Godness Without Goodness

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Well, the answer to that rather depends on who you ask. Robert Burns, I think, was steering us towards a negative answer. The prophet, Isaiah, on the other hand, urged us to ‘remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old’.

At the turn of the year, it is natural, however, to  reminisce. That other gobby spideag, Scarlett O’ Hara used to advise against such things, warning that the past would drag at your heart until eventually looking back would be all you could do. Normally I’d agree with her, but New Year is a special case. We stand on the threshold of 2021 and, however this twelve-month has served us, it’s hard to resist a last glimpse before finally taking our leave.

The world is in visible chaos. This pandemic drives home a truth that has been with us since our fall in Adam: we are not in control. It may be more apparent to us at this moment in time but it is, actually, no more true than it was last year, last century or last millennium. God has told us this repeatedly. He has told us gently and kindly, he has roared it at us, he has written it in fire and cloud across his beautiful Creation. That is, the same Creation we fractured when we first tried to take his place.

As those who commit wrongs often do, we failed – collectively and individually- to accept the guilt of that presumption. Instead, humankind has wasted all its time and effort trying to prove that God doesn’t exist and, if he does, he’s to blame for wars and childhood cancer, while man furnishes the peace treaties and the cures. 

We fail consistently to go to our Father and repent of this age-old struggle to wrest his godness from him and confer it upon ourselves. 

As a race, humanity lacks humility.

For me, 2020 was a fresh beginning. I came to terms with a lot of things, and put others into their rightful places. Because of the new way of living, I rediscovered the joy of home, and the manifold blessings of this life that my Father ordained for me. 

Another privilege I have enjoyed is peace. That is, the settled peace that permits me to take a step back from my own experience. I view it, if not with a dispassionate eye, then certainly with a perspective that comes from the Lord. If people say things about me that are unjust or untrue, what is that to me? My reputation with God is crucial; he sees and he knows. We may protest our goodness and our kindness, but if our actions witness to the contrary, that is recorded. It is simply a question of deciding whose opinion of me matters and I will take the courts of the Lord ahead of the court of public – or social media – opinion any day of the week.

I cannot say that I deserve the blessings he has poured down upon my head this year. In a period of uncertainty and grief for many, God has been more present than ever, and much more giving than I have any right to expect. Though I cannot say exactly how, I feel that I have turned a corner and that I am ready for a fresh beginning in 2021. Never really having been conscious of particular weakness or vulnerability, it is strange to acknowledge that I feel much stronger and more like my ‘old self’.

She is an old acquaintance that I don’t want to forget: Catriona Murray, Donnie’s wife. There is nothing about those years I would wish to blot from memory. I can survey them with happiness for the life well-lived that joined to mine for a time. Now, I am someone else. A germ of that same Catriona went into making this present incarnation, but I am renewed and refined by all that has happened since I held my husband’s hand for the last time. 

And because of these experiences, I ponder the resurrection of believers and see the same mind, the same creative hand at work. God can take us and make us into something else. Catriona the wife and Catriona the widow are the same person, and yet, not.  

He is working in his people, the world over, right at this very moment. Look at your loved ones – little children, old ladies and everyone in between: if they belong to him, he is remaking them in his own image once more. Perhaps he will have to bend them, and pummel them and change them almost beyond recognition, but he is conforming them to the original pattern of perfection.

We try to take his godness from him, and to possess it for ourselves. But, if we would only recognise his goodness and submit to it in Christ, 2021 could be a year of renewal and blessing for all.

Remember how he told you?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m a slow learner when it comes to trusting my well-being to Jesus. Consistently faithful, wise, good and loving though he is, I can’t help trying to wrest control back for myself. 

Though I would never say that I doubt, my very actions suggest otherwise.

See, we all have pretty fixed ideas of how things ‘should’ turn out. We even do it in our prayers, telling God what’s wrong and suggesting our preferred solutions. When his answer is ‘no’, ‘not now’ or ‘not that way’ we sometimes fail to recognise it as an answer at all.

