It’s never too late for grace

At the age of eighteen he was king. By twenty-one he had lost his throne and spent the next thirty-six years in a foreign prison.

That was the trajectory of King Jehoiachin’s life up until the age of fifty-seven. Caught up in events that heralded the exile of the nation of Judah, Jehoiachin’s personal and public faithlessness both mirrored and encouraged the declining spiritual health of the nation.

You search in vain for any indication that the final years of Jehoiachin’s life might escape the kind of futility and failure that had marked his first fifty-seven years. 2 Kings 24.6-17 and Jeremiah 22 present a depressing picture.

However, right at the end of 2 Kings, the picture unexpectedly brightens up:

27 In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the year Awel-Marduk became king of Babylon, he released Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. He did this on the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month. 28 He spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honour higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. 30 Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived. 2 Kings 25.27-30

At the age of fifty-seven, after a lifetime of frustration, failure and futility, God dramatically changes everything. A new king comes to power in Babylon. And everything changes. God changes everything. For the rest of his life Jehoiachin is honoured in a way that he has perhaps never experienced.

No matter how difficult or frustrating life has been, God can dramatically change things. Thirty-six years of setback can be overturned in one day. That’s God. That’s grace. And it applies every bit as much to you as it did to Jehoiachin. It’s never too late for grace.

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The God Who Spares No Expense

Our house isn’t coming down with family heirlooms. In fact, I could count on one hand those that spring immediately to mind, and still have fingers left to count how many of them would make it on to the Antiques Roadshow.

There is one however that my late grandfather gave me a long time ago. It is a pocket watch, given to him by his father. His father’s name is engraved on it and the year 1899.

As it was no longer functional, I decided some years ago to take it to a jeweller and have it repaired. Unfortunately he returned the watch in the same condition. He said that, whilst it might have great sentimental value, it was beyond economic repair. Priceless, but broken and, in his eyes, not worth the cost of fixing.

When Isaiah spoke the prophetic words to the people of Judah recorded in Isaiah 44.24-28, he was speaking to a people who, in God’s eyes, were priceless but broken. And a people who in the eyes of the world were beyond economic repair.

If you had looked west to Jerusalem during Judah’s Babylonian exile, you might well have concluded that Jerusalem and the temple of God were also beyond economic repair.

God had other plans, better plans. He would restore His people to their land. He would restore Jerusalem. The temple would be rebuilt. And how would he do it? He would use a pagan King, Cyrus, to initiate the return and restoration of his people. (Incidentally, the Jewish historian Josephus relates a story that Cyrus somehow got hold of Isaiah’s prophecy and was so impressed that he had personally been mentioned that he was moved to action!)

Earlier in the chapter, Isaiah outlined how God would move among His people as He moved to restore what had been lost. He promised to pour out His Spirit (1-5). He challenged them to confront and renounce their idols (6-20). And He reminded them of His grace (21-23).

God is still in the business of restoring what is “beyond economic repair”. He has done and is doing just that in everyone of us who respond to Him in faith. He is still in the business of restoring families, churches, communities, cities – even whole nations – let’s not limit His ability!

He usually works to the kind of pattern seen in Isaiah 44. The outpouring of the Spirit on those who are thirsty. Confronting and renouncing our idols – for idol read “anything that we put in the place of God”. And, of course, His grace. If we forget grace our most sincere desires for the Spirit to move and our most godly instincts for holiness can so easily work themselves out in legalistic self- effort.

No life, no situation is beyond economic repair because Christ has already paid the repair price at the cross. God spared no expense for us. That’s why it’s called grace.

Secret Grace

Unfortunately we live in a world in which secrecy is almost always considered something negative. And of course there is good reason for that. How many newspapers would survive if it weren’t for dark secrets they can expose and print as headlines? Not too many.

In the kingdom of God, however, secrecy is not always seen in such a negative light. Jesus, for example, talks about developing a healthy secret life when it comes to praying, fasting and giving.

And then there is what you might call secret grace.

The story of Esther, perhaps more, or at least as much as, any other, reveals the power and influence of secret grace.

God’s secret grace is at work all through Esther’s life.

His secret grace is at work in the affairs of court. When Queen Vashti refuses her husband’s invitation and subsequently loses her position, a piece of the jigsaw of Esther’s life falls into place. Esther could never have imagined that Vashti’s dismissal and divorce would have such a profound impact upon her life.

Secret grace was at work in the people that God put around Esther. Mordecai, Esther’s adoptive father, was a key influence on her life. A parent and a mentor. And his part in foiling a plot to kill king Xerxes eventually played a crucial part in Esther’s story (2.7, 10-11, 22).

