When grace gets the upper hand

Then all the Jews returned out of all places where they had been driven, and came to the land of Judah, to Gedaliah at Mizpah, and gathered wine and summer fruit in abundance. (Jeremiah 40.12)

Most of us tend to think in terms of either/or. Good times or bad times. Profits or losses. Success or failure. Of course, in some areas of life either/or really are your only options. You can afford to move house, or you can’t. You passed that important exam or you didn’t.

However, sometimes our options aren’t that stark. Sometimes success or failure isn’t so clear.

Jeremiah the prophet lived in an era which for his country was one of almost unmitigated disaster. A settled refusal to obey the Lord over many generations, manifesting itself in idolatry and all sorts of social injustice, finally came to a head in 587 B.C. when Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Babylonians. It was disastrous. The temple was destroyed. The city walls were broken down. And some of the nation’s most talented people were dragged into exile in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, installed Gedaliah, a Jew, as governor of the broken nation.

From the outside looking in, and to the eyes of many of those Jews left behind in Judah, the whole set-up was completely unsatisfactory – indeed Gedaliah was eventually assassinated, plunging Judah into further chaos.

Nevertheless, despite all the upheavel and uncertainty, God began to bless His people. Those who had emigrated to surrounding nations for whatever reason, began to return back home. Abundant harvests became the order of the day once again. Despite the political instability and God’s obvious displeasure with Judah, grace was found in the midst of judgment.

There was a new order. The old, familiar order of things had passed away and its glory would only be rediscovered and surpassed in Christ. There would be no return to empire. And it was pointless to try to restore what was lost or resist the new order of things. Why? Because, hard as it was to accept, this was actually God’s will. But within this new framework God would continue to bless His people and provide for them and teach them how to relate their faith to an unfamiliar, pagan world.

In some ways the church in the West has arrived at a similar juncture in its history. We are faced with a world and a political order which is not only unsympathetic to our moral and spiritual outlook, but is sometimes, perhaps increasingly so, downright hostile.

The same can be true for us as individuals. Developments at work or at home – or even in church! – can leave us feeling that we have entered territory that is way off the map in terms of our experience.

We can take some encouragement from this scripture in Jeremiah: even in times of great uncertainty and insecurity God provides grace. He is still relentless in His love. He is still only too ready to restore. And He will forever prove Himself to be a faithful God in whom we can trust. With God, grace and difficulty aren’t either/ors. They can both coexist. Thankfully, His grace is there to ensure that difficulty doesn’t need to get the upper hand.

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What do you say about yourself?

We have probably all experienced those moments where we have been in some kind of group or on some kind of training exercise and the group leader or trainer asks you to introduce yourself. For some reason, I still feel a bit self-conscious sharing the details about my life that are about as revealing as reading about me in a telephone directory or on the electoral roll! I hope that doesn’t mean that in some sort of strange Freudian way I am battling deep identity issues!

John the Baptist was asked that very question. He’d already told the priests and Levites who he wasn’t. He was quite certain about that. I think most people are. We know who we’re not – or at least we know who or what we don’t want to be.

But who do we think we are we? What do we say about ourselves?

John the Baptist’s answer was expressed in biblical and prophetic terms:

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (John 1.23)

John understood himself and what he was doing in terms of his place in God’s unfolding revelation. This understanding was rooted both in his own personal experience, and, more importantly in the scriptures.

We don’t really begin to grasp who we are and what we are meant to be about until we see ourselves in the light of God’s revelation set out in the scriptures. That’s just as important for the church as it is for individual Christians. Peter says we’re a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2.9)

Admittedly, John had the advantage of having a godly family who had inside information about the calling on their son’s life. John’s insight and confidence didn’t just come about through a flash of revelation or a surge of spiritual confidence. Underlying these few words from Isaiah spoken in self-explanation lies a whole spiritual matrix of instruction, encouragement, affirmation and godly example.

One wonders what would have happened had John’s parents never told him about his dad’s encounter with the angel Gabriel. You might think that is just speculation, but we have at least one possible instance of this very thing happening in the Bible. Rebekah was told that the elder of her twins would serve the younger, but it seems that Jacob and Esau never really understood or perhaps even heard about that revelation. Ignorance can sometimes be bliss, but in their case it tore the family apart (Genesis 25.23-26).

We might not have had the godly input into our lives from our earliest years in the way that John the Baptist did. We do need to be affirmed and encouraged frequently in our identity in Christ and our purpose as His followers. That’s why we need church. And that’s why we as the church – God’s people – need to encourage one another in our identity and calling as followers of Jesus.

