Behind closed doors

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”” (John 20:19-22)

I wonder what you think of when you read these verses?  Perhaps you find yourself reading the part about Jesus showing his hands and side, and think about Thomas, and that he doubted, and sometimes you do too? Do you skim read the first part, and get to the exciting bit at the end when Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit? 

As I read them this week I was struck by the first sentence.

The evening of the first day after Christ was crucified, behind locked doors the disciples were meeting. It was the locked doors that made me think.

They were scared. I can understand why. Their best friend, their Rabbi, the one who they were beginning to really believe was God had been taken, brutally beaten, crucified and laid in a garden tomb. Everything that they had come to believe was upside down. The people who had done this to Jesus were looking for those who followed him. Harsh punishment was the least that they could have expected. Death for them was a very real possibility. 

How does that relate to us today. The truth is, certainly in the UK at the present time, believing in and following Jesus is unlikely to result the death penalty from the ruling authorities. I understand that this may well be true in some parts of the world, but it isn’t where I live. 

But I wonder though if we are guilty of still locking our doors and hiding away for fear of what might happen to us? I don’t believe that we really are afraid of the authorities or of what others think. None of us like ridicule, so perhaps that might be seen to be a reason to be careful, but I think the reason lies much deeper than anything man can do to us.

A friend of mine recently shared about a wall in her garden that had fallen down following recent storms. The brick wall had stood firm for over 15 years, performing the purpose of a wall and appearing to be strong. After the winds from the storm hit and the bricks lay in rubble, it was discovered that the cement holding them together was largely sand rather than cement. She shared that perhaps this was a time to sift out the sand that wasn’t doing us any good out and allow Holy Spirit to bind that which was there together in a stronger, more lasting way. 

I wonder if sometimes we are so afraid that sand might infiltrate our lives that we hide away and don’t allow anything in at all. We have our salvation, our version of doctrine and that will do us nicely thank you very much. We have been told that the world is ‘bad’ (and to a large extent a lot of what the world stands for is not helpful for the believer), so we lock ourselves in our holy huddles and pray as if by isolating ourselves from the world we will fulfill the Great Commission to go into the world and make disciples.

Sometimes I think that we are so convinced that we are going to be tainted that we are even afraid to listen to new thoughts and ideas from other Christians. We are so afraid that if we listen to someone outside our circle that we will be betraying that which we believe in and have ‘signed up for’ that we miss the new thing that God is doing in this season. It was once said that the biggest obstacle to the next move of God, is the current move of God.

It is vital that we weigh each and every new thought against scripture. There is a wealth of errant teaching available, so we have to be “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16). Jesus himself did not come to abolish the law; he came to fulfill it. He didn’t come to change the heart of what God had revealed to Moses, but to show how there was a deeper meaning to what had been passed down. There are several “you have heard it said……but I……” sayings in the gospels. Let’s not shut our hearts to Jesus challenging our interpretation of things.

I pray you have been and will continue to be blessed this Easter, and in spite of the restrictions on movement and fellowship in place at this time, you will find a way to unlock the doors of your heart, and receive every new thing that Holy Spirit is pouring out at this time.

Crossing Jordan

Crossing the Jordan

I began reading the book of Joshua recently. Early on in the book, the people of Israel approached the river Jordan. In order to take the land that God had promised them, they had to cross. At around 100 feet in width during normal conditions, the Israelites approached whilst the river had burst its banks and was in flood (as it was around harvest time) We are told that the priests were 1000 yards in front of the people, and that they were in the middle of the rivers. That’s a minimum of 2000 yards to cross. Imagine trying to cross that distance with one or two people, let alone a nation. 

We are all familiar with the account. The priest carried the Ark of the Covenant into the middle of the river, and the waters dried up. 

The people walked across on dry land.

I wanted to share some thoughts that occurred to me as I was reading.

The priests had to take a step of faith – the Jordan was in flood at that time of year. 

God had spoken (through Joshua) – but they still had to step out.  It wasn’t until they stepped into the river that the waters parted. Sometimes even when we hear clearly, and have a course plotted out for us by God, we don’t get the final confirmation until we take that step of faith, until we get our feet wet. 

It was the priest that had to take that first step. The people were gathered, all ready to go. There was no sense of trying to rush things though, of trying to get across before the priests had led the way.

