The Reason To Resist

Joseph Part 3

Genesis 39:1-20

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My son is now three and a half going on thirteen. I am enjoying every moment of his development and growth but, now he’s getting smarter, he is facing more complex decisions about whether or not to obey his parents or take what he wants. He has multiple allergies which make eating for him quite difficult, but recently we managed to find him some cupcakes. Since then I have been woken by the song, “I want my minion cakes” (for some reason he calls them minion cakes, only he knows why), to which we respond “no, not for breakfast (obviously).” One morning my wife caught him chewing through the box of them. When he was accosted he simply replied; “I said please.”

Sometimes resisting the temptation not only seems personally unfulfilling, but it can actually lead to serious consequences for us.

All of us face temptation as we grow up and the teenage years can be particularly challenging. And although the objects that tempt us do change, the response to them should remain the same. If anything is captivating our attention to the degree we become obsessed, it probably isn’t good for us. In contrast, I’ve never heard my son sing a sweet song about broccoli which articulates his desire for Its’ beneficial combination of vitamins, iron and protein. Nor do I hear a teenager sharing the joy they experience in their abstinence. Doing the right thing, avoiding temptation, engaging with what is right and good can at times feel like the boring thing to do, the unsatisfying response. Sometimes resisting the temptation not only seems personally unfulfilling, but it can actually lead to serious consequences for us.

Joseph is a brilliant example of someone who not only said no to what he desired, but who suffered terribly as a result. The young man sold into slavery by his brothers is now invited into the bed of Potiphar’s wife and is presented with a terrible choice. Sleep with his master’s wife and maintain his position (albeit compromised) or say no and destroy his career and future. The option of saying no is made even more difficult when we consider Joseph is likely just out of his teens and still a virgin. To make matters worse Potiphar’s wife is persistent and consistent in her invitation until one day the situation comes to a head;

11 One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. 12 She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” (Genesis 39: 11-12a)

Finding themselves alone, Potiphar’s wife seizes the moment and quite literally seizes him to pull into an embrace. Joseph’s response is instinctual; run!

As a resident of a Western nation, I owe a great deal of my ethical understanding to the foundations of Christianity. ‘Temptation’ is a highly religious word in many ways, with all kinds of religious imagery and ideas attached to it such as the Catholic confession. But as Christianity is no longer the articulated basis for our morality as a nation, the assumption that we should resist temptation is dying. Rather than simply running from what we would previously assume as harmful and not good, we now struggle to find any reason to run. Instead, we stop, have a little taste and ask ‘why not?’

We must prepare the answer to the ‘why not’ question beforehand because reason and logic have little place in the human psyche during a sexually charged encounter.

When we find ourselves alone with our temptation, particularly if the temptation is actively calling us, like with sexual interactions and affairs, the ‘why not’ answer is essential. We must prepare the answer to the ‘why not’ question beforehand because reason and logic have little place in the human psyche during a sexually charged encounter. I learned the truth of that in my teens! Answering the ‘why not’ question afresh gives us a reason to resist.

csm003117_1024x1024.jpegSo what is Joseph’s ‘why not’ answer? Simple, God has given me all of this, He has brought me to where I am and I don’t want to betray His generosity and His trust. When we consider our lives as Christians, this side of the cross, we have an even greater reason to resist. We have seen the lengths God went to, to spare us from His right judgement upon the cross, instead, He took the punishment upon Himself. As a result, we now live in freedom but at the cost of our suffering saviour. With that in mind, with that image of Jesus on the cross as our focus, what else could compare to that kind of love, to our God? But we also have the hope of a changed life here and now. With Jesus’ resurrection comes new life, not only in the future but here and now. A hope not only for freedom from chains but a hope for the freedom to resist and to be who we were created to be. To be truly human once more.

But it begins by asking ‘why not’ and ends with the risen Jesus and His nail-scarred hands.

Luke

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From Jealousy to Slavery

Joseph Part 2

Genesis 37:12-36

1c7cy8.jpgI recently watched Screen Junkies’ Honest Trailer for the Pixar film Toy Story. What I love about the Honest Trailer series is how they open the eyes of the audience to the complex themes woven within films – particularly kids films. The plot revolves around two main characters, Woody and Buzz. Woody, an old-fashioned stuffed cowboy, is Andy’s favourite toy. Woody has been the main hero in Andy’s playtime stories for years. He even has his name written on the bottom of his boot. Everyone is enjoying a toy utopia until Woody is replaced with Buzz. Buzz, in contrast to Woody, is a state of the art plastic Space Ranger, complete with pop-out wings and a laser gun. He immediately takes centre stage in Andy’s games and, like Woody, gets Andy’s name written on his boot. The film then wrestles with Woody being replaced by someone who doesn’t appreciate what it is like to be the main recipient of Andy’s affections. Woody’s jealousy grows and he sees himself going from the hero in the story to being the villain. Eventually, he tries to get rid of Buzz but instead, they both become lost and so they must work together to find a way home. The film highlights a very real human problem; jealousy.

