Greetings

“John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from Him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood,”
Revelation‬ ‭1:4-5‬ ‭NIVUK

John starts his writings with an introduction explaining who the letter is for and who it is from. It is addressed to “the seven churches in the province of Asia“. They are all listed later in the book. And then we have a detailed explanation of the contributors to his Revelation. For me, John’s words describe the everlasting God, because His throne is mentioned. And then we have the seven spirits. That can only be the Holy Spirit, the number “seven” denoting perfection or completeness, as it does in other parts of the Bible. And then we have a reference to Jesus, acknowledging Him as the faithful witness behind John’s Revelation. For good measure, we then are reminded of His death and resurrection, and His status as Lord of all.

John starts with announcing God’s grace and peace to “you”, who are the churches, the fellowships that he founded or spiritually fathered in the “province of Asia”. Again, the number “seven” is mentioned, perhaps indicating that it applies to all churches everywhere. There is no better introduction than speaking out a blessing of grace and peace. Oh, don’t we need both these qualities in our war-ravaged world. We need all the grace and peace that God has for us. Starting a letter or, to bring it up to date, an email or message, using a greeting, especially one including the words “grace and peace” is not a usual convention these days. But what a wonderful way to start. At a stroke of the pen, or tap of a key, it sets the scene for what is to come in the communication. It elevates the subject matter into Heavenly places, away from the mundane worldliness burdening our lives. Perhaps I’ll break with convention and start to use it more in my emails and messages, smiling at the thought of the quizzical smiles that will appear as the missive is read.

John finishes his greeting with a dedication, “to Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood”. We must never forget to dedicate all we do in our service to God to Jesus and all He has done for us. His love knows no bounds. His willingness to die for each one of us echoes through past, present and future generations, bringing salvation to all.

Heavenly Father, we pray for more of Your presence in this sinful world, bringing grace and peace where there is anger and strife. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Final Blessings

“Peace be with you, dear brothers and sisters, and may God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you love with faithfulness. May God’s grace be eternally upon all who love our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Ephesians 6:23-24 NLT

Paul finished his letter to the Ephesian church with a blessing. There is something powerful about speaking out a blessing. A God-focused blessing does something profound in Heavenly realms. As it is uttered, angels pause in their duties, enjoying the moment. Demons in other places cringe as the words echo around their spiritual realms. The devil moves away to find an easier place to undertake his nefarious works. 

Paul’s blessing included three fundamental God-principles. Firstly His peace. In this war-torn world, Russia and Ukraine are, as I write, fighting a war I thought I would never see in my lifetime; peace is a precious commodity and one I pray for daily. A lack of peace destroys us. There is so much strife in our relationships, our families, our communities. Sometimes it is despairing to see so many people who seem to prefer a lack of peace in their lives. A God-peace is precious. It soothes our troubled souls. It brings relief to our mental conflicts and distress. So at every opportunity, we must, as peace-loving pilgrims, speak out God’s peace, avoiding conflict wherever possible.

Paul’s second blessing was to ask God, our Heavenly Father, to give us ”love with faithfulness”. And Paul reminded us that God is also the Father of Jesus, making Him our elder brother. How amazing is that! And we open up our spiritual receptors to receive God’s love, which we can then faithfully pass onto others. We feel God’s love penetrating deep within our spirits, melting away the tensions, softening any hard bits that are calloused by contact with the unloving world around us. Our neighbours, friends, and family members, may not be feeling God’s love for themselves, so we have the opportunity to share our messages of hope and love with them. It’s amazing to watch a hardened God-denier soften when told that God loves them regardless of their rejection of Him. 

Paul finishes with his third blessing. Grace. Eternal grace. God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense is a great way of remembering what He has done for us. God’s grace covers us. It manifests in love regardless of how we behave. Grace sees Christ’s righteousness when we deserve judgement. Grace pours from God’s throne without limit. And it is there for us whenever we are feeling a bit wobbly. When we are unsure and feeling a bit insecure. And it never ends – Paul prays that it will be eternally with us. 

I love the blessing that we find in Numbers 6:24-26. Let’s finish with it today.

May the Lord bless you and protect you
May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you
May the Lord show you His favour
And give you His peace.

