A Rescue Plan for Humanity

Easter Sunday 2017

Celebrating the Risen Christ on Easter Sunday, 16th April 2017

Did you hear about the sheep who got his head stuck in a traffic cone and had to be rescued? The RSPCA said he was fine afterwards, although he did look a little sheepish! And did you hear about the Swan that was stuck on the roof of a restaurant? Apparently the bill was too much! Thankfully some firefighters rescued it and returned it to a nearby river. And finally, did you hear about a man and his dog who stopped a cyclist from disaster with some bread? It was a Matter of Loaf and Death! Three ‘strange but true’ rescue stories, okay two of them: Wallace & Grommit used buns not bread to stop the bike.

There is another true but far more dramatic and important rescue, one that really is a ‘Matter of Life and Death’: Jesus’s resurrection. Within Chapter 2 of the Book of Acts Peter helps people to see God’s rescue plan for humanity that the resurrection unlocked.

Acts is a book full of eyewitness accounts and pioneering ministry, and where church as we know it began. It starts 40 days after Jesus’s resurrection with an account of Jesus ascending into Heaven having spent the time in between visiting and being seen by a whole host of people (Acts 1).  10 days later the Disciples spoke in languages they didn’t know but those who witnessed it did.  They had received the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised.  It was the first Pentecost.

Peter stood up to explain what had happened and help make the connections that gave birth to the church we know today (Acts 2). Continue reading

Hope Echoes

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You are wondering through the cold winter night with the thoughts and worries of the year gone by running through your head and see a glow from behind some barn doors. Intrigued, you approach it. You notice it is ajar and as you peep inside you see a group of people gathered around something. They notice you and beckon you in. The warmth of the light and fire is matched by the welcome you receive. Your eyes take in the smiles before they descend upon a young couple who seem to glow with joy. They invite you to come closer. As you approach you become transfixed on a new born baby the lady is holding. She lowers the baby into your arms and he nuzzles into you: a new life full of new promise and possibilities, lying happily in your embrace.

The big cause for celebration that we’ve been looking forward to all year has finally come amongst us. Yes, the latest Star Wars film is now in the cinemas! The first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, is a tale of light overcoming darkness but the hope but we are counting down the days to celebrate the greatest gift of hope ever to have been given to us. And after the difficult year we are coming to the end of we could do with some hope, but the hope we have is not a new hope, it is a hope from the past, present and future.  Is a hope that Isaiah knew was coming, a hope that Joseph lived out when Mary most needed it, and a hope that continues to echo throughout the world to this day. Continue reading

The Joy of the Lord is our strength: choosing joy to rise above our troubles

In the film Inside Out 5 characters, representing different emotions, live inside the mind of a young girl who they help to cope with life. Joy is one of those characters and her incessant joyfulness becomes problematic as the child experiences a number of challenging and upsetting experiences. The character of Joy has to learn what it means to be joyful in the face of these challenges.

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The Good Shepherd and His Sheepdog

Whilst I was ruminating on Jesus being The Good Shepherd I found myself thinking about how people shepherd animals. It may also have had something to do with the fact that before I flew up to Scotland I came across an episode of Top Gear on the television. It was one where the trio of hapless presenters were trying to shepherd sheep using motorbikes. They failed miserably. A lack of communication and skill was their undoing on this occasion. Continue reading

Inside Out: the mission hidden within us

Have you ever noticed how Jesus often manages to do the expected and the unexpected at the same time?

Those on the look out for the messiah 2,000 years ago would have expected Him to have arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey, yet when he did few expected it.

Jesus was what went for a celebrity in His day.  There was no Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Periscope to spread a message or get your fix of news and entertainment.  Jesus’s social media was old-school word-of-mouth.  Those that saw, heard or were healed by Jesus told their friends and family about it, who told their friends and family, who told… you get it.

So word got out that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem.  Most people wouldn’t have known what Jesus looked like but it wouldn’t have taken them long to have figured it out: a man upon a donkey encircled and led by an entourage would have drawn people’s curiosity at the very least.

Crowds gathered.  Some were desperate to get some of the healing they had heard about.  Some were curious to see this person they had heard about and some would have been annoyed that He and the crowds he was drawing were disrupting their Passover celebrations.  Some in Jerusalem would have been suspicious, fearful and even angry.

