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Lent 2024: The Gospel of Luke

In this season of Lent we will take our inspiration from the Gospel of Luke, which, of all the gospels, presents Jesus Christ as the Saviour for the whole world, as well as the true Human, living the life which God designed for all of us to live.  May we be inspired afresh by the greatness of our Saviour, and encouraged in our determination to follow his Way.

Note: all Inspirations are now uploaded for the week (up to 2nd March) – scroll down for earlier posts…

Saturday 2nd March – Luke 5:33-39 ‘The shock of the new’

We’ve lived in our current house for ten years, and I’ve started to notice some places on the walls which need a bit of touching up – nothing major, some minor marks here and there, but where a dash of paint wouldn’t go amiss.  The problem is that, even if we buy 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!

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?  On Monday, 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 too vibrant, too fresh to be held within the old wineskins.

He admits that this new thing God is doing is going to challenge expectations: if you’ve been brought up with the old ways, then you’ll naturally think the old ways are better (v39). Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!  But what he wants is for his listeners to open their minds, to be willing to embrace God’s in-breaking kingdom and accept that something new and incredibly exciting is happening.

As we close this week, let’s also 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 daily – 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.

Friday 1st March – Luke 5:27-32 ‘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 1st-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 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 (v28), and, in overflowing gratitude at his welcome into the fold, throws a big party (v29).  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 questioners: it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  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 grace to keep saying ‘yes’ – and to give heartfelt thanks that Jesus’ arms still extend in welcome to you, too.

Thursday 29th February – Luke 5:17-26 ‘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, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”’ (v20)

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!

Wednesday 28th February – Luke 5:15-20 ‘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 (Luke interestingly adds tiles, which is possible, as a covering on top of the foliage mentioned by Mark and Matthew) and 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.  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.

Tuesday 27th February – Luke 5:12-16 ‘I am willing’

If you’re anything like me, much of the time (or at least, more than we’d like to admit) you have to make yourself do the right thing.  We know what we should be doing, and quite often we don’t really want to: but, on the other hand, we don’t want others to think badly of us, so we do it – but maybe a bit reluctantly.  It’s holiness through gritted teeth, rather than a genuine, joyous smile on our face.

There’s a phrase which has become very much used, even over-used, in our time: ‘compassion fatigue’.  It means to get weary of doing good: either because we feel overwhelmed by the limitless needs; or because we need some more ‘me time’ and/or someone to look after us instead; or we just run out of love for our fellow human beings.  Again, if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel tempted towards this disposition on a regular basis.

At times like these, I find it helpful to think about the example of Jesus.  If I get compassion fatigue, can you imagine what Jesus must have experienced?  The relentless demands for something important: for a wise word, a miracle, a mediation in a dispute.  If we were living Jesus’ life, how quickly would any of us hit that point when we might just say: ‘sorry, but no!  I’ve had enough – find someone else to help you.’

In today’s passage, one of society’s outcasts comes face-to-face with Jesus (v12): or rather, he can’t even look Jesus in the eye, but throws himself face-down on the ground before Jesus.  And he’s not sure if Jesus even wants to help him: which, in the context, is little wonder, since his diseases are infectious, and traditionally holy people would normally avoid such encounters, as it might make them unclean as well.

But with Jesus the power works in reverse.  The man does not make Jesus unclean; instead, Jesus makes the man clean.  He is healed!  But what is so striking here is that Jesus does not do this reluctantly, as “the 34th person he’s healed today”; rather, he says one of simplest but most profound and beautiful words God ever speaks in the whole of Scripture: ‘I am willing.’ 

Jesus is not a reluctant Saviour, but an enthusiastic one.  When Jesus looks at this man, he does not see what most others in society see; he sees this man as special, uniquely made in God’s image, with a hope and future.  And this is how he looks at you and me, too.  However unclean we may feel, he reaches out to us, touches us, and makes us whole.

As a final aside, at the end of the passage we get a glimpse of what fires Jesus’ ‘compassion fuel’: time alone with God (v16).  Compassion runs on energy tanks: those tanks need topping up, enabling us to receive what we need, that we might pass it on to others.  We get ‘filled’ in numerous ways: adequate rest, healthy relationships, positive testimonies; but, most of all, time with the Lord.  As the Lord’s compassion fills us, regularly, so it can flow out, through us, to others.

Jesus is willing.  Hallelujah!  And, as his grace fills us, may we be willing, too.

Monday 26th February – Luke 5:4-11 ‘Humbling holiness’

Being in the presence of a truly holy person can be an uncomfortable experience.  Back in 1995, I recall meeting one of the holiest people I’ve ever met – someone who really lived the apostolic life we read in the pages of the New Testament – and feeling both terrified and strangely drawn into their presence.  The authority of Jesus practically radiated from them, and it was an awesome thing.

That day, I think I understood a fraction of what Simon must have experienced in the boat in today’s famous story.  He’s just been told by Jesus to do something which no fisherman would ever do, and witnessed an extraordinary miracle.  Add that to the hundreds of people gathered to listen to Jesus while the Messiah is in his boat, and the spontaneous healing of his mother-in-law recently, and the ‘divine encounters’ are multiplying rapidly. Jesus is clearly on his case, and, like most of us, he just can’t see why.  ‘Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!’  In other words: ‘why on earth would you want to spend time with a wretch like me?’

It is an awesome thing to be befriended by Jesus.  Sometimes we can get a bit cosy with that idea: but Simon’s encounter sets us straight.  Simon knows who this extraordinary human being is: he calls him ‘Lord’ – the Almighty God, the divine ruler of the universe.  Jesus is inviting him to nothing less than to be friends with the king.

Very few of us ever get to be friends with an actual earthly monarch: but the amazing news of our faith is that the King of kings invites all of us into friendship.  Not just terrified submission, but real, intimate, loving relationship.  Jesus sees, and embraces, not just who we are, but (as he does with Simon) who we can become.  This was what Simon found so awesome, and Jesus reassures him: ‘don’t be afraid’.  He says it to us, too, today: however unworthy you feel, don’t be afraid.  I desire your friendship.

Jesus, of course, goes further: he gives Simon a life-changing task.  That, too, is a typical outcome of becoming Jesus’ friend.  Our call may not be as big as Simon’s: but we can likewise find a new – or renewed – purpose as we grow in our friendship with the Lord.

May God grant us all a renewed vision today of just how amazing – and awesome – it is to be invited into Jesus’ friendship.  And may we, too, find our true and inspiring purpose as we journey with our divine master and friend.

Saturday 24th February – Luke 5:1-6 ‘Because you say so…’

I wonder if you’ve had the experience of God asking you to do something surprising?  Something that at the time didn’t make a lot of sense?  I remember Brother Andrew – who passed away recently after a remarkable life of courageous witness – telling the story of once smuggling bibles into the Eastern Bloc and sensing God ask him to leave them uncovered, rather than well hidden.

Sure enough, he was stopped and the policeman opened the boot.  Andrew describes praying this simple prayer under his breath: ‘O Lord, you who made the blind to see, make seeing eyes blind.’ The bibles were there, right in front of the official, but he didn’t ‘see’ them and waved Brother Andrew on his way!  God was teaching Andrew to trust him implicitly. 

Today’s passage takes a similar turn.  There’s no reason for Jesus to get in the boat in order to teach people, so we have to assume that he had another plan in mind – which becomes clear as the story unfolds.  Jesus, who has recently got to know Simon and his family (4:38-39), now has Simon next to him in the boat, and makes a very odd request: ‘Put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch.’ (v4)

Humanly speaking, this is basically a daft idea – fish only came to the surface at night; during the day, in deep water, they would be near the bottom of the lake and nowhere near the nets.  In other words, Jesus was basically telling a professional fisherman: ‘do something completely pointless which you know will never work!’

