St. Mary’s Wavendon
St. Mary’s Wavendon

Daily Inspiration

Brand new Daily Inspirations return this Autumn!  We begin a new series in the famous book of Daniel - a story more relevant to us now than for many generations.  May we be inspired by it this season...

Friday 15th & Saturday 16th October - Daniel recap!

The Bible Project is a brilliant series of free videos (all available on youtube) which tell the story of Scripture.  Their overview of Daniel is a great summary and fits so much into 9 minutes - it also sets up the final few chapters really well.  To watch their episode on Daniel please click here.

Thursday 14th October – Daniel 7:15-28 ‘Possessing the kingdom’

And so the fun begins!  Today we get the interpretation of Daniel’s troubling dream, and if it sounds vaguely familiar, then you only have to turn back to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 2 to get echoes of what we see here.  There are four kingdoms again, and most scholars agree it’s the same four kingdoms we saw earlier: the Babylonians (here depicted as a lion v4), then the Medes (a bear v5), followed by the Persians (a leopard v6). 

 

Then comes the terrifying fourth beast, which is ‘very powerful’ (v7) and which is the one Daniel really wants to know about in our passage.  This is the Greek Empire, and in particular the devastating impact of its ‘iron teeth and bronze claws’ (v19) is thought to describe the reign of Alexander the Great.  After his early death, the kingdom divides, but ruling over part of it – including Israel – is a powerful royal dynasty (the Seleucids), and the ten horns (v20,v24) are the rulers of that dynasty from the late 4th-century BC down to the early 2nd-century BC. 

 

Then a particularly nasty ‘little horn’ appears: the notorious Antiochus Epiphanes (ruled 167-164AD) who desecrates the temple and triggers the Maccabean revolt in Israel.  This  ruler did away with his rivals for the throne – referenced by ‘subdue three kings’ in v24 – and his attitude to the Jewish people is described by his ‘boastful’ speech (v20) and especially by his ‘waging war against the holy people’ (v21) and ‘speaking against the Most High and oppressing his holy people’ in v25.

 

But he gets his come-uppance in the end: ‘the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgement in favour of the holy people of the Most High’ (v22) and ‘his power [is] taken away and completely destroyed for ever’ (v26).

 

Most amazing of all, ‘the Holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it for ever – yes, for ever and ever.’ (v18)

 

Daniel of course did not know how any of this had been fulfilled, and many have questioned whether this is prophecy ‘after the fact’ – I’ll say more on that tomorrow.

 

But there is one inescapable truth here: God wins.  And more importantly, God’s people share in this victory.  Life here can be a rocky road, and God’s people frequently face oppression and suffering.  But it’s not the end of the story.  What Daniel dreamed is our eternal reality: the kingdom of the Most High is our kingdom, and, thanks to Jesus Christ, we do receive and possess it forever – yes, forever!

Wednesday 13th October – Daniel 7:9-14 ‘One like a Son of Man’

Today’s passage is a remarkably important one on the story of Scripture.  Tucked away in what appears to be a remote corner of an apocalyptic vision towards the end of the Old Testament are a few verses which come to play a huge influence in the course of human history.  Today we meet Jesus, but perhaps not where we expected to find him.

 

This passage takes us into the throne room of heaven: a majestic, glorious sight, almost overwhelming for Daniel to behold.  And he sees two central figures – yesterday we marvelled at the Ancient of Days, seated on a throne of fire, an awesome vision of Almighty God.  Now a second figure appears: ‘one like a son of man’ (13).

 

So this is a human being – but as the text unfolds we come to realise that this is no ordinary human being.  First, he arrives ‘on the clouds of heaven’ – pretty cool divine transport.  Second, he approaches the Ancient of Days – this is extraordinary: in Jewish thought nobody can just approach Almighty God like this, unless....  The suspicion that this is more than just a mortal being is confirmed when we see the description of v14: this being ‘was given all authority, glory and sovereign power’.  This is none other than the Divine Son, the King of kings, worshipped by the whole world and whose ‘kingdom will never be destroyed’ (v14).

 

Daniel never gets a clear idea of who this ‘son of man’ is: the interpretation of the dream later mentions only the victory of the Most High (vv22,25,27).  I imagine he desperately wanted to know, as any of us who might have received such a vision would.  But, thanks to the continuing story of Scripture, we know who it is!

 

Jesus uses the name ‘Son of Man’ to describe himself 69 times in the gospels, and, whilst it is an Aramaic phrase for a human being, most scholars agree that the inspiration for this unusual name is right here in Daniel 7.  Jesus is quite deliberately pointing people towards this passage, which tells us who this Son of Man really is.  The Son of Man is also the Son of God.

 

This remarkable truth is attested by what happens to Jesus on the last occasion he uses the name, and which costs him his life: when questioned about his identity by the authorities after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, he quotes this very passage: ‘You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62)  The authorities understood clearly what Jesus was implying: Jesus was claiming divine status – and they executed him for blasphemy.  Not that this was the end of the story!

 

So today, Daniel met Jesus in his dream – though he could not have known it at the time.  And whilst we rightly worship a human Saviour, who comes to us gentle and lowly, today reminds us of Jesus’ eternal identity, and the Jesus we too will one day meet.  St. John’s encounter with his friend – now glorified – in Revelation 1:12-16 echoes the imagery of the Ancient of Days we see here.

 

Jesus gave up his eternal glory for a season to come to this earth, for our sake: but he remains the one with all authority, glory and sovereign power, worthy of global worship, whose kingdom will never pass away, nor be destroyed. Hallelujah!

Tuesday 12th October – Daniel 7:1-10 ‘The Ancient of Days’

It’s a game of two halves, as someone once said.  And when it comes to the Book of Daniel, it is definitely a game of two halves.  The first half is one of the best loved parts of the bible, crammed full of ripping yarns: Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the fiery furnace, Belshazzar’s feast, the lions’ den.  Each story reminds us that God is in control, but also has much to teach us about how to live wisely and courageously in a different culture, and still remain true to our faith and to ourselves.

 

I hope the last few weeks has been helpful in that regard.  But now the challenge begins!  If the first half of Daniel is a relatively easy read and pretty well known, then the second half is probably one of the hardest sections of all Scripture.  Parts of it make the Book of Revelation look like light reading. 

 

Most people avoid chapters 7-12 – but to my mind that’s a very good reason for persevering and taking a look.  I must confess I was tempted to bring the series to a close on Saturday and move on to something new – but if we believe that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ then let’s be bold and take a look at something which will certainly stretch us.

 

The second half of the book uses a form which is known as ‘Apocalyptic’ writing – the same form you find in the Book of Revelation.  It relies heavily on colourful imagery and symbolism, and is prophetic in outlook, dealing mostly with things which are to come (from the point of view of the writer).  There is also a lot of debate as to the authorship of this second part of the book.  I’ll talk a bit more about this on Thursday, but the bottom line is that these chapters still have much to teach us: there is gold here, if we’re able to live with the beasts, the horns and the ‘times’!

 

And chapter 7 begins with another disturbing dream – not unlike chapter 2 and chapter 4, only this time it is Daniel himself who receives it.  He describes it as more than a dream, in fact: it’s a vision, and we get the interpretation of it later in the chapter if you want to read ahead.  The four beasts are certainly unsettling, but it’s verses 9 and 10 which provide the real context. 

 

As we’ll see, these are visions of human powers and kingdoms, which may seem ‘terrifying’ at the time.  But they must all bow before one who is greater, described as ‘the Ancient of Days’ (v9).  This ultimate ruler was here long before, and will be here long after – and if the courts of human rulers might appear impressive, they’ve got nothing on this King!  ‘A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him, thousands upon thousands attended him, ten thousand times ten thousand (100 million) stood before him.’ (v10)

 

It is before this ruler that ‘the court is seated and the books are opened.’  We live in confusing times, where human power seems to be taking centre stage again.  But this passage reminds us of what anchors us: there is a Greater One who has seen it all before, and to whom we can offer all our fears and worries.  And may this God be our rock, our fortress and our shield today.

 

We have an anchor that keeps the soul steadfast and sure while the billows roll,
fastened to the rock which cannot move, grounded firm and deep in the Saviour's love!

Saturday 9th October: Interlude – Jeremiah 29:4-14

As the first half of Daniel ends, let’s take a moment to reflect on his extraordinary life, and the fundamental lesson it teaches us: how to live well as a minority faith in a majority culture.  Daniel’s world is increasingly ours, and it is one of the reasons I find his story so inspiring. 

 

He faces challenges that most of us face, or have faced: where to draw the line when others around you have different standards, and how to do so graciously; how to live with integrity; and how to bring the light and love of our faith powerfully into another culture.  His is a story of wisdom, courage and, above all, of consistency: Daniel is authentically true to his identity as a child of God when he is young (chs 1-2), middle-aged (ch4) and old (chs 5-6).

 

But today let’s reflect on where his inspiration might have come from – and to do that we turn to the words of Jeremiah, which form our reading for today.  Jeremiah is the longest (by number of words) and probably the hardest book in the bible.  He toiled as a voice in the wilderness for many years, warning an unreceptive people and ultimately seeing the very disaster strike which he had prophesied.

 

And yet, once the worst had happened, he also gives this amazing vision of how a newly exiled people might survive and even thrive: far from shunning their new culture, they should accept it.  Not that they should change their beliefs, but they should live positively.  Ultimately, Jeremiah counsels: ‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ (v7)

 

Daniel would almost certainly have known this prophecy, and I like to think that it was Jeremiah’s vision which carried him through a lifetime of faithful and fruitful service.

 

This vision is ours, too.  For all that we live in increasingly dark times, we have the same calling: to be salt and light in our culture, to carry the fragrance of Christ wherever we go.  May that vision inspire us: and may God grant us grace to bear fruit as Daniel did.  Amen.

Friday 8th October – Daniel 6:16-28 ‘The triumph of integrity’

And so we get to the big moment!  This is one of those handful of biblical stories still well known today, and part of our culture: we use the phrase ‘lion’s den’ to describe any threatening situation where we are at the mercy of a hostile crowd – even at the football, where Millwall FC’s ground is called the Den (and then the New Den) because their nickname is The Lions.  Lions don’t live in dens in the wild: the phrase comes only from this story in Daniel!

 

And we know how it ends.  Daniel trusts in God and is miraculously rescued, while his accusers suffer the same punishment, with dreadful consequences.  And quite naturally we dwell on the intervention of God to save his faithful servant.  It’s certainly what King Darius dwells on, as he issues a proclamation much like that of King Nebuchadnezzar before him (verses 25-27).

 

But today let’s also note the vindication of Daniel’s integrity.  It’s not easy to swim against the tide, and occasionally it is very costly.  And we must admit that not everyone escapes unjust accusation or persecution when it comes – given that there are more than 50 countries around the world where it is illegal either to be a Christian or to own a bible, sadly there are still martyrs and many others in prison around the world.

 

Nevertheless, those who seek to put God first will always be vindicated – certainly in the world to come, if not always in this life.  Psalm 37 is precious to many in this situation, and I commend it to you if you are not familiar with it.  Some of it may feel uncomfortable to read, but these verses in the middle could have been written for Daniel: ‘The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; though he may stumble he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.  I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken.’ (Psalm 37:23-25)

 

 This psalm was one that was special to me when, many years ago, I was unjustly accused at work because of a stand I took for my faith.  The cost I paid was nothing like Daniel’s, but I got a glimpse of what it must have felt like.  Today, we can be thankful that we are still able to worship the Lord in freedom and safety here in the UK.

 

But let’s not take it for granted either. The sands of our culture are shifting: let’s pray for our nation, and also for all who are paying the price for their integrity around the world, that they too may know the vindication that was given to Daniel, and have strength in their trial.

Thursday 7th October – Daniel 6:10-16 ‘The cost of integrity’

Today Daniel’s story comes full circle.  We began in chapter 1 more than 60 years earlier with a young Daniel and his friends quietly taking their stand to live a life in accordance with their faith.  Now Daniel has to make the same kind of stand, albeit with two major differences. 

 

First, he didn’t choose this one, it was forced upon him.  The jealous satraps had cooked up a scheme to get him in trouble, using his very integrity against him.  Aware that Daniel was likely to put God first, they cynically thought of a way to make that an act against the king.

 

Second, this stand had to be faced in the public glare.  In chapter 1, Daniel could take the royal official aside and gain private permission for a trial period to test their creative solution to honour both God and their human bosses.  Since the trial worked, the king may never have known what Daniel and his friends were doing.

 

Here, there is no place to hide.  The king’s susceptibility to vanity has led him to pass a law which means that, for Daniel to choose to worship God as he always did, would inevitably land him in trouble.  He cannot find a creative solution to avoid this, he must take his stand and accept the fallout.

 

We all know the end of this story – but before we get there, let’s marvel at Daniel’s courage in choosing to do what he did. It’s not just his life which is under threat, it’s his reputation: 60 years’ faithful service for several rulers, the whisper of scandal, ‘no smoke without fire’.  You know the kind of thing.  But, after a life lived for The Audience of One, he’s not going to take the easy option now.

 

There’s a sideline here too: we can observe the drawbacks of an overly legalistic culture, where the law quite literally becomes an idol.  Hundreds of years later, St Paul observed that ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.’  There’s nothing wrong with good laws, and we are fortunate to live in a largely law-abiding country.  But life is first and foremost about relationships: rules make good servants but lousy masters.  Or to put it another way, too much law can be almost as bad as too little.

 

We too need to beware seeing ‘laws’ as the answer for everything.  Bad or unnecessary laws can produce misery as much as good laws can prevent it.  In fact laws are usually only needed when relationships break down – healthy relationships are unlikely to need policing or regulating.  Ultimately we are called to a life led by grace and by God’s Spirit.  It is interesting to contrast Daniel’s consistent gratitude to God (v10) with the seething resentment of the satraps.

 

This is not an argument for being rebels for rebels’ sake!  But it is a call to live a life that goes beyond enforced compliance to rules towards the life-giving power of gratitude, worship and loving service.  We may never be called to pay the cost that Daniel did, but we can be inspired by his example.

Wednesday 6th October – Daniel 6:1-9 ‘The power of integrity’

I’ve always been a huge fan of Scott Adams’ ‘Dilbert’ cartoons and books.  As someone who worked in an office for 12 years before getting ordained, I appreciated the culture he was describing, with all its foibles.  The world Dilbert satirised was hilariously (and perhaps disturbingly) close to the one I inhabited – and, I must confess, loved.  I still have a Dilbert book on my shelf titled: ‘How to make a fortune by stealing office supplies’, which contains such caustic gems as: ‘”Smart casual” dress code – manages to be neither smart nor casual without diminishing the effects of either.’

 

Dilbert is particularly hard on managers. His starting point is extremely perceptive: ‘Everyone gets promoted to the level of their incompetence.’  In other words, you run out of steam on the corporate ladder when you get promoted to a level where the job is too big or too hard for you.  This explains why (in Dilbert’s view) most people in senior managerial positions are not up to the job and the rest of us are stuck with them.

 

At this point you may be nodding your head vigorously, or shaking it sadly – probably depending on whether you are (or were) a senior manager!  And underneath Scott Adams’ reflections is a very realistic – you might say biblical – view of human nature: its ego and ambition, jealousies and resentments, all played out in air-conditioned offices with carpet tiles on the floor.

 

This is the world of the satraps (the ‘middle managers’?) in Daniel chapter 6.  These are the Dilberts of the day – climbing the greasy pole, taking their perks where they can, justifying their ‘grey areas’ on the basis that they are just cogs in a big machine.

 

But not everyone has to live in the swamp. As people of faith we are called to something better.  We can choose to be different.  Even into his 80s Daniel retained a vision for a life lived with integrity.  And his boss – the king – rewarded him for it; which only made him more unpopular with those who were ‘shown up’ by the quality of his life.

 

This is the preface to the iconic story of the lion’s den, and it reminds us that integrity is a polarising quality: just as light attracts moths and repels cockroaches, so a life of courageous integrity will make us both popular and unpopular.  There is something in human nature that resents goodness, and secretly rejoices when good people fail.  Perhaps we may even feel that too sometimes – and this story encourages me to take a good look at myself regularly to see if I am sometimes a little more like the satraps than I care to admit.

 

But it is also an encouragement to all of us to pray for the grace and courage to keep choosing integrity.  A truly authentic life will always be noticed, which is both an inspiration and a challenge.  Perhaps too we can pray especially for those called to live like Daniel in ‘worldly’ cultures, shining light into dark corners, renewing decaying organisations and bringing the ‘aroma of Christ’ into their everyday life and work.

Tuesday 5th October – Daniel 5:13-31 ‘Numbered, weighed, divided’

And so today we finally get to the original ‘writing on the wall’.  Graffiti is a polarising subject – it’s been around for thousands of years, and much of it is dismissed as vandalism.  But not all of it: Banksy’s designs are now so celebrated that a new one which was painted over in Lowestoft a few weeks ago is the subject of a criminal investigation: not for the graffiti itself but for whoever wished to restore the white wall!

 

Some graffiti is also recognised to have enduring value.  In the Reichstag in Berlin the messages scrawled on the walls by Russian soldiers taking the city in April 1945 have been preserved and put on permanent display as a powerful reminder of our past, and especially of the horrors which are made possible by the abuse of power.

 

We see a similar backdrop to our famous graffiti today.  Belshazzar, after a lifetime spent pursuing political ambition, has overstepped the mark one last time by committing an act of gross blasphemy.  While he parties, suddenly a mysterious hand writes a message on the wall: ‘Mene, mene, tekel, parsin.’ (‘Numbered, numbered, weighed, divided.’)  None of his regular advisers can interpret it for him – though one wonders if one or two had an inkling, but were afraid to deliver bad news? – so Daniel is called and interprets it for him, wise and courageous as ever.

 

The message is uncompromising: the ruler’s days are numbered, he has been weighed on the divine scales and found wanting, and so his kingdom will be divided and given to others.

 

Belshazzar tries to make amends by showering Daniel with promotions and privileges: but it is too late, the judgement has already fallen.  His life ends and his kingdom is conquered.

 

Stories about the great and powerful often seem remote to us – their world is not ours.  However, it does remind us of two things: first, no human power or organisation lasts for ever.  However invincible they may seem, eventually they are all held to account.  There are many nations today who suffer from poor or even wicked leadership, including those who deliberately and systematically oppress God’s people.  Belshazzar’s feast reminds us that these leaders will one day be held to account, one side of the grave or the other.  Let’s pray for all who suffer in those circumstances, that God might grant them hope, courage, protection, and the peace ‘that passes understanding’.

 

Second, and appropriately for party conference season in our nation, this story reminds us to pray for our leaders: for wise decisions, integrity and compassionate hearts – and perhaps, above all, for that sense that they are themselves accountable to Someone Greater, the ‘Most High God [who] is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth.’

Monday 4th October – Daniel 5:1-13 ‘Call for Daniel’

Last week Alise and I were gripped by the TV drama ‘Manhunt’.  It tells the true story of the hunt for a serial criminal in South London, who evaded capture for 17 years.  His crimes are not for the faint-hearted, but the series re-told fairly faithfully (sufficiently so, I am told, that it is required viewing for the current police training course for new officers!) how he was eventually captured and brought to justice.

 

The week after the series ended, a documentary also told the story of the investigation, including interviews with some of the officers involved.  One of the most poignant reflections was how little media coverage the case received for many years. It was observed that because the offences were entirely against elderly people, mostly living alone, they simply didn’t have ‘news appeal’.  Both Senior Investigating Officers connected with the enquiry made the point that if these offences had been committed against the young, the news would have been saturated with coverage right from the start, and he would probably have been caught much more quickly.

 

We live in a society which idolises youth.  Most cultures in history have honoured older generations as being those with wisdom and life experience, but this has been eroded in our modern culture.  However, today’s iconic story reminds us of the true value of a ‘wise old saint’. 

 

Daniel is, by this stage, a very old man: at least 80 years old, which in the sixth century BC is an extremely unusual age to live to.  He has served for decades at the Babylonian court, but it is probably reasonable to assume that he has been ‘out in the cold’ for a long time, if Belshazzar – who has ruled in all but name for 17 years – is unaware of his gifts.

 

However his mother remembers the past more clearly, and urges her son to call for Daniel.  It is particularly noteworthy that it is Daniel’s spiritual insight which is remembered (v11).  He is not just another astrologer, he is revered as having something deeper to share.

 

God can still use all of us.  We are never too old, never ‘on the scrapheap’.  Indeed our age and experience might just be the thing that is most needed.  It was a police officer on the verge of retirement who was called in to help with the Manhunt enquiry which eventually captured the culprit.  Not a younger officer with new ideas, but an older one with deeper insight. 

 

Whatever stage of life you find yourself in, take encouragement from today’s story.  You still have gifts to offer, wisdom to share, people to bless.  And may God grant us all opportunities to do so.  Amen!

Thursday 30th September – Daniel 5:1-4 ‘Short term memory’

Chapter 5 is another of the iconic stories of the bible – it’s amazing how many such stories you can find in the first six chapters of the little book of Daniel!  This particular story still retains a place in our culture via the phrase: ‘The writing on the wall’.  It’s used to describe a moment when the outcome of a situation becomes inevitable – usually a bad moment or downfall, and the connection to this story will become clear in the next couple of days.

 

But today we begin our brief tour of this story by being introduced to a grandson who is certainly not a patch on his illustrious grandfather.  King Belshazzar suffered the fate of many heirs who succeed great rulers: they pale by comparison.  Nebuchadnezzar died in 562BC, to be succeeded by Labashi-Marduk.  Belshazzar then helped engineer a coup in 556BC which placed his elderly father Nabonidus on the throne for the next 17 years, and though he never actually became king, effectively ruled in his stead for much of his father’s reign, acting as Regent of Babylon for more than 10 years during this time.

 

So Belshazzar is a cunning political operator, and by no means weak or ungifted.  He was a royal ‘insider’ and attempted to maintain the legacy that Nebuchadnezzar had left him, with a certain degree of success.

 

However, he failed in one crucial regard: he forgot the one vital lesson that Nebuchadnezzar had learned: ‘the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth, and gives them to anyone he wishes.’  Nebuchadnezzar had learned this lesson the hard way, as we’ve seen over the last few days; but he had also learned this lesson very publicly and deeply.  No-one connected with the court could have failed to perceive it.

 

But in the 20 or so years that elapsed since the death of the great king, this lesson was forgotten.  The sure sign of this is made clear in verse 2 of chapter 5: when hosting a party, Belshazzar uses the sacred vessels from the Temple in Jerusalem.  Not even King Nebuchadnezzar in his pomp had dared to carry out such an act of sacrilege, and it betrays an astonishing arrogance that leads fairly rapidly to Belshazzar’s downfall.

 

Whilst Belshazzar ends up as a tragic-comic figure in the story, there is a valuable reminder of how easy it is to forget God’s ways, the lessons He has taught us along the way.  As the wonderful old hymn goes: ‘Tell me the old, old story, for I forget so soon: the early dew of morning has passed away at noon.’

 

Perhaps take a moment today to ‘remember your first love’, to remind yourself of all that God has shown you along the way – that we might continue to walk in humble joy, and stay close to our Lord.

Wednesday 29th September – Daniel 4:28-37  ‘The Humble King’

Until the first century AD, the phrase ‘humble king’ was an oxymoron.  Kings and other rulers were meant to be proud and glorious, manifestly greater beings than the people they ruled.  The idea of a king being humble was ridiculous – Nebuchadnezzar may have been a tyrant but he conformed to the pattern expected of him. 

 

So what happened in Daniel chapter 4 is truly extraordinary.  Not just that the world’s most powerful ruler had such a downfall – but that he learned his lesson in the process. 

 

Historical evidence doesn’t shed light conclusively as to when and how this actually happened, so this is one episode we have to take on trust. Its veracity is most probably located in its unlikeliness.  This sort of thing was so far outside the realms of what would be expected that it’s improbable anyone would think to make it up – and even more improbable that a conquered people would dare to write it down and circulate it unless it was sanctioned.  Truth, in this case, is stranger than fiction.

 

And so, unlikely as it sounds, perhaps the great Nebuchadnezzar really did undergo a spiritual transformation.  Having suffered a prolonged season quite literally in the wilderness, he ‘raised his eyes towards heaven,’ and now praises, honours and glorifies the Most High (v34). 

 

Indeed, lest we miss it first time, he makes it clear that this change is not just a self-preserving response to a crisis which is soon forgotten when success returns, but a permanent change – the most remarkable sentence of all is found in the final verse (37): ‘Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the king of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just.’  The greatest earthly king now bows his heart before Someone even greater.

 

And whilst we may marvel at this remarkable transformation – and may it give us hope to keep praying for those we care for who seem hardened to God’s love – King Nebuchadnezzar is also, in his way, a prophetic sign, paving the way for a new understanding of what true leadership is. 

 

600 years later another king entered this world, and another tree took centre stage, one on which this king was lifted up – not to be worshipped, but to be mocked and insulted.  The placard which hailed him as king was designed to be ironic but spoke a greater truth than those standing nearby realised.  This king had taught that the only path to greatness was humble service, and just 24 hours previously had washed his friends’ feet, the task assigned to the lowliest slave in the household.  Shortly after his death his followers began to live in the same way, and the idea of humility before the Most High took root as a defining quality of real leadership – one we are fortunate to see modelled in our current queen.

