God Gives us a “New Heart”

We are familiar with the expression, ‘a broken heart’, or ‘a heart ache’, to describe the profound depth of emotions associated with longing and grief. Conversely, a young man courting a woman is said to ‘win her heart’, and those who are said to have ‘no heart’, have no sympathy. We might also say, ‘take heart’, meaning, to have courage or enthusiasm. There is its opposite as well, ’to have my heart in my mouth’, to describe being frightened. I like the expression in particular, ‘to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve’, meaning, to reveal one’s feelings or intentions.

There is a particular problem with the heart though: it can be deceitful. We are often unable to see the deeper motivations which others see in us (Jeremiah 17:9-10). God himself can see the true condition of our heart with its mixed motives and fickle commitment to him. Despite Israel’s well intentioned motives to love God wholeheartedly (there’s another use of the word!), she kept on breaking her commitment to him and took other lovers – the idols which surrounded Israel and trusted in her military alliances for protection. Her heart was deceitful; she adhered to God’s law superficially, but her heart was far from him (Isaiah 29:13). This cold hearted, superficial religious adherence, dogged Israel in the time of Jesus too, and he condemned it, quoting the Isaiah passage (Mark 7:6-7).

What is the solution then, to our tendency to be cold-hearted toward God, to call on him and use him in a time of need as a convenient prop or idol who will save us, only to ignore him until the next disaster strikes?

The solution is that God will give us a new heart, one of flesh,  not stone (Jeremiah 31:33-34). This is God’s promise to us, and also a sign of the new agreement (covenant) he makes with us in Jesus Christ. It will be a different covenant from the one Israel entered into under Moses however. The Law will be written in our hearts, not on tablets of stone, like it was under Moses (2 Cor 3:3). How is this achieved? By the work of the Holy Spirit. He indwells us and changes us and takes what the Law prescribed, and outworks their values in our daily lives (2 Cor 3:17-18). We are transformed by His work, and love God ‘wholeheartedly’. The trick, like in marriage, is to daily spend some time with the one you love, and to make a determined decision not to be tempted to go after someone else.

Light and Darkness, Death and Life, Evil and Truth

There is a division which runs through the people of this world.

It is not the division between rich and poor; between men and women; white and black; educated and uneducated; the religious and non-religious; those who identify as Christian and those who don’t. It is a division which began in the past, is being made now in this very city and will one day be made manifest. This division is made by us, often without our awareness that we are making it. Sometimes the division is unintentionally made by those angry and feeling justified to blame others for the condition they find themselves living in.

This division is not one which God wants; nor is it one which the church community will rejoice in or leaves it feeling smug, assured of its superiority because it believes it stands on the right side of the division which runs through all humanity. Quite the reverse; often God’s people work hard to prevent this division from occurring. In hope and against the reality they know it will occur, they work tirelessly to ensure that all will have the opportunity to be aware of why the division occurs and a person’s participation in it.

John’s Gospel describes the division as one between light and darkness; death and life; evil and truth. (John 3:14-21) What is this division? It is the division over Jesus Christ which occurs in the heart of every person. No-one can remain sitting on the fence, indifferent, postulating that some other religious figure or political philosophy will save us. The coming of Jesus into this world, brought with it a division, the awareness that without Christ we are lost, unless we look to him to save us.

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments are often viewed negatively as a series of ‘Thou shalt nots’. This view sees them as a control mechanism for our behaviour, a standard which marks a line between what we are tempted to do and our committing the act. But this misses their point. They are not primarily meant to control our behaviour or convict us of lawbreaking, which they certainly do as the New Testament makes clear. They are to state in a minimal way, what God’s expectations are of his people who he has redeemed. The phrase: “I am the LORD who brought you out of Egypt out of the land of slavery.” (Ex 20:2), is a way of saying: ‘I am the God who has redeemed you from slavery because I love you – now you belong exclusively to me. Therefore, this is how you are to act, so you reflect my values and priorities in life.’

