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’The Path to Life…’

’The Path to Life…’

Have you ever been resentful of people whose lives seem successful? They’ve achieved recognition; they have beautiful children, and they enjoy material riches. The very thought of them strips any sense of happiness from you.

Now there’s nothing wrong with being successful, having a great family or having money. The question is how do we value them? Do they represent what life is about or is there more to life?

Today we come to a second Reflection on Psalm 1. The Psalm is important for it lays the foundation for the whole Book of Psalms. As it progresses it identifies our two life-choices – a road to nowhere, or a path to life.

Consider verse 3. The imagery is vivid as it speaks of the truly blessed or happy people. They are like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all it does it prospers.

Like a tree, truly happy people draw upon life-giving water, growing slowly, steadily, surely, putting roots deeper and deeper into the source of life. Their source of water is God’s word. And just as a well-rooted tree develops its own particular fruit in the appropriate season, so they develop their own distinctive personality and quality of life.

And significantly, because this tree is well-rooted, its leaf doesn’t wither in the crippling conditions of drought. Unlike reeds in dried-up river beds or grass in parched earth, trees because of their deep-rooting system are more able to reach what little moisture there is. So in the tough times of life, the faith of God’s people is not likely to shrivel up.

Yes, our faith will be tested, but in the same way a deeply rooted tree in drought conditions is stimulated to push down even deeper in search of moisture, so too are we are stirred to dig deeper into God’s word; to rely more and more upon him; to be more focussed on putting our life in his hands. This results in bearing the fruit of love – love for God, love for others. We yearn for this. We long for the water of life, but in our natural state we look in the wrong places.

Two thousand years ago a woman at a well in Samaria longed for happiness but it had eluded her. Thinking that love and marriage was the answer, she had been married five times. And as Jesus observed in his conversation with her in John chapter 4, she was now living with a sixth man. But each time she made the same mistake. Her life was a mess. She felt insecure, lonely, and dissatisfied.

Telling her that he, Jesus, offered living waters which spring into eternal life, he said that true believers worshipped the Father in spirit and in truth. ‘A new age is dawning,’ he said, ‘when access to God is no longer tied to any one race or nation.’ The key is to know Christ and, in turn to make him known.

Consider what Psalm 1 tells us happens to a world that fails to turn to God and put its trust in him. In verse 4 we read: The wicked are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind drives away.

Chaff is the epitome of what is rootless and weightless: it has no substance. It’s useless. We can feel the force of the imagery – the action of winnowing, tossing the harvested grain into the air so that the light, useless chaff will be carried off by the wind, while the heavy grain falls to the ground.

Other psalms point out that all too often it is the godless rather than the godly who seem to succeed in life. But those same psalms also come to the same conclusion as this psalm. There will come a Day when men and women of straw together with their works of straw will be revealed.

Verse 6 looks ahead to this: Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the          congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

If this world is to make any sense at all, there must be a final judgement. If there is any morality, there must come a time when everyone is called to account. One of the points the Bible insists upon is that there will be such a time. And the psalmist wants us to know that on that day, those who have ignored God, who turned their backs on the perfect pattern of life he has shown us, or who have simply rejected him, will not have a leg to stand on.

Are you looking for meaning and lasting joy in life? Psalm 1 tells us how we can find it. We won’t find it by following our own inclinations nor by following our passions. And, with the incarnation of the Son of God, we certainly won’t find it by dismissing Jesus Christ.

We don’t know what life holds. One thing we do know is this. Our world is not getting any better. The western world is more and more wrecking itself on the rocks of unadulterated selfishness. People want happiness but insist upon looking in all the wrong places.

God tells us where we can find it. In responding to him, in learning from him and leaning on him; in living lives shaped by his perfect pattern. Then and only then will we begin to find true happiness.

So, if we want to find true happiness, it’s worth planning a lifestyle that includes the daily reading of the Bible; developing a pattern of prayer, so we can plunge into the springs of God’s living water. The best way to begin is to not procrastinate. If you are not regularly reading the Bible, plan to start today.

A prayer. Blessed Lord, you have caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning, grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, so that, encouraged and supported by your holy Word, we may embrace and always hold fast the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

’The Path to Life…’

’Happiness…’

Happiness is something we long for. But how can we achieve it? It’s elusive: one moment we can be feeling happy, but the next we’re not. Like moonlight it has slipped through our fingers.

