Lockdown Blues

How are you coping in this strange time of “lockown”? I know different countries have handled the coronavirus outbreak in different ways. Many have shut down some of their normal activities until the levels of infection are under control. Others, such as Sweden, have had a more relaxed approach keeping most things open and allowing their citizens to go about more or less as normal.

Here in the UK the lockdown continues, albeit we’ve been told we can go out now more than once a day for exercise. Schools are being told to prepare to open their gates again on June 1st after the half term holiday, but only for certain year groups. Many teachers, parents and teaching unions have expressed their reservations about these plans, being worried about the risks involved. On the other hand, businesses are getting desperate to open up again fearing the effects of a long lasting economic downturn. I don’t know how long the whole thing will go on. It seems like social distancing is here to stay for the forseeable future.

For me, each day is starting to feel like groundhog day. I do the same sorts of things every day, I walk around similar routes, changing it up a bit to add a little interest. My hair is starting to look a mess and I will be glad when the hairdresser can open up again!

Having more time is not always a good thing. For someone like me, it means more time to think, and thinking often leads me to dwell on difficult or dark subject matter. As a Christian, I continue to read God’s word and to pray, but perhaps there are not enough distractions throughout the day to keep my mind still. A few weeks ago my mind was like a raging torrent, and I felt like I was drowning in all the thoughts. I knew I needed some help to cope with that.

A book which my brother once bought me came to mind, by David Powlison. It’s called “Seeing With New Eyes – Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture”. I remembered that this book had proved helpful in the past, and I wasn’t disappointed this time, either. Chapter 4 is called “Peace, Be Still: Psam 131” and goes through each line of that Psalm encouraging us to trust in the Lord rather than trying to work everything out for ourselves. The Psalmist had learned to compose and quieten his soul just like a weaned child on his mother (v2).

When I get stuck thinking about difficult things, it can sometimes feel impossible to get onto the “dry land” of peace and quiet. I had to cry out to Jesus, just as the disciples did in the storm on the lake, and ask him to save me. Thankfully, He answered my prayer and through studying this Psalm and reading the book I was able to return to a much calmer state of mind.

I hope that you too may know His peace and calm within your souls at this uncertain time.

Oh LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvellous for me.
But I have calmed and quietened my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Oh Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and for evermore.

Psalm 131

The Divine Seeker

How have you been feeling at this time? I have had mixed feelings. There has been some anxiety about what’s going on and also discouragement about the perceived failure of certain projects. There is uncertainty about the future and what it will look like. On the other hand, there have been good times, with bright, sunny weather when it has felt more like a big holiday than anything else.

Today in my Bible reading I looked at Matthew 13:44 – 46. These verses describe two people both seeking after items of great value. In the first story, a man found treasure in a field, and in the second a merchant sought and found a pearl of great price. Both men sold everything they had in order to buy these items of great value.

When I was young, it was always explained to me that the “seekers” in these stories represented Christians seeking after God, and when they had found him they gave up everything they had in order to belong to His kingdom.

However, some years ago I was at a Bible study going through Matthew’s gospel. One of the questions about this passage asked us to consider that the man and the merchant were in fact the Lord Jesus Christ. At first, it seemed strange to think about it in those terms having always thought of it the other way around. I thought deeply about this, and asked myself what I had given up in my search for Jesus. Had I sold everything I had, like the two men in these stories? Had all the cost really been on my side?

I considered the Lord Jesus. What had He given up in His earthly mission to save souls, including my own? Why, He had left the glory of heaven to come down to this tear-stained world and sacrifice all that He ever had and who He was for the salvation of many. I tried to imagine what it would be like to do that – of course it’s hard for human minds to conceive of the great glory that Jesus gave up for us. In John 17, He speaks about the glory that He’d left behind:

“And now, Father, glorify me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed.” (v5)

Jesus was about to be crucified on a cruel Roman cross, all to save sinners like us. He truly had given up everything for us.

What about the second part of these parables, the treasure and the pearl of great price? At first I couldn’t conceive of myself as being so valuable as these things. But God spoke to me powerfully, so much so that I sobbed and sobbed thinking of all that He had given up for me and how much He loved me.

In Deuteronomy 7, God spoke to the Israelites about their value to Him. He was leading them into the Promised Land and He had a special love for His people above all other peoples on the earth.

