Daily Inspiration

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Remembrance Season 2023

Sunday 12th November is Remembrance Sunday.  For the short season leading up to this day (3rd-11th November), our Daily Inspirations will focus on the theme of remembrance.

Wednesday 8th November – Isaiah 53:4-6  ‘Healed by his wounds’

‘Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ 

John the Baptist’s iconic words addressed to Jesus in the first chapter of John’s gospel are rooted in today’s famous passage.  Ever since the time of Exodus, the image of the sacrificial lamb had come to symbolise God’s rescue of his people.  Every year, at Passover, all Jewish families would re-enact God’s salvation by the Red Sea, and a dish of lamb would be at the heart of the meal. 

But something new was coming.  The servant songs of Isaiah, which are studded through the later chapters of the book, promise a new rescue and a new rescuer.  This anointed one (Messiah) would carry great authority and integrity, would stand for justice, and would bring salvation, not just to Israel, but to the world.  This servant would be ‘raised and lifted up and highly exalted’ (52:13), and earthly kings would ‘shut their mouths because of him’ (52:15).

There’s a sting in the tail, however.  Because it’s not the whole story.  This same servant would not just be the Lion of Judah – he would also be the Lamb, sacrificed for all.  Indeed he would be ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter’ (v7). Why?  Verses 4-6 make it clear.  ‘He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.’  All our human selfishness, all our rebellion against God, placed upon his shoulders – so that we might have peace. (v5)

‘No peace without justice’ – so has sung many a liberation movement in recent decades.  In today’s passage, we are addressing the ultimate yardstick of justice – our standing before Almighty God.  And it is the Lamb who symbolises God’s perfect justice and mercy.  God takes the punishment himself, that we might be healed, that we might have peace.

On Sunday, we’ll remember and honour the sacrifice of so many in war, and give thanks for the peace that we now share.  But today, let’s remember an even greater sacrifice which won an even deeper peace.  And may the good news that, through Jesus’ sacrifice, we have peace with God cause us to give thanks; may it lift our hearts today and fill us with his abiding presence.

Look!  The Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world…  Lord, we are not worthy to come into your presence – and but only say the word, and we shall be healed.  Amen.

Tuesday 7th November – Isaiah 52:7-10  ‘Beautiful feet’

Recently I watched the Sound of Music for the first time in many years.  I’ll always remember my first viewing of the film – after Charles and Di’s wedding in July 1981.  We watched the ‘wedding of the century’ then all sat and watched The Sound of Music as a family.  Perfect.

And it’s hard to beat the scene at the end of the film, watching the family walking across the mountain-top to freedom.   How lovely on the mountains are the feet of those bringing good news.  Especially if they can sing close harmony as well.

In the case of the Von Trapp family, the good news was primarily personal – but here in today’s passage, the good news is altogether more universal. 

It’s likely that the latter chapters of Isaiah were written in the late 6th century, after Jerusalem had been conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian army – hence the reference to ‘ruins of Jerusalem’ in v9.  Good news was in short supply.  Where was hope?

Hope was coming.  The watchmen would see it and find joy (v8).  The ruins themselves would sing (v9).  And over the mountains would come feet bringing good news (v7).

600 years later, those feet would announce the good news that the kingdom of God was near.   Those feet would travel up the hillside to deliver the Beatitudes, to hear Peter’s confession of the Christ and to meet Moses and Elijah.  But a short while later, those same feet would also climb Mount Moriah, carrying a cross lashed across their owner’s back.

God’s good news is sure, and true.  But it’s more than ‘the hills are alive’, lovely as that is.   It came at a great cost.  As we’ll see tomorrow, its beauty lay in sacrifice.  Peace was won the hard way.

Nevertheless, it remains good news – more than that, it’s still the best news I ever heard!  And although it came after great waiting and at great cost, nothing is more true than the final words of the passage: all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God. 

We are part of God’s big salvation story.  Give thanks for those beautiful feet that brought good news to you.

Monday 6th November – Isaiah 11:1-10  ‘Not forgotten’

Remember, remember, the 5th of November…. so the old nursery rhyme goes, and one that we learned at school.  I imagine you may have done too!  Today’s passage is another trip down memory lane: in this case prophetic memory lane.  About 250 years previously, God had promised King David – son of Jesse – that one of his descendants would inherit his throne forever.  A dozen kings had come and  gone, the kingdom had split in two and the northern half was about to be conquered… when would this new King come?

God hadn’t forgotten.  And God gives the great prophet Isaiah a new vision which reassures the people that his promise still stands.  There would be a new king, descended from David (v1).  This king would be filled with God’s Spirit (v2) and would stand for justice and righteousness (vv4-5) – something many of Israel’s kings had conspicuously failed to do.  And under this new king, there would be a new reign of peace, and a healing of the created order such that even predators would get cosy with their prey (vv6-8).  It would, in short, be glorious, and global (v10).

What a vision!  Even so, it took another 700 years for the king to come.  God’s timing is not ours.  And that can be unsettling, testing even.  There are times when we too may feel forgotten by God; maybe something we believe he has promised us hasn’t arrived yet.   And that causes us pain, and perhaps doubt as well.

But God never forgets.  The branch always bears fruit from the root.  And God calls us to step out again, to dare to believe in his faithfulness.  As it was said of Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe: ‘He’s not safe – but he is good!’

Today, take a moment to claim again the promises that God has given you.  They might be specific, or if there isn’t a particular thing, claim some of the great promises in our passage today.  

God remembers.  And it’s good for us to remember, too.  We are what we remember.

Saturday 4th November – Isaiah 9:2-7  ‘The Prince of Shalom’

I suspect many of us at present find it hard to watch the news – you may, indeed, have given up on it altogether.  There seems to be so much violence, so much instability, so many reminders that peace in this world is fragile and hard to maintain, however sophisticated we consider ourselves to be.

How we need today’s passage, which picks up where yesterday’s left off.  Isaiah has another great vision of the peace that God will ultimately bring to this fractured world.  Admittedly the context is set more in terms of a victory for God’s people: nevertheless it is equally clear that, in this vision of a healed world, there will be no more need for armies or violence – blood-soaked boots and clothes will be burned and done away with forever (v5).

But this vision in ch9 goes a step further than ch2 – there will be a focal point for this new era of peace.  A child will be born who carries divine authority, who will usher in and oversee this restoration of all things.  And this child will have wonderful names, including perhaps the loveliest of all, certainly the most appropriate for this week: the Prince of Peace.  Or, to use the original word, the Prince of Shalom.

Shalom is now translated peace, but its meaning is much broader than our traditional definition. It means completeness or wholeness, the sense of everything being put right, perfected.  This kind of shalom is much more than merely the absence of conflict, it is an active state of complete wellbeing.  (For a deeper exploration of shalom, watch this great video – four minutes of your life well spent.)

This is the destiny which God intends for his world.  And he will achieve it through the son which he gives (v6).  Jesus is the Prince of Shalom.  No wonder the angels cry out at his birth: ‘on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests!’ (Luke 2:14)

May today’s passage give us renewed faith – even a little mustard seed of it – to pray for our world.  Let’s also give thanks that, above and beyond our human leaders, there reigns a greater, divine leader, one whose vision for the world is ultimately to establish complete wellbeing for all people, and whose vision will one day come to pass: Jesus, the Prince of Shalom.  And may that divine shalom be ours today – the shalom that transcends all understanding.

Friday 3rd November – Isaiah 2:1-5  ‘Swords into ploughshares’

A few years ago, at the All-Age service for Remembrance at All Saints, I showed the congregation a paper clip, and asked them to come up with as many creative alternative uses for this simple object as possible.  We had about 75 young people there, representing the uniformed organisations, and they weren’t short of ideas!  Alongside the more obvious ones – replacement zip, for example – we had other more left-field options: fingernail cleaner , cheap nose-ring (don’t try either of those at home), and even strawberry huller i.e. removing the green stalk out of the fruit!

It was a fun exercise and reminded me that I grew up with the joys of ‘The A-team’ on TV, where the stars would be locked in a garage every episode, and somehow fashion a complex mechanical device out of a few bits of wood and a plastic sheet.  Those were the days, eh?

But there’s a more serious side to these games as well.  Between now and 11th November, we’ll be leading up to Remembrance by looking, firstly, at five famous passages in the book of Isaiah, all themed around the idea of peace; and in today’s passage we see the most famous biblical ‘alternative use’ of them all.  To a small and fragile nation surrounded by hostile forces, and tired of violence, God promises that one day, things will be different.  God will restore this fragmented world (v2), and people will seek God in unprecedented ways and in countless numbers (v3).

And the acid test of this new era will be that, across the world, swords will be turned into ploughs (v4).  Implements that were used for fighting would now be used to grow food: a sign of healing and prosperity.

Sadly our world has not reached this era yet, despite the noble intentions of pan-global organisations like the United Nations, where, significantly, a statue of this very image stands outside its headquarters.  But this passage promises that such a day is coming.  Our God is a God who transforms, who restores, who brings peace for all.  Peace with Himself, but also with ourselves, those around us, and ultimately all creation.

And this work of transformation goes on in our lives, too.  God calls us to turn our own swords of division into ploughs of peace.   If that strikes a chord, take a moment today to pray God’s peace into a particular situation or relationship.

The world is an anxious, even violent, place at present.  It has always been thus.  But it is not the whole story.  And as we seize this great truth by faith, may we too live the final verse today: Come, people of God, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Good News! – the opening chapters of the Gospel of Mark

Thursday 2nd November – Mark 7:14-23 ‘The monster within’

We’re blessed to have some apple trees in our back garden, and – despite my total lack of gardening skills – these trees have proved very fruitful (pardon the pun) over the years.  Nowadays we turn most of them straightaway into juice (and you’ll see why in the next paragraph) – but in years gone by, we would fill up large plastic tubs with our produce, and store them in the cool of the garage to eat through the winter.

I remember about 3-4 years ago wanting to start a new tub of apples around December-time.  We’d just finished one box, and there was a big sealed tub ready for consumption.  I’d filled it myself and was looking forward to starting the new batch.  However, when I opened it, what I found was, frankly, a gooey mess.  Virtually the whole tub was rotten.  One apple in the middle had gone bad weeks earlier, and ruined the rest.

‘A rotten apple spoils the barrel,’ is a popular old saying for good reason.  It is quite literally true.  But it’s also a fair reflection of the human condition. Think of an entire classroom affected by one disruptive child, or a whole street where neighbours live in fear of one violent family.  We see it in our hearts, too.  It is easy to allow rotten things to dwell there – the sort of things Jesus talks about in verse 22 of today’s passage: malice, deceit, envy, slander…. rotten apples poisoning the barrel of our hearts.

Over the last two reflections we’ve looked at how Jesus has challenged the Pharisees for fixating on exterior regulations rather than internal values, with the effect that they find themselves trying to wriggle out of the more demanding of these ‘rules’.  Today, he draws his teaching together by calling us to pay attention to the true source of our righteousness (or unrighteousness).  The heart of the matter, he says, is the matter of the heart.  It’s what comes out of the heart which determines the kind of life that we live.  So, the wise follower will pay most attention to what’s going on in their inner life.

It’s worth clarifying that, when Jesus says that it doesn’t really matter what goes into to you (v15), he was referring specifically to what we eat, which was the presenting issue.  There are plenty of other passages in scripture cautioning us to be careful about what we consume in other ways: i.e. spiritually, or with our eyes or minds.  But, as far as food goes, what Jesus says here would have been truly shocking (radically liberating!) to his hearers, having grown up with stringent regulations to follow.

For us too, let’s stay determined to keep our hearts clean.  We know how easily the rot sets in – let’s pray for Jesus’ life-giving Spirit to wash us clean and keep transforming us, daily, from the inside out.

Wednesday 1st November – Mark 7:9-13 ‘Finding a way out’

I wondered if you’ve tried an ‘Escape Room’.  They’re all the rage at the moment – you can either do them in person or online, and the idea is that you are ‘trapped’ in a room, but by solving clues and puzzles, you find a way out.  We bought one for our daughter’s birthday a couple of years ago, and she and her friends had a great time across a whole evening trying to solve it.  They were still going at midnight (online, not stuck somewhere remote in the dark!) and eventually found their way out.

Escape Rooms are fun for the puzzle solver – but we can apply the same sort of logic in other parts of our life; for example, when it comes to awkward laws and rules.  We know what we should do, but can be very inventive in finding ways to wriggle out of it. 

The reason I do my own tax return each year rather than pay for someone to file it for me is because just before we left theological college we were given a presentation by a firm of tax accountants – who shall remain nameless – proffering their services, and also giving us some handy tips.  This included the advice that if we bumped into a parishioner we knew in the supermarket car park, we should stop and have a chat with them, because we could then call it a ‘pastoral visit’ and claim the travel for our family shopping trip on church expenses.  I kid you not – this was really said to a bunch of hyper-keen ordinands who thought they were at college to dedicate their lives to God!   Some of us practically choked on our coffee… I don’t think the firm made many new clients that day.

It sounds laughable to write the last paragraph, but such things are often uncomfortably closer to the bone than we think.  I suspect we all have our blind spots.  The particular issue Jesus challenged in today’s passage related to the use of money, too: in this case, a rule called ‘corban’ which some Pharisees were using to avoid offering financial support to their parents.  In effect they found a loophole to avoid the more challenging consequences of obeying the Fifth Commandment.  Even worse, they cloaked it with a spiritual veneer: it’s ‘money for God’.  To which Jesus said: ‘I think God would like you to make sure your parents had a roof over their head.’

The great news of the gospel is that we worship a God of amazing grace and (thankfully) immense patience.  We all do this kind of thing from time to time – but there is always hope!  This God is slowly changing us from the inside out.  If the Lord prods you today about something, offer it back to him, pray for grace to change: and also give thanks that God is still cheering you on.

Tuesday 31st October – Mark 7:1-8 ‘The rule of the heart’

When I was a curate, I needed to gain experience of leading worship at other churches.  One local church offered me a memorable such experience!  The motto on their news sheet was ‘proudly using only the Book of Common Prayer since 1798’, and before I was able to take a service there, the minister met me to talk me through what was required in terms of the way the service was to be conducted. 

Although pre-pandemic we had a monthly Book of Common Prayer service in our church, and many of us love and appreciate the beauty and depth of the language, this was another level altogether!  Every part of the service had a tightly defined set of movements or rituals to observe, co-ordinated with the liturgy.  I carefully wrote them all in pencil in my copy of the Prayer Book – I still have them to hand even now, just in case – and thankfully survived the experience!

We humans love making rules for things.  And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with rules in themselves.  We couldn’t play sport if we didn’t have them.  Or conduct an orchestra.  Or organise any sort of meeting or society… the list goes on. 

The thing is: rules make great servants, but lousy masters.  The risk with rule-making is that the rule obscures the reality.  And what Jesus is challenging here is not rules in themselves, but priorities.  Jesus wants life and behaviour to flow from our hearts.  Out of the heart the actions follow.  What he criticises the Pharisees for is that they are great at following rules, but haven’t attended to the motive behind the rules. Ceremonial washing is meant to symbolise what God is doing in our hearts: but – as Jesus points out quite bluntly – what’s the point of clean hands if your heart is ‘dirty’?

What the Pharisees needed was we might call ‘open heart surgery’.  And that remains true for all of us, too.  What is God doing in your heart at present?  Today, let’s pray into that, giving thanks that our faith is not a set of rules – but a life-giving journey of the heart.

Monday 30th October – Mark 6:53-56  ‘They ran to Jesus’

Many years ago, I heard a story which I think relates to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the courageous leader of the Confessing Church which opposed the Nazis in Germany, and who suffered greatly for his resistance.  He was once invited to speak to a gathering of students, during which event one particularly cocky young chap got up and asked why anyone would bother going to church anymore.  Bonhoeffer eyed this young man for a moment, and then simply replied ‘Do you not run to church?’

Mark chapter 6 begins and ends with a tale of two contrasts.  We began with Jesus visiting his home town and encountering the sort of passive-aggressive contempt manifested by the young student in our story.  People thought they knew Jesus – and couldn’t imagine him as the person he had already become.  ‘Surely we’re not getting excited about this?’ would be a paraphrase of verses 2-3.

What a contrast with our passage today.  Away from his home town, Jesus is seen completely differently: people are desperate to meet him.  They come from all over, bringing anyone who needs healing.  They are so enthusiastic for an encounter with Jesus, they’re even prepared just to touch the edge of his cloak.  To get that close is enough! 

Mark simply summarises the contrast in two words: ‘They ran.’  I find this inspiring and challenging.  Normally I only run to church because I’m late!  Would I run just because I want so much to meet Jesus?

Lord, grant me that first love again.  Help me to run to meet you this day.  To be in awe of all you are and all you do.  That’s my prayer – could it be yours, too?

Saturday 28th October – Mark 6:45-52  ‘Take courage – it is I.’

It must have been quite a sight to see Jesus walking across the lake that night.  If I had been one of the disciples, I think I would have been terrified, too!  It’s hard to know their state of mind after the extraordinary day they’d had, watching Jesus feed thousands of people – elated?  Exhilarated? Perhaps just a tad freaked out?  Mark (probably briefed by Peter, as we described yesterday) records that ‘they had not understood about the loaves.’ (v52) In other words, they were most likely confused, overwhelmed even.

And here they are, in the middle of the night, battling with the wind that had suddenly whipped up.  They were ‘straining at the oars’ (v48) – and then, exhausted and sleep-deprived, they see a ghost!  Actually, not a ghost – Jesus.  Walking on the water.  Wait… what?

Why does Jesus meet them like this?  On one level, we don’t know for sure.  The implication is that they were in a moderate amount of danger – this is, to some degree, a parallel story to the storm they encountered at the end of Mark chapter 4.  This time, Jesus is not in the boat, and so he comes to meet them, to encourage them, to calm their fears.  And the miraculous method was another way of pointing them towards who he was – even if they didn’t get it yet.

We may feel at the moment that the wind is against us, too – that we are straining at oars of life.  If that’s you, then Jesus meets you today – he passes by, gets into your boat and says ‘Take courage!  It is I.’  Perhaps you’re feeling defeated – take courage.  Perhaps you’re losing hope – take courage.  Perhaps you’re not sure what or how to pray – take courage.

What Jesus offers us is not a right answer or a helpful technique but his very self.  ‘It is I.’  He comes to en-courage (literally awaken courage in) us, to take away our fears, just as he did for the disciples on the lake.  May this Jesus draw close to you, and, at the end of this week, give you renewed hope today. 

Friday 27th October – Mark 6:39-44 ‘The green grass’

Sometimes it’s the little details that matter.  When I was licensed by the bishop to this parish, I had to affirm in his presence that I would render him due obedience ‘in all things lawful and honest’.  Unfortunately, on the printed licence what he and I actually signed was that I would obey him in all things ‘awful and honest’.  It’s only one ‘l’ – what’s the big deal?!

Over the last 150 years it’s become common to doubt the historicity of Jesus’ miracles.  Lots of scholars will talk about them being useful ‘myths’, or that there was some scientific explanation for them.  My view has always been that everyone has a problem with miracles until they see one themselves!  And when you’ve seen one, you don’t have a problem with miracles anymore.

So, I don’t need persuading to believe that Jesus really did feed thousands of people with one packed lunch.  I suspect most of you don’t, either.  But it’s very useful that Mark includes one small word that is nearly always overlooked in any discussion of this story – and that is the word ‘green’.  Jesus instructs his disciples to make people sit down ‘on the green grass.’

Probably part of the reason this makes no impression on us in the UK is that this sounds like a tautology.  Of course grass is green!  What other colour would it be?  But in the semi-arid country above the Sea of Galilee, most grass was yellow or brown.  (Turns out the grass is not always greener, after all.)  Jesus specifically chooses a lush area to seat people, before he blesses them with this amazing miracle.

The fact that Mark includes this tiny detail makes it much more likely we are receiving the account of an eye-witness who was really there.  There’s no reason to include it, otherwise. Tradition holds that Peter was the apostle who provided much of Mark’s material – who was indeed one of the disciples arranging the seating of the hundreds and fifties.  Recounting his memories years later, it was still striking to him that Jesus wanted people to sit on the green grass.

We worship a real God who meets real people (like us) in real ways.  Give thanks for the ways in which this real God has met you.  And why not pray for the blessing of more real encounters – both for you, and for others.

Thursday 26th October – Mark 6:35-38 ‘Give what you have’

In a season dominated by so much bad news, last week’s brilliant MK Can fundraising initiative was a rare bright spot.  The people of Milton Keynes gave remarkably generously, more than 100,000 cans were donated to the Foodbank, and, at a personal level, it was very uplifting for many of us to be part of something special.

