Self Deception

I’ve been mulling over whether to write something on the rest of Jeremiah 2 as I’ve read it and on into chapter 3.  It isn’t a very easy read, but I think it is important.  We pick up at verse 20 with some vivid imagery:

“Long ago you broke off your yoke
and tore off your bonds;
you said, ‘I will not serve you!’
Indeed, on every high hill
and under every spreading tree
you lay down as a prostitute.
21 I had planted you like a choice vine
of sound and reliable stock.
How then did you turn against me
into a corrupt, wild vine?
22 Although you wash yourself with soap
and use an abundance of cleansing powder,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,”
declares the Sovereign Lord.

Here three different metaphors are intermingled: sin as adultery, Judah as Yahweh’s choice vine, and sin as defilement.  The imagery becomes more graphic as the chapter continues:

23 “How can you say, ‘I am not defiled;
I have not run after the Baals’?
See how you behaved in the valley;
consider what you have done.
You are a swift she-camel
running here and there,
24 a wild donkey accustomed to the desert,
sniffing the wind in her craving—
in her heat who can restrain her?
Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves;
at mating time they will find her.
25 Do not run until your feet are bare
and your throat is dry.
But you said, ‘It’s no use!
I love foreign gods,
and I must go after them.’

Once more (v23) Judah is asked to “see” and “know” (or “consider” in the translation above).  She needs to see and know what her sin actually is.  It seems that Judah thinks it has not been disloyal to Yahweh – but Jeremiah’s contention is that the people have been disloyal to Yahweh, in the same way as someone who cheats on their spouse has been disloyal to them.

Judah’s behaviour, according to Jeremiah, has been brazen.  And yet they don’t seem to realise their state.  The charges go on:

“As a thief is disgraced when he is caught,
    so the people of Israel are disgraced—
they, their kings and their officials,
    their priests and their prophets.
27 They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’
    and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’
They have turned their backs to me
    and not their faces;
yet when they are in trouble, they say,
    ‘Come and save us!’
28 Where then are the gods you made for yourselves?
    Let them come if they can save you
    when you are in trouble!
For you, Judah, have as many gods
    as you have towns.

29 “Why do you bring charges against me?
You have all rebelled against me,”
declares the Lord.
30 “In vain I punished your people;
they did not respond to correction.
Your sword has devoured your prophets
like a ravenous lion.

Judah has made gods to save themselves: in fact they have as many gods as they do towns.  And yet they do not seem to realise this.

31 “You of this generation, consider the word of the Lord:

“Have I been a desert to Israel
or a land of great darkness?
Why do my people say, ‘We are free to roam;
we will come to you no more’?
32 Does a young woman forget her jewelry,
a bride her wedding ornaments?
Yet my people have forgotten me,
days without number.
33 How skilled you are at pursuing love!
Even the worst of women can learn from your ways.
34 On your clothes is found
the lifeblood of the innocent poor,
though you did not catch them breaking in.
Yet in spite of all this
35 you say, ‘I am innocent;
he is not angry with me.’
But I will pass judgment on you
because you say, ‘I have not sinned.’
36 Why do you go about so much,
changing your ways?
You will be disappointed by Egypt
as you were by Assyria.
37 You will also leave that place
with your hands on your head,
for the Lord has rejected those you trust;
you will not be helped by them.

Judah needs to consider her state – she has forgotten Yahweh – she is a like a bride who can forget what her wedding dress looks like.  She has sinned by oppressing the poor, and yet she is convinced she enjoys Yahweh’s favour and that Yahweh will not judge, because they have not sinned.  They think Egypt can save them politically – but Egypt will perish just as Assyria had by this point. There is no help for Judah from the nations around, and there is no help for her by adopting their ways.

The section ends with chapter 3’s graphic description of Judah’s sin as spiritual adultery, culminating in these lines:

you refuse to blush with shame.
Have you not just called to me:
‘My Father, my friend from my youth,
will you always be angry?
Will your wrath continue forever?’
This is how you talk,
but you do all the evil you can.”

Judah could speak very well of their relationship with Yahweh.  They called God ‘Father’. They spoke of friendship.  They mourned God’s anger.  And yet they ‘did all the evil you can’.

Judah was self deceived.  They may have got rid of the worst excesses of Baal worship, but in their hearts they still followed other gods.  They still wanted to do evil.

This warns us that it is possible to sound and look very spiritual and yet be very far from God – and I think the chapter gives us two ways that can happen very easily, that we can discern by asking two key questions.  The first is:

Who or what do I trust in to save me – who, or what do I trust in to make my life work out the way I want it to?

I get this question from the way Jeremiah describes Judah looking to the works of their own hands to save them, and to Egypt for political deliverance.  We may become like Judah when we say we trust God to save us, but in fact become more concerned with building a comfortable life now, and using God to make that life work out.  Judah had as many gods as towns not necessarily because of physical idols, but because she was seeking Yahweh as a means for her desired ends.