Here He was, a saviour and a threat, being celebrated, cheered and sneered, a celebrity being welcomed. Continue reading

Producing the fruit of the Kingdom

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Gardening with God

Perhaps you have noticed how when a tree’s branches are exposed at this time of year they look like upside down lungs.  That’s just what God’s designed them to be: our lungs suck the oxygen out of the air and feed it into our bodies; trees suck in the carbon dioxide we breath out, use it and give us back the oxygen we need.

Like a tree takes the waste from our lungs, Jesus takes our rubbish, our sin, and transforms it into food to enrich us and the rest of the vine.  Like a tree connects each leaf, twig and branch to each other by virtue of it’s relationship with the trunk, Jesus does likewise with us.

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The Prayer of Jabez Extending God’s Kingdom

Jabez was more honourable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain”.  Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain”.  And God granted his request. 1 Chronicles 4:9-10

These 2 verses come in the midst of a geneaology.  Breaking up a list of names broken by a historical note wasn’t an uncommon thing to find in Middle-eastern biblical and non-biblical genealogies in the Middle East when this was written.

Because of their placement in the text though these two verses stand out and almost demand some attention.

Some have suggested that the place called Jabez, mentioned a few chapters back in 1 Chronicles 2:55, is named after the man we hear about in tonights passage.  Jabez the place is near Bethlehem, in the Valley of Elah, and was known as a place where clans of scribes lived reading and copying literature.

What we know about Jabez the man is contained solely within these 2 verses.  So what do we know, and what can God have for us in it tonight?

2 verses, 1 about his birth, another about his life that followed.

His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.”

When we hear in the Bible about the meaning and reasoning behind a given name we get an insight into the situation that they were born into.

It strikes me that the pain of which Jabez’s mother names him after may not be childbirth.  Now being a man I’m obviously no expert on child-birth but I do appreciate that it is rather painful: my hand hurt for ages after my wife had stopped squeezing it once our children had been born…  Apparently it’s painful for ladies too!

There was no gas and air or epidural available when ladies gave birth in Biblical times, so the pain they went through was particularly immense and dangerous, as unfortunately it still is for too many women around the world even today.  That such a painful thing would have happened very often during the vast time period the Bible covers made me wonder why a name that means “I gave birth to him in pain” is only found once within it.

Perhaps the pain of which Jabez’s mother refers to is something less common than the pain of childbirth.  Perhaps, and this is conjecture on my part, perhaps there were complications during the pregnancy or labour that resulted in Jabez having a painful disability?  Perhaps Jabez was born into a troubled and difficult situation that his family found themselves in at that time?  There are many such children being born in Ukraine, Syria, Nigeria and Iraq right now.

You may wonder why I’m dwelling on the pain within these 2 verses and not going straight to the famous bit, the section of verse 10 on which a multi-million-selling book was based and which adorns pens and picture frames, coasters and posters, fridge magnets and key fobs?  I speak, of course, of Bruce Wilkinson’s book titled The Prayer of Jabez, but for me this passage is no prosperity gospel.

I will come on to the prayer itself in a moment but as I read, prayed and contemplated this passage the love that is found amidst the pain stood out.  And it is this love and pain that informs Jabez’s character and prayer.  If we jump straight to the prayer we miss the point of the prayer itself, which isn’t a prayer of prosperity but a prayer for love.

Even the order within verse 9 tells us quite a lot.  The order of verse 9, just like throughout the Bible, isn’t accidental but deliberate.  It tells us something.  Verse 9 starts not with his birth but with the nature of his character: Jabez was more honourable than his brothers”

Notice that we don’t hear that Jabez’s brothers we dishonourable but that Jabez was more honourable.  What made him more honourable?  Could it be that his character was born out of his gratitude for being shown love despite the painful life he was born into or led since birth?  He wasn’t abandoned and left to fend for himself but grew up being loved and with his brothers.  He didn’t take that love for granted, nor did he take God’s love for granted either.

Life wasn’t easy for Jabez.  We can tell that in part because he didn’t simply pray to God, he cried out in prayer to God.  He asks God to bless him and enlarge his territory.  Now given that Jabez is an honourable man this isn’t a request born out of greed.  He isn’t asking for a greater property portfolio from which to become rich; by asking for his territory to be enlarged Jabez is asking to be given more responsibilities.  This is the mark of a person who wants to give back not to have a cushy life.

By asking God to enlarge his territory he is asking for more blessings from God.  But he is wise as well as honourable, and doesn’t end with this simple request for more opportunities.

