The Psalms – Songs for the journey
Starting Monday 4th January, we begin a new series in the psalms. To paraphrase a well-known ad: ‘A psalm a day helps you work, rest and pray.’ Let’s be nourished in this new year with the humility, the honesty, and the heartfelt faith of the psalmists, and may we find a voice to draw near to God each day.
‘I’ve got my eye on you!’ That’s what my old vicar said to me a year or so after I’d joined the church. I was in my late 20s and had started helping out in various ways. I didn’t think much about what he said at the time, though looking back maybe he saw something about my future which I didn’t pursue actively for some years yet. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t worried about his job!
But the idea of ‘keeping an eye on’ something is a familiar phrase to us. We use it in lots of ways – it can denote positive interest or (negative) suspicion. What do you keep an eye on? Breaking news, the weather, some shares you own, your neighbour’s frisky dog, the hairline crack in your wall?
The truth is we keep our eyes on lots of things. Today, though, King David encourages us to keep our eyes on something – or someone – else. ‘My eyes,’ he says, ‘will be on the faithful in the land.’ (v6)
This is a less well-known psalm, and unusually focuses much more on the lifestyle of the psalmist than the greatness of God – though there is praise as well, and to a large degree the two are linked in this psalm. David’s desire is to lead a holy life, and to promote holiness within his people too. So he wants nothing to do with wickedness (vv3-4) but rather to lead a blameless life, which welcomes the presence of God (v2).
As part of this ‘holy culture’ he also directs his attention to those who, like him, want to do God’s will. Those are the people he not only wants to hang out with, but who will themselves ‘minister to him’ (v6).
It’s a useful reminder that we walk this journey of faith together. As we long to grow in our relationship with God, so we find encouragement and strength from doing so with others who want the same. This current season has made it difficult to meet together as we normally would: but today, let’s receive the words of this psalm as an encouragement to turn our eyes towards our faithful brothers and sisters, finding creative ways to ‘dwell’ with them and minister to each other.
That might be a phone call, or a time spent in prayer for particular people, or perhaps both. But as we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, let’s rejoice that we walk together, under God. Let’s keep our eyes on those who are part of our family of faith, that God, too, might come to us.
Thank you Lord, for the family of the church. Thank you for all those who long to walk in step with you. Help us to keep our eyes on each other, that we might minister your love, and dwell as your people wherever you have put us. Amen.
We live in a culture which focuses largely on the now. ‘The past is a foreign country,’ and the future is a crystal ball. Only the present matters.
Whilst we inevitably have to live in the here and now, we also lose so much if we get caught up with this attitude. And not just in practical terms: ‘those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them,’ as the old saying goes. It is a spiritual problem too. One of the great strengths of Jewish culture – and many others too – is the sense of ancestry, of a spiritual past. Time and again, God’s people are encouraged to remember the past, what God has done throughout history.
This sense of collective remembrance has a spiritual purpose. It reminded them – and us – of who God is. The actions defined the character. How do we know that God is loving, or good, or faithful? Look at what He’s done. Creation, covenant, and then miraculous rescue, time and again. And this is before we even get to Jesus! As we honour the past, so we see God’s faithfulness writ large.
It applies at a small scale too. We will have personal stories that form part of our past, as well as the famous stories of the heroes of the faith. Never forget them. Take time occasionally to remember them, to declare them. Perhaps today might be a moment to do so for a few minutes.
As we reflect on this short but wonderful psalm, it feels like its ending is really the beginning. This is our bedrock, as it was for God’s people thousands of years ago when this psalm was written: ‘The Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.’ (v5)
This is why we can be encouraged to ‘shout for joy’ (v1), to relate to God as our Good Shepherd (v3), to spend time in his presence (v4).
God has been faithful. He is faithful. He will be faithful. May that make us glad today. Amen.
When I was a student one of the pictures I had on my wall was part of a famous painting by Raphael (The Sistine Madonna) depicting two small angels looking up at Mary. You’ll probably recognise the image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rafael,_Putti.jpg . I studied Raphael, and always found the nonchalance of these two cherubs charming, and perhaps slightly subversive.
But there’s a problem with this kind of image. Take the word ‘cherub’ and this is usually the kind of image we think of: lovable, childlike, dare I say it ‘cute’. So when we read in today’s passage that God sits ‘enthroned between the cherubim’ (v1) – plural of cherub – we might imagine a scene which pictures God as a Sunday School teacher on a plastic chair surrounded by lots of adoring (or bored) young children on a mat. A vision which seems to jar with the first line of the verse, too: that this God, surrounded by all his cherubs, is so majestic that the nations ought to tremble. We don’t tend to employ Sunday School teachers like that anymore – though maybe we did once!
The underlying issue here is that we’ve got our image of cherubs rather wrong. Although there is a long-held Jewish tradition that depicts cherubs with children’s faces, the rest of them is not so, well, cherubic. Cherubs are magnificent, awe-inspiring creatures. They appear as divine guards in Genesis 3:24 when Adam and Eve have been banished from the Garden of Eden.
Their ‘guarding’ role is also at the heart of God’s relationship with his people: in the Most Holy Place a pair of cherubim flank the ark of the covenant: one each side, each 15 feet high with a 15-foot wingspan, touching in the middle. And between them, the ark of the covenant: holding the tablets with the Ten Commandments, and with the atonement cover on top, where, once a year, the High Priest sprinkled the sacrificial blood which atoned for the sins of the people.
So the description that God sits ‘enthroned between the cherubim’ is one of majesty and mercy. It reminds us of God’s awesome holiness – so holy that, under the Law, only one person once a year could enter his presence, and even then only when the room was filled with the smoke of incense.
But also merciful: the place ‘between the cherubim’ became known as The Mercy Seat – the place where this majestic, holy God lovingly forgave our sin and restored us to his presence.
The place between the cherubim is the place where God met with the world on earth, in majesty and mercy. No wonder, then, that this is one of the ‘awe-some’ psalms, where our response to this glorious God is reverence and praise. It also explains why most of the rest of the psalm talks about God’s justice, and also the famous priests who ministered on God’s behalf.
The wonderful good news of Christ is that he was the perfect sacrifice at the mercy seat – for all people, for all time. We can all now have the freedom and confidence to approach the Most Holy Place of God’s presence (Hebrews 10:19). It’s easy to forget what a privilege this is: let’s claim that freedom again today, in Jesus’ name, and bring our lives and our prayers to God, the One who graciously answers (v6,v8).
Mighty God, who reigns forever, thank you that we have access to your glorious presence. We worship at your footstool today. Hear our prayers, especially..... Thank you that you answer. Help us to hold onto you. Amen.
‘Shout to the Lord, all the earth, let us sing: power and majesty, praise to the King. Mountains bow down and the seas will roar at the sound of your name. I sing for joy at the work of your hands.’
Some of you will recognise those words as the chorus of one of the most popular worship songs of the last thirty years: ‘My Jesus, my Saviour.’ They’re taken directly from the verses of this psalm (v4, then vv7-8, then v1). And yet, these words were written hundreds of years before Jesus – which begs a useful question: what is ‘the work of God’s hands’ being referred to here? What ‘salvation is being made known’?
The psalm itself doesn’t tell us, but by and large whenever the Old Testament writers – especially the psalmists and prophets – refer to a saving act which God has already done, they’re usually referring to the miraculous rescue from Egypt, especially the two saving acts of Passover and the Crossing of the Red Sea. These were acts of literal salvation which decisively showed the Israelites that this God was their God, and they were his people.
The annual Passover celebration instituted from that moment reminded every generation of what God had done, and instructed the people to ‘make that salvation known’ (v2) afresh. They are called to remember, even as God remembers his love (v3).
But God’s saving work didn’t end at a point in history. God continued to rescue his people: in the time of Gideon, or David, or Hezekiah, and even after exile through the courage of Esther. God always remembers his love for his people.
And so we fast forward several centuries to a new Passover, a new Crossing from certain death to promised life – this time seen on a cross and then in an empty tomb. A new marvellous work of God, whose holy arm works salvation. Our God is the same: yesterday, today and forever. He continues to save, and Jesus is the true and greatest fulfilment of this psalm of praise. What was enacted for a particular people at the Red Sea was enacted for all people for all time at Calvary. There Jesus revealed God’s righteousness to the nations, so that all the ends of the earth might see the salvation of our God.
So it is quite right for that famous song to put Jesus at the heart of this psalm. And perhaps, if we know it, we too can sing the song in response. Let us sing a new song today, and be inspired to make his salvation known wherever God grants us the chance.
Loving Lord, I sing for joy at the work of your hands. Thank you that you always remember your love for me. Help me to abide in that love, and know your continuing saving work in my life. Amen.
A few years ago we tried to buy a house in Manchester. My sister lives there and the idea was that once we’d bought it, she would have the security of long-term tenancy and (reasonably) nice landlords. However, when we had the survey done we discovered huge problems with subsidence. It was a Victorian end-of-terrace at the bottom of the slope and over the last century had been very gradually sinking. We sadly had to withdraw. Thankfully my sister is well housed elsewhere!
It was a harsh lesson in the importance of good foundations. Every good edifice rests on them. And in today’s psalm, we learn that God’s throne has vital foundations, too: they are ‘righteousness and justice’ (v2).