It may even be that Judah thought that seeking Yahweh was a way of avoiding Babylonian conquest – but Jeremiah will make very clear that by this point exile is something that has to happen.  We might think we need to seek Yahweh so that something can happen in our lives, perhaps so that we can avoid something awful happening – but it may yet that the awful event we dread is somehow part of God’s strange work in our lives that we must, for reasons we cannot comprehend, endure here and now.

We need to be ready to trust God even when we can’t see what he is doing, and not scheme to manipulate him.

The second test is: do I have the blood of the poor on my hands?  Is my comfort and security built on the insecurity and frailty of others?  This is another searching question – especially for us in comfortable western homes.  True religion, James reminds us, consists in care for the widows and orphans.  We must be part of caring for and helping the poor – and, in so far as we can, making sure that our own comfort and security is not built on others poverty.

We may not think we worship idols, but if God is a means to an end, and we don’t care about the poor then we are in fact worshipping idols because we have recreated God in our own image.

The call is to see – to look at our own lives honestly, so that we can begin to change – and to consider – to know – to know what reality looks like, to know what God is really like, and what he demands.  The starting point to that call to look and consider is simple.

As the old children’s chorus puts it: “There’s a way back to God, from the dark paths of sin… a door that is open, and you may go in, at calvary’s cross is where you begin…”  The call to look and consider is the call to recognise the reality of idolatry in our lives and to bring it back to the cross, back to Jesus and to start again.

We can do that if we are willing to recognise we have got it wrong – we can’t do it if we want to sound spiritual and together.  So look. Consider.  See. Know.  Weep, mourn and wail – and turn back to God, because he will turn back to us.





Perceiving Reality

Jeremiah is one of those books which we quite often skip through.  If you attend a church brave enough to preach on Jeremiah it is likely that it will be from selected highlights. One of the most popular bible verses among Christians is from Jeremiah 29 “For I know the plans I have for you – plans to bring you wholeness and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope”.  But that is Jeremiah 29 – there are 28 chapters before we reach that point of hope.

One of the reasons Jeremiah is seen as such a slog is that it contains a lot about sin – about both the sin of Judah at a corporate level, and about the sin of the people as individuals, as well as a fair amount of Jeremiah’s own wrestling with his call.  It isn’t an easy read.  But I think that is why it might well be all the more important in that it helps us to get to grips with the reality of our own sin, and the attitudes and practices we might need to change.

Here is the next chunk of Jeremiah 2:
““Is Israel a slave? Is he a homeborn servant? Why then has he become a prey? The lions have roared against him; they have roared loudly. They have made his land a waste; his cities are in ruins, without inhabitant. Moreover, the men of Memphis and Tahpanhes have shaved the crown of your head. Have you not brought this upon yourself by forsaking the LORD your God, when he led you in the way? And now what do you gain by going to Egypt to drink the waters of the Nile? Or what do you gain by going to Assyria to drink the waters of the Euphrates? Your evil will chastise you, and your apostasy will reprove you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the LORD your God; the fear of me is not in you, declares the Lord GOD of hosts.”
(Jeremiah 2:14–19 ESV)

The nation of Judah was in a desperate state – enemies plundered the land – and Jeremiah’s message is that it is their own fault.  They have forsaken Yahweh their God, even as he led them on the way.  Earlier in the chapter he has rebuked them for digging their own cisterns (idols) instead of drinking from the fountain of living water (Yahweh).  Now he rebukes them for going and drinking from the Nile and the Euphrates.

The Nile represents Egypt – Israel were rescued out of Egypt, and were repeatedly warned not to go back. Egypt was a nation of order and control.  The Nile River ensured regular crops, and the Pharaoh’s and the priests maintained a society of order.  Therefore in a time of chaos and uncertainty it was tempting to go back to the society of order, to go back to Egypt.

The Euphrates River represents Assyria.  Assyria was a society built around power and military might, a society whose rulers believed themselves to be supreme over the earth.  Assyria had been the dominant nation, and so some of Judah’s rulers had thrown their lot in with Assyria, desperate to cling to power by allying themselves with a society based on military power.

Power and control.  In the uncertain world of 6th and 7th Century Judah it was tempting to rely on one or other of these empires for help.  But Israel were supposed to be God’s people, trusting in God.  They were supposed to look different to those around – and in those moments when Judah’s rulers did trust they saw the benefits – Hezekiah saw Sennacherib turn away from capturing Judah and returning to his own land.   But most of the time they focused on the trouble they could see around them and sought to muddle pragmatically through in the best way that they could.

The trouble was that not only was this wrong in that it it was disobeying Yahweh, it was also, and ironically, disastrous politically – because the threat was not ultimately going to  be from Egypt or Assyria, but from the growing menace of the Babylonian Empire.  Judah’s apostasy (forsaking Yahweh) and evil would turn back on them and they would be overrun.

In the midst of all this the key call comes in v19:

Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the LORD your God; the fear of me is not in you, declares the Lord GOD of hosts.”