Hegai, the manager of Xerxes harem, favoured Esther, and no doubt helped her manage the politics and practicalities of life in the harem (2.8,15).

And of course Xerxes, the king. He married Esther – possibly much to her surprise! And then in chapter 6 he is awakened in the night, reads some official documents and finds he need to reward Mordecai! (2.17-18; 6)

God’s grace was at work in and through all of these people.

Finally, God was at work in Esther’s personal circumstances. Her place of birth. Her appearance and even her pain (2.7). All of these were important pieces in the jigsaw that we know as the story of Esther.

God’s secret grace is at work in our lives. God is secretly working for us. He is not against us. He works in places and events that seem to have no connection with our lives whatsoever. His secret grace is at work through the people He has placed around us. And it was and is at work in our personal circumstances, however unpromising they might seem.

God is for us. His secret grace is powerfully at work. As Romans 8.28 says in The Message:

“We can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”

Choosing your defining moment

I was asked to share something before communion at the recent Elim100 Leaders’ conference. Some people asked me for notes at the end of the service. Unfortunately I didn’t have any notes, so I will try to reproduce here the spirit, if not the letter,  of what I said. You might also find some explanatory comments which were not in the original talk. It is not a complete exposition, as there is a dimension of spiritual warfare that I didn’t emphasise. And there is also a difference between the “you” plural of v.31 and the “you” singular of v.32: Simon Peter was clearly at the sharp end of this Satanic attack.

Text: 31 ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ 33 But he replied, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.’ 34 Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.’ Luke 22.31-34

Communion is a defining mark of the church. As believers have celebrated the Lord’s Supper over the centuries, this defining mark has resulted in many defining moments.

On the night Jesus was betrayed there were a number of events that could be classed as defining moments.

Simon Peter is one of the disciples whom we might think had the most obvious defining moments during that evening of betrayal. In Luke’s gospel chapter 22.31-34, Jesus warns Simon Peter that Satan is seeking to sift him as wheat, but assures him that He, Jesus, has prayed for him that his faith will not fail. Simon Peter protests that he is ready to pay the ultimate price for his faith. In reply, Jesus declares that Peter will not die for Him, he will rather deny that he knows Him at all.

On the surface, it would seem that Peter had three very obvious defining moments: the three occasions on which He denied the Lord.

There is no doubt that Peter failed. Yet Jesus had said that He was praying for him that his faith would not fail.

Peter’s flesh failed, but in the overall scheme of God’s purpose for Peter, his faith did not fail. Why? Because Jesus was praying for him.

Peter’s defining moment was not the first, second, or third time that he denied the Lord. His defining moment was when Jesus said to him “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail”.

A failure of flesh is not necessarily a failure of faith. If Peter’s denial constituted a failure of faith, then Jesus’ prayer that Peter’s faith would not fail was not answered positively.

The “failures of flesh” could have become Peter’s defining moments. But in the eyes of Jesus they never were nor would be his defining moments. Our “failures of flesh” do not need to become our defining moments, if we default to the grace of Christ.

The words Jesus spoke to Peter in Luke 22 are words for the whole of the church. in those few words of encouragement, Jesus reveals Himself as our Great High Priestly intercessor the one who “ever liveth to make intercession for [us]” (Hebrews 7.25 KJV).

Jesus is praying for us as much as He was praying for Peter. Whatever the circumstances we face. However difficult and daunting our challenges. I made a note in my kindle on these verses: “The hidden prayer life of the greatest intercessor releases unseen power that shapes our lives”. Jesus is praying for us.

Failures of flesh happen. But they are not meant to define us. Such is clear from what Jesus says to Peter: ‘And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’

We can choose our defining moments. And if we make our encounter with the grace of Christ our ultimate defining moment, we will retain His perspective over our lives. Not only that, but out of the grace we have received, we will have something precious and redemptive with which to strengthen our brothers. Let’s choose to be defined by the grace that we have found in Jesus.

Don’t stop at chapter 37

Helen Fielding’s fictional character, Bridget Jones, has become famous in her own right through books bearing her name and through film adaptations starring Renee Zellweger, and the man best remembered as Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth. Sir David Jason, is also famous in his own right, think Open All Hours,Only Fools and Horses and Frost.

However, you would really have a creative imagination to bring Bridget and Del boy together either in a novel or on screen. It just would not work.

