1. Thinking about Change

‘Purposing Change’ Meditations: 1. Thinking about Change

Mk 10:51 What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

In a previous series we focused on prayer – watching and waiting. However (and this doesn’t annul that) for a while now I have the feeling that the Lord wants to bring change – today – through you and me. This is not so much the revival or renewal of the church, more a case of Him wanting to do stuff in and through His people. We are, after all, called to be lights to the world (Mt 5:14) and the salt of the earth (Mt 5:13). Perhaps there will be changes that He will bring in and through us as part of preparing the way or maybe even as we reach out He will use these things to start bringing renewal.

For some of us we’ve yearned for change – perhaps in us, in our loved ones, in….. whatever. So, can we focus on how Jesus might want to bring that change using us? Jesus challenged the blind man with what seems an obvious question but it’s saying, “How big is your faith in me? Can I change the impossible?” Well, can he?

We don’t like change (well most of us don’t!) and yet perhaps a further truth is that if we think about it, there really ARE things we’d like to see changed. We’d like to see changes in ourselves, or our loved ones saved, our prodigals return, our work place become godly, and so on. So why don’t we do things to change these? The answer may be that we have tried but nothing changed, we have spoken but our words have been rejected. So do we give up? May I very gently suggest, no.

What I sense should be the primary purpose of this particular series is that we slowly and surely look at this whole subject, perhaps see it as a project that with God’s help we can work on. We will think about the possibility of change coming, what it requires of us, how we can prepare the ground, how we can start making small steps of faith. Sometimes we want a magic wand being waved so it all happens immediately but that is not how Jesus went about training and preparing his disciples. It took time – three years of time, and then it needed the coming of the Day of Pentecost to energize them and get them out into the streets and in a state to cope with the coming opposition. No, it was a long-term project. Now I don’t want to put you off, but suppose it takes two years to bring about some of these changes. Yes, it may take a much shorter time – it could be tomorrow, next week, or next month, but if it takes two years, the important thing is that the changes HAVE COME.  

In the days ahead, I hope to think into these things but for the moment, to start us off, we must come back to this blind man before Jesus: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”  It sounds almost a silly question but there are two realities to be observed here. The first reality is the one we’ve already been referring to, that of not liking change. I once knew a dear Christian lady (she has gone to be with the Lord now) but talking about her severe life-long disability and what would happen if Jesus healed her, she confessed it would be earth shattering. Her whole life had been lived around this disability and if it was no longer there, she would be free to live a completely different life – and that scared her. We will come back to this again at some point because it is so important, but do we want changes that might totally change our lives?

The other aspect is, and again we’ll look at it some more in the future, we may have grown so used to the current status quo that we cannot envisage it changing, and so there is a question of belief (or unbelief?) hanging over these thoughts. So I’ll state the battleground again, for that is what it is: we’d like to see changes in ourselves, or our unbelieving loved ones saved, our prodigals return, our workplace become godly, and so on; that’s it! So may we pray and think and listen in order to allow the changes that the Lord is saying he wishes to bring? Why did he come? “To proclaim good news to the poor…. freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19) Can we be freedom bringers? We’ll see.   

1. What is God doing?

“Watching & Waiting” Meditations: 1. What is God doing?

Mt 4:19 “Come follow me,” Jesus said.     

There are high points in life, and low points. At Easter it was the other way round, there were low points and then a high point: He has risen! We live in a world full of high points and low points and for the unbeliever every day is a day of uncertainty, a day of potential worry. But there is another way. An academic-cum-poet, Minnie Louise Haskins’, in 1908 wrote a poem, “The Gate of the Year” that gained fame by being used in King George VI’s 1939 Christmas broadcast, facing the early days of the Second World War. They are still appropriate for today:

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”  So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”

Writing in Spring 2021, I find myself gazing into the future, wondering. I gaze at the horizon and wonder. What is God doing? Is He coming soon? I wrote elsewhere recently that Spring is a time of peering at the earth with expectancy. I had sowed tomato seeds and each day peered at the seed tray looking for signs of life. Eventually each seed broke the surface and so then I watched their growth with the expectancy that one day, later in Summer, I would be harvesting sweet, small, orange tomatoes. I knew what they should be, I knew it when I sowed the seeds, but would life come forth?

In March this year, we ‘celebrated’ (well the media made a meal of it!) a year since the start of the first of three lockdowns in the UK. At this point in time, optimism is strong on one hand, while realism keeps rearing its ugly head in the form of Government scientists warning or more to come. But a combination of large percentages of the population receiving their vaccine shots, the lengthening of the days of Spring, and the hopes of Summer and of coming out of restrictions, mean that many are peering at the light at the end of the tunnel with hope and optimism.