Know. See. Two verbs of insight and perception.  The call is to think, and to discern.  To know reality rather than to make up our own.  Judah needs to understand that forsaking Yahweh their God is not good.  That leaving Yahweh does not lead to happiness, but ultimately to bitterness.  They need a right fear of Yahweh, a reverent respect for Yahweh that leads them to be careful not to forsake him, not to leave him.

What about us?  We face the same dangers.  We look for something, or someone that will keep our lives ordered – whether that is financial security or political security, we can easily seek our security in things and in people rather than in the living God.  We need to recognise that when we forsake God in order to achieve more security that will end up in bitterness.

If we seek after power to make life work, but are willing to put God’s ways to one side to do so, then we need to stop – and once more look, and know that such power will lead to evil and bitterness.  Forsaking Yahweh, leaving our God behind does not lead to good results.

It is in following Yahweh our God – the one who brings real order to the world, who showed himself to be more powerful than the impressive Egyptian order when he brought Israel out of Egypt – that we find true order in the midst of seeming chaos.

It is in fearing Yahweh, the one who is the Lord, the true King of the whole world, and who is “Yahweh of hosts” – God of the angel armies, the God with power over everything and everyone who stands in his way that we find the strength to stand against every power ranged against us.

As the hymn writer points out:

5 Fear him, ye saints, and you will then
have nothing else to fear;
make you his service your delight,
your wants shall be his care.


Rediscovering my creativity

It has been a long while since I picked up my sewing or knitting, or dared to draw or paint. Any craft projects have been solely done for the children, almost out of a sense of duty that we must do art projects. The last five months has been a very different one to the one I saw ahead of me back at the start of the year. It has included 2 house moves, a new city to find our way around, new church and home ed communities to become part of. And glimmers of hope with my health. New medication, which currently I can only have every 3 months gives me two months of stability, but then we enter this 3rd month before another injection and it feels like I am back to square with many of my symptoms. But rather than crawling into bed exhausted and lost I have dared to get creative again. God is a creative God. The first we learn of Him in the Bible is His creativity and we are made in His image, so part of us is to be creative. I am an all or nothing person though and so this past week all else has gone astray while I create.  Mark and I laughed this week that between him rediscovering writing and me rediscovering being creative the house very easily goes to rack and ruin and the children may have to become more self sufficient if we keep this up. Thankfully eldest is branching out and learning how to cook fritatas and roast dinners so it will not just be a diet of amazing cakes.

One of the blessings of getting back to creativity is that rather than having to say to the children now its time for painting or time for an art project and being met with unenthusiastic grimaces and stuffing mine away in an attempt to enthuse them, they come alongside me and join in. It has taken a few deep breathes to give up my sacred space to let them join in on what I might have thought was a 15 minute moment to myself but the rewards have been numerous.  As I was making my new bag last week I looked up to find 3 others going through my fabric to make themselves felt bags which now hold their knitting. Eldest is doing well with his scarf, middle one loves for me to knit his for him and 4 hands gets complicated with youngest but it is so worth it.

I am very much a novice in all forms of art but I love to be creative and part of God’s work for me these past few months is to rediscover the joy, delight and community there is in being creative.


Broken Cisterns

Following on from last time post is another sobering set of words.  They form the summary of Yahweh’s charges against the people, and once more they are strikingly relevant to us today.

Jeremiah 2:9 “Therefore I bring charges against you again,”
declares the LORD.
“And I will bring charges against your children’s children.
10 Cross over to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and observe closely;
see if there has ever been anything like this:
11 Has a nation ever changed its gods?
(Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their glory
for that which does not profit.
12 Be appalled at this, you heavens,
and shudder with great horror,”
declares the Lord.
13 “My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

The first few verses introduce the idea that God is searching around and failing to try and find a comparison to explain how wrong Israel have gone.  His people have exchanged their glory for that which does not profit.

In the context of the verse, and of the way the word is used elsewhere the glory of Israel must be a reference to God (think of Samuel’s words ‘is the glory of Israel a man…’ for example).

That is worth pausing over.  The glory of Israel is a reference to God.  The word glory is related to the word for weight, or substance.  When the glory of God is referred to it means all that makes God be God.  When Moses says ‘show me your glory’ he is given a true, but limited, glimpse of God’s utter and total goodness.

When God is referred to as Israel’s glory it means that God is the one who gives his people substance and weight.  Without God they become empty and fading.  In this text Israel swapping his glory for that which does not profit means that God’s people have given up on the idea that it is God who can give them substance and meaning, that it is God who makes them live as they should be.

Instead they have turned to other things for this – they have turned to worthless idols.  On a national scale to define them as a people, to help them navigate through the complex world of the rise and fall of empires, they have turned to a mixture of other gods and complicated political alliances.  On an individual scale they have sought to have good harvests and prosperous families by worshipping idols and taking part in their fertility rites.  In both cases they have stopped believing that it is God who should be the centre who holds life, and started believing that something else can do it better.

This is a horror to make the heavens shudder.  God’s people turning away from God and replacing him with other things should make us shudder.  The key problem is then identified:

13 “My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

The first problem is that in forsaking God we forsake the source of life.  God is the ‘spring of living water’.  He is the one who gives life.  Water is vital to life.  To forsake him is not simply to choose a different option, as if we can refuse to drink.  No, to refuse to come to God for living water is to choose to die.