Life had taught him that if he is going to make the most of the opportunities God grants him he won’t be able to do so alone and in his own strength.  And he knows that in order to use those opportunities effectively he is going to need three things:

  1. to be in tune with God (God with Him);
  2. to be protected by God from harm;
  3. to be freed from pain.

We don’t know how old Jabez is or just what is painful for him.  Nor do we know how many times he has asked God for protection and to be freed from the pain but we do know that God grants him his request.

It is safe to assume that with his honourable characteristics that Jabez showed his gratitude to God for answering his prayer.  But how?  And how does Jabez’s life relate to us today?

Jabez prayed that God would enlarge his territories.  At first glance that sounds like Jabez wants more land, and certainly that would have been seen as a direct blessing from God.  It may sound somewhat materialistic but, given Jabez’s nature, it could well have been so that he could grow more crops and raise more animals in order to provide for his family.  There would have been nothing wrong in that.  Nor would there have been anything wrong in wanting to be free from pain as he did that.

But it strikes me that in the nature of both Jabez and God there is more to it than a simple re-drawing of a geographical boundary.

Borders are a human creation but they aren’t just geographical. We use them to create order and comfort.  We organise friends and relations into groups, our hobbies and interests too.  Sometimes those borders overlap like a venn diagram but so often our life and faith becomes compartmentalised.

Whilst we spend much of our time crossing geographical borders our relationship borders are often closed.  Yet just as when we go on holiday to foreign lands we learn and see new things so it is with relationships.

God is interested in souls not square metres so extending His Kingdom needs much more than an expanding land portfolio on which His adopted children could live in safety whilst they wait for the eternal kingdom.  Just as God works indiscriminately across both geographical and relationship borders, He wants us to do so too.

God knows the nature of love because He is love.  He gives to us because He loves us and like true love He gives unconditionally, demanding nothing in return.  God knows though that if we appreciate the love something we will want to share it with others, and He is counting on us sharing our love and knowledge of Him with others.

Instead of watching from the sidelines as the Fantastic Trio of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit collect souls one by one, God invites us in to join Team Trinity and be part of the fun.

We could sit on our sofas at home and reach for another cup of tea, safe in the comfort of our salvation but we would be so much poorer for it!  God won’t love us any less if we did but He knows we will have so much fun playing an active part. But in one sense we don’t have any choice as to whether we want to get involved or not.

In 2 Corinthians 5:16 to 6:2 Paul called us to be Christ’s ambassadors.  Ambassadors are the embodiment of a land, of a kingdom, and they cross borders to represent their home country and government.

As a result of the blessings he received Jabez would have been seen by those around him to be an ambassador of God.  We too are seen to represent God by those with whom we meet.  We are in effect seen as a living embodiment of God’s Kingdom.

Jabez prayed for more territory, for more opportunities, and not to be confined by pain.  Being an honourable man he would have given back even more so when those prayers were answered.  He would not have received God’s grace in vain, just as Paul urges us not to as well.

God doesn’t want us to confine who we share our faith with to those in our comforting compartments.  God wants us to open up those compartments and cross over their borders.  As we extend our personal borders we can put love into action as Christ’s ambassadors.  As we do so God strengthens and extends His Kingdom bit by bit, soul by soul.

God wants to use us in extending His kingdom, in bringing more people to the eternal party.  He needs us to break out of our comfortably ordered lives and try something different.  Think of it as a holiday, you don’t have to stay but you might want to!

So what borders limit you from sharing your love and appreciation for all that God has done for you?  How many borders do you need to open and cross?  What new territories and people do you need to visit to pass on God’s love to?

Remember one thing as you contemplate that: just as He promised to be with Jabez, God goes with us too.

Unconditional Investment (Joshua 3)

The Ark of the Covenant crossing the Jordan River

The Ark of the Covenant crossing the Jordan River

It was Mothering Sunday and I was reading Joshua 3 when I sensed the two had something in common: like Moses, mothers and fathers get to lead their family on a long trip where all the family do is complain and bicker amongst each other!
Parents are also prime examples of something else, unconditional love and investment in their children. It’s something though that isn’t, or rather shouldn’t be left to parents and their children. In Moses’ relationship with Joshua is unconditional investment personified, and is what jumped out as I read and prayed over the passage. It’s what I felt God was wanting me to speak about tonight.

