Sunday, 24 December 2017

Joy for the Helpless

Through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.  Luke 1 v 78, 79.

An Expectant People?

One of the many things missing from our faith in 21st Century Scotland is a sense of expectancy.  Most of us don't expect very much at all.  We don't expect our situation to change any time soon, we don't expectantly look for God to work in a powerful way in our lives or in our churches and if most of us are honest we don't expect God to show up in our family life most of the time.  We don't think that our prayers will be answered  Most of us plod along, going to church, listening to sermons with little sense of expectancy.  

I wonder if this was Zechariah's problem in Luke 1?  Does this explain his reluctance to hear the good news the angel brought? He was a faithful man but not an expectant one.  

A Priest of the order of Abijah
Luke tells us quite a bit about this man whose incredible song at the end of Luke chapter 1 beautifully encapsulates what will happen when Jesus is born.  We know that Zechariah was a priest of the order of Abijah.  There were 24 different priestly divisions who helped out in the temple so he would only have been on duty for one week twice per year.  Zechariah was married to a priests daughter called Elizabeth.  Luke tells us they were both old and they were childless so beyond the age of hope for children.  The last thing we know about Zechariah and Elizabeth is that they were righteous and blameless.  So far so good.

A Priest without a Platform
Zechariah had been chosen to offer incense in the temple.  This would have been a career high point for the priest.  Other priests would have gone in to the holiest place but then they would have retired and left him alone.  It is here, all alone, that Zechariah comes face to face with a messenger from God.  We are told that the angel was Gabriel who said 'I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.'  Gabriel says this after Zechariah had questioned the news that he and Elizabeth were to have a son called John but by then the damage was done.  Zechariah had questioned God's messenger and therefore God's message or 'good news'.  So the priest is struck dumb.  God switches his microphone off.  He becomes a priest without a platform. 
Somehow he had domesticated God.  He believed that the messiah was coming, just not today, or this week or this month.  

Zechariah reminds me a little of Gideon in Judges 6.  In verse 7 the people of Israel cry out to the Lord on account of the Midianites.  The Lord sends a prophet to call them to repentance and then sends an angel to call Gideon.  God answers their prayers but how does Gideon respond?  'Please, Lord, how can I save Israel?  Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my fathers house.'  When the Lord answers the prayers of both Zechariah and Gideon one responds with doubt while the other responds with self pity.  

I don't know about you but that speaks powerfully to me.  We like a fairly predictable Christianity without too many surprises.  The last thing we want is for God to call us to fulfil his purposes.  We don't want to be pushed out of our comfort zone.  Zechariah's faith although real, had become domesticated.  His God was too small.  As William Phillip says in his wonderful book 'Songs for a Saviours Birth': ‘He [Zechariah] had lost sight of the sheer size and scope of God’s designs on this universe of ours’.  Somehow in all his rituals and routines, Zechariah had lost his sense of God working in his everyday experience.

A Promised Visitation
After a few months, Zechariah's tongue us unloosed and he breaks into song about the coming messiah.  By faith he saw that the coming messiah was the one that had been promised over many thousands of years.  The Israelites were an oppressed people and they were longing for a messiah.  They could echo the hymn writers words;

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Jesus had been promised and now he was coming!  Far from being a departure from the Old Testament, Jesus was the fulfilment of the everything.   As it says in Luke 24 v 44 ‘Then he (Jesus) said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’  The incarnation, the en-fleshing of God, is all about God keeping his covenant promises made through Abraham and David.  This is a God who can be trusted and followed.  He promises a redeemer and he sends one.

Sunrise on a beautiful frosty winter day 4 by MT-Photografien

A Powerful Visitation
What do we need to be saved from during this visitation?  Well Luke 1 tells us that we will be saved from fear and death (Luke 1 v 74 and 79).  Isn't it amazing how often the words 'fear not' are repeated during the incarnation?  We have an angel appearing to Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah and the shepherds and each time they are told to 'fear not'.  Jesus has come to banish fear.  So why do we so often live our lives in a spirit of fear?  Why do we some Christians continue to attend churches here there is a climate of fear?  This is not why Jesus came, he came to set us free from fear.  Jesus is the fulfilment of Zephaniah 3 v 15-17: 'The King of Israel is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.'

The wonder of the incarnation is that this powerful deliverer will visit us from on high. Zechariah is seeing the powerful fulfilment of Malachi and Isaiah who both prophesied about the dawning of this great light: 'The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light: those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness on them the light has shone.  Isaiah 9 v 2.

A Personal 
Zechariah’s great song of praise is about a new dawn for the whole world.  But Zechariah’s song is not just about ‘out there’ is also about ‘in here’ – in our hearts, in our personal experience.  This is where the ‘Christmas card’ version of the incarnation and the Biblical account part company.

You see this baby didn’t just come to be born and live a good life.  He didn’t come so we could all have sweet sentimental carol services and nativity plays. He came to die for sin.  His birth must always be linked to his mission. We must never talk about the incarnation without talking about why Jesus came into this world.

He came because of darkness and sin – he came as the sunrise to dispel the darkness.  The incarnation is God coming into our midst – coming near to us so He could save us.  Christs visitation from on high enables many visitations into the hearts of those who, Like Zechariah, believe the good news about Jesus.  Who trust in Him and follow Him.  The incarnation – God dwelling amongst us is to give light to those who sit in darkness.

The incarnation is a glorious doctrine, but it is more – it is personal invitation.  The child in a manger became the Saviour on the cross.  There is a path all the way from Bethlehem to Calvary.  This baby had a mission and that was to save sinners like you and me.  It was all because of the tender mercy of God – literally Gods ‘inner parts’ were moved with love to send Jesus as the sunrise that would light the whole world.

Renewing our sense of Expectancy 

Zechariah's song is wonderful but it only happened after the Lord chastised him for his lack of faith.  While he was righteous and blameless I think Zechariah had stopped looking, had stopped expecting that the messiah was actually going to show up in his lifetime.  The news that his son was to be the forerunner to this incredible saviour was a total shock to Zechariah.  He was shocked that his prayers had been answered - he was shocked that the Lord was to perform a miracle in giving a long awaited child to Elizabeth.  I wonder if you have stopped expecting God to show up in your life?  Have you lost your sense of expectancy?

Is there joy for the helpless?  Absolutely!  The incarnation is all about hope for the hopeless.  In this dark and evil world we can sing with joy:
O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.

As William Phillips says:

The message of Christmas is both simple and beautiful: God is calling out from heaven and saying, ‘Come to the sunrise! Rejoice in the light of my beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and the sun will surely rise in your life, bringing the dawn of a new day that never ends, of a sunset that never comes, of a light that is everlasting.’

