Today we step onto holy ground. Colossians 1:15-20 is one of the great jewels of Scripture – a hymn of praise to the surpassing greatness of Jesus Christ.
For once I’m not going to say anything – but rather to encourage you to read this glorious passage slowly, allowing every phrase to wash over you.
Then read it again. What jumps out?
Then be still for a few moments in the awesome presence of ‘the firstborn over all creation’.
May God grant us a fresh sense of awe and wonder today at just who we worship. May we see Jesus as he is. And may that cause us to praise and pray with renewed hope. Amen.
‘Wisdom is proved right by all her children.’ These words of Jesus are beautifully turned into prayer by St Paul in verses 10-12 of this marvellous passage, which we return to today. On Saturday we looked at how Paul encouraged us to pray for spiritual wisdom and understanding as the first priority of his prayers for fellow Christians like us. How we need it!
But this kind of wisdom has good outcomes, and it is these outcomes that Paul now prays for us, too. In summary, spiritual wisdom enables us to ‘live a life worthy of the Lord and [to] please him in every way’ (v10). What a good aim in life to have – but thankfully Paul doesn’t stop there, he puts flesh on the bones of the idea. This kind of worthy life manifests itself in several ways:
We bear fruit in every good work. I like the emphasis that it’s not just good work – it is fruitful work. So many of the practical choices we make as followers of Jesus are to do God stuff and not just good stuff. It’s a good habit to develop, to ask God to discern the ‘God’ things from the good things. Don’t get me wrong, good things are still good things. But life is finite and time is short, there are usually several good things we can do at any point in time. What a blessing to have confidence that the particular good thing we aim to do is also the ‘God thing’ – the thing which God will most use for his glory.
We grow in the knowledge of God – which is pretty self-explanatory, except to say that knowledge in this sense is always practical, life-orientated, and not just academic. We are to know God like we know how to bake a cake or drive a car – we could write down the recipe if we wished, but best of all we can actually do it!
We have great endurance. As we’ve observed before, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Following Jesus is a long old journey. Simply keeping going, faithfully and consistently, is a very underrated quality. When asked about his qualification for becoming a missionary, William Carey – the father of overseas missions – simply said: ‘I can plod’. God loves plodders!
We give joyful thanks – so often we come back to this thought: retaining a spirit of gratitude in our lives. Counting our blessings. It is easy to get stuck in a negative mindset – I do quite often. But gratitude is so powerful: it not only gives glory to God, it lifts our spirits, and inspires us to keep following our Lord wholeheartedly.
So... God stuff not just good stuff, continuing to learn, plodding faithfully whatever life throws at you, staying grateful – this is the worthy life. And I love the fact that it’s, well, normal. It’s not for the super-spiritual, it’s the sort of list all of us can look at and say – ‘well, I can manage at least two of those, and on a good day I can manage 3 or even 4.’ And that’s how it’s meant to be. Following Jesus isn’t easy – but it is for people like us! And God has all ‘glorious might’ (v11) to enable it to happen. How good is that?
Following yesterday’s reflection, let’s spend a little time today looking at the content of prayer. Most of us – me included – focus a lot on practical requests. And that’s fine: Jesus encourages us to ask God for what we need today (our daily bread), and there’s harm in naming those things. Or indeed for naming others who need particular things too.
But I always find it helpful to look at the content of biblical prayers – especially the prayers of St Paul in the letters he wrote. Whenever I read them, it seems to open out a new dimension for me in prayer. It’s like Paul is praying on a different plane, you might say a deeper foundation. It’s the difference between asking to be given bread and asking to learn how to bake – at least some of what we need. Now that would be something, wouldn’t it?
And it usually starts with our minds. Before Paul prays about people’s lives he prays –like he does here – for ‘God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives.’ (v9) If we know God’s will then it’s much easier both to pray for that will to be done, and also to try and do it. We’re no longer stumbling along in the dark, but walking more confidently in the light.
It’s deceptive simple, but powerful. And as I’ve tried to grow in my own walk with Jesus, I’ve learned to give more time in my prayers to asking God for wisdom to know what to pray for. I’ve found that offering this prayer – which is usually answered more surprisingly clearly than you might think – both fills me with more confidence, boldness and inspiration to then pray whatever that is, and also saves precious time and energy, which can be invested in other ways.
But let’s observe that this wisdom is given by the Spirit. It’s vital that we give time in our prayers asking God’s Holy Spirit to fill our minds as well as our hearts. To think ‘God-thoughts’, to take the words we read in the Word to heart. Word and prayer go hand-in-hand: and as the two feed off each other – the Word inspires our prayers, which inspires us to go back to the Word for more, which inspires our prayers in turn, and so on – so we receive a different, more nourishing kind of bread. We start to co-operate a little in the baking process, so to speak.
Don’t hear me wrong – I’m not preaching a gospel of self-reliance here. The Christian life is God’s gift at its heart: it’s just that Paul encourages us to pray for different gifts, a different kind of bread you might say. This kind of bread, Paul says, is remarkably energising, if verses 10-12 are anything to go by. We’ll look a bit more at this bread next time.
But today, let’s take a few moments to pray verse 9 for ourselves and for any situations where we particularly need wisdom and understanding. Ask God to reveal that wisdom to you by his Spirit – and may that wisdom feed your prayers and energise your walk with Jesus today. Amen.
Prayer is hard. Anyone who tells you it isn’t either hasn’t tried it very much, or perhaps hasn’t tried it at all. For many of us in our walk with Jesus, prayer remains the central challenge in our journey. Certainly in my role as a pastor I have listened to more people confess that prayer remains the greatest struggle of their spiritual life than anything else. Very few of us would ever admit to be good at praying.
Why is that? If it’s so important and valuable and life-giving, why is it so hard? Why do we struggle with it so much? I think a good place to start in trying to answer that question is to acknowledge that it is a very intense activity, much more tiring than almost anything else. An hour of prayer – by which I mean intercessory prayer, prayer for others and the needs of the world – is like half a day of any other activity. We need to recognise that prayer is not ‘time off’ but time intensely on, engaging in the deepest, most powerful activity known to humanity.
Then we have recognise that, precisely because it is so valuable, our spiritual enemy will do everything in his power (which is limited, by the way, in Christ we have nothing to fear) to stop us. Doubts, distractions, interruptions, little lies whispered in our ear – “God won’t hear you”, “that wasn’t the right prayer” – you know the sport of thing! Nothing drastic – just enough to make us wonder if it’s worth the effort.
Most critically, I think what kills prayer is the list of ‘oughts’ we bring to it. I ought to pray for this long. I ought to pray in this way, using these prayers or these long words. I ought to pray like so-and-so prays, who’s a much better Christian than me. I ought to ‘feel’ something. I ought to have prayed like this yesterday.
It’s funny that we place all these ‘oughts’ on prayer, when all Jesus tells us to do is to find a quiet space and to pray something short and simple (Matthew 6:5-8). He’s much more worried about the direction of our prayer (for God, not for others to see how holy we are) and the attitude of our hearts (humility, not pride – Luke 18:9-14) than the way we pray. Where do all these oughts come from?
Actually, Jesus is concerned about one other thing in prayer: that we keep praying, and don’t give up. This is the biggie for most of us, isn’t it? Every single one of us will have some prayer that we’ve prayed for a long time that doesn’t appear to have had a positive answer yet. And Jesus’ encouragement to us – and St Paul’s here in v9 of today’s passage – is simply this: don’t give up. Keep going.
‘We have not stopped praying,’ Paul tells his readers today. God doesn’t care about the oughts. He just cares that we keep going. I came across some good, no-nonsense advice this week from a Catholic theologian, Dom John Chapman: ‘the only way to pray is to pray... If one has no time [to pray much], then one must at least pray regularly.... As to beginning afresh or where you left off, I don’t think you have any choice. You simply have to begin wherever you find yourself.’ Or as my old mentor put it to me: pray as you can, not as you can’t.
So, wherever you find yourself today, just take a little while to pray. As you can, not as you can’t. The passage has some great ideas for what to pray, you could just pray those exactly as they are on the page and that would be a great start – for you, and for others that come to mind. But whatever you can manage, remember: no oughts! God loves to be with you as you are.
The Church is a very big thing. Very big. It’s hard for us to get a true handle on just how many people claim to follow Jesus. Think of a big crowd that you’ve been part of. One of the biggest for me was the crowd of 80,000 in the Olympic Stadium in London in 2012. That was an amazing experience – but, if current figures are roughly correct, the global Church is more than 25,000 times larger than that crowd!
Imagine that. 25,000 London Stadia all joined together – or to put it another way, if you ever go to a concert or a football match, imagine that each person there represents tens of thousands of people – and that’s the Church in 2021.
It’s pretty hard to get your head around, isn’t it? And maybe a bit unsettling, too. I like being in big crowds, I find them energising. I’ve always loved the thrill of being part of something bigger, that sense of losing yourself in a collective experience. But the last phrase is suggestive: ‘losing yourself’ is also not necessarily something we like to feel too often. Does the size of the Church mean that we as individuals don’t matter any more?
In today’s passage, St. Paul speaks joyfully of the fact that, even in his day, just 30 years after the ‘Jesus movement’ began, it was ‘growing throughout the whole world’ (v6). And within the more limited understanding of the size of the world at that time, this was certainly true. Paul himself had travelled all round the Eastern Mediterranean, including Greece and Turkey. He had first met Jesus on the way to Syria. It had already spread to Rome without his direct influence. It was known to be in North Africa, and Paul no doubt knew of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian official, so was likely to be further south, too. ‘Throughout the world....’
At the time Paul wrote, the actual numbers would have been small: a few tens of thousands at most – they could have fitted comfortably into one London Stadium! But a movement had begun which would truly spread across the world. Today there is at least one follower of Christ in every country, and millions in most of them. How great is our God!
But – and this is our other encouragement for today – it is not an impersonal gospel. Or to put it another way – you matter. The amazing thing about God is that he still knows and loves each one of us. Each of us is precious. And each of us plays our part. The church in Colossae came to faith because of the work of one faithful follower – Epaphras – from whom this small group of believers learned about Jesus (v7). In turn, this small community of individuals now loved each other (v8).
Huge as it is, in the kingdom of God everyone matters. The mustard seeds that grow the great tree are still vital seeds in their own right.
If you get the chance today, go and enjoy one of the blossom trees which are everywhere at the moment. Look at the thousands of blooms – a glorious sight! Then choose just one bud, and look closely at it. It’s amazing. It’s beautiful in its own right. That’s you. Yes, there are tens of thousands like you on the same tree – but your blossom matters. Your small act of ‘bearing fruit and growing’ plays its part. Thanks be to God!
Yesterday we looked at the foundations of our good news: the two pillars, if you will, of grace and peace. God’s gift of undeserved mercy, which in turn brings shalom to our relationships in every dimension. God’s grace, our peace. These are the twin foundations on which our walk with Jesus rests – and as such, it’s a perfect way to introduce a letter designed to strengthen our spiritual lives.
Today, Paul builds on that image by describing how to build fruitfully on those foundations. What are the defining characteristics of this life-giving journey, of what it means to live in grace and peace? As Paul gives thanks for what God is doing in the church in Colossae, he talks about three old friends, ones which form the basis of our reflection today: faith, hope and love.
You may be familiar with something called the ‘rule of three’. It’s a very old concept, tracing back to ancient Greece – the idea that things go better in threes. It was a technique they developed in communications (as Paul does here), but the history of human society and culture suggest that the ‘power of 3’ goes deeper than just good ways of communicating information or telling stories. We seem to connect with 3s.
Theologically I think that probably has something to do with the nature of God himself: we worship God as 3-in-1, as Father, Son and Spirit. So it would be natural that human beings – made in this divine image – have a deep connection with things that come in 3s. Hence ‘3’ defines both how we relate to the world around us (in 3 dimensions) and also how we experience time (past, present and future). Ironically, it tends not to work so well for us in human relationships – though Christian couples will attest that bringing God into the heart of their relationship creates ‘a cord of three strands not easily broken’.
And in the bible, alongside the Trinity, probably the most well-known ‘set of 3’ is the set we encounter today. It was something Paul had famously developed in a letter written a few years earlier to the Christian community in Corinth, and still used in many wedding ceremonies today: ‘and now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’
I get the feeling that Paul was (quite understandably) pleased with what he wrote, as he develops the ideas here in this letter. Only now he adds further content to the principles. We are to live with: faith in Jesus Christ, love for God’s people and with the hope of heaven.
What I find powerful is where each attribute is directed. First we need faith in Jesus. This is vital. We often commend faith in a generic sense, but the bible always insists that our faith has to be directed somewhere: specifically, our faith is to be in Jesus. Why? Because we need to place faith in someone we can trust, who loves us, who is completely dependable, and has both the compassion and the authority to make things right. That would be Jesus.
