3. Shining more Brightly

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  3. Shining more brightly

Prov 4:18  The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.

2 Cor 3:18  we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit

Why these verses? Because they won’t go away when I pray. So, let’s see what the Lord might want to say to us through them. The Proverbs verse speaks about the righteous and the 2 Corinthians verse speaks to Christians who are God’s righteous ones. Both of them speak about changing lives but the second one gives the reason for the change – the Holy Spirit.

The first thought that hit me when I got these two verses is that they are more about the Lord than they are about us. We know that we cannot change for the good left to ourselves and so any changes for good in our lives has to be the Lord. I know that when I came to the Lord I left behind a life of self-centred godlessness which was marred by failure. The transformation that took place when I came to Christ happened because He put His Holy Spirit within me and He was now my guiding, directing, teaching power. If I shone brighter now it was because of His Holy Spirit.

Of course Prov 4:18 says it is “the path of the righteous” that is shining ever brighter and I suddenly realise that Jesus said “I am the way” (Jn 14:6) and another word for ‘way’ is path. He is my life, his Spirit lives in me and therefore he is the one who grows brighter with the passing of each day – in and through me. Indeed, as I respond to him and allow his Spirit to lead, guide and change me, my life generally will be brighter, expressing him – but it is him. When the apostle Paul spoke of Jesus’ glory he said, But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor 4:7)  Our bodies are like jars of clay but they contain the glory of God and it is the glory that shines, not the clay.

Now if we accept these foundational thoughts – that these verses apply to us Christians and that the source of the brightness is Jesus and his Holy Spirit – there is something very basic that must flow out of this and it is so simple that it is something we take for granted, and that is that God purposes for us is to change for the better. Now I’ve just said that this is so basic that we probably take it for granted, and if we do I suggest that familiarity had bred contempt and so we don’t actually believe it for our lives. Note again what we are saying: God purposes good changes for us and in us. He loves us so much that He wants something better for us that what we are today.

Seriously, check that out. Are you completely happy with all that you are today? Are there aspects of who you are that you are not happy about? I don’t mean things like you feel you have big ears or you don’t like the colour of your hair. No, I’m referring to things like anger or lack of patience, or constant worries or jealousy, say. There could be a whole raft of issues we could choose from. Are there bits of the New Testament, say, that you skim over because they are uncomfortable? You know deep down that there are things where you don’t match to Jesus’ expectations of you in his word.

Now we have to make a simple clarification. We don’t mean things that very rarely you stumble over. We are all of us still imperfect this side of heaven and so there may be times when you are physically low and that in turn seems to sap your grace and you are not as patient, say, as you normally are. No, these are one-off rare failures; what I am talking about is a regular behaviour. You find you snap at people too often, you find you are impatient with others, you find you are constantly worrying about what might happen next week or how you might handle tomorrow. These are the sort of things which, when we feel safe and secure we can confess to being unhappy about in our lives.

Now here’s the thing: God is more concerned to help you move on from these failure repetitions than He is to punish you. He understands you and loves you and sees the ultimate cause why you are like you are (so often it is poor self-image, not realizing who we are in Christ) and why you seem to be unable to break out (so often it is because we just haven’t realised our position of freedom in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in us). He understands these things and understands that there is coming a time where you are going to be just ripe to receive His word and, hey presto!, it will be dealt with and you will be changed. Suddenly you will be shining brighter!

This is it. The good news is that he is on our side and He is working to help us change so that we will indeed be changing from one degree of glory to another. Why? Because He loves us and He knows we will enjoy life more, enjoy being ourselves more, when these things have been dealt with and we change. But it’s not a big heavy thing; it’s just part of the wonderful process that started the moment we came to Him and were born again.

One final thing. Very often the changes are slow and almost indiscernible and therefore we will not realise that this process IS being worked out in us. Don’t worry about it; just thank the Lord that these two verses DO apply to you and it is happening, because you want it to deep down, and He wants it for you because He loves you so much. Rejoice in it!

29. A Life of Purpose

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 29. A Life of Purpose

Mk 1:38,39 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else–to the nearby villages–so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

We commented in the previous meditation that Jesus had other ideas than stay around and minister some more to the people of this particular place. He’s shared the Good News here in both word and deed and he’s not going to keep on doing it, but now he’s going to move on and do it elsewhere in Galilee. He’s come, he says, to share the good news of the arrival of God’s kingdom all over the land, not in just one place.

Perhaps sometimes we get bogged down in one place or reaching out to one particular group. Recently in our local church we have been thinking about the local community and have come to the conclusion that there isn’t such a thing – there are lots of communities! In our modern world we tend towards groups, so young people tend to be one community, single parents may be another, and so on. The only reason for seeing them as different groups or communities is to recognize that they have different specific needs, and making it clear what they are sometimes makes it easier to reach them as we minister to those needs that a peculiar to that group.