In Genesis 37: 11 we see the beginnings of a root growing in the hearts of these men. By the time we arrive in Genesis 37:11 the roots of the jealousy plant have gone deep, and it has become carnivorous.

Have you ever been shocked by your own words or actions? Occasionally I catch myself doing something less than ideal and wonder, “why on earth did I do that?” Perhaps It’s a lie that ‘fell out’ of our mouths in a moment of tension, or maybe a word or two shared in anger. We can notice these things if we’re lucky enough to have a friend who can be honest with us, or if we’ve made any time for self-reflection. But often we can end up walking so far down a road we forget where the path began, or even that we have change course at all. The writer of the Hebrews talks about the risk of a “bitter root” growing within the Church which risks defiling many (Hebrews 12:15). The “bitter root” is a metaphor for that which could bring harm to the Church. This could be idolatry, various temptations, hunger for power/influence, or indeed jealousy. The metaphor works because it is exactly what happens when unwanted plants are left to their own business in a garden. Currently, I am going mad with weed killer trying to take back the control of the garden I lost whilst busy over the summer. It is hard work because these plants have grown big and now their roots go deep.

This is what we see in the lives of Joseph’s Brothers, with one notable exception. In Genesis 37: 11 we see the beginnings of a root growing in the hearts of these men. By the time we arrive in Genesis 37:11 the roots of the jealousy plant have gone deep, and it has become carnivorous. Joseph is sent by his Father to find his Brothers and report back that everything is OK. When they see him in the distance, they say to themselves:

19 “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. 20 “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” (Genesis 37:19-20)

It is amazing to see how fast the Brothers came to agree murder was a reasonable response to the appearance of Joseph in the distance. Their action does not appear in a moment of anger or frustration. Their decision seems to be measured, considered, reasoned and reasonable to almost everyone present. The atmosphere is calm, despite the heinous plot. We can conclude this because after the affair is settled, the Brothers casually sit down to eat lunch together presumably with Josephs screams still echoing in the distance (Genesis 37: 25). They also have the audacity to present their Father with Joseph’s bloody cloak and watch his heart break before their eyes.

Having stripped him of his precious cloak, his dignity, and dropping him onto the hard floor of an empty cistern, they decide to strip him again, this time of his freedom (Genesis 37:27).

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A 10th century BC cistern discovered in Jerusalem.

Thankfully due to Reuben, who was the one notable voice of descent in an otherwise unanimous bloodthirsty chorus, Joseph is alive. Rather than plunging a knife into him, he convinced his brothers to drop him in an empty cistern instead. Joseph is trapped, but not for long. Judah, seeing a caravan of Ishmaelites in the distance, decides to further humiliate Joseph. Having stripped him of his precious cloak, his dignity, and dropping him onto the hard floor of an empty cistern, they decide to strip him again, this time of his freedom (Genesis 37:27). They are not doing this for the money. Twenty shekels is nothing, especially split between eleven sons. The real ‘gain’ for them is seeing the pleasure of seeing a Brother destined to rule over them becoming a slave. They conclude as much in their initial plan, “Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams” (Genesis 37:20).

 

By the end of the betrayal, a Father’s heart is broken and he has become inconsolable. Joseph himself is sold off to the Egyptian official Potiphar, where the next stage of his journey begins. But Joseph isn’t the only one who is enslaved by the end of the narrative. The Brothers have shown themselves have become completely bound to the point of enslavement to jealousy. Heart issues that go unchecked lead to actions that would previously be unthinkable. The Brothers see themselves go from the slighted heroes to cold-blooded killers, villains in their own story, and they don’t even seem to be aware of it. Can we become so numb to sin, so detached from God, that we become enslaved to evil?

By the end of the narrative, everyone is set free. Joseph is set free from Egypt, and his Brothers find forgiveness for what they have done. This is but an echo of the same offer God makes to each one of us.