Empowered by this faith, we are then able to selflessly serve (i.e. to love) our fellow Christians. That’s not to say that we don’t love all people, but we are to give particular love and support to those who also try to follow Jesus – who could you apply that to today?
Finally, this life of faith and love has a future purpose: we are living for eternity, the hope of heaven. Time and again, we are encouraged to see heaven as a motivating factor in our here-and-now lives: the firm and confident conviction that we are headed somewhere much better than here. Yes, we seize every day on this earth, and give thanks for every blessing: but we are on a journey somewhere better.
Faith, hope and love – it’s ‘the true message of the gospel’ (v5) and what Paul gives thanks for in the lives of his readers. May it be our ‘rule of 3’ too, and may God stir in us ever more completely these golden threads of: faith, hope and love.
Not many of us write letters anymore – at least not by choice. Emails, texts, posts, tweets, blogs – but a letter? Only for formal replies to institutions: and even then, usually typed on a computer and printed out.
To receive a handwritten letter nowadays is a rare and beautiful thing. And yet it really wasn’t so very long ago that this was the main method of communicating. I still have a carrier bag full of letters from my friends and family, written to me while I was at university around 30 years ago. I could fill a similar bag with those I wrote back to them. To read them now brings back so many powerful memories, and also makes me smile at the craft required to write them. How to use words to communicate, not just ideas and news, but emotions and sensations. Emojis are really just the new punctuation. A sadly lost art!
However, whilst it is tempting to imagine that the rarity of letters is a modern phenomenon, this is far from the case. You may be surprised to learn that letter writing was equally rare 2,000 years ago – paper was expensive and difficult to make or acquire. A handwritten letter was just as precious then as it is now.
Today we begin a detailed look at one such precious letter written 2,000 years ago – by St Paul to a fairly new Christian community living in the city of Colossae , now in modern-day Turkey. Paul had not started this church, although his protégé Epaphras had likely started it following Paul’s fruitful time in Ephesus. However, he did want to encourage them in their faith, so he sent another friend Tychicus to them with this letter, and encouraged them also to read the one he sent to the church down the road in Laodicea at the same time.
Although the letter is only four chapters – this is typically the amount of text that could be squeezed onto one sheet of papyrus, which is why most of Paul’s letters are roughly this length – there’s so much in it which is just as relevant to us today. The Colossians (i.e. people who live in Colossae, hence the English name of the letter) lived life in the spiritual supermarket, just as we do. They had a vibrant faith but faced pressure to add unnecessary things to their faith, just as we do. They needed to keep grasping just what a glorious message we have, and who we really are in Christ – just as we do.
And it starts with a simple greeting: ‘grace and peace’. It was Paul’s adaptation of a typical Roman greeting... but so much more. In three simple words he defines the beating heart of our faith, of what it means for us to be followers of Christ. First, grace: God’s undeserved mercy to us, his heart of love for humanity, shown in Christ. I was brought up to understand grace by this simple acronym: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense – and it’s hard to get a better definition, even now. Philip Yancey describes grace as the ‘last, best word of the English language,’ defining it as: ‘nothing you can do can make God love you more, nothing you can do can make God love you less.’ I like that.
And the outcome of grace is that second word: peace. More than just the absence of conflict, it derives from the Hebrew word shalom, which means complete wellbeing in every dimension. Whilst we may feel a long way short of that, to know the grace of Christ slowly brings order and peace to all our relationships: with God, with others, with the wider community, even with ourselves.
Grace and peace. What better way to greet someone? And what better thing to pray as we begin our series: may God fill us all with a deeper understanding of his grace, that we too might overflow with peace. Amen.
In memory of HRH Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh 1921-2021
How would you define greatness? For most of us, we naturally connect the word with power and success. It is the human condition. But it is not the way of Christ. Jesus’ words in Mark 10 created a revolution in our understanding of greatness. Until this point, it was unthinkable for leaders to be seen in any other way than through ostentatious power and wealth, a position overtly above others. ‘Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.’
Like most people, I never met Prince Philip personally. But he still exercised a tangible effect on my life. Both of my children have completed (or are about to complete) a total of four Duke of Edinburgh awards. As well as being a proud dad, when I think of the Duke, I think (at least partly) of the reclaimed part of the churchyard that my son and his friend cleared as part of their voluntary service for their DofE bronze award. I think of the online church services that my daughter recorded for us all last year as part of her voluntary service for her gold award.
This is not meant to sound flippant. These are real, practical benefits – as the family whose relative we buried because of that cleared ground would testify, or indeed the many who watch our weekly worship. And I do believe it is also, in its way, a wholly fitting tribute. These are behind-the-scenes achievements, wholly in keeping with a man who gave unstinting service for almost a century, much of it behind the scenes, that others might shine.
For many of us, the visual image of Prince Philip will be of him walking a few steps behind the Queen wherever he went – a striking symbol of real humility. A monarch always happy to be a few steps behind his life companion, her constant ‘strength and stay’, as the Queen shared at their golden wedding anniversary celebrations.
It is also a wonderful image of what it means to be a disciple, a follower. There is an old Jewish saying which goes: ‘May you be covered in the dust of the Rabbi’ – it means that we are to follow so closely that we are soaked in the dust of the Rabbi’s sandals as they walk. Philip lived like that with his Queen, walking closely behind for more than 70 years – and we too are called to do the same for our King, Jesus Christ.
My favourite of the many stories shared about him this weekend was the one where Philip was asked by a friend why he always made such an effort to engage people directly, asking them so many questions about who they were. It came shortly after he had wandered into a restaurant kitchen after a lovely meal and thanked not just the chef and waiters but also those who were washing up. ‘Remember it’s not about you,’ he said, ‘it’s about them.’
There could be no better illustration of the meaning of service, as Jesus defines it. True greatness is ultimately defined by service – which, you could say, is humility in practice. A life defined by the maxim: ‘it’s not about us, it’s about Jesus – and because it’s about Jesus, it’s about others.’
Prince Philip had has faults, his sharp edges – as we all do. His position also opened doors that might have remained shut for others. But that is not to diminish his legacy: it might even enhance it. Philip could have chosen human ‘greatness’: instead he devoted himself to humble service, following the pattern of another ruler whose counsel we read today: ‘not to be served, but to serve’. And may God grant us all grace to be covered ever more fully in the dust of our Rabbi, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Daily Inspirations for Easter Week reprise our Sunday talks from Easter season last year....
Let’s ask ourselves a cheeky question for a few moments: if Jesus was to visit earth for a while this year, which church would he join? Would he be a charismatic or a Catholic, an evangelical or a liberal? Is he secretly an Anglican or a Baptist or a Pentecostal? Would his requirements be very specific? Where we used to live in Clapham Junction, we regularly walked past a church called, and I kid you not: ‘The Ransom African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church’. Now there’s a church whose name is its doctrinal statement!
I’m sure most of us will be thinking two answers to my question. The one we’ll say aloud with a beatific smile on our face is: ‘Jesus would be happy to join lots of churches.’ The one we’ll be thinking is: ‘but I’m sure he’d prefer my church to the other lot round here.’ And from one perspective, that’s fine: to be honest, if we don’t think Jesus would join our church we’re in the wrong church.
But although we joke about it, there’s a real issue here. On one level, a huge movement like the church is going to have lots of faces, and we should celebrate that. On the other hand, the fragmentation and divisions should make us weep. It’s not what Jesus planned – look at what he prays in our passage for today – ‘That they may be one, as we are one.’ Jesus loves diversity, but not division. His desire is for us to be one.
As most of you know – but some may not –we are an ecumenical church. What that means is that several types of church – Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Reformed and Catholic – have partnered together to be one church. It’s our little way of saying that what divides us is way less than what unites us. We will all disagree over some stuff, but being together as one community of Jesus is much more important.
And today’s passage reminds me why I want to be a minister leading that kind of church. It’s what Jesus wants for us. We might not always do it very well, and I’m sure there’s loads I could do better, but, as best we can, we’re trying to be faithful to what Jesus prayed for us.
Since our buildings closed for a time, and we moved church online, a rather amazing thing has happened. Not only have we got lots more of us joining for online services, we are now spread all over the country, and even the world. On Sundays, people join us from Australia, Canada, France, as well as all over the UK – Wales, Devon, Hartlepool, East Anglia, Poole, Kent and no doubt lots of other places besides. And I’m thrilled about that! And that’s not just because it’s nice having lots of us – it’s because of what Jesus prays. I want to say to all of you: Jesus loves having you as part of his community. He wanted all of us to be one, a community of love which in turn reflects his love to the world.
But this is not some wishy-washy ‘love is all you need’ type of message. It is based supremely in one act. Glorify your Son Jesus prays, and what he means is: glorify him as he gives his life on a cross. This is how we know what love is, St John reflects elsewhere – Jesus laid down his life for us. True love is selfless service: and as Jesus loved us, so we offer that to each other and to the world.
So, today, let’s celebrate that we are one; but let’s also remember that this one-ness calls us to offer ourselves for the good of others, wherever we are. Then the world will know that God sent Jesus and has loved us, even as God loved him. Amen.
I wonder what is the greatest city you’ve visited? In our modern world, there are many such cities. I myself have lived most of my life in London, and I’ve been fortunate to visit some of the other great cities of the world.
In today’s passage, we find St. Paul in Athens: at the time the second greatest city on earth behind Rome, and unquestionably its greatest in terms of learning and culture. But I’m fascinated by Paul’s response to this experience: what he saw, what he did and what he felt. What Paul saw was not a city full of extraordinary buildings and unparalleled learning, but a city full of idols. What he felt was not awe at its grandeur, but distress at its spiritual ignorance. What he did was dedicate himself to sharing the good news of Jesus.
Paul saw through Athens’ impressive facade to its real heart: idolatrous and looking for wisdom in the wrong places. We human beings tend to create god or gods in our image, not the other way round – and St Paul is having none of it. His God, our God, the one true God, is not like this. He’s not small or only concerned with a part of our lives. Notice how he begins the key section of his sermon: ‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth.’ Our God is a great big God – he made the whole world, the whole universe is suffused with his presence.
And notice the three radical implications of this statement which immediately follow: first, ‘God does not live in temples built by human hands.’ How could he? How could any building be big enough to house this God? We humans have certainly tried, and who can fail to be awe-inspired by some of those buildings? But God is bigger than all of them, he’s not limited to certain places on earth or in our lives. There is no place on earth where Jesus can’t say: ‘This is mine.’
Second, God doesn’t need anything. Or as Paul says: ‘He is not served by human hands.’ He doesn’t need our libations or rituals to appease him or impress him. He is complete and whole within himself. We do all that stuff to try and make ourselves feel better, not God. And third, it is this God whose breath fills our lives: ‘He gives everyone life and breath and everything else.’
The true God is not limited to certain places or rituals or buildings, to certain boxes and compartments in our lives. He fills the whole universe, and all of our lives matter to him – every breath, every thought, everything that matters to us matters to Him as well. Or as Paul summarises beautifully later in his speech: ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’
Imagine a life where every moment is filled with God’s presence. We can bring every worry to him, we can cry every tear with him, we can share every joy with him, we can celebrate every blessing knowing that he is smiling with us. This is not fiction or pie in the sky: it is the reality of what Jesus came to bring us. God’s Spirit – in other words his very breath, his presence – comes to dwell in us. It is what you might call the with-God life.
In this challenging season, amidst the pain and loss, there is also one extraordinary prophetic vision renewing the church: and that is to reawaken our sense of what it means to walk with God all the week, to cultivate a faith which lives everywhere: at home, in our families, in our thought life, in our private prayer. I long to celebrate and sing with you all once again. But most of all, I want to see the church in this nation rise up again in our generation with this truth etched into every moment of every day of our lives, wherever we are: ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ Amen.
Receiving peace is one of the foundational themes of the New Testament. St Paul introduced all of his letters with the greeting: ‘Grace and Peace’. Grace is what enables us to know salvation and the zoe life of God within us; peace is the first and greatest outcome of this new life.
Peace is designed to be the hallmark of every dimension of our relationships. Peace with God, peace with others, peace with ourselves. We are called to peace. In Colossians 3:15, Paul writes: ‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.’ Peace is not merely the absence of strife; it is the presence of harmony.
And peace is not merely a concept, such as not harming someone. Notice what Paul wrote: ‘Let the peace of Christ rule...’ The idea of peace is not what solves conflict; it is the peace of Jesus that provides the power to live and work in harmony.