Yet the truth is that overall we all have the same needs – to be loved by God, forgiven our sins and empowered to live new lives. That is true of every person, whatever colour and whatever people grouping they come from. We are all sinners needing to be reconciled to God, forgiven and cleansed and given a new direction and a new power to live lives of the kingdom of God.

You make think that my referring to different people groups and different ‘access needs’ is unnecessary, but it is exactly what Jesus and the early apostles did. For them it was a case of going to the local synagogue for that was the meeting place of the religious (hopefully, God-seeking) Jews. Hopefully there would be the most open group of Jews. But then later Jesus went to the ‘sinner groups’ the tax collectors, prostitutes etc. These were all different people groups who had a slightly different outlook on life and who would be approached in different ways. In the synagogue the approach was through the Scriptures. To the ‘sinner groups’ it was with the compassionate, caring and accepting love of God. Father, thank you that you love all of us.

12. Good News

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 12. Good News

Mk 1:14,15 Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Repentance is one of those words in the Christian vocabulary which is necessary but so often disliked. Because of that sinful nature we were all born with, none of us like to be told to change. Change is what repentance is all about. Some people describe it as making a hundred and eighty degree turnabout. It is turning from unbelief to belief, from being self-centred to God centred, from being unrighteous to righteous.

So Jesus came proclaiming good news. Again many people, if you ask them about the Christian faith, say it is a bunch of ‘you must not’ or ‘you should not’ things, yet Jesus came bringing good news and those things by most people’s standards don’t constitute ‘good news’. No, good news is news we all like.

So what was this ‘good news’? It was that the time had come, the kingdom of God was about to be revealed. Yet again that old sinful nature doesn’t like the sound of that – God’s kingdom? What about my own? What about my rule, what I think? And therein in the deception because if we were able to think about it dispassionately, we might concede that, so far, we haven’t made the best out of our lives. The truth of the Gospel is that God is far better at getting the most out of our lives than we are, and that is what He wants to do when we hand the reins over to him. That is what ‘the kingdom’ or rule of God is all about, but we struggle to believe that.

No wonder that Jesus had to cry that out: turn from your unbelief and turn to believing that God loves you and wants to bless you and make the most out of your life. Believe this good news! How the people, the religious authorities and even Jesus’ disciples struggled with this. How we still struggle with this! It is a sign of the old sinful nature that clings on, that we find it so difficult to believe these wonderful things – that God loves me and has come in the form of His Son to set me free from that old unbelieving nature and to release in me a new hope and a new wonder.

Lord, I am so sorry that I am so slow to believe the wonder of the Good News that the New Testament speaks about – that you love me whole heartedly and have plans for my life that just mean goodness and more goodness for me. I believe it! I really do!

13. Gospel Power

Meditations in Romans : 13 :  The Power of the Gospel

Rom 1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

Possibly one of the biggest dangers we can face – apart from being totally apathetic or even hostile to the Gospel – is to accept a counterfeit form of the Gospel that is simply about believing some basic Christian beliefs, going to church on a Sunday and trying to be nice. In the eighteenth century John Wesley wrote of the days before he saw the light when he had a form of religion, “In this refined way of trusting to my own works, and my own righteousness…I dragged on heavily, finding no comfort … I understood it not at first. I was too learned and too wise: so that it seemed foolishness unto me.Later as he heard the truth being read from Romans he testified, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This was the start of a dramatic change;  he was born again (Jn 3:3)

This verse 16 is an amazing declaration of the truth that we each need burning in our hearts. It declares first that there is obviously a need for salvation that Paul speaks about. Wesley had testified how he had been locked into a life of trying to be righteous and yet it brought him no comfort. It was a life where he was burdened by his sins and he tried to overcome that burden by his own efforts. Without realising it, he was in fact godless. He was lost in self-endeavour and it did him no good. It was only as he heard the good news about Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit was able to speak to him and he responded in faith.

So if the first thing is that we are lost and in need of saving, the second thing is that there is hope for us because God has provided a way of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ. It comes by simply trusting in the finished work of Jesus on the Cross, the fact of him dying in my place to take my sins.  For this truth to be received is an act of faith. It is responding to what God has said. We don’t say these things because they seem a good idea to us; we say them because God has said them and it is the testimony of the whole of the New Testament. So, if God has said them, we do well to respond to them. The response of, “I believe, please forgive my sins, please wash me and cleanse me of my sins, please give me a new life,” is the door that opens up a new life for at that point the Lord responds and declares it done and imparts His own Holy Spirit to us to energise and change and guide us from then on. The truth of the Gospel is used by the Spirit to convict us, but the Spirit Himself is the means we are empowered, born again and given a new life. It is utterly life transforming.

