We're publishing our Sunday Snippets on the first Sunday of each month, and every Sunday during lockdown. Click on a date below to see past Snippets.
A man once put up a notice on the gate of his field. It read: ‘This field will be given to the first contented applicant. Apply in person to the owner.’ Very soon an applicant presented himself at the door. ‘I’ve come to claim the field,’ he announced. ‘Are you truly contented?’ asked the owner. ‘Indeed I am,’ the applicant assured him. ‘Then why do you want my field?’ the owner asked.
That was a Victorian ‘joke’, published in an 1880s issue of the Girl’s Own Paper. Probably it wasn’t exactly intended to make the readers laugh – more to make them think. Perhaps few of us are truly contented even if we think we are. Who would decline a pay rise on the grounds of perfect contentment? It’s not difficult to think of things we could do with, to make life easier, or more fulfilling or more enjoyable. And if nothing comes to mind, advertisers are constantly presenting us with new ideas for things we didn’t realise we needed or wanted.
‘Be content with what you have,’ the writer to the Hebrews tells us, ‘because God has said, “Never will I leave you”.’ (13:4). Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi from his prison cell: ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation’ (Philippians 4:11,12). Paul had found his contentment and his joy in knowing and trusting the Lord Jesus as his Saviour.
Even if, like Paul, we learn the secret of being content, we’re never going to be completely satisfied in this life. There will always be more we’d like to do, things we’d like to see changed, because we live in a world that’s in rebellion against God. David, who was taken from tending sheep to become a powerful monarch, knew that he couldn’t be really satisfied until he was in God’s presence in heaven for ever (Psalm 17:15). Meanwhile, as we learn ‘the secret of being content’, we can be grateful for God’s provision for our needs, and His promise that He will never leave us.
One of my recipe books used to belonged to my mother. It’s dated 1944 and it was (I believe) the first recipe book she owned. Even without a date, you would guess it’s a World War 2 book: there are plenty of carrot recipes (including carrot pudding and chocolate carrot tart), recipes that use up potatoes and onions and spinach and marrows, ways to cook nettles and serve nasturtium leaves in salads, how to make hawthorn jelly and rose-hip jam. What I like about the recipes is the ordinariness of most of the ingredients (apart, I suppose, from the foraged foods): no long lists of complicated and exotic items, but lots of ways of making use of your own home-grown vegetables and of baking with oats and wholewheat flour.
People were simply appreciating what they had and making the most of it to supply their needs. It’s noticeable in the Bible that God uses ordinary ‘ingredients’ to do amazing things. When Elijah, in the Old Testament, lodged with the widow at Zarephath, the only foods in the house were some flour and some oil. They were ordinary things, but God was able to use them to feed and satisfy the three household members while the famine lasted. Jesus used a boy’s simple picnic lunch of bread rolls and fish to satisfy the hunger of thousands of people. And God’s ordinary ‘ingredients’ are not just food ones.
A simple sling and stone in the hands of a shepherd boy defeated a ruthless enemy (1 Samuel 17). God transformed ordinary uneducated fishermen into powerful and courageous speakers, who shared God’s love with thousands of people (Acts 2). God brought blessing to needy widows and their families through an ordinary needle and some fabric in the hands of an ordinary Christian woman (Acts 9:39). God values ordinary things and ordinary people. ‘Not many of you were wise by human standards [when you became Christians],’ Paul wrote to the church in Corinth; ‘not many were influential; not many were of noble birth’ (1 Corinthians 1:26). It’s God’s wisdom, strength and power that matter, not ours.
I’ve heard a cuckoo several times while out walking in the past couple of weeks. It’s not such a common sound as it used to be. When I was a child I often used to lie in bed in the early mornings listening to its call, sometimes quite near at hand and sometimes resonating from more distant woods. I was a bit conflicted over whether I should be enjoying this sound of spring, with its promise of summer, when I was also appalled by the cuckoo’s lazy refusal to build its own nest and look after its young, and its scandalous disregard for the welfare of smaller birds. It was a bit difficult to accept that a cuckoo has no notion of ethics, no concept of selfish behaviour – in fact, just like many other creatures that fight off competition or hunt and devour prey.
Human beings are different, of course. We do have an inbuilt ethical sense. This is because ‘God created mankind in His own image’, as the Bible tells us (Genesis 1:27). We all have some sense of what’s fair and right and just – even the worst of tyrants are aware of wrong if they are on the receiving end of it. The problem is that we are incapable of making consistently right and moral choices in our thoughts, words and deeds. Even those with tender consciences, who are keenly aware of their responsibility to do what’s right, find it impossible to measure up to their own standards, let alone God’s.
Thankfully, in His infinite mercy and grace, God has provided a solution. We can be forgiven for our moral failures, through the death of the perfect Son of God, and we can have a fresh start, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Our relationship with God, broken by sin, is restored. And that’s not the only restored relationship. God promises that in the future the whole of creation will be restored: ‘All creation anticipates the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay’ (Romans 8:21).
My dad told me that when he was a boy, he and his brother and sister were given a little lamb by a neighbouring farmer one spring. As they didn’t keep sheep on their own farm, a lamb was a novelty for them and became a kind of family pet. Presumably it was an orphan that needed hand-rearing and bottle-feeding. It learned to know the children and thrived in their care. Sadly, as it grew bigger and stronger, its size and its restless energy made it a liability indoors and out, and it would knock the children off their feet in its exuberant affection. So eventually the inappropriate pet had to go. The children were comforted by the assumption that it was enjoying the company of its fellow-ovines in a more spacious environment.
Sheep get to know and trust the person who looks after them. In New Testament times, when flocks were smaller and shepherds tended them all day, a strong bond was formed between the shepherd and the sheep. Jesus used this familiar idea to illustrate His relationship with His followers: ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me’ (John 10:14). To the stranger, the sheep were just a flock, indistinguishable from each other; to the shepherd, each was an individual, with its own name (v.3) and its personal needs known to the shepherd.
So strong was the shepherd’s commitment to his sheep that he was prepared to risk injury and even death to protect them. For Jesus, the ‘good shepherd’, meeting the needs of His sheep did indeed mean death: twice He told His followers that he was going to ‘lay down His life for the sheep’ (vs. 11 and 14). Jesus’ followers respond to this love and commitment by trusting the shepherd, listening to His voice and following Him: ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me’ (v.27).
The blessings of belonging to Jesus’ flock are permanent. His sheep are secure for ever. ‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No-one will snatch them out of my hand’ (v.28).
Like many other people, I’ve spent time during the past year turning out cupboards. I’ve found the old mouthorgan I was given when I was about eight, my long abandoned stamp album, postcards from school friends, my mum’s school reports, my dad’s petrol coupons, Granny’s embroidery, a great-aunt’s letters from London in the War . . . I’ve labelled old photos and re-read old letters and spent too much time wondering what to keep and what to jettison. The stuff is full of memories. Most of the memories are happy ones – but not always. It’s all too easy to be reminded of things I wish I hadn’t done or said. Remembering is tinged with other regrets too: I wish I’d kept in touch with more people; I wish I’d kept a diary when I was young; and I wish I’d recorded my parents’ memories.
God never has to search His memory of course, as I do when I label photographs; He never has to keep a diary; and He never has to keep a notebook to hand to record things that might slip from His mind. He never forgets us and our needs. Struggling with others’ hostility and his own heart-ache, David sometimes felt that he’d been overlooked by God: ‘Will you forget me for ever?’ he asked. ‘How long will you hide your face from me?’ (Psalm 13:1). And then he would recall God’s unfailing and everlasting love and his trust would return.
And yet, amazingly, there are some things that God actually does forget. Very often they are the things we want to forget too – our painful failures, things that niggle at our conscience, things we’re secretly ashamed of. When we are truly sorry and turn to God for forgiveness, He forgives and He also forgets.
Even better, He promises His children that He will ‘remember their sins no more’ (Hebrews 8:12). Things we want to forget often have a disturbing habit of popping back into our memories. With God that doesn’t happen. Once He’s forgiven sins, He doesn’t remember them ever again.
Oak before ash, we’re in for a splash.
Ash before oak, we’re in for a soak.
According to the old saying, we should be able to predict what sort of summer we’re going to get by noting which tree comes into leaf first.
In 2020, the oak was first. We had a warm spring; and the oak is stimulated into growth by a rise in temperature – it responds to warmth. The ash, on the other hand, seems to be stimulated into growth by longer days and more sunshine – it responds to light. Often it seems (admittedly, not always), a warm spring is followed by a good summer and a cool spring by a wet summer: hence the old weather lore.
Warmth and light stimulate growth. It’s the same with spiritual life. We can see in the Gospels how people responded to the warmth of God’s love and the light of God’s truth, shown in the life of Jesus. Zacchaeus, in his selfish and lonely existence; Mary Magdalene, with her mental health problems; the unnamed woman in Luke 7, shunned for her sinful lifestyle; Nicodemus, with his search for answers; and many others too – these people were all drawn to Jesus as He showed the warmth of God’s love and taught the light of God’s truth.