Today’s bible story is so well known there’s really nothing new to be said about it.  But sometimes that’s OK: sometimes all we need is to revisit the familiar but beautiful truths we’ve always known.  And one of the great lessons of this story – which, apart from the resurrection, is the only miracle which appears in all four gospels – is this: give what you have.  That’s all that God asks.  You may have a lot, you may have a little: all that matters is that you give what you have.

When Jesus challenges the disciples: ‘You give them something to eat,’ their instinctive reaction is to think about what they ought to provide.  If there were this many people, that would require this much bread and therefore money.  And of course, they feel totally overwhelmed.  There are thousands to feed!

But they’ve misunderstood Jesus’ point: all he’s asking is that they give what they’ve got – and he will do the rest.  As it turns out, what they’ve got is one packed lunch: but in the economy of God, that’s enough.

As we look at our news screens it’s easy for us to feel overwhelmed; to feel that giving what we have makes no difference whatsoever.  But this is not how God sees it.  God is able to multiply all our small offerings, for his glory and for the provision of those we seek to bless.

Let today’s passage encourage you: all that God asks in any situation is that you give what you have.  And may God multiply all that we give in this season, and thus reveal his glory.

Wednesday 25th October – Mark 6:30-34 ‘Leadership 101’

In recent decades, much time has been spent evaluating Jesus as a leader.  Not all of this has been helpful – but there is much gold to mine here (and not just for ‘leaders’ but for all disciples); and if nothing else, it is right to remind ourselves frequently that Jesus is an inspirational figure.

Today’s passage highlights four core parts of Jesus’ leadership.  First, he trusts people with responsibility, but takes time to support them in what they’re doing.  As we saw a few days ago, the disciples were sent out to ‘do the stuff’ – today, they return and Jesus gathers them together to review what’s happened (v30).  It’s great management, and a model for us in terms of how we grow as disciples and organise our church communities.

Second, he prioritises time to reflect and renew spiritual life.  When it got too busy, Jesus calls them away for rest and restoration (v31).  Jesus was no workaholic!

Third, Jesus was always motivated by compassion (v34) – not by success, or targets, or a predetermined plan.  Although it meant further disruption, he retained a tender heart which always put people first and projects second.

Finally, he was able to be flexible – in this case, starting up an impromptu teaching session because so many people had gathered (v34).  As we’ll see in the next couple of days, it also became an invaluable learning experience for his disciples too.

Usually I like to focus on one thing each day – but today I’m leaving that to you!  Here are four beautiful nuggets of wisdom from the life of the Saviour: which is God particularly directing you towards today?  Take a few moments to offer that in prayer, and invite the Spirit of Jesus to make it real in your life.

Tuesday 24th October – Mark 6:17-29 ‘Nothing changes?’

Today’s passage makes for unsettling reading.  It was once wisely observed: ‘Power corrupts – and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’  We can see this writ large, both in our current world and also in the venal figure of King Herod, who sits at the heart of our reading.

All the traits of corrupted power are there: living as if the rules of decent behaviour don’t apply to him (vv17-18); rough treatment of critics and anyone who dares to oppose him (v17); an ego which can’t be seen to lose face or risk losing power (v26).

And yet, this same ruler was strangely drawn to the wild holiness of John.  He protected this man from those who would do him harm and even had regular sessions of ‘spiritual direction’ – although the radical change of life which John would no doubt have described to him made no sense to his ears!

This passage is a sobering reminder that those who wish to challenge corrupt power risk paying a heavy price.  And that, too, remains part of our world today – not least in the countless other untold stories of faithful Christians in many countries around the world, who suffer quietly and unheralded for their determination to follow Christ, whatever the cost.

I am challenged, too, to reflect that such challenges do not only happen in other parts of the world.  In days gone by, I used to be much bolder at lobbying and advocating for issues of justice and righteousness here in the UK.  I wrote regularly to my MP when I lived in London and Bristol, among other ‘acts of advocacy’.  Have I just mellowed or just got less brave?  It’s hard to say – but I am inspired and challenged by the bravery of John, as well as by my fellow sisters and brothers whose living witness speaks loving truth to power (and whom the church honours in prayer next month).

May God grant both them – and us – grace to live righteously; and be willing to hold human power to account, whenever the Lord calls us to act.

Monday 23rd October – Mark 6:12-16 ‘Who are you?’

Just who is Jesus?  This is the most important question any of us will ever face.  And it’s been the most important question for 2,000 years – ever since the life of Jesus himself, in fact.  As the disciples are sent out by Jesus and start to do amazing things, even King Herod starts to wonder.  Was he a prophet?  Was he Elijah returned to this world? Or John the Baptist, raised from the dead?

We’ll see tomorrow why Herod had special reason to fear the latter – but today, let’s remind ourselves how important it is to give time to this question.  Who is this rabbi who speaks with authority, who heals people, who has power over nature, over the supernatural, even death itself? 

The seasons of Lent and Advent – which is not too far away now – are traditionally the seasons when we take time to re-consider this question.  We re-fix our eyes upon Jesus, ‘the author and perfecter of our faith’.   We reflect on his miraculous coming into the world, his life, his death – all of which rests on his identity

But it’s a question which remains relevant every day, and every season – because, if Jesus is who he really says he is, then that has huge implications for our identity, too.  I’ve deliberately cut across the modern bible’s chapter headings today because this passage is about two identities.  There is Jesus’ – and then there are his followers’.  Very early in the life of the church, followers of Jesus became known as ‘Christians’ – little Christs, little Jesuses.  On Saturday the disciples were sent out by Jesus to do what he did: which is exactly what they go and do (vv12-13).  We may not see quite such dramatic examples in our lives, but the principle is the same.  We are called to live like Jesus – to be Christians, ‘little Christs’.

So, it turns out that who Jesus is really matters.  Sadly, Herod never got it; but we have – and through him we’ve become his adopted sisters and brothers, bearing the family likeness.  Pray for grace today to live like Jesus lives, and for God to graciously provide all that we need for whatever we face, both today, and this week.  Amen.

Saturday 21st October – Mark 6:6b-11 ‘Nothing – and everything’

Many of you will know the name Brother Andrew (who was ‘promoted to glory’ in 2022): he was a missionary to Eastern Europe during the days of communism, and became famous for the book ‘God’s Smuggler’.  One of the most memorable chapters of that book for me – which is one of my favourite Christian autobiographies – is the one titled ‘The Game of the Royal Way.’

It describes Brother Andrew’s evangelism training in the mid 1950s in Scotland.  Naturally, a key part of their training was to go out and ‘do the stuff’ – on the streets, door-to-door, meeting anyone and everyone.  In order to do this, each student was given just £1 in money (which was much more than then it is now, but probably equates to about £100 in 2022), which had to last them the whole period of their placement – I forget the exact length, but it was 4-8 weeks, something like that.

Even better, they had to return the pound at the end!  All of which meant that they had to live by faith the entire time, trusting the Lord to provide day by day: ‘nothing for the journey… no bread, no bag, no money in their belts… no extra shirt.’  In short, they had to do it just like Jesus, who in today’s passage sent his disciples out in this very way.  Go with nothing, Jesus says – and I will make sure you have everything you need.

The life of faith is a life of adventure with God.  And whilst in our modern world most of us have insurance policies and savings accounts and all kinds of ways of giving ourselves a ‘cushion’, we still occasionally get reminders that much of our assumed security is an illusion.  In the end, we rely on God.

The great news is that this God can be trusted.  The apostles find this out – we’ll see the postscript to this story in a few days’ time – and we too will have stories of God’s faithfulness.  Times when we came with nothing, and God provided everything.  Why not take a few moments today to give thanks for those occasions?

There is a great ending to Brother Andrew’s training.  Just as he was about to run out of cash a couple of days before the end of his placement, he finds a silver coin in the gutter. What a ‘coincidence’!  However, he then bumps into a friend who is down on his luck, and is prompted to trust God one more time – so gives this last coin away.  He heads straight back to his lodgings and bumps into the postman delivering that day’s mail.  In it was a letter from his aunt with £1.50 in it… ‘The game was over.  The King had done it his way.’

Friday 20th October – Mark 6:1-6 ‘Isn’t this…?’

Do people change?  It’s an age-old question, and one which has invited great debates over the years.  I think most of us would love to believe that we can, and do – but you’ll find plenty of cynics who’ll tell you that people don’t, or can’t.

The answer to the question, as is so often the case, is ‘yes’ and ‘no’.  There are fundamental things about ourselves which we can’t change, including some basic personality wiring and our human temptation to be selfish (or to use the biblical language, our capacity to sin).  These things we carry with us, they are part of what makes us both wonderfully unique and universally human… but in other ways, people can, and do, change.  It is possible to grow and flourish, to develop capacities we didn’t realise we had, or traits we lacked when we were younger.

In 2003 Paula Radcliffe set a record for the women’s marathon which stood for nearly two decades – until Brigid Kosgei bettered it in 2019, it was over a minute quicker than any other woman had ever run the marathon.  By any measure it was a remarkable achievement: and yet, this is the same Paula Radcliffe who finished 299th at the World U13 cross country championships fifteen years before that.  By sheer hard work and dedication, she took a reasonable gift and turned it into a world beating one.  She changed.

And in today’s passage, Jesus returns to his home town – the place where he grew up, where the older folk might still remember him as ‘little Jesus with the grubby knees.’  And they just can’t get their heads around the authoritative public figure they see before them: ‘Isn’t this…?’  In fact, their scepticism is a form of inverted snobbery: ‘Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?’ – in other words: ‘Do people like that really become rabbis and prophets?’

For Jesus it was a case of familiarity breeding contempt.  And much ink has been spilt on verse 5: is Jesus’ capacity to do miracles really linked to the amount of faith we have?  Or to put it another way, is our capacity to be healed really all about us, rather than God?  I think not: Jesus makes it clear later that faith the size of a (tiny) mustard seed is enough: it’s not so much that he physically couldn’t do miracles, but that he couldn’t sanctify their contempt of him.  And as far as we know, Jesus never returned to Nazareth after this sad episode.

Let’s never make God too small!  Whilst we all need to stay close to Jesus, and to be at ease in his presence, let’s remember who he is.  We need a big Jesus today: in our lives, in our world.  And the good news is that this Jesus is plenty big enough: big enough not just for our salvation, but for all we need in the spiritual life.  May God open our eyes to the awesomeness of Jesus once again.

Thursday 19th October – Mark 5:35-43 ‘Talitha koum!’

Today our ‘day in the life of Jesus’ finally comes to an end.  And what a day it’s been!  He’s been across the lake, calmed a storm, freed a tormented man, got kicked out of the area in a matter of hours, restored a woman who had been suffering for years… and missed a chance to heal Jairus’ daughter.  Or has he?

Jesus’ unprompted stop to bless the woman has an unfortunate side-effect: the girl he was going to pray for has just died.  So, what happens now?  ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Jesus encourages the grieving Jairus, ‘just believe.’ (v36)

What happens next is the greatest miracle of them all – a resurrection from the dead.  In Mark’s narrative this is the final piece of the puzzle, indicating who Jesus really was.  Only God has power over life and death!

But it also highlights Jesus’ compassion, and his faithfulness in fulfilling what he undertook to do.  Jesus had made a commitment to Jairus’ family, and he wasn’t going to let them down.  This faithfulness surprised some (v35) and made others laugh bitterly (v40): it was a set of reactions he would have to get used to over the next couple of years. 

And his reticence about wanting people to know what he had done (v43) is not false humility or fear, but simply an awareness that people had all kinds of (wrong) expectations about who the Messiah would be: and it was too early for all that.  But it didn’t stop him blessing this family on this day.

Jesus is faithful.  His faithfulness to God won our salvation.  His faithfulness to us is our hope, peace and joy.  These things are in short supply at present: indeed, it may be one of those seasons when only Christ can give them to us.  Pray for grace to receive Christ’s faithfulness to you – and for all Christians (especially in the troubled parts of our world) that they too would be upheld miraculously by our Lord’s faithfulness to them.

Wednesday 18th October – Mark 5:25-34 ‘Full healing’

What is healing?  It’s a question that has particularly occupied our attention in recent times; whilst all of us have to navigate health issues at various points in our lives, a pandemic brings those into sharp focus.  It also begs deeper questions – coronavirus is bad enough in itself, but what about other things that get damaged along the way: emotional wellbeing, friendship circles, livelihoods?

Most of us know that Jesus was able to effect many miraculous physical healings – but today’s passage also reminds us that Jesus saw healing in a much broader dimension.  In fact the word for healing and the word for salvation in the New Testament is the same word: sozo.  It gets translated ‘saved’ or ‘healed’ according to context, but its root meaning is ‘made whole’.

Wholeness is a big target to aim at.  True wholeness means wellbeing on multiple levels: physical, emotional, mental, relational, and yes, spiritual.  None of us quite get there this side of heaven: but in our story Jesus looks beyond physical healing.  The miracle is remarkable enough in itself: the woman just touches the hem of his cloak and is healed: that is some healing power!  But her condition has meant she has been ‘unclean’ for many years: effectively an outcast in society, unable to associate with others much of the time.  That is why she tries to stay hidden, and is so backward at coming forward.

For her to be healed only physically is not enough.  She might tell people what had happened, but for an internal, ‘hidden’ issue, maybe the community wouldn’t believe her?  Maybe she remains unwelcome?  Jesus understands this: and so, he stops.  And in discovering the woman’s identity and affirming her publicly, he’s not embarrassing her, he’s restoring her to the life of the community.  ‘Your faith has made you whole,’ he says to her – not just physically, but relationally too.  Now she can hold her head high, now she can make friends again, now she can offer her sacrifices and worship at the synagogue once more.

Jesus comes to make us whole (to ‘save’ or ‘heal’ us) in every way.  Let’s be bold to pray all kinds of healing for ourselves, and for others – how could Jesus restore you, or someone you love today?

Tuesday 17th October – Mark 5:21-30 ‘Priorities’

I wonder if you’re the sort of person who likes being sidetracked?  I sometimes do – usually when I’m forcing myself to attend to something I don’t want to be doing!  Then an interruption is most welcome.  There are other times, though, when I find the appearance of the unexpected something of a trial.  I’m making great progress with my to-do list, then suddenly…

Knowing what to do with an unexpected interruption is very much a matter of judgement.  There are times when it’s definitely best not to be distracted.  On the other hand, there are also times when the interruption has something of God about it.

Jesus is a fantastic example of how to deal wisely with distractions.  When it interferes with his core mission, he refuses to get sidetracked.  However, I am also frequently challenged by how relaxed Jesus was about changing his plans if it meant being able to love or serve or bless someone else.  Jesus was able to see God’s hand at work in those ‘interruptions’ – and perhaps, like me, you’d like to have that kind of wisdom to be able to do that, too.

For example, in today’s story, Jesus changes tack no less than twice in just a few verses.  He is teaching by the lake when Jairus arrives – and on hearing Jairus’ story immediately sets out to help him.  But he is then stopped again, by a woman who suffered with bleeding.  What does he do?

The woman’s need is more important than his to-do list – he stops, and tomorrow we’ll see how important this encounter was.  But today, let’s reflect on how Jesus is able to turn so many unexpected situations to good – to use every encounter as an opportunity to bless, to be fruitfully distracted in the service of the kingdom of God.

Perhaps, today, take extra care to notice the ‘distractions’ of your day – and ask if God might be in any of them? And if God is – who knows how much good you might do by being ‘distracted’?

Monday 16th October – Mark 5:18-20 ‘Go and tell’

Not many of us are good evangelists.  Most of us are frightened at the prospect of having to ‘defend the faith’, and frankly terrified at the thought of ‘leading someone to Jesus’.  Some of us have had bad experiences – others are keen to avoid that being the case!

The good news of today’s passage is that we don’t have to be Billy Grahams or J Johns.  We just need to tell our story.  The man in today’s passage has known Jesus probably for about an hour.  That’s it.  He has been excluded from all polite society for many years, so probably knows very little about religious belief or practice.  And he’s just found a real spiritual friend for the first time in his adult life – and this friend is immediately being forced to leave by rest of the population.

In other words, he apparently has very little to offer the kingdom of God. Not surprisingly, he’s desperate to travel away from this place with Jesus. But Jesus says no – not because he’s unfriendly, but because he knows that this man has something very precious: his story.  His story is enough.  God has done something wonderful for him, and the best way for him to practise his new-found faith is simply to tell his story with the people that know him.  After all, the change will be obvious!

This is great news for us, too.  We all have a story of faith.  Perhaps not as dramatic – but every bit as real, because it’s ours, and we’ve lived it.  Take a few moments today just turning over some key moments in your story: times when God has been there, answered a prayer, changed something in your life, brought you a friend when you needed it, given you a task which you undertook for his glory – and more besides.

That is your story.  No-one can argue with it, because it’s yours.  And if you can sometimes share that with someone, that’s great!   It’s all Jesus asked of the man in the passage.  It’s all Jesus asks of you.

Saturday 14th October – Mark 5:11-17 ‘Hot to handle?’

Today’s passage is an unsettling one, especially to our modern sensibilities.  First, we rarely talk in the West about spiritual beings like demons – although in much of the world such things are still treated as a part of life.  Second, we find the idea of the drowning pigs abhorrent.  What are we to make of it?

Two bits of context are important – they might not explain everything, but they help to set a backdrop for what’s going on here.  First, the ancient world did not have the same emotional attachment to animals as we do.  Farm animals were treated well (because they were incredibly valuable commodities), but were there for human usage and sustenance.  The loss of these pigs was a financial disaster and a spiritual judgement, but not an emotional trauma at that time. 

Second, the keeping of pigs was forbidden to Jews.  Pigs were an ‘unclean’ animal, so the fact that these farmers were keeping a large herd of them was a sign of the poor state of their spiritual health.  This part of Israel had been colonised around 700-500BC by other peoples who had mixed their religious practices with the Jewish inhabitants, leading to a hybrid form of religious observance which broke many of the orthodox Jewish laws.

So, when Jesus gave permission for the demons to enter the pigs, he was cleansing the people of two unhealthy influences: spiritual beings and idolatrous practices.  This is why the people were afraid rather than angry.  They knew they were doing wrong, and Jesus had called them on it.

A wise commentator once said that Jesus came to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable – and this is exactly what we see here.  A tormented man is healed and restored.  An apathetic population is challenged.

Jesus is many wonderful things: but he is never safe!   Let’s continue to be amazed by Jesus.  If we need to be challenged by him, let’s be brave to hear it.  And if we are disturbed today, may his wonderful grace grant us deep comfort and rest.

Friday 13th October – Mark 5:1-10 ‘Unexpected wisdom’

One of the most popular films of all time is Forrest Gump.  One of the reasons for this is the homespun wisdom of Forrest, and in particular his mama.  The film is punctuated with such pearls, though of course the most famous is: ‘Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.’  Although actually, with a box of Chocolate Brazil Nuts, you always know!

Wisdom is often found in the most unlikely places.  Much as we like to think that it’s only clever adults who have a monopoly on wisdom, the reality is very different.  A great friend of ours who was considering mission work was pointed towards the country where she eventually served by the spiritual intuition of a child she was teaching.  She was so overcome she sought further direction from one of our ministers, who confirmed exactly what the child had said.  God can speak through anyone!

Yesterday we saw the disciples’ awestruck confusion at what they had just seen and experienced.  Jesus had just done something that only God could do, prompting them to cry out: ‘Who is this?’  At this stage they weren’t sure.  Someone special, certainly – but was Jesus more than that? 

We get an answer in the very next passage (today’s reading), albeit from a most unlikely source.  Having crossed to the Eastern side of the shore of Galilee they are immediately accosted (v2).  The man who approached them – who had never met Jesus before – knew exactly who Jesus was, albeit for somewhat unsettling reasons.  He was a tormented soul, and whatever it was that possessed him – which the text clearly indicates was a demonic spirit of some sort – spelt out Jesus’ identity for everyone to hear: ‘Jesus, Son of the Most High God.’ (v7)

Tragically for this man, the demonic oppression he was afflicted with had tortured him for many years, leaving him wild and friendless – and we’ll see how Jesus heals him tomorrow.  But today, let’s note the heavy irony that the very first person to truly grasp the identity of Jesus was this spiritually tormented loner.  It took the disciples many months more to manage that, and many of the most educated religious people in his culture never got it; but this chap did.

I trust the Lord preserves all of us from torment of this kind – but let’s keep our eyes open for wisdom in unexpected places.  God is able to speak in surprising ways: how might he do that for you today, or this week?

Thursday 12th October – Mark 4:35-41 ‘Who is this?’

I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene…’ So goes the grand old hymn, which has reminded me that it’s too long since I’ve chosen to sing it in church!  But it touches on a deep truth: how important it is to continue to be amazed by Jesus. 