Seen from this angle, the 10 Commandments are a guide on how to live according to God’s ways which will bring life, community cohesion and peace to those who accept the LORD as their God.

The first four commandments express how we are to demonstrate our love to God; the remaining six commandments show how we are to honour one another in love. We are to honour our parents, to honour human life by not committing murder, to honour marriage by not going outside of it to commit adultery; to honour private property by not stealing; to honour the truth by not slandering a person, which is to destroy their reputation by our gossip; to honour contentment and not covet your neighbour’s things or status or wealth.

What Christians overlook when they speak as if the 10 Commandments are irrelevant or say they are superseded by Christ’s law of love, is that they ignore the fact that virtually the entire New Testament teaching about our behaviour as God’s people is based on these commandments. Love is, as Paul highlighted, the fulfilment of the Law (Romans 13:8-10).

Are You Prepared to Follow Jesus and Pick Up Your Cross?

Peter, the well-known disciple of Jesus, grasped what the other eleven had missed. When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, they speculated, reporting what the crowds thought about Jesus. But Peter had the right answer. “The Christ,” he said (Mark 8:29). At this point, with Peter’s confession fresh in their minds, Jesus began to teach them that he had to be rejected, killed and three days later would rise again. The Messiah, Jesus wanted them to understand, would not be the a military ruler and priest of popular expectations who would create a new and purified Israel.

Peter, on hearing Jesus’ redefinition of what a Messiah looked like – a suffering and rejected one, began to correct Jesus and objected to his explanation. Jesus corrected him. What Peter lacked was the insight to see Jesus and the purpose of his mission. Peter wanted to join a movement that provided fame and success (Mark 10:28). The reward he craved for the cost of following Christ would be validated when Jesus sat on his throne with the other eleven seated next to him. Jesus corrects this misplaced expectation (Mark 8:34-38). To follow Jesus would mean to pick up one’s own cross, like Jesus carried his own. The cross was a symbol of shame, the naked display of Roman power, a punishment that put fear into onlookers. Peter lacked the insight to see that Jesus suffered and died under the power of Rome, to display the power of God in his weakness. Paul however, understood this (2 Cor 12: 9-10 & 1 Cor 4:9-13). Are you prepared to follow Jesus and pick up your cross? Or do you serve him to gain validation or to gain what he potentially offers in the popular imagination?

The Real Meaning of Repentance

Sometimes our words become emptied of any meaning due to their overuse and familiarity. ‘Awesome’ is one such word, as is ‘honestly’ (as in the song, ‘I honestly love you’). In the church, the word ‘repent’ is another. This word has become reduced to meaning a person must turn from their sins and seek forgiveness in the salvation which Christ provides. Here is why I don’t like this definition of ‘repent’. Christ is presented as a solution to a problem (sin), and by turning to him (repenting), and confessing our sins, our problem of sin is removed.

The relevance of Jesus as a ‘problem solver’ leaves me with the impression that Jesus merely offers a type of spiritual therapy. We are now free to move on with life (the problem of sin has been resolved), and there is no further requirement to consider what demands he might make of us. But consider the alternative view. When Jesus exploded onto the political and religious scene, he announced, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1 vs 15).  We assume he is speaking of the repentance of sin. But is there something more here? In contrast to the superficiality resulting from our empty use of ‘repent’, the rich meaning of this word is determined by the words which precede it – the ‘kingdom of God’. Jesus is issuing a call to redefine your life and its meaning, what we consider true and good, even our values and aspirations, and to orientate every aspect of our lives to his rule, his values and the salvation he is bringing. We are called to ‘believe the good news’ of the liberation he provides, such as the forgiveness of our sins by his death, but there is much more than the mere cleansing from sin. Repentance is not the narrow sense of turning to Christ to gain ‘forgiveness of sins’, but the wider meaning that Jesus as THE Lord, THE Son of God, has commanded us turn from self-centred living with its preoccupations (which cause us to sin), and to surrender to his rule as king. This results in a deep, distinctive lifestyle change and is the antidote to the superficiality of much which passes as ‘Christianity’ today.


