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.

Rejection is Hard

It’s hard to believe that our witnessing might have any good effect. Sometimes it can feel that we are shouting our message into the wind. Since I began to blog about my faith, more than three years ago, I have even had moments of doubt that it’s the right thing to do. You can’t win the heart of someone you’re annoying, and I was annoying so many people at times. Indeed, I’m not altogether sure the past tense is the right one here.

Well, maybe I’m just an irritating person (absolutely NO audience participation required, thank you). Some of us are, like a stone in your shoe, or a piece of grit in your eye.

When you are bringing Christ before people, though, and you do it, trusting in him, their rejection of you is no small thing. If they laugh at you, they laugh at him; if they hold you up for ridicule and slander, they do so to Jesus.

‘The one who rejects you, rejects me’, Jesus said, ‘and the one who rejects me, rejects the one who sent me’.

It’s a sobering thought. Before I had assurance, this kind of verse scared me a lot. I saw in it only my own inadequacy to represent the Lord. Surely, I thought in desperation, if they reject me because I’m a poor witness, they won’t be punished.

But I know now that’s not how it works. There is nothing in my words alone, or in those of the most eloquent witness even, that CAN represent Christ fully. I don’t believe there are words to express the magnitude of his free offer to unbelievers. It wasn’t words that won my heart; or persuaded you of your need.

Christ is the persuasion. He is the perfect answer to every question we do not even know how to ask. In my poor scribblings, in your stammered testimony, in the hesitant sermon from the unready student, he is there, revealing his beauty if only people had the eyes to see.

Some do, some don’t. While one may be softened by what they hear, others harden their hearts against the self-same thing.

It is not you or your witness that is being tested. Christ is present in our most meagre testimonies. He said it himself: the unbeliever doesn’t reject you or me – they reject him. In these moments, he doesn’t reproach his people with their failure because he doesn’t leave us to do even that small thing on our own.

Take heart. He is with you in your witnessing if you belong to him.

But he is there in what is presented to you if you do not yet belong to him. Find him in it. And when you see him, really see him. Then, I think, you cannot reject such a Saviour.

Who am I?

We live in a world and in a time when perception is everything. Reputations can be destroyed and lives ruined by a word. Rumour, gossip and hearsay are the enemies of truth. It is not enough to have integrity; you must wear it on your sleeve for all to see.

Sadly, the kind of integrity that the world values is not always the Biblical variety. People urge one another to ‘be kind’, but that really means that we should comply with the prevailing view. You are deemed unkind if you hold to principles which are unpalatable to even one other person.

How, then, can you please such a world? It’s impossible to do and say what will keep everyone happy, and still remain true to yourself. So, you must step back and measure your belief against the one true plumb-line: Christ.

In Luke 9, he asks Peter that well-known question, which he is also putting to you and to me.

Who do you say that I am?

If our answer is the same as the disciple’s, then we have to be prepared to take up our cross. That will, most likely, mean being hated for his sake, and being misunderstood. I have noticed that it is the first thing people point out in criticism of me: ‘what kind of Christian does ___?’ 

Never mind what they call you; forget what they say. Ignore their barbs. You have answered the Saviour’s question, and you store up in your heart all the promises that go with the name of Christ. 

Think of this, if you put the same question to him, what would he answer? Ask Jesus, ‘who do you say that I am?’ If your identity is in him, then his reply is the only one that matters.

Your Lord or Your Loved Ones?

Jesus didn’t go by the adage, ‘he travels fastest who travels alone’. He was almost always to be found at the centre of a group, whether just his own 12 disciples or, as in Luke 8, a more extended company.

For me, one of the interesting features is not the number, but the composition – ‘many women’. At least one of these was a married woman. She was only obeying Jesus’ own command to leave her family behind to follow him. It is what he asks of all who wish to throw their lot in with his; it is what he asks of us. Our loved ones are to move into second place,  behind our Lord.

When my father died, we discovered a letter he had written to us, the family. In it, he expressed his love for us, something a Lewisman of his generation would never verbalise. I don’t for one minute believe, however, that he thought we doubted his feelings for us. That was not the purpose of the letter.

He told us what we already knew, that we had been so happy together that two lifetimes would still not be enough time. 

Yet, he added that he was content to go to be with Christ, which is far better.

In one sense, this is an example of a father putting Christ before his family. But, in another, it is an illustration of that great Christlikeness which is the fruit of faith. He was using his love for us in the service of a greater love: he was saying, ‘you know how we feel about one another; well, here is something far more to be desired’.

He used this last communication to us as a witness for his Lord.

Leaving your family to be with Christ is not the cold sacrifice that it may sound. In fact, it can be a far greater act of love than remaining in the place where they are.