‘Who is this?’ the disciples utter in total amazement, ‘even the wind and the waves obey him!’ (v41)  This passage begins what Mark describes as ‘a day in the life of Jesus’.  Over what appears to be one 24-hour period – Mark 4:35-5:43 – Jesus demonstrates his authority over the four things human beings have no ultimate control over: nature, the supernatural, sickness and death.  After just one of these outstanding miracles, the disciples are moved to cry out: ‘Who is this?’  Imagine what they were saying by the end of the following day!

Familiarity breeds contempt, as the old saying goes. And it’s possible for this to happen in our spiritual lives, too.  Deep truths which made our spines tingle when we first came to faith seem almost normal now.  Great answers to prayer get forgotten, the marvellous privileges of being part of a dynamic community for faith taken for granted. 

It can happen to all of us: so, this is why today’s passage is so valuable. Yes, we can admire it as a great miracle, an event in history which changed some people’s lives.  But let’s also personalise it: let’s see it as an encouragement to keep being amazed by Jesus.  May the disciples’ awe be ours.

Today, take a few minutes to remind yourself of some things about Jesus which amaze you.  And if it takes longer than you hoped, ask Jesus to show you.  At the heart of every person of dynamic faith is that childlike sense of wonder: the great saints of old were mostly just normal people who kept being amazed by Jesus.  May their faith be ours: and may we, too, keep being amazed by Jesus the Nazarene.

Wednesday 11th October – Mark 4:33-38 ‘Quick to forget’

This is, as they say, a passage of two halves.  Sometimes the headings we put into our bibles, dividing up the text, aren’t always that helpful, and this might be one occasion.  What we see here is the beauty and the beast of our discipleship.

First the beauty: time spent in the presence of Jesus.  What a lovely phrase this is: ‘when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.’ (v34)  What any of us would give for that kind of bible study, with the Saviour himself!  It would be life-changing…. wouldn’t it?

Fast forward a couple of hours: ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’  The warm glow of time with Jesus faded rather quickly for the disciples, didn’t it, as the waves got bigger and the heart rate quickened.  But that’s what makes them such good examples: they are so like us!  Take heart – Jesus is a Saviour for real people. 

If you’re anything like me, it doesn’t take very long to slide from the mountain-top of exultation to the valley of despair.  I can praise God in the morning, and throw up my hands later in the day.  And Jesus pinpoints that the issue is not the danger they were in, but how quickly they doubted God’s goodness and love: ‘Don’t you care…?’

It can be hard to trust God in the tough times.  Perhaps hardest of all to trust his complete goodness, in all circumstances.  And we may not see the immediate answer in our lives that the disciples did: but our God does not change.  He is good, and always good.  He loves us, and still does.  And may this loving God grant us grace to keep trusting him, whatever we face at present.

Tuesday 10th October – Mark 4:30-34 ‘The mustard seed’

If you ever have the chance to visit the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem, you can sit on a stone wall directly in front of a large mustard plant, about 30 feet wide.  It’s quite something to see the very things that Jesus uses as part of his teaching right there in front of you, and – although I’ve never been to Israel – I recently read the account of someone who sat on this very wall, and studied a tiny black mustard seed, marvelling at the huge bush it grew into.

There’s more: if you sit on this particular wall, you can not only see Jerusalem, but also, in the far distance, the mountain on which King Herod built his palace (Herodium) and the Dead Sea beyond it.  Now imagine Jesus telling his disciples that with a mustard seed of faith (picked from the bush he was standing next to) you could tell a mountain to throw itself into the sea!  The image of divine authority making mincemeat of worldly power and ambition is brilliantly illustrated, right there in front of your eyes.

We don’t know if this was where Jesus first uttered this amazing teaching (although he was in Jerusalem at the time – Mark 11:22-23), but the teacher leading this particular expedition (Ray van der Laan) went on to say this: ‘That is the most feared plant in all Israel, the mustard plant.  It’s feared because once it takes root it can’t be destroyed.  You can try to burn it out, stomp it out, tear it out, but eventually it takes over everything in its way… The mustard seed is the kingdom of God!  Once it gets planted, nothing can stop it!’

And that is the point of this short but powerful parable.  The mustard seed is a great image, in both directions.  It reminds us that much of the time we feel small and insignificant: Christians are now a small minority in this country, and we can often wonder how much effect we really have.

And yet, this seed has great power: it grows and grows, and ultimately nothing can stop it.  We can believe this because it’s not down to us: it is the Kingdom of God, the almighty creator and ruler of the universe, the eternal I Am, the one in whom all things live and move and have their being.  This God is pulling the strings, and this is the source of our confidence.

Today, let’s choose to place our trust in the Jesus who declares these things: and let’s dare to believe that this glorious kingdom will keep growing: both in our lives, in those around us and across our broken world.

Monday 9th October – Mark 4:26-29  ‘All by itself’

One of my favourite times of year is Harvest.  I usually have opportunities to take assemblies and acts of worship in the local schools – as I do presently – and one of the things I like to do is to show the children a pumpkin seed.  ‘What do you need to make this grow?’ I ask them.  Lots of hands enthusiastically shoot up, and the answers are shouted out: sun, soil and rain.  A bit of dirt, a bit of water, some rays – and hey presto, in a few months a tiny seed multiplies a million times to become an enormous fruit.

Modern science is very good at explaining the ‘how’: but sometimes we just need to take a breath and marvel at a miracle.   We can throw in some pesticides and whatnot, but for millions of years these dull little beige seeds have always known how to do it!   All by themselves, they grow.

And that, says Jesus in today’s reading, is what the kingdom of God is like.  The Word of God has power in itself: it grows, it multiplies, it changes lives and communities – all by itself (v28).  Of course, we have to co-operate, as the parable of the sower makes clear: but ultimately this is God’s kingdom, and God is the One who makes things happen.

This God is also in the ‘harvesting’ business: these seeds don’t just grow for their own sake, but to produce a crop (v29).  This is the harvest of changed lives: the fruit of renewed human beings whose seeds go on to change other lives.  It’s a wonderful image of abundant life, and all the more important to grasp in our current culture.  It is easy as followers of Jesus to feel ‘left  behind’, in an isolated minority.

But that is not how God sees it. The kingdom is constantly at work; the Word still has the same inherent power, because the same God empowers it.  And this kingdom work keeps on reproducing ‘all by itself’.

Today, let’s give thanks that, despite everything, God is still very much at work.  And take a few moments to reflect: where do you see the kingdom particularly growing?  Pray for that process to continue: that a bumper harvest might be the result.

Saturday 7th October – Mark 4:21-25 ‘Close attention’

Back in the day when I worked for a market research company, detail was a key part of my job.  Often the client paid thousands of pounds for one set of results contained in one book of tables, so it was vital that every figure was checked and double-checked to make sure it was correct.  Similarly, whenever we submitted proposals for new projects, we all proof-read each others’ documents, to make sure it was both clear and easy to read – as well as containing no spelling mistakes!

I can’t say that I ever enjoyed this type of work, though I learned to do it thoroughly, and get a sort of weird pleasure in spotting a missing apostrophe or a figure that was 1-digit out.  I do remember once, though, getting the all-clear from a colleague on a proposal of mine only to discover when we’d won the project that the price I’d included was wrong (which the colleague couldn’t have known) – and we were obliged to run the project at a loss!  It pays to pay close attention.

And if that’s true in our workplaces, it’s also true when it comes to the most important piece of writing of them all – the text of scripture, and in particular the teaching of Jesus.  Here we find the key to life, both now and in eternity: no wonder Jesus tells us to ‘consider carefully what you hear’ (v24).  He’s just shared one of the greatest stories ever told – the parable of the sower – which has implications for every single one of us.  But, he counsels, are we listening carefully enough?

Jesus’ encouragement to us today is that close attention to him is always rewarded: ‘with the measure you use’ (i.e. the effort you invest in your faith) – ‘it will be measured to you’ (v24).  Just as the parable reminded us, how we sow determines what we reap: and seeking Jesus brings rich reward in a life full of faith, hope, purpose and gratitude.

Conversely, Jesus warns against a sense of complacency or entitlement – which is perhaps especially important to heed if we come from a strong Christian background, or have been fortunate to be part of great churches for most of our lives.  Verse 25 could effectively be paraphrased: ‘Don’t take your spiritual heritage for granted.  I will bless those who continue to seek me.’

Today, let’s give thanks for the freedom we enjoy to be able to study the Word, and for all the many tools available to help us go deeper in Scripture.  And let’s pay close attention to whatever Jesus is saying to us at the moment: for that attention is always repaid by our generous Lord – helping us to grow, and to bear fruit for his glory.

Friday 6th October – Mark 4:13-20  ‘Good soil’

As winter beckons, many of us lucky to have gardens or allotments will start to think about what we’d like to grow next year.  Over the next few months, there will be prep work to do, getting the ground ready for planting and (hopefully) the abundance of spring and summer to come.

Nowadays, gardening is for most people a leisure activity: even those with allotments rarely grow food because they have to.  But in the culture of Jesus’ day, as it still is for many places around the world today, the growing season was vital for their life and future.  Most families would only eat what they – or their fellow villagers – could grow.  Preparing the soil and sowing the seed was part of the fabric of life.

But what about the soil of our lives?  What makes for abundant growth and fruitful harvest?  Conversely, what stifles growth and leaves us choked with weeds?

Today’s passage is one of Jesus’ most famous parables, and we’re also fortunate that it’s one which he explains to us.  At one level he does the hard work for us!  And yet, the real value of this timeless story lies in what we do with the meaning.  In just a few verses, Jesus presents us with a vision of how to live – and also how not to live – a fruitful life.  He gets to the heart of what real ‘success’ is, and how we sustain this kind of fruitfulness long-term.

And it is all a matter of what we do with God’s Word in our lives.  Let’s note that this Word (seed) is inherently fruitful.  As long as the soil is good, it will multiply the benefit ’30, 60 or a 100 times’.  It is powerful and amazingly abundant.  But it can be rendered ineffective by other factors, and it is these that form the real challenge of the parable.

For the Word to bear fruit it needs to go deep into our hearts – if it stays shallow, it won’t withstand troubles in life.  It can also be choked: either by worries, or by the distractions of wealth and the pursuit of other dreams or pleasures.

Life is a long journey, and the great treasure of this parable is that it brings us back to first principles; it makes us take a fresh look at where we are now.  Is anything ‘choking’ us?  Are we going deep or staying shallow?  God is good, and merciful, and he is well able to ‘restore our soil’ – and our soul!  Give thanks for the work of the Word in your life; and pray for it to become ever more fruitful – just as it’s meant to be.

Thursday 5th October – Mark 4:1-12 ‘Puzzling it out’

Most of us love a good puzzle.  I certainly do – and I’m not just talking about jigsaws, but all types of head-scratchers.  Perhaps it’s Sudoku for you, or crosswords, or logic problems… or a good old-fashioned crime drama.  Agatha Christie remains the best-selling author ever – apart from the Bible – because we love a good puzzle.  And the dramatic success in 2022 of the mobile app Wordle over shows that this fascination is as strong as ever. 

Today we start a section in Mark’s gospel containing a number of Jesus’ wonderful parables.  It is commonly thought that one reason Jesus’ parables were so effective is because they earthed theological ideas in everyday matters: Jesus talked about God and life in the language of farmers and fishermen – the world of the people he lived among.  Of course, this is true.

What is less well known is that Jesus didn’t necessarily do this to make his teaching easy to understand.  It might be earthed in everyday life, but it was still meant to be something of a puzzle.  Something to make us scratch our heads and wonder what it means.  Something, even, that might remain veiled to those not prepared to look closely – he said as much at the end of today’s passage: ‘To those on the outside everything is said in parables, so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding.’

It might come as a shock to hear Jesus apparently wanting people to be puzzled.  Surely a great teacher would want things to be clear?  Aren’t simple soundbites better than slippery stories?  Why make things difficult?

The answer is that Jesus wants us to seek him – to have hearts and minds that go beyond surface thinking and feeling, to yearn for deeper things, real connections.  Life is complex, and full of mystery.  Simple answers offer short term benefits but are rarely satisfying for a whole life.  Jesus wants us to puzzle it out: to wrestle with the big questions of life and faith.

So he tells parables: teasers, puzzles, always asking the bigger questions – what is life really about?  How do we live fruitfully for the whole of our lives?  Where do we get distracted, or misled?  And what is a truly good heart?

When I really think about it, these are the questions I really want answers to.  Perhaps you do, too.  That kind of deep truth doesn’t come quickly, or easily.  But when it is revealed, it is like pure gold.  Take a few moments today to ask God to reveal more of that deep truth to you – that the Word might fall on rich soil in our hearts.  And may Jesus continue to amaze us, that we might worship him afresh today.

Wednesday 4th October – Mark 3:20-21,31-35 ‘Who is my family?’

As some of you know, many years ago I studied art history; my particular area of study was the Italian Renaissance – or as my friend bluntly (but not entirely inaccurately) put it: ‘brown pictures of Mary.’  It’s certainly true that, next to Jesus, there are far more pictures of his mother Mary than of any other subject in the Renaissance period.  Two particular favourites of mine can be seen in the National Gallery in London, both by Leonardo da Vinci: the ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ and his preparatory drawing of ‘The Virgin and Child with St Anne’.  (Both, admittedly, very definitely ‘brown pictures of Mary!’)

Mary is venerated in many branches of the Christian faith, and righty so.   She is, by any account, a remarkable woman.  Chosen to bear the Saviour of the world, she accepts her costly calling with unusual faith and humility – as we read every year in the Nativity Story.  We also read, at the end of that story, Simeon’s prophetic words that ‘a sword will pierce her heart’ – and as Jesus died almost alone on the cross, Mary was still there, with him, experiencing the unimaginable grief of a mother.

But even Mary, great as she was, had a moment of doubt.  She had nurtured and cared for her extraordinary eldest son for thirty years; she saw him grow in ‘wisdom and favour’; she knew the prophecies that the Messiah was to fulfil.  Nevertheless, as Jesus begins his public ministry in these early chapters of Mark, as he astonishes the crowds and also makes enemies of powerful people, she’s confused.  She wonders what on earth Jesus is doing?  In today’s reading, she takes her other children to find Jesus and get him out of the public eye again.  As far as they can fathom, Jesus has gone mad: (v21) ‘He is out of his mind.’

After another interlude (yesterday’s passage) where Jesus is once again confronted by the Pharisees, Jesus’ family arrives again, and the crowd lets Jesus know they are here (v32).  Let’s not be too hard on them at this point: it’s easy with hindsight to judge them, because we know the end of the story.  To a respectable family, who’ve spent years navigating the gossip surrounding Jesus’ birth, the overt enmity of high-ranking religious leaders was a new source of shame in that culture – another social scandal, another set of wagging tongues and sly looks to manage in the marketplace.  

Little wonder they wanted to get Jesus out of the limelight.  But Jesus is having none of it – indeed, his reply is provocative.  Who is his family?  Anyone, Jesus says, who does God’s will (v35).  It’s worth noting that Jesus is not being disrespectful to his kin; he is simply reminding his hearers, and all of us, that God is doing a new thing.  The saving work of God is now reaching out across borders, across family ties, to all who would receive it. 

There is a happy ending to this part of the story.  We know that Jesus and Mary were soon reconciled, as she travels with him in the last week of his life.  We also know that two of Jesus’ brothers – James and Jude – became leaders in the early church.  James plays a big role in Acts 15, and Jude wrote one of the New Testament letters. 

We, too, can rejoice in this wonderful truth – that Jesus welcomes all of us into his family.  May that thought lift our hearts today; and perhaps, too, we could pray that the Lord gives us an opportunity to bless one of our ‘family’ this week.

Tuesday 3rd October – Mark 3:20-30 ‘Unforgivable?’

Many people will do anything to avoid giving God the credit!  It’s just human nature.  I remember a miraculous healing at the prison twenty years ago, when an inmate’s blood pressure plummeted overnight – he went from permanent tinnitus to the BP of a fit young man in his 20s (he was an ex-smoker in his 50s) in a matter of hours.  The GP who saw him that morning put it down to his medication starting to work – the same medication he’d been taking daily for ten years!

Today’s passage is rather more sinister.  Having fired questions at Jesus for some time, trying to work out who he is and what he’s about – the section of the gospel from 2:1-3:6 – a group of them have now moved from curiosity to suspicion to outright opposition.  They will do anything to find an explanation for Jesus’ spiritual power – a way out, if you like, from confronting the implications of acknowledging that this power must be from God.

And so they hit on (what they consider to be) a plausible conclusion – Jesus must be harnessing evil spiritual power.  He must have sold his soul to the devil.  Jesus immediately points out the obvious flaw in this argument: (v23) ‘how can Satan drive out Satan?’  It makes no sense!  Instead, he points out the alternative answer: the ‘strong man’ (the devil) who runs the house (this world) has been tied up, so Jesus can ‘steal’ people out from under his nose (v27).

It’s a very candid, but a brilliant, analogy.  And it recognises the sobering reality that there is a spiritual battle for our world.  The devil wants to keep as many as possible from finding their way back to God. Indeed, we can see his strategy even in the way that the Pharisees – supposedly the religious leaders – try to discredit Jesus, in order to keep people from coming to him.  The devil’s work is rarely dramatic – far better to undermine, distract, discredit…

Verse 29 is one of the most discussed in scripture; but the key lies in the text itself.  The only unforgivable sin is to ascribe the work of God to the work of the devil – in other words to reject Jesus completely, and thereby cut yourself off from the perfect love, grace and goodness of God.  That is what it means to ‘blaspheme against the Holy Spirit’.

The good news for us today is that the strong man is bound by Jesus.  As followers of Christ, we come under that covering.  It’s not a charm, or a guarantee of an easy life.  But we can trust in the power of the one who decisively defeated the devil on the cross, and continues to plunder his house whenever he wishes, for the sake of his people, even now.  Amen!

Monday 2nd October – Psalm 93  ‘Robed in majesty’

Not many people have robes nowadays – at least , I don’t think they do!  It’s a garment associated with authority or magnificence, isn’t it?  Our late Queen even had her own Mistress of the Robes, a post which dates back to the 16th century, albeit now it’s more ceremonial than literal.

And this is the language of today’s psalm, which begins: ‘The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty.’  Whilst God is Spirit, many psalms and other scriptures like to imagine God as a physical monarch, with suitable imagery for authority and magnificence.  ‘Robed in majesty’ is a wonderful, evocative phrase, but it’s no mere window dressing (pardon the pun).  In this short psalm, we’re invited to sample the evidence for God’s majesty.

First, there’s our earth.  A stable planet, which even the ancients knew to be ‘firm and secure’.  I love playing records, and am always surprised to discover how many of my collection are older than I am.  I can take out a piece of black plastic that’s still in pristine condition aged 60 – if only that would be true of me in time to come! 

But these silly human comparisons pale when compared to the age of the earth.  People often quote modern understandings of the age of the earth – approx 4 billion years – as being an argument against God.  But here the psalmist – 3,000 years ago, remember – uses it as an argument in favour of God.  He made something that can last 4 billion years.  Puts every empire, every construction, every piece of human ingenuity into the shade, doesn’t it?

Then there’s his throne, which is likewise established ‘long ago’.  Whilst we can’t point to a literal throne, we know that God’s authority has been seen in his dealings with our world for thousands of years – God has been God for as long as humans have existed.  God is, as the psalm says, ‘from all eternity.’ 

Next, there are the seas – which in ancient thought symbolised all the forces of chaos and darkness.  But in this marvellous poetic image, even the seas ‘have lifted up their voice’, because God is mightier than even the greatest waves.  In other words, even the strongest force in nature is as nothing compared to the greatness of God.

Finally, there are God’s ‘statutes’ – that is, his laws and promises.  These, too, stand firm.  There is an air of permanence about everything God does, and his character (his ‘holiness’) does not change.

In our shifting times, our uncertain world, how good it is to reflect on the unchanging majesty, might and authority of God.  It is this God into whose loving hands we place ourselves today, and this week.  And may that thought give us the confidence of hope, the strength of joy and the peace that passes understanding today.

Father thank you that you are robed in majesty.  I lift my voice to you, even as the great waves do.  Help me to stand firm and secure upon the rock of your promises.  Abide with me today.  Amen.

Saturday 30th September – Mark 3:13-19 ‘The team’

Things work better in a team.  It’s pretty much universally true: in companies, in organisations, and certainly in churches.  We need people to journey with, to share life with, and also to work with.