Why Ash Wednesday must be remembered at least one day each year.

Ash Wednesday – 14 February 2018

Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Matt 6:1-6 (7-15), 16-21

A feature of the readings from both Joel and Matthew is they address God’s people who were religious, faithful in their religious practices like fasting, giving alms to the poor and prayer. However, their religious practices were undertaken with the intention of impressing others. They offered effusive and showy prayers which were designed to impress others watching on. They flamboyantly dispensed alms to the poor and broadcast to their friends their giving. Their public displays of repentance appeared shallow and designed only to make a statement. Their religious practices were disconnected from their hearts. They were superficial, empty and neither impressed God nor those watching on.

They may in some small degree, at least at the beginning, have sincerely repented; and they may have had some genuine intention to make rights to God. However, the major problem which Joel and Jesus identified was they thought they were good Jews, in good standing before God because of their effusive and often public displays of piety. They were blind and deceived in their thinking they were already righteous before God and they permitted themselves the luxury of doing the religious, outward things, the ‘keeping up appearances’, while their hearts were far from him.

Ash Wednesday is more than a remembrance that we are from dust, and to dust we will return (with the unspoken but obvious warning that we must be prepared to meet God our creator). Ash Wednesday is a corrective to the tendency by God’s people, of any background or in any age, to slowly lapse into a comfortable and sometimes smug position, that if they do the right things, all will be well with God, their neighbour and life.

The practice of Ash Wednesday is a dangerous practice which has been maintained by the church for many centuries. It is a dangerous practice because it challenges the well founded and established position held by those in the church itself, that they were always Christians because of their baptism, are Christians now, and will always Christians – despite what the condition of their heart might be before God. Nothing, they believe, is demanded of them than to turn up occasionally at church, do a few right things, support a few of the fundraising causes and believe that the way they treat others will result in God’s reward. This expectation of a reward is a misplaced expectation; it is accompanied with a sense of entitlement. The condition of their heart and their standing before God is not reflected upon.

The Jews of Jesus’ day claimed they were the children of Abraham. Likewise, the Christian today claims they are, by virtue of baptism, entitled to salvation, God’s favour and blessing. However, Thomas Merton puts it this way: “’Grace’, ‘mercy’ and ‘faith’ are not a permanent possession which we gain by our efforts and retain as though a right, provided we behave ourselves. They are constantly renewed gifts.” (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Practice, 85),

The place and purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind us that our heart must be given to God as a prerequisite to whatever religious practices we then participate in or express. The heart must be converted and washed by God’s Spirit for renewal before such practices have any value or place. Ash Wednesday is to help us be freed from the dead works of religiosity. As an acquaintance disillusioned with his church put it to me: “Churches are often preoccupied with the issues of maintenance, money and management.” Repentance and faith in Christ are pushed into the background of this church’s concern. It is no wonder they do not grow because they are spiritually dead and visitors are able to sniff the scent of superficiality in their religious life.

We live during a period of church history which William C. Placher understood to be like the that which several Christian leaders of the nineteen century confronted. He writes: “Even in the nineteenth century, Christians like Soren Kierkegaard in Denmark and John Henry Newman in England, were thinking about the challenge of how to introduce serious Christianity into a society that thought itself already Christian.” (William C Placher, Callings, 330-331.) Ash Wednesday is an opportunity we are given periodically to remember we are in danger of lapsing into the self-deception that we are already Christians, and can live as Christians without the fruits of repentance and a renewed heart that expresses itself in a serious expression of faith.


In the Beginning …

Today we look at Genesis 1:1-19. Written approximately 3,500 years before the scientific age, its interest is about the ‘why’ God created the world, rather than the ‘how’. As you read it, keep in mind the religious context in which Israel lived. The gods of Egypt and those of the Sumerian cities of Ur, Babylon and Nippur claimed to be the creators of the world and worthy to be worshipped.