But for me and you as believers, what is the reality? The bigger question that I find impinging on my consciousness day after day, is what is the Lord doing? For some time now voices have been raised around the globe suggesting that revival is just around the corner. The trouble is that optimism can take our emotions beyond where God is at the moment. Is He coming soon in revival in the world, or renewal in the church? We can but watch and wait. Note those two things, for they are what I sense need to be behind all I write for the remainder of this month. Watching speaks of anticipation; waiting speaks of holding a right attitude until He comes. For the sake of these studies, these meditations, these reflections, can we consider ourselves ‘visionaries of God’, those of His children who will watch the horizon with a realistic anticipation, who seek His heart and will, in order to perhaps hasten the day or, at the very least, prepare for the day.  

But, I wonder, can we think of this in a wider sense, not merely in respect of revival or renewal?  Will He come to my family, my unsaved loved ones, my prodigals, the needs I have been crying out for, for so long? Will He come to the church, to my locality, my nation? Is there really hope – of an end to the pandemic, of change in my family, church, and nation? Is there really a light at the end of the tunnel?

But then I have to come back to basics, to the beginning and ponder on my calling to be a disciple. The mentality of disciples is simply to obey the call – follow me. It was those simple words that made four fishermen leave their nets, a tax collector leave his booth, and others put down and walk away from their daily activities. Where were they going? What did the future hold? It’s been a picture that has grabbed me a number of times in recent years. We like a religion that is neat and orderly, where we know what is happening because we are the ones in control, where we know what is going to happen because it is us doing it – but that is not the calling of a disciple of Jesus who takes on the name ‘Christian’.

No, Jesus’ disciples had one calling, to follow him, without knowing what was coming, without being in control. When Jesus walked, they walked, when Jesus stood still, they stood still, when Jesus ate, they ate, when Jesus slept, they slept, when Jesus performed healings …. yes, they eventually performed healings, when Jesus cast out demons… yes, they eventually cast out demons.

So what is happening today that he calls me to enter into? Well, one thing I do know, and that is what is NOT happening. Thousands of people are not turning to God in revival around the world. The church is not dramatically coming alive with revelation and power. When I pray for healing it only happens occasionally. When I share the gospel it rarely produces an instant reception and life transformation. But does that mean God has packed His bags and gone off to some other universe? I don’t think so! Every now and then, I observe little signs of Holy Spirit activity and encouragement, just like I see the shoots and buds and seedlings coming into life all over the place in Spring. So what is His call today? I believe it is to watch and wait – and DO what He gives us to do when He gives it, to take the opportunities He gives, when He gives.  It’s a call to realism and a call of hope, a call to still involve us in the work of His calling. How can we do that, how can faith rise up in us for these days? Let’s kneel and listen and watch, let’s be available and obedient. Join me in this pilgrimage this month.

16. Mystery

Short Meds in ‘Living the Life’: 16. Mystery

Rom 15:25 “the revelation of the MYSTERY hidden …. but now revealed and made known.” 

We spoke yesterday about wisdom and revelation imparted by the Holy Spirit, and it’s especially the word ‘revelation’ that seems to call so strongly now. Revelation as we said before is disclosed knowledge, knowledge that was previously hidden. The Revelation of John, for example, the last book in the Bible, is prophetic insight shared by Jesus to John (Rev 1:1) about how things will be in the last days. In 2 Sam 7 Nathan the prophet comes and gives David the big picture of the future of both the present and the future (v.4-16) and so we read, Nathan reported to David all the words of this entire revelation.” (v.17) In one sense the who Bible is God’s revelation to us.

Hindsight is both a blessing and a bane. Having the completed Bible as we do means we have the whole picture in our hands and that is a blessing, but that means we often miss the struggles that people in the Bible had. Paul spoke of the mystery of Christ (Eph 3:4, Col 4:3) or the mystery of the Gospel (Eph 6:19) or this mystery more generally, (e.g. Rom 16:25, Eph 1:9, 3:3,6,9, Col 1:26,27). Before Christ came there was this prophetic sense of a ‘coming one’, a messiah, but that was all it was, a shadow in history. The prophets longed to understand what they were sensing (1 Pet 1:10). We now know what it was. Let’s not miss out on the privilege we have of living in this time with this knowledge.

