Today is Christmas Eve Eve: the night before the night before Christmas.
Husbands who are more organised than most will use today to buy their wives a Christmas present, rather than relying on the last minute rush tomorrow.
Children are looking forward to Christmas, but can’t ramp up the excitement to Christmas Eve levels because it’s very difficult to sustain it for too long.
Television schedulers want to put programmes and films on that are Christmassy, but they will save the best until Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
It’s not a particularly special day, is it? It’s something of an anticlimax before the main event (if that is possible).
I wonder if you feel like 23rd December. Expectations, hopes and dreams for 2015 have not been realised yet. You’ve been waiting for life to improve, and so far things have not got better. You are anticipating that the good times are just around the corner, but the corner doesn’t seem to get any closer. It’s always Christmas Eve Eve.
Or maybe that’s not you, but I am sure you know people who feel that way.
I can’t promise you that I know when (or even if) things will improve. But the experience of Christians through two millennia is that Jesus is with us as much in disappointment, unfulfilled ambitions and dark times as he is in celebrations, achievements and the brightest moments. Perhaps (if possible) moreso.
He promised his friends and followers (and we can be both) that he would give them his Spirit as a ‘paraclete’ (that’s the English version of a Greek word). There are many nuances to that word – it is someone on whom you lean for strength and support as you limp along; it is someone who offers you wise words and guidance; it is someone who comforts and uplifts; it is someone who speaks up for you (and advocate); it is an encourager.
If you want to see what that looks like, he is as Jesus was with the poor, downtrodden, oppressed, ignored, forgotten, unhappy, struggling people of his day. And because he is with all believers in the same way, he can also inspire people to do those things and be those things too.
You can see it in action in this YouTube clip of Derek Redmond at the Barcelona Olympics. The other person is his Dad.
For whom can you be a paraclete this Christmas Eve Eve?
I was listening to the radio recently and the interviewer was asking his expert interviewee about the financial crisis in Greece. He asked the expert what surprises lay in store as the process unfolded.
To be fair the expert was not fazed by such a daft question and pointed out that by their nature surprises were impossible to predict. Then he said that we had to expect the unexpected.
I know that the phrase is used to encourage people to be ready for anything but when you look at the bland meaning of the phrase it’s rather silly isn’t it? Unexpected things are, by their nature, not something we can expect. If we expect them they cease to be unexpected.
We say all sorts of things without thinking them through:
“Don’t come running to me if you fall off and break your leg.”
“Close your mouth when you eat your food.”
And so on…
Sadly we also say hurtful and cruel things without thinking them through. Sometimes, if we speak reactively, we can say things that we instantly regret, but we can’t unsay them. Sometimes we might even intentionally say things that we know will hurt.
And we learn to expect the unexpected. We learn to anticipate that someone will not respond well to a suggestion that we make, so we hit them back first by getting in a pre-emptive strike.
Jesus suggests that what comes out of our mouth is based on our heart (Luke 6):
43 ‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.44 Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers.45 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
So if we want to be more careful about what we say we need to ask for God’s Spirit’s help with our heart, not our mouth. We all need a change of heart.
As I looked out of our kitchen window this morning I noticed lots of tiny cobwebs on the lawn, made visible by the dew that had settled on them overnight. I have not seen so many before. The photos here only show one in relative close up and a few clustered together, but there are lots of them all over the lawn. There are some very busy little spiders in our garden.
But I don’t think they will be catching many flies today. Not because I am mean and am going to cut the grass, but because the flies will be able to see where the webs are. Usually the fibres are gossamer thin and you only know they are there when you land on them (if you are a fly) or walk into them and get a face full. Today the flies know all about the webs and won’t be going anywhere near them.
Wouldn’t it be so much easier if the temptations and ‘traps’ we fall into were clearly marked? Wouldn’t it be so much better for us if they had flashing neon signs attached (the equivalent of dew on a web?) saying “warning!” That way we would not fall into them.
Except that God has provided us with a warning system. It’s called a conscience. And his Spirit sounds that alarm when we are in danger of falling into a temptation trap. That’s how he answers the prayer ‘lead us not into temptation…’ Our problem is not that there is no dew on the web (or neon sign) so much as that we sometimes are not paying attention to God or listening to our conscience, and sometimes we just simply want to be disobedient.