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” (v6)

Zephaniah 3:17 speaks of the Lord’s love for and joy in His people:

"The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty One who will save;
He will rejoice over you with gladness;
He will quiet you by His love;
He will exult over you with loud singing."

I grew up not really believing that the Lord loved me, even though I had recognised Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was for me. I somehow couldn’t accept that I was loved like that. These verses show the Lord’s fierce and protective love for His people. How could I not accept the validity of His love for me?

In the New Testament, Ephesians 1 describes the great love and the lavish gifts which God has given to His people. This is such a wonderful passage to think over at times of discouragement and doubt.

“..He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ..” (v4, 5)

Even before the very existence of this world, the Lord had set His love upon us. He gave up glory and all that went with it to seek out sinners like you and me. We can’t make sense of it all, but we also can’t ignore these passages about His deep love for us. This song came into my mind as I thought about this passage again and all that Jesus left behind for our sake, when He came to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

You laid aside Your majesty, gave up everything for me,
Suffered at the hands, of those You had created.
You took all my guilt and shame, when You died and rose again,
Now today You reign, in heaven and earth exalted!
I really want to worship You my Lord, 
You have won my heart and I am Yours
Forever and ever, I will love You!
You are the only One who died for me,
Gave Your life to set me free,
So I lift my voice to You in adoration!

Noel Richards

Hope in the Face of Death

At the moment the whole world is in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The news is full of it, the papers are full of it, the internet is full of it. There’s no escaping it. Governments have shut down much of society in a bid to stop the virus spreading. Health systems are buckling under the strain. Some men and women are losing their lives from this virus.

Perhaps what this virus has done for us, particularly in the West, is to bring people face to face with their own mortality. It’s said that in some countries, including our own, there simply aren’t enough ventilators to go around, so difficult and stark choices will have to be made about who gets these machines, and who doesn’t.

Here in Britain, we have enjoyed a long period of protection from deadly diseases. That’s not to say they aren’t out there, just that we’ve had the medicines or access to health care which mean they aren’t a problem. This means we go about our lives as if we’re going to keep on living forever. We expect that when we’re ill, there will be treatments for us, and that generally we will get better. Death is something far off in the future, when we’re very old and have lived a long and fulfilling life.

Now people are scared. Perhaps not for themselves, but for loved ones and friends who fall into more vulnerable categories. Many people will of course have the virus and get better, but we tend to focus on those figures which come out daily of the numbers of those who are infected and those who have sadly died.

When Jesus was ministering, He often healed the sick and showed compassion towards the suffering. However, Jesus’ main focus and reason for being here was not to heal people of all their physical ailments. When the angel appeared to Joseph to tell him about the baby that Mary would have, he said to him:

“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matt 1:21

This indicates that Jesus’ purpose was much more than to be a miracle maker, a fine teacher and a kindly man. He came to give up His life so that sinful men and women might enjoy abundant, everlasting life. There is so much we could say about sin, what it is, where it has come from, but I think we all recognise deep in our heart of hearts that we’re not perfect and we don’t always do what we ought to do. In fact, speaking for myself (and maybe you too), I can be downright selfish. And lazy, uncaring, envious, etc. I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do, I just want to do what I want to do.

This is what the Bible calls “sin”. Appropriately enough, the word even has the letter “I” right in the middle. Why did Jesus want to save us from this? Couldn’t He just have left us to get on with it, since for the large part people are happy to ignore God? The Bible teaches that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Facing death without Christ is surely worse than this virus.

Nowadays it doesn’t seem fashionable to mention the word “hell”. Jesus spoke often about the reality of an eternal state of darkness and suffering (eg Mark 9:43, 48; Matt 13:42; Luke 16:19 – 31; Matt 25:30). In fact, He spoke more about hell than He did about heaven. Are we to reject this teaching of Jesus and only consider the much more palatable teaching about heaven?

Without acknowledging that such a place exists, and that in fact it is the default destination of everyone apart from Christ, we can never fully appreciate why the gospel is such good news. The second part of Rom 6:23 says:

“..but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Jesus showed so much compassion when He left the glory of heaven and came into our messy and sinful world, in order to give His life on the cross to save people from an eternity without Him in utter darkness. He didn’t have to do that, but He did.

