Christmas is for Life Logo

Welcome to our Advent Calendar. The first known Advent Calendar was hand-made in 1851, just less than a century before I was born, and now here I am approaching my 70s happily producing an online version. I find it comforting to realise that no matter how fast the world changes, God’s truths and purposes, as revealed in Scripture, are constant and unchanging; and that no matter how traditional or up-to-the-minute our mind set may be, the revelation of the Incarnation is always fresh and relevant as the Christmas season returns through the years.

You could consider this as a continuation of a tradition that began in the mid-19th century when German Protestants made chalk marks on doors or lit candles to count the days leading up to Christmas, which in turn led to the first printed Advent Calendars appearing in the early 1900s. Today, sadly, they have become just part of the great commercial Christmas counterfeit that somehow manages to madly celebrate the occasion and yet leaves God and the Christ Child completely out of the picture.

So this is a gentle attempt by myself, with the help of family and friends, to rectify the situation and produce a traditional Advent Calendar in the modern vernacular. The framework for the calendar is the Jesse Tree which (according to Wikipedia) “is a depiction in art of the ancestors of Christ, shown in a tree which rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David and is the original use of the family tree as a schematic representation of a genealogy. It originates in a passage in the biblical Book of Isaiah which describes metaphorically the descent of the Messiah, and is accepted by Christians as referring to Jesus. The various figures depicted in the lineage of Jesus are drawn from those names listed in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.”

We invite you to draw aside from the hustle and bustle or our modern lives, for a short time each day in December, to look back over the scriptures that lead us to the wondrous events of that night long ago in Bethlehem and prepare yourself for the coming of our Saviour.

Lesley Wells – December 2018

(apologies if site loads slowly first few time, there’s lots of data attached – for best results close one page on the calendar before opening another)

Creation

 The Beginning


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning – the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights – the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” And there was evening, and there was morning – the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
(Gen 1:1-2:3)

Thinking it through . . .

Planet Earth

Just recently I’ve enjoyed watching the BBC series Human Universe  presented by the inimitable Prof Brian Cox. I love his laid back style and the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, but at some stage of every program I have found myself loudly asking “how can someone so intelligent keep missing the point so profoundly” – and then I hear my husband saying “it’s only a television, it can’t answer you!” True, but it does make me feel better!

The BBC introduced the series by saying “Professor Brian Cox explores our place in the universe. He tackles the question that unites the seven billion people sharing this planet – why are we here?”

In a recent press interview Cox says “In order to understand where we came from, we have to understand events that happened in the first few seconds of the life of the universe. See when the universe began it was unimaginably hot and dense, we literally don’t have the scientific language to describe it. There was no structure, certainly no matter.

The interviewer writes “At this point I asked myself the question ‘how can it be dense if there was no matter’ – so I assume Cox is talking about light density i.e. the amount of light incident on a given area. Also, how can it be hot if there is no matter – as I understand it, heat requires matter? More importantly, the pivotal question of where did the starting material come from, is not addressed. Nor was the question of ‘outside the universe’ addressed – the current model ducks that question.”

Perhaps the professor did get a glimmer of an inkling when he said “During the shooting I realised that we are rare and therefore valuable and quite remarkable and worth celebrating.”

In the penultimate programme in the series I sat dumbfounded as Cox tried to answer the age old problem of “how can something (everything) come out of nothing?” by saying “well of course even when there was nothing there must have been something to act as a catalyst – something like a sea of energy”. Which of course set me off shouting at the poor television again “well what was there before this “sea of energy” and what caused it?” Et in circulos circumad might be a polite way of putting it!

As another delightful professor, John Lennox, often explains in his lovely Northern Irish accent, science is there to ask a question like “why is the water in that container boiling”. A scientist would explain the proven facts of applied external heat agitating water molecules which causes the water to boil etc, whereas a philosopher would answer “the water is boiling because Aunt Alison wanted a cup of tea and put the kettle on”. Both answers to the same question are undisputedly true and neither cancels out the other. So I have to say to Prof Brian Cox that he is never going to answer questions like “why are we here” purely through the means of science. I love most of his explanations about how we got here (though it seems to me that there are currently some awfully big gaps in some of theories propounded) but as to why we are here – it’s really quite simple:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Prayer
Loving Creator God – we thank you for the beauty of your creation and that, in these times, we are able to see so much of it by travel and through media. Forgive us for taking it for granted and for wilfully spoiling something so wonderful. Thank you that we have been able to learn so much about your universe in recent times and that we can see the world from space in a way that all previous generations only dreamed of. Forgive us when we think we own it all, and forgive our arrogance in claiming to know how it all began and how it all works. Thank you that you will always be above and beyond us and yet are willing to reveal your mysteries to us in due course – help us to revel in the mystery as much as in the factual, and help us to heal our own hearts by giving you due praise through worship and ministry. Amen

(Lesley Wells - IT Consultant - Fort William)

Verse 1:
God of creation
There at the start
Before the beginning of time
With no point of reference
You spoke to the dark
And fleshed out the wonder of light

Chorus 1:
And as You speak
A hundred billion galaxies are born
In the vapour of Your breath the planets form
If the stars were made to worship so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You’ve made
Every burning star
A signal fire of grace
If creation sings Your praises so will I

Verse 2:
God of Your promise
You don’t speak in vain
No syllable empty or void
For once You have spoken
All nature and science
Follow the sound of Your voice

Chorus 2:
And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You say
Every painted sky
A canvas of Your grace
If creation still obeys You so will I

Bridge:
If the stars were made to worship so will I
If the mountains bow in reverence so will I
If the oceans roar Your greatness so will I
For if everything exists to lift You high so will I

If the wind goes where You send it so will I
If the rocks cry out in silence so will I
If the sum of all our praises still falls shy
Then we’ll sing again a hundred billion times

Verse 3:
God of salvation
You chased down my heart
Through all of my failure and pride
On a hill You created
The light of the world
Abandoned in darkness to die


Chorus 3:
And as You speak
A hundred billion failures disappear
Where You lost Your life so I could find it here
If You left the grave behind You so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You’ve done
Every part designed in a work of art called love
If You gladly chose surrender so will I

I can see Your heart
Eight billion different ways
Every precious one
A child You died to save
If You gave Your life to love them so will I

Tag:
Like You would again a hundred billion times
But what measure could amount to Your desire
You’re the One who never leaves the one behind

‘So Will I (100 Billion X)’ from  “There Is More” recorded live at ‪the Hillsong Worship & Creative Conference in Sydney, Australia.
Words and Music by Joel Houston, Benjamin Hastings & Michael Fatkin © 2017 Hillsong Music Publishing CCLI: 7084123

Haydn – The Creation – The Heavens are Telling

The Fall

Adam and Eve


Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.

The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground–trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me–she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living. The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

Gen 2:4-3:24

Thinking it through . . .

Expulsion from Paradise by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

The Christmas story has always had a tree, three trees in fact, not the decorated pine tree we put in our houses. That tree was a Victorian fashion imported from Germany, probably a Teutonic left over from a pagan past.

No, the first Christmas tree is even more ancient than the ones the Romans describe the Germans worshipping.

This tree is the one that God planted in the middle of the cradle of humanity, Eden. The first Christmas tree offered ‘knowledge of good and evil’ along with the ‘tree of life’. Two trees, two humans, two choices. Follow God and eat from EVERY tree but the one that gave the knowledge of good and evil.

Yes, humanity could have eaten from the ‘tree of life’ but on the suggestion of a snake, humanity chose to go against God. That decision split us from God, it broke creation and shattered the natural order, creating death, decay and suffering.

We could kid ourselves and say we wouldn’t have done that, we would have ignored the snake (later the snake appears as The Tester or Accuser). Well, I can’t even pass a chocolate tree decoration without eating it!

Two trees, one decision and everything is broken, shattered, all wrong.

So where is the third tree?

As soon as humanity told God, or to use a very unfashionable phrase, ‘confessed their sin’, God told them of a plan, even while he told them of the consequences of that fruit, God told them of a route back to him. A route that runs through the Bible through Christmas and to that third tree.

A tree on a rocky hillside, outside the city walls, called ‘The Skull’.

This third tree was Rome’s terror weapon, designed to cower defeated nations with such a torturous death that none would fight back against the Imperial troopers who nailed the ‘second Adam’ to that tree.

A direct line runs from the tree of knowledge of good and evil straight to that tree on the hill.

If Christmas has a tree it would be that third tree.

Who would want that tree, a Roman torture weapon, to decorate our Christmas?

Maybe, the second tree, the one called the tree of life, maybe that is what the Cross really is. Not the brutal emblem of empire based on war and slavery, but the route back to God.

A route from a broken and shattered world back to a new garden and new a relationship with God.

Is the real Christmas tree, that cross on a skull-shaped hill, or is it an echo, a remembrance of that Tree of Life?

Simon Wells (First Aid Trainer and Outdoor Pursuits Leader) Fort William - Scotland

The Flood

Noah


When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days–and also afterward–when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created–and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground–for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. This is the account of Noah and his family. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark–you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.” Noah did everything just as God commanded him.

For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits. Every living thing that moved on land perished–birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark. The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible. After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

Gen 6:11-22, 7:17-8:12, 20-9:17 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

I remember as a youngster hearing read the verse “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterward – when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown” and I was immediately intrigued “who were they?” I’m still wondering as there is no definitive answer, it’s one of the mysteries of scripture. Perhaps the first people who read those words were so far back in time that they remembered things learned through their tradition or oral history that we modern folk have long since forgotten; and indeed it is perhaps because of our ‘folk memory’ that something resonates when we read stories like Lord of the Rings.

I also find mystery in rainbows – yes, I’ve done the physics and I know what happens to make them appear, but the less pedantic side of me cannot believe they are simply the product of light refraction – no, they are wonderful and mystical. Michael and I are blessed to live in a beautiful part of the world, the Highlands of Scotland. One of the first things we discovered when we moved up here five years ago was that the weather doesn’t stay settled for longer that ten minutes at a time, it really isn’t that unusual to experience all four seasons in just one afternoon. We’ve also become convinced that in one of the hidden glens on the other side of the loch to us are some secrete rainbow and cloud making factories. Regularly new kinds of rainbow are bought out to be tested on the loch before being packed up and shipped off to other parts of the world – I saw one laying down in a rectangle flat on the hillside looking for all the world like a flag left behind after a battle. It came and went in just a few seconds, which makes me edgy wondering what I’m missing when I’m looking at my computer screen and not out of the window where it’s all happening! One of the factories obviously specialises in a long thin rounded cloud, like the cotton wool they make that you pull out of a bag in a long soft string.

A retro design recently on show courtesy of our local rainbow factory

Now, I hear you thinking, it sounds like Lesley should be mixing more water with her whisky, but the thing is God gave me an imagination, just like most other people. Why did he do that, it’s gotten me into all kinds of trouble throughout the years? Well I can only guess it’s because he too has an imagination; a kind of imagination beyond our understanding, that spent the ages before time began imagining how wonderful a universe would be. He imagined it, then he spoke it, and then it was.

Back to my childhood imagination, when I first heard the story of Noah in Sunday School, I assumed that the rainbow was created at that moment in the story when God gave his promise to Noah. Now I’ve had a bit more education I know that’s not the case, the physical laws of creation and the universe were rock steady long before we appeared on the scene. But I don’t believe either that when God read Noah’s mind going “really!” that he said, well I’ll give you a visual symbol to remind you of this momentous occasion – I’ll pick a . . .  Dutch Elm Tree, er no, . . .  a Dodo, perhaps not . . . how about a tornado? No? OK, let’s settle on a rainbow then! No, our God is omnipotent and as the rainbow first made its appearance in creation he already knew the part it would play in human history, mythology, poetry and art. He also knew that even when we had become clever enough to understand the technical side of rainbow making, we would always know that this was also one of The Creators’ mysteries that bless our hearts – who gets angry at the sight of a rainbow?

I know for certain that rainbows are more mystery than science, since even with the most clever camera I have never been able to take a photo of a rainbow that looks anything like as beautiful as the one I was looking at!

Prayer
Thank you Heavenly Father for the wonders and mysteries of your creation – that it’s not just functional but so incredibly beautiful. Help us, we pray, as we belatedly try to become the stewards of this planet that you created us to be. Help us also to remember that just as we were drawn by ‘cords of love’ into your heavenly kingdom, that we too share in the responsibility of sharing this mystery with others. Amen

Lesley Wells (IT Consultant) Fort William - Scotland

The Promise

Abraham

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” But Abram said, “Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Gen 12:1-7, 15:1-6 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you

Abraham’s Routes To Canaan

Like Abraham we are all called to be pilgrims through life. It is up to us if we respond to the call; are we willing to go through separation and hardship to pursue a distant goal and achieve a prize?

This week I went to a book signing for a book, Walking to Jerusalem by Justin Butcher. Last year we had the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour declaration. A source of joy to the Jewish nation who were seeking a homeland, but sadness to the Palestinians who were largely displaced ending up in refugee camps. This was a pilgrimage and penance for all the injustices which have occurred since. The all the way walkers had to commit to taking a 9 month slot out of their life and suffering all the blisters and hardships along the way.

My wife, Mary, and I took part in two segments, it was a very moving experience, as we entered into a deep fellowship with our fellow walkers along the way. Walking through the battle fields of Northern France where so many lives had been pointlessly lost. Later we set off from Thessalonica walking the same roman road on which St Paul had walked, as he answered the call of the man from Macedonia to make his own journey to bring the good news about Jesus to the people of Europe. We were certainly walking in the footsteps of giants.

However back to Abraham, he obeyed the call. The original call had been from Ur where he set out with his father, Terah, however they only got as far as Haran where Terah died. God renewed His call to Abraham who obeyed and received the wonderful promise that all the families on earth would be blessed through him and his descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky. This was the wonderful promise that directly, through his descendants, would come Jesus, born to redeem and save all nations worldwide.

