‘We are the choices we make’ says author Patrick Ness in his novel ‘The knife of letting go’.
‘Choose life’ is the appeal from God to all humanity in the words from the Old Testament book, Deuteronomy chapter 30.
On the face of it, most of us would see that statement as a bit of a ‘no-brainer’ considering the alternative, but what does that entreaty mean and how might we respond to it? Jesus spoke on many occasions that the gateway to a fulfilled life is all about priorities. If we make God a priority in how we are living and working then we will most certainly experience life in a very new, a very liberating and a very fulfilling way.
The idea of focusing all our attentions on a particular goal is not an unusual or foreign concept if we want to succeed in something that we see as important to us or to those we love. We understand that progress in anything requires commitment, be it in sport, music, business, academic studies or whatever. This is certainly true in the area of relationships. I wonder then, as to why this reality becomes so challenging to us when we hear it in connection with our relationship with God and his church?
The idea of putting anyone ahead of our own self-interests in this present day and age is most definitely counter cultural and many may find that concept a very troubling one as they contemplate a lack of freedom or restriction in their lives. This is not what God is offering and there is the most wonderful paradox at work in the way God manages things. In a world obsessed by busyness, where so many of us can feel trapped by responsibility and household concerns and so search for pleasure and satisfaction to fill a hole that seems to grow ever deeper within us, what has God to say to us?
In the life of Jesus we see an answer to the eternal questions of, ‘what is the point of life?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Why do I feel an emptiness inside?’ Jesus tells us that it’s all about priorities and what we put first. The life that he speaks of is one of freedom and liberty, of promise and hope and sitting as we do, within such a turbulent, troubled world and nation, his words remain attractive and full of opportunity and possibility.
That is the life of which God speaks and the life that he invites us and welcomes us into.
‘We are the choices we make’ - Choose life – why not?
With the Lord’s blessing
You may have heard this story for the first time or the hundredth time, but it still excites and it still raises questions. What did it look like? Sound like? To see these ordinary men bursting with enthusiasm and energy in their worship of God. ‘What does this mean? Here are some starters:
The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to empower his church. Let me share briefly with you an event from a former church we worshipped with.
Betty (not her real name) left school as soon as she could with the bare minimum of qualifications. She is not what you would call an educated woman at all, but she loves the Lord and after giving her life to Jesus she was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and began to live her life in a new and wonderful way in the community and through the church. We held a worship and prayer conference in the church one year that attracted many visitors, locally, nationally and internationally. At the end of one meeting Betty was praying with other members of the church over a visitor and, as was our practice, she began to use her particular prayer language as she prayed in the spirit. At the end of the prayer time, the man said to her:
‘That was wonderful – thank you for those encouraging words, but please tell me … where did you learn to speak Hebrew?’
Betty could hardly string two words together in French, but she had opened herself up to God, asked Him for his help and power and had been given a very special message from God, for that man and that man alone. Only he understood it but Betty was used to deliver it. The gift of the Holy Spirit is for us all. He turns up the power. When we open ourselves up to new experiences from God, new things of God always happen.
Archbishop Justin Welby says:
‘The Holy Spirit is the gift of God for us all. We simply need to ask for that gift. Everyone can ask. In any place and at anytime. Of all the things we could do, I think this is what we need to do more than ever.’
You can pray that on your own but there is power in praying it with others. If I can help in anyway, it would be my privilege to do so.
“He has risen – just as he said”
The posters that have been advertising the services for Holy Week have declared ‘Seven days that changed the World.’ And here, on the seventh day we have seven words that changed everything, forever. Seven words that provide so much hope and joy for now but also for life beyond ‘now’.
Dr Simon Gathercole of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge writing in the Guardian paper in 2017 declared that there was overwhelming documentary evidence to support the fact that Jesus Christ lived and died. The really interesting question we all need to answer in our lifetime is whether Jesus Christ died and lived.
The answer for that lies in these seven words, for these words, together with the contemporary testimony of eye witnesses, the experiences of countless millions across the millennia and the billions alive today who still encounter the risen Jesus today declare that he is risen and all of the above compelled me to faith in 1982.
Three key reasons as why I have experienced this to be the truth
Why should we settle for the empty promises of the world when we have on offer all of the power and the promise that is available in the risen Jesus? “He is risen – just as he said.”
Happy Easter to you all.
As an under graduate student I remember having my first encounter with people who really knew Jesus. It was challenging, because I knew that they had something I didn’t possess and that puzzled me. They looked different and they behaved differently. It was in my post-graduate year that I encountered Jesus for myself through a mighty move of God’s Holy Spirit that swept across University campuses the length and breadth of the land. My twin sister came to faith at the same time as well as many of my friends. Only then did I truly realise that those people I had kept meeting were different because Jesus was shining out of them.
