Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women

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Luke 1:1-38

Gabriel says to Mary:  “have gratia plena!”  Or at least, that was Jerome’s Latin translation from around 400AD.  In English it would read “Hail Mary, full of grace.”  But that’s not a good translation of Luke 1:28.

Jerome’s version sounds as though Mary is a repository of some spiritual substance called grace.  And if we believed that then we might seek deposits of “grace” from the blessed virgin.  Yet that is not right.

It is right to call her “The Blessed Virgin Mary”.  After all, Gabriel does:

“Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee:  blessed art thou among women.”  (Luke 1:28)

It is right to call her “Mary, the mother of God.”  She does indeed bear the Son who is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:6).

But it’s not right to call on her as some storehouse of heavenly blessing. Mary is not full of grace, she is graced by God – “highly favoured” as the KJV has it.  If we’re looking for a Storehouse of divine blessing we should look to the Child who she carries.  He is Grace Himself – the One in Whom is all heavenly blessing (Ephesians 1:3).

But the reason Christ can offer this grace to the world has everything to do with the virgin Mary.  You see Mary’s virginity is vital to Christ being full of grace for the world.

Mary’s virginity is triply underlined in Luke 1.  She is twice called a virgin before she is even named (Luke 1:27).  And when she’s told she is to carry the Christ-child she exclaims:  “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”  (Luke 1:34)

The virgin birth is a non-negotiable of the Christian faith.  And this is not simply the assertion of a biblicist.  The logic of the gospel demands this supernatural conception.

You see, Mary’s child is not the result of human reproduction.  We did not produce the Messiah.  He was a pure gift:

“Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.”  (Isaiah 9:6)

And this Gift from on high is something completely new.  This child is not the son of men – He is the Son of God!  He takes a full and perfect humanity from Mary.  But He is the true and eternal Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary (as the creeds say).

This is so important, because this world is full of the sons of men.  And that, really, is our problem.

Luke chapter 3 ends by running us through a potted history of humanity. From Christ back to Adam, Luke charts our family tree as a succession of men who give rise to more men.  But at the top of the tree we find something curious:

“Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.”  (Luke 3:38)

Everyone else has been described as the son of a man.  But in the history of the world there are two exceptions – one is Jesus, the other is Adam. When Adam was brought into existence, his family tree was just him and the Lord God who formed him.  He could be described as a son of God.

Think of him, standing alone in the garden of Eden:  All of humanity was in him.  Even Eve herself was in Adam and came out of Adam.  And between them came the whole world.

Therefore, when Adam fell, he took the human race with him.  And ever since, humanity has been born in Adam – born into his estrangement and sin.

So the last thing we need is a Messiah who simply belongs to that slow-march towards the grave.  What we really need is something new.  We need the original Son of God.  We need Him to come as the Second Adam, the Man from heaven.  We need Him to be born of a virgin to restart the human race in Himself.

And just as we were born into Adam’s old humanity, so through Christ we are born again into His new humanity.

As the carol says:  “Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” (Hark the Herald!)

That’s the meaning of Christmas, and it’s the virgin birth that guarantees it.  So don’t Hail Mary as full of grace.  But thank God for her.  Through her came the Second Adam, who invites the whole world into His new humanity.  This is the fullness of grace that we all need.  And it’s the fullness of grace which Christmas brings.

Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins

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Matthew 1:18-25

Both Joseph and Mary were given strict instructions regarding the name of the Christ-child (Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31).  Angels had to come – they moved heaven to earth! – just to tell them the vital importance of being “Jesus.” Think of all the advice these first-time parents might have received… “You’re bearing the Son of God, don’t drop Him!”  But nothing like that. The one thing they need to know is how to call Him, that is, how to think of Him, speak of Him, identify Him.

And what is His name?  Joseph is told:

“Thou shalt call his name JESUS:  for he shall save his people from their sins.”  (Matthew 1:21)

The name “Jesus” is the same as the name “Joshua”.  (It’s from the same Hebrew word, but translated into Greek and then Anglicized).  And just as Joshua led the people out of the wilderness and into the promised land, so Jesus would lead His people out of sin and into God’s presence.  The name “Joshua” (or “Jesus”) means “the LORD is salvation.”

So we learn three things from the naming of Jesus:

First, we learn what kind of LORD we worship.