So God appeared to Abram, as he was then called, when he arrived in the land which God had promised him and made a solemn covenant with him. A covenant was a solemn ritual by which animals were sacrificed and the participants walked between the divided halves of the animals. God sealed the offering by consuming the sacrifice with fire. 

Despite all these wonderful promises after many years of trying, still no son and heir, he must slowly have come to the realisation there was no way the elderly Sarai was going to bare him a son, so they decided to take matters into their own hands by Abram sleeping with his wife’s slave girl. This only caused more problems as his son by this liaison was not the one God had promised.  Finally, one day, he received three mysterious visitors, thought by some to be the three persons of the Godhead

God once more renewed His promise and they were given the son through whom, all the amazing promises would come to pass. We to have come into the same inheritance, through Abraham’s descendant, Jesus. Not a strip of land to the East of the Mediterranean, but the promise of New Heavens and a New Earth and a heavenly city where Jesus rules as King.

Prayer
Thank you Father that you planned our future and salvation long before we needed it. Forgive us when we don’t quite trust that you have also made plans for us as individuals, forgive us when we try to by-pass you plans, or attempt to reshape them to what we think is best. Help us Father to trust you with every fibre of our being and give us patience as we await the unfolding of your perfect plans, for the world, for the Kingdom, and for us as individuals. Amen

Dr Ian Hempshall (retired GP) Lewes - East Sussex
God Always Keeps His Promises Songwriter – Bob Kauflin, Jon Althoff – Sovreign Grace Ministries

Oh, God He always keeps His promises
He said the sons of Abraham
Would be more than the grains of sand
And so, his family grew
Underneath the Pharaoh’s rule

Oh, God He always keeps His promises
He said the blood upon the door
Would keep the Israelites secure
And so, He stayed His hand
And led them to the Promised Land

CHORUS
Our God is good and true
He cannot lie to me and you
We can be sure of this:
God always keeps His promises

Oh, God He always keeps His promises
He gave us laws to be obeyed
And we broke every one He made
But when we ran from Him
God said He’d take care of our sin

Oh, God He always keeps His promises
He said His Son would set us free
Through His death at Calvary
He suffered in our place
And then He rose up from the grave

Offering of Isaac

Isaac


Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love–Isaac–and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.” The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Gen 22:1-19 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

Sitting in church recently I watched as a child broke their traditional pre-sermon snack in two and, after carefully measuring the two pieces against each other, offered one the child sitting next to them. This was an unexpected piece of altruism, but a quite delightful image. Later in that same service the preacher told how he sought an explanation of the conventional greeting, “Have you eaten?”; apparently common in the far east, I guess the equivalent of the English “How are you?” He was told that before food was plentiful it was customary to share what food you had with the hungry.

For the child the halving of their snack was sacrificial, sharing food too with those who had none is equally sacrificial. For us in the western world that is all we really understand about sacrifice, sharing with the have-nots. For Abraham the demand from God for his only son was infinitely more significant. Offerings to gods were commonplace, an attempt to propitiate a capricious and possibly malevolent deity, generous love offerings designed to show reverence. But Yahweh, asked for a human life to be offered. What on earth went through Abraham’s mind when he received his instructions; how on earth did he explain it to his wife Sarah; and surely Isaac had questions long before he voiced them. Abraham had not read the story, he had no idea how it would end, all he knew was that he could trust God

Let’s revisit our snack sharer, it is likely that they were not desperately hungry and the generosity was impelled by self-interest; I share now, you share later; I want you to like me, or more simply; I like you. Equally the hospitable, “Have you eaten?”, ensures that when you are in need others will help in turn.

There is nothing in these verses from Genesis to suggest that the offering of Isaac was some sort of human to divine bargaining move, a sort of I’ll give you my child and you will replace him with ten more of better quality. Nor even, swap a child for a blessing. This was to be an offering, specifically a burnt offering. That is the nature of sacrifice; that is why Jesus himself commended the widow who gave, the one that Mark and Luke tell of in their histories of Jesus life. Abraham was invited to surrender his very future, the birthright of being father to a numberless nation; he knew enough about God to trust, even though he had no idea of the outcome.

In our cynical age we are often suspicious of the motives of others, though ours are always beyond reproach. Over the past four years we have been reminded of the events of a hundred years ago, the war to end all wars, where people volunteered to take up arms merely because it was their patriotic duty; duty to fight for king and country. Like many of my generation I struggle with that, I would need persuading of the justice of the cause and the effectiveness of any strategy. On the surface it would appear that Abraham equally accepted God’s wisdom and unquestionably got on with it. We have no idea of the inner turmoil, the desperate struggle to rationalise, or even the impact this apparently simple act had on the family dynamic.

Perhaps a signpost on the way to our understanding of this bizarre narrative is the relationship that existed between Yahweh and Abraham, James puts it like this “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend.” [James 2 v 23] Put quite simply, true friends trust each other. A mother was telling me of a frantic dash in an ambulance with her child whose life was at risk, not unnaturally she was demanding action from God and telling him just what she thought of his apparent callousness; then, in the quiet, he gently reminded her that his love for the child was far greater even than hers.

It is perhaps worth remembering Jesus’ words, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” [John 15 v 13] When it came to it God had no qualms about sacrificing his son for the sake of fallen humanity.

Prayer

Forgive me Father for the times when I think you ask too much of me, when my faith is too small. Help me to know that even in the difficult times when I feel alone and unable to cope you are with me. Amen

Michael Wells (Retired Teacher and SU Evangelist) Fort William - Scotland

Assurence of  the Promise

Jacob


Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?” Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living.”

So Isaac called for Jacob and blessed him. Then he commanded him: “Do not marry a Canaanite woman. Go at once to Paddan Aram, to the house of your mother’s father Bethuel. Take a wife for yourself there, from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now reside as a foreigner, the land God gave to Abraham.” Then Isaac sent Jacob on his way, and he went to Paddan Aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, who was the mother of Jacob and Esau. Now Esau learned that Isaac had blessed Jacob and had sent him to Paddan Aram to take a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he commanded him, “Do not marry a Canaanite woman,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and had gone to Paddan Aram. Esau then realized how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac; so he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, in addition to the wives he already had. Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”

Gen 27:41-28:22 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

Unusually I made a promise today. I tend not to do that, for fear of letting people down, but I was late with some much needed information for a publisher, and part of my apology included a promise to do it today. I kept my promise, but how often do we make assurances that in the end turn out to be false or unfounded?

Breakdown in sibling relationships seems to be a common theme in the Bible. From Cain’s murder of his brother Abel (Genesis 4) and the crowing and jealousy of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37) in the Old Testament through to bafflement and abandonment by Jesus’s own family (Mark 3:20-34 and John 19:25-27) in the New. In this passage we see how Esau’s grudge against Jacob’s blessing (and let’s not forget he cheated to get it) causes him to flee to the refuge of his uncle in Paddan Aram (28:2). Before his departure, however, his father Jacob repeats his blessing, reminding him, and us, of God’s promise to his grandfather, Abraham, of fruitfulness and blessing.

The passage goes on to tell us that at Luz, God turns up himself and promises Jacob that he will indeed bless him and make him fruitful, and perhaps more importantly be ever present through the good times and the bad. And perhaps that is the truth that we need to hold on to in these current times that often appear more bad than good, more precarious and uncertain than secure. God is with us, and God keeps his promises.

And what was Jacob’s response? Often confidence of assurance brings out the best in us, and it did so in Jacob. When he awoke and recalled the wonder of God’s presence, and the certainty of his promise, he makes a promise in return. A solemn vow which is evidence of Jacob’s faith and trust in God, and the moderation of his desires. Before this moment, biblical scholars suggest, the initiative was always Gods. Although Abraham responded to the call of God, in this instance Jacob is prompted to make a spontaneous movement towards God.

We are six days into Advent, you may well have already eaten your first mince pie and received your first Christmas card. We might be feeling the pressure of present buying and menu planning mounting, but here is an opportunity to take a moment to pause and not only remember the assurance of God’s promises but make a spontaneous movement towards him. Jacob vowed to give God back a tenth of the provision that he trusted God would bring. How much are we prepared to give back?

Family Activity
Spend some time listing all the things that God has given you as a family in as much detail as possible. It could be big things like your home, little things like toothbrushes, and things you can’t see like a similar sense of humour. When you have a comprehensive list write them in a ladder shape with the things you can’t live without as the uprights and things you enjoy but could live without as the rungs. Thank God for his provision and ask him to help you trust in his promises when rungs from the ladder disappear and things don’t feel all that secure

Prayer
Thank you Heavenly Father that you still call men and women to serve you to day, just as you did in the past. Some you call to do great things and some small things, but in responding to your call we serve you and other people. Give us we pray hearing ears that are ready to hear you call, the obedience to obey, the wisdom to carry out the task, and the strength to endure to the end; when with joy we shall hear your final call. Amen

Carolyn Edwards -  Children and Young People’s Adviser for York Diocese (Sheffield)

God’s Providence

Joseph


Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. This is the account of Jacob’s family line. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him. Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said. Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind. Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.” “Very well,” he replied. So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron. When Joseph arrived at Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?” He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?” “They have moved on from here,” the man answered. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’ “

So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe–the ornate robe he was wearing– and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it. As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt. Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt. When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?” Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. They took the ornate robe back to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.” He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.” So his father wept for him. Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.” Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him. So Israel’s sons were among those who went to buy grain, for there was famine in the land of Canaan also. Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked. “From the land of Canaan,” they replied, “to buy food.” Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” “No, my lord,” they answered. “Your servants have come to buy food . . .

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay. You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me–you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have. I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.’ “You can see for yourselves, and so can my brother Benjamin, that it is really I who am speaking to you. Tell my father about all the honor accorded me in Egypt and about everything you have seen. And bring my father down here quickly.” Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him. When the news reached Pharaoh’s palace that Joseph’s brothers had come, Pharaoh and all his officials were pleased. Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Tell your brothers, ‘Do this: Load your animals and return to the land of Canaan, and bring your father and your families back to me. I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you can enjoy the fat of the land.’ “You are also directed to tell them, ‘Do this: Take some carts from Egypt for your children and your wives, and get your father and come. Never mind about your belongings, because the best of all Egypt will be yours.’ ” So the sons of Israel did this. Joseph gave them carts, as Pharaoh had commanded, and he also gave them provisions for their journey. To each of them he gave new clothing, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five sets of clothes. And this is what he sent to his father: ten donkeys loaded with the best things of Egypt, and ten female donkeys loaded with grain and bread and other provisions for his journey. Then he sent his brothers away, and as they were leaving he said to them, “Don’t quarrel on the way!” So they went up out of Egypt and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan.

Gen 37:1-36 – 42:1-10 – 45:1-25 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

For me this is one of the most colourful stories in the old testament, it touches me at so many levels, and is, as the title suggests, all about God’s Providence through long-term planning.

We must remember that whilst God can often be seen to thwart evil intent and turn events to work for his own purposes, being a Holy God, he would never design or cause evil to bring about his purposes – all evil is utterly abhorrent to him.

So how do we reconcile Joseph words to his brothers “. . . do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you”. Surely this is where God’s omnipotence come into play, and his foreknowledge of all the choices that we humans would freely make, which in their turn help shape his plans for us. God knew how Jacob was hated by his siblings – and hadn’t he given Joseph those dreams that caused all the trouble – though perhaps it was his style of delivery that didn’t help? He knew that the brothers would allow their jealousy to turn to active hate and that they would incite each other to commit actual murder, but he thwarted that, and instead, as Tim Rice put it “along came a crowd of hairy Ishmaelites” and the rest was history. God prevented the evil plans of Joseph’s family and took him safely out of their reach, which ironically would secure the future of those very same people.

Having grown up away from my family I know just how peculiar it feels to meet complete strangers that are actually more like you genetically than anyone else on the planet, yet not to have any idea of how they tick – but at the same time to feel an inexplicable connection with them.

My older brother (some of you will know Len Magee – his music is scattered around this website) was sent to Australia as a child migrant when he was just six and I was three, and I didn’t meet him again until I was eighteen. I had the privilege of watching him come to faith and develop a ministry in preaching and singing, but it took us a while to get to know each other and to discover how similar we are in many ways.

Not too surprisingly I tear-up every time I read of this “reunion” of Joseph with his brothers. Only good things are recorded about Joseph in the narrative leading up to this, how he followed God’s lead and was obedient throughout despite suffering many trials. Unless you have experienced such trauma and know the deep pain of such rejection it would be hard to imagine how shocked and traumatised Joseph must have felt when he saw before him the very people who had sold him for twenty pieces of silver. True two of his brothers had prevented the others from killing him outright, but they had all agreed to sell him into slavery.

Generally I think the writers of the old testament are better known for their fairly detailed and factual style in recording events, rather than their story telling, but even in this ‘reporting’ style the rawness of Joseph’s emotions are apparent, this authoritative master, second in power only to Pharaoh himself, is wailing so loudly that his servants can hear him on the other side of the palace!

One can only imagine the welter of emotions that Joseph must have experienced, the delight of seeing his own kind again, knowing they were still alive – we note how he was desperate to know if his father still lived; but also how to contain the anger at how they had banished him from his family and his land – everything he had ever known – and caused him to grow up in an alien land where he was even imprisoned for doing the right thing. To quote Rice again “after all they have tried fratricide” some of the men standing there before him had actually planned to kill him. The corner of the mouth smile as realised, probably in a moment of complete shock, that those crazy dreams that he was hated and punished for had indeed – right here and now – come true in every detail. If I’m honest I have to say that in Joseph’s place one of my many emotional responses would certainly have been “now I’ll show em!” And I think we see something of that perhaps in the cup in the sack fiasco. Let’s not imagine that just because this is Scripture that the real man here didn’t need months, even years, to assess how he actually felt about this amazing turn of events. I hope he had the services of a good palace therapist, but I think it’s likely that he went to his grave still asking the question “why did they do that to me?”