You might have been just a little surprised then, if you had purchased an early edition of Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy – and let’s be clear, I didn’t – to find that at one point the book switches from the story of Bridget’s latest dilemma to the autobiography of the man who turned the Reliant Robin into an icon. No, it wasn’t the result of artistic collaboration between Helen Fielding and Sir David; a mix up by the publishers had produced the most unlikely literary hybrid in living memory. It was all a huge mistake.

There are some parts of the Bible that can sometimes feel a bit like the mix up at Fielding’s and Jason’s publishers.

Take, for instance, Genesis 36-37. In Genesis 36, we have the genealogy of Esau and his descendants. In truth, it’s one of those chapters that you read because it’s in the Bible, but not one that you would be likely to turn to for spiritual comfort or encouragement. It maps out the descendants of Esau. Perhaps rather surprisingly, the narrative is, on the surface, quite positive. Surprisingly, because Esau is not the one who has inherited the blessing. The development of Esau’s family seems to be one of almost unbroken progress. There is little indication of pain or tension, though no doubt there was, as they were all human beings.

Turn over to Genesis 37 and you read about how Jacob’s family is getting on, the family who are right at the centre of God’s purpose. What you are left with is the picture of a family tearing itself apart. Jacob’s favouritism of Joseph produces resentment amongst the rest of his sons. When the opportunity arises to “fix” Joseph, they take it. They tear his ornate robe from his back. They sell him into slavery. When Reuben finds out, he tears his clothes. When Jacob finds out, he tears his clothes. They are not only tearing their clothes apart, this is a family tearing itself apart.

You might wonder how two vastly different stories could sit side by side and more puzzling still, why is the family that is supposed to be blessed by God the one that is in such an unholy mess? The short answer is, we don’t know! We aren’t told. But the two stories are a powerful reminder that grace is not conditioned by the human condition. Grace is not restricted by human recklessness. Grace is not edged out by human ego.

Peter talks about the manifold grace of God (1 Peter 4.10). The dictionary definition of manifold is many and varied forms. The story of Jacob’s family reminds us that grace is just that – manifold.

Grace was bigger than their poor decisions. No-one – no-one – in Jacob’s family acted with any kind of wisdom, discretion or integrity. Jacob must have known what favouritism would produce, since his mother’s favouritism had fuelled the tensions between him and Esau. Joseph, behaved like a big headed, spoilt brat. And the brothers, well, the brothers.

But grace was still at work. Grace is bigger than our poor decisions.

Grace was bigger than their present situation. One day Joseph would be premier of Egypt. That’s grace. Grace is bigger than our present situation.

Grace is bigger than our personal struggles. Joseph was forced into a journey into the unknown. He needed grace. Reuben, racked with guilt, needed grace. Jacob in his loss needed grace. Who could have predicted how grace would meet their need? We all need grace in some way or other. Who can predict how God’s grace will meet our need?

If Genesis ended at chapter 37, then the whole thing would be more than a bit of a puzzle. Twenty-three chapters later, all becomes clear. No-one reading Genesis would stop at chapter 37. Chapter 37 is way too soon to stop. God’s grace doesn’t stop in chapter 37 of your life either. There’s a lot more chapters that grace wants to write.

Valued by God

I’ve never participated in a blind auction, unless you count the lucky dip at some amusement arcade back in the 1970s. And I’m not sure that you would have considered the results very lucky. Certainly not as fortunate as one man who bought a lock-up for $100 in a blind auction. When he opened his acquisition he found that it contained the Lotus Esprit from a James Bond film. Having never seen a James Bond film, he didn’t realise the value of the car. He put it on the back of a truck and as he was driving it away, passers by recognised the the vehicle for what it was and radioed its new owner to tell him. Afterwards, he put the vehicle up for sale, with a price tag of £650k.

Value. What makes something valuable? How valuable are you?

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus devotes some of his teaching to the theme of God’s provision. Matthew 6.25-34 records some of His teaching on provision. We don’t need to worry because God is our provider. If He provides for the birds of the air and the grass of the field, how much more will He provide for His children?

Jesus’ point is not so much that God provides for us because He is so powerful. Listen to what He says in verse 26:

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Matthew 6.26)

God provides for us, Jesus says, because we are valuable to God.

Many people would have no problem answering the question “Does God love you?” “Of course”, we would reply. And the same would go for questions about His willingness to provide for us. However, the question “Are you valuable to God?” might be met with a moment’s hesitation before a “Yes” is forthcoming. Many people struggle with the truth that God values them.

Why is that? There is no short answer to that. There can be all sorts of reasons. The following, however, often block our sense of value in God’s eyes.

Some people don’t see themselves of value to God because they have been devalued by others. In some cases it’s not so much that they have been devalued, it’s just that no-one has ever seemed to value them.