Unlike when a fly lands in a web, however, there are no traps, temptations or messes that God can’t retrieve us from if we turn back to him. He’s so gracious that his response isn’t “I warned you didn’t I?” – it’s “welcome back, let’s make a fresh start.”
Today I say goodbye to an old friend. They have been a part of my life since my childhood and for the most part they have been a blessing. They have shared mealtimes with me, they have even been there when I have needed to grit my teeth. But recently I have been fed up to the back teeth with them. Or, more precisely, with it.
Today I will have a troublesome back tooth extracted. It was damaged years ago by an impacted wisdom tooth and has been persevering since then, aided by dentists, until it has reached a point where it is no longer viable. In fact it is a liability. Cold food in particular sends an electric shock of pain shooting out of the tooth. It needs to come out.
As I wait for to go to the dentist it strikes me that all of us have habits, behaviour and (to use the Biblical word) sins that need to be extracted. We can leave them there but they will simply cause us problems and pain – and perhaps cause others around us pain too. Thankfully God’s Spirit is gentler than a dentist and doesn’t use sedatives. But we have to want him to help us, and we have to help him to help us.
If our problem is anger we can help by trying to take a long cleansing breath before responding to someone or something.
If our problem is gossip we can help by resolving to pause before we speak and ask whether what we are about to share really is ‘for prayer’.
If our problem is lust we can use the ‘off’ button on remote controls.
And so on. You know your own weaknesses. How can you help God to help you?
As I say goodbye to this old friend that has become painful, I pray that God’s Spirit will also help me with extractions so I might become a better free sample of Jesus.
Yesterday my computer decided to go slow. It was running well below optimal and I could not work out why. I was not running lots of programs, I was not asking it to do anything particularly difficult. I was stumped.
Until I saw a little icon in the system tray (that’s the bit in the bottom right of a windows screen). It was telling me that there were some updates that the computer needed to do. Bless it’s little cotton socks it was trying to download almost 400MB of updates in the background so as not to disturb me. However by trying not to disturb me it disturbed me. On their own none of the updates were particularly large but there were loads of them: hence the large amount of data being downloaded.
A thought occurred to me as I decided to close everything else down and let the computer get on with it: sometimes when God’s Spirit is at work within us he is at work ‘in the background’ – subtly, gently, imperceptibly changing us to become more like the people God created us to be. But those gradual cumulative updates make a big difference to us over time. It’s not just the passage of time and gaining of experience that helps to transform us, if we ask him to envelope into God’s Spirit changes our operating system, installs new features and enhances our performance.
A further thought occurred to me this morning as I reflected on the size of the cumulative updates. My first computer was a Sinclair ZX81. It ran Sinclair BASIC, operated in black and white on a TV screen, and had a massive 1K of memory. Programs had to be loaded via a cassette tape recorder. I can remember being thrilled when I acquired a 16K RAM pack: that gave me so much more scope not only to run amazing programs such as 3-D Monster Maze but to write my own programs. I wrote a program illustrating the different badges in the Boys Brigade awards scheme (for which I was awarded a badge) that even had a little animated Boys Brigade lad who scrolled across the screen and saluted. I couldn’t imagine ever needing anything more.
Then I was bought a Sinclair ZX Spectrum (48K and colour!). This was the pinnacle of computing. It still ran Sinclair BASIC but now I had so many more commands at my disposal, so much more memory, and enhanced graphics with colours. If you have ever owned a ZX Spectrum and have played Elite you will know just how amazing that little computer was. (If you haven’t you have missed out). I couldn’t imagine ever needing anything more.
When I started at Bible College I bought an Amstrad word processor. It had its own monochrome green screen, a separate keyboard and printer, and even saved files onto discs. It had 256K of memory which I upgraded to 512K! I couldn’t imagine ever needing anything more.
Then a friend of mine at college told me he was selling his 286 PC which had its own colour monitor, 4 MB of RAM and a 40 MB hard disk. It was running some newfangled operating system called Windows 3.1 and had icons you clicked on the screen with something called a mouse. I bought it off him and bought a new form of printer called an inkjet printer that produced wonderful quality. I couldn’t imagine ever needing anything more.