What do you say about yourself?

Knowing who you’re not

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” 21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” (John 1.19-21)

I heard a story a while ago about a writer called Parker Palmer. Palmer was a writer whose influence was growing in educational circles. At one point he was offered the presidency of a college. Palmer was a Quaker. The Quakers have a practice of gathering together what they call a clearness committee when they are faced with a major decision. So the clearness committee got together and began to ask Palmer some searching questions about taking on the role of college president. One major question was “What would you like about being college president?” Palmer could only think of things he wouldn’t like about being president. The committee kept pressing him to say what he would like about the role. Finally, he said “Having my picture in the paper with the words “College President” underneath” Needless to say, he realised the role of college president wasn’t meant for him!

When it comes to serving God effectively, knowing who or what we’re not, is an important aspect of fulfilling our calling, perhaps as important as knowing who we are.

John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry had to define who he wasn’t (John 1.19-28). He wasn’t Messiah. He wasn’t Elijah. He wasn’t the prophet. The labels that people tried to put on him clearly did not fit. Certainly, who he was and what he did were intimately related to the coming of Messiah. And yes, his ministry did bear more than a passing resemblance to that of Elijah and to the “prophet”. But neither of these designations could define the uniqueness of what John was called to do. He was a voice of one calling in the desert. He was a voice for his generation, not an echo of a previous generation. He had a message the purpose of which was to challenge and reshape the faith and culture of Israel. He was never meant to try to conform himself to that culture or fit his message into the limited thinking of the religion of his day.

To ensure that message was clear, he had to ensure that he didn’t allow himself or his ministry to be defined by the labels those around him were only to willing to impose upon him. His parents had fought and won that battle when they named him (Luke 1.57-66). He now had to fight it and win it for himself as a grown man.

Resisting the labels – sometimes bad ones and sometimes attractive ones – that people so easily foist upon us is critical for us in our calling to be God’s people proclaiming God’s message to God’s world. We are called to be a voice to a needy world. We are called to partner with God in reshaping an out of shape world. And if we are to partner effectively we need to know who we’re not. We’re not a throwback to a former era or an echo of contemporary culture. Like John the Baptist we are a voice crying in the desert, in our case the desert of the 21st century world.

Running to win

Writing in the immediate aftermath of Usain Bolt’s 100m victory and Andy Murray’s gold at the Olympics, and on the Monday after what was for team GB super Saturday, I can hardly get away without mentioning the Olympics in my weekly post. The whole of the nation seems to be gripped by Olympic fever. Today’s Daily Mail (6-8-12) even points out that if Yorkshire was a country it would be higher in the medal table than Japan, Australia and South Africa!

It can seem superficial when preachers try to compare living for Jesus to athletics, but when you look at the pages of the New Testament, you find that more than once the parallel is drawn between sport and spirituality. Just take a look at Galatians 2.2, 5.7; Philippians 2.16; 1 Timothy 4.7-8; 2 Timothy 2.5; and Hebrews 12.1.

Perhaps the best known usage of sporting imagery is found in 1 Corinthians 9.24-27:

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

Paul was no more into amateur spirituality than Usain Bolt is into amateur athletics – despite the Olympic ideal of amateur sport! It’s highly focussed business. You’re watching your diet. You’ve got a coach to push you that little bit harder and draw the best out of you. You don’t allow yourself to be distracted from your overall goal. And you are willing to press through pain – in fact you even put yourself in the way of pain to improve your performance.

When we hear that kind of language, it is easy to react with a “God hasn’t called us to a performance based life”. The mistake that we make – and sometimes the church has made this mistake historically – is that we confuse relationship with God eternally and being effective for God temporally. When you give your life to Jesus you are immediately and forever part of God’s family. But to be an effective member of team Jesus, you have to go into training.

Just recently, I read a book by Warren Weirsbe, 50 People Every Christian Should Know. Some were well-known, some weren’t. Some had obvious flaws. Some had major personal battles. Everyone of them, however, had an incredibly robust devotional life. They were hungry for God.

People like this are the spiritual equivalent of top athletes. They’re running to win.

Enjoy what’s left of the Olympics. I’m sure there are still a few surprises in store. And as you watch these incredible sportsmen and women at the height of their powers, may you be inspired to run with perseverance the race marked out for you (Heb. 12.1) – and to run to win.

I have to leave you with The Message translation of 1 Corinthians 9.24-27:

24-25You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally. 26-27I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.