Simon’s reply is extraordinary: ‘Because you say so….’ (v5)  In other words: ‘I’m doing this for you, Jesus: I trust you because you’ve already shown me your wisdom and authority.  Even if I’m wrong, I’d rather be wrong trusting you than put my own judgement above yours.’

We know what happens!  Jesus does another astounding miracle (v6), the effects of which we’ll see tomorrow.  But today, let’s just spend some time reflecting on what it means to trust Jesus – especially when trusting seems like the harder thing to do.  Perhaps Jesus has never asked you to do something daft for him: but either way, this story invites us to trust in the Lord, whose ways are higher than our ways, and whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Is 55:9).  As this week concludes, may we all choose to place our trust – in every circumstance – in this wise, loving and powerful Lord.

Friday 23rd February – Luke 4:38-44 ‘The main thing’

The well-known evangelist J. John is fond of saying: ‘Always remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’  It’s good advice: whilst we long to grow in wisdom, such that we might have the mind of Christ to apply our faith to the whole of life and of society, the heart of the message is very simple.  The kingdom of Jesus is good news!  And we are called to proclaim and live this good news in our lives to the best of our ability, and by the grace of God’s Holy Spirit.

In this, we take our inspiration from Jesus.  In today’s passage, Jesus’ ministry is now in full swing.  Having settled back in Capernaum (v31), and having set a demonised man free in the synagogue, in full view of the town’s amazed worshippers (vv33-36), news about him is spreading fast (v37).

Jesus’ first stop, though, was much more personal: he goes to his friend Simon’s home – the Simon who would become his key disciple – and heals his mother-in-law (vv38-39).  A useful reminder that ministry is always personal: our heart is to bless particular people and not just ‘the world’ or ‘the church’.

Thereafter, it all goes a bit crazy.  Jesus’ growing reputation means that people from all over are now seeking him out for a miracle.  And Jesus, in his great compassion, attends to each one (v40).  The implication is that this goes on through the whole night, and an exhausted Jesus needs some quiet time on his own (v42).  However, the people find him and try to get him to stay longer.

Jesus’ reply is telling (v43): ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’  Always remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.  Jesus has good news to share: good news not just for a whole nation but a whole world.  So, he won’t stop in one place: he must go on to bless others, too.

We may not be called to the sort of itinerant life that Jesus had: but we are called to be bringers of good news where we are, in word and deed, to keep the main thing the main thing.  How can each of us share, and be, good news today?

Thursday 22nd February – Luke 4:31-37  ‘Supernatural authority’

Our culture has a strange relationship with the supernatural.  On the one hand, there is plenty of scepticism about the existence of the spiritual world; on the other, there has also been a significant resurgence of interest recently – there’s never been so many TV programmes about angels or demons or ghosts.

This ambiguity is partly a ‘Western issue’: most cultures around the world accept the existence of the spiritual world as a given; certainly, most people in the world of Jesus’ day would take that view.  So, when Jesus encounters an unclean spirit in the synagogue (v33), the crowd were fascinated to see how he would respond. 

They were already impressed with his teaching (v32): but does Jesus have the spiritual authority to back up his words?  The answer, of course, is yes.  The demon itself was quite right to be alarmed: Jesus was indeed there to destroy the work of the devil in people’s lives, just as the demon vocalised (v34).  And Jesus promptly deals with this spiritual being with a word (v35).  No elaborate rituals or special liturgy – a simple command is enough.

Not surprisingly, the people are even more amazed (v36): not only does he teach with authority, he backs it up with deeds.  The demonised man is one of those oppressed who has now been set free, just as Jesus promised in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth (v18). 

Jesus is also demonstrating his authority over one of the things that humans cannot control, thereby proclaiming through his ministry that he is The Anointed One, the Messiah, the King of kings.

In the UK today, there is relatively little emphasis on this kind of deliverance ministry: but it does still happen.  The name of Jesus still has authority and power (v36).  Why not pray today for those who are called to this very specific form of healing ministry?  And give thanks, too, that the all-powerful name of Jesus has marvellously set each one of us free.  The One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world.  Amen!

Wednesday 21st February – Luke 4:21-32 ‘Home is where it’s hardest?’

I wonder what you think about your home town (or village or city)?  On one level, we never really get away from it: if you have a passport, it’ll be recorded as your place of birth for your whole life.  And often our place of birth shapes us in ways we don’t always expect, and maybe find it hard to articulate.

This was brought home to me in 2012, at the time of the London Olympics.  I was born and brought up in London, subsequently worked there, and overall have lived about 27 years of my life in various parts of the city.   But I moved away in 2008 and four years later was happily living in Bristol.  Then came the Olympic Opening Ceremony: I remember watching with Alise in our lounge and feeling this overpowering sense of homesickness – ‘that’s my city, why am I not there to be a part of it?’  You can take the man out of London, but can you ever take London out of the man…?

Jesus faces a similar challenge today.  He’s just announced to his home town the in-breaking rule of God through his anointed rescuer, which is pretty big stuff: how will the congregation react?  Initially, the response is favourable: ‘all spoke well of him’ (v22); but then it turns into something more like patronising surprise: ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’  In other words, can the Messiah really be a carpenter’s son?  From Nazareth??  The same Jesus we saw grow up, who got lost at the Temple, who has lived quietly here all these years, until just a few weeks ago?

Familiarity breeds contempt, so they say.  And Jesus feels it.  Ironically, the fact that they’ve known him all his life should make it easy for them to see the qualities that will define his ministry as the Messiah – instead, the reverse is true: ‘Do here in your home town what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ Give us a real sign!

So Jesus challenges them by reminding them that God’s blessings are not automatically conferred on those who happen to live in the right area: whilst God has consistently blessed Israel, in previous times of national disobedience, God quite happily blessed others too, in Sidon and Syria.  Being the birthplace of the Messiah is no reason for a sense of entitlement.

Sadly, the Nazarenes weren’t ready to listen, and whilst Jesus got away unharmed (v30), he only returned on one more occasion to his home town, where he received a similar reception (Mark 6:1-6) – and, from this point, settled in Capernaum just down the road.

As you look back at your ‘home town’, some of you may feel gratitude for what it gave you; others may feel relief that you got away!  Perhaps many of us feel a mixture of both.  Our past matters: but it does not entirely define our present, nor our future.  God anointed Jesus’ ministry elsewhere: might he do the same for you?

Tuesday 20th February – Luke 4:14-21 ‘The anointed rescuer’

To really understand a thing, you have to go back to its roots.  This is good rule of thumb for life, and it’s also true for plumbing the depths of scripture.  ‘The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is by the New revealed’ – that’s one way of understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments in the bible.  I’ve also heard it expressed as: ‘The New is in the Old contained; the Old is by the New explained’: you can decide which you like best!

It’s certainly true when we approach today’s passage.  Indeed, we’ve already seen several places in Luke’s narrative where he (or Jesus) goes back and quotes something from the Old Testament to explain what’s going on.  Last week, John the Baptist was the fulfilment of Isaiah 40; and yesterday we saw Jesus reply to the devil by quoting bits of Deuteronomy.  This is significant because Deuteronomy was Moses’ sermon to the people of God on the threshold of them claiming their (earthly) kingdom.  In the same way, Jesus is now about to claim his spiritual kingdom, and he does it in the relatively unremarkable setting of the synagogue in Nazareth.