“For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Rom 5:7 – 8

Knowing Jesus’ forgiveness of our sins and His loving presence in our lives means that we no longer have to live in fear of death. Unless the Lord returns first, one day we will all die. For some that day will come sooner than for others, but still the outcome will be the same. Do you have faith in Jesus and have you trusted in His sacrifice for you? If you have trusted Him as your Saviour and King, you don’t have to be afraid of what this coronavirus may mean for you. I’m sure ideally none of us wants to fall victim to this virus and we pray that a vaccine will soon be developed, but to know Jesus as our loving Saviour means we will never be alone, and even as we face the final enemy of death, He will hold our hand and lead us safely home.

"No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the pow'r of Christ in me
From life's first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No pow'r of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand,
'Til He returns or calls me home
Here in the pow'r of Christ I'll stand"

K.Getty/S.Townend

Didn’t Our Hearts Burn Within?

One of the recorded appearances of the risen Lord Jesus was to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13 – 35). The two men set out on the two hour journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus, feeling sad and disappointed by all that had gone on. Without their recognising Him, Jesus Himself came up to them and joined them on their journey. He asked them what they were talking about. They couldn’t believe that He didn’t know, given the enormity of all that had gone on. They told of Jesus and who they thought He was and recounted the details of His crucifixion, sharing with Him their sense of hopes dashed that Jesus didn’t seem to be the Messiah they were waiting for. They had thought it was Him who would redeem Israel, but now it seemed that they were wrong. They also doubted reports of some of the women who had been to the tomb that morning only to find it empty, and two men in bright clothing who had told them that Jesus was indeed risen.

Jesus didn’t mince His words and told them that they were “foolish” in not believing all that was written about Him and the sufferings He would endure throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. He went right through these passages and made clear to them what was said about Himself. Perhaps He included such passages as Psalm 22:

“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” v1

“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; You lay me in the dust of death.” v14, 15

Or maybe He spoke about Isaiah 53:

“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was cursed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” v4, 5

You can’t go far in the Bible without something coming up about Christ. “A golden thread of gospel grace runs through the whole web of the Old Testament” (M. Henry). Jesus truly was the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures.

We can only imagine all that He shared with these two disciples, but whatever He said they wanted to know more. Here was the Word Himself (John 1:1, 14) explaining the Scriptures to two disappointed, grief-stricken men, and it left them wanting more. He met them where they were at and took the time to teach them, enlightening their understanding.

Jesus looked like He was going to carry on walking, but the two men persuaded Him to stay with them for a meal. When He broke the bread their eyes were opened to His true identity, and He disappeared from their sight (v31). Although they could no longer see Him, He had a lasting effect on their hearts (v32).

We, too, can meet with Jesus in His word by the power of the Holy Spirit, and when we see Him for ourselves our hearts are changed. The two men here were so glad to have met Jesus and heard His teaching from the Word that they immediately set out to return to Jerusalem! They couldn’t wait to tell their fellow disciples all that they had seen and heard.

You too can have a heart encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ in His word today. Pray and ask God for understanding as you read His word and seek after Him for yourself, and He will meet you where you’re at, just as He did with these two disciples.

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with Me.” Revelation 3:20

Faith in a Time of Fear and Uncertainty

At the moment, you can’t get away from the coverage of the coronovirus and all the measures being taken to try and deal with it. Each country has its own plan, some with much stricter measures than others. 24 hour news coverage has gone into overdrive, each hour bringing more speculation about the possible effects on society and the economy. Radio talk shows are full of conversation about it. Contributors call in to talk about their fears, or to criticise the government’s handling of the crisis so far.

What should the response of Christians be to all of this? Many times in the Bible we are told not to fear, yet for some of us fear is our knee-jerk reaction to heath scares like this. I remember the last time I had flu, and went on to develop pneumonia. That does make me feel a bit scared about this virus only because I remember what that was like! I am fortunate not to belong to any high risk group, but still the memory of that stay in hospital and the vulnerability of human life is enough to spark fear.