Since then I have had a succession of computers. Each one has been faster, more impressive, has had more features, has had newer operating systems, and so on until I get to a computer that downloads 400 MB of data just to update itself. And each time I have thought to myself that I couldn’t imagine needing anything more. Until a few years down the line that computer has struggled to cope with newer software and the need to do things faster and more complex ways.
What is the point of telling you this computer history? Well, other than giving me a nostalgia buzz it strikes me that if I had remained content with my Sinclair ZX81 and really couldn’t imagine needing anything more I would have missed out on so much. Sometimes we can resist change because we don’t like the idea of change, or because we are comfortable with the way things are. But change is not always bad. The changes God wants to bring about within us are for our benefit and to help us to become more like the people he has created us to become. Why resist that?
This week I am preparing some sessions for a Church day away on Saturday. We will be looking at the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), so that is in my mind at the moment.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
We are told that we should consume at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day as part of a healthy diet. Spiritually speaking we cannot bear the 9 different sorts of fruit unless we have consumed that too. We cannot give what we have not received.
[mixed metaphor alert]
There is an old joke about a man who was speeding at 100mph down the middle of the road. When stopped by the police he said that he was simply obeying what it said on his driving licence: “tear along the dotted line.”
The joke may be corny, but the middle of the road is sometimes the best place to be. Sometimes I have swerved to one side of the road and driven into the ditch: speaking of these as a set of self-improvement targets: attributes to work hard at. At other times, in order to avoid that ditch I have swerved too far off the other side of the road and suggested that as this is God’s work we can’t do anything to cultivate them. But while both are true, the right course is down the middle between them.
We need to pay our part in the process, but it is God’s Spirit at work in us who bears the fruit. We can no more force ourselves to be more loving than a gardener can force a plant to bear fruit. But (like a gardener) we can make sure that we are ready to bear fruit, we can tend the soil, we can ask God to change us, especially where we are particularly deficient.
A couple of verses further on Paul urges us to ‘keep in step with the Spirit.’ We tend the soil by our intention to walk closely with God, to live by his rhythm, consciously to align ourselves with him, prayerfully to listen to him and follow closely. Keeping in step means that we are in close contact, our lives are prayerful, our Bibles are well-worn, we see all that we do as an act of worship to Jesus.
I have a rechargeable neurostimulator implanted into my body in order to combat a chronic migraine and once a week (roughly) I have to recharge myself in order that it does not run down completely. The nature of the equipment means that if it runs down completely it has to be re-booted (no, I don’t press ctrl+alt+del) and there is no guarantee that it can be. If that happens twice it is highly unlikely that it can be re-booted. Three times and it’s dead.
That puts a certain amount of pressure on me to ensure that I don’t allow the battery to run down. I like to keep it at a minimum of 50% charge in order to give myself a large margin for error. When I mention to people that I have to recharge the unit almost invariably I get comedic responses about plugging myself into the mains, and questions about the location of the socket (often the navel is suggested). But, as you can see from the photo, the recharging process is by induction charging – the same sort of process as an electric toothbrush. I can get on with other things and even walk around as the recharging unit itself gets recharged so I am not trailing cables around behind me. I can’t move too fast or be too energetic as the recharging pad slides off, but it could be a lot more restrictive. It’s not the sort of thing I am likely to be seen doing in public – it might look like I have something explosive strapped to me, or that I am wearing a gun holster – but I am happy wearing it around the house.
When was the last time you recharged? We have just had Pentecost Sunday when we remembered how God sent his Spirit on the first Christians in a new way, and how the same Spirit of God fills us. But it is not a ‘once off’ event, it is something we need to do regularly. We need to come back to God and ask his Spirit to refill us, to re-empower us for service, to keep us close to God. I can’t remember who said it, but I can remember being told that someone once said that they need to be re-filled with the Spirit of God on a regular basis because they leak. I think I know what they meant, but actually I find the analogy of recharging more helpful (well I would, wouldn’t I, given what I am doing right now).
But even ‘recharging’ is an inadequate metaphor. Because God’s Spirit is not something we plug in to receive, he is God in us, God with us. God’s Spirit is God, not an object or a power source. We need to renew and refresh our relationship with God regularly because, just like the people of Israel in the Old Testament, we frequently forget his presence with us, we break our side of the covenant relationship, we fall short of God’s standards.