It’s easy to see these words as being ‘cold’ or abstract, but that would fall short of their original meaning. Biblical scholars have emphasised the relational meaning of both of these words. Here’s how one described each: ‘righteous action is action which conforms to the requirements of the relationship and in a more general sense promotes the peace and wellbeing of the community’; justice [is] the strongly ethical notion of action which is to be legally upheld because it is productive of communal wellbeing.’
That might sound like a mouthful, but it’s a valuable insight because it earths these foundational words in God’s relationship with us. When God is righteous, he is righteous for the good of his creation – including us; when God is just, he is just towards us.
Although we might instinctively have preferred something a bit cuddlier like ‘love and peace’ as the foundation of God’s throne, in fact what we get is something even better. God’s righteousness assures us that his love is perfectly directed. God’s justice is what secures our peace. As the old liberation slogan reminds us: ‘No peace without justice.’ Wonderfully, in knowing God we get both.
So we can be thankful for these words! God’s throne is founded on two pillars which ultimately secure our wellbeing, too – righteousness and justice. The heavens proclaim it (v6); and we are called to model it too (vv10-12). We are called to live just and righteous lives because we are made in God’s image and therefore reflect our Maker’s intentions.
In our shifting world, God’s throne is secure. And we too can rest secure in these same unchanging qualities. May those qualities shine on us today (v11), producing joy and praise in our hearts and on our lips.
Just and righteous Lord, thank you that your foundations are secure. Help us to rest firm on those same foundations. Guard our lives today, and deliver us from evil. Shine on us, we pray, and in all the dark places of our community. Amen.
Holy people have this thing about them, don’t they? To come into the presence of someone who really walks closely with God – it’s a strangely affecting experience. I knew a person like that in London. He had a huge impact on my spiritual life: I must confess when I first met him I found him a bit scary – but I also felt drawn to them. There was just something magnetic – you might say splendid – about them.
Others have testified to similar experiences when meeting other, more celebrated holy people. Great humility or love has something of awe about it. It was even said that the birds used to flock to St Francis of Assisi just to land on him! Who knows if that’s true – but it’s a lovely image, nonetheless.
Today, in this second reflection on Psalm 96, we are invited to ‘worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness’ (v9). I’ve always found this phrase interesting, because in modern thinking, being holy is not thought of in that way at all. We tend to think of it negatively: being a killjoy, or disapproving, or self-righteous. Not a very splendid thing.
Of course, such parodies are way off the mark. And today’s psalm invites to recapture the real essence of what it means to be holy – i.e. ‘set apart’. God’s perfection is magnificent. To be holy as God is holy means to be perfect in love, in wisdom, in joy, in patience, in gentleness, as well as in authority and justice. It is, quite literally awe-some. It carries with it the weight of glory.
When we meet truly holy people today, we see something of that reflected light. It’s why saints in old paintings are always pictured with haloes – auras of light around their being. They reflect the glory of the One who is truly holy: God Almighty – perfect in power, in love and purity, as the old hymn would have it.
Amazingly, this is our calling too. Most of us feel that we haven’t got very far with that – and yet, because Christ dwells with us, in our hearts, so we too are being slowly transformed into his likeness ‘with ever-increasing glory’.
So today, let’s delight in the splendour of God’s holiness. Let’s pray for eyes to see its glory and magnificence, to bask in its reflected light. And, by God’s grace, may some of that light rub off on us too.
Loving and mighty Lord, you reign. You reign over the earth. You reign in my heart. You have all glory and strength, and I delight in your magnificent holiness. I offer you myself today, the only worthy offering I can make. Fill my heart anew with the light of your presence. Amen.
A couple of years ago we took out a subscription to Amazon Prime’s ‘Music Unlimited’. Generally the Trendalls are always late to any technological party – I still mourn the demise of beacons on hillsides as the primary means of communicating news. Admittedly, many of my peers have been users of a music subscription channel for 5 or 10 years. But by our standards, this was a revolution. Suddenly almost every song that had ever been published – 50 million or so pieces of music – was available for us to listen to: anytime, anywhere.
Today’s psalm begins by inviting us to ‘Sing to the Lord a new song.’ In today’s world, this could be considered straightforward when you’ve got 50 million songs to choose from – but how do we lift our hearts in faith to sing a new song every day? Surely words are limited? Feelings are finite? What does a ‘new song’ really mean?
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to minister to some wonderful old saints – people who inspired me far more than I ever did them. And what’s noticeable about such amazing people is that, no matter their age, their faith is young – it is childlike, enthusiastic. They wake up with God every morning as if they found faith just yesterday, and it still causes them wonder. They speak of God with the joy of the newly-in-love. They remember answers to prayer with excitement and thanksgiving, as if this was something that had just started to happen to them.
I think this is what the psalmist means by a new song. God does not change. His character is steadfast, constant – always loving, faithful and good. He remains the same, yesterday, today and forever. But whilst this is true, one of the keys to faith is that we receive these truths as ‘new every morning’. They remain fresh, exciting, awe-inspiring. They put praise on our lips, peace in our hearts and joy in our spirits. They cause us to ‘proclaim his salvation day-after-day’ (v2), and ‘declare his glory among the nations’ (v3).
It’s easy to get tired and stale – in faith as in life. Never more so, perhaps, than at present. Which is why the infectious joy of the psalmist is so valuable. I need a bit of whatever he or she is having! Maybe you do too.
So today, can I encourage you to pray this psalm, and offer your praises to God. And may God renew our hearts as we do, so that we would, this day and every day, sing a new song to the Lord. Amen!
As many of you know, I’ve always loved my football. I played (not very well) till I was 40, and Match of the Day remains a staple of my viewing habits. I’m too old now to stay up till midnight on Saturday watching it live, it’s a with-breakfast pilgrimage on Sunday and Monday mornings for me!
My favourite part of the show has long been ‘Goal of the Month’. The show picks 6 or 8 of the best goals of the previous few weeks and then the winner is chosen at the end of the show. It used to be by the presenters themselves, though now you can vote online. The winning goal gets shown again and also goes into the draw for ‘Goal of the Season’.
Many people think about matters of faith a bit like Goal of the Month. In the end, all ‘gods’ are like these good goals – fundamentally the same, you just pick whichever one you like the best, or that your team scored. It doesn’t really matter which, because a goal is a goal, isn’t it?
Today’s psalm reminds us that, when it comes to ‘things eternal’, this way of thinking isn’t really an option. There is only one God – the Lord, ‘Yahweh’ (v1,v3) – and this God is ‘above all gods’.
The psalm also reminds us that there are good reasons for ascribing ultimate authority to this one God. He made the whole world (v4), even the powerful seas (v5) – and, crucially, he forms a loving relationship with his people (v7). Unlike the other capricious deities of the time, this God wasn’t unpredictable or tyrannical. Nor does this God just wind the clock up and let it run: he engages with his world, he takes pastoral care of us.
Shepherds in ancient Israel lived and travelled with their sheep, protected them from danger (no paddocks or fenced fields in those days), fought off wild animals, walked miles to find water and pasture – in other words, gave everything for their wellbeing, because their flock was precious.
This is the God we worship! And it’s helpful sometimes to reflect on whether we’ve unconsciously allowed other things to divert our gaze from adoring this God. We might not have ‘idols’ or shrines as such, but a ‘god’ can be anything that takes our attention away from our Creator. Money, popularity, an all-consuming hobby, an addiction – you name it.
Today, we can declare with confidence, that God is above all these gods. This God –our God – is the true and only ruler of the earth. ‘If only we would hear his voice’ (v7) – and of course, when we read this psalm, we do! And this voice tells us that God is our Rock, our salvation, our shepherd, and that we are precious to him.
May these glorious truths inspire us to thanksgiving and worship today.
O Lord my Rock, you are the great God, above all others. I gladly put you first, and worship you with thanks and praise. Truly I am in your care – be my shepherd today. Amen.
I must confess that I’m too young to remember the classic 1960s TV series The Avengers. On the other hand, I’m also too old to have watched all of the recent Marvel film series, also called Avengers. So I’m at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of cultural reference points in this whole area! What is true, though, is that while many of us watch or read stories about people who avenge on behalf of others, in this day and age we feel uncomfortable ascribing this kind of behaviour to God.
Today’s psalm is one of those that doesn’t get read much nowadays. Psalm 91, 95, 96, 97 and 98 – the ones all around it, in other words – are very popular, and often read or quoted. Psalm 94.... not so much. The reason is there in the first line: ‘The Lord is a God who avenges’. It’s ironic in some ways because we don’t have a problem with the idea generally, as the popularity of ‘avenge’ motifs in culture makes clear. And avenging is different to revenging, which is a critical distinction to make. Revenge is something we do personally to someone else in the face of something we have suffered. Avenging is more objective: it is justice meted out usually on behalf of someone else – i.e. not as a result of our own injury. So we do need avengers – those who enact justice on behalf of others.
What’s important about these ‘avenging’ psalms – and there are plenty of them – is that by asking God to act, we are removing our own right to do so. When faced with injustice, we take it to God, rather than take the law into our own hands. This is the value of these psalms – they provide an outlet for our cries for justice, and take those cries to the one true source of justice and righteousness: the Lord God Almighty.