The third thought that I had was that the priests were 1000 yards in front of the people they were leading. 

It’s often lonely at the front. Often, leaders are standing alone, having taken a step of faith, having showed the people the way. At 1000 yards away it can be difficult to see what is going on clearly. The priests would have had a much better vision of what lay on the other side of the river than the people. Are you ready to trust your leaders? They are further along the path than you are and have been shown what lies beyond where you currently are.

I also find it interesting that in standing firm in the middle of the river, they allowed the people to pass them by. To go and take the land on the other side whilst they stood firmly where God had told them to be.  Protecting the people, ensuring that before they moved on everyone was across who was going across. Are the leaders who are reading this willing to hold the ladder that you have put in place and allow others to climb it before you? Perhaps that means that they will see the things you have longed to see sooner than you. Are you prepared for that to happen?

It takes tremendous courage to take the first step of faith into the unknown. How much more courage does it take to stand whilst those you lead are forging on ahead? I love how the priests were resolute in their task. Not only were they making sure that everyone got across, they were also ensuring that those that had crossed didn’t try to go back. The way forward was the only way that they could inherit the land that God had promised. There was nothing for them if they went back to the wilderness, back to Egypt. 

The priests did the job they were asked to do. If they had tried to rush it or had moved forward rather than standing in the middle, the people would have perished, just like the Egyptians when the Red Sea parted to allow the Israelites to cross. In standing in that middle ground, they were protecting the people. Your leaders are doing the same for you.

Let me encourage you to pray for your leaders. I would suggest that leaders outside the church need prayer too, as leadership can be a very lonely role, even if it is done as part of a team.

There were further instructions for the people after they had crossed. They had to go back and collect stones in order to build a memorial to what God had done for them that day. All that time the priests stood there. Waiting for the purposes of God to be fulfilled. You might wonder why your leaders seem to lead you somewhere then pause for a while. Some of you will be excited to move on to the next thing, but good leaders will often wait for a season to allow everything that God has promised or commanded to come to pass. It is good to maintain a momentum, but it is also good to wait. Isaiah wrote “those who wait on the LORD will renew their strength, they will rise up on wings like the eagle. They will walk and not grow weary they will run and not feint.”

Once the priests had moved on out of the water the way behind them was shut off. The waters started to flow again. The way back was blocked.

Once the task/mission/ direction from God has been accomplished it is important to head to the next one (in this case Jericho.) This was to be the first of many battles after the miracle of the waters parting. 

The people had waited knowing the importance of prayer, worship and leadership in getting where they were supposed to be. Until the priests came to set the atmosphere for the next battle, there was no point in going forward.

We cannot take strongholds alone. Prayer & worship are essential. We need leaders that are prepared to model what to do. That might mean looking a bit silly in front of perceived wisdom. No battle tactician would have suggested walking around a city singing and playing your trumpet would be successful. When your leaders seem to be modelling something a bit new, or different to how they have done things before, are you willing to follow in their footsteps, believing that they have heard from God?

The concept of submitting to anyone, especially leaders isn’t a popular thing these days especially outside the church. I think that the reason for that is that we have been subject to some bad examples who had demanded submission. The Greek word hupetasso means to arrange oneself under. There is a sense that arranging under a leader is not burdensome or difficult, but actually something that brings joy, comfort and security. 

May I encourage you to submit to your leaders, as a choice, not because they expect it. Choose to follow, even if that means getting your own feet wet, even if it means standing up to be counted, even if it means doing something that the world may laugh at you for.

But most of all, pray for them. 

Palm Sunday musings

Palm Sunday.

As we remember the ‘triumphant entry’ of Jesus into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday, I began to wonder afresh what the Jews of that time were expecting Messiah to look like. They were celebrating his arrival, waving palm branches and shouting ‘Hosanna’, and yet somehow seemed to have missed who He was and what His mission was entirely. 

Jews today still wait for Messiah to arrive. 

What or who are they looking for? Did they simply not notice, or were they blinded to the truth so they didn’t try to stop events?

I headed to a website that described what Jews believe about Messiah and what sort of attributes He would have.  I found it fascinating that the majority of the things are clearly already fulfilled in the life of Jesus.

They say that Messiah will be a ‘child who grows up to rule in peace.’ 