Is this He?

We can’t really know why John the Baptist sent his messengers to Jesus, to ask whether he was indeed the Messiah. In the solitude of his prison cell, was he really starting to doubt – the same John who recognised Jesus in the womb?

It would be wrong to utterly dismiss that as a possibility. I am sure that all believers doubt at times – their faith guttering like a candle in a draught. Mine wavers. There have been dark moments when I truly questioned where God was. The trick, though, is to try keeping so close to him that you never have to wonder.

John the Baptist, I’m certain, was much better at that than the likes of me.

I favour a different explanation. It is possible that he sent his men to ask Jesus, not because he doubted, but because he feared that they might.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t always answer the question put to him. Nonetheless, we can be sure of receiving the response we need to hear. In this case, Jesus pointed to the best evidence he had of his status as Messiah: his own works, done in his own power and on his own authority. Who else but the true Son of God could accomplish this?

This morning, I am grateful that this is the Messiah. Here is authority; here is might; here is glory.

But, oh my word, here too is compassion.

Not only is the Lord walking among the very lowliest in society, and healing those shunned by others, but see how he deals with them. Jesus is astonished by the faith of the centurion; Jesus takes pity on the weeping widow.

Jesus does. The Son of God. 

Imagine your faith astonishing, or your tears moving, the heart of the second person of the godhead?

Stop imagining. It is so. This is our Saviour; we need look for no other.

The Nets Were Breaking

Have you ever felt like you might be crushed under the sheer weight of the world, of your own failings and disappointments? It’s a rare person who has not. We have all been in situations where it feels as though, no matter how hard we try, no matter how justified our actions, our efforts are doomed not to bear fruit.

If we are Christians, that sense of inadequacy comes with a side-order of guilt, because we are well aware that our failing is often a result of cutting God out of the picture. And yet – if you are anything like me – in situations like that, we still persist in doing it our own way.

We know, but we somehow don’t believe, that God will do it better.

When we trust in him, though, he does amazing things. I can’t count the number of times I have put myself through agonies – what should I do, should I speak up about this, is it up to me to act, have I been wrong, is my anger justified – and why? All because I do not carry everything to God in prayer. And finally, when I am broken by my own complete inadequacy, and I go to him, arms out like a hurt child, what happens?

He astonishes me all over again.  

If only I would remember that, then, and not repeat the mistake of thinking I’m doing this alone. Luke 5 spoke to me so boldly this morning about the difference between my puny efforts, compared to those that are done in the strength and wisdom of my Saviour. 

We have to ask ourselves, when the going is tough, is the Lord withholding his blessings from us, or are we keeping ourselves aloof from him? Is our profession of faith truly bound to the way we live? Are we saying we trust in Jesus, but keeping our own hands on the steering wheel?

I know I am very guilty of this. Here, though, in Luke 5, is the reminder I need.

By myself, I am fishing with no bait; leaning on Jesus, the nets are straining to hold all that he bestows.

An Opportune Time

The devil never quite goes away, does he?  I know that I’m not alone in feeling that he seems to be, if not a resident, then definitely a very frequent visitor to my home. He is an expert in my badness, and my weakness. This knowledge is then used to tempt me away from God, to make me act rashly, to speak unkindly, to doubt my salvation, to steal my peace.

Whenever I find myself in a situation where there is strife and difficulty, I will invariably start to doubt whether I really am saved. ‘No Christian should . . .’ says that insidious inner voice.

But in this, as in all things, I can look to Christ. We often hear quoted that he was ‘tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin’. The second clause could easily discourage you because such perfection is beyond any human being. Concentrate on the first, though, and see what it’s saying: your Saviour understands what you are suffering; he has been here first.

It would be easy to see the temptation in the wilderness as an isolated incident. The devil comes to Jesus, not when he is low, but at a spiritual high point, after his baptism. Jesus relies on the truth of scripture and defeats his foe, going off in the power of the Spirit to begin his public ministry.

So, that’s that. Jesus in his perfection has kicked the devil into touch and commences his work in peace. End of Jesus’ experience of temptation.

Hardly. 

Note what Luke 4:13 says about the devil’s departure ‘until an opportune time’. I take comfort in that because it is the pattern of my own life: spiritual highs followed immediately by spiritual attack; the sense of the devil being defeated, only for him to return and redouble his efforts when I least expect.

But that is when I need to forget my own strength, or my own guile and cleave to the Lord. Satan did not tempt him once and give up, anymore than he does with me or you: he merely waited until an opportune time.

The loneliness of Jesus at the end of his life made that just such a time, and the devil doesn’t waste chances. Our Lord dealt perfectly with him, though, surrendering his own will to the Father and relying upon that strength against the tempter’s power.

