Verse of the Month: February 2018

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with Me.” (Revelation 3:20)

Carved door, Passau

When your life is cosy and secure, it’s risky to open the door. If Jesus comes into your life, who knows what He might do? But that’s a risk we have to take…

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Book of the Month: Liturgy of the Ordinary

(Some thoughts inspired by reading ‘Liturgy of the Ordinary’, by Tish Harrison Warren)

Whether we are aware of it or not, we are creatures of habit. Repetition wears grooves, and our lives get preferentially directed along them. This is not a bad thing but a facet of our biology (think of bedtime routines; they actually help us to go to sleep). Liturgy is hard-wired into us. It is formed by habit, and in its turn becomes habit-forming.

I’ve just gone through four major life events (retirement, cancer, bereavement and moving house) – plus a broken wrist – in the space of fifteen months. This is unusual; the big things of life are (fortunately) relatively rare. Most of life consists of little everyday things – and we actually get annoyed when our regular, predictable routine gets disrupted. We grumble over minor irritations (like losing our car keys – Tish’s example) and fret in hospital waiting rooms…

Many of us, when we were young, wanted to change the world – to be like one of those famous missionaries who “did great things for God.” By the age of 60, most of us have realised that it’s never going to happen quite like that. Most of us have to face up to the fact that we are just ordinary people, and nobody is going to be interested in our biographies. And yet… “Each time we make a small choice towards justice, or buy fair trade, or seek to share instead of hoard, or extend mercy to those around us and kindness to those with whom we disagree, or say, ‘I forgive you,’ we pass peace where we are in the ways that we can. And God can take these ordinary things and, like fish and bread, bless them and multiply them.”

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” (Luke 16:10) We are given small quantities of seed, day by day, in order to sow it. As we sow those tiny seeds, we are making possible a harvest of blessing (Galatians 6:9) – not only for other people but maybe for us as well, because those minor everyday hassles are preparing us to cope with the ‘big stuff’. The spiritual habits that we establish during our ordinary everyday lives (such as prayer, reading the Bible, and fellowship) are what will see us through the times of crisis when they come.

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A Biblical Journey through Jordan (3)

Mount Hor (Numbers 20:22-29)

After escaping from Egypt and wandering around the Sinai peninsula for forty years, the Israelites eventually approached Canaan from the south-east. It is recorded that Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, died along the way, at the top of Mount Hor. The summit of the mountain now bears a monument dedicated to him.

Mount Hor

Aaron was no ‘saint’; he was instrumental in making the infamous golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:1-6), and he once threatened Moses’ authority (Numbers 12). In turn, he himself was sometimes challenged by men wanting to usurp his unique role (e.g. Numbers 16). Perhaps this is one reason why he has been honoured more after his death than during his life! But he was used by God, and was ultimately faithful to the end.

Sunset over Mount Hor

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Let’s talk about sin (part 2)

I John 1:8-10

But of course, nobody wants to think of themselves as being basically bad. We don’t want to take responsibility for our sin – instead we make excuses for it. We say ‘God made me that way,’ or we blame our genes, our parents, or being bullied at school, or whatever.

Or we make it an exercise in comparison. We look at somebody else and think, “Well, I’m better than they are, so I’m all right really!” That was what the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14) was doing, measuring himself against a man who was regarded as the scum of the earth (the tax-collectors worked for the Roman occupiers, so they were traitors as well as cheats). Of course the Pharisee looked good in comparison with someone like that – but if he had looked instead at himself and at God, he’d have seen a very different and much less flattering picture.

Or we treat it as a kind of balancing act. We hope that our good deeds will outweigh our bad ones, or that the good stuff that we do will somehow distract God’s attention from the flaws in our character. Does it really work like that? Was the Pharisee thinking that all his tithing and fasting would ‘make up for’ any faults he might have had? What do you think?

Or we treat sin as if it doesn’t matter very much. We talk about God’s ‘unconditional love’, and tell ourselves that ‘God loves me anyway, just as I am, so I don’t need to change.’

But John won’t let us get away with any of this. He says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8) And sin – any sin – gets in the way of us having a relationship with God. It isn’t something He can just sweep under the carpet and ignore – to Him it’s like a rotting kipper! It actually makes Him angry! He can’t just say, “There, there, don’t worry about it – I forgive you.” That would be like trying to cover up the smell of rotting kipper with air freshener. There’s only one way to deal with a smell like that – get rid of the cause! And in the same way, our sin has to be actually removed and taken away. But we, on our own, can’t do that – because we’re born with it, and it’s part of our very nature.

