Saturday, 10 March 2018

Twelve Years

In the gospel of Luke, chapter eight, we read of three instances of healing.
Jesus and His disciples sailed across the Sea of Galilee to an area called Gerasenes or Gadara, an area inhabited predominantly by Gentiles. There they encounter a man possessed by demons, living not amongst the townsfolk, but in an area of burial tombs. His life had been one of torment, for he had been captured and chained, but demonic strength had enabled him to break his chains and escape into the outskirts of the city. He was naked and no doubt often cold and hungry. The writer tells us that he had lived this way for many years.
Jesus cast out the demons from the possessed man. He sat with Jesus, clothed and completely sane, then returned to his homeland and witnessed what the Lord had done for him.
Later Jesus returns to the western shore of the sea, where crowds are waiting for Him. Jairus, one of the leaders of a local synagogue pleads with Jesus to come to see Jairus’ only daughter who is gravely ill. The child is about 12 years old.
We don’t know the circumstances of the child’s illness. Perhaps it was a recent malady, alternatively it may have been something that had afflicted her for years. She had no siblings- perhaps her parents had lost other children. We often speak of “the good old days” without regard for the high rates of infant mortality, inadequate medical care and knowledge, and chronic suffering which was a part of life in centuries past. Regardless, the girl’s parents were understandably distraught at the prospect of losing their daughter.
As they proceed, Jesus and Jairus are interrupted by another sufferer. This unnamed lady had been haemorrhaging for twelve years and had sought cures to no avail. In Jewish culture her condition made her unclean, a shameful and lonely situation. She does not seek to get Jesus’ attention. She approaches Him from the rear and touches just the hem of his garment. Perhaps she did so because the crowds were so thickly gathered around Him. Perhaps she did so because Jesus was with a noted leader of the synagogue. Perhaps she did so because she considered herself too unimportant for Jesus to attend to. Perhaps she was embarrassed and ashamed as a woman to discuss her health problems, particularly in a crowded place. We can only surmise.
Jesus asked the woman who touched the hem of His garment to identify herself. Why? To humiliate her? Jesus would never do that. He wanted her to know that she was worthy of His love, His power, His healing. He was never too busy or too important to give time and personal attention to those who needed Him most. He acknowledged her faith and trust in Him.
Jesus went to the house of Jairus and restored the girl, who had died, to life and health again. Jesus was not constrained even by human timing. We can only imagine the amazement and joy of her parents.
In each of these three cases we see people driven by despair and desperation. One has been stripped of his sanity. Another couple are about to lose their only child. A third has lost her health. In at least two of these cases the suffering has encompassed their lives for many years. Then we see three encounters with Jesus that utterly transform their lives, giving them great joy. Each sought Jesus, found Him, and were given a future full of promise.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
Jeremiah 29: 11-13

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Loss: a sheep, a coin, a son.