Do you remember the story of Peter when he jumped out of the boat and began to walk towards Jesus on the water? Jesus had gone up on the mountainside to pray and had sent his disciples across the lake to get to the other side. Being the Lord of the universe, he must have known the storm that was to come. Jesus went to walk out to them on the lake, and the disciples were terrified believing him to be a ghost. Jesus calmed their fears telling them it was him. Peter, always the first to jump in, (this time quite literally!) said to Jesus that if it really was him, he should ask him to walk towards him on the lake. Jesus said “Come”. Peter got out and was walking on the water just fine until he started looking at the wind and the waves and began to sink. “Lord, save me!” he cried and immediately Jesus put out his hand to rescue him. (Matthew 14:22 – 33)

Doesn’t the same thing happen to us when we begin to focus more on whatever today’s worrying news is than the Lord himself? We start to sink into the waves of fear until it feels that we might drown in anxiety. The comforting thing is that Jesus is there to reach out his hand for us when we cry, like Peter, “Lord, save me!”.

I love the words of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation”. Many times a verse from that hymn comes to mind and the words point me once more to God himself. A few of the verses are relevant to this situation. Christians are not somehow immune to the suffering in this world; in fact the Bible is very plain about suffering. However, in the midst of troubling circumstances we have the knowledge of the presence of the Lord and of his love and care. There may be tough times ahead, but he will never leave us nor forsake us.

Fear not, I am with Thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I cause thee to go, 
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine. 

First published 1787 by J. Rippon

Ruth’s Resolve

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about Naomi and her journey from bitterness to blessing. Today I want to consider Ruth and her trusting obedience which saw her leaving behind everything she had ever known to embrace God and His people, and in the process becoming part of the genealogy of Christ Himself.

Ruth was a Moabite lady married to one of Naomi’s sons, and she was left widowed and without any children. Her mother-in-law had moved to Moab with her husband Elimelech and two sons Mahlon and Chilion when there was a famine in Bethlehem, Judah. Elimelech and his two sons sadly died over the ten years that they lived there. On hearing that there was now food in Judah, Naomi sought to return to her people, and initially both of her daughters-in-law wanted to go with her. Both Ruth and Orpah at first insisted that they would go with Naomi back to Judah, but Naomi was just as insistent that they return to their own families and homes. She tells them three times to go back, and after much persuasion Orpah did do just that. There were tears and kisses before Orpah went on her way.

Ruth, however, “clung” to Naomi and simply would not return to her home of Moab. Her proclamation to Naomi is heart-felt and certain:

"Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die,
And there I will be buried.
The Lord do so to me, and more also,
If anything but death parts you and me."

Ruth 1:16,17 

Can you imagine what that must have been like for Ruth? To leave everything that was familiar to her, including her own family, to go with Naomi to an uncertain future? What faith she must have had to make such a proclamation!

The Moabites and Israelites were sworn enemies, and God had forbidden the people of Moab from having any part in Israel because of past failures.

“An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord forever…” Deuteronomy 23:3

“You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days forever.” Deut 23:6

Perhaps we could question the wisdom of Elimelech’s decision to move his family to Moab in the first place. It would mean mixing with the enemies of God and being exposed to their false religion and idol worship. However, it seems that Naomi had had a positive influence on her daughters-in-law so much so that both at least initially considered going to Judah with her. It would have been a frightening thing for them to go into enemy territory, particularly as young women.

Nowadays, the relationship between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law can be quite tense. Some might feel that it would take a lot for them to leave everything behind and go to a new country with their mother-in-law! However, there was clearly a warm and loving relationship between these ladies and Naomi had been able to pass on something of her own faith to them.

Ruth clearly understood that the Israelites had something that the Moabites did not, and she wanted that for herself. By going to Judah with Naomi she was rejecting the idols she had grown up with and choosing Yahweh. Verse 18 tells us that Naomi saw how “determined” Ruth was to go with her and stopped trying to put her off.

How determined are you and I to follow after Christ? What are we willing to leave behind in order to be numbered with His people? It’s very challenging to think upon Ruth’s declaration here; would I have been willing to do that? In our society today, are there certain things we ought to be leaving behind in order to have a close relationship with the Lord? What things occupy our hearts and minds in a way that only God should?

Jesus told His disciples that following Him would cost them everything. Are we willing to suffer that cost for the prize of knowing Him and receiving His gift of eternal life?

“..he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds His life will lose it, and he who loses His life for My sake will find it.” Matthew 10:38 – 39

Why Did God Persevere With Jonah?

