1 Thessalonians 3:12-13

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This is an interesting thought. As we grow in love for our neighbours, it seems we automatically/simultaneously grow in holiness.

Love God and love neighbour really are the whole of the law, aren’t they?

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Exodus 38:8

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This is a rich little verse, from the descriptions of Bezalel making the tabernacle:

1) There were women ministering at the tent of meeting? That’s where people used to go to take their problems to Moses. I wonder how the women were ministering – it could have been through praying for those waiting in the queue, or maybe for caring for their physical needs (or both). Whatever, it seems they had a heart and a calling to be close to God’s presence, serving him with their gifts.

2) They gave up their mirrors for the tabernacle. (I didn’t even know they had mirrors in those days.) The gifts given for the building of the tabernacle were costly – this was sacrificial giving. Tim Keller has written a book called ‘The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness’ that I think this exemplifies. Once we are caught up in love for and worship of God, those things that once seemed so important – like making sure we look good – fade away. Seeing ourselves matters less than seeing God and pouring ourselves out for him. These women gave up something of their very identity in worship.

3) And they gave this precious gift in order to make a way for others to enter God’s presence. The bronze basin was for Aaron and the priests to wash their hands and feet in before approaching the altar or the tent of meeting, or offering sacrifices (see Ex 30:17-21). The priests would then perform the sacrifices on their behalf, and on behalf of all the people, and these women were making that possible. We were talking last night at my Bible study group about making sacrifices and not necessarily immediately seeing the blessing. These women could have felt resentful about giving of themselves but never getting to enter the tent of meeting, only facilitating others to do so, but through their selfless generosity they did ultimately benefit, and more importantly, they made it possible for the whole nation to benefit!

What a wonderful verse!

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Luke 1:24

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Why did Elizabeth hide herself away for the first 5 months of her pregnancy?

I tried googling it when I noticed this verse today, but the only reasons anyone seemed to be able to think of were to do with fear of miscarriage, or wanting to be able to offer proof of her claim by the time she made it. Neither seem particularly likely (one can go out in public without announcing one’s pregnancy!).

Hiddenness, barrenness and silence are all over this story, when you think about it:

  • Elizabeth was barren
  • Zechariah was struck dumb
  • Elizabeth hid herself away
  • John was hidden in her womb
  • John lived in the wilderness until his time came to have a public ministry (v 80)
  • And all this was after 400 years of silence from God

Whatever Elizabeth thought her reasons were, I think her hiding away had a prophetic flavour to it. And from her statement here I wonder if she did, too. Look at the word ‘thus’ in verse 25. She hid herself away saying, or explaining, ‘this is the way God has dealt with me’.

Her story was: ‘God has hidden something within me to take away my shame, therefore I will also hide myself away until his time is right.’

It seems possible that that time came when the angel told Mary of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. I had always assumed that everyone knew, but it may well be that Mary was the first person outside Elizabeth’s household to be told. No wonder she leaped up and rushed off to visit her cousin!

John’s is a story of waiting; of long, silent, wilderness years where God seems hidden and far away. His word is not heard, his works are not seen. And yet, the whole of heaven is pregnant with new life, being prepared in the darkness, ready to burst forth when the time has come.

Why this concealment? We can’t know for sure; his ways are certainly not our ways. But we can know that his ways are good, his timing is right, and his silence does not, by any means, signify his absence.

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Mark 4 & 5

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In my church we’re doing Community Bible Reading (CBR) this year – all of us are encouraged to read through the New Testament one chapter a day and share our thoughts on it.

Yesterday we came to Mark 4, and I was struck, as I have been before, by the fact that it was once the sea had become calm that the disciples really grew afraid.

Then today we read the story of the demon-possessed man, and again find that it was when he was clothed and in his right mind that the townspeople grew afraid.

I think we can miss that. The stories are so familiar that we skim over the fact it was utterly terrifying to see Jesus’ power displayed in this way. But I think v17 of chapter 5 gives us another clue as to the source of the fear. The people begged Jesus to leave their region. Why? You’ve just discovered this incredible power in your midst, the person who can put everything right. Over on the other side of the lake there were crowds and crowds thronging to see him and be healed of various diseases. Why not these people?