In fact ‘happiness’ can’t be a goal in the strict sense of the word. For a goal is something that is within our power to achieve. Happiness isn’t like that. There are too many variables outside our control.

We can think that being successful, having a good family and friends, material assets and comfort, will make us happy. But it doesn’t. There will always be others more successful. And behind the best of families there is often unresolved pain or hurt; those with wealth often find they’re not satisfied – they want more, or they worry about the security of all they have. Despite experiencing much that is good in life we don’t always feel that overwhelming sense of real happiness and joy.

Psalm 1 helps us. Blessed is the one who… we read. Blessed means ‘happy’. The idea is echoed twenty-six times in the Psalms. It is also the word Jesus used in what are known as the Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-12).

In Psalm 1 verses 1 through 3 we read: Happy is the one who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.

We all have a real thirst, a longing for something that will satisfy us deeply. The thirst is not wrong. It is part of our complex make-up that makes us human. Our problem is that we look in the wrong places to satisfy it. The prophet Jeremiah records God’s words: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water,…” (Jeremiah 2:13).

Verse 1 of the Psalm challenges us to consider our world-view. Our natural inclination is to adopt a world-view that appeals to our sense of self-sufficiency. We like the music emanating from the temples of materialism or humanism that puts us in control of our lives and our destiny.

As we continue down this path, we indulge in behaviour that appeals to our feelings, even though it means flouting God’s directions and good purposes. And so we find ourselves marching in step with the crowds who live as though there is no God and no objective moral order. In turn we join the cynics who mock Christianity. We become part of a silent majority, failing to speak up for what we believe because we’re afraid. We sit in the seat of scoffers.

What then is the path to real happiness? Verse 2 tells us: their delight is in the law of the Lord; and on his law they meditate day and night.

The negatives of verse 1 are now contrasted in verse 2. As others have observed, they show us we have a choice. Like Adam and Eve in the original garden, God respects the gift of choice he has given us. It’s one of the features that makes us human. We are not puppets on a string in a mechanistic universe. We can choose.

Verse 2 provides the key that unlocks our true humanity: Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.We need something to transform us from deep within. The law of the Lord which stands against the counsel of the wicked is a reference to God’s instruction.

Interestingly the word meditate here is the same word plot Psalm 2:1. What goes on within our hearts and minds becomes evident in our words and actions. In Psalm 2:1 the plotting is the intention of darkness that leads to evil. In Psalm 1 meditating on God’s Word, his self-disclosure, leads to Godly growth and behaviour.

People who are blessed meditate on God’s Word – God’s special self-disclosure. Here is the key to real and lasting happiness. It foreshadows Jesus’ reference to living waters that he promised to the woman at the well in Samaria. These ‘waters’ are bound up in knowing him.

Sometimes we think that mediation is something carried out by the super-spiritual – people who are etched into stained-glass windows, people who have their heads in heaven but who are no earthly use. This is not so. The words here echo God’s command to Joshua – God’s man of action who needed just as much as anyone else to think hard about the will of God if he wanted to achieve anything worthwhile.

Real happiness is found in our determination to be instructed and counselled by God himself. This isn’t easy. It will mean being prepared to look inside ourselves and consider why we say the things we sometimes do, why we think and behave the way we do, and then be willing to change. This can be tough. It means being honest with ourselves before God. It can take time.

For to meditate on God’s teaching involves letting the weight of God’s Word press upon our hearts and minds, and our life-style.

Where then do we find true happiness? Not swimming in the shallows of faith, but plunging into the mind of God found in the living waters of his Word.

A prayer. Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth so that they may return into the way of righteousness: grant to all who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s service so that we may renounce those things that are contrary to our profession and follow all such things as are agreeable to it; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

© John G. Mason

’The Path to Life…’

‘The Power of Prayer…’

Listening to a replay of the Last Night of the 2021 BBC Proms I recalled their origin. In 1894 Robert Newman, manager of the then new Queen’s Hall near Langham Place, London, initiated classical music concerts that would be available for everyone. It was not long before the concerts became known as the Proms.

Despite financial challenges following the First World War, the concerts continued with BBC sponsorship and, after 1930 with the new BBC Symphony Orchestra. With television, radio, big screens in local parks and from 2009, cyberspace, the Proms attract many millions.

