Saturday, 17 June 2017

In the wake of London’s fire

In the wake of London’s fire

It can be earthquakes… floods… terrorism, or – as in the case of London so tragically on June 12th - a terrible fire disaster at Grenfell tower block.  The question “Why?” is inevitably on our minds.  The mind can go back to another account of a tower disaster, recorded in the Bible.  Eighteen people had died when Jerusalem’s Tower of Siloam had fallen on them (Luke 13: 1-5).  This tragedy – following the wicked killing of other innocents under the despotic Pontius Pilate – was causing citizens in Jerusalem to come to Jesus, with the same question – “Why?”

The Lord’s answer to his questioners does not lessen our distress at the calamities here in London. But - although deeply shocked and grieved - we are not left completely devoid of understanding.  

For Scripture teaches us that adversity is firmly built into our view of life on this world:

We are all living in a fallen world.  Our present world-order is not as originally created.  Basically we became a race of rebels, fallen from our custodianship over creation – so bringing both ourselves and the creation itself into the frustration of ‘bondage to decay’ (Romans 8:18-23).  Even the ground was to be affected (Genesis 3:17,18).  In our imperfection, judgements are faulty.  Mistakes are made. Accidents take place, in which innocent people are both hurt and killed. 

We are all living in a temporary home.  When questioned in the face of Jerusalem’s tower disaster, Jesus explained that those killed were no more ‘guilty’ to die, than anyone else.  All will die one day. But his words give the warning: One day it will be your turn.  In the present, we must indeed run to the aid of those who suffer - but tragedy reminds us all that centre stage for us all can never be this life. In personal humility, we are wise to prepare ourselves at any moment for the next….

We are all living on borrowed time.  Jesus went on to speak of a fruitless fig tree (Luke 13: 6-9). Should it be cut down? No, Give it a year’s reprieve.  The lesson was clear.  If some people are cut off in a matter of seconds, those left should humbly consider how they will use the life that has been spared to them.  This leads to a final truth:

We are all living as debtors to love.  People hung on Jesus’ words because they knew that he had solid answers for this world’s sorrows.  Indeed he was the answer, for at the Cross we meet the love of the suffering God himself.  One prayer must be that, out of the trauma of London’s present troubles, there will be both helpers and sufferers themselves who experience this, and respond.


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

When Sun and Moon ‘Stopped’

“O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon”  (Joshua 10:12)

Yes, it was the elements that helped Joshua defeat five heathen kings on that day of Bible miracles.  He prayed; the light from sun and moon was arrested, and victory was complete.

True, the English reading – that the sun ‘stopped’ (v.13) - has caused many readers to suppose that Joshua – in his concern for victory over his adversaries  - was needing more daylight and that the earth simply stopped turning on its axis for the best part of a day – but now, look at the Bible again! A little further Bible study can help, when a passage presents uncertain interpretations to us, the readers.

Dig out your Bible and have another look!  Verse 9 indicates that Joshua was on a NIGHT march, and that what he needed was not more daylight, but more darkness - lest the approaching dawn threaten to derail his night attack.

And the Hebrew scholars help us here.  The word in verse 12  for ‘stand still’ can, in the Hebrew Old Testament, equally well mean ‘cease,’ as, for example, in 2 Kings 4:6: ‘Then the oil stopped flowing’ or ‘ceased.’

As for the English reading that the sun delayed ‘going down’ about a full day (v.13),  it was the evangelical Bible scholar F. F. Bruce who observed that while the Hebrew word for going down -  ‘Bo’ - usually applies to sunset, it can also mean ‘to come’,  and is parallel to the word ‘zarah’ (‘to RISE) – as in Isaiah 60:1; ‘Arise, shine’ (compare Job 31:26).

Could it be, then, that with the need for more darkness, Joshua prayed, and the resulting thunderous hailstorm (v.11) served him well, not only by devastating the enemy (v.11), but also by delaying the sunrise.  Both sun and moon ‘died’ on them, and never put in an appearance at all!

Here was a God-given miracle of extended darkness. Try this Bible study yourself….


Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Faith of a Roman Outsider

“But say the word, and let my servant be healed”     (Luke 7:7)

The Romans haunt the pages of the New Testament.  And every centurion mentioned was a man of character (see Matthew 27:54, Acts 10:1; 23:17; 22:26; 24:23; 27:43).  In Luke’s story before us, this Roman ‘outsider’ - who loved the Jews - had built a synagogue for them in Capernaum (Luke 7:5).  If you visit the shores of Lake Galilee today, you can still see the remains of that first-century synagogue – and into one of the slabs of stone is carved the eagle insignia of the Roman tenth legion!  In that first century AD we can be sure that Jews would never normally have allowed any sign of an occupying power to decorate the holy walls of a synagogue - but with this particular, much-loved Roman …. well, a remarkable exception was made.