People still respond to the warmth and light of God’s love and truth. As Paul puts it: God’s love is ‘poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 5:5); and God ‘made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 4:6). By responding, we receive the new life God promises – new life, not for a season, or this life only, but for ever.
I read an article recently about ‘toxic positivity’ (the idea that one should focus only on positive things, rejecting negative emotions, no matter how difficult or distressing a situation is). We’re hearing phrases like ‘think positive’, ‘choose to be happy’ or ‘focus on the good things’ more and more, not to mention use of the hasthtag #positivevibes on social media, particularly over the past year. Of course there is value in finding something good in life’s set-backs, but we can’t ignore our negative emotions – it’s ok to feel sad, angry, confused or frustrated when tragedies, difficulties and problems affect our lives. It’s part of being human. Even with God on your side, bad things still happen. And the adage, “everything happens for a reason”? Cold comfort when, from a human perspective, it’s often impossible to see what that reason is, and we don't necessarily get to see, in this life, at least, the good that God brings out of it.
The writers of the Psalms understood this. Many of the Psalms extol God’s kindness and goodness, His majesty and awesomeness, gratitude for his loving care. But there are also many where the writer is pouring out his feelings of fear, anger, loneliness or frustration to God. Psalms 51 to 60, written by David at various difficult times in his life, cover a range of ‘negative’ emotions: Psalm 51 starts, “Have mercy on me, O God”; on the run from Saul, David says, “Save me, O God . . . Strangers are attacking me; ruthless men seek my life” (Psalm 54 verses 1 and 3); and in Psalm 58 he is after vengeance - he calls on God to “break the teeth in their mouth . . . Let them vanish like water that flows away”. Psalm 102 is “a prayer of an afflicted man”. The first eleven verses are full of imagery that gives the reader a real sense of how the writer was feeling – “my days vanish like smoke” (verse 3); “my heart is blighted . . . I forget to eat my food” (verse 4); “I am reduced to skin and bones” (verse 5); “all day long my enemies taunt me” (verse 8); “you have taken me up and thrown me aside” (verse 10) – but from verse 12 the tone changes. The writer looks outside of his situation to God’s power and eternal presence: “But you, O Lord, sit enthroned forever” (verse 12); “in the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth and the heavens are the work of your hands” (verse 25); “you remain the same and your years will never end” (verse 27). The writer may not be able to control or even begin to understand what’s happening to him, but he knows that God can. And many of these Psalms follow a similar pattern: Psalm 54 which started “Save me, O God” continues “Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me” (verse 4) and “I will praise your name, O Lord” (verse 6). David starts Psalm 55 with “my thoughts trouble me and I am distraught” (verse 2), but finishes with “But as for me, I trust in you” (verse 23). David hasn’t necessarily had any of his problems solved by pouring out his feelings to God, but by adjusting his focus to be on God he finds comfort in knowing that, even if he can’t understand it himself, God is in control and is there for him.
God doesn’t require us to understand everything that’s going on and know how current trials fit into the bigger picture, or to stay chipper, even in devastating circumstances. He just asks us to trust that He’s in control, and to remember that we can pour out our feelings and look to Him for comfort in bad times as well as good.
As dawn was breaking, a group of frightened women crept through the garden towards the cave where their friend had been buried. They wanted to finish the customary embalming process, which had been interrupted by the Sabbath day of rest. It was a courageous thing to attempt: Their friend had been convicted as a criminal and executed by the Roman authorities. His tomb had been sealed up by the authorities and guards posted outside it. As the women approached the tomb, it also struck them as impractical: how were they going to move the huge stone which had been rolled across the entrance? It would have weighed more than a ton and moving it would have involved rolling it up a slope.
To their bewilderment, the women found that the guards had disappeared, the seals had been broken, and the stone had been rolled away. To their consternation, they found that the tomb was empty, apart from the neatly folded burial cloths which had been left where the body had rested. What had become of the body of Jesus?
Various explanations of the mystery have been offered:
In the early morning gloom, did the women visit the wrong tomb?
This is most unlikely: Jesus’ tomb would have been easy to identify. It was not in a public cemetery with rows of similar graves. Jesus was buried in a cave cut from the rock by Joseph of Arithmathea for his own use, in a garden, close to the place of crucifixion. The women had sat nearby watching the burial.
Could Jesus have merely been unconscious and not dead when taken from the cross? Could he have revived and found His way out of the tomb?
No-one at the time would have considered that as plausible for an instant. He had suffered terrible physical abuse and had then been nailed to a cross for six hours. The Romans were expert at executing people and the executioners had pronounced him dead. It was inconceivable that several days later someone could regain consciousness, push a huge sealed stone uphill from its resting place and then evade the professional guards outside.
Did the disciples steal the body?
This was the story that was spread in Jerusalem by the authorities to explain the disappearance of the body. The guards were said to have fallen asleep, all of them simultaneously – a multiple failure punishable by death – and the disciples were supposed to have taken advantage of their lapse and taken the body. In fact, after Jesus was crucified, the disciples were in a state of abject fear, hiding from the authorities behind locked doors. It is impossible to imagine that they would have suddenly acquired the foolhardy courage to confront the guards, break an official seal and secretly remove and hide the body. It is equally impossible to imagine that they would publicly proclaim to thousands of people that Jesus was alive. And it is impossible to imagine that they would die for what they knew to be a lie. If the authorities had really believed the disciples were responsible for the disappearance, they would have instituted a search.
Did Jesus come back to life again?
This is the only explanation that fits the facts, and the implications are enormous.
It demonstrated the truth of the huge claims Jesus made for Himself. He had, for example, claimed to be the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, the Resurrection and the Life. In His death He had become our Saviour; He had paid the penalty for the sin of the world. He had satisfied God’s justice and demonstrated God’s love. Forgiveness and reconciliation were now available through faith in Him.
Through His resurrection we have access to His new life. Those who repent and put their trust in Him are promised ‘eternal life’. Because Jesus is alive, we can enjoy His presence with us now, living within us through His Spirit. And we also have the assurance that we will enjoy life for ever in His presence, when our mortal lives in this world come to an end.
As the Bible tells us, He shared in our own humanity ‘so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death’ (Hebrews 2:14,15).
At three o’clock in the afternoon on the day before the Passover, an extraordinary event occurred. In the Temple hung a famous curtain, separating the Holy Place from an inner room, the Holy of Holies. At the precise moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain was split down the middle by no human agency.
This was a shocking thing to happen. Only one person in the whole world was allowed to see behind the curtain. Just once a year, the High Priest stepped behind it to offer sacrifices for the nation’s sins. Since the day the curtain was hung, no-one else had ever glimpsed the Holy of Holies beyond it.
In fact it would have been impossible for human hands to tear it. The curtain was extremely thick – reputedly 10cm – and about 20m long. The Gospel writers Matthew and Mark tell us the curtain was torn from top to bottom – clearly an ‘act of God’. But why did God tear a curtain in His Temple? Why did He choose to do it just as Jesus died?
The curtain represented the total separateness of a perfect holy God from sinful human beings. By tearing the curtain apart and opening the way into the Holy of Holies, God was demonstrating that the barrier of sin was broken and people could now step boldly into His presence. This dramatic demonstration coincided with Jesus’ death because it was Jesus who had made this possible. He had taken God’s judgment against sin on Himself. He suffered and died in our place, satisfying both the justice and the love of God. We can therefore be forgiven and reconciled to a holy God.
The torn curtain is a powerful reminder that we can enjoy God’s presence with us now, in this life, and also in the life to come.
Royal visits generally involve huge preparations. Security, timings, protocol, precedence all have to be considered and planned well in advance. Who is to be in attendance? Who is to be allowed access? Where and for how long? Anything shabby is given a lick of paint. The place is smartened up. Everything is made as clean and tidy as possible. Every fragment of litter is removed.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, offering Himself as Israel’s Messiah, or King. No special preparations had been made. The streets hadn’t been cleared and swept, there was no security, no entourage – just a borrowed donkey and a spontaneous outburst of welcome from crowds of ordinary people. He was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9):
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Jesus still offers Himself as king: He offers to take charge of our lives and become our Saviour and Lord. Thankfully, He doesn’t ask us to clear up our lives first. He doesn’t wait for us to get ourselves sorted out, or our lives tidied up; He doesn’t expect us to reform ourselves or try to make ourselves fit for Him to come to us. He comes into our lives, however messy they are, if we want Him. He does the sorting out, the cleaning and the tidying up for us!
Why not check out our Easter Week: A Thought a Day page, which starts today!
Imagine a family planning to move house. Imagine Dad going away temporarily to sort the new house out, get it painted, curtains hung and carpets laid. Dad might say something like this to anxious children, ‘Don’t worry: I’m coming back. I’m going away for little while to get a beautiful new home ready for you. You’ll love it. When everything’s ready, I’ll come back and take you there and we’ll all be happy in our new home together.’
This is something like the promise Jesus made to His anxious friends during the evening before His death. Jesus had explained to them that He was going to be betrayed and killed. ‘My little children, I will be with you only a little longer,’ He said. He went on, ‘Don’t let your hearts be troubled . . . My father’s house has many rooms. If that were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? . . . I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am’ (John 13:33, 14:1-3).
