I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me

Series: Contentment.

By Rosie Moore.

How often have you given yourself a pep talk ending with Paul’s words, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength?” I know I have, especially when I’m running on a steep incline, with a rasping sound in my throat and my legs wobbling like jelly!

Surprisingly, Paul pens these words of victory as an old, battle-worn apostle languishing in a Roman prison cell. He is talking about a lasting kind of contentment that doesn’t disappear in the face of deprivation, loss, suffering, persecution and insecurity. Paul is not saying that he can do anything that he sets his mind to. He is saying that by Christ’s strength, he can be peaceful in adversity and humble in prosperity. Surely this is one of the greatest challenges of the Christian life!

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Phil 4:11-13 ESV).

I have learned the secret of contentment.

What I love about Scripture is its real life biographies. Paul, like all of us, wasn’t born contented. He had to learn to be content.

Many years ago, out of sheer desperation, I bought a cute sounding book called The Contented Little Baby. Written by a know-it-all expert on childrearing, its pages were stuffed with a host of feeding, sleeping, bathing and playing routines that I was supposed to be teaching my four babies, but quite obviously wasn’t.

Far from being contented, my brood spent a high percentage of their days yelling their heads off and grabbing each other’s toys, and to this day I still can’t be sure what restored the peace and what triggered World War 3. Mysteriously, they are now very contented little adults, but that’s only by the grace of God, not my parenting skills!

By the end of reading that book, the only secret I learned was that I was incapable of raising a single contented baby. The author’s advice felt more like boot camp than baby care! But in some respects the book was dead accurate— We are not born content! We learn contentment through training, which is sometimes painful and counter-intuitive. Likewise, I learned the secret of being a mother under pressure, through hands-on experience, not by following a formula.

Paul’s contentment was independent of his personality type and didn’t descend upon him like a dove on the Damascus road. He learned contentment by having a relationship with Christ through the pressures of life. This is good news for us, because it means that we too can learn the secret of true contentment if we stick close to Jesus in any and every situation.

Paul affirms confidently, “I can do all this through Christ who strengthens me.” It’s not as if God wants us to grope about in the winter of our discontent. He wants us to learn to be content by Christ’s strength. On our own, contentment will always remain elusive.

Can you think of any good reason why you and I should not also grasp the truth of contentment and live it out practically, in both abundance and adversity? (Phil 4:12)

The key to contentment.

Knowing Christ is the key to contentment, because it is Jesus who shed his blood to rescue us from the helpless condition of sin, which includes our habitual discontentment.

If we follow Christ, it is He who gives meaning to every step of our life journey. We can be content with what we have, because Christ will never leave us or forsake us (Heb 13:5-6). His grace is always sufficient. That is why Paul’s heart cry in Philippians 3:10 comes first: “I want to know Christ!”

Paul learned to be content in abundance and adversity, finding lasting joy in knowing Christ and pouring out his energy to serve and obey him (Phil 3:12-13). That’s where our true contentment will come from, regardless of our circumstances.

Learning contentment.

It’s interesting that Paul uses two words for ‘learn’ in this text:

The first ‘learn’ implies learning by practice, as opposed to intellectual knowledge. It’s the same word used in Hebrews to describe Christ’s experiential learning: “Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb 5:8).

We too can learn to withstand Satan and trials, but only if we trust and obey our heavenly Father moment-by-moment, like Jesus did. Contentment requires deliberate commitment, especially when we find ourselves in the furnace of suffering.

The second ‘learn’ is a more unusual verb which refers to an initiation into a mystery society in first century Greco-Roman culture. There is something mysteriously contradictory about learning to be content when trouble opposes our happiness. Lasting contentment is only possible when we have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus and realize what He suffered on our behalf, when our minds are re-calibrated by gospel truths instead of our circumstances.

And so, we may know every verse and formula about contentment in our heads, but it’s only when we practice our knowledge of Christ and prioritize his kingdom that we learn the secret of contentment.

Well fed or hungry, in plenty or in want.

Paul’s expansive claim of contentment is extraordinary, given his life story.

Some people like to think of contentment as a Buddha, sitting smug and stoical, detached from life, his chubby face empty of ambition and drive. Or perhaps ‘contentment’ is the happy stare of a retiree or millionaire, absorbing an endless stream of little pleasures and treasures from the comfort of their deckchair!

But these images are far removed from Paul’s contented life. He was the proverbial “Man in the Arena” of Theodore Roosevelt’s poem.

Man in the Arena.

Paul’s contentment wasn’t theoretical because he didn’t sit on the sidelines of the Christian life. He knew that even God’s faithful children are not exempt from the common distresses of life and he learned to lean on the Lord Jesus in any and every situation:

Financially, Paul had been well off and needy in his life (Phil 4:11-12), experiencing real hunger, thirst, cold and nakedness (2 Tim 4:13212 Cor 11:27), as well as abundant wealth.

Yet he encouraged other believers with full assurance, “My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19).

Physically, Paul bore on his body the marks of Christ (Gal 6:17). Five times the Apostle was beaten with whips and three times with rods. He was shipwrecked, mobbed and stoned so badly that he was left for dead (Acts 14:192 Cor 11:23-29). Severe physical illness often thwarted his ministry plans and he described his body as a fragile clay jar, wasting away (Gal 4:13-142 Cor 4:7-8.). One can hardly imagine Paul’s physical state by the time he wrote this letter in 61AD.

But through all of this, Paul spurred on the Macedonian believers, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5).

Emotionally, Paul was haunted by regrets of a past as a murderer and persecutor of Christians (1 Tim 1:12-17). Numerous times he was neglected, deserted and undermined by fellow believers (Phil 4:15Acts 15:382 Tim 1:154:10).

Yet, in his distress, Paul trained himself to press on towards the goal of Christ: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” In the midst of his anxieties, Paul learned to dwell on the good rather than his troubles: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil 3:13-144:5).

Spiritually, Paul was stripped of the benefits of being a respected Pharisee, expelled from his place of worship and treated as an outcast by his own people, who plotted to take his life (Acts 13:4550Acts 17:5-7Acts 18:6Acts 20:3).

But through all this rejection and humiliation, Paul didn’t avoid preaching the gospel to his fellow Jews. He continued to pray with a thankful heart, allowing the peace of God which transcends understanding, to guard his heart and mind in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7). Although he lost much for the sake of Christ, he remained grateful and gracious to others (Phil 4:10-18).

None of these hardships robbed Paul of his contentment, as he rested in Christ as his refuge and provider. Even when he was severely flogged and thrown in prison, he spent the night “praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).

I’m sure this wasn’t the Apostle’s instinctive response to pain and exhaustion, but he had developed a habit of praying with thanksgiving and rejoicing when he felt like complaining (Phil 4:46). Over years, Paul had learned the secret of contentment in any and every situation.

The paradox of contentment.

True contentment is learned in the arena of life, not in Bible college or in the pages of a book. Paul’s secret was that he found meaning in his adversity and considered it a privilege to share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings (Phil 3:8-10). Paul’s response is a mysterious paradox if ever there was one!

In his own words, Paul describes the incongruous joy of knowing Christ in and through his suffering: “dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed;  sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Likewise, in the life of every Christian, the secret to lasting contentment lies in our deep union with the Lord Jesus who ultimately works all things for our good and turns every tragedy into triumph, every grief into growth and every offense into an opportunity for the gospel. True contentment is learned by trusting and obeying Christ in the arena of life.

And so, we can say confidently, with Paul: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Prayer.

Father, shift our perspective to see everything as a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus as our Lord. Help us to trust you rather than avoiding hard things which we know you want us to do. Show us if we are hoarding our resources of time, money and love. Keep our lives free from the love of money and help us to be content with whatever you have given us, because you have said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6) Amen.

Listen prayerfully to Horatio Spafford’s hymn, “When peace like a river…”. It directs our hearts to the gospel and how God teaches us contentment in any and every circumstance. Spafford’s words are the authentic cries of his own heart, since he’d recently lost his entire fortune in a fire and his four daughters in a storm at sea. Only his wife survived.

Godliness with contentment is great gain

Series: Contentment

By Rosie Moore

“Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it” (1 Tim 6:5)

Why do we only rest in peace? Why don’t we live in peace too?

I don’t know who said this, but it’s a good observation. It’s easy to blame our circumstances and other people for the lack of peace in our lives, but sometimes the underlying cause is the undiagnosed sin of discontentment.

This is what Elizabeth Elliot, the widow of murdered missionary Jim Elliot, wrote on the subject of a peaceful heart. I have pasted this quote above my desk so I can read it often.

“Restlessness and impatience change nothing except our peace and joy. Peace does not dwell in outward things, but in the heart prepared to wait trustfully and quietly on him who has all things safely in His hands.”

As hard as it is to admit, I am often frustrated and dissatisfied with life because fundamentally I don’t trust how God is taking care of me. I depend too much on outward things for my joy and peace.

At the core of a discontented heart is unbelief and rebellion against God’s rule in my life, which includes what I have, who I am, and the high and low points of my life.

A call to godliness and contentment.

And so, in convincing Timothy of the value of godliness and contentment, Paul rests his case on the basic assumption that we are utterly dependent on God for everything we receive:

“Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 

 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:6-12)

Paul warns the young pastor to stay away from greedy people who want to make money from preaching and end up wandering far from the faith, “pierced with many griefs.” He describes the dangers and snares of a love for money. But it’s interesting that Paul identifies godliness with contentment as the antidote to all these things (1 Tim 6:6). Why does Paul choose to couple these two characteristics together?

Paul Mathole explains the link between godliness and contentment:

“A heart oriented towards God is one that rests in Him. With a view of our place in God’s eternity, it rests content in our present circumstances, even when they are tough.”

This made me think of Job, the first man who embodied godliness with contentment. Job had children, wealth, servants and livestock in abundance. Then, in a single day all these good things vanished. But despite all the calamities that befell him, Job’s first response to his situation was God-oriented:

Job fell to the ground in worship, saying,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; May the name of the Lord be praised.”

 God clearly approved of Job’s godly response: “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (Job1:20-22).  Job kept a clear conscience in all his suffering, because he worked out his struggles with God.

1 Timothy 6:6 expresses the simple but profound truth that God-oriented contentment is the key to spiritual growth and lasting joy. We should honour the LORD and centre our desires on Him, content with whatever He is doing in our lives.