Recently I read through the book of Jonah for my Bible study. It’s a well known story; the prophet Jonah was given instruction by God to go to Ninevah and tell the people there that judgement was coming because of their sin. Having received this clear message from God, Jonah immediately ran the other way, boarding a ship for Tarshish located in southern Spain. Ninevah was located on the outskirts of Mosul in modern day Iraq. Jonah sought to go as far away as possible from where God wanted him.

Can you imagine how many bosses would put up with an employee who deliberately disobeyed their instructions and instead did the exact opposite? It would at least call for a disciplinary procedure, if not for the guilty party to be sacked and sent on their way.

The Lord had another way of handling Jonah’s disobedience. The boat that he was travelling on hit a bad storm. The sailors were scared and cried out to their own gods to save them, but to no avail. Feeling that they were under a curse, finally they drew lots to see who might have caused this problem. The lot fell on Jonah, who told them to throw him overboard which they did extremely reluctantly and with great fear.

Virtually everyone knows what happened next, how he was swallowed by a great fish and kept alive inside it for three days and nights. Jonah prayed to God in desperation:

"I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, 
And He answered me."  2:2

"...You have brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord, my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the Lord;
And my prayer went up to You,
Into Your holy temple."  2:6b,7

Jonah was spat out onto dry land, and the command came to him a second time to go to Ninevah. Somewhat reluctantly, Jonah this time obeyed God and went to Ninevah, bringing His message of destruction to the massive metropolis:

“Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” 3:4

The people responded straight away to this message of judgement and the king of Ninevah himself ordered his citizens to fast, wear sackcloth and cry to God for mercy, because:

“Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” 3:9

God did indeed recognise the sincerity of their actions and turned away from bringing judgement on them. You would think that this would be a cause for rejoicing. Jonah’s mission had been a complete success! The people of Ninevah, whose wickedness was recognised by God Himself, had now turned from their rebelliousness and trusted God’s mercy. But one person wasn’t happy, and that was Jonah. In fact, he was thoroughly miserable and angry with God for forgiving the Ninevites. Jonah had wanted these people to be punished. In fact, it seems that he was looking forward to watching them get their just desserts as we are told that he made himself a shelter on the east side of the city to see what would become of it (4:5). God questioned his anger, and dealt with Jonah’s attitude problem.

He made a plant come up and provide shelter for the prophet, and Jonah was very grateful for it. However, the next day a worm attacked the plant and a punishing east wind blew on it. The plant withered away and Jonah was left without any protection from the heat of the day. Jonah said for the second time in this chapter that he would rather die than live, having seen God’s mercy in action and lost his own protection. The Lord again questioned Jonah, asking if it was right for him to be angry about the plant.

“You have had pity on the plant for which you have not laboured , nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Ninevah, that great city, in which are more than 120,000 persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left – and much livestock?” 4:10,11

Why did God keep persevering with Jonah? In any earthly setting, he would surely have lost his job and been replaced with a more compliant worker. Jonah partly answers this question for us:

“..I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.” 4:2

God’s character is not like ours. Whereas we can be quick to give up on difficult people and situations, the Lord is patient with us and understands well our struggles.

"For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
As a father pities his children,
So the Lord pities those who fear Him.
For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust."  Psalm 103:11-14

None of this is to say that God was pleased with Jonah’s actions. He was disciplined by the Lord in the storm and the belly of the fish; he was taught a lesson about himself and his own selfishness in the incident with the plant.

There were wider implications to his story, too, as Jesus Himself makes reference to Jonah in the gospels. Jesus told His listeners in Matthew 12:39 & 40 that the only sign they were to receive was that of Jonah, in that just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights, so Christ would be in the grave. Jesus used a story they were familiar with to teach them what was going to happen to Him. Whereas the people of Ninevah had repented at Jonah’s message, the scribes and Pharisees who Jesus dealt with refused to repent, failing to recognise their own sin and His divine nature.

Jonah’s story has eternal significance, and despite his sin and failures, it is recorded in the Bible for our teaching and understanding. We, too, are inconsistent in our living, making mistakes and sometimes really messing things up because of our own sin. However, thankfully our salvation rests on the character of God Himself and His unfailing mercy, not on our consistency in Christian living. Perhaps we sometimes wonder why God perseveres with us; our lives are part of a much bigger story that He is guiding and directing, just as Jonah’s life was. By His grace, even our faults and failings can be weaved into something beautiful and of eternal significance in His hands.