There’s something a little sanguine in unconditional investment, but nevertheless something God wants us to think about. Moses invested a lot of time in leading the Israelites, in teaching them as God intended so that they could live life to the full, and in preparing them to live in the promised land. Yet Moses, like most parents, didn’t get to see the end of the story.

Although Moses knew He had life in eternity with God I suspect it must still have been frustrating, even painful, that after all that he had gone through to not be able to enter the promised land himself. All that emotional investment in the Israelites and he didn’t even get to see the end of the story.

It’s like my wife’s mother. She had invested her all in bringing her up, in helping to shape the woman she became. Yet soon after she finds out that her daughter is going to get married to me, she finds out that she won’t get to see the end of the story, the wedding. She finds out that she has a brain tumour that’s going to kill her. But just like Moses when he found out he wouldn’t get to see the end of the Exodus story, she didn’t stop investing in her. She and Moses kept on investing right on to the very end. Her faith meant she trusted God to take care of her daughter… and me if I messed up!

So what do we know about Joshua. Well, he likes Star Wars, colouring in and… sorry, wrong Joshua!

Joshua was 1 of 12 spies sent into Canaan to check it out and report back (Numbers 13 and 14). Of the 12 it was only Joshua and Caleb that gave good and proper accounts of what they found and believed that God could conquer the land. Their faith that God could deliver what He had promised was rewarded in that unlike the rest of his generation Joshua was allowed to enter the promised land. He succeeded Moses in leading the Israelites shortly before Moses’ death at 120 year of age, when Joshua was 75! So there’s hope for all of us!

But let’s back up a bit.

Moses had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. God had performed miracle after miracle just in getting them out of the country. He proved to the Egyptians that He was real and almighty, that their gods were concepts without power. He proved to the Israelites that He was with them and would care for them – He parted the Red Sea until they had safely crossed to the other side. He provided food for them in the desert.

Yet time and time again the Israelites grumbled and complained and turned away from God.

Moses, knowing that Joshua was God’s appointed successor to him, invested time in Joshua. He mentored him. Joshua was a spiritual son to Moses. Joshua was with him on the mountain when God wrote the 10 Commandments into tablets of stone (Exodus 24:13-14). He entrusted Joshua to guard the Tent of Meeting in which God dwelled (Exodus 33:11). He prepared Joshua for the future, a future that Moses knew he wouldn’t get to see or be a part of.

Moses invested in something that he wasn’t going to be rewarded for, in worldy terms at least. In doing so though he was being faithful to what God was asking him to do. He wasn’t just carrying out his duties as a leader in training up the next generation of leaders, he was being faithful to God’s call and God’s commandments.

God isn’t just saying we should invest in the next generation, in the people to take over when we’ve joined the great party in Heaven. We’re called to invest in those that cross our path, to do so expecting nothing in return. It’s great when we do get to see the fruits of our labours, the impact of our time investing in people’s lives, but we shouldn’t live for that.

There’s more and more of this investing going on right here. There a mentoring scheme to put people with skills, experience and knowledge in one area alongside those who want to grow in those areas. There’s the Marriage Mentoring that has started up again. My wife and I were beneficiaries of it when the church first did it and now we’re training to be Marriage Mentors ourselves to help others build solid foundations in their relationships.

We’re not saying we have the perfect marriage. Neither are those mentoring people in other areas claiming to be the perfect article. Moses certainly didn’t. Only Jesus managed to pull that one off. Moses passed on what he knew, and let Joshua run with it.

We, you, have so much to offer, so much that God is phenomenally proud of that He wants to make use of. God wants you to share the gifts you have been given, He wants others to enjoy them as He does. Think about it, pray about it.

God, and Moses, didn’t tell Joshua that he was wonderful, that he was unstoppable and the best. This wasn’t the X-Factor. They told him how it was going to be. Joshua might have expected that when the Israelites finally reached the Promised Land that all the moaning and rebellion towards God would cease. But Joshua gets told (Deuteronomy 31) in no uncertain terms that the behaviour of the Israelites he has witnessed during the Exodus is going to continue under his tenure.

It’s a pretty bleak and depressing bit of knowledge to be given just before taking over the leadership!

It gets worse though. Not only did Joshua know the Israelites wouldn’t change much he knew that he wouldn’t have his mentor with him to help. It was why he was instructed and encouraged by Moses to be strong and courageous, and to depend in the word of God (Deuteronomy 32:47) “these are not just idle words for you – they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess”.