And what about the round of emotions felt by the brothers – can you imagine what the journey must have been like when they finally got back on the road to Canaan? And what about when the truth of what they had done to Joseph was finally confessed to their father (I bet they rehearsed that on the way). What mixed emotions poor old Jacob must have felt, and did he manage to keep quiet or did he round on the brothers with “there, I told you Joseph was special – but would you listen?”

I wish someone would make a really good film that actually covers the whole story of Jacob & Co and not just bits of it – then I could sit in the dark and happily sob my way through it. Hopefully if would also reveal how our Sovereign Lord so beautifully plans and crafts the lives of his people for their good and his glory.

Prayer
Father we thank you that you are our provider, no aspect of our lives is unknown to you or outside of your merciful care and control. Help us, when the trials of life seem to overwhelm us, to rest in the knowledge that nothing can happen to us that you haven’t given your authority to – that you know the end before the beginning and that we are safe in your hands for all eternity.  Amen

(Lesley Wells - IT Consultant - Fort William)
The Brothers come to Egypt form Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat

God’s Leadership

Moses


Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said. Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” “Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him. When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.” One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.” When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well. Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock. When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?” They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.” “And where is he?” Reuel asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.” Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage. Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.” During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight–why the bush does not burn up.” When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob–has sent me to you.’ “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation. “Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers–the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob–appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites–a land flowing with milk and honey.’ “The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go. “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.”

Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?” Then the LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied. The LORD said, “Throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the LORD said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. “This,” said the LORD, “is so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob–has appeared to you.” Then the LORD said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous–it had become as white as snow. “Now put it back into your cloak,” he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh. Then the LORD said, “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.” Moses said to the LORD, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The LORD said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” Then the LORD’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him. But take this staff in your hand so you can perform the signs with it.” Then Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Let me return to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive.” Jethro said, “Go, and I wish you well.” Now the LORD had said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all those who wanted to kill you are dead.” So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand.

Exodus 2:1-4:20 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

If Moses had known just how things were going to play out I suspect he might not have investigated that bush. A married man with child and a flock of sheep and goats to care for, what other responsibilities did he want? He had fled from Egypt where he did not really fit in. He had been brought up within the favoured network of royalty. While he was aware of his ancestry it did not really affect his lifestyle. Chances are that brother Aaron and sister Miriam were busy building the treasure cities for their oppressors.

He had fled, and settled down to a quiet pastoral sort of existence; few responsibilities and no real pressures. He knew that the rest of his tribe were being used as slave labour, but he was well out of it, and I imagine quite comfortable. Then God stepped in.

God has this habit of taking us from our comfort zones and providing challenges, and he did this with Moses; all because he went to look at that bush. I suspect that even had Moses ignored the incendiary novelty God still would have found a way to get through.

Despite the passage of time God had heard the cry of the Hebrews, and now was the time, the right time, to spirit them out of Egypt and onto the next stage of their national adventure. Moses was his man. But Moses did not think so.

He knew that the Egyptians had a whole panoply of gods, deities who governed their daily life, supported by legions of influential priests. Zaphanath-Panea was a historic figure and though his intervention in the famine years was known I suspect his Hebrew identity had been conveniently forgotten. Equally the way that Yahweh provided a means to safeguard the survival of the Egyptians alongside Jacob’s family was not mentioned in official histories. There does seem to be a long-established mechanism for excluding the divine from history. The one thing that Moses was confident about was that nobody would take him seriously, especially if this outspoken God did not have a ready made identity.

No cat, crocodile or jackal form for people to associate with this all powerful individual who made bushes catch fire, but not burn up. Just a simple statement of divine authority, I AM WHO I AM. No handy label or characteristic, simply I AM.

Moses did try to wriggle out of his great commission, but Yahweh sent him on his way, equipped with a message and a staff. But just to remind him that he was not expected to come back he took his family with him.

The arrival of Joseph in Egypt had been inauspicious, and his journey to become Pharaoh’s number two fraught with difficulty. I wonder if Moses had any doubts about his own mission. He knew that the warrant against him had lapsed, but he still faced a huge task. That of asking the absolute monarch to release his slave labour force at the request of some alien divinity.

A quick look at any Hero of Faith soon reveals their flawed humanity, their weaknesses, their insecurities and yet they stick to their God given role. Sometimes, because they are Bible characters, we endow them with super-hero qualities, but actually they are little different from the rest of the population.

God calls each of us to be his person, to live a life that glorifies him. While many people will know of John Wesley, few, if any have any idea who was actually reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans that had such a profound effect. That person was simply obeying what God had called them to. Sadly the church as a community tends to give precedence to those who serve the kingdom, missionaries, teachers , nurses, social workers and the like. Yet encourage few to see accountancy and engineering as equally godly roles; but as recent history has shown us we need God orientated people in banking and commerce and politics too come to that.

Moses could indeed be considered a great leader, but when you come down to it he was simply God’s messenger. That’s your role too.

Prayer
Lord God, help me each day to take up my task for you, the task of being the best I can be at whatever it is you want me to do. Help me when I feel discouraged, help me when I am disillusioned by work colleagues, enable me to stay firm, even when the system seems weighted against me. Remind me each day that I am in the place where you want me to be, bringing your light to a world of darkness. Amen

Michael Wells (Retired Teacher and SU Evangelist) Fort William - Scotland

The Burning Bush Scene From the Movie The Prince of Egypt by Dreamworks

Passover and Exodus

The Israelites


The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door-frames of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire–with the head, legs and internal organs. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD–a lasting ordinance. For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel. On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat; that is all you may do. “Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And anyone, whether foreigner or native-born, who eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel. Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread.” Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the door-frame. None of you shall go out of the door of your house until morning. When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the door-frame and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down. “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the LORD will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’ ” Then the people bowed down and worshiped.

The Israelites did just what the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron. At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the LORD as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me.” The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. “For otherwise,” they said, “we will all die!” So the people took their dough before the yeast was added, and carried it on their shoulders in kneading troughs wrapped in clothing. The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The LORD had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians. The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. With the dough the Israelites had brought from Egypt, they baked loaves of unleavened bread. The dough was without yeast because they had been driven out of Egypt and did not have time to prepare food for themselves. Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the LORD’s divisions left Egypt. Because the LORD kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt, on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil to honor the LORD for the generations to come. The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover meal: “No foreigner may eat it. Any slave you have bought may eat it after you have circumcised him, but a temporary resident or a hired worker may not eat it. “It must be eaten inside the house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. The whole community of Israel must celebrate it. “A foreigner residing among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it. The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you.” All the Israelites did just what the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron. And on that very day the LORD brought the Israelites out of Egypt by their divisions.

The LORD said to Moses, “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal.” Then Moses said to the people, “Commemorate this day, the day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, because the LORD brought you out of it with a mighty hand. Eat nothing containing yeast. Today, in the month of Aviv, you are leaving. When the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites and Jebusites–the land he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey–you are to observe this ceremony in this month: For seven days eat bread made without yeast and on the seventh day hold a festival to the LORD. Eat unleavened bread during those seven days; nothing with yeast in it is to be seen among you, nor shall any yeast be seen anywhere within your borders. On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that this law of the LORD is to be on your lips. For the LORD brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand. You must keep this ordinance at the appointed time year after year. “After the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you, as he promised on oath to you and your ancestors, you are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons. “In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’ And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the LORD brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” So the Israelites did this. When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. The Egyptians–all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops–pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon. As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.” Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.” Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the LORD swept them into the sea. The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen–the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived. But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.

Exodus 12:1-14:31 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

Those Egyptians could not have been very bright, having suffered a series of very unnatural disasters all predicted by God’s messenger, they then chose to follow this helpless band of ex-slaves in expectation of slaughtering them. I suppose that they had come up with rational and satisfactory scientific explanations to account for the traumatic events; events so exceptional that they were happy to part with the family jewels if only to get these wretched Israelites out of their land. God’s final intervention was not only dramatic, but devastating.

Twenty first century humanity frequently under-estimates God. No longer do we have fears about the uncertainty of the weather, gone are the superstitious practices of trusting in specific numbers. The days of wearing lucky garments and checking the omens are well past. But we still seem to treat the Creator God with a measure of disdain. The media so often present God’s people as well intentioned and slightly soppy. Bishops are exhorted to stick to religion and stay out of politics or social issues; while the western world seems content to create gods in their own image and to suit their own proclivities. In a world where moral absolutes are fast becoming the last refuge of the bigot, the only acceptable world view seems to be liberalism, but only so long as it agrees with my particular strand of liberal thought.

But, in our fast changing and fragmenting society God continues. The same God who forged a nation out of an extended family, and you have only to look back over the past week to see what a bunch of misfits they were. Imagine sacrificing paradise for a new taste sensation, getting drunk after surviving a global catastrophe. Side-stepping God’s plan, though I daresay Abram blamed Sarai. Cheating your own brother and father, selling your brother into slavery. And Moses was not a whole lot better. As the narrative of the Exodus unfolds his personal weaknesses are also exposed. I find it encouraging that God’s champions were samples of flawed humanity. Many years ago I discovered a series of books by John Hercus that delved into the character of some of the patriarchs; so encouraging to be reminded of the human failings in these people, and the way that God graciously dealt with them.

It would appear that the Egyptians were pretty thick, how could they not realise that they were pitted against the only divinity that counted. So what of God’s chosen people, Israel, named for Jacob? Having lived through the series of Egyptian Plagues and remained unscathed they saw the pursuing army and panicked, calling on God to aid them. I rather like the Living Bible paraphrase that gives us God’s response, ”Then the Lord said to Moses, “Quit praying and get the people moving! Forward, march! Use your rod – hold it out over the water, and the sea will open up a path before you, and all the people of Israel shall walk through on dry ground!” [Ex 14 v 14-16] In the same way Jesus last injunction to his disciples was “Go!” {Matt 28 v 19]

The Israelites were on a journey, a journey that through hardship and danger would forge them into a nation. Many times on that pilgrimage they would take a wrong turning, forget God’s wonderful achievements in their life and even appear to forsake him, seeking worldly alternatives. But God’s love for this people was resolute, he was going to stick with them and care for them, caring in just the same way as a conscientious parent.

The image of the Passover prefigures the events of Christ’s passion that redeems us. The Children of Israel appear to have quickly forgotten their amazing redemption and lost sight of the power of God at work in his creation. There are times when we too readily forget that the God we worship is all powerful and lose confidence.

Prayer
God of my eternal future help me not to forget your involvement in my past and help me to trust you, even when standing alone and afraid, I feel oppressed and hemmed in. Amen

Michael Wells (Retired Teacher and SU Evangelist) Fort William - Scotland

From the movie The Ten Commandments

Giving the Torah at Sinai

God

On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt–on that very day–they came to the Desert of Sinai. After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desertof Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD. The LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” Then Moses told the LORD what the people had said. And the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.” After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations.” On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the LORD said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them.” Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’ ” The LORD replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the LORD, or he will break out against them.” So Moses went down to the people and told them.

And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. “You shall not murder. “You shall not commit adultery. “You shall not steal. “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

Exodus 19:1-20:20 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis)

Mount Sinai must have been a very scary place as Moses left the children of Israel at the base of the mountain and slowly walked up into the mountain of noise and fire. Mountains are very awe inspiring, and anyone with any clue about them will tell you that they are places where you can very quickly die, as you become lost as the winds and rain increase and the mists come down. They are also places where we can encounter jaw dropping beauty and have life changing, near mystical experiences.

How much more where the Holiness of the creator God was manifest in all the noise and light like that in the centre of an erupting volcano. 

However, Moses knew God; he had already encountered Him in the burning bush where he had discovered that God’s flames are not always consuming and that He was a God with a personal name “I am”. He had seen the terrible plagues inflicted on the hardened hearted Pharaoh and his people and cowered under the protection of a house daubed in sacrificial blood, as the angel of death passed over. He had experienced walking to freedom through the dry bed of the Red sea with towering mountains of water on either side pent up to engulf the pursuing Egyptians. So here he was now slowly walking into a maelstrom safe in the knowledge that” I am” had ordered him up into His special protection to meet in person the Living God. 

So, what was the Torah? Just a set of simple rules to get to heaven? 
No way! If anything, it was the start of a personal relationship, answering the age-old question: “how does a weak and sinful human being, approach a Holy and powerful God?” 

The answer lies in the first commandment You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Love is from the Hebrew root “aheb”, used many times in the Song of Songs as the intense passionate love of two lovers in the first flush of desire.

The Torah was the whole set of commands that set up the rules and regulations where God would dwell with His people; first hovering over the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies where a trembling high priest offered a sacrifice for the sins of the people, and eventually in the Jerusalem temple. However, this whole system did not really change people’s hearts, and we witness few people in the old testament with this close-up and personal relationship with God, people like David in Psalm 32:1   

You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. Also, some of the prophets like Isaiah, who met with God between two fiery seraphs in the temple.

The demand for holiness only increases with the coming of Jesus. As he stands on the mount delivering His sermon, any wriggle-room we might have imagined in the words of the commandments from Sinai are squashed by Jesus. “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matt 5:48

Jesus was the only person living who actually fulfilled the demands of Torah, Jesus was the only perfect Lamb capable of  taking not just the guilt of our sin away, but also its power, and only Jesus is the way into the wide-open arms of our loving heavenly Father.  

