Tag Archives: Jesus

Whoops! Reformation

Five hundred years ago, an Augustinian monk called Martin Luther decided to start a debate about some of the things he thought were wrong with the Roman Catholic church.  In an act which was pretty much the 16th century’s equivalent of writing an “open letter to the Times”, on 31st October 1517, he pinned a paper to the church door in Wittenberg where he was a lecturer at the university.  It had 95 bullet points.

Some of these points were connected with allegations of corruption in the church.  So far, so unremarkable – lots of people of the day were complaining about this.  However, in his studies in the book of Romans, Luther had discovered something altogether more radical – “sinners are not loved because they are attractive: they are attractive because they are loved.”

Luther’s discovery changed his circumstances.  Instantly, he found himself out of favour with the church authorities including the Pope.  (You can imagine how popular he was when he later declared that Scripture had authority over the Pope – not the other way round.)  But at the same time, speaking of the truth he had unearthed in the Bible, he said, “Here, I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

His thinking went on to change the world.  Over the century which followed, others picked up his ideas and developed them further, rediscovering truths of the Christian faith that had been buried over time.  A reformation of the church had begun, and neither the religious nor the political landscape of Europe would ever be the same again.

Theologians of the Reformation articulated five key truths at the heart of the Christian faith.  These are known as the “Five Solas” of the Reformation (or in English, the “Five Alones”).

  • Scripture alone
  • Christ alone
  • Faith alone
  • Grace alone, and
  • The glory of God alone.

Over the course of this term, Mark is hosting a series of five discussions to consider these five key truths.  Each session will look at one “Sola” and consider its implications for life today.  These discussions will be held in the St Francis Chapel in Hunsdon at 2pm on Thursdays, repeated at 8pm for those who cannot attend during the day.  The dates are on the calendar.

Hope you can come…

Growing Out of the Family Tree

One of my daughters has recently been doing some schoolwork on family trees and family history.  In trying to answer her questions about her ancestors, I have had to do some research of my own.  In fact, I have also been inspired to go beyond the information she needs.  I’ve not gone as far as registering with “Ancestry.co.uk” and I’m not in line to appear on the TV show “Who do you think you are?” but I have to say I am genuinely interested in my family’s history.

I also recognise that you might not be, and that you might be dreading what’s coming next… don’t worry – I’ll keep my stories to myself!  What I would like to share with you is a reflection about the relationship between history and legacy.  A good way to illustrate this is to consider what we know about Jesus.

There are a number of different ways of looking at Jesus’ history.  If we wanted a starter for ten, we could do far worse than the first verse of Matthew’s Gospel: Jesus is “the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  In this sentence, Matthew tells his readers some key facts about Jesus.  Abraham was the founding father of the Jewish nation, and David was the nation’s most celebrated king.  To have both of these in your family tree was a real privilege and Matthew knew that writing this down would cause his readers to sit up and take notice.

As we read on we discover a whole load more interesting stuff.  It’s largely hidden from people with little knowledge of the Old Testament, but Matthew’s first readers would have caught the references very quickly.  There are four women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy.  The mention of women in such lists is rare – and therefore this is significant.  When we look more closely, we may be startled by the stories we uncover…

As well as Mary, whose story we know well, Jesus’ family tree includes a woman called Tamar who pretended to be a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law in order to trick her way into some kind of inheritance.  Then there’s Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho who betrayed her king and city by hiding the Israelite spies and lying to the police.  There’s also Bathsheba: Matthew’s entry reads simply, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah”, but the story behind this note is dark – when his adulterous affair caused Bathsheba to fall pregnant and he couldn’t hide it any longer, David (the King) had Uriah (one of his most loyal soldiers) murdered.

So Jesus’ family tree contains histories of deception, prostitution, treachery, adultery, betrayal and murder.  Yet look at how he turned out… trustworthy, truthful, compassionate and kind, courageous and steadfast; the epitome of selfless love.  His family’s history didn’t prevent him from leaving the most amazing legacy the world has ever seen.  There’s encouragement here for anyone who looks with sadness at their family background; Jesus understands.  Our families may describe us, but they don’t need to define us.  Whatever our past, we should work to leave a positive legacy.

