Tag Archives: Spirituality

Receiving the kingdom: a sermon


Wooden crossAt Prestbury Methodist Church, we are following Trevor Hudson’s book Signposts to Spirituality, in our preaching. What follows is based on chapter three, ‘Receiving the kingdom’, which I was privileged lead last week.

SCRIPTURE:    Psalm 19; Mark 1:14-22

Let’s remind ourselves what is meant by spirituality, because a host of what might loosely be termed new-age writing tends to give spirituality a bad reputation, especially for your standard off-the-shelf Methodist.

What it’s not
The spirituality that Trevor speaks about is not an other-worldly experience. It is not an escape from the realities of washing dishes, getting kids to school, writing exams or struggling through another work week. It is not an escape from the wounds of suffering and oppression. New Testament spirituality is a deliberate process of shaping what we believe and think and do so that our everyday lives, the very routines and painful experiences we face, begin to reflect more and more clearly the person of Jesus Christ.

In other words, spirituality is simply growing as a Christian — becoming more like Jesus in everything we do, even our thoughts and our attitudes.

Chapter one
Trevor starts in chapter one with ‘Drawing a picture of God’. Because how we understand God, our picture of God, shapes the way we live our lives.

Chapter two
And in chapter two we learned about ‘Developing a Christian memory’. We were encouraged to recognise and remember God’s interaction with his creation, his interventions in our lives and, most especially, his intervention in the life, death and resurrection of  Jesus.

Third signpost
The third signpost for us  is ‘Receiving the kingdom’.

The proclamation of Jesus, the focus of his ministry, was as we read in Mark 1:14,  ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ The kingdom of God is available; the kingdom of God is here.

Activity
I want you to imagine for a moment that you have a choice (and the budget) to live anywhere in the world. Where would you go? Where would you definitely not go? (We had a discussion in the pews and a chance to feed back.)

Our choice of where to go and where not to go is based on our understanding of a particular country — its way of life, its people and perhaps its educational, health and legal systems. Of course we may be wrong. We might choose or reject a country on the basis of a biased view of that country.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD
In the same way, our understanding of God’s kingdom is going to be shaped by our understanding of God, our picture of God. That’s why it is so important (as Trevor keeps reminding us) to spend time with the Jesus of the gospels, because Jesus didn’t simply describe the kingdom, he lived it out and he demonstrated God’s kingdom at work.

And (as Trevor says) Jesus describes God ‘as an infinitely caring father who runs down the road to welcome home a wayward child with a hug. Then he showers on the boy some significant gifts, plans a welcome-home party and accepts him back into the family home. This is the nature of the King to whom this kingdom belongs.’ It’s a picture we need to take very seriously.

Not far away
But the kingdom of God isn’t a far-away place — some Care Bear land of rainbows and butterflies. Jesus didn’t leave the kingdom of God in order to come down to earth. He lived constantly in the kingdom of God; he brought the kingdom of God into every situation he encountered.

When Jesus healed the sick, there was the kingdom of God. When he ate with sinners and outcasts, when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus, when he forgave a sinner or touched a leper, there was the kingdom of God. When he faced his fears in the garden of Gethsemane, and as he hung on the cross to die, there was the kingdom of God; even there, the loving will of the Father reigned.

Anywhere but here?
Sometimes in our anguish, our struggles and our desperate situations, we dream of the kingdom of God as ‘anywhere but here’. God is going to come and rescue us from our hell on earth and transport us into his kingdom of peace and quiet, of goodness and gentleness, of freedom and joy.

But that’s not the kingdom of God that Jesus lives out in the gospels. There we find Jesus sending those he heals back into their communities. And he says to the forgiven, go and sin no more — go and live your new life, your kingdom life, in your own community, within your family.

The kingdom life is not an escape; it’s the discovery of a new way to live our lives. This is the kingdom that Jesus came to demonstrate.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS HERE
And Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is at hand; it’s available, it’s here; it’s for you and for me to enjoy, to live and to offer to others. How do we receive the kingdom of God? How do we start living kingdom lives?

