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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Advent 24: Waiting to be made clean

We all know - even if only in a Sunday School singsong fashion - that Jesus came to die for our sin. But the Bible tells us that the blood of Jesus on the cross does not just remove the guilt of our sin but the hurt of our shame. 

Jesus came to remove the stain of sin and the stains of those who have been sinned against. By his blood, we are washed clean and made utterly new. We are made white as snow. No matter what we have done or what has been done to us. For those of us who have been subjected to awful things at the hands of others, we need to hear the truth of this. When Jesus died on the cross, he embraced all of our suffering: he took on the sin of the rapist and the shame of the raped, he took the punishment of the abuser and washed the wounds of the abused.

The bible says that Jesus was like one who was despised. (Isaiah 53:3) He was like one that others would turn their faces to avoid. He was humiliated in the most base and brutal manner imaginable. He knows what it is to be ashamed. He knows what it is to feel dirty, and to be looked at with disgust. Jesus hung on the cross bloody and mangled for the whole world to see, a convict condemned to death, a common criminal made an example of, a beaten lump of humanity exposed to the eyes of all the onlookers, the subject of gossip and slander, the one people muttered about in streets and wouldn't allow their children to look at lest they too somehow became contaminated.

But by his death, he cleanses us of all our rubbish. We are tarnished by regret at what we have done, and by the shame of what others have done. Jesus says, Come to me and be clean. Come to me and let me tend to your wounds, let me start to wash away the pain of your past. Come to me and let me make you new.

Reflection: Jesus, thank you that your promise to make us new. Thank you that there is no stain that you cannot remove. Thank you that as we look to you we are made radiant; our faces are never covered in shame. Thank you that you died to wash us clean.

Gungor, Beautiful Things
All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new, You are making me new
You make me new, You are making me new

Advent 23: Waiting to know we're loved

The bible tells the story of a people who knew that there was a God and that that God loved them. He was their Creator and he had made them in love.

But sin marred the connection between people and God. People forgot that there was a God who loved them. They started thinking all kinds of different things about God instead: that he was a tyrant, that he was distant, that he was flippant and harsh, that he ruled over those he had made with indifference, that this God didn't really care about his creatures at all.  
I question whether God loves me. With all my flaws and failings, it is difficult to comprehend that there is a God of the Universe and that this Almighty, holy King loves me. He loves me even when I turn my back on him. He loves me in the middle of all my mess. He loves me the way that Mark Darcy loves Bridget Jones: Just as I am. 

But Jesus came to convince us of this truth - the truth of a God who loves us as we are even when we consider ourselves utterly unlovely. He came to put God's love for the world and the people in it on display in the most dramatic way possible. He came to prove to us that God is a God of love. He came to show us in a way that we could finally understand what love really looked like. Real love looks like dying in someone else's place. There is no greater definition of love than to willingly lay down your life for someone else, especially for those who have rejected and abandoned you. If we are waiting to know that we are loved then we need to look to the cross to remind ourselves of what love looks like.

Reflection: Food for thought in the form of two songs.


Monday, 22 December 2014

Advent 22: Waiting for a way to be made

Jesus is the original pioneer. In Greek, the word used to describe him is archēgon. (Hebrews 2:10, 12:2) He is the one who goes first. The first in a long procession. He is the one who went ahead of us to make a way where there was no way before.
Before Jesus, there was no way back to the Father. No one had yet blazed the trail. No one had done what needed to be done to make it possible to come to God. But Jesus did it. Jesus broke through death and hell so that we could follow him. It is because he was resurrected from the dead that we can have confidence that we too will be raised one day. (1 Corinthians 15:20) 

Jesus' disciples were troubled when he spoke to them of heaven. (John 14:1-14) Thomas was scared that they would't be able to make it there on their own. Jesus told them that they knew the way to where he was going but they were terrified that really they didn't, that they would get lost somehow en route. But Jesus reassured them: he had not only made the way for them; he himself was that way. "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me." (John 14:6) It was through him, and through faith in his death and resurrection, that people would be brought back to God. 

The way is open. Heaven's gates swing wide. 

Reflection: Jesus came to make a way. This Christmas, let us remember that the baby who was born was born to die. Jesus willingly came knowing that the only way to bring us back to his Father was by embracing death at the cross. He knew what it would cost him to be our pioneer. He knew the price of what he was about to do but he still chose to come, he chose to become one of the ones he wanted to save. 

"All sufficient sacrifice
So freely given
Such a price
Bought our redemption
Heaven's gates swing wide."

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Advent 21: Waiting for someone to keep their promises

Breaking promises always hurts. Whether it is the tiny child whose Dad promised to take him to play football on Sunday morning but then got too carried away with his work, the teenage girl sitting at home because the guy who promised to take her to year year 11 prom ditched her at the last minute, or the couple struggling to pick up the pieces of a marriage where one person has been unfaithful. It is always painful to have been let down, especially by those you trust the most, by the people you let get the closest.