So what is the peace of Jesus? It is “the peace that belongs to his kingdom by virtue of his sovereignty.” Jesus rules and reigns over everything: all creation, all humanity and all history. When we step into his reign (in other words, when we step into the kingdom of God), we step into his peace. We can now live in constant interaction with Jesus, and because of his protection, guidance and provision, we have nothing to fear; we can live with real confidence. In the kingdom of God we are safe, secure, valued and assured that God is with us.
And this assurance enables us to receive the peace of Christ, a peace that, as Jesus says the world cannot give; or as St Paul puts it elsewhere, a peace that surpasses all understanding.
It’s why Jesus is so emphatic when it comes to issues of worry, fear or anxiety. Have you noticed that Jesus never talks about these things in terms of advice or encouragement, but instead as a command? He doesn’t say: try not to worry, try not to fear, try not to be troubled... He commands it: ‘Do not worry, do not fear, do not be troubled.’
Of course we all face temptations to worry and fear, to un-peace as you might say. And Jesus knows that. But he also knows that the solution is not human effort or technique. The key to peace is found in him, and through him. He is the Way. Our peace is found in a person, one who has all the power and resources of the universe at his disposal. His perfect love casts out our fear.
And so he says to his disciples: Do not be troubled, because I am the way. All other worldviews, all other religious teachers, say: this is the way. Only Jesus says: ‘I am the way.’ The key to life is not a set of moral values or guidelines or principles, it’s a relationship. It’s a deep union of love with Jesus.
‘...and when you know that, you’ll know the right way to live, because I am the Truth. And you’ll have abundant life, because I am the Life.’
And so we can affirm these great words again today, and claim the peace that Jesus promises his followers. In this extraordinary season, we are surrounded by the shadow of death. And yet, we can also affirm, with hope and even joy, that peace is possible, a real peace, a peace that only Jesus can give, because he is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen.
Four years ago, on the second Sunday of 2017, we were about to start the 9.30am service at St Mary’s, when one of our welcomers came and found me urgently. ‘Come outside, you’ll want to see this,’ they said. So I hustled out and watched one of the more unusual sights I’ve seen in my 7 years here. Running along the road, and just passing the churchyard gate, were about 50 sheep.
We had no idea where they had come from or where they were going. I don’t think they had any idea where they were going either! There was great excitement – some wag commented that our flock had swelled considerably that day. But anyway we delayed the start of our service to work out what on earth we were going to do with them. It took quite some time... but eventually, by lunchtime, the sheep were safely back in a nearby field.
What’s the moral of this story? ‘Never leave your gate open’ would be one of them. But more simply, sheep need a shepherd. Look what happens when a large flock is left to its own devices.
Jesus tells us today: ‘I am the good shepherd.’ Or to make it more personal: ‘I am your good shepherd. I know you and you know me. You know my voice, you know that life is better with me, because my life is dedicated to you.’
In this season we need the reassurance of that voice perhaps now more than ever. To know that we have a good shepherd leading us through the chaos and uncertainty of this time, one who is totally dedicated to us, who walks with us and will never leave us, who comes to meet us where we are.
And our shepherd ultimately means to give us life – life in all its fullness. The Greeks had two different words for ‘life’ – bios and zoe. ‘Bios’ means physical existence – simply being alive, breathing. ‘Zoe’ is real life – spiritual life, wellbeing, wholeness. This is the word Jesus uses here when he says that his purpose for us is abundant life – abundant zoe.
We are wired for zoe life. It’s built into our DNA, because we are made in God’s image, so therefore we long for the same things God already has within himself. Even those who would not profess our faith long for deep relationship, strong community, fruitful lives and to rejoice in the beauty of our world.
But to really know this kind of wholeness, this abundant zoe life, we need to receive it from the one who made it – the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus Christ. By God’s grace we can all experience it in part: but the fullness is only found in Christ. He is the gate, he’s the way to know this true life, he’s the one who can plant it deep in our hearts. Without him, we get the temporary ‘hired hands’ version, not the real thing.
So today, let’s give thanks for our Good Shepherd. Let’s acknowledge our need for him, let’s invite him to lead us again. And let’s do that confident of this great truth: that his plan for us is true life, zoe life, life in all its fullness. Amen.
I wonder if any of you have ever had the experience of talking with someone you didn’t recognise, and then later discovering that they were famous? In 2015 Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most famous footballer, disguised himself and went out to play football in one of Madrid’s central plazas for an hour. Almost no-one gave him the time of day. Most walked by quickly, embarrassed at the thought they might be asked for money by someone who looked more or less like a tramp. Eventually one little boy joined in properly, and passed the ball around with this stranger and tried to tackle him. After a while, the stranger picked up his ball, asked the boy’s name, signed the ball... and then took off the disguise bit by bit.
As you can imagine, at that point pandemonium broke out. The last scene on the secretly-filmed video was of Ronaldo walking out of the square surrounded by a great entourage of dozens of fans. Unlike Jesus, not even Ronaldo could disappear from their sight!
The image that stayed with me, though, was the face of the little lad just after he realised what he’d done, that he’d actually not just met one of the world’s most famous people, but played 1-on-1 and even tackled him. He was overcome with emotion and buried his face in his mum’s coat.
That sense of overwhelming emotion was probably just a fraction of what would have been experienced by Cleopas and his friend. Can you imagine suddenly realising that you’d just spent the day with God himself, their Lord and friend Jesus. And they hadn’t even realised!
The road to Emmaus is such a wonderful story, and there’s so much we could say about it. How Jesus opened their hearts to the Scriptures and showed them how his coming was written throughout the ages of the Old Testament. How Jesus met them in the breaking of bread and everything that tells us about both hospitality and sharing communion. How we can rejoice in further evidence of the resurrection as Jesus widens the circle of people he appears to, people who will witness to the glorious truth of our faith in the years to come.
All of those are great to reflect on – but I just want to pick up on one simple point that the story tells me today. And it’s this – when we know and love Jesus, when we follow him, we are never alone. Jesus walks with us every step of the way. We never walk alone.
Like the disciples, we might not always recognise him. There are times in our lives, tough times, when it seems like there is just one set of footprints in the sand, as the famous story goes. But the point is not that God has left us, rather that we haven’t recognised his presence at that point. He is still there, still whispering truth into our ears, still breaking bread with us.
That is a message which encourages me in this challenging season. Many of you may have asked yourselves the question this year: where is Jesus? Or maybe others have voiced it to you. Perhaps it’s something that has affected you in the past, or that you fear in the future.
The story of Emmaus tells me that Jesus is right there with us. He has never left us. He walks with us, he guides us, he shares with us. It was an extraordinary coincidence – or God-incidence – that last year on the day the church told this story, the song at the top of the charts has this as its chorus – and could there be a better word from God to us today: Walk on, walk on, with hope in your hearts. And you’ll never walk alone. You will never walk alone. Amen.
Poor old Thomas. Imagine being the one character of history who gets the nickname ‘doubting’. Other famous people get tagged with ‘The Brave’ or ‘The Wise’ or ‘The Just’. And Thomas was at least two of those things: by reputation he later founded the church in India, which is quite a brave and wise thing to do. But no, for all that he did before and after, he’s forever known as the Doubter.
In recent years a new term has come into our language – FOMO. It’s an acronym, it stands for Fear Of Missing Out, and modern psychologists have concluded that this is one of the great drivers of our current Western society. Largely driven by the way technology has crept into every part of our lives, we hate to miss out on things more than ever before. It’s why so many people are always checking their social media, or the news, or their phones every few minutes – as a society many of us have developed FOMO: a deep fear of missing out.
And when we look at Thomas we can see why – if anyone should get a case of FOMO it would be Thomas. He didn’t just miss the latest celebrity news, or the latest video of dogs which look uncannily like Winston Churchill, he missed the resurrection of the Son of God! He missed seeing his friend and leader do something which had never been done in the whole of human history – come back from the dead.
So maybe we can feel some sympathy. Thomas reacted as most of us do when we miss something really great, our sadness tends to turn into petulance. It’s a natural response fuelled by hurt: it’s a way of saying: ‘Jesus needs to make it up to me, because it’s not fair that I’ve missed out.’ And maybe that’s something we all feel at points in our lives, when things don’t work out as we think they should.
We hold these two great things in tension – God is sovereign, he’s in charge; and yet he also gives us free will, so most of the time we can get on with things. The problem I’ve observed with most of the answers to difficult events is that they tend to focus on one of these extremes or the other: it’s either all us, or all God. And so we shout at God, or we shout at our leaders or some other scapegoat.
The story of Thomas tells me that God’s answer is different. Jesus doesn’t reason with us, or argue it out: he comes to meet us where we are. Jesus’ answer to Thomas’ hurt is simply his presence. ‘Put your hands here, and here...’ Just like Job in the Old Testament, God’s answer to the difficult questions is the gift of his presence. Here I am: ‘your Lord and your God’.
And the great truth of our faith is that he still comes to meet us. He breathes the breath of His Spirit on us just as he breathed on his disciples, and utters those glorious words: ‘Peace be with you.’
My prayer is that the warmth of Jesus’ presence will come to each one of us today, and this week, and throughout this season. And I encourage us to invite that presence every day, to offer a simple prayer: ‘Jesus I need you, come close to me, come dwell with me today’ – that we might too receive the blessing of Jesus that he gave to his disciples: ‘blessed are you who have not seen and yet have believed... Peace be with you.’
I can’t sit still for long. I’m better than I used to be, which isn’t saying a lot – and probably as much to do with being older as any great advance in my capacity for stillness. I like being busy, doing lots of different things, cramming my days full. Achieving. Or so I think.
This is not just my nature – there’s a lot of nurture too. My school culture rewarded competing, and I was only too happy to sign up to that. Then just as I started to ease up, parenthood kicks in and, as I used to joke, gives us all ADHD. When you’ve got young children you never get to focus on anything for very long – and after a while, you find you’ve lost the knack, if only to stop yourself falling asleep whenever you get a free moment.
I must admit (with some embarrassment) that, ironically, being a vicar doesn’t help much with leading a more contemplative life. Long days, unexpected pastoral crises, paper-thin boundary between home and work, and the awkward fact that many other people’s sabbath is the most intense part of my week. Plus the internal and external pressure of being seen to make the most of your calling: the old Protestants used to call it ‘redeeming the time,’ thereby even creating a theology out of what is basically workaholism. I don’t get paid to sit in a chair, do I? Or so the whisper in my ear goes...
So what struck me today as I reflected on our passage are not the much more obvious stories in the text: not Joseph giving up his tomb for the crucified convict. Nor the religious leaders desperately seeking to shore up their own lies with the threat of (what they presented as) an even bigger one. Nor even the comical image of Pilate setting up a security detail to thwart the purposes of the Lord Almighty –as if a few spears and a big stone was going to make a jot of difference!
It’s the tiny detail I’d never noticed before – the women ‘sitting there’ (v61). Note that this is not Sunday morning, or indeed earlier on Friday when the crowds surrounded the cross. This is Friday evening – the crowds went hours ago, the disciples have long since fled, even Joseph (aided by Nicodemus, as John tells us) has finished his funereal duties and wandered off. And still they sit. Just being close to their departed friend. Watching, waiting, grieving, loving.
Why is the greatest event of all history, the resurrection of Jesus, revealed first to Mary and Mary? There are lots of answers to that, but the simplest one of all is this: because they were there. They were the last to leave and the first to come back. They spent time with their Lord even in death. And I find that both immensely inspiring and immensely challenging at the same.
On Holy Saturday it’s hard to keep sitting. If we’re lucky, we may have social events to enjoy. We’ll certainly have plans to complete for Easter Sunday or Bank Holiday Monday, food to buy, eggs to hide, and so on, and so on. We’ve done the sitting on Friday, we’ll do the singing on Sunday. But in between....
This is a thought more to myself than to anyone reading – but nonetheless a worthwhile one. Take a few moments if you can today to sit with Mary and Mary, to contemplate the tomb, to remember again what it cost Jesus before the joy of tomorrow. Tomorrow always comes – hallelujah! – but there’s gold in the waiting, too.
Lord Jesus, help me to sit today, even for a few moments. To watch and wait with your friends, that I, with them, might experience tomorrow with fresh eyes. Amen.
NB For a good song which captures the essence of Holy Saturday (and which we used yesterday in our service), I would commend listening to 'The Stone'.
For today’s inspiration, we turn to Jesus’ 7 words from the cross, which be accessed on this dedicated page.
‘I turned round to see the voice that was speaking to me.... The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I feel at his feet as though dead.’