A Fruity Tale

I’m not a gardener.  I like a good garden (which might take any number of forms – a formal garden with sculpted shrubs, a natural-looking haven for wildlife, or even a simple expanse of lawn where children can run and play), and I even like being out in the sunshine with secateurs, shears, spade or trowel.  But I’m not a gardener.  Other things tend to draw my attention first (e.g. making music).

Recently I was introduced to something that surprised me, though proper gardeners will almost certainly be familiar with this kind of thing; an orange tree which fruits at the same time as blossoming.  It was a beautiful sight to behold.  First of all the deep, but slightly varied shades of green in the leaves formed the perfect foil for the vibrant orange fruits just developing in the sunshine.  Then there were the smaller fruits, still green in colour, dotted around the plant.  And finally, the blossom still everywhere present; flowers producing a sweet and gentle fragrance which permeated the whole conservatory and which would, in turn, develop into fruit themselves as the petals faded and fell.  Fruit and blossom present on the tree at the same time; I’d never heard of such a thing.  (Told you I’m not a gardener!)

The very fact that I’m writing about it probably gives you an indication of how much of a surprise it was to me; though I have to confess I am one who likes to share good news and positive experiences when I come across them.  Fruit and blossom all at once; this did seem to me to be a very good thing – a tree which produces fruit for a long season rather than all at once.

And so it reminded me of heaven.  The Bible uses a variety of images in its description of heaven, all of them entirely positive and attractive.  One of them is the presence of the Tree of Life. We first encounter the Tree of Life in the opening chapters of the Bible; it stands at the centre of the Garden of Eden (literally the “Garden of Delight”) where God placed Adam.  After Adam’s decision to reject God’s rule and try to run things his own way, God banishes him from Eden to prevent him eating from the Tree of Life and living forever.  Adam’s rebellion brings the consequence of death.

The Bible explains that Adam’s experience is also ours – like him, we live in exile from the perfection of Eden, cut off from eternal life in God’s loving presence by our own sin.  But there is hope.  We discover that the Tree of Life still thrives.  The book of Revelation paints a picture of heaven in which the Tree of Life stands somehow on both banks of the river of the crystal clear water of life which flows from the very throne of God.  We read that the tree has twelve kinds of fruit and yields its fruit each month.  Each month!  Not once a year, but continually!  Even more than the orange tree I was shown, here is an image of abundance which resonates so well with the other things the Bible teaches us about the character of God; in His presence there is abundant life.  So how do we lay hold of this for ourselves?  It’s all about Jesus, who described His own life’s purpose by saying, “I have come that they might have life; life in all its fullness.” (John 10:10)  Will we come to Him?

The Problem With Not Emptying Your Pockets

I’m sure that most, if not all of you will know the frustration of pulling a load of washing out of the machine only to discover that it’s covered in bits of tissue from someone’s pocket.  The disaster comes in differing degrees, of course:

  • Sometimes the offending tissue remains pretty much contained within the pocket, so there are only a few bits stuck to the rest of the load – predominantly on the garment with the pocket itself. This is annoying, but relatively easy to deal with – you can simply pick the bits off with your fingers.
  • Sometimes the tissue has been shredded by the washing cycle into a large number of pieces which are spread throughout the wash.  This is deeply frustrating because collecting all the little bits is time-consuming, and you’re never sure you’ve managed to gather them all.  In fact, you can almost guarantee that in a few weeks’ time, when you are in a rush to go out to dinner, you’ll discover bits of tissue you missed on the shirt or blouse that you have carefully selected for your special evening.
  • Sometimes, the tissue isn’t so much shredded as utterly disintegrated so that there is a fine covering of paper fibres over every inch of clothing in the wash.  This is the most irritating.  There’s nothing you can do about this except wash the whole lot again, or use one of those sticky lint rollers to clean the “clean” washing.  This latter course of action takes ages, and is never 100% effective.  (I am told that, for the right pieces of clothing, a tumble in the dryer will remove the fluff, but this obviously doesn’t help for the items of clothing that will shrink under heat.)