 

The old Nebuchadnezzar of chapters 2 and 3 would have had no idea what this kind of king was about: but perhaps the Nebuchadnezzar of chapter 4 would have understood after all.  Today, we worship this King – the King of kings – who comes to us gentle and lowly, and who alone can grant us rest.

Tuesday 28th September – Daniel 4:19-32 ‘Cut down?’

By a strange coincidence, yesterday a large part of one of our biggest trees fell down in the churchyard.  I watched it happen from my study window shortly before writing this reflection.  There was a large cracking noise followed by the sobering sound of falling timber – and suddenly a bigger gap in the sky than we had a few seconds previously.

 

Thankfully no-one was nearby, and the clear up operation is well under way – but it provides a timely example of just what is involved in the felling of a big and glorious tree.  Today’s passage continues the story of Nebudchadnezzar’s second vivid dream, which Daniel is once again called to explain.  And, as Daniel makes clear, Nebuchadnezzar is himself the mighty tree he has dreamed of.  A tree that is about to be cut down....

 

But there is a second chance offered.  Daniel advises the king that a change of ways – or rather a change of heart – may yet save him from the dream coming true.  And perhaps Nebuchadnezzar did change – briefly.  But a year later, old patterns re-emerged (or had never altered), and the great king was humbled, just as the dream had foretold.

 

Whilst we might naturally perceive little in this story which affects us directly, there is a universal truth here.  Pride comes before a fall, as the old saying goes – and if this story teaches us anything, it reminds to beware believing our own hype.  We humans are good at giving ourselves too much credit for our successes, and too little responsibility for our failures.  Humility is one the greatest and most prized of all virtues: perhaps not in the eyes of much of society, but certainly in the eyes of the One whose opinion really matters.

 

There is also the offer of a second chance.  Whilst Nebuchadnezzar did ultimately fall victim to his own hubris, our gracious God gave him time to amend his ways.  How much more can we rest on the promises of Christ, the great giver of second, and third, and fourth, and multiple chances: ‘The time has come: the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news!’

 

May the Lord draw us back to this good news today, to the true freedom effected by life-giving repentance and faith.  And may we, too, walk in the dusty glory and wonder of humility.  

Monday 27th September – Daniel 4:1-18 ‘Who’s the boss?’

It usually takes most of us a while to really learn a lesson.  That’s human nature – there’s a stubborn streak in most of us, and patterns take time to be unlearned or re-formed.

 

It’s true for ordinary human beings, but no less true for the great and powerful.  Probably more true, in fact.  It was certainly the case for King Nebuchadnezzar. Chapters 2-4 of Daniel describe a life-changing journey for the world’s most powerful man at the time, and we can see a progression in Nebuchadnezzar’s understanding, albeit a slow one.

 

In chapter 2, the king is confronted with a terrifying dream, and experiences a miraculous revelation given by one of his Jewish advisors. It causes him to wonder, but his ego is undiminished: indeed, having been told that his was the golden head of the statue (2:38), he goes right ahead and constructs a golden statue (3:1), even demanding that his people worship it!

 

And so he encounters Operation Revelation Part 2, where God meets with him again in the form of the miraculous rescue of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; and this time he actually sees an angelic vision (3:25).  His heart is moved a little closer to the Lord: he now praises the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, which is something he didn’t do at the end of chapter 2.  But he remains a human who sees power in terms of coercion and prestige: threatening disaster on all who do not worship the same God (3:29) and glorying in his own prosperity (4:4).

 

And so God meets with him a third time, through another vivid dream.  It is noteworthy that while the dream appears obscure, the punchline is direct and its meaning quite clear even before Daniel is brought in to explain it: the messenger in the vision declares that God is the Lord of all and even the leaders of nations are in his hands (v17).

 

So it’s possible that Nebuchadnezzar already knew the meaning of the dream, but was desperately hoping it was aimed at someone else!  Perhaps that might be a prod for some of us as we read today: has God been speaking to you about something, maybe a word you’re reluctant to hear, or a change you’re reluctant to make?

 

Either way, there’s a simple lesson in chapter 4 for all of us: there is only one true God – the Lord God Almighty – and this God has the whole world in His hands.  For Nebuchadnezzar this caused a great downfall, followed by a marvellous restoration, as we’ll see over the next couple of days.

 

But for us, may it be an encouragement.  Wherever we see corrupt human leadership we know that it doesn’t last forever.  Kingdoms fall, leaders are replaced, and there is one Kingdom that ultimately prevails.  Let’s pray with confidence to our great God today, and for the nations that desperately need better leaders, that the Lord might intervene, for His glory and for the sake of those who suffer.

Saturday 25th September – Daniel 3:19-30  ‘Divine deliverance’

‘When you walk through the fire you will not be harmed, the flames will not set you ablaze.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.’

 

Famous prophetic words from Isaiah 43 – and it’s quite possible that the prophet was referring to this very story.  It may well be that the courage of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego was already well-known enough for this to sit alongside the iconic Crossing of the Red Sea in Isaiah’s prophecy.

 

Either way, the story of the three friends’ miraculous deliverance reaches its climax today.  The furnace is brought into play – with fatal consequences for the guards – but ultimately God does indeed rescue his servants and demonstrates (again) to King Nebuchadnezzar that He is the one in charge – the ‘God of Gods and the Lord of kings,’ as the king put it at the end of chapter 2.

 

Crucially, this time the king sees for himself an angelic being (v25) which clearly persuades him that God is actively involved in this saga.  Nevertheless, he still has some way to go to understand what this God might be saying to him directly – the decree of verse 29 still relies rather too much on coercive violence!  But it is another step in the right direction.

 

The image of the fire has long been used as a metaphor for a situation in which God reveals his work in a person’s life.  As fire refines metal, so crises or challenges refine us.  We never like the heat being turned up, but so often God blesses us in unexpected ways through the time of trial, and we develop an intimacy with him that maybe we didn’t think possible in normal circumstances.

 

In saying this, we should never trivialise the pain of a crisis – but we can cling with hope to the One who walks with us through it.  Take a moment to pray for all who walk through crises today – whether that’s you, or others.  The God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is our God, too.

Friday 24th September – Daniel 3:13-18 ‘But if not....’

‘But even if he does not...’ – one of the greatest lines in the bible, I think.  Certainly one of the bravest and most awe-inspiring.  The lives of Daniel’s three friends are on the line, and from the king’s point of view it rests on one decision: will they bow down to his golden statue or not?

 

However, this is not the key decision as Daniel’s friends see it.  The one decision that matters is: will they be faithful to their Lord?  They serve Someone Greater, and they are prepared to trust their lives into this Someone’s hands. 

 

Which means that the decision is already made, only the consequence of that decision remains: either God will save them miraculously, or they will die but be rewarded with eternal glory for their faithfulness.  Whichever it proves to be, they will not be coerced into idolatry by the king.

 

We know the ending of the story, but let’s not skip to that point yet – tomorrow comes soon enough!  Very few of us will face such a life-or-death decision in our lives.  But we will face daily or weekly small decisions where we have to decide whom we serve.  And the point is that God always blesses our faithfulness.  Not always as we expect, but always in some way or another.  Or to put it another way: God always repays.

 

So let’s seize faith to live with the same mindset as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  Those who are faithful do not need to defend their position – God will do that for us.  Hallelujah!

Thursday 23rd September: Psalm 1 – The Tree

For Great Big Green Week, today we re-post an Inspiration from last year.   Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would likely have known this Psalm, and they provide a wonderful living example, as their rootedness in God and his Word sustained them through this crisis point in their lives...

The bible is full of rich images of what it means to truly live in the abundant life of God.  Psalm 1 describes one such (particularly good) image: the tree.  Our lives were designed by God to be like a tree.

 

I must confess that I love trees.  I love being close to them, just standing in their presence, admiring their size, their beauty, their dignity.  Trees are one of the greatest parts of God’s creation.  They heal, they shelter, they stand strong and firm in all weather.  They just are.  Or rather, they have been, they are and they will be. That sense of majestic permanence is part of their appeal.

 

God calls us to be like that: trees which reflect his glory.  Psalm 1 shows us why and how.  First, we need roots.  This psalm places our roots firmly in the Word of God – v2 delighting in ‘the law of the Lord’ – and the Spirit of God. The biblical image of water in v3 usually connects with God’s presence, so this tree planted by a stream can easily be understood to mean one who is constantly refreshed by the water of God’s presence – his Spirit.

 

Second, we bear fruit.  We all know that spring is coming when the buds appear on trees.  In summer those buds blossom into leaves and even fruit.  A tree ‘yields its fruit in season’ (v3). So should our lives.  Nourished by Word and Spirit, we stand where we are and bear fruit for our Lord.

 

Finally, this Psalm contrasts the rootedness and fruitfulness of such a person with the alternative.  Those who do not go deep with God ‘are like chaff that the wind blows away.’ (v4)  Blown here and there by wherever the current of our culture leads, such lives ultimately cannot prosper.  They may flower for a while, but the shaking of the wind proves fatal.

 

If you can, take a moment today to find a tree and spend time admiring it.  God is calling you to be such a tree: rooted in his Word, nourished by his Spirit, fruitful, strong and dignified.  You probably don’t feel much like that – none of us do – but by His amazing grace, that is what we can all become. 

 

Reading Psalm 1 today, how might you keep growing into this beautiful calling?

Wednesday 22nd September – Daniel 3:1-12 ‘Following the crowd’

Humans are social beings (as well as spiritual ones!).  We are made to relate, and we also have a deep desire to ‘find our place’ in the community.  We all know what peer pressure feels like – that subtle power to conform to a particular set of expectations, or ‘approved’ beliefs or behaviours.

 

Daniel chapter 3 is all about control (on the part of King Nebuchadnezzar) and courage (on the part of Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego).  At the heart of both themes is the question of conformity.  The king demands conformity to cement his power; the friends refuse because they worship Someone even greater.

 

I love the narrative of this chapter, because the endless repetition of the job titles (vv2,3) and the musical instruments (vv5,7,10) uses language to weave a narrative of conformity.  The underlying message is: ‘everyone is falling into line, whether they like it or not – so should you!’

 

But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego don’t fall into line.  Not because they like rebelling for the sake of it, but because only one Being deserves their worship and adoration: the Lord God Almighty.  Indeed, the astrologers testify to it in their denunciation to the king: ‘They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold.’ (v12)

 

As orthodox Christian faith finds itself under increasing attack in our culture, we too face greater pressure to ‘swim with the tide’ than for many decades.  Let’s acknowledge that not to do so is hard – we are social beings who like to fit in, to ‘find our place’.  For some, choosing not to is agonising, and it’s right to recognise the courage required.  We can also note the significance of the three friends choosing to stay faithful to the Lord together – it’s one reason why we need each other more than ever.  Faith was never designed to be a solitary occupation.

 

This is a story for our times, and let’s take heart from its message over these three days.  Today, may we be inspired by the simple reminder that in the end we are God’s, and our calling is to live for the Audience of One.  May God grant us grace to do that in all of our lives, and to support each other in prayer and friendship as we journey on ‘the road less travelled’ together.

Tuesday 21st September – Daniel 2:44-49 ‘The God of gods’

Humans are spiritual beings.  We are all made to worship – and since the dawn of civilisation, every generation of human beings in every culture across the globe has done so.  Even now, those who apparently reject God, faith, or organised religion simply direct their worship towards something else.  The question is not if we worship but who (or what) we worship. 

 

It is now customary in the West to characterise faith as a minority pursuit, but in fact this is a myth – we’ve simply directed much of our faith and adoration elsewhere.  We all live by faith, to some extent – what matters is where we direct our faith.  When life gets hard, where do you go?  What pulls you through?  Who or what can you rely on?  Who holds the ultimate authority?  Who desires the best for us, and enables us to flourish as human beings? 

 

This is when the direction of our worship really matters.  Nebuchadnezzar may have been the world’s most powerful human being, but when he encountered something beyond his power, the source of his faith (essentially himself and his power) was left brutally exposed.  Suddenly he was looking for answers, he was open to the idea that he needed something – or someone – more than he had in his life at present.

 

And in the God of Daniel – the Lord Almighty of heaven and earth – he found such a One.  When Daniel miraculously revealed both the dream and the interpretation (and was careful to make clear who provided the inspiration – v28) Nebuchadnezzar was confronted with a greater reality, and was moved to a new kind of worship: ‘Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries.’ (v47)

 

It took many years for this spiritual awakening to produce genuine and deep change, as chapters 3 and 4 make clear, but Nebuchadnezzar’s journey towards the God of gods begins here.  The Lord had captured his attention, if not yet his heart.

 

We too are called to be Daniels today – perhaps not at the level (or with the danger) Daniel faced, but simply to point a confused culture towards the one true source of worship, the One who alone can satisfy our deepest needs and longings.  Our great God is more than able to do the rest, and to Him alone is all the glory.

Monday 20th September – Daniel 2:29-45 ‘The rock cut without hands’

Human empires come and go.  For a while they might seem invincible – but eventually they always decline, and their place is taken by another.  There is only one kingdom that lasts forever – the kingdom of God.  A kingdom not reliant on a territory or an army, but on the presence and power of the Almighty.  This kingdom may often appear weak and insignificant, but in the end it is the one which prevails, and eventually, ‘the kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ.’

 

Nebuchadnezzar’s dream tells the story of the kingdom, in visual form.  A great statue is pictured, made of different parts, and Daniel reveals that these parts represent human empires.  Whilst there is some uncertainty as to which are described, it is most likely the Babylonian, Medean, Persian and Greek empires, in that order.  Alexander the Great is probably the ‘iron’ kingdom which smashes the others to pieces (v40), but which then divides into a number of competing dynasties (vv41-43).  At that point, something dramatic happens: a ‘rock cut without hands’ smashes the statue (v34), fills the whole earth (v35) and lasts forever (v44).

 

The Greek Empire remained the dominant force in the world until it was conquered by the Romans, a process which took over a century, but which culminated in the Battle of Actium in 31BC – just three decades before Jesus was born, and a new world order came into being.

 

Jesus is the rock cut without hands, the decisive intervention of God in our world (v44) whose kingdom prevails over all the others and now fills the earth.  When he was born, he was laid on a stone feeding trough (sorry to disappoint your images of a wooden manger!); he won the salvation of the world on the rocky outcrop of Mount Moriah; and, ultimately, a large stone rolled away to declare the victory of God on Easter Day.

 

Daniel didn’t know any of that, of course.  But we do – and now we can read this amazing passage with wonder and joy in our hearts.  The dream was true – as was the interpretation.  Thank God for the ‘rock cut without hands’, who defeated our enemies, won our life and salvation, and now welcomes all into the family of the one, true everlasting kingdom.  Amen!

Saturday 18th September – Daniel 2:24-28 ‘But I know someone who can...’

‘I know a man who can.’  You may remember the famous advert for the AA – and with apologies for the non-inclusive language, it was very much of its time!  A child has buried the car at the beach, a truck carrying a giraffe is stuck at a low bridge... can you fix it? ‘No, but I know a man who can.’  (He’s a nice man, a very nice man, I like him, he’s a very nice man – but I’m getting carried away!)

 

When we face an insoluble problem, what we really need is ‘someone who can’.  Whether it’s cars, boilers, computers – or spiritual troubles – we need to know where to look for the answer.

 

King Nebuchadnezzar has his own breakdown to repair – a disturbing dream – and he has put the lives of his advisors at stake to find out.  And now that Daniel has the answer, he is shown in to the throne room to face the king directly (verses 24-25).  Not surprisingly for a king, Nebuchadnezzar gets right to it, no chit-chat: ‘Are you able to tell me?’ (v26).

 

‘No.’

 

‘...but I know someone who can.’

 

It’s hard to overstate the courage required to start with the word ‘no’, especially when your life depends on it.  But Daniel is here to do more than just fix the king’s problem: he wants to point Nebuchadnezzar to someone greater, the ultimate problem-fixer – Almighty God.  In doing so, he takes no credit for himself, but instead gives all the glory to God – something which is repeated by the king himself at the end of the conversation, as we’ll see in a couple of days’ time.

 

We may not face the sort of life-threatening challenge Daniel does – but there is here a wonderful model for attractive witness to our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues.  We may not have all the answers – but we know Someone who does.  We may not be able to solve their crises – but we know Someone who can.  We may not be able to fill the gap in their lives – but we know Someone who can. We may not be the answer to their prayers – but we know Someone who is.

 

When Jesus comes, he doesn’t say ‘this is the way’ – he says ‘I am the way.’ The path to life is found not in knowledge or expertise, but in a relationship.  When anyone faces challenges, the best thing we can do is to point beyond ourselves, to the One who is greater.  Because we know Someone Who Can.

Friday 17th September – Daniel 2:14-23 ‘When we need it’

‘Give us today our daily bread.’  A well-known line – indeed the central line – of the world’s most famous prayer, and one many of us pray every day.  And of course it does have a literal meaning, especially for many around the world, for whom daily physical sustenance is not a given.

 

But there is a broader meaning, too.  Bread in this case means ‘everything we need for the day.’  And there are days when this request takes on extra importance.  An unforeseen crisis, an extremely heavy workload, a big event which we’ve dreaded for ages. 

 

Today’s passage takes the promise of daily bread to its extreme!  What Daniel and his friends need is a miracle to save their lives.  The king will execute them the following day, along with hundreds of their fellow officials, unless they receive divine revelation concerning both the content and the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.

 

And so they ‘plead for mercy from the God of heaven’ (v18).  And God is wonderfully gracious: a vision is given and Daniel receives the answer he needs, saving not just his life but the lives of many others.

 

In the midst of this extraordinary act of God, let’s not miss: (a) the practical steps Daniel took to ‘create the space’ which allowed God to work – verses 14-16.  This required both tact and courage:  God’s supernatural work complemented Daniel’s natural activity; (b) the power of community.  Daniel shared with his friends and they sought this miraculous ‘daily bread’ together; and (c) the importance of gratitude – how easy it is for us to forget to thank God for the ‘daily bread’ we receive!  Perhaps Daniel’s wonderful prayer in verses 20-23 can be ours this day.

 

What ‘daily bread’ do you need today?  And when you have received it, don’t forget to thank our loving God, too.  ‘Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever!’

Thursday 16th September – Daniel 2:1-13 ‘The power of dreams’

Nearly all of us dream.  It’s part of the brain’s way of processing and ordering our experiences, though it often leads to some strange combinations, and some even stranger recurrent dreams.  For some years in my 20s and 30s I dreamt regularly of being attacked by killer cats – yes, really.  If recurrent dreams are meant to provide insights into our basic psyche then I would probably be a psychologist’s nightmare.  I really don’t want to know what that signifies!

 

God also speaks through dreams, too.  The prophet Joel – the passage we often read at Pentecost, quoted by Peter in his famous sermon – promises that in the age of the Spirit ‘your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.’ (Joel 2:28)  Stories abound of how many thousands of people have recently come to faith in countries with no access to bibles or missionaries simply through dreams.  Jesus appears to them directly, and they awake with a profound assurance of God’s love.  Never under-estimate the power of a God-given dream.

 

And in our passage today, the world’s most powerful man, Nebuchadnezzar – military genius, cruel tyrant, unstoppable force – encounters the one foe he fears: a vivid and disturbing dream.  In a culture which assumed that ‘the gods’ only communicated through mysterious things, this was a big deal, and potentially signified either triumph or disaster – no wonder he was terrified and unable to sleep (v1).

 

And in typical fashion he tries to bully his way to wisdom, saying in effect to his Magi (name sound familiar?): ‘Tell me what it means or I’ll kill you.’  Not sure that kind of pep talk ever really works... about as effective as a sign I keep in my room, which always makes me chuckle: ‘Floggings will continue until morale improves.’

 

But what is clear is that this dream is a pathway to divine revelation (v11) – and even today we too need to be open to the possibility that God might use a dream to speak to us.  Most of the time he doesn’t need to, we have bibles and pastors and lots of other ways to meet with God – so we need to beware overdoing this line of thought, or being ‘hyperalert’. 

 

But let’s rejoice with those who have come to Christ through them, and let’s pray that God continues to use dreams in cultures which oppose the gospel in other ways, to draw many more to the glorious awareness of his love and grace.  If God can speak to Nebuchadnezzar this way, he can speak to anyone.

Wednesday 15th September – Daniel 1:17-21 ‘Real wisdom’

‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?  Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’  These words of T.S. Eliot written almost a century ago are probably more true now than ever.  Apparently the amount of information created and stored on the web doubles every two years: vast amounts of data about anything and everything.  Information has become the idol of the 21st century, ironically obscuring our path towards knowledge, and pushing us even further from real wisdom, which seems more precious – and also more scarce – than ever.

 

But what is wisdom?  Wisdom is what makes life really work.  Someone once defined it in biblical terms as ‘godliness in everyday clothing.’  It’s about spiritual, emotional and relational health, the capacity to make wise choices, and to live with good, just and life-affirming purpose.  It cuts through the noise of information and sharpens the tools of knowledge.  In short, it’s how we were designed to live, and to flourish as human beings.

 

Today’s passage tells us that Daniel and his friends abounded in this kind of wisdom – ‘in every matter,’ and ten times better than the king’s other advisers, who are described as ‘magicians and enchanters’ (v20).

 

This last description is instructive because it makes the root of wisdom clear.  If wisdom is rooted in the character of God, then it’s vital to know who this God is.  Much religious practice of that day – including here in Babylon – assumed that the gods (probably plural) were essentially unknowable in any meaningful sense: they were capricious and unpredictable, and could only be sought through a series of bizarre rituals for, essentially, ‘yes or no’ answers.

 

The one, true God, on the other hand, worshipped by Daniel and his friends, is nothing like that.  Our God can be known: this is a God who, from the beginning, speaks.  This God communicated his will for human beings in detail through the giving of the law and the instructions of the prophets – all of which was available to Daniel.  And this God is not capricious or unpredictable, but constant in character – full of mercy, loving-kindness and near to all who call on him.  This God doesn’t need to be bribed or cajoled, but can be approached, loved and worshipped.

 

It’s no surprise, then, that Daniel and his friends gain a reputation for great wisdom.  You just have to look in the right place!  For us, too, despite the increasing pressure for us to abandon the wisdom of biblical truth, we can take great comfort and inspiration that we have the same access to real, divine wisdom – even greater, perhaps, than Daniel, because God’s Holy Spirit now writes this wisdom on our hearts.

 

Our God still speaks, and still desires our flourishing.  Let’s recapture that joyful confidence in God’s wisdom to make life work, and may God grant us grace to find all the wisdom we need for our lives today.

Tuesday 14th September – Daniel 1:6-16 ‘Drawing the line’

Soon after I started office work in 1996, I was asked to work on a project for a large client in the gambling industry.  Our team had lots of clients, and gambling research was only a small part of our turnover.  I approached my director (quickly but quietly) and indicated that I had an issue of conscience with gambling, but would be very happy to work in every other client sector. 

 

My boss reluctantly accepted my decision, though I did get hauled into the Managing Director’s office a couple of days later and was given a telling off for my trouble.  But I worked there very happily (in the same team) for 12 years, with lots of clients in lots of sectors, and the issue never came up again.

 

On matters of faith and conscience, where do you draw the line?  That is the million-dollar question, and one which many of us have to face in our work, as well as in other parts of our lives.  It’s a multi-layered challenge: first, we have to know what we think about various things to start with – not always easy!  Second, we have to face possible conflict with family, friends and colleagues.  Third, we may also be worried that it puts our job or reputation at risk. 

 

Daniel and his friends faced these exact same questions 2,500 years ago.  They had been resettled in Babylon and forced to adapt to a totally different culture.   They had a deep faith, and resolved to stay faithful to the one, true God.  However, they also had to live and thrive in this culture – where should they draw the lines?

 

It’s fascinating to see that Daniel and his friends we happy to absorb Babylonian language, media culture and even names (v4,v6).  But their ‘red line’ was food (v8).  This may seem odd to our ears, but food laws were – and are – an incredibly important part of Jewish faith, and eating the wrong thing would have made Daniel unclean before God in a way that the other things didn’t.  So they chose to make a stand on this issue.

 

But what I love, and find inspiring, is the wise and gracious way they took this stand.  The talked to the right person privately rather than stand on a soapbox.  They were polite.  And they asked for a trial period to prove that they could do the job just as well regardless.

 

And God honoured their faithfulness.  Their health flourished, and the official could therefore afford to turn a blind eye.  It strikes me that this is a model for us, too.  Our ethical challenges may be different.  But we can still be wise and gracious – and above all, we look to our great God, who honours our gentle, loving obedience.  Where do you need wisdom today?  And how can God help you to act upon it?

Monday 13th September 2021 – Daniel 1:1-7  ‘A strange world’

Over the last few weeks, approximately 16,000 people have been resettled in the UK after fleeing Afghanistan.  Whilst they were not forcibly taken – as the Jewish people were in Daniel chapter 1 – it was still, in many ways, a decision forced upon them.  Their lives were in danger: and, however thankful many must be to be living somewhere safe, that is weighed against the trauma of leaving their homeland, their culture, and most of their extended family and friends behind, perhaps never to see them again.

 

Over the coming months and years, these refugees will have to learn to live in an unfamiliar culture, and, as such, will face the critical decisions that all those in exile must face: what parts of their identity must be kept, and what must be adapted or even discarded.  This is the dilemma of exile.

 

The theme of exile is a crucial one in the bible.  It defines much of the story of God’s people, from Abraham onwards: in Egypt and in Babylon in the Old Testament; and then, in the New, a story of spiritual survival surrounded by a hostile host culture – first Jewish, then Roman.