The Biblical book of Luke, chapter 15 contains three short parables, all on the same theme. In each something or someone is lost and the caretaker, owner or parent is in distress until the lost is found and jubilant when this happens.
I don’t know about you, but if I were in a paddock of one hundred sheep, I’d not be able to tell one from another, let alone know if one was missing. In this case the shepherd is intimately connected to his flock- he knows them all, protects and cares for them and is not content to let any one stray without searching for it.
For the woman who had the ten silver coins, the loss would be more easily apparent. These have value and represent what can be purchased. If one is missing there may not be enough food in the house, or clothing for its inhabitants, or money to pay taxes. They are security against trouble and want.
The third parable, that of the prodigal son, is well known. Here we see a great loss, that of a son, a young man who requests his inheritance early (an insult to his father in that culture) and disappears to a distant country.  His father’s pain is that of every loving parent who sees a child go astray. The father never ceases to hope, wait and watch for his son’s return and welcomes and blesses him when he does so.
When we think about loss, it can range from the small and irritating to the most profoundly life changing. It can be material, like an earring or set of car keys. It can be psychological, like the loss of self-respect or innocence. We can lose youth and health, friendships and jobs. By far the worst losses must be the loss of those we love through death.
What do these parables teach us about loss?
Firstly, they reveal how valuable each of us is to God.  With God, you are not just another sheep in the flock. God knows every person on this earth. Jesus said “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me- just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14)
Just as the woman with the coins placed value on each one, so God has a plan and purpose for each of us. There is not one of us committed to Him whom He will not use to glorify His name and further His kingdom. The Bible tells us For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13)
Secondly, these stories reveal the longing for relationship with us that God has. The father in the story of the prodigal son gave the boy material wealth, but knew that would not satisfy for long. His true inheritance was the unfailing love of his father, love that received him with all his faults. There is something infinitely tender in the image of a strong Shepherd carrying home a frightened and hungry sheep, and a father racing along a road to gather a tattered and weary son in his arms.  God is saying “It’s alright. I know you. You are forgiven. You are loved.”
Finally the parables describe the joy and blessing that accompanies the finding of the lost. When the lost is found, those seeking have two desires- to celebrate and to share the discovery with others. The Bible tells us in Luke chapter 15 that there is rejoicing in Heaven when one sinner repents. When we commit our lives to Christ, we are invited into a totally new life in relationship with Him. We still face troubles and challenges in this life, but we do so with Christ- He goes before, walks alongside and attends to all we leave behind. His is the promise of life in Heaven after this earthly one, where sorrows are forgotten and tears wiped away. He is in the business of finding and restoring that which was lost.

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
I will build you up again,
and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
and go out to dance with the joyful.
Again you will plant vineyards
on the hills of Samaria;
the farmers will plant them
and enjoy their fruit.
There will be a day when watchmen cry out
on the hills of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.’
This is what the Lord says:
“Sing with joy for Jacob;
shout for the foremost of the nations.
Make your praises heard, and say,
Lord, save your people,
the remnant of Israel.’
See, I will bring them from the land of the north
and gather them from the ends of the earth.
Among them will be the blind and the lame,
expectant mothers and women in labor;
a great throng will return.
They will come with weeping;
they will pray as I bring them back.
I will lead them beside streams of water
on a level path where they will not stumble,
because I am Israel’s father,
and Ephraim is my firstborn son.
 “Hear the word of the Lord, you nations;
proclaim it in distant coastlands:
‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’
For the Lord will deliver Jacob
and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.
They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord
the grain, the new wine and the olive oil,
the young of the flocks and herds.
They will be like a well-watered garden,
and they will sorrow no more.
Then young women will dance and be glad,
young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.
I will satisfy the priests with abundance,
and my people will be filled with my bounty,”
(Jeremiah 31:3-14)

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Three stranded cord

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:12
When I was a kid we used to play this simple game: take a piece of paper and fold it in half, then tear it down the middle. It was easy to tear. Then take one of the halves and fold it again- this time it was harder to tear. Then take one of those halves and fold it again. This time it would be almost impossible to tear. Three simple folds really tested our strength.
The short verse above reminds us that we were never meant to live isolated lives. By working together we can achieve much, because when one fails, another can help. When one is attacked, the other can defend. When one is weak, the others can lend their strength.
Although this verse was not specifically written in relation to marriage, it is a beautiful illustration of the power of a marriage where Christ is acknowledged as sovereign over the relationship. In many secular marriages the two partners make promises to each other and try to abide by these promises. In a Christian marriage where Christ is Sovereign, couples make vows before God. They are promising not just to each other, but to God and as such it is a sacred covenant. Where there are problems and temptations within the marriage, each partner is accountable in their relationship to God as well as each other. I believe that this produces a much stronger and more sacred bond.
It’s sad to see Christians “going it alone” without fellowship in a church community, often as a result of hurts sustained in the past. The fellowship of other Christians is such a part of ministry life, producing results which couldn’t be achieved by one person alone. Together we are meant to share our sorrows and celebrate our joys, whilst Christians together support one another, giving comfort and encouragement, prayer and practical support. This is what makes the church strong.