Perhaps the worst thing about the situation is that you’ve told your children/husband/wife to check their pockets before throwing their clothes in the wash.  A thousand times.  But they just forget.  It’s as if such a menial task is beneath them, and that you don’t deserve them to do it for you.  They will protest it’s nothing personal, of course, just “forgetfulness”, but in the final analysis, each new occurrence is simply evidence of how they view their ease as more precious than yours (they would rather lazily throw their contaminated clothing in the wash than take five seconds to empty the pockets and save you ten minutes).

There are parallels here with how we treat our sin.  Like a dirty tissue in a pocket, tucked away and out of sight, sometimes we are unaware of it.  Occasionally we realise it’s there and resolve to do something about it, but more often than not, we do nothing (after all, it will take effort on our part, and sometimes, however manky it is, we feel somehow reassured that it’s there – just in case we wish to use it).  God, of course, calls us to deal with it – to acknowledge it, bring it out into the open and give it to Jesus.  If we don’t do this, then like a tissue through the washing machine, we can be sure that our sin will begin to affect our neighbours and friends and the quality of our relationships with them.  And the longer we leave it, and however much we claim “I forgot” or “I’ll do it later”, the more he is right to accuse us of selfishness – of not loving our neighbour as ourselves – and we can be sure to receive from him what we deserve.  If, on the other hand, we do as he says and give our sin to Jesus, we have his promise of complete forgiveness.  So why wait?

Making a connection

In the light of positive recommendations from local people, I decided a couple of years ago that I would entrust Orange with the task of providing me with a mobile phone service.  At the time it was a good choice; certainly it was an improvement on my previous provider.  But since just before Christmas, I’ve been having some difficulty.  In fact, it’s now more usual for me when I check my phone to see the messages “SOS” or “Searching for Network” than to see the little graphic with “bars” of signal strength showing.  Indeed, I’ve been starting to feel that the nickname “No Range” that I have heard used occasionally of Orange evidently has some foundation in reality.

And I’ve noticed another thing, too.  The battery on my phone is running down really quickly. Currently (no pun intended!), I’m charging it about three times every two days.  It normally lasts at least four times as long.  I think this problem is occurring because when the phone tries to connect to the mobile phone network, it uses some power.  Obviously, if it is always trying, it is always draining power from the battery!

According to the Geordie on the call-centre help-desk, there’s a problem with the Widford transmitter (the fake tree near Widford Rise).  Apparently, the storm of 19th December damaged “a chip”, and the company is looking into fixing the fault, but this requires “planning permission.”  I’m a bit vague on the details because I wasn’t able to ask clarifying questions – my phone lost signal during the call, so he just left me a message to let me know the basic details!

It strikes me that there’s a parallel here to prayer (albeit an inexact parallel – don’t stretch it too far!).  The important thing for a mobile phone is to gain a connection to the network.  When the connection is made, communication can happen freely. In my situation, there’s a problem; my phone is having trouble connecting, and is wearing itself out trying.  In the realm of communicating with God, we also need a connection with God to be established.  But there’s no automatic connection in place.  In fact, our default position is disconnection.  In the Bible we read these words; “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.  But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” (Isaiah 59:1-2)  Here, the prophet Isaiah records his message to the people of Israel that, though they were trying to pray (and even wearing themselves out trying), their prayers would not be heard.  They had no connection – indeed, their channel of communication was blocked; their sin was in the way.  And we’re no different.  However good we think we are, we all have the same sin problem.

