The Big Reveal

At the moment, I’m reading “The Women of Christmas” by Liz Curtis Higgs. I would say she’s in her mid-60s, and her warmth comes across in the videos she posts on her Facebook page. During October and November, she’s posted a video every week to accompany the chapter we’ve read. It was chapter 5 this week, which was about the birth of John the Baptist.

As I watched the video, I got to thinking about him – not as a baby, but as a man. At the beginning of John’s gospel, he talks about when he consciously realised Jesus was the Messiah – the Anointed One, as we would say in English. Now wouldn’t you think that having been conceived miraculously when his mother was past childbearing age, and having his father say when he was born that he would go ahead of the Lord and prepare a way for Him (Luke 1:76), wouldn’t you think John the Baptist would have grown up with a knowledge of who Jesus was? After all, when Mary visited Elizabeth during her pregnancy, he leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:44). In John’s gospel though, he clearly says: “I didn’t know who He was. But the One who sent me to baptize with water had told me, ‘You will see the Spirit come down and stay on someone. Then you will know that He is the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’” (John 1:33). John didn’t know who Jesus was, until God revealed it to him! It was only at Jesus’ baptism, when John saw the Holy Spirit come down and rest on Jesus in the form of a dove, that he knew.

This is amazing to me, although it shouldn’t be surprising because it’s consistent with who God is. He’s a relational God. Our interactions with Him can’t be rooted in our parents’ faith, or the traditions we grew up with. There has to be a moment where it becomes personal. For me, that happened on 2 October 1999. Has it happened for you?

When a Jewish leader went to see Jesus one night, Jesus told him: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). If you’re praying for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, if you want Him to work through your life, you have to be willing to turn aside from the way you were before and let Him turn your life around. As you read your Bible, maybe you’ll realise a long-held belief doesn’t correspond with what God thinks. You might find yourself going along with God even when it’s countercultural – even when it makes you unpopular – but popularity won’t be so important anymore, because He’s shifted your priorities. That’s who God is – He’s dynamic. He changes people from the inside out.

Would you like to be part of God’s kingdom, and live as a follower of Jesus? Here’s how you can do that. “Come near to God, and He will come near to you” (James 4:8). Why not take a few minutes to talk to God about how you’re feeling, and wait to see how He responds?

The Week That Was

I haven’t done one of these blogs for a while, where I tell you a few of the things I’ve been watching/listening to.

Hymn

This week, I watched a very beautiful celebration of someone’s life. That’s one thing I love about modern technology, like Zoom or YouTube: It makes it so easy to join friends across the world in whatever they’re going through, happy or sad. My friend’s husband (a pastor) did a wonderful sermon on grief, which I think we could all take on-board in 2020. When Paul said we shouldn’t grieve like those who have no hope, he wasn’t saying we shouldn’t grieve at all. Grief is an appropriate response to brokenness. Grief without hope says: “Nothing will ever look better again. I can’t go on”, but grief with hope says: “I’ll go on with my life, even with the sorrow”. Their musical selection was inspiring too. They had a hymn I hadn’t heard for years – one I’d love to have at my funeral, except I’m not sure how many people would know it – “When the Roll is Called up Yonder”!

Comedy

I still haven’t got tired of this. “Father of the Bride” is my favourite film. I watched Part 2 at the cinema in 1995, and a couple of weeks ago, I came across “Father of the Bride Part 3-ish” – the Banks family in lockdown! It’s brilliant, and George (Steve Martin) is just the same.

Book

Sarah Morgan’s new book came out this week. I need to start one of her books early in the day, otherwise I’ll be reading all night! You really get into the characters and want to tie up all the loose ends. This one has all the elements you need for a Christmas film: A fun four-year-old, family conflict, and of course romance.

Podcast

Jeremy and Adie Camp were this week’s guests on the Matthew West podcast. I’ve always been impressed with Jeremy’s story. From what I remember, he married in his early twenties and his first wife died of cancer shortly afterwards. When she died, he felt God tell him to pick up his guitar and start worshipping, which he did, hence the song “I Still Believe”. On the podcast, they talk about writing “Keep me in the Moment”, the film and books released this year, and the new Worship Project EP he and his wife have made. It’s lovely to listen to. Their voices blend really well together.

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What have you been watching or listening to this week? How has it helped you?

Christmas: God’s Promise Kept

I have exciting news today on the blog, but I’ll start with a story. In December 2018, I went with my parents to an Advent service. No sermon; just songs and readings, all connected with light. One of the readings was Numbers 24:17 – an obscure verse about the Star that would come out of Jacob. Behind me, I heard someone whisper: “I don’t understand!” and no wonder, because no one had connected it with Jesus or the season we were in, so an idea came. I wanted to explain, in simple terms, the story of the Old Testament and how it pointed to Jesus.