I touch on this history for it seems to me we all need to catch the vision of making God’s good news available for everyone. Last week I wrote on the power of God’s Word to change lives. Today, let me touch on the power of prayer.

In Daniel’s prayer (Daniel 9) we find two themes: confession and the honor of God’s name.

In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, by birth a Mede, who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans,… I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy… (Daniel 9:1).

By around 539BC, Daniel was amongst the elite of Jewish society who had been in exile in Babylon for some 50 years. During that time his abilities and his faith had shone when, at significant moments, his advice had been sought by Kings Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Darius.

Now in his 80s Daniel had lost neither his intellectual sharpness nor his faith. And he had not forgotten God’s promises through prophets such as Jeremiah that the Babylonian exile would be seventy years. Daniel was certain that God would not forget, and that the restoration of his people would occur.

However, this did not prevent him from praying. In fact, he actively prayed as he waited for God to fulfil his promises. This is very significant for it shows us that God’s sovereignty does not take away our responsibility. Blaise Pascal once commented, ‘God has instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality’.

Confession. I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules.

While Daniel’s confession is general, he uses the first-person pronoun: ‘We have sinned and done wrong; we have rebelled; we have turned away…’ (9:5). He includes himself.

Furthermore, although personal, his focus is on God: ‘O Lord, we have turned aside from your commands and your rules’ (9:5). ‘We have not listened to your servants the prophets’ (9:6).

Following a summary of the sins of his people (9:7-12), Daniel acknowledges the failure of God’s people to heed God’s law, let alone ask for God’s forgiveness for their selfishness and idolatry, their greed and failure to care for the needy.

Honor. Yet Daniel dares to plead for God’s mercy ‘for the sake of God’s name’ (9:17, 18). Daniel reminds the Lord that his reputation, his name, his honor are at stake. It was he, the Lord who had brought about the release of his people from slavery in Egypt.

Daniel was echoing a similar prayer that Moses prayed. Numbers chapter 14 records Moses’ intercession for the people when God said he would destroy them. Moses reminded God that it was through his initiative and power that the people had been freed from slavery (Numbers 14:13). He reminded him of his commitment to his promises (Num 14:14). Significantly, he asked what the Egyptians and the other nations would think about him. Was he incapable of fulfilling his promise? ‘Lord, aren’t you a God of your word?’ he asked.

And so Moses prayed: “Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.”

Humbly but boldly, he spoke directly to God, reminding him of his promises, his nature to forgive and his steadfast love. Moses understood that he could beg for God’s mercy because he knew God keeps his promises. Above all he understood the mercy of God.

In his prayer, Daniel didn’t ask God to set aside his righteousness. Rather, he prayed that God would act because of his righteousness: ‘Lord, in view of all your righteous acts, let your anger and wrath, we pray, turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain;… (Daniel 9:16).

At the heart of Daniel’s intercession is the glory of God’s name. Daniel did not hesitate to remind God of what he’d already revealed in his Word and urged him to roll up his sleeves and act.

We don’t live under the same covenant as God’s ancient people. With the coming of Jesus the Messiah, we live under a new covenant grounded in God’s unchanging character.

The glorious thing about the God of the Bible, is that he is gracious and always willing to receive us when we repent and commit to start afresh.

Daniel’s prayer challenges us to pray. Even though the Western world has turned its back on its God-given heritage we should not cease to confess the sins of the nation and ask for God’s forgiveness.

The power of our prayer is not in our praying but in the One to whom we pray. God is the perfect Father who loves to give good things. Prayer is a precious privilege.

Will you join me in praying for God’s forgiveness of our nation? And also in praying that we catch the vision of enabling everyone around us to access God’s good news through ministries such as The Word One-to-One?

Phillips Brooks once commented: ‘Prayer is not conquering God’s reluctance but taking hold of God’s willingness’.

A prayer. Lord Christ, eternal Word and Light of the Father’s glory, have mercy on our broken and divided world; send your light and your truth so that as we proclaim your word of life many will turn to you; for you now live and reign, God for all eternity. Amen.

’The Path to Life…’

‘Unexpected Power…’

With the geo-political upheavals the world is experiencing many fear what the future holds. The uncertainty today is exacerbated by the angry divisions within societies. Vindictiveness has replaced respectful and serious conversation. And we can feel utterly powerless when it comes to talking about our faith.