Thankfully, there’s a solution to this problem.  Obviously, we can’t change our past record of sin – what’s done is done.  But, as the angel told Joseph, God has sent Jesus to “save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)  When we put our trust in Jesus, we are made clean, our sin is removed from us as far as the east is from the west, and we are reconnected to God – and this means we can be confident our prayers will be heard.  #goodnews

Clearing up after Christ-mas

Occasionally I receive feedback on what I publish. It would appear that my article The Reason for the Season caused a little consternation.  I’m sorry for the confusion.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t explain myself, but the feedback indicates to me that sufficient numbers of people found my words rather strange or concerning to make me feel that perhaps I should shed some light on the subject so people are not unnecessarily upset.  I say “unnecessarily” because if this article clears up the mystery for them and they are then disturbed by the clear message, then perhaps it is ultimately a good thing that they be unsettled!  (It is not my job to say what everyone wants me to say, but rather to bear faithful witness to Jesus who came 2000 years ago as Saviour and who will come again as Judge.)

So, what caused grief for readers?  Well, in conversation with one person, I realised that the non-word “mas” that I used over and over again sounds rather like “mass”, which is a Roman Catholic form of worship.  But I wasn’t making any point either in favour of or against Roman Catholicism.  The clue to the interpretation of the article is not connected with the “mas” bit at all.  In fact, the clue is in the question, “What did I leave out?”

On twenty-two separate occasions, I referred to Christmas as “mas”, thus leaving out the first six letters of the full word that readers might have expected to see.  I wrote about “mas”, leaving out “Christ”.  I talked about all of the trappings of our usual celebrations of Christmas but I left out Christ.  And I suggested that in the same way as this was rather ridiculous for my magazine article, so any celebration of Christmas which left out Christ would be equally ridiculous.  Let’s face it, Christmas starts with Christ!

Yet, in a ComRes poll from December 2010, 51% of the respondents agreed with the statement, “The birth of Jesus is irrelevant to my Christmas.”  This would indicate that over half the population of this “Christian” country have no interest in Christ Jesus at what is almost certainly the biggest Christian festival of the year.  When we overlay this with the results of the 2011 census, in which 59.3% of the population claimed to be Christian, we are left with the curious fact that around 8% of the population call themselves Christian yet see the birth of Jesus as irrelevant to their Christmas.  Now that is truly ridiculous!

My intention in the original article was not to confuse, but to cause people to think.  I also did not intend to offend (though I recognise that connecting the Christmas celebrations of 51% of the population and the word “ridiculous” may have had this effect).  On reflection, perhaps ridiculous is the wrong word: if the Christian claim that Jesus is Saviour and Judge is true, then dismissing his birth as irrelevant is more than ridiculous; it’s just asking for trouble.  And I, for one, would rather spare people that.

May the Christ of Christ-mas make you ready to meet him when he comes again.

Peace for Christmas

So this is Christmas, and what have you done?
Another year over…

John Lennon’s song, like all the other seasonal tunes, is regularly played on the radio.  But Lennon’s lyric has a little more about it than many of the other offerings (e.g. Roy Wood’s “When the snowman brings the snow…” or the children’s favourite “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer”).  It actually challenges us directly to take stock of our lives at Christmas time.  You won’t be surprised to know I think it’s a good challenge for us to consider.

But Christmas is too busy for us to think about the events of the year and the emotional impact they’ve had on us, isn’t it?  First of all there’s all the shopping to do, all the organising, wrapping, cooking, decorating and hosting.  Then, there’s all the clearing up, the falling out, the not-speaking and the thank-God-that’s-all-over-for-another-year-ing.  Finally, of course, there’s all the paying back the credit cards… which, depending on how extravagant we’ve been, may well bring us right back to where we are now!

The question, “How are you?” often elicits the response, “Fine, thanks … busy, but fine.”  Busy.  And the activity of the Christmas season only makes us busier, so stopping to reflect on the emotional journey of the last year is, quite frankly, just one more thing to do for which we do not have the time.  And here’s another one…

What have you done this year by way of pursuing a closer relationship with God?  (I put that in bold type to make sure you didn’t skip over it in your busy rush!)

