiliar place, with its bleeping monitors and tubes and bottles and other bits of slightly alarming equipment.

But suppose that on opening your eyes the first thing you see is a familiar, friendly face sitting by your bed? You immediately feel comforted – I’m not forgotten! I’m not alone!

Thinking along those lines makes Jesus’ suffering before the crucifixion even more acute. His words to his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane are really quite pitiful: “Stay here and keep watch with me…” In other words, “I need you now more than I have ever needed you before. I know there is nothing you can do to make this cup of suffering more drinkable, but… be there for me. I want to be able to look up from my praying and see that you are with me…”

And what did he find? They were fast asleep.

The first time it happened he took Simon Peter to task: “Couldn’t you keep watch with me for just one hour?” But the second time Matthew tells us simply that “he left them and went away once more and prayed…” As if to say, “There’s no point in disturbing them again – the fact is that I’m not going to get any support from them in my time of struggle.” So “he left them and went away…”

Can you see him: his head bowed, his shoulders drooping, all the body-language of agonizing disappointment? He prays on, completely alone.

And it was to get even worse. Being let down by your friends is bad enough. But what was it Jesus cried out on the cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Throughout eternity Jesus had been in intimate relationship with his heavenly Father. But as death approached that relationship was broken. This is an aloneness we can only begin to imagine. But it is the price that had to be paid for our sins. The perfect holiness of God on the one hand, and the heavy weight of human sin on the other, cannot co-exist, so a great wedge is driven between God the Father and God the Son.

Easter weekend is very close. Why not pray that God would give you a fresh appreciation of what Jesus suffered? An old hymn asks the question, “Died he for me, who caused his pain, for me who him to death pursued?” And the answer is… Yes. Yes, really for you!

But… All right, I believe it. But how little I feel it!

Let’s pray too to be the kind of friends that others can rely on when they are passing through their Gethsemane-times. May these beautiful words by Richard Gillard reflect our sincere intention:

I will hold the Christ-light for you/ In the night-time of your fear;/ I will hold my hand out to you,/ Speak the peace you long to hear./ I will weep when you are weeping,/ When you laugh I’ll laugh with you;/ I will share your joy and sorrow/ Till we’ve seen this journey through.

Lord God, I have known so long the story of Jesus in the garden, and Jesus on the cross, that it no longer moves me as once it did. Please refresh my vision of what happened at that terrible but wonderful time so that my love will be stirred and refreshed. Amen.

Good news for failures

And he (Peter) went outside and wept bitterly. Matthew 26:75

Have you ever felt you were a total, abject, utter, miserable failure? You’ve got something badly wrong – about as wrong as you possibly could have. If you’ll pardon the cliché, you’ve messed up big time.

That was how Peter felt that day. A few hours earlier he had declared his undying loyalty to Jesus: “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you!” (Matthew 26:35).

But while Jesus was on trial he had been challenged by a servant girl in the courtyard outside: “You’re one of this man’s followers, aren’t you? I can tell by your accent!” And Peter had denied all knowledge of him – not just once, not just twice, but three times – using angry and violent language: “He began to call down curses, and swore to them, ‘I don’t know the man!’” (Matthew 26:74).

At that moment came the sound of a cock crowing – the very sound Jesus had said would signal his failure. No wonder Peter broke down. No wonder he “wept bitterly”.

I imagine we can all identify with Peter to some extent.

For me, two main things stand out from this sorry episode.

First: Big talk is easy, but what matters is what you do.

I don’t doubt that when Peter promised Jesus his loyalty even unto death he meant exactly what he said. But when it came to the crunch he couldn’t follow it through.

Do you ever “promise more than you can deliver”? How often does the alcoholic declare, “Right, I’ll never touch another drop!” Or the adulterous husband or wife, “That’s it. Never again! From now on I’ll always be true to you…”. On a smaller scale, how often does the habitual late-comer promise to be more organised, or the overweight person to really cut back? But somehow it just doesn’t happen…

Paul writes (1 Corinthians 10:12), “If you think you’re standing firm, watch out that you don’t fall”. Wise words. It’s better not to make a promise at all than to make it and then break it.

Second: We can never know how our faith and loyalty will stand up until we are tested. This is the thing I find most challenging.

We regularly hear reports of Christians in different parts of the world being imprisoned, tortured, even killed for their loyalty to Jesus. And I find myself thinking “Mmm, suppose that was me? Would I stand up as bravely as that? Or would I cave in and renounce my faith?” I know what I would like to think is the answer, but in all honesty I have my doubts: serious doubts.