Luke sets the scene for this world-changing moment with great aplomb.  The young rabbi Jesus gets up to read the scripture (vv16-17), and then preach what we might call the sermon.  Everyone is watching and listening (v20).  What will he say?

What Jesus says confounds everyone’s expectations.  He’s just read one of the greatest of all the Messianic prophecies, Isaiah 61.  It is a vision of what every devout Jew was longing for: the renewal of the people of God through the ministry of an anointed servant/rescuer/king.  This Anointed One (the literal meaning of Messiah) would bring good news, freedom for the prisoners and the oppressed, and ultimately would bring in a new and prolonged era of the favour of God. 

How their hearts must have leapt as they heard it!  And yet, also, how they might have shed a tear as well, since their lived reality must have seemed so far from this vision of dynamic blessing.  And yet… ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ (v21)  In other words, this new era is here!  And more implicitly, Jesus is declaring: ‘I am the Anointed One you’ve all been waiting for.’

Looking back, we know this to be true, and can praise God with joyful hearts today.  But let’s spare a thought for the small congregation of Nazareth trying to take this in.  And perhaps we can also pray for those we know and love who struggle to take this ‘good news’ in, too – that they might have ‘ears to hear’.  May the Lord grant us grace to keep pointing them to the divine bringer of freedom and favour, the greatest good news there’s ever been.

Monday 19th February – Luke 4:1-13 ‘The temptations of kingship’

Today’s passage is one of the most famous in the bible.  If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you will probably have heard lots of talks on it, and may feel that there isn’t much left to say!  However, I’m not going to give you a general guide to this passage, or just re-visit the usual observations about resisting temptation – important though they are, of course.

Instead, I’m going to look at it from what I believe is the original lens through which to view this passage: Jesus as the King of kings.  Whilst we can find great value in learning from Jesus how to resist temptation – especially in this season of Lent – the key point about these temptations of the devil is that they are all ways of being king – or rather, all ways of abusing royal power.

The first temptation is to use power for personal gratification.  ‘If you are the Son of God [i.e. the true King of kings], then tell this stone to become bread’ i.e. use your power over nature to manipulate it for your own ends.  How many leaders start well but are undone by their own greed, and finish as tyrants who live in luxury while their populations suffer?

The second temptation is to seek power for its own sake rather than to use it for humble service.  To make a deal with the devil is to trade integrity for narcissism, to serve darkness rather than light.  It never ends well.

The third temptation is to use power for entertainment, for distraction rather than true human flourishing.  As the Roman Empire declined, it was often said that its rulers relied on ‘bread and circuses’ to divert a population that was increasingly oppressed and disenfranchised.  Such leadership inevitably tends towards the narcissism and tyranny of the other two temptations, since it seeks to avoid the real issues facing people in their real lives.  It is a ‘big show’, and nothing more.

It is easy to over-spiritualise Jesus, to paint him as someone who essentially sits above politics and history and human activity.  But Jesus comes as a real flesh-and-blood king into a world of competing kingdoms.  His kingdom inevitably challenges and confronts all other expressions of worldly power.  When we start to look at Jesus in this way, we can see that all the gospels – and especially Luke’s gospel – are studded with references to this ‘clash of kingdoms’.   In Luke, see 1:32, 1:51-53, 1:71,74, 2:1-4, 2:34-35, 3:1-2, 3:31 – and that’s just the first three chapters before today!

Today, let’s marvel at Jesus’ faithfulness, at his integrity.  This Jesus went into the wilderness ‘led by the Spirit’ (v1) and returned in the power of it (v14 – starts tomorrow’s passage!).  It is not a worldly power – but it has the power to change the world. 

And, of course, you and me.

Saturday 17th February – Luke 3:23-38 ‘The True Human’

Ancestry is big business nowadays.  Millions of us now regularly use ancestry websites to track down our family trees, and overall the genealogy market is now worth over £3 billion worldwide.  Indeed, its popularity has even recently led to a change in the law.  In 2021, the way marriages are registered in the UK was changed.  Part of the reason for this was because vicars used to make too many mistakes – who knew?! – however, the major reason was so that more information could be recorded about our parents.

So, since May 2021, not just fathers are recorded on a marriage certificate, but you can also, if you wish, include mothers and even step-parents.  Their occupations are also meant to be recorded more accurately – and this is all being driven by our thirst to know where we come from, so that, in a hundred years’ time, your great-great-grandchildren can find out more about their family lines.

If you read scripture, you’ll know that the Old Testament is full of genealogies.  Implicit in this is the recognition that where we’ve come from says a lot about who we are and what we’ll become.  But it’s also deeper than that.  The bible is a book full of promises: promises made by a loving God to the world, and especially to his people.  The genealogies in scripture are really all about looking for the fulfilment of these promises: when will all the nations be blessed? When will the anointed ruler come to save us, and set us free?

Jesus’ own genealogy is told twice.  In Matthew it starts with Abraham and moves forward; Jesus is presented as the true heir, both of Abraham and of King David.  However, in Luke, he starts with Jesus and looks back, all the way to Adam.  Why?  Certainly not to contradict Matthew!  Although Luke’s genealogy inevitably has more names, as it covers a longer period, you’ll find the same key ancestors in each.

Rather, what Luke is telling us is that Jesus is the human being that each of us was always meant to be: he is, if you like, the True Adam, the human who lives in obedient and loving intimacy with God forever, just like God intended.  Jesus comes to put right what was lost by Adam and Eve at the Fall, and so to restore us back to wholeness and union with God.

That’s the plan.  And the rest of Luke shows how God achieves it, through Jesus – the fulfilment of all God’s promises to us.  As we close our week, give thanks that we are heirs and beneficiaries of the greatest of all family trees: the people of God.  And pray that our generation might pass that blessing on to a hungry world, that they, too, may know the joy of joining this global family.

Friday 16th February – Luke 3:15-22 ‘Anointed with fire’

In a coronation service, always the most special part of the ceremony is the anointing.  Even in our supposedly secular age, at King Charles’ coronation last year, the Act of Consecration was deemed so sacred, that it was the only part of the ceremony which was kept hidden from public view and the ubiquitous TV cameras; instead, a golden canopy, held by four Knights of the Garter, was suspended above and around the monarch.  The King was disrobed of his crimson cloak and all his finery was removed, leaving Charles seated in King Edward’s chair, wearing only a simple white tunic.

Then the Archbishop of Canterbury was handed the Ampulla, a flask in the shape of an eagle wrought in solid gold, which contained the holy oil.  Concealed by the golden canopy, and alone with the King, the Archbishop anointed Charles in the form of a cross, on the palms of his hands, on his chest and on the crown of his head.  In doing so, the Archbishop enacted a sacred ritual which goes all the way back to King Saul, who was anointed by the prophet Samuel as a sign of God’s blessing and empowering c.1000BC – or around 3,000 years before King Charles.

For Jesus, however, the anointing was far more public.  As large crowds of people were being baptised in the Jordan by John (v21), Jesus too was baptised – with two significant differences to everyone else.  First, Jesus was not repenting, since he was the only human being who had nothing to repent about: as John said to Jesus in Matthew’s account, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’

Second, although I’m sure God blessed and empowered many of those who came to be baptised, only Jesus received a tangible anointing from heaven itself: the Holy Spirit visibly descended on him in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father Almighty was heard to declare: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ (v22)

Amazingly, though, thanks to the ministry of Christ, this anointing is not limited to Christ alone.  The good news of the in-breaking kingdom of God is that it is now available to all who follow Christ too.  John declares this quite clearly to everyone: ‘He [The Messiah, Jesus] will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ (v16)  What was previously reserved for rulers is now graciously poured on all who open their hearts to the King of kings.