These words of St John in the Book of Revelation give us a wonderful insight into what the heavenly Jesus looks like. So often we like to imagine the human Jesus, just like us – and rightly so. God comes into the mess of our world, and how we needed him to! But it’s not the whole story. Jesus is fully human, but also fully God. The glorified Jesus is an altogether different proposition – so breathtakingly magnificent that even one of his best friends can do nothing but fall on his face in terrified awe.
This is who we’re really dealing with – the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who reigns for ever and ever. And as we see in today’s passage, it’s also who the crowds that confronted Jesus at his arrest were really dealing with – if only they knew! And Jesus at one point sees fit to remind them of it. ‘Don’t think for a moment,’ Jesus says, ‘that you’re arresting me because you have all the power here.’
When Jesus goes with them, he’s not being pragmatic in the face of superior force. Far from it. If he wished to, he could call on ‘twelve legions of angels’ – or 72,000 heavenly beings. Just like that. With a click of his fingers every club could be snapped like a twig, every sword bent into a plough, every thug rounded up and dealt with. Just like that. You don’t mess with the Almighty Sovereign Ruler of the Universe, the Eternal Lord of all Creation....
...Unless this Lord wills it. (That word again.) And in this case, the Lord does. All that power, all that authority is hidden, locked up for a time, because a deeper work is at play. God’s word – delivered by numerous prophets – must be fulfilled.
And so Jesus goes with them – willingly. The hard work in Gethsemane has been completed: an even harder work lies ahead. But today we give thanks that what happens at Jesus’ arrest is not some accident, some failure of planning or momentary lapse of reason. The human authorities are not in charge here. They might think they are... but, in the end, ‘it must happen in this way.’
And we’ll praise God forever that it did.
Faithful Lord, thank you that you gave up your freedom that we might be freed. You gave up your reputation that we might be restored. You gave up your power that we might be empowered. We can never thank you enough. May your peace-filled love overflow in our hearts today. Amen.
The will – it’s a strange and slightly mysterious thing, isn’t it? We first start to see it when a child is just a few months old, newly weaned – turning their nose up at one mouthful of food only to embrace another.
Wills famously start to assert themselves strongly as toddlers. The battles all of us parents will remember! Usually over little things, but nonetheless important, as ultimately it’s about who’s in charge. And this sense of the will lives on in those who are described as ‘strong-willed’, which is often a euphemism for people who like to get their own way!
The will is a statement not just of authority but of intent. When couples get married they don’t say ‘I do’ (sorry to disappoint you), but ‘I will’. Even our last wishes are declared by – you guessed it – a will.
Wills matter. The great spiritual writer Watchman Nee defined the soul as the combination of the mind, the emotions and the will. It differs from the other two precisely because it defines where (and to whom) our gaze is directed. If the mind gives us the what and why, and the emotions the how, the will focuses us on the where and to whom. In matters of life and faith, whose will prevails?
All of which leads perfectly onto the heart of this passage today. Here we see two battles of the will, both within a person or people. For the disciples, the tussle is relatively straightforward: their spiritual desire to support their friend Jesus versus their physical desire to sleep on a warm, dark evening after a large meal.
For Jesus, the battle is much more intense, life (and death) defining even. Jesus’ destiny hangs in the balance: he knows what lies ahead, and he faces the ultimate test of the will: his own, human will to avoid it, clashing with what he knows his Father’s will to be.
The struggle is immense: he describes himself to his friends as ‘overwhelmed with sorrow’; in Luke’s account, his anguish is so intense it bursts blood vessels near the skin surface, so he literally sweats blood. Whose will will prevail?
As we observed earlier, it all comes down to authority and intent. Ultimately Jesus was completely obedient to one authority, and one alone – his Father’s. And this determined his intention. After hours of wrestling, he comes to the earth-shattering, earth-changing decision: ‘Yet not as I will, but as you will.’ Nine words which change the universe, the course of history, the future of humanity.
The contrast with the disciples is so stark, it’s almost tragically funny. Jesus wrestles for his life while they wrestle with their eyelids. How like us! How wonderful, then, to know that our future rests in Jesus’ perfect obedience rather than ours.
And may that hope of a secure future, thanks to Jesus’ costly obedience – also give us inspiration and courage to surrender to God’s will in the little – and not-so-little – callings of our lives.
Courageous God, I am in awe of your obedience. Thank you, thank you that you said ‘Not as I will.’ Help me to will as you will, because I know that you are good. Amen.
The journey of Jesus through Holy Week is, among many things, a journey from crowds to loneliness. The great throng of Palm Sunday becomes the large crowd in the temple; then the smaller gathering at Bethany, moving on to the Last Supper with his disciples; then just Peter, James and John in Gethsemane, until finally Jesus is arrested and is completely alone. Listeners left, followers gone, friends fled.
The narrative becomes more intense, claustrophobic. Today Jesus prepares to ‘celebrate’ the Passover (v18), then at the celebration itself talks of betrayal (v21) and his own shed blood (v28). He finishes the meal with an evening walk where he finally comes clean: ‘this very night you will all fall away on account of me.’ (v31)
It is a stark and sobering admission, and not surprisingly his friends, buoyed not just by wine and conversation, but an evening reflecting on God’s sovereign activity in history, don’t agree. A tight-knit huddle, they’ve weathered all storms – literal and spiritual – for three years. They’re just not the ‘falling away’ types – especially not gung-ho, have-a-go Peter. ‘Even if all fall away, I never will.’
We all know what happens next, and we’ll reflect some more on it over the coming days. But I’m always struck by the disconnect between words and deeds. Between brave declarations, and craven response. Between intention and action. ‘The Spirit is willing’ – it usually is – ‘but the flesh is weak.’
And as we gaze back at these iconic scenes with 2,000 years’ perspective – two millennia of knowledge and experience – it strikes me that the only honest response is simply this: there but for the grace of God go I. Go any of us. The disciples are just like us: true of heart and easily scattered. How many times has the rooster crowed for each of us?
And yet... and yet.... Jesus is still Jesus. Still full of compassion and mercy, still slow to anger and of great goodness. Still able to welcome us back with our blushing, tear-stained cheeks. And in this famous meal he gives us, this simple but glorious act of remembrance, we are able each time to acknowledge our weakness, and praise his strength; to lament our faithlessness and rejoice in his faithfulness; to receive mercy and forgiveness again. Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s saving death until he comes.
Even as they gather to celebrate the Passover, Jesus knows they will all desert him within hours – and yet he gives them this wonderful sign of his love anyway. That is grace – and it is grace we remember today. As the old hymn puts it so well: ‘When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within: upwards I look and see him there, who made an end of all my sin.’ Amen, thank you Jesus.
Loving Lord, there but for your grace I would have gone so many times. Thank you for your mercy and love. Make my weak knees strong, and stand by my side always. Amen.
It’s a long time since we been able to use it properly, but we’re blessed to be able to worship in a beautiful, inspiring building. Despite being made with wooden scaffolds, rudimentary tools and makeshift mortar, it has stood for hundreds of years, and is likely to for hundreds more. Most of us sucked in our breath and felt a sense of thrill when we first stepped inside it. Many of us do even now. Imagine what it must have been like for the mediaeval peasant folk who lived around it in timber dwellings? Imagine the awe, the sense of glory and mystery – all pointing to the great God in whose name it was built.
The church is really the people, of course it is – and we must beware idolatry of bricks and mortar. But all the same, a glorious building not only inspires worship, but represents an act of worship in itself. It’s not often that we think of the cost of building it. How on earth does a poor agrarian subsistence economy finance such luxury? What did it cost each peasant family to pay their taxes over decades to see it built? Yes, it certainly provided much needed employment and a focus for the identity of the village – but I wonder how many times a family went hungry or made some other sacrifice to see it built? What poverty might have been alleviated if the money hadn’t been spent on a building at least ten times larger than anything around it, whose sole purpose was for worship?
When we start to ask these questions, we get to the heart of today’s famous but unsettling story. We love the image of the woman anointing Jesus’ head with this very expensive perfume, but many of us no doubt share the disciples’ sentiments. Jesus had just challenged the financial corruption of the temple officials, and yet here he was a few days later, apparently condoning an act of wasteful, reckless extravagance. Surely there are better ways to spend money wisely?
But Jesus is having none of it. Yes, we should always care for those who need it, as Jesus advises – but he also reminds us that the first and primary object of our attention is Jesus himself. Jesus’ own love for us is extravagant, reckless even – the end of this week proves it, beyond a shadow of a doubt – and so, too, he commends extravagant love returned. This woman’s costly worship, done for no other reason than to demonstrate her adoration of her Lord, is ‘a beautiful thing’.
The woman could never have known that Jesus’ prediction would come true: ‘wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’ Just as the poor mediaeval families who made sacrifices for decades to pay for and build our church building could never have known that 700 or 800 years later, people would still be gasping as they enter, people would still be offering their worship to God with hearts and hands raised in adoration – that their offering of extravagant love would remain powerful, inspiring, enduring. It is a beautiful thing.
As Holy Week begins, take time to reflect on the reckless, extravagant love of God for you – yes, you! The love that led to extraordinary sacrifice. Let’s acknowledge that too often we become people who know ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ Let’s recommit ourselves to extravagant worship, reflecting the wild, reckless love of our Creator. It is a beautiful thing.
Loving Jesus, thank you for your extravagant love for me. My love for you so often has limits. Help me to love you as you love me. Open my eyes to see what the woman at Bethany saw. Thank you. Amen.
A short series on the book of Philippians, which will carry us to Lent. There’s so much to treasure in this wonderful letter:
In the long winter months we need a bit of enjoyable nonsense on the telly. Hard hitting dramas for the bright days of summer – in the winter we tend to prefer escapism. For us, one of our ‘go to’ programmes in January and February has long been ‘Death in Paradise’. And yes, the characters are paper thin, and the one-liners pretty weak, but that’s not really the point, is it? The show is really all about the location – and who doesn’t want to live in that shack on the beach? – and the Agatha Christie-style puzzle to solve, complete with convenient assembly of all characters at the end.
The show works to a fairly consistent formula, but the grand denouement always hinges on one revelation. The lead detective has a sudden insight, and immediately everything else falls into place – every piece of info, every motive and the all-important whodunnit. One clue unlocks all things.
As this wonderful letter to the church in Philippi draws to a close, St Paul talks about his personal circumstances. He thanks the Philippians for their generosity towards him – the only church for a season to do so (v15). But he also shares what he calls the ‘secret of contentment’ (v12), regardless of circumstances. ‘I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’ (v13)
This is one of the best-loved verses in the bible, and it is often misquoted as a formula to achieve the impossible. But the context here is different, it’s about being content in all circumstances. Paul happens to be poor at present, but he gives the same advice to anyone who has plenty as well: and that is to find our joy, our satisfaction in Christ. The key to life is to trust in God’s goodness and God’s provision. With those in place, we are equipped for whatever life throws at us.
But it struck me that this phrase – ‘all this through him’ – is one that could equally be applied to everything we’ve learnt in this wonderful little book. Just as one clue unlocks all things in the detective show, so one person – Christ – unlocks all things in the spiritual life.
As we’ve journeyed through the letter, we’ve seen how, in and through Christ: God will bring all things to completion, including our spiritual journeys (1:6); God will deepen our love with wisdom (1:9-11); God is able to bring fruit even from mixed motives (1:15-18); God is able to sustain us in life and save us in death (1:21); God is able to exalt those who humble themselves (2:9), and work in us to act according to his will (2:13); God enables us to shine like stars (2:15); God grants us his resurrection power (3:10); God will transform us as citizens of heaven (3:20-21); God will grant us the peace that passes understanding (4:7).
All things through Jesus. That’s a pretty good summary, not just of the letter, but of our spiritual lives in general. It’s all Christ. And, as the letter closes, Paul reaffirms that this glorious God will continue to meet our needs (4:19) and supply us with his grace (4:23).
As we begin Lent today, may God grant us all grace to know ever more deeply that we have all things through Jesus. And may that cause love and gratitude to overflow in our lives, day by day. Amen.
I love a good preposition. They’re the small and apparently insignificant words that hold our language together. We may give all our attention to the Proper Nouns and high-impact verbs – but it’s the little guys that hold it all together. The words that no-one notices: with, on, of, by, and so on.
This may sound surprising, but prepositions matter in the biblical text, too. If I was to ask you how you relate to Jesus, what would you say? Many of us would use the word ‘to’: for example, ‘I’ve come to Jesus.’ Others might use the word ‘for’: such as, ‘I live my life for Jesus’.
Other examples which might come to mind are ‘under’ (everything under Jesus’ rule), ‘before’ (we will all come before Jesus) or even, sadly in some cases, ‘against’.