Israel had been waiting a long time for God to fulfil his promises to them. It must have felt very much like God had forgotten them. It must have felt like the one they believed to be totally trustworthy had suddenly abandoned them. They must have started to doubt God's character, to question whether he really was the good God and loving Father that he claimed to be. They had been promised a Messiah and a Messiah had not come. Generations had clung to the promise of God's saviour but hundreds of years had passed and there was no sign of him.

And then Jesus turned up. 

And God said, this is the One, this is who you have been waiting for. He is the proof that I am who I say I am. I am the promise keeper. Every promise I have ever made to you is fulfilled in Jesus. He is the 'Yes!' to all my promises. (2 Corinthians 1:20) He is the way that you know I am trustworthy. I do not lie. (Titus 1:2) I do not change. (Malachi 3:6) I always keep my promises. I promised to never leave you or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:8) and Jesus shows you that this is true. I promised that I would rescue you from your sin (Isaiah 43:1) and Jesus has come to do that. I promised that I would love you forever and have loved you since before time began (Jeremiah 31:3) and Jesus has come to demonstrate exactly what that love looks like. 

We have all been lied to. We have all been let down. We all know the deep pain of a broken promise. God does not lie. He does not let his people down. And it is impossible for him to break his promises. It would be against his very nature for him to do so. (Hebrews 6:18)

Reflection: Bring God the hurt of your broken promises this morning. Tell him about the times you have been hurt and let down by those you trusted. Ask for his healing and pray that he would reveal himself as the Promise-Keeper, as the the one always tells us the truth. 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Advent 20: Waiting to be set free

“People are slaves to whatever has mastered them.” (2 Peter 2:19) What are we mastered by? The peculiar chains that bind each of us are slightly different: anxiety about the future; the pain of ongoing sickness; fear of what other people think; addictions to what hurts us; financial insecurity; worry about weight and appearance; the pressure to buy certain things and appear to live a certain lifestyle. We are all enslaved by something. 

When Jesus came he proclaimed that freedom had arrived. He set free those who had been chained by tormenting spirits and thought processes (Mark 5:15), those we had been sick for many years (Luke 8:48), those who were estranged from their communities (Mark 1:40-45, Luke 9:42-43), those whose tongues had never let them speak (Mark 7:35), whose eyes had never let them see (John 9:6-7), whose legs had never let them walk (Mark 2:11-12) He fulfilled the ancient promises of the prophets by declaring that he was the one who had come to release the captives from what bound them. (Isaiah 61:1)

But, Jesus also declared freedom of an altogether more powerful kind. He claimed that he had come to set us free from the one thing that masters everyone: sin. When speaking to a crowd about freedom, the crowd took offense at him claiming that they didn’t need his help. We are already free, they said. Don’t talk to us about freedom. But Jesus went on to say that all of them were, in fact, slaves because all of them were sinners: “Everyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:31-36)

This is an extremely uncomfortable claim. We are all slaves because we all sin. We all do things wrong. We all do things that we don’t really want to and we know will cause hurt and yet, somehow, we are powerless to not do them. The angry word spoken once, sworn never to be spoken again, that pops out a second time. And a third. That snide comment about someone else’s family or ability or appearance that spills out before we can hold it in. That dig about someone else which makes us feel good. That small, white lie that saves our own skin. That secretive snacking on cake in the kitchen whilst claiming to everyone else to be on a diet. That smug satisfaction about seeing someone else fail to do something that we ourselves struggle to do. The determination to do better, be better, think nicer next time that fails the second a particular circumstance arises.

Sin is not just the acts themselves but the thing in us that makes us do those acts. There is something inside me that I can’t get a handle on, something deep down and rotten that I can’t control and can’t squash down no matter how hard I try. This slavery is too deep to be broken by myself. I cannot be free of it. And this is precisely what Jesus is talking about. This is the slavery that he offers to set us free from. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) We will be free from living under sin now and freed from the deathly wages of sin in the future.

But Jesus's freedom is paradoxical. We enter in to it through a kind of willing slavery, exchanging our current master for a new one. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) Freedom comes by following the rules. I assume that freedom looks like throwing off a set of shackles but Jesus says that his followers allow him to bind them in a different way. There is liberty in submitting to his leadership. His boundaries are good. The limits he puts in place allow us to be truly free. Jesus lived in perfect obedience to the Father and yet he knew what it was to be free; he invites us to do the same – to run in the path of his commands because there is freedom there (Psalm 119:45), to be set free from sin and become his slave instead. (Romans 6:22)

Friday, 19 December 2014

Advent 19: Waiting for someone to understand

Why did God choose to become a man? It's a fairly nonsensical plan for salvation when you think about it. And even if it wasn't possible for us to be reconciled to God by any other means than the death of a sinless person dying in our place, why would Jesus need to walk out 33 years of life first? Why wait 33 years to die if that's what you've came to do?