 

It is, increasingly, our story, too.  For several generations our own culture in the UK has been moving away from the unquestioning acceptance of Christian truth as the bedrock of our culture, a process which is accelerating at present.  Many of us now feel ourselves to be strangers in a strange land: a minority swimming against the tide – albeit one which remains as spiritually hungry as ever, and is now able to hear the story of our faith with fresh ears.  So it’s not all doom and gloom: our good news is a genuine surprise to large parts of our nation, which brings enormous opportunities alongside considerable challenges.

 

But it is this cultural backdrop which makes the Old Testament Book of Daniel such an encouragement and an inspiration.  The world Daniel inhabits as a person of faith looks rather more like ours than it did 100 years ago.  There is so much gold for us to mine from its pages, and I hope over the next few weeks we will do just that.  It is a story of courage, of integrity, of surprising flourishing – as well as containing some of the best loved stories of the bible: the dreams, the fiery furnace, the writing on the wall and the lions’ den.

 

Above all, Daniel is a book about identity.  Whose are we?  And if we are God’s (and God’s above all), how do we live out our faith in our culture.  What do we hold onto as non-negotiable, and where can we adapt?  How do we seek the prosperity of our city, our nation, and also worship and serve a Higher Power first and foremost?

 

As we delve deep into Daniel in this season, may God continue to make us strong in our identity: as his children, followers of Jesus above all, who ‘is the same yesterday, today and forever.’ And may we be equipped to live out our faith with fresh courage, integrity and inspiration.

Previous series: below you can find the recent series in Acts and Colossians.  Or head over to our Archive page to find previous series in Psalms, John, the Holy Spirit, Philippians, Hidden in Christ, Thy Kingdom Come, and more besides!

From Pentecost Sunday in May to mid-July, we offered a major series in the Book of Acts (chapters 1-10):

Saturday 17th July – Acts 10:23b-48 ‘A gift for all’

In my younger days I attended many summer camps – first as a family member of leaders, then as a ‘happy camper’ in my own right, and finally as a leader myself.  Probably the most memorable was in 1995, when I helped lead a camp for 12-15 year olds.  The first half of the week was probably the worst camp I’d ever done: we were understaffed, we had real behavioural issues – eventually sending one boy home, the only time in my experience that this happened – the chaplain got up and gave the same talk every evening, and then we had a serious accident at the swimming pool where a boy broke a bone in his foot and was taken to A&E.

 

When the hospital party returned to camp, the boy (now with his foot in plaster) asked the chaplain to pray for him while the rest of us organised our usual mid-afternoon activities.  All I do remember is that 20 minutes later this same boy was running round the camp.  No plaster, no more foot trouble – he had been spontaneously healed after the chaplain had prayed a prayer asking for this to happen in Jesus’ name.

 

As you can imagine, the whole atmosphere in the camp changed.  God had done something amazing. Suddenly the chaplain’s talk – still the same every evening! – was listened to with rapt attention.  Other people wanted to be prayed for.  Many experienced God in powerful ways – myself included.  By the end of the week, half the camp had decided to follow Christ.  What started as the worst camp had become the best.

 

What made the difference?  The same thing that we read here in this passage: the tangible presence of God at work by his Holy Spirit.  The pouring out of God’s Spirit in the world – which began the Book of Acts – continues to be the thing that activates and energises the church.  Here, St Peter comes to understand that the good news of Jesus’ love is for everyone – non-Jews included – because he sees the Spirit at work, giving the same gifts, meeting people in the same way that he had experienced.

 

Jesus is not just true – he’s real.  And his love in our hearts is not just a doctrine, it’s a lived experience.  We don’t always feel things as dramatically as Cornelius and his friends did here – but the transforming power of Jesus’ love in our lives is still at work nonetheless.  ‘God does not show favouritism,’ Peter concludes – and this wonderful promise is one to lift our hearts today, because it reminds us of that simple but profound truth that these same gifts, this same love, is for all of us too.

 

Let’s claim that promise – and may God cause our hearts to overflow with praise and thanksgiving again.

 

Lord Jesus, come to me again by your Spirit.  Thank you that your love is poured out for all – I gladly receive it now.  Fill my heart, and renew my life this day.  Amen.

Friday 16th July – Acts 10:1-23 ‘God has made clean’

I must confess I only occasionally watch cookery programmes.  One, however, that I found very memorable was when Jamie Oliver went on location to Italy.  One of the tasks he was set was to kill the animal whose meat he would cook.  He found this immensely difficult and upsetting; but also profoundly challenging because, as he admitted, most of us in our culture are insulated from the reality of what eating meat actually involves.  As a result, he found the challenge to ‘kill and eat’ horrifying.

 

Peter faced a similar situation in today’s reading – albeit his horror was for different reasons. As a fisherman in that culture, and very likely a meat-eater too, he would be well used to what was involved in the preparation for meat.  His issue was different – all the foods he saw in his dream were unclean according to the Jewish law.  Although he was now a follower of Jesus, he remained very much an orthodox Jew – indeed, Jesus was the fulfilment of the law and of Jewish messianic hopes.  Hence his blunt reply: ‘Surely not, Lord!’ (v14)

 

God’s reply to him is remarkable: ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ (v15).

 

Peter only came to understand the meaning of this later in the story, which we’ll see next time: but today, let’s marvel in the truth that our God is in the business of making things clean.  As we sing in one of our favourite hymns: ‘He comes to cleanse and heal, to minister his grace.’

 

To be forgiven is many things: to be free, to have a new start, to have hope – but also to be clean.  We may not have done terrible things; but even small wrongs leave a stain.  We need washing: and the great news of our faith is that through the cross, God wipes away the stains in our lives.  We are clean.

 

Today, take a moment to say sorry to God, to confess anything that you feel is getting in the way of your connection with him.  And then, even more importantly, give thanks that you are forgiven, you are free, you are clean.  We may not always feel like this – but the reality goes deeper than our feelings.   What Peter heard in his dream is true for us too: ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’  That’s you, that’s me, that’s us!

Thursday 15th July – Acts 9:36-43 ‘In Jesus’ footsteps’

Today’s passage feels like something of an interlude sandwiched between the famous episodes which describe how the gospel takes root among non-Jews (ch10) and the person who God calls to spearhead this mission in the long-term (Saul/Paul in the rest of ch9).   So, of all the stories which Luke could have used, why is it included?

 

Well, it does serve a very real purpose, one which becomes clear when we think about the story it reminds us of.  I wonder if you made that connection as you read it... if not, take a look at Mark 5:35 onwards, and you’ll see that what Peter does here is very close to one of Jesus’ healing miracles. 

 

The connection points are numerous: the person has just died; Jesus/Peter is sent for urgently; there is great collective grief; Jesus/Peter sends everyone out of the room; Jesus/Peter commands healing (noting as a lovely aside that what Jesus says to the girl in Aramaic is ‘Talitha koum’ and what Peter says here is ‘Tabitha koum’!); the dead person is miraculously restored to life.

 

I think the point that Luke is demonstrating is that Peter is very much a true apostle/representative of Jesus – to the point now that he is able to perform miracles (only in Jesus’ name, of course) just like his Master.  And this forms the backdrop to Peter initiating the huge step forward in the mission of the gospel in the very next episode – the final link in the chain, you might say, whereby the good news of this same Jesus is now able to reach the whole world.  Up to this point, it was still largely Jewish – from now on, it will spread like wildfire to everyone.

 

We too, follow in Jesus’ footsteps – perhaps not in the dramatic way described here.  But whenever we do something in Jesus’ name, or manifest a spiritual virtue which echoes Jesus’ own life, in our own way we are doing as Peter did, following the Master, being a ‘little Jesus’ – i.e. a Christian.  However small or great, it all matters, it is all for God’s glory.

 

God simply calls us to be faithful – he takes care of the rest.  How can you follow in Jesus’ footsteps today?

Wednesday 14th July – Psalm 103  ‘Crowns you with love’

‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown.’  This quote (or rather slight misquote!) from Shakespeare’s Henry IV is a great observation about the challenges of leadership and responsibility.  Such things weigh upon us.  Indeed, a literal crown for most monarchs is usually a heavy object: the King Edward Crown of Queen Elizabeth II weighs nearly 5lbs!  Try wearing that for a long ceremonial occasion.  The Queen might well have neck muscles like those on a Formula 1 racing driver.

 

But there is a crown which does not weigh heavy.  It is the crown mentioned here in verse 4: the crown of God’s love and compassion.  What a beautiful phrase this is!  God does not just offer us, or give us, these things: he crowns us with them.

 

The image suggests that these things are of great value – both to the giver but also to the wearer.  To wear a crown is be bestowed with great worth.  And so we are to God: the Lord thinks the world of us.  He made no-one else like us.  We bear his image.  We are of infinite worth to him.  So yes, we can rightly describe God’s love and compassion as a crown – just let that thought sink in for a moment, and warm your heart.

 

But let us also remember that to give us this crown, God also wore one while on earth.  The only crown God ever wore was one of thorns: the ultimate act of self-giving love.  A crown which weighed little in grams but weighed everything in cost.  When God crowns us, let us never forget what crown God kept for himself.

 

We may never get to wear a physical crown.  But today, let us rejoice that we wear a spiritual one.  One given to us at such a cost: the crown of God’s love and compassion.  And may that crown be worn not just in our heads, but also in our hearts.

 

Gracious God, thank you that I am worth everything to you.  I gladly receive your crown of love.  Fill me with your compassion, too, that I might also pass that on to others.  Bless the Lord, my soul.  Amen.

Tuesday 13th July – Acts 9:31-35 ‘A time of peace’

When I lived in London, one of my favourite moments of the day was the moment I climbed into bed at the end of the day and just... enjoyed the silence.  I loved living in London – I was born and brought up there – and I always found the intensity of the experience part of its attraction.  I loved the buzz and the bustle, the sense of energy all around.  But the moment when I could just lie for a few minutes in a dark bedroom and hear nothing but my own breathing was a beautiful one.  The calm after the storm.

 

‘After the storm...’ would be a good heading for today’s reading.  The church has been suffering its first extended period of oppression and even persecution.  It had to make radical changes to what it did and how it met: large numbers of Christians had to leave their homes and relocate elsewhere, leaders were targeted and in some cases either imprisoned or murdered.  But, eventually, the storm blows itself out: the church stands strong and in one last act of quiet defiance, Saul escapes the plots of his enemies and heads back to his home town (v30). 

 

‘Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria (the South, the Midlands and the North i.e. the whole country) enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened.’  This lovely verse is like the first spring day with a warm sun and a gentle breeze after the climatic poundings of the end of winter.  It lifts the heart, and puts a smile on our face.  ‘Living in the fear of the Lord, and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.’  A sure sign that peace was restored is the fact that the apostles – who had stayed in Jerusalem and gone underground – were now able to move about the country freely again, doing good and encouraging believers (verses 33-35).

 

Many of us probably long for ‘a time of peace’ in our own nation, or perhaps our own lives.  But it struck me as I reflected on the passage that my biggest issue is often that I don’t recognise times of peace when they come.  There’s something in human nature that tends to forget our blessings and remember our troubles.  And the great challenge of life is that times of trouble are inevitable.

 

But so are times of peace – and having the capacity to recognise those times for what they are, to give thanks for them, remember them and make the most of them is one of the wisest and healthiest things we can do.

 

To some degree, we all find ourselves in a difficult time at present.  This too shall pass.  But let’s also apply it at a personal level.  The encouragement of this passage is that times of peace always come eventually.  Let’s take heart from this truth, especially if this is a time of trouble for you.  And, if you happen to find yourself in such a time, give thanks, resolving to treasure it for as long as it lasts.  God is the God of the storm, and the calm.

Monday 12th July – Acts 9:20-30  ‘Barnabas brought him’

Everyone needs a Barnabas in their life.  Someone with the gift of encouragement, willing to see the best in people, who in turn become the better people that the encourager sees.

 

It’s not easy to find stories of great encouragers.  By definition, they often act out of the spotlight, behind the scenes.  One well-known example was recently showcased in the film ‘The King’s Speech’ – Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) was shown to have played a huge role in supporting and encouraging King George to overcome his stammer, which had always prevented him from being able to speak to the nation. 

 

Another less well-known example is that of Abraham Lincoln’s stepmother Sarah Bush, who saw the young Lincoln’s love of books and learning, and was the one to encourage him to build his own bookcase, and to light fires in the evening so that he could read and develop the great mind that would one day exercise such a huge influence on his nation.

 

But the Barnabas of the bible (and today’s passage) is perhaps the greatest example we have of this gift.  Indeed his very name means ‘Son of Encouragement’.  His real name was Joseph, but such was the depth of his gift, it also became the name we all know him by.  And here we see the second of four great examples in the book of Acts to the power of this extraordinary gift.  Back in chapter 4, we saw Barnabas giving generously to the church, so that it could support those in need.  Later in Acts, Barnabas plays a decisive role in the growth of the church in Antioch, and then defends the nurturing into leadership of young John Mark, even to the point of falling out with the man he meets here and who becomes his great friend, Saul (later Paul).

 

As I read today’s passage, I find myself wondering: if I was a member of the church in Jerusalem, and the famous persecutor Saul suddenly turns up, claiming to be a Christian and wanting to join our fellowship, how would I respond?   Much as I like to believe that I would choose to see the best in Saul, it’s hard for any of us to know exactly how we would react.  There would be fear, suspicion, maybe cynicism.  People have suffered, and died – can that be forgotten, even if it is forgiven?

 

‘But Barnabas....’ (v27) – one of the great phrases in the bible.  For all that it would be understandable to be suspicious, one person sees Saul both as he is and also as he could be, one person takes a risk to offer unconditional welcome into the community of grace – and that person was Barnabas. 

 

The long-term effect of this was extraordinary.   It is possible that Saul/Paul’s history-changing ministry could still have happened regardless – but surely not to the same extent.  The fact that Saul/Paul was welcomed at an early stage to the leadership of the early church (thanks to Barnabas) must have played a huge part in the growth and development of his calling.

 

So, as we give thanks for Barnabas today, let’s also take a few moments to give thanks for the encouragers in our lives.  Maybe take a moment later today to call them or drop them a quick note to thank them.  And, perhaps, you too can be a Barnabas to someone else this week?

Saturday 10th July – Acts 9:17-22  ‘The scales fell’

Wednesday, May 24th, 1738: ‘I think it was about 5:00 this morning that I opened my Testament upon these words, “There are given to us great and exceeding promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature.” Just as I went out I opened it again upon these words, “Thou art not far from the king­dom of God”...  In the evening I went very unwill­ingly to a society on Aldersgate Street where one was reading Luther's Preface to the Epis­tle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine while he was describing the change whereby God works on the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and the assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and He saved me from the law of sin and death.’

 

This is how John Wesley described his conversion to Christ.  Although he had been a minister for some years, he had never fully grasped the deep reality of what Christ had done for him – until May 24th 1738.  Thereafter he became one of the greatest evangelists the world has seen, who changed the culture of our nation and influenced many others besides.

 

Wesley’s conversion is one that resonates for many of us because it is quite ‘normal’.  We can marvel at Saul’s experience of blinding lights and audible voices from heaven, but perhaps feel a bit distant from it, in that it represents an experience quite outside of our experience.  However, what they both have in common is that sense of an ‘awakening’ to God, and an internalisation of truth, so that it is not just something which impacts our intellectual understanding but sits deep in our heart.

 

When Ananias prays for Saul in today’s passage, we read that ‘something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes’ (v18), and this may indeed have been a physical sensation. Saul had been afflicted by a temporary blindness, and the cause of this may well have been some sort of actual growth or blockage which covered his eyes, and which was now loosened and released.

 

Nevertheless, this famous phrase has sunk deep into our culture, and is now used as a way of describing an important moment of realisation.  We don’t know if this was the exact moment that Saul’s heart turned to Christ – I suspect that happened gradually over the three days between his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road and the encounter with Ananias here – but it certainly represented the culmination of Saul’s conversion process.  Following it, he was baptised, recovered his strength and ‘at once’ (v20) began to preach the very opposite of what he had come to do: the message that Jesus was in fact the Son of God, and the Messiah God’s people had longed for.

 

Many of you reading this may remember a specific moment when ‘the scales fell from your eyes’ with regard to Jesus and God’s grace.  For others it was a gradual process.  Either way, there is always more to learn.  Every time God reveals a beautiful new scriptural truth that we hadn’t perceived before, some more scales fall from our eyes, and we see Jesus more clearly.

 

May God continue to bless us all with such revelation, and the gift of seeing Jesus clearly, each and every day.

Friday 9th July – Acts 9:10-17 (ii) ‘My chosen instrument’

Today’s reflection is something of a ‘counter-balance’ to yesterday’s!   Don’t get me wrong, I do endorse what I wrote yesterday, but most deep truths in the spiritual life require us to hold things in a certain degree of tension.  Life-changing faith is rarely a case of ‘either/or’ – much more often ‘both/and’.

 

The tension in this case is the risk that what I said yesterday reduces God’s authority in the world too far.  It becomes all about our choices.  Push that too far and you end up with God as something of a passive onlooker in our world, or perhaps a distant manager who has ideas but is totally reliant on frail or fickle human beings for any of them to happen.  Whilst we give thanks for the freedom God gives, we also acknowledge that our sovereign God is, at the same time, very much at work and gradually transforming things in conformity to his will.

 

My spiritual director talks about ‘friends for a reason, friends for a season, and friends for life’. That’s a great way of understanding the complex web of our relationships.  Today I’d also like to apply that to the idea of callings: in the journey of faith there are callings for a reason, callings for a season, and callings for life.  In fact we see all three here in today’s passage.

 

Yesterday, we saw Ananias receiving a calling for a reason.  He was to go to find Saul and lay hands on him.  It was a one-off event, and God spoke to him for this specific purpose.  And with callings like this, it’s possible to say yes or no to God. I don’t doubt that if Ananias had said ‘no’ God would have called someone else, as he needed someone to do this – but he gave Ananias the chance, and Ananias was faithful to the call.  A calling for a reason.

 

Then there’s Judas – the chap who hosts Saul (v11).  We don’t know how Judas comes to play host, but the fact that he agrees to look after such a dangerous man suggests a certain degree of divine conviction.  I suspect this was Judas’ calling for a season.  There’s nothing in the text to indicate that Saul moves again after he regains his sight, so it’s likely that Judas continued to host the new evangelist Saul during his stay in Damascus.  God gave Judas a task, and in being faithful to this task, he too played a quiet but significant part in the growth of the kingdom of God.

 

Finally, there are callings for life – this is clearly where Saul comes in: he is tasked by God to proclaim the good news to non-Jews (v15), and this becomes his life call, something he testifies to 20+ years later in the letter to the Romans: ‘It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.’ (Romans 15:20)  Just as Saul had planned to break new ground taking persecution to Christians in Damascus, so God saw, transformed, and greatly used this pioneering skill for his glory.

 

If we have a lot of freedom to say yes or no to ‘callings for reason’, and perhaps slightly less but still significant capacity to ignore ‘callings for a season’, it is certainly harder to say no to God when a ‘calling for life’ is concerned.  Or rather, we can say no quite a lot, but God usually gets us there in the end!  God does have plans for us – ones he doesn’t force upon us, but I think we can all say that we are ‘God’s chosen instrument’ for something.  I wonder what that would be for you?

Thursday 8th July – Acts 9:10-17  ‘Yes, Lord’

Keep saying yes to God.

 

That piece of advice was given to me many years ago by a wise older Christian.  It’s been one of the best and most important pieces of practical wisdom that anyone has ever given to me, and one I’ve tried – not always consistently! – to put into practice.  Keep saying yes to God.

 

Free will is both a remarkable and a difficult thing.  The fact that God lets us make choices is a great blessing and can also lead to great wrongdoing.  Many of our deepest questions relate to situations when God doesn’t intervene as we’d like, or where the free choice of someone else has caused suffering for us, or perhaps for someone we love. 

 

And yet we also know that the capacity to choose is one of the most precious things any human being can exercise.  Think of the sacrifices people made to win the chance to vote – because the freedom to choose was seen as something so precious.  On a more prosaic level, the joy of shopping for many people lies precisely in the fun of making choices.  Leisure time is precisely that because it defines the periods of time when we can choose what we do, rather than the expectations that come with employment.

 

This week our hearts and minds are full of the implications of the easing of restrictions, and again the difficulty of the questions it raises are all to do with the consequences – for good or ill – of giving people freedom to make choices.

 

Here is not the place to comment further on that, but we simply observe that what dominates our public narrative at present also lies at the heart of many of the challenges of the spiritual life.  To trust in God’s guiding hand in our lives is not to say that all our decisions are mapped out for us.  God gives us opportunities, but also gives us freedom to choose whether to accept them or not. 

 

We see this in today’s passage – God meets Ananias and gives him a task.  A difficult, possibly dangerous task: but one that will change the course not just of one life, but of history.  Ananias is troubled, and questions aloud whether this is a good idea or not.  But I’m struck that his opening words to his Saviour are simply this: ‘Yes, Lord.’  He is open to listen – and ultimately he obeys.

 

I think of times in my own life when I’ve been prodded to do something.  Sadly on some occasions I’ve resisted, and said ‘no’ to God.  But as I’ve journeyed through the life of faith, I’ve tried to take to heart the advice of my friend, and to say yes to God.  Sometimes those ‘yeses’ seem risky, but always the safest place to be is in the centre of God’s will.  Ananias discovered this through today’s life-changing encounter, and ultimately played a part in changing history.

 

May we too keep saying yes to God – and may God grant us grace and courage to obey whatever he calls us to do.

Wednesday 7th July – Acts 9:5-9 ‘I am Jesus’

As we reflect further on Paul meeting Jesus directly on the road, we face the challenging question of Christ’s heart for all people, even those who have committed great sins.  Decades later, Paul still described himself as ‘the worst of sinners’, yet this very realisation gave him an awesome grasp of God’s immeasurable grace, and a profound intimacy with his Lord.

 

The great comfort for us is that, if God can save Paul, he can save any one of us.  Such deep reserves of grace are plenty enough for the likes of us.  Today I’ll share excerpts from a marvellous book I’m reading by Dane Ortlund, called ‘Gentle and Lowly’:

 

‘We do not come to a set of doctrines.  We do not come to a church.  We do not even come to the gospel. All these are vital.  But most truly, we come to a person, to Christ himself....

 

‘We cannot present a reason for Christ to finally close off his heart to his own sheep.  No such reason exists.  Every human friend has a limit.  If we offend enough, if a relationship gets damaged enough, if we betray enough times, we are cast out.  The walls go up.  With Christ, our sins and weaknesses are the very CV items that qualify us to approach him.  Nothing but coming to him is required – first at conversion and a thousand times thereafter until we are with him upon death.

 

‘Perhaps it isn’t sins so much as sufferings that cause some of us to question the perseverance of the heart of Christ.  As pain piles up, as numbness takes over, as the months go by, at some point the conclusion seems obvious: we have been cast out.  Surely this is not what life would feel like for one who has been buried in the heart of a gentle and lowly Saviour?

 

But Jesus does not say that those with pain-free lives are never cast out.  He says those who come to him are never cast out.  It is not what life brings to us but to whom we belong that determines Christ’s heart of love for us.  The only thing required to enjoy such love is to come to him.’

 

Paul on the road to Damascus experienced a transforming glimpse of Christ’s extraordinary heart – and fallen though he was, he simply came to him.  May we too hear the same voice, calling us – ‘I am Jesus’ – and may we too simply come to him.   For ‘whoever comes to me I will never drive away.’

Tuesday 6th July – Acts 9:1-4 ‘The body of Christ’

Jesus loves his Church.  It’s an obvious thing to say, really – but it’s easy to forget that this love affair cuts both ways.  Much of the time we think about how we put our love for Jesus into action: in our worship and singing, in our prayer, in our lifestyles, in how we love and serve others.

 

But no matter how hard we try, Jesus loves us more.  He’s crazy about us.  We are the apple of his eye, the object of his affection.  We are his body, not just in a spiritual sense, but a literal one too.  We are Jesus’ hands, feet, eyes and heart on earth – and when we suffer, Jesus suffers too. 

 

It’s striking that when Paul meets Jesus on the road to Damascus in this iconic story (which we’ll reflect on some more over the next couple of days), he doesn’t say: ‘Why do you persecute them?’  He says: ‘Why do you persecute me?’  What we suffer, he suffers.  When his body hurts, Jesus hurts too.

 

For Paul, this was a life-changing experience, in all kinds of ways.  But it begins with the realisation that his own relationship to God has been mediated through zealous rule-following and not a deep intimacy with the Lord.  He comes to understand Jesus’ deep connection with his followers in the most direct of ways: ‘Why do you persecute me?’ 

 

‘We love because he first loved us.’  This was old John’s conclusion in the first of his letters – and this passage echoes that sentiment.  For all that it’s good to put our love for Jesus into practice, let’s never forget who initiated it; nor that Jesus’ love for us didn’t stop at the cross, or the resurrection.  It goes on – and on.  It is a constant, a given, and something we can come back to and rely on again and again.

 

To say that Jesus loves his church means Jesus loves you.  And whatever you face at the moment, know that Jesus cares, he feels it with you, he suffers with you.  As the puritan Thomas Goodwin observes: ‘Take our hands, and lay them upon Christ’s breast, and let us feel how his heart beats and his affections yearn towards us, even now he is in glory – to encourage believers against all that may discourage them, from the consideration of Christ’s heart towards them now in heaven.’