Contentment is no small matter for a Christian, but we will only be contented people if we recognize and confess the sin of discontentment in our hearts, replacing it with a deep trust in God’s goodness and sufficiency. Sadly, discontent is often our default position.

Fruit of a poisoned tree.

Although Paul focuses on money in this text, discontent usually manifests in four areas: Money, work, our bodies and relationships. Once it takes hold, a discontented spirit poisons our lives and relationships from the inside out:

Because of a discontented heart, we become intoxicated by abundance and depressed by lack. Forever hurtling on a rollercoaster of fluctuating emotions, our joy and peace are triggered by comparisons and circumstances beyond our control. It’s not long before we break God’s tenth commandment—Do not covet.

And so, out of nowhere, a discontented spirit can lead us to feel bitter, jealous, greedy, anxious, frustrated, despondent, insecure, indignant, distracted, offended, sulky, disappointed, impatient or moody. Out of discontent we may feel we deserve more money, a better job, a healthier body and more supportive relatives.

When our hearts are discontented, we behave like puppets, controlled by the strings of prosperity and poverty; praise and criticism; success and failure; strength and weakness. No wonder a discontented heart breeds the many sins listed in the text, including conceit, envy, strife, malicious talk and evil suspicions (1 Tim 6:4-5).

Fuelled by discontent, we may begin to feel restless with our own life, coveting the accomplishments of old school friends and strangers on the internet. When we walk into a beautiful home that isn’t ours or notice the accolades earned by another, we feel no joy. Instead, we feel empty and inferior, wanting what other people have. We enter the dangerous territory of grumbling, grasping and ingratitude.

What I’ve sometimes discovered lurking beneath my own insecurities is a fundamental belief that I need something different from what God has given me. I think, “If only … then I would be content.” But if I probe deeper, I see that I’m just doubtful about how God is ordering my life.

The problem with discontentment is that it’s not just a neutral emotion. Because it’s invisible and encouraged by our culture, we often don’t recognize it as a poisoned tree that bears rotten fruit. Discontentment needs to be regularly identified and uprooted if we hope to live a joyful life of perseverance in the faith.

Solomon used a striking image when he wrote: “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” (Prov 14:30).

Envy is the fruit of a poisoned tree. The tree is discontentment.

The lasting rewards of contentment.

Conversely, Paul says that the discipline of contentment will bring us “great gain” in the Christian life. Contentment is an enduring happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens. Its rewards are lasting rather than fluctuating.

In The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (1648), Jeremiah Burroughs identifies the benefits of nurturing contentment in the Christian life. Here are just three of the lasting fruits of contentment that Borroughs describes:

  1. Contentment prepares us to worship God, publicly and privately. It is only a contented heart that can honestly acknowledge God alone as sovereign, and us as his humble creatures who owe Him our very selves. A contented heart will see that the LORD is God who does all things well. He is our Father who never leaves or forsakes his children.
  2. Contentment opens our eyes to God’s grace and allows others to see God’s glory in us. Grumbling, complaining, worrying and demanding come naturally to human beings, so contentment is a great testimony of God’s supernatural work in our lives. A calm, secure and cheerful Christian is a great witness, especially in adverse circumstances.
  3. Contentment frees us from many sins, including envy, greed and bitterness, replacing them with peace, gratitude and a willingness to serve others. Contentment safeguards us against an array of grievances and grumblings. Those who are focused on their circumstances will always obsess about what’s wrong; the things we lack; the things others have, and the things we wish were different. But a contented heart focuses on Christ and is confident in the Lord’s goodness.

The secret of contentment

But contentment doesn’t descend on us automatically like a dove when we become Christians. Paul says that contentment is a secret to be learned through the ups and downs of life (Phil 4:11-13). As Christians, we are engaged in a constant struggle against the sin of discontentment. That’s why, directly after Paul instructs Timothy to pursue godliness with contentment, he concludes, “Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim 6:12).

If we do not fight the good fight, our hearts will default to discontent. As sinners, we are bent on ingratitude and idolatry, because by nature we neither glorify the LORD as God nor give thanks to him (Rom 1:21-23). We also live in a covetous culture which invites us to crave what God has not given us to enjoy.

So unless we learn the secret of contentment, we will live as functional atheists, wondering where God is and why we are not seeing Him perform in the ways we see fit.

Contentment is a secret that every Christ follower must learn through the school of life and God’s Word, which directs our hearts and minds back to full trust in the LORD. We also have Christ’s example and His strength to help us nurture godliness with contentment. Best of all, we’ve been given the Holy Spirit to enable us to expose and uproot the poisoned tree of discontentment. That is why Paul can conclude one of the greatest texts on God-centred contentment with these words of victory: “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength” (Phil 4:13).

Join us for the next few weeks as we ask God’s Word to train our hearts and minds in the secret of contentment.

Prayer

Father, give us eyes to see the seeds of discontentment in our own hearts. Show us the sinful source of our grumbling and worrying, while giving us the will to submit our desires to you. Help us to trust afresh in your finished work on the cross and ongoing work in our lives, so we will be filled with peace, joy and gratitude in every circumstance. Help us to humbly receive all things from your loving hand, not just the comfortable things. Teach us to wait trustfully and quietly on you, because you have all things safely in your hands. Amen.

Good reads.

I have found the following books useful in helping to nurture contentment in my own heart and to prepare to write these devotions. You can get most of them on Kindle, Takealot or Loot.

Lydia Brownback, Contentment—A Godly Woman’s Adornment. Crossway, 2008.

Jones, Robert, Contentment—Joy that Lasts. P&R Publishing, 2019.

Hill, Megan, Contentment—Seeing God’s Goodness. P&R Publishing, 2018.

Burroughs, Jeremiah, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (1648). Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted, 2000 .

Ash, Christopher, Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience. Intervarsity Press, 2012.

Kruger, Melissa, The Envy of Eve: Finding Contentment in a Covetous World. Christian Focus Publications, 2012.

Six ingredients of repentance

By Rosie Moore.

As a born and bred sinner, I know that my natural inclination is always to please myself rather than God. I’ve realised that my sin hurts myself and others, but ultimately it offends God, because it is rebellion against His way of living. But as much as I know these things in my head, my heart is still discovering that sin is like an onion that must be peeled away layer by layer, over many years. The Holy Spirit does the peeling, but I need to do the repenting.

Streams of mercy.

Whenever we peel an onion, we cry. Paradoxically, the tears of repentance are like a stream of mercy that cleanses our soul. Like the sinful woman who stood at Christ’s feet, weeping, we go in peace when we have repented of our sins (Luke 7:384850). Great joy and blessing follow in the wake of repentance.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
 
 (Psalm 32:2)

And so, understanding what repentance means is essential to true Christianity and saving faith in Christ. Repentance was the crux of the first sermon in Church history and it is the only way that we will be added to God’s kingdom, as were the three thousand congregants who accepted Peter’s message (Acts 2:38-41). They were cut to the heart by the Holy Spirit and wept for their sin. That is the reason why they turned to Christ for forgiveness.

Today we will be looking at King David’s confession in the light of Thomas Watson’s six essential ingredients of repentance:

  1. Sight of sin.
  2. Sorrow for sin.
  3. Confession of sin.
  4. Shame for sin.
  5. Hatred for sin.
  6. Turning from sin.

All six ingredients are evident in King David’s prayer of confession after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and conspired to murder her husband, Uriah. Psalm 51 gives us a useful model to follow in our own repentance.

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is
 a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise (Psalm 51)

Moment of clarity.

In this Psalm of confession, David has seen his sinful heart for what it is (Ps 51:3-5). The scales have fallen from his eyes. He is no longer blind, desensitized or under any illusions as to the evil he has done. He doesn’t use euphemistic language like ‘weakness’, ‘passion’, ‘indiscretion’ or ‘mistake’ to describe his actions.

Moreover, David no longer passes the buck or glamorizes the affair. He doesn’t argue that the culture permitted a king to sleep with any woman or that Uriah the Hittite was somehow killed in a tragic war.

Instead, he offers God his “broken and contrite heart” (Ps 51:17).  The word ‘contrite’ is an old-fashioned but pregnant word that means sorrowful, penitent, conscience-stricken, mortified, chastened, humbled and ashamed. True confession doesn’t minimize sin or plead extenuating circumstances.

David uses graphic words like ‘iniquity’, ‘transgressions’ ‘guilt’, ‘bloodshed’, ‘evil’ and ‘sins’ to describe the wicked things he has done. His choice of unequivocal language shows that he hates his sin and knows that even he, a powerful king, is accountable to his Creator. He has no excuse.

But David didn’t always have sight of his sin. Prior to writing Psalm 51, he lived for many months, perhaps years, totally blinded to his sin, thinking that God was blind too (2 Sam 11:1-27). But this chapter concludes with God’s verdict:

“When the mourning was over, David sent and brought Bathsheba to his household, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing which David had done was evil in the eyes of Yahweh” (2 Samuel 11:27).

There is no doubt as to what Yahweh thought of David’s behaviour, but the truth only dawned on David when Nathan the prophet confronted him with a parable. As the prophet peeled back layer after layer of David’s deceitful heart, the penny finally dropped.

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7)

You are the man!

David was cut to the heart by Nathan’s words. Exposure is a great gift when prompted by the Holy Spirit, whom God sends to convict us of sin, of righteousness and judgement (John 16:8-15). It is nothing like the false accusations and false shame of Satan.

When David’s eyes were opened, he saw his deep ingratitude to God who had blessed him and installed him as king (2 Sam 12:7-8). He saw that he had despised the Lord’s word, murdered Uriah the Hittite and stolen his precious wife (2 Sam 12:9). He had believed that what he did in the dark was invisible and that the rules didn’t apply to him as king.

There was no euphemistic spin for the evil that David had done. There was no neutral, non- judgmental way to admit his sin. There was no way to suppress the truth. David realized that there was no place to hide when he heard God say to him:

“You did it in secret, but I will do this very thing in broad daylight before all Israel.”

“Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12:12-13).

I have sinned against the Lord.

David’s simple admission of guilt was like the great moment noted in the prodigal son’s repentance: “He came to himself… Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:1721).

David’s confession was voluntary, sincere and went to the heart of the problem, which is the human heart (Ps 51:5). David accused himself and justified God (Ps 51:4). When he compared his own faithlessness to the compassion and unfailing love of God, it only heightened his sorrow and awareness of sin (Ps 51:1). He saw a true picture of himself beside the one true and faithful God.