Jesus might be the Son of God, with all the authority in the universe and a mission to save the world – but even he doesn’t plan to do it alone.  He needs a circle around him: and so, he heads up a mountainside, spends the night in prayer (which we learn in Luke) and then chooses twelve (v14).  Presumably these are all people who’ve been part of his team for some time, and we’ve met five of them already: the fishermen Simon (Peter), Andrew, James and John; as well as Levi – now with a new name, Matthew, to reflect his restored identity as a follower of Jesus.

Neither Jesus nor the gospel writers reveal how he made his choice – but today we get a special insight as to what being part of the team means: ‘that they might be with him, and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons’ (vv14-15). Notice how relationship is the priority: first and foremost, their calling is to be with Jesus

That’s true for us, too.  Before we are given useful work, what Jesus desires is simply that we want to be with him.  From that, everything follows.  We may not have the big calling of these twelve – and the word apostle means ‘sent one’, so the clue is in the name! – but whatever Jesus calls us to do will flow of out spending time with him, getting to know him, enjoying just being with him.

In the future, these twelve will continue the work after Jesus goes back to heaven, so there’s a long-term plan here.  In the medium term, they will also get the chance to cut their teeth doing what Jesus does (see, for example, Luke chapters 9 and 10), all the while being mentored by Jesus.  But let’s note, even then, that he sends them out in pairs: it’s still about team and relationship.  The God who is relationship within himself – Father, Son and Spirit – has fashioned us to work in a similar way.

You may still be in paid work, or retired; you may be part of clubs or voluntary organisations; you may have a good group of friends that you journey with; you may be part of a group at church.  If any of those apply to you, give thanks today for your ‘teams’.  And re-commit to the joy of just being with Jesus – and from that, may all that God has for you flow, and grow.

Friday 29th September – Mark 3:6-12 ‘The wrong side of history’

In the early nineteenth century, Holy Trinity Clapham was probably the most interesting church in the country to attend.  As many of you may know, debates over the slave trade dominated the public discourse at this time, dividing national opinion – and this church in Clapham was the epicentre of this division.  The leading lights of those proposing the abolition of the slave trade were known disparagingly as the ‘Clapham Sect’, because many of them lived locally and worshipped at Holy Trinity.  On the other hand, many wealthy traders with interests in the Caribbean also lived in this genteel corner of south London.  And, at Holy Trinity on Sunday, there would be a literal division on show: abolitionists would sit on one side of the church, pro-slavery campaigners on the other.  (One can only imagine what coffee and chat was like after the service!)

The fact that we may find it hard to fathom why the debate over slavery took so long to resolve is indicative of which side ‘won’ – the tide of history turned against those who saw slavery as acceptable, and now it is more or less taken for granted amongst developed nations that slavery is an abomination. 

But we should not forget how powerful the urge to maintain the status quo was.  Those who promoted the benefits of slavery were popular and well-regarded for a very long time.  That they proved to be on the wrong side of history was by no means assured.  Indeed, it is sobering to reflect that, in the end, what brought about the abolition of slavery in Parliament in 1833 was a bill which remunerated slave owners (and not the slaves themselves) for their ‘loss’.

In today’s passage we see a similar polarisation starting to develop around the identity and ministry of Jesus.  Thus far, Jesus has been attracting plenty of attention, and numerous questions from those unsure about what this ‘new’ thing really was.  However, after Jesus directly challenged the Pharisees’ theology of the Sabbath, suddenly their mood turns from one of bemusement or suspicion to outright opposition.  They start to wonder if it might not be better to do away with Jesus entirely (v6).

This is one of those moments when the section breaks in our modern English bibles aren’t totally helpful.  Verse 6 is very much a ‘link’ verse between the two sections, and arguably fits better with vv7-12, because it shows how Jesus now sits between two very polarised groups of people.  On the one hand, the religious elite want to kill him (v6).  On the other, he is a cult hero with much of the rest of the population, who follow him everywhere (v7), including many desperate for miracles of healing (v8).  Indeed, Jesus is a little concerned for his safety, as the crowd are getting difficult to manage (v9).

It’s easy to look back now and judge the Pharisees for being on the wrong side of history.  But let’s not forget, firstly, that most of those following Jesus here also turned against him eventually; and secondly, that we all find it hard when our much-loved traditions are being challenged.  There is a mini-Pharisee inside all of us – may our gracious Lord grant us all grace to see both Jesus and ourselves clearly, that we might continue to be on the right side, not just of history, but of his story.

Thursday 28th September – Mark 3:1-6 ‘Sabbath – back to basics #2’

If yesterday’s story needed a bit of explanation – why was rubbing grain an issue? – today’s passage is rather more straightforward.  We’re still looking at Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath, and the fundamental question we posed yesterday still applies: what is the point of the Sabbath?  Why did God give it to us?  And, therefore, how can we use it wisely?

Yesterday, the disagreement with the Pharisees centred around complex rules regarding what constituted ‘work’ when it came to preparing food.  Today, it is more direct: Jesus is asked to heal someone on the Sabbath.  Bearing in mind that he’s in the synagogue (i.e. worshipping the Lord, as the Sabbath is designed for) and he’s not getting paid to heal anyone, it almost beggars belief that this act of kindness could be classed as ‘work’, and therefore breaking the fourth commandment.  But there it is – that’s why he’s under scrutiny.

Jesus’ reply once again gets to the heart of what we might call the spirit of the law.  Can it possibly be wrong to do good on the Sabbath?  Surely loving our neighbour in simple but practical ways is exactly the sort of thing God would encourage us to do?

It’s a healthy reminder to us that we, too, can use our days of rest in a number of beneficial ways.  Generally, as a society we’re paying a heavy price for abandoning our commitment to a day of rest for most of the country at the same time, and it’s right to keep challenging ourselves to find ways to make sure we rest appropriately… 

…however, rest does not have to mean total inactivity – that’s the trap the Pharisees had fallen into.  Serving in the worshipping community on the Sabbath is a good thing to do; doing something simple which blesses another human being on our Sabbath – if it isn’t our paid employment – is a good thing to do.  If it restores our wellbeing (and many of us find simple acts of blessing restorative) then it’s using the Sabbath as it should be used.

As we reflect on Jesus’ life-giving teaching over the last couple of days, take a moment to review your ‘Sabbaths’.  Are there any changes Jesus is prompting you to make?  Whatever your reflections on that question, pray today for a renewed commitment to practising healthy Sabbaths, that it might command a blessing for you, and those around you.

Wednesday 27th September – Mark 2:23-28 ‘Sabbath – back to basics #1’

It’s easy to miss the wood for the trees.  We all do it at times – and it’s just as likely to happen in matters of faith, too.  What is the point of the Sabbath?  That’s the million-dollar question for us today and tomorrow: why did God command every human to rest for one day in every seven?  What is ‘the wood for the trees’ here?

The theological answer goes back to creation: God rested on the seventh day, so that forms the pattern for us, too. However, it’s worth noting that God’s Sabbath post-creation doesn’t end: there isn’t a second week, as it were!  Rather, from that point, he invites all of us into his rest.  One day we’ll enjoy that eternally – but for now, we’re invited to sample it once a week.

If that’s the ‘big picture’ reason, the Ten Commandments give us the practical reasons: the point of having a day’s complete rest every week is: (a) for worship and time with God, and (b) for justice and fair treatment – if we rest, then others can rest, too.  The particular people mentioned in both Exodus and Deuteronomy are household servants, whose conditions are dependent on the goodwill of others – and God reminds his people quite pointedly that they knew what it was like to have been slaves, so they of all people had good reason to respect the Sabbath for their workers.

But what is the definition of ‘work’?  This is where the human debates and interpretations come in – over the years, lots of things got added to the definition of work, including almost all forms of preparing food.  This is why the Pharisees challenge Jesus’ followers about eating grain which they had to pick off the plant.  The act of picking constituted ‘work’, according to the complex regulations they had devised for the Sabbath (as an aside, had it already been picked it would have been fine!).

It’s a classic ‘wood for the trees’ moment.  Human regulations make great servants but lousy masters – and, in their noble quest to try and obey the law, the Pharisees had lost sight of the point of the law in the first place.  Jesus replies by reminding them that the greatest Jewish king there’d ever been did something much ‘worse’ (vv25-26) – so maybe they needed to revise their thinking!

He finishes with something even more controversial: this is not just about a true understanding of Sabbath, but also a true understanding of who gave the Sabbath to us – in claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is making a clear reference to his divine identity.  For us, though, today and tomorrow are a healthy reminder of the importance of rest – and also of remembering that it’s the spirit of the law that matters most.  Jesus desires our hearts, not anxious rule-following.  May God grant us all grace to enjoy our Sabbaths wisely – and may Jesus be the Lord of our Sabbaths, too.

Tuesday 26th September – Mark 2:18-22 ‘The shock of the new’

We’re currently in the midst of redecorating some rooms.  We’ve lived in our current house for ten years, and over time numerous walls have got marks which need a bit of touching up.  The problem is that, even if we had bought some new paint which exactly matches the colour in theory, we all know what happens when a dab of fresh paint is applied to a wall which was painted a few years ago.  The slight fading of the colour over time means that the new dab of paint will stand out worse than the slight mark it was covering over!  Better to repaint completely – a completely fresh start.

Jesus refers to something similar in today’s passage: or rather, two examples which would be easy to recognise among his hearers.  You don’t sow a new patch on an old piece of cloth, he says, and you don’t put new wine into an old wineskin.  Try either of those things, and disaster awaits.

The underlying issue here is that Jesus appears to be breaking all the religious rules – at least, as far as the Pharisees’ understanding of their religion went.  In the previous episode it was: ‘Jesus, why are you eating with all the wrong people?’  Today, it’s: ‘why aren’t your disciples fasting enough?’  Tomorrow, we’ll see them asking another question: ‘why are you breaking the Sabbath rules (as we understand them)?’

At this point we need to be clear that Jesus is not de-bunking the law.  Elsewhere, he is very clear that God’s law is good and right, and is not being re-written. Rather, he is challenging their human interpretation of the law…. and also making the point that, when God breaks in and does a new thing, suddenly our eyes are opened to new ways of understanding God’s will and ways.  Jesus is the ‘new wine’, and it’s simply too vibrant, too fresh, to be held within the old wineskins.

This is ‘the shock of the new.’  For the generation of religious leaders in Jesus’ day, brought up to revere the old ways, this radical new inbreaking of the kingdom of God – the kingdom which, after centuries of expectation, has now ‘come near’ – is all a bit hard to take in.  But what Jesus wants is for his listeners to open their minds, to be willing to embrace that something new and incredibly exciting is happening.

It would be easy for us to judge them for it.  But, if we’re honest, we can also see ourselves in those leaders.  Let’s resolve to stay open to whatever God has in store for us.  It might not be revolutionary, as it was for Jesus’ contemporaries; but there’s always more to learn about Jesus, new ways to grow in our relationship with him.  Even if you’re teetotal, this kind of ‘new wine’ is for all of us!  And may we drink deeply of it today, and in this season.

Dear Lord, of you three things I pray: to know you more clearly, to love you more dearly, and to follow you more nearly, day by day.  Amen.

Monday 25th September – Mark 2:13-17 ‘Good news for everyone’

‘Let me tell you how it will be: it’s 1 for you, 19 for me.’  So sang the Beatles as the first lyrics on their iconic 1966 album ‘Revolver’.  The opening song is ‘Taxman’ and is essentially a rant about the 95% top rate of income tax for high earners in the UK, which of course included all four of the Beatles, who by this time were multi-millionaires.  Apart from being a great song and an interesting perspective on the current debates about taxation, it’s a salutary reminder that tax officials have never been very popular!

However, if we moan a bit about HMRC today, it’s nothing compared to the status of ‘taxmen’ in first- century Israel.  This is because Israel was part of the Roman Empire and tax collectors were effectively Roman state officials; to a devout Jew, whose homeland is sacrosanct, the Romans are usurpers and anyone who works for them – especially ‘one of their own’ – is at best a collaborator and at worst a traitor.

This sense of national betrayal was augmented by the fact that many tax collectors took a cut for themselves, so they weren’t just traitors but corrupt and greedy ones at that.  So it is, frankly, scandalous that Jesus goes up to a tax booth (v14) and invites the chap sitting there to follow him.  In today’s terms, we would definitely be talking about ‘reputational risk’ and ‘bad optics’ for the Jesus movement!

But that’s the point: what this simple episode tells us is that Jesus’ kingdom is for everyone, and wide open to all who would be a part of it.  When we talk about those on the outside, we don’t just mean those who are poor and exploited, but also those who are ostracised for other reasons.  Jesus’ arms remain open for them, too.

And so, Levi – who becomes Matthew, one of the twelve apostles and the writer of the gospel – joins Jesus (v14), and, in overflowing gratitude at his welcome into the fold, invites Jesus to his house (Luke tells us that it was a ‘great banquet’).  Not surprisingly, this party is attended by lots of other outsiders: not just his tax-collecting friends, but others who are also referred to by the religious elite rather dismissively as ‘sinners’ (v30).  And Jesus is there: no doubt welcoming and blessing these ‘sinners’, too.

As Jesus replies to his baffled (or outraged?) questioners: it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick (v17).  Levi knows his moral failings and gratefully receives a second chance and a new life.  We, too, are given that same invitation by our loving Lord Jesus – who knows what we’re like but invites us anyway!  May God grant us all grace to keep saying ‘yes’ to Jesus – and to give heartfelt thanks that Jesus’ arms still extend in welcome to you, too.

Saturday 23rd September – Mark 2:10-12  ‘This amazed everyone’

As we conclude our week, this is a brief moment to recap, by reflecting on the final half of the last verse of our week: ‘This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”’

Three times in this opening section of Mark, the people are ‘amazed’ – by Jesus’ teaching (1:22); by his command over the unclean spirit (1:27); and here, by the dramatic healing of the paralysed man (2:12).  They can’t help but praise God, and cry out that they’ve never seen anything like it.

I want to keep being amazed by Jesus.  I’ve been a Christian a long time, and seen many wonderful things.  Jesus has changed my life so much – but, sometimes, I can lose sight of the wood for the trees.  I can forget all the Jesus has done, I can let the amazing become… well, commonplace, unremarkable.  I can domesticate my faith, even let it shrink.

Mark wants us to start our understanding of Jesus by being amazed by him.  The intensity of his narrative creates this sense of wonder, as Jesus moves from one thing to the next to the next to the next, all with authority (the other ‘a’ word we see a lot in this opening section).

Take a moment today to put yourself in the crowd – perhaps re-read the opening section of the gospel in one go.  Let yourself be amazed again.  And may all of us keep being amazed by ‘the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God’ – and may that, too, turn out hearts to joyful praise.  There is simply no-one like Jesus.

Friday 22nd September – Mark 2:1-12 ‘Our greatest need’

In his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs. These were arranged in five ascending tiers, beginning with basic Physiological Needs (food and shelter) and culminating with the highest tier of ‘Self-Actualisation’. 

The theory has been widely adopted and much of it makes intuitive sense.  But there’s one huge gap: despite the many needs mentioned – and breaking the model down in detail, more than twenty are listed – forgiveness is missing. 

How do we know this is a fatal flaw in the model?  Because Jesus thinks it is. As we pick up the story from yesterday, the paralysed man has been brought to Jesus by his friends, who’ve made considerable efforts to get him there.  His greatest need is obvious… isn’t it?  ‘When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”’ (v5)

Sometimes followers of Jesus are accused of over-spiritualising things, of ignoring practical needs and making everything about ‘eternal’ stuff, as if this life doesn’t matter.  And we have to admit that sometimes those critiques are valid, not least because Jesus does not ignore the man’s practical wellbeing.  He ends the encounter by healing the man, thereby blessing him both spiritually and physically.  It follows, then, that this is our model too: we care for the whole person. 

However, we must also beware the opposite temptation: of being so caught up with physical and material things that we ignore the state of a person’s soul. From Jesus’ perspective, this would be a grave mistake.  His assessment of the man’s greatest need was to be right with God first – and then to be healed physically.

As he makes this point to the Pharisees, he also points them (and us) towards the source of this forgiveness: none other than Jesus himself.  What Jesus claims here would be blasphemy… unless it was true, and he really was the divine son, with the authority to forgive everything that separates us from God.

As we reflect on this story today, let’s bring our deepest need to the Lord; and let’s do that with a heart full of joy – because we too can know, like the man in our story, that our deepest need has been met.  We have been forgiven, for all eternity – praise God!

Thursday 21st September – Mark 2:1-5 ‘True friendship’

If you ever attended Sunday School, you’re very likely to be familiar with this story!  As one of the most visually striking stories in the life of Jesus, it’s a favourite with Sunday School leaders everywhere.  The little Israelite house crammed full of people; the friends battling their way up the steps on the outside of the property… then removing the branches which acted as a de facto roof; and ultimately lowering their friend down through the ceiling, right next to Jesus.

Tomorrow, we’ll think about Jesus’ encounter with the man himself – but today, let’s give a moment’s reflection to the unsung heroes in the story: his friends.  Note that it was their faith – not the man’s – that touched Jesus’ heart (v5).  Not to mention the huge physical effort needed to climb up on the roof, then make a hole, then manoeuvre their friend safely and slowly down to the ground again: that is friendship in action.

Ultimately, though, what we learn today is that the greatest gift of true friendship is to bring someone to Jesus. It’s what Andrew did with his brother Simon (John 1:42): a simple invitation which not only changed Simon’s life but changed the course of history.  It’s what the paralysed man’s friends do here.  They didn’t have to preach, promote or pray out loud; they just had to make the introduction, to bring him to the gathering.

Some of us may be called to bear witness with our words, and certainly we can all pray for our friends in our personal prayer time.  But what’s so encouraging about this first part of the story is that, even if words are not your strong suit, and we feel inadequate to give wise answers to hard questions or to share inspiring stories about your faith, we can all invite someone to something. 

That’s what the friends did, and it was enough.  Jesus did the rest; he did – and does – do the heavy lifting in the story.  It is not our job to ‘convert our friends’: we can safely leave that to Jesus.  What we can do is make the introduction, invite them to a gathering, and then keep praying and trusting that our great Lord does the rest.

So why not spend a few moments today praying for a few people you love, and also for courage for yourself: to know when, and how, to do what the man’s friends did today.  It might not feel like a lot – but in God’s economy, it may very well be more than enough.

Wednesday 20th September – Mark 1:40-45 ‘The source of compassion’

‘I am willing.’  One of Jesus’ most beautiful sayings, and oft-loved by preachers through the generations.  It is a word to us: if you’ve ever wondered if Jesus gets bored of your prayers, or of you; if he tires of your problems, or your requests; if you’ve messed up and wonder if he can make you clean again – hear his voice today, as true now as it was in our passage 2,000 years ago: ‘I am willing.’

Let’s spend a moment today reflecting on where Jesus gets his compassion from.  We get compassion fatigue so easily; just how does he manage it?  This little story has so much in it, but it gives us some powerful pointers, which reveal the heart of Jesus’ ministry – and also point the way for us to become more like Jesus, too.

First, Jesus sees individuals.  As we’ve observed, his ministry (in the second half of Mark ch1) is taking off: large numbers of people are coming to him to be healed (v32), and having begun in Capernaum, he is doing the same in many places (v39).  In other words, he is ministering to dozens, or hundreds, of people.  But he never loses sight of the one.  ‘People’ are not just one blob of humanity – each person matters.  This one man with leprosy comes to him and gets Jesus’ full attention (v40).

Second, Jesus lets the man’s story touch him.  He is not in ‘professional mode’, performing a task or a routine.  The English translation of v41 is ‘Jesus was indignant’ or ‘moved with compassion’ – but the word is a bit more earthy than that.  It literally means ‘his guts moved’.  Jesus finds the man’s situation gut-wrenching.  It makes him physically sick with emotion to see this precious child of God in misery.  That is how our troubles and our pain affects Jesus.

And what made Jesus so cross is that the man expected to be fobbed off.  He must have come to plenty of rabbis and had a negative reception – so his default approach is to prostrate himself and beg: ‘if you are willing.’  It reminds us that true compassion is often controversial.  It offends polite society.  It means receiving, welcoming and serving people whom others avoid, who are not like us.  The received wisdom of the day is that this man with leprosy should be kept away from society.  To touch him would make you, not just ceremonially unclean and needing to perform rituals of washing, but at risk of infection, too.

Jesus breaks all polite boundaries by touching the man – and of course, his power to cleanse works in reverse: far from the man ‘dirtying’ him, Jesus instead makes the man clean – whole, and healed.  The scandal of this encounter is why Jesus has to stay away from people for a while.  It’s not just that he has the weight of messianic expectation on his shoulders (v28, v37) – many would now see him as a potential leper, or at the very least as a controversial figure whom it would be risky to be seen with.