The disciples had their own preconceived ideas of how the redemptive plan should unfold. Nowhere in their thinking did a dead Saviour feature. That one event which dashed all their hopes in Jesus was actually the defining work of the Messiah – and yet, it momentarily killed the dream.

The angels guarding the empty tomb put things straight with these simple words:

‘Remember how he told you.’

We have, in all things to fall back on him; on his trustworthiness and on his wisdom. What he says, is or will be. No doubt. He has told us so, and we have only to hold fast to that.

These 24 blogs on the life of Christ began with the Angel visiting Mary, and ended at chapter 24 with the Ascension. 

Only, of course, his life did not end there. It goes on still, with him seated at the right hand of God. Trust that fact.

Trust that your life also began with him, and stretches onwards with his, through eternity. If, that is, you belong to him.

Do you? His is the only name under heaven by which we must be saved.

Remember how he told you?

And their voices prevailed

I like getting my own way of at all possible. In that, I’m probably no different to the majority of the population. We can all be single-minded in our pursuit of what we desire, and the fact is that when I get my way, it may be that someone else’s hopes are simultaneously dashed. As I triumph, there is potentially another who weeps. 

That is why, in pursuing our aims in life, we need to be very careful about the impact realising these can have on others. We need to be sure that slavish attachment to our own opinions are not the means of doing great harm. 

I think, for example, of the people who wish to remove the Bible and Christian teaching from school life. They say they wish children to have a choice, and not to be brainwashed . . . but see the means of achieving this as being to excise all information about God from their young people’s experience. 

They know this is illogical, but they want it anyway. People who are doggedly pursuing a goal will justify it to themselves any way they can. 

When Jesus was brought before Pilate, the charges against him were found to be without foundation. Nevertheless, the crowd bayed for his life to be forfeit. They did not want to hear Pilate’s logic; they wanted Jesus dead.

And what did Pilate do? ‘He delivered Jesus over to their will’.

Look at the devastation our will can wreak. In that moment, they insisted on getting what they wanted – and what they wanted was to see God himself hanging on a cross. 

Of course, they chose to free Barabbas instead. I wonder if he witnessed the crucifixion of Christ, and if he marvelled at the innocent man dying in his place. 

And I wonder what the people who had demanded this did next, I wonder what they thought. Luke’s narrative only describes their collective behaviour. Every mob, though, is made up of individual souls, and each one is capable of being reached by Christ. Did any leave the scene broken by what they had done? Were there contrite hearts in that assembly?

We saw in the previous chapter how Jesus freely surrendered his own will to God. Where would the human race be if he had insisted on his own way, so that the cup of death would pass from him? 

If Jesus who is perfect had been so consumed with being right that he had insisted on his own way in everything, we would be a hopeless race indeed.

But Jesus, in his perfection, submitted to the Father’s will. God’s will is that none shall perish.

What is so good about your own way when it opposes eternal life?

Not My Will

Forgive me expressing myself this way, but I don’t think there is a moment in all the account of his life when I admire Jesus more than at Luke 22: 42. ‘Father’, he says, ‘if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless,  not my will, but yours, be done’.

I have always loved this verse, even before I knew I belonged to him. It’s there on the dog-eared post-it note in my Key Word Study KJV. That dates back to a time in my life when I was largely carefree. Newly graduated, I had a job that I loved and was on the cusp of meeting the man who would become my husband. And in all this happy, world-is-your-oyster glow, what was God doing?

Preparing me. That’s what God was doing. 

When I leaf through that old Bible, what do I find marked? ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’; ‘the prince of this world cometh and he hath nothing in me’ and, of course, ‘let this cup pass from me’.

Nothing in my life at that time explains the preciousness of these verses. But, just as Jesus is seen in Luke 22, readying the disciples for what lies ahead, I believe he was equipping me for a storm when everything seemed set so fair. 

There are things in this life that we would put from us if we could. If God left the choice up to people, we wouldn’t choose for ourselves the things that test and hurt us. But verse 42, aside from being the essence of everything Christ is, also shows us the way to peace. It is not mere resignation to our lot, but true acceptance of it. Jesus isn’t saying, ‘if I must, I must’: he is saying that he chooses, he prefers that the Father’s will be done. 