There is something stupidly beautiful in the fact that Jesus embraced our humanity; for his time on earth he took on everything it means to be a human being. He took on weakness and vulnerability, hunger and sleep deprivation, shame and rejection. He became fully one of us in order to save us. It was necessary for him to share in our humanity even to the point of death so that he could break death's hold over us. (Hebrews 2:14)

When I taught in Croydon, the kids used to say "God knows" all the time. "Ahh, Miss! Swear down. Say God knows." But he does. And that isn't just a matter of omniscience. It isn't just about knowing everything, it is about understanding. Jesus proves to us that God fully understands the human predicament. Every emotion, pain, doubt, temptation - Jesus understands; he has been through it: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin." (Hebrews 4:15)

I cannot quite comprehend this but I need it to be true. I do not want to worship a God who looks down from heaven and scoffs at tiny human beings making their silly little mistakes all the time, who looks on from a distance with disdain in his eyes and wonders why the poxy creatures get so upset when one of them dies, or when they are hurt by a friend, or why they rant and rage so much when He seems so distant. 

But Jesus shows us that God is not like this at all. Our God is a God who understands. Our God knows what it is to be cast out. He knows what it is to be let down by friends. He knows what it is to call up to the skies in desperation for something different to be done. He knows what it is to struggle to trust. He knows what it is to be abandoned by your loved ones. 

There is great comfort here if we would stop to see it. This Christmas, whatever our struggle, God knows. Swear down.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Advent 18: Waiting for nothing to be in the way

In a letter to the church in Rome, Paul, one of the apostles, writes the following verses:

"If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:31-39)
Take a moment to breathe that in. Savour it. Because of Jesus, there is no barrier between us and God. There is nothing that can ever separate us from God's love. Not our own sin or mistakes or doubt. Not our circumstances. Not our pain or confusion or worry. Nothing. Not one thing. Not one minuscule iota. 

That is mind blowing.

It is also difficult to believe. It is hard to cling on to God's closeness when he feels distant, hard to feel loved when our situation tells us the opposite, hard to trust that he hears us when we whisper his name. But Jesus is the one who brought us near. We were far off and yet he sought us out. We were the prodigal sons and daughters who needed to be brought to our senses and carried back home. God's promise is that he does not change. His distance from us never alters. Even when we do not understand, and do not feel it, Jesus promises us that God's love is close. Nothing can get in its way. 

Reflection: Let us dare to ask God to reveal this to us in a new way today. Jesus came so that we might live in the experience of being eternally loved by our Creator. Let us bring before God what we think separates us from him today and ask that he would show us that it is not so. If we are in Christ, we have unadulterated access to the Father. All. The. Time. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Advent 17: Waiting to be rescued

We need to be rescued. That is not a very appealing thought. Despite childhood fantasies of heroes in white shining armour, the fact remains that we would all rather be the saviour rather than the saved; we would rather be the rescuer than the ones in need of rescue.

But this is what God's people, Israel, were waiting for: they were waiting for one would could rescue them from themselves; they were waiting for someone who could pull them up out of the pit where their sin had landed them. The starting point for being rescued is admitting that we are in need. I hate to do this. I don't like to confess that I can't do something, that I can't dig myself out of a hole, pull myself out of the ditch. But I can't. I cannot rescue myself. I cannot stop myself from being sinful. I cannot cure my own heart. I cannot wipe away the things I have done and said and should have done and should have said and pretend to be innocent. I cannot stand in front of a holy God and claim to have never done anything to offend.

And so, like most of us I think, I stack up the odd good deed here and there. I masquerade over my sin with attempts to like people, be kind, be generous, do better, be gooder. But, there is nothing so deceitful as the human heart. (Jeremiah 17:9) We kid ourselves into thinking that we are ok; we are the good people; we might think truly atrocious things about others but we don't act on them; we might get angry and shout and rage but we don't kill people. We might commit the odd sin, but that doesn't make us a sinner. We can still work our way up to a perfect God by trying to be a little bit more perfect.

But the very fact that Jesus needed to come defies this kind of thinking. He is the God who comes down down down into humanity knowing that we can never work our way up. He is the one who chooses to abandon heaven so that we might join him there one day. He is the one who redeems us from the mess we have made. Jesus stepped down into our darkness to bring us into his light. There was no other way. We could not rescue ourselves. We needed a rescuer.

"He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." (Colossians 1:13-14). Hallelujah.

Reflection: Let us use these words from Psalm 103 to thank God for what Jesus came to do for us:

Praise the Lord, my soul;
    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
    and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
    and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)

Monday, 15 December 2014

Advent 16: Waiting for a Provider

When the Israelites were lost and wandering in the desert, they cried out to God to reveal himself as Provider. They cried out for someone to give them the food they so desperately needed, and God did. He gave them Manna – bread that fell from heaven each day, just enough to satisfy their hungry bellies to last until the next morning. If anyone tried to collect extra and keep it for himself, the bread would rot and become inedible. God wanted his people to come to him and trust in his provision on a daily basis: give us today our daily bread.