And here’s the exciting news: I did explain, by writing Christmas: God’s Promise Kept – 25 short daily devotionals for Advent. It’s the first book I’ve had published, so a dream realised for me, and today’s the day it officially launches! As you’ve been kind enough to read this blog, I thought I’d share the introduction with you, to give you a bit of a taster.

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The first thirty-nine books of the Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) transport us from creation to the time of Jesus’ birth. At Christmas, we celebrate Jesus being born, but sometimes not much is said about events leading up to that moment. I have a real love of the Old Testament, its many characters, and how God spoke to them about His Son before He was even born. For example, He said to Isaiah: “At that time people will say, ‘Our God is doing this! We have waited for Him, and He has come to save us’” (Isaiah 25:9). Let’s focus on one Old Testament reading every day until 25 December. Hopefully it will enrich our celebration of Christmas, as we see that Jesus – this ruler of nations, born in the small town of Bethlehem – is God’s promise kept.

When I wrote this series of Advent readings, what I wanted more than anything was for it to be accessible. I’ve deliberately kept the reflections short so that even on a busy day, you can fit in the day’s Bible-reading alongside my words. I hope you come away with an understanding of the backstory of Christmas, and a love of God’s story as a whole.

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So, if you liked the sound of that, you can find the book on Amazon. Thank you so much for reading and sharing my excitement.

The Bible is ACE

Today is September 30th. I didn’t know the significance of that, but according to an Email I got last week from Bible Gateway, it’s Bible Translation Day. That sounded like a good time to write about the importance of reading our Bibles.

Firstly, as Christians, it’s important because God’s Word starts us off on our faith-journeys. “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:14, 17). I recently watched a good documentary about John Wesley – the founder of the Methodist church. He went along to a meeting where Martin Luther’s thoughts on Paul’s letter to the Romans were read aloud, and Wesley wrote afterwards that his ‘Heart was strangely warmed’. Something of God made it off the page and into his heart – faith came by hearing God’s Word. I can say the same about the night I became a Christian.

Secondly, the Bible’s important because even while parts of it were still being written, people began using it to connect with God. You might remember a previous post on Daniel 9, where I talked about how Daniel’s study of God’s message to Jeremiah prompted him to pray. Of course, it’s not only true for Daniel, but also for us. “It is not just bread that keeps people alive. Their lives depend on what God says” (Matthew 4:4). “Remain in Me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5). What Jesus means is that we can’t live or do anything of eternal value unless we stay connected to Him, and the Bible helps us to do that.

Lastly, the Bible is truth. “But test everything. Keep what is good, and stay away from everything that is evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). When I was a new Christian and talking about my conversion experience, one of my friends (who wasn’t a believer) told me it didn’t say anything about hell in the Bible. Now I didn’t know the Bible very well at the time, but if I had, I could have challenged that. I also came across a group of people who said they didn’t believe in the Holy Spirit.

Seeing whether something measures up to the truth can be extremely helpful in building ourselves up. I don’t feel good enough? Well, God’s chosen me and not rejected me. I’m concerned about the future? God will meet all my needs.

To summarise, the Bible is ACE. It helps us arrive at our conclusions about God, keeps us connected with Him, and by its truth we can evaluate the things we hear and feel. What keeps you from opening up a Bible and reading it for yourself?

The Holy Spirit’s Challenge

What comes to mind when people talk about the Holy Spirit? I tend to think of John’s gospel, where Jesus tells us that He’s going away, but He won’t leave us as orphans because His Spirit will come and remind us of everything He’s said to us (John 14:18, 26). I think of Him as a constant companion; my Comforter, but one of His less popular roles is that of Challenger.

I’m reading the book of Micah at the moment. That’s in the Old Testament, before the birth of Jesus. Jesus hadn’t yet promised that His Spirit would testify about Him. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit wasn’t with people constantly; He came on certain people for specific purposes. In Micah 3:8-11, Micah says: “But the LORD’s Spirit has filled me with power, goodness, and strength. So I can tell Jacob about his crimes”. He goes on: “Leaders of Jacob and rulers of Israel, listen to me! You hate the right way of living! If something is straight, then you make it crooked! You build Zion by murdering people. You build Jerusalem by cheating people! The judges in Jerusalem accept bribes to help them decide who wins in court. The priests in Jerusalem must be paid before they will teach the people. People must pay the prophets before they will look into the future”. This isn’t so far-removed from today. I remember being at a gathering once where somebody said that unless we gave to the preacher, we wouldn’t receive any blessing from his words. I think Micah would have hated that.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the love of God – and where would we be without it? – but we also shouldn’t forget the call to right living. I know that as long as we’re following Him, Jesus doesn’t condemn (Romans 8:1), but the Holy Spirit still convicts. He still pricks our consciences when we overreact or think wrong thoughts, otherwise how would we grow? How would we increase from one degree of glory to another?

