Psalm 46 ‘God is our Refuge and Strength’

Once it seemed that the greatest threat to the world was nuclear war.  To some extent this threat has receded, yet the world is still threatened by e.g. war, terrorism and ecological disaster.  Now suddenly we have been confronted with the threat of disaster in the form of the coronavirus which has changed life for all of us in many ways.  On a personal level in the coming days we may face crises of various sorts – sickness, bereavement, unemployment, strained relationships. The people of God also face the threat of spiritual enemies.  How can we cope? Psalm 46 turns our thoughts to God, the one on whom we can rely in every crisis.

1. Strength in time of trouble (v.1-3)

The psalmist begins with an affirmation of faith – ‘God is our refuge and strength’.  This perspective runs through the whole psalm.  He begins with certainties, before looking at the turmoil around him.  ‘Refuge’ speaks of an unchanging God who provides shelter for his people (see also John 10:30).  ‘Strength’ reminds us of a God who indwells the weak to give strength for action. We are not to sit inactive in the midst of a crisis.  Remember Paul’s words in Philippians 4:13 ‘I can do everything through him who gives mw strength.

The rest of v1 reads (literally) ‘very much found to be a help in distress’ – there is personal experience of God’s help in the past which helps us in the present challenges.  To have the help of the Lord in a crisis we must have sought and found him as our Saviour. Jeremiah 29:13 ‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart’.

Verses 2-3 describe the worst imaginable crisis, when the most secure features of life collapse.  Still ‘we will not fear’ – even the seas are under the sovereign control of God (Psalm 93:4). It is good to be able to remind ourselves that even the coronavirus is under the Lord’s sovereign control.  Sometimes the Lord does not spare us such crises, but he is in control, his love never fails (see Habakkuk 3:18). The Lord’s strength will be sufficient to carry us through, whatever he has planned for us (as Paul found – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ‘my grace is sufficient for you… my strength is made perfect in weakness’.).

2. Grace in time of need (v.4-7)

In sudden contrast to the roaring of the waters – ‘There is a river’ (v4) – a picture of calm and serenity.  It is a river ‘whose streams make glad the city of God’. The city is not Jerusalem, which has no river, but the spiritual community of the people of God, the church (see 1 Corinthians 3:16).  Every believer is part of the city, and holy because God dwells there.

This is the river of God’s grace, flowing through the church, refreshing and sustaining all his people.  God is a ‘fountain of life’ (Psalm 36:9). He gives life, physical and spiritual.  He refreshes our souls when we feel dry and weak. He provides for all our needs, not merely for some of them (Philippians 4:19 ‘My God will supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus’).  If we look to God in times of need, he will supply exactly what we require. We may not know exactly what we need, but the Lord knows and makes no mistakes in what he gives.

‘God is within her’ (v5) – that is the secret of the strength and stability of believers.  If we rely on what the world provides, we will be overwhelmed. Regarding the church, however, ‘she will not fall’.  That stands in stark contrast to the falling kingdoms of the world (v6). All the powers that oppose God will come to nothing.  In v7 we have a ringing affirmation of faith and trust in the Lord. His name ‘Lord of hosts’ reminds us of the infinite power of our God, greater than an disease.  ‘God of Jacob’ speaks of the grace of the Lord to undeserving sinners whom he loves with an everlasting love. In him we have everything we need.

3. Peace in time of battle (v.8-11)

The psalm ends with a summons to all to see the evidence for the power of God.  These are ‘the works of the Lord’, the one who is the covenant God who never forsakes his people.  God has stretched his hand against the enemies – the ‘desolations he has brought on the earth’.  The Old Testament provides many examples. These are a foretaste of what he will still do. ‘He makes wars to cease…’ – but in a fallen world perfect peace will not come until the Lord returns and ushers in the new creation, ‘a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’ (2 Peter 3:13).

It is a glorious prospect, and God’s peace can be enjoyed by his people even in the present.  The turmoil we face at the moment is not war, but a virulent disease, and yet the principle is the same.  The Lord is able to give his peace to his people in the most difficult circumstances. Verse 10 is a command to God’s enemies to ‘Be still and know…’  He rebukes those he has defeated. All will ultimately acknowledge him as God – ‘I will be exalted’. We are assured of the fulfilling of God’s goal that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow’ (Philippians 2:10).  What a joy and privilege to bow willingly by God’s grace.