In Romans 6:19-23, Paul talks about two kinds of slavery, the “slavery to sin” which produces death (here in the Joseph narrative, nearly literally), and slavery “to God.” Josephs brothers are enslaved to sin, in particularly jealousy. As a result, they seek to kill, and in one sense, sin is its own reward. In becoming slaves they have lost the freedom that comes through living a righteous life for God. They are enslaved by their desires, incapable of making good decisions and living in that kind of freedom. In contrast, Joseph is enslaved by the Egyptians, but he remains a slave to God. Everywhere he goes he serves God impeccably, and although he is in chains right now, he is free to be the man God created him to be. Which would you prefer?

The wonder of this story is that no chains are too strong to resist the liberation God has in store for both Joseph and his Brothers. By the end of the narrative, everyone is set free. Joseph is set free from Egypt, and his Brothers find forgiveness for what they have done. This is but an echo of the same offer God makes to each one of us. Are you enslaved in chains right now? Are you trapped in some sense, perhaps in a dark and hopeless situation? Well God can bring physical liberation to you, even today. And if your chains are more akin to the Brother’s slavery to sin, God has the key to unlocking you from captivity here too. Full forgiveness, complete with a new life. No sin is too great to be forgiven. There is nothing that impresses God so, that His sacrifice cannot wash over and make us clean.

Why not recommit yourself in service to God today?

Luke

 

 

Dare To Be A Dreamer

Joseph Part 1

Genesis 37:1-11

banner-bright.jpgI wonder if you’ve ever had a dream? Dreams can be extremely powerful, if not sometimes a bit odd. When I was younger I dreamed a lot more, but as an atheist, I never assumed they actually meant anything. I supposed I had probably eaten too much cheese, and maybe I had. Recently I read Nabeel Qureshi’s book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus and I was surprised to find that for Nabeel and his family, as Muslims, they held some dreams in high regard, even considering them messages from Allah himself. Qureshi tells the story of one journey home where his Father and Mother nervously changed course as the imagery of a recent dream manifested itself. Not only did they, based upon this dream, abandon their journey and stay with some friends, but their friends (who were also Muslims) welcomed them understanding the reasoning behind the u-turn. Nabeel goes on to explain how he too received dreams from God, and although strange, they provided him confirmation that his decision to convert to Christianity was the right one. He is not alone in this phenomenon as David Garrison’s Wind In The House of Islam makes clear. Garrison records numerous examples of devout Muslims being spoken to by Jesus through dreams. We know dreams can be powerful, but can they also be messages from God?

As Christians, we have good reason to take dreams seriously.

For an atheist, this might be an odd conclusion, but it shouldn’t be for a Christian. How many times has God used dreams and visions to communicate to His people throughout the Bible? Think of Jacob’s dream of a ladder between earth and heaven. Or Solomon’s offer from God to choose anything and Solomon chose wisdom. Or, in the New Testament, Joseph’s dream in which an angel tells him to believe Mary’s story. But these encounters aren’t limited to God’s people. Consider poor King Abimelech who was warned off sleeping with Abraham’s wife Sarah. Or the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams of a statue, and a tree being cut down. Lastly, Pontius Pilate’s wife even received a warning concerning Jesus’ trial and innocence. As Christians, we have good reason to take dreams seriously!

Joseph is the most obvious example of a man whose life was shaped by dreams. Not only by his own dreams but of those around him who he was gifted by God to interpret. Indeed Joseph’s whole story begins with a dream:

He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” (Genesis 37:6-7)

This didn’t go down well with his Brothers who were already jealous over their Father’s preferential treatment of the dreamer (Genesis 37:4). They reject his dream as the arrogance of a young man already unhelpfully set above his brothers. But in doing so they unknowingly reject a message from God. Things went from bad to worse as Joseph received another dream from God:

Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” (Genesis 37:9)

This didn’t help his Brother’s who by this time were too consumed with jealousy to listen… His Father, however, though initially angry and dismissive, “kept the matter in mind” (Genesis 37:11). Jacob had experience with dreams, having received a particularly powerful one from God himself, in which he too was promised a great future.

Ask for advice, pray about it, and discard the message if it is indeed a result of too much cheese. But don’t leave it to die amongst the business of life. If God has spoken, His message is important.