The Bible is littered with wonderful examples where people are transformed or ‘transfigured’ through a life changing encounter with God.
In our readings we learn of the transformation that took place with Moses and with Jesus himself. Moses encounters God and his face is gloriously transformed. Jesus has an encounter with his heavenly father and his whole human body is transformed. Luke describes it as being dazzling white.
The words that his father speaks to him are very significant: ‘This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him’. When we listen to God and respond to Him, we are always changed, but it’s a decision we need to make. God does not force us. He displays his character to us across the generations and invites us into a life changing, life transforming relationship with Him. And when we decide to ‘listen to Him’ and respond to his invitation, his promise is that things change, and where God is involved, they will always change for the better.
St Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth states that for those who have given their lives to Christ; ‘the old has gone, the new has come.’ (2Cor.5:17) but it gets even better, because when we listen to Jesus and accept him as God’s son and place our trust in him, the Bible tells us that we receive a new identity and a new name that describes the transformation of character that has taken place. Here are just a few of them: Precious – Is.43:4, Chosen, Holy, Loved – Col.3:12, Forgiven – Col.2:13, Unashamed – Rom.10:11, Complete – Col.2:10, Christ’s friend – Jn.15:15 God’s child – Rom.8:15
I encourage you to spend some time thinking carefully over these wonderful truths. Ask God to help reveal the transforming, transfiguring nature of these truths to you. Responding to God and listening to his son Jesus makes all the difference in our lives. ‘Living Life with God’ is an adventure. The more we find out about Him, the more exciting it gets.
With the Lord’s blessing,
In these readings we are reminded of the power and the brilliance and the wonder of God’s Glory. In Genesis, God’s presence and power is shared with Adam. In Revelation, God’s presence and power is displayed to John and in Luke, God’s presence and power is revealed to the disciples.
Amidst the enormity of His presence and His holiness there is still care and concern and love for all that He has created. Through God’s love, John is taken into the reality of the awesome nature of eternal heavenly worship and allowed to know something of the future. Through God’s love, Adam is placed in a wonderful world and blessed with a partner. Through God’s love, the disciples witness God’s power and move from fear to faith within a life-threatening situation.
I wonder if you can recall a moment in your life where a situation has hit you without warning like a violent storm? Illness, finances, bereavement, family crisis? They take us by surprise, and we’re left facing the challenge of how we respond.
The Sea of Galilee is noted for the way in which violent storms can suddenly break out. It’s to do with its geography. 600 ft below sea level, surrounded by flat land that rises to mountains with deep ravines in between. The ravines act as giant funnels that channel the wind and hurl it out across the water. The resulting storms can descend very quickly, changing calm still water into a wild and raging sea that places lives in peril. This is what took place that day.
Jesus is clearly tired and asks his friends to take him across the lake. It’s lovely to see how he places his trust in the skill and seamanship of the disciples to transport him safely over, and so he settles down to sleep in the boat. The peace and quiet doesn’t last very long as a violent storm, descends, but despite the wind and the waves Jesus remains calm, untroubled and asleep. You can imagine the noise and the men shouting out to one another, struggling with the ropes and the wind and the rain, but none of that disturbs Jesus, so the disciples place their trust in Jesus to rescue them and they wake him up.
A couple of simple but very important Kingdom principles are present here. 1: when trouble comes our way, we need to ‘wake Jesus up’ in our lives and stop trying to rescue a situation in our own strength and 2: when trouble comes our way, we need to decide where we will place Jesus. Will we place fear between ourselves and Jesus or Jesus between ourselves and the fear? That decision is crucial and changes everything.
When storms hit, and storms will and storms do, we can blame God or look to God for the help that we need. I can remember being told this truth so many times as a child and thank God that I was, because when I needed to apply it, I could remember and look to God for that help.
With the Lord’s blessing,
An elderly carpenter was ready to retire. Over many years he had built up a strong reputation for the quality of his work, attention to detail and vision for the future. He told his employer of his plans to leave the house building business in order to spend more time with his wife and family. His employer was sad to hear the news but asked one more thing from him; as a personal favour, would he consider building one more house? Reluctantly, the carpenter agreed and began straight away, but it soon became clear that his heart was not in his work. His usual high standards were missing, and he began to cut corners and use inferior materials. He hid his poor workmanship from view, but he knew that this was not his best. With the job completed his employer came to him and standing on the path leading to the front door, he handed him the keys to the property. “I hope you like it for this is now your house - it is my personal gift to you for your years of service.”