 

And may Christ’s deep heart of affection for you lift your heart today.

Monday 5th July – Acts 8:36-40 ‘The water of life’

A member of the youth group once approached her minister asking to be baptised.  The minister held quite strong views on the subject, and as they discussed what method to use, the minister was quite forthright that she should be fully immersed in the water.  The young woman had been hoping for a different answer, so she quizzed the minister a bit more: ‘What if I went in up to my waist, would that be OK?’  ‘No, it must be right under the water.’

 

‘What if I went in up to my neck?’  ‘No.’

‘What I went in up to my nose?’  ‘Again, no.’

‘What if went in above my eyes, leaving just an inch or so?’  ‘I’m sorry, but no.’

‘So what you’re really saying is that as long as I get the top of my head wet, then that’s the bit that matters.’

 

It’s a cheesy old joke, but it highlights an important point.  The church has long argued about baptism, and the ‘right way’ to do it.  But the truth is that no church in any of the main denominations nowadays actually baptises people like they did in the New Testament.  Every time we read of it in the Book of Acts, it’s an immediate and spontaneous event in the nearest body of water.  No catechism or preparation classes, no gap of months or years between first believing and ‘sealing the deal’, no required church attendance, no candle or oil for that matter.  Just an immediate dip, as soon as possible after hearing and receiving the news. 

 

Sometimes it’s good just to recover the sheer joy of what baptism signifies.  A new spiritual life has been birthed!  The cleansing death and resurrection power of Jesus are ours, by God’s grace.  Never mind how you do it – and wouldn’t it be great if we just embraced the diversity of our practice, trusting in the capacity of God to anoint our human ceremonies with his divine blessing – what matters is that we do do it, and continue to celebrate the large numbers of people who find their hope and joy in Jesus.

 

I love the way the official sees a pond by the road and says: ‘What can stop me from being baptised?’  May we as the church never get in the way of what God is up to in our lives.  And perhaps, too, today is a day to give thanks for your baptism (or confirmation), to celebrate the significant markers along the way, the people who have blessed you, the ‘lightbulb’ moments that changed your life and your future – to remember the story of God in your life.

 

And if you’ve not been baptised – well, what can stop you?

Saturday 3rd July – Acts 8:32-35  ‘Good news’

Today’s reflection is a very simple one.  Jesus is good news!

 

It’s so easy to forget this.  We can get bogged down in the challenges, the doubts, or just the machinery of church.  We can miss the wood for the trees.  And every so often, God just invites us to stop, to breathe and to remember that at its heart, what we believe is good news.  Following Jesus is good news.  Being forgiven, having a purpose and a future, having the presence of God with us always, having a Christian family to share it with, having the bible and prayer, having the fruit of the Spirit slowly transforming us from the inside out – in short, having God at the centre of our lives is good news.

 

My simple suggestion today is that you spend a few moments reflecting on why this is good news for you.  Perhaps turn to a favourite passage.  Perhaps remember the joy of hearing the news for the first time – like the official does in today’s passage.  Give thanks for all the ‘good news’ you’ve brought to mind.  And, whatever you face at present, grasp a mustard seed of faith to believe that God is bigger and better than all of it. 

 

‘The time has come, and the kingdom of God has come near... Good news!’

Friday 2nd July – Acts 8:26-31 ‘The invitation’

How proactive should we be in sharing our faith?  That’s a huge question, and one which many Christians wrestle with.  I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ answer to that, but it’s interesting that the general pattern of the New Testament suggests that for most of us, our role is to be ready to share our faith when invited.  A few people are gifted to ‘take the initiative’ and actively lead people to faith – but for the rest of us, we should be ready but wait for the invitation.  St Peter puts it like this:

 

‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect.’  (1 Peter 3:15).  It’s good advice.

 

Similarly in today’s passage, Philip receives a clear divine instruction to head for a particular place (v26), and then a particular chariot (v29).  Philip is obedient - he makes himself available to God, and comes up beside the chariot.  He also asks a helpful question, which gives the official the opportunity to engage, or indeed to say a polite ‘thanks but no thanks’.  But as a result it’s the official that makes the invitation to discuss matters of faith.  At this point, Philip is only too happy to chat with him and share the good news.

 

I think this is a great model for the rest of us.  It balances faith with human action, and enthusiasm with politeness and gentleness.  God graciously invites us to partner with him, to be available to him – and then we can pray and wait for the right opportunities.  We don’t have to ‘force the issue’ or manipulate a conversation.  That kind of thing is what damages the integrity of the church.  We share grace graciously!

 

May that be good news for us today.  We’ll all have people we’d love to share our faith with, and much of the time we don’t know how.  How liberating to know that it’s not all about us!  Let’s pray to be ready, let’s pray for God to prepare the way, and let’s entrust the rest to him.

Thursday 1st July – Acts 8:18-25 ‘Heart of the matter’

The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.  This pithy summary of Jesus’ teaching is one I’ve long relied on.  Throughout his ministry Jesus teaches that the key to living right is to get our hearts right – that is, our desires, motives, and ambitions, what you might call our ‘inner life’, the core of our being.  If we get the heart right, then the actions/behaviour will follow.

 

This was Jesus’ real beef with the Pharisees, and why he called them ‘hypocrites’ (literally ‘actors’).  They paraded a form of behaviour that was thought to be righteous – particularly by themselves, though also by others – but it masked their corrupt motives.  They wanted reward for their righteousness, it didn’t flow from a humble love for God.  Their eyes were on human recognition not God’s affirmation, on worldly power not spiritual authority.

 

And we see something similar here today.  Simon the sorcerer has nominally become a follower of Jesus and been baptised, but his heart hasn’t changed.  When he sees the apostles blessing people in the power of the Holy Spirit, he wants to harness that power for himself – but not for good reasons.  He misunderstands completely the massive difference between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, and therefore the true nature of godly spiritual authority.  As someone who has spent years practising occult arts, Simon sees the spiritual world as a power to be manipulated and profited from, not as a gift from Almighty God.  He wants fame but not humble service; he wants to enjoy control, not release people into freedom.

 

And so Peter quite rightly unmasks the darkness within Simon’s heart.  He sees that this is not really about money but about what the offering of money says about Simon’s motives – his heart, in other words.  That has to be right before anything else can be right, too.

 

We probably have never tried to buy a spiritual gift!  But we too may sometime fall prey to jealousy of others’ gifts, or perhaps make requests of God for motives which are more to do with our issues than God’s glory.  It’s not easy to admit this, but it’s good for us to be honest with ourselves.  And there is good news: if the diagnosis is sin, the cure is repentance.  This was true for Simon, but it is also true for us.  We worship a loving Saviour whose name is salvation and whose heart is forgiveness.  Jesus loves healing hearts – ours included.  Let’s pray for this healing grace again today, and receive it with joy.

Wednesday 30th June – Acts 8:14-17  ‘Receiving the Spirit’

In Holy Week 1906 a small church in Los Angeles met to pray.  On the night of April 9, a preacher called William J Seymour and seven others were waiting on God on Bonnie Brae Street, ‘when suddenly, as though hit by a bolt of lightning, they were knocked from their chairs to the floor.’  The seven other men began to speak in tongues (angelic languages) and shout out loud praising God.

 

The news quickly spread; the city was stirred; crowds gathered; and a few days later Seymour himself experienced the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit.  It wasn’t long before services were moved outside to accommodate the crowds who came from all around.  The supernatural experiences continued, even outside the building: people fell down under the power of God as they approached, and others were spontaneously healed.  The ‘outpouring’ – which became known as the Azusa Street Revival lasted until 1915, and birthed what became known as the Pentecostal movement. Today Pentecostal churches number some 500 million believers around the world.  Countless others within historic denominations – myself included – have been similarly blessed.

 

Today’s passage in Acts 8 is a pivotal one in Pentecostal theology, which teaches that even after someone comes to Christ, they are saved but have not yet received the fullness of the Spirit.  This comes in a second and subsequent experience – like that of William Seymour and his friends, and also, crucially, like the one described in our passage.  The text is very clear: ‘the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of [the new believers in Samaria]; they had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus’ (v16).

 

What is going on?  Is it really true that we need this ‘second blessing’ to truly thrive as Christians?

 

This debate is one that has preoccupied significant sections of the church for the last century.  Conservative scholars will point to the fact that the situation was unique: this is the first church planted outside Jerusalem, and in particular, the first outside traditional Jewish borders.  Samaritans were not orthodox Jews, so – the argument goes – this is not a theological justification for a ‘two-stage process’ in becoming a Christian, but rather God deliberately (and only temporarily) withheld the obvious signs of the presence of the Spirit so the apostles could see for themselves that God really intended all people to become followers of Jesus.

 

It’s a fair argument, albeit one weakened by the fact that the same thing happens in Acts 19 as well!  Thankfully there is also a middle way, a ‘both/and’ approach which affirms that everyone who comes to Christ receives the Spirit (as explicitly promised in Acts 2:38), but also affirms that we need to keep seeking the fullness of the Spirit, and the gifts that the Spirit gives.  The risk of relegating this passage to a unique experience is that we miss out on the very real blessing and growth that such experiences bring.  The risk of over-emphasising these experiences is that we create two classes of Christians.  Neither of these outcomes is desirable.

 

What today does affirm is that God’s Holy Spirit is real.  Amazingly, the presence of Almighty God graciously comes to dwell in us (yes, us!), transforming us from the inside out. We may sometimes also experience this presence in tangible ways, and there’s no harm in seeking God for more of his presence.  ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’

 

Today, give thanks that God is a real presence in your life – and why not ask him for a fresh outpouring of his love and grace into your heart?

Tuesday 29th June – Acts 8:8-13  ‘A greater name’

We live in a spiritual world.  Nowadays you can dip your toe into all kinds of interesting waters, and our media is full of curiosity in the supernatural. From programmes about real-life haunted houses, to psychics on-demand, to endless stories about beings with special powers, ‘modern’ humanity is no less fascinated by the spiritual realm than ever it was.  Materialists and secularists who expected our Brave New World to be an atheist one must hold their heads in their hands.

 

That said, it is possible to argue that our love of watching stories about ghosts and goblins, or great battles between heaven and hell, could be taken to suggest that we have relegated ‘the spiritual world’ to the level of myth and fantasy.  But I’m not so sure.  The ‘God-shaped hole’ is an idea which seems to be hard-wired into all of humanity – the opening chapters of Genesis record that the earliest human beings after The Fall began ‘to call upon the name of the Lord’ (Genesis 4:26) – and if this innate longing is not filled with God in the traditional sense, we’ll look for it in all kinds of other places.  We are spiritual beings, wired for eternity.

 

And so we see human attempts to harness the power of the spiritual world run like a fault line through all of human history.  It remains widespread today, but it was just as much a feature of ancient society as well.  In today’s passage, we meet Simon the sorcerer, who had a large local following in Samaria.  We don’t know exactly what his sorcery entailed, but he was certainly not shy about his success, calling himself the ‘Great Power of God’ (v10).

 

But Simon was about to meet his match.  The early Christian leader Philip arrived in town and even Simon was blown away by the ‘great signs and miracles he saw’ (v13).  The ‘Great Power’ had just met the Greater Power.  And the source of this greater power was a greater name: Philip proclaimed ‘the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ’ (v12).  Jesus’ name is shorthand for his authority and greatness, and it remains the source of our hope and blessing too.  Philip declared the greatness of this name to be ‘good news’, and it is still just as good today!

 

It’s easy to be troubled by the wide range of so-called spiritual practices which seem to be popular now.  Some of them are phony, but others are sadly unhealthily real, and bring only darkness rather than light.  We, however, live under the blessing and protection of a greater name, the greatest in the universe, a name before whom one day every knee will bow.

 

Give thanks that you know and trust this greater name, and may that name be your comfort, your inspiration and the source of all you do today.

Monday 28th June – Acts 8:1-8  ‘Unintended consequences’

At the end of November 2013, a few weeks after we’d arrived in Milton Keynes, the heating system at St Mary’s suffered a catastrophic failure – a major pipe burst, which was then discovered to be clad with asbestos. It took more than two months to fix, meaning the building was without heating during the coldest months of the year.  For eight weeks we were forced to hold our services in the school hall, who kindly let us use their premises for free, setting up from scratch every Sunday morning.

 

It was challenging, but most of the congregation remarked at the end how many unexpected blessings had come from it  The ‘blitz spirit’ had created a great camaraderie; more people had pitched in and helped out, and the unfamiliar environment meant that people sat together who hadn’t before, and made new friends.  In the first 6 months of 2014 we had the highest average Sunday attendance of any period in the last 15 years, prior to lockdown.

 

Lockdown itself, as we have noted, saw a similar pattern.  An unexpected disruption, an energising solution, and then significant growth.  Today there are far more people connecting with our services online than we’ve had since the days a century ago when attending church was a social expectation.  For all that we might have worried whether closing the building would weaken us as a community, in fact, by God’s grace, we have seen growth in all kinds of ways – both deeper and broader.

 

Both of these disruptive (and productive) periods were triggered by external causes which were ‘morally neutral’.  No-one was opposing us, as it were – unlike, say Joseph, who was able to testify to his brothers once he was ruler of Egypt: ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’ (Genesis 50:20)

 

But the point is the same in all of these circumstances – God is able to bring good and growth out of unfavourable circumstances.  What might have damaged the community of God’s people actually blessed and strengthened it.  And so we see in today’s passage: a great persecution breaks out against the church, triggered by Stephen’s martyrdom.  This is a terrible situation, and the intent is clear: to destroy the church (v3), to stamp it out once and for all.

 

But what actually happens? ‘All except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (v1)... those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went (v4)... so there was great joy in that city (v8).’  The plan to destroy the church backfired totally – all it achieved was to grow it, both in leadership – Philip, previously one of the feeding programme organisers (6:5) now takes on an apostolic role – and in reach, as the refugees spread out across the whole country, spreading the faith and winning new believers as they go.  As a ‘church destruction project’, it’s an epic fail.  God ‘works all things for good for those who love him.’ (Romans 8:28)

 

May this be an encouragement to us, too.  Whatever circumstances we face, our good God is able to bring unexpected outcomes – pray in faith and trust today that this would be true for you, for those you love, and for our church community.

Saturday 26th June – Acts 7:39-60  ‘True worship’

Another Saturday, another difficult passage!  I don’t plan it like this, I promise...  The martyrdom of Stephen proves a turning point for the church – though not for the reasons we might expect.  More about that on Monday. 

 

And there’s so much we could say about this intense reading.  But today I want to focus on a theme which bubbles under the surface of so much of Stephen’s sermon.  What does true worship of God really look like?  This passage gives us some invaluable pointers:

 

True worship always remembers that our God is a great big God (vv48-50) – as someone once sang.  For all that it’s lovely to have beautiful buildings in which to worship, God can’t be contained in even the grandest and most impressive of boxes.  God is Lord of the whole earth – indeed the earth is a ‘footstool’ for the Almighty Creator of the universe.  A ‘big view’ of God is always a healthy starting point for our lives.

 

True worship prizes humility (v51) – whatever blessings and privileges we have received in the journey of faith, we retain a humility of character that guards us from pride.  Our necks are willing to bow in the service of God and others.

 

True worship is always sensitive to the Spirit (v51) – this is a natural outworking of cultivating humility in the sight of an awesome God.  We keep our hearts and minds open, we try to listen and discern what God is up to.  God never contradicts his (already written) Word, but he does prompt us to new insights and opportunities.  The humble of heart are most likely to hear them.

 

True worship obeys God (v53).  Our lives match our lips match our hearts.  It’s one thing to know the right thing – and quite another to actually do it! 

 

I think it’s hard to place ourselves in the middle of this story.  But we can mine gold from its lessons.  Let God speak to you one particular word that will bless you today.  And may God grant us all grace to worship him anew, in Spirit and in truth.  Amen.

Friday 25th June – Acts 7:17-38 ‘The invisible hand’

The life of Moses is one of the most famous in all scripture.  It is a story both of personal and corporate redemption, and Stephen before the Sanhedrin reprises some of its most famous scenes here.  We get a wonderful summary of Moses meeting God in the burning bush, rescuing God’s people from slavery in Egypt, and then through the Red Sea, and finally receiving the ‘living words’ of God’s law, which shaped the life of God’s people from that time on.

 

These iconic stories have the supernatural activity of God writ large throughout – a bush which doesn’t burn, the signs in Egypt, the parting of the waters.  But this whole sermon of Stephen’s is a testament to the outworking of God’s plan for his people, and what strikes me today is how God was also very much at work in Moses’ life before his dramatic call beside the burning bush. 

 

God isn’t mentioned at all in verses 18-22, and yet there are at least three miraculous interventions: the midwives who saved thousands of Hebrew children from a genocidal Pharaoh (v19, referencing Exodus 1:17-21); the saving of Moses’ life as a baby (v20-21, referencing Exodus 2:3-6); and then his raising in the royal household, equipping him for his great life’s work many decades later (v21-22, referencing Exodus 2:7-10).

 

Were it not for these miracles, the much more obvious ones of Moses’ later years would not have happened as they did.  Throughout Moses’ life – a microcosm of God’s saving presence among all of his people – an invisible, divine hand was at work.  For all the disobedience and unfaithfulness of God’s people, God was ‘fulfilling his promise to Abraham’ (v17).

 

We live in uncertain times.  And the future seems even less clear – both in the short-term and the long-term.  We may too face personal challenges and uncertainties: with our health, with our family, with our work or direction in life.  This passage reminds us that we are not alone, nor without help.  God is at work in our chaotic world.  God is at work in our lives, too – and in the lives of those around us.  We may not always see his invisible hand, and the outcomes we hope for may take longer than we’d like (they usually do): but we can trust, as Moses did, that God’s word is sure, and his will is good.  ‘Put your hand into the hand of God: that shall be to you better than a light, and safer than a known way.’

Thursday 24th June – Acts 7:1-16 ‘The God of glory’

I wonder how you would define glory?  With sporting events now back with a bang, use of the word ‘glory’ in the press has risen exponentially again.  We hear daily of Euros glory, Wimbledon glory, Olympic glory, and so on – in essence we use the word as shorthand for victory or success.

 

In the bible, the Hebrew word for glory is kabod – it literally means ‘weight’. So the glory of God was God’s ‘weight’ being felt in the world.  It became synonymous with the manifest presence of God, so overwhelming that people usually fell on their faces when they experienced it – see for example when God’s glory (‘weight’) fell on the first sacrifices in Leviticus (9:23-24).

 

Naturally this kind of dramatic experience associated God’s glory with sensations of dazzling light and power – but it’s as well to remember that the original meaning is simply God’s real presence in the world.

 

And this matters, because God’s glory isn’t always what we think it is.  Far from always being associated with ‘victory’ or ‘success’ or dazzling light and power, there is another golden thread running through Scripture.  St Paul summarised it later in reflecting on his own experience: God spoke to him that his ‘power is made perfect in weakness.’  When Jesus predicts his forthcoming death, he says: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’  Glorified by being wrongfully convicted and dishonourably killed.

 

God’s ways are not ours – and this upside-down kingdom, where the first are last and the last are first, can be seen at work throughout Scripture.  So when Stephen begins his extraordinary history of God’s people by referring to the work of ‘the God of glory’ (v2),  we might be expecting a list of great victories and spectacular successes.  Instead virtually all of these first 16 verses describe struggle and challenges.  God calls a solitary man and his family (v2), to a land he did not own (v5), with the promise of slavery to come (v6) and well known issues with securing an heir (v8). 

 

God’s plan had to survive iniquitous behaviour from a set of brothers (v9), famine (v11) and effectively exile away from the land promised to them (vv13-14).  With the exception of Joseph’s personal flourishing – which saved his family, indeed the future of God’s people – there aren’t many overt ‘successes’ to speak of here.

 

And yet this is the plan of ‘the God of glory’.  It reminds us that, even in times of trial and difficulty, God’s presence is real and at work, often in ways we can’t see at the time.  What made these early  generations great was their capacity for faith even in the dark times.  

 

Maybe you find yourself in such a dark time – or know of others who are.  May this passage inspire you again – the God of glory is still at work, making his grace and power perfect in our weakness.  Take heart: God is still with you.

Wednesday 23rd June – Acts 6:8-15 ‘In Jesus’ footsteps’

A long time ago, when I worked in the marketing industry, one of my clients asked me to lie publicly on their behalf.  We were producing a research report in support of a controversial planning application: 9 out of 10 results were very positive, one was ambiguous – the one I was asked to remove.  I refused, which caused 48 hours of very difficult negotiations with our client.

 

Eventually the report was released in its entirety, and went straight onto the front page of the local press – at which point I was immediately reported to the Market Research Society by the group opposing the planning bid for breach of professional standards.  It was a crude tactic to devalue the impact of our research, but since I had released the report in full, it backfired.  The case was dismissed, at which point the developer which had commissioned the research splashed our success over the front pages of the local news.  The bid was eventually approved, and the development built.

 

The irony in all this is that, had I succumbed to our client’s pressure to lie, the smear tactic would in fact have worked, I would have been fired and the research would have been worthless.  The developer’s reputation would have been severely undermined and quite possibly the new development would have been denied.  Doing the right thing brought me a significant amount of trouble – but ultimately also blessing. 

 

I can’t pretend to have suffered the sort of extreme opposition that the early church faced – only isolated examples of what you might call ‘low-level pressure’ I refer to above.  The discomfort I felt for taking a stand for my faith gives me only the merest insight into what inspirational characters like Stephen must have lived with.  But it’s striking how Stephen’s predicament mirrors Jesus’ own so closely just a year or two beforehand: a backdrop of great miracles (v8), jealousy from the religious establishment (v9), false witnesses (v13), including a very specific one about the future of the temple which is very close to the one quoted also by the gospel writers (e.g. Matthew 26:61).

 

Stephen’s story is most definitely Christlike, and a sobering reminder that, throughout the ages, some are called to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in a very literal way.  Today’s passage is a great encouragement for us to pray for all those who face similar troubles around the world: if you feel drawn to seek specific examples, organisations like Open Doors and Barnabas Fund will give you plenty of situations to pray into.

 

For us, too, we may not be called to pay the ultimate price like Stephen.  But there will be occasional challenges for most of us – like mine above – where we taste something of what means to take up a cross.  May God grant us grace in those times, and may we too find joy and peace in knowing that Christ is with us especially in those times, and his grace is always sufficient, for his power is made perfect in our weakness.

Tuesday 22nd June – Acts 6:1-7 ‘Practical solutions’

A man is walking on a cliff top when a sudden gust of wind blows him over the edge.  In a moment he is left clinging by his fingernails to the last remaining ledge between himself and a 100-ft drop onto the rocks below.  A devout Christian, he begins to pray fervently, seeking the Lord’s rescue.  A minute later a couple walking along the same path hear his cries and lean down to offer him assistance.  ‘It’s OK,’ the man says, ‘the Lord will save me.’

 

Barely has he heard their footsteps departing when a fisherman calls from the sea, offering assistance.  Again, the man refuses: ‘The Lord will save me.’  As his fingers begin to slip, a search-and-rescue helicopter hovers ahead and a harness begins to descend.  But the man shouts up, his voice by-now fading to gasps: ‘Don’t worry, the Lord will save me.’

 

Eventually his fingers slip... and when he meets the Lord in heaven a little while later, he shouts angrily: ‘Why didn’t you save me?’  ‘Well,’ says the Lord, ‘I sent you a couple, a boat and a helicopter – what more did you want?’

 

We can sometimes over-spiritualise the journey of faith.  Yes, we believe in the life-changing power of God, we believe in answers to prayer, the gifts of the Spirit and ‘divine appointments’ – those moments when God seems to intervene in very direct ways in our lives.  But God also gives us practical skills, and the capacity to organise ourselves. We don’t put our trust in them, only God – but they can be a great blessing nonetheless.  Sometimes, it’s the way God works in a situation.

 

In today’s passage – and here’s my somewhat feeble link to today! – the church faces a very practical dilemma.  The food distribution programme is failing, and people are getting resentful.  How are the apostles going to fix it?  Do they preach on the value of fasting, do they counsel the grumbling groups to show patience and forgiveness, do they pray for the gripes to miraculously disappear?  Not a bit of it: they come up with a very pragmatic solution.  They find a new team of appropriately gifted leaders to run the welfare programme, while they continue to preach and pray.

 

But let’s note: it’s still a spiritual solution: they take counsel together (v2), they make spiritual maturity a requirement for the job (v3), and no doubt the time freed up for prayer (v4) was invested at least partly in making the right appointments.

 

Our God is the God of the whole of life.  There is no ultimate divide between sacred and secular, practical and spiritual – it’s all God’s.  We’ll look at this in more detail on Sunday: but let’s take heart today that God is interested in the practical details of our lives, and values the practical gifts he’s given us.  Yes, we soak everything in prayer – but then we act, offering real solutions which bring real hope to a real and hurting world.

Monday 21st June – Acts 5:41-42 ‘Counted worthy’

Yesterday my daughter finished her Duke of Edinburgh Gold Expedition.  It had been delayed numerous times by the pandemic, and eventually she was spared having to travel to Snowdonia and camp out in the heavy rain we’ve had the last few days (can you imagine?!).  Nevertheless, the days were arduous – up to 17 miles each day hiking, carrying a 20lb rucksack on your sodden back.  Her ankles were very sore and swollen, so the last couple of days were more of a hobble than a walk.

