Genesis 32:22-32. A mysterious figure wrestles Jacob

This passage about Jacob wrestling with a mysterious man is, I think, one of the most fascinating and intriguing sections in the whole of the Bible.  It seems like such a random thing:  a mysterious wrestling match with a mysterious figure.  And yet this is what God uses for one of the most important aspects of the Bible’s overarching story lines.  The name Israel comes into being here.  And Israel remains a key name into the New Testament and beyond into our lives today.  We are part of God’s people ‘Israel’.  As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians.

Gal 6:15-16  Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.  Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule – to[b] the Israel of God.

The name Israel is closely connected with Blessing.  Not only in Genesis 32 but all the way back in Genesis 12 and in some ways to the beginning of Genesis.  Abraham is Jacob’s Grandad and in Genesis 12 Abraham receives his calling and his blessing.

The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

 ‘I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
 I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.’

That Blessing given to Abraham will become a part of Jacob’s story.  In my talk this morning I will give some background as to who Jacob is; and how he came to be crossing the river Jabbok where the wrestling match takes place.  On our journey this morning I will also cover three types of wrestling that we encounter today in our everyday lives.  The first is sibling wrestling; the second is adult and child playful wrestling; and the third is wrestling entertainment shows such as WWE. 

Sibling Wrestling.

I come from a large family and am the oldest of 8 siblings.  After me I have three brothers ranging from 1 – 4 years younger than me.  After my brothers I have 4 sisters.  My sisters are between 6 and 15 years younger than me.   Sometimes in large families there becomes a natural split in the middle, an older half and a younger half.  That very much happened in my family.  I grew up playing with my brothers while my Mum looked after my little sisters who played together.  Us older ones would often stubbornly refuse to let the little ones play with us. 

Amongst the many games I played with my brothers was play wrestling.  Sibling play wrestling though is never just playing.  In our play wrestling as young children there was always the concept that at the end of all our playing, one sibling would be the strongest, and that point was never lost.  We played wrestling as children because of sibling rivalry.  To this day we remain a competitive family.

For Jacob and his brother Esau that sibling rivalry through wrestling began before they were even born.  They were twins and they shared their mother’s womb.

Genesis 25:22-23 says that the babies jostled each other within [their mother, Rebekah] …, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So, she went to enquire of the Lord.  The Lord said to her,

‘Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
    and the elder will serve the younger.’

The brothers were wrestling even in their birth.  Esau came out first, but Jacob was clinging onto him by the heel.  Jacob means ‘he grasps the heel.’  That is the literal meaning anyway; but that word in Hebrew also had the metaphorical meaning of ‘he deceives’.  Names matter and maybe Jacob took the identity given to him by his name too far.  He remained the kind of guy that was always one-up on his brother, even if that meant winning through trickery or deceit. 

 In ancient times being the first born was important.  The first born got all sorts of advantages; and although the two brothers had come out the womb together attached to one another hand to heel, technically Esau was the eldest.   But twice Jacob deceived Esau out of the advantages he had as the first born – there was no way he was up for letting Esau get the best deals as the elder sibling.  The first time he tricked Esau out of his birthright; and the second time, with his mother’s help and guidance, he deceived Esau out of the moment their blind Father Issac wanted to give Esau a special blessing as his first born – the covenant blessing that had been passed from God to Abraham and from Abraham to Isaac.

The particular blessing that Jacob managed to get in place of Esau was this ‘…
 May God give you heaven’s dew
    and earth’s richness –
    an abundance of grain and new wine.
 May nations serve you
    and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
    and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed
    and those who bless you be blessed.’

The ending to that is exactly the same as part of the blessing given to Abraham and his descendants. 

So, Jacob seemed to be in a constant battle with his brother in a bid to be the one to come out on top.  To be the brother than won all the good stuff going and any advantages that there were to be gained within the family.

There wasn’t much in the way of blessing left for Esau that wouldn’t undo Jacob’s blessing and Esau felt so angry he wanted to kill his brother.  Jacob had to leave for his own safety.  With his parent’s knowledge and blessing he journeyed to the distant land of his uncle Laban – his mother’s brother.

Jacob spent 20 years with Laban.  He worked hard looking after Laban’s animals for 14 years so that he could earn his two wives, Leah and Rachel.  The final 6 years he earned his own flocks out of Laban’s as wages tor tending the flocks and working hard to keep all the animals safe.

 When Laban agreed to give a wage Jacob’s competitive streak kicked in again.  He figured out ways to get lambs to be born with specific markings.  So whatever marking Laban and Jacob agreed to as Jacob’s wages:  spotted, speckled, streaked, or dark coloured, Jacob would breed the strongest sheep to produce the required markings, so he would get all the strongest flocks and Laban, his own Uncle and Father in law, got the weakest. 

Not surprisingly Laban got frustrated when Jacob kept ending up with the strongest animals, so he kept changing which markings would be Jacob’s wages.  He changed Jacob’s wages 10x and every single time Jacob would end up with the strongest animals.  And so Laban gets angry with Jacob and feels like he is stealing his animals.  Laban doesn’t quite get to the point of wanting to kill Jacob but nonetheless he kind of just runs away from Laban because Laban is angry.  He goes on the advice of God actually.  God tells him to go back to the land of his fathers and his relatives and that He, the Lord, would be with him. 

Jacob heads back to his homeland with his family and everything he has earned with his hard work – and trickery.  When Laban realises that Jacob has sneaked away he chases after him. 

But God has still got Jacob’s back and God warns Laban not to let out the full force his fury on Jacob and to try and remain neutral.  Laban and Jacob promise not to harm each other; then they part ways and Jacob continues on his journey.

What do you think of Jacob?

Jacob doesn’t have the strongest relationship with God.  When he was initially running away from Esau God had appeared to him in a dream about a ladder and promised to be with him and watch over him.  The dream impacted Jacob but didn’t seem to quite believe the dream fully because he made a vow that the Lord would only be his God only if he did bring him back safely to his father’s household.  In all his achievements he rarely realised that it was God working through it all.

Adult and Child Playful wrestling

As Jacob nears his home land he sends some messengers ahead of him to tell Esau that he is on his way.  The message he receives in return is that Esau is on his way to meet them with 400 men.  And this is when suddenly Jacob panics.  He normally knows how to have the upper hand but it sounds like Esau is coming to kill him as he was keen to do 20 years ago.  But Jacob has a young family to protect and he can’t stand against 400 men.  His usual strength and intellect may fail him in this encounter and he doesn’t know what to do.

Jacob the deceiver comes up with a trick idea:  He designates his family and his herds and flocks into two parties in the hope that one would survive.  He then spends time in prayer.  Through the night he comes up with a further trick and sends several very large gifts of animals to Esau ahead of him – each gift separated out from the others so they arrive at different times, and each with a message that Jacob was coming behind. His hope being that the gifts would calm Esau.  He sends his gifts ahead of himself and his family and stays in the camp another night with his family and flocks.

Most likely his anxiety, fear, and over-thinking keeps him awake because in the middle of the night he gets up, wakes his family up and helps them ford the river along with all his possessions. Presumably still designated into their two parties.  It seems the river is shallow enough to wade through.

And then he is left alone. 

He is alone in a shallow river, or on the muddy bank of the river.  Standing in pitch darkness, on the threshold of his homeland, alone with his fearful thoughts.  His last fight in that homeland had been the one to wrestle the blessing off Esau, the one that now left him fearful of Esau’s retaliation. 

Mystery figure wrestles Jacob by the river Jabbok in pitch darkness

Then completely out of the blue he is attacked by a man who wrestles him.  In the pitch darkness he can’t see who it is but Jacob stands his ground against this unseen man and the two of them wrestle.  They are matched equally in strength and persistence and so the wrestling continues through the rest of the night.  Presumably the two of them are wrestling for several hours before the sun begins to rise.  It must have been pretty exhausting but Jacob is always a determined guy and keeps the fight up.  There are clues in Jacob’s story that he is a pretty strong guy so he may be wondering why he can’t quite get the upper hand over his unseen attacker.

The clue that it is a very real and very physical fight, rather than a dream, is the physical limp that Jacob eventually receives.

 Eventually Jacob senses that this is God he has been wrestling.  It may seem strange that God chose to come to Jacob in such a physical manner but I think there are clues as to why within the concept of parenting.

When my girls were little they often wanted to play rough and tumble games with their Mum or Dad – including Wrestling.  Rose in particular loved to play wrestling.  She called our wrestling games ‘battle force’.  In Battle force we would play on the bed I share with my husband, usually chucking pillows and duvets down the side to break any accidental falls off the bed.  The aim of battle force was simply to get the other person down for a count of three seconds. 

