40 days of change-day 36

22 March, 2016                                                   40 days of change-Lent, 2016

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. Matthew 17:20

After cleaning house at the temple, Jesus heads out of Jerusalem and comes across a fig tree with leaves but no fruit. He has words with the fig tree due to its lack of production and the disciples witness its miraculous death. This miracle gives Jesus the opportunity to reiterate a lesson he had taught before when he had first uttered the verse quoted above. However, this time Jesus says to move the mountain, you need to have faith without doubt (Matthew 21:21).

The implication of what Jesus says is that the least amount of doubt defeats the greatest amount of faith. Doubt keeps mountains where they are. If that’s the case, then no wonder we live in a world with few miracle for most people have some inkling of a question around the edges of their faith. We may not doubt God can do the miraculous; more often our doubt relates to whether or not He wants to in the situation at hand. If that’s the case, there is no hope of us seeing a mountain move in our lifetime for who of us have faith without doubt? Could there be another understanding of this passage?

Jesus understood people had doubts. In his introduction to faith moving mountains in the verse above, Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountains. That’s not very much faith. Consider it from a mathematical perspective. If we could give faith and doubt numerical value and then subtract our doubt from our faith, would the remainder be a positive or a negative? Admittedly, it may be a small amount, but I expect for many of you reading these reflections it would be positive amount. The point of the mustard seed metaphor is you don’t have to have a lot of faith to see God do something spectacular, but you have to have more faith than doubt. Unfortunately, some of us get the metaphor mixed up and read it as: if you have a mountain of faith, you may be able to move a mustard seed. When we think that way our doubt is greater than our faith.

We will have doubts; but will the doubts exceed and defeat our faith? In Mark 9, Jesus honors a man’s faith despite the man’s admission that he had doubts. The man says to Jesus, ‘I believe, help me in my unbelief’. Let that be our honest approach when we stand at the metaphorical mountain and hope it moves to the left or to the right. Tell God you believe he is able to do it (he created the big pile of rock) and then ask him to help with the unbelief that doubts God’s will. As you sincerely and transparently cry out to God, taking the first step in a journey from doubt to belief, watch carefully the mountain doesn’t land on your toes.

 

 

40 days of change-Day 35

21 March, 2016                                                   40 days of change-Lent, 2016

One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: ‘Power belongs to you, God, and with you, Lord, is unfailing love.’ Psalm 62:11

As we come through this week called Holy Week, we will take a closer look at Jesus and discuss the doubts that can flitter across our mind, or for some actually take root and nearly choke out our faith.

The Gospels describe Jesus entering Jerusalem on the Sunday before Easter with the fanfare of palm branches and hails that hearken back to King David. The crowds were gathering for the upcoming festival of Passover and were abuzz with the thought of making Jesus King. Why wouldn’t they want him to be King; he heals the sick, feeds thousands, seems to be really wise. He’d be a perfect monarch –– well almost perfect. He had this habit of demanding people to be morally and ethically good. Wouldn’t you know it? As soon as they have a pre-coronation celebration, his perfection causes a traumatic temple scene.

Jesus goes into the temple and finds commerce has take over penitence. In a fit of holy anger he clears the temple grounds and with force reclaims it as a house of prayer. The picture of Jesus cracking a whip and throwing over tables seems far removed from the crowd feeding, children loving, healer of the broken we see in the gospel stories. He seems harsh, out of control, almost insane, totally fearsome. Do we really believe this is Jesus our Saviour?

For some of us Jesus being fearsome is not that hard to believe. God, and Jesus by association, seems a little grumpy in the Old Testament, kicking people out of gardens, sending floods, choosing arbitrarily one people group over another. It looked like Jesus was going to be different, but the temple event confirms what some of us feared. In fact, doesn’t God demand we fear him? Not hard to fear him if we perceive God as mostly angry with people. But, it is hard to love someone we fear. People, who find fear of God reasonable, but love of Jesus difficult, may find Jesus being Lord as sensible, but a loving Saviour questionable in their heart.