The psalm ends in an expression of faith and confidence: ‘The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress’ (v11).  God will not fail us. We have all we need to face whatever hardships his providence brings, coronavirus included, and to pass through them in a manner which glorifies his name.  It is a wonderful assurance to have.

David McKay

NO FEAR

It’s here!  Covid-19, coronavirus, is here.  We wondered what would fill the headlines and column inches after Brexit – now we know.  Seemingly out of nowhere – in fact probably out of a market in China selling wild animals for meat – a new plague is sweeping the world.  It has moved on from China to its neighbours, especially South Korea, and on to Europe, with Italy worst affected so far, and that hasn’t been the end of the spread.  In many parts of the world, precautions are being taken, and multitudes are taking to wearing (largely ineffective) masks in an attempt to avoid infection.  Who knows where it will appear next or what the consequences will be?

Already in parts of Europe radical steps are being taken.  Badly affected areas such as Italy and neighbouring countries are in virtual ‘lockdown’.  Many sporting and other events are postponed to unspecified future dates.  Anyone who returns from a trip to any infected area who thinks he or she may have been affected is to ‘self-quarantine’ – whatever precisely that means.  Airlines are already being hit by the vast reduction in numbers willing to fly.  Predictions of greater restrictions to come are everywhere, as governments prepare for the ‘worst-case scenario’.  Swathes of the UK population are being confined to their own homes except in very limited circumstances.  Will the infection ‘peak’ in the UK in two or three months, or will coronavirus turn out to be a seasonally recurring infection?  Who can tell?  The production of an effective vaccine by the beginning of next year, it seems, would be a triumph of speed and ingenuity.

As various events are called off, limitations on large gatherings are imposed and other restrictions are put in place, it is clear that not only is the coronavirus a powerful factor – the fear of the coronavirus is equally powerful.  Some international events are being cancelled less because the virus poses a threat and more because fear of the virus makes people unwilling to travel or assemble.  We are living in a climate of fear, fed by daily updates on the number of coronavirus infections in our locality.  Suppose we had similar daily updates on all kinds of other diseases – flu, heart attacks, various cancers?  Could a panic epidemic be far away?

Not all fear is bad, of course.  It can be a valuable motivator to take sensible precautions for ourselves and others.  Those with no fear can be highly dangerous.  We do have to ensure, however, that our fears are directed at appropriate objects.  Notice the Lord’s words in Matthew 10:28 ‘And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’  Crucial for every man and woman is the ‘fear of the Lord’ that is the fruit of his grace and is also ‘the beginning of wisdom’ (Psalm 111:10), the fear that recognises who the Lord is and submits to him in the repentance and faith that embrace salvation.  In the context of that godly fear, all other fears are to be evaluated.

Even the greatest saints experience a measure of fear on occasion.  Recalling his initial ministry in Corinth Paul can write that ‘I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling’ (1 Corinthians 2:3) – an encouraging thought for any Christian seeking to share the gospel.  Fear, however, is certainly not the dominant force in the life of a child of God.

Notice Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:6, where he says that believers are children of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, ‘if you do good and do not give way to fear’.  He is not denying for a moment that there are frightening things in the world – there is no naïve ‘let’s pretend’ in Peter’s outlook – and Christians know that in addition to all the perils that every human being faces, they are in the midst of spiritual warfare with an enemy who longs to destroy them.  Nevertheless, we may be delivered from fear if our attention is focussed on the Lord who is almighty, the Lord who loves us with infinite love, the Lord who has promised, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5).

It is in the light of that promise that the writer to the Hebrews continues, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’ (v.6, an allusion to Psalm 118:6).  We know that, in one sense, man (and disease, and many other things) can do a lot to us.  Christians die as martyrs, Christians die of coronavirus.  We do not live in some protective bubble that others do not have.  Nevertheless, nothing comes to us, whether it is the attacks of Satan or the onslaught of coronavirus, that is outside the control of our sovereign God, whose providence governs all things.  Thus we have a peace that passes human understanding (Philippians 4:7) and are set free from fear.  We are, in truth, ready for anything.

David McKay

What is Adoration? (What is prayer? Pt 1)

any questions? what is prayer?