Jesus says that his coming is God’s ultimate act of provision: “Here is the bread which comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:50-51) The Israelites received bread to eat but it was only a temporary solution. They would still die. Jesus says that he himself is an altogether different kind of bread: he is the bread of life. Manna was just a foretaste; Jesus is the real deal. He is the one God provides to take away our sin, to bring us close to the Father. Jesus will not only give us what we need to last out the day; what he gives endures into eternity. We don't just need to come to him because we are hungry; we need to come to him because we are dying.

We praise God because he is the provider. He is the one who gives us life and sunrise and rain and crops and friends and family and shelter and comfort; he is the one to thank for the warmth of the radiator in this room, for the clothes on my skin, for the steaming cup of tea in my hand, for the laptop on which I’m typing, for the glasses I’m wearing. But his provision extends beyond the physical, beyond our daily needs and longings. God’s greatest act of provision was in giving his Son. In giving the One we most needed.

And it is this One who beckons us to come. Jesus says that he has done what is needed and he invites us to feast on him. This is a peculiar metaphor and it offended most of Jesus’ listeners with its vampire-like connotations. What does it really mean to feast on Jesus? I think it means that Jesus wants relationship. He wants intimacy. He has given all that was needed but he wants us to acknowledge it and be thankful for it. He wants us to delight in what he has bought for us: life with himself and with the Father now and forever. He does not want passive recipients. This morning, he wants us to choose to come to him, to choose to acknowledge him, to say thank you.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Advent 14: Waiting for hope

“In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matthew 21:12)

One of the first people to meet Jesus and recognise him was a widow called Anna. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Anna was 84 years old. She married young and was widowed after just 7 years. Since then, she had waited in the temple day after day after day, hoping to live long enough to see the one who God had promised would come. She waited for many long years to meet Jesus, longer than any of us have waited for a prayer to be answered. (Luke 2:36-38)

How did she keep hoping? How did she keep believing that Jesus would come? How did she remain convicted that God was good and that he would do what he had promised even though all the evidence said that he wasn’t and he wouldn’t? I don’t know the answer to that question.

I know many people who have given up putting their trust in God, who have felt too let down and disappointed; who have suffered real grief and been unable to find God in amongst their sorrow, who have looked at their circumstance and the world’s circumstances and felt hopeless, felt unable to put their hope in a God who seems absent, silent, detached.

Yet hope is both gift and discipline. It is an active choosing to trust; it is a reasoning with the soul, a telling of the self that God is good and that he will prove faithful. Come on, Soul, why are you so downcast? Why are you wallowing in self-pity? Put your hope in God. You can still praise him. (Psalm 42:5) You can choose to worship him even when you don’t understand. Anna kept on worshipping God even when she couldn’t see what he was doing; when she couldn’t feel his presence; when she doubted and despaired and wanted to give up the ghost.

But hope is also gift. We pray for hope. We ask that the God of hope will fill us up, that he will enlarge our faith, expand our expectations. We say, we do believe; help us to overcome our unbelief. We put our hope in the Lord and ask that he will give us the consequence of our decision to trust: “May your unfailing love be with us, LORD, even as we put our hope in you.” (Psalm 33:22)

Reflection: Father God, we confess our hopelessness to you today. We confess where we have stopped trusting you, where we have been unable to believe that you are who you say you are. We confess the times when we have been offended and disappointed and turned away from you. Give us enough hope for today. Teach us to trust you where we have forgotten to do so. Fill us with all joy and peace so that we may overflow with hope by the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Advent 13: Waiting for the Life Giver

Jesus came to offer us eternal life. (John 3:16) His promise is that those who trust in him will live even though they die; they will live forever in eternity with God. 

And yet, his promise isn't just about some distant happily ever after. Jesus offers fullness of life in the here and now. He says that he has come to give abundance of life. (John 10:10) This seems strange when in many ways his life, and the lives of his first followers, didn't look particularly 'full' by worldly standards. They weren't rich or famous or important. They didn't have security. Many had left family and friends and employment behind: all of the things that we would think necessary to feel full and satisfied.

But Jesus says that he offers a satisfaction, a life-giving fullness, that is distant from circumstance. It is possible to be full of joy even when your world is falling apart. (Philippians 4:12-13) He says that life is about knowing who God is (John 17:3) ; that our emptiness can only be filled up by God himself however hard we might try to cram it full of other things. The deepest longing of the human soul is to know the one we were made for. This is what gives us life. This is what Jesus offers: relationship with the Creator that fills our life now and continues to fill it forever. 
Give up your broken cisterns, he says. (Jeremiah 2:13) Give up your striving and your money-making schemes. Give up your anxiety and your consumerism, Give up your relentless pursuit of something new that will make life meaningful. Come to me instead. Stop spending money on what can never satisfy (Isaiah 55:2) What I have doesn't cost anything. Come and receive the free gift of life and watch it well up from inside you and pour into those around you. Come to me and have life - life in all its fullness.
Reflection: Read the words of Isaiah 55. Lay aside what has tried and failed to make you full and ask for what only Jesus can give. 