A tree may look deeply rooted. But you don’t know until it has withstood a hurricane. A bridge may look completely immovable; but suppose there was an earthquake?

In spite of our sometimes grumbles, we Christians in the western world have it pretty easy. But watch out for complacency or arrogance! How many of us really know our true selves?

Challenging stuff. But the story of Peter has a wonderful aftermath.

Here he is, this no-hoper, this big mouth, this failure, sobbing his heart out in public. But where do we find him in literally a matter of days? Answer: preaching Jesus in the centre of Jerusalem to a massive crowd (Acts 2). He has become, humanly speaking, the head of the church.

God doesn’t cast us off! Not if we are truly sorry. He is the God of the second chance – and the fourth, the fifth and the sixth. Of course, we mustn’t let that wonderful truth lead us to be careless or complacent. But I suspect there aren’t many of us for whom it isn’t good news.

Let me add two little footnotes that deepen the impact of this story…

First, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that at least Peter was there, in the courtyard of the high priest. Where were his fellow-apostles? – keeping their heads down, that’s where.

It reminds me of the time Peter tried – and failed – to walk on the water (Matthew 14). All right, yes, he failed – but at least he tried. The other eleven didn’t so much as get out of the boat.

Credit where it’s due…

Second, a question: how did this embarrassing incident about the leader-to-be of the church find its way into the Gospels? Surely it’s the kind of thing that the early church would have wanted to hush up?

Answer: it’s there because the Gospel-writers wanted their readers to know the plain unvarnished truth, however bitter and humiliating – and Peter himself, it seems, made no attempt to suppress it. Again, credit where it’s due.

We are all sinners and failures. So let’s face up to the fact with humility, trusting that God will treat us with the same mercy as he did Simon Peter. Because that’s what he loves to do.

Father God, thank you that your word shows up in such an unflattering light the man who was to become the human foundation stone of the church. Thank you for the hope this gives me. Deal gently with me in my failings, Lord! Amen.

The extraordinary life of an ordinary woman (2)

They [the apostles] all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. Acts 1:14

Last time we thought about Mary, and what I called “the extraordinary life of an ordinary woman”. I suggested that though Mary’s experience was in most respects a million miles from anything you and I can know, there are several points of connection – points where we can in fact identify with her.

I had five such points in mind, but I got no further than the first two.

First, she had a life-changing experience when she was chosen to be the mother of God’s Son. And we too have our lives changed, by the experience of conversion. Second, she grew through reflecting on, and puzzling over, things that were hard to understand, as happened after Jesus as a boy went missing in Jerusalem. And we too grow and mature through grappling with things that are hard to understand.

So, to carry on where we left off…

Third: Mary endured a crisis of faith.

Is that an exaggeration? Just possibly; but there’s no doubt that an incident took place which reveals her as overwhelmed with doubt and anxiety. Go to Mark 3:21-31, where we read that Jesus’ family seriously wondered if he was “out of his mind” (verse 21).

From early in his ministry Jesus attracted large crowds – and they weren’t always supportive. Here, he gets into a debate with “teachers of the law… from Jerusalem” who suggest that he is, in effect, demon-possessed. Mary and his brothers are so alarmed that they set out to bring him home (they may have needed to travel several miles to do this). A point has been reached where they feel the need to step in and take control.

Well, you can read the rest of the story yourself. But – how far this anxiety-ridden, middle-aged woman is from the girl who received the message of the angel thirty years earlier!

The point for us is clear: however clear-cut our conversion was, however strong our faith is, and however real our experience of God over the years has been, we too can suffer dark times – days when it all seems to dissolve and turn to ashes.

We need then to cling to God, even if just by our finger-nails, to be completely honest with both him and with our friends, and to wait for the clouds to move and the sun to break through again. Pray to “trace the rainbow through the rain”, as hymn-writer George Matheson put it.

Fourth, and continuing this rather sombre theme, Mary experienced agony of heart.

I’m thinking here, of course, of the crucifixion: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).

Who can begin to imagine the anguish that filled Mary’s heart as she stood looking up at her dying son, and as she shared the agony he endured? There are some who can, of course: parents of a desperately ill child undergoing drastic medical treatment, perhaps; or a mother who is unable to feed her starving child. But mercifully most of us are spared this kind of torment.

But we are not spared every kind of pain, any more than anyone else is; being a Christian is no insurance policy against the buffetings of life. God promises to bring us through such times – but he makes no promise to lift us out of them. (Steer clear of that poisonous “prosperity gospel” nonsense!)