Jesus was the Prince of Peace. He gives us peace that surpasses understanding. I know that I can testify to encountering that peace, while in the midst of personal storm I have felt a peace that doesn’t make any sense.

They say that he will be a skilled judge and will be a descendent of King David. 

Matthew 1 lists the genealogy of Jesus, clearly showing His lineage back to David and beyond. There is no doubt of His pedigree in that respect. His judgements were like nothing that had ever been heard before. There were two types of Rabbi – those that followed after the teaching of a previous Rabbi, and those that had authority to interpret scripture. Jesus clearly had the authority to interpret scripture. When the woman caught in adultery was brought before Him, those watching on knew what the traditional interpretation of the law was and were eager for an opportunity to trip Him up. Jesus also knew the law but knew that there was far more to it than had been originally interpreted.

They say that Messiah will be a great warrior. Now, that one is perhaps a little harder to see fulfilled, certainly on Palm Sunday. It wasn’t until a week later that Jesus would fight His greatest battle – and win. The war He was fighting was against the effects of the enemy in people’s lives. He cast out demons, He raised the dead to life, He healed the sick. The Jews were looking for someone who was going to come and over-throw the Romans and give them back their nation. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, He turned towards the Temple, rather than towards the palace. It became clear to those who knew their scriptures, that this was to be no rebellion and uprising.

The website went on to suggest that the arrival of Messiah depended on the people Israel. If Israel merited a Messiah, He would appear on the clouds. If not, He would arrive on a donkey. Perhaps they were so convinced that they were doing the right thing, that they were obeying everything that Moses had commanded them, that they were already righteous enough to merit a Messiah coming on the clouds. They missed the fact that Jesus wept for them, and for Jerusalem. He could see that theirs was an empty religion, in desperate need of a Saviour. He rode in on a donkey to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah yes, but also to declare to the Jews that it was time to realise their need of relationship with the God who had chosen them centuries previously. 

They believed that the Messiah would come as a blighted beggar. Jesus himself said that foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. He didn’t sit at the gates of the city and ask for alms as the beggar who was later healed by Peter and John, but he didn’t come from a well to do family with riches. He didn’t have a foot on the 1st century property ladder. He slept where He could, in the homes of those who believed who He was.

The Messiah was to be a successful philosopher. From the age of 12, we know that Jesus was able to confound the teachers of the Law with His knowledge of scripture. He spent so long in the temple in Jerusalem at that time that His earthly parents lost Him. He answered questions with questions and tied them up in knots. 

I think for me the one that is closest to my heart is that they believed that the Messiah was to be “waiting for us, among those who need healing.”  The gospels are full of stories telling us that Jesus healed each and every one who came to Him for healing. Others He went out of His way to find and heal (think of the man at the pool of Bethesda). Others were healed with a word, some He touched. Each time, He was filled with compassion for them and brought the Kingdom of Heaven near to where they were. 

So close that they could reach out and touch it.

I am so grateful that there were some there on that first Palm Sunday who did see Jesus for who He was. The read the signs and believed. Without them, I would never have found out about the man who was God, who gave up everything for me. The one who suffered the most brutal death imaginable in my place, is the one whose resurrection we will celebrate in a weeks’ time.

I pray that unlike the majority of those who were there, you will see the signs, that you will open your heart, and that you will allow the One who suffered for you, a place in your life today. 

Worth a second look?

We are about to celebrate perhaps the most important of events in history. As we head into one of the most familiar stories of the Christian faith, I wanted to look at some of the events that perhaps we have simply skimmed over in the past, or perhaps even pre-judged following years of assuming things about the story. 

We live in days of 24/7 news. There are frequently reports of things that are due to be said, before they ever cross the lips of those who are going to say them, and endless analysis it is difficult to look at this story with anything other than the lens of familiarity. When the news actually happens, we almost don’t hear it because it has already been reported as being about to happen. Nothing is new anymore.

It is very easy to view the Easter story with the same lens. We know how the Easter story ends, and therefore, even with the best of intentions our minds can skip quickly to the resurrection and the barbecue by the seaside. Part of that may well be that whilst we want to appreciate all that Christ went through for us on His way to the cross, we would rather not be bothered with the gruesome (and gruesome they are) details.