Introduction

As Christians, there is a need to speak with God. A defining feature of the Christian God is the fact that we can communicate with him and have a relationship with him. In Fact, we can speak with him on a whole range of subjects. We aren’t limited to a pattern or a script. I’m sure you are all aware that we reject the common book of prayer in favour of open prayer. This is because at the most fundamental level we can speak to God as someone would speak with a friend. Some other religions, God is a big scary being that must not be spoken to outside of the words of a holy book. Muslims have the Koran and pray far more diligently that we do with 5 daily prayers. however, we don’t have this diligence or a need to pray in the same way.

Prayer can commonly split into four ways: Adoration: Praising God, Confession: Asking for God’s forgiveness, Thanksgiving: Showing God gratitude, Supplication: Asking God for erthly needs.

Now I’m not going to say that the structure is to be stuck to or that you have to pray in these 4 parts. In a lot of cases we need to pray a prayer of thanksgiving, or in a case where we find ourselves in great trials, we may need to have a dual prayer of adoration and supplication. This week we are looking at the first one which is adoration.

Why do we need to adore him?

deep love and respect. Worship; veneration. This is the definition of adoration, however. As we were looking at what is a Christian we can see that the key purpose is to worship God. But how does that materialise in the form of adoration? Why do we need to do it? If God is all knowing and all understanding then why would God need us to tell him in prayer what we think of him? If you spoke to a friend the way we spoke to God then it would be flattery. Are we trying to make God feel good before we then start asking tough questions in confession and in Positioning? If this is why you are saying these words then they are as empty as the words of the Pharisees. It’s a waste of time then.

Well no it’s not because if we really mean the words then it’s not a reminder to God but a reminder to us and a reminder to the ones around us. We also would say that it would be wrong for someone not to start some of the truths about God. “Who art in heaven” is a great quote to the hight and the grandness of God the father.

Are we using empty words seeing as God doesn’t need to hear them?

When we praise God for being a creator it’s not that God has forgotten what he has done for us in creation. But it’s not that God needs to hear it either but we can sometimes see that by calling God the creator then makes problems of the worlds become a lot smaller when we address them to the one who created the universe around the problems.

If a friend is diagnosed with cancer is it that God lost control or he made a mistake. If God was not adored then we in a sense are only asking God to work a miracle. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to do it. Maybe it is out of control? Contrast this with a prayer that opens with “God the Creator, the one who formed the body and the soul and has our birth and life planned out from before the formation of the earth”. We can see that all things are in his control and we can be put to rest by this. Without adoration we are shrinking God to a wishing well where we ask for and give thanks.

Can we flatter God?

Flattery is where we say empty words to please a person. Generally, it’s not true and we are only wanting to make them feel better so that they can give us something in return.

If I was setting up a businessman setting up coffee shops I would say this adoration part so that God will then give me the customers and the business know how to run them all. But I would shower God in these empty words so that my request is more genuine.

But prayer doesn’t work that way because God can see straight through the heart and knows how we think. There is nothing wrong with opening a chain of coffee shops or asking God for wisdom and guidance in running them. You should not feel like you have to say them but you should keep in mind that prayer is a privilege and that God desires to hear. Your heart and mind should be constantly desiring to pray to God because it would be odd to do otherwise. To remembering how high above us God then allows us to confess, give thanks and request from God on a better foot than one who only requests and give thanks.

The woebots are coming

Well, I suppose some people would find it more attractive. Some do prefer to access counselling online, talking to a counsellor by means of live chat. In fact Relate, the UK’s biggest relationship charity, provided 15,000 online counselling sessions last year, and the service was so popular that there was demand for twice that number. The need is clearly there and this seems to be one way to meet it. Aidan Jones, chief executive of Relate, is quoted as saying, ‘Our counsellors tell me because it is more anonymous, people will start to explain what their issue is faster than if they were in a counselling room.’ Online chat appears to offer a ‘safe distance’ between counsellor and counsellee which cuts down on embarrassment and reduces barriers to sharing difficult issues.

In fact the next stage in anonymity is being contemplated – so-called ‘woebots’, robot counsellors which remove the need for any human involvement. Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) mean that these ‘chatbots’ can interact with human individuals or couples to offer a kind of help in sorting out relationship difficulties. This would be most readily provided where counselling consists mainly of reflecting back in different or clearer terms to the counsellee what he has just said. If counselling is to be non-directive, as some approaches insist it must be, then maybe robots could do all that’s needed. It is not that services like Relate are seeking to dispense with human counsellors entirely, but they do aim to offer a range of possibilities, including face to face contact, discussion via web cam, live chats and also robots. If it can be done, you can be sure someone will offer it.