Such an outpouring is not always comfortable – fire burns up our impurities, such as those John talked about yesterday.  But it remains an extraordinary privilege.  Thanks to Christ, God can anoint you with his empowering Spirit.  Give heartfelt thanks for this wonderful reality today, and pray to be dipped (baptised) ever more fully with the Spirit of Jesus the King.

Thursday 15th February – Luke 3:1-14 ‘The herald of change’

One thing that was striking about the recent accession of King Charles to the throne is the role of heralds in royal pageantry.  It’s not something we see much of in day-to-day life: but the fanfares which accompanied the proclamation of Charles as king – both in September 2022, or at his coronation in May 2023 – have unwittingly acted as a reminder that every monarch usually has a herald, particularly when a new monarch assumes their authority.

This was especially important in pre-modern societies, when the lack of media meant that verbal proclamation to as many people as possible was vital in securing the attention, and therefore the obedience, of those who were to serve the new ruler.  So, it is fitting that the story of Jesus’ adult life in Luke begins with a herald, too – one who reached a huge number of people with one simple message: that the King of kings was here, and his reign was about to begin!  (And let’s note the role that the wonderful prophecy of Isaiah 40 plays, one we’ve looked at in detail in recent weeks.)

As Luke makes clear, though, this was not based on a set of human decisions or structures.  The region in which all this takes place already had plenty of rulers, whom Luke names in v1.  No doubt all were ‘heralded’: but this new proclamation was not an act of humankind.  It was ‘the word of God [which] came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness’ (v2).  God was declaring that a new King was coming; and John was his herald, fulfilling the promise of Isaiah many centuries ago: ‘prepare the way for the Lord! (v4)

But what sort of obedience was required?  Not what we would normally associate with earthly rulers: whilst protestations of loyalty had their place, they were meaningless unless backed up with a lifestyle that matched the talk.  John’s call was that every true subject of this new King would live a life of humble service and fair treatment of their fellow human beings, just as God had intended.  To share generously (v11), to charge only what was right (v13) and not to abuse their power to treat people harshly or unjustly (v14).

John also says something more controversial to his listeners, namely that simply to be born in the right nation was not enough (v8) – this new thing that God was doing was much bigger than that.  The new subjects of the King of kings would be drawn from across the world, to anyone who would lovingly and humble submit to his kingly rule: thus ‘all people will see God’s salvation.’ (v6)

In our age of growing inequality and increasing poverty, John’s message for all would-be followers of this King strikes a powerful chord today: may God grant us all grace to love our neighbours as ourselves, not just with words, but with actions and in truth.  What might that mean for you today, and in this Lenten season?

Ash Wednesday 14th February – Psalm 51 ‘Purity and joy’

At its heart, Psalm 51 is about choosing humility in order to see life and renewal again – and as such, it also encapsulates the journey of Lent.  We choose to humble ourselves not to just be miserable for 40 days but in order that we may experience God’s presence again, his goodness, his mercy, and ultimately his joy.  We re-orientate our lives around God again, and so find renewal and a fresh insight into the path of life.

Particularly during the years of pandemic, many of us might feel that we’ve had Lent-style sacrifices forced upon us in recent times.  So I’m not going to talk about the benefits of fasting today!  Although please do those if you feel called to….  Instead, I’ve been drawn to the three verses in the middle of this psalm, and three prayers of David which might be ours this season:

Create in me a pure heart, O God.  The prophet Joel tells us to ‘rend your heart and not your garments’, and this prayer echoes a similar theme.  In Lent we all have the chance for a bit of open heart surgery: to examine ourselves, and let God’s purifying love and grace wash us clean.  Perhaps this year, our hearts need healing, or cleansing from bitterness or anger about the way things have been the last couple of years.  May this Lent act as a spiritual de-tox for us, a chance to lay down anything that scars our hearts, that the pure grace and love of Christ might flow freely again.

Renew a steadfast and a willing spirit within me.  Steadfastness is an old-fashioned kind of word, isn’t it?  The Boy’s Brigade motto is ‘sure and steadfast’ – wonderfully Victorian!  But increasingly, I need a bit of that: that capacity to stand firm whatever life throws at us.  And I like the fact that David in Psalm 51 asks not just for steadfastness, but willingness.  God, make me want to stand firm.  ‘I can resist everything except temptation,’ Oscar Wilde famously said – Lent is a great time for us to pray fervently for that steadfast and willing spirit which, the psalm promises us, ‘will sustain us.’

Restore to me the joy of your salvation.  It might sound strange for me to finish an Ash Wednesday reflection talking about joy.  Surely it’s all self-denial and hessian undergarments?  But the purpose of Lent is ultimately joy – whatever we invest in for Lent should increase our sense of gratitude, our conviction that life is lived in the light of God’s marvellous grace.  We simplify, we take time, we dig back to our roots, and, as we do that, we find the Lord and we find joy.

The good news is that, unlike King David, it doesn’t take an affair and a murder to prompt us to pray these prayers!   But this season I’d like to invite us all to make these prayers (above) your own – and perhaps to make a resolution as to what that might look like for you this Lent.  May that be your way of saying ‘yes’ to Jesus – and all that Jesus has for you – this Lent….  Amen.

New Year 2024: Isaiah 40-55

‘New things I declare…’ (Isaiah 42:9).  Of all the prophetic visions in the Old Testament, this section of Scripture is arguably the greatest – and certainly the most influential in terms of setting the scene for the coming Messiah.  As we explore this wonderful text over the next 30 days or so, may the Lord give us a new (or re-newed!) vision of God’s great salvation, and our glorious Saviour.

Tuesday 13th February – Isaiah 55:8-13 ‘The fruitful word’

When he was a young preacher the great Christian leader and writer Dallas Willard would get very worried about delivering a sermon – would people like it?  Would it bear fruit?  While preparing one day, he received a word of encouragement from the Lord which dramatically changed his perspective and his future ministry: ‘Don’t worry – it’s what I do between your lips and their ears that matters.’

Scripture is God’s word – yes, it may have been given to humans, spoken out by humans and written down by humans, but, as St Peter puts it very well, people ‘spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ (2 Peter 1:21)  This means two very important things, both of which the prophet reminds us of in this wonderful conclusion to his prophecy:

First, it means that these words have great wisdom: (v9) ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’  In other words, God says, if you’re still struggling to believe everything I’ve shared through Isaiah, if some of it sounds crazy or just too good to be true, you can have confidence, because these are not just Isaiah’s words, they are my words: this is the very wisdom of God.  My way is higher, the Lord says, it’s not bound by human constraints.  We can trust it!

Second, it means that these words have great power.  Lovely as it is to hear a good preacher hold forth, or a good writer weave beautiful literary tapestries, God’s word doesn’t need either to be effective, because it has power within itself: (v11) ‘my word… does not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.’

It is also inherently fruitful: (v10) ‘it yields seed for the sower, and bread for the eater.’  Many years later, the greatest teacher of them all told a story about a farmer scattering this same seed.  As long as it fell on good soil, it multiplied 30, 60 or even 100 times.  One wonders where this great teacher got the idea from: could it be…?!

As we close this series, what better way than to be reminded that these are not just words, they are the wisdom and power of God.  Everything Isaiah saw came to pass – history has shown that – but these words didn’t end their purpose with their fulfilment in Christ. They remain living and active today.  They can change our lives, too.  Their hope is our hope.  As we reflect on all we’ve learned over these last few weeks, may the Lord grant us grace to overflow with joy and peace (v12) – just as the Lord promised.  Amen!

