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?

This Man Receives Sinners

One of the things I’ve noticed afresh by reading Luke so closely has been the way in which it seems to point to the Pharisees. They are there in every chapter – not front and centre but present nonetheless. Sometimes, as  here in chapter 15, they warrant only a sentence, a few words over which your eyes could easily flit. Mine probably did many times, skipping over them to the parables. 

It isn’t really surprising that a Christian should be drawn to the words of Jesus; I don’t think we should berate ourselves for that. However, it is important to notice what lies between these passages.

‘The Scribes and the Pharisees grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners”’.

It is always a shock to read that Jesus was a victim of this kind of thinking. Who would place their interpretation of the law above the perfection of Christ? Well, people who think that the law is supreme tend to be blinded by that – even, as we see throughout this Gospel, to the point of it eclipsing the Lord. They measure him against the standard of the law as they see it. The question in their minds was always, ‘does this man meet the criteria’?

Never once did the wonderful truth dawn on them: this Man is the criteria. 

We need to be so careful in our rush to judge, to rebuke, to admonish, that we are not grieving the Spirit while he is at work in someone else. Perhaps, when I look at someone askance and think, ‘that’s certainly not how I would honour the Lord’, I should readjust my perspective.

For, as I’m watching them, what does God see in me? Someone who has a lot of theory about how he should be glorified, and little practice. Let’s give him our imperfect worship, our broken prayers, our stumbling service: he doesn’t look to us for perfection; why would he when he finds it in himself?

Finish the Job

There is a verse in Luke 14 which is an old enemy of mine. I am always brought up short when I come across it, because I remember exactly how it made me feel when I first heard it being expounded.

‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’.

I remember nothing of what the preacher said, and I’m fairly sure that he didn’t set out to be discouraging. But, the message I received was one that spoke directly into my weakness and my self-knowledge. 

‘You will end up by letting him down’, I thought, ‘so it’s better that you don’t identify as his in the first place’.

I thought. And Satan encouraged me in this. He knew that I was aware of my own lack of staying power. So, because of this, I wasted years of my life away from God. Looking down at my own feet, I began to sink, as every last one of us will.

What I didn’t know then is that my ability to persist in faith has actually got very little to do with that faith. It has, however, everything to do with the one in whom my faith is vested. He keeps me from wandering off from the task at hand. Only by his power and his love can I be certain of finishing the race.

Postponing your profession of faith is NEVER the right thing to do. I have heard people in their foolishness make a virtue of reluctance to sit at the Lord’s table. He doesn’t see it that way. This isn’t an attractive humility, but an inverted arrogance. Just as I stupidly believed I was somehow honouring the cause by staying quiet and staying away, you are putting blessing past yourself and others by refusing to give your life to him. 

Holding back our profession of faith in Christ, doesn’t say, ‘I am not enough’.

In fact, it says, ‘Christ is not enough’. I can testify, though, that he is. Of course I lacked the tools to build the tower; but luckily, it doesn’t depend on me.

Or you.

Take the Shame

No one enjoys having their enemies triumph over them. The psalms are full of exhortations that God not permit this to happen. I have been there many, many times and, whatever we say about being happy to suffer for our faith, it’s hard when ego is wounded.

The thing I have always found most useful in adjusting my thinking is to reflect on why I have enemies in the first place.

And when I do, I realise it’s got absolutely nothing to do with me. Yes, I might be objectionable in many ways, but it isn’t that which makes complete strangers take against me. They don’t loathe me for my own sake, but for Christ’s.

That’s a comfort in ways that nothing else can be, and especially on reading Luke 13:17, where we learn that all Jesus’ adversaries were put to shame. 

How were they? Did he exact cruel and unusual punishment upon them? Was he able to use his supreme power to humiliate them, to hurt them?

No, that’s not the way. It might be what we (well, I, anyway) wish for our own foes, but it is not what Jesus did – and, therefore, not what he would have us do either. 

He quite simply laid the truth before them. No need for anything else but to tell it as it is. We are not required to react to what they do, or what they say, but to hold fast to Christ, who IS truth.

If we humble ourselves with him, he will see to it that we are exalted with him. The truth transforms; it sets you free from hate and from shame of every kind.

No condemnation in Christ, remember – and his is the only verdict that matters.

Peace at any price?

There is an idea abroad in the world that Christians are meant to be men and women of peace. To a degree, of course, it is true: it would be quite wrong to go about, wilfully stirring up trouble and provoking fights.  But I don’t believe that we are called upon to foster peace at any price. 

And what does the world call ‘peace’ anyway?

I know people who will happily persecute their neighbour, yet when the heat is turned back upon themselves, cry out for peace. They do not attach the same meaning to it that we find, for example, in the words of the heavenly host, accompanying the Angel who appeared to Mary, who said, ‘peace among those with whom he is pleased’ (Luke 2:14). 

That’s a rather different kind of peace. It has nothing to do with your earthly circumstances and everything to do with your Heavenly Father.

In Luke 12, Jesus denies that he is a bringer of peace, saying that he will cause division. Of course, this doesn’t cancel out the words of the heavenly host because they are not talking about the same thing. Christ divides because there are those who see him as he is, and accept his Lordship; and there are those whose eyes will not be opened.

Some things are far too important to be glossed over for the sake of an appearance of peace. Christians should not seek to hurt or upset others, obviously, yet the truth of the Gospel will always offend. The world today seems populated with the most sensitive people who ever lived. They deny the existence of God, but manage to be hurt by the idea that they are hell-bound sinners. Should we keep the truth from them for the sake of peace? 

Silence is not peace. Turning a blind eye to injustice is not peace. Letting others defend what you purport to hold dear does not make you a peaceful person; it just means that you’ve misunderstood the definition.

God doesn’t call on us to be simpering, acquiescent robots; he calls on us to pick a side and be prepared to defend it even against those we love best.

Hiding the Key

There is some low-level grumbling about a recent decision by Comhairle nan Eilean on which teaching materials will be used for sex and relationship education. Secular parents (the tolerant, anti-Christian ones) would rather that God was kept out of things, and are less than happy that denominational (Roman Catholic) resources are to be used in place of the government-specified curriculum.

Videos and teaching packs which normalise abortion and even tell girls that it is safer than pregnancy and childbirth, they’re okay. It’s the mention of a loving God being in control, that’s when things become unacceptable. 

Reading the inevitable responses to the Comhairle’s decision, I felt a real sense of deja-vu. The same old arguments from unbelievers, protesting the ‘amount’ of religious teaching in island schools.

The usual argument for sex education in schools is that not every family will equip the child with the information s/he needs and so the state must supply the deficiency.

Alright, but then the same must hold true for the Gospel message. If some parents will not permit the children an opportunity to hear and be saved, it is only right they get the same chance as their peers from believing homes. 

So, let the state step in.

It is a deeply solemn thing to reject the offer of salvation. In rejecting, you are also selecting: eternal death over eternal life. But what of those who are determined to stop the spiritual ears of their own innocent children as well?

In Luke 11:52, Jesus says this to the Pharisees:

‘For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves and you hindered those who were entering’.

It chills me to think what some people do with the privilege of parenthood. They mock and deride the upbringing that those like me received, and they lock the door to safety on themselves . .  . and their children. I would have to be very sure of being right before I could do such a thing to anyone.

I wonder how certain they really are.