Outward situation & history
Well, we don’t start the kingdom life because our outward situation has changed. We don’t win the lotto or win a makeover. We don’t even get to wipe the slate clean and start again as if none of the bad stuff had ever happened. Even our history remains in place. We are who we have become. The bad things and the good that have shaped our lives are still there. They never go away.

I wake up every day and I remember how far away my children and grandchildren are. And whenever I think of them, countless times a day, I think of my failures that led to them being so far away. Those failures and my memory of them will never disappear. They are part of who I am, who I have become, and how I live my life. And those failures remain part of their lives, too, whatever they make of them. They don’t go away.

But by God’s grace they become part of kingdom architecture — or, to use another metaphor, compost in which healing and growth takes place.

So, if the scenery doesn’t change, if our history doesn’t change, if we are still stuck in our difficult (and for some, desperate) situations, how do we receive the kingdom of God? How do we start living kingdom lives?

Jesus said, simply, ‘Repent and believe the good news.’

REPENT
To repent is literally to turn around. For the prodigal son, it meant turning away from the life he had chosen and physically returning to the home he had left. But for Zacchaeus it meant simply putting himself in a place where he could be found (in his case, up a sycamore tree). For the alcoholic it is a recognition that I cannot do it on my own.

Just the beginning
We live in a messed up world full of pain and suffering, of hurt and grief, of hatefulness, greed and destruction. Repentance accepts that that is not going to change suddenly, but that what can change is how we live in the world; how we respond to its challenges; the choices we make before we speak or act. Repentance is a choice. We choose to be different. Repentance is the first step, the choice to allow God in. Repentance says, ‘That’s the journey I want to be on.’

Repentance is not the end of the journey, just the beginning. None of us is here because we have perfected the art of sinlessness or achieved perfect peace. We are, all of us, still on the journey, however long we have been Christ followers.

And it’s not a once-off thing. Repentance is something we do whenever we discover within us a destructive, hurtful way of life; something we are clinging to that keeps us from living fully in the Kingdom; responses that hurt others and rob them of peace.

AND BELIEVE
‘Repent,’ Jesus says. ‘Repent and believe the good news.’

To believe is not some vague new-age proclamation that one reads on posters and Facebook pages: ‘Just believe and all will be well.’ What you are supposed to believe is never explained. Just believe.

Something particular about Jesus
No! For this spiritual journey, to believe means to believe something particular about Jesus. It means that we believe what the disciples came to believe and what they tell us in the gospels about Jesus. We believe that Jesus died for us and that he rose again. We believe that he is Saviour, Lord, God with us; that he is the way, the truth and the life.

Letting go
To believe also means, as Trevor puts it, ‘to trust oneself to the crucified and risen Christ.’ It means letting go; daring to let Jesus take control and teach us how to live.

That might sound pretty scary if you’ve never done it before. It is very difficult to let go, to hand your life over to an ‘unknown God’, to a Jesus you have only just met. But it is equally difficult for those of us who have known Jesus, and have been on this journey, for a long time.

A comfortable relationship with our Jesus
We have settled in to a comfortable relationship with our Jesus over many years. Perhaps he isn’t quite the Jesus of the gospels. Perhaps our Jesus isn’t quite so clear about right and wrong; perhaps our Jesus is okay with just looking after parts of our lives. And he doesn’t interfere with those things we would rather not talk about; things we cling on to, or things we are so ashamed of we simply cannot face them and dare not bring them into the open.

No, daring to let Jesus take control and teach us how to live is not easy for any of us. But let me say again our repentance and belief, our turning around and our commitment to the Jesus of the gospels, doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey with Jesus as he helps us face the darkness of the world and the darkness within us — the demons we have allowed to control us. For some it will be a painful struggle to disentangle and transfer our allegiance fully to Jesus. But it is a journey towards the light, and a journey alongside One who loves us more than life itself.

The first step is to repent and to believe: to make that decision to turn away and to begin the journey with Jesus.

EXERCISE
I want to invite you to share in an exercise Trevor Hudson describes. He speaks about our closed fists representing our holding on to our lives and our lifestyles; our unwillingness to let go of sin and let go of control. And he invites us to open our hands in repentance and belief.