Monday 12th February – Isaiah 55:1-7 ‘The great invitation’

It’s been quite a journey – this amazing prophetic vision of Isaiah, which started in chapter 40 with the ‘voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”’ comes to a fitting conclusion today and tomorrow.  Day after day we’ve marvelled at promise after promise; and we’ve heard another voice, the Divine Shepherd, calling his people to new hope and a new future.  Today draws it all together with a simple invitation: come.  Come to the Lord.  Come, all who are thirsty – whether it’s the water of life, the wine of salvation or the milk of nurture and growth (v1) – come.  Receive the divine gift, the divine promise, without money and without cost.

It is an invitation not just to God’s people, but also to the world.  Just as we’ve seen at various other points in the text, this passage reminds us that it will be given, via God’s people, to ‘nations you know not’ (v4).  But it is one that requires a response; the prophet urges God’s people to act, and not to put it off till a later date: (v6) ‘Seek the Lord while hie may be found; call on him while he is near.’ 

It’s worth clarifying what the prophet means by this – and to do that, I’m going to ask you to picture a large hill or mountain.  You are on a walk, trying to reach the summit, and you come to a fork in the path – ahead is the route direct to the summit: it may be a little steep, but it takes you straight there.  Or you can turn to the left, to a path which seems to take you round the edge of the hill.  It may ultimately get you to the summit via a more circuitous route, though you can’t see at this point; but the point is, if you take that path, the summit doesn’t move, you do.

This is why the prophet urges a response: it’s not that God will move away… but we might.  So, he urges, say your ‘yes’ today.  Now is the time.  Now is always the time.  Call on him while he is near.

Fast forward 600 years, to Jerusalem, c.AD30.  A controversial rabbi visits Jerusalem for one of the great annual Jewish festivals.  St John takes up the story: ‘On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.”’ (John 7:37)

This is the prophet’s vision made a reality; this is Isaiah 55:1 enacted by the One who is the fulfilment of this whole amazing section of scripture.  All who are thirsty… let them come.  To whom?  To the Lord – the Lord Jesus, who is the one who gives us the water of life, the wine of salvation, the milk of nurture and growth.  It’s the same invitation for us today – as we begin our week, may we respond to that loving call, day by day.  Come.  Come to Jesus – that we may live (v3), that we might receive his mercy (v7), and that he might show his splendour in us (v5).  And may those streams of living water flow from us into a thirsty world, too.  Amen.

Saturday 10th February – Isaiah 54:1-17 ‘The covenant of peace’

‘So God created mankind in his own image…. God blessed them and said to them: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…. You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”’ (Genesis 1:27-28, 2:16-17)

One of the central themes of the bible – arguably the central theme – is that of covenant.  A covenant is a binding promise based on love.  It’s not a contract, because contracts can be broken – rather it is unconditional, and these words (above) from the start of the bible spell out God’s original covenant with humanity.  Its intent can be summed up as follows: ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people.’  Or, to paraphrase, I will love you, provide for you, watch over you and lead you, all you have to do is (in Adam and Eve’s case) obey one rule!

After the calamity of the Fall, God doesn’t give up, though for a season he does regret the mess human beings have made of the world.  So comes the Flood, after which God makes another covenant with Noah and his descendants: ‘Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood.’ (Genesis 9:11)

After this point, God makes renewed covenants with Abraham, Moses and David, all of which develop the fundamental idea of a loving, permanent relationship between God and his people.  But it is the covenant with Noah which is referred to in our passage today: (v9) ‘To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.’

This is very significant language.  The Flood was a one-off, a unique ‘before and after’ event: God would never again allow it to happen.  And now, the Lord says – as we approach the climax of this extraordinary prophecy, which began way back in chapter 40 – the new thing I am doing is just like that.  This moment is a before-and-after moment, these promises look forward to a completely new reality.  We’re never going back to this point (of total judgement of his people) again.  It is, as the Lord himself calls it, a covenant of peace: (v10) ‘”my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” sys the Lord, who has compassion on you.’

We often forget the word ‘testament’ is simply an old-fashioned word for covenant.  When we talk about the New Testament of the bible, we mean (in modern language) new covenant.  And this is it: what we’ve just marvelled at in chapter 53 is what becomes the new covenant – a covenant of peace (see 53:5 – the punishment that brought us peace).  Indeed, as God says of those who will benefit from it: ‘Great will be their peace’ (v13) 

This peace is what God longs for each of us to have – a peace which transcends understanding, but which is the gift of a gracious and generous God.  Whatever you face at the moment, take courage to ask the Lord for this peace – confident that it is his will and his promise.  What better conclusion to our week of reflections than to close with the words we often use in our services: may the peace of the Lord be always with you…

Friday 9th February – Isaiah 53:4-12 ‘Pierced for our transgressions’

One of the things that people have often observed is how little Jesus explained the theology of his own death.  Yes, he talked about it numerous times, and once he referred to the ‘Son of Man [giving] his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45)  But, generally, he simply referred to the fact of it, alongside his resurrection (Mark 8:31-32, 9:31, 10:32-34).  It was the early Christian writers like Peter or (especially) Paul who outlined the meaning of Jesus’ death in much more detail. 

Some have even used this kind of observation to suggest that the church invented Christianity, taking the events of Jesus’ life and death and creating a Jesus to fit their vision – one that was never meant to have been interpreted in that way.  In the hands of the most skilful writers, it even sounds plausible; there’s only one small problem – it’s just plain wrong.  And this passage is the reason why.

The reason Jesus said so little about the purpose and meaning of his death is that he didn’t need to.  It had been explained very clearly hundreds of years beforehand – right here, in fact, in this passage.  The sacrificial death of the Messiah for the sins of the world is described, unambiguously and repeatedly; indeed, the prophet says it four times in one verse alone (v5, italics mine): ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace is on him, and by his wounds we are healed.’ 

In case we didn’t get the message, he introduces this verse with: ‘he took up our pain and carried our suffering’ (v4); and summarises it with: ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ (v6)  That’s seven different ways of saying the same thing in three verses: the Messiah dies on our behalf, carrying the sin of the whole world – of you, me, everyone we love and our enemies, too – on his own shoulders.  Even the nature of his death is described quite clearly (pierced, v5) as is his burial (in a rich person’s tomb, v9). 

The image of the lamb (v7) is also important, as it clearly evokes the language and theology of temple sacrifice: the unblemished substitute, which takes our sin away.  But, unlike the lambs at the temple, it’s not the end of the story: (v11) ‘After his suffering, he will see the light of life.’  Resurrection!  To the first readers, this was the revolutionary bit – and it’s clear than even Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it, either, six centuries later.  But it is the final link in the chain.  This is about more than just forgiveness, although it has to start there – this is about the restoration of our identity as bearers of the image of God, the opportunity to experience the abundant life we were always designed to enjoy.  The Messiah is the firstfruits, in whom all his followers will also be made alive.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; today, I invite us all simply to marvel, and to receive. Perhaps read one of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and see how this extraordinary text is fulfilled so closely.  And give thanks; ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, …and by his wounds we are healed.’  Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever.  Amen.

Thursday 8th February – Isaiah 52:13-53:3 ‘Man of sorrows’

There are moments, in human endeavour, of pure inspiration: times when it seems that God takes over and what comes forth is beyond what we could have dreamed of.  George Frideric Handel had such a moment when the tune for what became the Hallelujah Chorus came to him: ‘I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne, with His company of Angels,’ he later commented.  Maybe some of you have also had that experience listening to his sublime masterpiece.