So Jesus is preparing a home for us. Not only that, He’s promised to come back in person to take us there. Paul explains this further in his letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, who were concerned that their Christian loved-ones were going to miss out somehow on this promised coming of Jesus.
‘the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever.’
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
We don’t know when Jesus is coming to take those who belong to Him to their promised home in heaven. We need to make sure we are ready to meet Him.
Do you remember the panic buying of flour, baked beans and toilet rolls just before lockdown was first imposed? We may have noticed a bit of supermarket rationing, but we can all be thankful that we haven’t gone short of food and other necessities. Our material needs have been met.
Of course, our needs go far beyond what the supermarkets, and even Amazon, can supply. The past year has demonstrated the deep human needs for love and companionship, comfort and reassurance, face to face conversations, a human touch. Sadly, for some people these are needs that it has been very difficult to meet. And sometimes, we may not be able to express our deepest needs, or even know what they are ourselves.
Luke in His Gospel makes it clear that Jesus knew and understood how varied our needs are. He was aware of people’s hunger, and He fed them until they were ‘satisfied’. ‘He healed those who needed healing’ (Luke 9:11). He knew when His disciples needed a break and took them away to a quieter place (9:10). He gave reassurance to a ‘trembling’ woman (8:47) and to frightened disciples (9:24). He offered friendship to a lonely man (19:5). ‘His heart went out’ to a bereaved mother and He restored her son to life (7:13). Even when He was dying on the cross, He thought of the needs of others, ensuring that His mother Mary would be looked after (John 19:26-7).
It was by dying on the cross that He is now able to meet our deepest needs. Without His willing death on our behalf, we wouldn’t have forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Acknowledging these needs, and turning to Jesus to meet them, is the most important thing we can do. ‘My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus,’ Paul assured the Christians in Philippi from his prison cell in Rome (Philippians 4:19). He wasn’t just thinking of their material needs.
I’ve been re-reading the Old Testament book of Esther recently and remembering how it was one of my favourite Bible stories when I was young. I was particularly impressed with the description of King Xerxes’ palace gardens and the extravagant week-long banquet he gave. The gardens had ‘hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings attached to marble pillars’ (Esther 1:6). The mosaic floors were made from abalone, marble and other costly stones. The guests were seated on couches of gold and silver, and wine was served in gold goblets.
It’s a satisfying and dramatic story too, with a heroine, Esther, a beautiful orphan girl, a Jewish captive, who is suddenly raised to the position of Queen of the Persian Empire. Then there’s a hero, Mordecai, also a Jewish captive, who begins as a nonentity at the palace gate and ends as Prime Minister. And the villain, Haman, who plots the genocide of the Jewish race, ends up hanged on the gallows he has built for Mordecai.
Surprisingly, God isn’t mentioned in the entire book - but it’s clear that God is in control, working ‘behind the scenes’ to ensure the safety of His people and the survival of David’s line of descendants, from which the promised Messiah will be born. God gives Mordecai the wisdom he needs to stand up to the evil and arrogant Haman, to serve the king loyally, and to advise Esther. God gives Esther the courage she needs to risk her life to save her people. And through their words and actions, and in ways beyond our understanding, God brings about the thwarting of Haman’s plot and the preservation of His people.
And God promises us too that ‘in everything He works for the good of those who love Him’ (Romans 8:28). He doesn’t promise that things will be easy if we love Him, but whatever happens God will somehow be working behind the scenes to use it for our good in some way. And He is always in control.
I’m not very keen on narrow entrances that make you go through one at a time. There are the barriers in railway stations, where you have to put the right ticket in a machine to make the barrier open, before you struggle through with your suitcase, hoping it won’t close before you and your luggage have both reached the other side. There are revolving doors and coin-operated turnstiles, where you hope the mechanism won’t go wrong, trapping you so that you can’t move backwards or forwards. Then there are ‘kissing gates’ that manoeuvre you into a corner while they open and close.
Thankfully, the gateway to life has no such complications. You don’t require a ticket or the right coin, and you don’t have to struggle with luggage. Admittedly, it’s narrow, however: we have to take responsibility for ourselves, make our own decisions and enter one at a time. We can’t hide in the crowd.
We often make the mistake of going with the crowd. It can be difficult to swim against the tide of popular opinion, especially if we feel modestly unsure about our own opinions. Or we may assume that there’s safety in numbers – that if everyone is doing something, or believes something, either they must be right or else the consequences can’t be too disastrous.
And so we’re inclined to go with the flow, following the majority. Jesus made clear that this is a dangerous attitude to adopt in making the most important decision of our lives. He said, ‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it’ (Matthew 7:13).
A painting of a giant soda-water siphon in a rocky desert, accompanied by a fried egg in one corner and a 10-franc coin supported by a single peanut in another: this was one of the exhibits in an exhibition of surrealist painting and sculpture in Paris many years ago. The Times correspondent who reported on the exhibition found it difficult to take it seriously, and felt the message was ‘not clear to the uninstructed mind’.
Thankfully, some pictures are less obscure. Because God wants us to understand what He’s like, He sent Jesus to us - ‘the image of the invisible God,’ as Paul tells us (Colossians 1:15). He was a clear and unmistakable picture of God’s righteousness and justice, love and mercy, in actions and words. ‘No-one has ever seen God,’ John explained, ‘but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made Him known’ (John 1:18).
We haven’t had the opportunity to see this picture ‘in the flesh’, but we can read the inspired record of His life, death and resurrection in the four Gospels in the Bible, and ‘see’ the picture with spiritual eyes. And Jesus promised a special blessing ‘for those who have not seen [with natural eyes] and yet have believed’ (John 20:29).
‘I’m drawing a picture of God,’ a child announced. ‘But no-one knows what God looks like, dear,’ her mother said. ‘They will when I’ve finished this,’ the child assured her. Of course, we know that God is invisible and ‘lives in unapproachable light’, but in His grace He’s given us a perfect picture of what He’s like, in the person of Jesus Christ.
Valentine’s day has been associated with romantic love, with hearts and red roses, for many years. And for well over two hundred years, people have been expressing their love by sending valentine cards. Originally they were home-made creations, decorated with lace and flowers, conveying messages specially composed for the occasion.
Romantic love is just one kind of love. The Bible tells us of a different kind of love – a supreme love that is selfless and sacrificial. It’s this kind of love which God feels for us, the people He has created. It’s so difficult to convey the enormity of this love that the Bible compares it with the infinite expanse of the skies. ‘Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,’ wrote David in Psalm 36 (v.5) and is ‘as high as the heavens are above the earth’ (Psalm 103:11). Paul longed for the Christian church in Ephesus ‘to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:18-19).
We can’t enter fully into how deep God’s love is – but we can know and appreciate how God has demonstrated it. Actions speak louder than words, they say. And what God has done to demonstrate His love for us is truly awesome. In the person of Jesus He came to this world and took on Himself all the penalty due for human wrongdoing, so that we could be forgiven and made fit for His presence. He knows the worst about us and yet He loves us more than anyone. He offers this unconditional love to everyone. ‘This is how we know what love is,’ wrote Jesus’s friend John: ‘Jesus Christ laid down His life for us’ (1John 3:16).
During the last ten months we’ve had to accept unaccustomed restrictions on our freedom, with shops closed, transport reduced, movement curtailed and social contact limited. It seems a strange situation for a nation that has enjoyed many enviable freedoms.
We’re used to having freedom of choice in many issues of our lives – what we spend our money on, what we eat and wear, how we furnish our homes and plant our gardens, our friends, our interests, where we shop and what we read.
God has created us with the capacity to make choices and given us the freedom to do so. Human beings are not puppets but individuals with their own personality and will. In many areas of life, our choices don’t matter much and may just reflect our tastes and individuality. But sometimes they are hugely important and we have a responsibility to consider them carefully.
In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel were sometimes challenged to choose whether or not they were on God’s side. ‘Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . .’ Joshua invited the people, ‘But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24:15). Elijah too encouraged the nation to make up its mind: ‘If the Lord is God, follow Him’; and he demonstrated to them that the Lord is indeed God (1 Kings 18).
Jesus offers us stark choices: light or darkness, life or death; we can accept His offer of forgiveness or reject it. This is the most important choice we make in our lives, for the consequences are profound - for this life and beyond.
We listen to the mind-numbing daily statistics, telling us how many people have tested positive for Covid, how many are in hospital and how many have died, and we remember that behind the numbers are real individual men, women and young people. And connected to them are all their family members, friends, colleagues and carers, who feel the fear, anxiety, pain and grief of suffering and loss.
As we express our concern for those who are fighting the disease or its long-term effects, those who are grieving, those who are exhausted from caring for patients and those who have been affected in other ways, we can pray for them, committing them to a God who cares. When we read in the Gospels about Jesus’s concern for those who were suffering, we are seeing a picture of God’s care – for Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’. He wept at the grave of Lazarus, as He shared the sisters’ grief. He felt compassion for a widow bereft of her son, and for parents at the loss of their only daughter. He wept for the city of Jerusalem, whose leaders had rejected His message of hope and deliverance (Matthew 23:37). He ‘had compassion’ on the crowds which followed Him, because they ‘were like sheep without a shepherd’. Each individual in the crowd was someone with a need He knew and cared about.