Dr Ian Hempshall (retired GP) Lewes - East Sussex

The Ten Commandments Song by the Good Shepherd Band

The Fall of Jericho

Joshua


After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them–to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates–all the Hittite country–to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them. “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” So Joshua ordered the officers of the people: “Go through the camp and tell the people, ‘Get your provisions ready. Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the LORD your God is giving you for your own.’ “

Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in. Then the LORD said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.” So Joshua son of Nun called the priests and said to them, “Take up the ark of the covenant of the LORD and have seven priests carry trumpets in front of it.” And he ordered the army, “Advance! March around the city, with an armed guard going ahead of the ark of the LORD.” When Joshua had spoken to the people, the seven priests carrying the seven trumpets before the LORD went forward, blowing their trumpets, and the ark of the LORD’s covenant followed them. The armed guard marched ahead of the priests who blew the trumpets, and the rear guard followed the ark. All this time the trumpets were sounding. But Joshua had commanded the army, “Do not give a war cry, do not raise your voices, do not say a word until the day I tell you to shout. Then shout!” So he had the ark of the LORD carried around the city, circling it once. Then the army returned to camp and spent the night there. Joshua got up early the next morning and the priests took up the ark of the LORD. The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets went forward, marching before the ark of the LORD and blowing the trumpets. The armed men went ahead of them and the rear guard followed the ark of the LORD, while the trumpets kept sounding. So on the second day they marched around the city once and returned to the camp. They did this for six days. On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the LORD has given you the city! The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the LORD. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent. But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the LORD and must go into his treasury.” When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.

Joshua 1:1-11, 6:1-20 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

It must have been quite a daunting prospect, not only was this new role that of leader of the nation of Israel, but Joshua had to follow Moses. Moses that charismatic prophet of God who had met with him face to face on the mountain of the law. Moses, the man who had outfaced Pharaoh. Moses, who had interceded with God to preserve the wilful and disobedient Israelites, and succeeded. No wonder Joshua is told time and time again, “Be strong”.

For various reasons of late I have been reflecting on my own personal history, looking back over the decades and tracking the many changes in my life. My childhood spanned the nineteen fifties and sixties, a time of great change and social upheaval. The streets of London that I played in were littered with signs of the war, bomb damage was everywhere and an air of decay seemed to hang over everything. Although class distinctions were fading, within the Christian community things continued to reflect the Edwardian era, if not the values of Victorian England. Children were still expected to be seen and not heard and women too were expected to remain silent. It was hardly surprising that when I discovered my venerable and highly respected headmaster might be replaced by a women I was scandalised. However working alongside her I quickly discovered my error, she was a leader of vision and great ability, teaching  me more about my profession than I had learnt in three years at university; choosing to leave her teaching staff was not one of my wisest decisions. Within the church I had been earmarked and trained for leadership, after all I did possess the requisite number of chromosomes. Though it had never really been put into words I had absorbed the idea that leadership was a male prerogative, and Joshua was the oft-quoted example. It is easy to see why this is a prevalent attitude, take a swift journey through this Advent calendar and spot the female exemplars, Elizabeth, Mary and of course Eve; the cause of all the trouble in the first place.

But if we look at the history of the church it is noticeable just how often women are the driving force, those who roll up their sleeves and simply get on and do. It seems that often they are the active ones who God calls to serve in pioneering mission, and frequently they are far more effective under God than a male.

The story of Joshua has for me always been about leadership, and leadership within the Christian community does not depend on gender or even the skill set of the individual, but a total reliance on God to provide what is required. Joshua was required simply to stand and rely on the abiding presence of God.

I suspect that Joshua was rather nonplussed by the Jericho game plan; here was an impregnable walled city, walls so big that houses were built on them, and he was instructed to march around it. Once a day I can imagine the bemused citizens looking out at the rag tag army circumnavigating their bastion. Doubtless rumour had reached them of the activities of this proto-nation as they wandered in the deserts, but even this would have appeared very odd. No battle cries, no threats of destruction, simply a silent army, obeying God’s instructions with the ram’s horn trumpets blaring away.

For us there is no surprise in Joshua’s walk-over victory. Of course those walls would fall down. But imagine the scene when he described the strategy to the tribal leaders; they may well have nodded their heads in wise agreement, but in private had many reservations not only about the man but his methods. Imagine the rumours that swept the Israelite camp at the end of day five, another day of marching around and no engagement with the enemy. I cannot imagine the people blandly accepting that this was God’s battle plan, there must have been muttering and murmuring; they certainly had no great tradition of simply trusting Yahweh. Joshua did not have just his alien foes to worry about, but he trusted, and simply followed his divine instructions.

Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus told them this “I want to remind you that your strength must come from the Lord’s mighty power within you.  Put on all of God’s armour so that you will be able to stand safe against all strategies and tricks of Satan . . . use every piece of God’s armour to resist the enemy whenever he attacks, and when it is all over, you will still be standing up. But to do this, you will need the strong belt of truth and the breastplate of God’s approval.  Wear shoes that are able to speed you on as you preach the Good News of peace with God.  In every battle you will need faith as your shield to stop the fiery arrows aimed at you by Satan.  And you will need the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit—which is the Word of God. Pray all the time.” [Eph 6 v 10 – 18 Living Bible]

Sounds just like the advice that Joshua was given.

Prayer
We thank you Heavenly Father for the example of people like Joshua who obeyed you with such energy that they persuaded the less energetic to join in despite their misgivings. Help us, we pray, to be willing to be not always the up-front leader, but also to be satisfied in just bringing up the rear, one of those who rolls up their sleeves and just does the job. Help us to long for the servant heart of Jesus so that we might delight in the mundane and the unnoticed and serve you with a humble heart. Amen

Michael Wells (Retired Teacher and SU Evangelist) Fort William - Scotland
God’s Story: Joshua and the Battle of Jericho – told with boxes!

Unlikely Heroes

Gideon


Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the LORD’s commands. Whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the LORD relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and said, “Because this nation has violated the covenant I ordained for their ancestors and has not listened to me, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the LORD and walk in it as their ancestors did.” The LORD had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua.

The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count them or their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the LORD for help.

Jdg 7:1-25 NIV – Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. The LORD said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’ ” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained. But the LORD said to Gideon, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the LORD told him, “Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.” Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. The LORD said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.” So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others. Now the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley. During that night the LORD said to Gideon, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp.” So he and Purah his servant went down to the outposts of the camp.

The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore. Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. “I had a dream,” he was saying. “A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.” His friend responded, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.” When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he bowed down and worshiped. He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, “Get up! The LORD has given the Midianite camp into your hands.” Dividing the three hundred men into three companies, he placed trumpets and empty jars in the hands of all of them, with torches inside. “Watch me,” he told them. “Follow my lead. When I get to the edge of the camp, do exactly as I do. When I and all who are with me blow our trumpets, then from all around the camp blow yours and shout, ‘For the LORD and for Gideon.’ ” Gideon and the hundred men with him reached the edge of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard. They blew their trumpets and broke the jars that were in their hands. The three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars. Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets they were to blow, they shouted, “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!” While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled. When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the LORD caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The army fled to Beth Shittah toward Zererah as far as the border of Abel Meholah near Tabbath. Israelites from Naphtali, Asher and all Manasseh were called out, and they pursued the Midianites. Gideon sent messengers throughout the hill country of Ephraim, saying, “Come down against the Midianites and seize the waters of the Jordan ahead of them as far as Beth Barah.” So all the men of Ephraim were called out and they seized the waters of the Jordan as far as Beth Barah. They also captured two of the Midianite leaders, Oreb and Zeeb. They killed Oreb at the rock of Oreb, and Zeeb at the winepress of Zeeb. They pursued the Midianites and brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon, who was by the Jordan.

Judges 2:6-23, 6:1-6, 7

Thinking it through . . .

I find it interesting that it was an almost unknown who saved the Israelites out of the hands of the raiders, not a monarch, and not the military. Earlier God had said  “You shall appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your towns which the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment”. (Deuteronomy 16:18) Since unrighteous judgement cannot be a true judgement it would not be too surprising if the people were rebelling against unjust or corrupt judges, we know there were a few judges in that category, but as far as we can see the majority of them were God fearing and God serving. No, it was God himself they were rebelling against, just as we still do today. Over and over we find God’s chosen people:

  • prostituted themselves with other gods and worshiped them
  • quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors
  • returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors
  • violated the covenant God ordained for their ancestors
  • did evil in the eyes of the Lord

Into this relentless circle of stubborn rebellion, evil practice followed by pleas for help to escape God’s just punishment, steps our unlikely hero – Gideon. Everything we read makes us feel sympathy for him; that feeling of “I’ve bitten off more that I can chew here” or worse still “How did I get here – why has this all been dropped on me?” I’m sure we’ve all experienced that in our lives, but seldom would we have been fighting for our very survival, and the future of our nation as well.

There were many ways God could have saved His people – he could have:

  • prepared a leader born in a royal household or a famous military family
  • raised up a team of great strategists who could have gained intelligence and outsmarted the enemy
  • prepared an SAS style group of heroes who could do the job and train others
  • sent a virus to wipe out the Midianites

Instead he chose to use a fairly unextraordinary man – but Gideon did have one attribute that probably set him apart from many of his peers – he prayed! He not only talked to God but, more importantly, listened to God and was prepared to act out in faith the instructions he received. So that’s why we find the guy who had been hiding from the enemy camping at the spring of Harod along with many thousands of his fellow countrymen.

Years ago I read a wonderful book by Donald Kraybill called The Upside Down Kingdom. It’s been re-printed recently and definitely worth getting hold of. His basic proposition is that as Christians we should be turning the world upside down by following Christ’s instructions fully. For example, all staff who work for the church should be paid equally since no job is less honourable or less worthy in God’s eyes than any other. The Janitor should be paid the same as the minister – there’s a thought. In this scenario, the world’s way of handling this kind of emergency would be to scream ‘more, more’. More men, more horses, more armour etc. The very, very last thing that anyone would expect would be for God to reduce what little resources this weak and beleaguered army had – and not by a little but by a lot – a big lot!

Gideon had clearly gained considerable authority by this stage as his seemingly mad instructions were followed to the letter. No doubt many were happy to be sent home but many others must have felt either incredulous or insulted, or both. But home they went and we are left with just 300 men. Yes, OK, the lapping of water does suggest that most of them had probably had some training with Bear Grylls but what is 300 against thousands upon thousands?

Well we know the stunning outcome, and we know that God arranged it to happen like that so that the Israelites couldn’t take the credit to themselves. When things work for the glory of God this is usually much more to do with us being saved from ourselves. God doesn’t need the puny praises of humankind (he existed a long time without it) but we need to see things from the right perspective – which is often ‘upside down’ by the world’s standards.

Looking at the records it’s clear that the Israelites had a great penchant for wondering away from their true love and prostituting themselves with false gods, and it has to be said that this has always been true of the rest of humanity. Can you imagine how God’s chosen people would have behaved had they been able to believe that they had routed the enemy simply because of their bravery and cunning?

So with all this in mind I will have to remind myself the next time I panic and start telling God that I need more of this and more of that if I’m to have the victory, that it’s always his victory anyway, and that less is often very much more when it comes to God’s way of doing things!

Prayer
Heavenly Father, forgive us we pray when we fail to ask for your help but so often choose to do things our way, forgive us too when we do ask for your help but can’t quite trust you to see to the details. Please give us that child-like trust that believes that Daddy will keep his word, that Mummy will comfort us. Unlike our human parents we know that you will never fail us or forsake us. Help us to live out that truth in our lives, in both the good times and the bad. And when the times of trial are over and we’ve been rescued yet again, let us not take the credit for ourselves – but “cast our crowns before you, lost in wonder, love and praise”.  Amen

Lesley Wells (IT Consultant) Fort William - Scotland

A very helpful summary of Judges by Read Scripture

The Kingdom Begins

Samuel


The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions. One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called Samuel. Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down. Again the LORD called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” “My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. A third time the LORD called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And the LORD said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family–from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’ ” Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the LORD. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.” Samuel answered, “Here I am.” “What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.” So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes.” The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.

So the men of Kiriath Jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD. They brought it to Abinadab’s house on the hill and consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the LORD. The ark remained at Kiriath Jearim a long time–twenty years in all. Then all the people of Israel turned back to the LORD. So Samuel said to all the Israelites, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only. Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah, and I will intercede with the LORD for you.” When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the LORD. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the LORD.” Now Samuel was serving as leader of Israel at Mizpah. When the Philistines heard that Israel had assembled at Mizpah, the rulers of the Philistines came up to attack them. When the Israelites heard of it, they were afraid because of the Philistines. They said to Samuel, “Do not stop crying out to the LORD our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines.”

When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders. The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice. So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the LORD. The LORD answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.” Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”

Now the day before Saul came, the LORD had revealed this to Samuel: “About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him ruler over my people Israel; he will deliver them from the hand of the Philistines. I have looked on my people, for their cry has reached me.” When Samuel caught sight of Saul, the LORD said to him, “This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people.” Saul approached Samuel in the gateway and asked, “Would you please tell me where the seer’s house is?” “I am the seer,” Samuel replied. “Go up ahead of me to the high place, for today you are to eat with me, and in the morning I will send you on your way and will tell you all that is in your heart. As for the donkeys you lost three days ago, do not worry about them; they have been found. And to whom is all the desire of Israel turned, if not to you and your whole family line?” Saul answered, “But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why do you say such a thing to me?” Then Samuel brought Saul and his servant into the hall and seated them at the head of those who were invited–about thirty in number. Samuel said to the cook, “Bring the piece of meat I gave you, the one I told you to lay aside.” So the cook took up the thigh with what was on it and set it in front of Saul. Samuel said, “Here is what has been kept for you. Eat, because it was set aside for you for this occasion from the time I said, ‘I have invited guests.’ ” And Saul dined with Samuel that day. After they came down from the high place to the town, Samuel talked with Saul on the roof of his house. They rose about daybreak, and Samuel called to Saul on the roof, “Get ready, and I will send you on your way.” When Saul got ready, he and Samuel went outside together. As they were going down to the edge of the town, Samuel said to Saul, “Tell the servant to go on ahead of us”–and the servant did so–“but you stay here for a while, so that I may give you a message from God.”