In biblical terms, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is just such a passage – a text so important, so extraordinary that it feels like holy ground just reading it.  Of all the prophetic visions of the Messiah in the Old Testament, this is the most powerful, the most compelling, the closest we have to the gospel accounts of Holy Week; yet written (‘seen’) hundreds of years in advance.  We’re looking at this text today and tomorrow, though we could never exhaust its depths – today, we simply observe the remarkable description of the Messiah.

This description in many ways runs completely counter to the traditional vision of the anointed rescuer of God’s people: a conquering hero, a charismatic leader.  It does not contradict the previous visions of God’s ‘righteous servant’ outlined in earlier chapters (42, 49, 50) – but it does substantially alter our perception of the person who inhabits those other visions.  Without Isaiah 52:13-53:12, we might legitimately imagine the servant to be such a conquering hero, and it’s fascinating that even in Jesus’ day, such a vision was really the only vision God’s people had of the Messiah. 

And yet, and yet… here in this last of the four great ‘servant songs’, a different note is struck.   Yes, the Messiah will also be all those things we marvelled in the previous servant songs: a bringer of justice to the nations (42:1), a great teacher (42:4), a liberator of captives (42:7, 49:9), a light for the world (49:6).  But, as the song of chapter 50 hinted, so this passage makes clear – this servant will also be rejected, despised, condemned.

Indeed, the Messiah will be a ‘man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering’ (53:3); so much suffering, in fact, that ‘his appearance was disfigured beyond that of any human being, and his form beyond human likeness.’ (52:14).  Here is the crucified Messiah envisioned before us. 

Most of the filmed accounts of Jesus tend to picture him as good-looking, with long hair flowing in the wind.  Isaiah 52-53 gives us the real view – at least, the view at the moment of his great act of self-sacrifice.  And, despite the rejection, this is precisely when he is ‘raised and lifted up and highly exalted’ (52:13), a moment which sprinkles (significant word) many nations, and causes even monarchs to fall silent (52:15).

Here is the gospel of salvation, promised centuries before.  We stand on holy ground.  May the Lord grant us all again a sense of deep awe, and gratitude: ‘Man of sorrows, what a name! – for the Son of God who came, ruined sinners to reclaim: hallelujah, what a Saviour!’  Amen.

Wednesday 7th February – Isaiah 52:7-12 ‘Beautiful feet’

It seems hard to credit it in these days of instant messages and global news, but for much of history, news relied on messengers, carrying messages in person to those waiting for news.  I’ve just finished John Buchan’s marvellous novel ‘Midwinter’, which is a fictionalised account of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s failed attempt to seize the English throne in 1745.  The central character is Alistair Maclean, a Stuart loyalist who is secretly sent ahead into England to gain news of how many of the English were prepared to support the Prince’s cause – especially those willing to raise arms and fight for him.

The mission rests on Maclean being able to get from Oxfordshire to Derby in time to tell Prince Charles that there were indeed thousands of men in the West ready to march on London at his word – at which point Charles would likely overcome the royal forces and succeed.  For the Stuart claimant, Maclean is the messenger with the greatest good news – but will he make it in time? 

I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a great example of how news travelled for much of history.  Today what happens thousands of miles away is news within minutes – not so for most of our thousands of years of human civilisation.  News needs someone to tell it, a messenger to spread it.

Over this whole series, the Lord has spelled out the promise of a new hope for his people.  Then, over the last two days, and in view of this promise, the Lord has called his people to awake from their spiritual slumber and be ready.    Today, everything coalesces, if you like, into a specific moment, when this news is finally shared with the people.  The heralds are heading over the mountains (the east of Israel is mountainous, so those returning to their homeland would have to cross them to reach the heartland of Israel) to proclaim to those left in Israel (vv7-8) – even the very ruins of Jerusalem themselves (v9) – the good news of redemption that God has promised: ‘Your God reigns!’

How beautiful are those feet!  Imagine the joy welling up after years of sadness and despair.  Imagine the excited shouts of the watchmen who first see the messengers arriving.  Imagine the comfort to the soul for those eking out a life among the ruined villages and towns.  It’s a wonderful image; and it’s one that St Paul picks up in the New Testament, when he encourages the Christians in Ephesus to have feet ‘fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.’ (Ephesians 6:15)  A direct quote from Isaiah 52, applied to Christian mission now.

Gospel shoes.  Most of us follow Jesus because someone first told us about him.  We might live in a globalised virtual world (and there are benefits, as we read this reflection online today!) – but let’s never forget the power of sharing the good news with someone, in person, face-to-face, heart to heart.  May God grant us all gospel shoes, wherever we have the opportunity.  How beautiful are those feet!  Amen.

Tuesday 6th February – Isaiah 51:17-52:6 ‘Shake off your dust’

In North America, the bobwhite quail is fond of dustbathing.  It’s a comfort behaviour for this bird, linked to the oiling of the quail’s feathers.  The quail pecks at the dust, then squats in it, dispersing the dust over the body with its wings and feet, and then, finally, it shakes off the dust.

In today’s passage, we see God urging his people to ‘shake off your dust’ (v2) – only this time, the reason is not for comfort but (as we saw yesterday) for courage.  The image began at the end of the previous chapter; as God’s people were judged and conquered, their submission is powerfully depicted as follows: (v20) ‘Your children have fainted, they lie at every street corner.’  God’s people – in particular the children, who represent their future – are literally out for the count, lying inert in the dust of a destroyed city.

But they are not destined to lie there forever.  Now, a new voice calls them back to life: (vv1-2) ‘Awake, awake, Zion, clothe yourself with strength!… Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned Jerusalem.’

It is an image of freedom – but this freedom comes at an (unspecified) cost: (v3) ‘For this is what the Lord says: “You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.”’  We learn of the true cost of this redemption in the next chapter – but today, the promise is one of hope, designed to stir the hearts of God’s people again.  Redemption is coming, freedom is coming, the chains that bound God’s people will be loosed.  They may have been oppressed by much bigger nations (v4) – but it won’t last forever.

There are times in our lives when what you might call the dust of life settles on us.  It may be a big thing we have always wrestled with, or a hundred little things – but somehow it seems to attach itself to us.  We try to look upwards to our heavenly transformation, and yet feel covered by ‘the dust of the earth,’ our frailty and mortality.  We are pulled, if you like, in two directions: ‘gravity’s pulling me, but heaven is calling me,’ as Delirious sang many years ago.

This passage reminds us that the call of heaven is always greater than the pull of gravity.  We can shake off the dust, and live in the freedom of the redeemed children of God.  Today, take a few moments to name your particular ‘dust’… but then seize faith, in Christ’s name, to shake it off.  What God promised his people in the time of Isaiah is no less true for us today – even more so, with the hope of Christ, and the power of the Spirit, in our hearts.  Awake, awake!  The Lord is still calling us into life.  Amen.

Monday 5th February – Isaiah 51:9-16  ‘Wakey, wakey!’

I wonder whether you find it easy to rouse yourself from sleep in the morning?  I remember going as a child to a summer camp, where one of the leaders walked around every morning at 7am playing a trumpet at full blast.   I can say with confidence that this definitely worked – which is just as well, as I’ve never been very good in the morning.  My alarm clock has always needed a snooze function, and in my 20s it was not unknown to require pressing every four minutes for more than half an hour before I could finally stumble out of bed. 

The phrase itself ‘Wakey, wakey, rise and shine’ is often associated with Butlins holidays and the famous Redcoats inaugurating another day of organised jollity ahead… but it’s been used by the British Army for much longer than that, and the ‘rise and shine’ is thought to refer to the boot polishing required of squaddies before morning parade.

