1. By the Will of God

Meditations in Colossians: 1:  By the Will of God

Col 1:1   Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God

Well over 50% of Paul’s letters start with this sort of greeting, acknowledging who he Paul is, someone called “by the will of God.”  Because of these similarities, when you come to write about these different letters it is difficult to write originally, but perhaps it is a wider challenge to all of us not to take for granted the things we read regularly in Scripture or the things that occur more than a few times..

We call these writings ‘meditations’ but they are often more ‘studies’. So often I try to meditate rather than study but as I progress I find I need to check out verses one against another and it turns more into a study. As we start this new series in this letter from Paul to the church in Colosse I have a feeling we may gravitate between study and meditation. Sometimes I go for ‘big sweep’ meditations taking in a verse or a paragraph at a time. Here I feel we will slowly meander through this letter picking up and studying or meditating upon a word here and a word there.

How often we stumble across this phrase, ‘the will of God’. How often in Bible Study groups I have heard the ponderings: does it mean what God would like to happen or does it mean what God makes to happen?  Can we thwart the will of God? Did Paul have any choice in becoming an apostle? Do I have any choice in becoming whatever I am in the Church?

The first thing that strikes me on this occasion is that the phrase, ‘the will of God’ seems to convey a strong sense of foundation to life. Paul, for instance, wasn’t a shopkeeper or, perhaps to be more Bible-specific, a full-time tentmaker, and he wasn’t these things because somehow God wanted it like that and it would appear God engineered things at least to bring that about. We know much about Paul but there is also much that we don’t know about him which leaves us speculating about parts of his life

He was a Jew, a Roman citizen, a Pharisee, well educated. How much say did God have in all those things? Well, to Jeremiah He said, Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1:5) In other words, even before he was conceived and certainly before he was born, Jeremiah was marked out to be a prophet.  Paul himself wrote, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight,” (Eph 1:4) and theologians argue whether that means that God simply ‘knew’ what we would eventually do and become, or that He made us do and become. Indeed, in that same letter Paul wrote, “For 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) There, at least, is a strong sense of God knowing and God going ahead of our lives, plotting them out for us to make them the best that they can be.

So God knows, God sees and God knows what could be the very best for us. So will He force that on me? It appears not, it appears that He wants my cooperation, for He has given me this thing called free-will, the ability to choose.  The classic quote here has got to come from Joshua’s challenge to his people: “if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Josh 24:15) We can choose, it appears, whether to follow God or follows myths. Ultimately it is down to us.

But then we find at least one instance of God giving a prophet direction and when that prophet turns round and runs in the opposite direction, God sends some severe circumstances to bring him to himself. That prophet of course was Jonah. And then you examine God’s encounter with Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3 & 4) and you find the Lord laying out His plans for Moses and not taking ‘No!’ for an answer!

Paul’s case had been a pretty severe and dramatic calling, being blinded by God on the road to Damascus and it was then only when he was utterly helpless that the Lord sent little Ananias who was told, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15,16)  Did Saul who became Paul have any choice? Oh yes, but perhaps it was more a case that God chose a man whose heart was for him already (although misguided) and who just needed turning in the right direction.

I wonder if that is how it is with us? The Lord sees and knows our potential; He knows our heart, our inclination and He calls us and points us in the right direction by His Holy Spirit when we surrender to Him, a direction that He knows will be the very best for us, the individual, and a direction that will be most fruitful and bring most blessing to us and to His people. But clearly we can back-pedal for some do. Clearly some can fall along the way after having had the most amazingly powerful and effective ministries. Would God make that happen? No, that would fly in the face of His love and goodness, but it does happen for the landscape is littered with casualties.

How fragile this ‘will of God’ appears to be. We can receive it or we can refuse it, it appears. Is it God’s will that people refuse Him and refuse to  receive all His goodness for them so that He makes people be unbelievers? Peter had thoughts on that: “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)  But not everyone does come to repentance so there is surely free will and free will does mean real, genuine ability to choose contrary to God’s wishes. No, God clearly has wishes and knows what is best. That is His will. And then He offers that to us and we are allowed to choose. And that is His will – He allows and sometimes grieves.

But if this talk of being in God’s will, living out my life and exercising the ministry He has given me, brings a sense of stability and security, it also brings a sense of challenge and responsibility.  Comfortable and uncomfortable, this talk of ‘God’s will’.

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13. Divine & Human Interaction

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  13. Divine and Human Interaction

Acts 2:23   This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

I was reviewing what I had written earlier in this series and at the end of the first meditation I note I had written the following: “If we have known the Lord any length of time … we can reflect on our testimony and see His hand that has been on us, and we can marvel and wonder and feel great pleasure and we can bow and worship as we delight in Him.”  Getting on in years a little these days, I do what older people do and reflect back on the years that have been and I do marvel at the wonder of God’s blessings that have come to us as a family (as I wrote in that first meditation).