David’s repentance was far deeper than mere remorse for the messy consequences of his sins, which Nathan laid out for him (2 Sam 12:11-12.) He realized that he had offended a holy and just God who had lovingly cared for him from the womb and taught him what was right (Ps 51:46).

There was no doubt in David’s mind that he deserved to be judged and cast out from God’s presence (Ps 51:411). He knew that there was no sacrifice or bribe that he could offer to buy atonement for his sins (Ps 51:16).

It was a terrifying, shameful, sorrowful moment of clarity for David. All he could offer the Lord was a “broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart” (Ps 51:17). And all he could ask for in return was God’s mercy, compassion, cleansing and deliverance from guilt (Ps 51:1-27914). It was a most unequal trade-off, and David knew it.

Five of the six essential ingredients for repentance are well illustrated in Psalm 51. But how do we know that David turned away from his sins? Psalm 51:10-13 gives us a hint of this final trademark of repentance.

Create in me a pure heart.

David knew that he needed God’s Holy Spirit to create in him a pure heart and willing spirit to change. Knowing that his heart would always lead him astray, the king pleaded for a steadfast spirit to sustain him in living a holy life. He asked to be able to lead other sinners back to God and teach them His ways.

Isn’t it amazing that a thousand years before the Holy Spirit convicted a congregation of three thousand on the day of Pentecost, David knew that he needed the Holy Spirit to reform him from the inside? (Ps 51:11) He knew that he needed a soft heart on which God’s laws would be engraved and new desires formed (Ezek 36:25-27Jer 31:33-34).

What a privilege to have the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us obey God’s word and turn from our sin (Gal 5:16)! True sorrow for sin always results in turning from sin, which is so visible that others will see it (Acts 16:33Eph 5:8).

The joy of forgiveness.

When I was a child, I had an uncle who suffered from chronic kidney disease and lived in constant pain. He didn’t know the Lord, and from my perspective he was a harsh and grumpy man who didn’t like children at all! I asked my mom what I should say in my prayers for him and she said, “Ask the Lord to open uncle Billy’s eyes to see who he is and who God is.”

So that’s exactly what I prayed every day for the next twenty years. The miracle of sight occurred when my uncle was sixty years old. One day, he came to the end of himself and turned to the Lord Jesus in repentance and faith, with my older sister holding his hand.

I always remember this event as the beginning of the most stark change I’ve seen in a human being, because my uncle’s whole demeanour and purpose changed. He became a kind and cheerful man who quite obviously knew the joy of forgiveness. Five years later, Uncle Billy died, a free and blessed man.

If Psalm 51 expresses David’s depths of sorrow over sin, Psalm 32 expresses the height of his joy at being forgiven. There’s nothing worse than unconfessed sin because it drives a wedge between us and God, but there’s nothing more blessed than the cleansing, liberating, healing power of repentance.

Prayer.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
10 Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart!

Amen.

Cut to the heart.

By Rosie Moore.

The first sermon in church history ends with a congregation cut to the heart over their sin. After the Holy Spirit showed them the beauty of Christ and their own rebellious hearts, about three thousand people grieved over their sin and accepted the healing message of the gospel. The book of Acts describes the amazing Spirit-filled interaction between Peter the convicted preacher and a congregation of convicted Jews from all nations on earth, who had gathered together in Jerusalem for Pentecost. It’s a live illustration of what evangelism and genuine repentance looks like:

Acts 2:36-41

36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

A convicted preacher.

“Men of Israel, hear these words!” (Acts 2:22)

This was the sermon of a convicted preacher if ever there was one! Peter was not repeating hearsay or going through the motions of a man of the cloth. He pleaded passionately with the crowd and convinced them, as he was fully convinced, that only Jesus can save.

Without a doubt, Peter knew in his own heart that Jesus was both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). He also personally knew Jesus of Nazareth, the man who had done great miracles and wonders (Acts 2:22-24). He didn’t hesitate to use passages from the Old Testament Scripture which identified Jesus as Yahweh himself, nor was he concerned about how his words would be received by his hearers.

There was a remarkable change in Peter on the day of Pentecost. It’s hard to reconcile this bold, fearless preacher with the cowardly man who, six weeks earlier, had denied even knowing Jesus (Matt 26:69-75). But Peter had seen the resurrected and ascended Jesus in the interim! (Acts 2:32-33). He was an eyewitness to the contents of his own sermon, with no secondary research required. Going straight for the bull’s eye, Peter focused on the resurrected Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22-24).

Moreover, Peter wan’t just a passionate and zealous preacher. Unlike the professional teachers of his day, Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and raised his voice to proclaim the gospel like a herald. He wasted no time on pleasantries, but told his audience the truth that they were sinners and Jesus had borne the full wrath of God on the cross (Acts 2:20-21). He appealed to what his congregation already knew about Jesus (Acts 2:22) and the promises of the Old Testament.

Peter’s sermon carried conviction because it was smothered in his own conviction of sin and his own hope. This preacher knew his twisted, faithless heart that had abandoned Christ in his hour of greatest need. And Peter’s sermon was convincing to the crowd, because the preacher himself was convinced that Jesus had risen and was now ruling as the everlasting King in David’s line.

For Peter, Jesus was the “Holy One” that King David had foreseen, the only Saviour who could make known to men “the paths of life” and lead them to “live in hope.” There was nothing tragic or arbitrary about Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. It was all planned by God and penned by David a thousand years beforehand (Acts 2:23-31; Ps 110).

A convicted congregation.

But Peter also shone the spotlight on his hearers’ own corrupt hearts. He showed them that they also crucified Christ, even if they were not physically present on the day He died (Act 2:36). They too had resisted and rejected Christ’s Lordship over their lives, and rebelled against God. I’m sure Peter may have braced himself to be stoned at this point!

But supernaturally, the Spirit performed a miracle of new birth in the hearts of 3000 congregants. He brought them to a place of insight, sorrow, shame, confession and hatred for their sin. Luke vividly identifies the trigger: The Holy Spirit convicted and called the hearers. They were ‘cut to the heart’ and distressed about their sin. They were led into the light, just as Jesus said would happen when the Holy Spirit did his work (John 3:6-721).

Their response to the sermon was not an outward act, but an inward grace. The layers of concealing skin and tissue were peeled back to expose the cancer of their hearts. The prophecy of Zechariah 12:10 comes to mind: “They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn.”

Instead of using a sword to cut off the ear of a soldier as Peter had done weeks earlier (John 18:10), Peter was now wielding the Sword of the Spirit to cut people’s hearts and open them to Jesus’s supernatural healing. Deeply convicted by the Holy Spirit, the congregation asked the right question:

“Brothers, what shall we do?” There is genuine anguish and sorrow in their question as they realize the myriad ways in which they’ve rejected God’s love and despised his King.

Peter wastes no time in inviting the multitude to come to Jesus for forgiveness. This is exactly what every convicted sinner must do: “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”.

That day, a massive congregation turned from their sin and publicly confessed their new allegiance—an allegiance to Christ, a new way of life and a new community. That’s what their baptism signified (Acts 2:41).

Repent

The first thing Peter told them to do is “repent”. To repent is not just to feel sorry, but to change one’s whole mind and trajectory. Repentance describes what coming to God is. We can’t turn towards God without turning away from the things that God is against. Repentance is a word of great hope, because we do not have to continue in the way that we’ve been going. We can turn towards God in surrender.

So, what does true repentance look like and what does it achieve?

Thomas Watson, a Puritan preacher and author from the 17th century, wrote a timeless book titled “The Doctrine of Repentance”. He starts with these words:

“Christian reader, the two great graces essential to a saint in this life are faith and repentance. These are the two wings by which he flies to heaven. Faith and repentance preserve the spiritual life as heat and moisture do the natural.”

“Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed… Repentance breaks the abscess of sin, and then the soul is at ease” (Thomas Watson).

Isn’t that a beautiful picture of the healing and purging power of repentance?

Nothing has changed since Watson wrote in 1668. Repentance and faith in Jesus Christ is still the only way that our restless souls will be at peace, as it’s the timeless medicine that God has prescribed for the forgiveness of our sins. There is no other way to be saved.

Counterfeit repentance.

But repentance is one of those words that many people reject today, because they will not tolerate the mention of sin or guilt. Sin is seen as an archaic form of oppression that we must shake off if we are to be truly free. And so, we resort to many counterfeit forms of repentance, like those desperate new resolutions or promises we make when we are buffeted by the trouble that sin has caused in our lives. Sometimes we believe that these efforts at self help will buy us atonement.

And other times, we desperately want to escape the web of sin in our lives, but we’re not truly repulsed, saddened and ashamed of the sin itself. In fact, we have no clue how seriously we’ve offended God, nor do we intend to name our sin or confess it out loud to the only person who can forgive us. Instead, we are still looking for loopholes while calculating how near the line we dare walk before we are zapped by God or sin’s consequences. Counterfeit repentance is a fool’s paradise.

But God is not fooled by our counterfeit repentance, which achieves nothing but a false sense of security. The difference between counterfeit and real repentance is illustrated well by Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to pray:

“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’…

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:11-14)

The tax collector called himself a sinner and called upon God for mercy. But the Pharisee saw only the faults of others.

The crux of salvation.

Knowing what repentance means is essential to Christianity and saving faith. It was the crux of Peter’s sermon and the only way that we will be added to God’s kingdom, alongside the 3000 who accepted Peter’s message (Acts 2:38-41). Repentance is the only way that Jesus saves us “from this perverse generation” and justifies us before God. It’s the only channel by which we and our children can receive the promises of God (Acts 2:38-3940).

“Repent and be baptized” is a warning as well as a promise of hope. Jesus himself said that if we do not repent, we will perish. It is the most important word in the gospel, used in John the Baptist’s ministry and Jesus’s ministry (Matt 3:24:17). ‘Repent’ is not a dirty word, but a word of hope and healing, because it is the condition by which we are reformed into God’s creatures.

Spurgeon said, “The old fashioned grace of repentance is not to be dispensed with; there must be sorrow for sin; there must be a ‘broken and contrite heart’. This, God will not despise. But a ‘conversion’ which does not produce this result, God will not accept as genuine.”