Then Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, “Has not the LORD anointed you ruler over his inheritance? When you leave me today, you will meet two men near Rachel’s tomb, at Zelzah on the border of Benjamin. They will say to you, ‘The donkeys you set out to look for have been found. And now your father has stopped thinking about them and is worried about you. He is asking, “What shall I do about my son?” ‘ “Then you will go on from there until you reach the great tree of Tabor. Three men going up to worship God at Bethel will meet you there. One will be carrying three young goats, another three loaves of bread, and another a skin of wine. They will greet you and offer you two loaves of bread, which you will accept from them. “After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, timbrels, pipes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. The Spirit of the LORD will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person. Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you. “Go down ahead of me to Gilgal. I will surely come down to you to sacrifice burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, but you must wait seven days until I come to you and tell you what you are to do.” As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart, and all these signs were fulfilled that day.

1 Samuel 3:1-21, 7:1-8:22, 9:15-10:9 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

I wonder what is your image of the daily scene at Shiloh the small community where the Tabernacle was situated. Lots of visitors, people like Elkanah, Hannah his unsuccessful wife and Penninah the fruitful one, come to make their annual offerings. Merchants would undoubtedly have taken advantage of the regular stream of visitors, setting up regular markets and trading stalls. There would be the usual hangers on, the idle ready to take advantage of any opportunity for profit and the curious. Centre stage was the sacrificial area, an active slaughterhouse with bellowing and bleating and flapping wings and the pervasive odour of sacrifice. All this presided over by Hopni and Phineas corrupt sons of Eli the High Priest.

Samuel was thrust into the turbulent world when he was a child, his mum’s grateful offering to God for answered prayer. Understandably God had remained silent, what did he have to say to these godless leaders of faith. He spoke instead to a child. There is something very special about the relationship of child with God which we so often disregard, perceiving child as an empty vessel that needs to be filled with dogma and doctrine, or at the very least Bible stories. Jesus, reflecting God’s own perception of children, had a very different view.

 Being a child is the highest calling of God. Jesus called a small child over to him and set the little fellow down among them,  and said, “Unless you turn to God from your sins and become as little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore anyone who humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  And any of you who welcomes a little child like this because you are mine is welcoming me and caring for me.  But if any of you causes one of these little ones who trusts in me to lose his faith it would be better for you to have a rock tied to your neck and be thrown into the sea. [Matthew 18 v 2-6 Living Bible]

It is worth remembering that Samuel became God’s director of communication while still a child. Little wonder that he was seen as a man of authority as he grew up’ here’s another little quote to think on The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground.” Even the words that he spoke were seen as significant to God.

Make Israel great was the people’s cry. We want to move away from being governed by God, it is about time we were given our independence and had a king just like everyone else around here. Sam warned of the consequences of becoming a kingdom rather than a genuine theocracy, but the chattering masses were insistent. What was remarkable was that God acquiesced. He knew just how things were going to work out, he told the people in no uncertain terms that a monarchy was little more than a dictatorship, and personal freedoms would be diminished if not actually destroyed. But Israel was not to be denied this opportunity for self government; this was the will of the people.

Samuel was sent off on his quest for a suitable candidate and he came across him looking for  lost donkeys.

Saul was indeed a stirring figure and archetypal ruler, even though he came from a small family within the minor clan of Benjamin. As Samuel was to discover when he went on a further king hunt, God’s choice is often the small and apparently insignificant as he sees just what we are really like. Terrifyingly there is no fooling God; maybe that is why children are perceived as being special, they have few illusions about themselves and a devastatingly innocent honesty. But God had not finished, Saul was to be transformed by God’s Spirit; then he would indeed be king.

The forty odd kings of Israel and Judah were a mixed bunch, some were bad, others were awful and even the best of them had flaws. If you can get hold of a copy of Nick Page’s The Tabloid Bible there is a helpful rundown of the kings on page 104/105

Even so God calls on us to respect all rulers, not always easy in today’s global society, and to pray for them.

Prayer
Heavenly Father we bring before you all leaders and rulers of the nations; we pray that despite so many of them ignoring you or even denying you, you are the true ruler of the world, the true Sovereign. Turn the hearts all those who rule us to seek the truth and to find it in you, so that they may lead the nations along the paths of peace; for Jesus’ sake we ask this. Amen

Michael Wells (Retired Teacher and SU Evangelist) Fort William - Scotland
Here I am Lord (Lord of Sea & Sky) written and sung by John Michael Talbot

A Shepherd for the People

David


The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.” The LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.” Samuel did what the LORD said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?” Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD.” But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The LORD has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the LORD chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The LORD has not chosen these.” So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.” Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.” So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him. Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.”

So Saul said to his attendants, “Find someone who plays well and bring him to me.” One of the servants answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the LORD is with him.” Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” So Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them with his son David to Saul. David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.” Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.

Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah. They pitched camp at Ephes Dammim, between Sokoh and Azekah. Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them. A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits and a span. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him. Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified. Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul’s time he was very old. Jesse’s three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war: The firstborn was Eliab; the second, Abinadab; and the third, Shammah. David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand. Now Jesse said to his son David, “Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. Take along these ten cheeses to the commander of their unit. See how your brothers are and bring back some assurance from them. They are with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines.”

Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and asked his brothers how they were. As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear. Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel.” David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” They repeated to him what they had been saying and told him, “This is what will be done for the man who kills him.” When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.” “Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before. What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him. David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.” Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.”

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine. Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. He looked David over and saw that he was little more than a boy, glowing with health and handsome, and he despised him. He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!” David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground. So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword. When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran. Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines to the entrance of Gath and to the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the Shaaraim road to Gath and Ekron. When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp. David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem; he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent. As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, Your Majesty, I don’t know.” The king said, “Find out whose son this young man is.” As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with David still holding the Philistine’s head. “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”

All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “We are your own flesh and blood. In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns. And the LORD said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.’ ” When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the king made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

After the king was settled in his palace and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you.” But that night the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying: “Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” ‘ “Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth. And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, as they did at the beginning and have done ever since the time I appointed leaders over my people Israel. I will also give you rest from all your enemies. ” ‘The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’ ” Nathan reported to David all the words of this entire revelation.

1 Samuel 16:1-23-17:58 – 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 7:1-17 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

An Interview with David

“So David” I asked. “Why did all those men joined you in the cave of Adullum? I think there were around 400?”

Those eyes! They twinkled like stars.

‘Well, I asked myself the same question. I’m only human. However, I understood how they felt and we certainly had a lot in common.”

I looked at David quizzically. “What do you mean?”

His eyes focused with greater intensity as he recalled his past. “Well, I know what it was to be considered a non-entity by my own family and despised by my eldest brother. I was also a victim of intense jealousy.”

“Don’t stop” I whispered. He took a deep breath and then continued. “I understand what it  was to spend years running for my life and how it felt to be attacked and nearly killed on numerous occasions. I know how it felt to be brutally betrayed by my own people – yes, even my own son! I lost my self-respect, dribbled down my beard and scratched on doors in a moment of sheer madness. Then I was despised by my own wife!” He looked up at me again. His eyes moist.

“It gets worse.” It seemed impossible. “Worse?” I exclaimed.

“Yes!” His eyes lowered. He didn’t look at me. “I committed unbelievable sins! I committed adultery with the wife of one of my finest and most loyal soldiers. Then I made him carry his own death warrant to the front line so that he was killed. Oh! That following year was hell on earth, as I masked my misery and denial. I tell you. I suffered the consequences: My beautiful daughter was raped. One of my sons was murdered in cold blood. Another of my sons betrayed me and was joined by one of my personal counsellors and closest friend, who eventually committed suicide.”

“I had stones thrown at me by a crazed man. I was cursed and publicly humiliated. And to top it all, my rotten pride made me partially responsible for the deaths of 70,000 people!”

“But David,” I interjected. “We all know you as the one who killed a lion, a bear and a giant killing machine called Goliath. Your bravery and exploits were sung throughout the land. Come to think of it, your songs and poems are still enjoyed throughout the whole world today! You showed great grace to your enemy king Saul and his family. You could have killed them so many times, but you didn’t. You even made your mean angry eldest brother, into one of your mighty men!”

David’s smile returned. “The men who joined me in that cave were stressed out. Talk about high blood pressure! Most of them were more broken than the ten commandments. They’d all been deeply wronged. There was a certain frequency of pain that we had all experienced and recognised. No, they certainly didn’t come to me to learn how to throw stones and sing songs.”

“I get it,” I said. “These are the kind of people who come to Jesus today. They’re also in need. Pressure drives them to seek Him out.” “That’s so true,” David smiled again. “However, it’s not only their physical and material needs. One of your cynics once said that more and more people today are leaving the church to find God. There is more than a smattering of truth in that.” David momentarily stopped smiling. He leaned forward and said, “Many are tired of  poverty stricken sermons, sham religion and heart aching paucity of worship. They want God and an intimate awareness and relationship with Jesus. That cave, as you can imagine brought us close together. Very close.”                    

“How did you feel when all these people arrived at your door . . . I mean . . . cave?”

“Well I certainly didn’t line them all up and say what on God’s earth are you all doing here?”

“Go Home. Saul had made sure they had no homes to go to. But I was surprised they stayed. After all, there was no air conditioning or heating, no showers or privacy. Water was quite a way off. It wasn’t exactly a first class hotel! As you know, many years later when Jesus saw the multitude He was filled with compassion for them. He saw them as sheep without a shepherd.  And guess what? I was a shepherd.”

Eagerly I asked, “David. How did you help them? Did you find out who could cook and clean, and those with strength enough to carry water pots? Did you organise those who could make weapons, strategise and fight well?” Now his eyes really twinkled. “Yes, I did all that. But above all, I gave them the one thing that no one can really live without.” “What was that I asked.” “I gave them hope. Together we “fostered expectancy when everything looked totally hopeless”*.”

“Did you give them the hope to beat Saul?”

“Yes, but more importantly, hope in God.”

I was intrigued. “Surely,” I said, ‘It also had to be a training camp, a recruitment centre, an education complex?” David nodded. “It was all of these. But unfortunately you can have all that and still not have what really matters. You must have the God of Hope, and copious amounts of His love.”

“So you loved them?”

“Yes, I did!”

“And they loved you back?”

“Yes. They sure did! And that’s the point. I’ll illustrate it. One day, years later, it was hot, I mean really hot and I, as thirsty people do, was thinking about water. I murmured out loud how good it would be to have a drink of water from the well by the gate in Bethlehem. That was my home town. I knew it well. I also knew that the Philistines used it as a garrison. You couldn’t get near the place. However, three of my men overheard me and immediately they took off to Bethlehem, smashed their way through the gate, wound down their bucket, filled up a jar with the precious sweet water and raced back with it. They stood in front of me, each one with the biggest smile on their face.”

“What did you do David?” I whispered.

“Do? I was astonished. I remember I broke down and wept. I couldn’t drink it. It was as if they’d given me their blood, their very lives. So in honour to them, I poured it out before the Lord. Yes, they loved me. That’s how I knew. And that was just one example.”

David wiped the tears from his eyes and grinned. “Now you can understand why, with men like that around me, the Cave of Adullum became known as ‘The Stronghold.’ Incidentally, do you know what ‘Adullum’ means?” It was my turn to smile. “No, but I’d like to.”  ‘Refuge” said David. Then he looked at me intensely and said “I see you have fled to Jesus for refuge?”  “I sure have” I replied.

Postscript
I believe that Jesus was thrilled to be called The Son of David. It was a smart move by two blind beggars to call out to Jesus by that name . . . “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The words stopped Him in his tracks. Only the Messiah had that name! He heard more than a cry for mercy. He also heard a history lesson. Five verses from the end of the Bible, Jesus delights to say . . .

I am the root and offspring of David, and the bright and morning star

* G K Chesterson.

Prayer
Heavenly Father, may we run to our greater David this Christmas season and find in Him our eternal refuge. Amen

Len Magee (Pastor - Singer - Songwriter) Australia

The Threats of False Gods

Elijah


Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.” So he did what the LORD had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the LORD came to him: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.” “As surely as the LORD your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread–only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it–and die.” Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD sends rain on the land.’ ” She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah.

After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah: “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.” So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria, and Ahab had summoned Obadiah, his palace administrator. (Obadiah was a devout believer in the LORD. While Jezebel was killing off the LORD’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.) Ahab had said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs and valleys. Maybe we can find some grass to keep the horses and mules alive so we will not have to kill any of our animals.” So they divided the land they were to cover, Ahab going in one direction and Obadiah in another. As Obadiah was walking along, Elijah met him. Obadiah recognized him, bowed down to the ground, and said, “Is it really you, my lord Elijah?” “Yes,” he replied. “Go tell your master, ‘Elijah is here.’ ” “What have I done wrong,” asked Obadiah, “that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to be put to death? As surely as the LORD your God lives, there is not a nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to look for you. And whenever a nation or kingdom claimed you were not there, he made them swear they could not find you. But now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ I don’t know where the Spirit of the LORD may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn’t find you, he will kill me. Yet I your servant have worshiped the LORD since my youth. Haven’t you heard, my lord, what I did while Jezebel was killing the prophets of the LORD? I hid a hundred of the LORD’s prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied them with food and water. And now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ He will kill me!” Elijah said, “As the LORD Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today.” So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah. When he saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the LORD’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing. Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the LORD’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire–he is God.” Then all the people said, “What you say is good.” Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” So they took the bull given them and prepared it. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention. Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which had been torn down.

Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.” “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again. “Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench. At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD–he is God! The LORD–he is God!” Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there. And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked. “There is nothing there,” he said. Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.” The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’ ” Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. The power of the LORD came on Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.