Child-moon-Dream-Wallpaper.jpgJoseph was a dreamer, a young man who not only received dreams but trusted God enough to act upon them. This trust began here when instead of dismissing the dreams as a product of too much hummus he considered them enough to ask others their opinion. Though this proves to be his downfall, at least initially, it sets him up for a life of taking God seriously, believing He is a God who really speaks. Is that something we can say? When was the last time God spoke to you? You may not be a recipient of supernaturally charged dreams (although maybe you are), but perhaps He has spoken to you recently through His Word. Or perhaps you have been given a prophetic message or have heard an audible voice and you’re unsure what to do next. We have good reason to believe God speaks today, as He has always desired to converse with His people. But do we have enough confidence in Him to listen to His voice and respond? If you’re hearing from God, why not share His message with a trusted Christian friend? Why not talk to your Elders? Ask for advice, pray about it, and discard the message if it is indeed a result of too much cheese. But don’t leave it to die amongst the business of life. If God has spoken, His message is important.

Joseph’s dreams landed Him in a lot of trouble, but it also led to his rescue, his elevation, and to the physical salvation of an entire region. Thousands of people were saved from death by starvation because Joseph took God’s voice seriously and acted accordingly. Again I ask, what is God saying to you, and what will He achieve through you taking His voice seriously?

Luke

Forgiveness In The Digital Age?

sei_17273522On July 30th Chris Pratt posted on social media a united response from the main cast of The Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. What were they responding to? The firing of James Gunn as director after tweets from 10 years ago resurfaced. As Chris Pratt summarises in the comment attached to his post, “Although I don’t support James Gunn’s inappropriate jokes from years ago, he is a good man.” Gunn’s tweets led Disney to sever all ties with him, including his upcoming role as director of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3. The tweets themselves, as he himself explains, are clearly meant to be provocative and are about paedophilia and rape, amongst other things. There is absolutely no excuse available for his words, and no-one is giving one. Gunn himself has clearly taken responsibility, and the cast has no interest in defending his words. They appeal on the basis that his appalling tweets were sent a decade ago and Gunn has since changed.

Forgiveness is an interesting concept in an age where everything you write and send via social media, or even by email is retrievable and readable.

Gunn isn’t the only individual to fall foul of his internet history. In 2013 Paris Brown (Kent Police’s first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner) was pressured to resign after potentially racist and homophobic tweets emerged. Again, these tweets were posted three years before she was hired for the role. In a statement she wrote, “I’m sure many people today would not have the jobs they are in if their thoughts in their teenage years were scrutinised.” In a more bizarre case outside of social media, on August 24th this year Lilly Diabetes (a pharmaceutical company) dropped their sponsorship of driver Conor Daly ahead of his NASCAR debut after discovering Daly’s Father was recorded using a racial slur. Derek Daly, Conor’s Father, used a racial slur for African-Americans during a radio interview in the early 1980s, 10 years before Conor was even born. His Father’s response reads, “Finally, I want everyone to know I deeply regret and sincerely apologize for what I said more than three decades ago.”

Forgiveness is an interesting concept in an age where everything you write and send via social media, traditional media, or even by email is retrievable and readable. I am personally becoming more aware that everything I post or engage with might one day be reread, perhaps out of context, and used against me. As a result, I am exceedingly more cautious about what debates and interactions, if any, are safe to become involved in. It is as if the internet (if personified) were keeping a record of every word ever sent, every voice ever recorded by a microphone and posted, and every opinion (however long-held) shared with friends, family and followers online.

This is particularly challenging for someone trying to change and move on with their life, For someone who has asked forgiveness for what they have done but still finds their past irreversibly etched into the fabric of the world wide web.

Now this conversation risks overflowing into conspiracy theory territory, which isn’t my point. Also, I am not claiming to be important enough to occupy any researcher’s time. But I do believe this new reality really does present a powerful challenge for everyone. An employer interviewing a candidate, for example, has the ability now to judge you based upon words you have written that were never intended for an interview context. This is particularly challenging for someone trying to change and move on with their life. For someone who has asked forgiveness for what they have done but still finds their past irreversibly etched into the fabric of the world wide web.

God’s knowledge of humanity is more intrusive than any concept of an Orwellian Big Brother and more inescapable than any human-made surveillance system.

CCTV-camerasThe digital age, in some ways, reframes for us an ancient truth; what we say and do lasts forever. There may have been a time where ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’, but with cameras capturing our every move and microphones potentially picking up our every word, and Facebook storing our every post, ‘what happens in Vegas’ could easily become the number one trend on Twitter. In some ways, everything has changed, but in other ways, this is how it has always been. Whether we like it or not, there is a God who sees every word ever spoken, every human action, and even the motivations and desires of every human heart. God’s knowledge of humanity is more intrusive than any concept of an Orwellian Big Brother and more inescapable than any human-made surveillance system.