It’s a solemn thing to picture Mary at the foot of the cross. But, thank God, this isn’t where the gospel story leaves her.

No. A fifth point of contact is this: Mary ends up in the loving security of the new family of Jesus.

Little details are worth noticing here. First, even at the cross she was surrounded by friends, those other Marys. Thank God for friends who are with us in our darkest times!

Second, Jesus committed her to the care of “the disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26-27). Even in his death throes he has time to think of the mother to whom, as we have seen, he caused much pain.

And third, our last glimpse of Mary is within the fellowship of the infant church. According to Acts 1:14 she was there with the apostles in the upper room after the ascension; presumably she was there at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell. What a massive comfort that must have been.

Mary’s story, then, brings her from the early days of that tiny earthly family in Nazareth – Mary, Joseph, Jesus and his brothers and sisters – to that new, heavenly family in Jerusalem. And even there, there is an application for us, for we too, however precious our earthly family may be, are offered a place in God’s eternal family. Jesus said: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).

Are you yet numbered in that family?

Mary certainly knew heights of joy and depths of pain. But God brought her through them all.

As he will you. And as he will me.

Loving Father, I remember that when Jesus called me to follow him he told me to take up my cross to do. Help me, please, in those times when it seems too heavy to carry. Help me too to be there for my brothers and sisters in Christ who presently are unable to “trace the rainbow through the rain”. Amen.

The extraordinary life of an ordinary woman

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to a town called Nazareth in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to a man named Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” Luke 1:26-28

It’s hard to imagine any Bible character whose experience is further removed from ours than Mary. What could be more utterly unique than to be chosen as the mother of the Son of God! We, surely, have nothing in common with her?

It might seem like that. And yet, if we survey the whole sweep of her life as the New Testament gives it to us, there are in fact a number of points where we can identify quite closely with her. With Mothers’ Day just round the corner, what better time to reflect on the extraordinary experience of this very ordinary woman?

The New Testament suggests five major landmarks…

First, Mary had a life-changing experience.

Just a young girl, she receives a visit from an angel. This person announces that, though still a virgin, she is to “conceive and give birth to a son”, who will be called “Jesus”.

I suspect you may know the rest of the story…

In the details, of course, we can’t remotely identify with Mary here. But isn’t it true of every Christian, nonetheless, that we too have had our lives changed for ever?

Do you remember the time of your conversion? It may have been a long time ago. It may have happened suddenly and dramatically; or if may have been quite a long, gentle process, such that you can’t put a date to it. But the fact is that you have never been the same since; by the grace of God you became a child of God. And… well, here you are today.

Is it time to give thanks again for that momentous event in your life? Is it time perhaps to refresh the vows you took when you got baptised?

Second, Mary grew through questioning and puzzling.

Fast-forward to the time when Jesus is a twelve-year-old boy (Luke 2:41-52). Mary and Joseph have gone up to Jerusalem with him to worship God with the Passover crowds. And – every parent’s worst nightmare – he goes missing.

It’s three days before they find him. And what is he doing? He is “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” They share their anxiety with him, with an understandable hint of reproach: “Son, why have you treated us like this…?” To which he gives the puzzling – and I imagine very painful – reply, “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” (The father he was referring to wasn’t Joseph…)

Luke then tells us that Mary “stored all these things in her heart” as the days and months went by.

You bet she did! Now a young woman rather than just a girl, with the memory of Jesus’ birth receding into the distance, she must have done a lot of thinking, praying and puzzling.

I mustn’t pretend to speak for you, of course. But when I first became a Christian (probably at much the same age as Mary, as it happens), I knew it all. Oh yes! Everything was totally clear, completely black and white. I’m afraid that back at school I must have been a complete pain in the neck, so complete was my conviction – and so tactless my evangelising.

But time changed that – plus the need to confront problems and questions, and to learn that there are shades of grey as well as blacks and whites.

No conversion experience, however dramatic and remarkable, lasts for ever – and it is folly to cling to it as if it does. As one wise writer once put it (quoting here from memory): “Ultimately what matters is not past conversion but present convertedness.” Worth thinking about, that.

No; like Mary we grow and mature by having to grapple with things which are hard to understand – and which are sometimes also hard to accept. You don’t “store things up in your heart” just to let them sit there doing nothing, like fruit going bad. I hope not, anyway. No; you pray and probe, you ponder and search. Things can look very different for us, as they did for Mary, with the passing of a few years.