Jesus reveals God Most High.  He is the way and the truth and the life, we only come to the Father through Him (John 14:6).  So we don’t simply learn about Christ’s nature when we study His name.  His name reveals the depths of the divine life.

Therefore, what does it mean to say that the LORD is salvation.   It means that His very nature is a saving movement towards us.  To know the LORD is to know Him in His gracious approach to sinners.  The heart-beat of God is rescue:  the LORD is salvation.

And who could deny this when we look to the baby Jesus.  From heaven to earth, from a throne to a manger, from King of the angels to man of sorrows.  Why?  Only to save.  His infinite riches are poured out in incarnation and crucifixion.  He becomes poor, just to make us paupers rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).  What is our God like?  The LORD is salvation.

Second, we learn what salvation is.  You see, the LORD is salvation.

Salvation is not a package of spiritual benefits which Jesus bestows.  It’s not the accumulation of heavenly things: forgiveness, a righteous status before God, eternal life, feelings of peace and purpose.  Jesus is not like a Prince riding along in his carriage and tossing bread to a pauper.  Jesus is far more like the Prince who gets out of his carriage, sets his love on the pauper and pledges himself to marry her.  He Himself is our redemption.

Salvation is not our receiving of heavenly stuff – it’s receiving the LORD Himself.  And in Him, we receive forgiveness, righteousness, eternal life, etc, etc.  What is salvation?  The question is who?  And the answer is:  The LORD Jesus!

Third, we learn about ourselves.  If the LORD is salvation then we must be lost.  And that is certainly what our verse describes.  The Christ-Child is called JESUS:  “for he shall save his people from their sins.”

Jesus does not come to save us from loneliness, or lack of purpose, or material poverty.  He comes in a very specific salvation – to save us from our sins.  Therefore this is our greatest need – a remedy for sin.

As Max Lucado has said:

“If our greatest need had been information,
God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology,
God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money,
God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure,
God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was forgiveness,
so God sent us a Savior.”

Allow Jesus to define your greatest need.  It’s not your health, your finances, your job, your family, your relationship breakdowns.  There is a much bigger problem:  your sin.

But now, let Jesus “say unto your soul, ‘I am thy salvation.’” (Psalm 35:3). You are delivered from your real problem, and empowered to face all others.

Take a minute and allow Jesus to define for you…

… God

… salvation

… your sense of proportion in life.

This is “the life”

1 John 1:1-2:2

Last year I went strolling along a Mauritian beach with my wife.  We bought tropical fruit from a roadside vendor, went for a swim and then lay down on a deckchair sipping a cold beer.  I said to Emma, “This is the life.”

When have you said that phrase?  “This is the life”?  You might not like hot holidays.  Maybe you’d rather go skiing with friends and then sit down by a roaring fire with a big hot chocolate, extra cream.  “This is the life.”

Or you go out and celebrate some success at your favourite restaurant with your favourite people. “This is the life” we say.

It’s funny how rarely we use that saying isn’t it?  We live for awfully long stretches of time without saying “this is the life”.  Apparently most of life isn’t “the life”.  Only very rarely is life the life.  We have to stop doing everything we’ve been doing and fly halfway around the world before our life starts to be the life.

Can that be right?  Is it the case that most of our lives aren’t really “the life”?  That would be a real shame wouldn’t it?

36 hours after I said:  “this is the life”, we were locked outside our house in the freezing rain, rummaging through our suitcases and concluding that our house-keys were somewhere on the continent of Australia. Was this still “the life?”  “The life” seemed far away at that point.

I think for most of us “the life” seems out of reach.

But the Apostle John wrote a letter (1 John) in which he spoke very differently about “the life.”  For John “the life” is not a time or a place.  “The life” is a person – a person who was there in the beginning.  A person with whom we now have fellowship.  Here are the first few verses of the letter:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;  (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)”  (1 John 1:1-2)

This is the life.  Not a time or a place.  A person.  This is the life:  Jesus.  He was there in the beginning.  There with the Father.  He came in the middle, to live out “the life”.  And John had seen the life.  He had walked the dusty roads of Israel with the life.  And when John saw Jesus he said to Himself “this is the life.”  Jesus is the life.