Now the marvel is not just that God has poured out blessing upon blessing upon us over the years, but He has done that despite the people we are – failures, inadequate, with tendencies of getting it wrong. Yes this is the fuller truth. I know what I am and I look back at what I was and I cringe at the memories of what I said or did, at my immaturity, my lack of grace, my confusions, and I marvel that despite all of this – and it is very real, I am not just trying to sound humble, this is how it was and is – yes, despite all this God blessed me and used me.

And then I come to this gem of a verse in the middle of Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost. For a guy who had been an uneducated (probably) fisherman, he did OK in that sermon. He has understanding, he quotes the Old Testament and he is full of passion. That’s what the Holy Spirit does for you! But there in the midst of it, is this gem of understanding. When Jesus went to the Cross it was a combination of two things.

First it was the plan of God worked out before the foundation of the world. Moreover I dare to believe that my life also fits that category, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world,” (Eph 1:4) so that now I am, “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10). There was no mistake back there two thousand years ago when they arrested Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was not the world getting out of control; it was the plan of God reaching a climax.

Second, it was the work of sinful men. God didn’t make us band together against Christ and crucify him, but God knew we would given the circumstances. I use the pronoun ‘we’ because I dare not exclude myself from what went on. I would hope that I would not have been part of the crowd baying for Jesus’ death, and I certainly hope I would not have been part of the religious or civic establishment that brought about his death (but even there I may delude myself) and the best I could hope for was that I would have been one of those disciples who hid themselves away and left him to his fate on his own.

Am I being too hard on myself (or you)? I don’t think so. As I said earlier on, when you have a lot of years to play with, you have more examples of life to put under the microscope and although God’s grace has genuinely been there in some good measure, if I am honest if the Lord in heaven took me back through my life and we reviewed it together, I would have to agree that there were times where I would like to change how I spoke or acted in the years gone by.

We are all of us less than perfect this side of heaven and the wonder and marvel of God’s love and grace is that those imperfections didn’t put Him off from being with us there and prompting and using us, despite our inadequacies and, on rare occasions, because of them. Sometimes He can only use us when we have lost all sense of self-confidence and the ensuing words and actions come out of weakness or even failure but He still uses them to His purposes.

It is not good, this down side of humanity. It was not good that the religious and civic authorities schemed together to bring Jesus down, or in Pilate’s case just abandoned him to injustice.  It was not good that the crowd allowed themselves to be manipulated into crying out for Jesus’ death. It was not good that  most of the disciples ran away and hid. No, none of these things were good but nevertheless God used them to sacrifice the Lamb of God.

I come across people who preach a hard form of holiness and present a God who is hard and holy and demanding, but when I examine Scripture and I examine human experience I find that this preaching is false and untrue  and unkind and fails to see the wonder of who God is. Here is the paradox: yes, He is holy and He does call us to be holy and after the apparent debacle of the events in the Garden of Eden you might have expected God to abandon this planet and go and find another one in some other galaxy, but He didn’t. Before he released His power in Creation He knew that giving us free will would mean the very early arrival of Sin in mankind. He knew that justice (and Satan, the accuser)  would cry out for justice and demand that Sin be punished and so the Godhead planned how justice might be met and mankind (or at least those who would receive it) could be saved.

And so He took the sinfulness of mankind and used it to bring about the means for justice to be satisfied, by the death of His own eternal Son. No one less than God Himself could take punishment for so many sinful beings, and so we find the awful events of Calvary appearing like a blot on history. Yet out of that blot comes redemption, salvation available to you and me if we will bow and receive it. When we do, it is the direction of our life that is all important. Yes, I will stumble and on occasion fall, but He will be there to get me back on my feet and help me take further tottering steps in the direction of heaven. My desire is to do His will and that, it seems, is enough now. I may miss it or get it wrong but as I keep directed towards Him, His grace will be there again and again to turn my fumbling efforts into something glorious that will bless Him and others. How amazing!  This verse is indeed a gem and it genuinely releases a sense of wonder and awe and worship. Hallelujah!

38. The Oppressed

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 38 :  The Oppressed

Eccles 4:1 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:  I saw the tears of the oppressed– and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors– and they have no comforter.

To the shallow thinker, the presence of the oppressed of the world must raise a question about the nature of God.  This question we find Habakkuk raising with God: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Hab 1:13) i.e. God, I know you are holy and good, so how can you just stand back and do nothing in the face of all the evil in the world? It is a legitimate question.

