Tempered Temper in the Temple

The account of Jesus turning the merchants and money-lenders out of the temple is a famous one, well-known even to those who would claim no regular acquaintance with the Bible. I suppose it seems to be at odds with our idea of him. In popular imagination he is either the Christ-child, gentle and meek, or he is the God-man, giving himself up uncomplainingly to the horrors of death. Those are both facets of his character, certainly, but they are not the whole person. His tour de force dealing with the agents of commerce in his Father’s house reveal an aspect of Christ that helps us understand him better.

There is a small incident in John’s telling of this story that drew my attention this week. Having taken a whip and driven the livestock out, along with their retailers, he commands the sellers of pigeons to remove the birds from the temple.

Picture the scene: he has scattered the coins, overturned the tables and personally expelled the merchants with their sheep and oxen. But the pigeon-sellers must take themselves and their wares out with no help from Jesus. What prevented him from sweeping their cages to the floor, or throwing them outside? Of course I don’t know, but I am inclined to believe that it was compassion. To rough-handle these gentle creatures would have been cruel and capricious – and, whatever people who don’t know him say, that is not in his nature. This is someone, in fact, so wholly consistent, so reliably in control of his responses, that he can direct and channel his wrath where it is deserved, and turn on a sixpence to show gentle consideration in the same moment.

His anger is not an emotion in the way that mine or yours might be. Sometimes we are controlled and directed by our feelings to a degree which can be destructive. Indeed, our forefathers believed that envy, for one, could be so powerful as to cause physical harm to the object of our desire, without us even knowing what we had done. That phenomenon – usually referred to as ‘the evil eye’ – is mentioned in a lengthy list in the Bible, alongside a whole host of other evils which are not external, but which actually emanate from within ourselves.

That’s quite a bitter pill for us to swallow – that we are not always the poor dupes of Satan, but more often than not, the willing perpetrators of badness ourselves. Our anger, our mean-spiritedness, our jealousy, our greed, our lust, our self-righteousness, our unconcern for others – that’s all on us. Satan just seeks to exploit the way we’re already inclined by nature.

What I like about this aspect of Christ is its realness. It demonstrates even further how completely I can trust him with my life. I have often been unjust to others, judging them harshly, expecting more of them than I should, and then feeling angry towards them when they fall short of my unrealistic demands. But he never has ‘a bad day’. When I go to him in prayer, he never casts up at me that I forgot him the day before when everything was going fine; he never grumbles that I do nothing for him, or retreats because he wants a little ‘me time’.

He is not a two-dimensional nursery god – Christ is multi-faceted, but not mercurial; he displays feeling, but is wholly consistent.

This is why people read Scripture: it is a means of seeing a little more clearly the beauty of Jesus Christ. And it is why, in a way, I prefer John for advent reading. The baby Jesus, whose life was in danger from the moment he was conceived, and the circumstances whose birth has become so culturally iconic as to be almost Disneyfied in the eyes of the world, he is easy to love. All babies are easy to love and none more so than the manger-child who gave us Christmas.

John presents us with something more challenging, though – he brings us Christ, who doesn’t lie helpless in a manger. He walks abroad and challenges those he meets with his very presence; and when it is necessary, he shows his wrath. Wrath to the defilers of his Father’s house, and gentleness to the helpless creatures who are guiltless of any wrong. I wish I had the wisdom to know the difference, and the self-control to treat them accordingly.

But, more than anything, this Advent, I’m grateful to know him a little better than I did last year. What an unparalleled feeling it is to be assured that there will never be any unpleasant surprises with Christ – that even his displays of anger are wholly justified, and trained precisely on the target.

My Heart Will Go On

A few years ago, I was asked to write my testimony for the church newsletter. I began by saying, ‘The Lord’s presence in my life is something of which I have been aware for almost as long as I can remember’. It was a conscious decision to begin, not with me, but with him, and to end the article in much the same way. This was not merely stylistically important, but a deliberate avoidance of what Sir Humphrey Appleby called ‘the perpendicular pronoun’. Our coming to faith is never about us per se, but about the miraculous goodness of God, who saves in spite – and not because – of who and what we are.

Testimony is not a static thing, however: it grows and develops as we persevere in the life of Christian discipleship. I think, for that reason, it’s important that we should go on testifying to the power of Christ to save, every day of our lives.

I am spending this advent in reading John’s gospel. It is a slightly unusual choice because, of course, this book doesn’t deal with the birth of Christ; instead, John starts at the real beginning of everything. 

And, fittingly, chapter 1 presents us with the testimony of John the Baptist. He tells who Jesus is, presenting him as the Son of God, and humbling himself as a mere witness to the glory of Christ. John makes himself recede into the background of the story, so that our eyes are not on him, but on the Saviour. On Friday, I attended the funeral of an elderly Christian lady, known for the brightness of her faith. In a lovely and personal service, the minister paid tribute to her, and then added that he was conscious that she herself would not want to be eulogised; but rather prefer that he should spend the time in talking about Jesus.

In that moment, I understood fleetingly what is meant by ‘irresistible grace’. It was hard to believe that anyone listening to this beautiful and moving testimony to faith could harden their hearts against the attraction of Christ. 

And I fell in love with him all over again. 

This is why Christian testimony cannot remain the same: the richness of our relationship with Christ is such that we are discovering new depths to it all the time.

If I had to distil what I’ve learned since writing that first testimony down to two things, I think I would start by saying how practical a thing faith is. It isn’t an idea, a concept, or that most threadbare of things – a comfort blanket. Christianity is a faith to live by, or it is a delusion.

And it is not a delusion because belonging to Christ and following him, however imperfectly, will set you free. I know. Believe me, I know.

The second thing I’ve learned is that no one else has a right to comment on your relationship with God. People will have ‘rules’ they think you should be following, and draw their own conclusions when you don’t measure up. It’s not about them, though. They won’t be there to dry the tears of hurt their thoughtless words provoke . . . but Christ will, always, so fix your eyes on him. Make his the only good opinion you seek and never mind the naysayers.

He is the author and finisher of our faith. Stick with him and he’ll see you through, not merely to the end, but forever.

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?

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?