Making Every Effort

Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future.
Ephesians‬ ‭4:3-4‬ ‭NLT‬‬

If there is one feature of the world in which we live, it is a lack of unity. I’m not just talking about those of us who claim the title of “Christian” – more of that in a moment – but I’m mentioning the desperate condition of a lack of unity between nations, between people groups, between political parties, even in our own families. One thing our enemy, the devil, excels at is the art of inducing disunity. He will sow seeds of division at every opportunity. So before we know it, a husband and wife will find themselves arguing over the most trivial thing. Family members will stop speaking to each other for years, often over no more than a misunderstanding. Or at the other end of the scale a nation will go to war with another, for a reason not immediately clear, or lost in history. And even within a country, cultural and racial differences can seriously divide a nation. We live in a world where unity is a rare quality, a dream from a fantasy world.

Christians seem to be no different to anyone else when it comes to unity. Strife builds up within a church congregation over their liturgies. Over which hymns or songs are to be used. Over which version of the Bible is the most suitable. Even over, as in the case in a local church, how the chairs are put out – some want the chairs set out in rows, others in a more intimate semi-circular configuration. And all of that is before we start on the lack of unity between different denominations. Even in the early church, sectarianism had to be dealt with – we see a hint of this in Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians 3. I wonder sometimes if God throws up His hands in horror at the behaviour of His children.

In our verse today, Paul wrote about the importance of unity. And he said we would have to work at it. Why?  Because we have no choice – Jesus is coming back one day for a holy and united Bride, the Church. Note the word “united”. That is because Jesus Christ is monogamous. He won’t be doing a Solomon, having so many wives that he almost lost count. The Bride is us. We are His unified Church, with everyone bound together in peace. This is our “glorious hope for the future”. Jesus said He will build His Church, and the “bricks” He uses will be us pilgrims, held together by peace.

So we make every effort to be unified and at peace with everyone. Not just when we feel like it. It may be hard work some days. Dealing with the sinful thoughts that rise up within us, not allowing them to be verbalised into disruption. Pride and other negative qualities can spring up within us like mushrooms and before we know it we’re involved in another schism. For today’s pilgrim, facing into another day on the road of life, making an effort to be at peace with those round us can be an insurmountable challenge. Particularly as many we meet, in our schools, workplaces, communities and families, won’t have the same desire. How many times have I thought that the person before me is “looking for a fight today”? We ask the grumpy amongst us, “did you get out of bed on the wrong side this morning?”. Sometimes we despair as we all lapse into an uneasy silence, peace an illusion, unity below the horizon of our expectations. But making an effort means loving the unlovely, issuing a kind word to the unkind, not answering back to a verbal tide of abuse, not reacting to a bad driver, allowing God to deal with unjust situations, and so on. Will it mean that we might find ourselves trodden on, or put down? Patronised or overlooked? Possibly. But as we “make every effort” God will do amazing things. Both in us and in others.

Hope in the Lord

“Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there. 
When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, 
and all their plans die with them. 
But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their Helper, 
whose hope is in the Lord their God.”
He made heaven and earth, the sea, 
and everything in them. 
He keeps every promise forever.”
Psalms‬ ‭146:3-6‬ ‭NLT‬‬

A charismatic figure emerges in a nation and people are attracted to him, electing him as their leader. A familiar situation repeated many times over in ages past. And there have been many shipwrecked nations because they followed a man instead of following God. Great initial expectations are replaced by disappointment and despair. As David, the Psalmist, advises – putting our confidence in a person will not be helpful. And he points out that the grandiose plans the leaders have will die with them. A human being does not have the capability to always deliver on their promises, to provide help for everyone who needs it. When I read these verses I am reminded of the promises made by aspiring politicians when they seek election. Promises that often evaporate and disappear once their office has been realised. 

Thankfully, there is a “but” in this Psalm. When we put our hope and trust in God, we are 100% assured that He will deliver what He promises. Verse 6 finishes, “He keeps every promise forever”. But the meaning the Psalmist implies behind the word “hope” isn’t for something that might or might not happen. Like we hope it won’t rain today. Or the childish hope that Santa will bring a new train set for Christmas. The word “hope” in this Psalm implies an assurance that through our faith we will realise what we “hope” for. The first verse in Hebrews 11 says, “Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.” 