Such developments ought to give Christians pause for thought, especially pastors and elders and any called to a distinctively caring ministry. Our culture may be more inhibited where expression of emotion is concerned, and the person who quickly pours out his or her problems to almost total strangers is an embarrassment to most of us, but perhaps there are lessons to be learned. We are called to bear one another’s burdens and we are to show the love of Christ to those still outside the kingdom. But how comfortable do even those within the kingdom feel about sharing burdens? How ready would they be to open up to those provided by the Lord to care for them in the congregation? Might they more easily confide in strangers? Might the anonymity of a woebot prove attractive if one were available? Can we dismiss the possibility out of hand?

Questions of trustworthiness and approachability inevitably loom large when the burdens of others are to be dealt with. Can the Lord’s people trust one another to deal wisely and confidentially with whatever is confided to them? In a small church, often closely interrelated, that is a real issue. If people hear the business of others being freely discussed, why would they conclude that their confidences will be respected? Before sensitive information is shared, the prospective helper or counsellor will be carefully weighed up: is this someone who will listen to me with sympathy and understanding (but not agreeing with me simply to be ‘nice’), and will whatever I say be kept confidential? If the answer to either question is ‘No’ then burdens will not be shared, or some other place to share them will be found. As pastors and elders in particular weigh up the condition of their people, they may easily forget that the people are also weighing them up and drawing conclusions about how readily they would seek help from them. It is a privilege to be the recipient of burdens and concerns that have sometimes been shared with no-one else, not even close friends, but it is a privilege that must be earned.

Increasingly the church is regarded as having nothing to offer as far as dealing with the hard issues of life are concerned. Recourse to a minister, common in earlier days, has often been replace by visiting a GP, adding to his burdens and perhaps taking him beyond his competence, especially in an appointment of a few minutes’ duration. Before the woebots take over, God’s people, and especially the leaders of God’s people, need to manifest the Christ-like love, compassion, wisdom and conviction that will draw the burdened and offer them the grace of our all-sufficient Saviour.

The Singing Saviour

Jesus sang the psalms. As a good Jewish boy he would have learned the psalms, along with the other Scriptures of what we call the Old Testament. He would have sung them regularly in worship and they clearly were crucial to his understanding of his mission. One of the most significant moments in the Gospel accounts of his ministry is to be found in the course of the Last Supper when we are told in Matthew 26:30 ‘When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.’ The hymn is generally thought to be the Hallel, Psalms 113 to 118, associated with the Passover, the feast which Jesus was about to fulfil when he offered himself on the cross. He was undoubtedly a singing Saviour.

Jesus sang inspired songs. He used the songs of the Psalter, he did not make up his own worship songs. As part of the Scriptures, the psalms are included in Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 3:16 ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.’ That is not to deny that the words of the psalms are the words of David and of the other human authors, yet they are at the same time entirely God’s words, as if breathed from his own mouth. God made use of the abilities and characters of the human authors whom he had prepared, but ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1:21). Ultimately what the psalms say, God says. These are the words the son of God sang.

Jesus sang prophetic songs. Although most of the psalms arose from the circumstances of the psalmists’ lives and so were songs for their day, as God-breathed Scripture, however, they are also songs for later days. The psalms have in view the person and work of the Messiah and they find their perfect fulfilment in the days when ‘the Word became flesh’(John 1:14). We need be in no doubt that this is the case because e we have Jesus’ own testimony to the fact. After the resurrection, on one of the occasions when he appeared to his disciples he said, ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’ (Luke 24:44). All the psalms point to Christ. Thus when he sang Psalm 118:22 ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’, he was singing about himself. We need to have a fully Christ-centred understanding of the psalms we sing, so that we recognise they are Christian songs.