For Solomon (who had been a hard taskmaster) it was a valid problem. He looked at what he saw happening in the world and he saw oppression and he saw the tears of the oppressed and he saw that no one was giving them comfort, and he saw that the people with the power were the oppressors. These are the basics of oppression wherever it takes place. Because people are the same throughout history, it is exactly the same today. It may be kings or rulers holding their people in a rod of iron, it may be those dealing in people trafficking, it may be gangs terrorizing neighbourhoods, or it may simply be parents abusing their children or employers exploiting their workers. Whatever it is, it is the same: powerful people oppressing weaker people.

As Solomon looked he didn’t come up with any answers beyond the philosophical: “And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” (v.2,3)  If the world it like this, he concludes, the person who has died is better off now they no longer have to endure the oppression they had been suffering, but of course, the people in the best position are those who have never yet been born because at least they haven’t been through it. That’s a very negative way of viewing it. Perhaps it would be better if we asked two questions: why does this happen and what can we do about it?

First of all, why does this happen. There are two factors that contribute to this. First there is the free will that God has granted to mankind. He has made us so that we choose how we will live, what we will do. Second is the fact of sin in every human being, that tendency to godlessness and self-centredness that leads to unrighteousness. Put these two things together and people oppress people. It is as simple as that. We don’t have to but we choose to – and it is sin and it is evil.

But then this usually raises an even bigger question, the question that Habakkuk raised: why doesn’t God step in to do something about it. The answer here is also twofold and it involves what God can’t do and what He can do.

First of all what God can’t do. It is logically very simple and yet so many people just can’t see it. Ask yourself the question, what would you like God to do? Step in and stop it. How? Er…. MAKE every person good. You’ve just taken away their free will, their ability to choose, that human ‘ingredient’ that makes us who we are. Do that and we have grey robots who are all the boring same and who are incapable of the thing we call love. So tell people to be good! He does, all the time. I am utterly convinced that God speaks to every single human being but many of us are like Pharaoh – hard hearted. We have set our hearts on oppressing those weaker than ourselves and so we refuse to listen to God.

OK then, let’s ask the other part: what can God do? So does God stand back and do nothing? No, He works in the hearts and lives of individuals. A slave can know the wonder of God’s love, even in the face of oppression. But more than that revolution comes when many people rise up against the oppressor. We have seen it a number of times in the last fifty years. Something we have to accept is that God knows that some of these things take time, but that doesn’t mean to say He is doing nothing today. It just means we may have to wait a while to see what He’s been working on!

So let’s ask the second question: what can we do about it? Wherever we see it we should ‘blow the whistle’ on it and shout it from the rooftops. That won’t always have effect, but it will sometimes. Wherever we see it, we should be praying against it and not only ask the Lord to act to stop it, but also ask what part we might play in bringing it to an end. The truth is that the Lord does want to act against oppression, but largely through other people. In a civilised society He has prompted us to create legal systems that seek to deal with criminal activity. Unsaved world government will never get it completely right, but at least we can pray and speak out to encourage governments to speak and act against other governments who oppress their people or allow oppression within their countries. The world is a constantly changing kaleidoscope of changing nations and changing activity. The fact that there is oppression doesn’t mean to say that we have to tolerate it.

53. Why Evil?

We pick up again the meditations in Job for the final run to the end of the book

Meditations in Job : 53.  Why Evil?

Job 24:1,2,12b Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days? Men move boundary stones; they pasture flocks they have stolen….. But God charges no one with wrongdoing.

In this present speech we’ve seen Job bemoan the fact that he wants to speak with God but can’t find him (23:1-12) and also acknowledge it is a fearsome thing to be under God’s hand of discipline (23:13-17). While he’s wanting to talk with God, he now thinks of other associated questions that he has, especially why it is that God seems to let people get away with unrighteous behaviour (when he hasn’t been unrighteous – implied). Thus his opening questions that we have above: i.e. why doesn’t God come and sort out those who are doing wrong?

He then categorises some of the wrongs he is aware of – moving boundaries (v.2a), stealing animals (v.2b,3), putting down the poor and not caring for them (v.4-12) – and wonders why God doesn’t hold people responsible (v.12b). He goes on about those who sin in darkness (v.13) – the murderer (v.14), the adulterer (v.15) and thieves (v.16) – all of whom make use of the darkness to carry out their wrongs (v.17) and who (implied) get away with it!.