So often doubt cuts both ways in a situation. Is Jesus loving or is he scary? A theologian will tell you that he is both; that he holds what appear to be opposites in dynamic tension. We can’t easily explain how he does it and to me that provides encouragement, not dismay. A human can rarely if ever hold two apparently opposing characteristics in harmony, but God can. If God is beyond us, there should be things about him that I can’t explain. These unexplainable doubts remind me that Jesus is not just a man; he is truly the Son of God. Yes, that’s scary, but comforting at the same time. It makes me want to embrace my doubt as confirmation of my belief and draw near to the fearsome, loving Jesus.

40 days of change-day 34

19 March, 2016                                                            40 days of change-Lent, 2016

Discerning – A discerning man keeps wisdom in view, but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth. Proverbs 17:24

Discernment involves going past perception to making nuanced judgments. Discernment is to perception as wisdom is to knowledge. A person may know facts, but it takes wisdom to apply them to thinking and acting appropriately. Similarly, when it comes to making judgments, it takes discernment to put each piece of evidence into its proper context and assign the appropriate weight to it. Today’s verse hints that discerning people put things in context and arrive at appropriate conclusions. Undiscerning people’s attention wanders off in all directions, and so they can arrive at outlandish conclusions.

Jesus was brilliantly discerning. He saw through people, knew their thoughts and their lives (Luke 5:22; 6:8; John 2:25; 4:17-18). Supernatural discernment like this is beyond us. But Jesus also had a natural discernment from which we can and should learn. When He is led into the desert to be tested by the devil (Matt. 4:1-11), Jesus uses Scripture to block the devil’s first suggestion, and the devil counter-punches with another Scripture: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ This is from Psalm 91, about God protecting, rescuing and rewarding those who love and trust Him. An undiscerning Jesus might have gone along with it – did He not love and trust His Father? But He keeps wisdom in view. He knows that deliberately putting Himself in harm’s way to force God’s hand would show, not love and trust, but the kind of wicked unfaithfulness that asks for a sign (Matt. 16:4). And so He responds, It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

On another occasion some Pharisees challenge Jesus on divorce, referencing Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. But Jesus looks at the wider context of God’s purposes in creating man and woman (an approach, by the way, which could also be applied to same-sex marriage). From Genesis 2:24 He concludes, Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate (Mark 10:9).

Most heresies, public and private, begin when a person uses a Bible verse as the foundation for an unjustifiably large doctrinal superstructure. We can avoid this trap if we keep wisdom in view. This is not an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual one: the Psalms tell us that to acquire wisdom we should begin with the fear of the Lord (111:10), while it is the fool who says in his heart, “There is no God.” (14:1; 53:1). This Lent let’s begin a life-long habit, whenever we see an assertion supported by a Bible verse, of checking its wider context to see if it’s justified. You could start with today’s reflection …

(contributed by Chris Stiven)

40 days of change-day 33

18 March, 2016                                                      40 days of change-Lent, 2016

Studious – And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. Luke 2:52

The gospel of Luke teaches us that Christ Himself “grew in wisdom…”. I like to think it’s a safe bet that Jesus was studious in all He set his mind to. Sometimes we see Jesus as some sort of walking internet search engine who had all information at His fingertips, but this trades on a lopsided view of who Jesus is. It emphasises His divinity, yes, but let’s not forget that He is also truly human. He learnt to be a carpenter, something that takes many years of study and practise. In His devotions, Jesus would have studied the scriptures and meditated on God’s word frequently.

“Bookworm”, “nerd”, “geek” or “theologian ” are all terms I’ve heard (and used!) to describe someone who is studious. Dictionary.com defines the studious person as someone who studies diligently, who is careful and planned in what they set out to do. While none of us would suggest that these qualities are bad, sadly – and all too often – I have come across the view in Christian circles that to be studious means “doing things in your own strength”. Let’s face it, sometimes this view is just a smokescreen to cover-up our own laziness; we can’t make the effort to engage our minds ourselves, so we dismiss those who do.