So I invite you, if you would like to do so to clench your fists, and become aware of those areas or aspects of your life, those relationships or actions or beliefs, you have been holding onto, unwilling or unable to relinquish control; unwilling or unable to let God in.

Opening
As you become aware, so open one hand in repentance, a conscious decision to turn away from those things, to surrender them to God’s control and plans.

Then open the other hand in an expression of belief. It may be a confident and bold belief; it may be a hesitant, uncertain belief. But it is belief in the risen Christ who died for these very things, to bring freedom and peace and the power to begin a new life.

Silence
By these simple actions, we begin a new journey. For some, it’s the first step into the kingdom of God; but for many we have opened an area of our lives to the kingdom that has been closed for too long.

But remember, my friends, it’s only the beginning; it is an appeal to the Father who has been waiting, longing for us. He has been ready and waiting with the fatted calf and the party clothes. And he says to you and to me tonight, ‘Welcome home!’

Followed by a prayer: Receiving the kingdom: a prayer

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A Prayer about Prayer


Lord you listen to our ramblings,
You listen to our cries for help,
You listen to our angry ranting
And our tear-filled grief.

We bring you our troubles and disasters,
And the tragedies that play out in the world around us.
We tell you about the inconsequential, the mundane and the insignificant.
Sometimes we react with the greatest intensity to less important things
And appear indifferent to the catastrophes around us.

You listen to it all, our chattering and our silence,
Our passion and our calmness.
As a father listens to his children
So you love to share in our stories
And enter into our lives.

But how you long to speak a word of love;
How you long for a quiet moment,
When the babble and the tears and the anger subside;
A quiet space for your still small voice to penetrate;
For the Father to touch his children’s lives.

We are alert to the world’s nuances and rhythms,
Quick to react in every way imaginable.
Teach us to know the rhythms of your heart, Lord,
Your still small voice, and your passion for justice and healing.
Teach us to temper our chattering with stillness,
And to listen for the breathing of your Spirit.

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What is prayer?


Dutch Reformed Church, Somerset East

Image by Kleinz1 via Flickr



Crystal Rodli asked the title question on her blog recently.  

Let’s be clear from the outset.  I do not presume here to add one iota to the vast body of literature on prayer, but simply to put into words something of my very limited understanding.

Prayer is, I believe primarily about relationship.  It is conversation with one who loves us enough to share deeply with us; one who cares enough to listen intensely to our ramblings, our love songs, our breathing, and our ranting.  I don’t think any of this is in dispute.

What tends to be under the spotlight is prayer as intercession.   That is what we have difficulty with.  The Witness this week reported on a local Dutch Reformed Church minister who stated that “Praying in terms of requests to God doesn’t work.”  God doesn’t interfere in his creation so there is no point in praying for the weather or for protection on the roads.  He says that, “If you go on the road you have to be alert.  That is why you must pray that the Lord will make you more careful.”

Sounds good, but it fails to acknowledge God’s deep love for his people, foolish and simplistic as that may sound.   I agree with the good Dominee in that intercession is not a simplistic shopping list for God to ‘sort out’ while I get on with my life.  But there is a mystery about intercession that is beyond our understanding—God does interfere in his creation.  It is also beyond any manipulation.  When we try to fit prayer into our logic patterns and make sense of it, we can’t, and we tend to reject it as this minister has done.

David, of course has much to teach us about prayer, largely through the Psalms.  It is there that we learn to rant, if we need to.  But rant to God, not to those around us (even our enemies).  God can handle it and we can learn from it.  Our enemies can’t and we will learn nothing in the process.  But I was thinking about another prayer of David’s.  David’s plunge into disgrace through his infatuation with Bathsheba is well known.  After the murder of Bathsheba’s husband and David’s marriage to her, David was told by Nathan the Prophet that the child of the union would die.  When the child became gravely ill David refused to eat or to sleep.  He wrestled with God, pleading for the child’s life (2 Samuel 12:15-23).

When the child died David’s staff were fearful to tell him but, to their surprise, when they did break the news, David got up, bathed, dressed and ate.  “Yes,” David answered, “I did fast and weep while he was still alive.  I thought the Lord might be merciful to me and not let the child die.  But now that he is dead, why should I fast?  Could I bring the child back to life?”  David’s prayer was an intense grappling with God but, in the end, he found peace. 