Jesus came as he promised, he came powerfully and today he comes to you personally.  He is freely offered to you in the gospel.  Receive Christ with the empty hands of faith.  Whatever gift you receive this Christmas will not compare with this Saviour.  Maybe like Zechariah you have rejected his words in the past, but today God, in His tender mercy is offering you the most precious gift of all – the Lord Jesus Christ.  He has visited from on high – but the great question is – has He visited your heart?

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Discipline of the Interrupted Life

I love my family, but I would be lying if a wee solo 24 hour trip to Manchester 2 weeks ago didn't fill me with a little excitement.  I love travelling.  I love all the arranging and organising and I really enjoy travelling by train (except the TransPennine Express which is absolutely awful).  I arrived in Manchester around 8pm on a dark cold November night and immediately got lost.  I walked up increasingly dark and deserted streets while google maps kept re calibrating or in my case not calibrating at all. Trams in Manchester seem to come from nowhere and I was almost flattened several times.  I was amazed to find a tent pitched on a postage stamp of grass next to a railway bridge and I met several people who were clearly homeless.  Despite all my confidence and resources I felt like a stranger in a strange land and not a little scared.  I didn't quite shout for my mummy but what I wouldn't have given to find a friendly face that night to guide me to safety.  The thought  of aimlessly walking those dark streets every night without the prospect of a warm meal and a hotel at the end was unimaginable.  Eventually the dim orange glow of my budget hotel came in to view.

It was my first time in an easyhotel which is essentially like a bed with 'walls'.  It would have probably been quieter without the wafer thin walls - at least if it was open plan you could at least shout at people for being noisy, but then there could have been some privacy issues.  I 'unpacked' in my tiny space and began to wish I had paid extra for luggage storage.  The orange glow of my room was beginning to feel like I was sharing a room with Tommy Sheridan so it was time to have a wander round the mean streets again.

My big challenge these days is eating.  Having decided to go gluten and diary free a few months ago, food involves a lot of forward planning.  After meticulous research on the TransPennine nightmare I decided I would hike across town to the Handmade Burger Co for their gluten free menu.  Having been in social work for around 26 years it takes a wee bit to shock me but my walk across town was like walking through a Charles Dickens novel.  The homeless were everywhere.  I saw young women slumped in doorways, lifeless bodies in sleeping bags on the street and huge packs of homeless people on the hunt for warmth and shelter. Beggars were everywhere. 

I arrived at my restaurant devoid of all gluten (and customers) and thoroughly enjoyed my piri piri chicken burger.  It was slightly eerie being in a restaurant completely on my own.  I wondered if perhaps there was some civic emergency that everyone knew about apart from me.  I figured that whatever disaster was coming it was better to face in with some piri piri chicken than on an empty stomach.

My walk back to the hotel was filled with more emaciated figures hovering between life and death on a freezing November night.  The contrast with some of the trendy bars and restaurants in a renewed and vibrant Manchester was very stark.  Bourgeois bars served unpronounceable European beers at exorbitant prices while 100's of 'Manchester's forgotten' shuffled through the night.

The following morning I had a couple of hours to kill before my meeting.  Recent research by Street Soccer here suggests that 41% of people in Scotland are frightened to talk to rough sleepers, 66% have never stopped and talked to a homeless person and 33% of people dismiss homelessness as a self inflicted.  As many people who are homeless say, the highlight of their day is when somebody stops and talk to them, reaches out in friendship and shows some genuine compassion.

The two men I ended up talking to had a familiar story.  Both had been on the streets for over a year.  One came to Manchester on the promise of work which fell through while the other, Scott, had been evicted after rent arrears accumulated.  Scott had spent the night in a multistory car park but had been kicked out by the staff in the morning.  Both were cold and damp by 8am and the next few hours would be a test of endurance both physically and emotionally.

In David Crouch's book 'Playing God - Redeeming the Gift of Power', he talks about the 'discipline of the interrupted life'.  We live our lives so driven and self absorbed that we don't always allow ourselves to be interrupted particularly by those who don't have power.  We are sometimes too busy building God's Kingdom for Him we forget who God prioritised for love and compassion in the Bible: the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan.  I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that not only do many Christians not allow themselves to be interrupted by those who lack power in our society but if the widows and orphans walked in to many of our churches they would not feel welcome.  The poor and the powerless make us feel uncomfortable which is why so few of our churches are in poorer areas.

Jesus didn't mind being interrupted.  He lived a pretty disciplined, God focused life and yet he was interrupted all the time.  We see in Mark 5, that Jesus steps off a boat and is immediately met with a  demon possessed man.  Next Jairus approaches him about his very ill daughter.  On the way to the religious leaders house a ceremonially unclean woman with an issue of blood touched Him.  Jesus didn't just allow interruptions he welcomed them.  He had time for the marginalised, the unclean and the outcasts.  Jesus didn't throw His power around as so many Christian leaders and Christians organisations do.  He didn't sit in an ivory tower or a book lined study, he was out amongst the people showing everyone exactly what power looks like.  The Kingdom of God has a very different power dynamic to the world, it cares about the people the world dismisses.  Its followers love the unloved and care for the downtrodden.  Jesus doesn't bully, threaten and scare people because they speak out or ask questions, he welcomes the lost, the lonely and left behind. We may not be able to solve all the worlds problems but we can learn the disciple of an interrupted life.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Ad Fontes: Martin Luther and the Source of all Theology

My knowledge of the great reformer Martin Luther is rather limited so I am really enjoying The Legacy of Luther, ed RC Sproul and Stephen J Nichols.   Luther is much maligned and misunderstood, partly because we don't view Luther with 16th century eyes and we don't understand the times he lived in.  Luther could, at times, use extreme language.  When somebody complained about Luther's harshness the Catholic scholar Erasmus replied 'Because of the magnitude of the disorders, God gave this age a violent physician.'  Don't be put off studying Luther by the fog of misinformation that swirls around his legacy, study him for yourself.

I will hopefully blog more about Luther as I try and digest what I am reading but I just wanted to do a quick blog on one passage I came across.  Ultimately, the reformation was about power and authority.  Who saves?  Who forgives?  Who mediates?  Who has the final authority?  This was the battle ground of the reformation.  Is the church and tradition the final authority or is it Christ and His word?  Thankfully for us, under the blessing of God, Luther and his colleagues prevailed and brought Europe out of darkness and corruption.  Luther prefaced his Ninety- Five Theses with these words: 'Out of love for the truth and a desire to bring it to light.'  Luther's allegiance was to God and His word, not a corrupt and abusive church.