I wonder if that is how we see it – a privilege that we have of living in this present time with the complete Bible in our hands or on our bookshelves? But there we have it for so many, Bibles on bookshelves. They need to be in our hands for Paul wrote, that we are saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” (2 Thes 2:13b) i.e. we experience God’s salvation as the Spirit works in us and our faith builds up daily our ‘belief in the truth’.   When Paul spoke of a ‘mystery’ he was referring to the prophetic scriptures of the Old Testament that hinted at a coming one and yet it had come with different hues – he might be an abused servant, he might a mighty king (and of course he turned out to be both) that it was confusing for scholars. It needed the events to be rolled out in history and then spoken into the spirit of this out-of-time apostle before what had been a mystery became clear. The truth is that the word of God is a mystery to many, very simply because they don’t approach it in prayer and with a submissive heart, and so because it does seem a mystery, people fail to read it daily, fail to be fed by it daily, fail to be built up daily by it, fail to be transformed by it as the Spirit applies it. And so the enemy whispers, “It’s hard, you don’t need it, you can get by without it.” A lie, in fact three lies! It is the foundation of our faith and it is food for our faith and so without it we feel unstable and worry, we feel ‘thin’ and weak. I recently ran across a simple quote by a well-known Christian leader: “Anxiety comes from unbelief,” and I believe he is right and is why so many people are living in anxiety. They have not let God impart faith, confidence, and assurance through His word because they have kept the mystery book closed. Away with these lies, away with this folly. At times in history we have been known as ‘the people of the book’. May that be true again today as we cast off the negatives spoken in the world about it, and let God come again in both His Spirit and His Word and unshackle the Church.

1. Introduction

Short Meds in Getting Ready in Covid-Advent: 1. Introduction

Throughout Advent we are going to let the accounts leading up to the Nativity speak to us near the end of this year of Pandemic

Lk 1:5 In the time of Herod king of Judea…”

History! We are all caught up in history. In years to come we will look back on this present time and reflect on what it was like. This year has been the most restrictive and uncertain year of our lives. We didn’t plan it that way, it just came. But the outward events of this year are just one aspect of it. In it all, God is still here, working out his purposes, purposes He knew about and the Godhead planned before the world began.

Did He make it happen like this, as many ask? No, I believe God allows sinful humanity to get it wrong so such things as the present Pandemic are released, but He did know it was going to happen and He works into the midst of it. Jesus IS still ruling at the right hand of the Father (learn 1 Cor 15:24,25).

But this is history, the activities of mankind that roll out as each of us exercise our free will and consequences follow. That is what history is all about, people and events.  The same is true of the biblical events of what we call Advent (the time of waiting). Few of the ‘players’ had a clue of what was coming.

But it is history, it happened. It started in the land of Israel in the time when Herod the Great (so-called) was the king of Judea, appointed by Rome to be their local ‘Jewish’ representative, (although there were questions over his Jewishness,) and the Romans had their own governor in Jerusalem. It was not a happy time for Israel. But isn’t that history, ups and downs of individual and national lives. We don’t choose the big environment of human history but are born into it and then, as we live in the prevailing environment, it is full of the interactions of people as well as climatic interruptions – gales, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions and so on.

The thing about history is that we live in it, we cope with it, or at least try to cope. Sometimes though, although it is a ‘fallen world’, we are people who do impact history, even if in only small ways, impact other lives, and that is what we find in this story. But the biggest interrupter in this history is God and we will see Him speaking into that period and bringing changes that changed the world for ever, although at the times they were not perceived as that. This month catch afresh the sense of destiny within each of our histories and rejoice in the midst of the darkness that although it may appear dark, the Light is working in the midst of it.

9. Faith Expectations

Ways of Seeing Meditations: 9. Faith Expectations

Acts 12:5 Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”

Recap: We have been considering how we view impressive buildings or impressive people, and then how we view ourselves. We have rejected doing good or performing spiritual acts as ways of gaining self-esteem or building our self-image. In the previous study that took us on to considering how we pray, but now we want to consider another aspect of the way we view prayer. Yesterday it was seeing it as a spiritual activity to be done as part of our relationship with God, but now I want us to face the uncomfortable question of how we see what we speak. Do we just utter words or are we declaring words that will change the world, change the circumstances?

Jesus’ Example: I first observed the significance of how we pray when I noted something in John’s Gospel. At the feeding of the five thousand, John records, Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated.” (Jn 6:11) Later, after Jesus and his disciples had gone back across the lake, John records, Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” (v.23) He doesn’t say, “the place where Jesus had performed the miracle,” for it seems he has something else in mind. He doesn’t even say “where Jesus had broken the bread and fed the crowd.”

The strange words that almost seem out of place are “after the Lord had given thanks.” Before a meal the head of the family would have given thanks for the food. John doesn’t record the Last Supper words about bread and wine (the other three Gospels have covered it adequately). Luke includes that (Lk 22:17,19) but also the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and it was only when Jesus gave thanks and broke bread that they realised who he was. It almost seems as if there is something significant about the way Jesus gave thanks. What could it be?

Watch how leaders, for example, pray at the beginning of some Christian activity. There are those who just instantly plough in with words, and that is all they are, and ‘pray’. There are others who pause to acknowledge the presence of God, the One to whom they are speaking and only then do they speak. There is far more of a personal sense, a sense of intimacy, of relationship, with this latter group and I think, in that, they emulate Jesus. Prayer was not formality for Jesus, it was a time when he spoke personally, intimately with his Father in heaven. Giving thanks was no mere formula, it was a sacred act of Son to Father, the Son of God to the Almighty One, ruler of heaven and earth.