Instead they have dug their own cisterns – broken cisterns which cannot hold water.  They have a spring, a fountain of pure, clean, fresh water which will give life, which does not run out.  Instead they choose to dig a well, a well that leaks.  Water appears, but empties again.

That is what it is to reject God and his ways.  It is to reject life.  In Romans 1:18-32 Paul describes in graphic detail what happens when people reject the glory of God for images resembling created things, and then go on to exchange the truth of God for a lie.  Society disintegrates as people give themselves up to what should not be done.

Rejecting God and his truth has consequences.  I’ve been really struck by a common thread in various news reports over the last couple of years on aspects of the US president’s ways and means.  One way or another they all express horror at the way in which truth has been set to one side by the current White House.  I am just as horrified. I’m just not particularly surprised.  For at least the last 20 years a common belief in educated circles has become that truth, in a moral sense of what is right and wrong, is relative.  I think what we see in politics today is an extension of that.

The logical conclusion of treating truth and in particular morality as relative thing is that we get leaders who do not care if a claim is true or false, as long as it advances their agenda.  We get a man who brags about what he can get away with doing to women as leader of the free world, and is happy to mock vulnerable women to get a laugh from his audience.  Somewhat more shocking to me is that there are people who follow a God of truth who are happy to support someone who uses bullying, lies and mistreatment of women as routine methods of policy because it will advance one particular section of the political agenda and so may bring one area of public life more in conformity with God’s values.  It seems to me that they run close to exchanging the glory of God for a lie themselves – of trusting in human politics to bring about God’s kingdom values in society – and I’m not sure the history of that particular choice is very encouraging.

But what about at a more personal level – how does the challenge hit home here.  Here the Jeremiah passage encourages us all to consider what the broken cisterns we dig to hold water are.  What do we rely on in the place of God to make life work?  Do we reject his ways in a Romans 1 sense and end up in a place of obvious sin?  Or are we looking to something other than God in a more subtle sense?

Is it our desire to be in control?  A desire for approval?  Do we look to money, or to power for these things?  Do we manipulate others to make life work for us? Are we able to condemn those who lead in politics or religion for their sins while turning to broken cisterns to keep our own lives running.

Have we even turned our service to God into a broken cistern that cannot hold water?  At the same time as Jeremiah 2 I read the start of Mark 7 where the Pharisees criticise Jesus’ disciples for eating with unwashed hands.  Jesus in turn criticises the Pharisees for the way in which they set aside God’s commands and follow human traditions.   When our own traditions or standards stop us actually obeying what God is telling us in terms of loving people then we have made those traditions into broken cisterns also.

So when we read Jeremiah we should bear in mind that it is not just the obvious sins that are broken cisterns.  It is the seeking of identity in approval, in control, in achievement – and it is the seeking identity in religious performance – all of these are broken cisterns.

We need to stop digging holes, and turn back to the one who gives living water.  We come to the spring to drink of the living water offered by the living God.

We remember the story of how one hot noon day in a Samaritan village a broken woman came to a well.  She came at noon to avoid the rest of the town. She came at noon because she was ashamed and afraid.  She came and she met a man – a man who could speak into her life, a man who could see through her evasions, and most importantly a man who could offer her living water so that she no longer needed to dig the broken cisterns.  A man who showed what true leadership was, and how true leadership treats broken women.  There was no mocking.  There was no using.

There was simply conversation and a pointing to life.  In the case of Jesus he himself was the life.  He is the one who is the fountain of life.  He is the one who can give living water without any need of a bucket – the spring of living water.  He is the one who is the Messiah.  He is Yahweh himself walking on the earth.  He is the glory of Israel come to Israel.  He is the one who has the glory in himself to take the weight of being the centre of our lives.  He is the one who is able to define us and make us new.

So come.  Come to the living water.  Come to Jesus.  Leave the broken cisterns.  Stop digging. Digging is hard work.  It is dirty work.  It leaves you thirsty, and if the well is leaking it is all futile. Put aside whatever the mask is and come.  Make these words of Timothy Dudley Smith your own:

We turn to Christ amid our fear and failing,
the will that lacks the courage to be free,
the weary labours, all but unavailing,
to bring us nearer what a church should be.

Lord of the church, we seek a Father’s blessing,
a true repentance and a faith restored,
a swift obedience and a new possessing,
filled with the Holy Spirit of the Lord!
We turn to Christ from all our restless striving,
unnumbered voices with a single prayer:
the living water for our souls’ reviving,
in Christ to live, and love and serve and care.



Where is God? The key question…

I’m reading Jeremiah at the moment, and I was struck reading just these few verses at the start of chapter 2 yesterday:

“The word of the LORD came to me, saying,“Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest. All who ate of it incurred guilt; disaster came upon them, declares the LORD.”