I’m sure it will have been hard for many of us to read the words of this psalm – which particularly addresses the issue of bad governance – and not find ourselves thinking of particular countries or situations in the world at present. It is not for me to comment on any of those directly: but what this psalm does is provide us with a blueprint for how to face issues of corruption (v20), injustice (v5,v7, v21), hubris (v4) and violence (v6) in our world and turn them back to God in prayer.
Ultimately we go back to the ‘Rock that is higher than I’ – we ask God to intervene. Psalm 94 gives us permission to name injustices and pray for God’s will to be done. We seek God’s justice, mercy and righteousness.
And as we do that, we find ourselves able to claim two wonderful promises hidden in this psalm: we find consolation in our anxiety (v19), and refuge in a time of trial (v22). How we need that at present!
One day, ‘judgement will again be founded on righteousness, and all the upright in heart will follow it’ (v15). But until then, let’s be thankful for these psalms, which give us words to approach God with the very real problems of our world; and remind us that God cares enough about his world to intervene.
Lord, in our fractured world, we ask you to bring your justice and mercy to wherever it is needed. Protect the vulnerable, frustrate the wicked, promote justice and grant us your consolation and refuge today. Support us, O Lord, with your unfailing love, and bring us joy. Amen.
Not many people have robes nowadays – at least , I don’t think they do! It’s a garment associated with authority or magnificence, isn’t it? The Queen even has her own Mistress of the Robes, a post which dates back to the 16th century, albeit now it’s more ceremonial than literal.
And this is the language of today’s psalm, which begins: ‘The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty.’ Whilst God is Spirit, many psalms and other scriptures like to imagine God as a physical monarch, with suitable imagery for authority and magnificence. ‘Robed in majesty’ is a wonderful, evocative phrase, but it’s no mere window dressing (pardon the pun). In this short psalm, we’re invited to sample the evidence for God’s majesty.
First, there’s our earth. A stable planet, which even the ancients knew to be ‘firm and secure’. I love playing records, and am always surprised to discover how many of my collection are older than I am. I can take out a piece of black plastic that’s still in pristine condition aged 60 – if only that would be true of me in time to come!
But these silly human comparisons pale when compared to the age of the earth. People often quote modern understandings of the age of the earth – approx 4 billion years – as being an argument against God. But here the psalmist – 3,000 years ago, remember – uses it as an argument in favour of God. He made something that can last 4 billion years. Puts every empire, every construction, every piece of human ingenuity into the shade, doesn’t it?
Then there’s his throne, which is likewise established ‘long ago’. Whilst we can’t point to a literal throne, we know that God’s authority has been seen in his dealings with our world for thousands of years – God has been God for as long as humans have existed. God is, as the psalm says, ‘from all eternity.’
Next, there are the seas – which in ancient thought symbolised all the forces of chaos and darkness. But in this marvellous poetic image, even the seas ‘have lifted up their voice’, because God is mightier than even the greatest waves. In other words, even the strongest force in nature is as nothing compared to the greatness of God.
Finally, there are God’s ‘statutes’ – that is, his laws and promises. These, too, stand firm. There is an air of permanence about everything God does, and his character (his ‘holiness’) does not change.
In our shifting times, our uncertain world, how good it is to reflect on the unchanging majesty, might and authority of God. It is this God into whose loving hands we place ourselves today. And may that thought give us the confidence of hope, the strength of joy and the peace that passes understanding today.
Father thank you that you are robed in majesty. I lift my voice to you, even as the great waves do. Help me to stand firm and secure upon the rock of your promises. Abide with me today. Amen.
‘Dear Optimist and Pessimist, while you were arguing about whether the glass was half full or half empty, I drank it. Yours sincerely, The Pragmatist.’
This great little note was written on the door of the staff room at the cafe for the homeless in Bristol where our church used to take teams regularly. It always put a smile on my face before we opened the doors, and at the end of the evening when I came to get my coat.
I wonder how you would describe yourself: are you naturally a glass half-full or half-empty sort of person? It’s not a moral judgement to answer either way, the world needs both. Half-empty people are more naturally inclined to effect change, even if those changes are more likely to be appreciated by half-full people!
But when it comes to approaching God, it’s quite helpful to be a bit of both. ‘It is good to praise....’ begins our psalm for today. It was a song specially written for Sabbath worship, but its application is universal. It is a healthy attribute of faith and life to praise God – from first thing in the morning to last thing at night (v2).
There’s no caveat to this declaration: it’s not just for the good times. It might be said that praise is especially important in the not-so-good times. In that sense, it’s good to be half-full people – we can praise God’s character (v2) and what God has already done (vv4-5). Things that don’t change, things that form the bedrock of our lives.
We need to praise. Praise lifts our hearts and our spirits. Praise restores a sense of gratitude and wonder. Praise renews our faith, and gives us courage to believe that God is still God, that he still loves us and will remain faithful, and that, one way or another, things will be OK.
Far from being an escape from reality, praise anchors us in reality, and balances our perspective again. What is interesting in this psalm is how open the psalmist is about having enemies, and being surrounded by wickedness (vv6-11). These sections of the psalms are never easy to read to our modern sensibilities, not least because these enemies are usually described as particular people – but it’s possible to generalise the idea of enemies as being all the bad things that we face in the world, and especially those things which drag us away from God.
Whilst we may not wish to visualise particular people, we can all imagine other challenges of situations where we can declare God’s victory and find hope and inspiration once again. That’s why I still read the whole psalm, rather than the edited highlights!
In that sense, this type of praise in all situations is for the half-empty people too, those of us who are naturally wired to notice difficulties and problems. The pattern of the psalmist reminds us that we can take these honestly to God and declare his victory. We live our faith in the valley as well as the mountaintop.
Praise ultimately is what helps us to flourish (v12-13). It gives us a healthy perspective: celebrating the good, finding faith to face the bad. May God inspire us to praise this day: why not pray through this psalm for a few moments, declaring God’s praises, that we too might flourish ‘in the courts of our God’ today.
This psalm has long been a favourite of many people, but in this year of all years it has taken on an added poignancy. Verses 3-6 seem to capture the prayer that most of us want to pray at present – we do fear a ‘deadly pestilence’ and it’s natural to pray for protection from it.
I myself have often returned to this psalm over the years, and prayed it for key seasons of my life. The imagery of divine protection is profound and beautiful: ‘resting in the shadow of the Almighty’, ‘finding refuge under his wings’, ‘no disaster will come near your tent’ (a phrase beloved of campers everywhere!), ‘lifted up in angels’ hands...’
I remember hearing of one lady who memorised this psalm, to use as she went into an MRI scanner which diagnosed a brain tumour. It’s that kind of psalm, and this year Psalm 91 has gone to the top of many Christians’ most used scriptures.
Yet we need to sound a note of caution. Fundamentally, it is good and right to pray for protection in anxious times – and this psalm gives us the words for that. But we must beware using this psalm as some kind of magic charm. To pray it is not to guarantee that we’ll never catch Covid, or something equally nasty. There must have been people who’ve been severely affected by the virus, or even died from it, who read and prayed this psalm.
Above all, we must avoid the conclusion that somehow we have to pray this psalm to be protected. It is sobering to remember that the devil quoted – or rather misquoted – this psalm when tempting Jesus to put God to the test (Matthew 4:5-7).
In matters of sickness and healing, there is a mystery to these things. In many ways, this psalm is a natural partner to the previous psalm (90), which equally recognised our fragility in the face of bigger forces at work. What such threats and dangers do is to cast us back upon God’s mercy and protection: we recognise that our illusion of control is exactly that, and we seek with fresh urgency God’s love and favour, his divine sustenance instead.
Treated in that way, this remains a glorious psalm, one which practises true humility in the face of all kinds of dangers, be they viral (v3,6), physical (v5,7,10), emotional (v5) or spiritual (v2). Let’s pray the beginning and the end of this psalm, and may it be the air that we breathe today:
Lord, grant me grace to shelter under your wings. Be my refuge and fortress today. Answer me in trouble, rescue and protect me, and show me your salvation. For you are my God, in whom I trust. Amen.
It’s not easy to read the first half of this psalm – especially, perhaps, in the current season. None of us really like to be reminded of the fragility of life when we have pointed reminders of it in our daily news.
And yet the enduring appeal of the psalms is precisely their raw honesty. The psalms allow us to tell it like it really is, to express what is really going on inside our hearts, sometimes even to say the unsayable – and we love them for it.
It is a great comfort to have 150 songs, poems and prayers of such depth and honesty right at the heart of our scriptures. They tell us that our God is not a tyrant whose ego cannot tolerate criticism, but a loving parent who can withstand our rants and tears as well as our successes and cries of praise. They earth our doctrines in lived experiences. They make faith real.
Personally, give me honesty over platitudes any day. I imagine most of us feel the same. So this year, we’ll begin with a walk through a section of the psalms – and my hope and prayer is that in them we will find a voice which echoes our innermost thoughts and feelings, and grounds them in God’s love and goodness.