Paul teaches us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12.2a). We tend to think that being a disciple of Jesus means being a follower of Jesus. But being a disciple of Christ is not a passive calling. The meaning of the Greek word we translate as “disciple” is actually best rendered as “learner”. We must engage our minds in order to follow Jesus well.

We cannot deny that one of the primary ways in which we come to know God is via His written word to us: the Bible. God has decreed that we should read about Him. Why is it then, when we have this amazing, divinely inspired resource readily available, we find studying the Bible such a boring or difficult task? Do we love God so little, that we cannot be diligent in our studies of His word to us? The average amount of TV we watch in the UK is 4 hours a day; can we not, for example, devote just 30 minutes a day to read a portion of scripture and a written commentary or discussion of that same passage? Let us not forget that Jesus Himself taught us in the greatest commandment that we should, among other things, love the Lord our God with all of our minds (Matt. 22:37).

Are you seeking to be a disciple of the Lord? Do you want to know God better? Do you want to know His will for your life? Do you want to know what He would have you do, how to conduct your affairs, and live out your time on earth? Go to the Bible, read His inspired word, take in those God-breathed pages. Let us learn to be studious like Christ!

(contributed by Jim Davis)

40 days of change-day 32

17 March, 2016                                              40 days of change-Lent, 2016

Open-mindedness – Christians sometimes seem to get a bad press for being closed-minded. I wonder if that is entirely fair? Perhaps, sometimes, it is – sadly – justified. But perhaps, instead Christians should be the first to be expecting truth to come in unexpected forms and in unexpected places?

Right at the start of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life we see that even the 12 year old Jesus was already being listened to as he spoke in the temple. Luke tells us, at 2:41-52, that:

After three days [Mary and Joseph] found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

Children were not particularly highly valued in those days. Nevertheless, I wonder how many people were blessed by being able to hear the adolescent Jesus speak and talk about the scriptures. On the flip-side, I wonder if there were any there who decided that it wasn’t worth hanging around to hear the answers of a 12 year old boy and didn’t even wait to hear him start to talk? I wonder if I would have listened, or whether I would have assumed there was nothing for me?

 

If we fast-forward into Jesus’ ministry proper we see so many encounters with people, some who choose to walk on by because they assume that Jesus cannot have anything to say to them, and others who seek him out to hear what he says to say, regardless of their status in society. In John 3 we are introduced to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. He probably had more cause than most to feel that he had little more to learn. As an expert in Jewish law and custom what could Jesus show to him? In fact, he seeks Jesus out in the middle of the night – this is no chance encounter but the attitude of a man seeking truth in the most unlikely of places. A modern-day context might be a Supreme Court judge – powerful, wealthy, superbly educated – seeking out a plumber from a provincial town. And it is to this man that Jesus explains that “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

We see Nicodemus again in Chapter 7 at Jesus’ trial. He, uniquely, is the one who asks “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” (v51) He is the only one to suggest that the group should perhaps listen to what Jesus has to say to them. Instead, he is laughed at (v52). Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” Everyone else writes Jesus off, without listening to him, simply because of where he was from.

I fear that all too often this is the group I fall to. I wonder if I write people, ideas or challenges off because I think I know where they come from, before I even have listened to hear what they have to say to me. And I wonder what I have missed because, fixed in my certainties, I have not opened my mind to listen?

(contributed by a friend, James Wickham).

40 days of change-day 31

16 March, 2016                                                 40 days of change-Lent, 2016

Attentive – Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. Proverbs 8:34

I’m sure teachers often think of the adage ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink’. You can present the lesson, but the student may not pick it up. We are all somewhat attention deficit. There are lessons to be learned all around us, it’s just a question of whether we are paying attention sufficiently to pick up on them. The other day, as I was reaching into an almost empty box of granola bars, I noticed in black bold print written on the front of the box 150 calories/each. I knew the box did not come like that, and the script looked very much like Becky’s handiwork. I asked her if she had left the message, and she smiled and said ‘yes, sometime ago’. I had gone to the box daily (okay maybe more than once a day) for weeks and had never noticed the message that she was trying to send. That’s a lot of calories for me to be consuming as a daily (or more) snack. It makes me wonder how many other important lessons am I missing, not just from my spouse, but also from God. Are we seeing the writing on the box?