This is good news or bad news, depending upon your view of God. It is true that no matter how hard we try we cannot erase our words and actions, both good and bad. They are written into history and there is nothing we can do to change them. Carved into stone. Scored into titanium. Seared into flesh. There forever, no matter what, and God has them memorised. This is bad news indeed if you believe God is itching you judge you. If you believe He has His finger constantly hovering above the trigger linked to a Hellfire missile. But what if instead of being itching to judge, He is bleeding to forgive.

It is only a matter of time before another public figure falls to a public revelation of their past. The media will pour over them and seat them in the mob’s court. We will either be surprised or fatigued by the revelations (depending on our faith in human nature). But we will all watch as another one of us is dragged through the mud and made an example of (one wonders whether those in the judgement seats would stand up to the same scrutiny). But this is not what happens with God. God is not shocked by the revelation; He’s known all along. Jesus, already armed with that knowledge, made the decision to die for us as Romans 5:8 makes clear; whilst we were still sinners. And unlike the mob court, where another sinful revelation is only around the corner, in God’s court forgiveness is final and forever and unchallengeable. We needn’t fear the truth coming out and ruining our relationship with God, He already knows more about us than we do.

Suddenly, knowing God is watching you becomes a comfort rather than a curse. Knowing His forgiveness leads to a freedom we could only dream of in the digital age. His forgiveness comes with a new life and not one that is scarred by the past. We aren’t prisoners declared free without being presented with the key to unlocking our shackles.

God’s forgiveness means a new life, a new start; the equivalent of an internet history scrubbed clean, even from Google’s servers.

Luke

Xerxes’ Great Banquet

2. What Kind of King?

Esther 1:1-21

The book of Esther kicks off like all good parties should; with a great banquet. There is a unique kind of stress that manifests itself amongst our family when we decide to host a meal. For my wife, the house has to be perfect – far more so than we would ever expect for ourselves. For myself, as the chef, I imagine I am a contestant approaching the next round of masterchef. I cannot merely serve beans on toast, this is an opportunity to explore and present a creation of such magnificence that it will live long in the memory of our guests. The last time we hosted I looked around to see everyone coughing periodically inbetween teary-eyed smiles. It turned out I had added to the curry three tablespoons of chilli powder rather than the advised teaspoon measurement. My ego took a blow – I had failed. But why? What exactly had I set out to do?

This feast was not a gift, it was an opportunity for Xerxes to display his majesty and power. He used his possessions to paint a picture of himself.

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Golden bowl found at Susa

You could perhaps read the opening chapter of Esther and suppose that King Xerxes was being generous laying out a feast for all his nobles and officials. Esther 1:4 states that this feast was “(for) a full 180 days”, followed by a final seven days of feasting “for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa” (1:5). This would surely have been a sight to behold. Consider the imagery the author uses; the “enclosed garden of the king’s palace”, the “white and blue lines”, “purple material”, “silver rings on marble pillars”, “couches of gold and silver”, a dazzling mosaic pavement and golden goblets (1:5-7). All of this to display the Kingdom’s vast wealth, and the ruler of this Persian Kingdom’s majesty (1:4).

I find you rarely get something for nothing, and this banquet was far from free. At the same time as the banquet, a great war council was being held in which Xerxes was mustering support for his coming invasion of Greece. He needed their support and loyalty, and to gain this he helped them to see he was at least as powerful as his father Darius I. This feast was not a gift, it was an opportunity for Xerxes to display his majesty and power. He used his possessions to paint a picture of himself for people to worship.

In that case we are no-longer being generous, we are expecting a trade.

As I reflected upon this passage of Scripture I felt convicted. Am I guilty of doing the same thing? Why was my ego bruised as my friends choked down their ultra spicy curry? They knew I tried my best, and really they have come to see me and my family. They haven’t come primarily to consume my curry. If they had I’m not sure I would have them as friends. The answer to my question lay in the exploration of my motives. There’s certainly nothing wrong, in-fact there is something glorious, in giving our best for our friends. However, that act changes if we are doing so in order to satisfy our desires to recieve glory and praise. In that case we are no-longer being generous as we are, conciously or unconciously, arranging a trade.

