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

Daily Inspiration

Wednesday 26th January – Joshua 8:1-35, Galatians 3:13-14 ‘The Tree’

Today’s passage is one of the reasons why most people – even Christians – don’t read much of the Old Testament.  It’s also why I thought long and hard about whether to look at Joshua for our Daily Inspirations.  Where’s the feel-good factor here, the nugget of encouragement?!  It’s tempting to settle for enjoying the Psalms, maybe the last bit of Isaiah and a few other iconic stories, but leave the other 1,000 pages of the Old Testament alone!

 

And yet: if we believe that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ – and bear in mind that St Paul wrote this when the New Testament hadn’t been assembled, so he was referring to the Old Testament – we have to tackle passages like this head-on, and ask the hard questions.  Why it is here?  Why the destruction?

 

The central question which the bible addresses, and which is the besetting problem of all human history, is the corruption of the human heart.  God made us to walk with him, in loving intimacy and joyful obedience.  But we just don’t.  Mostly we either won’t, or can’t.  This is the universal human condition – but it’s not what we were created to be.  So how do we restore this loving relationship, how do we live the kind of life God calls us to?

 

By the time of Joshua, the people had God’s law, given to them through God’s encounters with Moses.   But they were endlessly distracted by the cultures around them: so the solution was to live in a land where there were no other influences.   That is why they are told to purge all other inhabitants: to create an environment in which they could obey God’s law completely, and in doing so, become a model society which demonstrated to the rest of humanity the right way to live.

 

It failed, and even before his death, Moses knew why, and told them so – the problem was not God, or his law, but us:  ‘Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God.  There it will remain as a witness against you... For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you.  In days to come, disaster will fall on you because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord.’ (Deuteronomy 31:26,29)

 

Harsh words: but proved true, again and again.  The people’s heads were turned by the pagan cultures around them, whose religions not only included worshipping other deities, but some truly abominable practices: child sacrifice was not uncommon in parts of the land they were settling.  We need to beware seeing the towns they were fighting against as ‘innocents’ – brutality was normal, and there was little concept of the individual: tribes lived, or died, together. 

 

Ultimately, the Old Testament shows us that we need another way, a better way.  And God gave us a radical new solution: he would take the evil of the world – my evil, your evil – upon himself, and then dwell in our hearts directly.  This new solution is promised in the Old Testament, but also embedded in ‘glimmers of grace’ throughout its pages.  Even here, in this grimmest of chapters, we see it.  As the King of Ai is raised on a wooden pole, so we can’t help but think of Someone Else, more than 1,000 years later who would likewise be lifted on a wooden pole, for our salvation.  As St. Paul testifies in Galatians 3, the curse of being lifted on a tree becomes the source of grace.  God enters into this broken world and redeems even its harshest practices. 

 

Today, give thanks that God led humanity towards a better way.  It may be some way off in Joshua, but there are echoes here.  Grace is the beautiful, subversive idea which runs like a golden thread through all of Scripture: and which has, gloriously, saved you, and me.

Tuesday 25th January: John 17:15-23 ‘That they may be one’

Today concludes the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  So we also take a brief break from Joshua today to honour the importance of this week, and what it means for us.

 

This is a subject dear to our hearts, since our team of churches in Walton is an ecumenical one: that is, we are a united community representing several Christian traditions, all committed to each other, for the glory of God.  It is not an easy path: for churches like ours to function well requires a lot of grace and understanding.  But the price is worth it, as I believe – and still believe! – that churches like ours are a true reflection of God’s heart, of his longing for a renewed people who truly live as one global family.  This is, after all, what Jesus prays for us in today’s iconic passage.

 

It is tempting to join a church where people are ‘all like us’: but true discipleship calls us to go beyond our naturally limited ambitions.  Christ came for all of us, and all of our sisters and brothers are precious.  To be one is not to be the same, but rather to celebrate our uniqueness and diversity within a common vision that what unites us is always more than what divides us.

 

This is the path we have chosen.  It probably won’t ever look ‘successful’, but it is precious and beautiful, and we pray that God will be merciful to us and continue to bless us.

 

So let’s pray today for our church, that we might continue to celebrate our oneness, for the glory of God.  But let’s also pray for our team, for churches across MK and ultimately for churches across the world, that unity would grow.  As our world seems to be ever more divided, it has never been more important for the church to be a prophetic sign of loving unity, of seeing human barriers broken down and covered over by the grace of God.

 

And may God grant us grace to be one, that ‘the world might know that you sent me, and have loved them, even as you have loved me’ (v23).  Amen.

Monday 24th January – Joshua 7:1-26 ‘A lesson in humility’

Last year the Queen memorably declined an award: she was nominated to be ‘Oldie of the Year’ by the magazine of that name, but wrote in reply that she felt she didn’t meet the criteria and hoped ‘someone more worthy’ would be given it instead.

 

It is a remarkable display of humility to which we have become accustomed with our monarch – all the more notable for being so rare in other walks of life.  There are famous examples of actors and musicians who have refused awards in protest, but very few because they felt unworthy to receive it.

 

After the euphoria of the victory against Jericho, today’s passage marks a downturn in Israel’s quest to settle in the Promised Land.  The presenting issue is one of obedience: they were specifically instructed by the Lord not to profit from their conquest by taking ‘devoted things’ from those they overcame.  This could in some instances refer to religious artefacts which contravened their status as God’s people – but in this case it was just valuable ‘stuff’.  A chap called Achan pinched a beautiful robe as well as some gold and silver and hid it in his tent (v21).

 

The result was disastrous: Israel incurred God’s displeasure and lost their favour in battle.  They were routed by a tiny hamlet called Ai (which means ‘The Ruin’, just to emphasise how far their star had fallen – they were beaten by non-place!), and realised that something was desperately wrong.

 

Achan and his family sadly paid the price for Achan’s wrongdoing, but there is more going here.  Yes, we learn from this that obedience and purity matters.  But things had started to go wrong before Achan’s greed got the better of him.  Joshua was specifically instructed by God not to go into battle without enquiring of the Lord (Numbers 27:21 – see 13th Jan): and yet here, he sends out spies and then warriors on his own initiative.  It seems the victory at Jericho temporarily went to his head as well.

 

Most poignantly, this passage reminded Israel that their success was entirely due to God: not their bravery or their tactics or their military skill.  They only succeed if God is with them.  This hard but vital lesson in humility runs throughout the history of the Old Testament – but it is a word for us today, as well.

 

Ultimately, everything we are and do relies on God.  Naturally, we offer our time and energies, and our skills are important, too.  But it’s risky to give ourselves too much credit.  As Mary says in her beautiful song:  ‘God has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble.’

 

May God grant us grace to choose humility this week, trusting in his mighty power and love to lift us up, for every circumstance and situation.

Saturday 22nd January – Joshua 6:22-27 & Matthew 1:5-6 ‘Rahab’s destiny’

Our week began with Rahab. It’s fitting that it ends with Rahab, too – as she is indeed spared, along with all her family.  Her courage and faith was rewarded, not just with life, but with a place in God’s people: ‘she lives among the Israelites to this day’ (v25).

 

As we reflected yesterday, this is a beautiful story of grace and redemption in the middle of a robust narrative of conflict.  Somehow Rahab had grasped who the Lord was – despite, as far as we know, never having encountered the Israelites directly before – and was prepared to risk her life to serve this Lord.  It is a wonderful reminder of how God’s grace is at work in all kinds of places and all kinds of people.  No-one is beyond God’s love, or reach.

 

But there is a beautiful post-script to this story – one we don’t learn in Joshua, but only many centuries later, at the start of Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 1:5-6).  After the events at Jericho, Rahab is freed from prostitution and marries a man called Salmon, one of the Israelite settlers.   They have a family, including a son called Boaz.  This is the Boaz who marries Ruth in the Old Testament story who bears her name.  Boaz is King David’s great-grandfather... in other words, Rahab is King David’s great-great-grandmother!  And therefore also, by definition, a direct descendant of Jesus himself.

 

It is fitting that a woman of such faith and courage should have a bigger part to play in the story of scripture.  It also reminds us that when God rescues us, he also gives us a new purpose in life.  We all have a valuable part to play in God’s kingdom coming: there are ‘good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ (Ephesians 2:10)  We may be aware of (some of) those things which God has planned for us; we may even feel we have largely fulfilled them, one way or another; or we may still be wondering.  Perhaps God is pointing you in a new direction, or stirring something new in you.

 

Grace saves us as we are. But it doesn’t leave us as we are.  We journey with the Lord, in faith and hope.  May Rahab’s story inspire us this week, and renew our desire to live fruitful lives, for God’s glory.  Grace is truly the fuel for life.

Friday 21st January – Joshua 5:13-6:21 ‘The fall of Jericho’

The story of the fall of Jericho is one of those iconic Old Testament stories.  Packed with drama, and involving a mighty miracle, it’s been a staple of Sunday Schools for generations.... but many of us reading it adults may feel somewhat more ambivalent.  The children’s version is a rip-roaring tale of derring-do; the adult version may well feel a certain horror at the levels of destruction involved, including the slaughter of residents that would nowadays fall foul of the Geneva Convention.

 

How do we reconcile these conflicting feelings?  Many Christians read stories like Jericho and decide that most of the Old Testament really isn’t for them.  The God they see described seems rather more severe than the God revealed in Christ: and yet the New Testament insists that we worship a God who is ‘the same, yesterday, today and forever.’  How do we make sense of this?

 

Here it’s valuable to introduce the vital concept of Progressive Revelation.  This means that God reveals himself gradually to human beings.  It’s not that God changes, but rather that the human culture of the time can only cope with a certain level of revelation – until the time of Christ when we finally get a full picture of who God really is.

 

The events at Jericho may trouble us now: but they were ‘normal’ at the time.  Twice in the preceding centuries Jericho had been destroyed in similar fashion by other invaders.  Situated in an oasis, it was a key strategic settlement.  Human life then was not accorded the same value as it is now: a value primarily influenced by Christian theology over the last 2,000 years. 

 

The God who is progressively revealed in the bible would, in time to come, make the value of all life clear to humanity.  But at this point in time, in the second millennium BC, what the people needed to understand was that this God was Lord of all the earth, and that, having settled in the land, this people were to live conspicuously holy lives dedicated to this Lord.  If Israel failed militarily, other cultures would automatically have assumed that their God was pathetic and unworthy of worship.  Humanity simply wasn’t ready yet for the idea that true love and authority is manifested in gentle and selfless service – ‘weakness’, if you like.

 

The story of Rahab (to which we return tomorrow) is in fact the key pointer towards the direction of theological travel which the bible will undertake.  A story of grace and redemption hiding in the rubble of Jericho.  Such stories are seeded through the Old Testament like jewels hidden in a tapestry – or treasure in a field,  as someone once said!

 

Today, let’s give thanks that this God continued to reveal himself over time.  And let’s pray that God continues to reveal more of himself – in truth, beauty, love and grace – to all of us.  There’s always more to receive!

Thursday 20th January – Joshua 5:1-12 ‘Essential preparations’

Back in London where we used to live, the area next to us – called Furzedown – had no pubs in it. This was a surprise, since it was a relatively affluent area with a large number of houses: plenty of people in other words, who would gladly have used a local place to meet and socialise.  The reason Furzedown had no pubs was because, 300 years previously, the land had been owned by Quakers, and they had put a restrictive covenant on the land banning the sale of alcohol.

 

Although the land had long since been sold and developed, the covenant was unbreakable.  300 years later, you still had to walk into another area to buy a drink.  (As an aside, this made it an extremely desirable area to live in – very safe and quiet!)

 

A covenant is a word rarely used nowadays: mostly, we use ‘contracts’.  But it’s a very important and powerful word, particularly in our journey of faith.  A covenant is a solemn and unconditional promise, rooted in love.  It’s not a contract, which breaks when one side doesn’t honour it.   A covenant pledges one party to the other unconditionally.  A Christian marriage is a covenant, whereas a civil marriage is formalised with the ‘contracting’ words.

 

The different language is significant, and the ‘x-factor’ of the vows made in a Christian marriage is rooted of course, in God’s eternal love.  And this in turn goes back to the fundamental building block of God’s relationship with us.  What God makes with his people is not a contract, it’s a covenant: a binding promise based on unconditional love.

 

This covenant was first made with Abraham in Genesis 12, and re-stated several times.  Significantly for today’s passage, the outward sign of this covenant between God and his people is the circumcision of all males (Genesis 17). 

 

During their time in the desert, this ritual had been allowed to lapse (v5): but now, before God’s people embarked on their entry into the Promised Land, every male was circumcised (v8).   This might seem a strange way of preparing for what lay ahead, which would likely include conflict as well as settlement.  Not many armies would prepare like this now!  But what it symbolised was the people’s determination to live under God’s covenant, to be obedient to him. Thus, they also celebrated the Passover (v10) – another great commemoration of God’s saving love and power in their lives.

 

After Christ, we no longer need to undergo this physical marking: for which most of us are very grateful!  Instead, what we offer is what St Paul vividly describes as a ‘circumcision of the heart’ (Romans 2:29).  It is our hearts that mark us as God’s beloved, and where God dwells by his Spirit.

 

Give thanks today that God has made his covenant with you: fully and unconditionally.  And as that beautiful thought lifts our hearts in praise, dedicate yourselves and your day to this loving Lord.

Wednesday 19th January – Joshua  4:1-24 ‘The power of remembering’

In both of our churchyards you’ll find War Memorials. These were erected after the Great War as our communities – like thousands around the country – tried to come to terms with the horror of what had happened.   27 men lost their lives from two small villages in four years.  I learned recently that stonemasons around the country were inundated with work in 1919-21, because so many communities were commissioning their own ‘stones of remembering’.

 

The power of memorials is not just for communities, though.  Every month I receive applications from families to put stones in one or other of our churchyards to commemorate a loved one.  It’s always powerful to read how a family tries to sum up what their loved one meant to them in a few words etched into stone.  If you walk around any of our churchyards you’ll see hundreds of these ‘stones of remembering’: and each one is primarily a memorial of love.

 

Our passage today centres on Israel’s own ‘stones of remembering’.  The people had just witnessed a great miracle: able to walk through the Jordan in flood season, as they prepared to enter the Promised Land.  Before the episode finishes, however, Joshua commands one last thing: 12 stones are to be taken from the river-bed – stones which could only be picked up because the river had temporarily stopped flowing – and placed on the west side of the Jordan as a sign of what God had done.  ‘These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel for ever.’ (v7)  They were a nation’s ‘stones of remembering’.

 

Throughout the bible we are encouraged to remember, as part of our story of faith.  To remember who God is, to remember what God has done for us, and for others.  To remember times when God has saved us, or blessed us, or indeed times when we have neglected God and returned to him.

 

As I’ve said before, our memory is our identity.  Remembering the past inspires our present and gives us hope for the future.  Israel was soon to move on from this place of remembering: they had work to do and a land to settle in.  But there’s a reason Joshua told them to mark this place ‘for ever’.  It would be somewhere they could return to, to remind themselves of their story with God, of how God had been with them.  The narrator notes that these stones ‘are there to this day’ (v9).

 

Today, take a few moments to remember.  There may be loved ones that come to mind, people we want to give thanks for.  And let’s also remember our journey with God: perhaps there’s a particular moment that comes to mind, too.  Let that memory fill your heart, inspire you, and give you grace for your ongoing journey this day.

Tuesday 18th January – Joshua 3:1-17 ‘Following the Ark’

Once, when asked how he made decisions about church life and leadership, a well-known Christian leader replied: ‘I look to see what God is already doing and then try to follow that.’ 

 

If you’re anything like me, it’s easy sometimes to lose sight of the literal meaning of the word ‘follower’: it automatically implies the leader is ahead, and we are, well, following.  For many of us, we might say that we are doing our best to keep up!   

 

There’s been a lot of talk about ‘leadership’ in Christian circles over the last generation, but all good leaders know their authority and fruitfulness rests on the extent to which they themselves follow Someone greater – the Lord.  Our leadership is ultimately defined by how closely we follow.  We see what God is up to, and throw our energies into that, and pray for grace to stay close to the Lord and not head off on our own.

 

And this is not just a good strategy for churches or leaders, it’s a great pointer for all of us.  We go where God leads us.  Sometimes that is very clear, at other times less so.  But it’s always a great question to ask ourselves: what is God up to in our lives? In what ways are we growing, or being challenged, or being prompted?  What buttons is God pressing at the moment?

 

In today’s passage, the people of Israel are given one very clear and simple command: follow the Ark.  The Ark symbolised God’s presence with them: and where the Ark led, they followed – literally.  As the decisive moment comes to cross the Jordan, the Ark leads the way, and the people are called to exercise faith and follow.

 

Let’s note, too, that this exercising of faith was active.  The priests carrying the Ark had to put their foot in the water before it began to dry up.  It’s a healthy reminder that faithful following starts with prayer but usually continues with action.  As the people obey, so God works an amazing miracle, and the nation crosses safely into the Promised Land. 

 

Today, as followers of Jesus, let’s pray for grace to see clearly where God is leading us, where he is at work in our lives – and let’s pray for equal grace to be faithful in following, wherever that may be.

Monday 17th January – Joshua 2:1-24 ‘Rahab’s testimony’

If I was to ask you to name any of the great confessions of faith in the bible, I wonder which you might recall?  Perhaps it would be Solomon’s great prayer at the dedication of the Temple; or David’s poetic psalms; or Isaiah’s encounter with the living God; or Peter’s and Thomas’ impassioned recognition of Jesus’ identity; or Paul’s erudite sermons and beautiful phrasing?

 

Not many of us would mention this passage: and yet here, tucked away in this chapter, is one of the great confessions of faith.  And even more wonderfully, it comes from a most unlikely source. 

 

Rahab is one of the forgotten heroes of the Old Testament, whose actions here pave the way for what follows.  As a prostitute she was considered the lowest of the low, not least by the standards of Israel’s law. I suspect she was visited by Joshua’s spies, not because she was expected to be helpful, but as the easiest ‘cover story’: who would raise an eyebrow at two young male travellers visiting a prostitute?

 

But when called upon, she acts with extraordinary bravery: risking her own life to hide them, and sending the King of Jericho’s soldiers off in the wrong direction.  Even more amazingly, she gives her reasons for her courageous – you might say foolhardy – behaviour: ‘I know the Lord has given this land to you...’ (v9).  What she says next (v11) is astounding: ‘the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.’

 

The wording of this confession of faith is matched in only two other places in the Old Testament: by Moses and Solomon.  It is unprecedented among those considered to be outside God’s people.  And yet Rahab, this ‘woman of the world’, says something which puts her on a par with Moses the friend of God, and Solomon the wisest king.

 

Truly the kingdom of God is like that mustard seed, which grows in the most extraordinary ways and among the most unlikely people.   Rahab had eyes to see what so many others missed, and in doing so, not only saved the spies but her family too – more on that in a few days’ time.

 

We are, all of us human beings, born with a ‘God-shaped hole’, that desire to seek something – or Someone – beyond ourselves; and ‘our hearts are not at rest until they find their rest in You’ (St Augustine).  Let’s be inspired by the example of Rahab to pray with renewed hope for that God-shaped hole to bear fruit in those we love, and in others we didn’t expect. And – praise be to God – in us, too!

Saturday 15th January – Joshua 1:10-18 ‘Mutual support’

Back in the days when my knees still worked properly, my weekly delight was 5-a-side football.  Every Wednesday evening, I would let off steam for an hour.  As we were an ad-hoc bunch of blokes who were old enough to know better, we didn’t have organised teams, we just made up the teams from whoever turned up on the night.  In effect, the game was different every week, and this provided a fascinating insight into the world of team dynamics.

 

Sometimes I would look at the line-ups and fancy our chances.  Other times I would inwardly grimace and prepare for a beating.  Occasionally something wonderful happened.  On paper we would look like a far weaker team, but then something would just click and we would win the game.  Team-mates started playing out of their skins, we settled into a spontaneous ‘formation’ that was effective in defence and penetrating in attack, and we all felt that beautiful but mysterious thing called ‘chemistry’.  It’s hard to explain, but you know it when you see it.