The message of Christmas is clear: God chose to come close to us in Jesus.  It’s evidence that he is pursuing a closer relationship with all of us.  The Bible tells us, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14), and, “Jesus Christ … in very nature God … made himself nothing, being made in human likeness, … humbled himself…” (Philippians 2:6ff).  It is these verses (and others like them) which inspired one of the most famous and popular carols; “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.

My point is that if we stop even for a moment to consider just how far he has gone to reach out to us (Immanuel means “God with us”), it should surely cause us to respond with love and worship.  So how do our efforts to reach out to him measure up?

So this is Christmas, and what have you done…?  Praise God he still reaches out to us despite our laziness and reluctance to honour him!

The Joy of Christmas

“Christmas-time is here, by golly,
disapproval would be folly,
deck the halls with hunks of holly…
Brother, here we go again!”

So sang the comic songwriter, Tom Lehrer, and I wonder how many of us feel the same way, at least sometimes.  Our nation seems to have a love-hate relationship with Christmas, and this, I am sure, is because of what it has become; an excuse to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need.

The pressures applied upon us by society are subtle: “it’s for the kids”, or “our family have always done this.”  We must join in or people will assume we are grumpy old Scrooges.  Because marketing departments promote Christmas as a time of goodwill and happiness, to opt out of their glitzy celebration is to be a miserable killjoy.  Because they assert it is a time of peace, any attempt to expose the shallowness of that peace is fraught with danger.  Disapproval would be folly – indeed!  Our national Christmas celebrations are precious, and to question their validity or helpfulness is to walk a minefield of sensitivities.

And yet I would rather walk that path than by driven by malignant forces of consumerism, materialism and pride.  I too want to assert that Christmas is precious, but for strikingly different reasons.  Despite what the adverts tell us, and what we may have come to believe, Christmas is not primarily a time for families, or for making extravagant gestures highlighting the love we have for one another.  It is first and foremost one celebration amongst many which tell of God’s amazing love for us.

From eternity, God saw how enslaved we were to the whims of the rich and powerful and to our own foolish pride.  He saw we were living only half a life, encumbered by worries, facing an uncertain future and frightened of death.  And he stepped in to rescue us from that oppression in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Christmas is a powerful celebration of God’s first-hand understanding of what it means to be human; in Christ Jesus, God became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14).

By giving us his Son, God has given us the opportunity of real peace; not the “grit-your-teeth-Aunt-Gertrude-will-be-gone-by-Boxing-Day” kind of peace.  In Jesus, he has given us real joy; not the plastic-grins of sound-activated dancing flowers or the short-lived, hangover-followed merriness of alcohol.  In Jesus he has set us free to be who he created us to be; free from dancing to another’s tune, free to live life in all its fullness with him as our loving Father.

Now that is some Christmas present.  And worth celebrating.  As we make our plans for this Christmas, amidst the noise of the advertisers who would use us to make money for them, so God is calling us to enjoy his freedom.  Will we listen?

Christmas Peace

Christmastime means different things to different people.  To some, it’s precious because the family will all gather together.  To others, it’s a fearful prospect because the family will all gather together!  Some people rejoice in the nostalgia that surrounds Christmas, and remember especially their own happy childhood times.  There’s wonder and joy, feasting and gladness and the giving and receiving of gifts; it is a good season to celebrate with friends and family.  Other people’s experience is tinged with sadness as they remember people with whom they no longer share Christmas because of distance, family rift or death.

Often people see Christmas as “the season of goodwill” where past hurts are laid aside and estranged people are brought together, hopefully not in a “grin-and-bear-it” way, but with real forgiveness which buries the past and looks forward to the future.  The reason for this is rooted in the story of Jesus, the Christ of Christ-mas.  At the most traditional “Carols by Candlelight” services, the Bible readings tell the Bible’s story briefly but well.  It begins with the fall of Adam, the rebellious decision of mankind to disobey God and to attempt to manage God’s world with no reference to its maker.  The healthy relationship between God and people is destroyed; there is no way that imperfect and finite human beings can ever repair their relationship with God who is infinite and perfect.  This is a massive problem.

Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah picks up the story; he says in 9:2, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”  The people’s sin has led them further and further away from God, and they are in exile, experiencing His judgment, not His favour.  There is no way out.  Suddenly, a great light appears.  And what is that light?  Isaiah tells us in 9:6; “To us a child is born, to us a Son is given … He will be called … Prince of Peace.”

The birth of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas is the moment when God came to dwell amongst us to bring light into the darkness and to reconcile us to Himself.  God, who we have wronged by our pride, has offered to forgive us and make us His beloved children.  Some people jump at this chance; they recognise their lives are not perfect, they know they need forgiveness and they embrace Jesus with glad hearts like a shipwrecked sailor grasping at a life-ring.  Others are not convinced; the way they see things, they are perfectly good enough for God (if he even exists), so they pay little attention to Jesus, like a shipwrecked sailor hiding from the lifeboat crew as they survey the wreckage of his boat.

We tend to think Christmas is about presents and time with those we love, but it’s actually about reconciliation and forgiveness.  First, it is about God’s reconciliation with and forgiveness of those who have failed to love him.  Following on from and flowing out of that, it becomes a season in which people can be reconciled to one another.  How does our celebration of Christmas bear witness to either of these things?

God Willing

In an earlier entry I wrote about the song “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” and its underlying assumption that the world is governed by “The Fates.”  (“Through the years we all will be together, if the Fates allow.”)  In writing it I discovered that the words “if the Fates allow” were actually a replacement for “if the Lord allows.”  This brings a whole new angle to the debate, especially in the light of the change that we are seeing from Christendom’s BC and AD to the post-Christendom BCE and CE.  Originally, the song emanated from a Christian worldview, but the lyrics were changed to eliminate the Christian dimension because some people felt it was offensive.  And maybe it is offensive to some; the idea that “the Lord” might not allow something we hold dear.  Let us see…

Christians understand “the Lord” is the God of the Bible, variously described, including Jonah’s phrase, “The God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9) and God’s own words recorded by the prophet Isaiah (46:9), “I am God and there is no other.”  Being humble before such authority is surely entirely appropriate.  In the Bible book which bears his name, James (who describes himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”) encourages his readers to be humble before God and chastises them for being arrogant in their boastful planning.  He writes, “What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” (Jas 4:14-15).  It is from him that we get the phrase, “God-willing,” and it is this idea which is being expressed in the original lyrics of the song.

Of course, we don’t hear people say, “God-willing” as much today as was once the case.  This almost certainly says something about our society and is entirely in keeping with the change from AD to CE.  Like the people to whom James was writing, we have grown proud, believing ourselves to be masters of our own destiny; we rely not on God, but on our money, our talents, our connections or our reputation to open doors for us and provide us with our every need.  In our so-called enlightened society, The-God-of-heaven-who-made-the-sea-and-the-dry-land has become at best an after-thought, and at worst, a swear-word.  We behave, not as servants of God like James, but as if we were gods ourselves – with the right to do just as we please.  No wonder we find offensive the idea that “the Lord” might stand in our way and confound our plans.  How dare he?  Just who does he think he is?

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus to Mary; a child born of a virgin, exiled to Egypt and raised by his adoptive father in the line of King David.  He made the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame leap.  Powerful men plotted against him, a friend betrayed him and false witnesses accused him.  Soldiers gambled for his clothes, he was mocked, beaten and crucified, though not one of his bones was broken.  Buried, he was raised to life on the third day.  All of this was prophesied in advance through the word of God.  Who then is the Lord?  He is the one who knows the end from the beginning, so we should approach him in great humility.  Yet Christmas also shows that He loves us deeply: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) – good news indeed, even for arrogant hearts!