God has willed things for all of us that we didn’t want. But I can tell you with a sincere heart that submission brings blessing.

That, I think, is one of the greatest challenges the world is currently facing, and one where the church really must lead. A failure to accept a providence we don’t want is causing people to act in ways that are unattractive. Of course no one wants to be separated from loved ones for Christmas – but it has to be. We have become so used to imposing our own will on everything, to saying something is or isn’t so, according to our own lights, that we cannot accept a simple, ‘no’.

God is in this providence. We can kick and scream and blame our leaders all we want, but there comes a time to be silent. There comes a time to bow our heads in submission to God’s will, and to ask him:

‘Father, what would you have me do?’

Dumb Witness

Witnessing is one of those Christian duties that can seem a little intimidating. We are unused, perhaps, to speaking up and to expressing ourselves in a hostile setting. One of the commonest messages I get from fellow believers is, ‘I couldn’t do that; I never know what to say’.

Well, here is encouragement in Luke 21: 14-15. Jesus himself says, ‘Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict’. In other words, don’t plan out or rehearse your responses. Indeed, don’t worry over them, but trust that the Lord will give you the words.

I suppose we tend to look on witnessing as the fruit of faith, but it is actually more helpful to understand it as the exercise of faith. This is one more area in which we are asked to forget any strength or personal quality we may possess, and rely utterly upon God for guidance. Obviously I’m talking about verbal witness and, more specifically, the kind we bring to hostile audiences. 

We balk at the thought of entering such a lions’ den. Yet, this is precisely what Christ refers to as an ‘opportunity’. If we are hauled – literally or figuratively – before an unbelieving court, then we have unprecedented access to the lost.

At this point, we have to do two things: give the  reins into God’s hands; and remember what we were before becoming his disciples. The act of remembering strengthens our trust in him and enables us to let go.

God doesn’t ask for eloquence, or cleverness. He supplies any deficiencies we may have. All he desires is that we would lean on him and open our mouths in faith.

They will try to drown you out. Yes, and they will try to shut your mouth. Perhaps you will be taken to law and made a social pariah for believing what is an offence to many. You may very well suffer personal humiliation and loss of respect or status.

Even, Jesus says, ‘some of you they will put to death’.

No wonder we fear to open our mouths. Today, society seems poised and ready, waiting to catch us out. 

Just, in fact, as the Pharisees and the scribes dealt with our Saviour. He knows, you see, he knows what we fear in this because he has been there before us.

That’s why we don’t have to plan our responses, and why there is truly nothing to fear if we step out in faith. 

Open your mouth and he will fill it.

Fear the People

From the very beginning, Jesus’ life was under threat. The mere fact of his birth brought Herod’s paranoia to a murderous pitch, and all through his public ministry, the ostentatiously righteous sought to place him under charge. 

As believing people, we struggle with, if nothing else, the sheer arrogance and effrontery of the scribes and the chief priests. We can’t believe how blind they were to the presence of the Lord – so much so, in fact, that they even sought to judge his conduct! 

In Luke 19: 9 – 18, Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants, which his detractors recognised immediately as being ‘told against them’.

Their reaction reminds me very much of our own modern-day unbelievers. They say that they reject Christianity, that they do not believe in God . . . yet they are offended by him and his teaching. Do not tell an atheist that he’s at risk of hell, or that he is guilty of sin because you may hurt his feelings.

And how do unbelievers deal with this? Well, remarkably similarly to the way we see the scribes and the priests reacting in this passage. They work in secret, insidiously trying to trip Christians up by accusing them of hate speech and ‘isms’ of various kinds. While they may say ‘tolerance’ in public, in private they act against any such thing.

Sadly, this chapter reveals something else that is a factor in our time too. We find it at verse 19, when we learn that the only thing restraining the scribes and chief priests is that ‘they feared the people’.

No respect for God incarnate, but fear of the world. Think on that: what blindness, what stupidity to be in the presence of Christ and feel only enmity. To wish him restrained, arrested, silenced, killed. 