 

Teamwork is vital in life.  When people pull for each other, it’s an amazing thing.  Good teams lead to people being both happier and more productive.  There’s a sense of purpose and a collective joy in ‘achieving something together’.   Teamwork is great, not just in workplaces, but in families, clubs, and especially in church.  As Jesus’ body here on earth, we’re all interconnected.

 

In today’s passage, we see great teamwork in action.  Three of Israel’s tribes don’t need to cross the Jordan, as the land they’ve been given by God is on the east side (v13).  They could just stay put, while the other tribes move on.  But they agree to give Joshua their wholehearted support (vv16-17), before returning across the river once more to what will become their homeland.  It might well be costly, as they may lose people in the fighting that follows: but they share the vision, and at this stage they want to be obedient.  They’ve learned the lessons of the desert, and they will support Joshua whatever he does.

 

There’s a great encouragement for us here. Thankfully most of us aren’t called to fight!  But we are called to support each other, to be part of God’s bigger vision for his kingdom.  In God’s team, everyone is valuable, everyone has a role.  As the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins next week, may God grant us all grace to be a united people, and to support each other in building God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.  What might that mean for each of us?

Friday 14th January – Joshua 1:1-9 ‘I am with you’

The births of each of our children were two of the best days of our lives.  I’m sure most parents would say the same!  We do remember, though, arriving home from hospital the following day with our new-born daughter (our first child), and experiencing a moment of sheer terror: here we were, with this beautiful little bundle, completely helpless and dependent on us, and it was now on us to look after her – all the time.  To feed her, clean her, clothe her, settle her, protect her, love her.  To learn what each of her cries meant, how to help her into a functioning pattern of living, when to be concerned about something and when not to be; and to know what advice was worth listening to, and what wasn’t!

 

We had read the books, and attended the classes, we had looked after younger siblings and nephews and nieces, we had prayed for it and longed for it: but now there was no going back.  We were parents: we’d just jumped into the deep end, and we had to sink or swim!  And, as it is for most new parents, the realisation of that reality was, briefly, terrifying.

 

It’s a very different example, but I imagine that Joshua was going through a similar moment in today’s passage.  As we’ve seen, the start of the book of Joshua is not the start of Joshua’s story: he’s been around a long time. He’s learned from the best, matured in all kinds of ways, he’s served a 40-year apprenticeship, when all is said and done: but now the moment has come.  His people are dependent on him, and God’s plans need him to step up.

 

And he’s terrified. We know that he is because God needs to repeat his pep talk to him three times: ‘Be strong and courageous (v6).... be strong and very courageous (v7)... ‘have I not commanded you? (i.e. how many times I am going to have to say this, Joshua...) Be strong and courageous!’ (v9)

 

Why is God so insistent?  And what will give Joshua confidence to believe it?  Not because of his abilities, or his training, or his experience, or his commissioning per se.  But because God is with him, and will be with him wherever he goes.

 

It’s true for us, too.  Our confidence rests on God’s abiding presence with us.  It helps to remember how God has been with us in the past, which gives us confidence to know he’ll be with us in the future: but in the end, we seize this wonderful truth in faith and trust – God is with us.  And will be with us to the end of time.

 

This is the source of our hope, our confidence.  Take a few moments to day to give thanks that God is with you, right now.  Ask to sense more of that presence.  And seize by faith that he will be with you, whatever you face today, and in this season.

Thursday 13th January – Numbers 26:63-65 & 27:15-23 ‘Origin Story pt 4 – Commission’

This year we celebrate 70 years’ reign of our monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.  It has been an extraordinary life, and most of us probably think we’ll never see another monarch like her: who combines length of life with a quiet moral authority which sets her above most of her peers.  As the papers increasingly report signs of her declining health, deep down we all suspect that we won’t be blessed by her presence much longer: which will make this year’s celebrations all the more special.

 

Our current situation probably gives us a small insight into what it must have been like for God’s people, as Moses’ own time draws to a close.  And I imagine many of the people would have felt in their hearts, as we do: ‘They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.’ 

 

Moses also knows his own time is drawing to a close, and so in today’s passage he finally – and formally – hands over the reins to his long-time deputy Joshua.  As we’ve seen, this relationship began over 40 years ago, when Joshua was a young man.  Now he is in late middle age – or older still – and finally his time has come.  His commissioning is both public – in front of the entire assembly of God’s people (v22) – and spiritual: Moses is instructed to lay his hand of blessing upon Joshua, who the Lord testifies already has ‘the spirit of leadership’ (v18).

 

It is interesting that even the Lord recognises Moses’ uniqueness: Joshua receives ‘some of Moses’ authority’ (v20): not all, it appears.  But that is to be expected: Moses is a one-off.  Joshua will never command the same authority: but then again, he doesn’t need to.  God will equip him for the tasks He is calling him to do, which is all Joshua needs.

 

And that’s the point: it is wisely observed that God doesn’t call those who He equips, but equips those He calls.  God will give Joshua enough grace for whatever he is called to.  And that is true for us, too.  God will equip you for whatever He calls you to.  He doesn’t ask you to be perfect, just faithful and obedient.  And even if you feel you’ve been preparing a long time for this, take heart from the example of Joshua!

 

Perhaps you are feeling God nudging you towards something.  Let today be an encouragement to you.  If the Lord is calling you, He will also commission you: i.e. equip you for the task.  And if that’s not where you find yourself today, perhaps take a moment to pray for Prince Charles, who has served a Joshua-length apprenticeship: that the Lord would commission and equip him for the task he will be soon be called to undertake.

Wednesday 12th January – Numbers 13:25-14:20 ‘Origin Story pt 3 – Grasshoppers’

Today’s reading ought to have shortened the bible by about 65 pages – and there you were wondering why it got so long!  As we arrive at Numbers chapter 13 the Israelites have also arrived: at the borders of the Promised Land, a few months after leaving Egypt. God has kept them safe as they’ve journeyed through the desert, given his Law to Moses, provided food and water, and met with them regularly at the Tent of Meeting (as we saw yesterday).

 

Now it’s time to enter the land God had promised them – or is it?  It starts well enough: Moses sends a crack squad inside the borders to take a look (13:3), and Caleb and Joshua return full of faith.  Caleb even advises Moses to go for it (v30).  But the others think differently: ‘We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.’ (v31)

 

This report spreads, and like all rumours, picks up speed as it goes.  By the time it reaches most of the camp, the inhabitants of the Promised Land are like giants (v32), against which God’s people are like grasshoppers (v33)!

 

Even so, Joshua and Caleb still try and convince the crowd that God is bigger than the obstacles they face: much better to trust God: ‘Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us.  Do not be afraid of them.’ (v9)  It doesn’t work.  The people dig their heels in, and are only spared a worse fate because Moses intervenes (again) with God.  And so for the next 65 pages the Israelites spend 40 years in the wilderness and then have the law re-read to them – which takes us through the rest of Numbers and Deuteronomy.

 

This is a great passage for our times.  We face huge challenges at present, and each of them can seem like giants. And these challenges are real, and frightening.  But God is bigger than all of them.  As Jesus encourages us: what matters most is not the mountain, but Who moves it.

 

It’s not a magic cure or a magic wand: but it is a word of hope.  God is enough.  Us plus God can overcome whatever we face.  May we be inspired by Joshua’s example today, seize that mustard seed of faith, and pray into our challenges.  What matters is not the mountain, but Who can move it.

Tuesday 11th January – Numbers 11:23-30 ‘Origin Story pt 2 – Zeal’

Immature fruit can taste a little sharp.  That’s true in gardening – it’s also true in the spiritual life.  We’re all called to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit: but often in young believers those qualities which eventually prove to be wonderful assets for the kingdom can be a little, well, prickly.

 

Take Joshua, for example.   Since we met him in Exodus, Joshua has had the enormous privilege of accompanying Moses up the mountain (at least some of the way) when Moses went to meet with God (Ex 24:13): a sure sign that already Joshua is more than just ‘one of the team’, he is effectively Moses’ protégé.

 

This is confirmed by the story in Exodus 33, where Joshua is with Moses at the Tent of Meeting, where God meets with Moses on a regular basis.  It says, tellingly, that even after Moses went back to the Israelites camp, Joshua ‘did not leave the tent’ (Ex 33:11). It’s not clear whether this is to defend it, or because Joshua is so desperate to grow in faith and intimacy with God that he’s going to take every chance he gets – it’s probably a bit of both.  It would certainly explain why Moses saw that ‘spark’ of greatness in him.

 

But there’s a flip side to this zeal, too.  In today’s passage Moses gathers 70 elders and together they all receive the anointing of God’s Spirit (v25), such that they are able to prophesy (i.e. receive and speak God’s word).  This is a major step forward in the growth of God’s people: but there’s an unexpected postscript: two of these elders are able to prophesy not just at the Tent of Meeting (the appointed place for God to meet with human beings) but also in the main camp (v26).

 

As we’ve learned, Joshua is fiercely committed to, and protective of, this Tent: and he immediately goes to Moses and says: ‘Stop them!’ (v28).  Rules are rules, Moses – it’s just not cricket!

 

But the wise old Moses sees it differently. To paraphrase his reply in v29: ‘Calm down, Joshua.  This is a good thing: more encounters with God means more blessing.  I wish our spiritual life as a people would get to the stage where everyone is intimate with God, and is able to receive and speak his word.’  That’s not a bad dream, is it?  And it hints at a beautiful truth fully realised more than a thousand years later, after the Spirit is poured out at Pentecost...

 

Joshua’s zeal to ‘do things right’ meant he missed the wood for the trees.  His motives were basically good: he wanted to do things God’s way – as he saw it.  But his view of God was too small.  He limited God in his imagination, and so failed to see the bigger picture: that God was increasing his blessing to more people, and spreading it in a way that could bear fruit. 

 

There’s a great lesson here for us.  God is always bigger, and sometimes his kingdom is at work in surprising ways.  As we’ve celebrated the Magi last week – suspect astrologers blessed by God to witness the birth of the Messiah – we’ve had another reminder of this glorious truth.  No-one is beyond the reach of God.

 

What surprising people do you know, in whom God is up to something?  Pray for eyes to see, and a heart to bless, what our great big God is doing!

Monday 10th January – Exodus 17:8-16 ‘Joshua – Origin Story pt 1’

Happy new year!  Today we begin a new series looking at the major Old Testament book of Joshua. It’s a story of faith, of courage, of leadership, but also of a real human being, who has spent decades as Moses’ understudy and is awed by the responsibility.

 

Joshua’s story begins a lot further back than most of us realise.  It’s common in big films and series nowadays to construct ‘origin stories’, that tell us where this super-hero or criminal mastermind came from.  Usually this is a brilliant way to persuade us to part with more of our hard-earned cash, as we watch the ‘prequel’ to the apparently endless sequels!  But, in the case of Joshua, it’s really useful to spend a few days reflecting on his life before the book that bears his name.

 

Joshua does in fact appear right near the start of the famous Exodus narrative.  God’s people have only recently left Egypt and have begun their wanderings in the desert.  They have already complained (a lot!), and God has patiently and miraculously provided for them: with manna to eat and water to drink.  But now they face a further threat: having fled the Egyptians they are now attacked by another people, the Amalekites (v8).

 

Moses commissions a group to defend the Israelites, and he asks Joshua to lead them (v9) – this is the first time we encounter Joshua, fully 40 years before he takes on the major role that would define him: that of leading God’s people into the Promised Land.  The fact that Moses asks Joshua suggests that he is already identified as one of the ‘senior team’ around Moses – and sure enough, Joshua leads the rearguard action and is victorious.

 

We may find the frequent fighting in Joshua’s life off-putting, and we’ll reflect more on this as the story develops.  But today, let’s direct our gaze towards what is happening away from the battlefield.  What makes this story remarkable is how the author indicates that what determines the outcome of the battle is not what is going on ‘down here’ but ‘up there’.  Moses keeps his arms aloft in prayer and worship, and all the time he does so, the Israelites prevail.  When his arms drop in fatigue, the Amalekites get the upper hand (v11).

 

It is a great reminder at the start of this year of how vital it is to soak our lives in prayer.  Whatever challenges we face, prayer forms a key part of our ‘defence’.  But even if you feel overawed by Moses’ mighty effort, perhaps you can identify with Aaron and Hur – their role was practical but no less important: they held up Moses’ arms when he was too tired to lift them himself.  I love the fact that Aaron and Hur are named in this story: in the kingdom of God, everyone gets to play; everyone’s part is valuable.

 

Who could you support this week?  In prayer, yes – but perhaps also in a Hur-like practical way.  ‘The battle belongs to the Lord’ – but we all have our part to play, too.

Advent 2021

Day 24: Christmas Eve - ‘The Light shines in the darkness’

‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.... The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’

 

We live in dark and anxious times.  Fears for health, for loved ones, for prosperity, for mental wellbeing are all prevalent in hearts and minds this Christmas.  We are not alone in this – such worries are widespread across our world – but they are none the less real for that.

We need the light.

We need light for what it brings to usWe need light for its perspective.  When the light shines, we see things as they really are.   We see God coming to earth, bringing salvation, bringing hope and healing, bringing love, authority and wisdom.  We see the dawn of redeeming grace – God’s great rescue plan put into operation.

May God grant us grace to see life again as it really is, infused with the light of God’s coming into the world.

We need the light for the warmth that it brings.  In ancient societies all forms of light generated measurable heat.  And the light of Christmas is not just something to stand and admire, or to gaze upon.  When Jesus comes, he promises his very presence, here in our hearts.  ‘Behold I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’  The light of the world brings us warmth: intimacy with God, the chance to discover unexpected peace in our hearts, and praise on our lips.

May God grant us grace to welcome the light of his presence in our hearts, and be warmed by his love and peace.

We need the light to be guided on right paths.  So much of what happens we can’t control at the moment.  But if we can’t change the world, we can change the world in us.  We can still be bringers of light to others, we can still share grace and peace with those around us, we can choose the quietly radical path of peace-making and joy-bringing in the small places where we do have an influence.

May God grant us grace to be guided by light, that we might be bringers of light to others.

We may still wish things were different.  And that’s normal and natural.  I do, too.  But can I encourage us all to look in two directions this season.  Firstly to look down, into the face of God lying in that manger, and see that hope still lives on in the world.  And then to look up, towards the light – the light which shines in the darkness, and still shines – and the darkness does not overcome it.

And may God’s light shine in our hearts, our homes, our families, our nation, and our world this Christmas.  Amen.

Day 23: Thursday 23rd December – Matthew 2:9-12  ‘They opened their treasures’

Our best wedding present was in many ways the most unlikely.  Like most couples we’d received a lot of wonderful gifts to start a new home.  Shortly after we’d arrived back from honeymoon we received one final gift, which came in an unmarked brown cardboard box, wrapped up with brown parcel tape.   For those of you who like bows, tags and hospital corners on your wrapped edges, this would have given you palpitations.  What on earth was it?

 

However, when we opened it (with some difficulty), we discovered inside a beautiful crystal lamp – like a larva lamp only much prettier – and an amazing poem written specially for us and our wedding.  It was a unique gift: in fact, two unique gifts, both of which were among the best we’d ever received, and from the same dear friend. 

 

The theme of unusual but well-chosen gifts sits at the heart of our reading for today.  I guess if you’re going to trek 600 miles across the world, you’d better bring something with you.  And as the Magi finally get to meet the new king they’d come so far to see, and after they had knelt in his presence in worship, it was time to crack open the chest and offer the (now obligatory) baby shower presents.

 

Much is made of the meaning of the presents and their prophetic significance: gold for a king, frankincense for an offering to God, myrrh foreshadowing what Jesus came to do i.e. his sacrificial death.  And that’s all true – we can interpret the outline of Jesus’ life and ministry purely from those extraordinary treasures.  But today, let’s observe very simply that these were unexpected gifts.  After all, there was no reason to assume that this unknown king needed any more gold; frankincense was for priests, not kings; and myrrh was the equivalent of bringing a food-poisoning testing kit to a dinner party.

 

But God used those unexpected gifts, and did something wonderful with them.  And not just as a prophetic sign: the gold probably kept the family alive as they fled into exile.  Frankincense might have helped sustain their home prayer life as they left behind the familiar festivals and rituals of their home country.  And myrrh could remind them of their unusual visitors and the greater sense that God was up to something special.

 

This Christmas some of us will share fewer gifts than usual.  That is rightly a cause of sadness and regret.  But let’s take heart from today’s story and pray instead that we would give and receive unexpected gifts.  Anything offered to Jesus can be used for his glory.  What treasures might you open as you worship the newborn king?

Day 22: Wednesday 22nd December – Matthew 2:3-8  ‘Greatly disturbed’

In February each year, the charity Open Doors publishes its World Watch List.  This constitutes the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian – places where it is not just frowned upon but actually illegal to convert or own a bible, and where persecution is commonplace.  Sadly, the list could be longer than 50, and the levels of danger experienced by Christians have risen sharply in many places over the last 20 years. 

 

Whilst many of these countries will point to a clash of religious cultures as the root of this issue, in other places it is much more overtly political.  No matter that most Christians are peace-loving, servant-hearted, and in many other respects model citizens: hardworking, clean living, law-abiding. Power corrupts, and there are many ‘powers’ across the world who hate the idea that any of their citizens might ultimately worship a different boss.  Or indeed that they might themselves be answerable to a Higher Power.

 

This insecurity in the face of the Lordship of Christ is nothing new.  It started right from his birth.  As the Magi enter the court of puppet King Herod, propped up by the Romans and every bit as venal and ruthless as popular history makes him out to be, news of a new king, a true king, is not welcome.

 

Herod has already executed several members of his own family, including his wife Mariamne, in the paranoid belief that this will help him cling on to power.  To have foreign travellers journeying hundreds of miles to worship someone else right on his doorstep is frankly horrifying, and yet another threat to his rule.

 

We love to read the prophecies of the coming Messiah, one of which is quoted in today’s reading.  They stir the heart and fire the imagination.  But Herod’s response sets another, more sobering context for these prophecies.  They never come in a vacuum.  A new source of authority threatens the old order, however radically different this new authority might be.

 

Today let’s pray for just and godly leadership around the world – we need it as much as ever.  And let’s also give thanks for the freedoms we still enjoy, whilst praying blessing and protection for our brothers and sisters around the world who face similar dangers to those faced by the Magi and the Holy Family.  May the joy of the Lord be our – and their – strength today.

Day 21: Tuesday 21st December – Matthew 2:1-2 (ii)  ‘We saw his star’

On this day last year the two largest planets in the solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, aligned so closely to one another in the sky that they appeared to be fused into a single point of light.

 

Although the trajectories of these planets come close to one another every twenty years or so, to be aligned within a tenth of a degree is something that hasn’t been seen for at least 400 years, and probably longer.  Although it may possibly have been visible in 1623, the last time this event is believed to have actually been witnessed by human observers was in the year 1226, on a certain day before dawn, which afforded about ninety minutes to see it before the sun rose.

 

Even more remarkably, there also has been speculation among scholars that the conjunction of these planets formed the very Star of Bethlehem quoted in today’s reading that inspired the Magi on their journey.  A possible date can be calculated which falls close to the year of Jesus’ birth.

 

We can’t say for sure – and sadly the weather a year ago was typically British, i.e. cloudy –  so we Brits didn’t get a glimpse.  But even so, isn’t it amazing that it’s still possible to witness an astrological phenomenon which connects us directly to the story of Jesus’ birth!

 

We’ll never know this side of heaven; but what we do know is that this phenomenon – whatever it was – so profoundly moved our intrepid travellers that they were willing to stake their time and reputations on following it.  And this despite it relating to a ‘foreign’ religion in a faraway country.