 

But, she did it!  And we’re very proud of her.  And with the rest of her Gold Award completed, she will now hopefully get her invite to Buckingham Palace to receive her award sometime next year.  Sadly the Duke himself of course won’t be there to give it, but it will be quite the occasion nonetheless.

 

‘Counted worthy....’ – it’s a striking phrase, isn’t it?  Our daughter has gone through significant pain and challenge this weekend to be counted worthy of her gold award.  No doubt as you look back on your own life, you’ll think of some challenge or goal where you too made a significant effort to be counted worthy – a qualification you completed, a new skill you mastered, a promotion you worked hard for, perhaps a competition you succeeded in.  And you were counted worthy....

 

Most of us are wired to enjoy challenges, and the rewards that come with them – even if it’s just personal satisfaction.  And pretty much all of us like the feeling of praise or affirmation from our peers.  To be counted worthy is, we think on the whole, a thoroughly good thing.

 

And yet, here in today’s passage, we see the opposite. The apostles rejoice because they too had been counted worthy – but to what end?  ‘Worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (of Jesus).’  It’s an extraordinary, upside-down, topsy-turvy view of the world. Most of us fear disgrace, or punishment.  These early Christians delighted in it.  What’s going on?

 

The answer can only be found in where they seek their affirmation – or rather, from whom.  They didn’t care what people thought of them, only God.  For them, they could endure any sort of human negativity as long as they were confident of their Lord’s approval.

 

Many of us are fortunate that we don’t have to choose between human approval and God’s.  But we can take inspiration from the example of these extraordinary early Christians to recommit ourselves to live our lives for The Audience of One this day and this week.  For that is more precious than any (even gold) award.

Saturday 19th June – Colossians 1:21-23 ‘Established and firm’

‘Don’t move!’ If you watch a lot of detective dramas as we do, then you’ll hear this phrase often – usually as some cop corners a criminal.  I must confess it is also sometimes said in our home when coming across a large spider!

 

.... and, as it happens, it’s St Paul’s advice for followers of Jesus today.  Having spent the last few verses describing just what an amazing message we have – good news with the power to cleanse the soul and bring us eternal life in the presence of our great God forever – Paul’s encouragement to all of us is: ‘Don’t move!’ (v23)  Hold fast to this message, it’s all you need.

 

It might sound strange that Paul would even need to say it.  Surely the power of the message speaks for itself?  But the lesson of history is that we are always tempted to veer off course.  It’s tempting to think to ourselves occasionally: surely the message is too good to be true?  Is Jesus really the whole ball game?  Isn’t he just the starting point, with more levels to climb, or more things to add?

 

The message underlying this lovely little letter is that: Christ plus always equals Christ minus.  Now there’s an impossible equation for the mathematicians among you!  If you add stuff to Jesus, in the end you take stuff away, because it undermines the sufficiency of Christ for our spiritual lives.

 

The church in Colossae had some particular ‘additions’ to deal with and we’ll see some of those in chapter 2.  There was a widespread belief in the idea of ‘hidden knowledge’, which led many to think that there must be ‘new levels’ to ascend to.

 

Our challenges may be different, but we still come across it: to be a real Christian you have to do x, y or z.  And often these things are really important: we might attach ‘obligations’ to church attendance, or frequency of prayer, or particular moral habits.  And don’t get me wrong: these are all vitally important.  Church is vital. Prayer is vital. Purity is vital. 

 

But we find all we need to prosper in these habits in Christ.  As someone once said: Jesus is not just a means to an end – Jesus is the end.  And as we journey deeper into this astonishing relationship with him, so we find all we need to flourish spiritually.  Christ is our sure foundation – which allows us to stand, not to move, ‘established and firm’.

 

Today, take a few moments to marvel at the sufficiency of Jesus.  He is all you need.  Let him be all you need today.  Amen.

Friday 18th June – Colossians 1:3-8  ‘All over the world’

The Church is a very big thing.  Very big.  It’s hard for us to get a true handle on just how many people claim to follow Jesus.  Think of a big crowd that you’ve been part of.  One of the biggest for me was the crowd of 80,000 in the Olympic Stadium in London in 2012.  That was an amazing experience – but, if current figures are roughly correct, the global Church is more than 25,000 times larger than that crowd!

 

Imagine that.  25,000 London Stadia all joined together – or to put it another way, if you ever go to a concert or a football match, imagine that each person there represents tens of thousands of people – and that’s the Church in 2021.

 

It’s pretty hard to get your head around, isn’t it?  And maybe a bit unsettling, too.  I like being in big crowds, I find them energising.  I’ve always loved the thrill of being part of something bigger, that sense of losing yourself in a collective experience.  But the last phrase is suggestive: ‘losing yourself’ is also not necessarily something we like to feel too often.  Does the size of the Church mean that we as individuals don’t matter any more?

 

In today’s passage, St. Paul speaks joyfully of the fact that, even in his day, just 30 years after the ‘Jesus movement’ began, it was ‘growing throughout the whole world’ (v6).  And within the more limited understanding of the size of the world at that time, this was certainly true.  Paul himself had travelled all round the Eastern Mediterranean, including Greece and Turkey.  He had first met Jesus on the way to Syria.  It had already spread to Rome without his direct influence.  It was known to be in North Africa, and Paul no doubt knew of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian official, so was likely to be further south, too. ‘Throughout the world....’

 

At the time Paul wrote, the actual numbers would have been small: a few tens of thousands at most – they could have fitted comfortably into one London Stadium!  But a movement had begun which would truly spread across the world.  Today there is at least one follower of Christ in every country, and millions in most of them.  How great is our God!

 

But – and this is our other encouragement for today – it is not an impersonal gospel.  Or to put it another way – you matter.  The amazing thing about God is that he still knows and loves each one of us.  Each of us is precious.  And each of us plays our part.  The church in Colossae came to faith because of the work of one faithful follower – Epaphras – from whom this small group of believers learned about Jesus (v7).  In turn, this small community of individuals now loved each other (v8).

 

Huge as it is, in the kingdom of God everyone matters.  The mustard seeds that grow the great tree are still vital seeds in their own right.

 

If you get the chance today, take a look at a tree in full bloom – a glorious sight!  Then choose just one flower or leaf, and look closely at it.  It’s amazing.  It’s beautiful in its own right.  That’s you.  Yes, there are tens of thousands like you on the same tree – but your flower, your leaf matters.  Your small act of ‘bearing fruit and growing’ plays its part.  Thanks be to God!

Thursday 17th June – Acts 5:33-40  ‘By its fruit....’

This a theme I’ll return to more on Sunday, as we look at this passage in our Sunday service – but it’s such an important one, it’s worth revisiting.  It revolve s around this million-dollar question: how can we judge if something is of God, or not?  Think about the last year, and the radical changes we’ve made to church life: should we be celebrating or mourning?  Or, as we return to some forms of ‘normality’ (whatever that is) – is that a good thing or not? 

 

What about our own journey of faith over the last year, which might have felt different to most years before it: what’s worth keeping, and what is only temporary?

 

This is the central question which often faces us – just as it did the religious leaders questioning Peter and John.  Instinctively they don’t like this dynamic new group – they feel threatened, jealous.  They’re all for fire and brimstone, shock and awe, threats and repression.

 

And then a voice of reason intervenes.  Gamaliel – who we later learn was St Paul’s teacher – stands up and effectively says: it’s too early to judge whether this is of God, or not.  Time will tell: if it isn’t, it won’t last.  If it is, we won’t be able to stop it, because God is blessing it.

 

In effect it echoes exactly Jesus’ own teaching on the same question – how do we recognise the value of something?  By its fruit. Look at the long-term outcomes – are they good ones?  Are lives being changed, people helped, virtues growing, prayers answered, newcomers not just joining but flourishing, communities changing – in other words, are there real positive outcomes, good consequences?

 

We may not suffer the sort of opposition the early church did – for which we are very thankful – but it’s a great question to apply to our lives as well.  What is really bearing fruit?  And take heart, there will be something!  Probably several things.

 

Change is slow – always slower than we’d like.  But as we look back, we can usually see the hand of God at work –and often others can see the change better than we can.  If you know someone to ask – ask them.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what they say.

 

So let’s be encouraged by this great bit of practical wisdom., modelled by old Gamaliel – and let’s give thanks today for the fruit God has matured in our lives, and the lives of people around us.

Wednesday 16th June – Acts 5:25-32  ‘Wood for the trees’

It’s easy to lose perspective – especially in situations of dispute or conflict.  Many years ago we attended a weekend away for our church group in a remote location in Herefordshire. The house was set in lovely countryside, with one village nearby, and another down the road.  As we went out for a walk on Saturday afternoon to explore the area, we were advised that the two villages in question hadn’t fraternised for decades.  No-one could even remember why they fallen out in the first place!  It was a beautiful part of the world – but under the surface, there was darkness.

 

Such stories like this abound.  Sadly, even in families this is true.  Sometimes the source of the fall-out is clear and the blame obvious – at other times, we find ourselves clinging on to a sense of right which, were we to see it in others, we would challenge them to justify. 

 

In today’s passage, the authorities are getting increasingly angry at the success of the new ‘Jesus’ movement.  In fact, they are downright jealous, as v17 yesterday made clear.  So once again the apostles are arrested and called to account (vv26-27).  And I think it’s significant to note what the authorities’ principal beef is: ‘You are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’ (v28)

 

It’s a classic case of failing to see the wood for the trees. Never mind the incredible good this group was doing: the people being cared for, and healed, and given new hope and life and purpose.  Never mind the power of the Holy Spirit and the miraculous signs which accompany them. Never mind the complete absence of violence or menace associated with this pacifist sect.  What they’re bothered about is incurring some sort of blame, with an underlying current of envy at this group’s popularity.

 

And whilst it’s true that the apostles are uncompromising as to who made sure Jesus was killed (3:14-15, 4:10, and here v30), the authorities have been blinded by their need to win, to be right, to cling on to power.  They’re missing all the positives: the promise of new life, the gift of the Spirit, the renewal of the nation’s life implicit in the teachings of this dynamic new movement.

 

It’s an object lesson for us, too, of the dangers of letting either blame avoidance or a need to be right cloud our judgement and stain our lives.  Sometimes we need to step back and see the wood for the trees.  To see those we fall out with as God sees them.  To see what God is doing in a given situation.  Or just to acknowledge that we might have been wrong about something.

 

It’s never easy, but it is the path of grace and life.  My prayer is that we can all retain an open heart and open mind, that we might never miss what God is up to, nor allow conflicts to endure longer than they have to.

 

Lord God, grant me an open heart and an open mind.  Give me the courage to admit where I’m wrong, the grace to restore relationships in conflict, and the eyes to see what you’re doing in me, and in others.  In the name of Jesus, the author of life and forgiveness, the maker of all things new.  Amen.

Tuesday 15th June – Acts 5:17-24  ‘At a loss’

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be very familiar with the experience of going to some room in the house to retrieve a particular object – and finding to your bemusement that the item isn’t there.  ‘I’m sure I put it there,’ I suspect you’ll say to yourself.  ‘Where can it possibly be?’ 

 

I had that very experience a couple of weeks ago with the special ink we use for weddings: I went to the drawer where I keep it, and.... 40 minutes later, after searching every other place where it might conceivably be, I went back to the original drawer in desperation – and there it was, hiding in a corner I hadn’t searched properly.  Welcome to my world.

 

Well, if you’ve had this kind of experience, imagine what it was like for the prison officers in today’s passage: heading over to the prison, as instructed by the authorities, to the place where the apostles were being ‘kept’ – and, lo and behold, they weren’t there!  Never mind a missing household object... To misquote Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, if losing one apostle would be unfortunate, and two looks like carelessness – what does losing twelve apostles look like?

 

No wonder the authorities were ‘at a loss’ (v24).  It was a loss they would have to get used to: this is the first of three such heavenly prison breaks over the following chapters.  And it reminds us that our God, who created the laws of nature, occasionally overrides them at his will.  With good reason, in this case: the church is very new, and very fragile despite its explosive growth.  Arguably the future of the new community which Christ’s work has brought about is at stake. 

 

This kind of situation needs a miracle – and it certainly gets one!  But what is most striking about this passage is not the miracle, but the obedience of the apostles.  They go straight back to the location which got them in trouble in the first place.  They don’t even hesitate: as soon as it gets light (v21), they are back in the temple courts proclaiming the good news.

 

And this good news is about ‘this new life’ (v20).  And that message remains as true for us today as it was then.  God is about life, and we can share this life, thanks to Jesus.  As we absorb yesterday’s announcement delaying the easing of lockdown, let’s take heart that our God is still the same, yesterday, today and forever – and this wonderful, amazing God has come to give us life to the full.  A fullness which is not ultimately dependent on our circumstances, but on his grace, love and power.

 

May that life be ours today – and may it give us hope, even in these trying times.  Amen.

Monday 14th June – Acts 5:12-16  ‘Open heaven’

After the scandal of Ananias and Sapphira, what would happen next?  That was the big question that must have been playing on the minds and the lips of both the inhabitants of Jerusalem as well as the fledgling Church.  What I think is significant about this short but dynamic passage is firstly what it does say, and secondly what it doesn’t.  Allow me to explain...

 

The most striking thing about the start of this passage is where the apostles chose to lead their ongoing meetings: in Solomon’s Colonnade, the exact place where they had gathered after the lame man had been healed and the very place from which they had got in trouble with the authorities!  They were absolutely true to the word they had spoken to the religious authorities: ‘Should we listen to you, or to God?’ (paraphrase of 4:19)  Indeed they had also prayed for boldness, and it seems this boldness was there in abundance (4:29). 

 

Similarly, their prayer for more signs and wonders (4:30) was being wonderfully answered – indeed their reputation for miracle-working was such that people even believed in the power of Peter’s shadow (v15)!  And this is where what the passage doesn’t say is helpful too.  Many cults and sects have started when a gifted leader starts to believe their own hype, as crowds of followers ascribe special status to them.  Power corrupts, and sadly the history of the church has seen it happen numerous times.

 

 It could have happened to Peter – imagine people wanting even to experience your shadow – but it didn’t.  There is no sense in this passage or what comes next that Peter’s ego is inflated, or that he changes his determination to offer his gifts for the Lord with humility and a servant heart.  Perhaps the greatest miracle in this passage, among all the healings, is the one in Peter’s heart.  He stayed true, he stayed surrendered, he stayed humble.  And as a result, ‘more... believed in the Lord’ and ‘all of them were healed’.

 

It’s wonderful to be used by God, to be fruitful.  But let’s all pray for grace to have a heart like Peter: bold, humble, giving God the glory.  

Saturday 12th June – Acts 4:36-5:11  ‘But to God’

This is not the ideal passage to read on a lazy Saturday morning!  Arguably it’s a passage few of us enjoy reading at any time: we too might feel, as the rest of the church did, ‘great fear... about these events.’ (v11)

 

And it is certainly a difficult passage to get our head around.  The judgement seems extremely harsh, perhaps something we’d be more likely to read in the books of Judges or Samuel than in the New Testament.  We have to remember that at this very early stage of the church’s life, its reputation was at stake.  It was still a tiny, fragile community, its leaders were already being held up to close scrutiny (and overt persecution begins later in this chapter), and they were also expecting the return of Jesus within their generation.  The timescales on which they were operating in order to prepare the church for Christ’s return were a matter of years or decades at most, not millennia. 

 

This backdrop created a dramatic urgency for absolute integrity.  Think today of the howls of hypocritical outrage from the press whenever any person or organisation with a reputation for goodness gets caught doing something less than upright – and multiply the stakes by ten for a community awaiting the last day and the restoration of all things.

 

The key phrase here – and the simple takeout for us now – is this: what matters is what God thinks of anything we do.  Whilst we might receive praise or judgement from other humans, the only audience we do things for is The Audience of One – the Lord.

 

This cuts both ways: our good deeds might be praised by others, but it is only God’s opinion that really matters. Hence beginning our reading to include Barnabas’ gift at the end of chapter 4.  This is a deliberate comparison in the text which is lost by a chapter division.  Barnabas is one of the great characters of the bible, and someone held in very high regard by human society.  Even the apostles decided that he needed a name which befitted his wonderful character: he was no longer just Joseph, but ‘son of encouragement’, which is the meaning of the name Barnabas.

 

But although this act of great generosity is such that it gets a specific mention in scripture, we know from the other stories about Barnabas that he’s not really interested in human praise, only to be right before God.  Barnabas lives for the Audience of One, whether that gets him plaudits (as here) or criticism (15:36-40).

 

In the same way, the problem for Ananias and Sapphira was not that they let the church down, but they lied to God.  The one opinion which really mattered was God’s – and it is this that led to their downfall.

 

As we offer our lives to God today, may he grant us all grace to live more and more for The Audience of One – and may he also grant us confidence in his love and mercy towards flawed and broken people like us.  There but for the grace of God... and thankfully, the grace of God is very much alive and well for us today.

Friday 11th June – Acts 4:32-37 ‘One in heart and mind’

‘The night has passed, and the day lies open before us: let us pray with one heart and mind...’

 

So begins one of the lovely opening prayers in the Church of England’s Daily Prayer.  Its inspiration comes from today’s passage, which starts with the striking description of the early church: ‘All the believers were one in heart and mind.’

 

It’s a wonderful image – but what does it mean?  We talk a lot about the unity of the church, and how important that is: but this seems to take ‘unity’ to a whole new level!  These early chapters of Acts provide a good definition of what a church which is truly ‘one’ looks like.  It involves deep friendship and regular meeting together, a love of (and commitment to) growing in wisdom and prayer, a common vision and mutual support in achieving that vision – and crucially, the capacity to meet each other’s practical needs.  What is interesting is that the main example of what it means to be ‘one in heart and mind’ is the very down-to-earth financial support that was provided for any who had need (verses 33-35).

 

In these days long before the welfare state, the only safety net people had – apart from their immediate family – was the generosity of others.  The early church provides an inspiring model of what a heart touched by the generous love of Christ, and a mind able to make wise choices as to how to meet others’ needs, looks like.  In doing so, they fulfilled one of God’s original desires for his people, given in the law: ‘There need be no poor people among you’ (Deuteronomy 15:4) – something our author St Luke makes clear in verse 34.

 

Nowadays most commentators describe the life of the early church as an ‘ideal community’, a utopian society which couldn’t last long in its original state, and we must admit of some truth in that.  But we should beware getting too comfortable with the idea that this kind of radical community is ‘just not for now’.  It remains a prophetic vision to lift eyes to a greater horizon, and our hearts to a higher love.  My prayer for myself is that I would remain open to hear its voice – perhaps that is a prayer you can pray, too.  And can I also offer this wonderful follow-on prayer to the invitation which began our reflection today:

 

As we rejoice in the gift of this new day, so may the light of your presence, O God, set our hearts on fire with love for you, now and forever.  Amen.

Thursday 10th June – Acts 4:23-31 ‘Stretch out your hand’

‘Stretch out your hand.’  There’s a phrase guaranteed to send a shiver down the spines of those of us old enough remember corporal punishment at school. (I am... just!)  Those fateful words were usually the prelude to sharp pain a matter of seconds later, as the cane/strap/palm swung down.

 

But today is a chance to redeem this phrase: there’s a noble background to this phrase in the bible, because – despite the modern connotations of punishment associated with it – in the bible this phrase is used to signify the activity of God.  Moses is told to stretch out his hand by the Red Sea, and as he did so, the waters parted (Exodus 14:16).  Jesus tells the man in the synagogue to stretch out his hand (Mark 3:5), and as he does so, it is healed.

 

And here in this passage the disciples ask God to stretch out a divine hand, in order that they might see great miracles and wonders performed.  Or rather, we might say that these disciples were asking that every time they stretched out a human hand in the name of Jesus, God’s divine hand anointed and empowered their step of faith to do something wonderful.

 

It’s a remarkable prayer, not least because it is made in the context of the onset of persecution.  Peter and John have been briefly imprisoned, and then sternly warned not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus.  Their response: to pray fervently to do so even more!  And with more miracles, too.

 

It’s hard not to be inspired by such faith.  But there’s an encouragement here for us, too: a reminder than whenever we stretch out a hand to do something in Jesus’ name, we can pray for God to bless and empower it.  It might be something spectacular, but it might also be a simple act of love.  Anything that Jesus can put his name to God can bless.

 

And that is (part of) the wonder of what it means to follow Jesus.  Nothing is wasted: even a cup of cold water offered in Jesus’ name has its reward (Mark 9:41).

 

So let’s pray for grace to stretch out a hand in some way today – that God too might stretch out his hand to bless it.  

Wednesday 9th June – Acts 4:13-22 ‘They’d been with Jesus’

This week I’ve been reading ‘Conspiracy of the Insignificant’, the autobiography of Patrick Regan, the founder of a Christian organisation called XLP, which has done brilliant work sharing and showing the love of Christ in inner-city schools and among the toughest estates in London.  It wasn’t the kind of area where Patrick grew up, but he felt called to it at a young age.  Visiting Cardboard City in Waterloo as a 16-year old, he writes:

 

‘It was there that my bubble burst for good and my heart broke.  I returned to the church hall we were staying in that night and prayed a prayer that changed my life.  As I tossed and turned on my air bed, tears ran down my face and my heart was overwhelmed with the things I’d seen... There was no Hallelujah Chorus, but there on the church floor I was suddenly intensely aware that all these people were made in the image of God and that as a Christian I had to respond in some way.’

 

And so began decades of faithful service on one of God’s frontlines: a journey which not only took Patrick into some of the most challenging areas of this country but also to places of great hurt and poverty overseas.

 

We worship an extraordinary Saviour.  One of my prayers is that I’ll never lose sight of just how amazing Jesus is, that my heart would continue to be captivated by him.  As yesterday’s passage concluded, ‘There is no other name...’

 

But as we marvel at Jesus’ saving love, today we can also remember that this amazing Saviour also empowers ordinary people to do extraordinary things.  People like Patrick Regan.  And people like Peter and John – ‘unschooled, ordinary men’ (v13).  These are not people who were always destined for greatness: they had normal upbringings in ordinary places.  But something made the difference.  Or, we should say, Someone.  The rest of v13 gives it away: ‘they took note that these men had been with Jesus.’

 

Being with Jesus makes the difference.  Three years of personal friendship and investment from their Lord had turned Peter and John into bold evangelists, people with purpose and authority.   Still flawed, still human: but ordinary people now able – through Christ’s power – to do extraordinary things.

 

There is nothing like being with Jesus.  And because it’s not about us and our abilities, our capacities, our talents, Peter’s and John’s and Patrick’s stories can be ours too.  We too can be ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  We may not have books written about us, but all of us are privileged to witness little, ordinary, everyday miracles.  The longer I go on in pastoral ministry, the more convinced I am that God gifts so many people to be part of these ‘ordinary, everyday miracles.’ No-one is excluded because Jesus is the same Lord for each of us.

 

Let’s be uplifted by Peter and John, by what God can do in ordinary people like you and me.  And let’s pray with St. Richard of Chichester: ‘Dear Lord, of you three things I pray – to know you more clearly, to love you more dearly, and to follow you more nearly, this day and every day.  Amen.’

Tuesday 8th June – Acts 4:5-12 ‘Called to account’

In 361 AD the Roman Emperor Julian, a fierce opponent and persecutor of the church, wrote a tract regretting the progress of Christianity because it pulled people away from the Roman gods.  In this tract he wrote: 'Atheism [i.e. the Christian faith!] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.’ (italics my own)

 

It might seem remarkable that one of the reasons this emperor hated Christians so much was his sense of outrage that their care for others was so great that it extended to those of another religion.  But it is a sobering reminder that not everyone likes followers of Jesus doing good! 

 

That said, what we also see in today’s passage is the reality that showing care and kindness for others has been at the heart of our faith from the beginning.  God is self-giving love, and this God calls us to love others in the same way.  So Peter and John bless this man with prayer and kindness, and now find themselves hauled before the authorities to explain themselves.  And Peter is not slow to point out the irony of what is going on here: ‘we are being called to account for an act of kindness...’ (v7)

 

Whilst this is certainly unusual, it reinforces the observation we made yesterday that radical love unsettles corrupt human power, because it exposes the myths of their authority.  Peter understands that this is the real reason: ‘know this.... it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.... that this man stands before you healed.’ (v10)

 

In the grand scheme of things, if we are to get into trouble for anything, much better that it’s for showing great kindness than great hatred or indifference.  And the Jesus in whose name this mighty miracle happened is the same Jesus who empowers our lives today, who still gives his name to the acts of love and faith which we offer. 

 

Thankfully, few of us face the sort of opposition Peter and John did.  But if you do: know that God is with you, and will bless your integrity, just as he has always done.  Psalm 37 reminds us: ‘Do not fret because of the ungodly... for like the grass they will soon wither.... Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.’ (vv1,2,4)   In good times and bad, may that last sentence be our hope and prayer – God, grant me grace to delight in you and you alone, shape my heart to desire what you desire.  Amen!

Monday 7th June – Acts 4:1-4 ‘A dangerous freedom’

‘Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God.’  This parody of a famous old hymn is one that a friend of mine told me many years ago.  He’s a Christian – and there’s no harm in not taking ourselves too seriously! – but the sentiment is shared by many both within and outside the church: the church is seen as something very conservative, safe, unlikely to take risks or challenge the status quo.  While other radical forces might shape society, the church moves relentlessly forward... but oh so slowly and carefully.