In his grace God’s Spirit is constantly with us, and will always offer forgiveness, reconciliation, fresh starts and strengthens our resolve to do better. Those cannot be offered by anything or anyone else.
Be blessed, be a blessing
Two boys were being chased by the police after shoplifting from a local store. To hide the evidence they swallowed what they had stolen – some fireworks and some rechargeable batteries.
Police caught them. They charged one and let the other one off.
I have an artist’s mannequin in my study. I call him ‘Manny’ and use him sometimes if I want to take a photograph to illustrate something (usually in a PowerPoint to accompany a sermon), when I can’t find a relevant royalty-free photograph elsewhere. This is him playing ‘Hide and Seek’. Actually it was meant to portray praying, but it looks more like he is counting ready to go and find his friends.
If you look closely in the picture you will see that there is a human finger in the background. The problem with Manny is that he is cheap. I bought him in one of those discount bookshops that sell lots of other gubbins as well, for just a few pounds. He is quite capable of standing in a pose with his arms extended, and even his legs in running poses, but if I try to put him in a more complex pose (such as above) the springiness in his joints means that his arms simply twang back to extended mode. The ‘praying’ pose above is the best I could manage as a ‘hands together’ pose was impossible. I have experimented with discretely placed elastic bands and masking tape, and they work for some poses, but sometimes he needs a helping hand (literally).
If you think of the pose in the picture here as ‘prayer’, then it seems to me that there’s a bit of a parable. I too need a helping hand when I pray. We all do. I have often described prayer as a conversation between us and God, and in many ways it is. But to limit it to that is to limit our experience and expectation of prayer. It is a collaboration between us and God. The relationship between conversation and collaboration in prayer is the same as the relationship between looking at a painting and painting a painting, or between sitting on a piece of furniture and making a piece of furniture. It is not that the looking or sitting are wrong, but there is so much more that can be expressed in painting and making.
God’s Spirit is with us. He is constantly prompting and nudging us, and if we are prepared to listen to him and respond we will find that our praying becomes more creative and (I hate myself for using this word) ‘organic’ – it grows and responds to our environment.
We see a van on the road and God’s Spirit reminds us to pray for someone we know who drives a van and is in particular need. We hear a siren and the Spirit prompts us pray for those involved in that emergency. We receive some good news and the Spirit prompts us to pray a prayer of thanks. God’s Spirit puts someone’s name into our mind and we pray for them, only for us to find out later that they needed prayer at exactly that time. We listen to a worship song and God’s Spirit helps us to turn it into our own thoughts and words about Jesus. We come across something in the news that is so horrific that we find it difficult to articulate the revulsion we feel and God’s Spirit interprets those deep feelings as prayers. We find ourself in the depths of despair and God’s Spirit offers our despair to God as a cry for help.
That might sound rather idealistic and pious, but all of those are my own personal experiences, plus lots more besides. This happens when I am close to God, when I am more in harmony with him, when I am regularly reading my Bible to meet with him (as opposed to when I am preparing a sermon, when I also want to meet with him but it’s not for my own personal relationship). When I am regularly praying consciously God’s Spirit is able to provoke me through my subconscious as well. My praying becomes more natural, more responsive, more impromptu and less rigid, less of a routine, less of a (if I am honest) chore. I find my prayers are more in harmony with God’s will as I am more in tune with him.
Please do not get me wrong, I am not perfect at praying. I don’t always get it right. I don’t always experience praying in the way that I have described above. But I want to. I have experienced Technicolor (R) and monochrome no longer satisfies me. And I think that is part of the key. Having experienced more of God in prayer I want to experience even more of him in prayer. But it has to start with my desire to want more. When I do, he gives me a helping hand and off we go again.
I had an interesting and helpful conversation with someone this morning following yesterday’s bloggage. They helped me realise that I needed to expand a bit more on what I had written, so consider this the sequel.
I finished yesterday by saying that Jesus offers us life in all its fullness as the Creator’s intended answer to our search for happiness. I realised after this morning’s conversation that it looks like I meant that God was offering us happiness after all. I am sorry if that is the impression I left you with (all I can say in my defence is that it was blogged on a phone on a train).