 

I sometimes hear people bemoan the diversity of belief in Britain today.  I wonder if rather we should celebrate the fact that many more people around us are spiritual searchers, hungry to connect with eternity.  They may sometimes look for it in unusual places, to say the least.  But, like the Magi, our response is surely to point all seekers towards the real Way, Truth and Life. 

 

God honoured the spiritual hunger of Persian astrologers, and marvellously brought them into his story.  And so should we.  Perhaps you consider yourself a seeker in a similar way.  Or perhaps you are confident in your beliefs.  Either way, God loves those who seek after him.  He longs for all of us to become part of his story.  Wise men and wise women still follow the star towards Jesus.

Day 20: Monday 20th December – Matthew 2:1-2  ‘Magi came....’

‘We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar...’

 

The image of the Wise Men or Kings is so iconic that it’s etched into most of our minds.  Three elegant travellers, dressed in fine richly-coloured robes, perched on majestic camels, striding across the desert, with a large train of servants.  There’s usually the star up above (more on that tomorrow), and a few romantically undulating desert hills in the background. 

 

It’s a wonderful image, with more than a whiff of blarney about it.  For a start, they weren’t kings.  The word used to describe them is Magus (plural Magi): these were originally Persian priests or even sorcerers – it’s where we get the word ‘magician’ from.  More broadly you could translate it as ‘scholar’.  So, probably wealthy, certainly clever – but not kings. 

 

There may well have been more than three of them too – we only assume there were three because they gave three gifts.  But allowing for ‘group offerings’ there could have been any number... there might even have been just two, one of whom was particularly generous!

 

And they probably avoided the desert.  Rather than go direct across the Arabian sands from Iran or Iraq to Israel (and almost certainly die in the attempt), they would have gone north-west round the so-called Fertile Crescent – adding a good 200 miles to their journey, but saving their lives in the process.

 

The image of a dozen magicians travelling through scrubland isn’t quite as magical (pardon the pun) as the alternative, I’ll give you that.  But there is something much more important going on here.  The extraordinary thing about the nativity story is that the key witnesses are (in the case of the shepherds) ceremonially unclean, and (in the case of the Magi) not even Jewish!  It’s like a play which at first sight appears to have all the wrong people cast in it.

 

But that’s the point.  When God comes to earth, he comes for everyone.  Smelly shepherds, exotic magicians, teenage mothers, furniture makers – everybody.  The great and the good, as well as the lost, the last and the least.  Every nation, every age, every culture.  The good news of Jesus is truly universal – the Messiah is a Saviour for all of us.

 

That’s why the Magi matter.  As we travel with them for a few days, let’s be astonished once more by the extraordinary length, breadth and depth of the love of God.  A love which reaches to you too – right here, today.

Day 19: Sunday 19th December – Luke 2:19-20  ‘Mary treasured all these things...’

Just a very short reflection from me today.  I have always been struck by v19, and Mary’s capacity to treasure what she sees and knows.  It is a great gift, and one we have largely lost as a society.  Everything is instant, and we move from one experience or morsel of useful info to the next.

 

It was the old philosopher Plato who said that: ‘The unreflected life is the unlived life.’  We all need to treasure more.  I certainly do.  To allow ourselves time to dwell on beautiful truths; to root ourselves in things that are solid and permanent; to drink deep of profound experiences. 

 

Mary was perhaps privileged to share more than most.  But her simple lesson lives on, and is pure gold.  Here’s to treasuring.

 

What could you ‘treasure’ today?

Day 18: Saturday 18th December – Luke 2:15-18  ‘They hurried off...’

Just before Christmas 2020 I almost lost our car.  I arrived for a school event at All Saints and parked up as the children were rounding the corner on the redway about a minute’s walk from the church.  Although I was mostly set up already, I had about two minutes of final preparations to do.  I grabbed my kit from the boot, waved to the class, asked the teacher to hold them at the gate for two minutes, and hurried into the church.  As it happened, I left the car key in the boot lock, on show for all to see.

 

A couple of hours later, as I was finishing another meeting after the school had gone, a very kind local family popped into church asking if anyone had left their key in the boot-lock of a blue car.  That was, of course, me.  Thanking them profusely I retrieved the key, grateful that we lived in a safe and neighbourly area!

 

When events overtake us, and we have to act quickly, it’s easy do things like that.  For the shepherds in our story, the golden rule was: ‘Never leave your sheep.’  Sheep were precious, and vulnerable to rustlers and predators alike.  And yet here we find them doing just that: hurrying away from the fields and into town.  Risking their livelihoods, and their reputation.

 

For good reason, it turns out.  They were on their way to visit the king!  And they, of all people, had been chosen to do just that. To be first on the scene.  To represent humanity offering its worship and praise to the child in the manger.  God had come down, and they had the ringside seats.

 

I imagine, in that moment, their business was the last thing on their minds.  When God meets with us, we crave more of his presence. Something keeps drawing us back.  We want to meet Jesus again, and again.

 

The shepherds are a great part of the story.  They are people like us, and do things like we do.  At least they had a heavenly host as their excuse, rather than thirty 5 and 6 year-olds.  But their hearts had been ‘strangely warmed’ – they were filled with the excitement of God’s intervention in their lives.  They got to meet Jesus – ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary story.

 

That is our privilege too.  God is still meeting ordinary people.  Often in unexpected ways.  Always to draw us into his presence, and towards worship, hope and peace.  May God meet with us this Advent, as he did the shepherds.  And may it too cause us to ‘hurry’ once more to meet  Jesus, and worship the new-born king.

Day 17: Friday 17th December – Luke 2:13-14  ‘The heavenly host’

We live in a spiritual world.  Yes, it’s material and physical as well – but we are also spiritual beings, able to connect with spiritual realities.  We don’t necessarily see those realities very often, but we remain attuned to it. Even in our secular culture, the continuing fascination with ghosts, horoscopes, superstitions and the like, while misguided, remind us that we are spiritual beings.  We are made to make spiritual connections, one way or another.

 

Today’s reflection is a counterpart to day 15.  There we affirmed that a real God comes for real people.  God enters our flesh-and-blood world, as a flesh-and-blood human.  He laughs, he cries, he feels pain.  It is earthy, grounded.

But let’s beware making this amazing story all (or only) about this world.  There is a spiritual reality to all this too.  Heaven is real, and is populated by created spiritual beings – generally referred to as angels, though this broad term covers a number of words which might refer to different types of spiritual being. 

 

The word angel itself means ‘messenger’ – their job is to do God’s bidding, and, throughout history, Christian theology affirms that they do interact with our physical world.  The nativity story is, of course, a key moment in this interaction, full of angelic activity – first Zechariah, then Mary, then Joseph, and now the shepherds.

 

What is the significance of all this?  In essence, heaven comes to earth.  The spiritual realm connects with our physical existence in new and deeper ways.   It’s not just Jesus – it’s the whole machinery of heaven.  Here the heavenly host appear in the sky – the shepherds were uniquely blessed to see them, and we can only imagine what that sight must have been like.

 

We are sometimes tempted to imagine that heaven is kind of empty, until humans are reconciled to God and able to fill it.  But this passage reminds us that heaven is pretty full already!  Angels abound, praising God eternally.   And the amazing truth is that we get invited into that.  One day, we’ll join the fantastic heavenly party.

 

But it’s not just ‘for later’, it starts well before that: whenever we worship God here, we are joining in with the eternal song of heaven, joining heaven with earth in our praises.  And one day, we will get to do that forever.  Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth!

Day 16: Thursday 16th December – Luke 2:8-12  ‘There were shepherds...’

A young man sits round an open fire at night, warming his hands and dreaming of revolution.  He needs to think to stay awake – his job means that he can’t afford to fall asleep.  By the standards of the time he’s not particularly religious: can’t afford to be, his work consumes all hours, and he’s too much of a scruffbag to show his face on Saturday at the synagogue.  His life is here, out in the open – just him, his friends and his animals.

 

But all the same, he dreams.  The current lot that rule his small nation are much better than most of the previous ones, who were far more corrupt and far less competent.  He’s heard tales of the terrors inflicted by tyrants of old.  But even so, they’re not his people.  And one day, his God, Yahweh – the one true God of the universe, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings – will ensure that they are free once more.  He’s read the prophets, he’s heard the preachers.  And still he dreams, of victory and freedom and prosperity.  Of planting vines and sitting under them in summer.

 

His head starts to nod – he feels sleepy.  He pinches himself: ‘Not tonight, old son, not tonight...’

 

And then – LIGHT!  Glorious, brilliant light.  His mates are terrified – he pretends not to be, but really he is just as scared too.  What is this?  An angel??  You’ve got to be kidding....

 

Did someone just say good news?  The Messiah is coming?  After all these centuries?  Never mind 30 years of hurt – how about 500?  Really?  Coming – now?

 

Oh yes.  And what’s more, you can see him.  Just head into town – listen for the cries of a newborn bedded in with the animals.  Just like you lot, really.  Born to be a shepherd.

 

Imagine that.  The divine shepherd visits us human shepherds, telling us to go and visit a newborn shepherd lying there with the animals.  He really is one of us!  Not just another posh tyrant: a normal lad, who lives like we do.  Come on lads!   Let’s go and take a butcher’s....

 

Good news: God comes as one of us.  He meets those who are keeping watch, waiting for him.  We don’t always dream the right things – or perhaps we do, but in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons.  But God is gracious.  He comes anyway. 

 

Keep watch.  Good news is coming.

Day 15: Wednesday 15th December – Luke 2:5-7  ‘The time came...’

And so we get to the crucial moment in the story – Jesus is born!  Most of us know the story inside out... or at least we’re fairly sure we do.

 

Images of how the nativity happens are so full of our minds, it’s almost impossible to imagine it any other way.  We’ve seen it so many times:  Joseph and Mary travelling down to Bethlehem with Mary on a donkey (even though a donkey is never mentioned).  Arriving late, with Mary’s contractions already starting.  Joseph frantically dashing around trying to find an inn or guest house with a spare room.  The last B&B in town offering them access to their stable just as Mary’s contractions get too severe to go any further.... a ‘modesty time gap’ fast forwards us a couple of hours to see Jesus in the wooden manger, with an exhausted but blissful Mary sat next to him, gazing lovingly at Jesus and then Joseph in turn...

 

And it’s possible that this is how it went.  Unlikely, but possible!  And it’s a much better story than the more likely one: that, given the length of journey, Joseph and Mary travelled down several weeks earlier and stayed with relatives in Bethlehem.  That they shared the single living area with these relatives for the time they stayed there, only relocating into the other adjoining room – small Palestinian houses of that time had two rooms joined together: one for people, the other for animals –  to offer some privacy for Mary when it was time for her to give birth.  That the female relatives would therefore probably have been with Mary for the birth, rather than Joseph, who probably joined them shortly after Jesus was born, like most fathers of the time would have done.  That the makeshift bedding arrangement of the animals feeding trough (manger) was likely made of stone, not planks of wood.

 

It’s much less romantic, isn’t it?  A planned visit, a stay with relatives, decent midwifery, stone bedding furniture. 

 

But it’s real.

 

And that’s the point.  The nativity is not a fairy story, but a gritty, real-life drama.  A real baby is born into a real family with a real home and real problems.  In other words, when God comes to earth, this is a real God for real people.  People like Joseph and Mary.  People like you and me.

 

We like the fantasy version – it’s visually much more appealing, and allows us to put tea towels on our heads with impunity for a couple of weeks.  But let’s never miss the real joy of this scene: a real baby is born – a real Messiah for real people.  ‘And he is called Emmanuel’ – God with us.  Amen.

Day 14: Tuesday 14th December – Luke 2:1-4  ‘Our plans, God’s plans’

If you’ll allow a brief return to a day we’d probably rather forget: on 23rd March 2020, the UK entered a full national lockdown for the first time in 100 years.  One immediate effect of this was that all church buildings were shut.  No services of any sort could be held.  What would happen to God’s Church? 

 

From the very beginning, our pattern of faith has been built around physical gatherings – the very word ‘church’ is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘assembly’.  Understandably there was considerable fear – yet in mid-April 2020, a survey of UK residents indicated that 25% of the population had accessed an online act of Christian worship within the last month.   Given that the equivalent face-to-face figure for average monthly in-person attendance is around 10%, this was astonishing news. 

 

Humans decide, God acts.  So often things that might seem to be problems only unleash a new work of God in different ways.   It took the forced shutting of our buildings by the current government to unleash a mighty new wave of mission that reached millions of people – and whilst 2021 has been immensely challenging for many churches, some of the ways we adapted continue to bear fruit: after all, you’re reading this on the church website right now!

 

God is not ‘apart’ from what happens on earth.  He might give us freedom, but equally God is so great he is well able to use the calculated decisions of human leaders and authorities to achieve his purposes.  In today’s reading, Caesar wants to raise money from taxing the populations he ruled – it is what powerful people have done since time immemorial.  But in the midst of the process, God resolved a conundrum written into the biblical prophets for hundreds of years.  How would the Messiah come from both Galilee and Bethlehem? 

 

The answer – a census, at just the right time in history when fading Greek power nevertheless left the legacy of widespread use of the Greek language, allowing easy communication between people and therefore sharing of ideas/messages; when recently upgraded Roman infrastructure allowed the easy movement of people to spread a new message; and, crucially when a young descendent of King David had to travel from Galilee to Bethlehem with his young, heavily pregnant wife.

 

It doesn’t matter whether Caesar would have made the decision to tax anyway. The point is that God used it to birth something – someone – remarkable, that would change the world and the course of history. 

 

God is good.  God is also great.  Let’s commit ourselves again today into the mighty and merciful hands of this amazing God.  The future once again seems uncertain: let’s continue to trust in his capacity to achieve his good purposes in all circumstances.

Day 13: Monday 13th December – Luke 1:67-80  ‘The great rescue’

On this day three years ago – 13th December 2018 – the writer C.J. English published the bestselling book ‘Rescue Matters’.  It charts the astonishing story of Keith Benning, who, using his own garage to house those rescued and with just a small team of volunteers, over four years rescued 4,000 dogs from terrible situations: unwanted, starving, mistreated.  As the subtitle summarises: ‘An incredible true story of rescue and redemption.’

 

Today’s passage looks forward to another incredible true story of rescue and redemption – only this time, it’s our own.  If Mary’s song describes the Great Reversal, Zechariah’s could be called The Great Rescue.

 

Rescue images are studded through the text of Zechariah’s song, but the literal and metaphorical centre is v74, which uses the word directly.  And it promises a rescue in three dimensions:

 

From our enemies – for the Israelites of the time, that would mean the Romans and other nations around them, but for us today we might cast the net wider towards everything that stops us from enjoying the relationship with God that we were designed to have.  It could be summarised as sin and death – our ultimate enemies – but might be anything that has a poisonous effect on our spiritual lives.  God’s purpose is that we should be free, and the coming Messiah will rescue us from these enemies.

 

From fear – since time immemorial, humans have feared God.  And there is something wise about that: God is God and we are not.  But we were made for more than fear – we were made for love.  God wants us to love him as he loves us – and, as St John says later, there is no fear in love.

 

For righteousness – it’s not just what we’re rescued from, it’s what we’re rescued for.  The life we were made to have, living God’s way.  To be holy is to be set apart, called to something better.  Like Keith Benning’s dogs it’s not enough just to save us from death, but to lead us into life, to a true home, to wellbeing and wholeness.

 

This is what the Messiah comes to do!  It is a story of redemption (v68), salvation (v71), mercy (v72), faithfulness (v72-73), wisdom (v77), light and peace (v79).

 

This is our story.  The new baby John would grow up to declare it.  And, thanks be to God, we get to live it.  The great rescue is a story that hasn’t finished yet.  Let’s pray that, this Christmas, others may find the joy of knowing and receiving this Great Rescue.

Day 12: Sunday 12th December – Luke 1:56-66  ‘His name is John’

I don’t know about you, but it’s not easy to name a child.  It was a bit more straightforward with our first child Amelie, but for our second, we spent weeks batting around various names.  We didn’t know if it was going to be a boy or a girl, so we had to have at least one of each.  All kinds of options were discussed: at one point for a girl we had ‘Raymonda Ping’ on the shortlist – well, the longlist. 

 

In the end we settled on Isaac for a boy and Charis for a girl.  One means ‘laughter’ and the other means ‘grace’.  That worked for us.  And we got laughter.

 

We return today to Zechariah, who has been mute for 9 months after his debacle with the angel in day 5.  And names come to the fore again.  In this case, Zechariah and Elizabeth face strong encouragement to stick with tradition and name the new baby boy after his dad.  But Elizabeth is having none of it: so they turn to Zechariah for his view.

 

And, with the help of a convenient tablet – not that kind of tablet – he writes four simple words, which in one moment restores both his voice and his relationship to God: ‘His name is John.’

 

John – the child promised by the angel, the name given by God, the declaration that a new work of God was on its way.  ‘John’ means ‘God is gracious’, which is spot on.  Gracious to Elizabeth.  Gracious to God’s people.  Gracious to a waiting world.

 

Gracious to us as well.  John comes to herald the arrival of God’s grace in all its fullness.  A Messiah who sacrifices himself to win our forgiveness and freedom.  To reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross. To draw us back into the loving arms of Almighty God.

 

Grace.  What Philip Yancey calls ‘the last, best word of the English language’: nothing we can do will make God love us more.  Nothing we can do will make God love us less.  The beating heart of our faith, and what inspires faith in our beating heart.

 

And it’s all in a name.

 

His name is John.  May his name’s meaning be ours too. 

 

‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.’  Amen.

Day 11: Saturday 11th December – Luke 1:46-55 ‘The great reversal’

Blessed are the self-sufficient, for they will never need help from God, or anyone else.  Blessed are those who have no problems, for they will avoid pain and discomfort.  Blessed are the assertive, for they will usually get what they want.  Blessed are those who don’t want to be too good, for they will avoid moral dilemmas.  Blessed are those who know their rights, for they will usually get what they want.  Blessed are the cynical, for they know how life really works.  Blessed are the competitive, for they will win out more often.  Blessed are those who follow the crowd, for they will avoid unpopularity and blame.

 

Who is really blessed in this life?  The list above – the ‘anti-beatitudes’ – might sound like a fairly blunt summary of modern culture: but to be honest it could have been written at most times in history.  Life is full of winners and losers – and it’s best, on the whole, to be one of the winners.

 

But what if God sees it differently?  In today’s famous passage, as Mary bursts into song, we see another dynamic at work.  Maybe it’s not the ‘winners’ who prevail after all.  God’s intervention will reverse the natural order of things.  The humble are lifted up and the rulers are brought low (v52); the hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty (v53).  God’s mercy extends to those who fear him (v50), but the proud are scattered in their inmost thoughts (v51).

 

The kingdom of Christ is the great reversal – the world’s values are turned upside down, ‘success’ is redefined, and the marginalised are suddenly at the heart of the story.

 

And God achieves this, as Mary recognises, not through a birth to a queen in a palace, but to an obscure young mother living in an unfashionable town.  It starts how it intends to go on.

 

Thirty years later, someone else stood on the side of a hill and declared: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted....’  Or to put it another way: blessed are the losers in this world, for they are the winners in the kingdom of God.

 

This is great news to all of us who have ever wished we were more than we are.  Who’ve failed, or fell down, or felt low.  Who wished we were louder, or richer, or funnier, or more popular, or more clever.   God is for you – yes, you.  This God is not interested in status or self-assurance.  This God lifts up the humble, feeds the hungry and showers his mercy and love on all who know they haven’t got it all together – as Brennan Manning beautifully put it: ‘weak, unsteady disciples, whose cheese is falling off their cracker.’  People like us.

 

Today, give thanks and claim afresh the love of this God – it’s for people like us that Jesus came.

Day 10: Friday 10th December – Luke 1:39-45  ‘Blessed are you’

Shared experience is a powerful thing.  So much of what binds us together as humans lies in what we can share – in a sense, we were made for it.  It is particularly powerful when people who have experienced similar challenges or opportunities find comfort and inspiration in each other.