And for nothing to stay your hand but fear of people.

If it sounds familiar, there is a good reason. Our generation despises God and has placed an idol on his throne: public opinion.

Public opinion will not be long suffering, nor slow to wrath. Public opinion will not look on us with mercy when we offend it. 

Yet, it seems we have made our choice.

The Things That Make For Peace

There is an exuberance to the behaviour of the disciples in chapter 19 of Luke’s gospel, that has hitherto been absent from the narrative. It is as if they are brimming over with love and awe, so much that they forget themselves in front of the ever-watchful Pharisees. 

See how the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rapidly followed by an account of Jesus weeping over that city, though? Again, I see a pattern in his experience that I think is replicated in the lives of many Christians. Seasons of great blessing and joy are frequently followed by times of grief and sorrow.

If I compare Jesus’ conduct with my own in such circumstances, there is a significant difference. He moves from exaltation to weeping, to the practical application of his just wrath against the money-lenders in his temple. And all the time, he is the same. Neither joy nor grief nor righteous anger mar his perfection, or halt him in his inexorable work.

The same yesterday, today and always.

The more Christlike we become in our walk of faith, the less we are affected by these kinds of shifts in our own circumstances. I am not saying that I have advanced VERY far, but I am definitely learning to follow my own advice which I have borrowed from Naomi, and repeated to myself even more often than I have offered it to others:

‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out’.

Lately, I have had to exercise this patience in a matter that has been stressful and trying. I made the usual mistakes (usual to me, that is – I’m not tarring you with the same brush): attempting to sort it out according to my own lights being chief among them. That went on for a pretty long and stormy time. 

And then, when I was finally worn down by the effort of trying to accomplish what I could not, I gave it to God. I told him I would trust whatever he would do with it, and that I would try to be obedient to his will. 

It was not quite instantaneous, but the clouds soon parted and I now feel much more sanguine about the entire situation. I know he is in it, and he is in control. Whatever he does will always be for the best. He has never steered me wrong.

That’s the lesson. Whether we are being lifted shoulder-high in triumph, or whether we are on our knees with pain, God is in control and we belong to him. His will, not mine. In the abstract, this sounds difficult; in the heat of battle, it can seem impossible, as it did to me just one week ago.

But I submitted my will to his, and now I am learning the things that make for peace.

The Persistent Widow

It’s taken eighteen days, but I have finally met the character I most identify with in all of Luke. Perhaps at other times it would be someone different, but today it is definitely the persistent widow who couldn’t get any justice.

Yes, that speaks to me right now. I have lately met with staggering selfishness and disregard of my rights, and having failed to be heard by the perpetrators, I have been forced to appeal to authority in order to persuade them to behave like . . . well, adults. 

Authority in many cases is just like the judge in this parable: they don’t want to get involved, they don’t really see why they should, but if you wear away at them, sooner or later, someone has to hear you.  It isn’t really about right and wrong – it’s simply that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Even ungodly rulers, like the judge in Luke 18, will sometimes dispense justice, even if it is simply to silence a persistent widow.

Widows feel especially vulnerable. Yes, even ones like me. You’ve lost your helpmeet, your partner in life and it’s difficult not to feel alone when hard pressed by either circumstances or by people. As I have said before, it’s a status that draws more kindness from those who are kind, but cruelty and exploitation from those who are not.

The point of this parable is to show how much more we can expect from God who IS justice than even the cold assistance of the courts. It would be contrary to his nature to act unjustly. We, in our sinful brokenness, struggle to comprehend this – and so Jesus explains it in terms we can understand. If even fallible and godless rulers can offer justice, imagine how much more you will receive from God.

Discussing my situation with a friend this week, he asked if I ever question God’s motives in permitting these situations. Yes, of course I do – I meditate on that very thing often. And there is one conclusion I’ve come to. I believe that in our trials God may well be reminding us of our privilege in belonging to him:

‘He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever’.

The justice of this world is like the peace or the joy of the world: transient and fractured at best. If you are a disciple of Christ, though, and experiencing painful trial, aren’t you resting on his justice? And, if you are – as we all should be – he knows he’s got you, and that you will not, ultimately, be put to shame.