Jeremiah has been called by Yahweh to speak to Jerusalem and Judah and call them back to a real relationship with God.  The first stage in the process is to go back to the beginnings of Israel’s life with God.  Back to the Exodus, and back to the wilderness.  Back to Exodus 19, where Israel’s call is summarised:

“Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.””
(Exodus 19:3–6 TNIV)

On hearing those words Israel had pledged to obey Yahweh in everything. But that enthusiasm did not last long.  Jeremiah summarises the history of Israel in a paragraph or so.

Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the clans of the house of Israel.Thus says the LORD: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after empty things, and became empty? They did not say, ‘Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that none passes through, where no man dwells?’ And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things. But when you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit.”
(Jeremiah 2:1–8)

Israel went wrong because they went far from Yahweh, and “followed empty things”.  The word for ’empty’ is the same word often translated ‘vanity’ at the start of Ecclesiastes.  It can stand for idols, because in God’s eyes idols are empty, or it could be more broadly anything that does not have weight or substance. It is the opposite of God, the one who is ‘glorious’, who has weight and substance and reality.

If we follow after things that are empty we become empty.  We are created to find meaning and fulfillment in God, and when we do that we have the potential to grow and become what God has made us to be.  When we don’t, we become like what we follow.

As I read that I sensed echoes of this in our contemporary world.  We follow empty things, and we become empty ourselves – we follow crude and cruel people and we become like them.  We follow after money and image, and money and image are all that we have left.

That is a tragedy.  But according to Jeremiah there is a deeper tragedy still.  The tragedy is that as we make that journey towards emptiness without ever asking “Where is the God who rescued us?”  God’s people have walked away from God, and have never realised they have left.  They do not even realise that God is distant.  God had led them through the desert, to a rich and full land – but they have ruined that land.

As that happens the priests do not ask “Where is Yahweh?”  The experts in the law might be experts in God’s word, but they do not know God.  The shepherds (leaders) transgress against God. The prophets prophesy in the name of Baal – the god of the nations around and go after things that do not profit.

In other words all those who are supposed to guide God’s people have gone astray.  The priests do not recognise God’s absence.  The experts in God’s word are buried in the text, but have missed the God revealed in the text.  The leaders of God’s people – their kings – are disobedient and wilfully go astray.  The prophets who should be calling God’s people back to God’s word are instead following other gods who can do no good.

The tragedy is that we are so often just like Israel in Jeremiah’s day.  At this point a bit of historical background helps.  The start of Jeremiah tells us that Jeremiah started prophesying in the 13th year of Josiah’s reign.  Josiah was a good king – both Kings and Chronicles tell of the way that Josiah called Judah back to the worship of Yahweh, got rid of idols and cleaned up the temple.  According to 2 Chronicles 34 Josiah’s reforms were well underway by his 13th year – in year 8 he had begun to seek God, and in year 12 he had started to get rid of idols from the kingdom.

Jeremiah prophesies in Josiah’s reign, but he never mentions the reforms.  Never praises the king.  This seems puzzling – why does Josiah never get a ‘well done’?  I think the best answer to this is that Jeremiah is addressing the people.  Jeremiah knows that Josiah is sincere, but he also knows that the people have a history of simply following whatever the king tells them, and that all this reform will go to waste if the people do not change their hearts.  A reforming king is a great thing – but the deeper need is for the people to have reformed hearts.

God’s people in every age need the perception to tell when an outward reformation is only skin deep.  We need to be able to tell in our lives when being an expert in God’s word has simply become an end in itself – we need to know when we have stopped seeking God and just settled for understanding the Bible better.  We need to know when those who claim to speak for God are actually speaking for false empty gods.

Above all else we need to ask “Where is God?”  What is God doing in this situation?  What does he want us to listen to and take note of?  We need the discernment to recognise when we are in trouble, and the humility to turn back to God and ask him to show us the right way to walk.

Most of the time, it seems to me, the danger we as western Christians face is that we will miss that God is absent.  We are so good at ‘doing’ church – we can preach, have music, take care of children and organise events – but if don’t have God with us then that will all be in vain.  So often our first response to difficulty or challenges is to organise something new.  But so often that first response reveals that our idol is something that we can do or work out rather than trusting in God.

Instead we should make our first response in each situation of decision or crisis to be the act of asking the question “Where is God?”  What is God doing?  We need to look back at the start of Jeremiah 2 and remember that just as God lead Israel through the wilderness to the promised land, so it is God who leads us through the wilderness to strip us of our independent self reliance and to teach us that ‘man does not live by bread alone’ (as Deuteronomy puts it).

Whether we feel the wilderness is the state of our world or our land today, or the state of a particular part of the church, or the confusion and turmoil of our own personal crisis we need to know that God can be there.  Such confusion is no sign of God’s absence, just as enjoying a comfortable life is no sign of God’s presence.

We need to listen to Jeremiah’s uncomfortable words and hear the challenge they bring to us in the midst of our precarious lives, and our precarious world.

We need to heed the warning of the priests and say “Where is God?” What is God doing in the midst of all this?

We need to heed the warning of the experts in the law, and read God’s word on our knees, asking to see Him as we read the text, and asking him to change us by what we read, rather than seeking to be masters of it.