Yet, he is aware that their lives are transitory, they are like the foam that appears on the surface of rivers and which gets blown away (v.18), or the snow which gets easily melted and soon vanishes (v.19a). Yes, death comes to such people (v.19b) and soon they are forgotten (v.20). Yes, they may prey on the weak (v.21) but God deals with them (v.22). He may allow them to rest apparently feeling secure for some time (v.23a) but He is watching them (v.23b) and although they are exalted for a while, they will soon be gone (v.24). He finishes with a challenge, that if this is not so, then tell him (v.25).

This subject or theme regularly crops up in the minds of thinking people. In fact it perhaps seems THE great mystery. How can a holy God make a world that goes wrong, where people rebel against Him and do wrong and harm other people? Why doesn’t He step in and deal with such people and minimise the suffering that the poor have to put up with? It needs a little thought but I believe the answer is wrapped up in the whole subject of free will. It is impossible to imagine a human being without free will. There are secular philosophers who are determinists and they maintain that we have no free will; we are locked into life and have to go with what comes. The Christian equivalent is the ultra Calvinist who maintains God’s sovereignty is such that He determines our every act. Both groups maintain we don’t have free will in reality, yet that is the clear implication of Scripture. When God tells Adam and Even not to do something and they do it,  that is free will in operation. When He told Israel not to do something and they did it, that is free will in operation. To say it is God making them do wrong is a nonsense! The other side of the coin is that God knows what will happen, knows what we will do and so works accordingly, (see Acts 2:23, 4:27,28) i.e. He took our sinful acts and used them to bring salvation to the world.

The big problem with free will is the fact that God has to limit Himself and allow men and women to do what they choose – even though He may speak to them and strongly encourage them to behave otherwise. Yet they choose to sin, they choose to reject Him and rebel against His laws. As they do this they harm other people. Does God just put up with this? No He speaks to them and to others. Sometimes His words restrain them, sometimes His words stir others to speak up for justice, for the Lord uses people to restrain people. Parliament makes laws to restrain wrong doing, the police seek to uphold those laws and restrain wrong doers, and the courts see that wrong doers are punished. In these ways the Lord restrains evil. But sometimes He steps in specifically deals with an individual. Sometimes we see that individual being exposed and dealt with by the Law. Sometimes they die. There is no clear formula to work this out – but there is the Lord, and He decrees what He sees is right for every situation. That may appear confusing for us, this side of heaven, but one day we will understand and then we will be satisfied, for we will know that the wisdom of God was perfect and is fault-free.

Thus it is that sometimes when wrong doing is right in our face, we question and query, just like Job. Sometimes our emotions are stirred, just like Job, and once our emotions are stirred, we question and query. It is only then, as we think through the reality of these things and see the teaching of Jesus, that we realise that God has given mankind free will and does allow us to act as we will, but He is also sovereign and so He acts into lives and situations and exercises His supreme will. If the wrong doer appears to be getting away with it – for the moment – that is God allowing it, but He may step in and act, so the wrong doer should never feel safe! We would do well to heed these things.

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.

16. Evil Men

‘WHY?’ QUESTIONS No.16

Psa 10:13 Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”?

There is a mystery in many people’s minds, a mystery about evil and specifically about evil in people. Why are people like they are? Why do dictators do the terrible things they do? Why do men and women murder, why do men rape, why do fathers abuse children, why do people steal from other people? I once led a law class where the whole class were unanimous that we needed laws to protect the weak “because people are nasty”. What an indictment of the human race!

There are two possible aspects to this verse today – the reason why men act like this, and the reason God lets them act like this. First of all, what is the reason men act like this? Why do people do wrong and then deny the presence of God? Why does the wicked man think he will get away with it?

Well there are two parts to the answer to that. Looking at Scripture, we see that we have an adversary, Satan, who comes against us to tempt us to do wrong, and he does that by getting us to think wrongly. We did consider this the other day but we will look at it more deeply now. At the Fall we find the following sequence of events: He said to the woman, “Did God really say,’You must not eat from any tree in the garden? (Gen 3:1) This was Satan challenging the truth in Eve’s mind as part of his endeavours to get her to go against God. That was followed by,You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman (Gen 3:4), his denial of the consequences of her actions. So we see he whispers into people’s minds that it’s all right to do this thing because who’s to say it’s wrong, and anyway, it will be all right. It is wrong and it won’t be all right – A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7) There are always consequences to our wrong doing.

Now there is a second reason men now do wrong. It isn’t only Satan; it is the fact that since the Fall, every man, woman and child has been tainted by this thing called Sin, this tendency towards self-centred godlessness which results in unrighteousness. Note that it is now a tendency within us. Once we become Christians we have a greater power within us, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to overcome the old tendency, the old nature. However until a person comes to Christ for salvation, that old nature prevails and Sin prevails in them. Godlessness is most natural; self-centredness is most natural, and unrighteousness is most natural. Now David didn’t have this understanding when he wrote this psalm, but we have all the revelation of the New Testament teaching so we should understand it and we shouldn’t be surprised when we see such things. Satan plus the old sinful nature means that evil is expressed in human beings.