Jesus said that in order to enter the kingdom of God, someone must be born again – born naturally, and then born spiritually (John 3:3-5). In other words, if you’re a Christian, you’ve come to faith because the Holy Spirit has started working in your life. He’s convicted you, and you’ve realised your need for Jesus to take away all your past failings, but that’s just the start. “You accepted Christ Jesus as Lord, so continue to live following Him” (Colossians 2:6).

The Holy Spirit produces fruit in our lives: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). I can celebrate all of that, but I’m equally grateful for the way He guides me, and helps me to live for God.

When Daniel Sees Jesus (Part 2)

A few days ago, I explained why I believe Daniel’s visitor (in Daniel 10) has to be Jesus. Daniel was greatly affected by what he saw, but Jesus didn’t leave him weak and barely able to draw breath; He had things to impart to Daniel. The most important of these is mentioned twice (in verses 11 and 19): “God loves you very much”. There’s nothing like knowing you’re greatly loved by God. You might recognise that God is all-powerful, but to know He looks on you with kindness? That He won’t use that power to utterly destroy you? How reassuring.

Jesus also offers healing. “When He touched me, I felt better” (Daniel 10:18). The healing was a gift. It didn’t require Daniel to do or say anything. There was no condemnation – no hint that it was Daniel’s fault for being weak or depressed; but, like the song says, just one touch from the King.

What else do we hear from Daniel’s visitor? “Peace be with you” (Daniel 10:19). Like John’s description of Jesus in Revelation, this also reminds me of words John wrote, in his gospel this time: “I leave you peace. It is My own peace I give you” (John 14:27) – Jesus’ words to His friends before He died. A God-given peace is available – for Daniel and for us.

Not only that, but strength and empowering. When Daniel was unable to speak, He touched his lips (Daniel 10:16). In Isaiah 6:5-8, a burning coal touched Isaiah’s lips and he was equipped to declare God’s message. It seems to me that Daniel’s visitor is equipping him in this chapter, and preparing him for the words he’s about to hear. “When He spoke to me, I became stronger. Then I said, ‘Sir, You have given me strength. Now You can speak’” (Daniel 10:19).

As Christians today, we can be thankful for the love, healing, peace and strength Jesus gives us, and for the power of His Spirit. Because Jesus has gone to be with the Father in heaven, His Spirit could come – to fill and equip His first followers (Acts 2:1-4), but also to fill and equip us when we ask for Him.

When Daniel Sees Jesus (Part 1)

Daniel 10 is one of my favourite chapters in the Old Testament. It starts by telling us that Daniel was very sad for three weeks (Daniel 10:2). Daniel wasn’t immune to things like depression, but it’s at that time (when he’s feeling down and eating less) that Daniel has a visit. He sees a man wearing linen clothes and a golden belt, with white hair, fiery eyes and a face bright like lightning (Daniel 10:5-6). This description is so similar to John’s in Revelation 1:13-16 that it leaves no doubt in my mind: The man visiting Daniel has to be Jesus! No wonder Daniel responds the way he does – by bowing low with his face to the ground (Daniel 10:15). When you see Jesus in His glory, what else can you do but worship?

Daniel’s getting a glimpse into the spiritual world. His visitor says to him: “Daniel, do not be afraid. From the very first day you decided to get wisdom and to be humble in front of God, He has been listening to your prayers. I came to you because you have been praying. But the prince of Persia has been fighting against Me for 21 days. Then Michael, one of the most important princes, came to help Me because I was stuck there with the king of Persia” (Daniel 10:12-13). In other words, there’s been a spiritual battle going on. Satan is sometimes referred to as the prince (or ruler) of this world (John 14:30, 16:11; 2 Corinthians 4:4). Daniel’s seeing Satanic forces fighting to stop him getting revelation from Jesus about the future of his nation (perhaps Daniel’s depressed state of mind was a symptom of that fight), and he’s seeing angelic forces helping Jesus as He overpowers them (Michael being an important angel who ministers to God’s people).

Daniel’s understandably affected by all this. He asks: “How can I talk with You? My strength is gone and it is hard for me to breathe” (Daniel 10:17), but Jesus doesn’t leave Daniel in a weakened state. In fact, He has several things to offer him, and we’ll look at those in Part 2.

Taking Responsibility

I’m reading the book of Daniel at the moment. Chapter 9 takes place in the latter part of the Jews’ exile to Babylon. Daniel had been reading God’s message to Jeremiah, where He talked about the exile lasting seventy years before God would visit and act on the Jews’ behalf (Jeremiah 25:12-14, 29:10-14), and this prompted him to pray.