 

In today’s passage we see such a meeting.  Mary ‘hurries’ to see Elizabeth, and although they find themselves at opposite ends of their journey in life – one is very young, the other very old – they find themselves in the same unusual situation: that of an unexpected pregnancy, and the enormous life-changes that will bring.

 

One senses that this is the main reason for Mary to visit Elizabeth.  Whilst it would be common for relatives – especially female relatives – to pay their respects upon hearing of a new pregnancy, Mary needs to go somewhere, anywhere, that she feels safe, where she can share all her deepest hopes and fears with someone who gets it, who understands.

 

And there is a good deal of healing in this encounter.  Elizabeth already seems joyfully reconciled to her new reality, praising God as early as v25 of Luke’s narrative.  However, Mary’s position is more ambiguous.  When the angel first visits, she is ‘greatly troubled’ (v29).  By the end of the encounter she shows remarkable faith and composure in receiving and believing the angel’s word (v38), but her emotions are veiled – at least not that Luke records.  It is only in the company of this wise old mentor and friend that she is finally able truly to embrace her calling, and to burst out in a song of great joy – now known to us as the Magnificat, and the subject of tomorrow’s reading.

 

It is surely significant that Elizabeth’s first words to Mary are ‘Blessed are you...!’  It might have been the first time that Mary heard it put like that.  The Messiah would bless the world, of course – but bless her?  It probably didn’t feel like ‘blessing’ at that moment: the scandal, the disgrace, the fear for her own and her family’s safety.  Elizabeth’s divinely inspired utterance enables her to see it in a new light – God was blessing her, too.

 

Perhaps we too have faced – or are facing – great challenges, and have wondered where God is in the midst of it.  It is hard to cling on to faith and trust in those times.  And we may never get a complete answer this side of heaven.  But today’s story encourages us to dare to hope that, somehow, God is in what we face, and that he can bring good out of it. 

 

May we too, like Mary, have courage to receive Elizabeth’s words, this acclamation of God’s healing presence with us in all things: ‘Blessed are you...’    And may the Lord grant us grace to trust again that he always fulfils his promises.

Day 9: Thursday 9th December – Matthew 1:22-25  ‘He did as commanded’

It’s always a lovely surprise when you hear about people with unexpected gifts.  Friends you thought you knew suddenly appear in a different light, as they manifest some striking creative ability, or describe an unusual hobby.  People never fail to surprise you!

 

I often feel the same way about Joseph, as he is described in the nativity story.  In many respects Joseph comes across as a conventional character – honest, hardworking, keen to observe the law.  A pillar of the community, you might say. 

 

And yet, below the surface beats an equally remarkable heart as that of his more celebrated bride.  It was no small thing to choose to live with the ongoing scent of scandal, the whispers in an insular village of being a cuckold – to stick by Mary, come what may, and fashion a stable family home. 

 

And Joseph also had a hidden gift – he was unusually sensitive to the Holy Spirit.  No less than four times he receives divine instruction through a dream – only his Old Testament namesake with the multi-coloured dreamcoat receives significant dreams as often as this Joseph (1:20, 2:13, 2:19, 2:22).

 

These dreams dramatically affect the course of his life, and those around him – he marries Mary, flees to Egypt with his young family, returns to Israel a few years later and then settles in Galilee.  But what is often overlooked is the very simple observation that Joseph acted upon these revelations.  He believed that God had spoken, and he obeyed.  Each time he does exactly what has been revealed to him in the dream.

 

We may not receive such striking revelations – although I’m frequently surprised by how many ‘ordinary’ people tell me about significant dreams they have received at some point in their lives.  But, whether we do or not, there is a simple two-fold lesson in the story of Joseph: to trust in what God speaks, and to obey.  As the old children’s bible song has it: ‘Trust and obey, for there’s no other way....’

 

Life is complicated, but in many ways faith is simple: trust God, and try to do what he wants you to do.  As Joseph knew all too well, such childlike trust led him in very unexpected ways.  The life of simple trust is never dull!  But it is the path to intimacy with God.  The more we trust, the more God speaks.  The more God speaks, the more we trust.

 

Keep saying yes to God.  And our loving God will keep drawing ever closer to you.

Day 8: Wednesday 8th December – Matthew 1:18-21  ‘This is how...’

Today we flip from Luke back to Matthew, to allow us to cover the story in broadly chronological order.  Mary is now pregnant, so it’s time for Joseph to enter the picture.  Like Elizabeth, Joseph is another of the great unsung heroes of the text – he is usually pictured as being a frail old man, quite without foundation.   In all probability he was in his late teens or early twenties, marrying the bride arranged for him by his family, as would have been the custom. 

 

Tomorrow we’ll look at the character of Joseph in more detail, but today, let’s ask a simple question: how does Jesus’ birth come about? 

 

The natural answer would be to quote the passage from Luke we looked at yesterday – it was a mighty supernatural act of God.  Mary conceives miraculously, confirming the divine ancestry of the Messiah.  And this of course is true.

 

But there is also another, human answer to that question.  Jesus is born because Joseph and Mary get married anyway, and Jesus has a human family to be born into.  Jesus has an earthly father, too, who likewise receives a divine messenger and the revelation of the new baby’s name (and what it means for the world).

 

This is so often the way God works.  The divine and the human weave together.  Very occasionally, God does something totally down to him.  But most of the time, God works through our work, our faithfulness, our prayer.  ‘Pray as if everything depends on God: act as if everything depends on you.’  That’s not a bad maxim for the spiritual life – and here we see Joseph and Mary embody it perfectly.

 

Yes, Jesus is wonderfully and divinely conceived.  But he is still born to human parents, with a real life in a real village.  They make a real journey to Bethlehem, and have to agree on a very real (and hard) choice to wed anyway, despite the circumstances.  And so – praise God! – we have a fully divine and fully human Saviour, born as the result of fully divine and fully human faithfulness.

 

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about.

 

It’s also how most of the work of God in our own life and times comes about too.  We co-operate with God’s plans – we pray for them, obey them and see God work through our faithfulness. 

 

Where is God at work in you presently?  Pray today for wisdom, courage and resolve to co-operate fully with whatever God is up to.  This is how God’s marvellous work comes about.

Day 7: Tuesday 7th December – Luke 1:34-38  ‘No word ever fails’

‘How will this be?’  It’s not a bad question to ask, is it?  You’ve just received some of the most extraordinary – and shocking – news anyone could imagine.  Perhaps as you’ve read today’s passage, you found yourself remembering such a time in your own life, when you received news it was hard to take in.  And Mary asks a natural follow-up: but what’s striking in her reply is that she doesn’t question the fact of it, only the process.  

 

This is in stark contrast to Zechariah earlier.  He asks: ‘How can I be sure?’ (i.e. ‘...that what you’re saying is true?’)  Mary doesn’t doubt the message, only the method.  And her faith is rewarded with a direct answer from the angel.

 

The text doesn’t tell us what she felt emotionally after receiving this visitation.  The hundreds of portrayals of this scene in art through the ages tend to reflect the values of the society of the time.  Mediaeval paintings picture her receiving it demurely, like a good lady of the court.  Modern versions tend to emphasise the emotional shock and even pain, reflecting our more therapeutic culture.

 

In some ways, this is good – it means that we see Mary as fundamentally one of us – a real human being.  And yet, we can so easily read into her response what she ‘must’ have felt.  Luke cleverly avoids such guessing.  Instead he tells us simply that Mary accepted the word, whatever it would cost: ‘I am the Lord’s servant.... may your word to me be fulfilled.’ (v38)

 

It is a remarkable encounter – and at its heart is a remarkable young woman showing even more remarkable faith.  This single scene changes the course of history, and in its turn transforms this anonymous young villager into the most famous woman in history.  Lady Di might have been photographed more often, but nobody has been captured more in art and literature over the course of 2,000 years.  I do wonder what Mary herself would have made of that.

 

But let’s close with a glorious affirmation: God’s word never fails (v37).  It didn’t fail for Mary – it doesn’t fail for us, too.  The bible is full of promises – and ‘all of them are yes in Christ Jesus’ (2 Corinthians 1:20).  Because God’s word never fails, we can say ‘yes’ to God’s love, to his salvation, to God’s gift of the Spirit to dwell in our hearts, bringing peace that passes understanding, joy that gives us strength, and hope in times of trial. 

 

Christ comes into the world as the fulfilment of God’s word – today let’s spend a few moments reading any one of our favourite passages and choosing to rejoice in those promises again.  ‘For no word from God will ever fail.’

Day 6: Monday 6th December – Luke 1:26-33  ‘What’s in a name?’

Names matter.  They certainly matter in the bible.  A name wasn’t just a parental preference, it was meant to signify something.  We can learn a lot from names.  Take Gabriel, for example.  It means ‘God is my strength’ – a perfect name for an angel.  Mighty as Gabriel was, he knew where his true strength came from.

 

Or take Mary as another example: in today’s reading we get the iconic encounter between the angel and the young woman.  The name Mary is most likely from the ancient Egyptian name ‘mry’ meaning ‘beloved’.   Beloved of Joseph, certainly;  but also beloved of God.

 

So God-is-my-strength meets The Beloved One – and promises a miraculous child.  Not surprisingly, his name is important too.  Jesus means ‘God saves’ – it is the updated version of the Old Testament name Joshua, the great hero of the Israelites who led his people into the promised land.

 

God was coming to save his people again. Only this time he would do it himself: ‘He will be called the Son of the Most High... his kingdom will never end.’  A greater rescuer, an eternal king. 

 

Tomorrow we’ll deal with Mary’s shock – and her remarkable faith.  But today let’s rejoice that Jesus lives up to his name.  God saves, and his salvation is glorious.  All the promises to Israel – to the prophets, to those waiting, for generation after generation – are coming to fulfilment.  There is a new way back to God, a new hope for the renewal of our broken world.

 

‘Nazareth?  Can anything good come from there?!’  So jokes the disciple Nathanael 30 years later (John 1: 46).  Today we have our answer and it is emphatically yes.  The Beloved One is promised the gift of the Messiah – God’s Son, salvation made flesh.  A saviour not just for then, but for now.  A Saviour for you and for me – for the whole world.  It’s all in the name.

 

And may that beautiful truth lift your heart today.  

Day 5: Sunday 5th December – Luke 1:18-25  ‘He has shown his favour’

Poor old Zechariah.  It’s easy to give him a roasting.  All those years waiting hopefully and serving faithfully, and when his big moment comes...

 

But I wonder if Zechariah is not somewhat more like us than we care to admit.   One of the great pointers to the truthfulness of the bible is that the characters are so much like us.  There’s no massaging of egos or marketing jingo.  The human characters are very... human.   We can see ourselves in them – which reminds us that the God of the bible is a God for people like us.

 

People like Gideon, the mighty warrior who hides in the shed.  Or Peter, the Rock who blows his mouth off and then runs away. Or, as here, Zechariah who doubted an angel, and temporarily lost his voice because he temporarily lost his trust.

 

Never is God’s love and mercy more greatly shown than in the people he chooses to use.  Ordinary people, people who mess up and let him down.  People that God gives a second chance to; and a third, and a fourth...

 

There is redemption in this story for Zechariah – just as there is for you and me.  That’s who God is – and we’ll see Zechariah come good in a few days’ time.

 

But let’s also celebrate the faithfulness of Elizabeth today – one of the great unsung heroes of the bible.  Mother of the Baptist, woman of faith – and encourager of Mary, who only sings after Elizabeth has welcomed her and prophesied over her.  She may only get half a chapter, but her unique contribution alters the course of history: just as it has been for many people of faith through the ages.  Her ‘appointed time’ was brief but brilliant.

 

Our God is the God of second chances: for Elizabeth, long after her childbearing years were over; for Zechariah, when their son was born; for us too, whatever falls, foibles, faults and failures we’ve had along the way.

 

God shows his favour to those who don’t deserve it.  People like us.  Give thanks for that beautiful truth today – and may it cause your heart to sing.

Day 4: Saturday 4th December – Luke 1:5-17  ‘Your prayer has been heard’

Most modern tellings of the nativity story begin with the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary.  But that’s not quite the beginning of the story – not even in Luke’s gospel itself.  Six months before that historic encounter, Gabriel has another divine errand, to an old priest performing his duties at the temple in Jerusalem.

 

Zechariah was a righteous and blameless man, as was his wife Elizabeth (v6), and their lives were similarly about to be turned upside down, almost as much as Mary’s.  It was another miraculous birth – only this time because of age.  They had never been able to have children, and presumably had long since given up hope.  But they remained faithful, and got on with the day-to-day business of living, and serving their Lord.

 

And into this pair of quiet lives comes the angel, with an extraordinary promise: ‘Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John’ (v13).

 

You see, there was one other prophecy in the bible that had to be fulfilled before the Messiah could come.  It was one of the very last words in the Old Testament, given to the prophet Malachi: that Elijah would return first, preparing the way for the Messiah. 

 

This is the divinely-appointed task that John – later known as The Baptist – would come to do.  That’s why it’s so important that he comes ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (v17), ‘to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’.   John is that ‘voice calling in the wilderness’ (Isaiah 40:3): the herald announcing that the Messiah has come!

 

So there’s no time to waste – if Angel Gabriel is going to visit Mary, he has to visit John’s would-be parents first.  So he does.

 

Yesterday we dwelt on the idea that God keeps his promises – which he does again here.  But today let’s feast on this short but profound phrase in v13: ‘Your prayer has been heard.’

 

What a glorious thought!  That Almighty God, the creator and sustainer of the universal, all- powerful and all-knowing – this God hears our prayers.  He listens, his faced turned towards us, full of love: he knows who we are, and what we’re asking.

 

Many of us will have prayers we’ve prayed for a long time, just like Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Let’s take heart today and seize this promise with renewed faith: God hears our prayers.  Yes, yours!  And let’s have courage to keep praying them.   God has not forgotten you.

Day 3: Friday 3rd December – Matthew 1:1-17  ‘The divine promise-keeper’

Admit it – you skipped a few lines of today’s reading, didn’t you?  Most people do.  In fact, if I was able to secretly watch your reading time, I might find it was more than a few lines!

 

The bible is full of genealogies.  Long lists of who begat who, to use the old language – and I’m sure most of you have often wondered what the point of them is.  If the bible is first and foremost a book about God, what can we possibly learn from human family trees?  Those of you who are family history fans might derive a modest interest from this kind of thing, and others of you – you know who you are – are mostly having a chuckle at the funny names, or trying to pronounce some yourself as a personal challenge.  But otherwise, what is the point?

 

To answer that question you need to go back to the third chapter of the bible – to verse 15 of Genesis chapter 3.  It had all started so well.  A perfect world, and humans in perfect relationship with their Creator.... and then disaster.  The bond broken, the innocence shattered.  A fallen world.

 

But in the midst of this catastrophe God promises that one day Eve’s offspring would crush the serpent’s head.  You might say that the rest of the bible is The Search for the Serpent Crusher.

 

And as we read these long lists throughout the Old Testament, generation after generation, we can detect a voice echoing down the ages: ‘where is he? Is he here yet?’  Waiting, waiting. 

 

And the promises keep growing.  As God speaks and blesses one family in particular, we see a line from Abraham – through Isaac, Jacob and Judah – which carries special hope.  King David came and went, and the promise escalated: one of his descendants would inherit an eternal throne.  Then the prophets weigh in, too: this new king would outstrip anything which had gone before – a new era of peace and justice, a global reach.  Way more than just the serpent’s head!  But still the waiting...

 

And so we get to the first chapter of the New Testament – Matthew’s gospel.  And now the voice changes – a divine voice answering all those echoes of longing, of faith and perhaps also of doubt: ‘the serpent crusher is here.  I keep my promises.’

 

Jesus is the Anointed One (i.e. the Messiah or Christ of v1).  Jesus fulfils the promises of global blessing given to Abraham (v2).  Jesus inherits the eternal throne promised to David (v6).  The serpent crusher has come!

 

It’s big stuff.  Perhaps take a moment to breathe in the enormity of a ‘boring’ family tree.  And more than that, remind yourself of something very simple but incredibly profound: God keeps his promises.  He keeps them to the world, to his people, and also to you.  God keeps his promises to you.  And may that awesome thought lift your heart, and also your faith, today.

Day 2: Thursday 2nd December – Micah 5:2-5a  ‘A surprising Shepherd?’

The Advent story is full of surprises.  In many ways we’re so familiar with it, that often those surprises pass us by.  We think of shepherds and angels and wise men and it all seems so... normal.  Which is odd, when you think about it!

 

Today’s passage from the prophet Micah likewise has its share of surprises.   Any of us who’ve attended traditional carol services over the years will recognise it – the promise that the new king would come from Bethlehem. 

 

That the town of King David should feature is, we might think, not unexpected.  The great shepherd king would prove the ancestor to an even greater Shepherd who would ‘stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord’ (v3).  This ruler would transcend even the boundaries of the nation: ‘his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth’ (v4).

 

But there are hidden surprises here.  The first is that prophecies of the new king’s birth refer both to God honouring Galilee in the north of the country (in Isaiah), and also Bethlehem in the south (here in Micah).  Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries – one was of noble rank and lived at the court, one lived in relative poverty and obscurity away from the corridors of power.   How would this conundrum be resolved? 

 

God’s solution is simple, but beautiful: Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth (in Galilee), but had to travel to Joseph’s ancestral hometown (Bethlehem) to pay Caesar’s poll tax.  Galilee and Bethlehem – both prophecies fulfilled without contradiction.

 

The second surprise is that Bethlehem was chosen at all.  It may have been linked to King David, but in other respects it was a small, insignificant place.  Its name means ‘house of bread’, and its main business was to live up to its name – it provided the capital city of nearby Jerusalem with corn, and also lambs for sacrifice. 

 

Centuries later, the new ruler prophesied by Micah – the one born in ‘the house of bread’ – would stand up and declare to the world: ‘I am the bread of life.’  This Great Shepherd would himself become the ‘lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.’ You never really get away from the place of your birth.

 

God knew what he was doing when Bethlehem was chosen.  As we spend the next three weeks on our annual pilgrimage to the stable situated in ‘the house of bread’, may we too be fed daily by the Bread of Life, and fall in adoration before the Lamb of God.  Bethlehem is just the beginning...

Day 1: Wednesday 1st December – Isaiah 7:14  ‘God with us’

God with us.  That’s really the whole ball game, isn’t it?  Over the next 24 days, as we prepare ourselves in this season of Advent, we’ll tell the ageless story afresh, and we’ll marvel again at the wonder of it all: the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, the journey to Bethlehem, a young carpenter and his pregnant wife, the stable and that glorious Christmas night.

 

But, in all the beauty and mystery of what is to come, nothing really summarises it better than this one word which begins our journey: Emmanuel.  God with us.

 

It was always the plan.  God is not a distant deity, who winds the clock up and observes passively while it runs.  God is a ‘with’ kind of God at the very core of his being.  It begins as God with himself: ‘the Word was with God’ (John 1:1) as the Spirit hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2) – a Trinity of love.

 

Then God with humanity, as originally intended.  Humans made in his image, knowing true intimacy with each other, and with their Creator.  And the Lord comes walking into Eden in the cool of the day to spend time with Adam and Eve, only to find the barriers up, and the pattern dislocated.

 

After that time, we are no longer with God – but even so, not everyone gets the memo.  King David, among others down the centuries, knew what it was like to experience God’s presence: ‘I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’ (Psalm 23:4)

 

Somehow the promise never goes away, never disappears for good.   God would be with us – in a new way, for all time.  It would take a miracle – the Virgin birth – but it would surely come to pass.

 

And seven centuries later, it does.  God comes down to earth.  God with us as never before.  And this divine Son grows up to utter this great promise: ‘My Spirit will be with you.... Abide in me.’  God with us for all time.

 

There so much we can say about what the Christmas story means.  But let’s start here – and maybe let’s finish here, too.  God is with us.  May this beautiful, intimate, faithful God be with you today, and throughout this season.  And may this stir all of our hearts to joy and adoration.  O come, o come Emmanuel.