I tended to let Rose win most of the time, but not every time.  The challenge as the adult over a much smaller and weaker child is to give the effect that she is actually stronger than you – which is easier said than done.  Another challenge is to play even when you’re tired or busy. And that’s something I was a bit rubbish at.

Children like to play wrestling because it can give them the effect of power, and the effect of control.  But I think the physical matters very much too. It’s a lot like a hug but with a great deal more effort. 

The main thing parent child wrestling does is to build relationship.  It builds intimacy and trust in a safe manner.

There are a whole variety of reasons why play wresting is really beneficial, and it can depend on the individual child’s need; and I reckon that wresting was the perfect way for God to be a good parent to Jacob.  And God wasn’t too tired or too busy to meet Jacob at the river for a wrestling match.

In a book about play therapy with children, the author suggests rules for wrestling.  Some of the rules are these:

  1. Provide basic safety (Well Jacob was wrestling in a shallow river, or perhaps in the mud on the river bank.  It likely was a safe place for wrestling with soft landings).
  2. Find every opportunity for connection (Jacob needed connection.  He needed relationship.  Although God had appeared to Jacob on a few occasions in the past, the two of them didn’t seem to yet have fully connected.  Jacob didn’t yet have complete trust in God and was relying on his own strength and canniness to get him through life).
  3. Increase their confidence and sense of power. (I believe that God matched his strength to Jacob’s and fought all through the night because a need to feel strong and powerful was linked with Jacob’s identity.  He didn’t seem to like being second best in anything. Jacob didn’t lose the wrestling match even after the hip dislocation.  God didn’t actually want Jacob to lose his confidence or feel weak.  Jacob had been struggling against a sudden feeling of powerlessness as he considered facing Esau and God does want to help him overcome that sense of powerlessness.)
  4. Use every opportunity to play through old hurts. (Later in the book the author says this: ‘You may need all your strength to make sure no one gets hurt when children kick and fight hard.  They aren’t wrestling any more, but releasing a huge pile of terror and anger: They may be only dimly aware that you are there, holding them and making sure no one gets hurt…This happens because children have been hurt and scared, and you may be shocked that they have these emotions inside of them.  The wrestling opened the door for the release of these heavy feelings.’  Genesis 32 says that Jacob was in great fear and distress.  God let Jacob work out all the frustrations and fears he had in a physical, energy draining wrestling match.  At that moment it was fear of Esau that was getting to him most of all but there were other hurts Jacob had to work through.  I reckon he sensed the unfairness of the ancient tradition of the eldest getting the benefits and that was why he had fought so hard to get the benefits that tradition said Esau should get.)
  5. Provide just the right level of resistance to the child’s need.  (For Jacob’s situation God needed to match his strength to Jacob’s exactly.)
  6. Stop if someone gets hurt.

God wrestles with Jacob as his Parent, because of Jacob’s past identity as a wrestler since birth, and because of Jacob’s fears, and because Jacob needs a deeper relationship with God. 

For us too we have our fears that we need God to help us deal with.   Like Jacob was we too are recipients of the promise that God will always be with us, and the recipients of the blessing given to Jacob in Genesis 12.  We too are children of God.

But like Jacob we can forget these things, or lose hope.  And maybe we could do with a bit of wrestling to help us deal with our difficult, negative feelings; or our worries about the future.  I don’t think I’ve ever wrestled as an adult with someone of equal strength  but I have found that doing something physical like running or punching pillows helps with frustration. And hugs help too.  Wrestling is an interesting combination of hugging and energy releasing activity so it’s pretty great at dealing with horrible feelings.

Jacob was worried about meeting Esau because of his past treatment of Esau.  What are you worried about?  You are a child of God and he’s got your back just like he had Jacob’s.

Wrestling Entertainment Shows.

The third type of contemporary wrestling that is relevant to this passage and that is wrestling entertainment shows.  The difference between play wrestling and entertainment wrestling is that the hurts and frustrations to be worked through are written into scripts rather than being real.  They are essentially TV dramas based around wrestling.

I think this is relevant to the story of Jacob, not because the story wasn’t real life, but because God isn’t removed from putting a bit of controlled wrestling into our storyline as a twist in the plotline.  In fact, as said at the beginning this wrestling match is a key in the Biblical Narrative that affects us too: The background to the name Israel is fighting.

Jacob wrestles through the night not knowing who he is wrestling.  But, as the very first light of day begins to dissipate the utter blackness, Jacob might now begin to discern some of the features of the mystery man.   But this is when the figure, who is actually in control of the script and the story, makes his move to end the wrestling and get away. 

He touches Jacobs hip and it dislocates and asks to be let go because it is daybreak.  (Remember the rules of play wrestling above?  Stop if someone gets hurt.)

One of the reasons for playful wrestling in parenting is to build relationship and to build trust.  In order for that trust and relationship to be developed between Jacob and God going forward God included a carefully controlled injury within the fight. 

Hurting Jacob easily at the moment of his choice when they had been wrestling hard all night showed that the attacker could have done that any time – but chose not to.  And asking to suddenly end the wrestling match just at the very first sign of a wee bit light gave Jacob the hints he needed to start fitting the pieces together of who this guy was This was someone supernatural; and so he asked for a blessing.  There is a sense of trust in that.  Having wrestled through the night he now trusted his wrestling partner to be a being who would give a good blessing.

His personality trait of persistence is a good personality trait and we can be persistent in seeking a blessing of some kind too.

There is general agreement among scholars that the blessing is the name change which is followed by a farewell blessing.

The blessing of the name change, and the sudden disappearance following a farewell gives Jacob the full realisation that the encounter was with none other than the Lord.  Not and angel, but God himself.

God asks Jacob his name before giving a new name because he wants Jacob to say it aloud.  Jacob is saying ‘I am a deceiver and a wrestler – a heel grasper’.  And that gives God the opportunity to contrast it with a new identity. Israel means God fights or God strives.  Though the explanation given is somewhat different than the name meaning.  The explanation: ‘because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome’ highlights that Jacob has achieved great things – he does have strength and intelligence.  But it also highlights that God has been with him thus far in all his achievements. 

The new limp and the blessing of the new name go together.  Combined they show that, although Jacob’s strength had been God-given, he should not rely solely on his personal strength and cunning in life.  He wins battles because it is God with him that does it.

Blessing and loss go hand in hand in Genesis 32; and for us as individuals or as a congregation we too may need to lose something before we can fully receive a blessing. 

We may think we need certain things to survive – but the reality might be that these things are actually holding us back from fully trusting God and fully committing our future into his hands Jacob needed to lose the strength he had in his legs through his hips so he could learn to stop relying on his own strength and wits and learn to trust God. In that was his blessing.  For us – God may be wrestling with us so that we can give up some things that we hold dear before he can bless us.

What might we need to give up in order to strengthen our trust in the Lord, move into the future, and receive a blessing? Or maybe we’ve already lost it by a touch from the Lord, and need to let go and move on?

Maybe it is even long held traditions that we think are essential to our wellbeing but are in reality, the things we need to lose.

As we wrestle with God, and with his Word to us in Scripture, we may find that we come away injured by God’s challenges to us.  But after losing stuff we need to keep fighting on for a personal blessing.  Keep being patient and not giving up.

The new name and the new limp gave Jacob the confidence he needed to face his brother.  When Jacob says that his life was spared in this encounter with God it includes a realisation that Esau would not kill him because God was at work fighting on his behalf. As it turns out Esau runs to hug his brother as soon as he sees him and their relationship is renewed and strengthened.

As God’s people Israel, sometimes we too need to stop striving to do things on our own strength, and to trust God to take us safely into the future.  As Zechariah 4:6 says Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord Almighty.

Just as Jacob was upset that Esau might end up more blessed than him, sometimes we look at other people or other congregations and think they are more blessed than us.  But I think the story of Jacob’s wrestling match shows us that God is aware of supposed injustice and he wants to bless us too and he is indeed on our side and striving for us. 

Jacob was blessed by grace.  God broke tradition and chose the younger brother over the elder to be the continuation of God’s covenant people.  Jacob learned in that wrestling match that he had been chosen by grace; and he realised that one-upmanship was not what God intended.  In his old age he chose to bless each of his own sons equally by grace.  And we too are under God’s grace.  So, let’s hold on tight with persistence and patience as Jacob did for the blessing God wants to give us.