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live." (Isaiah 55:1-3)

Advent 12: Waiting to be served

Jesus defied all expectations of the Messiah - God's chosen one. Israel was waiting, longing, for someone to come and free them from the oppression of Roman rule; they were hoping for a powerful King, an unbeatable military ruler, who would come and conquer and make everything right. But our God - who loves to turn the world upside down - flipped the notion of what it means to lead completely on its head: his chosen leader would come in such a humble way that people would fail to recognise him. His chosen leader would come as a servant.

"The son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

In the middle of an argument between two of his disciples - James and John - about which one of them is better, which one of them deserves the best place in his kingdom - Jesus tells them that they are entirely missing the point: if you want to be a leader then you need to be a servant. Jesus came to serve us. His is a ministry of feet washing, of doing what no one else will do, of sitting amongst the broken and the outcast and being treated as one of them. Jesus' servant heart led his to the cross. His love for those who rejected him was so great that he would serve them - even as they scorned and mocked him - by dying for them. Jesus is the servant king.

Reflection: Jesus calls those who follow him to be like him. Who can we serve today? Think of someone who needs to know that Jesus loves them and do something practical to demonstrate that love today.

The Servant King

From heaven you came helpless babe
Entered our world, your glory veiled
Not to be served but to serve
And give Your life that we might live

This is our God, The Servant King
He calls us now to follow Him
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to The Servant King

There in the garden of tears
My heavy load he chose to bear
His heart with sorrow was torn
'Yet not My will but Yours,' He said

Come see His hands and His feet
The scars that speak of sacrifice
Hands that flung stars into space
To cruel nails surrendered

So let us learn how to serve
And in our lives enthrone Him
Each other's needs to prefer
For it is Christ we're serving

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Advent 11: Waiting for a priest

Bit of a funny thing to be waiting for. Especially given how much bad press priests have and how negative most people's view of the church is. But, this is what the Bible tells us all of humanity was waiting for: we were waiting for a priest; we were waiting for someone who could get us close to God when we weren't able to do it ourselves.

In the Old Testament, the priests were the ones who risked their lives for the people. They took the blood of animal sacrifices into the holiest part of the temple, the Holy of Holies, to cleanse the people of their sin. The only problem was that the priests were sinful themselves. They could not ever really deal with the problem of our separation from God because they too were separate from him; they too knew that they could not stand before a perfect God; they too were fearful of coming into his terrifyingly and beautifully Holy presence because they knew that his holiness would not ensure their sin.

This isn't a picture of God that is held up very often at Christmas time; we coo over the baby in the manger and forget that our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:29) We forget that Isaiah was so terrified of standing before God that he thought he was going to die (Isaiah 6:5). We forget that the most normal response in the bible to encountering God is to fall flat on your face because you know that he is worthy and you are not. We have no right to come into God's presence and no means of getting there by ourselves. 

And yet, on that first Christmas, the Magi gave Jesus the gift of frankincense because they knew he was going to be a priest (Exodus 30:23, 34); he was the one we needed to come to give an altogether better kind of sacrifice which would deal with the problem of sin forever. He would give himself: "Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself." (Hebrews 7:27)

And, he would keep on giving of himself. The incredible thing about Jesus' priesthood is that it isn't just about the one act of the cross. He died to bring us near to God, to bring us back to him, but that isn't the only way in which he is a priest. His priestliness isn't defined by a single act of sacrifice. He is still a priest. Even now, he sits beside the Heavenly Father and he prays for his people. He prays for us to draw near. He prays for us to have faith. He prays like he did for Peter that we will keep going even when it seems impossible to do so. (Luke 22:32) He prays that we will know him better. He prays that we will be with him. He prays for us in our every hurt and weakness. At this very moment Jesus is interceding for the people he loves. (Romans 8:34)

Reflection: Lord Jesus, thank you that you love to pray for us. Thank you that you sit at your father's side and intercede for us. Thank you that you love to pray for us to be near you. We pray that we would have confidence today because we know that you are for us. Amen.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Advent 10: Waiting for light in the darkness

"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned." (Isaiah 9:2)

"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." (Luke 1:78-79)

"When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)

The promise of Jesus is a promise of light. It is a promise of truth and guidance, of hope for the hopeless, of light breaking into the darkest places. The world feels pretty dark. Sometimes it feels like light has been completely extinguished, that the darkness is too strong to be overcome, that God has forgotten or is absent or has turned his face away. But Jesus says this is not so: his light is greater than any darkness; the darkest of night is as the noonday sun to him. (Psalm 139:11-12) Those who choose to follow him need not fear the darkness, no matter how dark it gets, because He is with them - He will give them light. He is the light of the world. 

I long to know the fullness of this reality. I catch it in glimpses: the wane of dawn breaking in to my life and the lives of those around me; weak beams of early morning sunlight on the horizon. An apology when before there would have been anger; hope for change when before there was disillusion and despair; laughter amidst tears; community and family where there was once isolation. The light is dawning, and one day Jesus promises that he will bring us to a place where night no longer exists. We will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun because He will be our light. (Revelation 22:5) In the meantime, we wait and we pray. We look to the Light of the World and we ask that light would shine in the darkness. We ask that he would shine his light into our hearts and that we would know what it is to have the light of life. Not just in eternity, but now.