1 Kings 17:1-16, 18:17-46 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

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Faithfulness & Deliverance

Hezekiah


In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned inJerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.) Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the LORD and did not stop following him; he kept the commands the LORD had given Moses. And the LORD was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him. From watchtower to fortified city, he defeated the Philistines, as far as Gaza and its territory. In King Hezekiah’s fourth year, which was the seventh year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Shalmaneser king of Assyria marched against Samaria and laid siege to it. At the end of three years the Assyrians took it. So Samaria was captured in Hezekiah’s sixth year, which was the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel. The king of Assyria deported Israel to Assyria and settled them in Halah, in Gozan on the Habor River and in towns of the Medes. This happened because they had not obeyed the LORD their God, but had violated his covenant–all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded. They neither listened to the commands nor carried them out. In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. So Hezekiah king of Judah sent this message to the king of Assyria at Lachish: “I have done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me.” The king of Assyria exacted from Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. So Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the temple of the LORD and in the treasuries of the royal palace. At this time Hezekiah king of Judah stripped off the gold with which he had covered the doors and doorposts of the temple of the LORD, and gave it to the king of Assyria. The king of Assyria sent his supreme commander, his chief officer and his field commander with a large army, from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. They came up to Jerusalem and stopped at the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Washerman’s Field. They called for the king; and Eliakim son of Hilkiah the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder went out to them. The field commander said to them, “Tell Hezekiah: ” ‘This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours?

“Therefore this is what the LORD says concerning the king of Assyria: ” ‘He will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here. He will not come before it with shield or build a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came he will return; he will not enter this city, declares the LORD. I will defend this city and save it, for my sake and for the sake of David my servant.’ ” That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning–there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there. One day, while he was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisrok, his sons Adrammelek and Sharezer killed him with the sword, and they escaped to the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son succeeded him as king.

2 Kings 18:1-19, 19:32-37 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

Truth used to be the first casualty in war. Now it seems to be in danger of permanent disablement. In our world it is difficult to distinguish the voices that have a serious claim on our attention from those that seek to mislead. “Fake news” has become a pandemic virus, and it can feel simplistic or naive to believe anything we hear.

The dilemma about what or whom to believe is not new, nor is the cunning that knows how to exploit it. This story about King Hezekiah of Judah, besieged in Jerusalem by the mighty Assyrian army, has the question of trust at its heart. And Hezekiah is presented to us as a king who trusted God (18:5).

Jerusalem’s miraculous deliverance from Sennacherib’s siege, against all possible calculation, is celebrated in Byron’s famous poem: ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, and his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold . . . ” By the time this proud horde reached the gates of Jerusalem, it had already laid waste to every other part of Judah (18:13). Its commander’s boasting about victory after victory on its inexorable march of conquest (18:33-35) was not idle. The people trembling inside the city walls had every reason to believe it. Indeed, his loud assertions of invincibility were a weapon of war, intended to frighten into submission, as the city leaders well understood (18:26-27); they too may have believed the rhetoric.

But it was not just the ‘gleaming cohorts’ of the Assyrian army that the commander relied on. To ‘project fear’ he added ‘fake news’. A clever and committed strategist, he knew the power of words, and had, apparently, gone to the lengths of learning the Hebrew language in order to deploy them. This formidable foe goes to the heart of the matter, that is, to truth and trust, saying in effect: ‘Be careful not to put your trust in the wrong place’ (18:19, 29-30). That is: ‘Don’t be fooled into following your king in his doomed trust in God for deliverance. Instead, back the obvious winner in this conflict; trust in the king of Assyria, for he is the one who truly can give what your God has falsely promised’.

He  goes on to construct an elaborate lie, adopting language very familiar to the Judahites, for it was the language that God himself had used to promise them life, land and wellbeing (18:31-32). (For God’s promises, look at Exodus 3:8; Deuteronomy 8:7-8-10). The Assyrian commander, in his cynical calculation, perpetrates a falsehood that cleverly apes the truth, and looks so very convincing. The devil too can appear as an angel of light, pretending to give what is only God’s prerogative to give.

What does it take to see through this farrago? In our story, it takes the insight of a prophet like Isaiah (19:1-7), and a king’s readiness to turn to God in prayer (19:14-19), even when to do so seems to defy all reasonable expectation. Hezekiah’s faithfulness will only be vindicated after he has discerned the truth and chosen the way of faith and trust. The miraculous deliverance from the siege (19:29-37) affirms that God alone prevails over events and outcomes, and the most splendid and invincible-looking powers teeter permanently on the brink of extinction.

In the time before the vindication, Hezekiah’s decision to trust is an acceptance of the severest moral challenge. It is not for nothing that Isaiah says to him: ‘Do not fear’ (19:6). Not fearing is the flip side of trusting. It is entailed in every decision to follow the truth that one believes in, in the face of the clamour of voices that mock it, with or without an undertone of threat.

The season of Advent calls us to trust in the promises of God, as we both remember and hope for the coming of Christ to bring peace on earth. It is no light matter to respond to this call. For to take a stand against the Lie can be dangerous.

Prof. Gordon McConville - Professor of Old Testament Theology (Cheltenham)

The Call to Holiness

Isaiah


Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! “The multitude of your sacrifices–what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations–I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” He said, “Go and tell this people: ” ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “For how long, Lord?” And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”

This is what the LORD says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people: “Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread. He will be a holy place; for both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare. Many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken, they will be snared and captured.” Bind up this testimony of warning and seal up God’s instruction among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob. I will put my trust in him. Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion. When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan– The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

Isaiah 1:10-20, 6:1-13, 8:11-9:7 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

Light in the darkness is one of the most potent symbols of life and good that we have, whether it is a candle in a darkened room, or blazing beacons linking hilltop to hilltop against a night sky, announcing some great news. Prominent in today’s series of readings from Isaiah is a bright, searching light shining out of the deepest darkness (Isa 9:2, following 8:22).

 Darkness needs no introduction. But it is laid on thick in 8:22: ‘distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish’ (ESV). Darkness overwhelms here, in its full capacity as metaphor for the deepest disturbance of spirit. It is this kind of darkness into which the light of God comes, and perhaps we can only see the light when we have known it. It is as unmistakable in our world as it was in Isaiah’s. And this Christmas we shall not be able to avert our eyes long, nor should we, from the unremitting conflicts so near at hand, and devastating human cruelty.

Where then do we look? For Isaiah, the answer is certainly in the vision of God (6:1-8). Vision is one of this book’s great themes. It is even called a ‘vision’ (1:1)! – a vision of how things are and will be. And it is nowhere more fully known than when Isaiah, in a shock of profound understanding, declares: ‘my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts’! (6:5).

For here the utterly holy meets the unholy, and Isaiah is shaken by it. It’s curious that the prophet feels the ‘uncleanness’ of sin in his lips (6:5), and it is his lips that need to be purified by the touch of the hot coals from the altar (v. 6). And he feels this not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of the whole of God’s people. But this little signal points to the heart of darkness. Just as Isaiah meets God in the temple, the holy place, the place of worship, it is in the place of worship that the people have become perverse. ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Isa 29:13). Their language of devotion has become detached from the reality of their lives. It is no accident that Isaiah’s strong attack on this comes close to the beginning of the book (1:10-20).

The measure of this problem is that failure to honour God with integrity is deeply destabilizing for everything that is true and good. For when we approach God in worship, we bring with us, like it or not, every part of the reality of our lives. God, who reveals himself to Isaiah as supremely exalted and holy (6:1), is exalted in justice, and holy in righteousness (5:16).

God’s holiness is inseparable from the bringing of justice and righteousness on earth. It is his ultimate plan (2:2-4). The immediate reality is, however, that his people are prone to frustrate this, as so much of Isaiah’s prophecy bears out (e.g. 1:21-26; 5:1-7). And this is darkness, beginning in the spirit and leading to bitterness and despair (8:18-22).

Yet this darkness is the harbinger of the light. For God maintains his purpose to bring justice and righteousness on earth. Hence the extraordinary prospect in 9:2-7, of the coming king whom we recognize each Advent as the Son of David, Jesus Christ. The child is born, the glorious names are given, peace without end is proclaimed (9:6-7a). But what characterizes his kingdom? – justice and righteousness (9:7b).

The call to holiness is not some rarefied thing, but a call to integrity between speech and act, between lips and heart. As we wait for and honour Jesus this Advent, may we remember that we honour the One who seeks to bring justice on earth. It is his coming that enables us to believe that the light is not overcome by darkness (John 1:5). As we celebrate this, may we do so as a vocation to holiness, that takes form in a mission to bring the light where the darkness still holds sway.

Prof. Gordon McConville - Professor of Old Testament Theology (Cheltenham)

The Exile

Jeremiah


The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” “Alas, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD. Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Hear the word of the LORD, you descendants of Jacob, all you clans of Israel. This is what the LORD says: “What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. They did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of deserts and ravines, a land of drought and utter darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?’ I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable. The priests did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me. The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols. “Therefore I bring charges against you again,” declares the LORD. “And I will bring charges against your children’s children. Cross over to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and observe closely; see if there has ever been anything like this: Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols. Be appalled at this, you heavens, and shudder with great horror,” declares the LORD. “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message: ” ‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. ” ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe” — safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD. ” ‘Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. While you were doing all these things, declares the LORD, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your ancestors. I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your fellow Israelites, the people of Ephraim.’

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?

Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people. Oh, that I had in the desert a lodging place for travelers, so that I might leave my people and go away from them; for they are all adulterers, a crowd of unfaithful people. “They make ready their tongue like a bow, to shoot lies; it is not by truth that they triumph in the land. They go from one sin to another; they do not acknowledge me,” declares the LORD. “Beware of your friends; do not trust anyone in your clan. For every one of them is a deceiver, and every friend a slanderer. Friend deceives friend, and no one speaks the truth. They have taught their tongues to lie; they weary themselves with sinning. You live in the midst of deception; in their deceit they refuse to acknowledge me,” declares the LORD. Therefore this is what the LORD Almighty says: “See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do because of the sin of my people? Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceitfully. With their mouths they all speak cordially to their neighbors, but in their hearts they set traps for them. Should I not punish them for this?” declares the LORD. “Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?” I will weep and wail for the mountains and take up a lament concerning the wilderness grasslands. They are desolate and untraveled, and the lowing of cattle is not heard. The birds have all fled and the animals are gone. “I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals; and I will lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there.”

Jer 1:4-10, 2:4-13, 7:1-15, 8:22-9:1-11 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?

O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!

Day 18

On a first visit to Rwanda tears are never that far away, in a country where 10 million people were massacred in a hundred days, as you visit schools turned into open mausoleums, where bodies of school children are preserved in lime and laid to rest on the benches where they were slaughtered. My saddest moment came in a vision of extreme beauty looking down on three countries: Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo, over a vast green forest where you could imagine somewhere hidden from human view the very lost Eden of God The very garden of delight where God first walked with Adam and Eve, now barred from view by fiery Cherubs. Now is only left the slaughter of Abel repeated by so many people, many times, over the years and still ongoing in Congo, although Rwanda is experiencing something of a return to joy as we visit happy churches with young people joyfully singing and dancing in worship to God. Deep in the heart of all of human-kind is a deep longing to go back to Eden.

Jeremiah is a book of deep emotion, it is difficult to separate the words of Jeremiah from the words of Father God as they are so empathic and in tune. As Jeremiah weeps so does God in heaven, at His wayward children who were given so much, but always turned their backs on His infinite kindness to pursue other Gods and puff up their own pride. Despite sending prophet after prophet to bring them back, they always rebelled. The threat of exile was always present as they refused to return to worship only the one true God, many times God relented and sent them yet another chance, a powerful prophet or a king with a reforming heart turned towards Him. Eventually God was forced to act decisively and send His people into 70 years of exile. Withdrawing His shekinah glory from the temple which was then utterly destroyed by the Babylonians along with the rest of the Holy city. His people were deported to Babylon where they sat down and wept besides the waters of a foreign land.

Exile was not only a punishment, it was the tool of a loving God to turn his people back to him. With all the props of religion gone, and pride crushed there was room for a new love affair with the living God. Such was the fiery passion of the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, whose flaming love was not crushed by the fiery furnace, but rather a meeting place for an intimate encounter with their saviour in the midst of the flames.

We eventually have a return under Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel; however, the temple was never rebuilt to its former glory and occupiers never left the land so in the time of Jesus the Jews were still pining for a Messiah to drive out the romans and accomplish a true return. However, Jesus was a very different kind of Messiah. He did bring his people back into a relationship with the three persons of the Trinity if they believed and trusted in Him, and eventually all His redeemed church, will be joined together and welcomed as a bride into the new heavens and the new earth to dwell united with the triune God.  

Dr Ian Hempshall (retired GP) Lewes - East Sussex

Waiting

Habakkuk


The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received. How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. “Look at the nations and watch–and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor. Their horses are swifter than leopards, fiercer than wolves at dusk. Their cavalry gallops headlong; their horsemen come from afar. They fly like an eagle swooping to devour; they all come intent on violence. Their hordes advance like a desert wind and gather prisoners like sand. They mock kings and scoff at rulers. They laugh at all fortified cities; by building earthen ramps they capture them. Then they sweep past like the wind and go on–guilty people, whose own strength is their god.” LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. You, LORD, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? You have made people like the fish in the sea, like the sea creatures that have no ruler. The wicked foe pulls all of them up with hooks, he catches them in his net, he gathers them up in his dragnet; and so he rejoices and is glad. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet, for by his net he lives in luxury and enjoys the choicest food. Is he to keep on emptying his net, destroying nations without mercy?

I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.

I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.

Habakkuk 1:1-2:1, 3:16-19 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

It’s Deja Vue all over again. Advent a time of pre-Christmas reflection when we look back on the events of history and the preparations made for the coming of Messiah.

All those centuries of waiting, the endless list of ancestors, the terrifying tumult of battle, the misery of exile, the betrayal of belief, and still no apparent activity from God. The chorus goes up, “Why are we waiting,” The worm of doubt that afflicted the Israelites when Moses delayed coming down from his personal encounter with Yahweh and they felt impelled to create their own image.

We humans simply do not like uncertainty; we’d rather know that the train has been cancelled than wait in hope that it might possibly arrive. Individuals pore over Bible prophecies, attempting to link today’s events with the oracles of the past hoping to discern the divine timescale. Groups make preparation for the end of time, trusting that they indeed will be ready, only to discover an unfortunate error in their equation.