Expectancy: How do we view prayer? We have just suggested prayer as a time of intimacy with the Father, but how do we see what we are praying? Is it simply uttering words and hoping for the best – but not having too high hopes?  In our starter verse, the church was surprised when Peter turned up, while they were still praying. No, it can’t be Peter, that would require a miracle. But it is. You prayed, you asked, and God did it. Why be so surprised? Because we don’t believe it can be that easy. Sometimes it’s not, and we need to keep praying and persevering as Jesus taught in his parable of the unjust judge, to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Lk 18:1) but I also believe the truth is that God loves to bring us to a place of simple believing where we pray and rest and rejoice, like little kids trusting DAD.

Intimacy plus Expectancy: Little children expect answers when they ask. When Christmas or a birthday approaches they may come out with a list of things they want. Money permitting they may well get them. As they get older they come to realise they don’t always get their demands. But the childlike faith of small children is challenging. When prayer is indeed an intimate experience with the Father we find that we start to catch Father’s heart, and prayer is not so much a shopping list, as a list of things we believe the Father wants to bring about.  It’s fine to be childish as we grow in faith, chattering stuff at the Father, but as we grow, we can learn something deeper.

The apostle Paul taught, pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests,” (Eph 6:18) or as the Living Bible puts it, “Pray all the time. Ask God for anything in line with the Holy Spirit’s wishes.”  The emphasis is on being led by the Spirit. When we combine this with the Father’s love, this intimacy inspired by the Spirit, focused on the Father, coming in line with the rule of the Son reigning at the Father’s right hand, we may expect faith to rise in us, a sign that we’re on the right track and we may expect to see what we are praying coming about. If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!(Mt 7:11) or as Luke records it, no doubt on another occasion of Jesus’ teaching, If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” And Us? Can these things thus mature our praying to have an intimate element which in turn develops a higher level of expectancy so that when we pray for someone to be released from prison (of whatever sort), we will not be surprised when they turn up at the door, delivered.

3. Abram – a work in progress

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 3. Abram – a work in progress

Gen 12:6 Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem

Where we are: So here we are, just in the early stages of pondering on this fundamental idea of our lives being taken from a place of failure and changed to a place of glory. In the previous study we noted the fact that with Abram – and with us – it was a case of God initiating this activity. There didn’t seem to be anything great about Abram; he wasn’t royalty, he wasn’t a hero, there is nothing said about him that elevated him above others. If anything he is a man to be pitied. He has a wife who is barren and in a culture where children and carrying on the family name were important, that must have been a constant anguish for both he and Sarai.

So Why? So why did God choose him? Why did He choose you and me? Before the foundation of the world, Ephesians 1 suggests God ‘predestined’ you, i.e. He looked into the future of His plan of salvation and saw you, saw your response to His word coming to you and the drawing of His Spirit, and knew at that point that you would be a responder. Why did He choose Abram? Because He knew he would be a responder, He knew what He wanted to achieve and He knew He could do it with Abram without overruling the free will He had given him.

This teaching is epitomized in Paul’s teaching about Jesus: “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) God had a plan and He knew how the authorities would respond to Jesus – exercising their free will – and bring about the sacrificial death of His Son. God knew what He wanted to achieve and knew how He would achieve it – using the self-centred, wilful acts of sinful men. He didn’t make them act like that but He knew that’s how they would respond.

Similarly with Abram – and with you and me – He knew how we would respond; He knew what we could achieve – despite our failures.

Failure: Our starter verse shows us Abram entering the land along the route from the north and arrives at Shechem, roughly in the centre of Israel. There the Lord meets with him and declares that THIS is the land He is giving him and his descendants (v.7) and Abram responds by building an altar. But he doesn’t stay there, he meanders on south to near Bethel (v.8) and builds another altar. An altar is a place of sacrifice to a deity. Abram has that sense, the awareness that he is being led by deity. There is that level of spiritual reality. He is being led by God and every time he builds an altar it is a recognition of that.

Then he moves further south (v.9). But then trouble occurs; his first test arrives – a famine, a severe famine (v.10). He hasn’t yet realised the big teaching that will come through his life – that God is a provider. This is the land that God has promised him, but it doesn’t seem to be providing him with what he needs – so he continues south to Egypt where there is no famine. Egypt is often considered a type of ‘the world’. He turns to the world for his provision; he knows no better. Is ‘the world’ God’s means of provision for him? Indeed it is, in the sense that ‘the world’ is all of creation, not the sense that we usually attribute to it in scripture, of godless, unbelieving, self-serving humanity. But no, He does use the world to provide for us.