When the vicar general of the Augustinian Order, Johann von Staupitz sent Luther on a Pilgrimage to Rome in 1510 he thought it would strengthen and confirm the young monks faith as well as reaffirming the credentials of the monastery in Erfurt.  Far from confirming his faith, Luther's visit to Rome exacerbated his 'Anfechtungen' (the German word for a deeply seated struggle of the soul).  The contest between sins and merits that was meant to lead to Luther's salvation was leading Luther to extreme anxiety and torment of soul.  His worship of St Anne, the mother of Mary the mother of Jesus brought him no peace and comfort.  His visit to Rome compounded the torment in Luther's soul.  As Stephen Nichols says in the first chapter: 'By the time Luther made his way down to the Basilica of St John Lateran, he would have seen enough to make his stomach turn. Prostitutes, public lewdness, and hawkers of all sorts of wares would have pestered him along the cobbled city streets.'

Luther would have queued with others and paid his money to shuffle up the scala santa on his knees.  These were the twenty-eight marble steps believed to have been the steps that led up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem.  The Emperor Constantine had the steps moved to Rome as a gift to his mother Helen.  When Luther reached the top there was no spiritual awakening, there was no peace of conscience.   Later Luther would say of Rome: 'The city has become a harlot.'

What lay at the very heart or Rome's corruption was the practice of penance.  Original sin was atoned for in Baptism, and all that was left was actual sins and these could be dealt with through the sacraments and penance.  This involved going to confession and receiving absolution (as long as the tasks prescribed by the priest were completed).   Having done penance one could attend Mass and receive the Eucharist.  The other option was to skip these elaborate steps and purchase an indulgence.  

When Luther eventually nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg on October 31st 1517, the process of illumination had started much earlier.  A year earlier Erasmus has published the New Testament in Greek as a parallel text with the Latin Vulgate.  As Stephen Nichols says:

'This was an unprecedented publishing event.  And it led Luther right back to the source of all theology, right back to the original text.  When Luther examined the Greek text, he noticed something striking at Matthew 4 v 17.  The Latin Vulgate translated the Greek word meaning 'repent' as poenitentiam agite, or 'do penance'.  Luther knew this to be a mistranslation.  Penance is about an outward act, or multiple outward acts.  Repentance is a whole-souled heart change that results in outward acts of obedience.  This mistranslation of the Vulgate set up a domino chain that fell  in a tragically wrong direction.  Instead of falling in line in the next domino in the chain, Luther want back to the source and began building his theology from there' Sproul R.C., Nichols S.J. (2016), The Legacy of Luther, Sanford FL, p 24.

This is why the first thesis declares, 'When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said 'Repent,' in Matt 4 v 17 he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.'  He continues with the second thesis: 'This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.'  Luther had just lit the fuse on an explosion that would be felt for many centuries to come.

The great battle cry of the Renaissance was ad fontes, 'to the sources.'  This is what happened at the Reformation.  Men like Luther want back to the fountainhead of all theology, God and His word. Luther want back to the source and saw the error.  He brought truth to the light and it transformed a continent.  That first plank of the reformation sola Scriptura was absolutely critical in exposing a corrupt and abusive church.  As Luther said 'I did nothing, the word did everything.' 

Monday, 18 September 2017

Real Faith is Enduring Faith by Rev J.J.Murray

There are many misconceptions of faith abroad today. Some think of it as a commodity. They say:'I wish I had your faith'. Others think of it as simply the means of salvation, to deliver us from hell. Much of the evangelistic preaching in recent years has been directed in that way. 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved'. A decision is made and it is as if there were no further implications for an on-going life of obedience. Many are under the impression that there exercise of faith frees them from the law. 'Once saved, always saved.' Such faith is superficial.

Is this the faith that is so highly extolled in Hebrews 11 in particular? In that eulogy on faith Abraham is given the chief place. He is more fully portrayed than anyone else in the gallery. He is the father of the faithful. Reference is made to him some ninety times in the New Testament. He is the pattern we are to follow. There are three things in particular in his life that demonstrates the nature of true faith.

1 True faith changes our whole perspective

In God's dealings with Abraham we have the beginning of the redemptive activity that will lead to the unfolding of the Covenant of Grace. We see three things:
1 The Divine initiative   Abraham is a shining example of the divine initiative. At the time of his call he was living in Ur of the Chaldees, 'worshipping other gods' (Josh 24.2), and in pagan darkness.  He had no thought of the true God. Suddenly, as we are told in Acts 7.2, by the  martyr Stephen: 'The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia'.  He is described as the 'the God of glory' because His glory is His self-manifestation. What kind of reaction this must have produced in Abraham's mind! It was like the revelation that Isaiah had in the temple. It was a sovereign revelation and call, and he was given grace to respond to it. So it is for everyone that 'born of the Spirit'.

2 Absolute obedience  'By faith Abraham, when he was called...obeyed.' (Heb 11.8) It was an efficacious call.  He had not fulfilled the purpose of his creation, which is to glorify God. He had dethroned the living God and set up idols of his own imagination. God's call was to bring Abraham back to allegiance to Himself and there must be an immediate and unqualified response.  He had to come out from among the pagan worshippers and make God his own God and his inheritance. The Word of God became everything to him. He did nothing that was not by the command of God. As Thomas Manton observes: 'Faith is the life of our lives, the soul that animates the whole body of  obedience'.

3 Separation to God  Abraham's whole perspective changed. He was living for the things of this life and the riches and honours of it. He began to live life in terms of his final destiny. He was set free from the desire to make this world his home. God promised him an inheritance. This inheritance was a 'better country' and 'a city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God'. It is the fatherland or the homeland where God dwells. He has prepared it for His people and He is their ultimate inheritance. The whole plan is beautifully portrayed in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, where we see Christian fleeing from the City of Destruction and journeying on to the Celestial City.

2 True faith stands on the promises of God

The second characteristic of true faith is trusting in the promises of God. The writer is still talking about the faith of Abraham but he brings in Sarah.  Both had to be committed to the promise because it pertained to their offspring. 'Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed' (v 11).  It seemed an impossible situation. Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90. She was past the age of child bearing. When first hearing the news of an heir, her faith wavered: 'Sarah laughed within herself' (Gen 18.12). Unbelief had a temporary hold. 'And the Lord said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is anything too hard for the Lord'. (Gen18.13-14). What brought the change? She stopped looking at the problem and started looked to the Lord, 'because she judged him faithful who had promised' (v11). She took her mind of the problem to the Promiser. He became the object of her faith. 'True faith', says Sinclair Ferguson. 'takes its character and quality from its object and not from itself'. Is anything too hard for the Lord? He created the world out of nothing. (Heb 11.3). He promised and He will bring it to pass. Isaac was conceived in  the normal way.

3 True faith is tested

The third characteristic of true faith is that it is tested. 'By faith Abraham when he was tried, offered up Isaac'. (11.17). There is a Jewish tradition that Abraham was tested on ten different occasions. If so, certainly this must have been the most painful. The commandment forbade the taking of life. Isaac was the best gift God had given to him. In Isaac he had everything he longed for, and yet he was to be taken away. It was through him the promise was to be fulfilled. Is providence going contrary to the promise? But Abraham believed that the God who had promised was able to raise him even from the dead. He did in effect offer him in will, heart and affection. God accepted the will for the deed, 'for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me'  (Gen 22.13). 'From hence also he received him in a figure' (v19).