What we also notice is that in the worldview of the psalmist, God is always the main actor – at the centre of the stage. Things happen because God wills it. And whilst that sometimes makes for uncomfortable reading, on balance it is a healthy counterpoint to the modern view (even among Christians) which often relegates God to the sidelines of the drama. At its root, there’s an infectious humility which we all need – and never more so than at present.
So, how does the writer of psalm 90 respond to their reflections on the fragility of life and the challenges of suffering? They ask God for several things: to accept their mortality (v12), which they describe as the ‘heart of wisdom’; to be satisfied with the sufficiency of God’s unfailing love (v14); to find joy again after a season of sorrow (v15); and for their work to bear fruit, according to God’s blessing (v17).
It’s not a bad perspective to face the new year, is it? It strikes me that verse 12 onwards is a great prayer to pray – and I invite you to join me, that we might all gain the humble trust of the psalmist:
Lord, teach me to number my days rightly, that I might gain a heart of wisdom.
Lord, so often I do not allow myself to be satisfied with the assurance of your love – so today, I pray, satisfy me with that glorious truth and plant it in my heart.
As your love dwells in me, make me glad and grant me the gifts of gratitude and unexpected joy in this season of sorrow.
And may your favour rest upon me, that all I do might bear fruit for you. Amen.
Christmas 2020: please enjoy any of the recent series for November and December below. Alternatively, to try an ’embodied liturgy’ click on the link below!
Our Virtual Advent Calendar – click here to see it! - reaches its climax on Christmas Eve with an amazing timelapse version of the image for 24th December, created by Emily. To watch this timelapse set to music, click here, or click this back-up link.
Our Daily Inspirations follow the same themes as the Advent Calendar - the latest posts are available below.
Spoiler alert: the reflection for Christmas Eve is the transcript of Matt's talk for the Midnight Communion service.
‘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 our health, for our loved ones, for our prosperity, for our mental wellbeing are all prevalent in our hearts and minds this Christmas. We are not alone in this – such fears are widespread across our world – but they are none the less real for that.
We need the light.
But what use is a light, we say – what about a vaccine, or a trade deal, or just a Christmas meal with our loved ones? Isn’t that what we really need? Is not this talk of light just a distraction?
These are fair questions to ask, but I think they miss something: our world runs according to deeper truths, deeper realities. Truths which outlast the crises of our, or any, passing age. The light shone long before us, and will shine long after we are gone.
And we need light for what it brings to us. We 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. There are forces at play – be they viral or political – which seem overwhelming. 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 to 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.
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 many 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?
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 has 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.
We didn’t plan this but it’s amazing that we come to the famous star which the Magi saw on this very day; because tonight the two largest planets in the solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, will be so close to one another in the sky that they will appear 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 typically British forecast for tonight is for mostly cloud, so we’re unlikely to get a glimpse. But even so, isn’t it amazing that we might be privileged 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 sometime 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.
‘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.
Today’s beautiful image really needs no words from me – as a visual representation of Mary’s thoughtful godliness it captures the moment perfectly.
So lest I detract from the power of the image, 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?
On Wednesday 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 their key in the car 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.
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 they 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!
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.
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.
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. A couple of days later, most church denominations went further still: to avoid the risk of ‘mixed messages’, ministers couldn’t even record acts of worship in their buildings. In the space of a week, physically-located worship ceased to exist.
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 – sobering statistics of church decline have been received wisdom for decades: notwithstanding the pandemic itself, the future looked bleak.
Yet in mid-April, 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. Millions of people who would not have set foot inside the door of a Christian building were connecting online. As one lovely cartoon portrayed it, the devil and God were having a conversation: the devil was boasting that he’d managed to shut down every church – ‘yes, and I’ve just turned millions of homes into churches instead,’ God replies.
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 has reached millions of people – and nine months later, still is. 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. And let’s trust in his capacity to achieve his good purposes in all circumstances.
On this day two 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.
I don’t know about you, but it’s not easy to name a child. It was a bit more straightforward with 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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 form 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.’
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 descendents 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. Jesus inherits the eternal throne promised to David. 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.
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...
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.
Today's daily reflection is an offering from Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, published yesterday by the Church of England:
I wonder if there’s a suffering and pain in your life that need not have been, because it was self-inflicted. Perhaps that you know what it means to face public humiliation. Hear these words of Isaiah: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.’
When you’ve made a mess of things, when you’ve sinned big time, there’s a lot of hurt. But there’s also damage. Damage refers to the lasting practical effects of what you’ve broken. God says, ‘Cry to Jerusalem that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.’ In other words your sin is forgiven and its consequences are healed. The exile is over.
But we say, how can I find restoration? God replies, ‘Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.’ You’re going home on a six-lane highway to Zion. But we say, ‘I just haven’t got it in me to face the future. I’m tired.’ God says, ‘The grass withers, the flower fades. But the word of our God will stand forever.’ You don’t have to do this alone. You’re going to do this in God’s strength.
But we’re frightened. Isaiah says, ‘Behold your God!’ It turns out God’s really a shepherd who loves us sheep. God says, ‘Let me gather you into my arms and carry you in my bosom.’ Behold your God.
That’s how God announces to Israel that her exile is over. And that’s how God is announcing the same news to you, this Advent – today. Comfort ye. You have served your term. Your penalty is paid. God is making a straight way for you. You may feel like grass in the wind, but you will be borne up like an eagle on the wings of God’s Spirit. God will lead you like a shepherd, and say, ‘Let me carry you in my heart.’
Don’t stay in exile any more. God doesn’t want you there. Here is your God. Speaking tenderly to you.
Sometimes it’s harder to accept we’ve been forgiven than to find forgiveness itself. Isaiah announces words of comfort and joy. But to respond we have to allow the Holy Spirit to re-narrate our stories in such a way that our wrongdoing doesn’t ruin the story. Can you give yourself some space this week to hear God's words of forgiveness in today's reading, and hear them addressed to you?
‘Now all has been heard, here is the conclusion of the matter.’ So ends the book of Ecclesiastes, as the wise teacher reflects on the mysteries of life and delivers the verdict. In many ways this first chapter of John’s first letter performs a similar role. St. John joins the dots for us and draws a very simple, but profound, conclusion.
There are only three nouns in the bible used to describe God which aren’t names, but rather define the essence of God’s being: God is love, God is Spirit and God is, you guessed it – light.
The clue was there right at the start – in the third verse of the bible, God declares over creation: ‘Let there be light.’ Thousands of years later, St John articulates why: God can call forth light because he possesses light within himself. God is light.
It follows, then, that when God comes to earth, the divine son can likewise declare: ‘I am the light of the world.’ And the darkness does not overcome it.
But the good news doesn’t end there. As Jesus’ followers are united with him in his death and resurrection, so we too become the light of the world – shining the good news of God’s love and truth to those around us.
So John’s advice to us is simple: walk in the light – the light of God, the light of the Son. As humans, we’ll always be tempted towards the darkness, and John acknowledges this openly. We all sin (v8), in other words we all do things that fall short of God’s glory. But God is faithful and just, and longs to forgive – indeed he will forgive (v9), that we might continue to walk in the light, in the path of God’s abundant, eternal life (v2).
And the ultimate purpose of it all? Union with God and with Jesus (v3). The word ‘fellowship’ is a bit weak, the original koinonia means ‘oneness’ – a deep sharing together.
So as we begin Advent tomorrow, and draw this season ‘Looking for light’ to a close, let’s resolve again to walk in the light, to confess the darkness and see it healed, and to wait with renewed hope and expectation for the true light to come down into our world.
O come, O come Emmanuel – glory to the light of the world.
A few years ago, while visiting a castle with the family, I tried on a chain mail vest. It was very heavy! Probably at least 20 pounds in weight: whilst it was comforting to feel momentarily invincible (sort of), the thought of staggering round a battlefield wearing not just this, but all kinds of other metal protection was less than appealing. Apparently the typical weight for a full set of armour in the Middle Ages was around 60 lbs. Admittedly this is roughly the same as a combat backpack for a modern soldier, albeit a backpack is designed to keep the movement of legs and arms completely free, a benefit not available to the medieval knight. Either way, I was glad to remove the vest, which I must confess I did with some difficulty, and much to the amusement of my family.
Thankfully, in today’s passage we’re encouraged to wear another type of armour, which doesn’t weigh anything at all: the armour of light (v12). St Paul is here addressing candidly the challenges of living as a Christian in the world, and from his own experience he knows we need protection.
But what is this ‘armour of light’? In this passage we see three components: first the light of truth. Paul reminds us that our understanding matters (v11) – he points to the reality of the world around us, and also to the great encouragement that we are closer to the fullness of our salvation than we were before. This remains as true now as it did then – we are closer to the finishing line, so let’s keep going!
Secondly, the light of holiness. Paul urges us to keep our lifestyles pure (v13), in particular our thought lives – if we don’t gratify those, then we’re less likely to indulge in the things those thoughts lead to. As someone once observed, Jesus encourages us to pray ‘lead us not into temptation’ because once we’re in temptation, it’s hard to get out of it.
So far, so good – and you may have noticed that these ideas of light as reflecting both truth and purity were also those we dwelt on yesterday. But there’s a third one here too – the light of love. Ultimately it is love that enables us to dwell in light. Love, as Paul says, is the fulfilment of God’s law (v10). Let us therefore love each other, that we too might be ambassadors of light.