To be sure that we know the difference between counterfeit and genuine repentance in our own lives, join me next week as we explore Thomas Watson’s six essential ingredients which make up the spiritual medicine of repentance:

  1. Sight of sin.
  2. Sorrow for sin.
  3. Confession of sin.
  4. Shame for sin.
  5. Hatred for sin.
  6. Turning from sin.

Prayer

Lord, you have reminded us today of our sinful hearts that so often deceive us into thinking we are good. We are utterly crooked, and it is only our pride, self-love and ignorance that blind us to our bankruptcy before you. Lord, we don’t want to harp on other people’s faults and cloak our sins. We ask you to cut open the abscess of our own hearts and expose whatever offends you in our thoughts, words and deeds. Help us to confess our sins to you speedily, specifically and without excuse. Holy Spirit, give us hearts of humble surrender, like the tax collector who prayed for mercy and like the 3000 converts on the day of Pentecost. Cut us to the heart, Lord, that we may be healed. In Jesus’s name. Amen.

“Above all” is a song that reminds me of Peter’s first sermon about Jesus Christ. “You lived to die, rejected and alone. Like a rose trampled on the ground, you took the fall and thought of me above all.” The conviction of our own great sin and Christ’s beautiful sacrifice must cut our hearts and lead us to repentance again and again.

So Esau despised his birthright

By Rosie Moore.

“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”

But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.

Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.

So Esau despised his birthright” (Gen 25:34).

I’ve never seen anyone come close to starvation after a day stalking animals in the bush! All afternoon Esau had been imagining dinner, but he exaggerated his hunger as though it was a matter of life and death. His mind fixated on momentary pleasure and the object of his desire, nothing else.

“GIVE ME WHAT I WANT, AND GIVE IT TO ME RIGHT NOW, OR I’LL DIE!!” It so happened that his brother made an exquisitely delicious lentil stew and Esau was particularly hungry and tired.

Like all addictions and cravings, they don’t just happen out of the blue and they come with a high price tag attached. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you are willing to give up anything to give you what you feel you need right now?

I think Paul’s words to the Philippian believers provide an apt description of Esau’s sin:

“Their destiny is their destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” (Phil 3).

Esau’s trade-off was the culmination of a series of trade-offs, which included marrying Canaanite wives in opposition to his parents’ wishes. These wives worshipped foreign gods that demanded detestable sexual acts and even child sacrifice (Gen 26:3428:8). As a son in the covenant family of Abraham, Esau would have known that Yahweh and Baal had nothing in common (Deut 7:3-4Gen 28:1). But Esau was master of his own destiny and he took whatever his heart desired.

Instant gratification

Trading his birthright for a bowl of stew was the clearest example of Esau’s priorities. He valued his own wants above God’s will, and worshipped his cravings instead of Yahweh. He grabbed instant gratification instead of treasuring God’s covenantal blessing.

Verse 34 leaves us in no doubt about how God regarded Esau’s choice to put his temporary hunger pains above his eternal birthright. Moses concludes this story with the loaded statement: “So Esau despised his birthright.”

He sought the blessing with tears.

Because Esau sold his birthright and treated the blessings and privileges of God as worthless, this sin had lasting consequences that could not be undone. In the ancient world, a person’s word was binding, especially a formal oath. No amount of tears, regret, remorse or blame could change the outcome.

But Esau only realized the weight of this choice years later when his dying father blessed Jacob instead of himself (Genesis 27):

“When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!”

 But Isaac said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”

Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” 

Now it’s true that while the twins were still in Rebekah’s womb, God had promised that his plan would be worked out through Jacob, not Esau (Gen 25:23). And there’s no doubt that Jacob was a lying, deceiving trickster who didn’t deserve the family birthright either.

But it’s also clear from the text that Esau never takes responsibility for his own sin of selling his birthright. Instead, he rants and rages, implores and begs, blames his treacherous brother and swears to kill him when he realizes that he’s been passed over for his father’s blessing.

Instead of acknowledging his sin, Esau sees himself as the innocent victim of everything that has happened to him. It’s as if a bandit came and stole the birthright right out of his hands! Never once does Esau admit that he chose to satisfy the desire of the moment, while giving up the greatest prize of all—a part of God’s great plan of redemption. He forgets his careless words to his brother, “What good is the birthright to me?”

What good is the birthright to me?

To understand the magnitude of Esau’s sin, let’s consider the significance of this birthright:

Firstly, in the ancient world, a birthright was the special honour given to the firstborn son, which included a double portion of the family inheritance and the leadership of the family.

Secondly, in Abraham’s family, Esau’s birthright meant far more than property rights and status. To be God’s chosen seed was the greatest blessing anyone could hope for. It came with all the promises of God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham and Isaac (Gen 12; 13; 15; 17; 25).

So, by selling his birthright for a pot of stew, Esau was rejecting this covenant and the privilege of fathering many nations; being a channel of blessing to other nations and inheriting the Promised land of Canaan– a land flowing with milk and honey. Esau was treating this treasure as if it were worthless and unimportant.

Moreover, on a personal level, Esau was giving up the extraordinary benefit of God’s faithful presence in his life: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” (Gen 28:15). This was the promise that God made to his brother Jacob instead.

A warning for the privileged.

Esau’s dismissive words are a great warning to all of us who have had the privilege of hearing the gospel, belonging to a church or a Christian family. For this reason, the writer to the Hebrews highlights Esau’s life as a warning to the first century church not to forfeit their spiritual birthright by living a sexually immoral, bitter or godless life:

14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17 Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done (Heb 12:14-17).

There is something irrevocable about Esau’s choice in Genesis 25, and the Bible makes no bones about its spiritual implications (Mal 1:2-3Rom 9:13).

How is Esau’s life a warning to us today? Ultimately, we despise the spiritual birthright that God freely offers us when we are unwilling to repent and trust in Jesus, the “mediator of the new covenant, whose sprinkled blood speaks louder than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:24). If we stubbornly reject the gospel invitation in our lifetime, we can never expect to receive God’s blessings in the afterlife. This is the stark warning of Esau’s life for all those who delay or reject Christ’s call to turn to Him in faith and repentance.

But even as Christians, we are apt to take for granted Christ’s great love and sacrifice on the cross. Over many years, familiarity can breed contempt and complacency. The writer of Hebrews urges us to be thankful people, “and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28). Thankful, reverent worship is the only antidote to the sin of contempt.

The big trade-off.

There is something very sobering about Esau’s lost birthright and blessing, as well as the warning in Hebrews 12. I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Esau and his poor choice. I remember many times in my life when I’ve chosen cheap fast food instead of the wonderful banquet that God offers me (Isaiah 55:1-2).

Who of us hasn’t surrendered to cravings to help us forget, to prove our worth, to express anger or just to feel better for a moment? I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to quench some deep thirst with salty water that only makes me thirstier.

Who of us hasn’t preferred, at some point in our lives, that God should leave us alone to live our own lives and be our own God? Who of us hasn’t blamed and nursed bitter thoughts when we’ve been careless with our life? This is the struggle against sin that every believer must fight until the day we die (Heb 12:4-5).

But the gospel is truly wonderful news for those of us who identify with Esau’s sin and turn to Jesus for restoration. Jesus did what we cannot do!

Just consider Christ’s trade-off: Jesus gave up his birthright as the only begotten Son of God, to secure our birthright as God’s adopted children and heirs. This is an irrevocable birthright with extraordinary blessings and privileges attached.

Unlike Esau, Jesus did not take the path of instant gratification when tested in the wilderness. He didn’t grab the instant food, the instant power, approval and protection that Satan offered him. Instead, Jesus did battle with sin and took an aggressive, take-no-prisoners stand against Satan’s deceptive schemes (Luke 4:1-13).

Jesus stayed on course and set his face to Jerusalem. He submitted to the cross and endured the dreadful darkness when his Father abandoned him. “He scorned the shame of the cross and then sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” If Jesus had been like us, he would have chosen instant gratification, instead of the “joy set before him” (Heb 12:2-3).

In our battle against constant craving, let’s keep our eyes on Jesus one day at a time. Let’s give up whatever sin endangers our relationship with God and run patiently in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s never refuse God’s grace or put our confidence in short term gains. Instead, let’s build our lives on Christ and his unshakeable kingdom. What’s a pot of lentil stew compared to a land overflowing with milk and honey?

Prayer

Lord, it’s sobering to read of how Esau rejected your blessings by trading his birthright for a pot of stew. We too struggle against this same sin and we so often forget that you are good and you offer us joy that’s better than anything on earth. When we are struggling with sin, help us to keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who “endured such opposition from sinful men so that we will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:2-3). Give us thankful, worshipful hearts that fully appreciate your great gift of salvation. “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees, make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled but rather healed (Heb 12:12).

Amen

For the love of the children (Part 2)

Part 2 in a series “Christ and the children”, by Rosie Moore.

Two weeks ago, we focused on Christ’s power and glory in the Transfiguration. But in Matthew 18 and 19, we see Jesus’ humanity and compassion for the most helpless and dependent people on earth. These cameos show us that God loves little children, born and unborn, and is deeply concerned for their welfare.

We cannot be under any illusions about how Jesus sees anyone who hurts or lures a child into sin, temptation, unbelief, bitterness, addiction or slavery. Satan’s purpose is to destroy children and their faith in God, or at least to handicap them through sin, guilt, fear and shame. But God’s plan is to bring ‘little ones’ into his kingdom, the earlier the better.

“Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matt 18:5-6).

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matt 18:10-14)

Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away. (Matt 19:13-14).

In a society which has increasingly accepted and normalized the sexualisation of children, Matthew 18:6 speaks loudly and clearly about how God will judge those who use their power to rob children of their childlike trust, hobbling them with trauma and shattering their innocence.

The hidden pandemic of child abuse relies on collusion by families and communities who value other things above their children.

The hidden pandemic.

According to Stats SA, in the year 2020, more than 600 girls aged 9 and 10 gave birth to a baby.

Just scratch beneath the surface of this statistic: Since the legal age of consent is 16 years old (shocking enough), every one of these children (and countless others who did not give birth) have been groomed and raped by a man, with no one in the family, community, or law enforcement to intervene for that child. Most of these little girls were trapped in homes with a known abuser.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg, since most 9 and 10 year olds are not physically mature enough to conceive a baby. How many more babies and young girls were raped but never gave birth? Moreover, in 2020, 34 587 babies were born to girls aged 17 and younger. These mothers are still children themselves.

