Best Read in Small Doses: “Gifts from Heaven” Book-Review

I might have called this “God’s Answers to Prayer”, rather than “Gifts from Heaven”. I chose it because last year, I reviewed “Jesus Talked to me Today” (also by James Stuart Bell) and really enjoyed it. This is the same format, with numerous short stories of how God intervenes in people’s lives. I found the second half more inspiring than the first; “A Precise Prayer for Healing” and “Race to the Bottom” really stood out, but a good proportion of these stories were health-related and It can be demoralising to read so many accounts of health-problems.

I looked forward to my complementary copy from Bethany House, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend reading this from cover to cover. Probably his previous offering had more appeal because it was about children.

Jesus Never Said, “You are a Sinner”

In my previous post, we looked at the call of Peter in Luke 5:1-11. In verse 8, Peter says to Jesus: “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man!” Hearing those words, it struck me: It wasn’t Jesus who said, “You are a sinner”; it was Peter who acknowledged his sinfulness.

In fact, Jesus never said “You are a sinner” to anyone.

But what about the woman who was caught committing adultery? John 8:3-11. In her case, He said: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” He had a problem with the way she was living, not with her as a person.

I was reminded of a book I read recently – “Out of a far Country”. It’s about Christopher – a former homosexual drug-dealer who became a Christian. He wrote about Leviticus 18:22 – the part in the Bible where it says: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” When he actually read the verse, Christopher discovered it was an abomination. He and his friends had always got the message from Christians that they were an abomination, but it wasn’t them as people God hated; it was the act of homosexuality. I’m deeply sorry that for so many years, he carried around the wrong message, and considered himself unwelcome and unloved. I think that’s why it’s so important for me and my Christian family to know what the Word of God says, and to give people the right idea of God and how He feels about them.

If you’re in a place today where you’re thinking: “Go away from me, Lord. I’m full of sin!” how about following Peter’s example? When Jesus told him not to be afraid and offered him a new life, Peter left his old life behind in favour of all that Jesus had for him.

My One Word for 2017

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to do this again. Last year, my word was Restoration and although in some areas the restoration process has started, I didn’t leave 2016 feeling completely restored.

Taking a brief look at last year’s post, activity-wise, I mentioned I wanted to do more outside the house and try to organise something different once a month. Well, nine out of twelve ain’t bad. Some particular highlights were the Stuart Townend concert in April, my meeting with Damon Hill in June, the first-ever ChristianityWorks conference in October (shared between ChristianityWorks and GNBA), and my Christmas present to Mum – a trip to York in December for the carol concert at Yorkminster.

When it came to community, I was finding it difficult at my church with the size of its congregation. I did celebrate their move to new premises, but left halfway through the year to try a smaller church. This is a better fit for me – much easier to figure out who’s who, and where they are. Meeting new people and opening up to them can be hard. I want to be known and respected, even though I haven’t been there long enough to earn their respect, but I’m grateful for their patience and the way they’ve welcomed me.

I also touched on exercise, but I’m not back into a good exercise routine yet. I did join a gym, but the pain I sometimes experience meant I was having to finish early, which didn’t work well with taxies etc. I’m still working on this.

* * *

So that’s why I was unsure about a word for 2017, but I prayed God would show me if He wanted me to have one. At church on Sunday, I got my word. And it is?

Shelter

During the worship, my friend felt God was saying we were a shelter for many. 2017 would be a year of shifting sand for people, but our dependence on God and His Word could be an anchor for them.

Can you picture it – people coming to us because they see Jesus living in us? “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3). This was a challenge, and made me see the importance of staying strong in God. Who wants to come to a crumbling shelter? I’m thankful that in Christ all things hold together, but I need to take responsibility too. As Paul says to the church at Colosse: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Colossians 2:6).

I’m a shelter for God (a place where He lives through His Spirit), I’m a shelter for others, and God is a shelter for me. “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; He will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:15-17).

Familiar and Comfortable

Did you have a good Christmas? Before spending most of the day with my parents, I walked across the road for a family service led by a couple of friends. They talked about how Jesus came into the world as the light of the world, and one sentence stayed with me from the sermon. “We’re comfortable moving around in darkness when we’re in familiar places.” I think I liked it because that was a picture of the start of my Christian life.