The apostle Paul experienced and understood God’s care and comfort for him in suffering, stress and grief: ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we may comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God’ (2 Corinthians 1:3). That comfort, from ‘the God of all comfort’ is available for us too, and for us to pass on to those in need.
We’re more than a month past the shortest day now and the days are longer and the sun stronger. It’s noticeable too how the natural world is already responding to a bit more light and a bit more warmth. Things that had disappeared or looked dead for weeks are now showing signs of life. Buds are swelling; bulbs are pushing through the soil; birds are singing again; hazel catkins are lengthening and I have even see daffodils and primroses in bloom. Such energy and resilience demonstrate how amazing life is.
The Bible tells us that life comes from God: forms that grow, reproduce, process nourishment and respond to stimuli didn’t arise by chance as a development from inanimate material. ‘Through Him [Jesus, God the Son] all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made’ (John1:3). And Jesus is now ‘sustaining all things by His powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:3).
As human beings, we have been created with inbuilt immortality. Our bodies may die, but they are the shell for the real life within, which lives on after death. Where we spend the after-life is our own choice. ‘Those who believe in me will live even though they die,’ Jesus told Martha, who was grieving for her brother. ‘I have come that they may have life,’ He offered, ‘and have it to the full’ (John 10:10). Jesus, the source and creator of life, the perfect and innocent Son of God, went through death and God’s judgment, so that we may enjoy this eternal life, both here on earth and in His presence for ever.
We sometimes hear that we live in a risk-averse society. We crave peace of mind. ‘Peace of mind’ is what insurance companies offer us. We make regular payments to them, in the expectation that we’re financially covered if the worst happens, yet at the same time hoping that these payments will have been unnecessary. The things we can insure, and the risks we can insure against are almost endless. We can insure against theft, vandalism, fire, freak weather, accident and loss. We can insure our property, possessions and pets. We can insure our limbs and even our lives.
Life insurance and life assurance policies promise payment, usually to family members, when the policy-holder dies. God offers an amazingly attractive life assurance policy which charges no premiums and which benefits the policy-holder rather than the survivors. The cost of the assurance has been met by Jesus through His death on the cross. As a result of the payment He made, we can be beneficiaries during our lives on earth, and also, amazingly, after our lives here have come to an end.
This assurance is ours when we admit that we fall short of God’s standards, accept His forgiveness and acknowledge Jesus as Saviour and Lord. That’s how we sign on for God’s life assurance policy: no forms to fill in, no premium to pay. And as Jesus has made the one-off payment, we don’t need a reminder at the end of the year or an insurance broker to advise on the best deal.
Free life assurance for this life and the next: surely a blessing to accept and to be so grateful for. The very word ‘assurance’ reminds us that we need never doubt God’s offer. With this assurance, we have security for ever and the certain knowledge that He will never fail us.
The Alverstone Mead hide – usually known as the Squirrel Hide – has of course been closed during the coronavirus outbreak. I wonder if the local squirrels have missed their human visitors, or whether they’ve appreciated privacy and peace. Even if the hide were open, we’d be unlikely to see any squirrels, as they’re not very active during winter. They have the good sense to store up nuts and fungi when supplies are plentiful, to keep themselves going when the weather turns harsh.
When our own circumstances are harsh, we need spiritual resources we can draw on. If we have stored up in our hearts a knowledge, understanding, appreciation and love of God’s word, we’ll be better equipped to withstand stormy and chilly events in our lives – ill-health or loneliness or unemployment or bereavement, perhaps. God’s word – the Bible is ‘God-breathed’, or inspired (2 Timothy 3:16), it’s ‘living and active’ (Hebrews 4:12), and ‘flawless’ (Psalm 12:6).
When we read it prayerfully, we open our hearts to God’s voice; and God, who knows our needs, may use it to instruct us, or comfort us, or encourage us, or warn us. Through His word, God makes people ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Timothy 3:16). And the writer of Psalm 119 realised the value of God’s word in helping him resist temptation: ‘I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you’ (v. 11).
Lord, Thy word abideth,
and our footsteps guideth.
Who its truth believeth
light and joy receiveth.
When the storms are o’er us,
and dark clouds before us,
then its light directeth
and our way protecteth.
When our foes are near us,
then Thy word doth cheer us:
word of consolation,
message of salvation.
Oh that we discerning
its most holy learning,
Lord, may love and fear Thee,
evermore be near Thee.
Henry Williams Baker
We’ve celebrated the end of a difficult year with a rather sombre Christmas. And yet the message of Christmas is a message of joy. ‘Good news of great joy,’ the angel offered the shepherds outside Bethlehem; ‘a Saviour has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:10-11).
If someone had asked the shepherds that night what would make them truly happy, I wonder what they would have suggested. A pay rise, better health or an end to Roman occupation, perhaps? I doubt whether they would have thought of mentioning a Saviour to take away their sins. But God knew what would give them the greatest and most lasting joy – and they came away from their visit to the manger so full of joyful excitement that they had to share the good news with everyone.
God knows us better than we know ourselves, of course. The Christmas message of ‘good news of great joy’ is for us too, and it meets our greatest need. The joy doesn’t spring from us or depend on our circumstances. It comes from a secure relationship with a loving heavenly Father, and from knowing that a loving heavenly Father is in control. The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk was troubled by the conflict, injustice and economic problems he could see around him. However, he decided to put his trust in a loving God: ‘though the olive crop fails, and the fields produce no food . . . yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour’ (Habakkuk 3:18-18).
This new year, ‘may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him’ (Romans 15:13).
Over the last eight months, many people have been missing close contact with their loved ones. They may be able to text, email, chat on the phone, even see each other on Skype, but it’s not the same as a face-to-face meeting. We are designed for interaction with one another. We are also designed for interaction with God, a relationship that was ruined with Adam and Eve’s disobedience.
‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call Him Immanuel,’ Isaiah prophesied (7:14). Immanuel means ‘God with us’, Matthew’s Gospel tells us. To Isaiah’s contemporaries, this must have seemed an amazing promise. In the future, God Himself would come to them in the person of a baby.
Of course, this baby was Jesus. He was a human baby, who experienced human life as we do; and He was also divine, ‘God with us’. For 33 years, people were able to see what God is like, by watching Jesus’ actions and listening to His words, experiencing His perfection, His wisdom and His love and grace. The nation of Israel knew from their Old Testament scriptures that God is perfect, wise, loving and gracious. When they met Jesus, they knew from experience. So, as Jesus’ friend John put it, ‘The Word (Jesus) became flesh and made His dwelling among us’ (John 1:14). It wasn’t a fleeting visit: it was a commitment to us. He made our world, with all its problems and conflicts and unattractiveness, His home.
Astonishingly, God can still be with us in a very real way. Before His ascension back to heaven, Jesus promised His followers, ‘I will be with you always to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). This promise was fulfilled in God’s Holy Spirit, who lives in each of us who have turned to Jesus in repentance and faith. What’s more, those who belong to Him will one day see Jesus face to face and be with Him for ever. ‘God’s dwelling-place is now among the people and He will dwell with them . . . God Himself will be with them and be their God’ (Revelation 21:3)
It can be tricky choosing a name for a baby. After all, it’s meant to last a lifetime, potentially suiting a tiny newborn, a strapping teenager and a mature adult. It’s worth checking meanings too: it’s probably fine if it’s Kenneth (handsome) or Charles (manly), but not so good if the names you’ve chosen mean ‘ugly head’ or ‘crooked nose’. Some names imply the child’s destiny in life, but not every boy named Angus is going to be a warrior.
For Mary and Joseph there was no problem with choosing a name. ‘You are to call Him Jesus,’ the angel told Mary (Luke 1:31). Jesus wasn’t a unique name. It was the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua (the New Testament was written in Greek, and the Old in Hebrew, of course). ‘Jesus’ was God’s choice of a name and its significance was its meaning: ‘the Lord saves’.
For this was the Child’s destiny: He was to be the Saviour. This was explained to Joseph in a dream: ‘you are to give Him the name Jesus because He will save His people from their sins’. ‘A Saviour has been born to you,’ the angel told the shepherds on the night of His birth (Luke 2:11). At the time when Adam and Eve first disobeyed God and sin came into God’s perfect world, God had promised to send a Saviour to put things right. God kept His promise in the birth of Jesus, the Saviour. ‘The Father sent His Son to be the Saviour of the world’ (1 John 4:14).
Jesus said that His mission was ‘to seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). When He hung on the cross, suffering and dying for the sins of the world, passers-by paused to mock the Saviour: ‘Save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God.’ ‘He saved others, but He can’t save Himself,’ sneered the chief priests and teachers of the law.
They had no idea of the truth in their sarcastic taunts. For if Jesus had saved Himself, He couldn’t have saved us.
The Post Office have just announced that they are now making more profit from delivering parcels than letters. This is, of course, a result of the trend in favour of internet shopping, which is becoming more pronounced as more people buy their Christmas presents online. According to a survey a few years ago, people in the UK were spending more than £24 billion on Christmas gifts, buying a total of 760 million items. It seems that gift-giving shows no sign of going out of fashion, in spite of the prevalence of Secret Santa arrangements and 'no-present' pacts, and the limitations of shopping on the High Street.