So we align our lives to “the God of Israel”, our wonderful Creator God. He isn’t just a local “god” hovering over a nation state in the Middle East. As the verse says, “He made heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them”. Because of His credentials as the Creator of everything, we can delight in our relationship with Him; in the knowledge that He helps us, replacing despair of human shortcomings with joy in His God-comings. Powerful people don’t make it onto the significance scale when God is around. 

God’s Word, the Bible, is full of His promises. Too many to list here. But just one has popped into my mind this morning. “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” ‭‭Philippians‬ ‭4:6-7‬ ‭NLT‬‬. Having the peace of God within us in a world lacking peace is a promise God will never fail to deliver.

Hard Work and Worry

“It is useless for you to work so hard
    from early morning until late at night,
anxiously working for food to eat;
    for God gives rest to his loved ones.”
Psalm 127:2 NLT

Another gem from Solomon’s pen. Our capitalistic and materialistic society is based to a large extent on greed, because we are encouraged by our “work ethic” to get better paid jobs, or work longer hours. And by so doing we end up earning more money which we can then spend on more “stuff”. A cynical point of view? Perhaps. But Solomon was pointing out that we sometimes get our priorities wrong, becoming driven by anxiety, just to obtain food to eat. His was a different, poorer, society of course, and food was a basic commodity often in short supply. But we so often, in these modern and enlightened days, hassle along, driven by our own efforts, instead of realigning our priorities to God’s ways. 

Jesus picked up this theme in Matthew 6:25-27, “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” On my early morning prayer walk today, just as it was getting light, hundreds of geese flew overhead, silhouetted and just visible against the greyness of an overcast sky. The ragged V’s, the honking and squeaking. A corporate outing of beautiful birds heading for their next feeding grounds. Jesus was right – their Heavenly Father created them to heed His voice about the supply of food. And Jesus brought into His teaching the concept that we have our priorities all wrong. Instead of pursuing the business of our amazing Creator God, enjoying the abundant life that He has provided for us, we worry and hassle after more mundane things, like what we will eat or what we will wear. Jesus said we are “far more valuable” to God than birds so why do we worry? 

God has promised us rest. Hebrews 4 starts, “God’s promise of entering his rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it.” But what is the rest Solomon mentioned, and the writer of the Hebrews epistle alludes to? The rest promised by God to Christians is in two parts – the peace of our relation with God in this life, and eternal life with Him in the life to come. So when we worry we are effectively preferring to trust our own efforts, thereby rejecting God’s offer of rest. 

So we work hard at the tasks God has given us – no place for laziness in His Kingdom – but within the context of experiencing His rest at the same time. Our priorities are clear. And peace descends, flushing away the cares of life.

Peace in Jerusalem

“Pray for peace in Jerusalem. 
May all who love this city prosper. 
O Jerusalem, may there be peace within your walls 
and prosperity in your palaces. 
For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, 
“May you have peace.” 
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, 
I will seek what is best for you, O Jerusalem.”
Psalms‬ ‭122:6-9‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Why should I pray for peace in Jerusalem? After all, I don’t live there; in fact I live a long way from it. The city of Jerusalem appears in news reports every now and then, usually in a context of war, strife and civil unrest. The alternative name, Zion, is a name that invokes hatred in other parts of the world. Surely this is a place to avoid.

The Psalmist probably intended for his thoughts and prayers to apply to peace and prosperity in his society; Jerusalem was often the focus of strife even all those years ago, but when it enjoyed times of peace the people flourished. So he prayed for peace in Jerusalem, much as we would pray for peace in our lands, in our societies. A land at peace flourishes.

If we transpose the theme here into spiritual terms, we are very much a part “of the house of the Lord our God“. And there will come a new Jerusalem, that we read about in Revelation 21 and 22. In John 14, Jesus encouraged His disciples that He was going ahead to prepare a place for them. So as Christians we have a very strong connection to Jerusalem. One day, in its reincarnation, we will be part of it. And we pray for peace to be there, both now and in the future. For the sake of the family of God in all its facets, in all its peoples, whatever nation or ethnic groups they come from. As we pray, God’s peace permeates all levels of His family, all over the world. Persecuted Christians in North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever. And our prayers will lift the yoke of hardship from their shoulders, bringing to them “what is best“.

