1. An Unknown

Meditations in the life of Abraham : 1. An Unknown

Gen 11:26,29,30  After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran….The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai…..Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.

When you pass people in the street, do you ever wonder where they come from, what their background is and what they’ve been through?  We live in a world where celebrities, courtesy of the media, feature highly. If you were asked to list off fifty well-known names, you’d probably not have a problem.  However, the truth is that the vast majority of us are unknowns. If we are ‘anybody’ it’s probably because of our family. Families count for a lot. Some of us may have made our way through our education or through business or professional achievement, but for most, families do play a big part. It’s all right, actually, to come from humble beginnings and be a ‘nobody’ as far as the world is concerned. If we measure ourselves according to our family background and upbringing, we may truly be a ‘nobody’. If we measure ourselves on the basis of how much we have impacted the world, what we’ve achieved, we may, indeed, rate ourselves very lowly, but there is another means of measuring our value, and it is God!

Here is Abram, and he probably knows very little of God; in fact few people do at this time in history! It’s early days. Around the world the revelation of God is very limited. It is said that the Chinese had an early understanding of the God who is the Creator.  Most other peoples had a more superstitious, fact-absent set of beliefs. There was, in many, a sense that the world was more than just a material, senses-perceived existence, there was something more. Spirits? Demons? Things that needed to be appeased, things that needed bribing? It was early days as far as spiritual revelation was concerned. And Abram is a nobody who doesn’t know much, if anything, about God.

Well actually he is the eldest son of Terah, but that really doesn’t say much. When we first come across him in Genesis 11, there is no indication whatsoever that this is a man of destiny, a man whose name would become a household name to many. He’s got two brothers and he gets a wife called Sarai. His youngest brother has a son,Lot, and so far Sarai doesn’t have any children.  They live inUr, in the southern part of what we sometimes callMesopotamia, one of the so-called ‘cradles of civilization’.  Life just goes on year by year with nothing eventful happening. Time passes, and still Abram and Sarai don’t have any children. Eventually it is assumed she is simply childless.

This is all rather ironic because when Terah had had his first child, he named him ‘Abram’ which means ‘exalted father’. The implication is that Terah expected this son to carry on the family name, perhaps to be like him and have at least three sons of his own, a family at least, who would carry on the family name. But Abram doesn’t have any children because ‘Sarai was barren’. It’s the youngest of the three sons,Haran, who has a son,Lot, and thenHarandies. One way and another, this is probably not a very happy family.  So here we have this man who is a ‘nobody’, part of an unhappy family blighted by childlessness and a premature death. Not a very good scenario.

Perhaps, when you look back over your family life and background, you feel that it is similar to that which we’ve been describing. For many people when the stories are told, they realise their parents were not wonderfully happy, and indeed in many cases they actually weren’t wanted. In the nine months of being carried in the womb, all they had conveyed to them was worry, anxiety and fear. When they were born, it wasn’t a lot better. For many people childhood wasn’t a wonderful time of life. Teenage years were even more turbulent and a decidedly rickety launch into adulthood. And then the ups and downs of life hit. For some it is childlessness, for others divorce, for others unemployment, and the list could go on and on. Life is bumpy! Things go wrong! We live in a Fallen World when prevailing sin means our lives ‘break-down’.

And what are we left with?  Very often it is low self-esteem. Very often it is a feeling of being locked into circumstances, locked into my personal history, locked in to the sense of failure. In reality many of us feel we are a ‘nobody’. In reality our knowledge of God is strictly limited. In reality we feel we have no future worth mentioning. We just live.

This is where the story of Abram and Sarai brings hope. This is a story of a man who didn’t know God, who has an encounter with God, and has his life changed for ever. This story is about an embryonic relationship that forms with God, the ups and the downs of the life of this ‘nobody’ that makes him a ‘somebody’. This is all about the life transformation that can take place, because God turns up. Are you ready for God to turn up for you as you read through these incidents in Abram’s life, because that’s what this is all about?