For a human being to use another to expand their own ego and sense of self-worth falls so far short of God’s design for us. We are made for better than that. In this passage King Xerxes used his possessions to paint a picture of himself, and he tried to use his Queen as an object to eclipse them all. The author explains that Queen Vashti is called upon “to display her beauty” (use your imagination… or maybe not), and so Xerxes attempted to use her in the same way he did the golden goblets and purple cloth. She was supposed to demonstrate his majesty and power, that a King had at his disposal a beautiful Queen. But she refused to be objectified and remained in the royal palace, Xerxes power is immediately undermined. Realising his plan has badly backfired he immediately seeks to wrestle back his power by deposing Queen Vasthi, which is his attempt to save face and mend his broken image. Vashti’s and her behaviour is labelled a dangerous example for the community. What a man. What a King…

This section of Scripture raises for us so many questions concerning our interactions with other people. For instance, in a culture of consumerism, how can we avoid becoming defined by what we own and who we know? Have we ever sought relationships with people because they extend our status, or open opportunities for us? Have we ever used others for what they can do for us? These are important questions certainly, but the one that impacted me ‘was what kind of King do I want to serve?’

What sets this King apart is that whilst Xerxes invited his guests to give him something, Jesus invites His guests because He has already given them something.

In the New Testament there is another meal that takes place. Jesus (in Mark 2:15-17) is in hot water for His choice of dinner guests. Rather than surrounding Himself with the rich, the powerful, the influential and ‘good’ people, He was found in the company of “tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:15). His reputation undoubtedly took a hit because of His decision to dine with those society rejected. He risked His name for those who needed Him, as seen in the question the popular Pharisees present Him in Mark 2:16. But this King cared more for His people than public approval, and in time His name became greater than Xerxes’ name ever would become.

What sets this King apart is that whilst Xerxes invited his guests to give him something, Jesus invites His guests because He has already given them something; His very self upon the cross. His life for theirs. The feast with Jesus is one where we toast ‘it is finished’, because through His sacrifice, the King of kings has made a way for us to be saved.

I for one am glad to worship a King that cares more about me than cups and bowls. I am no mere object to my God. He is my Father, and through Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross, I am now His son.

Luke

Without Mention – But Always There

1. Introduction

I was watching Andy Murray play Novak Djokovic for the ATP World Tour Finals title last last year. The title was important, but nothing in comparison to the title of world number one which was also up for grabs that night. I watched as these two masters of tennis battled it out, and as the hours passed, Murray received the title he fought so long and hard for. The two men on the court were surrounded by seventeen thousand spectators, and they all shared Murray’s delight as he lifted the trophy. But how did Murray arrive at that moment of victory? No doubt through countless hours of practice. But what else? Tennis is often seen as a solo sport, but every step of his career Murray has had individuals who have supported him both financially and emotionally, individuals who have trained him, who have taken the time to work on his consistency, correct and perfect his service. But when journalists wrote about his victory, the people who surrounded him day after day, who were essential for his success, were never mentioned. It makes you wonder if they were ever there at all?

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Rock relief of King Xerxes

The author of the book of Esther doesn’t mentions God’s name once. The book is set in the reign of the Persian King Xerxes (c.438 B.C.), in the citadel of Susa. There are ten chapters filled with drama, with twists and turns, and a good pinch of irony. But not once do we read of anything even slightly religious. As Karen B. Jobes observes, “Esther shows no concern for dietary laws”, she gets married to a Pagan King after losing her virginity to him, and is celebrated for pleasing him more than any other virgin of the harem. Mordecai too, encouraged Esther to hide her identity, compromise her faith, and disobey the Torah. Together they hardly make a set of role models for the Jewish people. Jobes goes on to say that the book has so little in common with the rest of Scripture, that if you were to replace the word “Jews” with the name of another ethnic group “there would be no reason to think the story had anything at all to do with the Bible.” Yet we have received this book as part of our canon of Scripture not because of the characters we meet in the book, but rather because of our God that is constantly working behind the scenes. He is not mentioned once, but this book is absolutely about Him.

Many of us know the thrill of encountering God in a powerful way. We each long for the Holy Spirit to speak to us, to move us, to fill us, and these dynamic meetings between God and humankind are wonderful and exciting, but they aren’t our usual experience of God. What happens on a Monday morning, the day after Sunday’s meeting? Where are you going? What are you doing? Is God with you there at work, is He with you during your lunch hour, and the drive home? When you are stuck on the M25 in rush hour traffic, where’s God? We spend comparatively little time in a Church building collectively worshipping God, what happens for the rest of our time?Sometimes we can harbour an unnatural disconnect between the God of Sunday and our everyday lives. The Book of Esther challenges us to look for God in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. Esther’s entry into the story occurs through a beauty contest, and I cannot think of a more shallow event than this one. Yet this thoroughly irreligious event gives birth to a Queen who sits on a throne “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).