In the gospels there’s a story of Jesus’ first interaction with his disciple Nathaniel. Nathaniel is brought to Jesus by his brother Andrew, and Jesus greets him with the reminder that he had seen Nathaniel under a tree days before. You wonder if anything got by Jesus. Just this past Sunday we talked at VEC about Jesus having spotted wee little Zacchaeus perched up in a tree. He was ever watching for every day things like coins, trees, or people from which he could draw a life-changing lesson. He told the Pharisees to watch world events for there would be signs of God’s plan unfolding. He cautioned his listeners to watch for deception. He told his disciples to ‘watch and pray’ on the last night, and I’m sure that was not just a one-time directive, but was his hope for them and all his future disciples going forward. A hope he had for all of us.

As we’ve acknowledged before in these reflections, God is a communicator, and he sends messages to us to learn in creation, through the scripture, through others, and His Spirit. I expect that God has some lessons that are unfolding for us today. As you leave your home this morning, look around in creation and watch for God’s handiwork in describing to you something about himself. As you interact with others, be listening for some word that sounds more like God speaking than the one who has uttered the word. Be especially attentive to your thought life today, for the thought that comes out of the blue, may be the thought that comes from the Spirit. Practice attentiveness today and pick up on those not-so subtle messages God is sending you. As you lay in bed tonight, what did you see –– what did you learn?

        

 

40 days of change-day 30

15 March, 2016                                                   40 days of change-Lent, 2016

Hungry – Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Matthew 5:6

If you’ve ever been around a toddler, you will be familiar with the incessant asking of why. Most of us grow out of that stage, but there are few that never do. They are the curious ones that grow up to be scientists and analysts, the joyful life-long learners. Their unquenchable appetite for knowledge makes them motivated to find out the answers. The rest of us may lose our appetite through distraction or we get use to just getting by with just enough. It’s like we’ve gone on a long fast; after 4 or 5 days of fasting you don’t actually feel hungry anymore. The hunger returns after day 40. So, between day 5 and day 40 you can forget to eat. That’s dangerous for health and in the realm of learning it will be fatal to a person’s ability to be taught, for a person will not be teachable if they are not hungry for knowledge.

Jesus intentionally created for himself and others a situation of hunger and thirst. He fasted for a long time at the beginning of his public ministry. We’re told angels attended to him at the end of his fast, and I’m sure he readily ate then. We know that at least on two occasions he taught for so long that the people around him were hungry and ready for him to feed them through the miraculous fish and bread. Would they have been as receptive to the lesson of the miracle if they hadn’t been hungry? Being hungry heightens our receptivity to food. Jesus referred to himself as bread and as water. The implication being he was the one that would resolve the hunger of humankind.

Unfortunately, we have abated that hunger within us. We have found other ways to cope. We fill ourselves with information low in spiritual nutrition. The books we read, the programmes we watch, the material we fill our brain with somehow lessens the natural hunger that God has put into us. If we do sense hunger pains for truth, we busy ourselves with distractions in the hope they’ll go away. So, without hunger for truth and knowledge, God can set a banqueting table before us, but we won’t touch it.

In the context of diets and fasts there’s a procedure called a cleanse. Often it includes not eating your normal diet and flushing your body with some horrible tasting liquid. Don’t worry I’m not suggesting the latter. But, maybe you could do a mental/spiritual cleanse. For today, how about foregoing your usual internet material, television show, or easy read. Maybe your hunger for God will come back. Then take in something else that might flush clean your soul. Read Psalm 34 and digest a verse from there and just go over and over it. Taste and see that the Lord is good and maybe once you whet that appetite, you’ll be forever hungry to know God more.