Reflection: This world is urgently in need of light to shine in the darkness, for truth to rule instead of lies. Let us bring the darkest places of this world before God and cry out for Him to act. Let us bring the lost and the hopeless, the victims of abuse, the children trafficked into a strange land, the prisoners, the oppressed, the homeless, the starving, the hurting, and the dying before him and let us say, Let there be light. 

Darkness hovering
Grasping everything it sees
void empty
Absent life and absent dream

Let there be

Angels toil and crack open scrolls of ancient dreams
Countless worlds of his
Brilliant stars and breath and stream

Let there be (light)

Where there is darkness
Let there be light
Where there is nothing
Let there be light


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Advent 9: Waiting for a Saviour

"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." (Matthew 1:21)

My default position: I am just fine thank you very much. I don't need your help. 

But I'm not. We're not. That's the problem. The problem is perhaps more obvious on a global scale: the world is out of kilter. It isn't how it should be. Our hearts hurt when we read the misery of the news and see the pain of humanity and the awful things that we do to each other. We feel outraged by other people's offences. We cry out for something to be done.

But, the problem is closer to home too. The problem is in me. Jesus came to save me from myself. He came to save me from my sin, my selfish refusal to accept that maybe God knows best, that maybe I should trust him. Jesus came to save me from my jealousy, my judgement of others, the snide remarks I make in my head and mutter in corners to select circles; he came to save me from endless comparisons to others, from that nagging question of whether I'm really ok, whether anyone really notices. Jesus came to save me from the wrong that I do to others, to the world and to myself. He came to remove the barrier between me and God that I might see him face to face, that I might hear him say, It's ok - you're mine. You belong to me.

When I look at myself, really look, I know that I'm not ok. Not really. I long to be good, to be nice, to be kind, but then something ugly kicks in. That ugliness is what Jesus came to get rid of. He came to save us from our sin.

Response: In Romans, Paul talks about the battle within us to do good, to be the people we want to be, and our failure to do it. He says, "I know that nothing good lives in me—nothing good lives in the part of me that is earthly and sinful. I want to do the things that are good, but I do not do them. I do not do the good things I want to do, but I do the bad things I do not want to do. So if I do things I do not want to do, then I am not the one doing them. It is sin living in me that does those things... What a miserable man I am! Who will save me from this body that brings me death? I thank God for saving me through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:18-25)

Let us thank God together that Jesus came to save us from our sin. 

Monday, 8 December 2014

Advent 8: Waiting to know that God is with me

"They will call him Immanuel" (which means "God with us")." (Matthew 1:23)

One of the things that God most wants is to be with us. Let that sink in. Christmas is a time for being awed again by a God who left his throne in heaven to walk amongst us because He wanted to be with us. This is an unbelievable truth: that Jesus would abandon glory in the hope of winning back his people, that Jesus so wants a relationship with us that he would willingly come to earth to die so that we might live with him forever.

God wants to be with us this morning. In this very second, he waits, as the Father of the prodigal son waits on the edge of the field, for us to turn around and run to him. He waits with open arms wanting to embrace, wanting us to sit at his feet and tell him how we're feeling. He wants nothing more than our attention, to set his love upon us, to tell us that he is with us always and that life need never be lived in isolation from him. His Holy Spirit sent to live in our hearts is proof that he never wants to be apart from us. God could have an empty heaven and be perfectly content and yet he wants us there with him. (John 17:24)

God is with us. We do not need to be afraid. 

God is with us. We need never feel alone.

God is with us. Because he wants to be. 

Reflection: God is with us in every part of the day ahead. In each moment, the moment we long for and the ones we dread, he is alongside us. Father, we pray that we would know the reality of you with us. We pray that we would feel you close and know the difference that it makes. We pray that we would feel your presence in a new way today, that we would know the truth that you are as close to us as turned attention, as close as conversation. All we need do is acknowledge that you are there. Amen. 

Advent 7: Waiting for someone to stand in my place

“He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
And by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray;
Each of us turned to his own way;
And the LORD has laid on him
The iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6)

What does it mean that Jesus stood in our place?

In part it means that we needed Jesus to come. That is a sobering thought. It is easy to get tangled up in the tinsel of Christmas and forget that this tiny, little, beautiful baby would one day be nailed to a cross. Upon the shoulders of the man this baby would become would be placed the pain and wrongdoing and shame and brokenness of the whole world.

God’s story is that of a Father longing to be restored to his children. It is the story of a terrible rift that has been made become God and the people who have turned their back on him. The story of a perfect, good and holy God who is grieved by the way the world and the people in it hurt themselves and each other, who cannot ignore wrongdoing and yet loves those who do wrong.

Jesus came to stand in our place. I don’t know if I really believe that to be true. If I’m honest, I don’t think I deserve to die. I don’t want to believe that I really needed someone to stand in my place, to take away my sin for me because I couldn’t do it on my own. It was my sin that held Jesus to the cross. It was my rejection of God which caused Jesus to come down to help me to realise how beautiful the God was that I was rejecting. I needed him to become the perfect exchange. He became my perfect substitute. In the moment of crying out on the cross that His Father had forsaken him, Jesus took on my estrangement from God. He was rejected so that I could be brought close. He became Fatherless that I might know God as Father.