That was a shock. If he had only known, he was building his own house he would have done it very differently and now he was to live in a place he knew was inferior. When we are building for the future, every day matters; every choice and everything we do matters. A new year always tends to draw us to consideration of the future. What might this new year hold for us? What delights? What challenges? We might have a particular vision for the year for a special holiday, career move or home developments etc, but I wonder if you have ever considered a vision for the future of the church in your community? What would you like it to be like or look like? If you have never considered this, I encourage you to do so for God has a vision and a purpose for his church and for you as a part of it.
In Isaiah 43:1-7, we learn of God’s promise and love for us; that he has good things planned for us. He knows us by name, rescues us and will always be there for us. In Acts 8:9-17, we learn of God’s provision for us that we might have the power to live attractive lives that draw others in to the wonderful truth of who God is and in Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22, we learn of His purpose for us, that we should follow His leading with obedience that we might fully know and experience His love for us.
Stepping into something new can be quite alarming and a challenge because it requires us to move into new territory, into places where we have never been before and into things we have never experienced before. That is where trust and faith need to be applied. Last year, Sarah planned a holiday for us – I didn’t know much about it at all. I knew we needed a plane to get us there, I knew it was for a week, I knew it would be warmer than Wensleydale (which to be honest, at that time wouldn’t have taken much doing) … but here’s the thing; I stepped into that unknown because I trusted her. Because what I had come to learn of years of relationship with her was that she wanted good things for me. And so, I went on the adventure and was blessed enormously by it. That is how it is with God.
We have thousands of years of testimony to the goodness of His character, but it’s only through relationship with Him that we learn to trust for ourselves and be blessed by that trust. Every time we trust in him, we grow in faith and that step of obedience helps to build the future, the ‘house’, together with God. Blessings flow from obedience to Him and there are so many people who are waiting to be blessed by an introduction to the reality of Jesus in their lives through our sharing of these encounters.
May 2019 be a year where we give ourselves to this adventure with a new heart; mindful that every day and every choice we make matters, as together with God we help build His vision for the future. One full of promise, provision and purpose. Happy New Year.
On this day when we join with so many nations around the world to remember the Armistice that called the guns to silence and an end to the slaughter in 1918, when we remember the countless other lives lost, given and taken in so many conflicts since … what, I wonder, does it mean to remember? I recently read an article that caught my attention: ‘Are we forgetting how to remember?’
As a child, I knew of relatives who had fought in the first war and in the second. My parents and grandparents could recall personal stories of their involvement in war, in the army and as civilians. I eagerly devoured these stories of family history and I remember them today … but what does it mean to remember?
It was HG Wells, who created one of the most remembered phrases from the first world war that remains in general use today. Writing a series of articles that later became a book entitled: ‘The war that will end war’, he writes: ‘The real task of mankind … is to end not simply a war, but the idea of war …’
To remember, I suggest, is to pay attention to others, to those who have shaped our lives and whom we see no more. To remember is to consider our shared humanity and mortality. To remember is to honour the fallen and what they fought and died for on land, sea and in the air. To remember is to keep alive the consciousness of the hell of war and the destruction and evil we continue to inflict upon one another, and which we see all too readily on our TV screens today. And as we remember, if we can remember in a spirit of forgiveness … so much the better. For in doing so, we can remember the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made upon the cross in order that all our folly, all our failure, prejudices and lack of forgiveness might be, forgiven.
But surely, in a modern pluralistic, multi-racial nation and culture, we need to ‘forgive and forget’ don’t we?
During the recent persecution of the church in Melanasia, many Christians have been murdered for their faith. At a meeting of clergy to discuss how the church may move forward and maintain their witness to God’s love amongst the hate and violence, one priest said: ‘We must forgive and forget.’ Challenged by his Bishop he was asked; ‘Where do you get that notion from?’ He replied .. ‘Why from the Bible’. The Bishop handed him a Bible and asked him to find a page that supported his claim. The priest is still searching, for when we look for the word ‘forget’ in the Bible we see it connected with two others: DO NOT. God says to His people, DO NOT forget all the goodness I have shown you, do not forget who I am, do not forget my love for you, do not forget my son and why he came, do not forget that I have a plan for you and your life and it is one that is designed to bless you.
Watching a recent recording of the TV programme, DIY SOS, I was deeply moved by the common humanity that brought together scores of craftsmen and women to transform the home of a mother recently paralysed through an accident. The lady in question later ‘tweeted’: ‘The world is full of beautiful people and I want to thank you all.’
To forgive and not forget, is not to live in the past burdened with old prejudices, hurt and hatred – but to focus on the good that is in us all. The good that drives us to express our love in wonderful ways, the good that God has placed inside each and every one of us, the good that bears sacrifice for others and recognises that somethings are worth fighting for and dying for.