Daniel could pray with confidence because he knew from the prophecy that the Babylonian exile was almost over. Instead he dressed in sackcloth and put ashes on his head – a symbol of mourning, and he acknowledged Judah’s wrongdoing. “But we have sinned. We have done wrong. We have done evil things. We turned against You. We turned away from Your commands and good decisions. The prophets were Your servants. They spoke for You to our kings, to our leaders, to our fathers, and to the common people in our country. But we did not listen to them” (Daniel 9:5-6). Did you notice the word ‘We’, so many times in those verses? He goes on: “LORD, we should all be ashamed” (Daniel 9:8). This is surprising, because of Daniel’s story so far. When he first went to Babylon, he refused to eat the king’s royal food, which was unclean according to Jewish laws (Daniel 1:8). He kept up his routine of praying three times a day, despite opposition (Daniel 6:10), and he obviously paid attention to God’s spokesmen. This very prayer was brought about by him studying God’s words to Jeremiah (Daniel 9:2), but Daniel counts himself with the nation of Judah, who sinned against God. Their shame becomes his.

The only example of this I can think of in my own life is when I went to South Africa. At the District Six Museum in Cape Town, when I saw a bench labelled “For Europeans only”, it hit me – how people had been so mistreated. Though I wasn’t actively involved in apartheid, I felt part of it. As a white person, I could count myself with the people who did these things. Their shame became mine.

Is there a way forward from the shame of our past? What was the way forward for Daniel? He prayed for the resolution he was hoping for. “I am not saying we are good people. That is not why I am asking these things. I am asking these things because I know You are kind” (Daniel 9:18). Daniel had faith that God’s kindness was greater than Judah’s mistakes, and we can trust in His kindness too. In “Daniel for You”, the author encourages us to look not only at Daniel (who identified himself with the nation of Judah), but also at Jesus. On the cross, our shame became His, even though He lived a perfect life and had done nothing to warrant any shame. On the cross, Jesus offers to take responsibility for our wrongs so that instead of punishment, we can enjoy God’s undeserved kindness (or grace). I can’t think of a better offer than that.

Quotes that Bring back Memories: Part 1

We have our prayer meetings on Zoom at the moment, and one lady has really blessed me with things she’s said these last couple of weeks. Today as she prayed for someone, she asked that they might be drawn to God in a way they can’t resist. I loved that phrase.

God drew me to Him in a way I couldn’t resist on 2 October, 1999. For those who’ve just started following this blog and may not know, at the time, my not-much-younger sister was having driving lessons. I went to a church to hear my friend sing. On a Saturday night, I was expecting a concert, and ended up getting a full-blown church meeting. The preacher quoted the verse: “Envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). Such a strange verse for God to use to draw me to Him. Most people might be drawn by verses about love, but not me. I just knew I was envious of my sister and her driving. I remember thinking: “If that’s true, my bones must have well and truly rotted away”.

He then talked about various sins (envy included) and the result of them. For the first time, I had the conviction that hell was real, not just a story I heard in primary school. I knew that without God, I was on my way there. As the meeting closed and everyone else sang the last song, I told God in my heart that I didn’t want to come to Him just out of fear of going to hell. To me, that seemed a weak thing to do. I had never sensed God speaking to me before, but I felt Him say in reply: “Come because I love you”. I said yes to that. I didn’t know at the time how much it would change my life.

I wonder if God’s drawn you to Him in a way you can’t resist. Perhaps He’s still in the process of doing it, and you’re starting to see Him at work in your life in ways you hadn’t recognised before. The other thing this lady said that encouraged me was: “As Christians, we have something to look forward to, whether it’s death on earth and life in heaven, or life on earth and the hope of heaven”. I hope you also have that reassurance in your life.

Pasture

During this lockdown, I’m still enjoying the online Sunday meetings from Revive Church. This week, the preacher talked about the kingdom of God, and John 10:9 came into my mind: “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture”. Can you picture Jesus as the door into everything that God has for His people? When He died on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn in two (Matthew 27:51), signifying the access we now have to God.

Have you got a difficult week ahead? You don’t have to struggle on your own. Through faith in Jesus, you can enjoy God’s presence. Whenever you need to, you can take a few minutes to ‘Go in and out and find pasture’. When livestock are put out to pasture, they feed on the grass to get their nourishment. Similarly, you can go through that door and get what you need from God to cope with your difficulties.

We’re strengthened in God’s presence, but I also think that’s what church is about. We all go into the world during the week and interact with people. Church is where we can come together (online, if not in person), focus on God and be built up for the week ahead. That’s why Paul tells us to encourage and build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11), and talks about gifts given to equip God’s people for works of service (Ephesians 4:11-12).

As you read this, I hope you’ve got God in your life to build you up, so that you can face the future with greater confidence. If not, all you have to do is invite Him in. I’m sure He’ll be glad you did.