Jesus sang redemptive songs. In particular the psalms associated with Passover recall the great Old Testament event of divine deliverance from bondage. God delivered those who sheltered under the blood of the lamb (Exodus 12:23). Most significantly, at his transfiguration Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about ‘his departure (‘exodus’) which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). The cross of Christ is the great redemptive act of God which fulfils and exceeds all that was portrayed in the exodus from Egypt. We have noted Jesus’ statement in Luke 24:44 about his fulfilling all that is written about him in the entire Old Testament. In particular he states, ‘This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise on the third day.’ The psalms, as part of the Old Testament, testify to his redemptive work at the cross and the empty tomb. The psalms are redemptive songs and Jesus sang of his own saving work in songs that he fulfilled. When he sang Psalm 118:27 ‘Bind the festal sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar’ (ESV), in a matter of hours he would be that sacrifice, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John1:29).

Jesus sang perfect songs. The perfect Son of God sang only perfect songs, and as god-breathed Scripture the psalms are perfect songs. They can be sung with faith and full confidence in their reliability. When we sing the psalms, we sing the songs that Jesus sang and we sing the songs that Jesus fulfils. That means that we need to study them carefully and with the aid of the Holy Spirit who gave them to the church so that we understand how these things are so. Of course that is no different from how we must approach the rest of the Old Testament. Perhaps if we have problems in using the psalms, we may have problems in seeing how the Old Testament in general is a Christian book full of Christ. What a privilege to sing the songs he sang.

No Excuse

By any reckoning Stephen Hawking was gifted with a great mind. The former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, who died on 14th March at the age of 76, was known around the world for his contributions to theoretical physics as well as for his battle with increasing bodily disability. He lived many years beyond the short lifespan predicted when his motor neurone disease was diagnosed and with the aid of sophisticated technology, including a speech generating device necessary when he could no longer use his natural voice, he continued to contribute to scientific thought right up to the end. As a result of media exposure he was an instantly recognisable figure and, at the popular level, was familiar to multitudes who would not understand the first thing about his scientific work.

The second holder of the Lucasian professorship was Isaac Newton and Hawking is widely regarded as the equal of Newton in his contributions to the explanation of the nature of the universe. Necessarily his work was highly complex and abstract. His early work A Brief History of Time (1988) was bought by many but probably read by relatively few. Even a simplified version of his ideas baffled most non-specialists. His chief contribution to theoretical physics was his pioneering and revolutionary work on black holes, resulting in the discovery of previously unsuspected radiation emitted by these strange entities, now named ‘Hawking’ radiation.

Like others in his field Hawking has had wonderful opportunities to study the intricacies of the cosmos, to unravel some of its complexities, to engage at a deep level with creation. His studies have confronted some of the biggest questions regarding the origins of the universe and its purpose (if any). He came to some firm conclusions. He upset many when he claimed in 2011 that science had replaced philosophy: ‘philosophy is dead’, he asserted. Philosophers have not kept up with modern science and so, he said, scientists ‘have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’. A big claim for science as the fount of wisdom, or at least of the knowledge that matters.

Perhaps our hearts don’t bleed for the philosophers, but his view of religion, including Christianity, was equally dismissive. He was a self-professed atheist and believed in a universe governed by impersonal law. Narrating the first episode of an American television series on the Discovery Channel in 2011 he said, ‘We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation. There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.’

As Christians there are many ways in which we could respond to such views. Surely one of our first thoughts has to be, ‘How profoundly sad.’ To be gifted by God with such an outstanding intellect and to use it to conclude that there is no God is so utterly foolish. To be grated such opportunities to examine the Creator’s handiwork and to talk about ‘the grand design’, yet to be unable to see him in any of it underlines the fallenness of human beings, their intellect included. Hawking, of course, is not alone. Think of the naturalists and scientists of all varieties who have unparalleled access to the wonders of the natural world and who come away believing it’s all a big fluke, the product of blind chance. How unutterably sad, and how unforgivable.

In Romans 1:19-20 we read, ‘For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.’ The conclusion, God’s conclusion? ‘So they are without excuse.’ Clear and simple. Pleas that there was not enough evidence will not be accepted. All the necessary evidence is there. We have to close our eyes so as not to see it. ‘I didn’t know’ will not wash in the final judgment. What in fact we do is ‘suppress the truth’ by our unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).

How ironic that the ashes of a man who described the idea of an afterlife as ‘a fairy story for people afraid of the dark’ are to be interred in a cathedral built for the worship of the God he has now met in that afterlife. Unless there was a fundamental change of heart in his final moments, he must bear the consequences of his unbelief, as must every sinner. There is no excuse. How sad.

Take heed!