Truth, purity and love – this is the armour of light. May God grant us grace to wear this armour today – and may this defend not just our own hearts, but those of others as well.
It’s a famous story, possibly the most famous conversion experience of them all. Saul the implacable opponent of Christians, on his way to cause more trouble in Damascus, meets Jesus directly and his life changes forever. Even his name changes!
It’s a timeless story, and many of us will know of similar dramatic conversions happening in people that we know, or that we’ve read about. People who usually went on to become great sharers of God’s good news with others. These stories lift our spirits, and perhaps today is a good time to dig one of those out and spend a few minutes marvelling at God’s love and mercy, and his power to change the human heart.
But let’s also observe very simply today that Jesus meets Saul in light. There is a strong connection between light and truth in the bible, so the light is partly about Saul discovering the truth of who Jesus is. There’s also a connection between light and holiness – when Jesus is transfigured on the mountaintop, his three friends saw his clothes become ‘white as a flash of lightning’. St John has a similar experience of Jesus’ face ‘shining like the sun in all its brilliance’ at the start of his Revelation. So when Jesus meets the ruthlessly pure (or so he thought) Saul in a flash of light, suddenly Saul is confronted with the awesome purity, perfection and love of the Almighty.
‘Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Not my people – ‘me’. Jesus so identifies with his people that an attack on them is an attack on him. We may be fortunate to live in a time and a place when we are free to practise our faith. But it is still no small encouragement to know how much Jesus is for us. Our wellbeing, our safety, matters to him. Today may be a moment to claim that promise – perhaps there is something where you need Jesus to defend you at the moment. Ask him boldly – Jesus himself encourages it (Luke 11:5-13).
And Jesus still meets us in light now. The light of His word inspiring our minds; the light of his love warming our hearts. May that light be precious to us – and may it lift our hearts and minds today.
I’m reading a book about mountaineering at the moment. I’m not much of a climber myself, but I find accounts of heroic feats on mountains fascinating. In the particular chapter I’ve just finished, a pair of climbers run out of daylight on a descent. With a sheer drop just five metres to their left, they find themselves stuck on a ledge for several hours through the night, unable to move. At one point, one of them accidentally knocks his helmet off the ledge and hears it clattering on the slopes below. Only when dawn broke were they able – shivering and stiff – to start descending again.
The author notes how the descent was relatively simple in the daylight – they even came across the helmet on the way down! – but the darkness had rendered it utterly impossible. They could only walk while they had the light.
Jesus climbed a fair few mountains in his time, though I doubt this was in his mind when he shared the wisdom of today’s passage. The basic is the principle is the same, though – ‘walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you.’ (v35)
In this case, the light is not that of the sun, but of the Son – Jesus has already referred to himself as the light of this world, and it is his light we are to walk in. This light is what illuminates both the depths of our heart, the eyes of our mind, and the paths of our life. Jesus’ light enables us to be ‘children of light’ (v36). What a beautiful phrase that is!
Light feels in short supply at present. Literally, we are in the darkest two months of the year. But we also carry the challenges of this season – challenges which may make us feel ‘dark’. Today’s encouragement from Jesus is very simple, but very powerful: walk in his light. And if we have the light of Jesus – which we do – we might re-phrase that as: keep walking. Outwalk the darkness – stay ahead of it. Let Jesus’ light lead you: let it fill your heart, inspire your mind and guide your way.
Unlike Jesus’ listeners, we are the other side of Calvary. Jesus is not going away anytime soon. The darkness need not overtake us. His light shines on – permanently, powerfully, eternally. Let’s walk in the light today, and so live as the Father’s precious children of light.
Just once in my life I was able to have a drink with a friend at a grand old London club. It was the Carlton Club on Pall Mall, and one of my good friends was a member there – long story. I was duly warned the day before to make sure I was wearing a tie – no admittance without one! As it happens, despite the warning, as I seem to remember my friend actually turned up tie-less. There was a brief delay as the genteel doorman quietly produced a rack of ties from his cupboard, one of which my friend chose. Then it was up the stairs to lounge for a couple of hours on enormous Chesterfields. I could get used to it, I must confess.
Entry points matter. They certainly matter in elite establishments, who usually have all kinds of rules to make sure only the right sort are let in. Truthfully, I’m not sure if wearing a tie is necessarily a foolproof method of ensuring this – answers on a postcard, please – but there is a principle here which today’s passage addresses directly.
Let’s move location from a posh club to our souls and bodies. And what Jesus tells us today is that what we let in is profoundly important. Or to put it another way, we need ways of screening out ‘undesirables’. In this case, it’s definitely not people, all of whom are equally loved by God and made in his image. It’s the stuff of life: it’s attitudes and motivations, desire and direction.
Jesus has just told us that we are the light of the world – filled with God’s presence, reflecting that presence to others. We can’t hide it – we just need to let it shine as best we can. But light needs fuel – in ancient societies that would be material to burn; nowadays that might be electricity or battery power. Either way, for light to keep burning brightly, it needs careful attention.
Our eyes are the entry point for our souls (v22). If what we let in is only ‘good fuel’, then the light will burn ever more brightly. However, we can also dim it by letting in darkness (v23).
The context of the passage is that of greed and desire. Jesus has warned his listeners not to set our hearts on wealth, but rather on the things of the kingdom (v19-20). So often, our eyes can feast on material temptation: we can see the trinkets of the wealthy, and allow that into our souls. Or we can allow worry over our material circumstances to dominate our thinking and reduce our trust in God’s provision (v25).
Both such temptations are forms of ‘darkness’, as Jesus describes it – they corrode our souls. Instead we are to watch what we absorb, to keep ‘healthy eyes’, that our souls and bodies may be full of light.
What grabs our attention today? Is it helping your light to burn? May God grant us grace to be renewed through what we see, what we fix our eyes upon – that we may shine brightly, for his glory. Amen!
The Roman writer Pliny talked about the two essentials of life as ‘sale et sole’ – salt and sun i.e. salt and light. And here in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus picks up on those same two images as metaphors for how we are to live as his followers. I love the combination of the two, as it characterises different facets of how we interact with the world around us: one subtle, the other obvious; one preventing decay, the other promoting goodness; but both powerful and influential, often from relatively small amounts/sources.
The focus today, naturally, is on the latter. And the key phrase here is towards the end, just four simple words: ‘let your light shine.’ Not make it shine – just.... let it shine.
The point here is that light inevitably shines. That’s what light does. It can’t do anything else. And if Jesus is the light, and his light dwells in us, then as those in whom Christ dwells, Jesus’ light will shine, in us and through us. Like a town on a hill, it’s hard to hide it.
That doesn’t stop many of us from trying, though! We’ve all had days, or weeks, or seasons when we’d prefer to lie low, when we felt the demands of ‘shining’ were too great to carry. Perhaps through a sense of unworthiness, or weariness, or doubt – but the effect was that we got that big bowl out of the cupboard, dusted it down and stuck it over our light.
I’m sure many of us can relate to that. But the problem is what then happens to the light. In Jesus’ day, all human-created light was essentially fire. Starve a fire of oxygen by concealing it and it eventually goes out. Jesus knew this, so his encouragement to avoid going down that road is not just for his sake, but also for ours. We need the light. We need its warmth and power inside us – to help us to live and to love, to care and to pray, to know peace, joy and purpose. Jesus our light is all of those things to us. In return, all he asks is that we let that light shine.
What a relief to know that we don’t have to make it shine! We just have to let it. May God grant us grace to do just that today. Perhaps we need to repent of trying to cover it up. Perhaps we need to pray for more courage, for a new determination to keep shining. Take heart – God is much more willing to forgive and to bless than we are. He loves that kind of prayer! So let’s seize our courage in both hands, and throw off that bowl. Let the light shine, and who knows how God will bless that today?
You knew we’d get here eventually. Any series looking at the idea of light in the bible at some point has to cover these iconic words of Jesus in John chapter 8. All those glorious Old Testament promises of light that we’ve been soaking up over the last few days, those great prophecies about the coming hope, the coming Saviour.... and here is the fulfilment! Or as John puts it at the start of his gospel: ‘The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.’ (1:9)
There’s not much I could say today which would add to the volumes written and spoken about this great declaration of Jesus. But I would just encourage us to think about the context in which Jesus spoke it. John begins v12 as follows: ‘When Jesus spoke again to the people...’ which implies that what Jesus says next in some way connects to what has happened before. He has something to share which throws light (pardon the pun) on recent events.
And what has just happened? Well, that is a matter of intense debate. It all depends on whether that famous story of the woman caught in adultery (vv1-11) is part of the original text or not. Let’s imagine for a moment that it isn’t: in which case the context is the debate that erupted between Jesus and the Pharisees at the end of chapter 7 after Jesus had declared that thirsty people should come to ‘drink’ the water of life from him. So it’s possible that this subsequent teaching that he is the light of life is a corollary to his also being the water of life.