But there’s a very important little word which doesn’t get as much attention, but is perhaps more important than all of these: and that’s the word ‘in’. If we are followers of Jesus, we are in Christ. That is the way the New Testament talks about it. Not just that Christ is in us (although he is, by his Spirit), but that we are in Christ.
Once you start looking, you’ll see this small but massively significant phrase everywhere. For example, just flick through the first half of the first chapter of Ephesians and you’ll see it quietly dominates the text – in Greek it’s the word en, and it’s used no less than 11 times in the first 15 verses alone: ‘faithful in Christ’ (v1), ‘every spiritual blessing in Christ’ (v3), ‘chosen in Christ’ (v4), ‘redeemed in Christ’ (v7), ‘purposed in Christ’ (v9), ‘all things in Christ’ (translated ‘under’ in modern translations, but the word is en) (v10), ‘chosen in Christ’ (again, v11), ‘hope in Christ’ (v12), ‘included in Christ’ (v13), ‘marked/sealed in Christ’ (v14), ‘faith in Christ’ (v15).
Interestingly, although we talk a lot about ‘faith in Jesus’, that’s only the last of these 11 mentions. To be in Christ also brings us all these other fantastic realities: being chosen, having hope, purpose, assurance (‘sealed’), every spiritual blessing... the list goes on. And it’s all in Christ.
Today’s little passage is one of many people’s favourites. And there is so much to treasure, so many famous verses to be encouraged by: ‘Rejoice...’, ‘Do not be anxious...’, ‘the peace of God that passes understanding...’, ‘Whatever is lovely or admirable...’, ‘the God of peace will be with you.’
There’s so much to feast on, and I pray that your eyes are drawn to whatever you most need to hear today. But let’s not miss this little word ‘in’. We rejoice in the Lord (v4). The peace of God guards our hearts and minds in Christ (v7).
We receive all these blessings – peace, joy, answers to prayer – in Christ. It is our fundamental reality as followers of Jesus. We inhabit a new and life-giving reality, that of being in Christ, the author of life, who imparts his life and love to us. Wow!
So don’t miss the little words in these beautiful scriptures – they might just mean the world to you. And may God, in whom we live and move and have our being, grant us more of that life and love in Christ today. Amen.
Citizenship has been much in the news in recent years. The debates over our relationship with Europe have thrown up deep questions about who we are, and who we belong to. As we left the EU, it’s noteworthy that it was felt necessary to change the colour of our passports. It’s somewhat ironic that the powers that be decided to abandon the red colour (despite it also being one of our national colours) in favour of blue and gold, the colours of the EU flag!
That makes me chuckle, but it reflects the innate, deep desire to identify as citizens of something. This principle matters in the spiritual life too. The consistent teaching the New Testament is that when we come to Christ, we effectively have a dual citizenship: we are no longer just citizens of this earth, we are also citizens of the kingdom of heaven. You might say that we have two passports, and the new one is more important, as today’s passage makes clear: when reflecting on how to live in human society, Paul reminds us that ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (v20).
But what does that looks like? Paul gives us three useful tips today. First, we need the right models. Paul draws a striking contrast between two cultures in verses 17-19: those who live to gratify their mortal desires, and those who live for Christ. It’s not that we live a disembodied life: some have wrongly taken this passage to mean that all things of this earth are bad, missing the awkward fact that we worship a Saviour who quite clearly enjoyed a party.
Rather, it’s about what we value, who we worship. ‘Their god is their stomach,’ reflects Paul about the people he is critiquing. We are to enjoy the goodness of the earth without being enslaved to it. Material pleasures are good servants but lousy masters.
Which brings us to the second tip: we need the right master – in this case: ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ (v20) who is the one with the real power ‘to transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.’ (v21) The inner transformation we crave is only possible through the loving and life-giving power of Jesus.
Finally, we need the right mindset: Paul at the start of chapter 4 refers to an argument between two church members which was obviously causing distress to the rest of the church family. He pleads for them to be ‘of the same mind’ (v2). Whilst we will never agree with everyone about everything, we need to value unity as part of our lifestyle: what unites us is always more than what divides us.
So today, may God grant us grace to ‘stand firm’ (v1), living as citizens of heaven. Perhaps now is the time to renew a commitment to the right models; or to seek the master again for continuing transformation; or to practise unity. How will you carry your new (eternal) passport today?
How do we deal with past mistakes and sins in our lives? We all carry things we regret: some big, some small, but all things which nag away at us. As far as possible we try to put them right: but there are things we can’t change. A moment when we had the chance to help someone and we didn’t; a relationship that ended badly and we no longer have any contact with the person; a harsh word we have apologised for but we can’t un-say.
Paul knew what this was like, perhaps far more than we ever can. Paul’s mistakes were huge: people were killed, imprisoned, terrorised. Some of what he did can never be un-done. How does he live with the knowledge that he was responsible for these things?
Interestingly, reading all of his letters, it’s clear that he never totally forgets what his past was like. Even writing to his friend Timothy in a letter of a similar date to this one, he still refers to himself as ‘the worst of sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15).
But what changes profoundly is that he no longer allows his past to determine his present and future. Through his ministry he’s done all he can to ‘atone’ for the past, but ultimately what he does now is the only thing he can do, which is to dedicate himself fully to living flat out for Jesus in the here and now: ‘I press on,’ he says, ‘to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.’ (v12)
It’s not that past doesn’t matter. But it doesn’t direct our present. The good news of Jesus insists that we have been forgiven, that the cross has already borne the punishment that our sin and selfishness deserves. If God says we are forgiven, then we are forgiven! We remain works in progress – Paul is very clear on that in verses 12 and 13 – but we press on towards the goal of our faith: to be united with Christ, and to enjoy life with him forever.
So mentally, Paul lets go of what lies behind, and strains towards what is ahead (v14), and says that this is the mature – i.e. the most productive – way to live (v15). This is how he lives with ongoing energy and purpose.
So, my friends, let’s take Paul’s advice. Let’s press on, let’s not allow the past to define our present or our future, let’s believe that we are forgiven, and live as free people – freed by Christ eternally. Let’s remember that this is God’s calling for us, and he will complete it (1:6). If the past has been troubling you recently, turn it back to God and release it him. Claim the truths of scripture – what God thinks about you is what really matters!
And may that empower our lives to overflow with gratitude, and to radiate the love of the God who calls us heavenwards.
One of our kids’ favourite TV programmes of a few years ago was the brilliant series ‘Horrible Histories’ – indeed one year, it was the theme of choice for Amelie’s birthday party. As someone who took history as his degree, I loved the way it made the past accessible, without shying away from the reality of what life was like.
One of the highlights of the show were the songs: and one of our favourites related to the ‘Gorgeous Georgians’: it featured the four kings singing ‘Born to rule over you’ (Georges 4, 3, 1... and 2!).
We may chuckle – and the series was always very funny – but not that much has changed in the two hundred years since. Today 65% of our judges (10 times the national average) and almost 30% of our current MPs (4 times) had private school education – and these are figures published by gov.uk, the government’s own website. There is still a type of upbringing which open doors into adult success – a ‘ruling class’ which still forms the bulk of our authority figures today.
St Paul himself was from just such a background. He had the equivalent of a private school and Oxbridge education, culminating in an apprenticeship with Gamaliel the famous rabbi (mentioned in the bible in Acts 5:34). No doubt it was this background that partly opened the doors for him to become a leading persecutor of early Christians. In other words, he was a powerful man, tipped for greatness in his culture. Now writing Philippians as an old man, he looks back on this in vv4-6, describing all the human advantages he enjoyed in building his early religious career and reputation.
BUT... and this is one of the great ‘buts’ in the bible – BUT all that means nothing to him now: ‘whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ’ (v7)
One of the great truths of the gospel is that we are all equal before God. Indeed, our human advantages might in fact get in the way, cultivating a pride and self-reliance which prevents us receiving God’s grace. It certainly did for the young Paul, who saw these grace-filled believers as a great threat to the traditions he held dear, and the laws that governed his lifestyle.
By God’s grace, Paul was transformed from the inside out: he understood that it was God’s grace that saved him, not his external righteousness; and he learnt a new way to live, surrendering completely to Christ, and allowing his lifestyle to be directed by the pattern of Christ’s self-giving love. Everything else was ‘garbage’ (strong word, but it is the literal meaning in v8) compared to the ‘surpassing greatness (or worth) of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’.
We may have had a privileged upbringing – or a very ordinary one. It doesn’t matter. We all matter equally to God. Christ’s love is for all of us, and we all have direct access to it. Christ’s grace is sufficient to save each of us, and his Spirit dwells in our hearts, regardless of background, age, gender, ethnicity or anything else.
What matters is Christ. And may that glorious Christ dwell by faith in each of our hearts today. Amen, thank you Lord.
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
These famous words of St Teresa of Avila are a good way in to our passage for today. I really like these chunks of Paul’s letters, because it reminds us that these are real letters written to real people in real places. Often we can be tempted to treat the letters today as abstract theological essays, or primarily as delivery vehicles for teaching. And there’s nothing wrong, of course, with discerning deep theology or practical teaching – that is part of their great value.
But they are also pieces of communication in time. And at this time – probably early 60s AD – Paul is under house arrest in Rome. He wants to visit his friends in Philippi, but he can’t (and indeed, from this point he never will). Likewise, the church has heard he’s effectively in prison, so they send a trusted church member to visit him. So this short passage is really all about two visits: the most recent visit of Epaphroditus from Philippi to visit Paul in Rome – a visit during which he got very ill and which almost cost him his life – and a return visit from Paul’s best friend Timothy to Philippi instead of the old apostle.
It reminds us that God’s mercy is often mediated through us – through real people showing God’s love in practical ways. It’s a practical outworking of what we looked at yesterday – as God works through our work, as we become Christ’s feet and hands and mouth to share God’s love.
We don’t know whether Timothy ever made it to Philippi, or indeed when (or if) Epaphroditus returned to his home church. But these lovely snapshots of community at work make these ancient churches seem very real to us. In our days of doorstep visits to housebound people, the idea of Epaphroditus effectively the doing the same over a long distance to Paul really makes a connection. Equally Paul is able to bless others from his home by communicating through letters. It all counts. We all get to show God’s grace in human form.
So today, take heart – despite our restricted circumstances at present, the same forms of blessing are at work, the same connections are being made – and God is still being glorified through it. We are still the body of Christ!
In the journey of faith, how much is our action, and how much is God’s?
That’s a question that has exercised minds for as long as the church has been around. Whole schools of theological thought have been based around the answer. Some have laid the emphasis entirely on God, to the extent that even our very real efforts are only those that have been essentially caused by our Maker. Others have tended to emphasise the importance of our efforts, decrying the thought (implied by extreme versions of the first school) that we are simply stooges for divine activity.
But here in this passage, we get the biblical answer. It is both. God works, and we work too. There is a tension in this answer, but the bible doesn’t find it necessary or helpful to reconcile that tension: we simply hold the two together: God works as we work.
After the heights of yesterday’s extraordinary verses, how does St Paul encourage us to live? Therefore... ‘continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (our responsibility), ‘for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his purpose’ (God’s responsibility). God works as we work.
Our lives are based on grace, and we must be careful not to make our works our badge of honour, or the means by which we earn God’s favour: but nonetheless there is a place for human effort – submitted to God’s will, and through which God’s loving grace and power can be made effective.
The passage continues in a similar vein: ‘do everything without complaining or arguing’ (our self-disciplined actions), so ‘then you will shine like stars’ (God’s empowering), ‘as you hold firmly’ (our action) ‘to the word of life (God’s life-giving power).
God and us – us and God. We don’t initiate the relationship: that’s always God’s loving prerogative. We can’t ‘fix’ it either – that’s God’s wonderful grace. But we can co-operate. We can work to live out our faith, trusting in God’s grace to empower it.
So today, don’t worry about how much is you and how much is God. Live as if it’s fully you. And trust and pray that the effects will be fully God.
And perhaps take a moment to look up this evening. Sadly there isn’t a clear sky promised: but if you’re lucky enough to see a star, give thanks that, by God’s grace, you can shine like one of those wherever God has placed you.
What makes someone great? ‘Some are born great; others have greatness thrust upon them,’ so the old saying goes. To which we might also add a combination of some of the following along the path to ‘greatness’: working hard, having a great talent, pursuing ruthless ambition, or just getting lucky.
It’s quite instructive to try and discern definitions of greatness by the people our society values. For example, when children were asked 30 years ago who they most wanted to become when they were older, the top three answers were: a doctor, a teacher and a lawyer. When the same study was carried out in 2015, the answers were: a pop star, an actor, a sportsperson. In other words, we tend to define greatness nowadays by fame or celebrity, or (taking a generous view) by having an enviable talent which gets a lot of media coverage.