As a pilgrim through this life, we trudge on, come what may. But ever in our gaze is the New Jerusalem, the Heavenly home of our Lord and God. And somehow as we lift our eyes toward it, our steps are lifted. Our spirits are encouraged. Our journey becomes a concatenation of joy and hope, faith and trust, peace and prosperity. And as we meet fellow travellers we share the “peace of Jerusalem” with them. Enriching their lives as we have been enriched “seeking what is best for you, O Jerusalem“.

Peace

“I am tired of living among people who hate peace. 
I search for peace; but when I speak of peace, 
they want war!
Psalms‬ ‭120:6-7‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Pick up a newspaper or switch on the News at 10 and I can guarantee two things – most of what we see or read will be bad news, with very little good news, and there will be news reports about wars, bloodshed and strife between nations. The Psalmist was fed up with negatives. Most of us, I’m sure, have been around negative people. Ever been involved in a conversation like this?

Me: “It’s nice seeing some sunshine today.”
You: “Ah, but I think it will rain later”.

Perhaps the Psalmist was involved in a conversation like this.

Psalmist: “Both those nations have a claim on that piece of land but it’s far better to negotiate a
peaceful settlement.
People: “That’s rubbish – we don’t care what they say or claim – if they don’t back off we’ll go to war.”

If that was the situation, then the Psalmist must have been despairing. I can relate to where the Psalmist is coming from when he talks about being “tired of living among people who hate peace.” 

Jesus taught about peace. In Matthew 5:9 we read, “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.” Perhaps one interpretation of this verse is about the responsibility God’s people have in promoting peace. Conflict is never far away from us, in our families, amongst our friends, in our communities and nations, so perhaps we need to be pourers of oil on troubled waters, helping to put things right, helping to restore relationships. 

But there is another peaceful place to be and that is in our relationship with God. James 4:4 highlights the issue of how we war against God. It says, “Don’t you realise that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God”. He goes on to say in verse 8, “Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world”. 

It might be appropriate to consider God saying our verse from Psalm 120 today. God’s love for us is such that he yearns for us to be at peace with Him, but when we go off into preferring a sinful world to our relationship with Him, we are effectively declaring war on God Himself. A scary place to be, folks! 

At this time of year, we consider the Prince of Peace, Jesus Himself. The Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 9:6 shines like a beacon of peace in the warring verses around it. And the following verse gives us hope, “His government and its peace will never end…”. We have read the last chapter in the book – peace wins in the end.

National Security

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.
Psalm 20:7-8 NIVUK

What do we trust in? These verses would seem to imply some form of warlike background. National thought would tend to focus on weaponry, and we can look back in our lifetimes at the technological development and manufacture of arms of different complexities, all in the name of “defence”. A race builds up between nations to produce the most effective weapon in the hope that it would discourage potential attackers from going to war. Such thinking shapes a nation’s foreign policies and strategic alliances. And all this with the knowledge that nations and civilisations rise and fall, and have done ever since history started to be recorded. In the end weaponry doesn’t seem to make much difference.  Whatever happened to the Persian, Assyrian, Greek and Roman empires, after all? So the Psalmist, David, was quite right when he said, “They are brought to their knees and fall”. 

However, God’s people “trust in the name of the Lord“. But what does that mean in practice? Does it, as some have concluded, mean that a nation should become peopled by passivists, with no money being spent on weapons of any type? Instead should they adopt a dependency on God, a nation of God-believers who totally trust in Him for their protection? A nice Utopian thought, but one that, sadly, has never been achieved in history. 

But before we continue to develop this line of argument, what can we conclude from what David was saying in these verses? Back to our starting question, “What do we trust in”? What does trusting “in the name of the Lord our God” look like in our age? We live in a sinful world and as God’s people we have choices to make. We are richly blessed with His Word, the Bible, and 2 Timothy 3:16 famously says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In the Bible we can find the guidance and encouragement we need, but we have to believe, and live it, wholeheartedly. And trust that if God said it, then we must believe it. So trusting in God infers a life style of dependency on Him. That is not to say that we abdicate our own responsibilities for earning a living, looking after our families and so on, lazily depending on God for what we should be doing. But it does mean we must partner with God in everything we do, recognising of course that He is the Senior Partner in the relationship. 

