Verse of the Month: January 2019

“The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to Him.” (Ezra 8:22)

The Gower coast, South Wales

Facing a long and dangerous journey from Babylon to Jerusalem, Ezra and his companions put their trust in God for protection.

What lies ahead of us in 2019? Nobody knows what awaits them around the next corner; nobody knows if the weather will be calm or stormy. But God is a constant presence with those who commit themselves to Him.

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Seven Deadly Sins: Lust

Lust is not the same as sexual desire, nor is it confined to the realm of sex. It is normal and right to desire your spouse; lust is an illegitimate desire for someone (or something) that we have no right to. And the very fact that it is ‘forbidden fruit’ increases the yearning for it (Proverbs 9:17)! Lust played a prominent part in Eve’s temptation: “she saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.” (Genesis 3:6) But the sweetness of the fruit did not survive the stealing; the consequences were decidedly bitter…

Lust, like greed, is becoming normalised in modern Western society. Our expectations for self-fulfilment have become very high, and frustration in any shape or form is now viewed as a bad thing – even as being detrimental to our health! So the logical conclusion is that every desire must be indulged. This is most obvious in the area of sexual relationships: adultery has always been romanticised, but since the sexual revolution of the Sixties, sex outside marriage has become the ‘default option’ for most young people, and homosexual behaviour is not only legal but promoted as being natural and even desirable. But things haven’t stopped there. IVF is a wonderful technology, originally developed as a treatment for infertility; however, as soon as it became feasible there were pressures to make it available to anyone who couldn’t achieve parenthood in any ‘natural’ way (single people, homosexual couples, and even women past the menopause). In a remarkably short time, IVF has become a ‘right’ that can be denied to no-one without stirring up accusations of discrimination.

Traditional age barriers are also being broken down. In the UK, the legal “age of consent” for sexual intercourse is still 16 years, but this law is now so widely ignored that it has become unenforceable. Children under 13 are supposedly denied access to social media – but many flout this rule, often with the connivance of their parents. Smartphones and other Internet devices are being given to younger and younger children every year. Whatever happened to self-control and deferred gratification? Peer pressure proves to be a much more powerful force…

In the final analysis, lust isn’t about hormones but about the will and the affections. This is why it strikes us when we are bored (as when David, lazing at home in his palace instead of fighting with his troops, spotted Bathsheba – II Samuel 11:1,2), and why it is endemic in affluent societies. It promises us excitement and pleasure; but when we indulge it we often find ourselves disappointed. The grass is not actually greener on the other side of the fence. The forbidden fruit is not worth eating. And the damage caused in the process (to other people, if not to ourselves) can be immense.

Lust is not concerned about what is permissible, only about what is possible. The counter-balancing forces are obedience and self-control. “Each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God.” (I Thessalonians 4:4,5) God’s rules against adultery, theft and covetousness are there not to be broken but to set boundaries in our lives, within which we can truly flourish. “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives for ever.” (I John 2:17)

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Jonah: a perverse prophet

Jonah 1:1-16

“Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, You are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there Your hand will guide me,
Your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:7-10)

Nineveh lay far beyond the boundaries of Jonah’s world, in enemy territory. It was the capital city of the Assyrian empire – the epicentre of godlessness and wickedness on the earth at that time. Israel and Assyria had nothing in common! But God’s word to Jonah was clear and simple: he was to go and preach judgement to Nineveh. For even the worst of sinners must be given the opportunity to repent…

Jonah, however, refused to accept his commission. Unlike other prophets in receipt of an unwelcome call (such as Moses and Jeremiah), he did not even argue or debate the matter with God – he simply fled down to the coast and hired a ship to take him as far as possible in the opposite direction (verse 3)! But although he managed to leave the land of Israel, he soon discovered that it’s impossible to run away or hide from the God of Israel. Instead of simply letting him go, God pursued him… and the sudden violent storm threatened the lives of everyone with him on the ship (verse 4). While Jonah was below decks (probably suffering from seasickness) the crew did everything humanly possible to save the ship, but to no avail. While they prayed in desperation to their false gods, the one man on board who knew the true God was oblivious to the needs of those around him!

The sailors soon realised that this was no ordinary storm, and recognised it as some kind of divine judgement. According to their beliefs, they needed to find out who was the cause of their problem – and despite Jonah’s attempts to remain anonymous, the lot identified him (verse 7). Their persistent questioning obliged him to reveal who he was and why he was on board – and thus to accept responsibility for the perilous situation they were all in.