However, if we were to ask: ‘how does God define greatness?’ we would get a very different answer, as today’s passage makes clear. Jesus is the one being most exalted in all of history: ‘to the highest place,’ as v9 says, with ‘the name that is above every name.’ No-one has been more glorified, and indeed one day, the whole of creation will bow before Lord Jesus (vv10-11).
But what is Jesus’ qualification, his path to greatness? ‘He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant... He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.’ (vv7-8)
The path to greatness is through humility. In God’s economy, it has always been so. God chose Israel, ‘the least of the nations’; and Gideon, hiding in the winepress; and David, the youngest of eight brothers, because of his heart. ‘Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,’ Jesus summarised for his disciples many hundreds of years later (Mark 10:43).
God exalts the humble of heart. Which is good news for us, with our limited talents and obvious flaws. God isn’t interested in promoting those of high birth or great wealth – he simply asks us to follow Jesus as best we can, living a life of humble service, to his glory.
And God will glorify it – because it’s not about us, it’s about him. So take heart – in this humbling season, God can, and will, lift us up. ‘For whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted.’
And may God grant us all grace, humbly and whole-heartedly, to follow our loving Saviour today. Amen.
‘I’ll be with you in spirit.’ It’s a phrase we often use in conversation, but I confess it’s one I’ve usually been a bit dubious about. It can be cheapened as a sort of cop-out – the sort of thing we might say when the weather forecast’s bad (in England? surely not) and we might say to our friend: ‘I can’t join you today, but I’ll be with you in spirit.’ When what we mean is: ‘I don’t want to get wet and cold like you will be.’ You know the sort of thing I mean.
But in these times, I think this sense of being with someone in spirit has undergone something of a rehabilitation. The current restrictions have stopped many of the physical meetings we would otherwise have enjoyed: we are forced to rely on cultivating relationships from a distance. Never, perhaps, has it been more valuable to be with someone ‘in spirit’. When we spend time with our family or friends on the phone or on Zoom, and long for their presence, I imagine we might use a phrase like this and really mean it, in a deep, heartfelt way.
In other words, when St. Paul uses a phrase like being ‘one in spirit’ – which he does twice in this short passage – I think we really know what this means much better than we might have done a year ago, because we’ve experienced what it’s like to crave community, to long for the chance to stand beside someone. ‘One in spirit’ is not just a soundbite for us anymore, it reflects a reality which we now understand. We’ve learned to form bonds remotely, bonds which are none the less real for being practised at a distance.
The immediate context for the small Christian community in Philippi who received this letter is one of persecution and opposition – this is something that dates back to when Paul was with them (you can read the story in Acts 16:16-34), and presumably the lingering suspicion that Christians were bad news had never left the city. On the surface, it’s very different to what we face in 2021 – but the underlying conditions have certain similarities: we can’t practise community as we’d like, we face an ongoing situation which is much bigger than us and which makes us feel afraid.
And into this situation Paul gives us two practical examples of what it means to be ‘one in spirit’ – first, we stand firm together (v27). We support each other, we look out for each other, we’ve got each others’ backs.
Second, we show tenderness, compassion and humility together (vv1-3). In other words, we practise the same loving lifestyle, trying to live like Jesus the best we can (more on that tomorrow).
One of the unexpected blessings of this season is that we’ve learned to value community like never before. Sometimes it’s only when something is taken away that we really appreciate it. As we look forward to pushing through this crisis and out the other side, let’s hold on to this resolve to ‘one in spirit’ with our sisters and brothers. Take a moment today to ponder: is there someone you can bless today with a loving word or action, demonstrating our togetherness in spirit?
Today’s passage is a special one – for me, at least. It was a lovely surprise to sit down and prepare today’s reflection and read again a verse which has had a huge impact on my life – like seeing an old friend, the time spent together has been nourishing and uplifting. Let me tell you the story behind it.
When I was a teenager I was mugged three times in the street: the last being when I was 17, on the day when I found out I had been offered a place at university. Whilst that piece of news I felt strongly to be God’s encouragement to me after a terrible day, the immediate effect was traumatic. I was afraid to leave the house for a year. I felt weak, vulnerable, easy prey for a society full of potentially dangerous people. Of course I still had to go to school, to the library, to the shops, but every journey was some sort of small victory over the fear and nausea within.
Then one day, 18 months later, everything changed. It was as much a surprise to me as to anyone. I was reading my bible in bed one morning – this very passage. And this verse literally leapt off the page at me: ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.’ Paul was in prison at the time, his life was constantly in danger, but his perspective was so radically different to mine. I’ll just go for it, he says, since even if the worst should happen and I’m killed, well that’s actually the best thing that could happen, as I’ll be with God in glory. To live is Christ, and to die is gain.
My attitude to life changed that day. I knew that God was calling me to let go of my fear, to trust him and to start really living again. To seize life every day, and trust God for the rest.
That day became a major turning point in my life. Not that everything was plain sailing after that, or even that I suddenly became fearless – but God had spoken directly to me through a special verse in Scripture, and set my life on a new trajectory. A year later I started doing outreach youth work with the sort of kids who had mugged me. That’s what it means for God to ‘heal the past’.
So this verse has kind of been my life motto for the last 30 years. And although it is particularly special to me, I’ve long felt that it’s a healthy approach for anyone seeking to journey with Jesus. To live is Christ, to die is gain.
There are two common objections I’ve encountered along the way: the first is that it encourages a kind of Christian fatalism, thinking too much about death. All I can say is that for me, the effect has been precisely the opposite. To know that my future is secure has, paradoxically, freed me to really live. I can seize the present better when I’m not obsessing over my future.
The second is that it sounds trite in difficult times – times like these. To which I would answer: surely we don’t need a lifeboat in calm waters, but in the storm? These verses find their true value exactly in times such as ours. It’s not a magic wand, but it is a firm rock on which to place our feet, and to live hopefully even while so much around us could point us in the opposite direction.
So, I commend it to you! And may it be a verse for your journey, as it is for mine: ‘For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ Amen.
We’re all experts in mixed motives. It’s part of being human. We’re a heady mixture of light and darkness, goodness and selfishness. And if we’re honest, even our good deeds usually have a bit of ‘me’ in them.
As a younger man, I used to feel much more exercised about this than I do now. That’s not to say that I’ve gone soft on selfishness, or that I’m not still trying to purify all the corridors of my life. I still long to become like Christ, truly selfless in love. But I’ve learned to understand the reality of the human condition. To accept it pushes me towards grace, and away from the closet gospel of pride which we call ‘trying harder’. It is Christ who sanctifies us, slowly transforming us from the inside out. As we give ourselves to Christ, so we find that his motives and motivations tend to (super)naturally hold more sway in our lives, more powerfully than our human efforts.
Paul faced a similar dilemma in our passage. His imprisonment had left a ‘leadership gap’ which others were trying to fill – for not entirely selfless motives. Some saw it quite openly as a chance to compete with him, or even oppose him (v15,v17). And a less mature leader might have been threatened by that. But the wise old saint – Paul had been in ministry for a good 25 years by this point – kept a calm head because he knew the bigger picture. Even if peoples’ motives were decidedly mixed, Christ was still being preached. And our great God was well able to work regardless – ‘and because of this I rejoice.’
As an Anglican vicar one of the things I promise to uphold are the 39 articles – these define the nature of the Anglican faith. There’s a particularly salient one I’m going to quote in full – bear with the old language, because the point is worth it:
‘ALTHOUGH in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments.
‘Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.’
In other words, whatever our human limitations (even sinfulness) God can still make effective use the ministry, because it is Christ’s, not ours. So a useless or selfish minister can still be used by God because it’s not about them, it’s about God. It’s a direct application of this lovely little passage, and it’s a great encouragement to all of us today.
God can use us because it’s about God, not us. He can even use our mixed motives for his glory.
So today, if you do something kind, don’t worry that you enjoyed it, or it made you feel good. God will use it. If you did something good yesterday and then yelled at your children – God used that good thing too. And we can pray for forgiveness and healing for the rest!
The important thing is that we keep trying to do this stuff for God’s glory. Go for it!
What are the qualities of love? It’s a good question to ask: love is one of those words that we all think we know, but is very hard to describe. Love is something that is largely caught, not taught: it’s primarily a doing word, rather than a feeling word.
But that’s not the whole story. Love is also a thinking word. This is a passage about love, and it begins in much the way you’d expect. Paul tells his dear friends in Philippi – a place which was special to him as it was the first place he visited in Europe, and therefore also the first European church he’d planted – that he has them ‘in his heart’ (v7). He goes further in declaring his love, saying in v8: ‘I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.’ Paul loved the recipients of his letter – something he felt in his heart and had also showed directly to them (see the account of his time there in Acts 16:11-40, where he ran very real dangers to help them in their journey of faith.)
But when he prays for them likewise to be filled with love, he adds a third dimension. Love is not just about doing and feeling, it’s about thinking too: ‘And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.’ (v9) To know God is to love him: in other words, the more we know about God, the more we must love, since God is so beautiful, so amazing, so majestic, what other response could there be?
So knowledge matters – wisdom is precious. But it’s not just about how we relate to God – this wisdom also affects our actions. Our love must have depth of insight, ‘so that you may be able to discern what is best.’ (v10) Love is also about wise choices. Two courses of action may present themselves: we need wisdom to choose the most loving. A path of temptation or pressure opens up before us: we need wisdom to discern a helpful way out of it. An opportunity to show the love of Christ arises: we need wisdom to make the most of that opportunity.
Love is the basis of our lives, since God is love and the love of Christ fills us (by His Spirit). But this foundation of love needs wisdom to thrive, to grow, to be most fruitful. This will ultimately be what most produces ‘glory and praise to God’ (v11).
So why not pray Paul’s prayer for yourself and those you love today? And perhaps follow it with this famous prayer of St Richard of Chichester:
Dear Lord, of you three things I pray: to know you more clearly, to love you more dearly, and to follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.
In June last year one of our Sunday services told the story of Jeff Lowe. In 1974 Jeff – a musician in his mid-20s who had recently become a Christian – felt prompted by God to set all 150 Psalms in the bible to music. And so began an epic journey. Over the next 40 or more years he privately composed music and settings for each psalm, and, finally, in January 2020 – 46 years later – the first psalm (number 6) was released publicly. Over the next two years all of the completed psalms will be recorded and released as The Jeff Lowe Psalms Project.
We are all works in progress. Life is a long journey, and whilst we may not dedicate ourselves single-mindedly, as Jeff Lowe did, to one great project, we all have a similar calling: to finish well, to run the race of life as best we can.
As we begin our short series of reflections in the lovely little book of Philippians, it’s striking to observe that St Paul – the author of this letter – begins with the end-point in mind. He has much to share with this young church, but where he starts is to remind them that ‘God who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’ (v6)
In other words God finishes what he starts. Whatever the nature of our journey, whatever our ups and downs in faith, our distractions down side-alleys, our frequent stops for a rest – God will make sure we complete our journey.
This is good news! Not just because we are assured that our journey will not be in vain; but also that we have help. However ‘lacking’ we may feel, God will make sure that we can cross the finish line and join him in glory.
Yesterday the nation said goodbye to Captain Tom. His was an inspirational story – and it’s worth reflecting for a moment that when he turned 98 just a couple of years ago, how many people would have assumed that his journey was done. But God still had work for him to do – and what work!
Many of us feel in a dark alley at present, with no clear idea how long the alley is, or when it will get light again. Today, let’s take heart from Captain Tom’s example – and above all, let’s claim this beautiful promise of Scripture: God always finishes what he starts. The one who began a good work in us will carry it to completion – in us, and in others. Amen.
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.
To commemorate Candlemas – ‘the presentation of Christ in the temple’ – which is today:
I love this story. I make no apologies for including it in these daily inspirations. Simeon has got to be one of my favourite characters in the Bible. He only appears in this one episode, but what a cameo! A lifetime of faithfully walking in God’s ways crystallised in this one moment.
I don’t know if you’ve ever got up one morning with an idea that there was something you absolutely had to do. Or perhaps you pass someone in the street and know you need to talk to them. Or maybe in this season it’s a phone call you’ve got to make. And you discover to your surprise and delight that you called at just the right time, or the person you approached needed help, or that thing you ‘had’ to do was something you would have missed if you’d left it till tomorrow.
If you’ve had that experience, you may well have been ‘moved’ by the Spirit. Our God is a God who speaks. And still speaks today. So we shouldn’t be too surprised to get these ‘urges’ every so often.