I John 2:1,2

That was the bad news. The good news is that God has done something about the universal problem of sin. As John says later in his letter, Jesus came “to take away our sins” (I John 3:5). He had no sins of His own, but allowed Himself to be crucified as “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (I John 2:2) What John means is this: Because we all start out on the side of the devil and are fighting against God, we all deserve to die. But Jesus, having lived the perfect life that we all fail to live, died the death that we deserve on our behalf. Effectively, our sins can be transferred to Jesus, and in His dying He carries them so far away that they are even out of God’s sight – for ever.

But this doesn’t happen automatically. Because Jesus is the Son of God, His death is an event of cosmic significance, big enough to deal with all the sins of everyone in the world; but in order for my sins to be dealt with I have to acknowledge them. The personal element can’t be ignored: I have offended God by my behaviour, and we need to be reconciled one-to-one. I need to change sides in the spiritual war and allow God to take authority over my life. This is what repentance is. And I know if I’ve done that, because my attitude towards sin changes; I don’t enjoy it any more. And so anyone who becomes a child of God “cannot go on sinning.” (I John 3:9) Their life changes – and people should be able to see a difference.

But hang on a minute – when John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8), he’s talking about Christians – and he even includes himself! Doesn’t this contradict what he says in chapter 3, that a Christian can’t go on sinning? Not quite. Although becoming a Christian makes us want to avoid sin, unfortunately we don’t get instant perfection – if only we did! The sad fact is, we do continue to sin, and it’s no good pretending that everything in our lives is sweetness and light when we know full well that it isn’t.

Some people will say that a Christian doesn’t need to keep asking God for forgiveness because all our sins are already forgiven. But this isn’t about our salvation; it’s about our day-to-day relationship with our heavenly Father. Although we know that God loves us, regardless of what we do (because we’re His children), our sins still offend Him. In fact, they offend Him more than the sins of unbelievers do! And so we need to do something about them.

And others will say, “I know I’ve sinned, but God knows that too – because He knows everything – so why do I need to confess my sins?” Well, we don’t confess our sins to God in order to tell Him something He doesn’t already know, but to mend our relationship with Him: we face up to reality, say sorry, and admit once again that we need His mercy. In Jesus’ parable, remember, it was only the man who actually asked for forgiveness who was forgiven.

So, to summarise: we mustn’t be complacent about sin, or take God’s forgiveness for granted. If we’re not yet Christians, we’re enemies of God and the first thing we need to do is get reconciled with Him so that we can enjoy eternal life. If we are Christians, we should be fighting against the sin that is still in our lives and becoming more like Jesus – if we aren’t doing that, there’s something wrong somewhere that needs sorting out. If you’re finding this difficult for some reason, you may need to ask for some help. But on the other hand, we mustn’t be over-sensitive to our consciences and let them condemn us every time we mess up. Jesus died in order to deal with this problem, and “if we confess our sins… He will forgive us our sins.” (I John 1:9)

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A Biblical Journey through Jordan (2)

River Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-30)

Jacob had spent twenty years in exile near the River Euphrates, working for his uncle Laban. Now he was returning home to his own family – including his elder brother Esau, whom he had cheated out of his inheritance, and who had sworn to kill him. As he and his company (wives, children, servants and animals) headed for the Jordan, they had to cross the smaller River Jabbok…


River Jabbok


There was no bridge 4000 years ago; the river had to be forded. As night fell, Jacob was the last to cross – but suddenly he encountered a stranger who attempted to bar his passage. A wrestling match ensued, that went on all night until both combatants were utterly exhausted. Yet neither would give up…

All his life, Jacob had been fighting against God, trying to deceive and manipulate Him as he was accustomed to deceiving and manipulating other people. Now, on the riverbank, this spiritual struggle took on a tangible form. It was a struggle that Jacob eventually realised he could not win – but in being broken and submitting to God, he received a great blessing.