An ancient custom, the giving of presents at this time of year has become associated with the gold, frankincense and myrrh of the wise men. An even more significant link between giving and Christmas is expressed by the apostle John in his Gospel: 'God so loved the world that He gave His only Son' (chapter 3, verse 16). Jesus was God's gift to an undeserving world - a gift motivated by love.
In the past, gifts were often chosen for their usefulness rather than their originality. I remember reading a Victorian children's story in which the main present received by an elderly lady at Christmas was a pair of glasses. She was thrilled that her need had been recognised and she had been given something so life-transforming. God intends His Christmas gift to us to meet our greatest need and to be even more life-transforming. He gave His Son 'so that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life' (John 3:16). We accept this greatest of all gifts by believing in Him, in other words, putting our trust in Him.
Very few people would leave a Christmas present still wrapped up under the tree. Let's make sure we don't ignore this most precious present of all.
For centuries, people have used gifts, bribes and payments for the privilege of a place at court or a face-to-face conversation with an influential person. Of course, access to monarchs, presidents and prime ministers has always been strictly controlled. In the fifth century BC, the death penalty was imposed for approaching the Persian king in the inner court of the palace without prior summons (see the story of Esther in the Bible). In recent, less draconian, times individuals have paid thousands of pounds for one lunch in the company of a former prime minister.
Queen Victoria was known for calling at the humble homes of the workers on her estates. People were impressed that she made herself approachable. However, these visits were dependent on her impulses and initiative, and were at times of her choosing. Subjects couldn't get access to a monarch whenever they wished and they couldn't assume that they would receive any attention.
Yet access to the King of Kings is freely available. Sometimes we forget what an amazing privilege this is. We can enter the presence of the holy almighty God, through the Lord Jesus, and personally approach Him, with reverence but without fear. We don't need to make an appointment or wait for an invitation. We don't need to ask someone else to speak on our behalf. We don't need to bring anything or do anything to win His favour. And we can be assured that He will listen to us. We can ask Him for forgiveness for our wrong-doing and we can bring our needs to Him.
'Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience,' invites the writer of Hebrews (chapter 10, verse 22). God actually wants us to approach him - in sincerity and faith, and with repentant hearts.
If the demand for intensive care beds exceeds 'supply', how do you decide who to treat and who to abandon? That's the terrible dilemma which, we are told, doctors might have to face if covid spreads too rapidly. This is one of the reasons given for imposing another lockdown.
Can you assess the relative value of different human lives? Some years ago, the Christian song-writer Graham Kendrick posed this question in his song 'Paid on the Nail': 'Is a rich man worth more than a poor man? Is a stranger worth less than a friend? Is a baby worth more than an old man, your beginning worth more than your end?' Should we value a victim more highly than a murderer? Does committing a serious crime reduce someone's value as a human being?
Generally, we put a value on things according to how much someone is willing to pay for it. An unusual house or an antique of uncertain value can be put up for auction. Its value is revealed by what the highest bidder will pay.
Amazingly, our value as human beings has been demonstrated in the same way. The price of our redemption has been 'paid on the nail', as Kendrick put it. The price was the life of the Son of God, a life of infinite value, given for us on the cross. Whether we are rich or poor, old or young, law-abiding or criminal, we are all of infinite value to God. He's demonstrated it by the infinite price He has paid - a price which applies to every individual who turns to Him in repentance and faith.
So how do we respond to such amazing love? We can ignore it or reject it, or we can accept with genuine gratitude that we have been bought 'with the precious blood of Christ' (1 Peter 1:19).
'Darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples,' wrote Isaiah (Isaiah 60:2), in one of his prophecies of the coming of the Messiah.
Winter has come and we're having to get used to darker days and long dark evenings. But Isaiah wasn't of course describing the weather and the seasons, nor was he referring just to the circumstances of his own era. He was using the idea of darkness as a metaphor for the condition of a world which has rejected God - a world in which people therefore live 'in the shadow of death' (Isaiah 9:2 and Luke 1:79).
'I am the Light of the World,' Jesus announced. God, the Bible tells us, is light, and 'lives in unapproachable light' (1 Timothy 6:16). Jesus, both Son of God and Son of Man, brought God's light to our world. His light shone in pure radiance throughout His uniquely perfect life, as He revealed God's love and righteousness to a dark and sinful world. 'The light shines in the darkness,' wrote Jesus' friend John, 'and the darkness has not overcome it' (John 1:5). That's a feature of light - it dispels darkness, never the other way round.
A risen glorious Jesus is alive now and ready to shine in the hearts of those who open their lives to Him. No longer do we need to live in darkness and under 'the shadow of death'. His life-giving light is more powerful than any darkness.
I once met someone who wore a silver question-mark on a pin in his lapel. He said it was a good conversation-starter because lots of people, even strangers, asked him why he was wearing a question-mark. 'Well, life is full of questions,' he used to say.
He was right. Every day we're asking questions. Some are relatively mundane and immediate. I often ask myself, 'where have I put my mobile?' Sometimes I ask Google questions: 'What time is high tide?' 'Why do plums rot on the tree?' 'Why are there maggots in my cherries?' But sometimes our questions are more momentous and thought-provoking. 'Why am I here?' 'Where am I going?' 'How can I know the truth?'
Knowing the truth: that's a really important issue when we're facing life and death questions, and we need to turn to a reliable authority for our answers. God has provided us with His inspired Word, the Bible, to give us answers to our questions about life, death and eternity, sin, suffering and forgiveness.
In the book of Acts, we're told how someone asked one of the most important questions anyone could ask. Thankfully, we're given the answer too. 'What must I do to be saved?' a trembling Roman gaoler asked the apostle Paul, in the middle of his earthquake-damaged prison, after a narrow escape from death. 'Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,' Paul answered, 'and you will be saved' (Acts 16:31). No conditions or provisos - simply putting his trust in the Lord Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, the ultimate answer to our deepest questions and needs (John 14:6).
Farmers and gardeners are hopeful people. They sow and tend the plants they grow, in the hope of a future harvest. But a good harvest is just a hope, not a certainty. If you had asked me in early summer if I would have a good potato crop, I might have said 'I hope so'. I didn't know that the soil would soon be bulging with tubers.
When we talk about hope - whether it's hope for a sunny day tomorrow, or for a vaccine against covid, or for a better job - we know our hope holds no certainty. The word implies an element of doubt. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said that 'he hoped for the best and prepared for the worst'. And yet we cannot live without hope. Hope gets us up in the morning and beckons us through the day.
In the Bible we are often assured that Christians have 'hope'. The apostle Paul reminded the Christians in Ephesus that they had once been 'without hope and without God in the world' (Ephesians 2:12) but they now had the hope of 'a glorious inheritance' as one of God's people (1:18). The wonderful thing about Christian hope is that there is no tinge of doubt in it. We can be absolutely 'sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see'; so certain, in fact, that 'we have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure' (Hebrews 6:19). So Paul could write to his friend Titus about 'resting on the hope of eternal life' (Titus 1:2).
'May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope...' (Romans 15:13).
Who would have guessed a year ago that we would just be emerging from a national lockdown, from months of restrictions, with offices, places of worship, museums, galleries, sports venues and theatres closed, and public transport severely limited. Our lives and circumstances can change so quickly - as some people in the north of England have experienced again very recently. And as we face an uncertain future, we can be certain that things will change again.
Some of life's changes we can predict and prepare for. We can assume that one day we'll retire from work, so we can make appropriate preparation for our changed financial circumstances. Some of life's changes may come on us suddenly and unexpectedly, even disastrously. Bereavement, illness, accident, redundancy - life-changing issues may affect any of us without warning or time to prepare ourselves.
'Change and decay in all around I see,' wrote Henry Lyte in 1847, in a well-known hymn. As he wrote, he would have been aware of the economic problems and social and political unrest affecting this country and most of Europe at that time. He may have been thinking too of his own bouts of ill-health. He found his reassurance in trusting his Lord and Saviour, a God who doesn't change. 'O Thou who changest not,' the hymn goes on to say, 'abide with me'.
We don't know what changes the future holds for us personally or as a community or nation, but we can be thankful that we have a God who never changes, who is the same 'yesterday and today and for ever' (Hebrews 12:8), who 'does not change like shifting shadows' (James 1:17).
I've been reading through the Gospels again recently, and have been struck afresh by the simple authenticity of the narratives. Each writer was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but each writer also brought to the task his own personality and perspective. Matthew and John were both eye-witnesses, having abandoned their careers to become disciples of Jesus. Mark was probably present at some of the events and is thought to have consulted Peter for information. Luke made a point of telling his readers that he had 'carefully investigated everything' before writing his 'orderly account' (1:3).