Therefore John wants to tell the whole world about ‘the life’:

“That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us:  and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.”  (1 John 1:3-4)

John’s greatest joy is to pass on the life to us.  Therefore we can enjoy the life, not just when we’re sunbathing by the pool or having drinks with friends, but when we’re locked out of the house in the freezing rain, when we lose our jobs and our health and our friends, our family, even our own lives.  We can lose everything in life and still have the life.  Because we have Jesus:  the Author of Life, the Word of Life, the Meaning of Life.

What do you normally think of as ‘the life’?

The life we seek is usually self-indulgent.  The life of Jesus is self-giving.  The life we pursue is about sitting back and relaxing.  The life of Jesus is an outgoing life – from the Father to the disciples and out to the world.  Our kind of life is directed towards comfort, ease, distraction, entertainment.  Jesus’ kind of life is so much better – it’s a life of fellowship (with God and His people) and of joy.

“The world”, to use a phrase common in First John, gives a counterfeit vision of ‘the life’.  Perhaps today we need to re-orient ourselves to John’s vision.  As we turn our thoughts to another year, let’s not seek counterfeits. Jesus Himself is the life.  We need not weary ourselves with other visions that cannot satisfy.  We have Jesus, therefore in all of life we have ‘the life’.

Filthy Lucre

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1 Peter 4:12-5:14

On the surface it’s a quaint archaism.  But it speaks of a deadly trap.  “Filthy lucre” is used four times in the King James Bible and in each case it refers to a grave temptation for gospel ministers (1 Timothy 3:3,8; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:2).  Eg:

Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind. (1 Peter 5:2)

The KJV follows Tyndale in leaving the Vulgate’s lucrum untranslated.  Lucrum is the Latin word from which we get “lucrative”.  It just means profit.  The underlying Greek word is a compound word meaning “unclean gain”.  So here’s what we’re being warned against: unclean gain, base profit, filthy lucre.

The repetition of this biblical warning should make us think.  But it rarely does.  Many times people have joked with me: “What attracted you to the ministry? It can’t have been the money!”  Everyone has a good laugh.  Everyone except the Apostles.  They were worried about ministering for the money in the first century.  What about in the twenty first century when Christianity is big business?

Listen to John Bunyan illustrate the dangers of lucre.

Then CHRISTIAN and HOPEFUL went till they came at a delicate plain, called Ease, where they went with much content; but that plain was but narrow, so they were quickly got over it. Now at the further side of that plain was a little hill called Lucre, and in that hill a silver mine, which some of them that had formerly gone that way, because of the rarity of it, had turned aside to see; but going too near the brink of the pit, the ground being deceitful under them, broke, and they were slain; some also had been maimed there, and could not to their dying day be their own men again.

Then I saw in my dream, that a little off the road, over against the silver mine, stood DEMAS (gentleman-like), to call to passengers to come and see; who said to CHRISTIAN and his fellow, “Ho, turn aside hither, and I will show you a thing.”

CHRISTIAN. What thing is so deserving as to turn us out of the way to see it?

DEMAS. Here is a silver mine, and some digging in it for treasure; if you will come, with a little pain you may richly provide for yourselves.

HOPEFUL. Then said HOPEFUL, “Let us go and see.”

CHRISTIAN. “Not I,” said CHRISTIAN; “I have heard of this place before now and how many have there been slain; and besides, that treasure is a snare to those that seek it, for it hinders them in their pilgrimage.”  (Pilgrim’s Progress)

It is indeed a snare and a hindrance.  So how can we avoid it?

At heart, we must recapture a vision of the Generous Father.  Our God treats nothing as a means to some other end.  It is His eternal nature to love the other.  First His Son, and then, through His Son and by the Spirit, He loves the world. “God so loved the world He gave” (John 3:16).  He is a Fountain of life and love whose glory is to pour Himself out.  His activity is not mercenary.  He’s not in the whole “creation-salvation game” for what He can get out of it.  He commits Himself to us for the sake of committing Himself to us.  Because this is the kind of God He is.  He genuinely loves to give and He gives to love.

Once we’ve grasped this, we’ve learnt the secret of life and of ministry. Immanuel Kant wasn’t so far off really.  Treating people as ends in themselves is absolutely right and good.  If even God does it, then it must be the good life.  But such living is the fruit of the gospel.  It’s the good life that comes about with this good God.