If we are leaders we need to make sure that we do not transgress against God’s ways – and as we listen to those claiming to speak for God that it is God they are speaking for, and not just the voice of our own favourite idols.

Instead we turn back to God, we remember that we live by every word that comes from him, and we seek to place one foot in front of the other walking with him, seeking his presence and trusting his ways.  Not easy – but that is the call from Jeremiah to us today.


Take Courage: “I am he”

Today I read this bible passage from Mark’s gospel:

“Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.  When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.”
(Mark 6:45–52 TNIV)

The story comes right after the feeding of the 5000.  In Mark’s gospel Jesus has called his disciples away to come with him to a lonely place after their mission.  That retreat is gatecrashed by a large crowd.  Jesus has compassion on the crowd because they are like sheep without a shepherd, and so he teaches the crowd.  He then asks his disciples to feed them – his disciples tell him that is simply not possible.  Jesus, however has other ideas, and taking the 5 loaves and 2 fish that they do have feeds the hungry crowd.  This story follows that.  Jesus, seemingly sensing that the disciples need to get away dismisses them, and he retreats to the mountain to pray.

The disciples are in the boat, in the middle of the lake, and Jesus sees them straining at the oars because the wind is against them.  That line struck me quite forcibly because the word used for ‘straining’ often carries the idea of torment or struggle in the NT.  It isn’t simply that rowing across the lake is a little bit tricky, a little bit more exercise than the disciples planned.  No, they are distressed, they are even in danger from this wind that they are struggling with so much.

What also got my attention is that Jesus is watching.  He sees.  We don’t quite know when he sees – is it early on in the night, while he is praying?  Or is it later, when he has finished?  Whichever of those is right it is as dawn approaches that he walks out on the lake to them.  He is about to pass them by.  Actually the Greek is a bit stronger.  It is more literally ‘he decided to pass them by’.  Jesus saw their struggle – yet he decided to pass them by – or perhaps he wanted it to look like he was about to pass them by.

This is a strange scenario indeed.  As someone who spent 3 years buried in the Old Testament it has a sense to me of the mysterious incidents that some characters have where they encounter God in a way we would not expect.  Think of Jacob wrestling the man who turns out to be God.  Think of Moses on the way, with Yahweh about to kill him (Exod. 4).  These key characters had encounters with God that we do not fully understand, but that shaped them in new ways.

Here the disciples see Jesus passing them by, but they don’t realise it is actually Jesus.  So they cry out in fear thinking he is a ghost.  Jesus reassures them:

Take courage

It is I

Don’t be afraid

If we wanted to be more pedantic in translation we could have Jesus saying

Take courage

I am

Don’t be afraid

That middle line “I am” could, it is true, be a simple way of saying “it is me”.  But it is also the way the Greek translators of Exodus 3:14 began God’s answer to Moses at the burning bush – “I am the one who is”.  In Isaiah 46 God says these words:

“Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”
(Isaiah 46:4 TNIV)

That phrase “I am he” is translated into Greek by the same phrase that Jesus uses to the disciples in the boat.  When we consider the context of Mark where Jesus is presented as Yahweh come to his people to lead them out of Exile in a new Exodus – drawing on Isaiah’s language in Isaiah 40-55, and the idea of the Exodus – it seems likely that Mark here is using this phrase to remind us that Jesus is the “I am”.

In other words as he walks on the water to his disciples and by saying I am he means:

Take courage:

I am he (I am Yahweh with you)

Do not be afraid

As I read it I was struck once more by the complexities of life following Jesus.

The disciples are straining all night against the wind.

They are coming to the end of their tether.

There is no sight of the end.

And Jesus is remote.

On the shore. Seeing. But not acting.

And then he comes.  But he doesn’t help.

He walks past. He can be mistaken for a ghost.

And yet he is.  He is he.  He is the one who sustains.

He is the one who made us and will carry us.

He will sustain us.  He will rescue.

We live with those two realities.  And it isn’t always clear how they fit.  Sometimes it is just too dark to see the shore.  I’m glad the Bible is real about that, because it is where I feel we are right now.  There is a darkness that I do not understand.  I feel like we’ve been rowing for a while. The shore is no closer, and Jesus doesn’t seem to be helping much in a practical way.

And yet.  His promise is true.  He is the one who is with us.  It was great to reminded of that at church on Sunday from Exodus 3 where it is God’s presence that is all Moses needs to do his job, and it was good to be reminded of that in Mark 6 this morning.

It puts me in mind of a section where Adrian Plass (in Safe, Tender, Extreme) quotes Oswald Chambers:

We should never have the thought that our dreams of success are God’s purpose for us. In fact, His purpose may be exactly the opposite. We have the idea that God is leading us toward a particular end or a desired goal, but He is not. The question of whether or not we arrive at a particular goal is of little importance, and reaching it becomes merely an episode along the way. What we see as only the process of reaching a particular end, God sees as the goal itself.

