Verse of the month: November 2017

“With You is the fountain of life;
in Your light we see light.” (Psalm 36:9)

Fountain, Butchart Gardens, Vancouver Island…

 

 

…ever-changing…

A relationship with God changes everything; life is no longer mundane or meaningless.

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The Journey (part 2)

Plans and preparations

My father always used to say: “When planning an expedition, always expect the preparations to take twice as long and cost four times as much as you anticipate.”

This one was no exception to the rule. It was almost six months before we finally got under way, and I was getting impatient.

The delay did not cause either of my fellow-travellers to lose any of their enthusiasm. Quite the reverse, in fact. Shortly after we had come to an agreement, the Astrologer came to my house and insisted that I get up before dawn the following morning so that he could show me what had happened to the new star. It was moving, and it had become apparent that it was no ordinary star but a comet. This was something I had never seen before, but the Astrologer was not at all surprised. Such a phenomenon was unusual, he said, but not unprecedented – and it always meant that something of great significance either had happened or was about to happen.

As the days went by, the comet grew bigger and brighter. It launched itself across the sky from one constellation to another, at one point passing through the Archer’s bow to strike at the heart of the Scorpion.* The Astrologer became very excited by this; he interpreted it as a sign that the new King would strike down the powers of wickedness.

The Librarian was also, in his own way, a man inspired. He took care of the provisions, the tents, and the hiring of the camels, servants and bodyguards. I found out that he was investing his entire life savings in the project. They say there’s no fool like an old fool, don’t they?

On the matter of gifts, at least, they took my advice. Jewels are tempting for thieves. Spices travel well and are always acceptable. And the best spices at the best prices are to be found in Petra – which was not far off our route. We agreed therefore to go to Petra first, before heading for Jerusalem.

But time went by, and one hold-up followed another to prevent our departure, and the comet eventually disappeared below the horizon. But not for long. Its reappearance, some weeks later, was spectacular even to my uneducated eyes. Once again the Astrologer was at my door before dawn, and his excitement was so intense that I crawled out of bed to see what it was all about. He pointed the comet out to me, its head low down over the horizon in the constellation of the Virgin. All around it were shooting stars; I had seen odd ones in the past but had never witnessed such a storm of them. Would there be any stars left in the sky when it had finished?

The Astrologer had an explanation for it all, of course. “When the Virgin rose a few days ago, the comet was in her womb. Today her ‘baby’ has been born – and the Serpent beside her is enraged. His tail is lashing, causing the stars to fall from the sky**, as you can see for yourself. Truly a great King has been born, for the forces of darkness are trying to destroy him!”

(to be continued…)

*All astronomical details are based on “The Great Christ Comet”, by Colin Nicholl
** Revelation 12:1-4

 

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A prescription for living

Psalm 34

How can we live life to the full? David knows the secret: it’s ‘the fear of the LORD’!

“Come, my children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD…” (verse 11)
The ‘fear of the LORD’ doesn’t come naturally to inherently sinful human beings; we have to learn how to live it out. Our ‘teachers’ are those older in the faith – those with many years of experience in the ups and downs of walking with Jesus. Our ‘pupils’ are those younger in the faith – those, that is, who are willing to listen and learn!

For righteous living isn’t something that we can just drift into; it’s fundamentally a matter of personal choice. The first step is to turn our backs on evil (otherwise known as ‘repentance’), for “to fear the LORD is to hate evil” (Proverbs 8:13). We then automatically find ourselves facing in the right direction, ready for the next step: to do those things that are right and good (verse 14). And if our words and actions are congruent with the loving and righteous nature of our God, we can reasonably expect to enjoy His blessing (verse 9). For when we live our lives under His authority, He takes responsibility for our welfare. “Those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.” (verse 10) We may not (indeed, we probably won’t) get everything that we want; but we will receive everything that we really need – plus a lot more!

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The Journey (part 1)

Mesopotamia

My father always used to say: “Astrology is bunk. It’s just a way of making money out of gullible and fearful people.”

So why did I agree to an appointment with an astrologer?

“I don’t believe in all that guiding star stuff.”

The Astrologer now drew himself up to his full height – and he was a very tall man. He knew how to look offended.

“Do not take me for a charlatan – of which I admit there are many. I do not cast horoscopes. I read the stars. They have spoken a message of such import that it will affect the whole world. Marduk and Ninurta have embraced in the heavens, and a new star has appeared alongside them. The other stars are gathering around them to watch. This is no ordinary conjunction. There has been nothing like it since records began… there is no precedent.”

“So how do you know what it means, then?”

The Astrologer turned to the man beside him. “I went to my friend, the Librarian.”

The Librarian was a much older – and shorter – man. He walked around permanently bent over, as if he had spent all his life at his desk, huddling over scrolls and parchments. And he had been twitching with suppressed excitement ever since they had entered my house. Now his moment had come.

“The world is expecting a great King,” he announced.

“Are we? Nobody told me.”

“It was prophesied, over a thousand years ago. A star will arise from Israel, a great King who will rule all the nations of the world.”* The Librarian obviously enjoyed imparting information to the ignorant.

I was sceptical, as ever. “Every nation has a dream of a great ruler to come, and the Jews are no exception. They are all that’s left of Israel. The more downtrodden the nation, the greater their hopes. They must have something to hope for.”

The Librarian was not at all abashed by my dismissive statement. “But this is different. This prophecy was not made by one of their own people but by a foreigner – an enemy, even. The great Babylonian seer Balaam, hired to curse the nation of Israel, foretold instead that they would be the greatest nation on earth. It’s all in the records. I can show you…”

“I’ll take your word for it.” An afternoon hunting through obscure scrolls in a dusty library was not my idea of time well spent. “But even if the prophecy exists, it doesn’t follow that it will ever come true.”