So when I’m tempted to minister for “shameful gain” (NIV) or “filthy lucre” I should not be surprised.  It’s actually a perennial temptation.  But look first to the Father, poured out in Jesus.  I have all I need in His generosity. And look, secondly, to “the flock of God which is among you.”  They are not means towards further gain.  They are my “crown” and “joy” (Philippians 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:19).  They are my reward – a reward far greater than that snare and hindrance: “filthy lucre.”

Once and for all

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Hebrews 10:1-18

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!”

Lady Macbeth’s line is one of Shakespeare’s most famous.  In the first act of Macbeth she helps her husband to murder the King.  By the end of the play she is in mental torment and eventually takes her own life.  In her final scene she is before a doctor and cannot cleanse her conscience.

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!… who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?   What, will these hands ne’er be clean?…Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”

The Doctor says “What a sigh is there! The heart is sorely charg’d. …This disease is beyond my practice.”

Shame and guilt is a disease.  And it’s a disease beyond the practice of 17thcentury doctors.  It’s beyond the practice of 21st century doctors.  Taking away our guilt and shame is beyond every power on earth, even – and perhaps especially – religion.  But in Hebrews 10 we learn about a “once for all” cleansing that contrasts starkly with the old religious ways.

In verses 1-4, we’re told that even God’s own religion did not cleanse people from sin – it only reminded them of sin.  Every day the blood of animals was shed, yet everyone knows that animals can’t pay for sin.  Every year there was a grand theatrical performance called the Day of Atonement.  The High Priest had a starring role and there was a scapegoat. You confessed your sins over the scapegoat and there were sacrifices and at the end it was pronounced that God was “at one” with Israel.  But… the next year they did it all over again.  They weren’t cleansed from their sins, they were only reminded of their sins.

This whole system was a shadow of the coming reality (v1).  The real atonement was achieved when Christ came into the world (v5-10).

There is a true and willing Sacrifice who steps forward amidst the bloodshed of the temple and says “Enough! Here I am.  I’m the Reality to which these shadows have pointed.”

Jesus, our Scapegoat, died the death of every slanderer, every pornographer, every bully, every murderer,  swindler, adulterer, terrorist… every sinner.  And now

we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.  (Hebrews 10:10)

That phrase “once for all” is so precious.  Understanding it will transport you from the shadow-lands of guilt and perpetual striving to the freedom of Christ’s finished work.  Therefore in the next paragraph, Hebrews lays out the stark difference between the reality of Christ’s sacrifice and the shadow of the old covenant (v11-14).

The old sacrifices were continual, Christ’s was once for all

The old sacrifices were powerless, Christ’s was completely effective.

The old priests stood for their constant work, Christ sits having finished the work.

Do you realise the wonder of Christ’s finished work?  Do you understand that, through Him, you are made holy “once for all”?

The final paragraph will help us (v15-18).  Here the writer returns to his favourite passage – Jeremiah chapter 31.  He proclaims the glorious truth that our “sins and iniquities God remembers no more.”

Imagine debts piling up.  You pay off one credit card with another.  It snowballs and suddenly you’re £90 000 in the red.   The debt collectors are after you.  You don’t answer the phone, you pretend you’re not in.

Eventually you get some financial advice.  They tell you to phone the credit card company and explain your situation.  You pluck up courage and give your details over the phone.  Then you begin to make excuses… “Now, about the £90 000, I’ll try to pay it back, I just need some time…”  The woman on the other end of the phone says “We have no record of any debts in your name.”  You ask her to double check.  She double checks, “We have no record of any debts in your name.”

If you’ve trusted Jesus your Scapegoat, those are God’s words to you today.

Their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. (Hebrews 10:17)

Don’t live in the shadows.  Don’t try to clean yourself up.  Remember you’ve been cleansed through the cross of Christ - once and for all.

A two-edged sword

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Hebrews 4:1-16

In modern speech a “double-edged sword” is a powerful weapon that “cuts both ways”.  It’s an argument or feature or technology that has a clear benefit and a clear liability.  It’s something that advances both your own cause and that of your opponent.

But the bible’s usage of the term is a little different.   God’s “two-edged sword” cuts only one way.

“The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”  (Hebrews 4:12)

God’s word is a two-edged sword.  And when God wields it, it cuts in only one direction.  God’s word is not judged by us.  God’s word judges us.  We do not assess it.  It assesses us.  We do not interpret it.  It interprets us.  We do not master it.  It masters us.

Have you ever encountered the piercing quality of God’s word?