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Eating together

Acts 2. 42-47

We are looking at five practises for mission, focussed around the word “bread”. B is for Blessing and R is for Relying on the Spirit. Today, right in the middle, we come to the shortest, simplest, and easiest of the five. I don’t need to define it. We all do it. “EAT!”

Specifically, eat with other people. I’m not talking about me stopping working on this to eat a packet of crisps. Most of us eat twice or three times a day. That’s twenty-one times a week. You can push that up to 25 times a week if you include coffee and cakes. Now how about if we took just some of these meals – and made them meals with other people? And how about if we took at least one of these meals – and made it a meal with people who don’t know Jesus? For some of us, that’s dead easy!

We’re looking at the life of the very first Christian Church, in Acts 2. 42-47. It would be very easy to dismiss “Eating together” as just a tiny detail. But it’s important: it was important enough for Luke to mention it in his story. It isn’t a silver bullet. There are actually no silver bullets, no guaranteed simple tricks that will revive the Church. So we set it in context.

Firstly, these guys were committed.

“They diligently, doggedly devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and the prayers.” (v. 42) God had done something dramatic. Jesus had got a hold of their lives and saved them. Now they were committed to learning how to live this new life the way God wanted them to.

  • The teaching of the Apostles, their witness to the truth about Jesus, his story (what he had done) and its significance (what it shows us about God, and about our life in him”
  • Fellowship. Having something in common. They had a common heritage in Judaism. They had all been brought up to worship Yahweh; God the Father in Heaven. The all had Jesus in common:they knew that Jesus is God the Son and had died for them. And they had all received the Holy Spirit. It would be inconceivable to have a Trinitarian encounter with God in common and not let that affect every other part of life. So they were committed, to the “common life”.
  • Breaking of bread: the uniquely Christian act of worship we sometimes call Communion.
  • And the prayers. They still took part in the regular prayers of the Temple; and the Church had its own times of prayer

There is no quick and easy way round commitment. You can sit down and munch on burgers or curry, week in week out. And it will not transform your life, without there being a real commitment to the Lord Jesus and to the disciplines of following him in community.

Secondly, it was part of the strategy of the Spirit.

The miraculous was happening. (v. 43) The whole story of Acts is the work of the Spirit. The experience of seeing believers speaking about God, in all the languages of the Roman world, had made them curious. They had heard the Good news; 3,000 had been baptised. And the Holy Spirit was still at work. There were signs and wonders continuing. And the Spirit was busy building community, bringing qualitative growth to these three thousand new believers, and in a slower way than before, bringing people to faith. The next number that’s mentioned is a total of five thousand, in ch 4. 4 and that was days or weeks later.) So eating, was part of the strategy of the Spirit.

Thirdly, it was an expression of the common life.

They shared what they had (v. 44). Basically, they started to do life together. That’s an interesting concept! Some churches have done interesting things with that. Bishopbriggs Community Church began its life in a big house, where they worshipped in the living room. When they outgrew that, they got a site on a disused brickworks and built a new Church centre – and twenty houses and eight flats, all owned and lived in by Christians! David Watson lived in a substantial Victorian Vicarage in York and for a number of years had an “extended family” sharing life with his own family. In his story “you are my God” he describes the joys as well as challenges of life in community. It’s not for everyone. But we all need in some way to share our lives and our resources. To do life together. And eating together is one of the simplest – and most Biblical – ways of doing that.

Fourthly, it was a context for worship and spiritual growth.

Breaking of Bread took place in homes (not in a religious building, interestingly!) And whether as part of “Breaking Bread” or separately, they partook of food with glad and thankful hearts. Breaking bread was associated with meals together. I H Marshall says, “The idea is that they held common meals which included the breaking of bread” (cf 1 Cor 11. 17-34)

  • Sharing food is a way of focussing in on God. Of all the the good things we do in Christian worship – welcoming people, music, Bible reading and teaching, prayer, sharing news, giving gifts, using gifts – there’s one thing that Jesus told the Church to do when it gathers: breaking bread. And that goes back to the mists of ancient history: food was the test of Adam and Eve’s obedience to god; food was how Abraham received the news that he was going to have a son of his own. Food was how on more than one occasion Jesus showed himself alive after the resurrection. Food is going to be part of the experience of the new Heaven and the new earth. At the Breaking of bread, god once again invites us to dine with Him!
  • It is an essential element in Christian Discipleship and in Christian mission. Discipleship isn’t about filling in the boxes in an bible workbook. It isn’t a programme to get you to do more things for the organisation of the Church. It is about growing, through shared lives, shared stories, shared ideas, shared responsibility. Round a meal, or a cup of coffee and some biscuits, we can get to know people; we can make our story much less preachy; we can let our hair down and relax together with our brothers and sisters. Discipleship can happen when we eat together.

Lastly, it was a springboard for Mission.

These new believers still hung around together in the “Solomon’s porch” part of the temple. That is partly about the fact that as followers of Jesus, they didn’t stop being Jewish, and it took them a while to realise that the message of Jesus was for all the people of the world. And it’s partly about being there, among their own people, unafraid of mingling with people who don’t know Jesus. It’s about mission.

At the very least, when we do discipleship with food, when we do life together, we rehearse simple skills that are useful in the mission context. Hospitality (“philoxenia” meaning “love of strangers” is a command in Rom 12. 13). Conversation (we’ll be coming back to that one!) and generosity (we’ve already looked at that one!) Sometimes, when we do life together, we do something that we can invite others into. We should be fully engaged in the world we live in (although there may be some places where we would be better avoiding!) We need to be meeting people who don’t know Jesus, eating with them, talking to them. We occasionally do food together as a whole Church. That can be hard work. We’re doing it today. Maybe we’re not always getting it right. But it is an important part of church because it is about doing life together.

The coming of the Spirit creates curiosity. The exercise of the gifts, the bubbling up of the miraculous, creates curiosity. So does the quality of our life together – if people can see it and experience it. And to welcome others to eat with us gives us that same possibility: shared lives, good conversations.

So people approved of the stuff they were doing. (v. 47) People were saved and added to their number. It’s possible to eat your way into heaven says Alan Hirsch.

© Gilmour Lilly August 2019

1Chronicles 4. 9-10: “

“The prayer of Jabez”

What’s in a Name?

She called the baby “Agony” because the pregnancy was difficult, the birth specially painful, or the circumstances unusually sad. Imagine being called “Pain” or “Agony” or “Distress” or “Grief” or “Depression.” I wonder if Jabez carried that name through his life with a sense of this thing having stuck to him. Not just embarrassing him but defining his life…

Listen, things we say to people, things we say about people, can stick to them; things we say about ourselves can stick to us and drag us down into a spiral of hopelessness, despair and apathy. If your name’s “Pain” or “Loser”, what’s the point of trying?

Self-obsessed?

It seems at first glance like some of that stuff had stuck itself to this guy Jabez, and made him a strange, self-obsessed sort of person. I don’t know how his prayer sounds to you, but to me, at first reading, it sound a bit selfish, materialistic, and frankly fear-filled. It reminds me a bit of the famous 16th century “Miser’s prayer” of John Ward: “O Lord,…Give a prosperous voyage and return to the Mermaid sloop, as I have insured her. Make all my servants so honest and faithful that they may attend to my interests and never cheat me out of my property, night or day.” One commentator describes Jabez’s prayer as immature.

The Key

But I don’t agree. The Bible says he was more honourable (literally glorious, or respected) than his brothers (or kinsmen). Good News does well to translate “the most respected member of his family.” He stood out, not for being pathetic and selfish, but for gaining respect. The key to this, is in the context. This is a wee scrap of a story, in the middle of broken bits of lists of ancestors. But these lists are of people who lived through the time when Israel was entering the Land God had promised them (Othniel and Caleb, verses 13-15). And these wee scraps were complied into the Book of Chronicles, at the end of the exile (remember, “from the rivers of Babylon”?) This is a story about the Birth-pains of a nation, that immediately applied to the birth-pains of that same nation, struggling to get back to its Promised land.

So The Living Bible is right, to translate the prayer this way: “Bless me and help me in my work…” His work, his call from God, as part of this emerging nation, was to establish a foothold in the promised Land. It was the same land that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had pastured their sheep and cattle in. This was their birthright; it was God’s promise and the place God was calling them to occupy.

That makes a difference! As I said, when we looked at the story of Achsah and Caleb “Conquest is not a great model for mission. But transformation is.” We can look at using this prayer of Jabez if we are engaging with what God has called us to be doing in his world.