Clearly something had to be done about Jonah; to pretend otherwise would mean the death of all. Either Jonah must repudiate his sin, or the sailors must repudiate Jonah – and he would rather die than repent! And yet the sailors, though pagans, were caring and responsible men who had more concern for Jonah than he had for foreigners! Far from scapegoating him, they did their utmost to avoid having to resort to the desperate course of action that he had recommended. But in the end, they had no choice but to throw him overboard.

The instant calming of the storm terrified them; clearly Jonah’s God really was the Maker of both sea and dry land! And, like Jesus’ disciples (Mark 4:41), they seem to have been more frightened of the One who could calm such a storm than of the storm itself! From then on, these sailors became worshippers of the God of Israel. Thus Jonah was used by God to carry out His will, even while he was in a state of defiance and disobedience!

Now Jonah’s behaviour isn’t as unusual as we might think. He was just being a typical Israelite: stubborn, disobedient, and defiantly doing the very opposite of what God wanted him to do! And before we criticise him, it might be wise to reflect on whether this description might also might apply to us. For the Church too is called to be a light to the nations, “declaring the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His wonderful light.” (I Peter 2:9) Yet how often are we disobedient, uncaring, or simply too wrapped up in our own problems to fulfil our commission? All too frequently we see God at work in spite of us, rather than through us!

And we are also largely blind to our own inconsistencies. Jonah’s confession of faith is a good example of this: it has to be wrung from him (verses 8,9), suggesting that he is more than a little embarrassed by its implications. It’s noteworthy that he puts his ethnic identity first (which may explain his contempt for those who do not share it). And although his beliefs about God are accurate and orthodox, he doesn’t apply his theology very well! Surely if he really were a worshipper of such a great God, he would not have disobeyed Him? And if God really did make (and therefore rule) the whole world (verse 9), how could Jonah possibly imagine that he could run away from Him?

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Seven Deadly Sins: Deceit

The sins of the tongue are many and varied, but this is the first and foremost of them. It was manifested in the Garden of Eden, when the devil deceived Eve. “Did God really say…?” he began, before contradicting God’s warning of the fatal consequences of sin (Genesis 3:1-5). The devil is a liar through and through. “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

In the millennia since the Fall, deceit has embedded itself so completely in human society that it has become almost impossible to root out. ‘White lies’, flattery and exaggeration are considered a normal part of everyday conversation. False testimony undermines all justice systems, everywhere in the world. A whole edifice of commercial law has been erected in order to compensate for our inability to trust one another – yet as quickly as laws are passed, people think up ways to get round them. A global criminal industry has grown up to capitalise on the new communication opportunities offered by the Internet (email scams, phishing, and so on). An enormous amount of time and money has to be expended on procedures designed to prevent such tricks, or in dealing with their aftermath – a massive drain on society’s resources.
“They make many promises,
take false oaths
and make agreements;
therefore lawsuits spring up
like poisonous weeds in a ploughed field.” (Hosea 10:4)

Social media has exaggerated these tendencies. ‘Fake news’ circulates faster than the genuine article (probably because it’s more interesting); but how many of us take the simple step of checking the source before passing each titbit on? And what about our own personal profiles? When everyone else is presenting a ‘perfect’ image of themselves to the world, how many of us are simply following the crowd? Who’s brave enough to post bad news on Facebook or Instagram? Even unbelievers are beginning to recognise the enormous harm that can be done to the self-esteem of teenagers by the strain of having to compete with such relentless (and yet utterly false) images of perfection.

It’s bad enough to live in a society pervaded by deceit; it’s worse when we import these habits into the Church. “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body.” (Ephesians 4:25) We cannot be truly ‘one’ with each other if we can’t be honest with each other, or if we can’t be relied upon to keep our promises. Worst of all is when dishonest methods (fictional testimonies and fake miracles) are used to promote the Gospel: the ‘message of truth’ (Ephesians 1:13) is then tainted.

Truth does matter. And since lies trip off our tongues so easily, we had better get into the habit of thinking before speaking (or tweeting). One of the many concerns about the Internet is the way in which the words we post remain there indefinitely, waiting to be found and used against us at a later date. But this may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise, if it teaches us to be more careful. Our speech will become truthful when we start caring about the truth…

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Jonah: a peculiar prophet

The first question that most people ask about the book of Jonah is: Can it really be a true story? This isn’t such an easy question to answer; not everything recorded in the Bible is true in the sense that it actually happened (Jesus’ parables, for instance, are not ‘true’ stories). And the book of Jonah, though included amongst the prophetic books of the Old Testament, is unique in its format and content. If this is a prophecy (or a history, for that matter), then it’s a very unusual one.