Our first reading highlighted a different world to aspire to … one free from bitterness, rage, anger, malice, falsehood and violence. We would do well to consider what that world might look like and the extent to which Jesus was prepared to go to secure its possibility for you and for me.
HG Wells concludes his book with this thought – ‘War goes on, because we who are voices still have no strength to turn on the light that would save us’
The Bible teaches us that that light is amongst us and very accessible should we but desire to grasp it and remember the sacrifice that was made, that we could attain it.
And so, we remember, and as we do so, we join billions of others across our world. We remember, not to glorify war but to honour the memory of those who have sacrificed everything that we might experience a different future.
With the Lord’s blessing
In John’s gospel we see Jesus’ imagery get more vivid and many find it hard to accept and walk away from him. Becoming a disciple of Jesus means first, surrendering our lives to Christ and then secondly as a result, raising the bar, regarding the way we decide to live our lives. Many who had been following him up to this point, decided that they were not prepared for that sacrifice. They wanted to keep the freedom to live their lives as they willed rather than as God wills. The paradox is that this decision, then and now, has completely the opposite effect. Walking away from all that Jesus offers, denies the experience of freedom; freedom from sin, guilt, shame and ultimately, eternal separation from God himself both now and in the future is surrendered. This is a Kingdom truth that Jesus has spent a considerable amount of time teaching to the crowd.
But, truth, is a tricky word these days. President Trump’s personal attorney, former New York City Mayor, Rudy Guliani, stated this week that ‘truth is not always the truth – truth is relative.’ The President himself keeps telling us that we’re surrounded by ‘fake news’ and regularly seems to create his own sense of reality.
Jesus tells us, and Paul reminds us, that there is such a thing as truth and discovering that and knowing that truth is the greatest thing anyone of us can ever do with our lives. The truth remains the truth. There is a God and He loves us, but there is an enemy who will do everything he can to prevent us from discovering this truth and living in our lives in freedom and joy. Paul reminds us that we are engaged in a battle but one that involves the spiritual realm. Earthly weapons are therefore of no use. We need to focus on what God has made available for us and to understand what these are for and how we must use them. Put on the whole armour is the instruction. Do not leave any gaps for gaps leave us vulnerable to attack. The first item Paul identifies is the ‘Belt of Truth.’
To the modern infantry the belt is crucial as wearing the correct belt allows the necessary equipment to be carried. The belt also carries and supports the weight of everything else. The character and quality of the belt then, is essential to the success of the soldier. Paul describes it as the ‘belt of truth’ and states that it must be ‘buckled’ – it’s no good just having it on a shelf nearby or hanging loose. It needs to be securely fastened in place, ready to be used at any moment. Truth is the essential component upon which everything else must be carried.
A very real and significant problem today, is ‘truth decay’; the concept that there is no one truth which underpins life. The disciple of Jesus, however, has already discovered that this is not the case. There is a God, He is not hiding, He is there to be known and He makes a difference. But there is opposition to discovering this amazing, life transforming truth. How? By, pouring out oceans of apathy, keeping us too busy to consider the important things in life or having us believe that we are far too smart to believe in the things that our parents and grandparents lived their lives by. All of this contributes in maintaining astonishing levels of spiritual ignorance which blinds and binds billions to a restricted experience of life, stealing their inheritance and their joy.
How do we grow in truth? Study. Pray. Read. Listen. Spend time with God and with His word.
With the Lord’s blessing
So, wrote the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero in 63 BC. The debate over a break down in authority and younger generations becoming ever more-ready to defy social codes and understanding seems to have been raging ever since. Jesus was not immune from this and answers the criticism of the Pharisees and the Scribes about his disciples not observing ritual washing, by pointing out that what truly matters is knowing and observing the word of God, not the word of man.
Deuteronomy means ‘repetition of the law’ – Moses was stating God’s will to give his people another opportunity to make a fresh start. This edict follows a familiar pattern: instruction followed by promise. Observe God’s law and will for your life and you will enter the land He has prepared for you. We might not have a new physical land to move into, but we all have territory that we need to take control of in our lives. Worries, habits, lifestyle choices that God speaks over us with love and says; ‘I have something better for you than this .. let me help you enter it.’ God desires that we experience victory in our lives, but that victory is dependent upon us responding to his guidance and his will. He warns us of the dangers of adding to his word or subtracting from it. There is no ‘God Light’ or ‘God Plus’ version of His word. There is His word. But to experience the life that God has promised us, we need to know his word and for that, there is no shortcut. We need to know it and then to choose to follow it. When we try to miss bits out we don’t like, or avoid things that we think irrelevant, we get into a mess and fail to experience what we need to at that time. I’m reminded of the mess I get into when I take a shortcut at Ikea and get hopelessly lost!