As Christians we should not be afraid of trials and troubles. Indeed an undisturbed life is great cause for concern. James begins his Epistle with the words:  'My brethren count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations (trials) (James 1.2). It is the great common experience of the Redeemer and the redeemed. There is a purpose in it. 'Knowing this that the trying of your faith works patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect an entire, wanting nothing'. ( v 3-4).  Trials and tribulations blow away the chaff and produce endurance in a life of undivided obedience.   Peter, in his First Epistle, speaks of rejoicing in our great salvation,  and then he  brings in a caution, 'though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations. That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ' (1 Pet 1.6-7). The genuine element in the faith is proved by a  process similar to that of metal-refining and is found to be something more precious than the precious metals. The result is what meets the approval of God and redounds to His glory.  

Many passages of Scripture warn us of the dangers of a temporary faith and a faith that fails. The faith of the Hebrew Christians was wavering,  'Cast not away your confidence' (Heb 10.35). The writer goes on to say, 'we are not of them which draw back' (v 39) and then immediately introduces to us the gallery of faith, of whom it is said 'these all died in faith' (Heb 11.13). Faith dominated their lives while trials abounded. As John Calvin says their achieving such triumphs with limited resources ought to put us to shame. Luther puts it in his own way: 'When Abraham shall rise again at the last day, then he shall chide us for  our unbelief, and will say:I had not the hundredth part of the promises which ye have, and yet I believed' (Tabletalk, 2009, p233).

The 'cloud of witnesses' are there to stir us up to endure unto the end (Heb 12.1-4). This faith, as Luther maintained, is an operative grace, it is an overcoming grace  and ultimately it is a victorious grace. God grant that it may be ours!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Fully Known and Fully Loved

Over the last weekend we have celebrated the Lords Supper.  This is always a special time in the experience of every believer.  We are reminded in a very visual way of Christ's sacrifice on the cross - how His body was broken and His blood shed.  In our own Free Church tradition there is often a reluctance to come forward to the Lord's Table.  While this can lead to some believers never publically professing, it has, certainly in the past, meant that people take this step seriously and conscientiously.  As John Kennedy said of Highland Christianity: 'They were grave not gloomy. They had the light cheerfulness of broken hearts.  They did not, like others take it for granted that they were "the Lord's," they could not, like others speak peace to themselves; but, unlike many others, they were dependent on the Lord for their hope and joy.' 

Kirsteen and I were delighted over the weekend that our oldest son was given the strength to profess Christ publically for the first time.  I have often wondered why James hasn't done this before but we never pushed him and hoped that in time, he would be given the strength.  Parenting is like a long distance endurance race.  Often you feel exhausted and alone.  Often you feel that you are having little impact.  Then occasionally you are reminded that all your prayers, and all the times you had family worship with squirming kids who were long past their bed time, all the late nights holding a little hand through a cot, all the bed time stories all count for something.  Of course we love our children regardless of whether they profess or not, but to see my own son seated at the Lords Table brought a tear to my eye today. The Lord has very graciously allowed James to overlook a very imperfect example from his father and look to the Lord who alone saves.

In his Memoirs Dr Thomas Guthrie talks about one of his parishioners, a weaver named 'James Dundas' who lived on the north-west boundary of the Arbirlot Parish.  Guthrie claims Dundas lived an isolated existence and had no society (beyond his wife) but that of God and nature.  Like others in rural Scotland at that time Dundas was known as a bit of a poet and known for 'lofty thoughts, and a singularly vivid imagination.' 

Guthrie relates a story about Dundas and a loss of assurance on a Communion Sabbath; 'He rose, bowed down by a sense of sin, in great distress of mind; he would go to the church that day, but being a man of a very tender conscience, he hesitated about going to the Lords table; deep was answering to deep at the noise of God's waterspouts, and all God's billows and waves were going over him; he was walking in darkness, and had no light.  In this state he proceeded to put himself in order for church, and while washing his hands, one by one, he heard a voice say, "Cannot I, in my blood, as easily wash your soul, as that water wash your hands?" "Now Minister," he said, in telling me this, "I do not say there was a real voice, yet I heard it very distinctly, word for word, as you now hear me.  I felt a load taken off my mind, and went to the Table and sat under Christ's shadow with great delight" (Memoir and Autobiography, 1896, p 115).   

We were reminded by Chris Davidson this morning from Psalm 139 of a God who relentlessly pursues sinners.  As deep as sin goes, grace goes deeper.  Where sin abounds grace much more abounds.  The Lord's Table reminds us of a God who has not just come to earth to save us, but a God who has gone to the cross.  At the Cross we see a Saviour who loves us more than we can ever imagine.  This morning Chris quoted Tim Keller who said on his book about marriage; 'To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretence, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.'  Surely this is what the Lord's Supper is all about - to be known in all our sin and yet loved by our Saviour is surely the greatest love of all.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Jonah - Prophet on the Run (1)

Like so many stories in the Bible, Jonah is so well known that we hardly give it a second thought. Yet there is so much in Jonah that we miss.  Jonah is sometimes seen as a slightly comical figure and there is definitely an element of absurdity in Jonah, particularity in chapter 4.  This prophet who had just witnessed an incredible revival was now furious at God over a plant.  But Jonah is not primarily about a fish (mentioned 4 times), or Nineveh (mentioned 9 times), a plant or ultimately even Jonah (mentioned 18 times), it is about God (mentioned 38 times).  The book shows us beautifully how God's grace and love reaches beyond the ethnic nation of Israel towards notorious pagans in the Assyrian empire.  It is a forerunner of the gospel that would spread through the incarnation, life and death of Jesus.

The first thing to say about Jonah is that he was a real person.  The style of Jonah has sometimes been portrayed as parable or allegory, but it is in fact historical narrative.  Jonah was a Prophet from Gath Hepher in Zebulun.  He is quoted in 2 Kings 14 v 25.  He prophesied that despite moral and spiritual decay in Israel, God in his patience allowed the nation to have greater prosperity and expansion. Of course Jesus mentioned Jonah in Matt 12 v 41 and Luke 11 v 32.  There are some similarities between Jonah and Jesus.  Both brought the truth of God beyond the Jewish nation to Gentiles.  Both were prophets proclaiming God's truth.  But of course Jesus was so much greater in both his person, His message, His obedience and in His mission.  Jonah was a very imperfect and flawed prophet pointing forward to the ultimate prophet, ultimate message and ultimate mission.