The prayer

So Jabez prays for blessing.

Bless me. To bless is to speak good about someone: about who they are and what they can become. And when God speaks blessing over us things happen. The word “Bless” us used twice, not once. Some translations say “Blessing, bless me!” In the middle of the struggles to become established in this new land, Jabez looks around and sees other people being blessed. There’s Caleb, taking towns. There’s Othniel taking Kiriath Sepher. “Lord, while you are blessing – bless me!” Do you ever feel jealous of other Churches that are being blessed, and growing? We worshipped at a packed Perth Baptist Church last Sunday and witnessed the Baptism of a young man called Daniel who returned to faith in Jesus through an Alpha course a few months ago. It was great to baptise Alison a few weeks ago in Rosyth – but it would have been even greater to baptise her in a full Church! But listen, we are not alone. Much of the Church in Scotland is going through the same sort of struggles we are. Alan McWilliam, former minister of Whiteinch Church of Scotland and a strategic leader in Scotland, recently talked about the pattern of “managing decline” in the Scottish Church. I remember him praying a few years ago for Scotland. “Do not pass us by Lord”. That’s a good prayer: “You are blessing other places. Bless us too!”

Make my boundaries bigger. Enlarge my territory. Not about personal prosperity, but about Kingdom Purpose. Not about personal prestige or power, but about bringing Kingdom transformation to the world we live in. Enlarging our territory isn’t about having a bigger building. Or about having a bigger congregation. It’s about having a wider and deeper impact. God could send all the people who live in Rosyth and go to other Churches (Viewfield, Liberty, the Vine, All Saints Fife as well as churches in Edinburgh) to worship here next Sunday, and our boundaries, our impact could be just the same. Tell me what you want. (“What you really really want”!) Where there is no vision the people perish. One local Church is holding at the present time to the text “Enlarge the place of your tent”. What’s your vision?

Hands of Javanese Tree Shrew and human by W Djatmiko: Creative Commons SA3 license

May your hand be with me (or upon me). In Hebrew thinking the hand represented strength, power and authority. The battles that Joshua, or Caleb, or Jabez had to fight depended on God’s power, not their own strength. The picture shows a man holding a shrew, which has tiny “hands”, great for climbing up a stem or grabbing a seed. But the man’s hands are so much stronger: that’s a picture of God’s hands (his power) compared with ours. Jesus promised “you shall have power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” “Show your power, O Lord our God!”

Keep me from evil so it might not grieve me. It’s not just about “harm” but about evil in every form. The personal forces of evil. Misery. Mischief-making. Moral evil. Malicious evil – the people who want to cause us harm. This is echoed hundreds of years later in the Lord’s prayer: Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

Bring it on!

And God answered his prayer! Both the Hebrew and the Greek text say “God brought on what he asked.” I like that. When we pray, God doesn’t send what we need. He brings what we need. Having family in another country, I understand the difference between sending and bringing gifts. It’s wonderful to be able to send a parcel to one of the family in France. But it is even better to be able to hand over that gift in person: to give Pete or Silje or Gabriel a hug and a smile. I am grateful for what God sends: but I long for what God brings. We are often taught to seek the giver instead of the gift. If God brings his gifts, we get both! Prayer takes place I a living and trusting relationship with our heavenly Father.

We can look to God to hear and answer our prayers – for blessing, for enlargement and provision; for power and for protection – if we are living on purpose. If we are asking for a larger place , for blessing, power and protection, because we are engaged in and facing the challenges of transforming our place for God and with God. We ask, God answers: “Lord, bring it on!”

© Gilmour Lilly August 2019

The Power of Prayer

The Power of Prayer

          Earlier this week I watched a program on BBC 1 called the power of parkrun.  Parkrun is a social exercise phenomenon that has taken off across the world.  The aim was for people to meet up and go for a wee jog together followed by a cup of tea or coffee. 

Parkrun was started by one man who was going through a difficult phase in his life and wanted to get some of his friends together to help lift his mood with exercise and friendship.  Now there are over 1500 parkruns around the world.  There are 5 parkruns in Fife alone and typical attendance on any given week at any one of them is around 200.  But some parkruns can have as many as a 1000 people taking part at once.

          The title ‘the power of parkrun’ was about showing the power of parkrun to aid, mental, emotional, and physical wellness and healing in individuals.  And there is a real power in parkrun to do that. 

There may not be a BBC1 program about the power of prayer, but this psalm shows the power of prayer to bring about mental, emotional, and physical wellness and healing in individuals.

 The power of prayer is the power to bring about happiness as the introduction and conclusion state.  The poem is written about King David’s own personal experience of prayer.

There is more to the power of prayer than just King David’s experience.  Two books I read in preparation for this morning talked about studies that have shown that there is a very real power in prayer to improve our happiness and joy.

The word blessed used in verses 1 and 2 can be also be translated as happiness or joy, and some English versions do just that.

YLT O the happiness of him whose transgression [is] forgiven, 

NLT Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven,

GNT Happy are those whose sins are forgiven,

And as the psalm ends it talks about gladness, joy, and singing.

This psalm seems to have a mirror image structure to it.  The fancy term for that is a chiastic structure.  It means that there is a centre and that working out from that centre to both the end and the beginning the sections reflect each other.  The reason for explaining this is that I will talk first about the outer edges:  the power of prayer to bring about happiness.  Then about how we might feel if we don’t pray.  And then finally the centre of the prayer which is verses 5-8.  These verses describe three specific benefits of prayer that bring about our happiness, and improve our all-round well-being and health.  The very centre of the poem is verse 6.  It interrupts the three benefits of prayer with a call to pray.

Happiness

          There are 4 statements made about this happiness in vv1-2:  two for each verse.  It comes about because our…

  • Transgressions are forgiven
  • Sins are covered
  • Our sin not counted
  • And in our spirit there is no deceit.

What isn’t clear from the English translations is that in the first 3 statements there are 3 different words used for sin and 3 different words for forgiveness.  Between them the three words for sin or wrong doing cover any kind of wrong doing in any context or circumstance. 

Doing things wrong whether maliciously or not can result in some pretty rubbish feelings.  Mostly guilt, but sometimes simply worrying about not having done the right thing.   We might be worried we’ve hurt someone else, hurt God, or just hurt our own sense of self-worth.

     Imagine this pile of rubbish is everything you’ve done that makes you feel rubbish about yourself because of things you’ve said or done.  The first Hebrew word for forgiveness is my all-time favourite Hebrew word.  It’s one of those words that are really easy to remember because it sounds like an English word related to it’s meaning.  The word is nasa – and it means lifted.  I always think of it like a space rocket lifting up into space.  So when Psalm 32 talks about our transgressions being forgiven it means that they are lifted up and away from us.  The weight is released from our shoulders and lifted away.

The second Hebrew word is casah, meaning covered, concealed.  If our stuff cannot be seen it’s like it doesn’t exist at all.

  The final forgiveness phrase states that our rubbish is not counted against us by the Lord.  The Hebrew word for counted here is chashav. It means to think about and consider.  So the Lord does not think about or consider anything to do with our rubbish.  It’s just not in his thoughts at all.  The Hebrew word in this image is the word for Yahweh usually translated as ‘the Lord’.  He is refusing to think about our rubbish.

In all 3 cases it’s not that our rubbish ceases to have happened but that it ceases to have any kind of effect on us or on God.  It’s as good as gone.  There is nothing for us to worry about!

The fourth phrase in relation to happiness is about living in integrity.  The happy person feels clean and lives an honest – deceit free life.  To be happy is to live in integrity and free from the weight of guilt. The message person puts it like this ‘how happy you must be—
    you get a fresh start,
    your slate’s wiped clean.’

Effects of no prayer

          We don’t always feel happy though.  We do often have our minds filled with guilt, worry, and anxiety about our choices and actions.  Constantly feeling negatively about ourselves and carrying the weight of guilt can produce depression and anxiety.  Something that affects both Christians and non-Christians.  When these kinds of feeling are on-going they produce negative physical effects as well as emotional ones because we are carrying so much baggage around.   We spend time over thinking things, maybe trying to defend our actions to ourselves. Other times we might be afraid to admit we’ve done wrong, maybe through pride. 

But I think in the case of King David his wrong doing was so bad that he was not only maybe trying to over-think his way out of his actions and make it seem less bad; but was maybe also afraid of what God, or others, would think if he opened up.  Verse 5 says that he was covering up his wrong-doing from God.