Matthew 8 records the centurion’s plea that Jesus come and heal his sick servant, but it is Luke’s account that fills out Matthew’s ‘compressed’ story by indicating that it was the friendly local Jews who physically ‘came’ to Jesus in the name of this modest man.  Evidently the centurion felt not ‘worthy’ to come in person (v.7); it seems that he never actually met Jesus.  He had only ‘heard’ of Him (v. 3).  Here was faith - from a distance….

·      Awakened
·      Expressed
·      Rewarded!

And healing resulted.

The centurion - himself a man of authority - had recognised, from what he had heard, that Jesus was a Man who was in command - of everything - and he acted accordingly.  Never in Israel, said Jesus, had He met with such faith.  Here is the only case in the Bible of a man who was able actually to surprise Jesus positively.  Only in Matthew chapter 6 and verse 6 is Jesus recorded elsewhere as ‘marvelling’ - and then it was at the unbelief of people in his own home town of Nazareth.

Take it in.  Here was a model test-case, a forerunner of many ‘outsiders’ from east and west who would one day sit at table in the kingdom of heaven - as Matthew interprets the story; people who have not seen and yet have believed!

We don’t even know the centurion’s name; we have to be content with just his ‘fingerprint’ on that slab of stone, in Capernaum’s historic ruins.


Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Last Frontier

" … the appearing of our Saviour, Christ  Jesus, who has destroyed death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel"       (2 Timothy 1:10)

Um - the greatest ‘break-through’ ever – what was it?  In Sport, we could name, well … Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics?  Muhammed Ali? Roger Bannister and the Four-minute mile?  Babe Ruth?  The great Borg/McEnroe Wimbledon Final tie-break?

In Discovery and Invention, how about Isaac Newton and the Law of  Gravity?  Marconi and Radio?  Einstein and the theory of relativity? The landing on the Moon? These pioneers crossed new frontiers. Humanity draws in its breath, and the world is never the same again. 

But the last frontier to be overcome lies in the historic conquest of Death itself.  The supreme accolade belongs to Jesus Christ, who ‘destroyed death.’  We read that He ‘appeared’ for this very purpose.

Christ is the great ‘Destroyer.’ At a single week-end in the Middle-East His death by violence looked like defeat – but in it lay the seeds of the destruction of death itself.  In this way, He has ‘destroyed’ death.  By this is meant not the disappearance of death - as a phenomenon - but rather of removing the sting, the power, the terror from it - much as the demolition experts will remove the fuse from a dangerous bomb, and make it harmless.

So with Jesus. Because of his own death, and subsequent resurrection, death no longer has the power to terrify those who belong to Him.  As a church minister, I’ve seen many people on their death beds; they run into hundreds.  I’ve observed that, in the context of Christ’s own and forgiven followers, there is a massive difference. Certainly, there may be pain - and grief on the part of the relatives - but the fear of the unknown has been stripped out of the occasion … and then – in eternity – the promise of a living resurrection body - like His!

Christ is also the great Illuminator.  We read that He has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.  Before Jesus, nobody knew a thing.  The Greek philosopher Xenophanes admitted, ‘Guesswork is over all.’  Others would struggle with the tapping on the shoulder of Old Man Death.  Then came Jesus…  and the prospect has changed, for ever.

Christ is also the Great Divider.  It is ‘through the gospel’ that the Death frontier has been beaten.  If we are lovers of the Gospel, and have found salvation and forgiveness through Christ, then this Announcement means everything.  But on which side of the Cross and Reurrection are we standing? Let us not stay on the Xenophanes side, of ignorance - or shrugging unconcern!  Rather, we can make this our prayer:

 ‘Lord Jesus, with millions of others, let me too share in your victory over death. Let me claim - through Your Cross and Resurrection -  eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and a place in your eternal kingdom. I put my trust in you this day, Amen.’

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

“The Minister is converted!”

This is why it is said: 
“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you”     (Ephesians 5:14)

Here was a little slogan that was circulating around Christian circles in that first century AD; possibly it was even a song - with revolution built into it!

This little rhyme can act like an alarm ‘wake-up call’ to people asleep - even dead - to their soul’s state and eternal destiny.  If they can only wake and rise from their deathly stupor, Christ will shine on them for ever!