'The Hidden Hand of God' - Daily Inspirations in the Book of Esther

The Book of Esther is a fantastic story. Unusually for a bible text, God’s name is never used directly, and yet God’s hand is across all the pages, pulling the strings when his people need him most. Roughly a contemporary of Daniel, Esther has much wisdom to tell us about how to thrive in a different or even hostile culture. It’s also a rattling good yarn, which we’ll enjoy through to the end of November!

Tuesday 30th November – Esther 9:29-10:3 ‘Last Orders’

And so our tale comes to an end.  After the storms of the preceding chapters, the story concludes with relative calm, as Queen Esther communicates the decree regarding the new festival of Purim throughout the empire and Mordecai takes on a Daniel/Joseph type role as the king’s senior adviser.

 

It is notable that the book begins with Xerxes running the show directly, and ends with Esther and Mordecai taking more of the reins on his behalf – Xerxes was still ruler, of course, but now he had people he could trust around him (at least for a season), and it’s a tangible sign of the favour that God has shown both to his people and to these two remarkable individuals that we end up here.

 

In this last segment we get lovely summaries of each of the main characters.  Xerxes – whose name means ‘ruling over heroes’ – ‘imposed tribute’ (v1).  He is still a tyrant, albeit perhaps a more benevolent one than he was a few months previously.  Mordecai ‘worked for the good of his people’ (v3) – a fitting assessment of this quiet giant.  And Esther ‘wrote with full authority’ (v29).  During the course of the story she has visibly grown in stature, displaying great qualities of wisdom and courage, and she now acts like a true queen – with confidence and authority.

 

I hope over the last couple of weeks that this amazing episode has inspired you in various ways.  Throughout we’ve seen the hidden hand of God, at work in the world and through his people.  But this is not (yet) a ‘happy ever after’ tale.  Life remained, and remains, challenging for God’s people.  God’s people remained a vulnerable minority then, and many find themselves in similar situations now.  To live as followers of Jesus calls us to swim against the tide, which means our relationship with culture and power will have pressure points.  We are not called to seek trouble for its own sake – but sometimes it finds us anyway.

 

However, the phrase which describes the decree Queen Esther sends across the empire provides a fitting conclusion to this series: ‘words of goodwill and assurance’ (v30).  This is the purpose of the book of Esther: to remind us of God’s favour towards us, his people, and to give us confidence and hope as a result.

 

Hundreds of years later, angels across the night sky over Bethlehem declared the same blessing as a baby was born: ‘peace and goodwill to all’.  As we wait for our Saviour’s coming over the next few weeks, may we be filled again with hope and joy at these words of goodwill and assurance.  Amen.

Monday 29th November – Esther 9:19-28 ‘The Holiday’

November is a season of remembrance.  Beginning with All Saints’ Day, moving through Bonfire Night and Remembrance Sunday and (if you’re American) finishing with Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November, we dedicate a period of the year specially to remembering significant events.

 

And, for all that these occasions remember vastly different things, there are common threads for each.  There is thankfulness: for our worldwide church (or particular loved ones), for deliverance from a wicked plot, for the ending of war, for the birth of a national identity.  There is also a message to take to heart, which serves to strengthen our resolve to live as better people and better communities.

 

These occasions also call to mind our vulnerabilities.  We think of the Suffering Church, of what might have happened if our government had been destroyed, of the millions whose lives were changed (or ended) by war, and perhaps who live with its ongoing consequences.

 

All these themes resonate with our passage today.  To celebrate their great deliverance a new festival is decreed for the Jewish people: Purim. It’s still celebrated today – the date for 2022 is a 24-hour period from the evening of Wed 16th March until the evening of Thursday 17th March.  It is primarily a day (originally two days) of ‘feasting and joy’ as the text declares (v22).

 

And yet there is also an underlying message of watchfulness: this has happened before, it can happen again.  It is traditional to read the story of Esther (known to Jews as ‘The Megillah’) as part of the Purim celebrations, and tragically, the events of the mid-20th century have been a heartbreaking reminder that this kind of threat is not just ancient history.

 

It is also notable that, amidst the celebrations, gifts should be given to the poor (v22).  To know our own vulnerability inevitably makes us more aware of others’.

 

Remembering is an important business.  I have said in other places that our memory is our identity.  It shapes our thinking, not just of the past, but of our present and future.  Take a moment today to remember something that makes you thankful, and opens your heart ever more to others.

Saturday 27th November – Esther 9:1-19 ‘Independence Day’

This passage might have made challenging reading for you.  To our modern ears the exultant response to the wave of violence strikes a discordant note, and perhaps dilutes the sense of relief we feel at the way God’s people were saved. 

 

As always, we have to judge events by the standards of the time, in which this kind of outcome was not especially unusual.  But it’s also worth reminding ourselves of what was shared yesterday.  The edict of the King was effectively designed to stop anyone attacking the Jewish people.  And yet still many had gathered who were ‘determined to destroy them’ (v2).  This left the Jews with no choice but to fight back: which they did very successfully.  Such action would not have been necessary if the implications of king’s edict had been received by all people as they should have been.

 

That’s not to justify violence for its own sake: but this was a vulnerable minority used to being despised and ill-treated – and who had lived for nearly a year with the threat of destruction hanging over them.  Their very existence was at stake.

 

For all that, we may have preferred an ending which involved deliverance without bloodshed, and it reminds us why the good news of the gospel has such transformative power.  Jesus modelled a different way, which has impacted our culture more profoundly than we often realise.  Today, followers of Jesus are encouraged to leave vengeance to God, the true Judge of all (Romans 12:19). 

 

This is never easy, as it requires us to curb our natural instincts.  But for all who suffer unjustly, may God grant us grace to hold them in prayer, and trust him to take care of the rest.  And if that unjust suffering is yours, may God be especially close to you today, and bind your wounds.

Friday 26th November – Esther 8:1-19 ‘The Great Escape’

Intentions are one thing, actual plans and outcomes another.  Over the last few days we’ve seen how God – with the aid of Mordecai, Esther and some outrageous coincidences – has brought about the promise of rescue for his people.  This is absolutely incredible!  The king’s mind has changed and he is now ready to intervene on Esther’s behalf – but the key question now is: how will it actually come about?

 

As it stands, even with Haman gone, there’s still a law in effect which decrees the destruction of the Jews in a few months’ time; and, as Xerxes himself says in today’s passage, ‘no document written in the kings name and sealed with his ring can be revoked.’ (v8)  The danger remains very real.  Promises and good intentions need to become reality. 

 

Again, we have to pay tribute to Queen Esther’s wisdom. Knowing that the existing law is still in effect, she asks her husband if he will write a new law to counteract the current one.  And the irrevocable nature of Persian laws (regardless of their merit) explains why the law is written as it is.  At first sight, giving the Jewish people freedom to arm and defend themselves sounds like asking for trouble: but it is the best response to a legally binding decree which invites violence against them.  Anyone sensible reading this new edict would realise that the king is effectively banning the genocide, so would be daft to try and attack the Jewish people against the will of the king.  But just in case anyone does....

 

It’s a clever solution to a potentially disastrous problem, and the king further cranks up the formidable machinery of his government to make sure the details of this law are spread as wisely as possible.  His empire covers a vast area of territory, so it’s just as well he can utilise his secretaries, satraps and couriers to get the word out.

 

It’s a helpful reminder that even miraculous deliverances often need practical human activity on the ground.  The miraculous deliverance at Dunkirk we mentioned a few days ago still needed hundreds of sailors crewing their boats across the channel.  Administration is listed as a spiritual gift in the New Testament for good reason.  Practical wisdom and skill doesn’t replace God’s guiding hand, but complements it. 

 

How might this encourage you today?  Wherever God is at work, may he equip you with the practical skills and energy you need to work alongside his divine initiative.

Thursday 25th November – Esther 7:1-10 ‘The Reckoning’

Every great story has a climactic scene where the drama is played out, and the central characters all find themselves in the room together.  Although the most important outcome of the drama happens in the next two chapters, in chapter 7 we get the long-awaited dramatic climax, delivered to perfection by the master story-teller of Esther.

 

All the pieces are now in place: in chapter 4, Mordecai gave Esther her mission, which she chose to accept.  In chapter 5, Esther won the king’s favour and Haman allowed the pride and malice of his heart to rule his head.  In chapter 6, the king honours Mordecai and unwittingly humiliates Haman. 

 

Now – and only now – comes the decisive second banquet thrown by Queen Esther, and here we can finally appreciate the wisdom of playing the long game.  By not pestering the king, there has been time for the tables to turn in Esther’s favour, and the king – who likes to be flattered and given the appearance of control in every situation – is fully won over, and willing to grant her anything.

 

But even at this point, Esther is wise: she phrases her request in both humble and personal terms:  the king has not just agreed to kill a whole people – the king has agreed to kill her, his queen; her people would accept slavery because of their love for the king – but genocide is a step too far!

 

It is the perfect response, and Xerxes now realises that he has been manipulated into a foolish decision by his senior advisor.  How could he possibly execute this people, one of whom is his queen and another of whom has proved his loyalty by exposing a plot and saving his life?

 

Haman knows the game is up: but in a final, darkly comic episode he slips while throwing himself on Esther’s mercy and appears to be making an inappropriate advance to the queen just as her husband walks in.  With heavy irony he is now impaled on the pole he set up for Mordecai.

 

I said yesterday that God is nowhere directly named in this story.  But there is a beautiful twist.  The letters which spell God’s name appear five times in the Hebrew text: once in chapter 1, but then crucially twice in chapter 5 and twice more here in chapter 7: in verses 5 and 7, when judgement is declared against Haman. 

 

Like the acrostic poems of the psalms, these letters begin sequential words and to a Hebrew speaker would be noticeable. It is, if you like, a simple code for God’s people to notice as this story is told, and to inspire them to give thanks that God has been helping and protecting them all along.  Bearing in mind that most of Esther’s readers would have been living far away from Israel in secular cultures, what better way to give them quiet and enduring hope?

 

May we, too, as we read, hear God’s simple code to us, written between the lines of every page: I love you, I am there for you, I will be with you.  And may that give us, too, quiet and enduring hope.

Wednesday 24th November – Esther 6:1-14 ‘The Sting’

‘When I pray, coincidences happen more often.’  These well-known words of Archbishop William Temple form a fitting introduction to today’s reading.  God isn’t mentioned anywhere in this chapter, but we do see a remarkable sequence of coincidences:

 

Coincidence 1: the king happens not to be able to sleep.

Coincidence 2: of all the remedies he might have chosen, he decides that the best cure for insomnia is to have the history of his reign read out to him.

Coincidence 3: we don’t know how long this reading of records lasted, but either way, it went on long enough to include the episode where Mordecai saves his life.

Coincidence 4: Xerxes decides that now is the time to ask whether this chap had been rewarded for his service.

Coincidence 5: Haman just happens to be arriving at court as this conversation is ending.

Coincidence 6: Xerxes fails to mention Mordecai by name when speaking with Haman (though we might admit that Xerxes is more aware of Haman’s hatred of Mordecai then he lets on).

Coincidence 7: Haman, still in hubristic mode, thinks the king’s question is about him, so awards himself (he supposes) the highest accolades and rewards.

 

...and as a result of all these ‘coincidences’ Haman now finds himself, not executing Mordecai, but publicly honouring him!  Can you imagine the scene as Haman of all people is forced to parade Mordecai around the streets, praising his deeds, and secretly grinding his teeth all the while?!

 

Today of all days is where we see the hidden hand of God, which gave us the title for this series.  But God has been at work throughout: in providing a dedicated father figure for Esther, in Esther’s success in becoming queen, in Mordecai foiling a plot but not being rewarded at the time – had he been, the events in this chapter could not have happened as they did.  In all this, God appeared to be silent but was in fact pulling all the strings.

 

It is hard at any point in time to be sure of how the Lord is at work: for much of life we see ‘through a glass darkly’.  However, this marvellous story reminds us that God is there, he is at work, and sometimes we get to look through the window into the throne room of heaven and perceive it.

 

The story is not yet done, but everything is now in place, and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Wherever you find yourself in this season, what ‘coincidences’ will you pray for today?

Tuesday 23rd November – Esther 5:9-14 ‘Dumb and dumber’

In his book Why Organisations Fail, Jim Collins – the leading management and leadership thinker – outlines five stages of decline.  Fascinatingly, the first two stages happen when organisations appear to be at the peak of their powers: stage 1 is ‘hubris born of success’ and stage 2 is ‘undisciplined pursuit of more.’  What makes this sequence so devastating is that the rug is slowly being pulled from under their feet even while the organisation is lauding its own achievements.  Usually, by the time people start to realise they’re in trouble (stage 3 – denial of risk or peril) it’s too late.  They didn’t spot the warning signs, and disaster lies ahead.

 

What’s true of organisations can be equally true of people.  Haman finds himself exactly in the sort of quietly perilous position that Collins describes in his book – though to read today’s passage you would never know.  Haman exhibits exactly that brand of hubris that is the undoing of many powerful and successful people.  He assumes that his position is unassailable, and fails to heed the warning signs that a more astute observer might have spotted.  He knows full well that Mordecai is a Jew – so how has he missed the obvious inference as to the likely sympathies of Mordecai’s ward, the Queen, the very person now throwing banquets for the king and himself? 

 

Instead, he spends his time boasting about his power (dumb?) and, notwithstanding the king’s existing statute to oppress the Jewish people, decides that Mordecai deserves humiliation on top of execution, demanding the construction of a 75 foot pole on which to hang his body (dumber?!). 

 

Haman will come to have a particular reason to regret wasting his energies on building this pole – but it is a sobering reminder that human pride, power and ambition are shifting sands on which to build a life.  The methods people use to force their way to the top usually come back to bite them, often with greater force.

 

Our Saviour models another way.  The way of humility and service, of compassion and generosity.  This Saviour’s arrival lay hundreds of years ahead of this particular story, but we can see echoes of this kind of lifestyle in the behaviour of Mordecai and Esther.  They chose to be salt and light, to be the good yeast that worked its way through the dough. Many of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom seem to connect with ‘the mustard seed conspiracy’ of these two, which saved a nation.

 

Tempting as it is to misuse power, may God grant us grace to choose the kingdom lifestyle taught and lived by Jesus, trusting in God’s power and authority to bless it – and us.

Monday 22nd November – Esther 5:1-10 ‘True grit’

‘Pray as if everything depended on God.  Act as if everything depended on you.’  I was told that many years ago, and it’s wise advice. There may be times when it’s the action of others we have to rely on, but often we have to play our part as an outworking of what we have prayed for.

 

For three days, the Jewish people have fasted and prayed.  Now it’s time to act.  And it’s notable that Esther wastes no time.  As soon as the period of fasting is completed, she takes her courage in both hands, puts on her best dress and goes to see the king. 

 

And we should bear in mind that this is the riskiest moment for Esther.  It’s now that the king will either order her execution or extend his favour towards her.  Thankfully, absence in this case has made the king’s heart grow fonder, and Esther is warmly received, with the further promise that the king will grant her whatever she asks.

 

But even now, Esther plays a canny game.  Rather than blurt out her request – too much too soon, with the additional drawback that Haman is not in the room to see the king’s response – she invites Xerxes and Haman to a banquet that evening, thereby keeping the king on tenterhooks and making sure that Haman is fully involved in everything that happens next.  The banquet is a success, but even then Esther keeps her cards close to her chest and piques the king’s interest yet more by inviting him to another banquet the following evening, to which Haman is also invited.

 

Esther is not just being coy or cowardly: little by little she is reeling the king in.  After two meetings in quick succession Xerxes must be wondering what on earth could be so important, whilst also being reminded of how much he likes his new queen.  As it happens, Mordecai also plays his part by showing his own courage in the face of Haman’s malice (v9).  This prompts Haman to say and do some unwise things which ultimately work against him, as we’ll see tomorrow.

 

Today’s passage finishes with apparently everything left unresolved: but in many respects the biggest battle has been won.  Esther has an audience with the king, and God’s people have hope.  Hundreds of years later, Jesus counselled us to be ‘wise as snakes and innocent as doves’.  We should beware becoming ‘political animals’ – but there are times when shrewd behaviour reaps its reward. 

 

May God grant us grace to act wisely in all that we face this week.

Saturday 20th Nov – Esther 4:1-17 (ii)  ‘The Fast Show’

This chapter of Esther is usually the only one that anyone has read!  So for that reason at least, it deserves a second look.  And, alongside the conversation between Esther and Mordecai, what is most striking in this chapter is how the situation caused a nation to fast and pray. 

 

Yes, their lives were at stake – but even so, the outpouring of religious fervour and commitment is notable.  People sought their Lord, and not only with prayer but with fasting, too.  We see it in verse 3, and then again at the end of the chapter (v16).

 

The most recent equivalent in the history of our nation came in 1940, as 300,000 British and Allied troops were encircled in a small corner of North-Eastern France near Dunkirk and facing annihilation.  On 23rd May, King George VI called for a national day of prayer and fasting for the following Sunday.  10 days later, the result was a miraculous rescue of 270,000 of these soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk.  The weather conditions were unusually favourable and the German response unusually muted.

 

Watching the recent, brilliant film about this event, this part of the narrative was completely overlooked.  Perhaps that’s no surprise – but it should never be forgotten.  A nation fasted – and hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.  Just as it is here in the book of Esther.

 

Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline which has declined in recent generations.  It is fascinating that ‘fast days’ are now much more likely to be talked about in diet regimens than in church!  And I would admit that my own commitment to fasting has been patchy for a long time, so I don’t speak with any great authority today. 

 

But this passage does challenge me to look again.  We may not be facing genocide, as the Jewish people of Esther’s day did – but there are huge challenges facing our church, nation and world at present.  Fasting is not a slot machine, and it’s always a challenge: but it does unlock something in the spiritual realm, in our access to God.  It’s hard to think about that with Christmas around the corner!  But perhaps in the coming Lent – if not before – it’s time to take another look?

Friday 19th November – Esther 4:1-17 (i) ‘Sliding doors’

I wonder what it must be like to know that one moment will determine the entire course of your life?  In the classic film of 20 years ago which is our title for today, we saw two versions of what happened to Gwyneth Paltrow’s life depending on one trivial incident: the doors of a tube train were shutting, and she either squeezed into the carriage or just missed it.  The repercussions of this one event then played out – in alternative versions – for the rest of the film.

 

Today’s passage is a bit like this – only the big difference is that the event is not random or trivial, but huge and obvious.  Esther’s people are threatened with genocide, and she is the only one of her people with favour and access to the king, the one person whose intervention might prove critical – this is the moment that will determine the course of her life, one way or another.

 

But to do so is hugely risky.  We’ve already see how touchy King Xerxes is, and how keen on observing both royal prestige and protocol.  Even his wives were not allowed just to turn up and see him, and, if Esther times it wrong or meets his displeasure, she faces a worse fate than her predecessor Queen Vashti, who was ‘merely’ banished – Esther would be executed. (v11)

 

And yet... and yet: ‘who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?’ (v14)  In one famous sentence Mordecai gets to the heart of the issue.  Esther may have wondered why she, of all people, was favoured by the king: perhaps this is the answer, perhaps this is her calling, her moment? 

 

And it’s important to notice that Mordecai attests that, for all that she is in the right place at the right time, Esther is not the messiah, to coin a phrase: God is not limited to only being able to fix this via Esther – if she refuses, Mordecai recognises (in one of the great statements of faith) that God could do it another way, because God is the one true God.  Esther is called to be obedient, and let God do the rest.

 

For such a time as this.... very few of us will experience the sort of nation-changing life-defining moment Esther did.  But this sense of calling applies to us, too.  Calling is not just for ministers and missionaries: God calls all of us to lots of things, big and small.  What is God’s call for you, at such a time as this?  It might be a person to contact, or a commitment to make, a task to fulfil, or a relationship to renew.  It might be something bigger!  But whatever it is, will you step out, like Esther did, trusting in the One who calls?