I believe that it is the genius of the author to hold themselves back from explaining every event that happens. Instead the author gives us ‘coincidence’ after ‘coincidence’ and we are left to fill in the blanks ourselves. Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer helpfully summarise these ‘coincidences’ for us;

Esther happened to be selected as Vashti’s successor; Mordecai happened to uncover the plan to assassinate the king; (Xerxes) Ahasuerus happened to have insomnia on the night before Haman planned to kill Mordecai; the selection of royal chronicles read to the king that night happened to contain the report of Mordecai’s good deed.

Often when we think of God we recall the powerful images He has given us of a parted sea, fire falling from the sky, people healed and sometimes even raised from the dead. Wonderful images of His power and might, a reminder surely that nothing is impossible with God. But what about the God of the gentle whisper? God need not appear as a burning bush to become involved in human affairs. The book of Esther teaches us to look for God’s whispers, rather than His fire alone. Over the next few months it is my intention to share with you the book of Esther. I trust that God will be challenging you and I to look at the ‘coincidences’ in our lives, because perhaps there is a little more to them than meets the eye. Perhaps behind the scenes is a God who is shaping His world without receiving the credit he deserves. Perhaps that same God has placed you where you are today, not by accident, but purposefully, “for such a time as this.”

But God Remembered Noah

I’m happy to announce that on Saturday the 21st at 14:27, my wife Fiona gave birth to a baby boy weighing 8 lbs. We decided to name him Noah. Every person I’ve spoken to so far has loved the name (or they were just being polite). I was surprised to find out that the name Noah actually ranks as the 2nd most popular name of 2015 according to BabyCentre. But we didn’t choose the name because it is popular, nor because it sounds good, and especially not because of the recent film starring Russell Crowe. I have always loved the name for different reasons.

“The narrative itself is not even about Noah, but rather God’s dealing with humanity.”

Since becoming a Christian I have been fascinated by the story of the flood found in Genesis 6-9. The narrative is set to the backdrop of a sinful and fallen world where “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). God’s shining creation had been plunged into the darkness of human sin, and if I can say one good thing about the Russell Crowe interpretation, its depiction of human sin goes some way to correctly portray its severity. So, in response, God resolved to wipe out the human race from the face of the earth preserving two of every animal along with Noah and his family. Often the story of Noah’s Ark is told as a cuddly, cutesy, children’s tale, where Noah and his family smile as the animals enter two by two before setting sail upon the newly formed sea. In reality though, what lies behind the fairytale is the real account of the terrifying reality of sin and God’s justified cleansing of the earth. The narrative itself is not even about Noah, but rather, God’s dealing with humanity. In fact, Noah doesn’t say a word until the waters have dried up. His first and only recorded words are his cursing of his son Ham, and blessing of Japheth and Shem. So why the name Noah you might ask?

“What sets Noah apart, is not his good behaviour, nor his ship building skills, nor his animal husbandry.”

1280px-Domenico_Morelli_Noahs_DankgebetI am writing this with our boy Noah sitting beside me squeaking away. As I look at him I am filled with all kinds of hopes and dreams for him. I hope he will be a good man. I hope he will find a career he loves. I hope he will have a wife and family. I hope he too will know Jesus as I do. As I wrestle with my hopes and the reality of a world in which suffering is ever-present, I find great comfort in the Genesis narrative. The man Noah stands as a good man who walked faithfully with God (Genesis 6:9), but was given a monumental task. As a result he stood not as a man petting the lions and elephants as they entered the Ark, but as a man who must have been full of doubt and conflict, calling out to those around him to turn from their ways yet knowing deep inside he deserved the same fate.

What sets Noah apart is not his good behaviour, nor his ship building skills, or his animal husbandry. The Hebrew narrative is written in such a way that one verse stands at the centre of this whole story, and it is Genesis 8:1; “But God remembered Noah.” In the midst of a fallen world, of so much suffering and terror, by grace alone Noah is protected, shut inside the safety of the Ark. Actually, Noah is no different from any of us. What makes Noah special is that he knows God and God remembers Him. For our baby Noah, and indeed all of us, he will make mistakes. Like the man Noah he will sin, fall and fail. But we know that ultimately his fate lies not in our hands as parents, nor in his own decisions – good or bad, but in the hands of his Heavenly Father. In the midst of the storms of life I can trust, as we all can, that God will remember us.