I wonder whether it’s because they, more than the crowds, got a glimpse of Jesus’ holiness. Maybe they somehow grasped that the man with this kind of power must be more than just a man. The disciples’ question in the boat hints at it, too – ‘who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?’

Having Jesus in your midst doesn’t just mean having your prayers answered, your diseases healed, your circumstances fixed… This kind of power only belongs to the Holy one. And that means he’s going to require holiness in his presence. I think the people asked him to leave because they were afraid of the cost of having him around. In seeing his power and holiness they saw their sin in all its ugliness.

How often we do the same – we want God to fix our problems, but ask him to step away or turn a blind eye when we’re living in ways that aren’t pleasing to him.

When we see him as he really is it is right that we are afraid of his holiness. Many people throughout the Bible trembled with fear in his presence, but those with the courage to stay in his presence, admit their uncleanness and seek his mercy discovered that it was as high and wide and deep as his holiness.

How sad for the Gerasenes that they chose to follow their fear instead of finding forgiveness.

John 18:15-16

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Poor old Peter. We criticise him so much for his implusiveness and his ability to put his foot in it. But have you ever noticed that of all the disciples who had been with Jesus at the Passover meal, and with him in the garden of Gethsemane, only Peter and John  even followed him to the High Priest when he was arrested (and the other gospels don’t even mention John, only Peter). Peter has gone down in history for denying Jesus, but all the other disciples seem to have run away at the first sign of trouble!

It’s like we criticise Thomas for wanting to see and touch Jesus, when the other disciples only believed because they had seen, too.

The one who speaks up is the one who gets criticised, but it’s no better to doubt and fear in silence. In fact, Peter had the experience of being explicitly forgiven and reinstated after Jesus’ resurrection, whereas none of those who simply ran and hid did. Also Thomas got to touch the risen Jesus, whereas the others had only seen him.

Our honesty might draw criticism from others, but it enables God to meet, heal and restore us in a way that our hidden sins don’t allow.

Luke 2:25-28

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I’m writing a series of blog posts for Advent (yes, I know it’s July; my client plans ahead!). It is a challenge to find something new to say about such a familiar story, but that is forcing me to really read the text, and I’m learning just how much I have missed over the last four decades or so of hearing it!

Last year I learned that the angel who came to Zechariah announcing John the Baptist’s coming quoted to him the exact words that had been the final words of the Old Testament. The first thing that God said after 400 years of silence was to announce the fulfillment of the last thing he had said. Wow.

I also noticed for the first time the incredible, sacrificial love Joseph showed to Mary. Amazing.

This year’s big revelations have been that the Magi didn’t ‘follow’ the star all the way to Jerusalem (read more here) and, today, that Simeon wasn’t a priest.

I knew that Simeon had been waiting for the Messiah and that the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would see Jesus before he died. I always assumed that meant he was very old, but that’s not really borne out by the text. I also knew that he went to the Temple on the day Jesus was brought there to be presented to the Lord, and that that was due to his paying attention to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, but I was certain he was a priest. I thought he was likely to be in the general temple area, and just went out into the courtyards from wherever he had been performing his normal priestly duties. But no. He was just ‘a man in Jerusalem’ (v25).

That somehow shifts my whole perception of him and the event. This wasn’t one of the temple ‘officials’ greeting Jesus. There was no-one among the priestly class who was ready and expectant (or filled with the Holy Spirit and listening to his promptings). (I’m not sure whether Anna the prophetess had any official standing within the temple – the phrase ‘she never left the temple’ (v37) suggests to me that this was her reputation rather than her position, but that is total speculation.)

Simeon’s devoutness hadn’t resulted in him getting work in the temple. I don’t know if it worked like that anyway – perhaps he wasn’t from the right tribe to be a priest (if that was a thing?), but whatever, he was just some man, going about his daily life.

Somehow that makes it seem more impressive, to me. I think we expect those who work for the church or in ‘Christian professions’ to be listening out for God’s word to them all the time, but not just ‘ordinary Christians’ getting on with our ‘secular’ lives.

Sometimes, this story tells me, it is those who aren’t caught up with the busyness of ‘doing religion’ that are more open to the promptings of the Spirit.

1 and 2 Samuel

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Yesterday someone pointed something out to me and my mind is still reeling from it: the boy Samuel DIDN’T serve God in the Temple.