 

It’s funny that this is how many in the West see the church, when in many other cultures, the perception of our faith is totally different: the church is seen as dangerously subversive.  This has been true throughout history, and right from the beginning.  To preach the Lordship of Jesus is an implicit challenge both to other worldviews, and also to human power which likes to believe its own hype.  The ‘Powers That Be’ are unsettled by those who worship a different boss, or insist that above this world sits an even bigger Boss than them, to whom one day they will give an account.

 

It’s funny when you think about it, that a group of people committed to peaceful living, loving their neighbour, serving the disadvantaged, giving generously and obeying the general law of the land wherever it doesn’t contradict the will of God, should be seen as such a threat.  99% of the time we are model citizens.

 

But the other 1% matters.  The fact that ultimately our first loyalty is to the Lord Jesus is what makes human authorities uncomfortable.  And so, in today’s passage, we see the first sign of trouble for the fledgling church, the first time that the authorities start to oppose what’s going on.  Until now, the new community has been only a blessing – but as it grows to several thousand (v4), it starts to be seen as a threat.  We get this marvellously ironic sentence in v2: The religious authorities ‘were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people.’  Not inciting them, or bullying them, or oppressing them – just enlarging their minds and hearts!

 

Of course, the real issue is the second part of the verse: ‘proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.’  The troublesome rabbi they had just got rid of a few months previously is the last name they wanted to hear being spoken of openly in the heartland of their faith.

 

Perhaps you’ve come across this type of opposition personally: at work, or within your family.  If you haven’t, give thanks for the peace and freedom most of us still enjoy.  But let’s pray today for all our fellow brothers and sisters for whom this type of opposition is a daily reality – both in this country and around the world.  Many do so in secret, some openly – and all with great courage.  In the end, their conviction that resurrection life is found in Jesus outweighs every cost.  May their courage inspire us, and, like the early church, may it also bear great fruit for the kingdom of God.

Saturday 5th June – Acts 3:24-26 ‘Heirs of the covenant’

As we are situated near Bletchley Park, one of the features of our community is that over the years, a number of our parishioners and church members worked there during the war.  Thousands were billeted nearby, and some of them stayed and made their permanent homes here after 1945.  Sadly, the last of our church members who worked in one of the famous huts passed away 3 years ago – and some of you reading this will know the delightful lady I am referring to.

 

Although she had so many extraordinary experiences to recount, she was always very reluctant to speak about her work during the war – even 60+ years later, she only ever mentioned it a few times, and rarely gave specific details.  Her reason was very clear: ‘I took an oath, and I can’t break it.’  Even though others had begun to talk once the statutory 30 years had passed, for this lady her oath was lifelong, permanent.

 

How long are we expected to keep a promise?  It’s a good question, and I imagine most of you would answer: ‘It depends on the promise.’  In today’s passage we look at perhaps the greatest of all promises ever made: one made by God to an obscure Mesopotamian almost 4,000 years ago.  The promise was this: ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.’  Quoted in v25, the original promise goes all the way back to Genesis, the first book of the bible.  God promised Abraham that one of his descendants would be the means to bless the whole world.

 

In a sense, the rest of the bible represents the outworking or fulfilment of that promise.  And it took a long time coming – at least by our human calculations.  There were many up and downs, pitfalls and sidetracks along the way.  Viewed through human lenses, it almost didn’t get going at all – Abraham couldn’t have children, and the long-awaited heir took 25 years.  The second generation fought and the third generation was exiled to another country in a time of famine.  Hundreds of years later, the genocidal ruler of that nation tried to wipe out the heirs of the covenant – unsuccessfully.  Then the heirs themselves repeatedly failed to trust the God who made that promise, eventually split into two and were again exiled.  Various leaders had threatened to be the ‘person of blessing’ promised to Abraham, but had ultimately come up short.  By the time of this sermon, nearly 2,000 years later, it would be fair to ask: when would the promise be fulfilled?

 

Peter’s answer is remarkable: ‘the time is now!  We have now seen the fulfilment of those promises.  However long it’s taken, God’s covenant can’t be broken, because God never breaks his promises.  You are still heirs of that promise: and the servant has now come – his name is Jesus.’

 

With the passage of time, it’s easy to lose the force of how amazing this is.  Never mind ’30 years of hurt’ (no doubt to continue this month!), how about 2,000 years of waiting?  But God is good, and faithful.  As Peter reminded the crowds on Thursday, God is ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’.  It’s the same God, keeping the same promise – faithful then and now.

 

We too inherit this same blessing – since we are part of ‘all peoples’ that the promise was for.  This faithful God is our God.  Bring to him today whatever your needs are, and trust in his faithfulness for you – for you too are an heir of this amazing covenant.

Friday 4th June – Acts 3:17-23 ‘Times of refreshing’

As a student, I spent two of my long summer vacations working as a brickie’s mate.  It was hard graft, albeit in glorious weather.  And when I got home, my routine was usually the same: a long soak in the bath to wash off the grime and soothe the aching muscles, followed by a couple of hours with my feet up to rest.

 

It’s a familiar routine for many of us in the evenings – as we prepare for bed, we wash and then rest.  It’s something we adopt as children (or for our children) – ‘bath and bed’ – and it remains a lifelong habit.  Wash, and rest.

 

Funnily enough, there’s echoes of it in the spiritual life too.  What does it mean to come to Christ?  What’s the outcome – what does it look like?  As Peter talks to the crowds in today’s passage, he describes what happens for those who come to believe in the name of Jesus, who change their lives in that direction (remembering that this is the meaning of the word ‘repent’ in v19).  And it’s the same pattern I’ve just described: wash and rest.  This is the force of the two words Peter uses in the second part of v19.

 

First, our sins are ‘wiped out’ (to use the NIV translation).  The word literally means to wash off or erase.  Its most common usage in the language of the day was to describe how a wet sponge would rub off a mistake made by ink on a piece of papyrus.  The writer would rub the papyrus and ‘wash off’ (same word) the ink from the paper before re-writing.

 

What a wonderful image to demonstrate how Jesus deals with our own selfishness and wrongdoing! It’s like a wet sponge is applied to our lives, literally washing off the stains of the mistakes.  We are, quite literally, washed clean!

 

But it doesn’t stop there – God’s promise is also that we might enjoy ‘times of refreshing from the Lord’.  I love that phrase, and how we need that kind of refreshing at the moment.  How good to know that this is God’s plan for us. Again, the word literally means rest, relief, respite or refreshment, and it reminds us that our good news is not just ‘sin management’ – it is the restoration of wholeness.  God desires not just that we wash, but we also rest. 

 

‘The rest of God’ is a theme which weaves through the whole bible.  After creation God rests on the seventh day, and then institutes rest every seventh day for us too.  And ultimately, that season of rest will be perfected for eternity in heaven, where we will enjoy, forever, the rest of God.  Peter even alludes to this in our passage as he promises that when Jesus returns God will ‘restore everything’ (v21).

 

God has called you to enjoy his rest.  We may have to work hard today – or we may be fortunate enough to enjoy the sunshine – but it makes no difference.  Thanks to Jesus, our hearts can be at rest: and one day, we will know that rest forever.

Thursday 3rd June – Acts 3:11-16 ‘Where there’s blame...’

Just down from where we live, on the notorious chicane which leads out of Wavendon village towards Wavendon Gate, they’re closing the road this morning for some roadworks. Almost certainly it will be to fill in the large pot holes which have appeared (again) over recent months as extra buses and lorries, alongside thousands of cars have taken their toll.  We’ll certainly be glad not to have to weave the car all over the road to avoid them, but it reminds us that the real reason these potholes are attended to so promptly is the risk of being sued.

 

We live in a culture nowadays which likes to apportion blame.  We can no longer hold up our hands and insist that ‘accidents just happen’.  If something’s gone wrong, someone has to take the blame.

 

And whilst we now take this to extreme lengths – good for potholes, bad for insurance policies! – this attitude is nothing new.  In fact, it’s as old as the serpent itself – when God confronts Adam and Eve in the garden right at the start of the bible, the newly-shamed man says ‘blame the woman’; the woman says ‘blame the serpent’.

 

And in today’s passage, St. Peter doesn’t pull any punches either. He is of course talking about one of his best friends, so the pain is raw, but his words have a curiously modern ring to them: ‘You handed him over... (v13); you disowned the Holy and Righteous One... (v14); you killed...’ (v15).  Where there’s blame, as they say, there’s a claim.

 

But the claim in this case, wonderfully and miraculously, is the very one paid in full by this innocent sufferer.  The very moral failings that put Jesus on the cross are also the ones that God deals with on that same cross.  The point is not that Peter is targeting particular groups with causing the death of the Messiah – that was a pernicious belief of mediaeval Christendom, which caused untold suffering for the Jewish minorities who lived in those societies – but rather their story is our story

 

We can read these words knowing that we all carry the same guilt as Adam and Eve, the same guilt as the Roman and Jewish authorities referred to in this passage.  We too put Jesus on the cross... and yet we too can make the same claim: that in the name of Jesus we can be forgiven, set free, restored.

 

God was not thwarted by human wickedness.  God achieved his purposes regardless, and gloriously raised Jesus from the dead.  This same God raises us too – the name of Jesus brings us life.  Today, give thanks that nothing you’ve done can separate you from God’s love.  You are forgiven, you are clean, and your only ‘claim’ is the life-giving power of the name of the Son of God.  Hallelujah!

Wednesday 2nd June – Acts 3:1-10  ‘Give what you have’

Lots of us love a good Christian biography.  We find stories of great people doing great acts for God inspiring: whether it’s Jackie Pullinger in the slums of Hong Kong, or Nicky Cruz working with violent gangs, or Brother Andrew smuggling bibles into the Eastern Bloc, or Corrie ten Boom risking her life to protect Jewish families during the Second World War.  It’s good to remember what an awesome God we have.

 

And yet, if you’re anything like me, reading such stories can sometimes make us feel inadequate.  We think of our own lives in comparison with these heroes of the faith, and wonder where we’ve gone wrong or missed out.  Never mind that in at least two of the examples above, their calling largely came out of their own circumstances, rather than a dramatic change of direction – we can find ourselves reflecting that perhaps we somehow fell short.

 

But this is not how God sees it.  Comparing ourselves to others is rarely a smart move in the journey of faith.  Today’s wonderful story reminds us of one simple principle which we can all offer for God’s glory: give what you have

 

The scene is not an unusual one.  Peter and John were doing what they usually did – going to pray at the temple – and almost certainly taking their usual route there.  They passed someone who they’d probably passed many times before, who made the usual request for financial assistance.  This is not a unique, one-off, dramatic encounter.  It’s an encounter they might have had dozens of times previously.  But today they took a step of faith and applied one simple principle: they gave what they had, and trusted God for the rest.

 

And so when the chap asks them for money, Peter says, in effect: ‘I don’t have cash, but I’ll give you what I can, something else you don’t have – a prayer for healing in the name of Jesus.’

 

Today we can give thanks for this extraordinary miracle.  But I also want us to note the very ordinary circumstances in which it took place. Two normal, working-class blokes making their usual journey at their usual time, passing someone they’d passed many times before, and doing one simple thing in the name of Jesus.  Give what you have, and trust God for the rest.

 

Jesus teaches the same thing in that famous parable of the talents.  He doesn’t ask everyone to deliver the same amount of impact for the kingdom – only to make the best of what they have.  In the kingdom, everyone gets to play.  And all God asks is that we use what we have.

 

So in your circumstances today – however ordinary they might seem – take heart!  God is simply asking you to give what you have, and trust him for the rest.  By the grace of God, extraordinary things might come of it.

Tuesday 1st June – Acts 2:42-47  ‘The blueprint’

Many of you know that I love playing records.  There’s something about the theatre of it that’s unbeatable.  Even though I have a music streaming subscription, I love to get one of my 12-inch discs of black plastic out on a regular basis.  I only own one record, though, that’s worth any money.  Bizarrely I bought it by accident, but it’s by a band who split a couple of years later and deleted their whole back catalogue.  You can’t buy this record new anymore, only second-hand copies. 

 

Funnily enough my copy also has a little white sticker in the top-right corner, which adds £50 to its value.  The sticker is worthless in itself, but it proves that my copy is one of the original pressings, as it was only these that had this sticker.  I’m glad I accidentally bought the wrong record that day!

 

For all that we love new things in our culture, there’s a huge amount of interest in finding originals.  We love the idea of having something that’s the original version – whether it’s a first edition of a book, the first series of a classic car – or the actual original piece of art, rather than a print.

 

It’s true in church life, too.  There are so many denominations now, so many different types of churches, we find ourselves asking – what was the original church really like?  Before there were human institutions and organisations, before we owned buildings and created hierarchies of trained professionals, before we decided that this particular practice defined our particular brand of church?

 

And in today’s famous passage we get a glimpse of the original church.  The church newly anointed by the Spirit, led by the original leaders who’d been with Jesus.  And as we read these verses, we’ll see some things that remind us (thankfully) of the church we have now, and others which are more challenging.

 

It’s no surprise to know that they devoted themselves to study of their faith (the apostles’ teaching now being written down as the New Testament), to unity (usually translated as ‘fellowship’, but the word means one-ness), to hospitality (breaking of bread referred to the act of sharing a meal, which probably included remembering Jesus’ death but not in the formalised way we have it now) and to prayer.  So far, so good – we might recognise something of our own church family, even if the current season has restricted us in various ways.

 

But we also see a church which was extraordinarily generous, where miracles were normal, where the whole community admired what it was doing and where people joined it every day.  These things are unusual now – and perhaps as you read this, you might have found yourself longing, as I did, that we might see more of it!

 

There is no perfect church this side of heaven.  Which is just as well, or I couldn’t join it.  But let’s be inspired by what we read today to lift our eyes, enlarge our vision, and declare over our church, our partnership, our nation – come, Lord Jesus, bless your church!

Monday 31st May – Acts 2:37-41  ‘In the name of Jesus’

Yesterday was Trinity Sunday, a day when we celebrate the fact that the God we love and worship is one being with three natures: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We reflected in our service on why this profound idea is such an amazing thing: it means we worship a uniquely 3-dimensional God, someone we can relate to in many deep ways - a magnificent monarch, a wise teacher and judge, an inspiring example, a comforting presence in our lives, a close friend.  God is both up in heaven and in our hearts.  If God had only one nature, think what we would lose!

 

Today though, we remind ourselves that there is a ‘way in’ to this extraordinary relationship.  God is Christlike – and Jesus (the Son) is also the way to the Father and the Spirit.  The Christian faith is ultimately a Christ-centred faith: we trust in, and follow, Jesus.  And this idea runs throughout the last part of Peter’s sermon:

 

  • We are forgiven in the name of Jesus (v38)
  • We are baptised in the name of Jesus (v38)
  • As a result we receive the Holy Spirit (v38: noting it was Jesus who received the Spirit from the Father and pours it out on us – v33)
  • Ultimately we are called by God (v39) to believe in the promises fulfilled by Jesus.

 

It’s all in the name of Jesus.  This is how we change or lives (the meaning of the word ‘repent’ – a word sadly obscured sometimes by too much religious baggage).

 

What always touches me when I read these amazing stories of the early church is how much Jesus is at the centre of everything – how much the apostles loved Jesus, and built everything they said and did around this love.  Every time I read it, I think to myself: I want a bit of that!  Maybe you do, too.

 

The good news is that this is not just a historical record.  As Peter insists, this kind of life is available to everyone: us, our families, and even those who are far off.  No-one is too young or too old, too good or too bad, too cynical or too gullible.  Jesus is for all of us.  And in his name we have forgiveness, a new life, and power by his Spirit to live that new life.  May that new life be ours today, this week, and for eternity.

Saturday 29th May – Acts 2:29-36  ‘God had promised’

Promises, promises.  It’s something we all find ourselves doing, but fulfilling them is not always straightforward.  In this season in particular, so many promises have had to be postponed or cancelled, through things outside our control.  Is it better not to promise at all?

 

Interestingly, God doesn’t have an issue with making promises or vows.  Jesus’ teaching on not swearing oaths in the Sermon on the Mount is more to do with abusing language to manipulate people than the idea that we shouldn’t make firm commitments.  Indeed, our integrity should be such that a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is enough for people to know that we will do what we said we will do.

 

And God make promises to us, too.  Indeed at the heart of what we call ‘faith’ is that sense of trust that God will do what he said he will do.  That God does wonderfully forgive us, fully and freely; that God does send us the Holy Spirit – what Peter actually calls in this passage ‘the promised Holy Spirit’; that God will take us to enjoy eternal, abundant life in heaven.  Faith rests on the promises of God.

 

And God also promised many centuries ago that a new anointed rescuer would come, a king to sit on David’s throne.  ‘God had promised’ this to David – and it is now remarkably and perfectly fulfilled in Jesus. 

 

The result of these promises: ‘God has made this Jesus.... Lord and Messiah.’ (v36)  Our great rescuer and now the One we can worship and follow.

 

It’s easy in this difficult season to get weary of commitments and promises.  But a deeper truth is at work: a certain foundation on which our lives can rest.  God’s promises never fail.  He has not forgotten you.  He still loves you.  He is still with you.  And you are still with him.  Take a few moments today to call to mind some of the great promises of God.  And may that lift your heart and soul in praise.

Friday 28th May – Acts 2:22-28  ‘Death cannot keep its hold’

I spent time looking at my patio today.  A strange thing to do, you might wonder.  About 50 slabs of paving stone, grey and uniform.  Pretty dull, I guess.  But what I was really looking at were all the things pushing up between the cracks.  Grasses, weeds, the occasional wild flower.  Every few months we clear them – and they always just grow right back again.

 

For those of you who love order, it’s a mess – perhaps a headache you’re aware of in your own garden.  But I like to look at it another way, and not just because I’m a lazy gardener.  What I love about seeing all those plants pushing their way up and out into the fresh air is the sense of irrepressible life.  However hard we try to destroy it, abundant life just keeps reappearing.

 

This has long been a passion of mine. Until we moved to MK, I’d lived virtually all of my life in urban areas, many of them on the rough and ready side.  My world was concreted, bricked and paved.  And yet, what was remarkable was how often life would push out through the cracks – up the side of a wall, through a crack in the pavement, peeping out through a fence.  We usually dismiss them as weeds – but in the city, I used to call them beautiful.  Signs of irrepressible life, no matter how hard we tried to stamp it out.

 

‘This is the testimony: God has given us life, and this life is in his Son.’  We looked at those words of St John a couple of weeks ago in our Sunday service, and it reminds us of a simple but profound truth.  God is the author of life – and as people made in God’s image, we are made for life, too.  Where God is, there is life.

 

So when God comes to earth, how does this play out?  At one point, not as we expect: the author of life dies.  Wrongly charged, corruptly convicted – innocent and betrayed, alone on a cross.  But this could never be the end of the story.  How can you destroy irrepressible life?  Or as St Peter says in today’s reading: ‘But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.’ (v24)

 

The agony of death was not so much the physical process of dying, but momentary separation from his Father.  And yet it could only be temporary, because life cannot be held back forever.  The resurrection reminds us that God has life within himself, and God’s purpose, not just for Jesus but for all of us, is life.  Death is not the final answer – the ultimate destiny of all those who choose to live their lives in God is life.

 

May our prayer today be David’s cry of joy at the end of this passage: ‘You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’  And, perhaps, take a look at the weeds on your patio or your path and give thanks for irrepressible life!  It’s what we were made for.

Thursday 27th May – Acts 2:14-21  ‘On all people’

We all love a bit of ‘secret knowledge’.  Access to information that others don’t have.  Today I’ve watched a documentary which aired a couple of weeks ago about the group of spies who created the deceptions that allowed the Allies to carry out the D-Day landings.  It was absolutely fascinating to see how this group of 5 (codenamed Treasure, Tricycle, Garbo, Brutus and Bronx – great names!) played on a very human trait – our shared love of insider knowledge – to achieve something remarkable.

 

For most of us, it’s not that glamorous.  A bit of gossip here, a tip about a sale item there.  Last year we swapped endless stories of which shops had anti-bac or toilet rolls.  And in the religious life most cultures have always been drawn to the idea of special people, or secret wisdom.  Call them seers, shamans or senseis, it’s thought that certain people have privileged access to the spiritual realm.

 

At one level, we can recognise the value of this: humans have always needed leaders, in the spiritual life as much as in other spheres.  But – humans being what they are – this brings with it the risk of unhealthy control, manipulation or downright deceit.  God is the Lord of the whole earth, and every human being is made in God’s image, we carry the divine imprint.  Is it right in the spiritual life to grant privileged access only to some?

 

At Pentecost, amazingly, the answer is ‘not any more’.  The great gift of the pouring out of God’s Spirit is not just the new power it brings, or the energy for mission, or the birth of God’s great community (the Church) – it is the possibility of direct access to the presence of God for all people.  ‘In the last days,’ Joel prophesies on God’s behalf, ‘I will pour out my spirit on all people.’ (v17)  Young and old, women and men.

 

God’s Spirit has always been at work in the world – but until Pentecost, it tended to be for particular people at particular times.  But from now on, all of us can encounter the presence of God, can have Jesus dwell in us by his Spirit, can know the joy and intimacy of a real and close relationship with the Almighty Lord of all creation.  Or to use St. Paul’s words 25 years later: ‘By the Spirit we cry “Abba, Father”.’  By God’s grace and the gift of his Spirit, we can all become children of God.

 

So today, give thanks that this gift is for you. Not just for the great and the good, for the specially chosen and those privileged with ‘secret access.’  The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are laid open to all!  Ask God to draw close to you again, to fill your heart and to grant you the joy of sharing in this remarkable gift with hundreds of millions of people across the world.  For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Wednesday 26th May – Acts 2:1-13  ‘What does this mean?’

And so we come to the famous story of Pentecost – and many of you will be very familiar with the scene.  A group is gathered, praying, and suddenly the place is filled with wind and fire.  We looked on Sunday at what it means for God’s Spirit to manifest as fire and wind – how we need the fire to ignite our passion for God and whatever God calls us to; how we need the wind to blow us to the places God wants to be and the people God wants us to love.  And that is vital.

 

But let’s look today at the immediate aftermath.  This dramatic experience was not for its own sake.  It set about a chain of events.  The outcome for the disciples is that many of them received the gift of new languages.  The gift of tongues is usually understood now to relate primarily to a form of ‘heavenly language’, unintelligible to most people – and that is the most common form of the gift today.  But here at the start these were actual languages.  What the disciples spoke was understood by a large multi-lingual crowd who had gathered from across the known world to celebrate a big Jewish festival.   No Google Translate in those days: God was equipping a group of largely ‘unschooled’ people (Acts 4:13) to do his work in a remarkable way.

 

The second link in the chain is perhaps not surprising: this large crowd was ‘utterly amazed’ (v7) to hear their own language being spoken.  More than that, they were ‘perplexed’ (v12).  It is almost inevitable that they ask the million dollar question: ‘What does this mean?’

 

A lot is spoken – and mis-spoken – about spiritual gifts.  Some make them a requirement of real faith, others a dangerous distraction.  All I can say, from my own experience, is that such gifts are not faked, or forms of self-deception: they are absolutely real, and wonderful – but they also have a purpose.  They are never given just to provide us with an ‘experience’.  They are Jesus’ gifts – and as such, they are there to do Jesus’ work in the world.  The exercise of such gifts in a Christlike way always prompts people to explore further: ‘What does this mean?’

 

Faith in Jesus is not just true, it’s real. And sometimes people need a divine prod to back up what we speak and how we live.  Most of the most ‘noticeable’ gifts of the Spirit happen in the context of mission – in other words to demonstrate that Jesus is real, and exactly who he says he is.  Just as we see here.  This chain of events in today’s passage sets the scene for Peter’s great speech that comes next.

 

You may or may not have experienced this kind of thing.  It doesn’t matter – there is no place either for pride or a false sense of inadequacy in the journey of faith.  But perhaps we can all take a step today to pray for more of God, for openness to whatever gifts he may graciously want to give us – and for opportunities to meet those asking: ‘What does this mean?’  Our God is the same, yesterday, today and forever.

Tuesday 25th May – Acts 1:12-26  ‘Just 120’

How many people do you need to change the world?  It’s a good question, isn’t it?  I read once that to change any culture you need 2% of the population to be passionately inspired and committed to whatever cause they believe in – given enough time, that 2% will be enough.  In Britain, that would be about 1.3 million people.  In Milton Keynes, about 5,000.

 

But what about the kingdom of God?  It turns out that all you need is 120 people.  Take a moment to dwell on that – 120.  That’s what we learn in v15 of today’s passage.  The second half of Acts chapter 1 is rarely looked at – mostly we jump between the twin peaks of Jesus’ Ascension in the first half of ch1 straight to the Spirit being poured out at Pentecost at the start of ch2.  And there are so many interesting, or even curious, things to notice in this passage: the constant prayer (v14), the need to replace Judas and still have 12 apostles (v21), the casting of lots to let God decide who takes a job.  (Is that something to practise now??  Would save a lot of time with interviews and scoring grids!)

 

But what struck me today is this throwaway phrase – stuck in brackets in verse 15.  The total group left to continue God’s work on earth was 120.  Think of all the people whose lives Jesus had impacted: at least 5,000 people were fed miraculously, there are 53 separate miracles recorded in the gospels, huge crowds still hung on his every word even a few weeks previously at the Passover celebration in Jerusalem.  And yet, three years of dedicated ministry of the Son of God here on this earth had left a committed group of just 120. 