Genesis ch 1, affirms the following, much of which is a polemic (critical attack), on the claims by these gods:

(1) The Creator God has made everything: the heavens above, the earth and everything in the sea. The god of Babylon, Tiamat who was the dragon of the primordial sea, did not create the land. It was God’s Spirit, who brought into being out of the formless chaos, order and land (Gen 1:2).

(2) The sun, moon and stars were made by God. They are not explicitly named in Gen 1:16-17, but are stripped of their deity. They serve God’s purpose marking the time and seasons and should not to be worshipped.  They do not control human destiny, God does – who created them. Astrology, therefore, has no basis.

(3) The pinnacle of God’s creation is humanity, whereas the Sumerian gods claimed humans were made to serve them as their slaves. In contrast, Genesis teaches that all humanity, and both men and women, are created in God’s image (1:26-27). In Egypt, their supreme god Ra, whose son, the Pharaoh, was the incarnation of Ra, boldly claimed to be the only person to bear his god’s image.

(4) The 6 days of creation are divided into 3 days of preparation, then 3 days of fulfilment. And it is declared very good by God (1:31), not evil.

Standing Between Two Eras

Today marks the end of one year and with tomorrow, the commencement of a new one. As one era is ending, another is opening up. For many, they will have a sense of expectancy or anticipation about what the coming year may bring.

One man who stood between two eras was the elderly priest Simeon. He is described as righteous and devout, an exemplary figure of piety in whom the Holy Spirit is at work (Lk 2:25-26). He recognises the infant Jesus as the ‘consolation of Israel’ when he is brought by his parents to the temple to be consecrated to God (Luke 2:25). His aging eyes could look back on the periods of Israelite history when God’s acts of salvation had occurred, but he had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the Lord’s Messiah – the beginning of a new era (Luke 2:26).

Holding the infant Jesus in his arms, Simeon stands on the threshold between two eras. In the past lies the promise which has prepared Israel for this event. Now the future beckons and the fulfilment of that promise with the arrival of Jesus in the temple. Simeon’s eyes see not just an infant, but in this infant, the very means by which God will bring his salvation. However – and here is the tremendous thing – this salvation will be a light for the nations, the Gentiles, not just for Israel (Luke 2:31-32). The salvation brought through Jesus will enable the Gentiles to be brought into God’s purpose and plan which began with Israel. This is what is sometimes termed, the ‘universality’ of salvation. Jesus is not just for the few, or ethnic Israel, but for all people from all the nations – including those in Blackburn Sth.

Mary’s Faith, and Our Fears

As I write this, many are preoccupied with the preparations surrounding Christmas. There is a sense of anticipation, especially among children, of what gifts they may receive. Celebrations are being held, loosely connected to the birth of Jesus the Messiah King and the Son of God. It is also the time of year when I turn my attention to Mary herself and the role she played in God’s plan of salvation. In the light of the events which would follow the birth of her first-born, her responsibilities were great and her influence on her son, our Lord Jesus, profound.

The response by Mary to the angel’s announcement that, “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,” is simply amazing.

She replies, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be  fulfilled.” (Luke 1:35, 38). She offers herself as a willing servant to God’s purpose. She demonstrates a quiet, but firm faith, that expresses itself in obedience to God’s bigger purpose which will provide the way by God to reconcile humanity to himself through the death of his Son.

Faith, in response to God’s calling, is a characteristic not just of Mary, but of all those who know God personally through Christ. It is a defining characteristic of the Christian’s walk with God (2 Cor 5:7; Hebrews ch 11). The same Holy Spirit who worked within Mary, is the same Person who works within us, producing the fruit of God’s works and his character in our lives – and also faith in God’s bigger plan for this world.

The faith of Mary and indeed every Christian, looks beyond the circumstances of the present time, but it is not ‘positive thinking’. It is to look to God, to recognise his power, his promises, and his desire to bring all people to know the Son he sent that we celebrate at this time of the year. Faith is to see what God’s plan and purposes are which lie beyond the current obstacles which preoccupy us.  Jesus himself said, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.” (Mark 11:22-23).