However, the phrase is arguably much, much older still.  Today’s passage is really the biblical equivalent, at least 2,500 years old.  ‘Awake, awake!’ begins verse 8, introducing a section of the text (through to 52:12) where the command occurs no less than three times.  It is a call to action, a response to all the great promises of God contained in Isaiah’s prophetic vision.  Tomorrow, we’ll see the Lord calling his people to rouse themselves – but today, the Lord applies it first and foremost to himself (or maybe the prophet calls on God, in faith and hope): ‘Awake, awake, arm of the Lord, clothe yourself with strength!’  Remember the great victory in Egypt (and here, Rahab is a nickname for that country), when God’s people were rescued through the Red Sea, which then swallowed the pursuing army (vv9-10). 

If the Lord could do that then, the prophet declares, surely he can do it again.  In another repetition – this time of an earlier prophecy in 35:10 – the Lord promises that ‘those [he] has rescued will return.  They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads… sorrow and sighing will flee away.’ (v11)

What the Lord calls his people to in this first ‘awake’ section is courage: (vv12-13) ‘Who are you that fear mere mortals… that you forget the Lord your Maker, who stretches out the heavens?’  It’s a challenging reminder that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear.  The source of this courage is the greatness of the Lord.  However big our problems look – or the people who intimidate us – our God is greater.  If he can create the universe, then he is enough for our challenges.

As we begin a new week, offer its challenges to the Lord, in faith and hope.  And may he grant you grace to believe his word, and courage to live in his strength.  The arm of the Lord is awake, and he covers us with the shadow of his hand (v16).  Amen.

Saturday 3rd February – Isaiah 51:1-8 ‘Look to the rock’

Some of our family relatives live on the Isle of Portland.  Nowadays, Portland is most well-known for its iconic lighthouse (Portland Bill) and also for hosting the sailing events at the 2012 Olympics (the National Sailing Academy is based there).  In days gone by, however, its primary source of fame was its stone.  Portland Stone has been quarried there since Roman times, and there is still a functioning quarry there now – albeit the modern site is completely underground.

At its height, Portland’s quarries employed hundreds of people, but today the old opencast quarries have been turned into a sculpture park and nature reserve, which we visited a few years ago. It’s a really lovely place to explore, with a gaunt beauty and a wonderful history.  As someone who disembarked at Waterloo Station on my way to work for seven years, it was also amazing to see the actual place which quarried the famous stones now cladding Waterloo Bridge, over which I walked many times (or indeed which built St Paul’s Cathedral, which I could see from my office window).  I could finally make the connection between these great stone structures and the quarry from which the stones had been hewn.

Today’s passage picks up this image and applies it to God’s people.  As we’ve seen, the background to this whole prophetic vision is the fall of Jerusalem and the conquest of their land – these shattering events had provoked deep soul-searching among the Israelites.  A new hunger for spiritual renewal was growing.  The people finally understood the warnings they had ignored for so many years: they had been judged for their disobedience to the Lord, and were now trying to seek him again.

And the Lord’s advice? (v1) ‘Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were cut, and to the quarry from which you were hewn.’  In other words, go back to your roots, to the original covenant God had made with them: ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people.’  They can’t build on anything else – having tried to, their ‘house’ was in ruins (v3).

In October 1940, St Paul’s Cathedral was damaged during the blitz, and the arch over the high altar required a new keystone.  What material would they use?  It had to be Portland stone, of course – indeed, the commissioning letter for the repair in 1942 describes it delightfully thus: ‘It carries some fifty cubic feet of finest Portland stone, and will most surely look down at the faithful for many centuries to come.’

Look to the rock from which you were cut.  It’s great wisdom for us now.  We can’t build our spiritual lives – or repair them – in any other way.  The Lord always calls us back to basics: to him, to the simple joy of being his people, while he lavishes his love upon us as our Lord.  ‘My righteousness will last forever, my salvation though all generations.’ (v8)  As we conclude our week, may these beautiful truths lift our hearts, and keep our feet placed firmly on the Rock.  Amen.

Friday 2nd February – Luke 2:25-32 ‘Moved by the Spirit’

To commemorate Candlemas – ‘the presentation of Christ in the temple’ – which is today:

I love this story.  I make no apologies for taking a brief pause to include it in this week’s Inspirations.  Simeon has got to be one of my favourite characters in the Bible.  He only appears in this one episode, but what a cameo!  A lifetime of faithfully walking in God’s ways crystallised in this one moment.

I don’t know if you’ve ever got up one morning with an idea that there was something you absolutely had to do.  Or perhaps you pass someone in the street and know you need to talk to them.  Or maybe in this season it’s a phone call you’ve got to make. And you discover to your surprise and delight that you called at just the right time, or the person you approached needed help, or that thing you ‘had’ to do was something you would have missed if you’d left it till tomorrow.

If you’ve had that experience, you may well have been ‘moved’ by the Spirit.  Our God is a God who speaks.  And still speaks today.  So we shouldn’t be too surprised to get these ‘urges’ every so often. 

But let’s notice that Simeon’s crowning moment is not the first mention of the Spirit in this passage.  Simeon’s whole life was infused by the Spirit – the text says simply that the Spirit was ‘on him’ (v25).  God can speak to anyone: but it happens a lot more often to those with whom He dwells all the time.  The more we allow God to soak our lives, the more these ‘divine promptings’ are likely to happen.  Like picking out your family in a crowd, it’s much easier to spot things you’re totally familiar with.

Simeon’s moment was also preceded by a prior revelation.  He already knew that he would see the Messiah one day.  One of the gifts of the Spirit is the gift of prophecy – the capacity to see what God is up to.  And Simeon clearly had this gift: and he believed what God had told him.

So, when he got the ‘nudge’ one day that he had to go to the temple, his lifetime of spiritual soaking and seeing led him to one simple act of obedience which changed the world.  And Simeon also reminds us that this kind of moment can happen to anyone, at any time – no-one is too old, or too young for that matter, to be used by God.

God still has work for us to do – why not invite the Spirit, like Simeon, and see where it leads?

Loving Lord, you alone are my hope.  Lift my heart, I pray, and speak your word to me.  Thank you that your Spirit still moves today.  Thank you that we all have a special part to play.  Amen.

Thursday 1st February – Isaiah 50:1-11 ‘The true servant’

On Sunday week, the Kansas City Chiefs will play the San Francisco 49ers in Superbowl 58.  The quarterback (star player) for the 49ers is Brock Purdy, who is finishing only his second year as a professional and will be playing in his first Superbowl.  His story is a remarkable one.  His nickname is ‘Mr Irrelevant’; each year NFL teams pick the best players from college – a total of 262 players were drafted early in 2022, including 8 other quarterbacks.  261 players were picked ahead of him.  The 262nd and final pick of the draft was Brock Purdy. The last player to be picked gains the unenviable nickname each season of ‘Mr Irrelevant’.  Someone who makes up the numbers, who is never expected to actually star in the team.

Even after being drafted, he was the third choice for his position in the team.  But in the first two months of the new season, first the starting quarterback, and then the back-up, got injured.  The 49ers had no choice but to throw Mr Irrelevant into the fray.  And he delivers… in fact, he delivers so well that the 49ers win all their remaining games that season, only losing at the final hurdle before the Superbowl.  This year they’ve gone one better; Brock Purdy may have been overlooked by eight other teams, who all chose someone else – but, it turns out, he was the jewel in the crown.

Isaiah 50 feels a bit like Brock Purdy.  It is probably the greatest Old Testament chapter that nobody’s ever heard of.  Be honest – how many times have you ever heard Isaiah 50 quoted anywhere, by anyone?  Even among these chapters of Isaiah, we regularly read sections of chapters 40, 42, 43, 49, 52-53 and 55 in church.  But chapter 50?  Overlooked.