But let’s notice that Simeon’s crowning moment is not the first mention of the Spirit in this passage. Simeon’s whole life was infused by the Spirit – the text says simply that the Spirit was ‘on him’ (v25). God can speak to anyone: but it happens a lot more often to those with whom He dwells all the time. The more we allow God to soak our lives, the more these ‘divine promptings’ are likely to happen. Like picking out your family in a crowd, it’s much easier to spot things you’re totally familiar with.
Simeon’s moment was also preceded by a prior revelation. He already knew that he would see the Messiah one day. One of the gifts of the Spirit is the gift of prophecy – the capacity to see what God is up to. And Simeon clearly had this gift: and he believed what God had told him.
So when he got the ‘nudge’ one day that he had to go to the temple, his lifetime of spiritual soaking and seeing led him to one simple act of obedience which changed the world.
We find ourselves in a season of waiting – but there are two types of waiting: passive and active. Simeon’s example inspires us towards active waiting: being ready, being open. However restricted life feels at present, opportunities are not far around the corner. Some are even possible now...
God still has work for us to do – why not invite the Spirit, like Simeon, and see where it leads?
Loving Lord, you alone are my hope. Lift my heart, I pray, and speak your word to me. Thank you that your Spirit still moves today. Thank you that we all have a special part to play. Amen.
(Today’s and tomorrow inspirations reprise two of the best from our Wildfires’ season last year…)
How does a person become good? This fundamental question has been exercising humanity since time began. We are moral beings; we understand concepts of goodness and badness, we know that some lives are better than others, and some actions are better than others. But knowing something is one thing: doing it is a different matter!
Many huge brains have thought long and hard about this, and many societies have orchestrated elaborate schemes to engineer it. But it basically comes down to one of two options: either you try really hard to be good yourself, or someone else forces you instead (usually through a system of compliance and punishment). It helps if you have a clear and detailed understanding of what it means to be good – and this is actually harder than it sounds, it’s a massive problem at the moment in our post-truth culture. But assuming you know roughly what you should be doing, the usual ‘answer’ to being good is all about human effort: either self-motivated, or enforced by others.
But what if that doesn’t actually work? What if this whole endeavour is ultimately bound to fail? What if even the most perfect law can’t make people good? What then?
This was God’s dilemma with Israel. 700 years of trying, and the basic problem was the same. God’s people either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do the right things consistently. And the bible insists that this is not the fault of a particular nation: it is the human condition. Hard as we try, no-one can be good all the time. And even those we call ‘good people’ are often driven by decidedly mixed motives.
A totally new solution is needed. The problem is not the law or our capacity to act – it is what’s inside us. If this isn’t right, then our actions (even our ‘good’ ones) won’t be either.
This is where this beautiful, extraordinary promise to Ezekiel comes in: ‘I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’ In other words, God says, you’ll start to feel what I feel, to be ‘soft’ to my love and my ways. But you can’t do it yourself. This is a work of the Spirit: ‘I will put my Spirit in you, and move you to follow my decrees.’ We need God’s Spirit to give us that true heart, the loving heart of flesh.
So today, let God fill your heart again. Ask Him for that new heart, even if you haven’t ever done that before. And ask Him to move you, to show you where your heart needs to soften, to be moved to follow Him. And give thanks that it’s not how hard you try, but how much God’s goodness can transform yours.
Loving God, I need your heart. I long for it. Graciously give me that heart, I pray, that your love and power would fill it – that I might be yours, and yours alone. Amen.
I’ll admit it – I’m biased. I studied history for my university degree – I love it. I find it fascinating, and will happily read books on most historical subjects now.
I also know that not everyone enjoyed history at school. Memories of rote-learning monarchs, or obsessing over outdated parliamentary laws, or perhaps the very grim subjects of the 20th century – trench warfare, the Holocaust – have put a lot of people off. Much better to live in the present – or so many have concluded.
But today’s psalm – and yesterday’s – give us a different perspective. If I can put aside my own enthusiasm for a moment, there is still great value in learning the lessons of history. ‘Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them,’ was once wisely observed by Churchill, paraphrasing the philosopher George Santayana.
But we need history for more than just education. We need it for faith, too. Israel is constantly being given history lessons to remind themselves of who God is: how much he loves them, what he’s done for them, what it means to be the people of God: known, called, loved.
History matters. So here in Psalm 106, as elsewhere, Israel gets its own, very personal, history lesson: God’s faithfulness, their disobedience, but also God’s forgiveness and restoration. ‘Remember who God is – and remember who you are,’ is the repeated reminder.
We, too, can benefit from this advice. The Church, too, has a history. Sadly, we tend to think nowadays only of the shameful seasons of that history. But that is not the whole story – there are also many wonderful stories of the power of God at work. Maybe now is a time for some of us to read (or re-read) a good Christian biography, or a story of renewal led by the people of God which has been forgotten.
As I celebrate my daughter’s 18th birthday today, I suspect we’ll spend some of the day sharing memories, digging out old photos. We’ll spend time remembering, because remembering builds relationship. Let’s learn that history lesson with God too – in the end, we need history because it helps us to affirm with the psalmist: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.’
Loving Lord, who can proclaim your mighty acts, or fully declare your praise? You are amazing. Help me to remember all you’ve done for me today. Thank you for your faithfulness and love, for your goodness and mercy. I give you my heartfelt thanks. Amen.
In the area of Streatham where we used to live (in south London), there were no pubs. The reason is that, back in the 17th century, the land was owned by a Quaker family and they had attached a covenant to the land, which forbade it. As a covenant, it was permanent – it lasted forever: even 300 years later it could not be changed. If you wanted a beer, you had to walk a bit further!
The word covenant is little used now, but of immense importance. It means a solemn and unconditional promise. It denotes something permanent and – when formed between two parties – represents something mutual, founded on love. It is how God deals with his people – and also how we are designed to relate to each other in our closest relationships.
Thankfully we still have the word in a Christian marriage service, and this is the biggest difference between a Christian and a civil wedding. In a civil ceremony you have what are called the ‘contracting words’ – this is when the wedding becomes binding, but note the use of language. A Christian marriage, on the other hand, is a covenant – an unconditional vow: ‘That which God has joined together, let no-one put asunder.’
Of course, not all marriages last for life: but the principle of the covenant remains its great strength. And, in biblical terms, marriage is a picture of God’s relationship with us – permanent, faithful, unconditional, mutually loving and giving. Because a covenant can’t be broken, the psalmists and prophets return to this theme repeatedly. For all that we humans let God down, God ‘remembers his covenant for ever’ (v8) – even one made hundreds (or, by this time, thousands) of years ago with Abraham. And this is cause for praise and rejoicing.
God’s covenant is likewise good news for us! God remains faithful, God watches over his people, God keeps giving us second chances and fresh starts. And in Jesus, God cements the covenant once and for all. Jesus fulfils all God’s promises to Abraham, and in Christ (and filled with God’s Spirit) we become the covenant people God always designed for us to be.
If the second half of the psalm makes for more challenging reading, behind it lies one simple point: God honours his promises. He promised his people a land: and then delivered one. He promised to bless them: and did so, at every turn – even feeding them miraculously when occasion required it (v40-41).
God remembered them – and he remembers us, too. We are part of God’s covenant people now. Which means that you are not forgotten. God too gives us his presence (v39) and meets our needs. How we need that at present – so today, spend a few moments delighting in the fact of God’s covenant to you. Claim his promises. And renew your determination to live in that covenant this day, and always.
Here in the Trendall household we are big fans of University Challenge. Never mind that we only manage a few correct answers every time, while what appear to be gangly teenagers seem to know everything about everything! (How? I always find myself asking.) It’s a lot of fun pitting our wits against the brightest and the best.
On Monday evening we had a particular treat. Having caught up with all the latest episodes, we watched an old one that we hadn’t seen from Children in Need, where a team from the BBC lined up against ITV. Needless to say, the questions were a lot easier; but the treat for us was seeing the face of the chap who announces all the names of the participants when they press their buzzers. For 23 years Roger Tilling has been doing this, week in and week out – and I’ve never seen his face.
But now I have. There’s something important about faces, isn’t there? ‘I just want to see her (or his) face’ has been a heart-rending cry of the current restrictions, as relatives are denied contact with those in hospitals or care homes. Conversely, one of the great benefits of technology during this crisis has been precisely that – unlike previous generations – we can speak to loved ones and see their face: whether via Zoom or Facetime or Whatsapp, or whatever.
Although our whole bodies are unique, it’s faces which most identify us, from a physical point of view. You can’t really describe someone, or say that you know them, unless you’ve seen their face. I speak to lots of people in my line of work, but it’s always good to meet, and to ‘put a face to a name’.
It’s like that with God too. Today’s Psalm encourages us to ‘seek God’s face always’ (v4). It’s an image of both hunger and intimacy. Literally, of course, God doesn’t have a face – but we can still long to put a ‘face’ to God’s name. To be face-to-face with someone is likewise a place of intimacy: it’s where we get to know them as they are.
There’s a difference between knowing about God, and knowing God directly. This image invites us to move from place to the other. God becomes more than beliefs and ‘truths’ – God becomes a friend, a companion, a loving Lord. God wants us to seek his face because he wants to be known by us – deeply, intimately, personally.
A wise old Christian once advised me to ‘seek God’s face before you seek his hand’. It’s good counsel. Our temptation will always be to ask God for stuff – and that’s good and right. But let’s resolve again today to seek God’s face first. To worship him, to love him, to ‘tell of all his wonderful acts’ (v2), to ‘glory in his holy name’ (v3).
And as we do that, then our requests will flow naturally from our hearts to his.
Loving Lord, I praise you today. You are great, and glorious, and I thank you for your constant love. Help me to seek your face always, that I might know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, this day and every day. Amen.
Very few of us like wasps. In fact, most people hate them – and certainly fear them. Wasps like are like the evil twins of bees – where bees create and bring life (through pollination), wasps just cause pain and destruction.
Or do they?
Watching a nature programme recently, I was amazed to hear Chris Packham extolling the virtues of wasps. In particular he showed us the nest of a certain African wasp. This wasp looked even scarier than the ones we have here – about twice the size of our native wasps, with a long red tail It also eats (and feeds its young) by dissolving caterpillar larvae with a particularly foul chemical which it injects into its prey. Just be glad we don’t have them here.
But, as Packham described, we have only recently come to understand their value. These wasps eat caterpillar larvae, which mean that the savannah is not overrun with hungry caterpillar grubs in the rainy season, which means that the foliage is not all eaten by these insects, which allows other animals to graze and to live. In other words, as Packham looked out on herds of wildebeest, and magnificent giraffes, zebras, deer and antelopes – these in part owe their existence to the wasps that eat the caterpillars who in turn don’t eat all the food they need to live on. And that also means that the great predators – lion, leopards, hyenas – can likewise survive because their prey do. So the iconic East African habitat works, in part, thanks to those horrible red-tailed wasps.
Our world is amazingly finely tuned. Every creature plays its part in creating a balanced ecosystem. Even wasps – which also pollinate by the way, it’s not all bees and butterflies. (Wasps get a rough deal, I think.)
Who do we thank for this extraordinary abundance? Modern science has done wonders in showing us how our world works. Species are interdependent, and the more we understand, the more we marvel. But sometimes science forgets that it is not a closed system – there is One who set it up in the first place, and continues to watch over it. The psalmists knew this, and time and again we are invited to marvel at the wonders of the natural world, and to praise their Creator.
The second half of Psalm 104 is a fabulous hymn of praise to God our Creator: ‘How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.’ And all creatures are invited to praise the Creator. It is God who sustains them: ‘All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time’ (v27) – whether it’s the birds (v17), the goats (v18) or the predators (v21-22). God’s Spirit is at work in all of Creation: ‘When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.’ (v30)
So today, let’s offer our thanks and praise too to our Creator. We also look to Him – and may this great and glorious God meet all of our needs today. Amen.
I hope some of you were able to enjoy the snow! In many ways we had just the right amount in MK – enough to make everything look beautiful, but not so much to cause serious disruption. Other areas were less fortunate in that regard. But our land is certainly well-watered again – as it seems to have been for much of the last few weeks.
After the deluge of water referred to in yesterday’s verses, today’s verses show the benefits of water in our world: springs which ‘flow between the mountains’ (v10), watering the fields (v11), quenching the thirst of the animals (v11), and cultivating crops for animals and people (v14).
I’m conscious as I write this that flooding has recently affected a number of areas, and sadly, several hundred homes in various parts of the country. For these people today, it would be very hard to read such verses extolling the benefits of rainfall. Certainly we should hold all those affected in our thoughts and prayers.
Yet it’s worth reminding ourselves that much of Israel faced a yearly battle to get enough water – as indeed do many parts of our world. There is a wonderful African song which is called: ‘Rain, rain, beautiful rain.’ It’s hard for many of us Brits to understand why anyone would write such a song. But it’s in this context that the psalmist is so excited about God’s provision of enough water. Without water, we simply cannot live.