I am sorry too if you have ever got the impression from me that if you become a Christian your life will be sorted and there will never be any problems. That’s not the message of Jesus. He told us that his followers can expect opposition, even persecution. He told us that we should pick up our cross daily and follow him. He told people not to worry about tomorrow … “each day has enough trouble of its own.” He taught us to pray “deliver us from evil” and “don’t allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear.”
‘Life in all its fullness’ is a life lived in God’s presence, filled with God’s Spirit, seeking to live in a way that honours him as a follower of Jesus. As wonderful as that is, and as amazing and positive as that is, fullness of life also includes the pain, grief, difficulties, frustrations, confusion and anxieties that life can throw in our direction. It includes all of life, knowing that God is with us in it. It includes those moments when we can look back and see that God really was in it with us when we wondered if we were alone. It includes those times when we were clinging on to our faith by our fingernails. It is life lived in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Following Jesus is no guarantee of an easy life (perhaps it’s a guarantee that life will not be easy) but it is life as it was created to be. It’s not all doom and gloom, there is also brightness, joy, peace, laughter, fun and so much more – don’t read this and think that it’s all bad. God is with us by his Spirit in the light and the dark, in the laughter and the tears, in the joy and the pain.
Doesn’t it strike you as odd? In the midst of one of the most profound and exciting theological documents ever written we find an admission of failure by the author.
I am talking about Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is a theological gold mine, with a rich seam of gold sprinkled with priceless jewels of truth about Jesus.
And then we find this:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am!
It’s Romans chapter 7 (NIV). What was it that motivated Paul to write this very personal admission? If you read the preceding verses we see that Paul is talking about our new life in Christ. In that life we are no longer bound by the law (by which he means the codified rules and regulations of the Old Testament and the assorted regulations that had grown up around them) but we live in freedom because of Jesus. Paul is not denigrating the Old Testament law but he recognises that all it could do is bring an awareness that we have fallen short of the standards.
It seems to me that as he was dictating this letter he realised the truth that whilst we have freedom from the effects of sin in Christ and God’s Spirit is at work in us to transform us and make us more and more like Jesus, we are also prone to falling short of God standards (and the law reminds us of that). As a Christian leader, looked up to and perhaps even revered by many people, Paul was perhaps more acutely aware of his own weakness and failure. When people are put on pedestals one of the problems is that they are slightly further out of reach and imperfections and blemishes are less obvious.
Perhaps this is Paul’s attempt at ensuring that people did not put him on a pedestal and an attempt at showing everyone that even Paul struggled with sin in his life. He did not deserve to be put on a pedestal and certainly did not want to be.
If we are honest, especially those of us in Christian leadership, we all have the ability to present a shiny veneer to those around us that suggests we are sorted, close to perfection, super spiritual believers. And if we are really honest we will admit that these verses from Romans 7 resonate with us. All of us are prone to falling short of God standards. Some of us come up with new and original sins, others of us return to the same old sins.
So what’s the antidote? What are we to do about this? Well for one thing I am sure that Paul was not content with the status quo. You can see that in the last verse above where he declares himself to be a wretched man. Sin becomes more of a problem if we become used to it, are content with it, and it doesn’t bother us any more. Wrestling with sin is at least a step in the right direction because it shows that we do not like that aspect of our lives. This is not something we can do on our own, even though we wrestle. This is what Paul continues to say in the verses immediately following those I have quoted above:
Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
8 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (NIV)
I think the chapter divisions in our Bibles sometimes mask the truth. if we are reading the Bible we can often stop at the end of a chapter that when Paul wrote the letter there were no chapter divisions and his train of thought did not stop at the end of what we call chapter 7. That’s what the therefore is there for. We cannot sort out our propensity to sin and feel condemned by the law on our own. But God has done something about it.
We need not feel condemnation if we are “in Christ Jesus” because he has sorted out the condemnation of sin (the law has been fulfilled, the sentence served, guilt is unnecessary) and he gives us his Spirit to help us to sin less. I believe that the Spirit joins us in our wrestling and helps us by nudging our conscience, reminding us of Scripture, helping us to think about what Jesus might do and so on. But whilst he can help us, he does not take control of us. We still have to make the choice and still act on that decision.
So let’s have a little Romans 7 honesty and recognise that we all wrestle with the sin in our lives, nobody should be put on a pedestal, and pray for one another that we will listen to and receive the help of God’s spirit each day in our wrestling.