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.

1. Introduction to Glory

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 1. Introduction to Glory

Rom 6:6,7 (Msg) Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin’s every beck and call! What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection.

A New View: I have in the past written a series entitled ‘Reaching into Redemption’ that considers how God is working to bring change, to bring transformation to each of us, and there is a sense that I feel this new series may cover similar ground. This series will not be long, about a dozen studies I believe, and will focus mainly on Old Testament characters, concluding with three from the New.

I write nearing the last part of 2020, a year that has been blighted by the Coronavirus pandemic, a year in which the world has been changed and the future is still uncertain. For the last two years in particular I have had a burden for the Church of the West in the twenty-first century, a church I am convinced that has almost been drowned by the tsunami of changes that the last century has brought. Some have predicted that it is the end of the church. I believe that, quite contrary to that, it has been a time of revealing the bankruptcy of mankind without God and the pandemic has been used by God to get Christians to start thinking in new ways. These ‘new ways’ are, I believe, in reality the old ways that the church has abandoned.

A New People: The boundaries between the world and the church have been blurred but God is not leaving that any longer; He is coming with a re-emphasis of the need for His presence, a need for His Spirit, and a fresh need to rely on and teach His word.  As we have been going through the pandemic experience with its uncertainties, the temptation has been to think we are just the same as everyone else, but we are not. During this time, several times I have come across the saying ‘We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.’ In this time, we have been reminded again that we are God’s people with God’s resources, and we need to learn afresh to use them. This distinctiveness should be at the heart of our understanding. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17)

His writings are peppered with this idea. Our starter verses from Romans 6 declare the truth expanded from the previous verse: “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life,” (v.4) declaring it’s a new day, a new way. Paul also wrote similar things to the Ephesians: “you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live …. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ.” (Eph 2:1,2,4,5) We are not who we were!  We are justified, forgiven, cleansed, adopted, empowered, glorified.

Glorified? Definitions of ‘glorified’ include ‘invest with glory, to praise the glory of God, especially as an act of worship’, and yet Paul, again, declared, those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified;) those he justified, he also glorified,” (Rom 8:30) We have been glorified, i.e. we have been made ‘glorious’. Now synonyms for ‘glorious’ are splendid, magnificent, wonderful, superb! I have a feeling that many of us, going through this year, have NOT felt like those descriptions, we have not felt that we are splendid, magnificent, wonderful, superb, and yet that is how scripture describes us.

Why Failures? So why is it that we don’t feel like that. May I suggest some reasons. First, we have been aware of a struggle and we have focused on the struggle rather than who we are.  Second, we have associated our struggles with failure. If you were hiking through a wilderness that was really hard going, would you think you were failing? No, you were just coping with the environment, as tough as it may be – but not failing. Third, and I believe this is the most important and is at the heart of this series, we have forgotten the basics of who we are – glorious children of God redeemed from our lives of failure. Now going with that description are aspects of the character of God of which we need to remind ourselves, and that is what this is all about, a fresh reminder of who we really are and, more importantly, what God us like.

And So? So throughout this series we are going to work our way through the Bible picking up on some of the examples of the people of God, all of whom were failures, and yet all of whom found themselves in the midst of the working of God who was intent on bringing them out of their failure into a place of glory.  It may have taken many years for some (if not most) of them, but glory was the end product, just as it is for us. This is a time for restating the basics of salvation for the good of the many outside the kingdom to help them face themselves, and for the many in the kingdom to help us realise afresh the wonder of our salvation, the wonder of who we are and, most importantly, the wonder of God. Ask the Lord to open your eyes to these things as we go through these studies together.

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!

2. A World at Peace?

Zechariah builds the House Meditations: 2. A World at Peace?

Zech 1:7,8a  On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo. During the night I had a vision

Timing: In verses 7 to 17 we move into the first ‘vision’. You have dreams when you sleep, visions while you are awake. A vision is a picture that fills your sight. In the vision there are persons, things and words. Three months have passed since Zechariah’s first ‘word’, a word without pictures. Now we are going to have picture visions that convey truths. All the visions that come now, seem to come on the same day, they flow on one after another until in chapter 7 we see that his next revelation comes two years later. Why the gap? We aren’t told but we come to realize visions only come when God brings them and we must suppose He brings them when He sees the time is right for a particular revelation to be brought. Maybe two years pass to give time for the visions of the first six chapters to be absorbed. Often we can receive a word or picture but the understanding of it takes time to come.

The Picture Setting: The vision comes and in it Zechariah sees certain things. If you stand before a painting, say, you first of all take in just what is there before you. So he writes, “there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.” (1:8) So you stand before your picture and there are figures in it, and questions arise: “I asked, “What are these, my lord?” (1:9a)

Now before we move on we have to acknowledge that in the framework of a vision everything is not always spelled out neatly, hence the need to ponder on it. There is one man on a red horse and at least three other horses it would seem, but what is to be implied is that these horses carry riders. Whether there are just three or that there are lots of horses of mixed colors is debatable. Some commentators in the past have sought to infer meanings in the colors. They are in an area of myrtle trees which is apparently a beautiful shrub or bush with beautiful flowers and leaves that give off a rich scent when ‘bruised’. Thus, some have suggested they are a picture of the church and we have a picture somewhat similar to that of Rev 1 with the lead rider being the Son of God – but that is all commentators’ speculation.