Not that this matters to those who need him.  They still come (v45b).  And we still come today.  Jesus never runs out of compassion.   Whatever is in your heart, take it to him.  And may we, too, be filled with compassion for others, seeing them as Jesus sees them.

Tuesday 19th September – Mark 1:29-39 ‘Why I have come’

After yesterday’s dramatic encounter in the synagogue, the narrative picks up speed.  We’ll see this more than once in Mark’s gospel – the action comes thick and fast, so ‘as soon as they left the synagogue…’ (v29) they’re onto the next encounter: in this case, a pastoral visit with Jesus’ new team, helping (and healing) Simon’s mother-in-law.

All through this section, we see demonstrations of Jesus’ authority: first in his teaching (v20), then in his authority over demonic spirits (v25), now over illness (v31) – and, at this point, it’s open season, such that everyone in the vicinity with ailments, either physical or spiritual, come to find him and seek healing (v32).  Notice that it’s after sunset – traditionally nothing happens after sundown, but we need to remember that illness or spiritual oppression was understood in that culture to be a sign of being out of favour with God.  Many of these people would have been ostracised from the community, perhaps even seen as ‘cursed’, so they might have been fearful of being out in public during the day.

So they come to Jesus at night, and Jesus heals ‘many who had various diseases’ (v34).  Note the expansion of his ministry as well as the breadth of his authority being demonstrated.  Once again, though, he is not ready to be seen as the new king, the Holy One of God, so he commands the spirits to be silent.

So far, so good – however, at this point the narrative takes a twist.  Far from encouraging further crowds Jesus takes himself off to pray (v35).  When challenged by his friends, he also reminds them of the true nature of his mission: he is not just here to work wonders, important though those are in establishing and demonstrating his identity and authority; he is here to declare the good news of the inbreaking kingdom of God.  ‘The time has come!’ 

And so he moves on ‘throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.’ (v39)  Jesus can’t be caged.  The people of Capernaum desperately wanted an in situ miracle worker – and who wouldn’t? – and Jesus is more than happy to bless them for a season, to begin sharing his good news there.  But his vision is bigger, his mission is wider and greater. 

This little episode in Capernaum is a pivotal moment in his ministry, setting Jesus’ course.  It reminds us that Jesus is not an insular saviour, who only cares about a certain group of people.  His love and message reaches out to all.  He takes the good news out to the world, to as many as will receive it.  Wherever you are reading this today, we are the beneficiaries of this Saviour, who knows who he is and why he has come: drawing the whole world into his good news.  That is why he came.

Monday 18th September – Mark 1:21-28 ‘I know who you are’

A few years ago, Alise and I got hooked on a Spanish TV series.  Called ‘I know who you are’, it tells the story of a lawyer who suffers a car crash and wakes up by the roadside having suffered total memory loss – he has no idea who he is or why he is there.  As the plot unfolds, the amnesiac appears to be a thoroughly decent chap, unluckily surrounded by a dysfunctional family; but the drama of the series is that as he regains his memory we learn that all is not what it seems.  In fact, he is not what he seems: he is, in fact, a cad, and those who know who he is also know the bad things he’s done.

‘I know who you are’ is an unsettling drama – but it’s also an unsettling thing to say to most human beings.  The phrase is rarely a compliment, used rather to indicate awareness of things we’d prefer people didn’t know.  Many of us carry that sense that, if people only knew who we were, what lies behind the respectable mask…

Jesus, of course, carries none of this baggage.  When the unclean spirit in today’s passage says, ‘I know who you are,’ this spirit is not referring to anything dark or deceitful.  Quite the reverse: this spiritual being knows that Jesus is the Lord, the chosen one promised for centuries – or, as the spirit puts it: ‘the Holy One of God.’

It is fascinating that the second being to recognise Jesus’ identity – after John the Baptist – is a demonic spirit.  And Jesus’ stern response should not be seen as either insecurity or cover-up; he has nothing to hide!  But he is very early in his ministry; if the rumour mill starts too early, Jesus will end up with a target on his back.  John’s gospel tells us that straight after he fed the 5,000 ‘they wanted to make him king by force,’ and the same could happen here.  We know that Jesus quickly becomes a threat to power – but his ministry needs time to grow.  And so, he delivers the man of the spirit, and leaves people to wonder.

What we do see clearly in this story is that Jesus is qualitatively different to all other leaders of his time.  What he possesses is innate authority – and it’s worth noticing that real spiritual authority does not come from a title or a uniform or a reputation, but is something much deeper.  Jesus has none of the outward trappings, but his words and actions immediately convey it.  And the result is amazement (v22, repeated v27): just who is this man??

We know who he is – and our Lord has all authority in heaven and earth, exercising it now for the sake of his people, including us.  We may feel weak or inadequate, but in Jesus’ name we carry his authority with us.  Now there’s a thought to lift our hearts at the start of this week.  May God grant us grace to believe it, and to live as those in whom the Holy One of God abides, by his Spirit.  Amen!

Saturday 16th September – Mark 1:16-20  ‘At once’

‘I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men, I will make you fishers of men, if you foll-owwww meeeee.’ Perhaps some of you remember that old Sunday School bible chorus – and apologies for the non-inclusive language, it was of its time!  I certainly remember singing it… and no doubt will now be humming it all day.  As you will, too.

Today’s passage is another of those iconic stories of Jesus that are among the best-known of all the gospels.  Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee and calls his first disciples, two pairs of brothers: first Simon and Andrew, then James and John.  Now that his public ministry has begun, and the ‘time’ has been declared, he starts to gather his core team. 

It’s likely that Jesus would have known some or all of these four for a long time.  This area of Galilee is not that large, and Capernaum was the ‘local centre’.  Those who fished the lake would have provided food for much of the local population, so it’s hard to imagine that Jesus wouldn’t have bumped into Andrew or Simon or James or John (or all of them) on a regular basis.

In other words, it may not be a spontaneous decision on the part of Jesus; but today, he calls them.  And what he calls them to is the natural outworking of the proclamation of Jesus’ ‘good news’ message of the last verses: we are not just to believe, but to follow.  Repentance means a change of life – our direction is now towards Jesus, and this means active following.

What struck me this time I read it, though, is how the response of the first disciples matches Jesus’ declaration that this is a kairos time.  The good news is now embodied in flesh – and now is the time to follow.  Not tomorrow; today.  Simon, Andrew, James and John are perfect examples of what it means to really absorb the fact that ‘the time has come!’  If this really is that time, then we respond to the call: (v18, v20) ‘At once they left their nets and followed him… Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee.’

A wise old pastor once said to me: ‘Don’t get used to saying no to Jesus.’  He was referring not just to our initial decision to follow, but also to our willingness to keep being obedient to him through our lives.  Every so often Jesus puts his finger on something and invites us to be obedient.  Each time, we can choose to say yes or no – Jesus doesn’t force us.  But in these kairos times, today’s passage encourages us to keep saying yes to Jesus.  ‘Come, follow me,’ he beckons – as we close this week, take a moment to hear that call again, and to say ‘yes’.  We do so, knowing that we journey together, and that Jesus journeys with us all the way. 

Friday 15th September – Mark 1:14-15 ‘The time!’

One of many people’s favourite passages, including those who would not call themselves Christians, is that famous text from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: (3:1-11 excerpts) ‘There is a time for everything… a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…. a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance… a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time be silent and a time to speak…. God has made everything beautiful in its time.’

It resonates with something that we all instinctively know is true: that time is not just a linear thing, or a convenient way of marking the day – time is also about moments and seasons.  The Greek culture of Jesus’ day recognised this, too; they had two different words for time: chronos was literal, linear time, how we mark the day, how long something takes.  The second word was kairos, and this means a significant time: a moment or season when things are happening, things change.

It is kairos time that Jesus refers to in our passage for today, declaring to all who would listen: (v15) the (kairos) time has come!’  Why? Because ‘the kingdom of God has come near.’  This is a significant moment, perhaps the moment of all moments, the season of all seasons: God is breaking into the world in a new way.  Recognise it, embrace it and change – or to put it in Jesus’ words: ‘repent and believe the good news!’

As we read these dramatic words, perhaps we are reminded of our own kairos time: when the good news of Jesus first became real to us, when we believed and turned our life towards Christ.  That time may have been a moment: a powerful talk, a miracle, a sudden revelation that Jesus really was the key to life.  Or it may have been a season – and kairos can mean both moment and season – a slowly dawning realisation as to where (and to Whom) your life was heading.

Give thanks today for that kairos time.  The kingdom of God came to near to you – and keeps coming.  Kairos times can occur throughout our lives.  Is now a kairos time for you?  What is God up to?

Even if you don’t sense that this is a significant moment in your life, it remains true that our journey with Jesus involves a daily return to his primary call on our lives, a call proclaimed here to all who would listen: today, I believe the good news. Today I turn my life towards Jesus.  Today the time has come – thank you, Lord Jesus, that your kingdom is near.

Thursday 14th September – Mark 1:9-13 ‘The Trinity of love’

I often get asked about the Trinity – this uniquely Christian understanding that God is one being with three natures: Father, Son and Spirit.  How did we get to this point?  Is there a bible verse which gives us ‘the Trinity’, all neatly packaged up? The truth is that there is no one single verse I can point to, but it’s passages like today’s which demonstrate clearly how we got from the Jewish idea that ‘God is One’ to the Christian one that God is One… in Three – and Three in One! 

God as Trinity is ultimately something to be experienced, not theorised, and it is through the ‘experiences’ of the gospels and the rest of the New Testament that the early Christians came to realise this extraordinary truth.  We have a 3-dimensional faith, because we have a 3-dimensional God.

Today’s reading is Mark’s very condensed account of Jesus’ baptism and temptation.  In Matthew, this is 16 verses; in Luke, 15 – in Mark, just 5 verses.  You can feast on the finer points of these stories in the other gospels, but what is notable here is how we see the Trinity of love at work.  The Son is joyfully affirmed by the Father in his baptism: (v11) ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’  This Son is then sent by the Spirit into the wilderness (v12).  The Trinity at work in unity and mission.

As an aside, it is striking that Jesus’ journey into the wilderness is Spirit-led.  We often think of wilderness times as times of uncertainty or dryness or chaos, as ‘bad’ times – but for Jesus at least, the first thing we learn about time in the wilderness is that it was a work of God: he was sent by the Spirit.

This is powerful for us, too.  We all have wilderness times, and the temptation is to think that somehow we have let God down, or that God is absent. There may be valid reasons why we think like this, but today, let’s take heart from this passage that God is at work in wilderness times.  If you find yourself in such a time now, ask yourself (and God) the question: where is God at work?  Is there anything of this time that might be led by the Spirit?  That may only be something you fathom later – but I do believe we can ask the question now.  God often does his best work in the desert.

As we reflect on how Jesus’ experience can relate to ours, let’s also rejoice that, thanks to the work of Christ, we too can be children of God.  In other words, what God says to Jesus here is true for us, too.  At the heart of a thriving Christian life is the deep realisation that we are our Heavenly Father’s precious children.  So, today, take a few minutes to receive the Father’s affirmation to Jesus as yours: you are his beloved child; with you he is well pleased.

Wednesday 13th September – Mark 1:1-8  ‘A voice of one calling’

Of the many characters in the biblical story, John the Baptist has to be one of the best, doesn’t he?  The camel hair clothing, the diet of locusts and honey…  Be honest: you’d travel out into the desert to see what all the fuss about, wouldn’t you?  I think I would.

John plays a vital role in preparing the way for the arrival of Jesus – but what is sometimes overlooked is how his ministry, as described in today’s passage, connects with the opening verse and Mark’s declarations about Jesus’ identity.  As we saw yesterday, Jesus is both Messiah and Son – a human rescuer to draw us back to the Lord, and a divine rescuer to transform our hearts and renew our original calling to live as God’s special creation, made in his image.

What brings people out to the desert (v5) is unquestionably a growing excitement that the former might have arrived: the Messiah, the anointed rescuer.  Many may have thought it was John himself; he certainly had the right credentials.  However, he was always quick to point people away from himself towards Someone Greater (v7).  He was the ‘voice of one calling’ (v3), the fulfilment of several important Old Testament prophecies that the Messiah would have a herald, someone to prepare the way (vv2-3: Mark actually quotes both Isaiah and Malachi, though he only names Isaiah – we’ll save that question for another time!).

In preparing for the Messiah, the natural response is to clear the decks spiritually, so to speak – to make a fresh start.  The word ‘repent’ literally means to ‘turn around’, and although washing with water was a common practice welcoming non-Jews into the faith, it was something of a new development for Jews themselves to be washed as a sign of repentance.

The word ‘baptise’ literally means ‘dip’, and of course the early church picked it up as the simple but powerful sign of anyone coming to Christ.  But, as John reminds us, there are two baptisms at work: the outward one, and the deeper one – the baptism of the heart.  And this is what only the Son can do.  A human rescuer can only save us so much; unless the heart is transformed, we’ll just keep repeating the cycle of temporary renewal and inevitable decline that characterised the whole history of God’s people (and the story of the Old Testament).

So, Jesus is both Messiah and Divine Son.  As Son, he has the authority to wash us, not just with water, but with his Holy Spirit.  To be a follower of Christ is to be washed like this daily, continually.  Take a few moments today to pray for grace to be ‘dipped’ again with the Holy Spirit, that we might lead the new life that Jesus always calls us into.

Tuesday 12th September – Mark 1:1 ‘The beginning’

The message of Jesus is good news.  Indeed, that’s what the word ‘gospel’ means – literally ‘good news’.  And yet sometimes we can miss the wood for the trees; we can all too easily forget that, at its heart, this really is good news.  Better than good: it’s the best news I ever heard – hopefully it’s the best news you ever heard, too.

Faced with a diet of bad news stories, of institutional failings, of personal challenges, of familiarity breeding, if not contempt, then a lack of passion, we get ground down.  The world around us feels jaded, too – and maybe that rubs off on us as well. 

So, what better tonic than to remind ourselves in this series that Jesus is good news!  Mark certainly thinks so – the first thing he tells us in his brilliant biography of Jesus is that Jesus is good news: (v1) ‘The beginning of the good news about Jesus.’ 

Let’s not miss that.  Mark is very punchy, and gets straight into the action: no genealogies like Matthew; no outline of his historical approach and extended birth narrative like Luke; no high-falutin’ reprise of the creation narrative like John – verse 2 gets straight down to it.  John the Baptist appears and away we go.  Bish bash bosh.  It’s breathless, it’s exciting, it’s like a US TV drama cramming three hours of British plot into a 42-minute episode.  Jesus did this, and then he did this, and then he did this…. I love it.  No messing.

But we start with Mark’s two-word summary of everything that follows: ‘good news’!  And verse 1 also tells us why: it’s a question of identity.  Mark gives Jesus two very important names: he is the Messiah and the Son.  And in that short phrase he captures Jesus’ dual identity: the anointed human rescuer, promised by the prophets and dreamed of, longed for, by God’s people.  But not just human: God had also promised that he would come and sort out our mess himself.  Jesus is the Son of God: not just divinely anointed, but divinely appointed – the One we’ve all been waiting for.

Jesus had to be human to represent us.  Jesus had to be God to save us and restore us.  And this is the good news Mark is going to share with us: the Messiah, the Son of God is here. 

It was good news then. It is good news now.  May it be our good news this day, and every day.  Amen, come Lord Jesus.

‘Complete in Christ’ – Daily Inspiration in Colossians

The central message of St Paul’s amazing letter to the Colossians is that Christ is always enough – for each of us, in every circumstance, both here and for eternity. May that timeless message go deep in our hearts this season…

Monday 11th September – Colossians 4:12-18 ‘Continuing the ministry’

And so we come to the end…. The Book of Colossians is an amazing portion of scripture, and you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s one of my favourite books of the bible.  Reading Colossians is like enjoying a bar of rich, dark chocolate – an intense experience, best enjoyed in small mouthfuls to savour.  Each bite has so much packed into it, so many layers to taste.

At its heart, though, the underlying message is simple.  Christ is all we need.  He is the Lord of creation, our Saviour, the source of wisdom and knowledge, and the way to reach real depth in our spiritual journey – the means as well as the end.  We don’t add things to Jesus, we simply grow in our love and understanding, and go ever deeper into his inexhaustible riches.

As Paul draws his letter to a close, what is clear is that the end of the letter is not, of course, the end of the story: the ministry of the gospel continues.  Paul brings greetings from the church’s founder (in human terms), Epaphras.  We learned at the start (1:7) that he brought the gospel to Colosse, and it now appears that he is engaging in ministry elsewhere, probably under Paul’s supervision.  Certainly, he and Paul are in close contact, and although Epaphras is not ministering personally among the Colossian Christians anymore, Paul assures them not just of his love but also of his hard work for them still (v13) – only this time in prayer, the intensity of which Paul indicates by use of the image of ‘wrestling’.

In another fascinating snippet, we also have greetings from Luke (v14, whom we know as the writer of the gospel and the book of Acts) – and it is here that we learn that Luke was a physician.  He almost certainly joined Paul’s inner circle in what’s known as Paul’s third missionary journey (perhaps to treat Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’? – 2 Cor 12:7), around the same time as the Aristarchus and Tychicus mentioned in our last reflection.  Although Luke never mentions himself by name in the book of Acts, we know that he teamed up with Paul at this time because the descriptions change from ‘Paul’ or ‘they’ to ‘we’ – compare Acts 20:1 with 20:6. 

So, the work continues… as it has done ever since.  There are always new people to share the love of Jesus with, new church communities to encourage, new opportunities for the kingdom of Christ to spread.  Paul is ever mindful of this, so he encourages them to read the letter he wrote to nearby Laodicea.  (As an aside, although officially no such letter survives, it’s possible this was what’s now the book of Ephesians, since some of the content is similar and it was written about the same time – and, tantalisingly, one extant manuscript of the Ephesian letter is written to ‘Laodicea’.)

He also has one more personal instruction, to a chap called Archippus (v17).  Even now, Paul wants to use every moment to encourage the flock.  We’ve no idea what Archippus was meant to do – but he presumably did, and Paul was determined to ensure that he stayed faithful to his calling.  Paul’s only request for himself was that they ‘remember his chains’ (v18).  In other letters he has practical needs, but here he seeks only prayer (see also 4:3).

We’ve come full circle: the letter started with Paul’s prayer (1:3) and ends with his request for prayer in return.  It also begins with grace (1:2) and ends with grace (4:18).  It’s been quite a journey…. and as we begin this week, may Paul’s blessing go with us: may the grace of God be with us all.

Saturday 9th September – Colossians 4:7-11 ‘Personal connections’

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that ‘the church’ is made up of individual people.  Everyone has their own story, and their own connections.  This little section in the letter, when Paul – whose piece of papyrus is probably running out of space – is firing off some quickfire messages, is a great reminder that what we are dealing with here is not just ‘an apostle’ and ‘a church’ but an intricate fabric of friendships and connections.  As such, they give us a wonderful insight into the personal world of the early Christians.

Of the six individuals named in today’s passage, only Justus is mentioned nowhere else (this is a different Justus to the one in Acts 18:7).  The other five appear in other places, all connected to Paul in significant ways.  Aristarchus and Tychicus are both close associates and fellow ministers with Paul.  They act as representatives of the early church communities, journeying with Paul to Jerusalem with the financial aid collected from around Paul’s missionary work (Acts 20:4). 

But their importance to Paul goes further: Aristarchus was with Paul when he was seized by the Ephesian mob (Acts 19:29) and Tychicus is the one tasked with bringing this letter directly from Paul to Colosse (v7), commended by Paul here in the warmest possible terms – a task he also fulfilled taking Paul’s famous letter to Ephesus (Ephesians 6:21-22).

Onesimus is a freed slave who became the unwitting subject of Paul’s letter to Philemon.  In that letter, Paul testifies to how much Onesimus has helped him while he was in prison – no doubt the same spell in chains that Paul refers to in this letter to the Colossian believers.

Most intriguing of all are the references to Mark and Barnabas.  Barnabas is a major figure in the church and was instrumental in launching Paul’s ministry.  It was Barnabas who commended Paul to the apostles in Jerusalem after Paul first came to faith (Acts 9:27) and then found Paul living quietly in Tarsus and took him to Antioch, where Paul’s ministry of preaching and evangelism first took off (Acts 11:25-26). 

Paul and Barnabas then set off on what became Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3) and they planned again on a second, but Paul refused to take Mark as he hadn’t lasted the course on the first journey, while Barnabas – ever the encourager – wanted to give him a second chance (Acts 15:36-41).  It led to Paul and Barnabas parting ways, but this little snippet (v10) gives us two special insights: first, Mark was Barnabas’ cousin.  Given what we know of Barnabas, I think it’s likely he would have stuck by Mark anyway – but the fact that he was family makes it easier to see why he backed Mark even at the risk of falling out with Paul.