Are you a thoughtful, reflective Christian? Has your prayer life deepened over the years? Is your faith today stronger but also more (what’s the word?) weathered, more seasoned, than in those heady early days? In our shallow and shabby world there is a great need for followers of Jesus who have a depth the world knows nothing of. Is that you? Is it me?

I said I wanted to highlight five landmarks in Mary’s life, but I’ve already run out of space. So rejoin me, please, as we revisit her next week.

In the meantime, I wish you, whatever your circumstances may be, a happy Mother’s Day.

Thank you, Lord, for Mary – her ordinariness, her humility, her obedience, her honesty. Help me to learn from her – and, in learning from her, to become even more like her Son. Amen.

Thinking about cow-dung

In my vision at night I looked and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and… was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom will never be destroyed. Daniel 7:13-14

I watched in fascination as cow-dung was turned into cooking-gas for the tiny one-room house next door.

If you are remotely science-minded you will probably think I was very naive – this kind of simple, basic technology has been around for years. But I am woefully ignorant when it comes to science, so for me it was a genuine eye-opener.

I was on a trip to one of the world’s poorest countries, working alongside a group of missionaries who promoted this kind of initiative.

They also ran a “micro-loan” scheme, providing relatively small sums of money to help people set up in mini-businesses. There was, for example, a man who proudly showed us his gleaming new three-wheeler rickshaw-taxi (pedal power only!) which enabled him to earn enough money to send his children to school; and a little group of women who had been able to buy elderly sewing-machines by which they increased the family income (and also gained for themselves a sense of worth and dignity). There were also educational and health-care projects.

To see this kind of thing going on was humbling and heart-warming.

You may be surprised to know that I am prompted to share these memories with you by a recent series of sermons I have heard (very good sermons, by the way) on the book of the prophet Daniel.

Daniel contains memorable stories – the lions’ den, the burning fiery furnace, the writing on the wall – and also a string of strange dreams and prophecies. It isn’t always easy to understand. But one basic message keeps coming through: God is in control.

In chapter 7 we are shown the vision I quoted at the beginning: the person “like a son of man” who receives from “the Ancient of Days” supreme and never-ending dominion.

Christians, of course, see the ultimate fulfilment of this prophecy in Christ; he is that “Son of Man”, a title he applied to himself. And so, as Paul puts it, “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 2:10). Great stuff.

So… where does the cow-dung come in?

Just here: someone raised the question, “If God is indeed so totally in control, and if we can be sure that Jesus is ultimately Lord, does that mean that as Christians we needn’t bother about ‘social action’? – about food banks, about street pastoring, about debt counselling, about climate change and other ecological issues, about (dare I mention it?) Brexit, about politics in general?”

Is there, to put it another way, a danger that our conviction that Jesus is Lord can lead us to a kind of fatalism regarding the needs, pains and sorrows of our world? – “Oh, everything is going to be all right in the end, so let’s just concentrate on evangelism.”

There are Christians who take that view. Our business, they say, is to preach the gospel and to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19) – to convert men and women to Christ, not cow-dung to bio-gas.

If ever I needed convincing that that attitude is wrong, that trip did the job. Those missionaries promoting “social action” projects were – don’t worry – also engaged in evangelism. They were all heavily involved in local churches, and the local people were in no doubt that the things they were doing were done in the name of Jesus. In the New Testament James tells us that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Well, that warning would not apply to the people I was privileged to work with.

Let’s spell it out: Christian mission is more than simply preaching the gospel.

This has in fact been recognised throughout Christian history. In Europe, for example, the first schools and hospitals were founded by Christians. In my last blog we thought about slavery, and it is a fact of history that the move to abolish this shocking practice was pioneered largely by Christians.

An example I particularly like is the great Victorian pastor and evangelist C H Spurgeon. He drew enormous crowds to hear him preach in London; that was certainly his priority. But it didn’t stop him also founding an orphanage to help the swarms of homeless and hungry children on the streets.

John Wesley too was an evangelist supreme. But he also addressed  these great words to his fellow-Christians: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Phew, that leaves you quite breathless!

Evangelism and social action are not an “either-or” but a “both-and”. And it doesn’t matter if we are thinking of little things we do personally on a day to day basis, or things done corporately by churches or other agencies.

Doing good in the name of Jesus is what it’s all about. And if that means getting seriously into cow-dung (so to speak), so be it.

Lord Jesus, thank you that you fed the hungry and healed the sick, that you had compassion on the lost and the sad. Please help me to follow in your footsteps, whatever that may mean in practice. Amen.