In Perelandra, the second in CS Lewis’ science-fiction trilogy, Ransom, the main character, feels powerless in confronting an evil force at work on the untainted planet Venus. The crafty subtle evil power reflects the temptations in Genesis 3. Despite being a learned scholar in philology, Ransom constantly finds himself defeated in his arguments. What could he do?

This raises an important question for us, for today people have no knowledge of the Jesus of the Gospels. So subtle and persistent has been the attack on Christianity they are not looking to the Christian faith for answers. It is time to review our approach?.

Come with me to a parable Jesus told – the parable of the sower. It begins in Luke chapter 8, verse 4. When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: ‘A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.’ As he said this, he called out, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’… ‘Now the parable is this,’ Jesus explained: ‘The seed is the word of God.’

Expectations. People travelled from near and far to see Jesus. Expectations were rising. It would have been a great time for him to call people to join him in a march on Jerusalem to set Israel free from Rome. But that was not God’s way.

We need to focus on the key to the parable: “…The seed is the word of God” (verse 11).

Causes and revolutions are staged by various means. Last century Marxists brought in Communism at the end of a gun. This century began, as we were reminded on 9/11, with Islamist extremists trying to de-stabilise and destroy through terrorism. In Jesus’ day zealots tried to revive Jewish independence through guerrilla warfare.

But these are not Jesus’ methods. The picture he paints is of a farmer quietly sowing seed. The Word of God he is saying, has within its DNA the capacity to change people’s lives for good. At first the transformation is hidden but there comes a day when the change is obvious.

Churches today have often lost confidence in the power of God’s Word to change lives. So, many churches focus on the sacraments, and others on social justice. But to make these things the priority is to lose sight of the way God works. God’s Word is the key that unlocks the door into God’s kingdom and therefore to life.

In Second Timothy chapter 3, verses 16 and 17 we read: All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the people of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

As the Word of God, the Scriptures give us exclusive information about salvation. They don’t contain exhaustive truth, but what they give us is sufficient for our rescue and furthermore, for living as God’s people.

In the larger context of Second Timothy, Paul reminds us that we live in a world that prefers to find or invent its own religion. He tells us that our only real hope for life and meaning is to turn to God’s unique self-revelation. Human resources won’t provide deep and satisfying answers. Our sure hope is in dependence on the resources of the living God.

To return to the parable in Luke chapter 8, Jesus warns us that the results of sowing the seed of God’s Word aren’t uniform. Some of the crop grows well, some poorly, some hardly at all. The results are not so much caused by bad sowing but rather because of some failure in the ground. We could call this parable the parable of the four soils.

One group, having heard God’s Word have hardened hearts through the silent, crafty work of the power of evil. A second group receive God’s Word with joy, but in times of testing fall away. They had liked the preacher but there had been no true repentance, no real change in their lives. A third group have also heard God’s Word, but they have not counted the cost of commitment. They were not convicted of their sin and their need to turn to Christ in repentance. They had come as customers to buy, not as disciples to surrender.

But then Jesus speaks of a fourth group. They are true followers of Christ who hold fast to God’s Word with an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance. Perseverance in godly living is the sign of God’s grace at work. A real lesson here is the encouragement we can experience in the ministry of disciple-making and outreach.

Jesus’ references to birds, stones, and thorns could easily demoralise us. But he is saying, ‘Don’t be put off. Be realistic, yes. But the ministry of God’s Word will always have its successes, and what success that will be!’ So, let’s be encouraged. Let’s not forget Jesus’ words: “I will build my church, and nothing will prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

And most of all, remember the key to ministry is letting God’s Word do its work.

A prayer.  Blessed Lord, you have caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning, grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that, encouraged and supported by your holy Word, we may embrace and always hold fast the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

’The Path to Life…’

‘September 11 – Twenty Years On…’

Twenty years ago Judith and I were living three short blocks south of the Twin Towers in Downtown Manhattan. We had awakened that Tuesday morning to clear blue skies and the sparkling waters of New York Harbor. But it was not to last.

We felt the shock when the first tower was hit from the north. We heard the scream of the second jet flying low overhead and what sounded like a sonic boom when the south tower was hit. We experienced the shaking of our apartment building, similar to that of an earthquake, and the midnight darkness when the first tower collapsed. We saw the dust, the ash and the paper on the streets and felt the eerie silence when we were later able to leave our building. Lower Manhattan was like a moonscape. A great evil occurred that day.