It’s no surprise, then, that water is presented as one of the greatest of God’s gifts, one which blesses all of his creation. It is through water that ‘the land is satisfied’ and teems with life. Through it, humans are blessed with other essentials, too: bread, oil and (dare I say it) wine which ‘gladdens our hearts’ (v15).
So today, let’s focus on water – and perhaps allow it to inform our prayers in various ways: first, to renew our thankfulness for the ease of access we have to it – much of the world would love to live somewhere with the amount of rainfall we have throughout the year; second to pray for those negatively affected by too much water or too little, especially those victims of flooding and drought; third, to pray for health and renewal of all creation which relies on water. This psalm describes so many glories of the natural world, and we humans remain those primarily tasked by God with looking after it.
And as we do this, may the Lord also fill our hearts with his living water, ‘a spring welling up to eternal life.’
Lockdown, for all its challenges, has also birthed plenty of new gifts. Many of us have used the confines of the season to learn a new skill. For my daughter Amelie, that has meant making her own clothes. She began with simple tops; then progressed to creating her own school shirts, stitching together two different fabrics – and pleased to reuse some of my old work shirts which no longer see the light of day!; now she is making a dress. She is also discovering her own style, which I think is admirable. When spring comes she will certainly be splendidly clothed!
The first part of today’s psalm takes the clothing analogy and applies it to God. How do we describe the greatness of the Lord? Often words fail us, and therefore very often the writers of the psalms – as we have noted before – use human images to help us picture the awesome majesty of the Almighty. So, here in verse 1: ‘Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendour and majesty.’
Whilst God has glory within himself, it can be helpful to picture God’s attributes as things we can see or touch. Verses 2-9 describe two types of clothing, two facets of the glory of God. First, light: ‘The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment.’ (v2)
As I write, the snow is falling, which means the sky is bathed in this beautiful light, as the thick white clouds reflect the white surface of the world, and vice-versa. Whilst it’s unlikely that the psalmist saw much snow, they let a similar idea – that of heavenly light – point them back to God. The heavens are stretched out like a tent (v2), as God makes the clouds his chariot (v3). The glorious light of the sky points us towards an even more glorious God.
Similarly, water is the other form of clothing we see in this psalm, only this time it is a garment for God’s world. ‘You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment.’ (v6) Whilst the image is perhaps more unsettling, it reminds us that the powerful fundamental forces of nature are in God’s hands. To imagine God wrapped in light, as the earth is wrapped in water, is a picture of majesty and magnificence. We gaze in awe at the power and greatness of God.
The current crisis makes many of us feel small. But sometimes it’s not a bad thing to feel small if we know where to look for One who is huge. That would be God. The world faces some big things at present. But we worship an even bigger God – a great, big God, in the words of the famous children’s song. A God wrapped in light: light enough for the darkness of the world, even the darkness within our own lives.
Lord my God, you are very great. Help me to find comfort in your greatness. I feel small in the face of all that life throws at me at present. But you are glorious, and I pray for your light to shine into my life again today. Amen.
On Wednesday morning, one of outgoing President Trump’s last acts was to grant presidential pardons to 143 people. The list makes interesting reading. Whilst some are clearly politically motivated, others take into account evidence of life-change or subsequent good works. A number have raised significant amounts for charity, or re-trained in prison.
Whatever we think of the outgoing president, there is still something powerful about the act of forgiveness enacted through a pardon. All these individuals had received, or were about to receive, the punishment their sins deserved – and then were shown mercy.
This goes to the heart of our text for today, and reminds us of a deep but glorious biblical truth about our relationship with God. All of us have fallen short of the life we were designed to have. All of us deserve the consequences for that. But God, in his great love and mercy, ‘does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities’ (v10).
In fact, the psalmist goes farther – declaring in one of the great texts of the Old Testament: ‘For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ (v11-12)
It is as if, the psalmist says, God has picked up our sins, flown across the Atlantic and buried the whole lot of them in the Nevada Desert. That’s how far God has taken our sin away.
God compassion is rooted in both our status as his children (v13) and our fragility as mortal beings (v14-16). God forgives because he is our perfect, eternal Father. We don’t need to earn it: we just have to receive it.
So today, as God’s beloved children, let’s remember what we have been forgiven. Let’s receive the gift of God’s new life, slowly transforming us from the inside out. And may these glorious truths cause praise to rise on our lips, as it does for psalmist at the end of this psalm:
Praise the Lord, all his works, everywhere in his dominion. Praise the Lord, O my soul!
‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown.’ This quote (or rather slight misquote!) from Shakespeare’s Henry IV is a great observation about the challenges of leadership and responsibility. Such things weigh upon us. Indeed, a literal crown for most monarchs is usually a heavy object: the King Edward Crown of Queen Elizabeth II weighs nearly 5lbs! Try wearing that for a long ceremonial occasion. The Queen might well have neck muscles like those on a Formula 1 racing driver.
On Wednesday, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the USA; and – notwithstanding that fact that his nation is a republic – now wears a heavy crown. No doubt there will be sleepless nights and many highs and lows ahead. He needs our prayers, as indeed all leaders do.
But there is a crown which does not weigh heavy. It is the crown mentioned here in verse 4: the crown of God’s love and compassion. What a beautiful phrase this is! God does not just offer us, or give us, these things: he crowns us with them.
The image suggests that these things are of great value – both to the giver but also to the wearer. To wear a crown is be bestowed with great worth. And so we are to God: the Lord thinks the world of us. He made no-one else like us. We bear his image. We are of infinite worth to him. So yes, we can rightly describe God’s love and compassion as a crown – just let that thought sink in for a moment, and warm your heart.
But let us also remember that to give us this crown, God also wore one while on earth. The only crown God ever wore was one of thorns: the ultimate act of self-giving love. A crown which weighed little in grams but weighed everything in cost. When God crowns us, let us never forget what crown God kept for himself.
We may never get to wear a physical crown. But today, let us rejoice that we wear a spiritual one. One given to us at such a cost: the crown of God’s love and compassion. And may that crown be worn not just in our heads, but also in our hearts.
Gracious God, thank you that I am worth everything to you. I gladly receive your crown of love. Fill me with your compassion, too, that I might also pass that on to others. Bless the Lord, my soul. Amen.
‘Bless the Lord, my soul!’ This joyful beginning to one of the most famous psalms is both much loved and also sometimes causes a little head scratching: surely God blesses us, and not the other way round? The fact that most modern translations render the word as ‘praise’ is a sure sign that this idea troubles people. So let’s begin with a short explanation as to why we can bless God as well as rejoice that God blesses us: ‘When the Lord blesses us, he reviews our needs and responds to them; when we bless the Lord, we review his excellencies and respond to them.’ (J.A. Motyer)
In other words, it is not an equivalent action: to bless is to bestow God’s goodness on someone or something: so when we do that to God, we are not bestowing anything he doesn’t already have! So in that sense it is fair to translate it as ‘praise’: however, it’s worth keeping the original meaning as it reminds us that we are to be people of blessing. This goes to the heart of God’s promise to Abraham way back in Genesis 12: whenever we ‘bless’ God (and others) we fulfil that wonderful promise.
So let’s bless! And let’s also observe today the true source of this blessing on our part: 'all my inmost being' (v1). This throwaway phrase takes on profound importance as the bible develops, culminating in Jesus’ own teaching. In essence: to praise God with our lips and our lives requires us to start with our hearts and minds. It is the inner life which fuels the outward action.
So here King David feeds his mind by reminding himself in verses 3-5 of all the reasons he has to praise God: a God who forgives and heals, of love and compassion, who satisfies and renews.
This list is both uplifting and unsettling. Many will ask: why does David say that God heals all of our diseases when he patently does not? There is much debate over how to explain this: some try and change the meaning of 'all' to 'all kinds of' or to spiritualise the word ‘disease’ so that it might mean something other than its plain meaning. Both explanations are inadequate.
Instead, let’s observe first that these psalms are poems and songs written in a culture which likes to emphasise things through hyperbole. When Katrina sings that she’s walking on sunshine, we don’t assume that she has literally levitated on a warm day. It’s a powerful phrase which conveys an inner truth.
That’s a good place to start; but then, let’s go further and rely on the vital principle that we let scripture interpret itself. So when we see a set of declarations here, what else does the bible about these things? In this case, Scripture consistently affirms that in Christ God forgives every sin; that God does satisfy every godly desire, though not always as we expect; and certainly that God is love in the core of his being. So we can accept these wonderful phrases of David literally. Healing is more complicated: but what we can affirm is that in the new creation everything (and everyone) will be healed. So this phrase is equally true, but its meaning is only realised at a later point.
On this day when we share the funeral for a dearly loved brother, let’s take comfort and hope that this word is gloriously true for him: that now he is fully healed and with our Lord in glory. And may God stir our hearts, that with ‘all our inmost being’ we too can bless God’s holy name. Amen.
How will we recover from this current season? Our papers are full of this question most days: the progress of the vaccine; the relaxation of restrictions; the financial safeguards to alleviate poverty; the stimulus packages to create jobs and promote growth. And that’s all very well: it is the job of the secular government to do these things.
But it’s only part of the answer. There are deeper questions to ask: about wellbeing, about pain, about loss, about the disruption to relationships; and also (positively) about the increased hunger for God for community, for meaning. Who will rebuild these?
This Psalm is worth a second look, for all kinds of reasons. Its honest lament is probably one we could offer most days at present, and that would be enough in itself, although you might feel a bit short-changed if my reflection for today was: ‘read yesterday’s!’
Instead, let’s direct our attention to this important question which the psalm addresses: who will rebuild our spiritual and emotional wellbeing? Who will bind up our wounds? Who will bless the growth of the kingdom and community? The answer is clear: ‘the Lord will rebuild’ (v16).
Zion is biblical shorthand for the visible kingdom of God on earth. When everything seems hopeless or broken, God is still at work: God rebuilds; God responds (v17); God releases (v20); God remains (v27). God, and only God, can do this deeper work of rebuilding.
The journey of secular recovery is long and uncertain. There will be failures and frustrations. Kingdom work, too, is costly. But the difference is the architect. Our confidence is that the Lord will rebuild. And our Lord calls us to partner with him in this work – in prayer, and, in time, through action. Governments come and go: but the Lord remains the same. (v27)
Today, let’s call on our eternal God to do this work of rebuilding: in our lives; our churches; our communities; our nation; our world. It will be challenging: but we worship a great big God.
Lord of all the earth, life is hard. But you are good. Do your work of rebuilding, I pray: in me... in those around me... and in my community.... Appear in your glory in our fractured world, that, in time, all might assemble to worship you. Amen.
This is a season of lament. Everywhere I go (which isn’t far at the moment, obviously), everyone I talk to, the sense is the same: a profound sadness and weariness. For some, it’s the acute grief of loss of someone close to them. For others, it’s other forms of loss: loss of contact, of pleasurable activities, of variety in life, of hope that things will get better anytime soon. But, with rare exceptions, for pretty much all of us: it is a season of loss. And therefore a season of lament.
In good times, we avoid psalms like today’s one. Too gloomy, too melodramatic: ‘my bones burn... reduced to skin and bones... like an owl among the ruins... thrown aside.’
But these are not psalms for the good times. We need language for the bad times too. For seasons like this. The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once said that his image of the psalms was of ‘a little old Jewish man shaking his fist at God.’ And the fact that we can shake our fist, that we can pour out our cry, that we can describe our sadness and our grief and maybe even our anger at God, is a great comfort. God is not insecure. God can take it – like a parent who holds their distraught child even as the child beats their fists against the parent’s chest.
And like all outpourings of grief, eventually the tears dry up and we are emptied. It’s what comes next that is significant. Sadly for some people, there is nowhere else to turn, hope is limited entirely by human factors. But for the psalmist, verse 11 is followed by the great affirmation of verse 12: ‘But you, Lord, sit enthroned for ever.’
The world lets us down – repeatedly. But God isn’t going anywhere. God is still on his throne. And God’s character doesn’t change: ‘You will arise and have compassion.’ (v13) That’s a promise for us, too, and not just the people of the day.
It’s not a magic wand. But it helps us – as we saw on Sunday – both to look down and to look up. To look down at the sure foundation beneath our feet. To look up to God’s throne, and know that there is something – Someone – greater than ourselves, in whose shadow we can find rest.
So if you resonate with this psalm today, don’t be afraid to pour out your lament to God. And then read v12 and 13, and ask God to fix your gaze where you might find hope: in the Lord of heaven and earth. Amen.
‘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.
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.