Even though the Bible translations I am most familiar with (NIV 1984, ESV) use the word ‘temple’ (eg 1 Sam 3:3: “Samuel was lying down in the temple, where the ark of God was”), it is clear from 2 Samuel 7 that the Jews were still worshipping in the temporary tabernacle tent:

All those Sunday school images of vast stone columns and marble floors are entirely false. I’ve always pictured Hannah weeping and praying for a son on a huge flight of stone steps, but she couldn’t have been.

And while we’re at it, there’s no textual evidence that Eli was sleeping in another ‘room’ or place within the tabernacle as I’ve always imagined. He could have been in the very same space as Samuel and not heard the voice of the Lord.

There’s nothing particularly deeply spiritual I have to say about this, just one of those moments where my life-long perception has been shown to be false. I wonder what else I’m picturing completely differently from how it was…?!

Isaiah 38:17

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Thanks to Amy Boucher Pye in her book The Living Cross for bringing this verse to my attention. The whole verse is powerful, isn’t it? Sermons, if not books, could be written about that first clause. But it was the underlined portion that stood out. 
We often struggle to let go of the guilt of past sins, feeling that God must be as acutely aware of them as we are. We can think he is waiting for us to slip up again, and withholding his full forgiveness until we can prove that we’re not going to repeat the same errors. 

But this imagery assures us that that is not the case. He has cast all our sins behind his back. The NIV says ‘put’, which is good enough, but ‘cast’ is even better. I picture him screwing them up and throwing them over his shoulder, like a writer with a badly-written page. All he sees is the clean sheet in front of him. Fresh and clear and ready to write on again. 

Each new sin is dealt with in the same way – I think I’m theologically correct in saying that even before we come to him in repentance the sin is scrunched up and cast away. That is my understanding of what it means to be washed by the blood of the Lamb – that all our sins, past, present and future, are removed from us as far as the East is from the West. We confess and repent so as not to create a wall of guilt in our relationship with God, but the sin itself has been dealt with, once and for all. 

This is a great mystery, but what a wonderful gift. 

Haggai 2:12-13, Mark 5:25-29

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A few weeks ago in church we had a sermon on this passage from Haggai, which made the point that unclean things make clean things dirty, not vice versa. If you have muddy hands and touch your clean, white shirt, the mud makes the shirt dirty. 

A couple of weeks later we had a guest preacher who preached on this passage from Mark 5:

The woman was unclean. She would have been separated from her community because of her illness and uncleanness, because everyone knew that if something unclean touches something clean it defiles it. 

But then she touched Jesus’ garment, and she was instantly made clean. 

A garment carrying holy food can’t make the uncleanness clean, but a garment covering a holy God can.

And it gets even better, because in Acts 19:11-12 we read that bits of cloth that Paul had touched were taken to the sick and they were healed:

Now the garments don’t even need to be touching the holy person, they can carry the holiness with them!

Jesus changed the way physics works and he left his power with us. And in the power of the Spirit we can do even greater things than he did, just as he promised. 

Jonah 1:13

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There can hardly be a more familiar story in the Bible than that of Jonah, can there? Yet the teaching series my church is in at the moment has really revealed some things to me that I’d never seen before.

I hadn’t noticed that the sailors at first refused to do what Jonah told them. It reminds me of the stories in the New Testament when people come to Jesus and ask ‘What must I do to be saved?’ He tells them, and they go away sad, because that seems too hard.

The sailors here ask ‘What must we do?’ They are given the answer, but they decide to keep rowing instead – they had given up all hope – rowing wasn’t helping, in fact, the storm had even got rougher since they had originally given up hope of a human solution (see v11) – but they decided to give it one last try anyway.

That’s fair enough when the ‘remedy’ is that you’re going to have to kill someone in cold blood (though the sermon pointed out that actually Jonah could have jumped into the sea himself – there’s no reason he had to make the sailors do it), but it’s worth pondering that so often when we ask God what to do, he tells us, and we still keep trying it in our own strength anyway.

And of course, Jonah could have just repented, asked God’s forgiveness and gone back to what he was supposed to be doing – but then we wouldn’t have had such a neat prefiguring of Jesus…

(There’s lots more good stuff in the sermon too. Well worth a listen.)