Thursday 18th November – Esther 3:1-15 ‘The Purge’

How quickly the tide turns.  Only yesterday, Mordecai is saving the king’s life: today, not only his life is in danger but that of his people.  How did we get here?

 

Things start to go wrong when Haman is promoted to the highest office in the land, below only the king.  Haman is an Agagite (v1), which means there’s a bitter history here.  Agag was the king which the prophet Samuel told King Saul to defeat – but Saul wouldn’t kill him, so Samuel finished the job.  Ever since, the Agagites had hated the Jews, so Haman’s promotion always threatened to mean trouble for the Jewish exiles living in the Medo-Persian empire, and especially in its capital, Susa.

 

The flashpoint is not quite what it seems.  The text says that Mordecai refused to pay Haman honour (v2), so it looks like a gratuitous snub.  But what is really being required of Mordecai here is a form of worship, where Haman is effectively the substitute for King Xerxes himself.  What Mordecai is doing (or refusing to do) is the same as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the famous story in Daniel chapter 3.  His worship is reserved for God alone – he will not bow down to another human being.

 

It is hard to know whether Haman was genuinely personally outraged by Mordecai’s decision, or just used it as a convenient excuse to exact a plan of vengeance which had lain dormant in the hearts of his people for centuries.  Either way, he set about making the most of his privileged position to sanction a genocide.

 

As we saw in chapter 1, Xerxes was particularly sensitive to anything that smacked of disrespect (like most tyrants), and Haman cleverly plays this to his advantage.  So he tells the king: the Jewish people ‘keep themselves separate, and they do not obey the king’s laws.’ (v8)  So, with the promise of a huge bribe, he suggests that the king should destroy them.

 

The king isn’t interested in the money (v11), but he doesn’t like the sound of disobedience, so he concurs, and issues the decree – giving a full 11 months for the letters to be circulated, and plans for the genocide to be prepared.  Time enough, also, for God – via Mordecai and Esther – to save the day!  But that’s for tomorrow, and the next few days.

 

(An interesting footnote is that the genocide was planned for the 13th day of the month (v13), which is where the original idea of ‘unlucky thirteen’ comes from.  It is also notable to see how both power and hatred reduces our capacity for compassion – see how Xerxes and Haman enjoy a drink  (v15) while the city is in a fever of anxiety.)

 

What we see in today’s passage is the destructive power of resentment and bitterness in the human heart.  Haman had nursed a hatred for the Jewish people in all probability for many years, even generations.  This hatred was ultimately to be his undoing.  Whilst we might think that this could never happen now, sadly history suggests otherwise.  Let us continue to examine our own hearts, and also pray for the hearts of those with power in our world today.

Wednesday 17th November – Esther 2:19-23 ‘Sense and sensibility’

Our culture has an ambiguous relationship to truth-telling when it involves getting other people into trouble.  Generally it depends on how much power the culprit has.  If they are powerful, then the person telling the truth is lauded as a whistle-blower.  If they are peers, then the person telling the truth is a snitch.

 

Should power really determine the judgement we give?  Arguably the risk of ‘snitching’ is greater than whistle-blowing, where (at least in the West) the person usually has immediate protection under the law.  And Mordecai no doubt took a certain level of risk in revealing today’s plot, since people prepared to kill a king are almost certainly able to kill a private citizen. 

 

The story at this stage is only recounted briefly: it might seem odd that it is even recounted at all, given the lack of attention the narrator seems to give it here – however its true importance only becomes clear later in the book.  Mordecai has saved the king’s life, even if, for now, little is said about it.

 

Why did I give today’s inspiration the title I did?  Well, the original meaning of ‘sensibility’ when Jane Austen wrote this famous title is what we would now describe as ‘sensitivity’ – and this is an apt description of Mordecai, who throughout the book of Esther demonstrates admirable sensitivity, both in emotional and intellectual terms.  Unwilling to leave Esther destitute as an orphan, he raises her as his own (2:7).  He is acutely worried about Esther’s racial background (2:10, repeated here in this passage v20).  And now he spots a plot which perhaps others would have overlooked.  Mordecai is someone who we would call ‘tuned in’ on every level.

 

But unlike the ‘sensible’ (i.e. ‘sensitive’) sister in Austen’s novel, Mordecai shows sense as well.  He tells Esther, who in turn tells the king.  Esther also sensibly (and humbly) gives Mordecai credit – this fact again becomes incredibly important in a couple of chapters’ time.   Our narrator is setting up the story with expert care.

 

Some of us may have faced the sort of dilemma Mordecai did – whether to blow a whistle or not.  Others of us have not: either way, truth-telling tempered with humility, as it is here with Esther and Mordecai, is a wonderful quality.  The world needs more of it: and may God grant us grace to be humble truth-tellers in our lives, too.

Tuesday 16th November – Esther 2:1-18 ‘The Cinderella Moment’

After Xerxes’ major strop in chapter 1, today our now queen-less king is looking for a new partner.  Not that he lacks existing possibilities, as the frequent references to his harem indicate.  However, he misses that special someone, and so institutes a nationwide beauty competition, which to our modern eyes reads rather like an ancient combination of Miss World and Love Island.

 

Not surprisingly, the competition attracts hundreds of hopeful applicants (v8), who have to undergo a gruelling beauty regime (v12) to have any chance of winning the king’s attention.  The competition lasts months and months, with only one entrant allowed to visit the king each evening (v14). 

 

One prospective candidate, however, is different to the others.  There are definite parallels between Esther and the much better-known story of Cinderella.  Both have a more illustrious heritage than their current circumstances suggest: generally the Babylonians only took into exile the brightest and the best of the conquered Jewish nation, so Mordecai probably has a respectable ancestry, which accounts for his being able to sit at the king’s gate regularly, as we’ll see tomorrow.

 

Both also have to hide their background.  Esther is not mistreated, as Cinderella was, but her Jewish faith and culture potentially puts her at risk.  She has to enter the king’s harem incognito, as it were, just like the way Cinderella goes to the prince’s ball – though it is notable that the narrator indicates that it was the older Mordecai who forbade Esther to reveal her background, rather than Esther having any such qualms herself.

 

Finally, both Esther and Cinderella have that natural grace and beauty that enables them to stand out from all the other wannabes.  It is interesting that Esther refuses more than the basic beauty regimen before seeing the king (v15) – you get the sense that she wants the king to see her (and love her) as she really is, or not at all.  Perhaps it is this integrity and authenticity – allied to her obvious beauty – that the king falls in love with, such that Esther becomes the chosen one, the new Queen.  Fittingly, the king throws another banquet, completed successfully without the dramas of chapter 1.

 

We may not have Esther’s beauty, nor any desire to win a pageant!  But there is something here about the value of honesty and authenticity which is worth reflecting on.  How easy do we find it to let others see us as we are?  Esther finds herself in an ambivalent position: forced to hide her culture (rather than her faith) but open about her character.  It strikes a chord with many of us, who understand the struggle to be ‘real’ in our world and our relationships.

 

God blessed Esther despite all of this.  May Esther’s example inspire us to be authentic, and, where we find it hard to share parts of ourselves to others, to ask God for courage to be real about who we are, including our faith.

Monday 15th November – Esther 1:1-22 ‘Pride and prejudice'

So the book begins with a bang! Like an ancient Bond movie, we start stylishly in the palaces of the powerful, where the King (Xerxes) has convened a big summit which lasts almost six months (v4). King Xerxes came to power in approx 486 BC, so, as we begin in the third year of his reign (v3), this dates the book fairly accurately to about 483 BC.

 

The summit ends with a whole week of feasting, at which Xerxes’ power and wealth is ostentatiously displayed (verses 5-8). At this time, the Medo-Persian empire stretched from India to Egypt, so Xerxes was probably the most powerful ruler in the world.

 

But there was one person over which Xerxes had less than full control. His wife, Queen Vashti, had her own banquet (v9), and when she was summoned by the king, she refused to come (v12). We don’t know why: there is no sign that she was plotting, perhaps she was just tired of being treated like an object for display. Whatever the reason, her refusal was like a red rag to the bullish king, who, after consulting his advisors, decided that she could no longer be queen.

 

The real reason why we are told this somewhat unedifying episode is made clear in chapter 2. Vashti’s successor is Esther, the heroine of our story, so were it not for Xerxes’ actions here in chapter 1, there would be no Esther, and who knows what might have happened to God’s people as a result?

 

But Vashti’s fate reminds us of the destructive power of pride and insecurity. Above all, Xerxes could not bear to lose face: his veneer of absolute control could not be dented. Was there really any great risk to the family structures of the kingdom by Vashti’s assertion of independence? Probably not. Just a lot of paranoid alpha males worried about their reputations (vv17-18)!

 

There is a useful reminder for us here. Where does our sense of worth and security come from? Certainly there is great value in affirmation from other humans; in contrast, abusive or neglectful relationships can destroy our self-esteem. But ultimately, our security comes from knowing whose we are: that we are loved and cherished by God, that we are unique and uniquely valuable: held in his arms and given hope, purpose and a future.

 

All of us will occasionally be ‘disrespected’ by someone. God’s constant love and affirmation allows us to rise above that. It may not heal all of our human relationships, but it does allow us to live with confidence and trust. Perhaps even today there may be some encounter God is calling us to let go of?

 

As we begin Esther – and as we begin this week – let’s take a few moments to remind ourselves Whose we are. The Lord is our shepherd: we shall not want.

Two inspirations follow below for Remembrance Weekend:

Saturday 13th November – Psalm 22:22-31  ‘All will remember’

Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday.  The tradition began in 1919 on the anniversary which marked the ending of the Great War.  Around the world tomorrow, people will mark this moment in different ways, and take an opportunity to remember.

 

The Great War was the first truly global conflict, and its toll of human suffering was immense.  Sadly it proved to be just the first of a number of pan-global conflicts through the 20th century (although we officially count only two).  Nevertheless, it is also true that for many of us, our personal or family memory of conflict is, thankfully, far removed from our experience.  Europe in particular has witnessed an almost unparalleled period of peace for the last 75 years – though the fact that it is so unusual is no great advert for humanity’s capacity to avoid violence and conflict.

 

Which makes it all the more important to treasure peace, and to remember what war is really like.  ‘Lest we forget,’ is a common phrase used at this time of year, and rightly so.

 

And today’s Psalm points us towards a global act of remembering.  This act is also birthed in costly sacrifice, as God’s chosen one is ‘poured out like water’ (v14) and pierced in hands and feet (v16).  Though the psalm never reveals the reason for this, Psalm 22 has come to represent a hugely significant prophecy of the Messiah, one that Jesus himself cries out 1,000 years later on the very cross which pierced his own hands and feet.

 

Yet through this sacrifice comes victory.  Not in a physical battle but a spiritual one.  The one who is sacrificed is then exalted (v29), people will serve this Saviour (v30) and generations to come will praise him, rejoicing in his victory (v31).

 

This act will be so significant that ‘all will remember...’ (v27).  All will remember... what?  The Lord.  There will be a global turning to God, as people seek the Lord (v26), and recognise his power in the affairs of the world (v28). 

 

The sacrifice of the Son achieves something permanent and glorious – and still today, the church declares to anyone ready to listen: ‘He has done it!’ (v31). 

 

So today, let us remember.  Let us remember the sacrifices of so many.  Let us remember those who continue to pay the price of war and violence.  Let us remember the value of peace, and what it costs to maintain it.

 

And let us also remember the greater peace won by our Lord.  Let us remember what God has done, and that we are now part of a great global movement for the restoration of all things.  Let us recommit ourselves to the path of divine peace, won at such a cost.

 

‘Those who seek the Lord will praise him... Posterity will serve him.... They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn: He has done it!’  Amen.

Friday 12th November – Isaiah 2:1-5  ‘Swords into ploughshares’

A couple of years ago, at the All-Age service for Remembrance at All Saints, I showed the congregation a paper clip, and asked them to come up with as many creative alternative uses for this simple object as possible.  We had about 75 young people there, representing the uniformed organisations, and they weren’t short of ideas!  Alongside the more obvious ones – replacement zip, for example – we had other more left-field options: fingernail cleaner , cheap nose-ring (don’t try either of those at home), and even strawberry huller i.e. removing the green stalk out of the fruit!

 

It was a fun exercise and reminded me that I grew up with the joys of ‘The A-team’ on TV, where the stars would be locked in a garage every episode, and somehow fashion a complex mechanical device out of a few bits of wood and a plastic sheet.  Those were the days, eh?

 

We also find ‘alternative uses’ in the bible.  In today’s passage we see arguably the most famous biblical ‘alternative use’ of all.  To a small and fragile nation surrounded by hostile forces, and tired of violence, God promises that one day, things will be different.  God will restore this fragmented world (v2), and people will seek God in unprecedented ways and in countless numbers (v3).

 

And the acid test of this new era will be that, across the world, swords will be turned into ploughs (v4).  Implements that were used for fighting would now be used to grow food: a sign of healing and prosperity.

 

Sadly our world has not reached this era yet, despite the noble intentions of pan-global organisations like the United Nations, where, significantly, a statue of this very image stands outside its headquarters.  But this passage promises that such a day is coming.  Our God is a God who transforms, who restores, who brings peace for all.  Peace with Himself, but also with ourselves, those around us, and ultimately all creation.

 

And this work of transformation goes on in our lives, too.  God calls us to turn our own swords of division into ploughs of peace.   If that strikes a chord, take a moment today to pray God’s peace into a particular situation or relationship.

 

The world is an anxious place at present.  It has always been thus.  But it is not the whole story.  And as we seize this great truth by faith, may we too live the final verse today: Come, people of God, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

'The Cloud of Witnesses' – Inspiration in Hebrews 11-12

For the first part of November we offered a short series related to All Saints Day (1st November) – that time of the Church’s year when we remember and celebrate the worldwide church, as well as those who have gone before us in faith.  Daniel was one of the greatest of those, and we’ve enjoyed walking with him for the last few weeks.  But there is one great chapter in the bible which summarises many other heroes of the faith: Hebrews 11.

 

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve looked at this amazing chapter a few verses at a time to see what real faith looks like in practice – feel free to go back to the original stories if you have time.  Either way, as we do so, may the faith of these great characters inspire us to keep living out our faith today!

Thursday 11th November – Hebrews 12:-1-3 (iii) ‘Faith fixes eyes on Jesus’

When our kids were toddlers we went to the park most days.  We were lucky to have two or three options nearby.  It was a great way for them to let off steam, have some fun and provide a change of scenery.  Any of you who have (or remember having) young children will know the drill at the park.  Lovely as it is to be there, and even if you take a few minutes to sit down or chat to another parent, all the time your eyes are fixed on a small moving object(s) which is in constant motion – your children!  Wherever they run, your eyes, like a guided laser, follow them round.

 

This is a skill it takes time to acquire – that capacity to follow your kids even in a crowd, or when ducking behind play equipment.  You learn their methods, their preferred locations, any surprises they might have up their sleeve.  The real childcare experts – and when you start at the park you are in awe of other parents who seem to have this sixth sense – manage to look unflustered, sipping their coffee or enjoying the sunshine, and yet always intervene at the right moment, just before their child gets themselves into trouble.

 

Learning to fix your eyes is a valuable skill – and we conclude our short series by making the same observation about faith.  Over the last two weeks, we’ve mined many valuable reflections about what faith is and how it works.  We’ve thought about how faith has energised people through the generations, and how it gives us inspiration to grow, to be courageous, to be hopeful and to endure.  But ultimately it comes down to one thing: it’s about where we fix our eyes.  Or rather, on whom.

 

In the end, the key to the life of faith is to fix our gaze on Jesus.  Why?  Because Jesus is the source of faith and the example of faith.   Our faith is in Jesus, and also modelled by Jesus.  And as Jesus faced all that life and death threw at him and overcame, so we too can do the same.

 

In Jesus we find the wisdom, the courage and the hope that we need.  Jesus gave his best, obeyed regardless and trusted the promises of God.  Jesus found grace to wait, and held nothing back when the time came.  Jesus blessed others throughout, overcame fear and found the seeds of grace in surprising people.  Jesus never lost sight that he was known, and precious to, God.  He faced his struggles because he looked forward to something better (‘for the joy that was set before him’), travelled light – both physically and spiritually – and persevered in every circumstance.  Truly the source and the example on which we can build our lives.

 

So the key to life comes down to this: ‘let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith’.

 

Faith is not easy – but we know someone who’s been there before us.   And that Someone is able to keep us and empower us in every situation, every day.  Amen.

Wednesday 10th November – Hebrews 12:-1-3 (ii) ‘Faith perseveres’

It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.  Several hundred years before the author of Hebrews wrote this passage, Aesop wrote his famous fable about the hare and the tortoise.  The moral of the story: faithful, consistent plodding beats erratic and inconsistent speed every time.  

 

Jesus himself made a similar observation in the parable of the sower: the seed that fell on shallow soil grew quickly and then withered. Rapid progress followed by an equally rapid falling away.   This last story is pertinent to the situation faced by the recipients of this letter.  Times were hard for them, opposition to their faith was increasing, and some of them were tempted to give up: the cost was just too great.

 

The author of this profound letter is really making a simple point throughout: keep going!  Don’t give up: the challenge is worth it.  Faith perseveres.

 

During the course of this letter, the writer has made this vital point in lots of ways: the divine status of the Son guarantees that his saving work is effective; Jesus is both the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice; Jesus is also human like us, and so is with us in our trials. 

 

And then we get to chapter 11, and the history of faith, and it is this chronicle of faithfulness that the writer finally appeals to here in this passage.  Keep going because... ‘since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses... let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’  Better the tortoise than the hare.  Better the slow-growing seed in the good soil which bears abundant fruit.   True courage is not the absence of fear but overcoming our fear. 

 

Jesus persevered in every circumstance: ‘he endured the cross, scorning its shame.’  Consider this, the writer concludes, ‘so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’  Whatever challenges we face today, Jesus has been there before us.  He overcame: and we, Christ’s adopted sisters and brothers can overcome too, in the strength of his Spirit.  Keep going: you shall overcome.

Tuesday 9th November – Hebrews 12:-1-3 ‘Faith travels light’

Most of you know that I love cycling.  I’m not a serious cyclist: I only potter about, mostly around the parish and rarely making journeys of more than a few miles.  But, apart from the pleasure of cycling itself, I do love to watch the Grand Tours and Track Championships as well, seeing the real pros at work.

 

And in the world of cycling, one of the big changes of the last 15 or so years is what you might call the ‘Rule of Marginal Gains’.  Sir Dave Brailsford, erstwhile Head of UK Cycling, was very much a pioneer in this regard: the idea that the way to beat your competition was not by one massive improvement but by a huge number of small advances: slightly smoother clothing and better bike position to reduce wind resistance, exact timing of when a cyclist should eat to maximise the energy boost, and even (so the urban myth goes) rounder wheels!  I kid you not, this was actually the subject of an informal complaint by another team at the 2016 Olympics – the GB Track Cycling Team had wheels that were perfectly round, instead of being out by 0.1%.

 

The other huge area for ‘marginal gains’ concerns weight: every gram you can shave off the weight of the bike is one less gram for the cyclist to have push around the track or road.  Track bikes used for sprinting now routinely have no brakes, as this adds weight and possible friction with the wheel.  It’s all about travelling as light as possible.

 

And what’s true in cycling is just as true when it comes to following Jesus.  We are to travel light – Jesus himself famously told us this in one of the best-loved passages of Scripture: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30). 

 

The author of Hebrews describes it in a different way here: ‘Since we are surrounded,’ he or she begins – and this signals to us that what comes next is the ‘so what’ of everything we’ve looked at over the last ten days – ‘let us throw off everything that hinders.’  Thankfully it’s not quite the same as taking the brakes off our bikes!  It’s more like taking the heavy rucksack off our back as we try and cycle, or removing the gunk from our brake pads which slows the bike down.