But South Africa is not alone in this gross violation of children, nor is it limited to females. Child abuse is a global epidemic, and in 2020-21, more layers of the horrific underbelly of child abuse has been exposed:

Child sex trafficking.

A few months ago, Ghislaine Maxwell was found guilty on all charges but one in the sex trafficking trial linked to the late convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Maxwell lured girls as young as 12 with offers of money, visas and modelling prospects. The men who procured these underage girls were high profile elites who were conveniently shielded in the Maxwell trial. Just last week, Prince Andrew paid a settlement of £12 million (about R245 million) to Virginia Guiffre who claimed she was sexually assaulted by the Prince when she was 17. £2 million of this settlement went to an NGO which stops child sex trafficking.

In June 2021, Joel Davis, nominated for a Nobel prize for being the founder of a NGO dedicated to ending sexual violence against children and adolescents, was himself sentenced to 15 years in prison for child pornography and enticing a minor to engage in sexual activity. Ironically, the ‘protector’ of children was found with 3700 photos and more than 330 films of child pornography.

Pedophilia.

There are thousands of instances of the fox guarding the henhouse. A 2009 report found that sexual and psychological abuse was “endemic” in Catholic-run industrial schools and orphanages in Ireland for most of the 20th Century.

A five-year Australian inquiry in 2017 found that “tens of thousands of children” were sexually abused in Australian institutions over decades, including churches, schools and sports clubs.

But perhaps most shocking of all was an independent Catholic commission report released in October 2021, estimating that 216 000 children were abused by 3000 different Priests in France alone since the 1950’s. Including abuse by other church employees, the total number of child sex victims is 330 000. Around 80% of the victims were boys.

The head of this huge French inquiry said that until the early 2000s, the Church had shown “deep, total and even cruel indifference” towards victims. This is victim shaming and spiritual abuse at its worst, and the layers are only starting to be peeled back.

The scourge of pedophilia is greater than we can ever imagine, but this interview by Dr Jennifer Roback Morse  provides insight into the far reaching implications in the lives of child victims and future generations.

Yet, we still have so many cultural and social norms that encourage child molestation and rape to be swept under the carpet to protect the family, church or institution.

Child pornography.

Child porn is one of the fastest growing online businesses, with over 55% of victims just 10 years old or younger. On PornHub, the word ‘teen’ has topped the pornography mega-site’s search items for over six years now. A search on the site for ‘girls under 14’ yields more than 100 000 videos.

It’s ironic that Pornhub, which attracts more than 3.5 billion visits a month, does nothing to police its content, while big tech in general is censoring people’s legitimate speech every day. Jennifer Morse describes child porn as a “plague that’s eating away at the soul of our society”, led by abusers who profit from the suffering and degradation of children.

Moreover, there is ample research to prove that children’s exposure to online pornography has devastating effects on a child’s attitudes to sex, violent sexual behaviours and practices. Porn destroys empathy and the ability to experience pleasure (anhedonia), thus poisoning real life attachments and relationships. It’s not difficult to see how child porn users become abusive partners.

Yet, so little is said about the ruin of children through online pornography, which is currently leading the majority of teens into addiction. Porn is part of a lethal pandemic which is poisoning our children, but our culture has become expert at straining out gnats and swallowing camels where children are concerned (Matt 23:24).

Abortion.

And then there’s the unborn baby, which has become disposable through the legal practice of abortion. This is another case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

But God’s Word will not let us forget that even the tiniest child is a human being created in the image of God, with inestimable worth and dignity (Luke 1:41Ps 139:13). Since all human life is sacred, the blood of every murdered victim cries out to God for justice, as in the case of Abel (Gen 4:10).

We don’t need to guess what Jesus would think of abortion–the leading cause of death worldwide for humans, with about 70 million legal abortions being performed annually, worldwide.

If you look up the abortion Worldometer website, you will see that more than 5.3 million babies have already been aborted legally this year, and it is only mid-February. This is a staggering snapshot of modern day child sacrifice. The number rises every second to indicate the death of another precious human.

If we, as Christians, think that laws and policies are a distraction from our faith, it’s worth noting that in South Africa, annual abortions rose sharply after the “Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act” was passed in 1997, and these figures have steadily increased year on year.

So, in 1996, there were 1 651 abortions recorded for the year, and in 2019 (the last year on record), we had 124 446 recorded legal abortions. Thus, laws do make a difference to people’s values and behaviour, which is why Christians should care about politics and policies if we are to be salt in our culture. Jesus pronounces ‘woes’ on the religious people of his time, who failed to protect the most vulnerable: “But you have neglected the more important matters of the law– justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23-24).

Deceivers.

And last but not least, there are the Teachers who lead children astray by scoffing at their belief that God  created the world; the Chaplains who stand at chapel lecterns day after day, dressed in full regalia, but never invite the children to repent of their sins and believe in Christ; the Pastors who invite young people to explore all  other religions and roads to God, except Christ; the Progressive Christians who ridicule the plain teachings of the Bible, such as the resurrection of the dead, Christ’s atonement and eternal judgment.

Instead of being the spiritual shepherds described in Matt 18:10-14, these ‘false guides’ actively lead little ones away from God, urging children to deconstruct their ‘childish’ faith and reject the Bible’s authority to answer their questions. I’m sure Jesus had these deceivers in mind in Matt 23:13-14: “You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

Out of sight, out of mind.

Of course it’s easier to say, “Out of sight, out of mind!” Child abuse is a distressing and overwhelming issue that makes us wish we could just stay with the original sweet image of Jesus blessing the little children, instead of being diverted by millstones around people’s necks!

But about all these secret, hidden sins against children, God says to his people in every generation:

“If you faint in the day of adversity,
    your strength is small.
11 Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
    hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
12 If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
    does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
    and will he not repay man according to his work?” (Proverbs 24:10-12)

Our generation of Christians needs to fight for the dignity and protection of children in this hidden epidemic. We cannot faint.

All forms of injury to children should shock us to the core and awaken a righteous desire to reach out and care for children wherever we can. Fundamental human rights and the freedom to flourish are rooted squarely in the Bible, so of all people, Christians owe children more than mere survival.

But, what can we as parents and the church do for children? Here are just four ideas:

1. Lead a counter-revolution.

Lead a sexual counter-revolution by pushing back against the sexualisation of our children.  Be on the lookout for every opportunity to care for and disciple children who are casualties of the sexual revolution, atheism and the rapid disintegration of the family unit.

If one of Satan’s most effective schemes is to lead young hearts astray through inappropriate sexualisation, the church and Christian families need to be at the forefront of a “sexual counter-culture”, to borrow the words of Tim Keller and Kevin de Young. Twenty-first century Christians need to emulate our brothers and sisters in the first century who spearheaded the “first sexual revolution”.

We cannot passively watch our children be swept away by our sexually twisted culture. We need to bring the Bible into family life and be unembarrassed to talk frankly to our children about God’s purpose for sex and relationships, about biblical manhood and womanhood. Start in your home and move on to mentor other young people that the Lord brings into your life. Pray for God to show you where He can use you in the life of a child or teen, and be ready to obey.

As a practical example, I know a Christian couple who mentor over 60 boys and girls every year in their gap year programme. They tell amazing stories of broken lives being restored, new habits formed and a new trajectory set for life which will affect generations to come.

2. Do not relinquish parental responsibility.

Fiercely guard your God-given rights and duties as parents to make wise decisions on behalf of your children. These rights are being eroded on many fronts, as part of a strategic attack on God’s design for the family as the foundation of society (Gen 2:24-25). Parents are increasingly being seen as unwanted “barriers” to children accessing abortion and their “sexual rights”. Parental authority, abstinence and religious values are even being blamed for child pregnancies and sexual abuse.

And so, children need courageous parents with eyes wide open to the content being taught to them in schools, especially when it’s couched in positive terms like “comprehensive sexuality education”, “sexual rights”, and the “right to sexual pleasure” for children of all ages. ‘Queering’ (the intentional disruption of heterosexuality as the norm) and graphic sexual education of young children is being imported to Africa from the West and should be resisted by Christian parents. The ideology underpinning these education strategies won’t solve any problems, but will lead children into sin.

Similarly, we need to counter ideologies which teach children to think that race is more important than character, or that different races have mutually incompatible characteristics and values that cannot be shared. These are divisive and harmful teachings which cause damage to the wellbeing of children, their relationships and ability to accept their identity in Christ.

Be vigilant about who your children visit and where they sleep over, without being neurotic. Make a habit of lifting your own children where possible. Be careful of coaches and teachers who do not respect proper boundaries between adults and children, and never assume that all people share your values. Teach your children what is appropriate, how to firmly say ‘no’ and how to resist temptation. Read good Christian books to your children like the “God’s design for Sex” series.

Be willing to process difficult questions with your children day or night (Deut 6:5-9). You cannot delegate this responsibility.

3. Welcome children in Christ’s name.

Jesus shows us how to take care of little ones by taking them tenderly on his lap. They are not just little things to be sent on errands, ordered around, farmed out, or used for our own ends. Jesus says that we are to welcome them into God’s kingdom in very concrete and kind ways.

The early church took this literally when they rescued baby girls, left by the Paterfamilias to die at the Roman fountains and garbage heaps. Infanticide is not unique to our culture. Those discarded babies who didn’t die from exposure were normally sold for slavery and prostitution.

But rescued babies were cared for in Christian families and catechized in the early church. They grew up to become wives in the rapidly growing Christian community, so in God’s amazing providence, these children gave birth to a whole new generation of Christians.

To welcome a child in Christ’s name means to lead a child gently to the Lord one step at a time. Whether they are our genetic children, adopted children or complete strangers, we can look out for every opportunity to welcome children in Christ’s name.

With the fragmentation of families, there are more babies and children than ever with no parental care. They need Christian adults to talk to them about who Jesus is and to pray for them; to adopt and support them. That’s how they will know the love of Jesus.

In many cases, the internet has been a child’s only babysitter, leaving them starved for real relationship. Many children do not ever sit around a dinner table and have a family conversation. This affords us an opportunity to offer genuine hospitality to young people by inviting them to our homes, bringing them to Church and incorporating them in our Life groups.

4. Do not hinder the children.

Finally, Jesus’s message to all of us is not to ‘hinder’ the children.

As parents, we can inadvertently hinder them with harsh authoritarian methods, as well as with over-indulgence and neglect. How will they learn of God’s love and character unless we show them? And how will they not be led astray if we leave them to their phones and devices? This is not a time for passive parenting.