Does this ring bells? Don’t we sometimes, when the way seems to be getting hard, resort to the ways of ‘the world’, the same thinking that our unbelieving neighbours have – I must do something to work my way out of this – an absence of turning to the Lord to seek His help.

When he gets to Egypt it gets worse, he tells a half-truth that Sarai was his sister (see 20:12) and his actions in respect of her fall short of a godly man of faith. But then he’s not that – yet! We won’t go into the detail but he doesn’t do very well in his first test.

Us? Yes, here is the truth. When we turn to Christ we may be put right in God’s sight as far as our eternal salvation is concerned, we are justified by the blood of Christ, but unfortunately as far as everyday living is concerned we’ve still got a lot of stuff to learn and that means we are going to get it wrong more than a few times. If you’ve never seen this it either means you have never been taught properly or you are living in deception.  Yes, our failures still will need repentance and the wonder is that God still accepts us (see 1 Jn 2:1,2) but He doesn’t want us to fail but will forgive us when we repent – however many times it happens. The path towards glory is a slow one, often a long one and in that sense every one of us is a work in progress. Sanctification (setting us apart and changing us) is something that happens at the moment of conversion but it is also something that is a process that goes on throughout our lives. We thus need to remain alert to catch the things the Lord is pointing out in our lives that He wants to change. He does this not because He doesn’t love us but because He does! He wants something better for us. Hallelujah!  

17. Radical Change

Wilderness Meditations: 17. The Place of Radical Change

Acts 9:1-4  Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

A Hesitation:  I have pondered for a day whether to write this study, but the message underlying it has remained strong and is one that brings together the previous two studies  and emphasizes what I believe the Lord wants to say to us in these days. I want us to consider Saul – or Paul as he became – and his Damascus road experience. I have always considered it a desert road experience and yet I am not certain that that is accurate. Having researched it, the truth is we don’t know what route he took from Jerusalem to Damascus, all we know is what the above verses say, that he was nearing Damascus.

Possibilities: Because I find it an area of the unknown and, more especially, an area I’ve never considered before or heard anyone else speak on, it bears a quick consideration. It seems there were three main highways, trade routes from the south to the north. To the far east was what was known as the King’s Highway, possibly the main trade route. To the west was what was first a coastal road that at various times has gone by different names, ‘Way of the Philistines’, the Coastal Road and The Via Maris,  going up the coast and then sweeping in across Israel to go north on the west of the Sea of Galilee and then north and east across the mountains – south of Mount Hermon and down to the plain of Damascus. However, a more likely route was the Hill Road or Ridge Route that went more directly from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee and continued up the east side of the sea, northwards to Damascus – a rough road, wild at times. Paul was not travelling alone (see v.7) and whether these were friends, other Pharisees, or simply travellers, we aren’t told and we hear no more of them apart from fact that they led the blinded Saul into Damascus.

Transformation: Although a modern writing would have given more details, what we have in the text of Acts and the epistles is quite clear. Paul’s testimony: “I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Gal 1:13,14) As he later testified in Acts, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.” (Acts 22:4,5) and even more, “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.(Acts 26:9)

The account of his encounter with Jesus on the road down to Damascus is well known, as is the incredible change that took him from being a church persecutor to church builder, opposer of Jesus to herald of Jesus, from legalistic Pharisee to grace-filled apostle. Now consider this further: The transformation that took place is about as dramatic as you can think, but mostly we don’t like the dramatic, we prefer the known, the ordinary, the expected. But in the days we have been living through are none of those things; they have been dramatic, the future is unknown, it is certainly not the ordinary and uncertainty has replaced expected.

Yes but… Now I can hear the defensive voices rising – but I made that same radical change when I turned to Jesus and, yes, I am sure that that is so for many of us. But here’s the thing, I am certain that one of the main questions that have been coming from heaven in the recent months is, what have you been learning in all of this? I don’t know what your answer would be because I’m sure I haven’t seen the full picture of what I have been learning, but in the first of these three additional studies I wrote about how we need to adjust our thinking to see God in the midst of our circumstances. In the second one we saw God moving in the most unexpected place which required a letting go of the present days of ‘success’, submitting to God’s strange directions, directions that challenged the present security.

Change? For some of us these will be radical changes. For some of us we have so struggled to cope with the uncertainties imposed upon us, that to say that we sense the Presence and the Peace and the Provision and Power and the Protection of God in the midst of all this, is a bridge too far for us. To say that we can cope with God purposefully pushing us in new directions can be seen as just yet another lot of uncertainties that make life even more scary.

We can pretend but the reality is far from that. Yes, we are saved, we are believers, but the hard truth is that living in this materialistic and constantly changing world, so much of church life has become routine, almost habit, and the power and presence of God has become something to talk about rather than be experienced.  