Over the years my understanding of the story of Abram grew in stages. The more you think about it the more comes out. In the early meditations in this series I am going to write as if that understanding grows and develops. Join me with our exploration into this man’s growing experience of God.

11. Under Scrutiny

Meditations in 1 Peter : 11 :  Under Scrutiny

1 Pet 1:17 Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.

I have a picture of a family of mother, father and three children, out for the day, walking and playing in the woods and planning a picnic at the end of it. The children are told to remain in sight of their parents and in this instruction they feel quite secure. They know that if anyone came to threaten them, their father would be there for them. It is, first and foremost, a sense of security of which they are aware. But actually there is also another sense that they have and it is that of not straying over boundaries of behaviour that the family has set, otherwise they will be answerable to the father. Again though, it is something that creates security for they know that as much as they will be held accountable for misdeeds, so will their brother or sister. They feel secure in this.

Nicky Gumbel, originator of the Alpha Courses, tells the story of an occasion when he took his boys to weekend football and the referee had not turned up and so the boys asked Nicky to referee. The only trouble was that he didn’t know all the rules and thus didn’t have the authority. Within a short while the game degenerated into constant arguments and upset. After a while the proper referee arrived, apologetic for being late, but then took over. Suddenly the game took on order and, the most important thing, the boys started enjoying the game now there was order and authority there.

Peter has just reminded us in the previous verses that God is holy and, as His children, we are to be holy. The present verse reminds us that He will hold us accountable in the same way as the father in my illustration above does with his children, and the referee does in Nicky Gumble’s story. But in calling us to do this, he says two helpful things.

The first is the reminder that God has revealed Himself to us as our Father. For many of us who have had bad family experiences with human fathers, the concept of God as Father may not fill us with joy – but it should. We should not see Him in the same mould as our imperfect human fathers, but He is The example of Fatherhood above all other examples. Yes, He is the One who created the world and brought us into being but now He is also the One who is constantly working to draw us back into close relationship with Him so that we may receive of all of His goodness and love. He is there to help us, support us, provide for us and protect us and in that He is the One who brings security to our lives. Everything about Him is love and goodness.

He doesn’t have favourites – we are all His favourites. Think about the privileges that a favourite child receives in an imperfect family situation, and God gives that to ALL of us who are His children. A cynic has said that if we are all special then that means that none of us are special. That might be true of a limited human father but in God’s case it is like when He draws near to us, we know that we are the most important person in the world – but so do all the other children of the Father! He can do that because He is God. A child who feels they are special has the sense of the father pouring out his love over and above the normal. Well God does that with every one of His children. It is only our own unbelief that hinders us receiving and enjoying that.

The second helpful thing is the reminder that we are “strangers” here. Although we tend to think that this life is the all important thing, and we are fearful of the thought of giving it up, we do have a destiny in heaven. Heaven is our ultimate home. But there is something even more significant in this: we are citizens of heaven NOW. The life we have in us, the Holy Spirit, is rooted in heaven. He is the One who provides a link with heaven. So often in the Gospels, the reference is to “the kingdom of heaven.” The character, the atmosphere if you like, of heaven is within us, linking us to heaven and that is where the origin of our present ‘life’ comes from. The perfection and wonder of heaven is here within us in a measure and that is what makes us citizens of a different realm. Paul wrote, he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son.” (Col 1:13) We are to see ourselves as strangers to this world because in reality we now live in another realm, the kingdom of God.

The final reference to living in “reverent fear” is no more onerous than the children knowing they would be answerable to their father, or the boys answerable to the referee. In both cases they feel secure in the presence of the adult. The only time they feel fearful is when they transgress the accepted rules of the family or of the game. Thus it is with us and our loving heavenly Father. Be secure in His love.