But there is something else that is confusing. In this vision there are various figures: first the lead rider in verse 8 who is simply described a ‘a man’, but then we now read, “The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.” (1:9b) Suddenly we find Zechariah, as he gazes on this picture has an angel interpreter standing alongside him. But then it is the leader rider who gives him his explanation: “Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.” (1:10) Zechariah may have entered the vision, as we sometimes enter a dream, stepping straight into the scenario where, in this case he is talking to an angel, but it is the lead rider who is clearly the one in authority. So the other riders have gone out and come back and reported to the lead rider who is now described as “the angel of the Lord”. Again commentators debate whether this is simply a senior angel or the Son of God. But what is important is the message they bring: “And they reported to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.” (1:11) This is the first major and significant thing in this vision – the earth appears at peace. Hold on to that because suddenly the focus changed.

The Divine Cry: We next see it is ‘the angel of the Lord’ who appears to cry out in anguish: “Then the angel of the Lord said, “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” (1:12) This brings us right back to the present situation in Zechariah’s life. Jerusalem is still a burnt wreck, the land is still devastated from the plundering of Nebuchadnezzar’s army decades before – and yet the rest of the world seems at peace; no one seems to care, they are just happy with their lives, but what about God’s people, what about the Temple that is only part rebuilt, what about the glory and honour of the Lord? Now I have called this paragraph ‘The Divine Cry’ because angels on God’s business share God’s heart and therefore, even as prophets catch God’s heart, so do His angels serving Him. “So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.” (1:13) God comforts the lead rider as if to say, “I know, I feel as you do, but it’s all in hand!”

Anger: Now comes the message that is to be declared: “Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment.’” (1:14,15) The Lord explains, first, what He feels. It’s like He is saying, Jerusalem is mine and always has been, the place where I have put my Name, and I am angry with the nations that I used (yes I used them!) who now feel at peace and are unconcerned about my people. I had been angry with Israel who rejected my word again and again, but I am more angry with those who were unrestrained in their actions bringing my punishment on Israel.

Action: So now the Lord goes beyond His feelings to what He will do: “Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty. Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’” (1:16,17) He will ensure the Temple is rebuilt, He will ensure Jerusalem is rebuilt, and He will ensure the towns of Judah are re-established and will prosper again.

Summary: So within this little cameo, the Lord’s messengers, His angels, report a world at peace while Jerusalem and God’s temple lie in ruins and the land remains wrecked. The Lord reveals His anguish over this situation and His intent to restore the Temple, Jerusalem and the Land. It is a word of hope and a word of restoration that faces the anguish of the state of the Temple, the City and the Land as it is at the moment.

Application: Before the revealing of the 2020 Pandemic, I would suggest that in many ways the world was at peace. This is typified by an example I came across recently. In the previous study I referred to the Calvers’ book ‘Unleashed’ all about the story of Acts. On one hand they acknowledge the good things the church is doing: “Here in the UK Christians are making a huge impact through ministries such as Christians Against Poverty, food banks, and Street Pastors and Angels. The church runs the majority of toddler groups, much of the nation’s youth work, and remains pivotal on the ground.” It all sounds good, but Gavin balances it with an encounter with an old friend, “one who was such an encouragement to me in my early years of faith,” and who he describes as having been one all out for God who would talk passionately about his love of the Lord. Now, many years later, both in their early forties, he reflected, “Today’s conversation was different. He was still speaking animatedly and enthusiastically, but it was not about Jesus. It was about his new patio.” He pondered, “What had happened in the last couple of decades to see godly, eternal passion transferred to concrete in gardens? Why do we keep bumping into Christians our age who are more evangelistic about their kitchen than they are about Jesus? How is it that there is seemingly more inspiration for life in the pages of the Ikea catalogue than in the Bible? When did everything become so safe?” He expands on how our lives are taken up with getting and enjoying at the expense of the kingdom of God.

If that is an accurate assessment of so much Christian life in the West, and I believe it is, then the ‘peace’ that reigns is deception. Is that why the Lord has allowed Covid-19 to ravage the world? Is it a preparation, a time of challenging the hearts of men and women, in preparation for revival? In the previous study we cited R.T.Kendal, who speaks of how we have tolerated what is going on in the church and what is going on in the world.  In the past century of so we have, around the world, experienced various moves of God: Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906, that brought out into the open the place and role of the Holy Spirit, the Charismatic Movement of the 1960’s, that brought a fresh awareness of the existence, experience, function and role of ‘the body of Christ’ as formed and created by the Spirit, and so on (there are others) – but they are largely now just ‘history’.

These special times seem like glimmers of light from the past that have now been diffused into the life of the Church where, for the most part, they appear to have lost most of their power, their life, their spontaneity and their vitality that came with them originally. It appears that in the West at least, the world seems to have half drowned the Church and the potential of all these moves of God have been either forgotten or simply dissipated. Consider again my description of the church I suggest the New Testament shows is on God’s heart and ask again how that matches your experience? Has God allowed Covid-19 to shake up and change the Church to match His heart? Are we alert to that?