Although we're starting to meet together again, we're continuing with our Sunday Snippets once a month. Click on a date below to see past Snippets.
'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).