4. A Lasting Inheritance

Meditations in 1 Peter : 4 :  A Lasting Inheritance

1 Pet  1:3-5 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

For most people, life on this earth is all there is and perhaps because of that belief, the thought of death is something terrible. We live in a world of change. On one hand we are trying to keep people alive for as long as possible (although we don’t always do very well maintaining a good quality of life), while on the other there are moves to encourage voluntary euthanasia, to hasten death for those who are suffering badly. In the previous meditation we arrived at the point in these verses of thinking about the living hope that we have. Within that we briefly mentioned, almost in passing, the reality that we now receive eternal life and so death is not the end.

But Peter won’t leave us to think on eternity merely in passing; he brings it to the fore when he writes of an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you.” It is the latter words, “kept in heaven for you” that press us to think about eternity.  An inheritance is usually something you receive when someone else dies. Here the inheritance which is ours, we receive when we die. Inheritance speaks of a future blessing, something to be received in the distant future when a death occurs. So here we are, wanting to keep death at bay for as long as possible, and yet we have a glorious inheritance waiting for us. It doesn’t matter how long our life turns out to be, this inheritance is not going to “perish, spoil or fade,” because it is in heaven and in heaven everything is unchanging.

If only we could grasp the wonder of this we would not be so distressed when a loved one passes away. So often, when it is the very old, death is a release from a physical trial, a severe pressure for many. Declining physical abilities accompanied by an increase in aches and pains, makes old age difficult, and yet we cling on to it and anguish when we see it taken from a loved one. Yet they then go to receive this glorious inheritance that has been waiting for us. Whether there are stages of transition between life now and what we eventually receive is not totally clear in Scripture, but at the end of the book of revelation we read of a time that will be ours where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Rev 21:4) That will be a good time! That is our inheritance, enjoying the presence of God and having a new spiritual body (see 1 Cor 15:44) that knows no pain and the life knows no tears. This is our eternal destiny.

Peter also refers to this inheritance as, the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. Have you ever heard that picture of salvation that is portrayed as rescue from a sinking ship? We were all on a sinking ship and then that lifeboat came out to us and we were lifted on to the lifeboat. We were saved. Then the lifeboat turned round and slowly made its way back through the ways and we were being saved. Then it arrived back in harbour and we stepped off onto dry land and we were well and truly saved. The journey back in the lifeboat is the life we now have. The landing on the land is the arrival in heaven, our true home, our true destination.

There appears a sense in Scripture that God will eventually wind up everything that exists at the present in ‘the last Day’ and make everything anew for us to enjoy, but for us as individuals ‘the last day’ may be the last day of our individual lives here on earth. There are lots of disputes about whether we instantly enter into our inheritance the moment we die or whether we sleep and are awakened to a final day. I lean towards the former.

But there is still a phrase yet to be considered:kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power.” The ones who receive this inheritance are people of faith, people who have believed God about Jesus and who now have entered into a life where God’s power holds, keeps and shields them until the time when they leave to receive their inheritance. It is a life we receive because of our faith. When we said, “I believe, please forgive me, please be Lord of my life” that was an act of faith, and when God heard that and saw it was sincere, He brought His Spirit into our lives. It is the Spirit who keeps us and leads us and is our shield to bring us safely through to the place and time of receiving our inheritance. The body may be killed but the real ‘me’ will never die for He who is eternal has now brought eternal life to my soul and I live for ever. After this earth, all there is, is my inheritance to be received. Hallelujah!

20. Judgment & Mercy

Meditations in James: 20 :  Judgement & Mercy

Jas 2:12,13     Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Sometimes in Scripture we move into areas where there is language being used that is not used in common, every-day life, and which, therefore, requires some definition.  This is one such place. ‘Judging’ is fairly easy because we have TV programmes where people have to perform and are then ‘judged’ by a panel. When we talk about judging, we talk about assessing or, to use an older phrase, being weighed in the balances. ‘Mercy’ is not so commonly used. Mercy is unfounded compassion. Mercy isn’t earned or deserved; it is just given. Now we have to apply these two words to see what James is saying in these rather complex verses.