 This Psalm is written in the context of King David’s great and famous sequence of sins, sleeping with Bathsheba, and trying to cover it up by bringing her husband Uriah home from war so that he would sleep with her and David could pretend the baby was Uriah’s.  When that failed, he arranged to have Uriah killed by putting him on the front line of the battle. 

But when David refused to acknowledge all he had done he felt awful.  His conscience was convicting him and he felt like his bones were wasting away.  He felt like God’s hand was heavy on him.  He describes his emotional trauma in a physical way.  

We are a connected whole, the things that impact our mind and spirit also impact us in a physical way. The reason that parkrun not only affects our physical health but also our emotional in mental health is because we are a connected whole.  Our minds bodies and spirits are not distinct or separate things.

  When we hold onto our guilt, and all our worries and anxieties about not being 100% perfect, our anxious minds leave us feeling physically agitated, or sluggish with low energy and tiredness. 

Proverbs 28:1 states that the wicked flee though no one pursues. What it means is that when we feel guilt for something we’ve done that we know to be very wrong we are constantly worried that we have been found out and that we will be punished for what we’ve done.  That can mean assuming that someone is coming after us to pay us back for what we’ve done even when no one is.

          But the Lord is a good Father, and he acts towards us just as he did to David. He forgives our sin.  Absolutely no matter what.  There is nothing that cannot be forgiven.

Verse 10 Challenges us not to be afraid to come to our Lord in prayer.  ‘Do not be like the horse or mule, which have no understanding but which must be controlled by the bit and bridle or they will not come to you.’  We can teach dogs to come to us when we call their name, but some animals stubbornly refuse to come at a call.  A horse is without the level of understanding of a dog, it can only be controlled by its bit and bridle.  The verse calls us to come to God in prayer freely.  We have been given freedom because we have been given understanding.  God hasn’t made us robots that do his bidding in a controlled way like a bit and bridle.  So, as verse 6 says ‘let all the faithful pray to the Lord while he may be found’

3 Benefits of Prayer

          Prayer is a spiritual activity, but it affects much more than our spirituality.  It gives us all-round good health. The Psalm mentions three separate benefits of prayer, the first of these is forgiveness.  This has already been mentioned in the introduction as affecting our happiness.  David had kept silent about his wrong-doing for some time.  It had been having some really negative effects on his mood and health.  But finally, in verse 5, he comes to the Lord.

The same three words for wrong doing that are in verses 1 and 2 are repeated in verse 5.  This time in the context of coming to God in prayer with all these things.  The three words for sin are matched with three different Hebrew words for confessing.  He acknowledges his wrong-doing to God – stops pretending he didn’t do anything wrong, uncovers it and lets it be seen by God, and he openly confesses it.

          The three words for sin and the three words for confession imply together that this is a complete pouring out. Nothing is held back in fear.  He lays his heart bare.  And the result is his sin is forgiven. The word in verse 5 here is nasa again.   His rubbish is lifted away.  The weight of worry is removed and happiness can return.

Hebrews

          We know that we are forgiven anyway if we have faith in what Jesus did for us on the cross.  At this point it would be good to look at a new testament passage on forgiveness.  Hebrews 10:11-18

11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.

15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

16 ‘This is the covenant I will make with them
    after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
    and I will write them on their minds.’[
b]

17 Then he adds:

‘Their sins and lawless acts
    I will remember no more.’[
c]

18 And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.

So if we know our sin is already forgiven – it’s easy to wonder what the need for confessional prayer is.

But if we carry on reading Hebrews chapter 10 verses 26-27 say this

26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.

          That is a challenging passage but the key word there is deliberately.  Those whose conscience is convicting them of having done something awful, but who are refusing to acknowledge it as sin, who are keeping it hidden from God, and not confessing that sin will be in the position David was in.  A position of fearing judgment.  He was feeling like his bones were wasting away through his groaning. 

          It is in coming to God in prayer, and opening up about what our consciences are telling us, that frees us from the torment of carrying our sin.   

Refusing to confess it can be like deliberately sinning.  Maybe because we don’t want to admit we did wrong – maybe trying to convince ourselves as well as God that we didn’t do anything wrong.  Perhaps sometimes part of us doesn’t really want to change our ways. 

Prayer is what cleans our slate and allows us to live without deceit in our spirit and to live in integrity.  Prayer admits, both to ourselves and to God, that we have done wrong and that we regret it.  Both Psalm 32 and Hebrews 10 only refers to stuff we know we have done wrong because our consciences are beating us up about it – but we are pretending we haven’t done anything wrong; or because we are fearful of confession.  There is no need to confess unknown sins.

Being forgiven includes being willing to be in a relationship with Jesus, being willing to come voluntarily – not like the horse or mule that have no understanding and need to be controlled by bit and bridle or they won’t come.

 Deliberately doing wrong is deliberately rejecting what our good good father has done for us through the blood of Jesus.  He wants to free us from torment.  He wants to forgive us and cover over everything.

There may be times when we have prayed and opened our hearts to God, and yet not felt a release from the burden of sin.  Peace and happiness continue to evade us. 

If a genuine confession through prayer still leaves us feeling guilty there may be a psychological issue for us.  it might be that we don’t want to be forgiven, we don’t feel that we deserve it and so we refuse to feel forgiven.  In those cases we are refusing to forgive ourselves.  Our relationship with God is cool, but our relationship with ourselves is not.  This is more about our self-worth than our faith. 

It may be that just realising that begins the road to healing.  For some deep stuff it might, on occasion, be beneficial to confess to someone else, or to seek counselling.  Confessing to God in the company of another person might help us to understand ourselves better and be able to heal.  As James 5:16 says

16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Protection and Guidance

          The second and third benefits of prayer in psalm 32 are protection and guidance.

Vv7-8 You are my hiding-place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.

When we are in a good relationship with God we can trust that he will protect us, that we are safe.  In him is our hiding place.  Nobody will be after us for our sin because God not only forgives us but hides us from our enemies. 

If we put our trust in God we are trusting that he will not only keep us safe from the evil one, but will lead us and guide us as we journey through life, keeping us both secure and growing. 

In other words, the relationship with God that develops through prayer brings us peace in all areas of life, not just release of guilt.

Philippians 4:6-7 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Psalm 32 explains that by saying that in God’s protection, love, and guidance we are ‘surrounded by songs of deliverance’  That is we are surrounded by God’s voice exclaiming our deliverance.  Our peace from the fear of enemies.  And we know from Genesis 1 what the power of God’s voice can do. 

          The more we pray, the more we draw close to God in relationship with him.   And the more we look to Jesus, and the more we seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit, the more peace we will feel.  A bit like a spiral of ever-increasing peace and trust in our Lord.

How to Pray

          So, if the natural consequences of prayer are to feel happiness in freedom from guilt, and to feel surrounded by songs of deliverance, a good question is how do we pray.

          The Lord’s prayer contains much of what I have talked about.  It asks the Lord to forgive our sins, to protect us from evil, and to guide us in bringing God’s kingdom to earth.  So, saying the Lord’s prayer as Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him how to pray is a very good prayer.

          Once we begin a regular prayer life it’s good to be able to just talk to the Lord as we would to a close friend.  To talk about our feelings including guilt and anxiety; but also, our hopes, and our fears.  Ask for protection and ask for guidance through the big and small decisions of life.

To finish I just want to read a quote from a book.  The book is called finding God in the waves which is story simply about faith lost and found, but found in a fresh way.  In the book he says this about intercessory prayer; which is prayer for our healing and for the healing of others.

‘These days my intercessory prayers are an act of surrender; a way to voice my hopes and hopelessness; my power to act, and my powerlessness.  When I pray for things I hope for, I am searching for way I can act to make a situation better.  When I pray in situations that I find hopeless, I am searching for that redemptive perspective.  Studies have shown that people who pray to God about problems in this way achieve a positive emotional effect similar to if they’d seen a therapist.  Prayer helps us grieve what we’ve lost, forgive those who’ve hurt us, and maintain a positive outlook on life.  Intercessory prayer is useful and beneficial in helping people surrender to, and process their emotions, and heal from trauma.’

Ezekiel 47:

Ezekiel 47: Promise, presence, people & purpose

Remember that Ezekiel’s prophecy was written to a battered people: the glory had departed from their temple, then the temple itself was looted and destroyed. They had lost their national identity and their faith. Last week we learned how in the vision of the valley of dry bones, God had asked “can these bones live?” and had then sent his Ruach – his spirit – to revive the bones and turn them into a mighty army. His promise was that the nation could be revived through the coming of the Spirit.