 

As we journey in faith, we pick up baggage.  Scars from failures, sins we struggle to shake, doubts that nag away at us.  Today’s encouragement is very simple: cast them off!  Keep asking God to heal your scars, forgive your sins (and have new hope to walk free) and give you courage to face your doubts.

 

Our baggage does not have to define us.  Our God is in the baggage reclaim business – let’s offer everything that weighs us down to him, so we can keep running (or cycling) our race.

Monday 8th November – Hebrews 11:39-40 ‘Faith looks forward to something better’

Yesterday it was my privilege to attend the annual MK Confirmation Service, where 13 candidates from around the city – including two from our Partnership – publicly affirmed their faith in Christ, and their determination to live for him through the rest of their lives.  It is always an uplifting occasion, as we celebrate what God is doing here, especially in the hearts and lives of particular people.

 

It was also an inspiring reminder that faith continues to blossom and grow from one generation to the next.  God is still looking after His Church, and the kingdom of heaven continues to be at work on this earth.  Throughout this wonderful chapter of Hebrews we have told the stories of some of the great heroes of the faith, as well as honoured the unknown saints who served faithfully in their generation.  And last night’s service reminded us that this story of faith continues to this day.  Who knows what heroes were there last night?

 

As the author brings this amazing chapter to a close, he or she summarises what energised the people described very simply and profoundly: even though they did not receive the fullness of what was promised (v39), they perceived with the eyes of faith that ‘God had planned something better for us, so that only together with us would they be made perfect.’ (v40)

 

Faith is ultimately a forward-looking attitude.  Yes, it looks back to the saving work of Christ as a constant encouragement and source of our assurance.  Yes, it lives in the present outworking of our day-to-day lives – but it also carries us towards ‘something better’.   Coming full circle to where we started this chapter, ‘faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance of what we do not see ‘. (v1)

 

The full revelation of God in Christ was ultimately what the ancient heroes of faith were looking in hope towards – hence they also share in the benefits that Christ has won for all of us.  And this forward-looking perspective is what energises our present.  It is not ‘pie in the sky when we die’: but something real to carry us through all the seasons of life, both good and bad, light and dark, happy and sad.  As any seasoned walker will tell you, that moment when we see our end destination puts new energy in the legs, however far away it seems at the time.

 

Over the next three days, we’ll look at three practical tips that the author gives us to put this forward-looking perspective into practice.  But today, let’s give thanks that we do have such a hope – and may that future hope give us fresh energy for all we face at present.

Saturday 6th November – Hebrews 11:32-38 ‘Faith is known to God’

I like to call today’s passage ‘the avalanche of faith’.  The chapter as a whole feels like the spiritual equivalent of a snowball picking up speed as it careers down the mountain.  The first 29 verses focus largely on a few central characters and only take us a third of the way through the book of Exodus.  Verses 30 and 31 speed us up to the book of Joshua – and then the avalanche really begins! 

 

In verse 32 we cover the rest of the Old Testament, with some accompanying description of the valiant deeds of this additional list thrown in for good measure in verses 33-34.  And then the perspective widens out completely to the great cloud of witnesses: the thousands upon thousands of faithful souls who lived and loved and served their Lord – unknown to history but known to God.

 

Many of them paid a significant price for their faithfulness, as the passage reminds us in verses 36-38.  Even those who didn’t, however, kept the flame alight, kept the faith alive.  These are the people that Pete Greig describes so evocatively in his poetic vision which birthed the 24-7 prayer movement:

 

‘Don't you hear them coming? Herald the weirdos!  Summon the losers and the freaks. Here come the frightened and forgotten with fire in their eyes. They walk tall and trees applaud, skyscrapers bow, mountains are dwarfed by these children of another dimension. Their prayers summon the hounds of heaven and invoke the ancient dream of Eden.’

 

The frightened and forgotten with fire in their eyes... children of another dimension.  Most of us know someone like this.  A quiet hero, who lived their faith in a way which inspired us.  Probably someone unknown to the wider church, but known to us – and known by God. 

 

And that’s the point: in the end whether others applaud our faith doesn’t matter that much – but God sees, and commends, and blesses.  Our faith is always known to him – and God is cheering all of us on.  Including you, and me.

 

So perhaps as this week draws to a close, give thanks for those quiet heroes, those children of another dimension that have inspired you.  And pray that you too might live faithfully, according to their example, adding your contribution to the continuing story of faith in our world.

Friday 5th November – Hebrews 11:29-31 ‘Faith is found in surprising people’

Today, in quick succession the author of Hebrews skates over two famous episodes – the Crossing of the Red Sea and the Fall of Jericho – and then reminds us of the role that Rahab played in the latter drama.  Rahab is one of those unsung heroes, who eventually merits a place in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5).  Today I’m going to hand over the rein to Nell Goddard, who wrote this excellent reflection on Rahab a couple of years ago for an Advent series:

 

Sometimes it feels strange to tell people that one of my biblical heroes was a prostitute. It feels even stranger to tell them that this prostitute appears in Jesus’ genealogy. But that is the case with Rahab, the second woman to appear in Matthew 1.

 

As a prostitute, Rahab was the lowest of the low – especially according to Israel’s laws. And yet when two Israelite spies appear in her city, trying to work out how they can conquer it, she helps them. Instead of obeying Jericho’s king, she hides these men in her house and lies to the authorities, sending them on a wild goose chase across the desert.

 

Then comes the best bit. Rahab goes up to the men that she’s hidden on her roof, risking her own life by doing so, and says this:

 

‘I know that the LORD has given this land to you … For the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.’ (Joshua 2:9, 11)

 

For these words to come out of the mouth of a non-Israelite is completely unprecedented. The wording of this confession of faith in Joshua 2:11 is matched in only two other places in the whole Old Testament: the confession of Moses in Deuteronomy 4:39, and the confession of Solomon in 1 Kings 8:23. This woman, this prostitute, this ceremonially unclean, broken woman of the world has just made a confession of faith in the Lord which puts her up there with the likes of Moses, friend of God (Exodus 33:11), and Solomon, the wise King (1 Kings 3:12).

 

Not only that, but by bravely hiding these Israelite spies from the authorities and preventing them from being captured and killed, she is behaving in a way that chimes with the very heart of the covenant between Israel and the Lord. Her actions are completely in line with the deeds and quality of life that was supposed to distinguish the Israelite people from people like her. These actions and this confession lead her whole family to safety and result in her joining the Israelites after Jericho falls.

 

Rahab is a curveball in the story of Israel; another example of God’s plan deviating from what we might expect. But it is also a reminder – that God was at work in the most unlikely of places, and in and through the least likely of people. And he still is today.

 

Which unlikely people is he at work in around you?  Take a few minutes to pray, in faith, today.

Thursday 4th November – Hebrews 11:23-28 ‘Faith overcomes fear’

What is the opposite of faith?  Many of us when asked that question, would say ‘doubt’.  But the bible’s answer is different. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear.  Fear is the thing that stifles faith the most.  It’s no surprise that when God meets people in scripture, the first thing he often says – whether it’s Jesus or an angelic being – is ‘don’t be afraid’.

 

We all feel fear to some degree.  Some of that is a biological necessity – as humans we learn to feel healthy fear whenever our physical wellbeing is in danger, that’s part of what keeps us alive – and why we tell toddlers not to wander towards a road or eat the litter they pick up from the floor!

 

So it could be said that one of the keys to flourishing in faith is learning to overcome our fear, whatever that might be: fear of failure, of unpopularity, of being wrong, of conflict, of appearing weak, of accepting help, of trusting a friend (or God).

 

Today’s passage surprised me when I read it.  Moses inspires me in lots of ways, but I hadn’t expected the way that Moses was described.  Events that are described in one way in the book of Exodus (you can read the full story in Exodus chapter 2) are re-cast here.  Moses is left in a basket not just because it was too dangerous to keep him hidden, but because his parents ‘were not afraid of the king’s edict’. (v23)

 

Similarly, Moses is ostracised from the royal court not just because he killed an Egyptian but because ‘he chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God.’ (v25)  And he left after the 10th plague not just because he was told to go by a duplicitous king, but also because he did not fear the king’s anger.  (It’s possible that v28 refers to Moses’ first flight, which makes the bold statement that he did not fear the king’s anger even more striking.)

 

Now we know that Moses felt fear at various points in his life, even during the famous Exodus narrative – he was reluctant to obey God’s call to go back to Egypt, and his initial response to the discovery of his killing was to be afraid (Exodus 2:14).  But this passage reminds us that Moses overcame his natural fear – it did not come to define him, or prevent him from fulfilling his calling.

 

The book of Hebrews was written to Christians under extreme pressure – far greater pressure than we face today.  But its encouragement is just the same.  We face fears, just as they did, just as God’s people have always done. But faith helps us to overcome our fear.  Faith keeps God on the throne, and lifts our eyes to see beyond our current circumstances, perhaps to do things we didn’t think we were capable of.  Faith is the antidote to fear, and calls us today to trust anew in both the power and the goodness of God.

Wednesday 3rd November – Hebrews 11:20-22 ‘Faith blesses others’

‘God’s people in God’s place under God’s blessing.’  This simple definition of the kingdom of God I learnt many years ago, and it’s a pretty good summary, which also allows us to track the progress of this amazing divine plan throughout the bible.  Adam and Eve begin very much as God’s people in God’s place under his blessing, but then lose those benefits through their rebellion.  When God calls Abraham in Genesis 12 he promises the restoration of that pattern – ‘to the land I will show you’ (v1 place), ‘a great nation’ (v2 people), ‘I will bless you’ (v2 blessing).

 

So far, so good – but there’s something missing.  It somehow feels a bit... introspective.  And in fact, helpful as this summary has been for my understanding of the bible and growth in faith, it neglects a fourth dimension: ‘All peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ (Genesis 12:3).

 

God’s people are blessed to be a blessing.  We pass it on.  The word for ‘love’ invented by the early Christians – agape – means selfless giving, inspired by Jesus’ own example.

 

So a huge part of the life of faith is the capacity to bless others: to pass on our blessings, to share them around.  And so we see in today’s passage, that ‘by faith’ Isaac passed it on – he blessed his sons Jacob and Esau (v20).  Similarly, Jacob on his deathbed blessed his twelve sons, and also Joseph’s sons too (v21) – you can read this in detail in Genesis 49-50.

 

Even Joseph too became a blessing – while today’s passage looks forward to the return from Egypt several hundred years later (v22), it was Joseph’s wise leadership and gracious forgiveness extended to his family which saved their lives and allowed their lineage to continue.

 

As perhaps only becomes clear later in scripture, this lineage is special as it becomes the family through which God’s global promises are fulfilled – leading all the way to Jesus.  What this family only understand vaguely at the time of their lives takes on huge significance.

 

So often the same is true for us whenever we are called to take steps of faith.  Often we can’t see its true value at the time – but later we can see how God worked through it and brought a blessing.

 

And so, as spiritual descendants of this family – of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph – we too are called to bless others, in faith that the same God will work in us and through us, and that we too might be blessed, according to his infinite love and grace.

Tuesday 2nd November – Hebrews 11:17-19 ‘Faith holds nothing back’

Yesterday, and for the next two weeks, the world’s attention is fixed on Glasgow.   Global leaders have gathered to try and hammer out viable commitments on climate change, while the rest of us look on: praying, hoping and possibly fearing as well. 

 

As someone who has been involved with the environmental movement for more than 30 years, my sense is that the elephant in the room is the same as it when I first signed up in the late 1980s: there is no pain-free solution.  Technology will go some of the way to helping us out of this hole – but the rest requires a change of lifestyle on a huge scale.  Changes that our leaders are unlikely to commit us to this week, because they know that they are things that most of us still won’t accept. 

 

The reason we are where we are now is that we’ve always held something back – either as individuals, or as a country, or as a global community.  Our ‘faith’ in the future of the planet has a cut-off point.  There are sacrifices that we would refuse to make.   Today’s passage is profoundly challenging because it reminds us of a story in the bible where the central character held nothing back: he was prepared to surrender the most precious thing in his life if God called him to.

 

We know the end of the story – Abraham was spared having to go through with it.  But it remains disturbing, nonetheless.   Would God ever call us to something similar?  Thankfully for nearly all of us, the answer is no.  This passage is a prophetic foretaste, not of what God would ask of any other human, but what God would ask of himself.  Isaac points to Jesus, first and foremost.

 

But there is a spiritual lesson for us here: faith is about the surrender of self, the willingness to give everything to God, who gave everything for us.  We may never be asked to offer what Abraham did, but we are still called to hold nothing back.  And in doing so, there is true freedom.  The secret of surrender, if I can call it that, is that there is great blessing in the act of full surrender to God.  ‘They are no fool who gives what they cannot keep to gain what they cannot lose.’ (Jim Elliot)

 

And so we watch, and wait, and pray.  We hope that our leaders will finally commit to something momentous, will hold nothing back for the future of the planet.  But even if they don’t, may God grant us grace to hold nothing back from him, and in so doing, to find fullness of life, both now and for eternity.

Monday 1st November – Hebrews 12:13-16 ‘Faith waits in hope’

Today is All Saints’ Day: the day of the year when we celebrate the worldwide church, living and departed – the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who have lived by faith and borne testimony to their Lord in every culture throughout the centuries.

 

Some of them are famous, and rightly so.  The vast majority are not: people just like us, who lived quietly faithful lives.  All of them/us are saved by the grace of God, since none of us ever achieve perfection this side of heaven.  There will be parts of our lives that remain ‘works in progress’, and certainly the societies in which we live will never be more than a partial reflection of the true kingdom of God.

 

After a brief tour of several of the most celebrated saints (and maybe a couple who are less well known) in the first part of the chapter, the author of Hebrews pauses for a moment today to remind us that, however much they achieved, ‘all these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.’ (v13)

 

Like us, these saints saw only a partial realisation of all that they lived and prayed and longed for.  Noah and his family were saved, but Noah had to trust the future of the human race into divine hands when he died.  Abraham and Sarah were blessed with a son, but had to trust that this son would indeed be the ‘child of promise’.  We know there were plenty of bumps along the way after that!

 

The author summarises by reminding us that to live by faith means to live as ‘foreigners and strangers on earth’ (v13).  It’s not that we cut ourselves off from society:  but there will always be a part of us that has a different home: ‘a better country – a heavenly one’ (v16). 

 

The assurance that this is our future is what inspired the saints of old – the saints we celebrate today – but it also inspires us too.  We have the same inheritance, and we trust in the same glorious Saviour to lead us there.  And so, as we give thanks for the worldwide fellowship of the church of God around the world, may we also give thanks for the future hope which awaits us, too.  And may that future hope also energise our present hours with faithful and fruitful service, this day and this week.

Saturday 30th October – Hebrews 11:8-12 ‘Faith trusts God’s promises’

Today we navigate better-known waters – the famous story of Abraham (Genesis 12 onwards).  Like Noah, Abraham was called to step out in faith.  Unlike Noah, the greatest promise of God was one which Abraham had to wait much longer to be fulfilled.  God first promised Abraham that he and Sarah would have a child when he was 75 – it was finally fulfilled when Abraham turned 100.

 

Abraham’s journey was somewhat chequered, and not without its failings.  But the extraordinary faith he showed when leaving his homeland to head to the land to which God had called him (v8) and then to settle there (v9) proved a sure testing ground for the promises to come.  Indeed, he shared that faith with Sarah, who quite rightly gets equal billing in this text in trusting God for the family she was promised (v11).

 

We are the heirs of this promise – indeed all of us who worship our Lord are beneficiaries, a global movement ‘as numerous as the stars in the sky and countless as the sand on the seashore.’ (v12)

 

Not many of us have likely been given promises as huge as Abraham and Sarah.  But most of us carry smaller promises, special to us – and sometimes those promises take time to be fulfilled.  Abraham and Sarah’s story gives us faith and hope to believe that God will come through for us – even a mustard seed of that faith is enough.

 

Then there are God’s universal promises, the truths we find in scripture, the eternal realities of our faith.  The blessings promised to Abraham are ours: God has given them to us in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-14).  These promises have already been fulfilled – by faith we receive them and join God’s global family – both in this life, as well as in the one to come.

 

May God give us grace to trust his promises – for the one who promises them is faithful!

Friday 29th October – Hebrews 11:5-7 ‘Faith obeys regardless’

Many of you may be familiar with the film ‘Evan Almighty’ – apart from being very funny, the value of watching the film is that it is a modern-day re-telling of the story of Noah.  It visualises what it would actually be like to receive the sort of message Noah had from God, and to actually build an enormous boat in your garden while everyone around you pointed and laughed.  Like Chicken Licken in the child’s story, I wonder how many of us would have passed Noah’s home and believed that sky really was about to fall down?

 

It’s easy to romanticise Noah’s story (Genesis 6-9), but the reality was hard.  Noah was given an incredible task, which required unusual faith to obey.  Indeed today’s passage soberingly reminds that Noah’s faith did not just save him and his family but also condemned the world (v7).  Not that this was Noah’s fault, but the stakes were high – and we know that at the end of the story God gives Noah assurance that he would never have to ‘start again’ with humanity in the future: the rainbow would be a sign of blessing to remind us – one we can still see and give thanks for today.

 

Noah teaches us that faith obeys God in all circumstances: much of the time that will be reasonable, but there will be times when God asks us to do something unusual.  It is wise to check with trusted friends and companions, and to seek assurance in prayer –but we should not rule out such prompts.  We are all heirs of ‘the righteousness that it is in keeping with faith.’

 

A word, too, about Enoch (vv5-6).  Perhaps not a character you’re familiar with, but Enoch belongs to a very select group of people in the bible who were taken directly to be with God – as far as I can recall, there are only two others: Elijah and Jesus.  So this puts Enoch in very exalted company, which might cause you to wonder why he is so little known?

 

In fact Enoch’s life only covers a few verses in Genesis 5:18-24, one of those long genealogical lists you find in the Old Testament.  But Genesis 5:24 is quite clear that Enoch had a unique end, which is picked up on here in Hebrews 11, and the author rightly concludes that this remarkable chap must have lived an extraordinary life of faith.  In fact, his name means ‘dedicated’, and so he passed on as he lived: dedicated to his Lord.

 

We too have a similar calling: may God grant us grace to be dedicated to our Lord, and obey him in all circumstances.

Thursday 28th October – Hebrews 11:1-4 ‘Faith gives its best’

What is faith?  It’s a fair question to ask – it’s a word that lies at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus, but so often it is parodied today as ‘the blind leading the blind’.  Many compare ‘faith’ unfavourably to fact or reason, or dismiss it as a crutch for the weak.

 

But this is not how the bible sees it.  Faith is something strong, active, dynamic – in fact this great chapter begins with this summary: ‘Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see.’ (v1)

 

Note the words used: confidence, assurance.  Other translations use the words ‘sure’ and ‘certain’.  Words we associate more with facts!  And whilst we can’t ‘prove’ faith in the way that some would wish, what scripture consistently affirms is that we can rely on faith because: (a) we have good reasons to believe; (b) we have our own experiences and convictions which we know we can’t deny; and (c) we have the examples of others to inspire us.

 

Which brings us to Hebrews 11: in this one chapter, the author (whose name we don’t know) brings together many of these inspiring examples in one extraordinary narrative: the 1st century equivalent of a coach’s pep talk.  ‘Look at these people,’ the author says, ‘if they can do it, so can you.  So keep going!’

 

And this list of inspirational figures begins at an unexpected place.  If I were to ask you who the first hero of the bible is, I bet most of you would say Noah.  But Hebrews gives us two heroes before that, and the very first is the one we read of today: Abel (you can read his story in Genesis 4).  Most of us simply think of Abel as the first murder victim of history, but what this passage reminds us why that happened. 

 

Abel gave God his best – the firstfruits of his flock.  That is what put him at odds with his brother, but it is also why he is a hero of the faith.  Despite what happened to his parents, Abel knew that God deserved his worship, and so he gave God something precious – which in turn showed that his heart was fully given to God.