But we said there is a second aspect to this verse – why God allows wicked men to act like this. This is so often the cry of lack of understanding, “Why doesn’t God do something about it?” the ‘it’ being the wrong doing of evil people. Well actually when you think about it there is an easy answer to this one. The Bible indicates quite clearly that God has given us free will. It would be a nonsense if God told us to do things if we did not have the capacity not to do them. The fact that Eve and then Adam ‘fell’, were disobedient, is a clear example of this free will. A variety of other people in the Bible also clearly didn’t do what God told them to do. No, free will is a capacity that God has obviously given us. So when we cry, “Why doesn’t God do something?” we are in fact saying, “Why doesn’t God override this person’s free will?” and that’s where it gets difficult. Put simply, where should He stop? Obviously He should stop murderers and rapists and criminals, you might say. OK, but why stop with them for there are lots and lots of acts of wrongdoing that are not criminal acts? OK, you say, do away with all wrongdoing! Ah! Including in you? Including your wrong thoughts, wrong words and sometimes wrong acts? You want God to take away your free will and make you into a robot who can only do good, whose action will be severely curtailed, and whose human experience will be radically cut back? You want God to do that, because that is your only alternative?

As soon as we come to this point we see the awfulness of Sin and the awfulness of free will, but then we start seeing the wonder of salvation that wins sinful human beings to God’s side to be good. That’s what salvation does, but we have to have the other awful freedom first. Yes, God does act into this world and sometimes He does obviously move against evil men, and yes, men do reap the consequences of their actions, but in the meantime the terrible downside of free will is that man can be evil!

Never blame God for your wrong doing and never demand He takes away free will of other people – or you! Free will is the staggering responsibility that God has bestowed upon mankind. It is, if you like, a sign of His respect for us. He gives us our lives to live as we will, with the potential to achieve wonderful things, but also to do terrible things. The choice is ours. He will be there to help us achieve the former, and His wrath will be there against the latter, but the choice is still ours. Choose wisely.

4. Think about Chance

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.4

4. Think again about Chance

Luke 1:8-11 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.

There are times in life when it seems that just being in the right place at the right time opens up a whole new set of circumstances, which leave us wondering about what theologians call ‘providence’. A basic dictionary defines providence as beneficent care of God, but theologians would expand that to talk about God’s foresight and activity in bringing things about to fulfil His purposes.

There are probably three sets of people in the world when it comes to thinking about this subject. First of all there are those who simply believe that everything is pure chance. There is no meaning, no purpose, everything just happens. At the opposite extreme there are those superstitious people who believe there are ‘forces’ or even ‘spirits’ at work in the world that need appeasing, and such people usually live in fear, because how can you be sure you’ve got on their good side?

The third group are those who believe that there is an all-powerful single deity at work behind all things. This group are subdivided according to the nature of the deity. For some His presence is bad news! For Christians, the presence of God is good news; they understand that ‘God is good’ or as the Bible says specifically, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). They also believe He gives them free will and so doesn’t force them down any good path – except on rare occasions, as we’ll see later in the story. So it is they believe God does intervene in the affairs of men and always to bring good.

So here we have this priest, Zechariah who has been chosen to go into the innermost part of the Temple to burn incense. He’s chosen by lot (chance?) from a large number and, in fact, each man would only receive this honour once in his lifetime. It’s pretty amazing, therefore, that he’s got this job at all. After all, he’s getting on in age now, and it’s never happened before and will never happen again.

Now of course the Temple was originally to be the place where the people came to meet with God, but for a variety of reasons you can find in the Old Testament, God hadn’t been turning up there for a very long time. In fact it was over four hundred years since Israel had really had any sign of the presence of God with them. So when childless Zechariah goes into the innermost part of the Temple, he is not expecting anything out of the ordinary, which makes the presence of an angel somewhat unnerving!

The problem with life and God, is that most of the time He doesn’t warn you that He’s going to turn up. There we were minding our own business and suddenly things start happening out of the ordinary. Could it be that God might start talking to you about your life as we go through these meditations this Advent? You thought you were just reading them to be spiritual, whereas God put them before you to speak specific stuff to you.  Hmmm?  How open are you to that?  Chance, that you’re here reading these things?  Possibly not! And when other stuff starts happening in your life that starts you thinking, is it just chance?  Perhaps not!