The disciple John was an old man when he put pen to paper, but he vividly remembered the events he had witnessed and even participated in. And the words Jesus had spoken were still fresh in his mind, especially as he now understood their meaning more clearly. There was so much he could write about, and he was conscious that he had been very selective. His Gospel focuses on just seven of Jesus' miracles, interspersed with Jesus' conversations with people He met and some of His public teaching, ending, of course, with an account of Jesus' death and resurrection. 'Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book,' John told his readers (20:30). In fact, John felt so overwhelmed by all the memories of what Jesus had done and said, that he couldn't imagine how all the libraries in the world could find room to accommodate all the books that could be written (21:25).
John didn't write his Gospel to make money from his first-hand knowledge of a celebrity. He didn't write it for self-promotion - he remained anonymous. John had enjoyed a close friendship with Jesus, and he wrote his account of Jesus' life because he wanted others to share the joy of knowing Jesus personally: 'These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name' (John 20:31). He wanted all his readers to know and understand who Jesus is and to begin their own new-life relationship with Him.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, John also wrote three letters, included in the Bible. He began the first by expressing the wonder of having known Jesus in His life on earth: John had actually seen him, heard him and touched him (1 John 1:1,3). He knew Jesus was a human being. He also knew that Jesus was God made flesh, the Word of life. Again - as with his Gospel - he wanted his readers to come to know Jesus for themselves. Unlike John, we haven't seen Him, heard Him and touched Him, but we too can enjoy a close relationship with Him by coming to Him in repentance and faith.
During the lockdown some people have been able to enjoy relative freedom from time constraints. Lives have been less subject to the regular routines imposed by our clocks and diaries. However, we can never escape an awareness of passing time, whether it's the minutes, hours and days, or the seasons, years and decades. Time governs our lives; we know our life-span is limited.
Because we can't escape awareness of passing time, it's difficult for us to grapple with the concept of eternity. I remember once reading an illustration that was said to be a traditional North American explanation of eternity: Once every thousand years a small bird wipes its beak on a huge rock in the prairie. When the rock has been worn away by the bird's action, a day of eternity will have passed. The illustration is an attempt to imagine a future without an end. It certainly emphasises that eternity is a very long time.
A past without a beginning seems to me even more difficult to imagine. And yet we know that God has always existed and doesn't have either a beginning or an end. 'Before the mountains were born, or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God,' says Psalm 90:2.
One day, time will cease for all of us and eternity will begin. The eternal God - in the person of the Lord Jesus - once left the timelessness of heaven and experienced human life in a world governed by the passing of time, a world which had a beginning and one day will come to an end. God did this so that we may experience the joy of an eternal future in his presence. 'You have made known to me the path of life,' David wrote; 'you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand' (Psalm 16:11). And God will show us the path of eternal life too, if we ask Him, through the Lord Jesus Christ. 'For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life,' Jesus said, 'and I will raise them up at the last day' (John 6:40).
For some people, lockdown has meant weeks of unaccustomed leisure; for others, it has meant weeks of unremitting hard work. Some people are weary of isolation and an unvarying routine; others are wearied by too much pressure and too little sleep. A change is as good rest, they say, but it depends what the cause of the tiredness is.
Many tired people flocked to listen to Jesus when He travelled about Galilee. They were physically tired from long hours of labour or from caring for families and homes. They knew the wearisome anxieties of poverty and incurable diseases. They felt the pressure of living under an army of occupation, with its tax demands and rigorous application of the law. Their lives were burdened by the rules imposed by their own religious leaders. And Jesus understood their tiredness. He experienced it Himself. He knew what it was like to be physically exhausted from hard manual work, and from travelling on foot for miles in heat and dust. He had experienced the pressures of poverty and family life and meeting the needs of others. He understood how people were burdened by responsibilities, ill-health, grief and regrets.
So Jesus had a message for his listeners that was relevant to their situation. 'Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,' He said, 'and I will give you rest' (Matthew 11:28). Naturally He wasn't offering them a holiday or a change from life's normal routines. 'Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,' He invited, 'for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.' The listeners knew that their political and religious leaders (the Romans and the Pharisees) were usually the opposite of gentle and humble. Jesus was offering them a totally different kind of leadership for their lives, and a 'rest for their souls' that would meet their innermost needs.
Those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord still find 'rest for their souls'. We can unburden ourselves to Someone who understands our deepest needs and concerns, who supports us in our weariness, comforts us in our grief, heals our hurts, forgives our sins and gives us new life.
In 1942, German anti-aircraft guns accidentally shot down a German aircraft over occupied Holland. Anxious to hide the truth about their mistake, the German authorities ordered a couple of Dutch workmen from the nearby town to get out their paint and brushes and cover up the Luftwaffe markings with those of the RAF. Naturally keen to expose the deception, the workmen left a prominently displayed 'wet paint' notice next to the wreckage.
They say that the first casualty of war is truth. In fact, it's hard to keep truth alive in most areas of life - and not just public affairs. We're all eager to hide our mistakes, justify all our words and actions, and present ourselves in the best possible light. Trying to avoid facing up to the truth about their disobedience in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve first of all hid from God and then made excuses about what they had done (Genesis 3). Everyone finds it difficult to admit to doing wrong.
However, we can't hide the truth about ourselves from God. King David knew this only too well. There were shameful actions in his life which he would have preferred to keep hidden, but he knew they weren't hidden from God.
You have searched me, Lord
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
David knew the importance and the value of facing up to the truth about himself. 'I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me,' he admitted to God (Psalm 51:3). His conscience troubled him and he lost his peace of mind until he had sought God's forgiveness:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
He knew that God, in His mercy, compassion and unfailing love, would accept his broken spirit and contrite heart (v.17). After all, God knows the whole unvarnished truth about each one of us and yet He loves us with an unfailing love demonstrated so clearly in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Not long ago, the BBC national news on Radio 4 told us that May had been the driest month on record. They also said that the Isle of Wight had been the driest place in the UK. We've had a bit more rain since then, of course, but it hasn't seemed very much in comparison with what we need. The grass is beginning to look yellow, and it's possible to wander on the marshes without getting togged up in boots.
The signs of drought which we see in our landscape are insignificant in comparison with what David in the Bible observed. Before he became King of Israel he roamed the Judean hills as an outlaw, and in the hot dry summers he would have noticed the withered grass, the dried-up springs and the empty wadis of the scorched landscape. David once expressed a nostalgic longing for the cool refreshing water of the well by the gate of Bethlehem, his childhood home - prompting a reckless act of devotion on the part of some of his band of fellow-outlaws (2 Samuel 23:15-17).
David used his observation of a landscape desperate for water to express his own desperate need for guidance and help from God. 'I spread out my hands to you,' he wrote; 'my soul thirsts for you like a parched land' (Psalm 143:6). In another Psalm, he used the idea of thirst to express a total longing for God during a time of danger and anxiety: 'My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water' (Psalm 63:1). In another Psalm, a time of personal depression prompted the same thirst-like longing for God: 'As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?' (Psalm 42:1,2).
There are times when we feel helpless, anxious, depressed or unsettled, and we know we're longing for something. We can't do better than follow the example of those who wrote the Psalms - turn our longings to 'the living God'. Jesus has promised to satisfy the thirst of those who come to Him. 'Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink,' Jesus offers (John 7:37); and 'the water I give them will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life' (John 4:14).
Experts say it was a good spring for butterflies. I certainly noticed a lot of different species about: brimstones and orange-tips early on, followed by holly blues, speckled woods, red admirals and peacocks.
I think we're so familiar from childhood with the egg-caterpillar-chrysalis-butterfly sequence that it's easy to forget how extraordinary the transformation is. A long, crawling, leggy, bristly caterpillar, munching nettles in a gloomy ditch, becomes a delicate and colourful butterfly, with a swift and powerful flight, thriving in a new environment of air and light and sunshine. The caterpillar isn't born to spend its life crawling in the nettles; it's born to fly. The caterpillar and the butterfly are the same creature, one designed for the earth, the other for the air.
Some people make the mistake of imagining that our lives are limited to the time we spend on this earth, lives that for many are unhappy and unfulfilled. Other people have a vague hope of a better life to come, but no certainty that they will have attained it or how to do so. The Bible, however, tells us what God says about the issue. He promises a transformation even more remarkable than that of a caterpillar to a butterfly. This earth, ruined by human sin and rebellion against God, is not the end. God offers us eternal life - a new kind of life in a new environment of love and joy and peace and light in the presence of God Himself. And for living in this new and perfect environment, He will give us new and perfect bodies, which will never wear out or fall sick.
We don't deserve this future transformation. We can't earn it. We can't acquire it by our own efforts. God gives it out of His love and grace to those who are willing to admit their sin and turn to Him in repentance and faith.
We can't imagine what it will be like to have perfect immortal bodies in a heavenly environment, but that doesn't make it any less real. This is how the apostle Paul explained it when he wrote to the Christians in Corinth:
Our earthly bodies, which die and decay, will be different when they are resurrected, for they will never die. Our bodies now disappoint us, but when they are raised they will be full of glory. They are weak now, but when they are raised they will be full of power. They are natural human bodies now, but when they are raised they will be spiritual bodies. . . . When this happens - when our perishable earthly bodies have been transformed into heavenly bodies that will never die - then at last the Scriptures will come true: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' (1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 54 NLT)
Fields are white with ox-eye daisies or golden with buttercups now. Earlier in the year, the woods were carpeted with bluebells and the verges brightly studded with dandelions. Later, moorland will be purple with heather. We used to see set-aside fields stained blood-red with poppies. Flowers are an amazing part of God's creation. They have complex functions to perform, providing insects with nectar and pollen and eventually maturing to produce seeds to grow into the next generation of plants. Each individual flower is a living object of exquisite beauty. Massed together, they look sensational.