There is a promise of wisdom in following God’s directions. When we follow God’s laws we are blessed, and this blessing will always reveal itself in our lives. God’s promise is that His word makes a difference to us – the way we view life, understand life, live life will be noticed by others. When we live our lives with God and for God, our lives automatically become attractive. What a wonderful consequence of a decision made. James reminds us of the power there is in being ‘doers’ of the word. If we want victory in our lives, then we need to listen and act. We need to hear and follow.
I was speaking to a gentleman in his mid 70’s last week who came to faith about 10 years ago. He was full of the life and light and joy that knowing Jesus brings, but acutely aware of just how much fun and opportunity he had missed out on in the decades that had gone before. God does not want us to be ‘if only’ people.
Moses reminds the people that they must be careful not to forget what God’s will is for them and to ensure that the younger generations learn of His goodness. Teach them to know what you know. Pass on the truth of what you know. Do not forget God. Do not allow the truth to fall from your lives. It’s all far too important to be left to chance. But first … we need to know it ourselves. Read it, listen to it, talk about it. There is only one Gospel and we must not allow it to become altered or diluted in any way. God’s desire is that we live our lives in the freedom and victory of following His word – his whole word - for our lives.
With the Lord’s blessing
Ever had that situation where you’re hungry but don’t quite know what for and so you begin opening the cupboards and fridge, hunting for something that will satisfy that urge to eat? For me, when the breadbin is empty, it usually ends up with something that’s not particularly nutritious like salted peanuts, cake or crisps. Bread is such a staple. When it’s not there we notice it.
The context to our reading from John is that the crowd have had their physical appetites fed by Jesus with the miracle of the two fish and five loaves. The magnitude of this event must have seared itself into the memories and imagination of those present and because of it many are now following Jesus and his disciples around the countryside, eager to see what he might do next. Jesus understands their interest is in a free meal but emphasises the need to understand that our spirits need feeding just as much as our physical bodies. You know what I’ve done .. but do you know who I am?’
‘I am the bread of Life’ is one of seven ‘I am’ statements in John’s gospel that relate to the identity of Jesus. Each in their unique way shows us a precious insight into the life that God has prepared for us. A life of fullness, prosperity, love and hope. Jesus shows us what true life looks like and invites us to step into it. He reminds the crowd that God understood the needs of their ancestors receiving the manna in the desert - bread in the morning and meat in the evening; but just enough for their daily needs. They couldn’t stockpile the blessing. They were to rely on God as their daily provider. God wanted to be so much more than a heavenly slot machine – his desire was for a living relationship with the people, that they might trust him and seek him for help and sustenance rather than rely on their own strength. Jesus reminds them that physical food will sustain them for a short while only. What is needed is ‘living bread’ that will last forever.
In a hungry world, many do not have enough to eat. Our bodies require food to remain healthy and to survive but Jesus reminds us that our spirits also require feeding and if they are neglected they will also die. It is through accepting who Jesus is and what he has done for us that secures our eternal life. Although, ‘food poverty’ is increasing at an alarming rate in western countries, even those who enjoy a satisfied stomach are desperately hungry but don’t even know what they are hungry for. So many billions are working harder and working longer and desperately feeding themselves with what the world has to offer yet remain desperately malnourished, dissatisfied and disillusioned with life. Is this all there is? And Jesus cries out to the crowd then and cries out to the world now … No. You have heard of what I’ve done, but do you know who I am?
What the world is offering isn’t enough and never will be. Jesus says, if you’re hungry and want real satisfaction, then feed on me, discover who I am and experience LIFE. But just like the crowd we so often want to experience God’s power but not the person. We want the miracles but not the man. We want the crown but not the cross; the blessing and not the perceived burden of a relationship with the only one who could ever make sense of our existence.
For those who do not yet know the fullness of Jesus in their lives, Jesus is the bread of life. For those who do know the fullness of Jesus in their lives, Jesus is the bread of life. He says: take me in, trust me, know me, enjoy me, experience me for I am for you. You are the reason I was born, and you are the reason I died and rose again. Know me and know LIFE. Jesus satisfies every need we have, ever have had or ever will have. No matter what your personal need is right now … forgiveness from the past, freedom for the present or hope for the future; Jesus says: ‘I am the bread of life’ – take me in. Why not take Him at his word?
With the Lord’s blessing.
Rev Dave Clark
Vicar of the Benefice of Upper Wensleydale