 

Faith is sometimes caricatured as a free pass – but nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, faith is always our bedrock – but to live out our faith means to live with gratitude, and therefore to give of our best to God.

 

It is easy to get weary of doing good – but may Abel inspire us: how can you give God your best today?

Daily Inspirations in the Book of Daniel

Wednesday 27th October – Daniel 12:5-13 ‘Go your way’

And so we get to the last few verses of this extraordinary book.  Daniel has lived a long and remarkable life: serving at least three (and possibly five) rulers, witnessing to his faith with great integrity and authority, and then receiving similarly astonishing visions.  Whilst his identity remains unknown outside of scripture, we have so much to learn from this great saint about living faithfully and fruitfully in a changing culture, and in keeping our inner life fed through prayer and worship.

 

And as Daniel’s final vision concludes, a character in the vision asks the one question most of us would ask: ‘how long will it be before these astonishing things are fulfilled?’ (v6)  The answer is designed to discourage that question: ‘a time, times and half a time.’ (v7)  Given that we have identified at least three connection points to later events, it is tempting to wonder if (unbeknownst to Daniel) the ‘half a time’ refers to the 2nd century BC, the ‘time’ to the first century AD and the ‘times’ to the end of time – but that is speculative: the main thrust of the answer is that it is not given for us to know when these things will take place, only to be aware that they will at some point.

 

So how do we live in the now?  The final advice given to Daniel is ours, too: ‘Go your way.’  In fact, it is sufficiently important to receive this advice that Daniel hears it twice (v9,v13).  What does it mean?

 

Go: don’t hide away wondering what it all means, get on with the business of living and loving and serving the Lord.

 

Your: which in Daniel’s case means ‘God’s’, since that is the way he had so clearly aligned himself with.  God is still in control and will continue to lead us on.

 

Way: Daniel knew the path he was destined to follow, he had walked it for 80+ years.  And many years later, the true king he had seen in a vision – the Son of Man – came among us, declaring ‘I am the Way.’  Those who came to put their trust in him were called ‘Followers of the Way.’

 

We too are called to ‘go our way’ – the way of life, the way of the cross, the way of Christ.  There are – and will be – many things we do not understand, but this we know: the Most High is sovereign over all the earth, and those who faithfully walk in his way will be blessed (v12), ‘purified, made spotless and refined’ (v10) and ‘will receive to receive [our] allotted inheritance’ (v13).  Hallelujah!

Tuesday 26th October – Daniel 11:36 – 12:4 ‘The time of the end?’

As we look up at the mountain peaks of future history, this is definitely a moment when it becomes hard to separate one peak from another.  As we have reflected in previous inspirations, much of this latter part of Daniel refers to events of the 2nd-century BC, when Antiochus Epiphanes ruled Israel and was then courageously overthrown by the Maccabean Revolt. 

 

However, this final section of the prophecy appears to extend its gaze well beyond this particular set of events.  There are numerous echoes of Jesus’ own prophetic vision recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21, which is commonly taken to refer to the Jewish rebellion of the late 60s AD that led to the catastrophic destruction of the temple in AD70: compare Daniel 12:1 with Matthew 24:21, Mark 13:19 and Luke 21:23b.  Indeed Jesus repurposes Daniel’s vision of the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ – which originally referred to Antiochus’ setting up of an idol in the temple – towards a new calamity that would befall Israel (Matthew 24:15).

 

But, as with Jesus’ prophecy, what Daniel sees here ‘spills over’ into something much bigger, which appears to talk about the very end of time.  Somehow the smaller scale judgements and reckonings fuse together into a bigger vision of the final reckoning of all things, or what we might call the Day of Judgement.

 

It is fascinating to note that today’s passage, which is almost never read in any church or by most Christians, is not only referred to directly by Jesus but also referenced in lots of much better known passages in the new Testament: v1 ‘written in the book’ – compare Revelation 20:12; v2 awakening to eternal life – compare 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18; v3 shining like stars – compare Philippians 2:15; v4 ‘seal up the scroll’ – compare Revelation 22:10 (only as this is the very last chapter of the bible, this time John is told not to seal it up ‘because the time is near’!).

 

Nevertheless, the heavenly being who gave Daniel this vision also admitted that, despite its importance, it won’t prevent others from looking for insight into these eternal realities in all kinds of other places: ‘Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.’ (v4)

 

‘Twas ever thus – and so it remains.  Interest in the ‘end of all things’ is a human preoccupation: and yet here, more than 2,000 years ago, we get amazing insights, which boil down to a few ageless and profound truths: humans will always lust for power... but God is in control... and those who are God’s will rise to eternal life with him – even shining like the stars.  We may not fathom much else, but surely this is what we need to know!

 

On Sunday, we celebrated Bible Sunday 2021, and today’s passage reminds us that there is so much biblical gold to mine that we are hardly aware of – may the timeless wisdom of scripture continue to inspire us, and may we live today, like Daniel, trusting in the eternal and ultimate victory of our Lord.

Monday 25th October – Daniel 11:2-35 ‘The way of the world’

Today’s long passage is full of detail, and takes several minutes to read – and yet it could also be summarised very effectively by the simple title we’ve given for today: ‘the way of the world’.  It is a vision which characterizes much of the narrative of history: struggles for power and control, wealth and prestige, to dominate rather than serve, to compete rather than co-operate. 

 

Whilst scholars might debate its dating, that somewhat misses the primary point: in many ways, this could have been written at any time in the last 2,500 years.  The story of international relations is not much different today: we still value, and battle for, the same things described here: power, control, wealth.

 

Yet history also tells us that human power is always temporary.  Empires come and go; rulers flourish for a while and then die or are defeated.  Even the greatest empire in history at the point when this prophecy was fulfilled – that of Alexander the Great who is referred to in v3 – lasted just a few years, and Alexander’s empire was broken into four separate dynasties after his early death (v4).  This pattern repeats throughout the chapter: power prevails, but ‘only for a time’ (v24).  As humans beings we are all tempted to seek those things which don’t satisfy and rarely last.

 

The kingdom of God and God’s people rarely get a mention in this chapter, but it’s hard not to think back to chapter 2 (or any of the early chapters of Daniel) and draw a significant comparison with what we see here.  In the midst of these temporary human power struggles there is another kingdom, ‘cut without hands’, which lasts forever, and which never ultimately passes away, ruled by a King who ‘sovereign over all the kingdoms of the earth’ (4:17,25,32).

 

This kingdom also runs on completely different lines.  When the true King of this kingdom appears he rejects power and chooses humility, he rejects wealth and chooses poverty and dependence on God, he rejects control and chooses to liberate and serve others.  His kingdom appears weak and insubstantial: like a bit of yeast or a pearl hidden in a field, or even a mustard seed, the ‘smallest of all seeds’.  Yet this seed grows to become the ‘biggest of all plants’ – big enough to draw followers from across the world, those who find in this alternative kingdom the key to salvation, to life and to human flourishing. 

 

It turns out that the repetitive narratives of human history are not the only show in town.  Time after time, human rulers are weighed and found wanting.  There is only one true King – and this is the king we worship today.  May this king direct our paths this week, fill us with his love, and keep us safe in the shadow of his wings.

Saturday 23rd October – Daniel 10:1 - 11:1 (ii)  ‘Angels?’

Today is a brief interlude, if you will, to pick up a subject that interests – and probably baffles – many of us: angels.  Our culture is increasingly fascinated with them, though the line between myth and reality is pretty blurred.  A study in 1990 found that 1 in 10 pop songs of the previous 30 years referred to angels – though usually as a description of a pretty human being! 

 

Angels, however, are not human.  They are heavenly beings created to serve God’s purposes and do God’s will.  Humans are ‘a little lower’ than angels (Psalm 8:5), and the appearance of angels in the human realm is usually awe-inspiring: Daniel’s response here of terrified awe is not unusual. 

 

Angels play a surprisingly large part in the bible.  They appear almost 200 times, split fairly evenly between the Old and New Testaments (103 OT/93 NT). They appear in more than half of the books of the bible (34) from Genesis to Revelation; and crucially they are referenced numerous times by Jesus himself.

 

So we can be sure that angels are real, and important.  But angels never appear in their own right, their job is to point to God.  As bible.org puts it: ‘Every reference to angels is incidental to some other topic. They are not treated in themselves. God’s revelation never aims at informing us regarding the nature of angels. When they are mentioned, it is always in order to inform us further about God, what he does, and how he does it.’

 

This is why the New Testament word for angel can also be translated ‘messenger’.  They are supreme examples of humility: their job is always to serve and glorify God.

 

How often do we interact with them here?  That is a moot point.  Certainly some people receive angelic visions.  Some also believe that Christians have guardian angels – though that idea rests largely on just one text in Acts 12:15, which interprets the ‘messenger’ arriving from Peter as being divine not human.  It’s definitely possible, but one to treat cautiously.  What we do know is that the author of Hebrews encourages hospitality to strangers, ‘for by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ (Hebrews 13:2)

 

Ultimately, our wonderful access to God is through Jesus, not angels.  We have ‘every spiritual blessing’ in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), and Christ is all we need to enjoy a rich relationship with the living Lord.  That said, the bible suggests that some of us may occasionally receive a heavenly messenger, to achieve some good divine purpose.  So let’s keep an open mind, and give thanks that God is work in the world in many different ways – and has the means at his disposal to do so.

Friday 22nd October – Daniel 10:1 - 11:1 ‘Awe and peace’

The last three chapters of Daniel are really one extended vision: effectively a conversation between Daniel and an angelic being.  The vision was shattering for Daniel – as he admits, ‘I mourned for three weeks.  I ate no choice food... and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.’ (verses 2-3)

 

It was similarly overwhelming for those who were close by when Daniel received the vision, even though they did not see it themselves (v7).  Daniel gains a glimpse into heavenly realities, things which humans are rarely allowed to see, and its impact on Daniel is huge.

 

As followers of Jesus we hold two powerful realities together – and we see both realities here.  On the one hand we worship an awesome God.  This God is the creator of the universe, the supreme power above all things, perfect in holiness and justice.  His dwelling is majestic and glorious: just seeing one heavenly being was enough for Daniel to fall face first on the ground (v9), and we know from other visions that there are tens of thousands of such beings in the heavenly realms. 

 

And yet this God also draws close to us.  Just as the angelic being here touches Daniel’s lips (v16) and speaks words of comfort (v18), so this great God draws close to all of us.  We can know him as a loving parent, a close friend, an encourager who walks with us every step of the way.

 

To truly know God is to carry both of these realities with us each day – just as Daniel does.  The God that Jesus calls us to pray to is ‘Our Father in heaven’ – perfectly capturing both the intimacy and the majesty.  This God – our God – is both great and near.  It is healthy to experience times of awe, just as Daniel does.  But we also need the words of comfort too, as the Lord touches us and whispers: ‘Peace!  Be strong now; be strong.’

 

May God be both great and close to you today – and may this reality give us strength, as it did for Daniel.

Thursday 21st October - Daniel 9:20-27 ‘Answered prayer’

Today’s passage is both very simple and very complicated!  The complicated part is what we read from verse 24 onwards.  Gabriel appears in the narrative for the second time: we first saw him speak to Daniel in chapter 8, and now he is again deputised to answer Daniel’s prayer with a prophetic vision.

 

The vision is bewildering: what are the ‘sevens’?  And why are 70 ‘sevens’ further split into 7, then another 62, and then a final one?  Who is the Anointed One?  Or is it just an anointed one?  Is ‘the end’ (v26) really the end, since the wicked ruler who appears in the middle of the final seven faces apparent judgement before the ‘seven’ has ended?  And so on.... and so on!

 

As we’ve observed before, we get ourselves tied up in knots if we try and read this like a code.  The word translated ‘seven’ here can mean ‘week’, and whilst some commentators try and turn this into years, that doesn’t fit any historical timeline either – the period of 70 ‘sevens’ ends too late for the Maccabean uprising in the 2nd century BC and too early for Jesus.  Indeed, Jesus uses some of the language of this passage in his own prophetic vision of history (compare Daniel 9:26b with Mark 13:7), which both reinforces their importance but also cautions against an over-literal reading: ‘you may hear of wars,’ Jesus says, ‘but don’t worry, it doesn’t mean the end is about to come.’

 

So what is the purpose of this type of passage?  First we should value the prophetic imagination: when talking about huge, earth-changing stuff, vivid picture language helps us to take it on board without obsessing about the details.

 

Second, let’s go back to where we started and remind ourselves that, if we strip away the vivid imagery, the truths shared here are very simple, but profoundly encouraging: (1) whatever chaos there is in the world, God is still in control; (2) even if the wicked prosper for a season, they do eventually get their come-uppance, and divine justice is served.

 

And most wonderfully for Daniel, and perhaps too for us today: (3) God answers prayer.  In fact Daniel gets the answer ‘as soon as you began to pray’ (v13).  There is a mystery as to why we pray more about some things than others, and ‘how much prayer is enough’ – but the bigger picture is that God does hear and does answer.  Perhaps the delay in Daniel receiving the answer is more for Daniel’s sake than anything. 

 

But may Daniel’s experience give us heart, too – we can keep praying, even about big things, and trust that our gracious God does hear, and will answer.  How might that inspire you today?

Wednesday 20th October – Daniel 9:11b-19 ‘For your sake, Lord’

The second half of Daniel’s searingly honest prayer gets to the heart of the matter.  In the first half, as we saw yesterday, Daniel openly confesses the wrongdoing of the nation – in all kinds of ways – and declares that God’s judgement was indeed just and right.  The people deserved what had happened to them.

 

What comes next is, in a sense, more awkward.  Despite the very clear and catastrophic judgement that God’s people have suffered, it hasn’t prompted them – even now – to change their ways: ‘we have not sought the favour of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth.’ (v13)

 

At first sight this seems practically unbelievable – how could the calamity of the exile, and the realisation that all those prophetic warnings had come true, not engender a dramatic change of direction?  And yet, it has the unmistakable ring of truth: we humans are very good at forgetting the lessons of the past, of repeating the mistakes of our ancestors.  Even the best resolutions can be lost in the mists of time: and if we’re honest, we can probably think of times when this has been true for us, too. 

 

So, if the past judgement was right and the present situation is barely better, to what does Daniel appeal?  Not to his people’s sake, but the Lord’s.  God’s own glory is at stake, and not just his people’s.  Daniel knows that God can quite rightly prolong the exile: but he appeals not only to God’s incredible mercy (v9) but to his glory, his ‘sake’: his people are ‘an object of scorn’ (v16) and everyone can ‘see the desolation of the city that bears your Name.’ (v18)

 

It may seem a cheeky prayer to us today: but it remains true that the disgrace of God’s people often reflects on God himself – which brings the credibility and authority of the beautiful news we share into question.  In the end, our hope is always founded on God’s righteousness, not ours.  God does not answer our prayers because we are so good or so deserving but because he loves us and his great heart inclines to mercy.  So we, too, can pray about all that is on our hearts today with the same confidence as Daniel: ‘Lord, listen!  Lord, forgive!  Lord, hear and act!’

 

And may this glorious God graciously hear and respond to our prayers.  Amen.

Tuesday 19th October – Daniel 9:1-11a ‘Full confession’

Daniel’s prayer is perhaps the only part of the second half of the book that is better known and relatively accessible to us today.  The timing of the prayer is important: the first year of Darius – who you may recall took over the kingdom after Belshazzar in 5:31 – is approximately 539BC, just a year or two shy of the completion of the start point of the 70 years’ exile.  So if God was going to allow his people to return in line with Jeremiah’s prophecy, it would have to be soon.

 

So Daniel dedicates himself to prayer, asking God to open the way for them to do so.  And much of his prayer takes the form of confession.  Daniel himself played no part in the causes of Israel’s downfall, but he identifies himself with the collective guilt of the nation as a whole.

 

This particular idea is somewhat controversial, and something about which Christians hold differing views today.  Can a new generation repent for the sins of previous generations?  In fact, this question is very relevant in light of the fierce debates about statues commemorating slave owners happening right now.  Unwittingly, those who argue for and against their removal or retention are debating a modern version of this ancient question.  Daniel 9 does not give the whole answer: see Ezekiel 18:20 for an alternative viewpoint – also written after Israel’s exile!  So this is probably one question where there is latitude to differ.

 

But what we can notice here is the comprehensive nature of Daniel’s repentance.  The three words for sin in the Old Testament refer to rebellion, falling short (or missing the mark) and crossing boundaries – and all three ideas are used here: ‘rebelled’ (v5,v9), ‘not kept the laws’ (v10), ‘transgressed’ (v11).  For good measure Daniel also throws in a failure to listen (v6) and being unfaithful (v7).

 

The glorious news of the gospel is that we are forgiven and set free from the penalty of our sin!  Our guilt is washed away, our shame is covered.  Daniel knows that he prays to the God ‘who keeps his covenant of love’ (v4) and is ‘merciful and forgiving’ (v9), and this is the God to whom we pray as well. 

 

But sometimes there’s no harm in offering a ‘full confession’ to God, in taking time to name the specific ways we fall short, rather than a quick ‘sorry’: not to wallow, and that is important to stress, but rather to point us all the more fully to the enormity of God’s wonderful forgiveness, love and grace.  As John Newton (author of amazing Grace) was known to say frequently: ‘I am a great sinner... and Christ is a great Saviour!’  Amen.

Monday 18th October – Daniel 8:1-27 ‘Beyond understanding’

As I get older, my observation is that life gets more complex but faith gets more simple.  I wonder if that accords with your experience, too?  In some ways I mourn the loss of ‘black and white’ certainties enjoyed by the young.  Seeing shades of grey can sometimes feel, well, just like that: grey. 

 

And yet, while I become ever more conscious of just how much lies beyond my understanding, I find at the same time ever more drawn back to the absolute heart of those simple biblical truths on which I have surrendered my life: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so; little ones to him belong: we are weak but He is strong.  It’s not a bad platform on which to build a life, is it? 

 

I often quote Jesus’ famous words at a baptism ceremony, but increasingly I realise the profound wisdom they embody: ‘Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never it.’  Faith is child-ish, but it is child-like.

 

As we come to the last few chapters of Daniel, we might as well admit that the full truth of these chapters will always lie beyond our understanding.  Most scholars agree that they refer primarily to the crisis in 2nd century Israel when the wicked Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes oppressed the Jewish people and desecrated the temple – this is what is being referred to here in v11-13 when it speaks of ‘the sanctuary being thrown down... the rebellion that causes desolation.’ 

 

And yet there are also hints that lie beyond this immediate crisis: to Jesus, and also to the end of time.  Much biblical prophecy is like looking at a mountain range from a valley: we can see the first peak clearly, but we know there are higher peaks beyond which we can’t see from our standpoint.

 

There is also a huge amount of picture language which we should beware of reading as a puzzle or ‘code’ to unlock.  The lengths of time mentioned don’t fit any historical timeline, but it’s unlikely they were meant to.  They are mostly symbolic numbers, not real ones: the only exception being the one clearly referenced elsewhere in the book of Jeremiah, that the exile would last 70 years (compare Daniel 9:2 with Jeremiah 29:10).  We know that it was in 538BC, the 70th year of the exile, that Cyrus first allowed Jews to return home to Israel – albeit even this was only a partial return, and it took many decades for the Jewish community to rebuild even a semblance of their historic home.

 

So we can expect to be baffled by these chapters!  But in the midst of the head-scratching, there are some very simple but profound realities on which to anchor our thoughts and our faith.  Today, the one thing we know we can take away from Daniel chapter 8 is that what happens here on earth is fully known in heaven.  Human wickedness is not veiled.  We cannot always understand how God works his purposes out, but we can trust in God’s ultimate authority, and that one day there will always be a reckoning, and divine justice and mercy will triumph.

 

Let’s take encouragement to pray for the hard situations in the world, to ask for God’s intervention.  They may be ‘beyond understanding’ (v27), but they are not beyond the power or love of God.  And likewise, may we draw strength from knowing that, however complex life is, our great God is sovereign, and we are safe in his loving arms.

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

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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.