I have written this before but may I reiterate, perhaps in an abbreviated form, a vision of church I have used before in previous series, a vision that is simply what is portrayed in the New Testament of ‘church’: a church that is “alive with the presence and power and revelation and activity of God by His Spirit, where God is bringing constant life transformations, with conversions, deliverances and healings being a regular feature of the life of the church, and the surrounding world is impacted and changed”. That is the God side of it, if I may put it that way; the other side is our part, to catch this vision, yearn for it, pray and pray and pray for it, and to be open to whatever the Spirit might say or do. For many of us, I believe, to believe this, if we dare be honest, is as radical a transformation as that which Saul went through on the road to Damascus.

Review the Change: Paul in Jerusalem, totally set in his ideas, opposed to anything other than the Judaism he knew, indeed hostile to the new ideas of ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2). He sets out to strengthen his ideas by arresting those in Damascus who hold those ideas, and on the way, on a dusty road, coming down out of the mountains, his life is changed when the Son of God challenges all he knew. His set ideas, his set goals, his set vision, are all set aside, and it is a new day. This, dear man or woman of God, is the transformation that I believe God is wanting to bring to His children, His church, who have for so long accepted a second best, powerless version of Christianity, of Church. Am I feeling He wants us to change all we are doing? Only in so far as it hinders the coming in power and revelation of His Spirit. I am not there but I am praying. I think it is a day of slow and gradually progressive transformation – until He comes in power. If you have any questions, pray. Please pray.

16. Crucial Contact

Wilderness Meditations: 16. The Place of Crucial Contact

Acts 8:26  Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”

Continuing:  So now we have to pick up the second of these additional thoughts for this series and it really is a continuation of the previous one in some ways.  Remember Philip has been ousted from the comfort of Jerusalem, where he was a deacon just getting on with the job of serving the church, but now on the run from persecution and finding himself in Samaria. There, I suspect, is where he found himself very surprised as, when he dared share the news about Jesus with these ‘aliens’, they listen to him, believed him and received what he was saying. Somehow this must have boosted his faith for he starts rebuking demons and sicknesses and it all breaks loose – God is on the move in a big way! The town goes wild!

He even picks up some weirdo – Simon a sorcerer – who tags along, challenged by what he sees (v.13). The word gets back to Jerusalem and so they send Peter and John to check it out. (v.14) When they turn up, they lay hands on the new believers who are then filled with the Spirit (v.15-17). After a confrontation with Simon, “Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.” (v.25) Philip is left to just carry on the good work. End of story. Not quite.

The Kingdom always moves on: God has other ideas: “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (v.26)  If this had been me, I have a feeling I might have questioned this – “I’m doing a good work here, this is where the people are, they need me, there are more to get saved, I’ve settled into this, I’m comfortable with what I might originally have thought was a wilderness crisis situation!” Whether or not Philip did, I don’t know. Again, it if was me, I might have added – “To Gaza, down through the desert? I’m not John the Baptist, I’m just a deacon on the run from Jerusalem, that’s not my gifting!” But God knows that, God knows exactly what He can do with Philip – and with you and me!

The point is that the kingdom of God is always moving on. We may not have the eyes to see it, but do you remember what Jesus taught? “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working,” (Jn 5:17) or, as the ERV puts it, “My Father never stops working, and so I work too.” God keeps on, Jesus keeps on, the kingdom keeps advancing, even if we cannot see it, even if we allow things like pandemics to cloud our thinking.

Philip goes: So yes, Philip goes and hopefully you know the story – he encounters a high official from Africa, leads him to belief, baptizes him and leaves him to return home with a new outlook. Job done. (v.27-40) And that is the end of the story of Philip here.

Lessons? So, what does this say to us? Well I guess the first thing has to be don’t get settled in what you are doing, however good it appears. We do what God calls us to do. That raises the question, do I know that what I am doing in life is God-called? Do I have the confidence that I can be at peace in my calling, getting on with life doing the stuff He puts before me, taking the opportunities He puts before me? But maybe we should add, am I sufficiently secure in my relationship with Him to realise that there may be things He wants to change in me, circumstances He wants to bring my way that will lead me into doing things differently or doing different things?

A Changed World: Let’s be honest, a year ago we could never have guessed that this year was going to unfold as it has done. I have read various writings and prophecies that indicated changes were coming but most of us never got a whiff of the Pandemic and all its ramifications. As we have written before, uncertainty for a disciple should be the norm, never quite knowing where Jesus will lead us next. However, I don’t think most of us in the Church accept that as a day-to-day working hypothesis; the theory we work on – or used to before this year – is that life should just carry on leaving us in comfort and ease. Perhaps that is why so many were finding ‘church’ boring. But it’s a new day, we are having to learn new things, new ways of relating to others, new ways of doing church, new ways of coping in trying circumstances.