My personal view, though, is that the story of the woman is original to the text, but has been largely excluded by the manuscript writers because it was too controversial. It’s more credible that something controversial was left out than inserted later. If that is true, then suddenly those famous words of Jesus in John 8:12 have a fascinating context. He declares that he is the light of the world immediately after this extraordinary encounter with the Pharisees and the woman.
Suddenly the follow-up sentence: ‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life,’ has a direct application. In both cases the Pharisees and the woman were invited to confront their own darkness by Jesus and to choose light and life. For the woman, that meant a new start, and a new lifestyle. For the Pharisees that meant a new mindset, a new humility when confronting issues of sin and forgiveness in themselves and others. In both cases, it was an invitation to turn their backs on darkness and to embrace the light.
We too face that choice every day. We face personal darkness, the darkness of situations, as well as the physical darkness of this time of year. And into each, Jesus invites us to receive the light of life. The light of forgiveness and strength to face temptations and dark thoughts. The light of hope to shine into difficult situations. The light of Jesus’ own abiding presence to lift our spirits on cold winter evenings.
Let’s claim that light today. Jesus is not just the light of the world in general – he is our light. May we know the light of true and abundant life today.
‘Wakey, wakey – rise and shine!’ That phrase certainly takes me back to my childhood – maybe it does yours too. Or maybe you’ve used it yourself to try and rouse sleepy children or grandchildren. But have you ever wondered where that phrase comes from?
Well, wonder no more – in all likelihood you’ve just read the original version of it in Isaiah chapter 60 and verse 1: ‘Arise, shine...’ Long before we rose and shone – or more likely, flickered reluctantly – God was declaring it over his chosen people 2,500 years ago. They too were living in a time of darkness (v2) – only not the darkness of an early morning, but of a situation of defeat and judgement. And into this situation God speaks a succession of great promises: of hope, of renewal, and also of light. We’ve looked at a couple of these promises in the last two days, and here is one more to lift our spirits.
Let’s notice first that God doesn’t ask us to do anything he hasn’t done first. It is God who rises and shines on us (v2). We rise and shine with his reflected light. A light which reaches to the nations, and to those who rule them (v3). A light which declares the glory of God into our situations (v1). To a world that is looking for light, God declares: ‘Your light has come!’
To a defeated people, this felt like the brightness of a new dawn (v3). And this global work of God would usher in an age when people would revere him across the world (59:19).
God gave this to his people 2,500 years ago as a solemn promise – a covenant (59:21). A covenant which remains in force now. We too have this light in our hearts. We too have this word on our lips and God’s Spirit upon us.
In this season which feels dark to many, let’s recover the power of an old saying which speaks not just of a new day, but of the ancient and enduring promise of God. Rise and shine! The glory of God rises on you. Even here, even today.
Those of you who took part in our quiz night this week will have heard the story of the Norwegian village that didn’t receive a single scrap of sunlight for 6 whole months. Their solution was to install three mirrors which move and rotate on a specific axis, to capture the sunlight. Its tracking system enables them to track the sun, and reflect sunlight downwards to the main square.
It’s a wonderful reminder of the power of light. And also that there are some parts of the world which miss out on light for long periods of the year. That said, it is also true that, at whatever point you’re reading this today, much of our world is bathed in light. The way that our earth rotates means that sunlight extends to the ends of the earth.
In today’s reading, we see a similar promise of global spiritual light. In the second of the great servant songs of Isaiah, God promises a new light for the whole world. The blessings enjoyed by Israel would soon be available to all (v6): which had always been the plan, but had not quite come to fruition before now. As people gazed on the ruins of Jerusalem, and wondered if life would ever recover, a new hope was springing up: one that was too big to be held within one people, but would stretch across the globe. This light would bring God’s salvation ‘to the ends of the earth.’
It’s easy to take this glorious truth for granted. We’re so used to the idea of universal access to God, we forget how rare it is. Virtually all other worldviews place some sort of limit on who’s ‘in’, but not the God of the bible. The grace of the one true God is available for all.
As humans we are made in the image of God, who is light. It follows that we were made to live in light – not just the light of the sun, but the light of the Son, too. When we pray, there will be thousands of people, maybe millions too, praying at that exact moment. Likewise when we sing. A global chorus of unceasing prayer and praise, as day follows night, and night follows day. It echoes the unending glory of heaven, where God is eternally praised.
So today, and every day, our small voice joins with millions of others across the world and throughout eternity, all worshipping the true light, the true servant who sets us free. May that thought lift our hearts today. And may it also cause us to offer prayers of thanks and support for all who will pray and praise in Jesus’ name across the world today.
It’s amazing how scary a bedroom looks in the darkness. As a child I would often wake and look around the room in the middle of the night, sure that the various shapes were moving, and/or represented something malevolent or dangerous. Then, as the first rays of light broke through the cracks in my curtains, suddenly those terrifying shapes turned out to be a chest of drawers or a pile of clothes on the floor!
It’s not only children who feel like this, of course – who knows how many of you resonate with what I’ve just described! But this scene, which must be repeated in millions of bedrooms around the world every night, illustrates how perfectly darkness can feel like a form of imprisonment. We cower under the covers, trying to get back to sleep again. But, ultimately, it is the light that frees us.
Today’s passage is one of the great prophecies of God’s rescue for a broken nation. A new servant would come, filled with Spirit of God (v1), who would re-establish justice (v4), rescue God’s people, renew the covenant, but more than that, who would also reach out to the world (v6). The way this last promise is described is significant: this rescuer would be a ‘a light for the Gentiles’ (i.e. non-Jews) too.
What does that light look like? Verse 7 paints a beautiful picture: ‘to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.’
This darkness was more than just the temporary terror of night: it was the settled gloom of a world that is not as it should be: lacking hope, joy or peace.
And into this situation, God promises: light is coming! And this light will bring freedom.
Our current situation may not feel so far from the scene described in Isaiah 42. So these words are a particular comfort today. We worship a God who comes to bring the light, and all that that means – hope, joy, peace, purpose. The darkness does not win in the end, there is release for those who dwell in the light.
Today, pray for God’s light to fill you again, and to shine into your situation. Pray to feel a deeper freedom which is not bound by the current restrictions. And know that God is gentle – he does not break our bruised reeds (v3). May we put our hope in this God again today.
I wonder if you remember those pictures a few years ago which had other images embedded in them? If you looked closely and let your eyes glaze a little, suddenly a new, ‘hidden’ image would miraculously appear. Apparently 92% of the population could do them – I was one of the 8% who couldn’t. Make of that what you will!
The book of Proverbs sometimes seems to me a bit like those pictures. The sequence of proverbs seems random: they flit from subject to subject – always incisive, always arresting, but hard to collate into a coherent whole, hard to find the hidden pattern.
And yet, look a little more closely and there are patterns. Much of the teaching coalesces around two simple contrasts: the foolish and the wise, and the unrighteous and the righteous. The two are largely synonymous – the righteous are wise and vice versa. Ultimately living in God’s light leads to both wisdom and righteousness: life works, essentially. Doing the alternative fails the ultimate test.
There are also certain verses which seem to guide the teaching around it. Take today’s passage for example: verse 9 tells us that ‘the light of righteous shines brightly’, which is a lovely image in itself, and one picked up by Jesus a thousand years later in his famous teaching. However, it also functions as a helpful summary of much of what comes around it. What does bright living look like? It looks like: the capacity to take advice and instruction (v1, v10); careful attention to our words (v2,v3); the ability to moderate our appetites (v4); to love truth (v5). Ultimately this kind of wise or righteous living guards us in the situations we face (v6).
So often we can feel pushed down by negative stereotypes attached to faith or church – so, today, let’s soak in this lovely image of the light shining brightly. A life which takes advice, blesses with our lips, enjoys good things in moderation and loves truth and goodness is a beautiful thing, and one which also shines to those around us.
Where would you like your light to shine today? Which of today’s proverbs touches your heart? May God grant us grace to heed this timeless wisdom, and so to shine the light of his glorious love and truth into our lives, and out from our lives to those around us.
As the nights draw in, we’re entering that time of year when light is at a premium. Nowadays this affects us much less than it would have done in ancient societies, lacking access to artificial light. Then, a full (or nearly full) moon and a clear sky made a huge difference. Otherwise, fire was pretty much the only source of light on a dark evening.
We sometimes experience the effects of true darkness. Last year there was a power-cut in Wavendon one evening, and for the first time in years we were in a dark house, at the end of a dark drive. We found our torches and realised that only one had batteries which actually worked! Eventually we found some matches and a bag of tea lights and lit as many as we could find. The whole process took so long it was probably only about 5 minutes later that the power came on again!
Navigating a dark house, trying not to trip on furniture, was a useful lesson in what walking in the dark really looks and feels like. It’s a healthy reminder that light is precious. Therefore, reliable sources of light are of immense value.
Today’s passage begins with this famous image about God’s word being a light to our path (v105), but truthfully I suspect most of us in the West don’t really connect with it to the same degree that our ancestors would have done. It’s easy for us to take light for granted. Similarly, our ease of access to Scripture is likewise a privilege that many Christians around the world are denied.
How we need both! Scripture and light. And here we see the two combined. God’s word lights our way. It is our reliable guide for life.