What is my vision of God’s purpose for me? Whatever it may be, His purpose is for me to depend on Him and on His power now. If I can stay calm, faithful, and unconfused while in the middle of the turmoil of life, the goal of the purpose of God is being accomplished in me. God is not working toward a particular finish— His purpose is the process itself.
What He desires for me is that I see “Him walking on the sea”
with no shore,
no success,
nor goal in sight,
but simply having the absolute certainty that everything is all right because I see “Him walking on the sea”

One day that sea will be crossed.  One day all uncertainty, chaos and confusion will be past.  Our faith will be sight, and we will see Him, the one who is and it will be worth it.  Until that day the quote above encourages me, and I hope you to keep on keeping on.

True Leadership: Christ is King

I preached this sermon nearly two years ago now, just before Advent 2016.  In my mind – and in the mind of those listening – was the backdrop of the recent US presidential elections, and the lack of leadership in the world.  It seems just as relevant now in both church and world, and I came across it looking for something else on the computer – so here it is:

That is what we remember today, according to the church calendar. But what exactly does that mean?  Kingship is a hard concept to relate to.  Our queen after all, fine moral example that she is, acts merely as a figurehead in today’s world.

And the Bible seem ambiguous as well – there’s all the stories and songs about David and the king to come.  And then there are texts like this one in 1 Samuel where it doesn’t even seem like God wants them to have a king.

The key is found in those words of Jesus: “my kingdom is not of this world” – but what does that mean.  Does it mean Jesus’ kingdom is a slightly vague non material reality with no real connection to this world?

The answer, as so often, is found in understanding the concept of king and kingdom in the OT, and so that’s why we come to this scene in 1 Samuel.

In understanding this, we will see what it means for Jesus’ kingdom not to be of this world.  So here in 1 Samuel, Samuel is a prophet, but also a judge over Israel. That doesn’t mean someone with a funny wig who presides at trials.

It means someone who rules over Israel, who helps to deliver them from their enemies and to (hopefully) lead them in the ways God wants them to go.

The problem is in v1-3 and repeated in v4 (just to make sure we don’t miss it) – Samuel is old, and his sons don’t follow his ways.  A crisis of leadership. The Israelite elders sum up the problem perfectly – but they jump to the wrong conclusion.  And the root of their problem, according to v8 is that they were rejecting God and serving other gods.

By turning away from God’s way of kingship they demonstrated that they had forgotten who God really was, and from that wrong view of God came a wrong idea of how they should be led.  In looking at this passage we will see that Israel made two key mistakes in their understanding of God’s kingship – firstly they wanted to be led like everyone else, and secondly they wanted someone other than God who would fight their battles and rescue them.

So first: Mistake one is wanting leadership like everyone else wants – instead we are to look to Jesus as the perfect example of leadership under God’s law, establishing God’s justice.

Look at 8:5, and again at 8:20.

Israel wanted a king so that they could be like all the other nations around – which is itself a tragedy, because Israel is supposed to demonstrate God’s kingdom by being distinctive.

Now, we need to be careful here.  God, in Deuteronomy 17, makes provision for Israel to have a king – and he will even give them a king when they ask for one “like all the other nations”.  But –

Deut 17:14 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,’ 15 be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses.

In other words: when Israel feels the desire for  a king who is like the nations around then they need to stop and pick a king who is chosen by God – and who is not like the nations around.  The nations around are pretty brutal:  think of Pharaoh, or the Babylonian rulers in the Bible – think of Assyria and Sennacherib, these rulers were brutal tyrants, concerned above all else with their own reputation – and seeing themselves as divine beings with absolute rights over their populations.

By contrast listen to God’s instructions for Israel’s leader:

He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. 16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’ 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

That is the sort of king Israel are to look for.  It is radically different to the way leadership is done in the world – both then and now.

Going to Egypt for horses doesn’t sound bad – but it is all about relying on the wrong strength – it is the latest in military hardware, and going back to Egypt represents going back to the life they have been rescued from.  Israel’s king is not to rely on military power.

Kings around have lots of wives – Israelite kings are not to be like that.  Israel’s Kings should not give way to sensual pleasure or political machinations.

Kings around are wealthy – Israelite kings should not seek money for its own sake Israel, and Israel’s leaders are not to rely on military strength, or live for pleasure, or live for money.

The way they are to resist the the temptation of these three forces – money, sex and power – is to write the law down and memorise it in their hearts.

The way of the king God chooses will be to live out God’s law from the heart.

It’s a little different to the way the world does it isn’t it?  Imagine actually doing it. For ancient Israel it would be the equivalent of our government cancelling Trident.

It would be like the US president elect giving away his millions and spending the next two months copying out large sections of the Bible.

For us today the people of God now are not a nation like ancient Israel – the church is the people of God, gathered with Jesus as their king.  Yet in the church provision is made in the Bible for leaders under Jesus’ rule, and as God’s people today we should listen first to his Word for guidance on how to appoint and behave as leaders, rather than simply doing it like everyone else around us.

Leaders today, like Israelites kings of old are not to seek power over people on the world’s terms.

It is easy for some people to gather a following and manipulate crowds – but people’s faith becomes subtly dependent on the leader rather than on Christ – and that can happen in any church.