The second thing is that Jonah was part of history.  Nineveh was a real city.  It has been extensively researched and archaeology backs up the Biblical narrative.  The Assyrians were a cruel and barbaric race.  They were ruthless in how they dealt with their enemies: they would decapitate men, women and children and stack up there skulls at city gates.  They would take their enemies out into the desert and impale them and roast them alive in the sun.  Sometimes they would skin conquered enemies alive.  Jonah, after his initial rebellion took to the task of preaching judgement with great relish. Jonah was not preaching to friends but brutal and ruthless enemies of everything good.  This is why he struggled so much with Gods love and mercy to his enemies.  How could God love such a brutal and violent group of people?  God was showing Jonah what grace looks like.  Grace is God's undeserved favour and love.  It is particularly spectacular when God bestows his love on the most unlikely candidates.

Thirdly Jonah shows us the consequences of rebellion and running from God.  The theme of running from God is something all of us can relate to.  Whether you are reading this as an unbeliever or someone who knows God, we can all relate to the theme of rebellion against the will of God.  Jonah has much to teach us about the disastrous consequences of disobeying God's will.

Fourthly, Jonah has much to teach us about the character of God.  As with all theology, almost everything comes back to our view of God.  Jonah struggled with the loving kindness of the Lord and expresses his rage in chapter 4.  His view of God was that he was only a God of the ethnic Jews and Jonah wanted God to wipe out the Assyrians.  One of the key questions all of us need to ask is 'who is God?' and what is he like?  The great problem with so many atheists is that they create a completely false God and then spend their lives raging against that God. The God of Jonah is a God who forgives a brutal and barbaric city through His grace and love.  This show us His remarkable love for sinners.

So there are some big themes in Jonah.  If you want to dig deeper I would highly recommend Hugh Martins commentary on Jonah published by the Banner of Truth.  I got a huge about from Warren Wierbe's commentary 'Be Inspired' which can be ordered here.  Alastair Begg as always is excellent through his series 'Man Overboard'.  I hope to do several articles on Jonah. Most of all I hope that if you are running from God that through studying Jonah, you will see a God who loves sinners and who offers you salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ.  Jonah is not abandoned by God because of his rebellion and bad attitude, he is shown grace and given another chance.  God is not like us, he forgives and he offers us a fresh start.  Isn't that an offer too good to refuse?

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Skye Shinty Camp 2017

What do you get when you mix an unfit 45 year old with a couple of 28 year olds, two 17 year olds, 3 willing cooks and 17 kids?  Skye Shinty Camp 2017!  Nearly 48 hours on I feel like I've been hit with a large bus but overall I am so thankful to the Lord for sustaining us and keeping the kids safe over the last week. Running any camp is difficult but starting a camp from scratch is really tough.

Over three years ago I had the idea for a shinty camp.  Although I've had a lifelong interest in shinty, I haven't played much in my adult life.  I played a little with Edinburgh University and then Edinburgh and East Lothian but until I got involved with Camanachd Dhun Eideann about 8-9 years ago I hadn't played for most of my life. I now coach kids at least once a week and have taken my Foundation and Level 1 Camanachd Association Coaching Awards. I see shinty as hugely positive influence as it teaches kids (particularly boys) to channel their aggression, play together as a team, keep fit and overall, the shinty world is a wonderful community.  

A large part of my drift from shinty as a teenager was that I could never reconcile shinty with my love for the Lord Jesus Christ.  Growing up in Oban, shinty was fairly cliquey.  I loved playing it at school but after that I found shinty to be generally brutal and violent.  It was also always associated with heavy drinking. I've been to lower league matches fairly recently where vodka and whiskey were being passed round the team within minutes of the end of the game. After I professed faith around 1986 I felt that I couldn't in all conscience be involved in shinty and live a consistent Christian life. Like thousands of others I drifted away from shinty and became more involved in football.  But there is something about shinty that kept drawing me back.  One of the many reasons is that when my sister died in 1980, and my family went through years of grief, I remember my aunties taking me to shinty training.  During that bleak time, one of the things that kept me going was swinging a caman at shinty training.  It was a small slice of normality at a confusing and tragic time.

Shinty is of course largely played in the Highlands and some of my best memories of the last few years has been travelling to beautiful locations with my sons Davie and Calum to see a cup final. What could be better than an overnight at my cousins in Fort William followed by a great game in the most beautiful part of the world? What if I could combine my love for shinty, my love for the Highlands and my passion for the gospel in a camp? What if shinty could be seen in a more positive light, as a way for young people to keep fit, learn team work, have fun, develop their skills and hear the good news of the gospel?  Late in 2016 the Free Church Youth Committee gave the green light and the shinty camp was finally born.

During a trip to Portree in February this year my wife and I visited The Elgin Residence as a potential location for the camp.  It was perfect. After a huge refurbishment last year it has excellent facilities and we knew immediately it was the place for the shinty camp.  As well as excellent accommodation I wanted two other things: a supportive local congregation and a supportive local shinty club.  I visited Donnie and Debbie Macdonald at Portree Free Church in February and also met with John Angus Gilles from Skye Camanachd.  Both were delighted to offer their support.  All we needed now was a team of leaders and some campers!

My team came together very naturally.  I had been talking to Rev Sean Ankers and Calum Macrae for some time about the camp and both are enthusiastic shinty players.  Given that they are both 17 years younger than me they were slightly more in touch with the kids than I was. Calum in particular 'talks teenager' and can converse about an X-Box for longer than 5 seconds which is about my limit!  

My two Junior Leaders couldn't have been better.  I hadn't met Alexander Macleod since he was a baby.  I was very fond of his father Kenny 'Nostie' Macleod and I can't imagine what it must have been like for Alexander to lose his father to cancer when he was only 12.  All I can say is that Kenny would be immensely proud of Alexander - the kids thought he was wonderful. He is also a very gifted shinty player and has been very involved with Caithness Shinty Club since it was established in 2014.  My other Junior Leader was my own son James.  I am very biased but James is a wonderful young man. After 5 year in the Army Cadets he is mature beyond his years and with 4 younger brothers he is great with kids. Like his mother, he has a great attitude to serving others and is a hero to his two youngest brothers.  His shinty style is unorthodox to say the least but he was a great addition to my team.   

When I ran the All Age Holiday for 6 years, I always believed that the secret to a great camp/holiday is quality food.  If you get the basics right, almost everything takes care of itself. Camps tend to take on a life of their own as relationships form, events happen that were never planned and lasting memories are made. My own wife came along to do the cooking and I don't think we have ever been happier as we served the kids together in a Christian environment. Her quiet service and dedication are a constant rebuke to me.  She never grumbles and always goes above and beyond what I ask.  As well as cooking she had to administer numerous medications and look after our 2 young youngest children.  She was ably assisted by my sister in law Annis Maciver. There was never a morning when I didn't come down and find Annis in the kitchen preparing breakfast and she was always up late mopping floor and getting ready for the next day.  She gave up a week of her holiday and was away from her four kids for a whole week.  Words can't express my gratitude to her and Kirsteen for their quiet dedication.  They were ably assisted by Rona Macrae who visited for part of the week. The food was quite simply stunning with each day bringing a new level of quality. One camper from Dundee did his best to hoover up the left overs but there wasn't much left over.