When I first came to know Jesus, I wasn’t particularly miserable. My gran had died that year, so I was feeling down about that, but otherwise, I was doing very nicely, thank you very much. Then suddenly, sitting in a church, I heard a verse I didn’t know was in the Bible: “Envy rots the bones”, and I was confronted with my own sin. I knew for the first time that hell was real, I was on my way there and I couldn’t fix myself.

Nobody could have told me that. In fact, I’m glad the moment came in church and not through personal confrontation because if someone had said: “You need Jesus,” I probably would have bitten their head off. I didn’t see myself as being in need. Life was familiar and it was comfortable, but without Jesus, it amounted to nothing, and I was heading in the wrong direction. Sometimes people criticise preachers for talking about the fire of hell, but I was glad of it that night in 1999, because the Holy Spirit used it to shake me out of my complacency and prompt me to reach out to God.

When I heard God say in my heart: “Come because I love you,” I had no concept of the effect it would have on my life – how it would change my priorities and open my eyes to the needs of others. I don’t regret saying yes to God. I’m glad that as I live for Him, Jesus does what I couldn’t do and takes away my sin. Because of Him, I can look forward to an eternity not in hell, but in heaven where there are no more tears, and sin and suffering will be gone forever.

Yesterday, Today and Forever

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8), but that doesn’t mean much unless you know who He is. We’ve already seen that God and Jesus are one. “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being” (Hebrews 1:3), so anything we read about Jesus can also be attributed to God and vice versa. “Christ Himself is our peace”, says Paul. “God is love”, says John.

If God is love, then surely those two words (God and love) are interchangeable. Here’s part of 1 Corinthians 13 in my own words, replacing ‘Love’ with Jesus or God:
God is patient, God is kind. He’s not envious or boastful. He’s not proud or rude, or self-seeking (if God had sought adulation, He would have made us robots incapable of feeling anything else). Jesus isn’t irritable and keeps no record of wrongs. He doesn’t delight in evil, but He’s happy about the truth. God always keeps us safe, gives us His trust, is constantly hopeful and never tires of us. God never fails (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

That’s who my Lord is, and He’s the same yesterday, today and forever. If I snap at a parent I’m supposed to honour, God is still patient. If I’ve harboured an unkind thought, God’s still kind. When I’m struggling, His peace is still available to me. If I feel like throwing in the towel, God’s not about to give up. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13).

I think I’m glad I serve a God who doesn’t change.

Quiet

“’Here is My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen one in whom I delight; I will put My Spirit on Him, and He will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise His voice in the streets. A bruised reed He will not break, and a smouldering wick He will not snuff out. In faithfulness He will bring forth justice; He will not falter or be discouraged till He establishes justice on earth. In His teaching the islands will put their hope.’

“This is what God the LORD says – the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: ‘I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness; I will take hold of Your hand. I will keep You and will make You to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

“‘I am the LORD; that is My name! I will not yield My glory to another or My praise to idols. See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you’” (Isaiah 42:1-9).

Christians see those verses in Isaiah as a prophecy about Jesus. Prophecies are messages from God to those He loves, and I’d like to go through this one phrase by phrase:

  • God’s chosen Jesus, and of course He’s going to delight in His Son.
  • God’s Holy Spirit came to rest on Jesus when He was baptised (Luke 3:21-22).
  • Jesus brought justice, but it wasn’t packaged the way His friends thought it would be. He didn’t come shouting out or aggressively raising His voice in the streets, keen to do battle with the Romans; His was a quieter and altogether different deliverance. He came gently, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.
  • Jesus won’t kick you when you’re down. Maybe as a young Christian, you were fired-up, but life’s knocked you about a bit. You’re feeling bruised, or as if your candle’s been smothered. Jesus isn’t waiting to condemn you, or to replace your dying embers with a brighter flame. He wants to fire you up again – get you back in the race.
  • During His life on earth, Jesus was in constant communication with His Father, holding His hand in prayer.
  • God sustained Jesus, and yes, He has become the New Agreement between God and His people. Whereas beforehand the Jewish High Priest would offer sacrifices to make the people acceptable to God, now Jesus has sacrificed His life as the peace-offering for all who will believe in Him. “In the same way, after supper, Jesus took the cup and said, ‘This cup is the new agreement that God makes with His people. This new agreement begins with My blood which is poured out for you’” (Luke 22:20).
  • Jesus came into this world as the Light for everyone – to open eyes, physical and spiritual; to free from prisons, real or imagined.
  • God gave His glory to Jesus, and told us about Him centuries before He was born – this quiet Deliverer of ours: Not aggressively raising His voice in the streets; just inviting all those who are thirsty to come and be satisfied.
  • Peace

    Holy infant so tender and mild,
    Sleep in heavenly peace
    , the Christmas carol says. Had that been sung over Him when He was born, it could have been prophetic. Jesus was able to sleep in heavenly peace not just when He was an infant, but throughout His earthly life. Even when a storm swamped the boat He travelled in, Jesus could sleep (Matthew 8:24).