Abraham challenged God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33).  He begged forgiveness for presuming to change God’s mind about the matter, but he continued anyway.  And indeed God changed his mind: “I will not destroy the cities if there are ten righteous people there.”

These two stories by no means tell us all there is to know about prayer but in both of these we find intense engagement with God.  I’m not suggesting that my prayers come even close, but this is what intercession could be.  Engaging with God; not letting go “until you bless me” (Genesis 32:22-32).

I don’t know how, or why, or what the mechanics are, or the logic.  It is, I believe, the deepest mystery about prayer, that God welcomes and invites our participation in creation and in salvation, not only through our actions but also through our prayers.  And sometimes, because we pray, God acts.  I would go so far as to say that, in some mysterious way well beyond understanding (and certainly beyond our manipulation), because of our prayers sometimes God is able to act.  Our prayers in some mysterious way, open doors for the Spirit to do his work.

After the flood (“Never again”), beginning with Abraham, God entered into a covenant relationship with his creation.  He said to Abraham, in effect, “From now on, I will not intervene in creation without your participation, and you will not find your purpose and fulfilment outside of a relationship with me.”  Our prayer relationship with God is part of that participation.  Not intercession alone, of course but intercession is an important part of it.

Some pray for parking bays (some pray for their sports teams).  Trivial?  Yes, of course.  Serious  intercession?  Of course not.  But don’t trash such prayers too quickly.  There are those for whom these are the only expressions of prayer they engage in.  Perhaps, just perhaps, God will open their eyes to greater things because of this small chink in their armour.

There are others whose relationship with God is so close and so dear that they share everything with God, including their drive to the shops and their search for a parking bay.  They don’t for a moment think that God has deserted them if the bays are all taken.  Well, OK, there are some who do need help here.  But for the rest, full bays will just be something else to engage their Friend and their Lord about.  Because, for them, prayer is an ongoing conversation.

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Too Busy to Listen


Listening is such hard work; waiting for the future to happen is so difficult. I struggle to get to retreats and quiet days. I’m too busy; there’s too much to get through; I want to read, to write, to learn, to do. But always, when I eventually do stop to listen, usually on a retreat or a quiet day, I am reminded (again) of how much I need to listen. The growth I strive for, the ability to serve, to preach, to be whatever God is calling me to be, will not come about by being pasted on to my life. It won’t come from reading more (although the seeds may be there); it won’t come from “wandering to and fro upon the earth”. It comes (for me at least) from within. It comes from listening.

I was privileged to spend a morning last weekend with Jim and Heather Johnston and about 30 or so friends at Beth Shalam, celebrating Jim and Heather’s ministry there over the past 20 years. The time has come for them to retire.  Many of those who were there had been to multiple retreats and quiet days over the years. Most had been through Jim’s Life Revision course (an eight-day retreat followed by two three-day retreats). All had been blessed beyond measure by the healing and nurturing that has been the mark of this home.

I have attended a couple of retreats at Beth Shalam. We are fortunate to be in the same city, just down the road, but I haven’t enjoyed the privilege as much as I could have. Then during last year (2010) I went through the Life Revision course. It was a transforming experience for me and, among other things, I began to write.

On this final, celebratory, retreat Heather pointed out that one can only harvest what has been sown; we bring out what is within us, what has grown there. I want my growth and my becoming to happen now, or at least by tomorrow morning. Perhaps one more book will do it….

Heather quoted from John O’Donohue’s meditation, “For One Who is Exhausted”. One line was particularly poignant for me: “The tide you never valued has gone out”.  Heather expanded on it saying that we often move too fast (in “the fast lane of nothingness”) and we get ahead of ourselves.

These thoughts distilled themselves into the following meditation during a quiet moment in the beauty of their wonderful garden.

O God of the mighty oak and the tiniest flower,
Of the soaring eagle and the wandering ant;
God of a future beyond my knowledge and beyond my reach,
Hold me to the present, its pain and delight.