Overall the week seemed to go well.  Mornings (until 10) were spent doing chores and rooms with a wide range of different results.  Some campers lack of personal responsibility was truly astounding. Some appeared to be genuinely shocked at being asked to do anything and seemed to live with the delusion that the leaders were being paid to be at camp and serve them in every way.  In the 20 years since I have done a youth camp I didn't appreciate the huge changes that have taken place.  Many kids today see themselves as completely autonomous and even when an adult asks them to do something they still seem to think they are under no obligation and care little about any consequences.  While it only applied to a small minority of children, it did strike me that many kids are growing up in a world where everything is being handed to them on a plate and have little sense of struggle.  When I was a camper at camps 30 years ago, when a leader raised his voice, you stopped talking and paid attention.  So many young people today simply don't recognise adult authority as something to be taken seriously.  As a social worker for 22 years I believe wholeheartedly in children's rights and have seen so many cases when kids have been neglected and abused, but I do wonder at times if the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.  

Mornings and afternoons were spent doing various drills and exercises.  There was a huge variety of shinty skills at the camp but it was great to see kids growing in confidence during the week.  Katie Drain, the Camanachd Association Shinty Development Officer for the North, came on Wednesday and it was good to see some new drills.  Throughout the week 4 teams of 5 players battled it out for supremacy: Kyles, Kingussie, Newtonmore and Oban Camanachd.  There were 18 games of 30 minutes each including various other big matches with all leaders and campers.  Most kids probably had an average of 5 hours of shinty per day and played at least 15 matches. Towards the end of the week it was hard not fall asleep in your corn flakes.  We were even able to watch the English Camanachd Association play 'Scotland' on Wednesday night.  The campers became big fans of 'Baffi' who was by for the fastest of England's finest.

I tried to break the week up by 2 visits to White Wave based in Staffin.  The 'camp song' was 'Caman Man' by Gary Innes and the campers belted it out as we drove everywhere.  I was looking forward to driving round the beautiful Isle of Skye but Tuesdays drive to Staffin via Uig was nothing short of traumatic. Trying to drive a 17 seater minibus on Skye roads was both stressful and at times verged on the farcical.  Trying to fit several camper vans in a passing place is no joke!  In the course of one short journey I met 5 large buses all screaming along a road designed for light car use.  The Isle of Skye is simply not designed for the number of tourists currently visiting.  On Wednesday there was a cruise ship in Portree and the town was crazy!  When we went to Kiltrock on Thursday for canoeing, a viewing point designed for perhaps 10-15 cars was besieged with 100's of tourists to the point where it was difficult to enter and exit.  Despite these challenges all the campers had a great time. Some had contact with water for the first time in several days and the leaders were mightily relieved that certain feet were smelling sweeter in the journey back!!

Of course the camp was organised with the primary purpose of introducing young people to the gospel.  About half the campers had no live church background.  Several came from challenging situations which is what I believe camps are all about. On Sunday we attended Portree Free Church both morning and evening and the preacher and congregation were great with the campers.  We can't thank them enough for all their kindness (and home baking).  I was poorly prepared for communicating the Bible to kids who literally knew nothing about the Bible and I believe, on reflection, I pitched my morning talks too high.  Evangelising a post Christian and post truth generation is challenging and something I need more help to do.  I was originally going to speak on 'Proverbs: Wisdom for Life' but became increasingly drawn to the book of Jonah with its story about running from God.  I covered the story under the headings of rebellion, repentance, recovery and rage.  I personally enjoyed the preparation and understood Jonah chapter 4 in a whole new way after reading Warren Wiersbe's commentary. Sean did an excellent job of introducing the campers to the gospel of Mark in the evenings with 'Encounters with Jesus'.  Concentration levels today are short, but Sean did well to keep their attention.  We saw some real fruit in the evening discussion groups. Many of the kids opened up about tough situations and we encouraged them to ask any questions they had about the Christian faith.  I would definitely use more small groups, with structured interactive material in future years.  Seventeen very tired kids in a meeting for 30 minutes can be a recipe for disaster!

The last night of the camp was great.  Portree Free Church organised a wonderful barbecue and all local parents were invited for the prize giving.  Kyles won the league led by a certain David Murray. A local lad, part of the Gillpin shinty dynasty, won best player of the camp. Overall there were 5 awards including a Fitness Award, Most Improved Player, Fair Play and Team Player Award. Our two girls, one from Lewis and one from Skye both got awards. Everyone got an engraved medal and attitude, fitness and skill were rewarded.  It was also a chance for me to pay tribute to my fantastic team of leaders and cooks.

Leading a camp is intense.  It is probably the most draining and intense experience I have had in many years.  It is relentless.  Every minute you are making decisions that that affect the lives of other peoples children which is a huge responsibility.  I got some decisions wrong and have learnt a lot. Even driving the minibus is a big responsibility.  One night the fire alarm went off at 10:30 pm.  I went running around the building checking everyone was out and fearing the worst.  When we got outside everyone was fine and we discovered that one of the kids had emptied an aerosol into his 'very smelly room'. Needless to say there were some rather stale armpits for the rest of the week after all aerosols were confiscated!  Looking back it was quite amusing but at the time it was very stressful.  During the last night an alarm went off in a nearby building and I literally jumped out of my bed to the bedroom door!  

In the last 20 years our society has gone through a huge change.  Many young people aren't even within touching distance of Biblical truth and have no anchor when it come to morality.  Some genuinely looked confused when we spoke about honesty, self sacrifice and denial.  During the first night when Sean announced the Psalm one boy turned to me and said 'what are Psalms?'  I said 'they are songs about God written by King David.'  He looked puzzled and then asked 'who was King David?' Without thinking I said: 'the one who killed Goliath with a stone and sling.'  He shrugged his shoulders in continuing bewilderment. A boy on the cusp of high school from the Highlands of Scotland had literally never opened a Bible or heard a single Bible story.  This, of course, is why Free Church camps are absolutely critical.  There is a generation of boys and girls growing up without a shred of Biblical knowledge and who have never heard of the incredible love of Jesus for sinners.  

I, for one, was not prepared for what I experienced at camp.  Despite my own work I feel I so often live in a Christian bubble.  Scotland desperately needs the gospel and I was privileged to be part of the first Free Church Shinty Camp.  We need to use every Biblical means possible to reverse the trend and bring the good news of Jesus to young people in Scotland.  Yes I'm tired but next year is provisionally booked. The work of reaching kids with the gospel is too important to not use this great opportunity again.   