But back to our national defence. Personally, I think that the man-God partnership involves at least some national responsibility for looking after the security of the people living within its society. That may involve the research and production of weaponry and the development of strategic alliances with other like-minded nations. It may also include God’s people in a military or policing role. And God’s people must pray. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 reads, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

Isaiah wrote down an “in the last days” prophecy which we can find in Isaiah 2.  Verse 4 reads, 

He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

Down through the mists of time, Isaiah could see a day coming when there would be the rule and reign of the Kingdom of God. If we are troubled about war and long for a universal peace, perhaps our prayer should be, “Come Lord Jesus”. Amen?

Better Times

Many people say, “Who will show us better times?” Let your face smile on us, Lord. You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine. In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe.
Psalm 4:6-8 NLT

Why is it that we are always looking for better times? Always striving for something better than what we already have. The television constantly bombards us with strident demands to get this gadget, or that new car, a cord-less jet washer, a hi-tech wonder mattress, or try a new type of food and so on. An endless list of non-essentials. In our comfortable lives we are apparently unsatisfied, or so the media would like to tell us. 

In the Psalmist David’s days, the poor people really did need better times. Subsistence farming was precarious, to say the least, and a bad harvest could result in starvation. The people of that day must always have been yearning for better days, where they could accumulate something to tide them over when times got hard. The prospect of God smiling upon them gave them a picture of benevolence, of a gracious and generous God, always ready and willing to lavish upon them all they needed in bountiful supply. But David pointed out to them something better. A life of “greater joy” because God’s love was sufficient. A life of safety was there “under the shadow of His wings”. Joy and peace were, and still are, eternal.

But back to 21st Century Britain. Currently we are in the grip of rising energy costs, of food and fuel shortages caused by a lack of transport drivers. And people are anxious. Wondering if they can afford to heat their homes, or obtain their favourite foods or a supply of toilet rolls. Wondering about “better times”. Anxiety about the future drives the conversations in the pub, at the bus stop, in the street. I don’t know about you, but the God I know promised to meet all my “needs”. Not my “wants”, I should add. Not luxuries such as that “useful” gadget or that new car. 

As recorded in Matthew 6:31-34, Jesus said, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”. In other words, get your priorities right. Focus on God’s kingdom, living a righteous life, and consequently allow Him to supply what we need. As for striving for better times, we need to follow the example of the Apostle Paul. He said in his Epistle to the Philippians 4:11-13, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  That about sums it up. If we can find contentment in our lives through our relationship with God, then we have found something special – the “greater joy” David was talking about in his Psalm. In that place we will find peace and a sound sleep, both qualities that escape so many. Let’s not be in their number.

All We Need

“How precious is Your unfailing love, O God! All humanity finds shelter in the shadow of Your wings. You feed them from the abundance of Your own house, letting them drink from Your river of delights. For You are the fountain of life, the light by which we see.” Psalms‬ ‭36:7-9‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Psalm 36 is so full of information relevant to life. In these three verses, the Psalmist responds in worship to God by listing His provisions – love, shelter, food and drink, light, and even life itself. The basics of human need. And the removal of any one of these will, at best, stunt, and at worse, destroy, our human life.

In the society in which we live we take so much for granted. This becomes clearer in a time of a national disaster, such as a war, or, more topically, the current pandemic. In times like these people become rather insecure as events outside their, or their country’s, control take hold. And people who don’t know God cast around for answers, for help, not knowing what to do or what the future holds.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made this statement, “that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45). Jesus was talking about something we call “Common Grace”. God loves all mankind, even those people who are against Him, or who deny that He exists, not just His own people. He provides the good gifts listed in Psalm 36 to everyone regardless of whether or not they know, or even want to know, Him.

But as God’s people we know that all that we need for life comes from our wonderful Heavenly Father. And we must never take Him or His gifts for granted. We have a message of hope that we can share with those around us with thankful hearts. And dispense the “peace of God that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) to a world in crisis.