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Let’s talk about sin (part 1)

I John 3:4-6

What is sin? The answer may surprise you: “sin is lawlessness” (I John 3:4) In other words, at its most fundamental level sin is an attitude of defiance – the attitude that says, ‘God can’t tell me what to do’. It’s an attitude that starts very young – in fact, we’re born with it. As all parents know: if you tell a small child, ‘Don’t touch that,’ what’s the first thing they’re likely to do as soon as your back is turned? Human beings are hard-wired to be disobedient and to resist authority! Obedience and self-discipline don’t come naturally to us; we have to be taught them. And however well we learn the lesson, there’s always a streak of lawlessness in us. It manifests itself in different ways in different people. It may only show itself when we’re under stress, or when we’ve drunk too much alcohol. But we all have it. There’s only ever been one exception to this universal rule: Jesus. John says, “In Him is no sin.” (verse 5)

It’s this underlying streak of ‘lawlessness’ inside us that causes us to break God’s law, represented by the Ten Commandments. So sin is stuff like idol-worship, murder, theft and adultery. But that’s not all. If sin is just ‘doing things’, then that excludes a lot of what the Bible classifies as sin. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us that sin can be thoughts as well as actions – hatred is sin, as well as murder. So sin includes things that go on inside our heads, like the so-called ‘seven deadly sins’ – pride, anger, envy, greed, lust, gluttony, and sloth. That means I can sin before I’ve even got out of bed in the morning!

Why does this matter? God’s original intention for us was that we should not die, but live in His presence for ever – and our sin prevents us from doing that. Now if you’re not concerned about being on good terms with God – which the outside world isn’t – you won’t worry about sin. But for Christians our relationship with God is much more important than being able to do whatever we want – it’s literally a matter of life and death! And sin spoils our relationship with God like nothing else. How can I explain it… In times past, if you were leaving a job or a bedsit where the other people had made your life miserable, you might get your revenge on them by taping a kipper to the underside of a large heavy piece of furniture (such as a piano). It wouldn’t actually hurt anyone or do any damage, but after a few days it would stink to high heaven – and it could take them weeks to find where the smell was coming from. And sin of any kind – even if it’s just happening inside our heads and ‘doesn’t harm anybody else’ as far as we can see – is like an unbearable stink in God’s nostrils. We aren’t that much aware of it because we’re all natural sinners from birth and we live in a sinful environment; but God is absolutely pure and holy. If we’re Christians, we’re supposed to be living, breathing, walking temples of God’s Holy Spirit – but the Spirit will eventually be ‘stinked out’ of us if sin is festering away somewhere in our lives.

I John 3:7-10

Here John explains something of the background to this whole issue of sin. There is in fact a war on – a war in the spiritual realm – and it all started with the devil. “The devil has been sinning from the beginning” (verse 8) – in other words, he was the original sinner. Now the Bible nowhere explains exactly why the devil declared war on God, but almost right from the beginning, there have been these two sides fighting each other, and now everyone (including all of us) is either on one side or on the other. In John’s language, we’re either “children of God” or “children of the devil.”

‘Children of the devil’ sounds like something out of a horror movie, but John isn’t talking about psychopaths, or people who are involved in witchcraft. He’s talking about perfectly ordinary, normal people – they may not believe that there is a devil, they may never even have heard of the devil, but they simply follow his lead in not wanting their lives to be under the authority of God.

And it has nothing to do with how ‘good’ you are (because even the devil’s children do a lot of good things); it’s a more fundamental question than that, a question of allegiance. The devil’s children happily “do what is sinful” if they want to, because they don’t care what God thinks; but if we’re God’s children we want to please Him, so we resist sin and fight against it.

The default option for human beings is to be children of the devil: we’re all born with that streak of lawlessness, whether we like it or not.

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A Biblical Journey through Jordan (1)

About ten years ago, we had the privilege of travelling through Jordan, visiting the many sites that have links with the Bible story in both Old and New Testaments.

Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19)

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of those ancient stories that makes an indelible impression on the mind. A community so hardened by years of godlessness that they thought nothing of committing the most horrendous atrocities; the sudden judgement of God; the rescue of a single (relatively) devout family; and the death of Lot’s wife on the very brink of safety, transformed into ‘a pillar of salt’.

And here she is (or at least, a suggestively shaped rock formation), forever overlooking the valley that was once her home:

Lot’s wife

There is no archaeological trace of ‘the cities of the plain’ – causing some people to doubt that they ever existed. Whatever disaster overtook them has completely obliterated them, and the valley that was once renowned for its fertility (Genesis 13:10) has become a barren salt desert.

On the shore of the Dead Sea

Whether myth or history, we are meant to learn an important lesson from this: Sodom and Gomorrah “serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” (Jude 7) We may choose to live without any regard for God all our lives – but when the Day of Judgement comes, the result of that choice will be that we are destroyed as completely as if we had never been.

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