The last bit of Ezekiel is a vision of a new “super-temple” with seven chapters of instructions: sizes, rules about who becomes priests, the responsibilities of everyone in the land, and sacrifices. It’s all a bit technical and, to us, a bit boring. (At least, to me: lists of measurements send me to sleep!) But this isn’t just a temple. It’s “Ezekiel’s pattern for the Messianic age that was to come.” In a kind of code-language it holds out an end-time hope, a “kind of incarnation of all that God stood for …  required of … could do for his people.”

What an encouragement for broken people to know that they are not abandoned. In this new Messianic age,

  • God has a Perfect plan
  • his praise and worship will be central.
  • His Presence will be there. In chapter 43 Ezekiel sees the glory of God (that had gone in Chapter 10) returning to the new temple. That was God’s way of saying, this whole thing is really holy. It’s really mine!
  • His people will repent of past sins, and
  • Responsibilities shared among God’s people as the whole land is restored.

In this Messianic age, these broken people had something concrete, solid, and real to look forward to!

Let’s pause and play.

We used Duplo bricks to reflect on our part in being a place where God lives by his spirit.
Duplo & Lego bricks. Public Domain image by Klasbricks
Imagine you’re hearing these words from Ezekiel, beside the river Chebar,in Babylon.    You have a Duplo or Lego brick or two in front of you. What does your brick represent?  Your contribution?  Your responsibility?  Your faith?  Your repentance?  Your prayers?   Step out and put your brick(s) on the building. How do you feel, putting your brick into this thing that represents however roughly, God’s plan?    Then, something happens.  I’m going to put the lid, the roof on the temple and this shiny block to represent God’s glory coming back to the temple. And what happens?  The temple is leaking!   Water is seeping out of the bottom of the door.      

The Temple & the river.

From the Temple – the place of sacrifice & worship – flows a trickle of water, under the doorway, like water gurgling from a narrow-necked jar. Water is fundamental to life itself. It was the lifeblood of a farming community. It brings fertility to the land; and if it is missing, the land is barren, there is famine. This trickle of water flows from the East door of the temple, from the holy of holies…

And as it flows further and further away from the temple, down the hill, the river becomes deeper and deeper: first ankle deep; then knee deep, then waist deep, then too deep to cross on foot. One either side of the river, trees are growing, that produce fruit all the year round. Even the leaves are good medicine. And as the river flows into the Dead Sea, (which is dead!) it becomes the Living Sea. When fish are carried by the Jordan into the Dead Sea, they die and get washed up on the shore. There are no fishermen on the Dead Sea. But when the river flows into the Dead Sea, it heals the waters, so there are fishermen spreading their nets all along the banks. Yet the useful salt deposits on the swamps are left as a source of necessary minerals. God is good, and shows his goodness in abundance for his people.

But not just for his own people. Talk of a river and trees remind us of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2. 8-10:. This is the new creation at work. The blessings that flow from the Temple bless the whole world. These battered people are being told that in the Messianic age, God’s abundance that will flow for his people will change the whole world. The book of Revelation uses the exact same image, taken from Ezekiel, of a city with a river running through it! (Rev 22.1-2)

Now, just a wee question. When does the messianic age start? When Jesus comes and announces “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

And another wee question: does the messianic age need a temple for offering sacrifices to God? No, a thousand times no – Jesus has offered the final sacrifice of his own life! So he is the temple. (John 2. 19-21) His death made sacrifices and temples obsolete.

Paul talks abut God’s people being a dwelling place for God by the spirit. (Eph 2. 21f) God lives in us and in our life together. So today, the Temple is us. Jesus says that those who believe in Jesus shall have rivers of living water flowing from inside them. (John 4. 14; John 7. 38) The people of God, the Church, have God’s Spirit in our lives like a spring, a river that keeps flowing out of us, to turn not just the Church, but the place where we are in the world, into a fresh, healthy, fertile, place.

The Messianic age came with Jesus. The Messianic age will be fulfilled at the end of time. The Messianic age is the Church’s business today. We need to be the temple. We need the Glory to return. We need to let the river flow to bless our world. God is able to do it!

© Gilmour Lilly July 2019

“I will put my Spirit in you”

Ezekiel 37. 1-14

Promises, promises.

When Alan preached a month ago, he reminded us of the question, “how can we sing the Lord’s song, in a strange land?” Of the need for that element of lament over the mess we are in – the Church in our nation (in case anyone thinks I am getting at Rosyth!)

Ezekiel Chapters 3-35 are full of God’s Judgement on the nation: both Israel and Judah. The glory has departed from the temple (ch 10). The people have been exiled to Babylon. But Ezekiel has been promising these people in exile, a change in their fortunes: the Lord himself becoming their Shepherd (Ezk 34) so that they are brought back in their own land not because they deserved it but because God is gracious. (Ezk 36. 22-38) In the Old testament, this promise was about the coming of God’s Kingdom; it was about the “last days,” when God’s special servant, the promised Shepherd would come. But is wasn’t easy to be hopeful: they had lost their city and actually their faith. They were saying “our bones (and by implication our strength) are dried up.” A quick verse of “I whistle a happy tune” wasn’t going to sort it. It needed – and it needs – God to be at work and the Holy Spirit to come.

How is that to happen?

Reality check

God’s answer is firstly to ask the question….“Son of Man, can these bones live?” That’s the reality check question, to put us in touch with the reality thing we were talking about last week. The obvious & realistic answer is “No!”

But who is asking the question?

God is on the case of his people. It is God who has his hand on Ezekiel, taking him back in a spiritual vision to the place where all this started for him: the “valley” is the same word as “Plain” in 3.22. And that original vision was so amazingly profound. Did you know Ezekiel is the prophet hat nearly didn’t make it into the Bible. A century before Jesus, its picture of God was thought so weird as to be dangerous. This god, the God of the wheels within the wheels, is the one who is asking the question.

“You know” factors in that other reality: if God is for us, who can be against us! If God is asking, we don’t just jump to the obvious conclusion. “Lord, you know.” But “Lord, you know” may also carry a sense of humility and dependance: this people in exile needed God’s grace.

Speak to the bones: challenging God’s people

It is a call to the prophetic. We can speak to the broken bones of the Church today. I have been speaking to the broken bones of the church for many years. I have always believed in the church, this reality of the people of God. A lot of my ministry has been challenging these bones to be in the right place, joined to each other, expressing the life of the Head and connected with our world.

We can respond to the prophetic. We can obey the word of the Lord. We can draw closer to one another. We can put ourselves in the right place in connection with one another. We can shape the life of our Church for mission God’s way in 2019 and beyond.

We can restructure, we can train, we can relate. And indeed we should.

But we may still be dead.

Speak to the wind: prayer

The Hebrew language uses the same word “Ruach” for breath, wind, the human spirit, and the Spirit of God. The elegant use of the word Ruach in this chapter is part of the genius of the book of Ezekiel.

And God tells Ezekiel, “Prophecy to the Ruach.” This prophecy equals prayer. Calling out, in the Name of God, to the Spirit of God.

So, “Come from the four winds O breath!” From the four corners of the Earth… The Spirit is He who was hovering over creation… We call on him to come and make us and all creation new.

Today we have a day of prayer. Let us make that praying “prophetic praying”, where in the power of the Spirit (that is the mystery: we need the grace of God and the Spirit of God to get us ready to receive the grace of God and the Spirit of God. We need repentance to get us ready for repentance.

The Ruach comes

The breath/wind/spirit comes, breathes into the slain bodies, and they wake up, come alive. They become a mighty army. They are able to achieve something once again. Ezekiel is not prophesying resurrection, eh is prophesying revival. He is prophesying the Holy Spirit coming and breathing new life into a broken down, exiled nation., so that they are able to live as God intended in their own land once again.  

About the Nation God says “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.”

The work of the Spirit in Ezk, and in Joel 2. 28, is part of the Messianic age. For the Church, the Spirit enables us to do the work of the present and coming Kingdom of God. That’s the revival that we need to be praying for.

© Gilmour Lilly July 2019

Releasing the Spirit

Acts 3. 1-10

1. Expectations:

(Pam)

As Peter and John walked towards the “Beautiful Gate” of the Temple, to take part in the regular Jewish prayers, what were they expecting? Having recently been dramatically filled with the Holy Spirit, we can imagine that they were expecting to meet with God, in the temple service. But I wonder if they were also expecting a God-moment before they even go into the temple? Maybe praying for God to work through them, to show them what he was calling them to do… maybe asking God to bring them in contact with someone who needed His touch.