It wasn’t done to depress Joshua or destroy his spirit before he even begins. It was more that God and Moses were saying that they knew that he would be okay. They had confidence that Joshua would faithfully serve God and the Israelites. When the Israelites would turn from God they didn’t want Joshua to wonder whether he really was anointed by God. The didn’t want him to be consumed by doubt when things went wrong. “Go into this Joshua with open eyes and a strong heart” (Joshua 1:1-9)

So we have Joshua, all set up. Moses has died. He’s the man in charge now. Everyone’s looking to him. No pressure then!

As God did with Moses and the Egyptians, God ‘repeats’ the miracle of crossing water with Joshua, in front of the Israelites and Canaanites. It was one of Gods ways of demonstrating to the Israelites that Joshua was His main man, His chosen successor to Moses and their new leader.

It had another side to it too. The Cananites believed in a god named Baal. He was their god of rain, storm and sun, and provided the fertility crops needed. They believed he reigned as king of the gods because he had defeated the sea-god. People would be thrown into a full-on river for the gods to cast their verdict on them. If they drowned they were guilty. If they survived they were innocent the gods were backing them, so the people did too.

In stopping the flow of the Jordan God was saying “Baal is nothing, I am the Lord of the water”, just as He did when he in parting the land and sea, with Moses and at the Red Sea some 40 years previously (Exodus 14 and 15). God was proving His existence, His power and authority. He proved Baal to be nothing but an idea.

It also acted as a way of God saying to both the Canaanites and Israelites that Joshua was backed by God, so they should back him too (Joshua 3:7). For the Canaanites it tapped into their practice of throwing people into the river. For the Israelites it was by performing a similar miracle to stopping the Red Sea flowing under Moses’ leadership.

So God stopped the Jordan in its tracks. The Ark of the Covenant, the Priests and Joshua stood in the middle of a dried up river bed until the Israelites, twice the population of Birmingham, had crossed into the Promised Land. That would have taken a long time.

There’s actually been recorded occurrences of the Jordan being blocked and the water cut off. In 1927 a blockage in the area stopped the water flowing for over 20 hours. Some archaeologists have claimed to have found evidence that suggests an earthquake happened at the time of Joshua which moved rocks into the right place to have cut off the Jordan at that point in history. This doesn’t suggest that God wasn’t involved, it’s physical evidence of His involvement – the timing needed to have blocked the Jordan at the right time and the right duration is just too coincidental for it not to be God!

Moses didn’t get to see the end of the story but he trusted God to take care of everything when he was gone. He invested his love, time and effort in Joshua as God had wanted. Joshua had finished the journey that Moses had started 40 years earlier. God’s and Moses’ faith in Joshua had been rewarded by his faith in them.

God doesn’t want to do all the work on His own, he wants to do it through us and with us. He’s given us what we need to do the job. He gave Moses what he needed and transformed Moses in the process. And as Moses investing in Joshua helped their faith deepen and mature, so it can be so with us. By loving and investing in people we become less selfish and more selfless, we experience more of the freedom Christ won for us.

We need to be like Moses and look for our Joshuas to invest in. Do you have a Joshua on your heart? If you don’t but want one, pray for one, ask for one. If you think you have nothing offer, think again! God knows you do, so don’t waste your gifts, talents and experience, pass them on!

Like Moses, we need to trust God to help our Joshuas complete the journey when we can’t be there to help them. I’m not just talking about us as parents or Grandparents. This isn’t just about the next generation: Joshua to us is whoever God places on our path, friends, strangers, people with us for a long time or people with us for the briefest of moments.

In the Exodus they cross into a time of testing, in the Book of Joshua they cross into a time of resting. And so should we.

Questions to ponder:

  1. The Israelites had a habit of forgetting God’s miracles and provision, then complaining and rebelling against God. How can we avoid making the same mistake?
  2. Were God and Moses right to tell Joshua that things were not going to turn out rosy for him? What does it mean to be constructively honest?
  3. What does unconditional investment mean to you? What do we gain by loving and investing in people unconditionally?
  4. Should we be entitled to see the results of our investment? How does it feel when we don’t?
  5. It is wrong to gain satisfaction from helping someone? Why or why not?
  6. God has given you tremendous gifts, skills and talents. How hard is it to identify them? Do you find it difficult to value and accept them as good things?
  7. How can we invest in people who might only cross our way for a brief moment?
  8. Who is God asking you to invest some time in mentoring? If no one comes to mind why not pray for someone?