This happened, remarkably, to a Cornish vicar back in the 19th century – who was converted through his own sermon!  William Haslam was his name.  During his sermon the thought came to him, You are no better than the Pharisees themselves.

He recalled later, “I felt a wonderful LIGHT” – and someone in the congregation noticed the change in William Haslam’s face, and cried out “The minister is converted!”  Shouts of praise broke out in the church – shouts in which the vicar himself joined.  Eventually he called for a hymn of praise to be sung.  By the end of the service the news had got out, and people were crowding into the church at the sensation.  Still greater crowds turned up as the news spread.  As William Haslam himself told them all that same night, “He has awakened me, who was before DEAD in trespasses and sins” – he was quoting from Ephesians.

Many, on reading this, would confirm that this very thing has happened to themselves.  A man from the north of England once wrote to me, “It was as if a light suddenly turned on, and everything became very clear. I was, quite frankly, speechless.”

A sixty-three year-old described it in another letter, “It has happened like a thunderclap!”

A Brahmin from India, after a service in London, wrote, “I felt great weights being lifted off me.”

It happens when we begin to wake up to what life is like without God; waking up at last to Jesus Christ and His forgiving power at the Cross; to the Bible, to Prayer, to the wonder of meeting others at a Bible-based  church!

Try singing for yourself Charles Wesley’s great hymn – “And can it be that I should gain?” You can google the words on the Internet.  One of the lines runs, ‘I WOKE; the dungeon flamed with light!’


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Wearing Out The Saints

He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High ... (Daniel 7: 25)

Was it oppression by a king or a kingdom that Daniel the prophet was predicting, those hundreds of years ago, when writing as a prisoner of the Babylonian empire?  In the last analysis it can mean both…. and more.

For God’s people across the ages have never been far away from the oppression that will always confront those men and women whose hearts are locked into following and serving their divine Creator and Redeemer.  Could it have been Rome – seemingly the last of the four mighty kingdoms prophesied in Daniel chapter 7?  Certainly; but to that can be added the Spanish Inquisition, the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’ in England, the slaughter of Huguenots and other believers in Europe that led to the religious exit to America of The Pilgrim Fathers … and right up to the intolerances imposed on humble disciples of Christ in country after country around today’s world. 

After the time of Daniel, it would be the notorious Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian ruler of Greece, who would make life impossible for the Jews, living under his reign.  For ever after, he would be identified as The Abomination of Desolation – a title reserved by Jesus for an end-time figure of oppression who, similarly, would do everything possible to ‘wear out the saints.’

Christian reader!  Do you and I feel under such pressures to some degree - in these early months of a New Year?  It won’t be too surprising.  Indeed, if you sense yourself right now to be in the middle of a great storm, place yourself in that rocking reeling 27 foot-long fishing boat on Lake Galilee with the other disciples of Jesus – the wind blowing them everywhere; the waves cascading into the boat … and with your leader apparently asleep, his head on a cushion, at the back (Mark 4: 35-41).

But no, He’s truly in charge.  Keep your eyes on Him; He knows what he intends to do! If we keep our eyes on Him – He will show US what to do.  It is only if we have eyes for the storm itself, that we could be worn down to nothing. 

              “Heaven fights for those who pray”
                       (Pastor Reynolds of the seventeenth century)


Saturday, 4 February 2017

The Water of Life

“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water”  (John 4:10)

Here is Jesus - talking to someone whom the Jews regarded as despised traitors to their faith – the Samaritans.  Further – against the convention of that day - it’s a woman that Jesus, as a male stranger, speaks to as she draws water from Jacob’s nearby famous well.  Then comes our Lord’s opening request: “Will you give me a drink?”  

As they talk, Christ’s teaching leads to truths that have led millions into an entirely new view of life’s meaning.

We learn to see ‘Thirst’ as Unrest

Jesus’ offer (verse 10) of ‘living water’ provokes a reply: “Living water, eh? Can you improve on Jacob and his well here?”  Our Lord had already perceived that this woman – with her five previous marriages - had no real rest of her own.  Nothing satisfied.

The ‘thirsty’ can be found among the great and the good.  Lord Byron - of the eighteenth century – described this in one of his poems:  Drank every cup of joy, heard every trump of fame; drank early, deeply drank.  Drank draughts which common millions might have drunk.  Then died of thirst, because there was no more to drink.

But a second insight emerges:

We learn to see ‘Water’ as a Person

The Samaritan attempts to deflect the discussion to the differences between Samaritan and Jewish worship (verse 20) … but Jesus – in his comment that true religion can only be in spirit and in truth – comes to the point that ‘living water’ that satisfies is only found in a Person – namely Himself - living in men and women by the power of the Holy Spirit (see John 7: 37-39).