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Widow of Zarephath and the Power of Littles

The Bible is full of stories of very ordinary people being used to do extraordinary things. One of these is the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17.  The Prophet Elijah asks her for 'a little water in a vessel, that I may drink'. This is remarkable because the country is in the middle of a drought.  Elijah has just been at the brook Cherith which has dried up.  Water was in short supply. Elijah then asks the widow 'to bring me a morsel of bread in your hand'. The widow would have every right to object and explain that she was at the absolute end of her resources, but she doesn't.  The little she has she goes to make for the prophet.  It turns out it is literally all she has and once she has made it she intends to die with her son.  What little the widow has she gives freely to sustain the work of the Lord.  Her sacrifice and service are total - she gives everything.  But her faithfulness is rewarded and God through Elijah multiplies what little she has. 

What can we learn from the widow of Zarephath?

Sometimes Jesus calls very ordinary people to do extraordinary things.  

Sometimes we feel we can do little or nothing in the service of God.  How could God use us?  But God often uses 'ordinary people'.  Think of Hagar, David, Gideon, Ruth, Mary and the disciples.  They weren't people of great talents, great resources or great power.  Yet God used them.  Sometimes God does raise up great people but generally he calls very ordinary people to carry out his purposes, and sometimes ordinary people can do amazing things. 

The Widow of Zarephaph sustained Elijah with the last of her food. Ruth stuck by her mother in law and became the mother of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David. Look at the geology in Matthew 1 and see how God uses some of the most unlikely people in the lineage of Jesus.  

This was always Dr Thomas Guthrie's view. When he planted St John's Parish Church in 1840 he organised his congregation so that everyone had a job to do and his great motto was 'something for everyone to do and everyone engaged on something'.  As Guthrie said: 'If the world is ever conquered for our Lord, it is not by ministers, nor by office-bearers, nor by the great, and noble and mighty, but by every member of Christ's body being a working member; doing his work; filling his own sphere; holding his own post; and saying to Jesus, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?"

A few weeks ago I walked in to a home where I met a woman in a challenging situation. She was about to have a baby and already had 3 sons under 7.  She had no money, little food and she was very short on hope. Her sons spoke little English.  Within a few days, the charity I work for, Safe Families for Children Scotland, had introduced volunteers who hosted her children while staff took her to hospital to have her baby.  When she returned home the local church was waiting with a bunch of flowers, some bags of food and for the next 4 weeks they organised a rota system to deliver a hot meal every night to the family. It was nothing short of Christian hospitality in action.  There was no fanfare or social media, just ordinary people showing extraordinary love.  

Abraham van Dijck - The Widow of Zarephath and Her Son
The Widow of Zarephath and her Son by Abraham van Dijck

God often calls people who have few resources to give what they have.

The widow of Zarephath was the last person most of us would have chosen to ask for assistance.  She was the poorest of the poor.  She had next to nothing.  Isn't it amazing how God often asks those of us who don't have much to give what we have?  Think of the widow in Mark 12 who put two copper coins in the offering.  God uses her as the great example of true Christianity as opposed to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who 'devour widows houses and for a pretence make long prayers.'  The woman who gave what little she had is given as a shining example of what faith looks like as opposed to the religious power brokers who had everything.

Maybe we think we don't have much, but God call us to give what little we have.  All of us have time, love, talents and most of us have a home and a car.  What if we used these things to God's glory?  What if we invited somebody who is lonely for lunch?  What if we visited somebody who is isolated?  What if we volunteered with Safe Families for Children and took a child overnight to give an exhausted family a break?  What if we hosted a fellowship in our home?  God isn't calling us to make excuses, he is calling us to give what little we have in His service.

Maybe you are frightened about giving away the little you have.  What did Elijah say to the widow? 'Do not fear'.  Elijah gave her a promise that though her own resources would soon be exhausted, God's resources are infinite.  God calls us to prioritise the needy.  In Bible terms this is the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor.  Why?  Well because this group have nothing to offer us in return. The evidence of God's undeserved grace in our lives is that we show grace to those who have nothing to give us in return.  This was the opposite of the Scribes and the Pharisees who made great show of their religious service. As C.H, Spurgeon says 'Compassion is a great gospel duty, and it must be hearty and practical. When we see a man in distress, we must not pass him by as the Priest and the Levite did, for thus we shall show that our religion is only skin deep, and has never affected our hearts. We must pity, go near and befriend.' 

God multiplies our offering when we give sacrificially

God can take our meagre talents and multiply them for His glory.  Think of the wee boy in John 6 when Jesus fed the 5000.  The disciples could only see the problem.  It would cost 8 months salary to feed everyone. But what about Jesus?  He was moved with compassion on the multitude. Jesus took two loaves and 5 barley loaves and fed thousands. Jesus multiplied an offering that was given in service and sacrifice.  He took the ordinary, multiplied it and made it extraordinary.

What if God could take our time, our home, our car and our love and use it to help a person or family in need?  What if Christians could act together to share the good news, love the poor and build the kingdom of God? This is what Chalmers and Guthrie believed and why they had such an impact on Scotland.  As Guthrie said: 'Separate the atoms that form a hammer, and in that state of minute division they would fall on a stone with no more effect than snowflakes.  Wield them into a solid mass, and swung around by the quarryman's brawny arm, they descend on the rock like a thunderbolt.' 

We have seen this so often in history.  When Christians work together they can have a huge impact on society.  The power of littles can come together and achieve so much more than we can on our own.  We must partner with others who are passionate for the gospel of Jesus, who stand on the authority of Scripture and who have a heart for the poor and marginalised.  As Guthrie says in 'The City its Sins and Sorrows': 'Let each select their own manageable field of Christian work.  Let us thus embrace the whole city, and cover its nakedness, although, with different denominations at work, it should be robed, like Joseph in a coat of many colours.'  

The Widow of Zarephath shows us what can be done with very little.  God can, and does, use the ordinary and can multiply our scant resources for His glory.  We need to obey His call to love the poor and marginalised and give what little we can: 'Fear not little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.' Luke 12 v 32, 33.

Image result for the widow of zarephath
The Prophet Elijah with the widow of Zarephath and her Son by Abraham van Dijck

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Philanthropy grows best in the Soil of Christianity

Philanthropy is not a casual product; it is not a mere outcome of a zeitgeist, or fashion of the age; its roots are deep in the soil of Christianity; it cannot pick up a living either from Paganism, or Agnosticism, or Secularism, or any other system cut off from the influence of the love of Christ.

