Keep your hope on!

Perhaps one of the most quoted verses about hope is a negative one: “Hope deferred makes the heart grow sick” (Proverbs 13.12). Which is often understood along the lines of “when you don’t get what you hoped to get you get disappointed”.

It would be a mistake however to limit our understanding of hope to what happens when it is unfulfilled.

Hope is an incredibly important virtue. Along with faith and love, it has pride of place amongst Christian virtues (1 Corinthians 13.13).

Even the world recognises the importance of hope. Listen to what health care professionals said in two different articles in Psychology Today:

“For my patients,” Groopman writes, “hope, true hope, has proved as important as any medication I might prescribe or any procedure I might perform.” (Psychology Today)

“If I could find a way to package and dispense hope, I would have a pill more powerful than any antidepressant on the market. Hope, is often the only thing between man and the abyss. As long as a patient, individual or victim has hope, they can recover from anything and everything.” (Psychology Today)

The kind of hope the Bible talks about is something even more powerful, because it has as its object God Himself and is based on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

I think it’s fair to say that we talk more about faith and love than hope. Which is strange, when considering the coverage the New Testament gives to it.

Hope enables us to endure (1 Thessalonians 1.3). It enables us to stare death in the face – and not blink first (1 Thessalonians 4.13)! It has a purifying power (1 John 3.3).

There are however two images used in the New Testament to convey the positive impact of hope.

One is found in 1 Thessalonians 5.8. Paul talks about the hope of salvation as a helmet. Just as a helmet protects a soldier’s head, so hope, godly hope protects us from the negative, destructive thoughts that the enemy seeks to implant in our minds.

One major way of protecting our minds is putting on hope as a helmet. That means developing patterns of thinking that focus on a God-shaped future, rather than a future shaped by anyone or anything else.

As second image used in association with hope is that of an anchor (Hebrews 6.19).

Anchors keep ships stable in an unstable element. When our hope is firmly anchored in Christ, we are enabled to remain stable amidst the instability all around us.

It also means that we won’t drift when the storms come. A ship that is adrift is dangerous indeed. First of all, it has no direction. Secondly, it is a danger to itself and other vessels. When we lose our hope, we drift. We lose direction in life. And we become a danger to others as well as ourselves.

Hope is incredibly important. Keep your helmet on. And keep your anchor firm.


Farewell 2016

For many, Christmas is a bitter sweet experience. For some it is more bitter than sweet. Somehow the Christmas season brings a heightened expectation of life. The real Christmas story has well and truly been mugged by Western materialism and sentimentalism. Eternal hope has all but been displaced by seasonal hype. And it’s created an environment that is not an easy one for people who come to the end of the year carrying all sorts of losses and disappointments.

So as we approach the end of the year, how do we say “Goodbye” to 2016?

If you have had a “good” year you might not want to say “Goodbye” to 2016! But you still have to! The best thing you can do is to thank God for the way He has blessed you.

But what about those for whom 2016 has been a year of difficulty or a year of loss?

Realistically, changing the date from 2016 to 2017 doesn’t necessarily change anything. But the season of Christmas and new year is a good time to look to God for His help to leave behind those things that are causing us hurt and pain.

How do we do that?

In Psalm 37, David was clearly struggling with something that was painful to him. Stated briefly, his issue seemed to be that God was blessing bad people while he was struggling. As the Psalm unfolds we see how David began to walk out of his difficulty into the clear light of God’s revelation.

First of all he faced his pain.

Verse one says : Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong. That was the issue for David: people who are doing wrong seem to be doing well. And perhaps he wasn’t doing so well.

That might not be your issue, but whatever your issue, you can’t begin to move beyond it until you acknowledge it.

Secondly, he developed a godly perspective.

If you read through all forty verses of the Psalm you will be able to trace a whole line of counsel that shifts David’s focus on to God.

Let me give you six ways in which he began to develop a godly perspective:

Develop an eternal view (vv.1-2)

Trust –and do good (v.3)

Enjoy God for who He is (v.4)

Commit your way to Him (v.5)

Be still and wait for Him (v.7)

Manage your negative emotions (vv.7-8)

If over the next few months you gave yourself to developing the kind of perspective that David developed, your outlook would be changed and your heart would begin to find healing.

Finally, he embraced God’s promises.

We often say that we don’t know what the future holds. That is true. We don’t know details about future events.

Yet in another sense we do know what the future holds. How? Because God has given us promises about the future.

Here are five that are set out in Psalm 37:

Protection and plenty (vv.18-19)

Ability to bless others (v.21)

Solid ground (vv.23-24)

Provision (v.25)

Security (vv.27-28)

The call to let go of the past is also a call to lay hold of the future.