Second, whatever had happened in the past was clearly healed.  Mark was now visiting Paul in prison, and Paul instructs the Colossian church to welcome him (v10).  It’s an affirming story of grace and restoration.  Indeed, these personal snippets complement the heavy-duty teaching of Paul’s letters, revealing a group of believers who love and support each other, and face great challenges together.  Take a moment today to remember your Tychicuses, Barnabases and Marks – and may those memories and relationships prove a comfort (v11) to you, too.

Friday 8th September – Colossians 4:2-6 ‘Maximising every opportunity’

In 1873 Thomas Edison approached the British government – then the most powerful government in the world – asking for investment in his new invention, the lightbulb.  The Committee which assessed it turned him down, saying this new-fangled idea was ‘okay for our transatlantic friends…but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.’  The lightbulb went on to transform society – no doubt later government committees which met in the evenings could hardly fail to notice what they’d missed out on.  They would have been, I imagine, all around them!

Life is full of missed opportunities.  Most of them are small, some are much more important.   When Paul writes this amazing letter, he is in prison, but what is fascinating and inspiring is how he still lives as if life remains full of opportunities: (v3) ‘Pray for us, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.’  The prison door, he knew, would remain shut for a while yet – but other doors could open.  There were still opportunities for him to share the good news of Jesus.  Indeed, he had, quite literally, a captive audience.

This sense of choosing to look for the opportunities in life was something Paul was keen to pass on to his readers in Colosse.  ‘Make the most of every opportunity,’ he says to them – meaning primarily opportunities to share faith.  This needs wisdom (v5), but also grace (v6), and I am struck by the strong implication that, although we are always ‘outward-looking’, we should always treat these opportunities with respect: ‘full of grace [and] seasoned with salt.’ 

Salt was less a flavouring in those times than a preservative and a fertiliser – so our conversation should help to guard against decay, and also promote growth.  We stand up for what is right, but also encourage what is good and uplifting.  Full of grace, seasoned with salt.

This approach can only be bathed in prayer (v2, v4).  Watchfulness is not just in social situations – it begins on our knees or in our ‘prayer chair’.  As we watch in prayer, so we find opportunities revealing themselves in life.  You may have had such opportunities recently, you may not; let’s resolve to pray for them, watchfully and thankfully.  And let’s be inspired by Paul’s example, choosing to live hopefully, seeing life as pregnant with possibilities, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Thursday 7th September – Colossians 3:22-4:1 ‘With all your heart’

This passage is not a defence of slavery.  It’s worth stating that at the start; as we saw yesterday, Paul is acutely conscious of the perceived danger of Christ to the social order – putting the church itself at risk (more widespread persecution is beginning, indeed may have already begun, by this time). 

It’s also worth bearing in mind that Christians numbered a tiny percentage of the population, and many were expecting the return of Jesus very soon – there was no sense in the first decades of the church that its role was to challenge established power structures, save in the implicit challenge each church provided by the way that it lived within its own community.  So, slaves and their masters were expected to relate as peers within the church family, but the early Christian leaders were pragmatic that this was not going to be the norm in the culture around them.

So, what’s the best advice that Paul can give to these relationships, once the Sunday church meeting was over?  The overarching principle is the same for everyone: we serve a higher Master. This Master not only sees the work we do, but gives value to all work – so all work can be a sacrament i.e. dedicated to God, and done for his glory.

Masters – or bosses, we could say in today’s world – should treat their workers well, because they too have a Divine Boss (4:1).  And here we could add that Paul probably knew the saying of Jesus that ‘with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’  He applied it elsewhere to generosity, but here it underpins his advice to bosses – you reap what you sow.

Similarly, slaves – and I think we can legitimately apply this to all workers now – should work obediently, not because their boss/master deserves it, necessarily, and definitely not to serve their own ambition, but because we serve a higher Master/Boss: ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.’ (v23)  And there’s a promise that goes with it – if we seek only recognition from God, then ‘you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a result.’ (v24)

This passage has long been precious to me, as I had a normal working career for twelve years before ordination, and Paul’s advice dignifies all work as being done for the glory of God.  There is no hierarchy of value, where, say, bosses do more important work than workers, or church leaders more important work than the people in the congregation.  It’s all for God, and God can bless all of it.  In that sense, all work is ministry if it’s done for the Lord. 

May God bless each of us in our work, doing whatever we do with all our heart, for the glory of God.  Amen.

Wednesday 6th September – Colossians 3:18-22 ‘Christ and the social order’

One of the thorny questions that the church has always faced – and individual Christians, as part of the church community – is how followers of Jesus relate to the social order around them.  Where do they conform and where do they stick out?  Or, to put it another way, what do they challenge?

It is hard for us to get a sense now of just how radical the original church community was.  The fact that Paul assumes that Jews and non-Jews, as well as slaves and slave owners, are in the church meeting listening to this being read together would have been almost unheard of in the culture of that time.  Such groups simply didn’t mix socially, and certainly not as equals.  The Christian community, therefore, was seen as more than just unique, it could even be dangerous.  Such mixed communities implicitly challenged and even undermined ‘the way things are’.

Paul often has this question at the back of his mind, including here.  He’s spent the letter wonderfully describing our new life in Christ, and emphasising that all can enjoy this life – ‘no Gentile or Jew… slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all’ (v11).  So, does that mean that all previous social norms have broken down?  Is there no ‘social order’ at all any more?

The Christian community is radical, but not anarchic – and so, just in case this letter is read as a recipe for revolution, Paul emphasises in this next section (which forms today’s passage) that certain patterns of relating still exist for followers of Christ.  Although we now treat elements of this passage as controversial, it is fascinating that what would have made it controversial at the time of writing was not what it said, for example, to women or slaves, but rather what it said to husbands, fathers and slave owners. 

In the longer version of this teaching in Ephesians 5, and more briefly here, Paul lays expectations of care and servant-heartedness on husbands and fathers that would have been well beyond the norms for men of that time.  Gentleness is emphasised – and gentleness is well defined elsewhere as ‘strength under control’.  Our mutuality may be expressed in slightly different ways, but the underlying themes of equality before God and mutual loving service of each other, following the pattern of Jesus himself, are at the heart of all our relationships within the Christian community, especially these most foundational relationships here.

Ultimately, this passage makes most sense if we ask the question: how would Jesus be a spouse, or a parent, or a child?  How would his model of humble love manifest itself in that relationship?  It’s a high bar, certainly – but may God grant us all courage to aim for it, and the anointing grace of his Spirit to (even in a small way) live like it today.

Tuesday 5th September – Colossians 3:15-17 ‘The power of thankfulness’

Colossians 3:12-17 is one of the most treasured portions of all scripture.  It just seems to encapsulate perfectly what a loving, healthy lifestyle should look like – even to those who may not consider themselves to be followers of Christ.   For example, this is the second most popular passage chosen by couples marrying in church (the ‘hymn to love’ in 1 Corinthians 13 is inevitably first!).  I speak on this passage in about a quarter of the weddings that I conduct, and in each case it is the couple that chooses this passage, not me (although I love the text, too).

We have already looked at the lovely image in vv12-14 about wearing virtues as part of our new lives in Christ.  Today we think about vv15-17, where Paul gives us three wonderful pieces of wisdom: ‘let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts… let the message (or word) of Christ dwell in you richly… do [everything] in the name of the Lord Jesus.’  The peace of Christ, the message of Christ, the name of Christ.  Not a bad guide to life, that, is it?

As an aside, Paul is here showing a bit of rhetorical skill – let’s remember that those undermining the church in Colosse were claiming special knowledge, probably steeped in Greek philosophical rhetoric.  There are at least two sections in this letter where Paul gently reminds the church that he is just as well educated – 1:15-20 and here in 3:15-17, where he uses the classic rhetorical device of ‘three’ where each element repeats or alliterates.  Paul had the equivalent of an Oxbridge education: he can talk the talk as well as anyone when he needs to, but his priority is always to walk the talk, which is where these other ‘teachers’ are letting the church community down. 

But what is often unnoticed about these three little gems is what underpins them – in ease case, the foundation is thankfulness.  In fact, he describes thankfulness progressively as a state, an attitude and an activity.  So, as we let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, Paul reminds us to be thankful (a state).  It’s wise advice – peace can’t live together with ingratitude.

Then, as we let the word dwell richly among us – and note this is a community instruction more than a personal one, though it is that, too – we sing ‘with gratitude in our hearts’.  The late, great Rev. John Stott put it like this: ‘Our favourite attitude should be gratitude,’ and there is nothing quite like sung corporate worship to raise thankfulness in our hearts.  (As an aside, even in the early church there were psalms, hymns and spiritual songs – there is space for all kinds of sung worship, then as now!)

Finally, as we do everything in Jesus’ name, we give thanks.  Thankfulness is not just an act of will and an inner habit, it is something we do.  We give thanks. We declare it – especially to our loving heavenly Father.  If love binds all the Christian virtues in unity, thankfulness empowers this kind of lifestyle.  In my own life, I have also found it self-reinforcing.  I have had ‘desert times’, when instinctively I didn’t think there was much to be thankful about.  But when I chose to be thankful, it’s amazing how many things I was able to name, with gratitude – which in turn stirred hope, and joy, and led to more thankfulness.  In other words, Paul’s advice really works.  My prayer is that all of us would discover it to be true – this day, this week, every week.

Monday 4th September – Colossians 3:11-15  ‘Called to peace’

One of the great dimensions of following Christ is that it has calls us both to personal and corporate transformation.  We lead new lives, not just as individuals but within communities – especially communities of believers.   In this marvellous chapter of Colossians, St Paul moves seamlessly from one to the other.  Towards the end of last week, we focused primarily on personal transformation – on what it means to put on the new self, and be clothed with Christ.

However, this renewal of self inevitably has implications for our community life.  Indeed, it is easy to forget that nearly all references to ‘you’ in the New Testament – including in this chapter – are plural and not singular.  Qualities such as compassion, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness can only be practised in community, since we need to have someone (or some people) to be compassionate or kind or forgiving towards.

It is natural, then, that as Paul talks about these qualities growing in our lives, he finds himself reflecting on our broader community life.  The start point is our fundamental unity in Christ.  Because the same Christ dwells in all of us, we carry a deep unity which transcends our different circumstances in life.  Whatever our religious or ethnic background, ‘Christ is all, and is in all.’ (v11)

So, our shared community life begins from a place of equality and mutuality in Christ.  Therefore, we can all practice the kinds of virtues that Paul encourages in vv12-14, since it is the same Spirit of Christ working renewal in all of us.  We are members, as Paul also reminds us in v15, of one body – the body of Christ. 

It follows, then, that as we live as one body, we are ‘called to peace’ (v15).  Peace in the bible is a much bigger word than we often give it credit for.  It is derived from the Hebrew ‘shalom’ which means complete wellbeing, a place where the love and grace of God dwells pervasively and endlessly.  It’s where we began on day 1 of these reflections, with Paul offering ‘grace and peace’ to all its readers – the peace of Christ which he describes here.

And let’s note that we don’t manufacture this peace: Christ’s work has already done what is needed for this state of peace to exist – all we have to do is let (i.e. allow) this peace of Christ to rule in our hearts (v15).  The peace is there for us to claim and live by – but we need to let it have its way.  No doubt there are things for each of us that make us anxious, that beckon us towards un-peace.  So, today, make a choice.  Choose to let Christ’s peace, Christ’s shalom, have sway in your heart.  It is Christ’s gift, and our calling.

Saturday 2nd September – Colossians 3:10-14  ‘New clothes’

Most of us like some new threads from time to time – or in my case, new to me!  I’ve always enjoyed a hunt round the clothes rails of charity shops.  I have a weakness for good quality shirts, but can never justify the price of them new – so I look for pre-loved versions instead.

Whatever your fancy is, the idea of putting on new clothes is the central image in today’s passage.  Only this time, Paul applies it to our new life in Christ – you’ve taken off your old self (v9), he says in yesterday’s passage, that shabby old shirt with stains, the sort of grubby ways of living Paul describes in the preceding verses… and you’ve put on the new self (v10), ‘which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator.’

And Paul doesn’t stop there – he actually goes on to list the new ‘clothes’ of our life in Christ: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience (v12) and forgiveness (v13).  These are the clothes we wear now – understated but of real quality.  Last of all, the big overcoat which we can put over all of them is love (v14).

It’s a great way of looking at it.  When we come to Christ we are born again spiritually – so we are already a new person.  The great change has taken place, as Christ’s Spirit fills us and lives in us.  But it takes time for us to grow into the new life – we put on the new clothes bit by bit.  It’s a lovely way of thinking about how we develop virtues – slowly dressing ourselves with kindness, humility, and so on.

It’s also helpful to think of our new selves as being clean – or as Paul puts it ‘holy and dearly loved’ – just as we’d never get out of the bath or shower and put on the dirty, sweaty clothes we’d just put in the washing basket, so our new clean selves can’t go back to the old ways of vv5-9.  We need clean clothes, befitting a holy and dearly loved child of God.

As we wrap up this week, what clothing do you need to put on today?  Pray for grace to wear it well – after all, Jesus has bought it for you!

Friday 1st September – Colossians 3:5-9  ‘Live no lies’

For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, our best friends bought me John Mark Comer’s new book.  Comer is one of the most celebrated of the new Christian writers, and his latest book is called ‘Live no lies’.  It’s a modern exploration of how to deal with the ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ – the traditional way of describing the temptations we all face. 

It speaks directly to today’s passage, which is one of those stern texts we know is true, but makes us feel a bit twitchy.  I heard the great comedian Billy Connolly talk once about growing up with a presbyterian grandmother, whom he found terrifying and who used to warn him as a teenager: ‘Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew; don’t go with girls that do.’

Don’t this, don’t that – it all sounds quite negative, at first reading.  But if we get no further than that, we miss the point.  Tomorrow we’ll look in detail at the ‘new self’ we have become in Christ.  But to really live a new life, we have to leave the old life behind.  And ‘live no lies’ would be a great way of summarising that old life in its entirety.  Yes, Paul talks specifically about not lying (v9) – but in many ways the first part of the reading is also about not lying either.

The root issue of pretty much all sin and temptation is that it lies to you – it makes promises it can’t keep.  It’s why Paul talks about greed as idolatry – we make an idol of whatever it is that we lust over, it replaces (even temporarily) God in our affections.  Similarly, mistreating others gives the lie to our calling to love our neighbour. We can’t claim to do that and slander someone at the same time – that would be to live a lie.

Paul’s advice is blunt: whatever it is that keeps you bound in your old life, get rid of it (v8).  Even ‘put it to death’ (v5) – a strong image calling to mind the cross that Christ suffered on our behalf.  Let’s note in passing that Paul always uses such strong terms to refer to sins and not people.  Paul locates these temptations in our own minds and wills.  We may find certain people encourage us down wrong paths – but the responsibility for taking those paths is always ours. 

Live no lies.  As we reflect on this very direct passage today, perhaps the Lord is putting his finger on one thing in particular for you.  Be bold – own it, take it to God and ask for grace to live the new life we’ll rejoice in tomorrow.  As we’ve seen throughout this lovely letter, God’s grace in Christ is always sufficient – it’s a prayer he loves to answer!  Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Thursday 31st August – Colossians 3:1-4  ‘Seated’

The following reflection was written by James Bryan Smith – before we move on to the next part of Colossians, his insight has something wonderful for us today…

There is one phrase in the Apostles Creed that, for a long time, I never understood: ‘[Christ] is seated at the right hand of the Father Almighty…’  What does it mean?  Why is it important?

I would later learn that in the Bible, “to be seated” is a metaphor for having finished one’s work: you are seated when your work is completed

The work Jesus did – from the incarnation, to living a perfect life we could not live, to freely offering himself on the cross, to the resurrection – was the perfect completion of God the Trinity’s effort to bring the world into a life of intimacy with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  In other words, he finished the job!  As he himself said on the cross: “It is finished.”

This is very good news for us.  But there is also another reason why he is seated.  Jesus our great High Priest intercedes for us.  He is now labouring for our healing through his prayer.  And what is he praying for?  That you and I would be completely new people, people in whom he can make his home.

When Paul asks the Colossians to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God,” he is urging them to reflect on the wonder of Jesus – the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world – and the splendour of Jesus, the High Priest who now prays for us.  This is how God is “making all things new”.

When Jesus prays, things happen. He will not stop until he has made us all new people.

And simply knowing that, when I pray, I am praying with Jesus, gives me great courage.  Together we are making all things new.

Wednesday 30th August – Colossians 3:1-4  ‘Hidden with Christ’

Often the most powerfully subversive things are those which look very similar to what they are challenging.  I am a great lover of Renaissance art (I studied it many years ago) and Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic ‘Last Supper’ is a great example of this.  All the traditional features are there: the long table, the twelve apostles seated around Jesus, the bread and wine centre stage, and so on.  But what made this picture so influential – and it became legendary almost as soon as it was finished, even in a pre-modern age without the sort of press coverage it would get now – is what Leonardo did to make it different.  He changed the moment depicted from ‘do this in remembrance of me’ to ‘one of you will betray me.’  He changed the composition from a flat table to a long room in perfect perspective, and he replaced the usual serenity of the disciples with shock and horror.  It is one of the greatest paintings of all time for good reason.

St Paul does the same today.  Colossians chapter 3 – especially verses 1-17 – is one of the most famous in the New Testament – and again, it’s for good reason.  It begins today with Paul at his most surprisingly subversive; just like Leonardo he appears to fit the normal religious culture of his time – but instead he radically subverts it.

As we’ve observed before, the dominant Greek religious culture valued the spiritual world over the material, and relied heavily on hidden knowledge revealed to the discerning spiritual seeker.  At face value, this is also Paul’s starting point: (v2) ‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.’  Similarly he also talks of being hidden – but, as he’s been arguing brilliantly in chapter 2, the traditional religious culture has been looking for hidden treasure in completely the wrong place.  Rather than finding new secrets, for a follower of Christ our lives are already ‘hidden with Christ’ (v3).  We don’t need to hide anywhere else!

And instead of accessing ‘things above’ with rituals, strange diets and secret knowledge, we do this simply by setting our hearts and minds (note: heart and mind – will and intellect) on these realities.  This is because Christ already dwells in us: we have died to our old lives (v3) and have been raised with Christ (v1).  Again, note the past tense: not ‘will be raised’ if we do this or that or the other, but ‘have been raised’.  It is a done deal, a spiritual reality.  We don’t need to add to it, just go deeper into it!

So, just as we wondered if Paul was back-tracking on everything he’d said last week, we find he’s actually reinforced it.  The only ‘hidden’ thing we need is to trust that we are (eternally) hidden with Christ, our very life and future hope.  What marvellous news this is!  May God grant us grace to set our hearts and minds on this awesome reality, and find our life today permeated by these glorious ‘things above’.  Amen.

Tuesday 29th August – Mark 6:53-56  ‘They ran to Jesus’

Many years ago I heard a story which I think relates to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the courageous leader of the Confessing Church which opposed the Nazis in Germany, and who suffered greatly for his resistance.  He was once invited to speak to a gathering of students, during which event one particularly cocky young chap got up and asked why anyone would bother going to church anymore.  Bonhoeffer eyed this young man for a moment, and then simply replied ‘Do you not run to church?’

Mark chapter 6 begins and ends with a tale of two contrasts.  We began with Jesus visiting his home town and encountering the sort of passive-aggressive contempt manifested by the young student in our story.  People thought they knew Jesus – and couldn’t imagine him as the person he had already become.  ‘Surely we’re not getting excited about this?’ would be a paraphrase of verses 2-3.

What a contrast with our passage today.  Away from his home town, Jesus is seen completely differently: people are desperate to meet him.  They come from all over, bringing anyone who needs healing.  They are so enthusiastic for an encounter with Jesus, they’re even prepared just to touch the edge of his cloak.  To get that close is enough! 

Mark simply summarises the contrast in two words: ‘They ran.’  I find this inspiring and challenging.  Normally I only run to church because I’m late!  Would I run to because I want so much to meet Jesus?

Lord, grant me that first love again.  Help me to run to meet you this day.  To be in awe of all you are and all you do.  That’s my prayer – could it be yours, too?

Monday 28th August – Mark 6:1-6 ‘Isn’t this…?’

Do people change?  It’s an age-old question, and one which has invited great debates over the years.  I think most of us would love to believe that we can, and do – but you’ll find plenty of cynics who’ll tell you that people don’t, or can’t.