I wonder, if we have ever considered the crowd that gathered on Palm Sunday as anything but fickle and two faced?  One week they were shouting “Hosanna”, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” There was a huge celebration. They recognised who Jesus was and what He had come to do. 

It is true that they were there for “the Feast”, but how had they found out about Jesus? Did they just suddenly appear, or had they been following Him around for a while?  We are familiar and comfortable with the disciples travelling around with Jesus. A nice relatively small group of men, following their Rabbi wherever He went, learning from Him, and trying to do what their Rabbi did. If we look a little further back in the gospel of John however, we find Jesus at the home of His friend Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha. Lazarus had died four days previously, and the Jewish period of mourning had well and truly begun. Extended family, friends and probably professional mourners had gathered to help the sisters in their time of grief. 

As Jesus stopped at the tomb of Lazarus, a large group had gathered, primarily to support Mary and Martha. They were only too aware of what was behind the stone of the tomb. When the man who they knew had died walked out, they were now very aware of who Jesus was, and the power that He had. A miracle, and they became followers of Jesus too. That isn’t something we should be surprised about really. Jesus himself taught that a demonstration of heaven was to be expected. Show them, then explain to them what its all about was his modus operandi. This crowd (for that is what John records it was) followed Jesus to Jerusalem, and freely and excitedly called to all who were in earshot “Hosanna – He saves”

A week later, we are expected to believe that they were crying for His blood? That is what I read and accepted for decades, without question. The more I think about it though, the more I wonder if it was the same crowd. 

Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. This feast was to commemorate the meal that was eaten just before the Israelites left Egypt. It reminded them that the Angel of the Lord had passed over their dwellings. When one looks in details at this feast and all it involves, one can start to appreciate what actually happened on that first ‘Good Friday’. 

The meal follows lots of readings from the Torah, and many prayers. For most of these proceedings, those taking part have had nothing to eat, save some bitter herbs dipped in horseradish. Towards the end, as the candlelight begins to dim, a meat or fish course is served, with bread, and at least (because there are still prayers and scriptures) four cups of wine. I know how I feel after a large meal, and especially if I have consumed even one glass of wine, let alone four. All I want is to slip of to the sofa and close my eyes. Even more so if the meal doesn’t finish until well into the small hours of the next day.

And this is where we meet another group of people who get a bad press at Easter. Peter, James and John were asked by Jesus to stay awake and keep guard, yet they fell asleep, not once but three times. If you consider that they too had just finished the Passover meal with Jesus, and were full tired, perhaps it is a little more understandable why they were struggling.

We know the next part of the story well. A night-time trial, and sentence followed. A crowd baying for Jesus to be crucified, and for Barabbas to be freed. Could this really be the same crowd that were shouting Hosanna? 

I want to suggest that it wasn’t. The chances are that this crowd was made up of the Sadducees, and their followers. Those that had heralded the entry of Jesus a week before, were still in bed, following the Passover meal. They were shocked to see Jesus, beaten and bloodied, carrying a cross towards a hill outside the city. Those who had cried for His death, had no desire to keep the law in this instance. All they were concerned with was getting rid of the man who was threatening to challenge their status as leaders.

I think this raises an important question about the crowds who saw the miracle of Lazarus and believed and followed Jesus. Just a chapter later, in John 12, we read that even after Jesus had done “all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in Him”. What was the difference in the two groups of people? Why did one group see and believe, and one see and still not believe? I think that certainly with the second group, they had already made up their minds about what was acceptable. They had very clear ideas about how the Messiah was going to appear, what He was going to do, and how He was going to act. Jesus challenged all of these convictions with both His actions and speech. They were so convinced that they were right, that nothing other than that could possibly be from God. Have we so boxed God up that we are not prepared to allow Him space to be God? That may be in our church meetings, our homes or in our lives individually.  We need to remember that He is God and we are not. As a friend of mine once said “It is God’s house, He is allowed to move the furniture if He wants to.”  Bill Johnson once said that “God will never contradict His word, but He has no problem at all with contradicting our interpretation of His Word.”  Let’s not be the ones who get in the way of others believing because of our preconceptions.

Finally, may I challenge you to read the story again, and consider the bits that you usually skim over. Try and put yourself in the story, as if you were there. What was it like for those that were there? How would you react, knowing what you do about the facts?