First of all he makes a call in respect of our behaviour – speak and act. But we are to speak and act in a particular way, a way governed by what is going to happen to us in the future. He says, when you speak or act remember that you are going to be judged or assessed by the law of love that we have been recently considering. That law of love brings a freedom of movement; it allows us to reach out and touch others in very positive and purposeful ways. The law of love will be the yardstick by which we are measured.

Now earlier we didn’t go the full extent with the definition of judgement because it doesn’t only refer to the act of assessing, it also involves the act of determining what happens to the person being judged.  On these performance-TV shows the person or couple who is judged to have been bottom of the contestants, leaves the show and doesn’t appear any more. When we read of judgement in the Bible it can be either eternal judgement – where our eternal destiny takes us – or judgement that is short-term discipline, or even long-term if that discipline doesn’t bring the fruits that God is looking for when he brings it.  Judgement is also used in terms of rewards in heaven.

There is a clear Scriptural teaching that we Christians will receive in heaven according to how we have lived here: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Cor 3:12:12-15) and For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10) and Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” (Rev 22:12). The message is very clear. When we are Christians we have an eternal destiny in heaven with God, but the nature or character of that destiny (to start with at least) appears to be determined by the nature or character of the lives we lived here.  That is the judgement that James is possibly referring to.

But we need to consider his comments about mercy as well. Remember that he has just been speaking against favouritism and favouritism puts some people down while it elevates others. The poor needed our kindness and we didn’t give it.  We failed to show them mercy is what James is implying.  Oh yes, this isn’t a branch off to some completely different subject; this is an extension of his argument about treating all people equally and well.  If you don’t show people mercy, is what he is saying, you will not be shown mercy when it comes to your judgement time.  When you have finished your performance and are being assessed on it, if you haven’t included mercy in your performance, don’t expect to be shown mercy.  Expanding that word, if you haven’t shown undeserved compassion to those who needed it, don’t ask for special favours to get more than you deserve in heaven. Everything we have and will have, comes by God’s mercy and grace. He doesn’t HAVE to give us anything. We deserved eternal punishment, but in His mercy, His undeserving compassion, He offered us salvation through Jesus. That gave us a new eternal destiny.

But within that new life, He still gives us free will to choose how we will respond to His word and His Spirit and, therefore, we can be dilatory and casual and fail to be the people He wants us to be. If we are like that, we need to realise there are consequences. We may not loose our eternal destiny (though I believe Scripture indicates that is possible where there is apostasy) but we may not get all we could get if we had fully entered into the will of God, what He desired for us – which included letting His love reach out through us to those who were poor and needy.  Oh yes, there are definitely long-term consequences to what we do or don’t do today, and we really do need to consider those in determining how we will live now.

23. Our Portion

God in the Psalms No.23

Psa 16:5,6 LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.

There are two opposite beliefs that are both wrong according to the Bible. On one hand there is ‘determinism’, the belief that everything is predetermined and we therefore can have no say in our destiny.  The opposite extreme is the belief that there is nothing that directs life and that we are completely free agents in a free world.  Now the latter belief runs contrary to psychology which observes that our behaviour and therefore our outcomes are partially genetically predisposed (i.e. because of genetic makeup we have a tendency to behave in certain ways – but don’t have to) and partly formed by the experiences that we have had in life (but note again that we don’t HAVE to respond in predetermined ways!).

But there is a middle way, according to the Bible, which involves God. The Bible shows us that God gives us free will (otherwise there would be no point in Him saying do this or don’t do that, and then us doing the opposite – see the life of Israel), but that He also speaks and acts into this world and does things that change both us and our future.  Does God speak and work in such a way that we have no alternative but to go His way, that His provision for us is such that we will go His way?  The answer is probably mid-way between yes and no. There are clearly those who do not turn to the Lord at any time in their life, but David was not one of those. Later in the psalm he said, I have set the LORD always before me” (v.8) indicating that he had entered into a relationship with the Lord and because of that, now a number of things followed. The first we saw in the previous meditation – that he had come to an understanding the God alone was good, and that God was his refuge.  Now he has this sense that God has allocated a certain secure life for him.