The answer to the question, as is so often the case, is ‘yes’ and ‘no’.  There are fundamental things about ourselves which we can’t change, including some basic personality wiring and our human temptation to be selfish (or to use the biblical language, our capacity to sin).  These things we carry with us, they are part of what makes us both wonderfully unique and universally human… but in other ways, people can, and do, change.  It is possible to grow and flourish, to develop capacities we didn’t realise we had, or traits we lacked when we were younger.

In 2003 Paula Radcliffe set a record for the women’s marathon which stood for nearly two decades – until Brigid Kosgei bettered it in 2019, it was over a minute quicker than any other woman had ever run the marathon.  By any measure it was a remarkable achievement: and yet, this is the same Paula Radcliffe who finished 299th at the World U13 cross country championships fifteen years before that.  By sheer hard work and dedication, she took a reasonable gift and turned it into a world beating one.  She changed.

And in today’s passage, Jesus returns to his home town – the place where he grew up, where the older folk might still remember him as ‘little Jesus with the grubby knees.’  And they just can’t get their heads around the authoritative public figure they see before them: ‘Isn’t this…?’  In fact their scepticism is a form of inverted snobbery: ‘Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?’ – in other words: ‘Do people like that really become rabbis and prophets?

For Jesus it was a case of familiarity breeding contempt.  And much ink has been spilt on verse 5: is Jesus’ capacity to do miracles really linked to the amount of faith we have?  Or to put it another way, is our capacity to be healed really all about us, rather than God?  I think not: Jesus makes it clear later that faith the size of a (tiny) mustard seed is enough: it’s not so much that he physically couldn’t do miracles, but that he couldn’t sanctify their contempt of him.  And as far as we know, Jesus never returned to Nazareth after this sad episode.

Let’s never make God too small!  Whilst we all need to stay close to Jesus, and to be at ease in his presence, let’s remember who he is.  We need a big Jesus today: in our lives, in our world.  And, as we’ve been learning from the brilliant little book of Colossians over the last couple of weeks, the good news is that this Jesus is plenty big enough: big enough not just for our salvation, but for all we need in the spiritual life.  As we begin this week, may God open our eyes to the awesomeness of Jesus once again.

Saturday 26th August – Colossians 2 reprise

It’s been a big week!  Colossians chapter 2 is one of the densest but also richest in the whole of Scripture.  This weekend, take a few moments to re-read the chapter in one go.  Pick out key words that inspire you, or a phrase that you hadn’t understood before but now brings you life, and soak in that for a few minutes. 

For all life’s challenges, by God’s grace we are being rooted and built up in Christ.  I hope and pray that this week has helped you extend those life-giving roots a little more, such that growth in the ‘branches’ of our lives might follow as a result.  It’s the kingdom way!

Friday 25th August – Colossians 2:16-23  ‘Adding or subtracting?’

After a week doing the hard theological yards, today is Paul’s practical advice to the little church in Colosse.  ‘Therefore…. don’t let these frauds pull you off track!’ might be a candid paraphrase of our text for today.  As we’ve observed, the church was struggling with teachers who insisted that the way to grow spiritually was to add lots of things to what they might call ‘basic’ Christian faith.  It’s all very well believing in Jesus, but what you really need is a set of rules about diet, about various ways we need to ‘discipline’ our bodies, about observing this festival and that festival… oh, and don’t forget all the other spiritual beings like angels, who need a bit of worship as well as Jesus.

The Christians in Colosse were confused: do we really have to do all this?  These teachers certainly seem very persuasive, even intimidating. And the fact that they can have all these rules and proclaim their benefits counts for something, right?

Wrong.  Paul begins his demolition of what you might call fake spirituality by describing it as ‘shadow religion’ (v17) – the best you could say about it is that it is old hat, which points to the real deal, which is Jesus.  Even worse, it doesn’t work: it might have an appearance of wisdom, but in fact it ‘lacks any value in restraining sensual indulgence’ (v23).  Strip away the mask and these teachers are just as driven by their desires (note the similarity with what Jesus says about the Pharisees) – so in fact, all these rules, regulations, and ‘secret insights’ are just a waste of time and energy,

Finally, Paul’s most devastating critique is in v18 – all this kind of secret knowledge is just unspiritual.  It is the exact opposite of what it claims to be: far from opening up deeper realms of spiritual life, they are ‘merely human commands and teachings’ which are ‘destined to perish with use’ (v22).  And the way to spot that it is fake is what it does to the person who practises them: it makes them arrogant and full of themselves (v18).  In other words, far from going deeper into Christ they just go deeper into themselves.  That is why it is not spiritual growth, but the opposite.

For those of you who like equations (might be some of you!), you could summarise the whole of this teaching in Colossians like this: ‘Christ plus always equals Christ minus’ i.e. you try to add anything to the (fully complete) work of Christ, all you do is take away from it. Christ is all you need, and the way to grow is to grow deeper into Christ.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded by new techniques and spiritual fads, this is very good news!  Give thanks that we have the full riches of Christ at our disposal, and pray for grace to grow into these riches ever more, day by day.

Thursday 24th August – Colossians 2:13-15  ‘Christus Victor!’

In 1931 the theologian Gustaf Aulen published ‘Christus Victor’, which persuasively argued that arguably the most overlooked dimension of the saving work of Christ is that he has conquered all the powers that hold human beings captive: sin, Satan and death.  It’s not just that, on the cross, Christ paid the penalty on our behalf (which he did) – he also overcame our great spiritual enemies and destroyed their ultimate power.  Simply put, the cross is also a symbol of triumph: he is Christ victorious, Christus Victor.

This book represented a powerful contribution to our understanding of the saving work of Christ – and today’s passage is one of the key inspirations for it.  What Aulen was teaching was nothing new; rather he was able to show how, right from the beginning, the New Testament always had this understanding included within its remarkable exploration of the cross and resurrection of Christ.

The backdrop to the whole book of Colossians is the wonderful completeness of the gospel of Christ – that it doesn’t need improving or adding to; Christ is the whole ball game, the means and the end, the alpha and the omega.  Two days ago, we saw how Christ is the full revelation of God.  Yesterday, we reflected on the first detailed example of how this works in practice: that it is Christ who enables us to become part of God’s family.  Today, Paul demonstrates the total sufficiency of Christ’s saving work on the cross.  He starts on familiar ground: through the cross we are forgiven and made alive (v13).  But then we get to the difficult v14 – which tells us how this works.

The fundamental principle here is that we are all lawbreakers – if we remember Jesus’ words that our thought lives are included keeping God’s law, then even those of us who think we do pretty well at following the rules are convicted by what goes on inside us.  This is what condemns us.  Wrongdoing must be paid for – we all know that, it’s how our entire legal system works, in almost every culture and every age – so we all have what you might call a ‘charge sheet’ against us.

It is this image that Paul uses: imagine a charge sheet against you, with your name on the top, and all the ways you’ve let God down, or just plain disobeyed him, written on it. Now imagine that all of these charge sheets are nailed to the cross with Christ, and thereby cancelled.  That is what it cost Jesus to make us all free – but it is also what gives us complete assurance of the reality of our forgiveness and new life.  God himself cancelled the charge sheets when they were nailed to the cross with Jesus.

It gets better, the final verse is an image taken from a triumphal procession, the sort that victorious Roman generals received when returning to Rome after a military success.  Their captives would be led in a train behind the victorious procession, paraded in humiliation for all to see.  Although the English translation doesn’t quite pick this up, the original Greek makes it clear that this is the image Paul had in mind: following Christ’s complete victory on the cross, now he returns triumphant back to God the Father, with sin, Satan and death trundling disconsolately in chains behind him.  Christus Victor!

These verses are hard work to mine – but it repays the effort, because what we dig up is pure gold.  Thanks to Christ, who has not only forgiven us but defeated our enemies, we are free: free to live as his followers; free to grow as human beings, slowly being transformed and overcoming our besetting sins; and gloriously free to live with hope in an assured future of peace, joy and life forever with this victorious Christ.  And if that doesn’t lift your heart today, nothing will!

Wednesday 23rd August – Colossians 2:9-15  ‘Joining God’s family’

Reading yesterday’s reflection, some of you may have wondered if I’d deliberately ignored the last couple of verses, and the really tricky teaching about circumcision.  Well, maybe!  Though actually I’d said plenty already, and this section of the letter is the hardest to explain, with the most technical theology.  So, I’m going to pick it up today, and try to take you all through what Paul is teaching here.  If the overall cultural context is (as we observed yesterday) relatively similar to today in certain respects, this is one of those sections of the letter where not living in that culture means we are missing a lot of background understanding.  So, bear with me, we’ll take it bit by bit….

The fundamental contrast St Paul is drawing is between the life of the ‘flesh’ and the life of the Spirit.  This is a common theme in Paul, and the overall idea is the same as it is in his other letters: in Christ, we live life in the Spirit, we are no longer driven by ‘the flesh’ i.e. our worldly inclinations and desires, or indeed any human wisdom and tradition which has nothing to do with God’s view of things.

However, in Colossians Paul gives it a particular twist.  Much Greek thinking of the day – influenced by the great philosopher Plato – drew a similar contrast between the material world and the spiritual world, but interpreted the consequences in a totally different way.  In Platonic thought, the body had to be mastered and disciplined. Harsh treatment of the body and various rituals, combined with other ‘spiritual practices’, were offered as the solution.  Paul refers to some of these directly in the next section.

But the point he makes first is that Christ is the full spiritual revelation of God.  We don’t need to add lots of rules about how we treat our bodies or which rituals we practise to somehow ‘improve’ what Christ has already done.  Our spiritual inheritance is already secure – note the past tense in v10: ‘you have been brought to fulness.’

He then uses two specific examples to illustrate how Christ’s spiritual victory over the ‘flesh’ has already happened.  We’ll look at the second tomorrow in vv13-15, but the first is circumcision in vv10-12.  Since the time of Abraham, circumcision was the sign of being part of God’s covenant people.  And of course it’s a physical act, done literally to the flesh.  But now, our membership of God’s people is guaranteed not by a physical act, but by trusting in Christ.  So, Christ ‘circumcises’ us (v11) in the sense that he is the one who brings us into the redeemed, covenant people of God. 

This is entirely a spiritual thing – what Paul calls elsewhere the circumcision of our hearts, as Christ comes to dwell in us by his Spirit – though note that the one physical way we mark it is through being baptised (v12).  Baptism is a public marking of our new spiritual life in Christ: dying to sin (‘buried with him’ v12) and rising to new life (v13 – more on that tomorrow!).

What does all this mean?  Simply put, we have new life in Jesus!  We also have a new family: the family of God.  The shared nature of our faith is vitally important: Jesus comes not just to rescue individuals but to create a new humanity, a community of people filled with his life-giving Spirit.  That is our reality, too – give thanks today for your Christian family, and pray for grace to know ever more deeply that we have been brought to fulness.

Tuesday 22nd August – Colossians 2:8-12 ‘Christ – all the fulness of God’

In modern life we’re familiar with the idea of add-ons.  Maybe you buy something big, like a car or a holiday, and discover that only a basic specification is included in the listed price: to get the exact one you want, you have to add on this or that or the other – all at extra cost, of course!

It’s not just products, either, where we see this approach at work in our culture – anyone who uses Youtube will very quickly be bombarded with ads from various entrepreneurs promising that they have some sort of special insight that ‘they don’t want you to know’, and that if you click on this link (and pay your money, of course), you can be healthier/more successful/make a small fortune/insert desired lifestyle outcome here.

Whether it’s commodities or something deeper about the way we live, the underlying idea is that the basic product is OK, but it could (and should) be better.  We need add-ons.  And even better if these ‘add-ons’ are some sort of secret or special knowledge that not everyone has discovered, making you part of an exclusive club, or group of people.

Sadly, we can apply this principle to the spiritual life as well – in fact, I fear that the subtle but pervasive effects of the culture in which we live have made us more susceptible to this way of thinking about the spiritual life than for many generations.  We are encouraged to take a ‘consumer’ approach to the spiritual supermarket as well.  Following Jesus is all very well, but there’s a whole lot of other great ideas and techniques out there.  Why not add a bit of this or a bit of that, otherwise surely our beliefs are too ‘narrow’? 

Part of the appeal is that these practices are often dressed up as ‘wellbeing’ or ‘health/leisure’ activities (and it’s always useful to ask if there is in fact a spiritual belief system hidden behind these innocuous-looking endeavours) – but today’s passage reminds us that this kind of temptation is nothing new.  Our ‘ultra-modern’ society, ironically, looks very much like the world St. Paul and the church in Colosse inhabited.  The tiny group of Christians who received this letter faced exactly the same challenges: a culture of wandering teachers and mystics offering spiritual add-ons and secret knowledge (for a price, obviously).

And Paul’s advice is direct: Jesus is all you need.  He is the full revelation of God (v9) – not just a bit or even a lot, but ‘all the fulness of the Deity… in bodily form’.  You don’t need to add on other bits of secret knowledge, which he describes as like being ‘taken captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy’ – such things are either just empty tradition or, more sinisterly, derive their power from ‘elemental spiritual forces’ (v8), which are certainly not forces which will bring us closer to God.

Although Paul is uncompromising in his advice, the point he is making is ultimately very good news indeed.  In the spiritual life, Christ is all we need.  We don’t need to add other bits and pieces – in fact any ‘upgrades’ are really downgrades, as we’ll see a bit later in the week.  The path, therefore, to spiritual maturity is to go deeper into Christ.  Since all the fulness of God lives in Christ, the deeper we go with Jesus, the richer our spiritual lives will be: (v10) ‘in Christ you have been brought to fulness.’  Today, let’s choose to trust St Paul’s advice and resolve to seek the Lord Jesus Christ more single-mindedly – and may God graciously grant us this beautiful desire of our heart.

Monday 21st August – Colossians 2:6-7  ‘Continuing in him’

Today is one of the great ‘so what’ passages of Scripture.  Last week we basked in the greatness of Jesus, day after day.  Today we get to the punchline: ‘so, then….’ if Jesus is all of that, how do we respond?  Not surprisingly, the answer is quite simple: (v6) ‘continue to live your lives in him’.  Jesus was all we needed at the start – he’s still everything we need now, and for the future.  Don’t lose heart or get side-tracked by whispers that he’s anything less than what we really know him to be.

To make the point, Paul uses a fantastic mixed metaphor: we are both to be rooted and built up in Jesus (v7).  ‘Rooted’ picks up the image of a strong and healthy tree, whose roots spread far out under the surface of the ground.  Followers of Christ are to put their roots down in Jesus (‘rooted… in him’): he will provide all the nourishment we need, and give us grace to withstand all the seasons of our lives; and not just survive those seasons, but flourish.

But it’s not just what’s below ground, it’s above ground too, i.e. visible growth: we are to be ‘built up in Jesus’.  The structure of our lives is slowly constructed brick-by-brick, according to God’s will.  Any of us who’ve tried it know that this kind of human building takes time – a lifetime, in fact!  We are all works in progress.  But we can also look back and see the ways we’ve grown.  A new wall of kindness, a new column of patience, a new flowering garden of peace.  Sometimes the odd brick gets knocked out and has to be built again – but little by little, God is at work, the master builder.

And the image has that sense of ‘reinforcing the structure’ – we can all pursue personal growth, but often that feels shaky.  God’s type of building has built-in reinforcements – the presence of the Spirit, the power of community support.  And Paul mentions two particular visible supports to the growing edifice of our lives: first, staying strong in the faith that we were taught.  We keep the main thing the main thing.  We choose to remember what led us to Jesus in the first place, and we continue to believe the heart of biblical truth – that Jesus died and rose and is Lord of all, and that he loves us and desires to abide continually with us.

And second, we cultivate thankfulness. Not always easy – but modern science has proved that thankfulness is actually good for our health.  Thankful people are happier and kinder.  St Paul knew that 2,000 years ago – he also knew that thankful people stay closer to God.  God designed us for thankfulness: so it’s no wonder it’s good for us, too.  There are times when that is easy, and times when that is hard.  God knows which time you’re in.

So – rooted and built up.  What is God building in you at the moment?  Pray for grace for that work of God in you to continue, and also grace to be as thankful as you can, whatever season you find yourself in.

Saturday 19th August – Colossians 2:1-5  ‘All the treasures’

Who’s the smartest person you know?  I suspect there’d be a range of answers to that question – you might have a particularly brainy friend or family member.  Some of you will naturally think of famous big brains, like Albert Einstein or Alan Turing.

I bet not many of us said ‘Jesus’.  It’s funny isn’t it?  He’s the Son of God, co-creator of the universe, the one holding it all together (1:17).  He can rise from the dead, heal people spontaneously, calm the natural elements at his command, and know what people are thinking without saying it.  He can do all that… but we don’t usually think of him as clever.

I wonder if this is partly to do with our image of Jesus which tends to be of the ‘wandering hippy’ variety – we think of Jesus meandering around with long hair and sandals. Charismatic, yes; approachable, definitely; clever… er, maybe?

It’s also partly to do with a strong anti-intellectual current in modern Christian culture.  Whilst ultimately our faith does rest on… well, faith – that doesn’t mean that it lacks rigour, or good evidence, or that we only believe so long as we don’t ask tough questions.  That is the kind of ‘fine sounding argument’ (v4) aimed at us by both clever atheists and spiritual teachers peddling ‘add-ons’ to biblical faith, and deep down many of us are worried that it might be true.

And it’s nothing new.  It was around right from the early years of the church.  Greek culture was very sophisticated, and from the beginning the church faced suspicions that its belief system was a bit lightweight and needing beefing up with a bit of Greek philosophy or hidden knowledge (gnosis – its adherents were called Gnostics.  It’s where the word agnostic comes from: literally ‘no hidden knowledge’ i.e. I haven’t made up my mind yet!)

The little Christian community in Colossae were under particular attack by these gnostic teachers.  And it was denting their faith.  But Paul has good news for them: Christ has everything we need.  Absolutely everything.  We don’t need to look anywhere else for true wisdom, because ‘in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.’ (v3)  Jesus is not just all-sufficient for love, peace, hope, joy, comfort and strength in times of trial.  He has all the wisdom we need as well!  

I’ll leave the final word to the great writer on the spiritual life, Dallas Willard: ‘Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived? …[Jesus] is not just nice, he is brilliant. He is the smartest man who ever lived. He is now supervising the entire course of world history (Rev 1:5) while simultaneously preparing the rest of the universe for our future role in it (John 14:2). He always has the best information on everything and certainly also on the things that matter most in human life.’

As we close this week, let’s be amazed afresh at how awesome Jesus is: the One who is before all things, completes the great act of reconciliation in history, dwells in us, leads us to his glory and has all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge… that’s quite a list – hallelujah!

Friday 18th August – Colossians 1:28-29 ‘Complete in Christ’

Today I want to introduce you to a word that is not very well-known, but is one of the most important words in the bible, and that is the little Greek word teleios.  Now teleios is quite a hard word to define, but it’s the word used here in verse 28 which is translated in modern translations as ‘mature’ or ‘fully mature’.  If you look at dictionaries, they’ll use other words to define teleios like: completeness, perfection, integration, wholeness – the finished article, if you like.  You get the idea! 

The reason it’s so important is that St Paul describes it in today’s passage as the goal of all discipleship, indeed this text reads like his personal mission statement, the Big Idea that has defined and energised his whole life: ‘to present everyone teleios in Christ.’ 

The word not used in many other places in the bible, but whenever it is, it’s pretty big stuff.  Jesus himself uses it in the iconic Sermon on the Mount as his summary of what a life submitted to God looks like: ‘be teleioi,’ (plural of teleios) Jesus says, ‘as your heavenly Father is teleios.’ (Matthew 5:48)  In other words: God is a fully whole and complete being, he’s the finished article – and we’re made in his image, so his plan is for all of us to be, too.

Elsewhere, St Paul in another of his letters tells the Ephesians that, when leaders exercise the full range of their giftings and the body of Christ is built up accordingly, then we become teleios, ‘attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:13).

It’s quite a big thought for us to get our head around, isn’t it?  God’s purpose for you is nothing less than to become completely whole, fully perfected in Christ.  Wow!  And as you read this, you’re probably thinking: that is quite a long – let’s be honest, a very long – way away.  I sympathise: it is for me, too.

But that is the finish line – and the other good news for us today is that we don’t aim for this on our own.  We have people to help us, like Paul did for the Colossians – leaders, teachers, each other – and we also have the God’s help: the Spirit of Christ, which ‘so powerfully works’ in us (v29).

However far you feel on this journey, give thanks that you are on this journey.  God will get us to the finish line as finished articles, each one of us – and that finish line will be glorious.  Take heart – you’re further along than you think!

Thursday 17th August – Colossians 1:24-27 (ii) ‘Glorious riches’

If you were asked to summarise the purpose of life in a few words, what would you say?  What’s the point of it all?  What represents the ‘grand plan’?