And as they encountered the lame man begging, they looked straight at him. They didn’t walk by in embarrassment. What was happening at that moment? Were they praying for guidance: “Lord, what do you want to do in this situation?” Were they looking to see some hint of what God wanted to do? Jesus only did what he saw the father doing; so Peter and John would follow his example and only try to do what God was doing too. And once they reached that point, there was no need for uncertainty: they dared to believe the Holy Spirit would enable them to do this. So they prayed a prayer of command in Jesus’ name. In mission, we partner with the Holy Spirit, looking expectantly for opportunities that eh is giving us, to minster in Jesus’ name.

What about the lame man? What was he expecting? Clearly, to be given some money. The longer Peter and John looked, the more hopeful the man became. And what he received was so much more than he hoped for: healing, strength, an opportunity to have a normal life, to be included in society, to walk into the temple and worship. Salvation, the Kingdom was available to him.

I wonder what people in our world expect of the Church and of Christians today?

  • Conversionism – or maybe recruitment. “They want us to believe their message. They want us to sign up, to join them.”
  • Looking for Money. “They want our money – to fix the church roof, or for some other project that has very little value in the real world.”
  • Workers. “They want us to help them run their organisation.” Churches can be like helicopters. “Don’t get too close or you’ll get tangled up in the rotas!”
  • Or simply a social agency. They will run a Foodbank or a soup kitchen; the minister will give money to someone begging.
  • Or maybe a bunch of people who are always protesting about something…

Or, do people have the expectation that we will have evidence in our life together, of God’s living presence? For that matter, do we have the expectation that we will have evidence in our life together, of God’s living presence? Because if we don’t have the right expectations, how can we expect other people to?

How do we get this right?

2. Contact!

(Gil)

“I’m sorry, my friend. This is kind of embarrassing. But actually, we’re broke, both of us.” Being a Christian can be like that, can’t it. Sometimes we are just all too aware of what we don’t have. I hear about these churches that are having a team from the Baptist union or the USA, to run a children’ club, and I think, “we haven’t got enough of our own people to join with the visiting team”; when I see some of the training the Union offers, and I think “We can’t afford that,” or I think about our struggles to keep a Sunday children’s ministry going, or how we can’t run Gateway any more, it’s kind of embarrassing.

But actually, we need to be in touch with reality: with the reality of what is happening in our own lives, and the life of our church. There are things we don’t have, things we can’t do and that is actually OK. Peter and John didn’t need to be embarrassed about the fact that they didn’t have any money. We don’t need to give what we haven’t got. As a Church we don’t need to do what we don’t have the resources to do. It’s far better to be in touch with reality, that to try to pretend everything is perfect and to keep everything going lit is was way back in the day; or to keep signing up for the latest cash-hungry and energy-hungry project. As individuals we have different amounts of time, energy, talent: none of us need to feel called upon to do stuff we aren’t equipped to do. That’s contact with reality.

But such as I have … Peter and John had something to offer. They have this for one reason and one reason only: “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth…” It is because of the authority of Jesus, that Peter and John have something to give. They are doing ministry, in Jesus’ power.

And they are doing it in Jesus’ way. Peter at this point is the leader of the Apostles, the one everyone looks to. But throughout this story, it’s Peter and John, reflecting the Church’s habit of working in pairs. And where on earth did they get that idea from? Jesus! Long before his death and resurrection Jesus sent out the twelve, then seventy others, “two by two.”

So we need to be in touch with God! Having something from the Spirit of God, to give to those who don’t know Jesus. And in order to have something from God, we need to be standing in Jesus’ authority, and standing under Jesus’ authority. What Peter and John had to give, was the realities of the Kingdom of God, transforming the lives of people like the lame man. The kingdom of God can use our human resources. But our resources can’t generate the kingdom of God. Only God can bring Kingdom stuff into people’s lives.

So we connect with reality. We connect with God. And we connect with people. Making contact with people at a human level. How many ways an you find, that Pater and John did that, in the story?

  • Stopping. To have this encounter, peter and John must have stopped. We need to stop in order to make contact with people in a meaningful way. Pam sometimes gets angry with me because I keep on working when she wants to talk to me. She’s talking and I’m looking at the computer, typing. I’m getting annoyed because I can’t concentrate, and she’s Getty annoyed because I won’t stop and listen.
  • Eyes (v. 3f) The man saw peter and John; they looked hard at him, and said “look at us!” The man was used to sitting begging. Asking for money, and being ignored so many times, had made hi indifferent, closed off from other people, so he may have not wanted to look people in the eye. But Peter knew it was an important way to make contact. We actually talk about “eye-contact”, in public speaking and in dealign with people one-to-one.
  • Talk.. and honest appraisal of the situation; a promise, and a command.
  • Touch. Peter reached out his hands to help the guy up onto his feet. hands (v. 7)

We can release the spirit into people’s lives, as we face the reality of who we are and what we are gifted at; as we stay in contact with Jesus, and as we stay in contact with people. Releasing the Spirit into people’s lives is about connecting with God and connecting with people, so that we can connect people with God.

3. Impact.

(Dawn)

We don’t live alone. Every day of our lives we encounter other human beings. Some of them we will pass by with no knowledge of who they are, and others we will interact with regularly and know reasonably well. The ones we know well will be the ones we can have the greatest impact on through our faith. And through what we have received from the Lord through others.

Last Saturday my husband Dave and I climbed two Munros . Various groups of climbers would pass by us several times. I joked with Dave as we walked that you could make mountain friends. Most of the people I met up that mountain I will never meet again. But nonetheless they still impacted my little trip. One person was different though. My husband was up the mountains too, because he was there with me. I will recognise him again, because I see him every day. I know him well and he knows me; the impact we have on each other is huge and significant.

What happened after the lame man received a touch from the Lord through Peter and John? First, people recognised him, and recognised his dramatic transformation.

Second and most important, the people (through that recognition) were pointed to Jesus.

If you went every day to pray in the temple this guy at the gate would be really familiar to you – part of the furniture of the temple. Just always there. You wouldn’t know him in the same way as I know my husband. But he would be different from the majority at the temple. You would be unlikely to recognise most of them again, just like I would be unlikely to recognise most of the people up the mountain again. But since this guy was in the same spot day after day you would know him a little. To some extent he is a part of the temple worshippers’ lives.

The Jews in the temple that afternoon heard a commotion. There was someone running around and being a bit crazy and noisy – leaping about. With all the noise and commotion people come running to see what this weirdo is up to and why…and then they recognise him. It’s the “beautiful gate beggar” testing out his legs and shouting out praise. And so a crowd begins to gather. By this time, they are out in Solomon’s colonnade which was a gathering place in general and it was one place where Christians gathered for worship. But it wasn’t just the Christians gathered in that hallway, there were loads of Jews. And these Jews are all crowding round to see the healed man. What were some of the emotions of these Jews who were gathered? (v10-12) Wonder, amazement, surprise

Because they recognise the guy and know him, they can see easily that something dramatic has changed. So he’s healed, but this healing is not just for one person – to point him to Jesus and increase his faith – but rather it was for everyone in that busy place. They could all see that a touch from Jesus is not something to be missed. That Jesus is powerful. Peter gives a sermon because he has so much attention. And his sermon is on who Jesus is in a way that they can relate to. Peter reminds them of their very recent history and the releasing of Barabbas that they were party to. Jesus does need to be explained in a way that is relevant and real for whatever era and culture we find ourselves in. So Peter and John talk until evening – and then they get arrested for teaching that in Jesus there is resurrection of the dead. But they end up released the next morning and the story in Acts continues, and the spreading of the gospel continues, and the faith of the believers continues to grow.

Something that we can learn from this story is that a touch from Jesus is an opportunity for those who know us to see what Jesus has done and is doing in our lives. Just as people could see what Jesus had done for the lame man. Not what Peter and John had done – Jesus. God will use people in our lives to minister to us. But our healing, and our strengthening, should always point us and those who know us back to Jesus.

When we become Christians, we do so because we receive a touch of some kind from Jesus through others. something happens that has points us to Jesus and we become part of the people of God and receive the Holy Spirit for the first time. We will receive subsequent touches and refilling’s of the Holy Spirit too, and each of these become part of our story that others might see.

The changes in us may not necessarily be as instant as in the story of the lame man. But just like the lame man they are not just for ourselves, but to empower us to have a story to share with others of who Jesus is and of what he has done for us in our lives.