Reflection: Read the lyrics of the songs below and listen to them. Let us ask God to show us the beauty of the sacrifice Jesus made and the reason that he was willing to stand in our place: because he loved us.

You bled your heart out
Now I feel love beat in my chest
How wonderful
You gave your beauty
In exchange for my ugliness
How wonderful

You left your perfection
And embraced our rejection

How marvellous, how boundless
Is Your love, is Your love
How wonderful, sacrificial
Is Your love for me

You put on our chains
Sent us out through the open door
How wonderful
You took our sadness
Crowned us with joy and real peace
How wonderful

You left Your perfection
And fought for our redemption

Yes Jesus loves me
Yes Jesus loves me
How wonderful
Yes Jesus loves me
This is love
You gave Yourself
How deep the Father's love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Advent 6: Waiting for healing

God is a healer. It is part of his character, the heart of who he is. His name is Yahweh-Rophe, the God who heals you. When Jesus was on the earth he revealed God's character as a healer. John the Baptist, chained and desperate in prison, sent word to ask if Jesus was really the Promised One. Jesus' reply was that he must be because he was doing what only God's anointed one could do; he was healing:

"When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’
Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who doesn't stumble on account of me." (Matthew 11:2-6)

Jesus quotes the ancient words of Isaiah back to John. In Isaiah 35, the picture is of a barren and weary land that is longing for rain. The promise is that one day, what is parched and dead will spring back to life, what is broken will finally be fixed, the wilderness will become an oasis. God's people are told to take courage; to strengthen feeble hands and faltering footsteps because the healing God will come. And when Jesus does come this is exactly what he does: his acts of healing as he walks the earth testify to the reality of who he is. He is the sent One. He is the waited for One with the power to heal and restore and make all things new.

What about us? What about now? God is the healer and yet we remain hurting. Prayers remain unanswered. Jesus came and he healed once, but what do we do when we ask for healing and it doesn't happen? Where is the Healer in among cancer, and miscarriage, chronic pain, and unfair death? 

I have no answers. I do not know why God sometimes heals and he sometimes doesn't. But the promise of Jesus as Healer is a promise that extends beyond this life. One day we will be healed. We will be fully restored. Our broken bodies will be made perfect. And in the meantime, Jesus works out an altogether deeper kind of healing. It is by his wounds that we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5). At the cross Jesus healed our relationship with the Father. He is not content with physical well-being; he wants it all fixed. Mind. Body. Soul. Spirit. That's quite an ambitious project. It cost Jesus his life. 

Reflection: Father God, help me to see what you have healed instead of arguing with you about what you haven't. Help me to trust in your healing character even when I don't see it. Thank you for Jesus and his healing work on the cross. Because of his wounds I am healed. Because of his blood I am washed clean of sin and shame. Because of his death I live. Amen. 

Advent 5: Waiting for peace

We live in a world that longs for peace. The newspapers scream of our need for it. When Isaiah, one of the prophets in the Old Testament, spoke of who Jesus would be, who the waited for one would be, he named him the "Prince of Peace." He said that in spite of all appearances, despite the violence and pain of the world as is, one day someone would come to sort it out. This man would be a great judge: he would settle the disputes that ravage nations and peoples. He would ensure that every boot used for battle, every blood-stained piece of armour, would be thrown away and burned because it would not be needed any more. (Isaiah 9:5) The people themselves would beat their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning hooks. (Isaiah 2:4). On that day there would be no more war. No more armies. No more child soldiers. No more tears and grief. No more death. 

We do not live in that day. We live waiting for the fulfilment of that promise. We wait for the final day when Jesus promises to come back and sort things out once and for all. We live in the not yet. And it is painful. 

And yet, in the waiting, Jesus is still our Prince of Peace. He still offers peace to his people. As we pray for peace between nations, Jesus extends his own peace to us. He says to my anxious soul which frets about Christmas presents, and what people think of me, and whether my friend is going to be ok, about what my future is going to be like, and a thousand other unnecessary things everyday; he says "Peace be with you" (John 20:19).

He says, "I'm leaving peace with you even though you can't see me. I'm giving you the gift of peace and I'm giving it to you in a way the world can't. You don't need to be troubled. You don't need to be afraid any more." (John 14:27)

He says, "Do not be anxious. I am close. Come to me and talk to me about it. Leave it with me. And I will give you a peace that you don't understand, a peace that will keep you safe and calm your heart." (Philippians 4:5-7)

He says, "Trust me. I'm the rock. I'm the solid ground. I will keep you in perfect peace if you would just look to me. Trust that I am who I say I am and I want to give you the peace I say I can give you." (Isaiah 26:3-4)

Reflection: I want to know this peace today. I want my heart to be filled with it to the brim so that in the middle of any and every situation I am totally secure. Father God, please give me peace today. Give it to me in the way that only you can. Show me that my feet are standing on solid ground even when it feels like everything has given way. Amen

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Advent 4: Waiting to be comforted

Part of Jesus' job description is a comforter. He says that he has been sent "to bind up the broken hearted." (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18-21) Healing hurting hearts was - and is - his mission; it was his reason for coming and it is what he is in the business of doing today. 