In the previous study we spoke about the need to adjust our ways of thinking and perhaps for some of us that is a scary thing. If that is so, it is probably because we have lived a form of Christianity that is at odds with what we find in the New Testament. “We live by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor 5:7) We prefer to see what is before us, what is coming, but these days are challenging that.

Help! But can Philip help us? Yes, he started out on the run, but he dared open his mouth, and God took over. Wouldn’t you like it, if your neighbour, work-mate colleague, fellow-student (at a distance) responded to your belief-comment and conversation opens up and (at a social distance) you pray for them, they get saved, healed, delivered?  God not you? So God gives you something different to do, less glamourous, unnoticed by most and you end up leading some seriously significant person to the Lord. I recently came across the testimony of a leader who preached a rubbish youth message at another church one evening and felt bad about it, but some years later, he encountered one of those teens now grown up who told how he’d given his life to the Lord that day, had become a youth leader and was now regularly leading many other teens to the Lord. We never know the impact we might be having!   Don’t despise the small things God gives you to do in the wilderness, just be faithful in the way you do it, and leave the rest to Him. Who knows how you might be changing the world? Don’t think, “Wilderness! Doom! Persecution! Doom! Pandemic! Doom!  Think, God opportunity! Hallelujah!”

15. The Place of Adjustment

Wilderness Meditations: 15. The Place of Adjustment

Acts 8:5  Philip went down to a city in Samaria

But:  OK, so I said that study no.14 was the last one in this series, but one thing about the Internet is that it allows you to add further material to what you have already put there. I thought it was, until two thoughts appeared on the horizon of my mind today which called to have a place here, that seem to speak strongly into the present day. Then came another; I think the Lord wants to say something to us. So, we’ll extend the series and I will be wise enough not to say they are the last ones. I think they are, but who knows……

Knowing the Times: It was the men of Issachar, who were described as those “who  understood the times and knew what Israel should do,” (1 Chron 12:32) so perhaps we should start by looking at the times we are in. It is the Autumn / Fall of 2020, and the Pandemic has come, gone, and come again. We experienced lockdown, it was eased, and now as numbers of infections are rising again, lockdown is occurring in various towns and cities around the UK. It’s happened in England, Wales and Scotland. The future is as uncertain as ever. We have characterized this time as a wilderness, a place where we would not naturally wish to dwell, a place of unknowns, a place of limitation.

Watching Church: And it has been a place where Church has had to change. The Internet has played a bigger role in church than ever before. Someone asked me only the other day what I felt about the uncertain time ahead where scientists and the government (behind closed doors) are speculating on the number of deaths doubling in the months running up to Christmas. Concern is rising again. In the US the pandemic news has been submerged by rumblings about the Presidential election in November and more recently by the horrific fires down some of the western states. Uncertainty continues to reign in many places, it seems.

Unexpected Changes: So the first of these two additional thoughts focuses in on the accounts of Philip in Acts 8.  That chapter starts, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.“ (v.1) I see a number of my Christian friends in the States getting wound up about not being allowed to hold services indoors. That anti-authority outlook, that also ignores the science of the pandemic, has the privilege of not being in a part of the world where authority says it is illegal to be a Christian! But it was persecution that got the church moving – all except the apostles and they nearly got left behind in what God was about to do within that situation (see later when Peter and John had to go and see what God had been doing without them – v.14!). Let’s not say that God made the persecution happen, and I won’t say God made the Pandemic, but let’s simply note that He carried on working despite it and, yes, maybe within ways that the persecution / pandemic brought about. Jesus had, after all, said that that they were to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” (Acts 1:8) So step one is that persecution has the church fleeing from Jerusalem into Judea and further north into Samaria.

A Wilderness Place:  Now there is nothing in the text about Samaria being a wilderness as such, but for the average Jew, the Samaritans were definitely off the grid of acceptability. I don’t have time and space to cover this in detail but simply to remind us of the surprising conversation Jesus had had with the Samaritan woman at the well (see particularly Jn 4:9). Think of whatever group of people you don’t feel comfortable with and there is your equivalent. The only reason Philip went there is the persecution in Jerusalem. He and many others had been forced out of his comfort zone. It wasn’t ‘his land’, these weren’t ‘his people’ and they didn’t believe the same things he believed and didn’t act like good Jews (even now Christians, even more different) acted.

Bang! So here he is in this ungodly place but something in him has him sharing with some of them about Jesus being the expected Messiah (v.5). He attracts a crowd and then, pow, stuff starts happening. “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.  For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed, or lame, were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” (v.6-8) We aren’t told initially what the ‘signs’ were that he performed or how it came about – that is irrelevant, and God will do it in a different way with you – but it is spelled out as the verses continue. Healing and deliverance ministry in a big way! No wonder there is great joy in the city! Now here’s something. If I was a betting person (and I’m not) I would bet that no longer does Philip feel this is a wilderness experience. Now he will be so caught up with what God is doing through him that he’s just filled with joy and, I suspect, praying, ‘More Lord!’ He no longer cares about this being a different land, an alien people!