At pivotal times in their development, we need to put aside all else to consistently discipline our children and teach them to control their natural selfish impulses. This is hard work, especially in the tyrannical toddler and teen years! But if we fail to be consistent in discipline, we will be causing our little ones to stumble. We may even hinder them from submitting to Christ and entering His kingdom.

Personally, I was privileged to grow up in a safe nest, with dozens of adults who discipled and nurtured me. God used them to welcome me into his kingdom:

A father who read me the Bible from a young age and shepherded my heart; an old pastor called Rev Dr J.F Allen who, in 1975, gave me a copy of his book, “The New Illustrated Children’s Bible “ which states on the front page: “The book is dedicated to the children of the world.” I read that Bible from cover to cover many times.

Another pastor called Warwick Seymour, from a tiny rural church, was my godfather. Every birthday, he gave me a beautiful Christian picture book with a handwritten message on the flyleaf. In my first decade of life, I was literally led to the Lord by those books and prayers, which is probably why I still love reading and writing.

But the shepherds didn’t stop there. When I went to boarding school at the age of 10, Christians from ‘Scripture Union’ and ‘Youth for Christ’ came to my school on missions. A total stranger wrote to me every week and sent me a Daily Bread to help me with my Bible readings and prayer. He taught me how to write my thoughts in a journal and memorize Scripture. An old woman arrived at my school each Sunday to take me to church, and an amazing Christian teacher called Andy Thomas taught me Biblical studies throughout high school.

At University, Roger Palmer (who ran a student ministry) and Dr Chris Warton, taught me to think biblically and patiently answered my questions. I’m naming names where I remember them, because I want to acknowledge some faithful Christians who took turns planting and watering spiritual seeds in my early life without ever seeing any fruit. They simply welcomed me in Christ’s name and in so doing, they welcomed Christ (Matt 18:5). It’s an immense privilege to lead a little one to God, and that privilege could be ours.

Our Father in heaven is not willing for any little one to be lost (Matt 18:14). “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Let’s look around and show the same kind of love and concern for children in our sphere of influence. It’s sorely needed.

What is your mental image of Jesus?

“When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus” (Matt 17:8)

A temptation we all face is to see Jesus as just one among many great men of history, like the heroes of a book I read recently titled, Seven Men and the Secret of their Greatness” (Eric Metaxes). Although Jesus was a real, flesh-and-blood man, He was much more than a carpenter, healer, preacher and  leader who died a martyr’s death in first century Palestine.

He is more than a good example, a good influence, a lawgiver, a role model and a great prophet who reveals the secret to greatness. Jesus, the only Son of God, is in a class of his own: He made us; became human and lived among us; then died on our behalf. But He is now seated on his throne in heaven as the King of glory. He has no rivals. This is something we are apt to forget.

No rivals.

But if you’ve been to a traditional church school or been brought up in a Christian family, it’s easy to trivialize Jesus and imagine him as a character in a Sunday school picture book, sitting in a fishing boat with his friends, handing out favours to the sick and needy, smiling benignly at the Last supper.

It’s equally easy to romanticize Jesus and picture him as a baby in a manger or a bloody martyr on a cross. But Matthew’s account of the transfiguration (Matthew 17) and John’s vision of the glorified Son of man (Revelation 1) demolish any glib pictures of Jesus we may have in our heads. They paint a stunning picture of the glorified Jesus that is beyond our imagination.

Transformation.

Can you imagine being James, John and Peter on the day that Jesus was transformed on the mountain? They had lived with Jesus for three years and knew him as a Galilean preacher and miracle worker, but then they caught a glimpse of Him as the glorified Son of God.

Christ’s face and clothes became so bright in appearance that He was difficult to look at: “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matt 17:2). The closest I’ve come to a shining face is someone who is badly sunburnt or has rubbed vaseline all over their skin! It’s nothing like Christ’s transformed body.

Then suddenly, as if a clock rocketed 1400 and 900 years back in time, two Old testament heroes appeared and spoke with Jesus. Amazingly, Moses and Elijah were interested in hearing what the Son of God was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Luke records that they spoke about Jesus’s ‘departure’ (exodus) “which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). It’s difficult to imagine the exact words of their gospel conversation!

Awkwardly, Peter offered to put up tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. I can relate to this silly impulsive thing Peter did, as I’m prone to do similar things. Perhaps he was thinking to himself, “Please don’t let this moment of glory end! Let’s just forget this nasty idea of suffering, being rejected and crucified. Let’s rather build some cozy tents up here on the mountain, so we can live with this heavenly Jesus forever!” That’s just how I sometimes feel when I’m having a precious time with my family before we scatter in different directions. I long to pitch some tents and make the beautiful moment last forever.

Moreover, Peter had a totally wrong mental picture of Jesus. He wanted to elevate Jesus to the stature of the great lawgiver, Moses and the greatest Old Testament prophet, Elijah. Perhaps he imagined Jesus as a political hero like David or Samson, who would rescue his people from the Romans.

But Jesus embodied everything that the law and prophets illustrated to the Jewish people. Moses and Elijah’s achievements could not compare to the real Lamb of God, who would soon die to give permanent access to His heavenly Father. Jesus fulfilled, satisfied and perfected every element of the Old covenant.

As if to put the record straight, the Father’s voice, which was part of a terrifying display of nature, boomed from heaven, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matt 17:5)

It’s no wonder that John and Peter were dumbstruck with fear. This was a theophany if ever they saw one! “They fell facedown to the ground, terrified.” (Matt 17:6). And Jesus responded to their reverent worship with reassurance, “Get up! Do not be afraid.” (Matt 17:7). There was both authority and kindness in his voice.

Then Matthew records one of the most poignant verses of the Bible: “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.” (Matt 17:8) What a beautiful picture of Christ alone– sola Christus!

The three disciples had just witnessed one of the rare and terrifying moments when Jesus revealed his divine glory as the God of all creation. Another occasion was at his arrest when Jesus said, “I am.” The soldiers “drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6).

No one but Jesus.

Jesus permits no rivals. Everything we love about noble, brave historical heroes points to Him. He is the world’s one and only Saviour. Those who fall at his feet in surrender are those who finally realise there is no one else who is worthy. From the moment of our spiritual awakening, we, like the disciples, must look and listen to Jesus only.

Although the Creator of the world took on flesh and became one of us, at the transfiguration the three disciples became “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). They glimpsed Christ as the King of glory and it aroused awestruck worship.

During the Transfiguration, the disciples were assured that Jesus was the real Messiah, even though He would soon be arrested and crucified as a common criminal. Spurgeon lays out the practical implication of this stunning revelation for believers in every age:

“Let us follow Jesus, and follow him with other men only so far as we perceive they follow Christ.”

The first and the last.

The mighty Son of God appeared a second time to John when he was a much older man. This time the resurrected Jesus revealed His glory to reassure John and all future believers of who He was, and is, and always will be. Once again, Christ touched the stunned disciple and reminded him not to be afraid. “I am the First and the Last.” John’s awesome vision is recorded for us in Revelation 1:12-18.

“I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

Do not be afraid.

While the Lord of glory never forces our submission nor calls for violent overthrow of other gods, He tolerates no rivals. He is the First and the Last. Yet, it’s inconceivable that this is the same glorified Jesus to whom we have access today, by faith!

Christ’s white hair symbolizes His infinite wisdom and divine nature. He is God himself.

His feet of burnished bronze and blazing eyes remind us that he is the sacrifice on the altar and the ultimate Judge of all evil in the world.

His roaring voice epitomizes a mighty warrior shouting aloud against his enemies.

The sword in Jesus’s mouth demonstrates the power and force of his gospel message.

And the golden sash around his chest identify Jesus is the High priest who goes into God’s presence to obtain forgiveness on behalf of those who trust Him.

Just as Jesus reassured his disciples, He still touches sinful, broken people today, instructing us not to be afraid. After all, what is there to fear if the Son of God has forgiven us and is clutching the keys to death and judgment in his hand? Our only apt response is to trust and focus Him, as John, Peter and James did. “They saw no one but Jesus.”

All who trust in Christ will be raised to eternal life with Him. We will see Him face-to-face and will resemble him, “shining like the sun in all its brilliance” (1 John 3:2). Who can imagine swopping these broken old bodies for new glorified ones?!

Jesus is far more wonderful than our heroes of history or the ancestors that some venerate, who have no power over life, death or judgment. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and He alone can calm our legitimate fears (Heb 13:8). We bow to Him today as Creator and Saviour–or as our Judge in eternity.

Two glimpses of glory.

These two New Testament glimpses of glory remind us that Christ doesn’t expect his followers to placate him out of fear. Instead, our fear should lead us to a proper understanding of who Christ is, in order that we can respond to Him in trust and obedience.

The transfiguration and John’s vision challenge our mental picture of Christ. Yes, the Son of God became a man and died a shameful death. But if we dwell on his humanity, yet ignore or trivialize the Lord of glory who is seated at the right hand of God, we are believing a delusion. We are robbing ourselves of the strength, courage, hope and peace we need to face trials and suffering in this world.

It’s because of John’s robust, 3-dimensional mental picture of Jesus, that he could reassure all future believers with these comforting words that are so apt in our times:

“You dear children, are from God and have overcome the spirit of the antichrist in the world, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)

 Prayer

Father, thank you that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord, to your glory. Forgive us for creating pathetic images of your Son and failing to see Him as the King who is reigning and ruling even now. We worship you, Lord Jesus, because you have disarmed every power and authority on the cross. Since we have been raised with you, set our minds above, where you are seated in majesty and glory. Thank you that our lives are hidden with you and that when you come back, we shall also appear with you in glory. We can only imagine how awesome that day will be.  In the meantime, keep us fearless, focussed and faithful. Amen.

The Sirens of Self

By Rosie Moore.

Years ago, when I used to read books aloud to my children, I remember how my son loved our big book of Greek myths. He was fascinated by the story of the Sirens in the myth of Odysseus, the Greek hero. The Sirens were birdlike temptresses, who lured sailors to their death with their enchanting music. Men would smash their ships on the jagged cliffside of the island where the Sirens lived, leaving the helpless men drowned or stranded. My son studied the gory illustration in much detail!

But, determined not to be enticed by the Sirens, Odysseus asked his crew to tie him to the mast to prevent him from steering the ship onto the rocks and he put wax in his ears so that he wouldn’t hear them. The Sirens have become symbolic of the many temptations which lure men away from their purpose, with the ultimate consequence of death.