Jesus pointed out the flowers growing on the hillsides of Galilee - they were probably wild anemones: 'Consider how the wild flowers grow,' He said. 'They do not labour or spin. Yet, I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these' (Luke 12:27). Jesus wasn't primarily reminding His listeners of the wonder and beauty of God's creation. He was assuring them of God's care for them and the details of their everyday lives. If God could lavish so much attention on making the countryside look beautiful, He wouldn't neglect the needs of His children.
'God clothes the grass of the field' is how Jesus described the displays of wild flowers. Grass is commonplace and of little significance, trampled on, mown, grazed or left to die down. Yet God takes the trouble to clothe the grass in a spectacular way. 'How much more will He clothe you!' Jesus reassured His disciples.
The wild flowers were a visual reminder of God's care. 'Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life,' Jesus said, reminding them that God provides food for birds and clothes for the grass. Our worries may be different from those of the disciples, but the message is the same. Our heavenly Father knows our needs; 'seek His kingdom and these things will be given to you as well' (Luke 12:31).
Many years later, Jesus' friend Peter wrote: 'Leave all your worries with Him, for He cares about you' (1 Peter 5:7). Perhaps, as he wrote, Peter was remembering the wild flowers Jesus had pointed out on the hillside that day.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is He who made us, and we are His;
We are His people, the sheep of His pasture.
Enter His gates with thanksgiving,
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him and praise His name.
For the Lord is good and His love endures for ever;
His faithfulness continues through all generations.
For some weeks we have been stepping outside our front doors to express our gratitude to NHS staff and other essential workers, who have been putting themselves at risk to meet our needs during the current difficulties. It's always good to show appreciation, and the rainbows in windows and Thursday evening applause have reminded us that we shouldn't take for granted the amazing services that are provided.
And perhaps we also need to be reminded sometimes to thank God for the daily blessings which He showers on us - which we can too easily take for granted. The writers of the Psalms understood the importance of being thankful to God and of approaching Him with hearts full of gratitude. 'Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise,' reminds Psalm 100; 'give thanks to Him and praise His name' (v.4).
This psalm also gives us some reasons to thank God. We owe our very existence to Him: 'It is He who made us, and we are His' (v.3). We owe our daily protection and sustenance to Him: 'we are His people, the sheep of His pasture' (v.3). The psalm finishes by pointing to God's character as the source of His blessings and therefore the reason for our gratitude: 'For the Lord is good and His love endures for ever; His faithfulness continues through all generations' (v.5).
Often our circumstances make it difficult to feel thankful. The apostle Paul must surely have struggled sometimes, when he was imprisoned, chained, lonely, and concerned about the welfare of so many people he had met and shared the Gospel with. Perhaps he turned to the Psalms for encouragement. 'Be thankful,' Paul wrote from his prison in Rome. 'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly . . . as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God' (Colossians 3:15-16).
How high above the earth are the heavens? How far is it from the east to the west? These are questions no-one can answer in measurements. The universe stretches away into infinity and increasingly powerful telescopes have never explored its vastness. If you travel west you never get to the east - you just keep going for ever in an easterly direction.
In Psalm 103, God uses these two images to describe two immeasurable concepts:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is His love for those fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has He removed our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103: 11-12)
God's infinite love for the creatures He made in His image is shown supremely in His willingness to take on human flesh, to be born to a human mother, to live a human life here in the world He had made, which had been ruined by rebellion against Him, and then to die so that people could be forgiven and His creation reconciled to Himself: 'God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us' (Romans 5:8)
And for those who repent and accept God's offer of forgiveness, life is transformed: their sins are gone for ever and can never be retrieved. They have been removed an infinite distance away - as far as the east is from the west, in fact. Jesus has paid the penalty for them and they can never come between God and us again.
Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
'Which do you prefer: Glam dress or jeans and t-shirt? Posh nosh or fry-up at home? Theatre trip or box-set at home?' I've seen short columns in newspapers and magazines posing alternatives like these to people I've never heard of.
Life constantly presents us with alternatives of much more significance than these. The Bible book of Proverbs - the Old Testament book of God's wisdom for living a satisfying life, 'in the fear of the Lord' - mentions some of life's more important choices and also tells us which would be the better ones to opt for.
Better a little with the fear of the Lord
than great wealth with turmoil.
Better a dish of vegetables with love
than a fattened calf with hatred.
Better a little with righteousness
than much gain with injustice.
Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed
than to share plunder with the proud.
(Proverbs 15:16 and 17; 16:8,19)
Proverbs like these remind us of the important things in life: our relationships with the Lord and with each other, humility in our attitudes, and just principles in our actions. Material gain is of no consequence in comparison. 'How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver' (Proverbs 16:16).
God's wisdom is expressed for us in words in the book of Proverbs; it's seen in action in the life of the Lord Jesus. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:24 that Christ is 'the power of God and the wisdom of God'. In everything He did and said, He expressed the perfect wisdom of God's character - His justice and righteousness, His love and compassion, His humility and selflessness. And He's not only a pattern to follow; He's also a Saviour, who took on Himself all our mistakes, shortcomings and sins and gives in exchange His own righteousness: 'Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God - that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption' (1 Corinthians 1:30).
We're all familiar now with the fact that 75 years ago the nation erupted into scenes of joy as people learned that the war against the Axis powers was finally over after nearly six years of conflict.
Inevitable, the joy was tinged with grief. The war had left few untouched by sadness or anxiety. For the victory in 1945 had come at huge cost, and it's right that the celebration of its 75th anniversary should include a reminder of the price that was paid in loss of life and in human suffering. Clearly, we owe an enormous debt to those who died or were injured so that we could enjoy freedom from oppression.
Those who suffered in the War gained for us the blessing of freedom for this life. By suffering and dying on the cross, Jesus defeated sin and Satan and gained for us the blessing of eternal life - a new quality of life that begins now and lasts for ever. We have done nothing to deserve it; we can't earn it; it's simply a gift from God that's available to us because of Jesus' death and resurrection.
For Jesus' death was a victory over our greatest enemy - eternal death, or separation from God. 'Death has been swallowed up in victory,' Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 15:54). '... thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.' Jesus suffered and died; we reap the benefit.
I've been looking at my great great grandmother's diary recently. She came to the Island from Nottingham in 1826, married a Yarmouth resident, and had to come to terms with separation from her Nottingham family. She did make one trip home, a slow journey by stage-coach, accompanied by her eight-year-old daughter. However, it was through regular correspondence that she kept in touch with her family. She clearly valued the communication, as she was a tireless letter-writer. This was in the era before the penny post, so sending a letter was expensive and delivery was slow.
Now, at the present time of isolation from family and friends, we can be grateful for so many means of communication, traditional and modern. Our ancestors would be amazed that communication can be instant, that we can hear our loved-ones' voices and see their faces.
We can be grateful too that God has provided us with two-way communication with Himself. This is a blessing that is so important at any time, but perhaps we especially appreciate it at a time of isolation. God speaks to us through His word, the Bible. As we read it each day, we can ask Him to apply what we read to our hearts through His Spirit. He knows our needs and He knows what we need to 'hear' in His word. And it's reassuring to know that God's ear is always open to listen to us when we come to Him in prayer. He is always eager to communicate with us and never wearies of 'conversing' with us.
It will be a lovely experience to meet family and friends again face to face when the lock-down is over and we'll no longer have to rely on letters, phone calls, emails, Skype, Zoom and so on. It will be even more wonderful when we see the Lord Jesus face to face, to enjoy His presence for eternity. 1 Thessalonians 4 vs 13-18 describes how Jesus will one day come down from heaven, and those who belong to Him (whether alive or 'sleeping') will meet Him in the air. 'And so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words' (verse 18).
As I was recently washing my hands - yet again - I was reminded of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who hastily wash the incriminating blood from their hands after the murder of Duncan: 'A little water clears us of this deed. How easy it is then!' Lady Macbeth assures her nervous husband. She discovers, however, that repeated hand-washing can't remove the bloodstains from her imagination. 'What, will these hands ne'er be clean?' she asks in the famous sleep-walking scene. She finds that cleansing her hands doesn't cleanse her conscience or remove her guilt.
Many of us have made the same discovery. Removing or hiding the evidence doesn't quiet the conscience. In fact, there's nothing that we can do ourselves to remove our guilt and cleanse ourselves from the wrong things we've done, said or thought - what the Bible calls 'sin'.
The only way for us to be cleansed from our sin is to accept the forgiveness that God offers. 'The blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin' (I John 1:9). It removes our guilt before God and gives us peace in our consciences, because Jesus has paid the penalty for our sin by His death on the cross. In His death, He satisfied both God's perfect love for us and God's perfect and holy justice. Such an amazing solution to the problem of human rebellion, sin and guilt could come only from the mind of God.