Then comes the superb moment of self-disclosure, when Jesus – replying to his companion’s hope of a coming Messiah - declares, “I who speak to you am HE.”  It’s then that belief takes hold of the Samaritan…. who runs to tell others!

We learn to see ‘Drinking’ - as Believing.

Thus, the Samaritan ‘outsider’ echoes the secret prayers of so many: "Sir, give me this water that I thirst not.”

Be reminded of words from the final page in the Bible! “Come! Whoever is thirsty, let him come, and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life."


Sunday, 8 January 2017

When Someone’s World Opens

‘Ephphatha' ..... "Be opened!”  (Mark 7:34)

Everyone knows what it is to wrestle with the lid of a long-shut vault or box … and the relief when the catch springs open at last.  Here, it was Christ’s uttering of a single word that opened up the hearing and speech of a deaf-mute.  To open up a person is much harder than opening a box! But this is the very ministry of Jesus.  In the deaf-mute’s case, there was:

The incarnate touch (v.33)

Contact – this is God’s style.  The baby in a manger, God by the seaside, God eating fish, God at a wedding, God in tears, God sleeping in a boat – and here – putting his fingers into a man’s ears and touching his tongue.

The Lord who deals with the whirling constellations of the universe can also come alongside someone in hospital, a prisoner in Iran, a child in Syria - and touch that one precious life. 

The fact that he involves us in this incarnational ministry of personal contact is a breathtaking privilege.

The heavenward look (v.34)

‘He looked up to heaven.’  For the man who had no hearing, that look was a visual aid.  It was saying ‘That is where the authority lies for this thing that is about to happen – it’s all coming from above.’  The same action occurred outside the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:41) and at the feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6:41).  When it is heaven that is at work, people become ‘overwhelmed with amazement’ (v.37).  The Greek expression is huperperissos. We might say, ‘They were mega-astonished.’  

The earthbound sigh (v.34)

Learn from the sighs of Jesus (Mark 8:12; John 11:33).  He seems to sigh, either at the unbelief of his listeners, or just before performing a mighty deed.  This says something about the costliness of his earthbound ministry.  In a sense, Jesus’ whole life was a sigh.  Be encouraged, then, if much Christian service shares in the sighs of Jesus.

The authoritative word (v.34)

It only takes a word, and a man’s life opens up.  In a sense this was only a prototype, a model of what was to follow in the long Gospel story.

Ephphatha! – and India opens up to the apostle Thomas.  Ephphatha! – and England opens to Augustine.  Ephphatha! – and Ireland opens up to  Patrick.  Ephphatha! – and Livingstone enters Africa.  A touch, a look, a sigh and a word from Him – and the sky is the limit as to what opens up for a country or indeed a family ... anywhere.


Sunday, 1 January 2017

Preaching that Turns Hearts

 “A voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord"
(Matthew 3:3)

Just as we face a New Year right now, so the ancient people of God were facing a new era altogether around the year 30 AD, as a man of fire made his presence felt, out by the river Jordan.

Since the departure of Israel’s last recognized prophet four hundred years earlier, no definitive prophetic word had been heard in Judea.  And then – in came this wild man from the wilderness - all hair and leather!  What schooling had he received, apart from heaven itself?  History has indeed served us at times with powerful preachers, albeit possessing minimal academic credentials!  One such was the unschooled D.L. Moody of Chicago in the nineteenth century – whose last-ever letter contained 38 spelling mistakes.  Yet millions responded to his riveting messages, both sides of the Atlantic.  London’s Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury - the influential Ashley Cooper – compared him favourably with Britain’s supposedly top preacher, Canon Liddon of St Paul’s Cathedral.  “Moody will do more in an hour,” said Shaftesbury, “than Canon Liddon in a century!”

So it had to be with John the Baptist.  There in Judea a new class of religious leadership had formed, in the Scribes and Pharisees – but it was formal, dry and overlaid with tedious platitudes.

Now here was a man who was evidently the Elijah-like messenger foretold in the last sentence of the Old Testament; a man who would ‘turn hearts’ and baptize the repentant, there by the banks of the Jordan.  And Jesus himself arrived – not that HE needed to repent … but his stepping into the water seemed to be identifying him with the suffering, sinful humanity he had come to save.  Indeed, it was he whom John was promoting. 

‘A voice crying in the wilderness’ - that’s all John ever claimed to be (Isaiah 40:3), as he prepared the way for Jesus.