God’s people had been promised that the “Anointed One” would come. Abram had been promised that through him God would bless all the nations [Genesis 12 v 3] and still they waited. It really must have seemed as if God was inactive, had ceased to be concerned in human affairs. Those opening phrases of Habakkuk complaint have a familiar ring.

  • Violence – November 21 2018 – more than five hundred children were victim of knife crime last year
  • Injustice – November 19 2018 – wrongly convicted and imprisoned for making the bombs used in the Guildford pub bombings
  • Wrongdoing – November 27 2018 – Jews and Muslims unite against hate crime
  • Destruction – November 21 2018 – Yemen a country where children search desperately for something to eat
  • Violence – November 27 2018 – cooking and cleaning transformed a violent man
  • Conflict – current – Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Myanmar, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Darfur, Boko Haram, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Central African Republic, Kashmir, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq [many have gone on for years]
  • The Law is paralysed – September 10 2018 – US national security advisor John Bolton denounces the International Criminal Court – the administration would no longer cooperate
  • Justice never prevails – November 27 2018 – ‘How do you justify selling a £2 T-shirt?’

Is there any real need to continue this litany? On the world stage we see justice perverted and wicked people succeeding. It is easy to become depressed by accounts of the inhumanity of our species, one of the few that preys upon its own; perhaps that is the logical outcome of “survival of the fittest”.

Let me re-phrase a comment attributed to a one-time carpenter “How much more, then, will your Father in heaven feel for those who suffer?”  If we, flawed as we are, look on a damaged and traumatised world with deep sympathy and active concern, how much more does it break the heart of the Creator – after all it is his world that we are trashing.

As Habakkuk knew God had a plan, a plan to punish the wrongdoers, as Solomon had been warned it involved human agents, but it was none-the-less God at work. God’s ultimate plan, realised in the person of Jesus offers every single individual a way out, but it does not mean we can simply be observers, we are also called to action as we await the coming one. Only we know the coming will be very different and not an unpublicised birth in an animal shed.

Prayer
Creator God we share your dismay at the way your world is spoilt by selfishness and greed. Forgive our part in this and help us to become more aware of how we can change things for the better. Be the comfort of those who suffer, raise up people who will make a difference and curb the foolishness of leaders seeking only self-aggrandisement and power.  Amen

Michael Wells (Retired Teacher and SU Evangelist) Fort William - Scotland

Habakkuk’s Song – Cornerstone Baptist Church

Return  & Rebuilding

Nehemiah


The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “LORD, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” I was cup-bearer to the king.

In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time. I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests.

So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.

I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and musicians responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts. All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil into the storerooms. I put Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a Levite named Pedaiah in charge of the storerooms and made Hanan son of Zakkur, the son of Mattaniah, their assistant, because they were considered trustworthy. They were made responsible for distributing the supplies to their fellow Levites. Remember me for this, my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services. In those days I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. People from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing–desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn’t your ancestors do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity on us and on this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.” When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day. Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. But I warned them and said, “Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will arrest you.” From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.

Nehemiah 1:1-2:8, 6:15-16, 13:10-22 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

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Watch our Read Scripture’s video on the prophetic books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which breaks down the literary design of each book’s flow of thought.

Repentance

John the Baptist


When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him. His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us– to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar–when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene– during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’ ” John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.” The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

Luke 1:57-80, 3:1-207:18-30 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

It was commonly held that the return of Elijah, God’s prophet, would presage the arrival of Messiah. This larger than life hero would undoubtedly have stood up to the foreign invaders, whether Greek or Roman. It was anticipated that his booming voice, the voice that challenged the host of Baal worshippers, would strike terror into the hearts of the oppressors and provoke a popular revolt that would be led by the Redeemer of Israel. This saviour was imagined as a charismatic and battle- hardened warrior, astride a mighty stallion and supported by a heavenly host that would rout the enemies of Israel and begin a wonderful new chapter of history. It is easy to understand how a beleaguered and cowed nation would have relished such a triumphant folk tale. There had been attempts at rebellion, efforts to rid the nation of the tyrannical yoke of Empire, but they had never come to much.

The Romans governed the land, extorting taxes and enforcing the Pax Romana; puppet governments were often put in place, designed to provide a fig-leaf of respectability for a brutal militaristic regime. And into this maelstrom of hope and expectation strode John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, nicknamed, The Baptiser. He was a fiery preacher, delighting the crowds with his open condemnation of the half-hearted Quisling rule of Scribe and Pharisee, and challenging the morality of the rich. This was heady stuff; people always delight in seeing the mighty being torn off a strip and take pleasure in seeing the weaknesses of others being paraded in public.

John however was not simply another rabble-rouser trumpeting well-worn clichés to drum up a crowd. He was indeed a type of Elijah, calling God’s people back to their first love, reminding them off their need of repentance; turning aside from the natural tendency to do wrong, and publicly embracing baptism. Not in some beautifully appointed spa or sumptuous pool, but in the turgid waters of Jordan River. The very river that proud Naaman had rejected as a suitable place for the cure of his skin disease, way back in Elisha’s day. Now here was another prophet, not offering cures, and miracles but advocating wholesale lifestyle changes.

Share what you have, you can only wear one shirt at a time. You tax collectors, forget profiteering and only collect what the government demands. Soldiers be satisfied with your salary and don’t loot, pillage and extort. This indeed was revolutionary stuff. No priestly exhortation to bump up revenues from sacrifices or increase attendance at Temple. It was personal, aimed at the individual, change was the mantra. Turn away from selfish action and do the things that God requires of you.

It was not solely a Jewish tribal thing either. While there was a force of religious police, Temple Guards, the standard soldier would have been a Roman Legionary, probably not a Roman citizen as such, but a mercenary or conscript from any one of the conquered nations that made up the empire. As well as foreigners this was a message for those on the edge of decent society; despised tax farmers who profited from the misery of others; the sort of people that Jesus was to associate with, causing much offence to the pious and respectable members of society.

John was the forerunner, the overture, the warm-up act, setting the tone for Messiah. It was a role he happily acknowledged, he made no claim to be God’s ultimate answer to humanity’s peril. Though he did not go out of his way not to annoy the rich and powerful he was not courting personal publicity; setting himself up. No his message was quite simply, “Change direction, be sorry and prepare yourself for the future. No conquering hero to look forward to but a promise of God’s judgement on his creation.”

John was reminding people of Isaiah’s prophecy, good news indeed.

“The Sovereign Lord has filled me with his Spirit. He has chosen me and sent me to bring good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to announce release to captives and freedom to those in prison. He has sent me to proclaim that the time has come when the Lord will save his people and defeat their enemies. He has sent me to comfort all who mourn, to give to those who mourn in Zion

Joy and gladness instead of grief, a song of praise instead of sorrow.”
[Isaiah 61 v 1-3 Good News Translation]

Prayer
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.

We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves.

In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; that we may do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God. Amen

Michael Wells (Retired Teacher and SU Evangelist) Fort William - Scotland

Michael W. Smith “Intro & Prepare Ye The Way” [A New Hallelujah]

The Hope for a Future

Mary


In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Luke 1:26-38 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

Why is it that God’s people appear to have such a problem with Mary? For some she is a semi-divine figure who usurps Jesus’ role as intercessor, while for others she appears to be dismissed as irrelevant, just another Bible character.

Perhaps, because we know so little about her, the gaps in her life have been filled by those who need every T crossed and every I dotted those who require a definitive answer to every question and cannot appreciate mystery. An examination of the gospels tells us very little, but Doctor Luke appears to have used her as a source for his biography of Jesus, how else would we learn those little details of his early life that Mary remembered and thought deeply about?  [Luke 2 v 19]

Mary was a witness, from first to last she was there, watching the promises of God work out. For her I am sure there were times of doubt and uncertainty, moments of great sadness and pain. I imagine there were times when she was quite simply bewildered and only the passage of time and her Pentecost experience made sense of things. While it is quite legitimate to see Mary as simply a means to an end I suspect Jesus saw her very differently.

She was mum. Oh yes, I guess there were times when he would lift an eyebrow as he rolled his eyes and said, “Oh mother” when she failed to understand something, like his going AWOL. [Luke 2 41-50] But she was the one who cleaned his grazed knees, sympathised when his friends fell out with him, understood his need for solitude and worried that he might not be eating properly.

Jesus was dependant on her, when he cried as a baby, [Sorry to spoil any Little Lord Jesus illusions, but how else would mum know he needed changing or feeding or simply to be held?] she responded to his needs. As a toddler she would have had her work cut out keeping him out of mischief. [Jesus explored his little universe as all toddlers do, learning that fire burnt, knives cut and mums sometimes get tired and fed up; while trying to tie ribbons on the family goat was never a good idea. Sadly our perception of children can mean that such genuinely innocent actions are perceived as wrong-doing and, more sinisterly, as evidence of original sin] If Jesus was indeed fully human as well as totally divine, then his mum would have had to cope with the turbulent years of adolescence too. Then there was the worry of him leaving home and provoking all those pious men with his deep understanding of the purposes of God; challenging convention and entrenched attitudes, preaching the very kingdom that she had sung about herself.

Gracious God would never have burdened Mary with the knowledge of how things were going to play out; watching the death of her innocent one, her first born must have been traumatic enough, but knowing this would happen for thirty odd years would have been quite unbearable. Securely stored on hard drive somewhere are the twenty one thousand words that record my reimagined Mary’s story, presenting her as a fairly ordinary mother, wise beyond her years, but very human, with always a piece of knitting or sewing to hand, lest she became bored. She was a mum who felt very deeply for her first born, a feeling that was equally reciprocated; if you require evidence to support this take a look at his tender care for her as he was dying. [John 19 v 26/27] Here was somebody who had an accurate idea of the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom; refresh your memory of her song recoded at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. It presents us with the image of an individual who had a good grasp of scriptural prophecy and an awesome understanding of the nature and character of God. This woman cannot simply be dismissed as a humble peasant girl, nor would she ever attempt to usurp God’s prerogative.

Mary, mother of Jesus, offers us a wonderful model, an example of faith and obedience, but not an unthinking one. She, in common with the rest of humanity, was capable of making mistakes, of misjudging situations; but she was the only person that Jesus could ever call ”Mum.” And perhaps that is the only status she would ever have looked for.

Prayer
Lord God we pray that those who are wives and husbands may love and serve each other. That those who are mothers and fathers may be fair and kind to their children. That those who are daughters and sons may show obedience and help their parents. That those who are sisters and brothers may share willingly and give generously. And that we all may grow daily more like Jesus. Amen
[after C. Idle]

Michael Wells (Retired Teacher and SU Evangelist) Fort William - Scotland

Joy

Elizabeth


At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me–holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1:39-56 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

The angel Gabriel has appeared to Mary with the news of how she is to give birth to “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1 v 32).  She hurries off to visit Elizabeth, her elder relative who is now old and for many years has been childless.  When Gabriel appears to Mary he also gives her news of Elizabeth, that she “is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.  For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke v 36 – 37).

As Mary arrives and greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s unborn child, John, “leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1 v 41).

The spotlight is on Mary and Elizabeth; Mary a peasant girl and Elizabeth who has long felt society’s shame of being “barren”.  God has chosen to work through them to start the transformation of the world.

When Mary arrives, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims Mary’s news even before Mary has told her.  Calling Mary “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1 v 43), she also knows through the Holy Spirit who Mary’s child will be. 

Elizabeth makes three blessing statements:

“Blessed are you among women”

“Blessed is the child you will bear”

“Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished”

As we read of Jesus’ birth, we read how these blessings continue through Mary, Zechariah and Simeon, all praising God and rejoicing for what He is doing.

In greeting Mary with the blessing “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished”, we hear Elizabeth celebrating Mary’s trust in God and her willingness for Him to work through her to bless the whole world.

As an unmarried, pregnant woman, Mary could have expected social exclusion and shame.  Instead Elizabeth greets her with honour as she is filled with the Holy Spirit.  From her own experience as an elderly, infertile wife, Elizabeth knows how it feels to be shamed and excluded.  Judith Jones writes, “She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.”

Elizabeth’s response to Mary can prompt us to consider our response to those who are shamed and excluded by society, for whatever reason.  In believing and trusting in God, He saves us and takes away our shame.  May we ask God to lead us and help us to also respond in love by welcoming those who feel excluded.

Prayer
Thank you Father that the words of these two women were recorded so that we might share their joy in the coming of the Messiah. Thank you that you chose the humble and marginalised to play leading roles in ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven. Help us please, to see something of what you see in every person we meet and treat them accordingly. For Jesus’ sake we ask. Amen

Many of these thoughts are taken from a passage written by the Revd Dr Judith Jones, Professor of Religion at Wartburg College and Priest in Charge at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Waverly, Iowa. Read more . . .

Belinda Wells (full-time mum and part-time church book-keeper) Fort William - Scotland

The Visitation by Ignatiuspress

My Soul Rejoices by John Michael Talbot sung by Jackie Francois

Anticipation

Zechariah


When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him. His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us– to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

Luke 1:57-80 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

It seems that God so often works within families,  not always, but often. In my own case, it seems likely that our father came to faith just before he died; I came to faith as a child, far away from the rest of my family, my older brother came to faith in a Paul of Damascus kind of way just after I met him in his early twenties, followed by our younger brother and then our mother.  I thank God that he led me out of a desperate home situation to meet my future husband when I was just sixteen. (On our first date he took me to a lunch-time service at St Helen’s Bishops Gate, just to make sure I was sound!) We then went on to create our own family who in turn have gone on the serve the Kingdom in various ways.

 

So here we have another family, this time a priestly family that seemed to take their responsibilities seriously and actually had a personal relationship with the God they served. When Zachariah, just like Abraham before him, found it difficult to believe the promise of an heir after so much pain and longing, God didn’t just smack him into oblivion saying “well I’ll find someone who will believe me”. Knowing the frailty of humankind  the Heavenly Father just gently chastises Zacharia by taking away his speech. I’m pretty sure that Zachariah was certain that this was to be a life-long punishment, and was probably, in a strange way, quite pleased about it since the reality of literally being struck dumb at that moment in time was pretty conclusive evidence that God really was up to something. Any vestigial doubts would have completely disappeared when Elizabeth started rushing out of the tent first thing every morning.