The Sirens sound so dramatic! We can all imagine sex, drugs, prostitution, porn and phone addiction being sirens. But isn’t the siren of self a much more subtle one that steers us away from our purpose as human beings?

The Westminster shorter catechism asks the question: “What is the chief end of man?” And it answers: “To give glory to God and enjoy him forever.

In contrast, the worldview in which we are born and raised worships self above all else. Most of us are steeped in self glory from the moment we leave the womb. Just think of how everyone coo’s and praises a baby for smiling, burping and eating its porridge, even filling its nappy!

We are trained to enjoy ourselves; seek rewards from others; uphold and affirm ourselves; pick ourselves up from our bootstraps; develop our own strategies to deal with troubles; re-brand ourselves; motivate ourselves; pursue financial independence; convince ourselves that we’re enough, worthy of loving, admiring and praising.

Of course, most of these things are good in moderation, but the siren of self is a dangerous enchantress which can lure even believers to act like hypocrites who have long forgotten our life’s purpose, which is to give glory to God and enjoy Him forever.

Jesus pointed this out in Matthew 6, in the heart of His Sermon on the Mount. He was talking to his disciples about three religious activities that they would regularly engage in as Jewish believers. These activities were giving, praying and fasting, habits of grace that should still be part and parcel of the Christian life.

Giving, fasting, praying.

Of course, they are very good habits to cultivate. But Jesus recognized that even in the midst of worthy pursuits, the natural inclination of the human heart is to draw attention to ourselves and steal the glory that belongs to God alone. We are self seekers by nature. See how Christ warned his disciples against hypocrisy and the siren of self which would try to entice them away from their life’s purpose:

Giving

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Prayer

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Fasting

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Sirens of admiration

Don Carson comments beautifully and succinctly on this passage, and he uses a word which is so apt. The word is ‘admired’. Listen to what Carson says:

“Jesus recognizes how easy it is for sinners to engage in worthy, philanthropic and even religious activities, less in order to do what is right than to be admired for doing what is right. If being thought generous is more important than being generous, if gaining a reputation for prayerfulness is more important to us than praying when no one but God is listening, if fasting is something we engage only if we can disingenuously talk about it, then these acts of piety are becoming acts of impiety.”

In every religious act we perform, it may be good to ask ourselves, “Who is being admired? Who gets the glory?”

Who gets the glory?

Giving, fasting and praying are ways that we humbly express our utter dependence and gratitude to God, thereby giving him all the glory:

We give to the needy, because God graciously gave to us the gift of forgiveness and the unshakeable blessings we have in Christ. We give, because we know just how fragile we are and depend on the providence of our faithful God in the midst of our own physical and spiritual neediness. When we give and help those in need, we reflect back praise and thanks to God. When we give, we take our minds off our own little aches, pains and inconveniences, and become more interested in the lives of people around us.

We fast, because we know that we are utterly empty and helpless without Christ’s filling and deliverance. We are desperately hungry for his Spirit to fill our lives and make us whole. We fast because we see our own sin and weakness and we’re hungry for mercy. We long to taste with our spiritual taste buds and see with our spiritual eyes that the Lord is good. We recognize that physical pleasures pale in comparison with the eternal banquet at the end of time, when we will be truly satisfied. When we fast, we empty ourselves of self to seek his guidance, wisdom and grace in a particular way, for a particular time.

We pray, because through prayer we relate intimately with God, our Father in heaven, who has adopted us into his family. It is in this affectionate and confidential communion with the Maker of heaven and earth, that we come to Jesus as a little child and find rest from all our labours. Prayer is like a wonderful room where a child of the King is invited to cozy up to his/her dad, to share the details of the day and be shown the secrets of the kingdom.

In these three ‘religious’ activities that Jesus names– giving, fasting and praying–we remember our humble estate and give all the glory to God for our extraordinary privilege. Christ is our reward and our treasure. He is the focus and the axis, not ourselves.

The siren of self.

But see how quickly the siren of self can turn even the best endeavours into acts of hypocrisy. The sirens start to scream, “What about me?”

And so, we start chasing our rewards now, saying, “Look at me! See how good I am! See how much more I’m doing or giving or praying than these others who are so indifferent to the needs around them! See what great rewards I’m storing up in heaven! See how God is using me in his kingdom! See how I’m suffering for his sake! See how many I’m leading into his kingdom!”

Or the siren of self may use a sneaky song to deflect God’s glory: “See how useless and unworthy I am, I can do nothing for God’s kingdom! Surely the world would be better off without me? What difference can giving, fasting or praying make when the world is so hopeless? Why did all these bad things to happen to a generous giver like me?”

The sirens of self are not always easy to identify and can sneak up on us quite unexpectedly. But when they lure us away from Christ, we deflect all the glory due to God, to ourselves. We look to people to recognize, admire or feel sorry for us. We develop a ‘God complex’, believing ourselves to be the saviour. Or we can become so self absorbed with our own dark feelings, troubles or moods that we sail horribly close to the jagged cliffs.

Oh dear, how can we be free from the Sirens of self? Can we be like Odysseus and ask someone to tie us physically to the mast of our ship, so that we just stand immobile and not do anything? Shall we block our ears with balls of wax, so we can’t hear the Sirens? I don’t think so! God’s Word tells us that we are Christ’s workmanship created for good works that He has prepared in advance for us to do (Phil 2:10). Jesus tells us that He means us to hear his Word and be fruitful, producing a crop that yields a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown (Matt 13:23).

Our works are for His glory and our joy, so paralysis is not the answer. But I think probing the heart is.

Probe the heart.

Jesus reminds us throughout Matthew 6 to examine our hearts. In the realm of money, He says to “store up eternal treasures,” because our hearts will inevitably pursue whatever we truly value. In the realm of worry, Jesus says the antidote is to trust and ask God to give us what we need.

Whatever captivates our dreams and imaginations, our longings and desires; whatever sparks our fears and anxiety—these things will become the sirens that enchant us. Jesus teaches us to turn our hearts away from these self destructive sirens, and towards Himself. When Jesus is our compass, we forget about ourselves and are kept on a steady course.

“Therefore, seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt 6:33) What a simple but profound solution to the siren of self. This verse is the key to the whole chapter.

For His eyes only.

And so, Don Carson suggests that the only way to stop our religious activities being wrecked by the sirens of self, is to “do them so quietly that no one but God knows we are doing them.”

Be generous with your many blessings, but tell no one that you’re giving, and ask the recipient to keep it anonymous too. The rewards of eternity are imperishable, even if we do something as small and invisible as giving a thirsty person a cup of water for Christ’s sake (Matt 10:41-42).

Pray more where no one but God can see you, than you pray in public. Forget about whether you feel like it or not, just remember who you are and lay everything at his feet.

Fast, but do it with a cheerful face and attitude, so no one but your closest people know you’re abstaining from what you usually enjoy.

And don’t be bold enough to ask God for forgiveness if you’ve been unwilling to forgive someone else (Matt 16:14-15).

We cannot stop the Sirens of self blasting in our ears and we cannot tie ourselves to the mast to purge ourselves of impure motives. But we can make sure that we perform good acts with a simple, sincere desire to please God, not to create the impression that we are pleasing God.

Impressions are seldom accurate, and admiration is always short lived, but pleasing God is the one reward not ruled by the law of diminishing returns. It’s the only reward worth living for.

Fanatically honest

Corruption is a chronic condition of the human heart. I recall someone from Durban once telling me about an interview he had with a prospective accountant. He asked the applicant, “Are you honest?’ The applicant answered, “Yes, but not fanatically honest, if you know what I mean!” We had some fun imagining what it means to be just moderately honest!

It’s hard not to get despondent when you read about yet another official on the gravy train, spewing lies and selling out his people for money. In South Africa, the sheer scale of looting is estimated at R1 trillion, mainly due to the corrupt awarding of contracts and mismanagement of public funds. The Zondo Commission noted that ANC ‘cadre deployment’ was a great enabler in state capture.

Corruption is not a victimless crime, as it’s always the poor and working class who suffer from poor education and healthcare; crime and unemployment because leaders have drained the public coffers.

Throughout the world, the last two years have shown us that politicians, media, so-called experts and the health industries are corrupt on many levels, with scientists, doctors and safety councils being bought off just as easily as politicians. No wonder trust of authority is at an all time low. People know they’ve been lied to and they’re weary of broken promises.

But the Bible tells Christians not to conform to our culture. We are God’s distinctive people, called out of the city of man “so that we will not share in her sins, so that we will not receive any of her plagues” (Rev 18:4).

Where our society has normalized lying, bribery, kickbacks, censorship, conflicts of interest and collusion, God’s Word tells believers to draw a clear line in the sand. As citizens of the city of God, we are called to be fanatical about honesty! Psalm 15 gives us some practical standards to determine how we are doing as Christians as we enter a fresh year.

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?

The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbor,
and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
but honors those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things
will never be shaken. (Ps 15)

Who may dwell in your sacred tent?

King David presents an important question, “Who can come before God?” He ends on an assuring note: “He who does these things will never be shaken.”

In one sense, it is a figurative question because David may have wished to live in the house of God (the tabernacle), but it was impossible for him. David was not a priest and he was a sinner. No one can come before a holy God unless they are perfectly blameless.

Yet, in another sense, David is also asking, “Who may be received as a guest into God’s tent, enjoying all the benefits and protections of his hospitality? Who may live as a citizen of his holy kingdom? What is the character of the one who walks in fellowship with God, whose heart, mind and actions are in sync with God’s character?”

David wrote a thousand years before Jesus, from an Old Covenant perspective. The New Covenant gives us the hindsight of the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. If we have put our faith in Jesus, He has declared us blameless. This imputed righteousness is the basis by which we come before God. There is no other way to approach God and live in fellowship with Him.

Nonetheless, David’s Psalm is still applicable today, because it tells us that the conduct of our lives is a reflection of our fellowship with God. A righteous life is the result of fellowship with God, based on faith in Christ. The same God,  now living amongst his people by his Holy Spirit, says that our bodies are His ‘temple’ or ‘sacred tent’. And so, all of life is worship.

This Psalm tells us that worship is about down-to-earth behaviour, rather than a religious gathering or an emotional experience. It’s not what we claim to be nor how sincere our intentions are. It’s what we actually do and say on an daily basis that demonstrates we are people of integrity. In Psalm 15, authentic worship is marked by seven habits:

Seven habits of a true worshipper.