The opposite of faith is not doubt though. It is fear. Doubt is an uncertainty, an unsettled state of mind, whereas fear denies God’s ability to fulfil in our lives and this world, the purpose he has, as God, for it. Fear occurs when we shift our attention away from God’s character (what he is like), and his promises, onto our desire to keep something that is holding us back from going further with him. We prefer the known, what is cherished, and what provides stability and peace in our lives.

Mary had every reason to fear what God was asking of her. For a start there was her reputation. She ran a real risk of being known as a woman with loose morals. How would she explain to Joseph the cause of her swelling body? Her cherished marriage would be unlikely – as indeed it was when he discovered her pregnancy and considered annulling their engagement (Matt 1:18-23). Where would she live? The course of events she was being invited to participate in would not necessarily provide the stability to raise a family. And there would be all the normal questions an expectant, young woman would want to know about the birth process that created uncertainty. Her sense of peace would be unsettled by the words of the angel. Everything in her world was about to turned upside down if she responded to what God was inviting her to participate in. Yet, she lays these fears and questions aside, and gives her assent to God’s bigger purpose, trusting in God for the outcome.

At Christmas time, we not only see the angel appearing to Mary, to shepherds watching over their flocks, to Joseph who is confused and wrestling with what he is to do with his pregnant betrothed, we hear the angel’s voice. Each time we hear God’s voice, inviting us to participate in his bigger plan, it creates faith. Our hearts are settled. Peace floods us. The impossible is possible. The obstructions can be overcome and the challenges broken down into their various parts and dealt with. Mary’s faith enabled her to look at the possibility, to re-imagine a future which we are still talking about today. The questions she might have had and possibly did have after the event, were dissolved.

I heard once, when I was still a boy, a conversation between my father and a former English Spitfire pilot of the Second World War. They shared in common an interest in building boats and crayfish. Cray fisherman were often in financial difficulties or in legal difficulties, appearing before the magistrate for drunk driving or disorderly behaviour at the pub. So knowing my father with his legal skills as a solicitor was to one’s advantage; a little bit of time nattering about the fishing season or the work on his boat was time well spent and would often result in a discount.

He had, like many of his generation, heard the call, not considered the cost and trained as a fighter pilot for the RAF. One thing he said about the pilots was that they preferred to select and train the young men – those in their late teens and early twenties because their reflexes, their reaction to responding to a dog fight in the air were quicker than an older man. Younger men were open to learning; they did not question everything. Once however they had been shot down, they were often given other duties because they became more hesitant, conservative in their decision making slower and unable to maintain a ‘gung ho’ attitude of ‘we can do it’. As we get older, we become slower, more conservative, less inclined to be a risk taker, less likely to expect God to do new things and more likely to be resistant to change. Young men are not. They ask ‘how’, not ‘why’. Mary, being young, was like those young Spitfire pilots in that she had a ‘we can do it’, attitude; she was willing to be risk taker for God’s plan to be accomplished.

Whatever our age, we need to allow the story of Mary’s encounter with the angel and her faith filled response of acceptance, to be one which renews our youthful willingness to be risk takers again, in faith, to live in anticipation that we are giving ourselves to God’s bigger purpose which began at Bethlehem and continues to all the nations.

The often quoted verse, “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16), highlights God’s interest and love was not just for the sheep in the fold, like Israel, but those outside, beyond it – the nations. This is surely then, the meaning of the Christmas message and explains why the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is not just a celebration for us, but for others as well. They too have been given the opportunity to share in the blessings and privilege of a deep and meaningful relationship with God, through the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord.


Not a Pet for Pale Curates

The well-known English crime writer and poet of the 1930s, Dorothy L. Sayers, describes Jesus Christ as the man who

“cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property…”.

“We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild’, and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand. True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; he referred to King Herod as ‘that fox’; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a ‘gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners’ … when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either.”

Extract taken from, “Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine.”