19 March 2021 [The Manse, Lonmore]
Kind greetings to everyone, in the hope these few remarks will be some refreshment across our varied needs and joys these days. The year seems to me to be racing on, and we may be hearing some news soon on possible changes to how we might ‘do church’ again in months ahead – more later, I hope. We especially think of and pray for Mabel Jackson’s family, near and far, on her passing from us; and giving thanks for her part in our lives, by the Lord’s gift.
A ‘Pastoral’ letter is chiefly about nurture, and I can’t do that with mere thoughts that spring to my mind. Some of these letters have followed more ‘occasional’ reflections, but around those, I’m hoping this more regular thread will be good for all of us – governed by the course of reading through the Bible: for now, in the gospel according to John. I’m sorry I missed last week for you.
This time, John chapter 8 starts with an account (verses 1 to 11) that has a note attached in our more modern Bible translations, wondering if it was in early (original language) versions. Whatever else, the occasion recounted has been kept for so long, and it largely matches other, similar encounters Jesus had. So I will say a bit about it – it gives us important things to absorb and apply for our own lives.
The way the teachers of the law and the Pharisees went about things here has a whole lot wrong about it, all indicating their real purpose being to trap Jesus. Their plan was to ‘set him up’, so they could accuse him (at very least) of undermining the law of Moses (v5) and therefore also the holiness of God, as they understood it.
But, as Jesus said elsewhere (Matt 7.3-5), we’re pretty good at seeing where others go wrong; not so good at recognizing it or worse in ourselves. Here, he puts it (v7): “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He then let his words do their work, until none of her accusers were left: none of them would or could claim to be without sin. It may be good to reflect that it was the older ones who left the scene first. They seemed to be quicker to recognize and admit the sin in their lives than the younger ones were – often more sure of them/ourselves?
Anyway, with no-one else left, the one person there who could rightly claim to be without sin was not willing to condemn her either. So often with his healings he has commented on folks’ faith, which draws his mercy and grace: which he ‘rewards’. This time, we’re not told anything like that; except maybe there’s a clue? I notice that she remained there all this time, waiting on his decision – does it hint that she was ready to accept his response, expecting it to be right?
What is clear is what he does say to her (11): Then neither do I condemn you. Not because he was also a sinner as they all were; more because he was ‘drawing’ the sin of sinners onto himself; or ‘you may have life, as I will soon be dying for you, if you believe in me.’ That is another way of saying his second word: Go now and leave your life of sin. When you do have faith in Jesus, that is the great change it will make: not in your life circumstances necessarily; but in your heart, and therefore in how you respond to those life circumstances.
Only Jesus can say on his own authority, neither do I condemn you. But it means (i) it’s never for us to condemn another (as in v7); and (ii) we all need to take the new lease of life he gives us, to live it for his honour, and in gratitude. That gratitude is because he has made it all possible through the condemnation he carried in himself, dying in our place on the cross.
Is that what this line rests on: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort... (2 Cor 1.3)? Those verses from Paul are a great comfort and strengthening, while John 8.1-11 is a vivid demonstration of the truth.
May such comfort be yours now, suited to those great varieties of our lives right now.
5 March 2021 [The Manse, Lonmore]
It feels strange to have missed one of these letters last week – but I hope the Newsletter was some help for you. Change isn’t always good just for change’s sake, but we (the elders together) hope we can suitably manage a few things that will help across our parish, which are noted in that newsletter.
In the Bible Study this past Tuesday afternoon, we were reflecting on the passage where Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, giving us the lines that have become known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ (Matthew 6.12 & 14-15), where Jesus teaches:
…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors… For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
In the course of that conversation, I mentioned a couple of lines I’ve come across and was asked to repeat them. We agreed they might help a good few of us, so I’ll pass them on here too, from Thomas Watson (1620-1686):
We need not climb up into heaven to see whether our sins are forgiven: let us look into our hearts and see if we can forgive others. If we can, we need not doubt but God has forgiven us.
Through many years this question of finding forgiveness for our sins has troubled lots of folk – ‘I often confess my sins but still wonder, ‘how do I know I’m forgiven for my sins’? Mr Watson seems to understand the Bible correctly and has a helpful way of putting it. He’s reminding us of an aspect we might be inclined to forget too: do I forgive others?
