Time to get a grip?

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

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

  1. Flee from all this…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Fight the good fight of the faith…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Whoever said life was fair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soft hearts and hard heads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, help us to get it right!

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

Trusting God in the hard times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus, Egypt, and the mothers of Bethlehem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take them in turn…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about the other two quotes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The light that cannot be quenched

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

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

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

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

  1. It was a world of appalling cruelty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. It was a world full of victims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we pray to be kind people?

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

Anyone for a laugh?

A cheerful heart is good medicine. Proverbs 17:22

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

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

Do you know who wrote those words?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of other thoughts strike me…

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

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

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

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