The death on 21st February of Billy Graham was, by any standard, an historic event. Ninety-nine years old – just short of the century. The responses from the media, both religious and secular, flooded in, many no doubt prepared a considerable time ago. The wide variety of sources testified to Graham’s significance, not just in America, but also on the world stage. Nobody could dispute that a man of stature had departed. Very few preachers leave the world to such public notice. Perhaps none will again. That in itself says much about the role Graham played in twentieth century religious life, and not just within the Evangelical community.

There are, of course, legitimate criticisms that can be levelled against Billy Graham. The first thought for some will be his willingness to include liberal Protestants as well as Roman Catholics among the sponsors of his crusades. The nature of his evangelistic approach – the mass crusades, for example – raised questions for some conservative Evangelical and Reformed observers. His closeness to numerous American Presidents also caused concern, particularly when characters like Lyndon Johnston and Richard Nixon were involved (something which Graham himself seems to have acknowledged). The negatives are certainly there, and we would not close our eyes to them. We would not have any sympathy with those who speak of his death as having ‘prophetic significance’ for the approach of ‘the end times’, as even some family members have stated. And yet there is more to be said.

It is remarkable that in a life of 99 years, much of that time in the glare of publicity, Billy Graham was untouched by even a whiff of scandal – financial, sexual, or of any other kind. That is remarkable, and surely a testimony to the grace of God. Even the most hostile secular critics could get nothing on him, and if they could have, they would have. We can be sure of that. Not only that – nowadays the Internet hosts numerous zealous characters who claim biblical justification for ‘digging the dirt’ on prominent preachers and church leaders in the most scurrilous manner. Perhaps in the earlier years the scrutiny was less intense, the culture more respectful, but with the explosion of the electronic media in more recent times, no corner of the life of a public figure is truly private. Wise precautions were taken, good procedures put in place, all activities were open to scrutiny. Billy Graham passed all the tests. Some whose theology was apparently ‘sounder’ have not.

Whilst there may be legitimate questions about some of his methods of evangelism, no-one can dispute Billy Graham’s zeal for the spread of the gospel for the salvation of sinners. That was undoubtedly his great passion. If we think our understanding of the gospel is more fully biblical, we need to ask ourselves how zealous we are in proclaiming that message. Sometimes the honest answer would be, ‘Not very.’ We don’t have a lot to be proud of.

And why did the Lord allow Billy Graham to preach to hundreds of thousands while we preach to handfuls? Perhaps one reason is that he could trust Graham to handle the temptations and pressures of such a prominent position, and we have all we can cope with. Not too flattering, but perhaps not too far from the truth.

We live in an age that delights to pull down the prominent and successful, and show that they have feet of clay. Sometimes it is fully warranted and even necessary. The exposure of ‘cover-ups’ in many areas of public life has had justification, but it can become a dangerous hobby. Christians are not immune from the cultural tide, as if somehow finding others’ feet of clay made our feet sounder. Not for nothing did the apostle Paul warn the church, ‘Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall’ (1 Corinthians 10:12).

We are not to idealise, much less idolise, any human being, but we are to praise God for the good we see in his servants and seek by grace to imitate them. Billy Graham gives us more than a little food for thought.

One Sure Thing

If there is one word that characterises events on the world stage at the moment it is surely ‘uncertainty’. Wherever we look, there seems to be confusion as to what is really happening, confusion as to what is the best solution to complex crises (if there is one) and fear as to what the future holds. Where will American foreign policy go next? Does even the President know? What will North Korea do beyond belligerent sabre-rattling? Will Angela Merkel survive as German Prime Minister? (You will probably know the answer by the time you read this). Where would anyone start to unravel the complexities of the Middle East? What will Brexit look like and what will the consequences be? Your guess is as good as mine, if not better.

Of course few of us can bring any influence to bear on the ‘big picture’. It is the small picture that poses the most pressing problems. Maybe it’s declining health, concern for a young person showing no sign of spiritual life, anxiety about care provision for an elderly relative, or any one of a multitude of other issues. In so many respects the way ahead seems very uncertain, full of the ‘maybe’ and the ‘what if?’

One thing is certain – the future is not in our hands, and the longer we live, the clearer that becomes. We plan, we anticipate, we worry, yet events take entirely unexpected turns and often leave us amazed or baffled. We don’t know what tomorrow may bring, much less next week or next month.