With me, with you, he is just the same. His retreats are temporary, always until an opportune time. But our protection is the same as that which surrounded Christ in the desert and at Calvary.

Benedictus

I hope to blog my way through the Gospel of Luke, which is the ideal reading material for advent. In studying one chapter each day of December, I will have read a complete account of Jesus’ life by Christmas Eve. Therefore I expect to be more fully focused on him, the true meaning of the season by the time it is finished.

And expectation seems the right mood in which to embark on this endeavour. Chapter One is all about the anticipation of two births: John the Baptist’s, as well as that of Jesus Christ. By the end of the chapter, however, John has been born and his hitherto mute father, Zechariah, opens his mouth to prophesy.

When any child is born, into whatever circumstances, people will try to anticipate the blessings that life may hold for him. The people in the vicinity of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home were no different, asking, ‘What, then, will this child be?’ There is a sense of awe and wonder and of infinite possibility. John’s is a life consecrated to his Lord from before birth, and the curious events surrounding him have caused all who hear of them to expect wonders.

The prophecy of his father, therefore – the Benedictus – is filled with that eager anticipation of John’s great purpose in life. Few parents, at the birth of a child, can have hoped for such a life of service, of self-denial and of subordination to another. But Zechariah places his son’s personal destiny in the context of God’s mercy to Israel. What higher purpose was there, than to be the prophet of the Saviour, proclaiming him and preparing the way of the Lord?

The beginning of Advent permits all Christians to become that child in faith again. As I begin at the beginning once more, I feel a new hope and expectation. For us now, it is not the birth of a child we look forward to, but the second coming of our victorious Messiah, by whose stripes we have been healed.

And he is refreshing me through his word, reminding me through this chapter of two things:

  • the infinite possibilities that the Christian life holds, not just at the beginning but through its repeated renewal;
  • the meaning that service to Jesus will give to the humblest of lives.

Do I feel as Zechariah did on his son’s behalf? Am I re-embarking on this journey at the start of Advent, knowing that my role is to serve, and rejoicing in that?

And am I full of that joyful expectation that grants meaning to the waiting – the waiting of Advent, and the waiting that is part and parcel of a life fully entrusted to Christ?

Churches, caravans and being apart

It is not untypical of either Lewis or social media that the weekend just past fairly bubbled with two controversies: the persistent influx of visitors to the islands, and the failure of some churches to heed government guidance on social distancing. These, of course, are not two issues, but one. The reason for both is simply that we have been spoilt, we have been used to everything turning out okay without much inconvenience to ourselves.

We humans, on some deep level, believe ourselves to be invincible. Bad things happen to others, not us.

A generation untouched by war or privation of any kind, we have grown hard-hearted. Oh, yes, we speak of social justice and helping the poor; we appease our own consciences with donations and sponsorships – but it is, too often, a cold charity. All this time we have been thinking our duty dispensed with a standing order here, and a retiring collection there.

Witness, though, how we conducted ourselves in the early days of impending crisis. A mad dash for food and soap, for toilet paper and anti-bacterial spray. Ransacking shops and leaving little for those who live from week to week. Retail assistants have been verbally abused, and even threatened; the elderly and poor abandoned to fend for themselves.

Whither now the social media virtue signallers or the ‘be kind’ brigade?

This disease is a great leveller. We are all at risk, and any one of us might die. Shame on us all, therefore, that the response has been so selfish. Not by everyone, of course, but by many. It is hardly surprising. Be in no doubt: here, we are reaping the foolishness we have sown. Like no previous generation, ours is drunk on the rights of the individual. When life was bumping along as normal, this meant that the poor and the elderly were trampled over, but no one noticed.

Now, the selfishness affects us all, and we are concerned. But we cannot figure out what to do.

Just as well there is an answer. There is even an example we can look to.

King Nebuchadnezzar famously hit a bit of a problem. He was, like ourselves, persuaded of his own sovereignty. Other people – his subjects – were equally sold on it. But then his sense of power kept smacking up against the true omnipotence of the God of Israel.

So do we. Only the most determined atheist can deny that God is speaking to us in a clear voice. Are we going to heed it?

Nebuchadnezzar was like us before Corona Virus hit. He walked on his palace ramparts and congratulated himself as the author of his own greatness and wealth. No sooner were the sinful words uttered than God spoke to him. The King would descend into mental illness and lose the kingdom for a period of seven years, at the end of which he would acknowledge God’s sovereignty.

We were walking in arrogance and pride until now. The world seemed inebriated with its own stolen power. Our first parents ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – and since that day we have persistently chosen evil. All that he gave us, including our very own selves, we have warped and sullied with sin.