But here is a mystery, I note after many years of watching, that for some people this life transformation is mightily dramatic and for others it is quiet and slow. I know not why! I don’t know why it is that the Spirit is able to convict some powerfully so that they turn with tears and are very obviously changed. Sometimes it is because they are great and obvious sinners, and sometimes not; it is just that the Spirit convicts like this. But then there are others who come quietly and gently – but genuinely – and the experience is far less dramatic. There are some, usually children in Christian families, who receive Jesus in their very early years and it is a very simple but genuine thing and they avoid the devastations of the obvious sins, it seems, but it is still a very real thing. My wife was one such young convert. Then there are others who, only later in life, find themselves in a corner being convicted of the Spirit of the truth of the Gospel, convicted of their need, and so turn in tears or at least deep anguish and find a mighty change. I was more in this latter category.

But it doesn’t matter when it occurred or even how it occurred, the outcome is always the same – change! Why? It is because there is a power at work, bringing us into a new life in a new way, a way that transforms into the likeness of Christ. It is a life that is no longer in darkness, a life that is no longer self-centred and godless and unrighteous; it is now a life that is God-centred, God-focused, God-energised and God-directed.

A final point: this is for all peoples and there are no exceptions. Paul speaks of Jew and Gentile which is a way of saying, those who appear religious and those who do not. It is nothing to do with class or culture or cleverness for we all have to come the same way, and having come, are all changed by the same way, by the good news of the work on the Cross of Jesus Christ the Son of God, and then by the convicting and empowering work of the Spirit. Thus we are saved!

3. The Gospel

Meditations in Romans : 3 :  The Gospel of Jesus

Rom  1:1-4 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God–the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

We finished in the previous meditation thinking about Paul’s awareness of being within God’s master-plan, a plan that He had hinted at through the Old Testament prophets.  Everything in those Old Testament prophecies had been looking to the future to the coming to earth of God’s anointed one.  Luke recorded of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Lk 24:27).  What He had not made clear was that this coming one would actually be God’s own Son, the second expression of the one godhead in heaven, God Himself coming in human disguise if you like!

It is that humanity that Paul first refers to as he identifies the Son, the object of the Good News, when he says, “who as to his human nature was a descendant of David,” hence the family trees in Matthew and Luke.  Now of course here we struggle with a mystery, how could God be God and also man? Even more for those who know the teaching of the New Testament, how could Jesus be God AND man and not be sinless?  This is what the early church councils struggled with.

The Apostles Creed, one of the earliest creeds used by the early church, simply stated about Jesus, “his only Son, our Lord who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.”   The Nicene Creed (about AD325) only said of Jesus, “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds.”   The Athanasian Creed, a later formulation went into great detail how Jesus was both God and man.   The Chalcedonian Creed (AD451) similarly went into more detail but more simplified.  One modern writer used the picture of the Meal Offering (Lev 2) to convey a truth: “The offering consisted of fine flour, representing the perfect humanity of our Lord—not one coarse grain—mingled with olive oil, which stands for the Holy Spirit and, hence, for deity. Each be­came inextricably blended, for ever one. The cake thus compounded was a unit—one cake, not two. It should be observed, however, that though the two natures are for ever one, they are for ever separate.”

Why was it important that Jesus was truly man?  So that he could fully enter into the human experience (without sinning) and convey the Father’s love to us through all he did, then finally to fully enter into human death by allowing his life to be offered as a sacrifice for our sins – human actually doing it and experiencing it, divine only being big enough to take the sins of every person who would come.  In time, a one-off act in history, in eternity, the Eternal One providing the foundation for justice – someone has paid the price, taken the punishment, for all wrong-doing!

Another aspect of this human element, is that he fulfilled in his human coming to earth, all the things that God had promised to Abraham, as well as David. To Abram had been the promise of the blessing of the whole earth through him (Gen 12:2,3). The promise was then revealed to be to one in the Davidic line who would bring God’s reign to the earth in a new way.  Hence Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry period, started by preaching, “The time has come, the kingdom of God is near.” (Mk 1:15)  The reign of God on earth was just coming through the Son.

But there were two sides to Jesus that Paul now declares:and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” The ultimate proof for us that Jesus was God’s one and only Son was the fact of the resurrection, of the Holy Spirit raising him from the dead.  The apostle Peter, on the day of Pentecost preached, “you, with the help of wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death.” (Acts 2:23,24).  The body that had been both human and divine had been crucified and put to death.  God raised the whole body so that the Son would be seen by his followers for who he was.

This is the ‘Good News’ that Paul had been called to convey: that God has come to the earth from heaven, in the form of His Son, and had lived on this earth for some thirty earth years, and had then started preaching and teaching about God, and justifying his teaching by power.  As Jesus replied to the disciples of John the Baptist, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4-6) or as Peter had recorded in on the day of Pentecost, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22)  THAT was the start of the Good News, that God had been among them, but the culmination of it was that when he had been put to death, he rose from the day to vindicate his teaching, that he had come to take the punishment for the sins of the world and become our Saviour.  That was Paul’s calling, and that is ours.  Let’s ensure we fulfil it!

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!