Last year I was preparing to help a friend in a court-hearing.  We were building our case, establishing our cause, marshalling evidence and feeling more and more justified.  And then I read just six words from Proverbs:

Do not bring hastily to court. (Proverbs 25:8)

It cut to the heart.  And it brought to mind other verses about the dangers of pursuing adversarial legal action (e.g. Matthew 5:25-261 Corinthians 6:1-8).  God’s word came home.  It discerned the thoughts and intents of the heart.  I could tell you many other “piercing” moments and I’m sure you could too.

So often we come to God’s word seeking “discernment” about our future, about our choices.  We seek to “discern” correct theology, or just to “discern” a little dose of spiritual inspiration.  But all of those motives are about us discerning the word.  Or us discerning truths through the word.  Do you see the problem?

God’s word discerns us.  We are in the firing line.  We might consider the word to be our object of study.  But no, we are objects of the word’s study.  We are the ones to be scrutinized.

Is that your attitude as you approach the word?

If it’s not, perhaps that’s because you’ve forgotten that God’s word is “quick” – in other words, it’s “alive.”  When Hebrews speaks of the Word – it has in mind a personal Power working through the Scriptures.  Just listen to how the verse continues:

Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.  (Hebrews 4:13)

The “Word of God” in view is the Judge of the World.  Hebrews is speaking of the eternal Word, the Lord Jesus.

This living Word encounters His people through the Scriptures as they’re proclaimed today (Hebrews 13:7).  But because the Word is a Him, Scripture reading can never be impersonal.  To open up the Word is to be opened up by the Word, who is Judge of all.

In these verses we learn that it’s not simply judgement day that uncovers.  Whenever we encounter the Living Word of God we are judged.

“Brilliant” you respond, “Just what I need!  More judgement in my life!”

Ah, but the judging word is not the final word.  For those who belong to Jesus, judgement could never be the final word.  Christ Himself has taken the judgement on the cross.  And as our great High Priest, He has brought us sinners through the sword of judgement and into the presence of God our Father.

That’s why the verse continues:

Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.  (Hebrews 4:14-16)

What a roller-coaster!  Cut to the heart, then lifted to the throne.  This is a true experience of the Word of God.  First exposed, then covered by His blood.  First pierced, then healed.  First judged, then saved.  First brought to our knees, then raised through the heavens.

Do we ever impersonalise the Word of God?  Do we ever domesticate God’s Word?  Do we ever get stuck in the judgement and fail to appreciate the salvation?

Remember that God’s Word, Jesus, only exposes so He can cover.  He only cuts so He can cure.  He only brings low, so He can raise up.  Let us expose ourselves to His piercing.  Then let us come boldly through His priesthood.

Keep the faith

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2 Timothy 4:6-8; James 5:7-12

At the end of your days, what would you like to say?  How would you want to summarize your life?

Facing death, Paul was able to say he’s “fought the good fight”, he’s “stayed the course” and he’s “kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

We’ve seen how these three phrases parallel the images of Christian service he gave in chapter 2.  Christians are like soldiers, like athletes and like farmers.

As a soldier, he’s “fought”.  As an athlete, he’s “finished”.  As a farmer, he’s “kept”.  You see in Bible terms, farmers “keep” their land and their livestock (see for instance Genesis 2:15).  And Paul says the life of faith is like farming: an arduous, unglamorous life of perseverance.

But it’s not all hard-work.  There’s also reward along the way…

The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.  (2 Timothy 2:6)

Farmers get to eat their own food and Christian workers get to enjoy the fruits of their labours too.  In the New Testament, this fruit is understood as those who come to faith (e.g. Romans 15:16; James 1:18).

This is what sustains the hard-working Christian.  In all our labours there are the encouragements of new life and fruitfulness in the gospel.  But the real goal is at the end.  When Christ returns there is a glorious harvest.  So Paul would say to us, enjoy the firstfruits and keep going: the final harvest will be glorious.

So then, as you long for Christ’s appearing, as you pass on His gospel hope, meditate on your calling:

– the soldier

– the athlete

– the farmer.

Anticipate the glory of Christ’s return

– the victory

– the crown

– the harvest.

And know that one day too, you will be able to say “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

Fight the good fight

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2 Timothy 2:1-7; 4:6-8

In the space of one verse Paul gives us three phrases:

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

“Fighting the good fight”, “finishing the course” and “keeping the faith” have all become well-known.  Perhaps this trifecta of famous phrases is not surprising since Paul meant it to be memorable.