It’s a tough question, but in these stunning verses we get close to an answer.  God’s ultimate purpose for all people is this: ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (v27).  This is the mystery that humanity has been waiting for – one that ‘has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people’ (v26). 

It might sound fairly innocuous, but it goes to the heart of what it means to be human, what we were designed for.  We were made to be in perfect, loving relationship with our creator.  This was designed to be a beautiful, intimate friendship that would last forever.  Our selfishness wrecked all that – but in Christ this pattern can be restored.  We can know God intimately again – so closely that Christ dwells ‘in you’ by his Spirit.  We have Jesus’ constant loving presence abiding with us – teaching us, encouraging us, strengthening us, growing and maturing in us all the qualities of a flourishing life: peace, joy, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness.  It is what we were made for – it is how things were always meant to be.

And this relationship is meant to last forever.  Death was never meant to be the end – we were made to live in the embrace of God’s love for eternity.  Again, our selfishness shattered that, the world became dislocated.  But in Christ we now have ‘the hope of glory’ – i.e. the assurance that we will enjoy this relationship, this healed state of being, for all time.  God’s glory never ends.

‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’  Two simple phrases which define the ultimate purpose of life – and our destiny, praise God.  These are indeed glorious riches, taking us well beyond simply ‘saving souls’ (and yes, it is that – but it is so much more!).  It is the renewal of humanity, becoming the people God designed for us to be; and eventually, it is the restoring of all creation, which waits in hope for this new humanity – the children of God – to be revealed.

Today, let these awesome truths lift your spirits. Christ is in you – welcome him again!  And you are walking in hope from earth into eternity – one day at a time.

Wednesday 16th August – Colossians 1:24-27 ‘For the sake of his body’

Who’d be a leader?  As General Hopper declares in the great animated film ‘Ants’: ‘The first rule of leadership is – it’s always your fault.’  And we are all too painfully aware of the damage that can be done by leaders who are corrupted by power.

Which is why the Christian perspective on leadership is so refreshing.  Jesus began a revolution in our understanding which has been our pattern ever since: ‘Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.’  To lead we must serve. The very concept of ‘public service’ which still prevails even in secular government models could not exist without the Christian tradition from which it originates. It was unknown before the first century AD.

And it’s also clear that the earliest Christian leaders adopted Jesus’ model from the word go.  St Paul here talks very personally about his own leadership journey, and describes it as follows: ‘I have become its (the church’s) servant by the commission God gave me.’ (v25)  And this servant leadership was hugely costly: most of us will be well aware of the suffering that Paul endured in order to fulfil the commission God gave him.  Here he rather cryptically describes these trials as follows in v24: ‘I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.’

It’s worth stressing that Paul is not saying that Jesus didn’t suffer enough. But what he is saying is that to follow the pattern of Christlike leadership involved trials which were not unlike Jesus’ own.

This reflection is certainly challenging for me to write.  Many of us leaders are fortunate not to have been called to the same level of suffering to fulfil our particular callings.  And yet leadership remains costly.  And we are all called to live lives of service, after the pattern and example of Jesus.

So do take a few moments to pray for leaders today – outside the church, but especially within it.  In particular, remember those leaders around the world who have to pay a similar price to the one Paul refers to here – but even for those who don’t, may we all continue to fulfil a pattern of servant leadership, ‘for the sake of his body,’ and for the glory of Christ.  Amen.

Tuesday 15th August – Colossians 1:21-23  ‘Presented holy’

When I was training in my previous role in the commercial world, an old colleague once said to me: ‘If ever you feel intimidated in a meeting, just imagine them all sitting in their underpants.’  It’s a fairly comical strategy, but many will testify that it works!

This idea of finding ourselves in the presence of someone or others ‘with no place to hide’ is a hidden fear for many people.  But if that seems scary in the presence of another human, imagine what that must be like in the presence of Almighty God.  ‘With no place to hide’ wouldn’t even come close to it!

Or so you would think.  Certainly we have to acknowledge that the awesome presence of God throughout the bible was enough to make people fall on their faces before him.  And yet, St Paul is able to talk of a very different reality for those who are in Christ.  Thanks to the work of reconciliation effected by Jesus – through his bodily crucifixion and resurrection – the incredible news is that can now be presented to God ‘holy in his sight’ (v22).

The word ‘holy’ means set apart, chosen, special – and that is what we are.  We might not feel like that – but the bible consistently affirms that it is true.  For many of us, a key point of growth in our faith is to really accept the fact of our holiness – set-apartness – even if it doesn’t always feel like it.

This act of being presented holy has two particular blessings attached to it: firstly we are ‘without blemish’ i.e. clean.  Many of us feel ‘soiled’ by things we’ve done wrong, or by the more general sense that life rubs off on us.  But in Christ we are clean – ‘not just nearly clean, but really clean’, as the cheesy old ad put it.  ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,’ as God promises in Isaiah 1 – praise God!

Second, we are ‘free from accusation’.  And who accuses us?  Most of the time, it is ourselves.  Our consciences nag us, occasionally we get that little voice in the ear, whispering lies: ‘You’ll never be good enough for God’ – or somesuch.  But such lies are destroyed by the good news of our faith, by the fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It is not a leap of faith as such, but an historical event.  Feelings rest on faith. Faith rests on facts.  And because Jesus really died and really rose, the voice in our ear can be silenced.  There is no-one now to accuse us, because Jesus has declared us holy!

So whatever our past life – and Paul talks openly about the reality of that in v21 – our future is assured.  In Christ we can be presented before God – holy, clean and ‘in the clear’.  ‘This is the gospel that you heard…’ Paul says (v23).  It’s the same gospel we hear now – and it is life, joy and peace to us.  May we live clean, and free, today.  Amen.

Monday 14th August – Colossians 1:15-20 ‘Before all things’

In the last 12 months we’ve witnessed the accession and then the coronation of our new king, Charles III.  The pageantry and drama of the ancient ceremonies has captivated many of us, not least because the long reign of his mother meant that much of the country has never witnessed this in their lifetime.

One of the things that has struck me is the long list of titles which King Charles inherits.  At his accession he was proclaimed ‘Charles the Third, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of his other Realms and Territories, King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.’  Specifically, this means that he is now king of the following, in alphabetical order: King of Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and, last but by no means least, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

A pretty impressive list…  but it’s nothing compared to the list we see here in our glorious passage for today.  The small community of Colossian Christians were facing pressure to ‘add things’ to their faith, as if Jesus wasn’t enough.  Paul’s answer was to write them this letter to remind them just how awesome Christ is – in other words, that he is more than sufficient for all we need in the spiritual life.  Fundamentally, and put bluntly, Jesus is top dog, best of the best, numero uno – or, to use the language of the text, ‘before all things’.  The One who was, who is, and who is to come. 

How can we possibly declare how great Christ is?  We can’t – but St Paul attempts a ‘cosmic list’ to try and give us a picture.  Just look at Jesus’ amazing titles in the passage, in the order they appear – a top ten to beat all top tens: (1) image of the invisible God; (2) firstborn over all creation; (3) creator of all things; (4) the reason that all things were created at all; (5) the One in whom everything holds together; (6) head of the church; (7) first to rise from the dead – note, in the sense that he has life within himself – we know of course that Jesus raised others in his earthly ministry; (8) possessor of the fullness of God; (9) the reconciler of all things to God; (10) the One who shed blood on the cross.

The last one jars, doesn’t it – in the list of titles, it sticks out a mile.  And yet, strangely, it is the one which decisively demonstrates the truth of all the others.  It is the way Jesus himself declared that he would be glorified (John 12:23) – and through it, everything else is brought to fruition.  Jesus’ legacy is, extraordinarily, sealed through his death on our behalf: it is the fulcrum for his surpassing greatness which existed from the beginning of time, and is afterwards manifested in his resurrection power and authority.

We can never exhaust the greatness of Christ – there is no-one more amazing, no-one more worthy of our worship and adoration.  Take a few moments to adore this extraordinary Saviour today, who died – and rose – for us.  Hallelujah!

Saturday 12th August – Colossians 1:9-14 (ii)  ‘A worthy life’

‘Wisdom is proved right by all her children.’  These words of Jesus are beautifully turned into prayer by St Paul in verses 10-12 of this marvellous passage, which we return to today.  Yesterday we looked at how Paul encouraged us to pray for spiritual wisdom and understanding as the first priority of his prayers for fellow Christians like us.  How we need it!

But this kind of wisdom has good outcomes, and it is these outcomes that Paul now prays for us, too.  In summary, spiritual wisdom enables us to ‘live a life worthy of the Lord and [to] please him in every way’ (v10).  What a good aim in life to have – but thankfully Paul doesn’t stop there, he puts flesh on the bones of the idea.  This kind of worthy life manifests itself in several ways:

We bear fruit in every good work.  I like the emphasis that it’s not just good work – it is fruitful work.  So many of the practical choices we make as followers of Jesus are to do God stuff and not just good stuff.  It’s a good habit to develop, to ask God to discern the ‘God’ things from the good things.  Don’t get me wrong, good things are still good things.  But life is finite and time is short, there are usually several good things we can do at any point in time.  What a blessing to have confidence that the particular good thing we aim to do is also the ‘God thing’ – the thing which God will most use for his glory.

We grow in the knowledge of God – which is pretty self-explanatory, except to say that knowledge in this sense is always practical, life-orientated, and not just academic.  We are to know God like we know how to bake a cake or drive a car – we could write down the recipe if we wished, but best of all we can actually do it!

We have great endurance.  As we’ve observed before, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.  Following Jesus is a long old journey.  Simply keeping going, faithfully and consistently, is a very underrated quality.  When asked about his qualification for becoming a missionary, William Carey – the father of overseas missions – simply said: ‘I can plod’.  God loves plodders!

We give joyful thanks – so often we come back to this thought: retaining a spirit of gratitude in our lives.  Counting our blessings.  It is easy to get stuck in a negative mindset – I do quite often.  But gratitude is so powerful: it not only gives glory to God, it lifts our spirits, and inspires us to keep following our Lord wholeheartedly.

So… God stuff, not just good stuff; continuing to learn; plodding faithfully, whatever life throws at you; staying grateful – this is the worthy life.  And I love the fact that it’s, well, normal.  It’s not for the super-spiritual, it’s the sort of list all of us can look at and say – ‘well, I can manage at least two of those, and on a good day I can manage three or even all four.’  And that’s how it’s meant to be.  Following Jesus isn’t easy – but it is for people like us!  And God has all ‘glorious might’ (v11) to enable it to happen.  How good is that?

Friday 11th August – Colossians 1:9-14 (i)  ‘Wisdom and understanding’

I wonder what you like to pray for?  If any of us took a good look at the content of our prayers, we would likely find that most of us – me included – focus a lot on practical requests.  And that’s fine: Jesus encourages us to ask God for what we need today (our daily bread), and there’s no harm in naming those things.  Or indeed for naming others who need particular things, too.

But I always find it helpful to look at the content of biblical prayers – especially the prayers of St Paul in the letters he wrote.  Whenever I read them, it seems to open out a new dimension for me in prayer. It’s like Paul is praying on a different plane, you might say a deeper foundation.  It’s the difference between asking to be given bread and asking to learn how to bake – at least some of what we need.  Now that would be something, wouldn’t it?

And it usually starts with our minds.  Before Paul prays about people’s lives, he prays – like he does here – for ‘God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives.’ (v9)  If we know God’s will, then it’s much easier both to pray for that will to be done, and also to try and do it.  We’re no longer stumbling along in the dark, but walking more confidently in the light.

It’s deceptively simple, but powerful.  And as I’ve tried to grow in my own walk with Jesus, I’ve learned to give more time in my prayers to asking God for wisdom to know what to pray for.  I’ve found that offering this prayer – which is usually answered more surprisingly clearly than you might think – both fills me with more confidence, boldness and inspiration then to pray whatever that is, and also saves precious time and energy, which can be invested in other ways.

But let’s observe that this wisdom is given by the Spirit.  It’s vital that we give time in our prayers asking for God’s Holy Spirit to fill our minds as well as our hearts.  To think ‘God-thoughts’, to take the words we read in the Word to heart.  Word and prayer go hand-in-hand: and as the two feed off each other – the Word inspires our prayers, which inspires us to go back to the Word for more, which inspires our prayers in turn, and so on – so we receive a different, more nourishing kind of bread.  We start to co-operate a little in the baking process, so to speak.

Don’t hear me wrong – I’m not preaching a gospel of self-reliance here.  The Christian life is God’s gift at its heart: it’s just that Paul encourages us to pray for different gifts, a different kind of bread you might say.  This kind of bread, Paul says, is remarkably energising, if verses 10-12 are anything to go by.  We’ll look a bit more at this bread next time.

But today, let’s take a few moments to pray verse 9 for ourselves and for any situations where we particularly need wisdom and understanding.  Ask God to reveal that wisdom to you by his Spirit – and may that wisdom feed your prayers and energise your walk with Jesus today.  Amen.

Thursday 10th August – Colossians 1:3-8  ‘All over the world’

The Church is a very big thing.  Very big.  It’s hard for us to get a true handle on just how many people claim to follow Jesus.  Think of a big crowd that you’ve been part of.  One of the biggest for me was the crowd of 80,000 in the Olympic Stadium in London in 2012.  That was an amazing experience – but, if current figures are roughly correct, the global Church is more than 25,000 times larger than that crowd!

25,000 London Stadia all joined together… that’s the true size of the Church in our time.  It’s pretty hard to get your head around, isn’t it?  And maybe a bit unsettling, too.  I like being in big crowds, I find them energising.  I’ve always loved the thrill of being part of something bigger, that sense of losing yourself in a collective experience.  But the last phrase is suggestive: ‘losing yourself’ is also not necessarily something we like to feel too often.  Does the size of the Church mean that we as individuals don’t matter any more?

In today’s passage, St. Paul speaks joyfully of the fact that, even in his day, just thirty years after the ‘Jesus movement’ began, it was ‘growing throughout the whole world’ (v6).  And within the more limited understanding of the size of the world at that time, this was certainly true.  Paul himself had travelled all round the Eastern Mediterranean, including Greece and Turkey.  He had first met Jesus on the way to Syria.  It had already spread to Rome without his direct influence.  It was known to be in North Africa, and Paul no doubt knew of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian official, so was likely to be further south, too. ‘Throughout the world….’

At the time Paul wrote, the actual numbers would have been small: a few tens of thousands at most – they could have fitted comfortably into one London Stadium!  But a movement had begun which would truly spread across the world.  Today there is at least one follower of Christ in every country, and millions in most of them.  How great is our God!

But – and this is our other encouragement for today – it is not an impersonal gospel.  Or to put it another way – you matter.  The amazing thing about God is that he still knows and loves each one of us.  Each of us is precious.  And each of us plays our part.  The church in Colossae came to faith because of the work of one faithful follower – Epaphras – from whom this small group of believers learned about Jesus (v7).  In turn, this small community of individuals now loved each other (v8).

Huge as it is, in the kingdom of God everyone matters.  The mustard seeds that grow the great tree are still vital seeds in their own right.

If you get the chance today, find a mature tree or large shrub in bloom.  Enjoy its magnificence – a glorious sight!  Then choose just one leaf or petal, and look closely at it.  It’s amazing.  It’s beautiful in its own right.  That’s you.  Yes, there are tens of thousands like you on the same tree – but your leaf matters.  Your small act of ‘bearing fruit and growing’ plays its part.  Thanks be to God!

Wednesday 9th August – Colossians 1:3-5  ‘Faith, hope and love’

Yesterday we looked at the foundations of our good news: the two pillars, if you will, of grace and peace.  God’s gift of undeserved mercy, which in turn brings shalom to our relationships in every dimension.  God’s grace, our peace.  These are the twin foundations on which our walk with Jesus rests – and as such, it’s a perfect way to introduce a letter designed to strengthen our spiritual lives.

Today, Paul builds on that image by describing how to build fruitfully on those foundations.  What are the defining characteristics of this life-giving journey, of what it means to live in grace and peace?  As Paul gives thanks for what God is doing in the church in Colossae, he talks about three old friends, which form the basis of our reflection today: faith, hope and love.

You may be familiar with something called the ‘rule of three’.  It’s a very old concept, formalised in ancient Greece, though you can see it in the earliest chapters of scripture – the idea that things go better in threes.  As an aside, theologically I think that probably has something to do with the nature of God himself: we worship God as 3-in-1, as Father, Son and Spirit.  So, it would be natural that human beings – made in this divine image – have a deep connection with things that come in 3s. 

And in the bible, alongside the Trinity, probably the most well-known ‘set of 3’ is the set we encounter today.  It was something Paul had famously developed in a letter written a few years earlier to the Christian community in Corinth, and still used in many wedding ceremonies today: ‘and now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’

In this letter, Paul develops this ‘3’ by focusing on where each attribute is directed.  First we need faith in Jesus.  This is vital.  We often commend faith in a generic sense, but the bible always insists that our faith has to be directed somewhere: specifically, our faith is to be in Jesus.  Why?  Because we need to place faith in someone we can trust, who loves us, who is completely dependable, and has both the compassion and the authority to make things right.  That would be Jesus.

Empowered by this faith, we are then able to selflessly serve (i.e. to love) our fellow Christians.  That’s not to say that we don’t love all people, but we are to give particular love and support to those who also try to follow Jesus – who could you apply that to today?

Finally, this life of faith and love has a future purpose: we are living for eternity, the hope of heaven.  Time and again, we are encouraged to see heaven as a motivating factor in our here-and-now lives: the firm and confident conviction that we are headed somewhere much better than here. Yes, we seize every day on this earth, and give thanks for every blessing: but we are on a journey somewhere better.

Faith, hope and love – it’s ‘the true message of the gospel’ (v5) and what Paul gives thanks for in the lives of his readers.  May it be our ‘rule of 3’ too, and may God stir in us ever more completely these golden threads of: faith, hope and love.

Tuesday 8th August – Colossians 1:1-2  ‘First things first’

Not many of us write letters anymore – at least not by choice.  Emails, texts, posts, tweets, blogs – but a letter?  Only for formal replies to institutions: and even then, usually typed on a computer and printed out. 

To receive a handwritten letter nowadays is a rare and beautiful thing.  However, whilst it is tempting to imagine that this is only a modern phenomenon, you may be surprised to learn that letter writing was equally rare 2,000 years ago – paper was expensive and difficult to make or acquire.  A handwritten letter was just as precious then as it is now.

Today we begin a detailed look at one such precious letter written 2,000 years ago – by St Paul to a fairly new Christian community living in the city of Colossae, now in modern-day Turkey.  Paul had not started this church, although his protégé Epaphras had likely started it following Paul’s fruitful time in Ephesus.  However, he did want to encourage them in their faith, so he sent another friend Tychicus to them with this letter, and encouraged them also to read the one he sent to the church down the road in Laodicea at the same time.

Although the letter is only four chapters – this is typically the amount of text that could be squeezed onto one sheet of papyrus, which is why most of Paul’s letters are roughly this length – there’s so much in it which is just as relevant to us today.  The Colossians (i.e. people who live in Colossae, hence the English name of the letter) lived life in the spiritual supermarket, just as we do.  They had a vibrant faith but faced pressure to add unnecessary things to their faith, just as we do.  They needed to keep grasping just what a glorious message we have, and who we really are in Christ – just as we do.

And it starts with a simple greeting: ‘grace and peace’.  It was Paul’s adaptation of a typical Roman greeting… but so much more.  In three simple words he defines the beating heart of our faith, of what it means for us to be followers of Christ.  First, grace: God’s undeserved mercy to us, his heart of love for humanity, shown in Christ.  I was brought up to understand grace by this simple acronym: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense – and it’s hard to get a better definition, even now.  Philip Yancey describes grace as the ‘last, best word of the English language,’ defining it as: ‘nothing you can do can make God love you more, nothing you can do can make God love you less.’  I like that.

And the outcome of grace is that second word: peace.  More than just the absence of conflict, it derives from the Hebrew word shalom, which means complete wellbeing in every dimension.  Whilst we may feel a long way short of that, to know the grace of Christ slowly brings order and peace to all our relationships: with God, with others, with the wider community, even with ourselves.

Grace and peace.  What better way to greet someone – even someone you meet today?  And what better thing to pray as we begin our series: may God fill us all with a deeper understanding of his grace, that we too might overflow with peace.  Amen.

Previous series: head over to our Archive page to find previous series in the Psalms, the gospels of Mark, Luke and John, the Holy Spirit, Acts, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Hebrews, Daniel, Esther, Joshua, Deuteronomy, Hidden in Christ, Looking for Light, Thy Kingdom Come, and more besides!