    Jesus isn’t just some historical figure; He’s an example to His followers, so we can expect that kind of peace to be available to us. He said these words the night He was arrested: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). This world’s peace is an absence of war; an absence of conflict; an end to turmoil, but Christ’s peace comes in the midst of difficult circumstances. Psalm 127 tells us God “gives sleep to those He loves.” “When you lie down, you won’t be afraid; when you lie down, you will sleep in peace” (Proverbs 3:24). Why would God say ‘You won’t be afraid’, if there was nothing to be afraid of? What He wants is for His people to be set apart – to lie down and sleep in peace, despite what’s going on around us. Knowing that God’s in control of everything makes a difference. “Surely the righteous will never be shaken; they will be remembered for ever. They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the LORD” (PSALM 112:6-7).

    Oneness

    “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). As God’s Son, Jesus was at one with His Father. He even said: “I seek not to please Myself but Him who sent Me” (John 5:30).

    This is awesome in itself – the fact that God and Jesus are one and the same, but even more mind-blowing is the standing it can give us. Jesus became one of the human race. He came into the world, and this is what He says about it: “‘Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You. For You granted Him authority over all people that He might give eternal life to all those You have given Him” (John 17:1-2). Jesus’ prayer for all those He has authority over, present and future, is “that all of them may be one … I in them and You in Me so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me” (John 17:21, 23). Not only is Jesus God’s beloved Son – at one with Him, He wants us to have that same status! Adored children at one with our Father, as our hearts become His heart. The things He desires become the things we desire – justice for the poor; companionship for the lonely; comfort for the sorrowful. “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil His good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).

    Lord

    “The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news that will be a great joy to all the people. Today your Saviour was born in the town of David. He is Christ, the Lord’” (Luke 2:10-11).

    The story of the shepherds is well-known, but God sometimes surprises me when I think again about the familiar. This verse seemed to jump out at me recently: “When the angels left them and went back to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem. Let’s see this thing that has happened which the LORD has told us about’” (verse 15).

    I’ve often heard those shepherds referred to as the lowest of the low. Jewish maybe, but nowhere near Rabbi status; undoubtedly smelly; considered nothing more than outcasts, and yet … ‘Let’s see this thing which the LORD has told us about’? They didn’t say ‘God in heaven’, or even ‘The God of our ancestors’; they called Him LORD. Here were this group taking care of their sheep, and already under God’s authority – so much so that when a prompting came from Him, they hurried to follow it.

    I really want to be like those shepherds – quick to obey, and quick to praise. After their time with the baby Jesus, Luke tells us: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). Wouldn’t it have been great to be in the fields near them? I wonder what the sheep made of it all.

    Glory

    “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).

    Paul talks about how everyone has seen God’s glory within creation (Romans 1:20). Have you thought about that? I’m not just talking about beautiful butterflies, or birdsong, or that wonderful smell when the dust is damp and it’s just about to rain. I’m sure the sky does show God in His majesty, but it’s more than that. The Bible says God made mankind in His image. “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image and likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). That means in every person, the best or the worst, there’s something of Him.

    Next time you hear the waves crashing against the rocks, or see a sunset in all its grandeur, or appreciate someone’s talent or a good deed, that’s God revealing Himself to you. Equally, if you see a schoolchild being bullied, a terrorist attack or someone self-harming because they have a low opinion of themselves, that’s a reminder that this world is affected by the devil and his schemes. It’s not all it could be; we’re not all we could be. We don’t always have a good grasp of the love and the high opinion God has of us.

    “Everything God made was allowed to become like something that cannot fulfil its purpose. That was not its choice, but God made it happen with this hope in view: That the creation would be made free from ruin – that everything God made would have the same freedom and glory that belong to God’s children.

    “We know that everything God made has been waiting until now in pain like a woman ready to give birth to a child. Not only the world, but we also have been waiting with pain inside us. We have the Spirit as the first part of God’s promise. So we are waiting for God to finish making us His own children” (Romans 8:20-23).