Leaders today don’t usually have the issue of having many wives – but the possibility of misusing power for sexual gain remains.  Leaders are not to use their position to gain prestige and admiration from the opposite sex – we see the scandal that results when that happens too often.

Leaders today also are not to seek ministry for financial reward – which might sound unlikely in our cultural setting – but it can still be a comfortable life, and there are still those who deal dishonestly with finances in the church.  Those who lead, should not seek to get rich, should not seek wealth for its own sake.

That will be different to the world around, and it may mean leaders don’t initially look as impressive.  It may mean things take longer to get fixed – because people are being dealt with, rather than an image built up.

So when God’s people stop believing that God knows best about how leadership works they want a king like other nations – and in 1 Samuel that isn’t rejecting Samuel, the human leader, it is rejecting God.

And so God gives them what they want – as a parent lets a child face the consequences of a bad choice by giving them what they want. This is the most sobering reality about life with God.  Sometimes the worst thing God can do for us is to give us what we ask for.

Samuel describes for Israel in v11-18

the way the king will do things – the word for “do things” here is the same as the word for justice in v3, and related to judge or lead elsewhere in this passage.  You could say the judgements of the king…

It shows that a king like other nations will execute justice as kings of other nations do centred on the king, and on how he will take for himself from all that the people have – look in these verses at what the king takes, and how it is used, with the end result that the people are slaves.

Even the best of Israel’s kings often lived out 1 Samuel 8:11-18 – you could write these words over much of Israel’s subsequent history.  But always God had a better plan – Isaiah 11 speaks of David’s descendent ruling with righteousness and justice.

And on this Sunday we remind ourselves of the truth that Jesus is the perfect king, whose rule is perfect justice.

Mistake number two was seeking a king who would rescue them and fight their battles – the remedy is to trust Jesus to do that.

V20 displays the heart of the problem.  The people don’t trust God.  They want a king who will be a god for them, like those of the nations.  A King who will fight their battles.  Yet God is the one who is supposed to fight their battles.

Over and over again in the Old Testament this is hammered home.

It is there at the Red Sea, it comes in God’s instructions for war: Deuteronomy 20:4 – which is followed by a long list of people who can be sent home because they don’t need to fight -people who have just got married, people who need to harvest their crops – even people who are afraid – because Israel doesn’t need a big army –

it is God who fights their battles.

Jericho, Gideon…

Because God fights for Israel.   Even when Israel goes wrong and asks for a King, and when that king – Saul messes up, God still fights for Israel – read on in 1 Samuel and you will see 2 characters who see this with vivid clarity – Jonathan and David, both win battles against impossible odds because they know that it is God who saves, not us.

That is how God’s kingdom works – and it finds its ultimate fulfilment as Jesus stands before Pilate.  My kingdom is not of this world means that it does not come in the world’s ways, or on the world’s terms – it does not originate from this world – even though it is fundamentally concerned with and about putting this world to rights.

Jesus is God’s King – and yet he goes to the cross – and it is on that cross that Jesus fought the battle that counts.

On the cross he defeated sin.

On the cross he defeated shame.

On the cross he defeated death.

So we do not need to fear what people say.  We do not need to fear what people can do.  We do not need to fear what Satan whispers in our ear about our worst failings.  Jesus has fought the battle.

Believe that.  Because if we don’t we’ll seek leaders who will do it for us.  We will seek leaders who defeat our sin by giving us a set of rules to keep.  We’ll seek leaders who will cover our shame and deal with our fear of people by telling us how to make the best of life now rather than following the path of a crucified King.

If you are involved in any sort of leadership today don’t be the sort of leader who wants to fight battles for people.  You don’t need to win any battles, or fix any problems – that is God’s job not yours.

And we all know that don’t we – so often the most important thing is to be heard, because we know that the problem doesn’t have a quick fix, but we need to know that somehow in the midst of everything Jesus is still in charge.

So – if you are a Christian leader your job is to point people to Jesus.  He is the one who can fix us, he is the one who fights our battles.

And he does that by coming as one of us, so he knows what it is like to live in this messed up, fallen world, he knows what it is like to feel hurt and pain.   He does that by living the perfect life we cannot live, and taking all our sin and shame on him at the cross – and then by rising to new life, blazing the trail to a world reborn, a world made new, a world we will one day be part of, if by God’s grace we keep on trusting his work and his fight for us.

And so as we move into the season of Advent, looking back to Jesus’ first coming, and forward to the day he will come again, we see that Jesus’ Kingship gives us a model for all leadership – self sacrificing, self giving service rather than grabbing for self and abusing others – so that as we lead we seek to follow that example, and as we look for others to lead us we look for those who show this Christ-like character.

And more than that we see that Jesus’ Kingship makes this leadership possible –
that by giving up
our desire to be in control,
our desire to be the one who fights the battles
and rescues others
and instead trusting Jesus to do those things

we are freed to lead by being signposts pointing to the King
who has won the battle
and rescued us,
and will one day restore all things.