I long to be an eagle, a significant oak,
But that longing consumes me and leaves me unfilled.
I am lost and ungrounded in a future that arrived too soon.
For the plant does not grow if the seed is not nurtured;
The harvest is barren and without any substance.

Lord, keep me from the fast lane of nothingness,
Hold me to the present, deep in the soil of your grace.
For it is here that the future takes root.

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An infinite appetite for distraction


Too much choiceThere is so much need around us and there are so many people caring for the poor, the sick, the lost, the abandoned, the abused, the environment…. The needs, causes and opportunities for service can become overwhelming. In my own small city there are individuals, non-profit organisations, and faith communities caring for a vast array of causes; and so many more beyond the city and around the world. Many are worthy; many deserve my attention; many deserve my time, energy and commitment. Most get none of these things from me.

With Facebook, everyone can create, quite painlessly, his or her own cause. It takes no more time or commitment than typing, “I support this, that, or the other, cause. Will you join my cause?” There, it’s done. Of course, some of these are set up and managed by folk who commit far more to these things than most and who do get involved collecting money or signatures, sending petitions, building and clearing, caring and helping. But for most of us the sheer multitude of appeals numbs our senses and we become overwhelmed by the intensity of it all; we are easily distracted away to something less intense and easier to cope with, something less demanding emotionally.

Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World was worried that we would be distracted into irrelevance.

Distractions come in all shapes and sizes. I want to write, but someone has commented on Facebook or posted a picture that demands a response; a newspaper has to be read; an email requires a reply; a blog post catches my attention and must be perused, which links to a multitude of other interesting posts and articles. Then the time for writing has gone and all I have done is read what others have read and added a word here or there.

In the Church too we create a smorgasbord of activities in which we think the Church should be involved and try to persuade individuals to become concerned and take charge. But there are more activities than people, so the same old faithful take on more and more, effectively doing less and less.

At this time of New Year resolutions and goal setting we need to take stock of what it is that God wants us to do. That is not something separate from who I am, since the God who wants me to do, is the God who made me, and who continually shapes my life. What is it that the One who knows me better than I know myself, who knows (better than my closest friend) to what I am best suited, what is that he wants from me; what is he shaping me to do and to become? The question is relevant whether I am concerned about my career or what I do in my spare time.

It’s a question we need to ask in our local Church. What difference can we make in this particular place, in this particular time? What does this disparate group of people that meets together in Christ’s name do best? Listening is the key: listening to the Christ who calls us here and who forms us, and listening humbly to the community in which we find ourselves. Through listening we put aside the distractions and become part of the community rather than simply joining a cause, however worthy it may be.

Three other posts of interest on this topic:
In a Clay Pot wrote: Church Planter not so bad after all
Sky Pilot wrote: Christmas comes to Mpophomeni
Jevlir Caravansary wrote: The Missionary’s House

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Our God is Coming


PRESTBURY METHODIST CHURCH
20th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
10 OCTOBER 2010, 18h30
SCRIPTURE: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

bicycle-01What was your best birthday or Christmas present ever?  I remember a bicycle I received for Christmas when I was 11.  What was yours?

Of course we were excited and grateful. No one had to tell us to say thank you for these presents. As kids, most of us had to be forced to write letters to Granny and to Aunty Sue for the hankies and socks. But these presents we were over the moon about!

Most of us like to have our gifts nicely wrapped and properly marked, “Gift”, with our name on it. And once received and enjoyed, it’s a lot easier to say, “Thank you.”

“LEPERS”
If we were the “Lepers” Jesus healed that day, surely we would have been grateful? Here we are with this debilitating disease that excommunicates us from society and cuts us off from our families. We would do anything to be rid of it. We call out to this wandering rabbi we’ve heard stories of. Is it possible? Probably not but, who cares? Let’s give it a go.

“Jesus,” we call out from the dust and the shame. “Jesus! Master!” (Nothing like a bit of flattery.) “Have pity on us!”

And what does he do? He sends us to the priest. “Go and let the priests examine you,” he tells us.

Yeah, right. In this state! You only go to the priest when this dread­ed disease has left you; when you’re whole and well. Then he can pronounce you ready to return to society. Do you think we’d be calling out for help if we were fit to go to the priest? But, hey, when you’re an outcast, you get used to people telling you what to do; so we all turned round like little lambs and marched off towards town.