When family, friends and neighbours are all gathered round for the baby naming ceremony, it’s likely that there were still a few doubters in the other direction “I’m certain that the shock of becoming a father at his stage of life gave him a stroke and they’re just too proud to admit it.” So when Zacharia interrupts the proceedings in a loud voice saying “his name is John!” you can be sure that everyone is completely shocked now, and all start wondering just what the future holds for this tiny boy.

After the visit from Elizabeth’s cousin Mary we hear nothing more about Elizabeth and Zachariah, it seems likely that they are safely with their God before John is so gratuitously behead – one would certainly hope so. But in any case this family suffered; they were wonderfully blessed in terms of being part of God’s Story of Salvation, but in human terms it was costly. And so, dear reader, it is just the same for us. I don’t believe God does measure for measure, on the contrary, he gives so much and we give so little in return, but I think it’s fair to say that with great blessing there often comes great responsibility; and so many of God’s people, in circumstances we can’t begin to imagine, have paid the final price for their faith.

Prayer
Thank you Father for the gift of faith, that we don’t have to provide it ourselves since you supply it as required. Give us the courage, we ask, to serve you faithfully just as Elizabeth and Zachariah, and Mary and Joseph did so long ago; and the strength not to count the cost, just the joy of anticipating the final outcome of all our trials – home with you! Amen

Lesley Wells (IT Consultant) Fort William - Scotland

Trust

Joseph


Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Matthew 1:19-25 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

It is part of the Protestant tradition to somewhat underplay the role of Mary in the life of Jesus, but Joseph seems almost invisible; which is probably not too surprising since the Gospels tell us very little about him. However, having grown up with one foot planted in the Anglo-Catholic tradition and the other in the Evangelical tradition, I have always felt that St Joseph has usually been regarded as “useful but unimportant”.

Put in the context of the question “why does God choose any particular person to serve him?” we could say that God knew that Joseph had the propensity for a kind and thoughtful disposition, and would become a loyal husband and dedicated father, assuming that he chose to follow God’s plans for his life. We can assume that Joseph did choose this since he fulfilled the role.

The mystery of the Incarnation, is just that – a complete mystery to me, however we have to try to fit it into the human framework in order to be able to explain the outworking both to ourselves and others. In essence God chose Mary to be both the DNA and Surrogate mother of his Son (thereby Himself – hence the Roman Catholic title Mother of God) and Joseph to be the foster/adopted father. As Michael Mclean writes in his song Joseph “No, I was not His father, He is mine.

Having lived through the pain and messiness of parental loss and abandonment, then fostering and adoption, I can testify that knowledge of one’s origins and identity is so very important in estabilising one’s development. Sadly, not all of us are able to be raised by our own parents, or blessed by caring parents, but every child on the planet needs parenting, and Jesus was, in every sense, just a normal human child.

During the second world war totally despicable researchers carried out long-term experiments on orphaned babies in parts of Europe – they were fed and ‘cared’ for by people acting like human automatons who never smiled at them, held them, or interacted with them in any way; they simply provided the basic necessities of life. It is of no surprise to us, though apparently it was to the researchers, that most of the children died fairly quickly from anything they could manage to catch, and that every one of the few survivors lived out the rest of their lives as patients in institutions. As the saying goes, “you wouldn’t treat an animal like that”.

So I’m quite sure our Creator and Father God provided the best parental environment for his Son in human form. Sure he was born in a stable, never wealthy and lived some of formative years as a refugee; but he was truly loved and cared for – he had that which, without exception, every baby human heart longs for, physical assurance and eye-to-eye contact with adults who adore you – the unspoken “I love you” emanating from their presence. I’m also sure that he was teased by his siblings, and corrected and praised in equal measure; that he went on camel rides and was swung round in the air by Daddy and uncles and big cousins who also taught him to play the Jewish equivalent of football. He was normal. How his heart must ache for his children who are deprived of these things.

And this ‘normality’ must surely be in part due to the faithfulness and obedience of his earthly father Joseph, who trusted God through a scenario that wouldn’t be out of place in East Enders. Who protected and respected Mary, who kept faith with her and God, and raised Jesus as his own flesh and blood. From what we see in Scripture it seems likely that Joseph died before or during the early part of Jesus’ ministry since he is conspicuous by his absence at all the major events and never mentioned after the flight to Egypt. That Jesus hands the care of his mother over to one of his disciples, suggests that Mary was a widow. So yet again we have an example of Jesus’s normality in that he experiences the all too early loss of a beloved parent, and the sudden descent of responsibility upon his young shoulders.

Whilst we never hear a single word that Joseph said, I feel that it is likely that the words of Jesus’ heavenly father might well have sometimes been expressed through the phrases and style of his earthly father. The invisible St Joseph is wonderful model of someone who just obeyed and got on with things, but we should also note that God spoke to him in a dream which he wasn’t ashamed to own. Sometimes something we regard as ‘just a dream’ is just the thing God wants us to be getting on with!

Below you can listen to the lovely Joseph’s Song by Michael Card in which he says:

How can it be, this baby in my arms, sleeping now, so peacefully. The son of God, the angel said, how could it be? O Lord I know he’s not my own, not of my flesh, not of my bone. Still Father let this baby be the son of my love.

He then goes on to pray:

Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours. How can a man be father to the son of God? Lord, for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter… how can I raise a king? How can I raise a king?

Prayer
Heavenly Father – thank you that you planned for our care by creating us to function in families, thank you for the many blessings we have received through our own families, forgive us where we have failed in our part in this wonderful scheme, and we especially ask your loving fatherly blessing on all those who lack the love and support of parents and family. Today we thank you for the courage and trust of your Son’s earthly father Joseph and for the part he played in raising the Christ Child; may we all learn from his example as we seek to raise and nurture the children in our natural and church families and see them enter your Heavenly Kingdom. Amen

(Lesley Wells - IT Consultant - Fort William)

Josept’s Song by Michael Card

Worship

The Magi


After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

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A somewhat whacky version of We Three Kings – but it is Christmas!

The Birth of the Messiah

Jesus


In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Luke 2:1-20 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

The sound of Christmas Carols can be so very evocative, conjuring up images of snow and robins, of stagecoaches and sleighs, or sumptuously dressed travellers and sheepskin clad goat keepers. Candle light, choirs, carefully wrapped gifts, good food all have a place there too, all you need to do is to add your own piece of Christmas magic to complete the fantasy. It was not until 1966 that I  also realised that Christmas can be so very lonely; seven years later I experienced a very bleak Christmas indeed, a memory that brings tears to my eyes even now and a lump to my throat as I attempt to sing one particular carol.

In our very Post-Modern society, Christmas can often be viewed as little more than a commercial festival celebrating greed and gluttony. Much is made of innovative television adverts, all the major stores compete to produce their own ideal gift catalogue, while family tradition will often take centre stage. Imagine the uproar and consternation when Mum suggests that now they are all grown up perhaps they no longer need Christmas stockings to open before breakfast. The more pragmatic amongst us resort to circulating a list of gifts that we might like to receive, with web addresses thoughtfully attached.

And, in the corner of the room, lurks the baby, the Christ Child, obscured by tinsel and twinkling lights and discarded wrapping paper. The Puritans had an answer to this imbalance, no pagan celebrations, no adorned trees, not even church. It is simply another day in the calendar, one selected, almost at random, times and seasons have no meaning in God’s kingdom!

But our spinning globe gives the lie to that, something that God was only too aware of, creating a cycle of festivals for his people to celebrate. Special events are worthy of celebration, not only to break the monotony of routine, but to provide holiday. Let me spell it out more clearly, Holy day. Holy refers to the divine, separate from the mundane and ordinary, a day to remember that God chose to create a day of rest and recreation, not simply a day of pious inactivity.

Reflect for a moment. How do you think God spent his day of rest after six full days of creation? I suspect that he spent it simply enjoying his universe. Eve and Adam were gardeners so no propagation of seedlings or pruning of bushes; perhaps they ran races against the local donkeys or climbed trees just for fun, I doubt they sat in solemn synod and contemplated eternity.

God designed his universe to be enjoyed and wondered at, even allowing for weird and fanciful ideas like rainbow factories. In my view the puritans misunderstood the nature of God, they may well have been well-intentioned, drawing the attention of people to the inherent risks of indulgence, but they appear to have snuffed out joy.

I continue to enjoy reading all of CS Lewis Narnia books, and although none of them feature the incarnation, the first that he wrote contains that dire phrase, “Always winter and never Christmas.” In his narrative the coming of a very secular Christmas is the beginning of the end of the power of the White Witch. Aslan being seen in the land is occasion for joy and celebration and great excitement. Significantly his coming is not the end of that particular story any more than the birth of Jesus in a small community in the Roman province of Syria is the end. It is merely the beginning of the end.

Joy is a recurrent theme in Lewis’s writing, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy he tells of experiencing an other-worldly joy – a specific Joy that defies our modern understanding. This idea of Joy is not a satisfied desire but an unsatisfied desire – a deep longing for God, a hungry pursuit of God’s heart that never ends and is more satisfying than any earthly happiness. To my way of thinking that is the message behind the coming of the Christ child, the cause of a sense of wonder and excitement, cause indeed to celebrate and rejoice.

A snatch from one of John Betjeman’s delightfully arch poems:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

By today Christmas is well and truly over for many people, the decorations may remain for a day or two a week even, but the day has passed; only three hundred and sixty three until the next one. But the reality of that momentous event; an event, celebrated by angel choir in twenty-seven or is it forty-nine part harmony, remains. It is true, a landmark event that changed the wold forever, and continues to revolutionise the lives of people today.

Prayer
Thank you Father God that the Christ Child came and never left, that the joy of his coming lives on in our hearts and worship. Thank you that the child grew up to become The Son of Man and sacrificed himself for us that we might spend eternity with you. Amen

Michael Wells (Retired Teacher and SU Evangelist) Fort William - Scotland

O Holy Night sung by Josh Groban

The Son of God

Christ


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God– children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me’ “) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

John 1:1-18 (NIV)

Thinking it through . . .

These opening words from the Gospel of John underline, in no uncertain terms, the status of the child whose birth we celebrate each year. This baby, born of a human mother, is Yahweh; I am who I am; the creator and sustainer of all life. And the purpose of his coming is to be light. Light that shows up imperfections and weaknesses, light that enables humanity to see its way, light that enable plants to grow, light that makes our blue-green planet habitable.

Jesus was born into a world of conflict. The local conflict between the various religious hierarchies, the regional conflict between invader and subject nations, the enmity of one with another. Each of which reflected and contributed to the great conflict; the struggle of good against evil. Our modern world appears anxious to minimise this clash of cultures. Way back in the last century Bernstein had his bunch of delinquents explain:

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, Ya gotta understand
It’s just our bringin’ upke, That gets us outta hand
Our mothers all are junkies, Our fathers all are drunks
Golly Moses natcherly we’re punks

Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We never had the love that every child oughta get
We ain’t no delinquents we’re misunderstood
Deep down inside us there is good!

While many are more than happy to imagine that heaven exists, few are prepared to consider that the reality of hell is equally likely. As recent well-publicised court cases have shown it is no longer acceptable for individuals to hold the view that there are moral absolutes. It would appear that the only acceptable moral absolute is my right to an opinion, yours is little more than bigotry. This indeed is a very difficult world for the Christian to navigate, especially today’s generation of young people. The wristlet bearing the letters W W J D is offered as a practical guide, but when the world beyond The Church sees Jesus as not much more than an exemplar it is of little real help.

Looking again at those verses from John it becomes clear that this has always been the problem of humanity. “The only rules I plan to keep are mine, and then only when it is expedient.” Look back over the past twenty seven days and see this disregard of God’s laws repeated again and again, human nature has not changed, nor has the eternal conflict between dark and light. And it is not just a struggle for the weak and feeble, all of God’s heroines and heroes were afflicted by this same disability.

God’s law is perhaps the one universal rule that brooks no objections or caveats, it is indeed older than time itself and existed before our universe was put in place. This is why God came up with his ultimate solution, the plan put in place the moment that Adam succumbed. Sin is unacceptable to Yahweh and it needs to be dealt with, sacrifice was the chosen means, perfect offering made to God to turn away his justifiable anger. The ultimate answer was the offering of one who was truly perfect, the man Christ Jesus, wholly human and yet entirely divine.

Perhaps one reason why CS Lewis created Aslan, Son of the Emperor over the Sea, and put him in the place of Edmund the traitor on the stone table, was to help us understand the very personal nature of this divine transaction. Paul puts it like this when he was writing to young Tim, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” [1 Tim 1 v 15] that was the primary purpose of the incarnation. The resurrection was the defining moment, “Mission accomplished.” I find myself saddened by preachers who talk of the suffering and death of our saviour and seem to forget the triumphant coda. The Word made flesh triumphed, when he said “the deal is done”, he surrendered his life, but three days later everyone knew that death was defeated. Not that our physical bodies would last for ever, but from the very moment we receive him our eternal life begins, life with God.

Interestingly in the Narnian legends Aslan’s resurrection is followed by battle, yes the victory is assured, but evil will continue to try to trip up God’s people; even to the point of doubting that they are “good-enough.” I am sorry sisters and brothers but the truth is right there at the top of the page – to save you having to scroll through, here it is again.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” [and Yahweh is not known to renege on any deal]

Prayer
Thank you heavenly father for the Advent Season, not just for the joy of Christmas, but more especially for the time of reflection and preparation. As we move towards yet another new year, help us to keep preparing; to prepare our hearts for what lies ahead, to prepare to serve and follow you with all our strength, and to prepare for the coming of your Kingdom. Amen

Michael Wells (Retired Teacher and SU Evangelist) Fort William - Scotland

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