Twenty years on it is easy to put aside the hideous acts that cut short the lives of people going about their daily affairs. It is easy to forget that commercial airliners were used as missiles to crash into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. A further flight intended for more destruction was thwarted by the selfless heroic efforts of passengers. People on that flight prayed the Lord’s Prayer as the plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Over three thousand men and women died that day.

In his address to the nation that evening, George W. Bush, then President, called for prayers for all who had lost loved ones. He continued: And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”

In the Wall Street Bible talks I was giving at the time, I spoke on Psalm 46 which begins: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

Creation in turmoil. It can never be said that the Bible knows nothing about catastrophic events – and not least human evil and its devastating effects on this world. Indeed, the Psalm introduces a theme we overlook today – namely, the ultimate dissolution of the present world order by its Creator. God continues his work even in the midst of the chaos. God’s supremacy and presence with his people is never thwarted. He alone is our security and our strength.

The larger biblical epic records the intrusion of evil into God’s good creation (Genesis 3). God didn’t create evil but, because he didn’t make us robots, he allowed it. However, as the biblical narrative unfolds, we become aware of the reality and the depth of wickedness.

As a side note, if we insist we’re here by chance and are nothing but atoms in an ordered cohesion bumping around in time and space, evil and suffering have no meaning for there is no transcendental moral compass.

The opening lines of Psalm 46 speak of the unchanging God who is our refuge and strength. In him alone we find a secure shelter and the power within to address any situation. Indeed, verses 2 and 3 exhort us not to fear, even if the world around us is undone, for God remains supreme over every facet of his creation – the earth, the mountains, and the seas.

Humanity in turmoil. Psalm 46 moves from the upheaval of the material world to human turmoil. There is a river, whose streams make glad the city of God….God is the midst of the city; it will not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.

Derek Kidner comments that ‘the city of God is one of the great themes of the Old Testament … God’s choice of Zion, or Jerusalem, had been as striking as his choice of David, and the wonder of if keeps breaking through’ (Kidner, Psalms, Vol.1, p.175). We also find glimpses anticipating the New Testament vision of the heavenly Jerusalem as the community of God’s people rather than as a place (Ps.48:2).

Verse 6 speaks of the instability of evil and human tumult: The nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter… However, God has the last word for when he utters his voice, the earth melts. Verse 7 is so reassuring: The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

The Lord of hosts points to the mighty armies of heaven to which Jesus alluded when he was arrested (Matthew 26:53). Refuge, a different to word to verse 1, speaks of an ‘inaccessible height’ which the New English Bible translates as our high stronghold.

Be still! Verses 8 and 9 are an invitation to catch the vision of God’s ultimate intention – to make wars to cease to the end of the earth. It is a picture of the perfect peace that will follow on the other side of God’s judgement – the accounting that precedes the perfect righteousness of the new heaven and the new earth (2 Peter 3:12f).

The command “Be still” is not so much a word of comfort to the beleaguered but a command to all the nations. Jesus’ word to the turbulent winds and waters, “Peace. Be still” display the power of God’s Word. Mind-bending though the idea is, at God’s command the nations will be called to order, confronted by God’s glorious power: “Know that I am God! I will be exalted among the nations … and in the earth” (46:10).

In the closing words, the confidence in God in verse 1 returns with greater power: The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge – our high stronghold! The death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ confirm the truth and trustworthiness of these words.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 twenty years ago, churches were filled as many looked for comfort and hope. Some came to the risen Lord Jesus Christ for the first time. As we reflect on these events twenty years on, will you join with me in praying for the nations, especially that God might open blind eyes and unstop deaf ears, turning hard hearts towards their true home in Christ?

Let me encourage you to join us via the net to discover how you can turn the pages of John’s Gospel with your friends through Word121 (www.word121.com):

  • Friday morning, October 22 for ministers and ministry staff;
  • Saturday morning, October 23 for lay-leaders and church members.

Details to come this week.

Prayer. We commend to your fatherly care, merciful God, all those who in this passing world are in any kind of trouble, sorrow, sickness, anxiety or need, especially we pray for…  Give them patience and confidence in your goodness, and in your mercy provide their every need. Father, hear our prayer, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We praise your name for all your servants in whose life and death Christ has been honored. Grant that, encouraged by the good examples of their lives, we may run the race that is set before us, and with them share the fullness of joy at your right hand; through Christ who is the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  Amen.