Light is often connected with truth and wisdom. The writer of this psalm goes on to outline some of the practical reasons why this wisdom is so valuable – for example, it preserves our life (v107) and acts as our inheritance (v111). Elsewhere in the psalm we read that it gives us hope, sustains us daily, rescues us from oppression and besetting addictions, and brings us delight. No wonder the writer concludes: ‘To all perfection I see a limit, but your commands are boundless.’ (v96)
Today, let’s pray to recapture a sense of wonder at God’s word, the true and enduring source of light. And let’s also pray for that light to shine on any particular needs and challenges we have. May that word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path today.
This year has been a bumper year for acorns. I can verify that this is true, walking past the Holm Oak at the front of Wavendon churchyard numerous times in the last few weeks. It was fascinating to watch Autumnwatch on TV last week and discover the reason why.
Apparently every 4-7 years there is a bumper – or ‘mast’ – year. The reason why oak trees drop their seeds later than most other trees is that it coincides with the time of year when animals like squirrels and jays are storing food for winter. The more acorns, the more seeds to bury. Jays in particular like to bury acorns some distance from the original tree, about 1.5cm deep into the soil – perfect sowing conditions for a new oak, which can germinate safely over the winter whenever a jay forgets where all its acorns have been buried. So a mast year means lots of potential new oak trees and a boost to the wildlife population. All from one oak tree.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? The more we learn about nature, the more we discover how interconnected the balance of our ecosystem is. In this case squirrels and jays act as woodland farmers, sowing seeds for the next generation.
In our Psalm today we see another type of divine sowing. Psalm 97 is a great Psalm, which speaks beautifully of the majesty of God. But towards the end, we see this extraordinary phrase – ‘Light is sown on the righteous’ (v11). Modern translations will usually paraphrase it as ‘Light shines...’ But the original text is almost certainly the agricultural image – applied to light! What does it mean?
It’s actually the last of several ‘light’ images in this psalm, all related to God. First there is fire (v3, the main source of human light after sunset) – symbolising God’s purity and judgement. Then there is lightning (v4), which speaks of his power and majesty in creation. But then comes this last and most intimate image. Fire and lightning are awesome – scary, even. Is this how humans can only relate to God?
Not at all. For the righteous, God sows light upon them. This light brings joy (v11) and praise (v12). What a beautiful image! To sow is to plant things which bear fruit and feed us. So God’s desire is to plant light into our lives. Yes, God is majestic and awesome – but he is also the tender gardener, sowing good things into the lives of his children.
I’m not much good at gardening – but thankfully the divine gardener is not like me. As we dedicate ourselves to him, God sows light upon us. Where is God sowing light for you today? Pray that this light grows! And if light is hard to find, claim this verse as a promise, that we might again find joy in our hearts.
When someone sneezes in your presence, I wonder what your first reaction is? In this day and age, possibly to get as far away from them as possible. But in more normal times, I imagine for many of us, the response would be an automatic: ‘Bless you!’
But what does it mean? The word ‘bless’ is one of those words which lots of us use, but we’re not sure why. Sometimes it can be patronising – ‘awwww, bless’ – much of the time it’s a comforting soundbite in response to a human nose repulsing germs, which dates back to the days of plague.
Which is all very well – but when it comes to blessing, I fear familiarity has bred contempt. So today, let’s recover its true power – it’s worth it!
The practice of blessing has a long and noble tradition. Indeed it goes back to the very first chapter of Genesis, where God blesses. Interestingly, even before he blesses human beings, God blesses fish and birds first. God then blesses Noah (ch9) and Abraham (ch12). Each time, the blessing gets bigger, and better. And this all reinforces the basic truth: our God is a God who blesses.
Which is really the heart of it, when it comes to what it means for us humans to practise blessing too. At its heart, to bless is to bestow God’s goodness on something or someone. We usually do that in one of two ways: sometimes when we bless we offer a concrete sign of that goodness – we do something practical to help them. At other times, when we bless it’s more of a prayer, naming things we’d like someone to experience, perhaps more in hope than expectation.
In today’s passage, Aaron, inspired by God, declares the most iconic blessing of all. The God would keep us, be gracious to us and grant us peace. And at its heart is this beautiful phrase: that God’s face would shine upon us. Or to use the adaptation quoted in Psalm 4, that God would ‘lift up the light of his countenance upon us.’ (Psalm 4:6)
God is light. And light always shines. It can’t help it. So this blessing is a prayer that God’s light would be directed towards us, for our wellbeing. It’s not just a prayer for us, but also for others. It’s a great prayer to pray over those we love, those in need of comfort and support.
May God’s glorious light shine on us today. And may it shine too on those we bless, in his name.
A few weeks ago, our young people’s group looked at space. As part of our session, we watched a fairly mind-blowing short video, which showed just how vast it is (if you want to watch it, this is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkQWpQd9Zdo). We learned, for example, that the sun is a million times bigger than earth, but that the largest star – VY Canis Majoris (which roughly translates as ‘Very Big Dog’) – has a diameter 2,000 times larger than the sun!
But nothing compares to the size of a galaxy. If our solar system is a 20p piece, than the Milky Way is roughly the size of the USA. Seriously. That is big.
So big, in fact, we can’t comprehend it. It’s better to keep these thoughts as numbers and images, because no-one can really fathom this kind of scale in any meaningful way. Except God.
‘He also made the stars.’ (v17) This short phrase, offered almost as a throwaway, has to be one of the most incredible verses of all scripture. It barely merits a mention, and yet represents a feat of creation far beyond anything we can imagine. Carl Sagan once mused that the total number of stars in the universe would likely be as many as the grains of sand on the whole face of the earth. Next time you’re at the beach, scoop up a handful of sand and contemplate that.
What does this really mean? Simply this: our God is a great big God. Plenty big enough for our doubts and fears, plenty big enough for our problems – and the world’s. And if that is true, then he is well able to hold us in his hand, even in these dark and confusing times.
It has never been more important to seize this glorious truth: our God is a great big God. Let’s place ourselves in this God’s hands today, and comfort ourselves in the vastness of his presence. Let’s pray big prayers to a big God. He also made the stars!
As we begin this series today, let me finish with the words of a famous hymn, and may it also be your prayer, as it is mine:
Thou whose Almighty word chaos and darkness heard – and took their flight.
Hear us we humbly pray, and where the gospel day sheds not its glorious ray:
Let there be light! Amen.
Today is Remembrance Day. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the armistice was signed and peace was declared to mark the end of the Great War. Around the world today, 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.
As we conclude our short series on remembering, today’s Psalm also 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.
Peter Kay’s adverts for John Smith’s bitter 10 or 15 years ago still rank as some of my favourite ads of all time (I used to test and research ads for a living, so I’ve always had a soft spot for the ad break). One of the best starred Kay as a dad comforting his little daughter as she lay crying in bed at night. ‘What’s the matter?’ asks Kay. ‘I’m scared of the monster hiding in my cupboard,’ replies his daughter. ‘You don’t need to worry about that – look!’ reassures Kay, opening the cupboard door. ‘It’s the robber climbing in through the window you should be scared about.’
(Rest assured, he won’t be joining our church pastoral care team anytime soon...)
The night hours can be challenging for many of us. We may no longer fear the monster under our bed or in the cupboard, but it’s amazing how small problems can seem so much bigger at night. And big problems can seem HUGE.
We toss and turn, we feel our heartbeat quicken. We may even get up and walk around to calm ourselves down. And then when morning comes – some of those things that haunted us suddenly don’t seem so bad. At least until night returns.
Little children often have ‘the night terrors.’ But it’s not unknown for us adults, either. Physical darkness can be a time of spiritual darkness too.
In our psalm today, we learn that King David knows what that feels like. And let’s be clear: it’s not caused by a lack of closeness to God. That’s a great lie the devil tells us, especially in the wee small hours – and it’s not true. When we worry at night, we are not facing condemnation for a lack of faith. Banish that thought! King David has seen God’s power and glory (v2), and dedicates his life to praise (v4,v5). He is close to God, but he’s not immune.
David’s solution to night worries is to focus on what he chooses to remember. When David frets in the darkness, he remembers his Lord (v6) – if need be, he keeps coming back to God through the night. He sings (quietly?) if he has to (v7). And he clings (v8) – he’s not afraid to cry out for help in the depths of his heart.
Think, sing and cling – it’s a bit cheesy, but it’s not a bad strategy. When your worries surround you in the quiet hours, choose to remember God: let him rest at the heart of your being, and consciously invite him back into the midst of your problems. Sing praise songs and hymns under your breath, claiming God’s truth and power over those worries. And don’t be afraid to cry ‘help!’. Only God hears – but God is the only one who needs to hear.
And however long the night lasts, daylight always comes. God’s mercies come to us afresh every morning. May those mercies come to us today – in light and darkness.
God has not forgotten you.
At the risk of sounding like a scratched record (and I have plenty of those, as Alise will tell you), I want to start where I left off in yesterday’s service reflection. You are not forgotten.
The world is a big and confusing place, and our current news headlines only serve to reinforce that. It’s all ‘big stuff’ – global pandemics, lockdowns, era-defining elections, climate change... It’s all important, and we need to know about it. But it only serves to reinforce how small we are.