“There is only one way to find out,” declared the Astrologer. “A great King is coming, and we must go at once to Judea to pay homage to him.”

I was beginning to see where the conversation was heading. “It sounds suspiciously like a wild donkey chase to me. Who will be going, apart from you two? Any of your colleagues at the Academy?”

For the first time, the Astrologer looked a bit sheepish. “Actually, nobody else is willing to come with us. They say it’s too far.”

(They mean too far-fetched, I thought to myself)

“Have a good trip, then. I’ll see you when you get back.”

“We would like you to come with us,” said the Librarian.

“May I ask why?”

“Because we need a guide, and you are the best-qualified person we know. You speak Greek as well as Aramaic. You have lived in that part of the world.”

“I grew up in Damascus, but that was years ago now. I’ve never been to Judea – and I don’t ever want to go there, either. The only Jew I knew was the owner of the wine shop at the end of our street. He was insufferably proud – we were ‘goyim’ and as far as he was concerned, we were like the dust under his feet. Why go to Judea? You won’t be welcome.”

The Astrologer sighed. “We will make it worth your while,” he said.

…..

To cut a long story short, we came to an arrangement. I negotiated a substantial fee for my services, paid in advance; I thought it best to conceal the fact that I had my own reasons for wanting to disappear from home for a while.

(to be continued…)

* Numbers 24:17-19

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Protected and delivered

Psalm 34

In his haste to escape from Saul’s murderous intentions, David’s first impulse is to take refuge in Philistine territory, perhaps in the hope of hiring himself out as a mercenary soldier. But news of his quarrel with Saul has not yet reached the Philistines, and he quickly finds that he has jumped out of the frying pan into the fire! Desperate situations call for desperate remedies: he manages to put on such a convincing display of madness that the Philistines take pity on him and release him (I Samuel 21:10-15).

And how does he describe afterwards what happened?
“This poor man called, and the LORD heard him;
He saved him out of all his troubles.” (Psalm 34:6)

David had been afraid for his life – so afraid that he was driven to the most abject self-humiliation in order to survive. He had called on his own resourcefulness and acting skills – but he had also prayed fervently for God’s help. And although he had used his own initiative to get out of a desperately perilous situation, he attributes his success entirely to God’s overruling.

David’s experience was shared by Jacob (Genesis 32:1,2) and Elisha (II Kings 6:15-17). Although the servants of God are exposed to many dangers, we are protected and defended by invisible angelic armies.
“The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him,
and He delivers them.” (Psalm 34:7)
We never have to face the enemy alone…

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The Ten (sorry, six) Commandments

A YouGov poll published last week (Oct 25th) revealed that four of the Ten Commandments are no longer regarded as “important principles to live by”. Only the last six commandments (to honour one’s parents, and not to murder, commit adultery, steal, tell lies or covet other people’s possessions) were upheld by at least 50% of the adults sampled.

Should we be at all surprised by this? After all, most people in the UK are not Christians (only 40% of the survey sample identified as ‘Christian’), so why should they care about any of God’s commandments? However, it’s reassuring that the six commandments governing relationships with other people are still widely regarded as universal moral principles. Whether we actually live by them, of course, is another matter!

A more worrying finding, however, is that around 50% of the ‘Christians’ who took part in the poll did not agree with the first four commandments – the ones that concern with our relationship with God. Of course, it’s very likely that not all these ‘Christians’ really are genuine believers. 40% seems a suspiciously high proportion for a representative survey, when most estimates put us at around 10% of the total UK population.

But even if this is the case, it still suggests an endemic misunderstanding of what the Christian faith is all about. There are evidently an awful lot of people around who consider themselves to be ‘Christians’, yet do not attach any importance to maintaining a good relationship with God. For them, Christianity is not ‘love God and love your neighbour’ (Mark 12:29,30), but just ‘love your neighbour’. This might seem harmless enough, but it has some serious implications. Once all reference to God has been airbrushed out of our minds, the fundamental Christian concepts of sin and atonement must also go by the board – for if it is only our neighbour who can be offended by our behaviour, we do not need to be reconciled to God. What then was the point of Jesus’ coming? His teaching may still be admired, but His death becomes a meaningless tragedy and His resurrection – if it happened at all – is just a wishful ‘happy ending’ tacked onto an otherwise sad story.

This is the modern secularised version of Christianity. It is also the sanitised version; for a religion that consists only of universally agreed moral principles is not going to offend anyone. Does this go some way towards explaining the hostile reaction to the teaching of traditional Christian doctrines (such as sin and final judgement) at a Church of England primary school?

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God on earth

We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s one and only Son, our Lord

Hebrews 1:3

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.

Christians believe that Jesus is not a created being (such as a man or an angel) but ‘the very essence of God’, sharing the Father’s deity and all His attributes.

After spending time in the presence of God, Moses reflected some of God’s glory (Exodus 34:29). Jesus, however, does not reflect God’s glory but radiates it. Just as the sun shines by emitting light, so the Father’s glory (the glory that manifested His presence amongst His people) is seen in the Son. This language identifies Jesus very closely with God – and yet at the same time He is distinct from God.

A bit like a photograph, Jesus was the ‘exact representation’ of God on earth, the only human being since Adam to have displayed God’s image clearly, without blurring. Yet a photograph is only a representation of someone’s appearance (and just a two-dimensional representation, at that). It isn’t possible to interact with or talk to a photo of me as you would do with me in person. But in meeting Jesus, people encountered God Himself in a close and personal way (John 14:9). He did not merely tell us about God; He embodied God.

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