Once in a small group, in a different church, we were each given a piece of A4 paper. We were asked ‘If the story of your Christian journey was written in a book what would the title be. We were then asked to design a front cover for this book. So what would be a good title for your book?

I have my story. It would include things like gradually overcoming shyness. And it would include friends who pointed me to Jesus as they came alongside me to help me in my own difficulties and challenges. But what is your story and what differences can those who know you see in your life as a result of Jesus working in you?

© Pam Lilly, Gil Lilly, Dawn Martindale, June 2019

Receiving the spirit.

John 20. 19-23 Receiving the spirit.

I was by the side of the road to Cirencester, waiting in my wee Vauxhall Nova for the RAC to come. You know why these cars never sold well in Spain? No va in Spanish means “Not going”!  Same in Portuguese and Italian. I’d been driving along when the car suddenly lost power. Eventually the tow truck arrived and the RAC man got out with a screwdriver in his hand. He went to the back of the car put his hand the with the screwdriver up behind wheel-arch. Tap-tap.  Then he told me ‘you’re out of petrol’ and took me a couple of miles down the road to a garage to get a can of petrol.  All sorted, and I learned that how to interpret the Nova’s fuel gauge.  I needed to change my habits & not let the fuel get so low!

Jesus says to his friends (and that means us!) “as the father has sent me, I am sending you”. He sends us on the same journey as he had made, of self-sacrifice, service, grace-bearing, and sharing the Good News of the kingdom.  It’s a missionary journey and all of us are called to be part of it.

But he knows that we need fuel in our tank if we are to make that Journey as a Church or as individuals; and the fuel we need is the Holy Spirit.  So when he says “as the Father sent me, so I am sending you” he then says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

In fact, this story is one of several – a sequence of events in the New Testament – when the Hoy Spirit is “given” and “received.” It begins with the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus himself; In Acts 2, fifty days after Jesus rose from death, the Spirit came and overpowered the disciples, bringing joy and spectacular gifts and abilities. Two chapters later the same thing had happened to the same bunch of people. Then the same thing happened to other groups and individuals.

We can turn that into a doctrine: “I received the Holy Spirit when I became a Christian; every person who trusts in Jesus receives the Spirit and that’s it” says one believer. “You need to be baptised in the Spirit as a second experience” says another. 

Never mind that stuff. Just ask yourself “Is my tank full?”  Because if your tank is empty, you shouldn’t be surprised the car has lost power & isn’t going anywhere. No va.

We look at the the gauge, and we think, “just under 1/4 full, we’ll get there”.  A few years ago someone looked at the Church and said, “If the Holy Spirit was removed from the Church today, 95% of what we do would carry on, and nobody would notice. If the Holy Spirit was removed from the New Testament Church, 95% of what  they did would stop and everybody would notice!”

The need for the Spirit’s power is one of many things Jesus and Paul both tell us! Paul in Eph 5. I8 says “keep on being filled with the Spirit”.  I believe that is what we are to make of the way Jesus says here, “Receive the Spirit,” and still tells them in Luke 24.49, not to leave home without the spirit.

So how are we to receive the Holy Spirit?  There’s no great ceremony or magical formula for this. The different times people “received the Spirit” different things happened. Sometimes people were praying together. Sometimes the Spirit just came. Sometimes people got someone to pray and lay hands on them. Praying for each other is good. Laying hands on someone is a great sign of receiving from God. Tongues is a good gift if God gives it. Falling over is OK but no big deal really.   In today’s reading we’re told, “Jesus breathed on them”.  It is quite possible that Jesus did this, to teach some things by word and action, about how the Holy Spirit comes.

Really what we need to do, is let Jesus get close enough to us to breathe on us. Listen, Jesus hasn’t got bad breath! We need to get close enough to him, day by day, to let him breathe on us. Part of how we maintain that intimacy is by worship. Simply by being in Jesus’ presence – on our own or in a group – by hanging out with him. And part of it is by confession: by not arguing with what he says about your life. I was out jogging on Tuesday morning, thinking about this, and thinking about how cross I had got with Pam the evening before, and I just felt the need to confess that to Jesus, as part of my hunger and thirst for more of the Spirit in my life.

Jesus gives. We receive. In Jn 7. 37-39, Jesus says “if anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink…” We need to come to him every day and say “I’m thirsty – again!” and he will give us rivers of living water by his Spirit! Because he is glorified. The Spirit is given.

And as we do that we are able to stand in Jesus’ authority. Let’s be clear, when Jesus talks about forgiving people their sins, he isn’t talking about priesthood – about some people having a particular authority to say “Your sins are forgiven – oh and by the way, yours aren’t!” He is talking about mission. We have the right and the calling, to speak the good news to people in such away that they will receive it, and be forgiven.

So the second missional habit we need is a Holy Spirit habit. Relying on, Receiving and (next week) Releasing the Spirit. Receiving the Holy Spirit is a missional habit. “Receive the Holy Spirit” Jesus says. So we can go!

© Gilmour Lilly June 2019

Life in the Spirit

Galations 4. 1-7

Story: Galatia includes what was the Asia Minor Bible belt: there were lots of Jewish people there before Paul came. And it was an area where Paul visited back and forth on each of his three mission journeys. They had seen God do amazing things including at least one miraculous healing. They had been part of a powerful move where loads of people came to hear Paul, and many have became believers. In most places there had been trouble as the Jewish people had campaigned to get Paul driven out of town. So being a follower of Jesus was exciting and a bit dangerous. But then people came in adding something onto the Good News. Something that made it harder to follow Jesus. “You gotta follow the Jewish Laws”.   But strangely, it seemed to make it easier: you could see it, measure it, sum it up and know whether you were doing it or not. And by following the Jewish rules, they could have escaped some of the trouble. The Galatians thought this was great!

In response to all this, Paul sums up the history of the people of Israel. Promises made to Abraham and law given to Moses. Then followed years of trying to keep that law before the person promised, Christ, came. Paul says that the difference like the difference between being a kid and being a grown-up.  

There are two images from childhood:

  1. Going to School. If you had enough money to send your son to school, you would send him with a minder (The custodian guardian or schoolmaster): an old slave who made sure the boy got to school on time, without stopping and playing with his friends. And during lessons the minder would hit the boy with a stick if he talked or failed to pay attention. That’s like living under the Law.
  2. Inheriting an estate. If a child inherits a house, or money, it belongs to him. But he can’t touch it, he can’t use the money, until he is grown up. “you’ll get it when you’re I a big boy”. That’s like living under the Law. 

As a child, you’re really no better off than a slave. The slave can smack you. And the slave can control your money! As a grown – up you truly inherit what is yours. And since Jesus came we are no longer slaves, we are treated like grown-ups.

Point.Then Paul says, that “when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

Jesus came to do two things…

  1. To redeem us. That means he paid the price to buy us back from slavery under The law. We’re no longer slaves to the law. So whose slaves are we? No – ones!
  2. To make is God’s sons! We’re not slaves, we’re sons (and daughters) of God. We say sons & daughters, or children, to be inclusive. But I prefer to say we are sons, male or female, because in the Roman world it was the Sons who inherited the father’s estate… and because it is grown up Sons who fully enjoy what they have inherited. Remember, children are no better than slaves. Now Jesus has come and it’s like we are grown up and don’t need someone hitting us with a big stick to make us do what is right. Now Jesus has come and it’s like we are grown up and don’t have someone else telling us what we can do because we have authority over our estate.

The Problem. That’s not how I feel! How do we know all that has happened?  

The Difference. ‘Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”‘  We know because we have had a God experience. God the father (who sent Jesus) has sent the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of his Son…  into our hearts! It’s an experience of the Trinity! In our hearts!  We learned a few weeks ago that in the NT, the heart is NEVER the thing that pumps blood around. It’s always the bit inside you where we feel, and think and make decisions.

For Paul, for the Christians in Galatia, for me, for Pam, for Allan & Doris & Alison, We have had an experience of the Trinity, inside us… The Holy Spirit isn’t just a feeling. He is God, come into our lives, changing how we think, how we feel, & how we behave. At our Conference this week Malcolm Duncan said The Spirit is power not just for service. He is power for the whole of life.

So keep on being filled with the Spirit. (Eph 5. 18)  Paul says it’s like being drunk. To quote Malcolm Duncan again: That doesn’t mean staggering and falling over (though it’s OK if it happens and it’s really God!) It means that like alcohol, the spirit controls every part of us. Keep on being filled. We need to take a breath 18 times a minute. Keep on.

© Gilmour Lilly June 2019