Where, even, to begin? Rampant consumerism, yet homelessness. The power to end life when it becomes inconvenient. God removed from public life, from education, and even from some of our churches. Unbridled reinterpretation of his ordinances. Truth made a lie, and lies accepted – enforced, indeed – as truth.

And, yes, a faithless, cold church. We have been too comfortable for too long, islands of complacency set amidst a sea of sin. We don’t love one another as we ought, and therefore, have nothing to offer the poor, lost world by way of a compass.

We have this providence now that surely will turn us back to the Lord. He has scattered his church, but then, his people were always thus. Occupying the same building is not what makes us a church, and perhaps he has removed that comfort blanket so that we will truly seek out what binds us – fellowship in him, strengthened by worship in spirit and in truth.

If he has to break us somewhat, it is only to build up his own church again. And that light, set upon a hill, should be a lamp to the feet of those who have wandered far from him, to bring them home.

Then, all this generation might say with Nebuchadnezzar that the Almighty is God indeed, ‘and none can stay his hand or say to him, “what have you done”?’

What he has done – is doing – ought to call us all to prayer. There is still time. 

Journey into the Known

‘For unto us is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’. These are well-known words – so much so, in fact, that I didn’t even have to check my quotation for accuracy, despite being a Christmas-eschewing Wee Free.

It was actually while driving to work this morning that the power of these words struck me afresh. I was, in a most un-Free Church way, listening to Chris Tomlin’s rendition of ‘Silent Night’. Halfway through the track, Luke 2: 11 is read by an Irish lady and maybe it was her intonation, or where she placed the emphasis, but it spoke so powerfully to me on this otherwise humdrum Wednesday morning.

Everything in that one sentence is glorious. It is, first and foremost, the news of a birth. Many carols deal with this astounding news and we are led to think that the child, humbly born in Bethlehem is primarily a new beginning. He is, of course, all of that. But for something to begin in this world, another has to end – and that is at least half the triumph of this verse and the entire Christmas message: the birth of Christ signifying the beginning of the death of sin.  

We have all, through the great medium of television or internet, witnessed world-changing events: the death of empires; the capture of dictators; the outbreak of war and of peace. Yet, somehow, these things are remote from most. It is possible to see the coronation of a monarch you will likely never meet. All that pomp, the ermine and the jewels, they are not for the likes of us. Look, by all means, but don’t touch; pay for it, but gain nothing in the process.

Whereas, the birth of this King, within the bounds of a royal city, though in the lowliest accommodation there, brings to us an unparalleled message of hope and inclusion. Here, it says, is ultimate Royalty, prepared to humble itself for our sakes. This is true kingship that does not rely upon the outward trappings for its sovereignty.

I had a lot on my mind this morning as I made the journey to the college. It always seems to be in the car that concerns rise up to greet me – marking, Christmas shopping, what’s in the diary, have I forgotten a deadline, where am I meant to be this evening, did I feed the cat before I left, what’s that niggling feeling that I’ve forgotten something important. And always, as we make the descent into this particular holiday, I remember Donnie and how much he loved coming home for Christmas. Memories of these times are woven into everything else and they can sweeten or salt my vision, depending on the moment.

Yet, even that thick fog of concern was not impenetrable today. Two words shone through it like a beacon of hope: ‘unto us’.

Separated by some two thousand years, the birth of Christ the Lord in the city of David is far less remote from me than the coronation of Queen Elizabeth sixty-six years ago. The reason, of course, is that, while she may well have been born to be Queen, he was born already King, no need for accession or for a crown and sceptre. Furthermore, she was born to rule the Commonwealth and to maintain the distance that permits human government to be carried out with a modicum of fairness.

The government that is on his shoulders, however, is of a very different kind.

It is meaningful to everyone who has a relationship with Christ, because it is personal to each one of us. This Saviour was not just born: he was born unto us. From the very beginning, then, it was clear that this event in the city of David was intended to be foundational. Here was something that changed everything, not simply for the world entire, but for every individual  in it who accepts the gift of life. Unto us, that Saviour was born; unto us that only begotten Son was given.

So, today, driving south on an Atlantic island, to work, with a head stuffed with myriad concerns, that birth spoke loudly once more. Unto me, in that faraway city of Bethlehem, two thousand years ago, was born a Saviour. He isn’t – as some would have it – a character from an Eastern folk tale. Indeed, he travels regularly with me on this trip to the college; I talk to him in the privacy of my car – something I almost never do with Ealasaid the First of Scotland.

Read those precious words, especially if you don’t know him – ‘unto us’. He was and is and will be your Saviour if you’d only see past the familiar story to the truth it reveals. There never was such a man; take him and the gift he offers to yourself and you will never again travel alone with your cares.