In the week before Easter weekend we were told to look out for a 'supermoon'. The full moon would appear larger and brighter than usual. I was looking forward to seeing it. From my upstairs windows, a full moon can look spectacular hanging over the rooftops as it rises in the east - and even more so when it's a supermoon.
Sadly, the moon was obscured that night by a veil of light cloud, and we were deprived here in the south of a sight of its extra special brightness. The moon has no brightness of its own, of course, but simply reflects the intense brightness of the sun. Thick cloud and it disappears entirely, thin cloud and its light is dimmed.
I was reminded that just as the moon reflects the glory of the sun, so should we reflect the glory of God to those around us. When Moses talked with the Lord 'face to face', the effect of this close communication was clearly visible to everyone else - although he was unaware of it himself. When he left the Lord's presence, 'his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord'. Everyone around him could see immediately and unmistakably that he had been in the presence of the Lord. He was reflecting God's glory.
When the face of the moon is veiled, the reflected light is obscured. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul reminded Christian believers that we should be contemplating the Lord 'with unveiled faces' - with nothing coming between the Saviour and ourselves. We can't spend collective time with the Lord in current circumstances, but spending personal time with Him is essential if we are to be a clear reflection of His glory in the darkness of the world.
And just as we tend to become more like those we love and spend time with, so we can look to 'being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory' (2 Corinthians 3:18).
'The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom' (Matthew 27:51)
Gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this extraordinary Easter event, which must have astonished and terrified the Jewish authorities. The curtain, which hung in the innermost area of the temple, separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place, was according to tradition about 10cm thick and getting on for 20 metres from top to bottom. Even if the thickness was an exaggeration, the fabric was clearly impossible for human hands to tear; and Matthew and Mark make clear that it was literally an 'act of God' - torn from top to bottom. Matthew also tells us that it happened at the precise moment of Jesus' death. What was the significance of this disturbing occurrence?
The curtain represented the total separateness of a perfect holy God from sinful human beings. Just once a year Israel's high priest stepped behind the curtain to offer sacrifices for the nation's sins. No-one else ever glimpsed the Holy of Holies beyond the curtain, and the curtain's weight and thickness ensured that it was never accidentally disturbed or lifted.
When God tore the curtain in two He made it clear that anyone could now step boldly into His presence. In His death, Jesus had taken on Himself all the sin of humanity; forgiveness and reconciliation with a holy God are now available to us through Him. We don't need to be separated from a holy God. Because of Jesus' death for us, we can enjoy God's presence with us in this life now and also in the life to come. The torn curtain is a powerful symbol of this wonderful truth.
'Now in Christ Jesus you who were once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ' (Ephesians 2:13)
'In Him [Christ Jesus] and through faith in Him we may approach God with freedom and confidence' (Ephesians 3:12)
At dawn on Easter Sunday morning, a group of women crept nervously through the early morning gloom to Jesus' burial place in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea. They were carrying spices to finish the embalming process on Jesus' body. This had been carried out over-hastily in order to bury the body before the Sabbath began. As they neared the tomb, it occurred to them that their combined strength wouldn't be enough to shift the huge stone which had been rolled into place across the entrance. To add to their problems, the stone had also been sealed and guards had been placed outside because the authorities were worried about Jesus' statement that he would rise again.
The Gospels tell us that when the women arrived, they found the guards had disappeared, the stone had been rolled away, and the tomb was empty. The Gospels also tell us what had happened. Death could not keep its hold on the Son of God: He had risen again to new life and had left the tomb. In His new resurrected body He could pass through locked doors, so He didn't need the stone rolled away in order to leave the tomb. So momentous was this resurrection event that 'there was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it' (Matthew 28:2). The guards collapsed, temporarily unconscious. The evidence was there for all to see: the grave-clothes were still lying neatly in place, but the body had gone.
Jesus' resurrection transformed a frightened, grief-stricken and despairing body of men and women. Jesus' death had seemed to be the end of all their hopes. Jesus' resurrection showed that it was in fact a new beginning. The events of the first Easter offered them forgiveness for the past, a fresh start and new life that would last for ever.
God's offer of forgiveness and new life are available for us too. Check out the evidence for the resurrection at www.bible.ca/d-resurrection-evidence-Josh-McDowell.htm and consider the implications.
The Friday of the Easter weekend commemorates a horrific injustice, the barbaric execution of an entirely innocent man. And yet it has come to be known in the English-speaking world as 'Good Friday'.
It was a day when evil and the powers of darkness seemed to be in control, when human hatred, violence and cruelty were at their most extreme, when betrayal and jealousy seemed to have triumphed over love and compassion. For Jesus's followers it was a day of total defeat and despair.
We don't know for sure how anniversaries of this event came to be known as 'good'. Amazingly, however, Christians can see it as an entirely appropriate label for a day that turned everything upside down. While dying on the cross, Jesus took on Himself all the sin of the human race and all the judgment of a holy God. What looked like the ultimate triumph of evil brought about the defeat of sin and death. As a result of Jesus's suffering and death, we can be completely free from God's condemnation and at peace with God. We can accept God's offer of life instead of death, and begin a new relationship with Him, which will last for all eternity. Everything that we have that's good we owe to what happened that day.
As Peter, one of Jesus's closest followers put it, 'Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteousness, to bring you to God' (1 Peter 3:18).
'The Lord is trustworthy in all He promises and faithful in all He does' (Psalm 145:13)
We may not be able to get out and about at present to see the countryside - the blackthorn in blossom, the greening of the trees, and the primroses in the hedgerows - but we can still see signs that spring has arrived. The birds are singing, insects are busy, and gardens are full of colour, as plants are triggered into activity by the longer days or the growing warmth of the sun.
This amazing process happens every year, just as God promised it would:
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease. (Genesis 8:22)
For not only did God create everything, He also sustains everything 'by His powerful word' (Hebrews 1:3); and the changes in the seasons are regular reminders that we have a powerful God who keeps His promises.
We know we can't rely on human promises, however well-intentioned they are. Sometimes we lack the resources and sometimes the willingness to carry them out. Sometimes we just forget. Only God's promises are secure and solid and entirely trustworthy. We can trust God's promises because of His character.
God is not subject to whims and mind-changes. He is faithful, true, unchanging - 'He does not change like shifting shadows' is how James expresses it (1:12). He also has infinite love for us, His children, a love that was revealed in the perfect life and sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus. The apostle tells us that God's promises 'are "yes" in Christ' (2 Corinthians 1:20) - He showed forth and demonstrated God's character and died and rose again to give us the promise of eternal life (I John 2:25).
God's promises don't just relate to our future life, of course. God promises us: 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you' (Hebrews 13:5). And Jesus promised before He ascended to heaven: 'Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age' (Matthew 28:20).
I have been taking advantage of a few days' sunshine to get some salad seeds in the ground. I'm always astonished at how tiny seeds are - and yet each one has life and the potential to put roots down into the soil and grow into a sturdy plant full of health-giving vitamins for our consumption later in the year.
My activities in the garden reminded me of a different kind of seed. The Bible sometimes describes God's word as seed - Jesus did so in the parable of the sower, for example, and Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that he was planting seed when he preached the Gospel to them (1 Corinthians 3:6).
If it's going to put down roots and flourish, seed needs to be cared for and nurtured: I've protected my row of salad seeds with a mini polytunnel, and inspect and water regularly. Soon I shall have to look out for weeds and get rid of them before they choke my salad leaves or stunt their growth by depriving them of moisture and nutrients. The seed of God's word, which has been planted in our hearts, also needs encouragement if it's to grow into something strong and healthy.
Although life is on pause - relatively speaking - and we can no longer have fellowship with our fellow-Christians in a conventional way, we can still encourage the growth of the seed of God's word in our hearts. We can study, think about, pray about and try to put into practice God's word, for it is 'living and active' (Hebrews 4:12), with the growth potential of seed.
A psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Psalm 23 must be one of the best-known bits of the Bible. It's the first Bible passage I learned by heart. It's a visual psalm, conjuring up images of the countryside to represent the different circumstances we encounter in our lives.
Sometimes our lives pause in 'green pastures', where we can rest and feed in in the lush and plentiful grass and enjoy a time of relaxation.
The 'quiet waters' remind me of Blea Tarn in the Lake District, sheltered by hills and woods, where the water can be so still that the reflections are a mirror-image of the tree-clad slopes and the blue sky above them - a time for our own quiet and undisturbed reflections.
Then there are 'the paths of righteousness', when life is on the move, and routes have to be chosen and the right decisions have to be made. Our countryside is criss-crossed by footpaths and it's not always clear where they lead. Our lives can be even more bewildering, but we can trust the Good Shepherd to 'lead in paths of righteousness', if we follow Him.
The final countryside image is quite different - a dark and threatening valley, where dangerous scree-slopes, bare rock faces and jagged peaks loom over a shadowed valley floor. Inevitably, our lives pass through dark and threatening times. We can't see what's ahead, we don't know how long the valley is, but we know the Good Shepherd is leading us through it. 'I will fear no evil, for you are with me.'
Jesus promised His followers: 'I am with you always to the very end of the age' (Matthew 28:20).