And yet – read verses 4-9 again and see how closely it matches the life, ministry and death of Jesus Christ.  The word that sustains the weary (v4), the listening ear to God’s wisdom morning by morning (v4: remember Jesus’ early morning excursions to pray), turning the other cheek to those who oppose him (v6) – and that’s just his ministry.  Now think about the last few days of his life: the false charges (v8), the mocking (v7), the unjust disgrace (v7,v9).  It’s all here.

But it doesn’t end there, does it?  We also see the determination to be obedient (v7: ‘face like flint’), the vindication from the Lord (v8,v9).  The true servant faces down his opponents and triumphs.  It’s all here – written down 600 years before it happened.  Wow!

The beginning and end of this chapter focus on us.  And it’s a ‘before and after’ scenario.  Before, the Lord laments that he keeps knocking, but nobody is home (v2) – a powerful image of our refusal to listen and obey God. But, after the ministry of the servant, this wonderful invitation is offered to all: (v10) ‘Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God.’

600 years later, a controversial rabbi stood up and declared to God’s people: ‘I am the Light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’  This is the light of the true Servant.  The jewel in our crown – the bringer of light.  As we give thanks for these extraordinary visions of the prophet, may the Lord grant us grace to walk in the light of this Servant today.  And if he comes knocking – let’s be home!  Amen.

Wednesday 31st January – Isaiah 49:14-26 ‘Engraved on His palms’

I’ve just finished the novel ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’.  It’s the harrowing but compelling – and ultimately hopeful – true story of Slovakian Jew Lale Sokolov who is sent to the infamous concentration camp, and survives by taking a job as the camp tattooist.  His role is to engrave a number on the forearm every arrival.  It’s hard to imagine the horror of this place, even now, and the act of tattooing is, in its way, a poignant symbol of a dehumanising ideology which reduces precious humans, made in God’s image, to a mere number.

Contrast this with the beautiful phrase which adorns v16 of today’s passage; if the tattooist’s work in the novel was designed as a mark of hate, here is God’s ultimate mark of love, his cry to his beloved people: ‘See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.’

As we have observed throughout, Isaiah 40-55 is God’s great love letter to his people.  Though they are rebellious to the core (48:8), he cannot abandon them, he loves them too much – He will bring redemption and restoration to them.  Studded through the text are these wonderful images which remind them of his care: he carries them close to his heart (40:11), he upholds them in the flood and the fire (43:2) – and, here, he engraves them on the palms of his hands.  A permanent mark of love, a sign that he has not forgotten them, and never will.

This passage was a favourite of Charles Spurgeon’s, one he preached on many times.  And the reason is because, 600 years later, this image became reality.  The Son of God, the Word made flesh, had his palms marked for the sake of love – in way that perhaps could never have been foreseen from this prophetic image, but is abundantly clear in hindsight.  As Spurgeon comments: ‘What are these wounds in Your hands? . . . The engraver’s tool was the nail, backed by the hammer. He must be fastened to the Cross, that His people might be truly engraved on the palms of His hands.’

A week later, Jesus’ friend Thomas is invited to believe in the most powerful way: ‘”Put your finger here; see my hands…. Stop doubting and believe.  Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”’

I mentioned that Lale’s story has a hopeful ending.  While marking prisoners one day he meets a girl, is captivated by her eyes, and they fall in love.  Both determine to survive, and to be together after the horror.  To Lale, this girl is not a number, but the most precious thing in his life, the object of his love and devotion.  That is our reality, too: we are engraved on the palms of our loving Lord.  We are infinitely valuable to Him.  May that truth guard our hearts today, and inspire us to live as beloved children of our Heavenly Father.  Amen.

Tuesday 30th January – Isaiah 49:8-13 ‘Come out, be free!’

A man learns that his friend has unexpectedly died.  He travels to the village where his friend lived to comfort his sisters, where he weeps with them, and then to grave where his friend is buried.  A crowd gathers round, as he calls out to the tomb: ‘Lazarus, come out!’

A little while previously, the same man meets a woman on the road.  Again, a crowd has gathered and initially he can’t see who she is properly.  But he stops, and asks the trembling woman to speak with him: ‘Daughter your faith has healed you.  Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.’

Come out.  Be free. 

These are not isolated examples.  When this man’s friend and herald has a momentary wobble as to whether he really is God’s promised Saviour, the man sends him this encouragement: ‘‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.  Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’

We love the rich imagery of Isaiah – like gazing out from a mountaintop, the prophetic imagination is glorious, and lifts the spirit.  But it’s not just pictures and metaphors – this stuff really happens.  It is fulfilled: in one particular person, at a specific point in history, the true Servant of which these servant songs speak.  A man who comes both to gather the tribes of Israel and to offer salvation to the ends of the earth.  The author of a new – or perhaps better put, a renewed – covenant (v8).  One who will guide and lead his people beside springs of (living) water (v10), and have compassion on the afflicted (v13).

This Servant comes to bring hope: (v9) ‘to say to the captives, “Come out,” and to those in darkness, “Be free!”’  This Servant is Jesus.  The fulfilment of these promises, the prophetic Word made flesh, the one who offers real hope to real people with real problems and crises – then, and now.  This Jesus still says to his afflicted ones: Come out!  Be free! 

Today, if you know someone who needs the freedom and restoration of Christ – pray for them.  It may even be you.  Claim the truth of these promises, because they never perish, fade or wear out.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.  Hallelujah!  Amen.

Monday 29th January – Isaiah 49:1-7  ‘To the ends of the earth’

Recently I heard the story of the Norwegian village that didn’t receive a single scrap of sunlight for 6 whole months.  Their solution was to install three mirrors which move and rotate on a specific axis, to capture the sunlight. Its tracking system enables them to track the sun, and reflect sunlight downwards to the main square.

It’s a wonderful reminder of the power of light – and also that there are some parts of the world which miss out on light for long periods of the year.  That said, at whatever point you’re reading this today, it remains true that much of our world will be bathed in light.  The way that our earth rotates means that sunlight extends to the ends of the earth.

In today’s reading, we see a similar promise of global spiritual light.  Isaiah 40-55 contains a number of ‘Servant Songs’, of which this is the second (the others are in chapters 42, 50 and 52-53).  And in this particular song, God promises a new light for the whole world.  The blessings enjoyed by Israel would soon be available to all (v6): which had always been the plan, but had not quite come to fruition before now.  As people gazed on the ruins of Jerusalem, and wondered if life would ever recover, a new hope was springing up: one that was too big to be held within one people, but would stretch across the globe.  This light would bring God’s salvation ‘to the ends of the earth.’

It’s easy to take this glorious truth for granted.  We’re so used to the idea of universal access to God, we forget how rare it is.  Virtually all other worldviews place some sort of limit on who’s ‘in’, but not the God of the bible.  The grace of the one true God is available for all. 

As humans we are made in the image of God, who is light.  It follows that we were made to live in light – not just the light of the sun, but the light of the Son, too.  When we pray, there will be thousands of people, maybe millions too, praying at that exact moment.  Likewise when we sing.  A global chorus of unceasing prayer and praise, as day follows night, and night follows day.  It echoes the unending glory of heaven, where God is eternally praised.

So today, and every day, our small voice joins with millions of others across the world and throughout eternity, all worshipping the true light, the true servant who sets us free.  May that thought lift our hearts… and may it also cause us to offer prayers of thanks and support for all who will pray and praise in Jesus’ name across the world today.