That could be depressing or frightening, but as Christians we know that we do not face the unknown future alone. Psalm 138:8 reminds us, ‘The LORD will fulfil his purpose for me’. There is a word of hope for God’s people to hold on to in the uncertainties of living in a fallen world. Literally the psalmist says, ‘The LORD will perfect what concerns me’. The words are a reminder that our Lord is a sovereign God. He is in ultimate control of ‘all that concerns me’, even the smallest detail. If, as Jesus reminds us, he supervises the fall of the sparrow, he surely oversees all aspects of the lives of his children. The reference to his ‘purpose’ in many of the translations reflects that. There is nothing random in his universe.

Of course control in the wrong hands is a dangerous and frightening thing. World events underline that fact. The psalmist goes on to reassure us, however, when he says, ‘your love, O LORD, endures for ever’. The word for ‘love’ is that wonderful Hebrew word hesed which means eternal, unchanging covenant love, reflecting the Lord’s commitment to his people that results in the salvation provided in Christ crucified and risen. Control could not be in better hands. The Father loves us, the Son loves us and the Holy Spirit loves us. This is the Triune God who will perfect what concerns us.

That is not a guarantee of an easy passage through life. Far from it. There may be trials that we have never imagined or sorrows we have feared, along, we trust, with joys we could not have anticipated. The hard experiences will not break the Lord’s people, however, but will serve his glory and our growth in grace. And even in the hard times, we will by his grace be able to ‘count it all joy’ (James 1:2). Only those who are children of God through faith in Christ have such hope and confidence.

Taking Responsibility

A government minister taking responsibility? Resigning without being forced out? Hard to believe! Not exactly unprecedented, but very rare. On 31 January Lord Bates, the international development minister, resigned when he arrived late for work in the House of Lords. The Conservative peer sparked confusion when he gave an apology for not being on time to answer questions from the dispatch box, having missed a question from a Labour peer. According to press reports, Lord Bates commented, ‘I have always believed we should rise to the highest possible standards of courtesy and respect in responding on behalf of the Government to the legitimate questions of the legislature. I am thoroughly ashamed of not being in my place and therefore I shall be offering my resignation to the Prime Minister with immediate effect.’ His reaction was met with amazement and cries of ‘No!’ One Labour peer suggested that an apology would have been adequate to address the issue. Most present agreed.

We have no mandate to comment on the motivation for Lord Bates’ action. He resigned dramatically in 2016 to undertake a solo 2,000 mile walk from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro, so perhaps it’s something in the blood. Not our business. But a minister taking responsibility for failing to reach what he believes are the proper standards for a minister most certainly is.

We do not live in a society where taking responsibility is common. More often we meet with blame-shifting, prevarication, finger-pointing, flat-out denial. At school it starts with ‘It wasn’t me, sir’ and goes on from there. Whatever goes wrong, it is somebody else’s fault, or something else’s fault – my environment, my education, my parents, the government, the stars – you name it, someone claims it. One thing is sure – it’s not my fault.

Not new is it? Ancient, in fact. ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate’ (Genesis 3:12). When confronted by God regarding the first human sin, Adam’s response was to try (in vain) to shift blame onto Eve and, implicitly, onto God himself. If he had done a better job, it seems, Adam would not have ended up in the predicament he now faced. Eve learned fast and tried to dump blame entirely on the serpent. None of it fooled the Lord as the succeeding verses show. Every guilty party was called to account and received a just sentence.

We are in no better position. Refusing to take responsibility for our sins simply does not work. God is not fooled and still calls us to account. Worse still, refusing to take responsibility actually closes off the one route to a solution. If we will not face up to the reality of the disease, we will never seek or accept the cure. Most of us have met people who, although seriously ill, insist that ‘I’m fine’ and act accordingly. They will never seek the necessary treatment since they do not believe there is anything wrong with them. People die proclaiming, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.’

For sinners, in fact, the situation is even worse. The sinner asserts ‘I am alive’ when in fact he is dead. How much worse, and how much more foolish, could it be? Denying responsibility for sin precludes seeking the salvation God has provided in Christ crucified and risen. That was David’s experience in Psalm 32. He recalls, ‘For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long’ (verse 3). Even his body was severely affected. The solution? Instead of ‘covering’ his sin, he confessed it to the Lord. ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity’ (verse 5). The result was cleansing and forgiveness – ‘you forgave the iniquity of my sin’.