 

But our God is the God who multiplies.  What Jesus preached is what he practised: the kingdom of God is indeed like that mustard seed – apparently so small and insignificant, and yet grows to become the largest of all plants.  All God needed to start a worldwide movement which changed the world was 120 people, filled and empowered with his Spirit.

 

One of the words that God has consistently reminded me of during my time here has been this: ‘You have all you need.’  I’ve often not wanted to believe it, praying for this extra provision here, or new resources there.  But time and again, the word has been proved true – and it’s true for you as well.   God’s resources in your life are always enough.  His grace is sufficient.  God is well able to achieve his purposes in you, and your family.

 

Take heart.  God (plus you) is enough to overcome whatever you face today.  By his grace and his life-giving Spirit, you have all you need.

 

And may that cause faith to rise in us, and to pray with confidence to the God who multiplies.

Monday 24th May – Acts 1:1-11 ‘The kingdom of God’

‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’  Famous words from the world’s most famous prayer. It’s one that many of us use every day, and it shapes the heart of Jesus’ teaching about how we humans can relate to our loving God.  Every day, through this beautifully simple but profound prayer, we bring our needs before him: for grace sufficient for that day, both material and spiritual; for forgiveness and a heart to be able to forgive others; for strength in times of trial and temptation; for protection. 

 

But that of course is the second half of the prayer.  The first half is all about God’s purposes in the world.  It’s the bigger picture stuff, and sometimes, if you’re anything like me, it can kind of wash over us.  We know that God is at work in the world, and one day everything will conform to his will – because he alone has the power and the glory.  But we’re not there yet.  We live in this interim season, when Jesus has won the victory over evil, sin and death – but the world is not yet all it could be, and will be.  And so we pray for God’s will and reign to keep increasing – on earth, as in heaven.

 

And at the heart of God’s ever-expanding presence in the world is this idea of the kingdom.  The Kingdom of God is the central theme of Jesus’ teaching – it’s mentioned almost 100 times in the gospels, and right here in our passage today, as Jesus ascends into heaven, we note that after Jesus rises from the dead, he makes the kingdom the heart of his final teaching to his disciples: v3 ‘He appeared to them over a period of 40 days and spoke about the kingdom of God.’  In other words, it was the major topic of conversation just as Jesus was about to leave, which means it must be incredibly important.

 

But what is it?  In a nutshell, ‘the kingdom’ defines wherever God reigns in the world. It’s not a physical kingdom, of course – it lives in the heart of Jesus’ followers, and, beyond that, everywhere that human behaviour conforms to the pattern of Jesus’ teaching and lifestyle.  When we gather in Jesus’ name, the kingdom comes.  When we give time to growing in our understanding of faith (just like you’re doing now), the kingdom comes.  When we pray, the kingdom comes.  When we bless our neighbour, the kingdom comes.  When we serve all who are marginalised, the kingdom comes.  Basically, whenever we do something that Jesus can put his name to, the kingdom comes.

 

And as we begin this new series in the Book of Acts, let’s observe that this book is really an answer to the Lord’s Prayer – as the Holy Spirit is poured out and the church is birthed, as the followers of Jesus spread out across first Israel and then across much of the known world, so we see a real-life answer to that simple phrase in the world’s greatest prayer: ‘Your kingdom come...’

 

And we too can celebrate God’s kingdom in our lives.  Today, take a moment to give thanks that the kingdom has come in you.  And pray to receive the ‘power’ that Jesus promised, by his Spirit.  Amen, come Holy Spirit!

 

 

 

A mini-series on the meaning of Jesus' Ascension:

Wednesday 12th May – Acts 1:1-11 ‘He will come back’

For those of us who love sport, there are few things more thrilling than a great comeback.  If you’re a cricket fan, I would only have to mention the words Headingley 1981 or Headingley 2019, and you’ll get goosebumps.  If you’re a Liverpool fan, those words would be Istanbul 2005.

 

It’s not only sport, though.  Through most of the 1930s, Winston Churchill was considered by many to be a has-been, his political career consigned to ranting from the backbenches.  Then came the war... and the rest, as they say, is history.  Recently he was voted our greatest Briton.

 

Comebacks sit at the heart of our faith, too.  We’ve not long celebrated the greatest comeback in history – our Saviour Jesus, coming back from the dead.  Alleluia, Christ is risen!

 

But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  An even greater comeback is still in the future: ‘This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ (v11)

 

I wonder what you think of the return of Jesus?  Do you think of it at all?  After all, it’s been 2,000 years...  Or does the idea make you shudder?  Are you worried for yourself or people you know?  Are you intrigued?  Will there be trumpets and flashing lights?  Will his appearance be so astonishing that the wicked will be asking rocks to fall on them in their terror?  Or will it be more like the thief in the night, as if by stealth?

 

The Second Coming is a core belief of our faith – ‘he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead....’  Indeed we need this core belief.  How else does God put everything right?  How else will we get to the part where ‘his kingdom will have no end’ (to finish the statement in the creed)?

 

And yet it’s been relegated in importance in recent times – much like the Ascension, in fact.  So today, let’s spend a few moments just absorbing the centrality of this belief: Jesus will come back.  He is coming back!

 

This truth obviously has vast implications for our world.  But let’s keep it personal today.  How do we live in light of this?  The answer is back in the same verse (11) in the passage: ‘Why do you stand here looking into the sky?’  In other words: there’s a mission to get on with!  The way to be ready is to press on in faith – not to spend too much time pondering when it all might happen, and how.  There a world to witness to – and much more besides.

 

Ultimately, this is a hopeful passage: Jesus will come back, every wrong will be put right. Ultimately, Jesus wins!  And because he wins, we win!  And so we resolve to keep close to Jesus, to keep growing and moving on in faith, because we know he is returning and it will all be worth it.  That’s a message the world needs to hear.  And may it also be an inspiration for us today.  Amen.

Tuesday 11th May – Acts 1:1-11 ‘What happens next?’

As a child, one my favourite TV programme was a Question of Sport.  And one of my favourite rounds in the quiz was ‘What happens next?’  I didn’t usually get it right, but the fun was in the imagining.  Something unpredictable was coming, you just didn’t know what it was.

 

In a way, Jesus and his disciples play an ancient version of this exercise at his Ascension.  Jesus has just told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to fill them.  Something unpredictable was coming, and the disciples didn’t really know it was.  So they essentially ask Jesus what happens next.  Or in their words: ‘Are you about to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (v6)  In their understanding of the scriptures, this is what happens once the Messiah is revealed, and it betrays that they still have a lot to learn about what the new era that Jesus brought into being was going to look like.

 

And much like a Question of Sport, Jesus presses the pause button and says, effectively: ‘I’m not going to tell you.  Or to use his words: ‘That’s not for you to know. You just need to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit.’ (v7-8)

 

Waiting is hard – very few of us like waiting.  But there is a pay-off.  Waiting develops both gratitude and endurance.  We learn to be more thankful for what we have, and more able to last, either with or without it.

 

Jesus knew that – and he knew that his disciples were going to need to excel in both gratitude and endurance for the ministry that lay ahead.  But most of all, he knew that what they needed was to be filled with the Holy Spirit – to be soaked with God’s love and power, with his truth and humility.

 

And it’s what still need more than anything else.  This last year has reminded us that the future in this life is always uncertain.  But, whatever life throws at us, it is the Spirit of Jesus that will lead us through this current season and into the new one. 

 

It is the Spirit that will show us the new ways God is at work.  It is the Spirit that will give us new hope, new creativity, new energy to partner with God in his plans. It is the Spirit that will enable us to walk with God, in His love and power.  It is the Spirit which will show us how to be the Church in a changed culture; and which will not only sustain us, but will empower us to reach and bless others with this same love.  We will be witnesses, heralds of this new thing for the whole community, for our city, for our nation. 

 

For all of this, we need the Holy Spirit.  The other voices are useful, and there are lots of them at the moment.  But only one really matters – and it’s the one we need to wait for with renewed longing.

 

So what happens next?  I don’t know – but let’s wait, and be filled, and trust that God will continue to lead us wherever he wants.  The wind blows where it pleases, and there is no safer place to be than in the centre of God’s will. 

 

Amen, come Holy Spirit.  Amen, come Lord Jesus.

Monday 10th May – Acts 1:1-11 ‘Look up’

The Ascension – Jesus ascending to heaven – is not just a theological oddity.  It remains a foundational part of our faith. As Sean White put it in Feasting on the Word, ‘no other festival in the Christian year is more important and less emphasized than the ascension of the Lord.’

 

And today, let’s summarise the importance of the Ascension in two words: ‘LOOK UP’. 

 

LOOK UP because Jesus is enthroned as King.  At Jesus’ ascension he is installed as the true king of the world. According to the Apostles’ Creed, he “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Jesus is taken up to heaven in a cloud (Acts 1:9–11), and later in Acts Stephen declares that he sees the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56). These texts suggest that Jesus’ ascension fulfils the important prophecy of Daniel 7:13–14.

 

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

 

Jesus’ kingdom will not pass away, and cannot be destroyed! This is a message we all need in the tough times, the time when we feel small or our challenges feel big.  Our God is a great, big God.  Look up!  Jesus is king.

 

Secondly, LOOK UP, because the Spirit is coming.  Jesus promises his followers that they ‘will be clothed with power from on high.’  Real power – the power to live for Jesus, to witness for him, to develop our characters, to receive gifts, to form the community of his people.  But the Spirit comes to those who look up and ask for it.  It is the Spirit of Jesus.  And he loves to send his Spirit on those who seek after him.

 

So much of the time, I find myself looking down.  Down at the pavement to avoid tripping up.  Down at my keyboard.  Down at all the guinea pig straw on our carpet.  But every now and again I need to be reminded to look up. Let’s not forget why so many churches are built with these huge high ceilings – to lift our eyes towards heaven. Look up!  Look up today, because Jesus is king.  And look up because power is available from on high, the Spirit is coming.

 

I know the angels finish by telling the disciples to get going and not look up any longer – but they’d been doing that for quite a while.  When it comes to looking up, I think most of us have some catching up to do....

 

Look up.  The king is exalted, where he truly belongs.  And where we too will belong, by his grace, for all eternity.

 

 

Our post-Easter series saw us take a detailed look at Colossians 1 and 2:

Saturday 1st May – Colossians 2:6-7 (ii)  ‘Built up’

I love a good switch of metaphor.  Yesterday we looked at what was under the surface of our lives – today we go above ground, but via a different image.  If yesterday was plant-based, today it’s buildings.  To flourish as Christ-followers, it’s not just about our roots, it’s about visible growth too – we are to be ‘built up in Jesus’ (v7).  The structure of our lives is slowly constructed brick-by-brick according to God’s will.

 

Any of us who’ve tried it know that this kind of human building takes time – like, a mediaeval-church- construction length of time!  We are all works in progress.  But we can also look back and see the ways we’ve grown.  A new wall of kindness, a new column of patience, a new flowering garden of peace.  Sometimes the odd brick gets knocked out and has to be built again – but little by little, God is at work, the master builder.

 

And the image has that sense of ‘reinforcing the structure’ – we can all pursue personal growth, but often that feels shaky.  God’s type of building has built-in reinforcements – the presence of the Spirit, the power of community support.  And Paul mentions two particular visible supports to the growing edifice of our lives: first, staying strong in the faith that we were taught.  We keep the main thing the main thing.  We choose to remember what led us to Jesus in the first place, and we continue to believe the heart of biblical truth – that Jesus died and rose and is Lord of all, that he loves us and desires to be with us.

 

And second, we cultivate thankfulness. Not always easy – but modern science has proved that thankfulness is actually good for our health.  Thankful people are happier and kinder.  St Paul knew that 2,000 years ago – he also knew that thankful people stay closer to God.  God designed us for thankfulness – so it’s no wonder it’s good for us, too.  There are seasons when that is easy, and seasons when that is hard.  God knows which season you’re in.

 

So – rooted and built up.  What is God building in you at the moment?  Pray for grace for that to continue, and also grace to be as thankful as you can, whatever season you find yourself in.

Friday 30th April – Colossians 2:6-7  ‘Rooted’

Trees are wonderful things.  Many of us love trees.  I certainly do.  I love being close to them, just standing in their presence, admiring their size, their beauty, their dignity.  My family have got tired of going out for family walks in woodland with me, as I find myself lagging behind, just gazing at all the lovely trees, usually taking pictures as I go.

 

Those of us who live in Milton Keynes are lucky to live in a city which is known as the City of Trees.  There are 22 million trees and shrubs in Milton Keynes, not including the vast area of woodland in Woburn and Aspley just outside our city boundary. 

 

Trees are one of the greatest parts of God’s creation.  Science tells us they are hugely important in cleaning our air and regulating our weather.  They protect us from flooding, and provide a haven for wildlife.   They have a special place in most cultures throughout history.  Trees heal, trees shelter, they stand strong and firm in all weather.  They just are.  Or rather, they have been, they are and they will be. That sense of majestic permanence is part of their appeal.

 

Psalm 1 – one of the great psalms, and one we studied on a Sunday service in January –tells us that our lives are to be like trees.  ‘Blessed is the one... they are like trees planted by streams of living water.’

 

And trees need roots – without them we won’t grow strong and healthy.  Here’s an image of what the average root structure for a mature tree looks like:

So where we do find our roots?  Simply here: in Jesus.  That’s what today’s passage affirms.  We are to be rooted in Christ (v7).  To become these flourishing, strong trees that God longs for us to be, we put our roots down in Jesus.  We make an intentional choice to follow him (‘continue to live your lives in him’ v6) and, as we saw yesterday, we seek our wisdom from him – which means soaking up the timeless treasures of the bible.  We become those whose ‘delight is in the law of the Lord’ (Psalm 1 again).

 

To flourish as human beings, we need our roots in the right place.  Take a few moments today to ask God for grace and strength to put your roots ever more deeply into his amazing Son, Jesus.  And maybe pray that for a few others, too.  We all need it!

Thursday 29th April – Colossians 1:28-2:5 (ii) ‘All the treasures’

Who’s the smartest person you know?  I suspect there’d be a range of answers to that question – you might have a particularly brainy friend or family member.  Some of you will naturally think of famous big brains, like Albert Einstein or Alan Turing.

 

I bet not many of us said ‘Jesus’.  It’s funny isn’t it?  He’s the Son of God, co-creator of the universe, the one holding it all together (1:17).  He can rise from the dead, heal people spontaneously, calm the natural elements at his command, and know what people are thinking without saying it.  He can do all that... but we don’t usually think of him as clever.

 

I wonder if this is partly to do with our image of Jesus which tends to be of the ‘wandering hippy’ variety – we think of Jesus meandering around with long hair and sandals. Charismatic, yes; approachable, definitely; clever... er, maybe?

 

It’s also partly to do with a strong anti-intellectual current in modern Christian culture.  Whilst ultimately our faith does rest on... well, faith – that doesn’t mean that it lacks rigour, or good evidence, or that we only believe so long as we don’t ask tough questions.  That is a barb aimed at us by some clever atheists, and deep down many of us are worried that it might be true.

 

And it’s nothing new.  It was around right from the early years of the church.  Greek culture was very sophisticated, and from the beginning the church faced suspicions that its belief system was a bit lightweight and needing beefing up with a bit of Greek philosophy or hidden knowledge (gnosis – its adherents were called Gnostics.  It’s where the word agnostic comes from (literally ‘no hidden knowledge’ i.e. I haven’t made up my mind yet!)

 

The little Christian community in Colossae were under particular attack by these gnostic teachers.  And it was denting their faith.  But Paul has good news for them.  We don’t need to look anywhere else for true wisdom, because ‘in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’ (v3)  Jesus is not just all-sufficient for love and peace and comfort and strength in times of trial.  He has all the wisdom we need as well! 

 

I’ll leave the final word to the great writer on the spiritual life, Dallas Willard:

 

‘Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived? ...[Jesus] is not just nice, he is brilliant. He is the smartest man who ever lived. He is now supervising the entire course of world history (Rev 1:5) while simultaneously preparing the rest of the universe for our future role in it (John 14:2). He always has the best information on everything and certainly also on the things that matter most in human life.’

 

Need help today?  Let’s bring our lives and our dilemmas to this remarkable genius in prayer now.

Wednesday 28th April – Colossians 1:28-2:5  ‘United in love’

Having spelt out the great goal of our lives yesterday – to be fully mature in Christ, St Paul moves on in this passage today to describe two natural outcomes of this maturing process.  ‘My goal,’ he says, ‘is that [we] may be encouraged in heart and united in love’ (v2). 

 

What a great pair of goals to have!  It’s easy to get discouraged sometimes, either by the pressures of life, or the challenges of faith.  Paul, though, wants us to remain encouraged in heart.  God is always greater than our struggles and challenges, his power at work in us can do marvellous things even when we feel at a low ebb.  It comes back to that wonderful mystery: ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’  Take a moment to let that truth fill, strengthen and encourage your heart again.

 

Second, we are to be united in love.  Christian unity is always a challenging topic to write about – and even harder to practise!  I came across some lovely words from the great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen on unity this week, which I can’t improve on:

 

‘Unity among people is not first of all the result of human effort, but rather a divine gift.  Unity among people is a reflection of the unity of God...  When Jesus prays for unity [John 17], he asks his Father that those who believe in him, that is in his full communion with the Father, will become part of that unity.  I continue to see in myself and others how often we try to make unity among ourselves by focusing all our attention on each other and trying to find the place where we feel united.  But often we become disillusioned, realising that no human being is capable of offering us what we most want....

 

‘Jesus calls us to seek our unity in and through him.  When we direct our attention not first of all to each other, but to God to whom we belong, then we will discover that in God we also belong to each other.  The deepest friendship is a friendship mediated by God... This truth requires the discipline to keep returning to the source of all unity.’

 

In our fragmented world, we have a deeper unity than normal bonds of friendship or human connection – we have joined the ‘unity of God’!  May God continue to unite as sisters and brothers, and as we do so, to find the great joy of sharing our journey towards maturity together.

Tuesday 27th April – Colossians 1:28-29 ‘Mature in Christ’

Today I want to introduce you to a word that is not very well-known – not least because it’s in Greek – but is very important, and that is the word teleios.  Now teleios is quite a hard word to define, but it’s the word used here in verse 28 which is translated in modern translations as ‘mature’ or ‘fully mature’.  St Paul describes it as the goal of all discipleship, this verse is like his personal mission statement – ‘to present everyone teleios in Christ.’

 

If you look at dictionaries they’ll use other words to define teleios like completeness, perfection, integration, wholeness.  You get the idea.  Ultimately it means becoming all that we could be in Christ, or to put it another way, where the image of God is fully restored and complete in us.  The finished article, if you like. 

 

It’s not used in many other places in the bible, but whenever it is, it’s pretty big stuff.  Jesus himself uses it in the iconic Sermon on the Mount as his summary of what a life submitted to God looks like: ‘be teleioi, (plural of teleios) he says, as your heavenly Father is teleios.’ (Matthew 5:48)  In other words: God is a fully whole and complete being, he’s the finished article – and you’re made in his image, so his plan is for all of us to be, too.

 

Elsewhere, St Paul in another of his letters tells the Ephesians that, when leaders exercise the full range of their giftings and the body of Christ is built up accordingly, then we become teleios, ‘attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:13).

 

It’s quite a big thought for a Tuesday morning, isn’t it? (Or a Tuesday afternoon or evening, if you’re reading this later in the day.)  God’s purpose for you is to become completely whole, fully perfected in Christ.  And as you read this, you’re probably thinking – that is quite a long – a very long – way away.  Don’t worry, it is for me, too.

 

But that is the finish line – and the good news is that we don’t aim for this on our own.  We have people to help us – leaders, teachers, each other – and we also have the God’s help: the Spirit of Christ, which ‘so powerfully works’ in us (v29).

 

However far you feel on this journey, give thanks that you are on this journey.  God will get us to the finish line, each one of us – and that finish line will be glorious.  Take heart – you’re further along than you think!

Monday 26th April – Colossians 1:24-27 (ii) ‘Glorious riches’

If you were asked to summarise the purpose of life in a few words, what would you say?  What’s the point of it all?  What represents the ‘grand plan’?

 

It’s a tough question, but in these stunning verses we get close to an answer.  God’s ultimate purpose for all people is this: ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (v27).  This is the mystery that humanity has been waiting for – one that ‘has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people’ (v26). 

 

It might sound fairly innocuous, but it goes to the heart of what it means to be human, what we were designed for.  We were made to be in perfect, loving relationship with our creator.  This was designed to be a beautiful, intimate friendship that would last forever.  Our selfishness wrecked all that – but in Christ this pattern can be restored.  We can know God intimately again – so closely that Christ dwells ‘in you’ by his Spirit.  We have Jesus’ constant loving presence abiding with us – teaching us, encouraging us, strengthening us, growing and maturing in us all the qualities of a flourishing life: peace, joy, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness.  It is what we were made for – it is how things were always meant to be.

 

And this relationship is meant to last forever.  Death was never meant to be the end – we were made to live in the embrace of God’s love for eternity.  Again, our selfishness shattered that, the world became dislocated.  But in Christ we now have ‘the hope of glory’ – i.e. the assurance that we will enjoy this relationship, this healed state of being, for all time.  God’s glory never ends.

 

‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’  Two simple phrases which define the ultimate purpose of life – and our destiny, praise God.  At Easter we celebrate the greatness of God’s salvation – but so often we limit our vision to ‘saving souls’.  Yes, it is that – but it is so much more.  It is the restoring of all creation, it is becoming the people God designed for us to be.

 

Today, let these awesome truths lift your spirits. Christ is in you – welcome him again!  And you are walking in hope from earth into eternity – one day at a time.

Saturday 24th April – Colossians 1:24-27 ‘For the sake of his body’

Who’d be a leader?  As General Hopper declares in the great film ‘Ants’: ‘The first rule of leadership is – it’s always your fault.’  And we are all too painfully aware of the damage that can be done by leaders who are corrupted by power.

 

Which is why the Christian perspective on leadership is so refreshing.  Jesus began a revolution in our understanding which has been our pattern ever since: ‘Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.’  To lead we must serve. The very concept of ‘public service’ which still prevails even in secular government models could not exist without the Christian tradition from which it originates. It was unknown before the first century AD.

 

And it’s also clear that the earliest Christian leaders adopted Jesus’ model from the word go.  St Paul here talks very personally about his own leadership journey, and describes it as follows: ‘I have become its (the church’s) servant by the commission God gave me.’ (v25)  And this servant leadership was hugely costly: most of us will be well aware of the suffering that Paul endured in order to fulfil the commission God gave him.  Here he rather cryptically describes these trials as follows in v24: ‘I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.’

 

It’s worth stressing that Paul is not saying that Jesus didn’t duffer enough. But what he is saying is that to follow the pattern of Christlike leadership involved trials which were not unlike Jesus’ own.

 

This reflection is certainly challenging for me to write.  Many of us leaders are fortunate not to have been called to the same level of suffering to fulfil our particular callings.  And yet leadership remains costly.  And we are all called to live lives of service, after the pattern and example of Jesus.

 

So do take a few moments to pray for leaders today – outside the church, but especially within it.  In particular, remember those leaders around the world who have to pay a similar price to the one Paul refers to here – but even for those who don’t, may we all continue to fulfil a pattern of servant leadership, ‘for the sake of his body,’ and for the glory of Christ.  Amen.

Friday 23rd April – Colossians 1:21-23 (ii)  ‘Established and firm’

‘Don’t move!’ If you watch a lot of detective dramas as we do, then you’ll hear this phrase often – usually as some cop corners a criminal.  I must confess it is also sometimes said in our home when coming across a large spider!

 

.... and, as it happens, it’s St Paul’s advice for followers of Jesus today.  Having spent the last few verses describing just what an amazing message we have – good news with the power to cleanse the soul and bring us eternal life in the presence of our great God forever – Paul’s encouragement to all of us is: ‘Don’t move!’ (v23)  Hold fast to this message, it’s all you need.

 

It might sound strange that Paul would even need to say it.  Surely the power of the message speaks for itself?  But the lesson of history is that we are always tempted to veer off course.  It’s tempting to think to ourselves occasionally: surely the message is too good to be true?  Is Jesus really the whole ball game?  Isn’t he just the starting point, with more levels to climb, or more things to add?

 

The message underlying this lovely little letter is that: Christ plus always equals Christ minus.  Now there’s an impossible equation for the mathematicians among you!  If you add stuff to Jesus, in the end you take stuff away, because it undermines the sufficiency of Christ for our spiritual lives.

 

The church in Colossae had some particular ‘additions’ to deal with and we’ll see some of those in chapter 2.  There was a widespread belief in the idea of ‘hidden knowledge’, which led many to think that there must be ‘new levels’ to ascend to.

 

Our challenges may be different, but we still come across it: to be a real Christian you have to do x, y or z.  And often these things are really important: we might attach ‘obligations’ to church attendance, or frequency of prayer, or particular moral habits.  And don’t get me wrong: these are all vitally important.  Church is vital. Prayer is vital. Purity is vital. 

 

But we find all we need to prosper in these habits in Christ.  As someone once said: Jesus is not just a means to an end – Jesus is the end.  And as we journey deeper into this astonishing relationship with him, so we find all we need to flourish spiritually.  Christ is our sure foundation – which allows us to stand, not to move, ‘established and firm’.

 

Today, take a few moments to marvel at the sufficiency of Jesus.  He is all you need.  Let him be all you need today.  Amen.