At the study gathering we then mentioned the section where Jesus clarifies things, on Peter’s question: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matt 18.21-35). There are various accounts of Bible teachers giving reasons for putting limits on this question, ‘How often?’ Today we might give Jesus’ response as ‘lose count’! And then he leaves us with a story of ‘the unmerciful servant’. That includes the question which is perhaps the best place to start (v33): Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
There may be some serious aggravation that we face in life, from our ‘fellow-servants’. But catching the sense Jesus gave here, anything of that sort towards me becomes disappearingly small compared with my ‘aggravation’ towards him – yet he forgives me, and he died on the cross to make that possible. The Bible calls that (1 Pet 3.18) the just for the unjust – that is who I am; and you too? It’s not, and never should be, a comparison between us: it’s me and him; you and him.
Back in Matthew 18, Jesus then concludes (v35): “This (judgement, v34) is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” That’s what Thomas Watson had in mind, because one of the implications of Jesus’ summary there is that if you do forgive from your heart, you can be confident that you have been forgiven.
One more point to finish: it can be (very) hard for us to forgive your brother from your heart. So how to do it? Maybe it’s best by kind of ‘reading backwards’. I mean, soak in the realisation of God’s forgiveness on account of all that Jesus has done – that’s the only way possible, my sins are so ‘huge’. And, he did it before I ever thought to ask him to forgive me! Seeing those things, how can I ever think that I’ve been so seriously wronged that I can’t forgive, or that it has an ‘expiry date’?
There are several results: other folk can go free by forgiveness; I find I’m free of the burdens of grudges; and I can rejoice with amazement at what Jesus has given me – peace.
May these be blessings for you too, from our Lord of mercy and grace; may his face shine on you – that darkness will be gone.
19 February 2021 [The Manse, Lonmore]
We all need to be encouraged through life, and I trust you find it among your friends and connections, in spite of the unusual limitations we need to work around. I’m trying to connect with you all in some suitable ways, working through the list of names I have, but thank you for your understanding – it will take some time before I can get to you all routinely: get in touch if you need anything sooner though.
Through the past months I’ve written about different points we find in the gospel of John. Perhaps you’ve heard or read sermons or books which say a lot more than I have done, but I still hope these reflections are helpful for everyone – either as we read them, or they will be at some point (or both). Inevitably too, I’ll miss out some verses, so if there’s something you’d like to ask about – for ‘missing’ verses or what I do write about – please feel free to: it will be good to hear from you.
This week I’m especially noticing the last verse of John 7 (v52):
They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
Maybe we can get a slight sense of the spirit of these folk as they said it; or remember Nathanael’s (quite condescending) remark when his friend Philip announced: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael challenged: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” We can learn a lot from Philip’s retort: “Come and see.” (John 1.45-46).
What strikes me about this is not so much the poor view of Galilee by the other regions, but the crowd’s limited knowledge of their own scriptures! And with their own ignorance, they were all too ready to dismiss other people. Worst of all, it meant they failed to recognize God’s greatest gift to mankind right there in the middle of them. How did that happen? How could it happen? And how might it happen with us too?
First, about the prophet from Galilee: what do their scriptures say – the Old Testament that we have; and now the Bible altogether? Here are just a few from several prophecies (it helps if you know the tribes and their territories in the OT!):
In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan –
2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:1–2)
Galilee was regarded by the Jerusalem elite as ‘dark’, and a bit of a backwater.
The father of John the Baptist, the priest Zechariah, knew these things – see his prophecy regarding the purpose of his son, to
…go on before the Lord, to prepare the way for him (who) will come to us from heaven… To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death (*Isaiah’s picture), to guide our feet into the path of peace (Luke 1.76-79).
It is so important for us to (1) know the truth – our Bibles; & (2) receive as we are taught by God; not to pre-judge his works by our own limited understanding and wobbly standards. For those people in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day (Jn 7, etc.), they missed out on so much when they dismissed him, based on what they had forgotten (or never knew). Also, the wealth of the OT gives very solid reason to put our trust in Jesus – everything points to him (see Luke 24.27) as the One we need, to overcome the great obstacle between us and God: take him at his word.
The Lord bless you and keep you; may his face shine on you – that darkness will flee away.