Well! What can I say? Something strange started to happen. Our skin started to heal. The lesions closed up. By the time we reached the edge of town we were well enough to show ourselves to the priests.

THANK YOU
Now, if that were you or me, surely, “Thank you” would have been the first thing on our minds. But what happened here? Only the Samaritan came back. Jesus calls him the “foreigner”. Was it because he had no obligation to visit the priest, and no family to call on and be distracted by? It’s easy to miss an opportunity to give thanks. And by the next day the wandering Rabbi had gone.

I think of the story of a man who needed a parking space. He was desperate. He was late for court and he was going to get arrested for contempt if he didn’t get himself inside that courtroom in the next five minutes. He’d been driving around for ages already so, in absolute desperation, he decided he’d pray. He promised to give up drinking, and smoking, and swearing. I told you he was desperate.

“I’ll even go to church every month. Just give me a parking please.” As he said the magic word, a parking opened up in front of him, right outside the courtroom.

“Oh,” he said. “It’s OK, God. You don’t have to worry; I’ve found a spot.”

THE PSALMIST AND EXILE
There wasn’t much for Israel to be grateful for during the exile. They had been attacked and defeated by the Babylonians, dragged away from their homes to the land of their captors, their city and temple destroyed. The Psalmist summed up the despair of that time in Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
     our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
     they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
     if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

He went on to spit out his hatred of the Babylonians who held them in captivity:

8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction
     happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us-
9 he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

“Ooh, how nasty,” we say, from the safety of our protected pews and comfortable lifestyles. But anger comes easily enough to us when we’re in traffic, in government-department queues, or on the other end of the telephone. Our lives aren’t threatened, and all that has happened is that the level of service we received left much to be desired. Yet when someone fails to give us the service we demand, or pushes in front of us, we get angry.

JEREMIAH AND EXILE
Jeremiah had a different view of the exile, and of the experiences we face that so often lead to anger and frustration. He wrote to the Jewish leaders, banished to those same rivers in Babylon (Jeremiah 29):

5 Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what you grow in them. 6 Marry and have children. Then let your children get married, so that they also may have children…. 7 Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too. (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 GNB)

God isn’t waiting for us somewhere else, in some other circumstance, in a better situation. Jeremiah calls us to focus our attention on things we can do in our weakness and helplessness, and on the gifts God gives us in those difficult places.

BROTHER LAWRENCE
I have a prayer on my desk at work that I read every morning when I start my working day. It’s a prayer written by Brother Lawrence, he of the ‘peeling potatoes in the monastery’ fame. I imagine it’s a prayer Brother Lawrence prayed when he walked into the kitchen; when he would perhaps much rather be walking in the garden, or praying in the chapel, or writing to people who needed encouragement—something, anything, more healing or fulfilling than peeling potatoes or cleaning toilets. He prayed:

“O my God, since you are with me, and I must now, in obedience to your commands, apply my mind to these outward things, please grant me the grace to continue in your presence; and to this end prosper me with your assistance, receive all my works and possess all my affections.” (Brother Lawrence, “Fourth Conversation”, The Practice of the Presence of God)

Our hope doesn’t lie in the fact that one day we will be in Heaven, that one day we will be rescued from all of this. Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” God’s kingdom isn’t somewhere else—another time, another place. God’s kingdom is here and now. “Don’t wait until after the exile,” Jeremiah said to those who were suffering in Babylon. “Sing your songs in that place; live, love, plant, reap, let life happen there, in that place of despair and hopeless­ness.”

JONI EARECKSON TADA 
Some of you will remember Joni Eareckson. She broke her neck in a diving accident when she was 17—just finished high school—and has been a quadriplegic ever since. Her book that introduced us to her amazing story was called, simply, Joni. It was written in 1976 and she is now 60.