Most of us have laughed over the years at some of the stories you would find in the local press, but I believe the recent dramatic decline of local newspapers has had one very significant negative: for all that we might mock stories about blocked drains, cats up trees and wobbly bus shelters, it reminds us that our world is full of individuals – mostly ordinary people like you and me. People that we might even know. In effect, we were part of the news, we were part of the story.
We might not feel much part of any news story now. But we are still part of God’s story. It is a comfort to know that even King David sometimes felt like a nobody, surrounded by bigger forces and troubles. Psalm 25 is David’s heartfelt response: ‘In you, O lord, I put my trust.... No-one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame.’ (v1,v3)
At the heart of the psalm is a plea for remembrance: ‘According to your love, remember me, for you, O Lord, are good.’ (v7) God remembers because he loves. He remembers David – and he remembers us.
Interestingly David also asks God to forget something – ‘the sins of his youth’ (v7). Or rather, to remember it no more: in other words, God consciously chooses not to remember the bad stuff in our lives once we ask him to forgive it. Instead, he remembers mercy, the mercy which God has always possessed ‘from of old’ (v6).
In this week that lockdown has returned, many of us might echo the words of v16-17 as our prayer for today: ‘Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish.’
It’s a good prayer. One of the great comforts of our faith is that we can be honest with God. We don’t have to pretend to be happy or untroubled, for fear that God will squish us. The true validation of God’s parenthood in our lives is precisely that we can take our bad stuff to him, asking not just for forgiveness, but also protection (v20) and guidance (v4).
I’ll end as I started: God has not forgotten you. He remembers you, according to his love. Bring him your troubles, pour out your heart, and place your trust in him again. No-one who does that will ever be put to shame.
‘Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’
John the Baptist’s iconic words addressed to Jesus in the first chapter of John’s gospel are rooted in today’s famous passage. Ever since the time of Exodus, the image of the sacrificial lamb had come to symbolise God’s rescue of his people. Every year, at Passover, all Jewish families would re-enact God’s salvation by the Red Sea, and a dish of lamb would be at the heart of the meal.
But something new was coming. The servant songs of Isaiah, which are studded through the later chapters of the book, promise a new rescue and a new rescuer. This anointed one (Messiah) would carry great authority and integrity, would stand for justice, and would bring salvation, not just to Israel, but to the world. This servant would be ‘raised and lifted up and highly exalted’ (52:13), and earthly kings would ‘shut their mouths because of him’ (52:15).
There’s a sting in the tail, however. Because it’s not the whole story. This same servant would not just be the Lion of Judah – he would also be the Lamb, sacrificed for all. Indeed he would be ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter’ (v7). Why? Verses 4-6 make it clear. ‘He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.’ All our human selfishness, all our rebellion against God, placed upon his shoulders – so that we might have peace. (v5)
‘No peace without justice’ – so has sung many a liberation movement in recent decades. In today’s passage, we are addressing the ultimate yardstick of justice – our standing before Almighty God. And it is the Lamb who symbolises God’s perfect justice and mercy. God takes the punishment himself, that we might be healed, that we might have peace.
Tomorrow, we’ll remember and honour the sacrifice of so many in war, and give thanks for the peace that we now share. But today, let’s remember an even greater sacrifice which won an even deeper peace. And may the good news that, through Jesus’ sacrifice, we have peace with God cause us to give thanks; may it lift our hearts today and fill us with his abiding presence.
Look! The Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world... Lord, we are not worthy to come into your presence – and but only say the word, and we shall be healed. Amen.
A few months ago I watched the Sound of Music for the first time in many years. I’ll always remember my first viewing of the film – after Charles and Di’s wedding in July 1981. We watched the ‘wedding of the century’ then all sat and watched The Sound of Music as a family. Perfect.
And it’s hard to beat the scene at the end of the film, watching the family walking across the mountain-top to freedom. How lovely on the mountains are the feet of those bringing good news. Especially if they can sing close harmony as well.
In the case of the Von Trapp family, the good news was primarily personal – but here in today’s passage, the good news is altogether more universal.
It’s likely that the latter chapters of Isaiah were written in the late 6th century, after Jerusalem had been conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian army – hence the reference to ‘ruins of Jerusalem’ in v9. Good news was in short supply. Where was hope?
Hope was coming. The watchmen would see it and find joy (v8). The ruins themselves would sing (v9). And over the mountains would come feet bringing good news (v7).
600 years later, those feet would announce the good news that the kingdom of God was near. Those feet would travel up the hillside to deliver the Beatitudes, to hear Peter’s confession of the Christ and to meet Moses and Elijah. But a short while later, those same feet would also climb Mount Moriah, carrying a cross lashed across their owner’s back.
God’s good news is sure, and true. But it’s more than ‘the hills are alive’, lovely as that is. It came at a great cost. As we’ll see tomorrow, its beauty lay in sacrifice. Peace was won the hard way.
Nevertheless, it remains good news – more than that, it’s still the best news I ever heard! And although it came after great waiting and at great cost, nothing is more true than the final words of the passage: All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.
We are part of God’s big salvation story. Give thanks for those beautiful feet that brought good news to you.
Remember, remember, the 5th of November.... so the old nursery rhyme goes, and one that we learned at school. I imagine you may have done too! Sadly, not too many firework displays are likely to happen this evening, but it’s a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.
And today’s passage is another trip down memory lane: in this case prophetic memory lane. About 250 years previously, God had promised King David – son of Jesse – that one of his descendents would inherit his throne forever. A dozen kings had come and gone, the kingdom had split in two and the northern half was about to be conquered... when would this new King come?
God hadn’t forgotten. And God gives the great prophet Isaiah a new vision which reassures the people that his promise still stands. There would be a new king, descended from David (v1). This king would be filled with God’s Spirit (v2) and would stand for justice and righteousness (vv4-5) – something many of Israel’s kings had conspicuously failed to do. And under this new king, there would be a new reign of peace, and a healing of the created order such that even predators would get cosy with their prey (vv6-8). It would, in short, be glorious, and global (v10).
What a vision! Even so, it took another 700 years for the king to come. God’s timing is not ours. And that can be unsettling, testing even. There are times when we too may feel forgotten by God; maybe something we believe he has promised us hasn’t arrived yet. And that causes us pain, and perhaps doubt as well.
But God never forgets. The branch always bears fruit from the root. And God calls us to step out again, to dare to believe in his faithfulness. As it was said of Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe: ‘He’s not safe – but he is good!’
Today, take a moment to claim again the promises that God has given you. They might be specific, or if there isn’t a particular thing, claim some of the great promises in our passage today.
God remembers. And it’s good for us to remember, too. We are what we remember.
As I write this morning, the people of America are going to the polls to elect their president for the next four years. The stakes are high: many commentators see this not so much as a choice between two candidates, but between two radically different visions of the society America wants to be. It’s not for me to comment here on the rights and wrongs of those competing visions – but what did sadden me as I watched the news this morning was the sight of shopkeepers in many towns and cities across America boarding up their stores yesterday, for fear of potential violence by a small minority of whichever side loses the election.
Needless to say, the whole point of democracy is that societies are no longer governed by which side has the biggest fists or guns. However it is also a timely reminder in this week of Remembrance that peace in this world remains fragile and hard to maintain, however sophisticated we consider ourselves to be.
Today’s famous passage picks up where yesterday’s left off. Isaiah has another great vision of the peace that God will ultimately bring to this fractured world. Admittedly the context is set more in terms of a victory for God’s people: nevertheless it is equally clear that, in this vision of a healed world, there will be no more need for armies or violence – blood-soaked boots and clothes will be burned and done away with forever (v5).
But this vision in ch9 goes a step further than ch2 – there will be a focal point for this new era of peace. A child will be born who carries divine authority, who will usher in and oversee this restoration of all things. And this child will have wonderful names, including perhaps the loveliest of all, certainly the most appropriate for this week: the Prince of Peace. Or, to use the original word, the Prince of Shalom.
Shalom is now translated peace, but its meaning is much broader than our traditional definition. It means completeness or wholeness, the sense of everything being put right, perfected. This kind of shalom is much more than merely the absence of conflict, it is an active state of complete wellbeing. (For a deeper exploration of shalom, watch this great video – 4 minutes of your life well spent J: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLYORLZOaZE )
This is the destiny which God intends for his world. And he will achieve it through the son which he gives (v6). Jesus is the Prince of Shalom. No wonder the angels cry out at his birth: ‘on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests!’ (Luke 2:14)
So as we pray for America today, and as we pray for ourselves with lockdown looming large on the horizon, let’s give thanks that, above and beyond our human leaders, there reigns a greater, divine leader, one whose vision for the world is ultimately for complete wellbeing for all people, and whose vision will one day come to pass: Jesus, the Prince of Shalom. And may that divine shalom be ours today.
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?
But there’s a more serious side to these games as well. This week, we’ll be leading up to Remembrance by looking at 5 famous passages in the book of Isaiah, all themed around the idea of peace; and in today’s passage we see the most famous biblical ‘alternative use’ of them 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.
9.30am Family Communion with Childrens' Church
8.30 am Traditional Communion using the Book of Common Prayer
9.30 am Cafe Church
9.30 am Family Communion with Childrens' Church
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.