This is the last chapter of the last letter he wrote.  Tradition has it Paul was beheaded in Rome in AD67 and here is the epitaph he chooses for himself.  He’s a fighter, a runner, a perseverer.  As he approaches the end of his life he inspires us towards the same.

Paul is writing to his spiritual son Timothy, passing on the baton of gospel work.  Crucially, Paul was the last of a dying breed.  He had met with the risen Christ and been an eye-witness of His glory.  Soon there would be no-one left on earth who could say that.

So as the church’s last foundational apostle, how does Paul encourage the next generation?  Chapter 2 gives a sense of his burden.

Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.  Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier. And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully. The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits. Consider what I say; and the Lord give thee understanding in all things.  (2 Timothy 2:1-7)

Paul knows that his eye-witness testimony will not die out with him.  In verse 2 he envisions four generations of gospel ministry.  From Paul to Timothy to Timothy’s trainees to their trainees.  On and on it goes until it reaches you and me.

But, of course, it doesn’t stop with us.  We too will commit this gospel message to others.  And they to others, and so on.  The saying is true: “God’s grace always runs downhill.”  It applies to proclamation too.  In fact grace and proclamation are almost synonyms.

From Christ’s exaltation and the Pentecostal outpouring, there has been a gospel flow which has reached even us.  Now we are caught up in its movement.

As I say this, though, I might be conjuring up the wrong kind of imagery – fountains and babbling brooks and floating along.  Paul’s imagery is much more robust.  How does it feel to be gripped by this gospel and pass it on?  Like a soldier, like an athlete, like a farmer.

Today let’s think about the soldier: enduring, obedient, single-minded.  For a soldier, all of life is channelled into the task in hand.  There might long periods when the soldier is not “at the front”, but they are always battle-ready.

At the end of it all, though, there is a goal.  Beyond the discipline and gruelling hard-work there is victory.

As Paul ends his final letter, this is where his mind goes – the end of his “good fight.”  Thus it completes an image he initiated with his first letter:

Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  (1 Corinthians 15:57)

From the outset, the victory is given.  But there’s still a fight and it lasts till the day we die.  One day, though, the fight will be fought.  Peace will reign and all of Christ’s soldiers will rest.

Itching ears

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2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

One of the most pervasive myths of the modern world is this: We think we know what we want.  We think we know what’s best for us.  And we think we ourselves are the best judges of these matters.

The truth could not be further from this common misconception.

In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom spoke a frightening truth:

“All they that hate me love death.”  (Proverbs 8:36)

The natural state of the human heart is to be estranged from Christ our Wisdom.  And in that perverse condition our desires are completely twisted.  We hate the Fountain of Living Waters and we love the pit of curses and death.

Therefore what do we look for in our moral and spiritual guides?  The truth?  Never.  Not naturally.  Instead we look for leaders who will tell us what we want to hear.

Notice how Jesus put it: “Because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not.” (John 8:45)

Jesus doesn’t say ‘In spite of my truth telling you don’t believe.’  He says ‘Because of my truth-telling you don’t believe.’  We are not naturally oriented to truth.  We flee it when it’s spoken.  Instead we ‘turn to fables’ as the Apostle Paul put it so memorably:

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.  (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

An “itching ear” is such an evocative phrase.  Itches aren’t just satisfied by scratching – they demand to be scratched.  They only seem to increase if they go un-heeded.  Paul says our ears are like this.  We don’t merely like to hear pleasant lies, we demand to hear them.  And Paul says there’s always a ready supply of phoney prophets who will scratch us where we itch.  It’s not just a problem for the last days.  The prophet Isaiah spoke of the same reality 8 centuries earlier:

This is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD: Which say to the seers, “See not;” and to the prophets, “Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits: Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.”   (Isaiah 30:9-11)

I don’t think Isaiah is imagining that the people are articulating these words.  I’m not sure any Israelite was literally saying “speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits.”  It’s just that they would not put up with God’s word, they reacted angrily to the truth of the gospel but warmly to the “smooth things.”  At an unspoken level they had struck a deal with the false prophets – “Tell us what we want to hear, and we’ll give you an eager audience.”  In every age people have found such a deal attractive.