That is the heart of the gospel. True repentance – taking responsibility for our sin as an offence against God – opens the way to the lifting of the burden of guilt and healing of the whole person. Rightly David sang, ‘Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’ (verse 1). Until we take responsibility, that door remains firmly closed.

Bruised Reeds

Quality control is vitally important in any business. In the production of any item – from cars to cakes (Top Gear to Bake Off), perfection is required, or as close to perfection as can be achieved. Woe betide any supplier if a customer receives something he considers to be substandard. It will be returned quick smart, complaints will be aired and, in these days of social media, there may well be negative postings on the firm’s web site to ensure that the failure is as widely publicised as possible.

We might have no quarrel with quality control in business, but increasingly the same attitude is being applied to people. So, we are told, only those who fully measure up should be allowed to be born, and the substandard, for their own and everybody else’s benefit, should be disposed of. After all, they will consume scarce resources and require extra care, they may well contribute little to society, families and carers will be worn down, and they themselves will probably be unhappy. All good reasons to exercise the kind of quality control that advances in medicine now make possible and ensure that the imperfect are quietly disposed of. Inevitably the ‘imperfect’ are devalued, and who is imperfect depends on society’s current standards for a valuable life.

The attitude of the church of Jesus Christ ought to be entirely different, because the attitude of the Saviour she follows is entirely different. In imitating him, the church will increasingly stand out from the surrounding culture. Rather than disposing of those who do not measure up, Christ provides grace for the struggling. His ministry is vividly depicted in the words of Matthew 12:20 (quoting Isaiah 42): ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory’.

The word-pictures are striking and would have been very familiar to Matthew’s readers. Reeds, used for everything from pens and flutes to measuring rods and floor coverings, are fragile and easily damaged. Wicks, made of linen, allowed oil lamps to produce some light but were often of poor quality and produced more smoke than light. Bruised reeds and smoking wicks were readily viewed as useless and more bother than they were worth.

The lesson, of course, is not one regarding reeds and wicks. The passage from Isaiah describes ‘my servant whom I have chosen’ – God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. The context here is of Jesus healing the sick (verse 15) and so clearly bruised reeds and smouldering flaxes are people, fragile and vulnerable people, damaged and struggling people. And in one way or another we are all strugglers – for physical reasons (illness, declining faculties), for psychological reasons (anxiety, grief, depression, mental health problems), for spiritual reasons (doubt, temptation, failure). Often all three are mixed together to weigh us down. It can seem hopeless.

The verse, however, is a message of good news. In a world where bruised reeds and smouldering wicks would usually be thrown out and replaced, we are assured that the Saviour will minister graciously to his people and the bruised reed will not be broken, the smouldering wick not extinguished. The Lord cares for his people body and soul, for the whole person. Whatever the cause of bruising or smouldering, the Lord is concerned and is able to deal graciously with the need. No struggle we experience is met with indifference.

Remember that the one described in Isaiah 42 shares our human nature, with the sole exception of sin. He ‘had to be made like his brothers in every way’ (Hebrews 2:17). He ‘was tempted in every way just as we are’ and so is not ‘unable to sympathise with our weaknesses’ (Hebrews 4:15). The saviour can sympathise in ways that no-one else can. He was bruised and he smouldered to a degree beyond what we will ever experience.

Sympathy, however, is not enough. Christ does not leave his people bruise or smouldering: he restores and heals. Our struggles come because we live in a fallen world (though our struggles are often not the result of specific personal sin – the mistake of Job’s friends). The saviour has dealt with the root cause in his atoning death in the place of his people (2 Corinthians 5:21) and as a result those in Christ are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The work of the saviour cannot fail – that is the significance of ‘until he brings justice to victory’. Evil will not have the last word. All causes of bruising and smouldering will ultimately be removed in the new creation after his return. In the meantime he preserves his beloved people, assuring them that ‘no-one can snatch them out of my hand’ (John 10:28). He may well not remove from us some of the things that bruise and cause smouldering (such as the experience of death), but he will give all the grace necessary for us to pass through trails and hard experiences and finally reach glory. By his grace bruised reeds are straightened and smouldering wicks burn brightly.

A pattern for Christ’s church. Reed breakers and wick snuffers need not apply.