We know that Jonah was a real person because he is mentioned in the historical record (II Kings 14:25), and we know that he lived in the mid-8th century BC (a period when the city of Nineveh suffered a number of disasters). So it’s not impossible that he could have gone to Nineveh and preached there. But the giant fish… isn’t that a bit hard to swallow? Or is this one of those instances where truth really is stranger than fiction?

But we may not actually need to know the answer to this question. For a story doesn’t need to be true in order to convey truth – in fact, when it comes to conveying truth, stories are sometimes better than bare facts. We don’t agonise over whether the story of the Good Samaritan ‘really happened’ or not; the lessons to be learned from it are independent of its historicity (or lack of it).

Jonah is a real person in history; but in this story he’s also a personification of Israel as a whole (a nation intended to play a prophetic role as light to the nations, but who resist their calling and despise those other nations). Jonah’s ‘death’ in the fish parallels Israel’s exile in Babylon; but instead of disappearing from the face of the earth for ever, he is resurrected. As a result, God’s message is preached to the Gentiles – but Jonah himself, like his people, remains stubbornly opposed to God’s loving purpose.

There’s no doubt that the book of Jonah is intended to be provocative. It was written in order to make us think (it’s one of only two books in the Bible that end with a question), to challenge our preconceptions – and to leave us feeling uncomfortable. Read it either as fact or as fiction, whichever you prefer – so long as you take its message on board!

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Seven Deadly Sins: Greed

The word ‘greedy’ conjures up an image of someone (probably grossly overweight) stuffing themselves with pizza or cream cakes. We associate it almost entirely with the overconsumption of food, blinding ourselves to the fact that greed involves every part of us; it’s in the very air of our affluent society that we breathe. The advertising industry has spent decades persuading us that it is normal and natural to want more and more of everything; we have come to believe it, and we behave accordingly.

So we need to pay attention to Jesus’ warning: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15) It’s difficult to overestimate the dangers, for “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (I Timothy 6:10) Greed is not at the root of all the evil in the world, but it is responsible for quite a lot of it (theft, cheating, fraud, envy, hatred, quarrelling, violence and even murder). It’s a form of idolatry (Ephesians 5:5); the person who is obsessed with material things has a compulsion to acquire more and more possessions, even though they don’t really need them. And the more they succeed in accumulating, the more they convince themselves that material possessions can satisfy all their needs. People motivated by greed will do anything in order to get what they want; greed doesn’t co-exist long with high moral standards and strict business ethics!

An early sign of greed is an unwillingness to share what we have. Let’s go back to food for a moment… believe it or not, there is enough food in the world to feed all its inhabitants. And yet a scandalously large proportion of them go hungry. An even greater scandal is that there are more obese people in the world than starving people (which implies that affluent countries are over-supplied with food). These inequalities should shock us. How can we in the West, who have more than enough, happily gorge ourselves while other members of Christ’s global Body, our brothers and sisters, are starving? Perhaps we should re-read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)! The apostle Paul was very keen for his Gentile converts to learn to share their wealth with the relatively impoverished churches in Judea; it was in taking their gifts to Jerusalem that he was arrested and deprived of his freedom for over five years. Do we have even a fraction of his concern?

The fate of the rich man in Jesus’ parable is a stark warning. Greed may be invisible to us, living as we do in a culture that normalises overconsumption (not just of food, but also of fossil fuels and everything else); but it is not harmless. Those who live for maximum gain to themselves end up losing everything – and no amount of material possessions can compensate for the loss of eternal life (Mark 8:36).

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Unfair exchange

We believe in Jesus Christ… who was crucified, died and was buried,
and descended into the grave.

II Corinthians 5:21

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.

“Swapping” used to be a major part of playground culture (and for all I know, it may still be). When I was a child, we used to collect information cards out of tea packets; in my daughter’s generation, it was Pokémon cards. Some of the cards in a set were quite hard to come by, and consequently acquired a high notional value. One such card could in theory be traded for a large number of the commoner cards – but the owner would rarely be persuaded to part with it!

Such an exchange might seem to be a rather crude and trivial metaphor for what happened when Jesus died on the cross, but it helps us to understand how we benefit from His death. For God did not keep His righteousness to Himself and leave us stuck in our state of rebelliousness (which is sin). By His gracious plan, and through Christ’s willingness to take our place, our sin can be ‘swapped’ with His righteousness. So Jesus pays the penalty for our sin – and we reap all the benefits of His righteousness!

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