And Us?  Can you see the parallels? The Pandemic has pushed us out of our comfort zone. We have been rubbing shoulders (well at a social distance!) with people we’ve not been comfortable with before and doing things we had never thought about a year ago.  Many of us have viewed the Pandemic / Lockdown as an alien time, and so it is, but that does not make it a time when God cannot move. We need to adjust our thinking, especially if it carries on through Autumn and Winter. Persecution or Pandemic? It doesn’t matter. Give God your space and dare to cross spiritual boundaries while still adhering to the Law, and then watch out, God might be turning up!

14. Place of Transformation

Wilderness Meditations: 14. The Place of Transformation

Isa 31:1,2  The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God

And So:  And so I believe we come to the end of this brief series of reflections about the experience and lessons of life in the wilderness, a life most of us would wish to avoid and yet, in 2020, a new life imposed upon us where for a while human resources were limited, freedom of activity was limited, and yet still a time where we learnt that the Lord was still there. For some of us it came as a shock, for others as a welcome respite from the busyness of the life that had been.

Transformation?  Have we been changed by the experience of ‘wilderness’? For the good? Are we more confident in Him or have we allowed ourselves to be almost overwhelmed by the uncertainties and fears? Have we seen this as a time of restriction or a time of potential for God to come and bring glorious transformation? Again and again the prophets of the Bible come out with these amazing pictures of the transformation that God promises. How do our hearts respond? Have we been become those who can reach out to others, or those who have become too beaten down by the circumstances that they need others to reach down into the cistern of mud and despair that they feel they are in, and carefully lift them up again? (see the picture of Jeremiah – Jer 38:11-13) Do the words of the prophets thrill our hearts with an anticipation from the Spirit that this is His goal for this time – transformation of us and the world about us. Let’s put three of these sets of verses before us and ask the Spirit to release faith in us as we read them:

 Isa 31:1,2 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.” What an amazing picture from a land of silence, solitude and barrenness to one where life bursts forth. Have you ever seen one of those films that show life bursting out of the ground after the rains come? It is amazing. Can we pray for the rains to come now?

Isa 35:6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”  This is no more than happened when Jesus came (see Mt 11:5) and no more that he said was possible for us (see Jn 14:12). Is it something we have been praying for or had we, as I suggested previously, allowed our expectations to be quashed by the enemy and the unbelief of the world around us? Read it again: healing and an outpouring of His Spirit. Now pray for it – and keep praying.

Joel 2:22 Do not be afraid, you wild animals, for the pastures in the wilderness are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches.”  The wilderness, He promises, is not one of dry lifeless existence, but a place where He seeks to bring transformation in and through His people, a church that is alive with the presence of God by His Spirit,  where life and vitality, fellowship and friendship, power, authority and revelation pour through the congregation of His people, through this potentially wonderful ‘body of Christ’, bringing constant life transformations, with conversions, deliverances and healings being a regular feature of their life, and the world is impacted and transformed. Can we believe for that? Pray for it. Work for it.

Watch: But Joel’s word reminds us that often these things come gradually. How the Lord decrees His coming is up to Him. Maybe He will just suddenly turn up, maybe as in this word there will be gradual signs building and building. Gardeners and horticulturalists know this. They watch for the various stages of development; first the leaves form after winter, blossom appears and falls, tiny fruits gradually appear and grow bigger and bigger until ready for picking. Jesus nudged his disciples on one occasion, “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.” (Jn 4:35b) But that was after he had just said, “Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’?” (v.35a) Don’t look at the natural seasons, he was saying, just look at the people coming, there is the harvest.

Today? “He began to say to them,Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) Jesus had just read one of the Isaiah Messianic prophecies. Jesus has done his part; he’s come and done all that was necessary for salvation to be opened up to all who will come. Now we wait on him to see the next phase of his work and he continues to work in the midst of his enemies to bring in the kingdom. Elijah waited for the rain and as soon as he saw the glimpse of a small cloud (1 Kings 18:44) he knew the rest was about to come. Are we looking for it coming? Are we gazing at the horizon to see the signs of the coming of the Lord in power? In recent weeks I have started to make a note of the little signs that ARE appearing of Him moving in our midst in a new way. In the space of two weeks I have noted six specific things, six different people revealing the presence of God coming in a new way. He wants to come and transform the wilderness, He is coming, be alert, be full of faith (Lk 18:8), pray, watch, make ready, you may be His means of bringing it. Yes??? Yes!