I hope 2016 has been a good year for you. If not, I hope that by God’s grace you will leave the year with a fresh perspective and a strong grip on the promises of God.

Missing out on Christmas: 3 ways your professed “faith” can cause you to miss out on what God is doing

Pointless is a television programme beloved by an average of 3.6 million viewers who tune in every day. I’m not sure if it is the less intellectual, or more intellectual, BBC answer to Countdown, or just something completely different.

I’m not going to waste any more of your time discussing the merits of television programmes. However, as I was about to preach the Sunday sermon, I had this thought that I have since refined a bit.

If a Pointless question was to name all the characters in the nativity stories, would one character or one set of characters have a zero score? Undoubtedly, Jesus, Mary and Joseph would score very highly. Shepherds would be right up there too. No-one could forget the kings from the East. Angels? Probably. The innkeeper might get a mention. And it is hard to believe that Herod could be overlooked.

One group that, sadly, might return a pointless score are the chief priests and teachers of the law.

I say sadly, because with all the knowledge they had they should have been right in the thick of things. They should have been the first to the manger in Bethlehem. They had more inside knowledge than anyone else, with the exception of Joseph and Mary. They didn’t have angelic visitations, like the shepherds, or stars in the sky like the wise men. They had the scriptures. And it is clear from Matthew 2 that they understood how to interpret the Messianic prophecies.

How come they missed out?

We are not told. Three possible reasons suggest themselves.

Firstly, it is possible that they had given in to a climate of fear.

Verse 3 of Matthew 2 says that Herod was disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him when he heard from the Magi that a king had been born. Everyone was afraid, because they knew how Herod would react to any potential threat to his throne: with unrestrained violence. Verses 16-18 of the same chapter prove that they had a right to be fearful.

When we give in to fear, there is a real possibility that we miss out on what God is doing.

Push against fear! Don’t let it pin you down and hem you in.

Secondly, there is a real possibility that not only the religious leaders of the nation but the nation as a whole had experienced a collapse of hope.

These religious leaders lived through an era that ancient historians describe as the fourth major crisis of the Jewish people. That period saw the land of Israel occupied by the Romans, with Herod reigning as a kind of puppet king.

The prophets had prophesied that Messiah would come. That God would restore His people and bring His kingdom. Instead, the nation had experienced a series of crises ever since the return from Babylon. And Roman occupation was just the latest.

It is easier to believe that hope had been seriously damaged than to believe that it stilled fuelled the religious life of the people or their religious leaders.

When we lose hope, or when hope becomes damaged, it can breed a cautious approach to God. It can dampen expectation. Don’t let your hope collapse!

Finally, it’s very possible that the religious leaders had become just too comfortable.

They had status. They had the temple. They had the synagogue. They had carved out an important and influential corner in the life of Israel. Why did they need to leave the capital to go and check out some spiritual speculation that these gentile magi were promoting?

Sometimes we miss out on what God is doing because we don’t want to leave the comfort of the safe religious world we have designed for ourselves.

The chief priests and teachers of the law did not have to travel to the ends of the earth to be part of what God was doing; it was happening just six miles down the road. And neither do you have to travel to the ends of the earth to be part of what God is doing, because He is working all around you and wants to work through you.

It’s sad that people who knew so much missed out on so much. And it would be sadder still if we didn’t learn from their experience.

Never give in

The British public seldom accords hero status to its political leaders. Occasionally exceptions are made. Sir Winston Churchill is one of those rare exceptions. Fifty years after his death his memory seems to be acquiring legendary status. Despite more objective and critical historical assessments of his career, the iconic war leader’s reputation still remains firmly, perhaps stubbornly, intact.

That reputation is founded more than anything on Churchill’s refusal to quit. His famous “Never give in” speech at Harrow school in 1941, encapsulates the spirit of the man and his famed bulldog tenacity.

Churchill’s life paralleled the rise of Marxism and the eventual triumph of communism in Russia.

What happened in Russia seems now like a foregone conclusion. Less than a decade earlier, however, a successful Russian revolution seemed as unlikely as Britain emerging victorious from war with Hitler did when Churchill made his famous Harrow speech. In fact a Marxist revolution anywhere in the world seemed so unlikely that Marx’s daughter Paula and his son-in-law Paul Lafargue both took their own lives in 1909. Yet within eight years everything would change.

Looking at the days we live in, it can sometimes be hard to work out whether we’re living in the best of times or the worst of times. It sometimes depends on who you are talking too!

Having said that, there is probably quite broad agreement that the church finds itself presented with opportunities not seen for many years. At the same time she is facing pressures unequalled in the last couple of centuries.

The sense of further pressures yet to come and the developing climate of hostility can cause us to lose long term vision and replace it with both short term and long term despair.