Luke

The Whisper Is Mightier Than The Storm

I’m many of us share the experience of being woken abruptly by the almighty sound of thunder and the unmistakable flashes of lighting. It is at moments like this when I stand in awe of the awesome power of nature. I recall many years ago sitting on a beach with my Mother and Sister admiring the crashing waves, feeling the spray on our faces, observing the swirling sky and experiencing the sound of thunder. I remember though, being shocked as a lighting bolt struck the beach just 20 meters away from where we were sitting. In that moment my sense of awe turned into respect and fear as we scrabbled off the beach to safety.

“Lightning bolts, burning bushes, seas parting and heavens being opened; they hope to see God at work and become convinced.”

It occurs to me that many people secretly hope for an experience like this when it comes to faith. Indeed, many of the people we come into contact with are eager to hear about where to find God. In their minds they have images of lightning bolts, burning bushes, seas parting and heavens being opened; they hope to see God at work and become convinced. All too many times I’ve heard people ask for a sign, for something miraculous, for evidential proof of God almighty. I remember an old colleague telling me that if he saw God reveal Himself in a miraculous way he would believe. I don’t believe he would have, in the same way I didn’t when the lightning struck the beach near me. For some people these “Damascus road” moments are sought after and longed for. Perhaps like Paul we would like to hear Jesus speak to us from heaven, or like Martin Luther have lightning strike near us and change our lives, but so often this isn’t our testimony. So what do we say, God is dead?

“If we truly wish to hear from God, we need to make space for silence – to hear His ‘low whisper'”

whisper-656x450Consider the life of Elijah; few people have seen so many wonders of the Lord, no-one else has seen answer to prayer in the form of fire falling from heaven – but for all this, Elijah’s faith still crumbled. To restore it, God took him to a cave at mount Horeb and before him came a strong wind that tore the mountain apart, following this came a mighty earthquake that shook the earth, and then there came a great fire that scorched the mountain, and for all this power and wonder displayed, God was in none of it (1 Kings 19:9-18). Instead we read that God came to Him in the “sound of a low whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). Some of us, like Elijah, may live to see great works of power in our lives. It is right that we should long for this as these moment really do build our faith, but we shouldn’t expect this to be the norm. Instead, if we truly wish to hear from God, we need to make space for silence – to hear His “low whisper”. Never before has this been so difficult in our age of distraction, but never before has this been so vital. I encourage you to make the time, carve it out, guard it and cherish it for, like Elijah, the “low whisper” of God has the power to change lives – not only for us, but also for the world around us.

Luke

How To Answer Suffering

The problem of suffering is not new. Most likely, the answers we give to the problem aren’t either. In fact, most of the questions asked during my Church’s last Christianity Explored course revolved around suffering.

“Before we can deliver the good news of Jesus,  we first have to explain away the bad news of the week.”

The same can be said for schools work. Both pupilswomen-tears and teachers alike are concerned with the world around them and for those of us who claim to know God, representing Him even, the first question on their lips is “Why does God allow suffering?”

There is a certain irony in the Greek word for “Good News” from which the word evangelism is derived. We find that before we can deliver the good news of Jesus,  we first have to explain away the bad news of the week. This can be challenging as we scrabble for the words to give an answer, any answer, to let us move the conversation on to a more comfortable area.

Often we fail to recognise the reason for the question and in so doing can do more damage than good. For example, to simply quote Romans 8:28 (“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him”) to someone who has just lost their fiancé in a car crash is deeply inappropriate. Or to tell a young man in a wheel chair who suffers with cerebral palsy that “suffering is simply a result of human sin” can only be offensive. Or to tell a young married couple who are unable to conceive that “it’s because we live in a fallen world” offers no comfort whatsoever. Instead of attempting to answer these questions with ill-thought out theological concepts (like Job’s friends, filling many chapters in the process), sometimes it’s better to stay silent.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

Other times it’s better to enter into their suffering with them, sharing their tears and showing them love and compassion, sharing something of your own testimony.

Each of the three situations above are from real people I know and have been given these answers. Unsurprisingly they took no comfort from their answers. But each of them came to faith hearing that unlike any other religion where God is portrayed as a distant concept, their God is a personal God. The God of the Bible is one who entered into human history, who suffered with them, who died for them to give them an inheritance in heaven, and so can empathise with them whilst they remain on earth. Our God offers great comfort as although we aren’t given all the answers as to the question “Why Lord?” we know Jesus Himself asked the same question upon the cross.

Luke