If the early years of your life have been lived in a broken, dysfunctional environment where your value wasn’t recognised, then to be told that you are of value to the creator of the world can come as a bit of a shock.

Other people devalue themselves.

Sometimes we devalue ourselves because we take to heart what others have said and measure our own worth by the negative estimations we have been fed in the past or that we are currently being fed.

Past failure and the ensuing shame can also cause us to devalue ourselves.

And of course religion devalues us. Perversely, it doesn’t take much of a brush with religion, in any shape or form, to reduce our sense of value to God.

How can we begin to see that we are valuable to God?

The man who found the James Bond car in his lucky lock-up wasn’t convinced of its value until he went home, rented out The Spy Who Loved Me and saw his purchase starring with James Bond. He had to see the vehicle in it’s original glorious context before he could realise how valuable it was.

We were originally created for God’s glory, but through sin we became damaged and the glory obscured. Jesus however has restored glory to our lives. When we see ourselves in light of the original purpose for which God created us and which is being brought about in our lives through Christ, then we begin to see how valuable we are to Him.

God doesn’t just provide for you. He provides for you because He values you.

If only…

I read a story recently, cited in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, about a man from Liverpool. Every week he played the lottery. And every week he chose exactly the same numbers. One week he forgot to buy his lottery ticket…you know what’s coming next…and that particular week his numbers were the winning numbers. The man was so overwhelmed at the thought of missing out on millions (which, it turned out, wasn’t exactly the case), that he committed suicide. If only he had bought his ticket.

If only. Two little, unimpressive words. Just six letters in all. But put them together and they have incredible power. In fact they have the power to hold you in a kind of emotional gridlock for the rest of your life. And sadly, in some cases, they drive people to taking their own lives.

We all have regrets, whether we care to admit it or not. They can range from the subjects we chose at school to marriage, from career choices to the way we have failed others or failed to live up to our own standards. Regret can take the shape of things we have done or things we have failed to do.

What exactly do we do with regret?

The Bible is thick with people who have had reason to regret, so it’s not as though we are left to try and figure out a strategy for dealing with regret on our own.

Left untouched, regret can have a corrosive influence in our lives. It can undermine any present joy by reminding us of the bad decisions of our past. However, when touched by grace, even regret can yield some unlikely treasures.

Firstly, when regret is touched by grace, it brings about an awareness of our weakness. We are not comfortable with weakness, especially our own! Without grace we are prone to make reckless and destructive decisions.

Peter was a man who knew a thing or two about regret (Luke 22.31-62). He had promised Jesus that he would not only be prepared to go to prison for Him, but would even die for Him. Jesus predicted that Peter would do otherwise and in the event Peter denied the Lord three times. Why did he deny the Lord? He was weak. Circumstances revealed his weakness. And any future regret would remind him of his weakness.

By allowing regret to remind us that we are weak and need grace, we begin to redeem a potentially destructive emotion.

Secondly, when regret is touched by grace, it causes us to acknowledge distortions in our value system. What do I mean by that? Sometimes we carry regret because we think of what we might have been or done had we acted differently in the past. Usually the “might have been or done” is something that would make us look better than we currently feel that we are.

Regret can reveal that we value appearing to be perfect over actually becoming mature. Without grace we might become like the prodigal son. But it is just as possible that without grace we would become like the elder brother. Paul looked back on his faultless – his own word – life (Philippians 3.5), but with no satisfaction. It meant nothing to God. It was simply rooted in his own flesh and not in Christ.

If we can allow regret to revise our value system to reflect God’s value system which prizes maturity more than the appearance of perfection, then we find that grace is really turning around the negative power of regret.

Thirdly, regret that is touched by grace alters our understanding of how much control we have over the world around us.

Research has found that people in Western culture are far more likely to live with regret than people in other cultures. Why? Because in the West we believe we are so free that our choices can create an almost ideal life. People in other cultures do not believe that and often their choices are restricted by family or other cultural considerations. If regret helps us to recall that All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139.16), it is no bad thing. God’s ways are not always our ways.

Finally, regret that is touched by grace causes us to act.

The story of Zacchaeus meeting Jesus illustrates the point (Luke 19.1-10). Zacchaeus was so overwhelmed by the acceptance he found from Jesus that he promised to make amends to those from whom he had extorted money.

It’s not always possible to do a Zacchaeus. However, we can redeem regret by letting the lessons of the past compel us to act differently to those around us in our present.

Even if we can’t do the things that we wish we’d done and it seems to late too do them now, we can still pass on our hard won, sometimes painfully won, wisdom to another generation.