This is one of the first paragraphs in William Garden Blaikie’s Leaders in Modern Philanthropy published in 1884.  What follows is a barnstorming tour of all the great Christian philanthropists from John Howard, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Andrew Reed, Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie, David Livingstone, William Burns, John Patterson, Agnes Salt and many others.  The claim that some make that Dr Thomas Guthrie was some kind of lone voice in 19th century Scotland is simply not supported by facts.  Guthrie built on the work of Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen and John Pounds in England.  His work was taken up by many particularly Lord Shaftesbury in England.  He was part of a wider movement that rediscovered evangelical theology and roused a sleeping church to the Biblical mandate of fighting for justice and showing mercy to the marginalised.  Their work sprang from their theology.

Image result for leader in christian philanthropy blaikie
Rev W.G. Blackie
Despite the UK’s departure from its Christian heritage, much of our society remains rooted in the Bible.  The idea that we are all equal in the sight of the law, the idea of education for all, the concept of compassion for the poor are inextricably linked to a Biblical view of humanity.  If you don’t think this is important look closely at other society’s and see the radical difference.  The foundational Christian belief that man is made in the image of God has radical implications for the way we treat our fellow man, particularly those who need special protection and care.  Christianity teaches that everyone has dignity and worth.  It also teaches that anyone can be redeemed from their fallen/sinful state.  Man’s fundamental problem is not poverty, housing or power, it is sin (Matthew 15 v 15-20).  The addict, the wife beater, the thief can all be redeemed and transformed by the grace of God.  Christianity is about grace, hope and most of all love.  It is religion of redemption and second chances.

But much more than personal transformation, Christianity places on the believer ‘a strong dynamic impulse to diffuse the love which had fallen so warmly on themselves’ (Blaikie).  Our Saviour, ‘the friend of publicans and sinners’ is our ultimate example.  Jesus taught repeatedly about the need to love the poor in parables such as the Good Samaritan.  His teaching in Matthew 25 on the sheep and the goats couldn’t be clearer.  He defined true greatness: ‘the servant of all being the greatest of all.’  Remember that Jesus was speaking at a time when the order of the Roman empire masked a barbarous culture. Gladiatorial sports slaughtered tens of thousands for nothing but the amusement of the baying mob.  Slavery was commonplace and women were often used as sexual play things.  Yes, there were occasional spurts of compassion when an amphitheatre collapsed but there was no systematic relief of the poor.  It was a hierarchical society where groups and classes were systematically oppressed and kept down.  A bit like modern Britain.

It was as the New Testament church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire that Christianity’s counter cultural message of love for the poor began to change societies.  As Blaikie says: ‘In the course of time, barbarous sports disappeared; slavery was abolished or greatly modified; laws that bore hard on the weaker sex were amended; the care of the poor became one of the great lessons of the Church.’  This is not to say that the church did not frequently go wrong.  Often the methods of showing love became exaggerated and distorted.  The alms giving in the mediaeval church became more about the abuse of power than equipping the poor to become self-reliant.   The reformation was a great return to Biblical Christianity and while it was a time of great conflict it also saw a return to Biblical philanthropy and care for the poor.  It encouraged education and saw the start of schools, colleges and universities.  The Bible was not only given to the common man but he was also taught how to read it.  This why William Tyndale became a hunted terrorist.  His English New Testament was a threat because it challenged the power of a corrupt church.

So far so good.  Even the most cynical atheist would surely acknowledge that Christian philanthropy has done great good.  But let’s be honest, there have been many inspiring philanthropists who haven’t had an ounce of love for God.  It is wonderful to read of philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie building libraries, donating ornate organs and building palaces of peace.  My family home in Sutherland has many monuments to the generosity of Carnegie.  We celebrate every effort that is made to relieve the poor and change society for the better whether in Christs name or not.  Nobody can deny that many charities have sprung up with little or no Christian inspiration.  But history shows us that all too often the greatest social reformers have been compelled by a zeal for God that leads to an enduring love for his neighbour.  They inspire followers who, if not always sharing in their theology, agree with their goals and are willing to follow their example.  Often secular philanthropists (such as Carnegie) are blessed with great fortunes and influence but it takes an exceptional love to persevere in championing the poor without wealth or power.  It is one thing for an inspiring political leader to rise up but unless it is underpinned with the theology of Christian compassion, how long will it last?

Dr Thomas Guthrie
Men like Thomas Guthrie and William Wilberforce inspired a movement rooted firmly in Micah 6 v 8.  They called the church and nation to love justice, show mercy and walk humbly with the God of the Bible.  They wrote, they spoke, they preached, they persuaded and they campaigned for change to the way the poor were treated.  The work went on long after they were dead.  Their work changed whole communities, changed laws and changed the direction of our nation.  When Guthrie died in 1873 not only was education about to be offered to all, but thanks to Christian social reformers children were finally being offered protection and care instead of exploitation.  Men like Guthrie and Wilberforce were hated and opposed because they challenged the powerful vested interests in the alcohol and slave industry respectively.  But through all the challenges, they had an unquenchable hope in the redeeming gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  A hope that the most visionary and noble secularist can’t offer.  This is why secularism soon turns to pessimism.  As Blaikie says;

Secularism may try to keep up its spirits, it may imagine a happy future, it may revel in a dream of a golden age.  But as it builds its castle in the air, its neighbour, Pessimism, will make short and rude work of the flimsy edifice.  Say what you will, and do what you may, says Pessimism, the ship is drifting inevitably on the rocks.  Your dream that one day selfishness will be overcome, are the phantoms of a misguided imagination; your notion that abundance of light is all that is needed to cure the evils of society, is like the fancy of keeping back the Atlantic with a mop.  If you really understood the problem, you would see that the moral disorder of the world is infinitely too deep for any human remedy to remove it; and, since we know of no other, there is nothing for us but to flounder on from one blunder to another, and from one crime to another, till mankind works out its own extinction; or, happy catastrophe! The globe on which we dwell is shattered by collision with some other planet, or drawn into the furnace of the sin.

It is the Christian gospel that has been the great agent of change in human history.  Has the church at times been corrupt?  Absolutely.  Has it at times disregarded the poor and even abused them.  Unfortunately, it has.  But what has been the fruit of the revival of true Christianity?  It has always been love, particularly for the poor.  The spirit of self-seeking is supplanted by the spirit of service and love.  Vice is replaced by virtue.  When men love God in sincerity, they will love their neighbour, particularly the poor and the outcast.  The church at its best lives by that early ‘mission statement’ in James 1 v 27 ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’  As Thomas Guthrie said about the kind of Christianity that brings transformation to communities;

We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish; courteous, not boorish; generous, not miserly; sanctified, not sour; that loves justice more than gain; and fears God more than man; to quote another's words - "a religion that keeps husbands from being spiteful, or wives fretful; that keeps mothers patient, and children pleasant; that bears heavily not only on the 'exceeding sinfulness of sin,' but on the exceeding rascality of lying and stealing; that banishes small measures from counters, sand from sugar, and water from milk-cans - the faith, in short, whose root is in Christ, and whose fruit is works.

Image result for william wilberforce
William Wilberforce