Thursday 22nd April – Colossians 1:21-23  ‘Presented holy’

When I was training in my previous role in the commercial world, an old colleague once said to me: ‘If ever you feel intimidated in a meeting, just imagine them all sitting in their underpants.’  It’s a fairly comical strategy, but many will testify that it works!

 

This idea of finding ourselves in the presence of someone or others ‘with no place to hide’ is a hidden fear for many people.  But if that seems scary in the presence of another human, imagine what that must be like in the presence of Almighty God.  ‘With no place to hide’ wouldn’t even come close to it!

 

Or so you would think.  Certainly we have to acknowledge that the awesome presence of God throughout the bible was enough to make people fall on their faces before him.  And yet, St Paul is able to talk of a very different reality for those who are in Christ.  Thanks to the work of reconciliation effected by Jesus – through his bodily crucifixion and resurrection – the incredible news is that can now be presented to God ‘holy in his sight’ (v22).

 

The word ‘holy’ means set apart, chosen, special – and that is what we are.  We might not feel like that – but the bible consistently affirms that it is true.  For many of us, a key point of growth in our faith is to really accept the fact of our holiness – set-apartness – even if it doesn’t always feel like it.

 

This act of being presented holy has two particular blessings attached to it: firstly we are ‘without blemish’ i.e. clean.  Many of us feel ‘soiled’ by things we’ve done wrong, or by the more general sense that life rubs off on us.  But in Christ we are clean – ‘not just nearly clean, but really clean’, as the cheesy old ad put it.  ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,’ as God promises in Isaiah 1 – praise God!

 

Second, we are ‘free from accusation’.  And who accuses us?  Most of the time, it is ourselves.  Our consciences nag us, occasionally we get that little voice in the ear, whispering lies: ‘You’ll never be good enough for God’ – or somesuch.  But such lies are destroyed by the good news of our faith, by the fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It is not a leap of faith as such, but an historical event. Feelings rest on faith. Faith rests on facts.  And because Jesus really died and really rose, the voice in our ear can be silenced.  There is no-one now to accuse us, because Jesus has declared us holy!

 

So whatever our past life – and Paul talks openly about the reality of that in v21 – our future is assured.  In Christ we can be presented before God – holy, clean and ‘in the clear’.

 

‘This is the gospel that you heard...’ Paul says.  It’s the same gospel we hear now – and it is life, joy and peace to us.  May we live clean and free today.  Amen.

Wednesday 21st April – Colossians 1:15-20 (ii) ‘Before all things’

Among the many striking things about Prince Philip’s funeral – the beautiful, haunting music, the sadness at seeing the Queen in isolation, the bare church nave – I was particularly struck after the Commendation Prayer by the long list of the titles and offices held by His Royal Highness.  Not just ‘Duke of Edinburgh,’ but many others besides – I counted 13, though it was hard not to be distracted by the unusual uniform worn by the chap reading them out.

 

How do you describe someone’s greatness?  Prince Philip had a real humility – not least in refusing a eulogy – but it was still incumbent, at some point in the service, to find words to ‘declare his greatness’ by the many titles and offices he held.

 

This passage is something similar in relation to Christ – only on a much grander, universal scale.  How can we possibly declare how great Christ is?  We can’t – but St Paul attempts a ‘cosmic list’ to try and give us a picture.  The background is that the Colossian Christians were facing pressure to ‘add things’ to their faith, as if Jesus wasn’t enough.  Paul’s answer was to remind them just how awesome Christ is – in other words, that he is more than sufficient for all we need in the spiritual life.

 

Fundamentally, and put bluntly, Jesus is top dog, best of the best, numero uno – or, to use the language of the text, ‘before all things’.  The One who was, who is, and who is to come.  Just look at Jesus’ amazing titles in the passage: (1) image of the invisible God; (2) firstborn over all creation; (3) creator of all things; (4) the reason that all things were created at all; (5) the One in whom everything holds together; (6) head of the church; (7) first to rise from the dead – note, in the sense that he has life within himself – we know of course that Jesus raised others in his earthly ministry; (8) possessor of the fullness of God; (9) the reconciler of all things to God; (10) the One who shed blood on the cross.

 

The last one jars, doesn’t it – in the list of titles, it sticks out a mile.  And yet, strangely, it is the one which decisively demonstrates the truth of all the others.  It is the way Jesus himself declared that he would be glorified (John 12:23) – and through it, everything else is brought to fruition.  Jesus’ legacy is, extraordinarily, sealed through his death on our behalf: it is the fulcrum for his surpassing greatness which existed from the beginning of time, and is afterwards manifested in his resurrection power and authority.

 

We can never exhaust the greatness of Christ – there is no-one more amazing, no-one more worthy of our worship and adoration.  And this extraordinary Saviour died – and rose – for us!  Hallelujah!

Tuesday 20th April – Colossians 1:15-20  ‘The Son’

Today we step onto holy ground.  Colossians 1:15-20 is one of the great jewels of Scripture – a hymn of praise to the surpassing greatness of Jesus Christ. 

 

For once I’m not going to say anything – but rather to encourage you to read this glorious passage slowly, allowing every phrase to wash over you. 

 

Then read it again.  What jumps out?

 

Then be still for a few moments in the awesome presence of ‘the firstborn over all creation’.

 

May God grant us a fresh sense of awe and wonder today at just who we worship.  May we see Jesus as he is.  And may that cause us to praise and pray with renewed hope.  Amen.

Monday 19th April – Colossians 1:9-14 (iii)  ‘A worthy life’

‘Wisdom is proved right by all her children.’  These words of Jesus are beautifully turned into prayer by St Paul in verses 10-12 of this marvellous passage, which we return to today.  On Saturday we looked at how Paul encouraged us to pray for spiritual wisdom and understanding as the first priority of his prayers for fellow Christians like us.  How we need it!

 

But this kind of wisdom has good outcomes, and it is these outcomes that Paul now prays for us, too.  In summary, spiritual wisdom enables us to ‘live a life worthy of the Lord and [to] please him in every way’ (v10).  What a good aim in life to have – but thankfully Paul doesn’t stop there, he puts flesh on the bones of the idea.  This kind of worthy life manifests itself in several ways:

 

We bear fruit in every good work.  I like the emphasis that it’s not just good work – it is fruitful work.  So many of the practical choices we make as followers of Jesus are to do God stuff and not just good stuff.  It’s a good habit to develop, to ask God to discern the ‘God’ things from the good things.  Don’t get me wrong, good things are still good things.  But life is finite and time is short, there are usually several good things we can do at any point in time.  What a blessing to have confidence that the particular good thing we aim to do is also the ‘God thing’ – the thing which God will most use for his glory.

 

We grow in the knowledge of God – which is pretty self-explanatory, except to say that knowledge in this sense is always practical, life-orientated, and not just academic.  We are to know God like we know how to bake a cake or drive a car – we could write down the recipe if we wished, but best of all we can actually do it!

 

We have great endurance.  As we’ve observed before, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.  Following Jesus is a long old journey.  Simply keeping going, faithfully and consistently, is a very underrated quality.  When asked about his qualification for becoming a missionary, William Carey – the father of overseas missions – simply said: ‘I can plod’.  God loves plodders!

 

We give joyful thanks – so often we come back to this thought: retaining a spirit of gratitude in our lives.  Counting our blessings.  It is easy to get stuck in a negative mindset – I do quite often.  But gratitude is so powerful: it not only gives glory to God, it lifts our spirits, and inspires us to keep following our Lord wholeheartedly.

 

So... God stuff not just good stuff, continuing to learn, plodding faithfully whatever life throws at you, staying grateful – this is the worthy life.  And I love the fact that it’s, well, normal.  It’s not for the super-spiritual, it’s the sort of list all of us can look at and say – ‘well, I can manage at least two of those, and on a good day I can manage 3 or even 4.’  And that’s how it’s meant to be.  Following Jesus isn’t easy – but it is for people like us!  And God has all ‘glorious might’ (v11) to enable it to happen.  How good is that?

Saturday 17th April – Colossians 1:9-14 (ii)  ‘Wisdom and understanding’

Following yesterday’s reflection, let’s spend a little time today looking at the content of prayer.  Most of us – me included – focus a lot on practical requests.  And that’s fine: Jesus encourages us to ask God for what we need today (our daily bread), and there’s harm in naming those things.  Or indeed for naming others who need particular things too.

 

But I always find it helpful to look at the content of biblical prayers – especially the prayers of St Paul in the letters he wrote.  Whenever I read them, it seems to open out a new dimension for me in prayer. It’s like Paul is praying on a different plane, you might say a deeper foundation.  It’s the difference between asking to be given bread and asking to learn how to bake – at least some of what we need.  Now that would be something, wouldn’t it?

 

And it usually starts with our minds.  Before Paul prays about people’s lives he prays –like he does here – for ‘God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives.’ (v9)  If we know God’s will then it’s much easier both to pray for that will to be done, and also to try and do it.  We’re no longer stumbling along in the dark, but walking more confidently in the light.

 

It’s deceptive simple, but powerful.  And as I’ve tried to grow in my own walk with Jesus, I’ve learned to give more time in my prayers to asking God for wisdom to know what to pray for.  I’ve found that offering this prayer – which is usually answered more surprisingly clearly than you might think – both fills me with more confidence, boldness and inspiration to then pray whatever that is, and also saves precious time and energy, which can be invested in other ways.

 

But let’s observe that this wisdom is given by the Spirit.  It’s vital that we give time in our prayers asking God’s Holy Spirit to fill our minds as well as our hearts.  To think ‘God-thoughts’, to take the words we read in the Word to heart.  Word and prayer go hand-in-hand: and as the two feed off each other – the Word inspires our prayers, which inspires us to go back to the Word for more, which inspires our prayers in turn, and so on – so we receive a different, more nourishing kind of bread.  We start to co-operate a little in the baking process, so to speak.

 

Don’t hear me wrong – I’m not preaching a gospel of self-reliance here.  The Christian life is God’s gift at its heart: it’s just that Paul encourages us to pray for different gifts, a different kind of bread you might say.  This kind of bread, Paul says, is remarkably energising, if verses 10-12 are anything to go by.  We’ll look a bit more at this bread next time.

 

But today, let’s take a few moments to pray verse 9 for ourselves and for any situations where we particularly need wisdom and understanding.  Ask God to reveal that wisdom to you by his Spirit – and may that wisdom feed your prayers and energise your walk with Jesus today.  Amen.

Friday 16th April – Colossians 1:9-14 (i)  ‘Not stopped praying’

Prayer is hard.  Anyone who tells you it isn’t either hasn’t tried it very much, or perhaps hasn’t tried it at all.  For many of us in our walk with Jesus, prayer remains the central challenge in our journey.  Certainly in my role as a pastor I have listened to more people confess that prayer remains the greatest struggle of their spiritual life than anything else.  Very few of us would ever admit to be good at praying.

 

Why is that?  If it’s so important and valuable and life-giving, why is it so hard?  Why do we struggle with it so much?  I think a good place to start in trying to answer that question is to acknowledge that it is a very intense activity, much more tiring than almost anything else.  An hour of prayer – by which I mean intercessory prayer, prayer for others and the needs of the world – is like half a day of any other activity.  We need to recognise that prayer is not ‘time off’ but time intensely on, engaging in the deepest, most powerful activity known to humanity.

 

Then we have recognise that, precisely because it is so valuable, our spiritual enemy will do everything in his power (which is limited, by the way, in Christ we have nothing to fear) to stop us.  Doubts, distractions, interruptions, little lies whispered in our ear – “God won’t hear you”, “that wasn’t the right prayer” – you know the sport of thing!  Nothing drastic – just enough to make us wonder if it’s worth the effort.

 

Most critically, I think what kills prayer is the list of ‘oughts’ we bring to it.  I ought to pray for this long.  I ought to pray in this way, using these prayers or these long words. I ought to pray like so-and-so prays, who’s a much better Christian than me.  I ought to ‘feel’ something.  I ought to have prayed like this yesterday. 

 

It’s funny that we place all these ‘oughts’ on prayer, when all Jesus tells us to do is to find a quiet space and to pray something short and simple (Matthew 6:5-8).  He’s much more worried about the direction of our prayer (for God, not for others to see how holy we are) and the attitude of our hearts (humility, not pride – Luke 18:9-14) than the way we pray.  Where do all these oughts come from?

 

Actually, Jesus is concerned about one other thing in prayer: that we keep praying, and don’t give up.  This is the biggie for most of us, isn’t it?  Every single one of us will have some prayer that we’ve prayed for a long time that doesn’t appear to have had a positive answer yet.  And Jesus’ encouragement to us – and St Paul’s here in v9 of today’s passage – is simply this: don’t give up.  Keep going.

 

‘We have not stopped praying,’ Paul tells his readers today.  God doesn’t care about the oughts.  He just cares that we keep going.  I came across some good, no-nonsense advice this week from a Catholic theologian, Dom John Chapman: ‘the only way to pray is to pray... If one has no time [to pray much], then one must at least pray regularly....  As to beginning afresh or where you left off, I don’t think you have any choice.  You simply have to begin wherever you find yourself.’  Or as my old mentor put it to me: pray as you can, not as you can’t.

 

So, wherever you find yourself today, just take a little while to pray.  As you can, not as you can’t.  The passage has some great ideas for what to pray, you could just pray those exactly as they are on the page and that would be a great start – for you, and for others that come to mind.  But whatever you can manage, remember: no oughts!  God loves to be with you as you are.

Thursday 15th April – Colossians 1:3-8  ‘All over the world’

The Church is a very big thing.  Very big.  It’s hard for us to get a true handle on just how many people claim to follow Jesus.  Think of a big crowd that you’ve been part of.  One of the biggest for me was the crowd of 80,000 in the Olympic Stadium in London in 2012.  That was an amazing experience – but, if current figures are roughly correct, the global Church is more than 25,000 times larger than that crowd!

 

Imagine that.  25,000 London Stadia all joined together – or to put it another way, if you ever go to a concert or a football match, imagine that each person there represents tens of thousands of people – and that’s the Church in 2021.

 

It’s pretty hard to get your head around, isn’t it?  And maybe a bit unsettling, too.  I like being in big crowds, I find them energising.  I’ve always loved the thrill of being part of something bigger, that sense of losing yourself in a collective experience.  But the last phrase is suggestive: ‘losing yourself’ is also not necessarily something we like to feel too often.  Does the size of the Church mean that we as individuals don’t matter any more?

 

In today’s passage, St. Paul speaks joyfully of the fact that, even in his day, just 30 years after the ‘Jesus movement’ began, it was ‘growing throughout the whole world’ (v6).  And within the more limited understanding of the size of the world at that time, this was certainly true.  Paul himself had travelled all round the Eastern Mediterranean, including Greece and Turkey.  He had first met Jesus on the way to Syria.  It had already spread to Rome without his direct influence.  It was known to be in North Africa, and Paul no doubt knew of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian official, so was likely to be further south, too. ‘Throughout the world....’

 

At the time Paul wrote, the actual numbers would have been small: a few tens of thousands at most – they could have fitted comfortably into one London Stadium!  But a movement had begun which would truly spread across the world.  Today there is at least one follower of Christ in every country, and millions in most of them.  How great is our God!

 

But – and this is our other encouragement for today – it is not an impersonal gospel.  Or to put it another way – you matter.  The amazing thing about God is that he still knows and loves each one of us.  Each of us is precious.  And each of us plays our part.  The church in Colossae came to faith because of the work of one faithful follower – Epaphras – from whom this small group of believers learned about Jesus (v7).  In turn, this small community of individuals now loved each other (v8).

 

Huge as it is, in the kingdom of God everyone matters.  The mustard seeds that grow the great tree are still vital seeds in their own right.

 

If you get the chance today, go and enjoy one of the blossom trees which are everywhere at the moment.  Look at the thousands of blooms – a glorious sight!  Then choose just one bud, and look closely at it.  It’s amazing.  It’s beautiful in its own right.  That’s you.  Yes, there are tens of thousands like you on the same tree – but your blossom matters.  Your small act of ‘bearing fruit and growing’ plays its part.  Thanks be to God!

Wednesday 14th April – Colossians 1:3-5  ‘Faith, hope and love’

Yesterday we looked at the foundations of our good news: the two pillars, if you will, of grace and peace.  God’s gift of undeserved mercy, which in turn brings shalom to our relationships in every dimension.  God’s grace, our peace.  These are the twin foundations on which our walk with Jesus rests – and as such, it’s a perfect way to introduce a letter designed to strengthen our spiritual lives.

 

Today, Paul builds on that image by describing how to build fruitfully on those foundations.  What are the defining characteristics of this life-giving journey, of what it means to live in grace and peace?  As Paul gives thanks for what God is doing in the church in Colossae, he talks about three old friends, ones which form the basis of our reflection today: faith, hope and love.

 

You may be familiar with something called the ‘rule of three’.  It’s a very old concept, tracing back to ancient Greece – the idea that things go better in threes.  It was a technique they developed in communications (as Paul does here), but the history of human society and culture suggest that the ‘power of 3’ goes deeper than just good ways of communicating information or telling stories.  We seem to connect with 3s. 

 

Theologically I think that probably has something to do with the nature of God himself: we worship God as 3-in-1, as Father, Son and Spirit.  So it would be natural that human beings – made in this divine image – have a deep connection with things that come in 3s.  Hence ‘3’ defines both how we relate to the world around us (in 3 dimensions) and also how we experience time (past, present and future).  Ironically, it tends not to work so well for us in human relationships – though Christian couples will attest that bringing God into the heart of their relationship creates ‘a cord of three strands not easily broken’.

 

And in the bible, alongside the Trinity, probably the most well-known ‘set of 3’ is the set we encounter today.  It was something Paul had famously developed in a letter written a few years earlier to the Christian community in Corinth, and still used in many wedding ceremonies today: ‘and now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’

 

I get the feeling that Paul was (quite understandably) pleased with what he wrote, as he develops the ideas here in this letter.  Only now he adds further content to the principles.  We are to live with: faith in Jesus Christ, love for God’s people and with the hope of heaven.

 

What I find powerful is where each attribute is directed.  First we need faith in Jesus.  This is vital.  We often commend faith in a generic sense, but the bible always insists that our faith has to be directed somewhere: specifically, our faith is to be in Jesus.  Why? Because we need to place faith in someone we can trust, who loves us, who is completely dependable, and has both the compassion and the authority to make things right.  That would be Jesus.

 

Empowered by this faith, we are then able to selflessly serve (i.e. to love) our fellow Christians.  That’s not to say that we don’t love all people, but we are to give particular love and support to those who also try to follow Jesus – who could you apply that to today?

 

Finally, this life of faith and love has a future purpose: we are living for eternity, the hope of heaven.  Time and again, we are encouraged to see heaven as a motivating factor in our here-and-now lives: the firm and confident conviction that we are headed somewhere much better than here. Yes, we seize every day on this earth, and give thanks for every blessing: but we are on a journey somewhere better.

 

Faith, hope and love – it’s ‘the true message of the gospel’ (v5) and what Paul gives thanks for in the lives of his readers.  May it be our ‘rule of 3’ too, and may God stir in us ever more completely these golden threads of: faith, hope and love.

Tuesday 13th April – Colossians 1:1-2  ‘First things first’

Not many of us write letters anymore – at least not by choice.  Emails, texts, posts, tweets, blogs – but a letter?  Only for formal replies to institutions: and even then, usually typed on a computer and printed out. 

 

To receive a handwritten letter nowadays is a rare and beautiful thing.  And yet it really wasn’t so very long ago that this was the main method of communicating.  I still have a carrier bag full of letters from my friends and family, written to me while I was at university around 30 years ago.  I could fill a similar bag with those I wrote back to them.  To read them now brings back so many powerful memories, and also makes me smile at the craft required to write them.  How to use words to communicate, not just ideas and news, but emotions and sensations.  Emojis are really just the new punctuation.  A sadly lost art!

 

However, whilst it is tempting to imagine that the rarity of letters is a modern phenomenon, this is far from the case.  You may be surprised to learn that letter writing was equally rare 2,000 years ago – paper was expensive and difficult to make or acquire.  A handwritten letter was just as precious then as it is now.

 

Today we begin a detailed look at one such precious letter written 2,000 years ago – by St Paul to a fairly new Christian community living in the city of Colossae , now in modern-day Turkey.  Paul had not started this church, although his protégé Epaphras had likely started it following Paul’s fruitful time in Ephesus.  However, he did want to encourage them in their faith, so he sent another friend Tychicus to them with this letter, and encouraged them also to read the one he sent to the church down the road in Laodicea at the same time.

 

Although the letter is only four chapters – this is typically the amount of text that could be squeezed onto one sheet of papyrus, which is why most of Paul’s letters are roughly this length – there’s so much in it which is just as relevant to us today.  The Colossians (i.e. people who live in Colossae, hence the English name of the letter) lived life in the spiritual supermarket, just as we do.  They had a vibrant faith but faced pressure to add unnecessary things to their faith, just as we do.  They needed to keep grasping just what a glorious message we have, and who we really are in Christ – just as we do.

 

And it starts with a simple greeting: ‘grace and peace’.  It was Paul’s adaptation of a typical Roman greeting... but so much more.  In three simple words he defines the beating heart of our faith, of what it means for us to be followers of Christ.  First, grace: God’s undeserved mercy to us, his heart of love for humanity, shown in Christ.  I was brought up to understand grace by this simple acronym: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense – and it’s hard to get a better definition, even now.  Philip Yancey describes grace as the ‘last, best word of the English language,’ defining it as: ‘nothing you can do can make God love you more, nothing you can do can make God love you less.’  I like that.

 

And the outcome of grace is that second word: peace.  More than just the absence of conflict, it derives from the Hebrew word shalom, which means complete wellbeing in every dimension.  Whilst we may feel a long way short of that, to know the grace of Christ slowly brings order and peace to all our relationships: with God, with others, with the wider community, even with ourselves.

 

Grace and peace.  What better way to greet someone?  And what better thing to pray as we begin our series: may God fill us all with a deeper understanding of his grace, that we too might overflow with peace.  Amen.

 

 

In memory of HRH Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh 1921-2021

Monday 12th April – Mark 10:35-45  ‘Not to be served, but to serve’

How would you define greatness?  For most of us, we naturally connect the word with power and success.  It is the human condition.  But it is not the way of Christ.  Jesus’ words in Mark 10 created a revolution in our understanding of greatness.  Until this point, it was unthinkable for leaders to be seen in any other way than through ostentatious power and wealth, a position overtly above others.  ‘Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.’

 

Like most people, I never met Prince Philip personally.  But he still exercised a tangible effect on my life.  Both of my children have completed (or are about to complete) a total of four Duke of Edinburgh awards.  As well as being a proud dad, when I think of the Duke, I think (at least partly) of the reclaimed part of the churchyard that my son and his friend cleared as part of their voluntary service for their DofE bronze award.  I think of the online church services that my daughter recorded for us all last year as part of her voluntary service for her gold award. 

 

This is not meant to sound flippant.  These are real, practical benefits – as the family whose relative we buried because of that cleared ground would testify, or indeed the many who watch our weekly worship.  And I do believe it is also, in its way, a wholly fitting tribute. These are behind-the-scenes achievements, wholly in keeping with a man who gave unstinting service for almost a century, much of it behind the scenes, that others might shine.

 

For many of us, the visual image of Prince Philip will be of him walking a few steps behind the Queen wherever he went – a striking symbol of real humility.  A monarch always happy to be a few steps behind his life companion, her constant ‘strength and stay’, as the Queen shared at their golden wedding anniversary celebrations.

 

It is also a wonderful image of what it means to be a disciple, a follower.  There is an old Jewish saying which goes: ‘May you be covered in the dust of the Rabbi’ – it means that we are to follow so closely that we are soaked in the dust of the Rabbi’s sandals as they walk.  Philip lived like that with his Queen, walking closely behind for more than 70 years – and we too are called to do the same for our King, Jesus Christ.

 

My favourite of the many stories shared about him this weekend was the one where Philip was asked by a friend why he always made such an effort to engage people directly, asking them so many questions about who they were.  It came shortly after he had wandered into a restaurant kitchen after a lovely meal and thanked not just the chef and waiters but also those who were washing up.  ‘Remember it’s not about you,’ he said, ‘it’s about them.’

 

There could be no better illustration of the meaning of service, as Jesus defines it.  True greatness is ultimately defined by service – which, you could say, is humility in practice.  A life defined by the maxim: ‘it’s not about us, it’s about Jesus – and because it’s about Jesus, it’s about others.’

 

Prince Philip had has faults, his sharp edges – as we all do.  His position also opened doors that might have remained shut for others.  But that is not to diminish his legacy: it might even enhance it.  Philip could have chosen human ‘greatness’: instead he devoted himself to humble service, following the pattern of another ruler whose counsel we read today: ‘not to be served, but to serve’.  And may God grant us all grace to be covered ever more fully in the dust of our Rabbi, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

Print Print | Sitemap
© St Mary's

Sunday Services

1st Sunday

9.30am Family Communion with Childrens' Church
  

2nd Sunday

8.30 am Traditional Communion using the Book of Common Prayer

9.30 am Cafe Church

 

3rd Sunday

9.30 am Family Communion with Childrens' Church

 

4th Sunday

9.30 am Morning Worship

 

5th Sundays (when appropriate)

9.30 am Family Communion with Childrens' Church

 

To get full details about what's going on in St. Mary's for this month, please click here.