The Jesus that we see in the Bible is a man who is familiar with sorrow. He does not stand on the edge of human hurt. He is not a distant God who stands unmoved and observes us crying with cold and hardened heart. He wades right in and lives among us. He embraces the mess of life as a human being. He experiences the fullness of its joys and its pains. He walks amongst those who grieve and hurt and get angry. He kneels beside Martha and Mary in the dirt to weep with them over the death of their brother. (John 11:35) He is moved by compassion for the crowds of people who wander the streets. (Matthew 9:36) He stops what he is doing comfort a bereaved mother because his heart is pained by her loss. (Luke 7:11-16)

God's heart of compassion is perfectly revealed in his Son, Jesus. He is the Father of Compassion, the God of all comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3) He longs to be welcomed in to our hurt. Answers still do not come easily: comfort is not an instantaneous experience; grief is not immediately stopped. But God is present in the middle of our pain. My anger often prevents me from acknowledging this. I am so busy being mad at Him that I refuse the comfort that is offered. I won't let God share my grief with me because I'm too busy blaming him for causing it. I am waiting to be comforted and yet I lash out at the one who tries to do it. But Jesus is persistent. Faithful. Unchanging. He will comfort us. If only we would let him.

Reflection: Father of compassion, I pray that I would know you in the midst of everything that today brings. I choose to acknowledge you in pain and in joy, in sorrow and in laughter. You are the comforter. Do not let me forget it. Do not let me cut you off from what I am going through. Do not let me block you out from my struggle, my questions, my doubt. I welcome you in today. I ask for your comfort today, for myself and for this world which so desperately needs it. Help me to know you as the comforter that you are. Amen. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Advent 3: Waiting for a shepherd

A shepherd

"I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd." (Ezekiel 34:23)

Shepherd is a bit of a weird image for us Westerners and city people who don't really know what a sheep is unless it's given to us as a lamb chop. But, for Israel, God's promise of a shepherd was the promise of someone to look after them. It was the promise of someone to search out those who were lost and scared and lonely and bring them back; the promise of protection, of a safe place, of provision of food and water and everything they needed.

We have all had experiences of bad leadership: people running our countries in ways we don't agree with, decisions being made that aren't for our good, family members who were meant to look after us but hurt us, bosses who cared for themselves and for their pay cheques but for no one else. In the Old Testament, this has been the experience of God's people: their rulers, their shepherds, have been pretty awful. They've acted for their own good rather than for the good of the flock. They've made sure they're fed and happy and satisfied but left the people, the sheep, to starve.

But in amongst this mess, God speaks and he promises that one day He himself will come and will rule as a Good Shepherd. He will live amongst his people and they will know him and trust him and follow him. He promises that "as a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so I will look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered...I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down...I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak." (Ezekiel 34:11-16). His promise is, ultimately, that he will prove himself to be this good shepherd by dying for those he loves. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will lay down his life for his sheep.

Reflection: And so, today, no matter how lost or estranged or far from God we might feel, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, promises to look for us, heal us and to bring us home. Let us spend some time today listening to God - asking him to help us hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling our names so that we can follow him.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Advent 2: Waiting for a king

"He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever." (2 Samuel 7:13)

Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, his ancestor King David was promised that one day some one from his family line would become the eternal King. Unlike any other king, this king would rule forever. He would never be supplanted. He would never die. He would always be in charge, always be reigning.

If Jesus being a baby is offensive, then his claim to be the everlasting King is surely more so. At the start of the Christmas story, even before Jesus has done anything, his claim to be a King is already causing division. Herod's reaction to his birth is violent: he is so disturbed by the thought of someone coming to take away his own power that he orders the murder of all male children under the age of two. He is so afraid of someone else being in charge that he attempts to stamp out any future kings and he is willing to take any means necessary to do so.

And then we have the Magi, the wise men. In total contrast to the fear and angry of Herod, these powerful rulers are filled with joy at the thought of Jesus as their king. When they see him, they immediately bow down to worship him and give him gifts that are symbolic of the King he will become. Even though Jesus is just a baby, they recognise that what God said to Mary is true: here is one who will reign forever. 

What about us? How do we react to Jesus as King? We are not people who like authority. We love to criticise politicians and those in power. We want them to take the flack, we want them to sort everything out but, if I'm honest, I don't really want anyone to tell me what to do. I don't want anyone to make decisions that are going to affect my life and force me to change anything. But this is exactly what Jesus does: calling him King means putting him in charge. It means that today is not my own. My time is not my own. Calling Jesus King means joyful surrender; it means handing over to the one who promises to reign well and reign forever. Is that something I'm willing to do this morning?