That being the case, then, perhaps Christians sometimes need to shift their perspective a little. God knows you will not ultimately be put to shame; he will not permit that. In the midst of battle, so equipped, then, isn’t it just possible that you are not the one who is being tested?

Turn Again and Give Thanks

Jesus met a lot of people on his travels. In chapter 8, we read of the woman with the issue of blood. She’s an old friend of mine, being the reason I first felt really compelled to go forward. Since then, on our journey through Luke’s gospel, we’ve come across a whole host of characters, and a variety of situations.

In chapter seventeen, though, we meet a particular group which is standing some distance from Jesus. There are ten of them, all suffering from leprosy. You might even say that they are practising social distancing. 

Contrast their physical stance, however, with what they have to say. ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’, they call to him. Their illness causes them to remain separate from the great crowd that seems to attend Jesus wherever he goes. Yet, their eyes are on him, and their hearts reach out to him in faith.

I wonder how many people, in the midst of the current crisis, lifted up their voices to him. Did we – individually and collectively – ask him to have mercy on us, and to help?

Sadly, the fact is that we just don’t see God in the pandemic. All the talk has been of ‘getting though this together’ and of finding a vaccine. No mention of our sovereign Lord

Now that it seems the vaccine may be here, though, the mood has lifted immeasurably. There is talk of light at the end of the tunnel, of a way out and . . . where?

Back to ‘normal’.

That is the highest ambition of mankind right now. Let us conquer the virus so that we can go back to living as we please. We have that much in common with nine of the ten lepers. Although they asked Jesus for mercy, only one returned to thank him when their petition had been answered.

Our problem is that we treat blessings as though they are our due, and we treat hardships as something unnatural and wrong. The fact is, both are part of God’s providence for reasons only he knows. That includes Corona Virus and all the difficulties it continues to bring.

Instead of complaining that we want the ‘natural’ order of life restored, we would do well to be like that tenth leper, the Samaritan, who remembered Jesus – because Jesus had remembered him.

Social Divide, Eternal Divide

It isn’t the done thing to bring up the possibility of hell, let alone the absolute certainty of it. What sort of monster would bring eternal damnation into an Advent blog anyway? Oh, typical Wee Free, dragging the mood down when all anyone wants is some lovely words about the child in the manger.

Sorry, but here it is, though, in Luke 16. Jesus talks of the rich man and Lazarus, two men whose experiences in life were quite different. While Lazarus struggled, the rich man enjoyed a life of ease and plenty. Yet, when we meet them, the situation has been reversed, and Lazarus is healed of his poverty and ill-health forever. He is safe in heaven. The other man, meanwhile, has also been relieved of his earthly trappings and has swapped health and wealth for torment and anguish.

The divide that was between them in life has widened into an eternal chasm.

Lazarus is not in heaven because of his poverty, any more than the rich man languishes in hell for his riches. Neither outcome was inevitable. The message here is not that being wealthy will send you to hell; it is that resting on the comfort that money brings can distract you from the path that leads  to heaven.

Money is not enough. We mustn’t  be lulled by so much comfort. If God has blessed us with the good things of this world, we should dedicate them to his service. Giving thanks in prayer is essential- but living out that thanks, that’s the fruit of salvation.

The rich man ignored the want that he saw on his very doorstep. He continued to enjoy his wealth as a right and not a privilege to be shared. Lazarus, meanwhile, he left to the tender mercies of the dogs – who were kinder than he in the end.

We live in a world of such divides still. I write this in the warmth and comfort of my bed, safe in a centrally-heated house. As I do so, people all over the world are in circumstances too unspeakable to contemplate. Is that ‘fair’, to use the world’s terminology? Of course not: I no more deserve my comfort than they have earned their hardship.

But both of us – I in my luxury, and the homeless beggar on the street – are offered the same opportunity for eternal riches. The important thing is for he and I to live as though this world is just temporary. 

For which of us, I wonder, is that the greater challenge?