Therefore we must question this myth of the modern world.  We do not know what is good for us.  As the Proverb says “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.” (Proverbs 20:5).  We don’t know ourselves very well.  We don’t know what we need.  We need The Man of understanding to tell us the truth.  We need truth to come to us from the outside.  The kind of truth we would never conceive ourselves.

The truth that says we are utterly lost and damned in ourselves but completely loved and redeemed in Jesus.  The truth that leaves our own desires and schemes out of the equation but takes up our cause anyway.  The truth that puts us to death on the cross and raises us up in resurrection.

Don’t trust your natural itches.  Don’t pursue the lies that puff you up.  Listen to the truth from beyond.  It will burst your bubble but, then, it will give you a hope you could never have dreamt of.  The truth from which we flee is the most extreme but wonderful news in the world.  It’s far worse than we’d ever feared – but far greater than we’d ever imagined.

Money is the root of all evil

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1 Timothy 6:1-12

Here’s a verse of the bible which everyone knows.  Except that they don’t.

1 Timothy 6:10 does not say “Money is the root of all evil.”  It says “the love of money is the root of all evil.”  And if we really wanted to pick up on the nuances in the Greek, we would render it: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Not quite as snappy though is it?  Which is why the blunt version has survived.  It has the advantage of being comprehensive, memorable and sensational.  It gets dropped in conversations as an epitaph when the banker is busted for fraud.  ”Ah, just goes to show, money is the root of all evil.”

The (mis)quote was commonly placarded at the Occupy movements last year.  When I spoke to protestors at St Paul’s I was surprised by how often the phrase was mentioned.  In fact I was surprised in general at how many spoke in biblical terms.  (And, by the way, their translation of choice seemed to be the good ol’ King James!)

As a placard it’s pleasingly reductionist.  If we’re looking for radical solutions (remember “radical” means going to the “root”) then money is an obvious target.  It’s simple then to focus on the financial system as the source of our woes – and, hey, biblical support just adds weight.  For some anyway.

But it was interesting when I spoke to one protestor about the verse.  I said to him, “Do you know that the verse doesn’t say “money is the root of all evil”?”  ”No?” he asked.  ”No, it says “the love of money is the root of all evil.  And you can love money whether you’re rich or poor can’t you?”

This hit home with him.  We’d just been chatting about the “fat cat bankers” who walked past St Paul’s every day.  He’d been wistfully spinning a tale of these bankers’ imagined lifestyles.  The protestor was unemployed, living in a tent, but he realised he was just as capable of a love of money as any pin-striped City worker.

He’d been plotting the demise of the global financial system.  He’d been speaking of “expropriating” the wealth of the 1% to build a better world.  But what if “money” wasn’t exactly the problem?  What if the “love” of money was the radical evil at the heart of us all?

There’s no ‘new world order’ that can get to the heart.  No fat cat tax can fix the affections.  If we’re looking for “roots” we need to go deeper than money.  We must get to the heart.

Don’t get me wrong, money can be a deadly trap.  As Paul has just said:

“They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.”  (1 Timothy 6:9)

Such strong language.  And just after our phrase, Paul says:

Some coveted after [money, and]… have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Money is incredibly dangerous.  Just consider some of the phrases Jesus Himself gave us:

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also

Ye cannot serve God and Mammon

A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions

Camel through the eye of a needle

Money has every chance of becoming a competing god in our lives.  In Paul’s language, it’s something that can “tempt”, “ensnare”, enflame “lust” and make us “covet”.  But money itself is not the problem.  It’s the love of money that is so dangerous.

Which is why Paul’s revolutionary teaching on riches does not focus on redistribution. Instead he rounds off the chapter  like this:

Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.  (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

Sharing the wealth is part of what Paul charges.  But that’s only part.  Notice the true riches Paul directs us to?  The living God gives us richly all things to enjoy.  Money promises to give us… freedom, comfort, protection, provision.  But money can’t really deliver on those things.  And if we trust in “uncertain riches” they will prove a snare.

Instead, look to the unsearchable riches of Christ, who is given to us so freely and so fully.  He is Heir of the cosmos and shares all things generously with us.  One day – in “the time to come” – He will show us our inheritance here on the renewed earth and it will take our breath away.  In the words of Isaiah we will see the King in His beauty and a land that stretches afar (Isaiah 33:17).

How can money hold a candle to Christ?