The apostle Paul when writing to the church at Ephesus, said, we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10). How far we take this depends on our faith level. The very least it means is that God has designed the lifestyle of Christians. i.e. when we become a Christian, the Holy Spirit will convict us and teach us the way to go (Jn 14:16,17, 26).  It is then for us to obey Him and apply what He says.  But it may also be that God who knows you through and through, who knows your gifts and talents and capabilities, also knows how you will be most fulfilled and so has plans for you that He wants to lead you into. This fits more into what David is saying.

Another expression of this same thing is seen in Psa 37:4,Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” What this says is that if you make God your total focus, He will put desires upon your heart (that fit who you are) and will then lead you and bring those desires about.  Do you see this lovely combination of God’s activity harmonizing with your heart desires?  Yes, as we make the Lord the centre of our lives, we can, in a very real way, have a sense of being led into a life that is good, a life that is designed to match us perfectly, so that we have a great sense of fulfilment, a great sense of being in God’s will which is good! (see also Rom 12;1,2). Thus we can say with David, “I’m in a good place because God has brought me here!

16. Trapped

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.16

16. Trapped by Circumstances

Luke 2:1-4 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria .) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea , to Bethlehem the town of David , because he belonged to the house and line of David.

Throughout history there have been groups of people who have decided that life, the world, is like a great clockwork machine and that everything is interlinked and no one and nothing is free from it. It’s like one great machine and you can’t affect it. Some have even gone as far as to say everything we say or do is determined by what has been. We are locked into a great machine, slaves to yesterday!

Now why do we sometimes feel that? Because governments and authorities decide the rules, the media portrays life as being a series of incidents where so much of it goes wrong and we feel we have little or no say in the destiny of the world. Joseph and Mary could have felt like that. They are part of a small nation, Israel , which has been taken over and ruled by Rome . Rome is all-powerful and so, because the Roman emperor has decided he would like to know exactly who he is ruling over, everyone has to be counted, and they are to be counted at the place of their birth. So, all over the country, people were moving to go to their home town to make sure on census day they were there. There were no doubt severe penalties for those who didn’t! In the case of a married couple, they were to go to the husband’s home town.

So here they are, expecting a baby – which Joseph, no doubt, isn’t feeling too sure about on a bad day – and now they have to travel from Nazareth in the south to Bethlehem in the north, because that’s the town of his family. Cogs in a machine, being driven by forces beyond them! Why Bethlehem? What’s special about Bethlehem? That will become clear later, but for the moment it seems there is little point in it, except the emperor requires it. Isn’t that just how life is so much of the time? We seem carried along by the winds of circumstance and we don’t know why. We wish we could win a million pounds, say, and break free from the daily drudgery and not have to work, perhaps, for work can seem such a part of the ‘machine’ which holds us in place. In such a framework of thinking, it is so easy to feel depressed. What’s the point? Why am I here? Why is this happening? If only I hadn’t… If only I had…. Yes, there are days when it seems that that is all there is.

It’s like what we were thinking about, in respect of Elizabeth and Zechariah, a little while back. She’s pregnant and it’s going to be nine months before anything is going to happen, so it’s a waiting time. We’ve just got to get on with life and wait for the next significant thing to happen. For Mary and Joseph, it’s having to be at Bethlehem. Get the census out of the way and we can get on with life again. Oh really? You don’t know some of the things that are going to happen there, because one thing we’ve forgotten about here, is that God has a plan and God is on the move. That’s so easy to forget in what seems the ordinary mundane day to day working out of life. Oh yes, it may seem that ‘big people’ are moving us around like pawns on a chess board, but actually God is the One who is ruling over it all. Don’t lose sight of that today, or tomorrow, or any other day! Look for Him in it. Remind yourself what He has said or done to get you to today. Get perspective! Get a God perspective, and that will change everything!