Joni Eareckson Tada she is now, with 35 books to her name and six honorary doctorates behind her. The magazine, Christianity Today, says that she might be mistaken for a modern-day Job. Having been a quadriplegic since the age of 17, she has endured chronic pain for the past ten years. Now, at age 60, she has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

In an interview with the magazine she says,

“Even though it seems like a lot is being piled on, I keep thinking about 1 Peter 2:21: “To these hardships you were called because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.” Those steps most often lead Christians not to miraculous, divine interventions but directly into the fellowship of suffering. In a way, I’ve been drawn closer to the Savior, even with this breast cancer.”

OUR GOD IS COMING
In Isaiah 35:4-6 the prophet calls out,

“Tell everyone who is discouraged, ‘Be strong and don’t be afraid! God is coming to your rescue, coming to punish your enemies.’ The blind will be able to see, and the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and dance, and those who cannot speak will shout for joy. Streams of water will flow through the desert.”

Ruth Patterson comments on this passage in her book, “Looking Back to Tomorrow: A Spirituality for between the Times,

“We have good news to share, in spite of so much evidence to the contrary,” she writes, “news that’s going to strengthen tired hands and encourage weak knees and give strength to those who have been imprisoned for far too long. And the good news is that our God is coming…. (He) is coming to save us, to destroy our enemies.”

But note that Isaiah doesn’t say, “God is coming to take us away from all of this.” Or, “We are going to God.” Our God is coming into the situation in which we find ourselves.

WE HAVE GOOD NEWS
And the fact that he is coming to save us, to destroy our enemies, is indeed good news. But, instead of sharing it, we spend our energy complaining. We have a song to sing, but we think that God might be offended if we sing in the desert, in the dark places, in the streets. We assume that good news won’t be effective against the power and the violence of the world. We are taught that violence only listens to violence. We think we should rather express our anger because, otherwise, nothing will change: taxis will continue to be taxis and service levels will just get worse.

We read in the letters pages of our local newspaper endless debate between Christians and atheists and Christians and Muslims. Christians trying to reason or argue with the others, to point out the error of their ways, show them where they are wrong, and why they should change their minds. I wonder if we are not focused on the mind when we should be engaging the heart. We have good news, our God is coming! Instead we indulge in arguments and complaints.

GOD’S GIFTS
One of the problems, of course, is that the gifts God gives us aren’t always properly wrapped, marked with our names. Sometimes they are small treasures easily missed: a tiny bird dancing in the spray from a leaking hosepipe, a child’s smile, a dragonfly hovering above the water, or a dozen hadedahs looking stupid on a fence.

Sometimes God’s gifts of growth and opportunity come wrapped in pain and struggle, which is what Joni Eareckson Tada discovered. And it’s often in the wilderness of dry and empty times that God makes his presence known. The greatest gift of all came in the shape of a cross. It’s hard to recognise the presence of God in the pain and the stress in which everyday life swamps us. But that’s where he is.

OUR ENEMIES
And he has come to save us, to destroy our enemies. Ah, no, sorry, bad news; our enemy does not drive a taxi. Our enemy is not behind the counter of Home Affairs or the Msunduzi Electricity Department [government departments that have raised the ire of local residents recently]. He is not even training in a terrorist camp. Ruth Patterson says, our enemies “are certainly not other human beings, created in [God’s] image and likeness….”

Who are they then? Patterson says, “Included in their ranks are despair, doubt, cynicism, injustice…, bitterness, racism, guilt and fear.” It is from these enemies within that our God comes to rescue us.

What else will God do? Patterson continues,

“When he comes he will open the eyes of the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf. Those who have been blinded for years…are going to begin to see, to recognise the other who is different as their sister, their brother. Those who have not been able to hear another’s truth because they have been deafened by…(their own propaganda) or by their own self-righteousness are going to have the ears of their hearts unstopped. Those who have been silenced, who have had no one to listen to the cry of their heart, are going to sing a song of freedom from their broken places that the whole world will hear…. And the Spirit of God…will satisfy the thirsty souls of those who have long been yearning for something that material possessions could not satisfy.”

Friends, our God is coming! He is coming to a place in your heart and mine. He is coming to renew our world by transforming our lives. His healing and transformation doesn’t necessarily begin with the outward needs of our bruised and broken bodies or painful circumstances. He begins his work within.

Our God is coming. Let me ask you, what does he long to do for you and through you?

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