But the reality is that we simply do not know what is around the corner, whether it is just around the corner or whether the corner is a very long corner! We do not know what God will do to change things.Five years from now the chaotic consequences of our social policy could mean that Britain is even more broken than it is now. Or we could be in the greatest revival in history. Or both. We just do not know.

We do know that whatever the circumstances, God will be with us. And when things are not going our way, we need to hold on to hope, hope in God. When we struggle to have vision for the future, the alternative is not despair, but determination, fuelled by hope in the God of history.

Paul knew about this kind of hope and determination better than any of us.Living at a time when the church was experiencing pressure way beyond anything that the contemporary Western church knows, Paul boldly stated his faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. And because of that faith he went on to declare:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4.16-18)

Whatever the short term or long term future brings, we can be certain that future glory awaits us. Even if things get worse. Even if the church finds itself under greater pressure. Even if discrimination against Christians turns into persecution. It’s always too soon to give in.


The Reluctant World Changer

In the development of Israel as a nation, two key figures are Rachel and Leah.

Rachel and Leah were sisters who shared one husband, Jacob. Apart from that common factor, their lives could not have been more different.

Leah was unnattractiveLeah was the elder daughter, Rachel the younger. Rachel, the bible says, was beautiful. Leah, the bible says , unflatteringly, had “weak eyes” or “delicate” eyes (Genesis 29.17).

Her circumstances were undesirable. Leah was forced into marriage by her father.

Leah was unloved. Jacob was forced into marriage with Leah, and clearly he did not want to be married to Leah. She had no say in the matter. Culture and parental authority overrode her own feelings and wishes.

And throughout the narrative of Genesis 30, it appears that she really did love Jacob, but her love was unrequited. Rachel was his obvious favourite.

Even a quick reading of Genesis 29 and 30 leaves you with a sharp impression of the pain Leah must have endured in a loveless marriage.

But Leah’s story doesn’t end there. Because Leah knew God’s favour: “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb” (Genesis 29.31).

The children that she bears to Jacob bring her some comfort and create the hope – forlorn hope – that Jacob will one day love her. What she doesn’t realise is that in her pain she is quietly changing the world. The children born to her will become the foundation of the nation of Israel. And among those children is one called Judah. From the line of Judah will come king David and eventually Jesus. In her pain, Leah was, unknown to her, changing the world. Leah, it’s fair to say was a reluctant world changer. But she was a world changer.

No-one would choose Leah’s life. No-one would choose her pain. The reality is, however, that some of us have lives that we would never choose for ourselves. And we can feel that what we have to live with – whether it be our appearance, family background, marriage, career etc. – is second rate and therefore counts for little. However, that is not the whole story. Not at all. If we are to learn anything from Leah, it is that God’s favour and God’s powerful work is not blocked by any of those features of our lives that we consider undesirable.

Many generations later, when Boaz wed Ruth, the women of Israel pronounced this blessing: “The Lord make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel” (Ruth 4.11)

Without God all our lives are second rate. But with His favour we all become world changers. Even if some of are reluctant world changers.

Prevailing hope

New year usually comes with a mixture of excitement and pain. For some a new year means new prospects. New opportunities. For others it is a fearful unknown and sometimes the pain of the previous year or years looms larger as we draw near the end of the year.

One of the lesser known stories associated with Christ’s nativity is that of Anna.

After forty days Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem so that they could offer the sacrifice for Mary’s purification. While they were there they met two people. One was Simeon and the other was Anna.

Luke 2.36-38 tells us that Anna had been married at one point in her life. After seven years of marriage, her husband had died and she decided to spend the rest of her days praying and worshipping and waiting for Messiah. The Bible tells us that when she met Jesus she was eighty-four years old. That means she had probably been a widow for over sixty years. Sixty years of worshipping. Sixty years of waiting. Sixty years of seeing thousands of families bring their child to the temple to offer the appropriate sacrifice. And then one day she sees Messiah.

I’m sure as a young woman Anna dreamt of being married and having her own children. Of living to an age when she could enjoy her grandchildren as well. But it was never to be. Tragedy came. How easy it would have been for Anna to become locked into the disappointment and grief of the untimely death of her husband and spend the rest of her life looking back! But she didn’t. Anna turned her pain into prayer – and worship. The loss of her potential future caused her to fix her focus on God’s promised future. And for sixty years she kept looking.

Whatever this last year has brought, good or bad, Anna’s life reminds us that hope can prevail, even when we suffer big setbacks. Even when we experience great pain. Even when our future seems to have been snatched from us. And hope in God and His word can sustain for years and years to come.

As we end one year and begin a new one, may the example of Anna give us encouragement, and, in the words of Paul “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15.13)