  1. Speak truth;
  2. Resist slander;
  3. Despise evil people;
  4. Honour good people;
  5. Resist bribes;
  6. Give generously,
  7. Keep our promises (even when it hurts).

These seven marks of integrity apply every day of the week– in business, at home, in online activities, church and Bible study, at school and university, in politics and everywhere. They apply irrespective of our age, race, culture or social standing. Let’s think through the implications of some of these ‘rules of life.’

Speak the truth.

God’s character and standards haven’t changed since King David’s day. Lying lips are still “an abomination to the Lord, but they who deal truly are his delight” (Prov 12:22). “A false witness will perish, but a careful listener will testify successfully” (Prov 21:28). God has not changed.

The New Testament teaches that a righteous life is known by the way a person uses their tongue. Christ himself said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:34). He taught that we need to say a  simple “Yes” or “No”, and mean it. Anything beyond this comes from the evil one (Matt 5:37). Oath or no oath, simply speak the truth and stick by it. There are no grey areas in being truthful.

But “speaking the truth from our heart” goes beyond not telling outright lies. It is about living a life of integrity, where there is consistency between what we believe, what we say, and what we do. How we treat our neighbour is a measure of our integrity.

Integrity in all things, big and small, is the distinguishing mark of a believer in Christ. (Eph 4:17-25). A believer learns the truth (Eph 4:20-25); lives the truth (Eph 4:22) and loves the truth (Eph 4:25). The new self is created to be “like God in true righteousness and holiness…therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour” (Eph 4:25).

So let’s get to where the rubber hits the road!

Speaking the truth requires that we never plagiarise or steal another person’s words, ideas or invention, but always acknowledge our sources. We don’t pretend to be smarter than we are by inflating our CV or creating a false persona. Instead, we align ourselves with reality: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Rom 12:3).

Speaking the truth means that we don’t invent or listen to propaganda, because propaganda is a twisted form of speech that misleads people with half truths. It means that we do not suppress or hide the truth with word play or by ignoring empirical facts, even if we think censorship is for the ‘greater good’.  Truth lovers support transparency and free debate. They are careful not to manipulate data or build a straw man in order to demolish another person’s arguments.

A truth speaker speaks the truth even when it’s awkward. This may come at great personal cost. Speaking the truth at work may require us to expose sexual harassment or theft in our organisation, or it may lead us to write an open letter to expose injustice and demand accountability. It may require us to explain the gospel clearly or answer a hard question at a dinner party of atheists. Proclaiming truth from the rooftops has never been a popular activity, but that is what Christ calls us to do (Matt 10:27).

Speaking the truth may require us to be a whistleblower or to advocate for voiceless victims. It may mean that we engage in civil disobedience when laws are unjust. Speaking truth to power is the duty of a Christ follower in whatever small sphere of influence we have.

The midwives did it in Egypt; Daniel and his friends did it in Babylon; the Prophets confronted Israel’s corrupt leaders; Esther risked her life to approach King Xerxes and expose Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews. Jocabed hid her baby son Moses in a basket boat to resist the genocidal edict of the Pharoah. The Magi quietly disobeyed a murderous king, while John the Baptist confronted Herod about his immorality. We have plenty of examples of believers who drew a line in the sand and acted with integrity.

Speaking the truth means keeping our promises, even when it hurts. We must be known as people of our word, trustworthy and dependable. And so, a Christian is serious about their marriage vows; their Hippocratic or judicial oath; their testimony and their agreements, verbal or written. But a Christian is equally serious about everyday words, commitments and silences. Simply let your yes be yes and your no be no (Matt 5:37).

Resist slander.

Our tongues must utter no slander or slur which harms our neighbour. Therefore, a Christian cannot join cancel culture in discrediting, silencing, demonizing, isolating or smearing someone’s reputation. It is an affront to Christ to use insulting epithets to describe people or to remain silent when others do so. Instead of ad hominem attacks, a Christian should engage respectfully with ideas, arguments and evidence.

Sometimes our faith demands courage. There are too many people being robbed of their good names simply for being honest, instead of parroting the accepted narrative. I’ve heard few Christians speak up about this slander. But righteousness is expressed in the way we treat one another and defend our neighbour. Is it not possible for our silence to violate the ninth commandment, “Do not give false testimony against your neighbour?” (Ex 20:16).

Human nature hasn’t changed since David’s day, because the problems of rebellion and sin are deep-seated. The hearts of men and women haven’t evolved beyond greed, envy, deceit and the desire to control and destroy others. As virtuous and caring as our culture may appear, contemporary humanity pays no attention to God’s laws. But as citizens of the city of God, we must love God’s laws and resist everything that is crooked.

Resist bribes

God still hates all forms of extortion and inducements, and the Bible has plenty to say about the gravy train! (Eccl 7:7) We would be naïve to assume that our children innately understand the implications of dishonest gain when it is so commonplace in our society. The lines might be blurred for them.

So, we have a duty to teach our kids not to chase unearned gifts and rewards. They should be taught to flee from inducements of any kind. Think of how even the godly prophet Samuel and the high Priest Eli failed to teach their sons, and so the next generation abused their power and the people under their care.

 But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 8:3).

Here are five biblical marks of bribery:

1.Bribery is cleverly disguised deception“Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent. (Exodus 23:8)

2. Bribery is an act of oppression and a perversion of justice. No matter how secret, it is always seen by God. “The wicked accept bribes in secret to pervert the course of justice.” (Proverbs 17:23). “For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts” (Deut 16:19).

3. Bribery is an act of theft, which leads the most vulnerable to suffer: “Your rulers are rebels,
partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless, 
the widow’s case does not come before them. (Isa 1:23)

4. Bribery corrupts the heart of the giver and the recipient: “Extortion turns a wise person into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart” (Eccl 7:7).

5. Bribery leads to God’s judgment and consequences which affect whole families and generations to come: “For the company of the godless will be barren,
and fire will consume the tents of those who love bribes” (Job 15:34)

A fanatically honest man.

If you recognize your own dishonesty or regret that you’ve been involved in collusion or ill-gotten gain, take heart. If we are honest with ourselves, we should all see that we fail to live lives of integrity on many fronts.

Zacchaeus was once a dishonest tax collector who robbed his own people to enrich himself. He was a sell- out and an extortionist. He worked in an industry where state-sanctioned theft was the norm. But when he met Jesus, Zacchaeus was convicted. He repented of his own corruption and became an honest man. Instead of being a cheat, he repaid his victims four times over and generously gave to the poor.  Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:8-10).

Zacchaeus was lost in his corruption until the day he met Jesus and made Christ the Lord of his life. He expressed his new faith and forgiveness by becoming a fanatically honest man. Christ is willing and able to help each of us to do the same.

Listen to Matt Papa’s song, His Mercy is More:

“The vilest sinner who truly believes

That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

Is Christmas under threat?

In the news these days, all we seem to hear is the coming of the latest threat to Christmas. Omicron is the latest Grinch that stole Christmas. Many families are unable to gather together this year and others are experiencing the first Christmas without a loved one. You may be one of them, feeling a sense of loss or wistfulness about how Christmas ought to be.

A Google news search of the word ‘Christmas’ reveals global doom instead of joy and jubilation: “CHRISTMAS UNDER THREAT FROM COVID!”. “COVID CRISIS–ARE CHRISTMAS TRAVEL PLANS UNDER THREAT?” “CHRISTMAS TREES UNDER THREAT FROM SUPPLY CHAIN ISSUES.” “CHRISTMAS PARTIES UNDER THREAT—CANCELLATIONS AS NEW STRAIN EMERGES!” ‘ELDERLY MOST AT RISK.” “SOUTH AFRICA IN FOR A BLEAK CHRISTMAS”. The media seem to enjoy stoking the fires of fear, panic and gloom in the general population!

But as I was reading through the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew, thinking about the genuine disappointments surrounding Christmas this year, it struck me how the true impact of Christ’s birth transcends the events of human history and our personal stories, no matter how miserable or chaotic these might be. Christmas is robust, durable and resilient, as the story it represents is safely embedded in the hearts of those who worship Christ as Saviour and Lord. Christ is the Lord of Christmas, not Covid!

Perhaps it’s because Christmas has been hijacked for so many years, that it’s easy to overlook the true identity of the baby in the manger. Christmas is not defined by a single day, nor is it centered around celebrations, a tree or a fat jolly man in red clothes. It is centered around Christ the Saviour, who came to give us the wonderful gift of forgiveness of sins.

Christ is the gift of Christmas, and without Him, we are left with just wrapping paper and ribbons. If Christ is not at the centre of our heart and our delight at Christmas, then fear, disappointment and emptiness are inevitable. Without the King, Christmas is fragile and meaningless. Let’s look carefully at the baby in the manger and ask ourselves who He was and what Christmas truly represents.

Joy to the world, peace on earth.

The greatest gift of Christmas is Christ’s offer to reconcile sinners to our Creator and to reconcile us to each other in love.

And so, a believer’s joy at Christmas time is not dependent on world peace; happy family gatherings; glittering trees and holidays; good health, gifts and a table heaving with gran’s roast ham, turkey and crispy potatoes!  I’m not saying these things aren’t utterly wonderful, but Jesus Himself is the wonderful gift of Christmas. He is the joy of man’s desiring. He is joy to the world. In the words of the angel, Christ’s birth is “good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10).

“Peace on earth” reminds me of the Christmas truce of 1914, when World War 1 soldiers on opposite sides emerged from the trenches to sing Christmas carols and exchange gestures of goodwill. German Lieutenant, Kurt Zehmisch, recalled:

“How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

Perhaps these soldiers, surrounded by the horrors of war, instinctively longed for the baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger, the only innocent Saviour who can guide our feet into the path of peace and provide peace on earth (Luke 2:14). Those desolate men longed for true, lasting peace that only the Prince of Peace can bring.

Zechariah’s prophetic song gives us insight into the Prince of Peace and what He will do for His people:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—
 to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
 to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 2:68-79)

Although there is plenty of turmoil in our world right now, we can be absolutely sure that Christ’s reign will bring ultimate peace on earth, as God himself has promised it:

“Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

And so, if Christ the King has come to earth, Christmas cannot be cancelled or threatened by anything in this world, because no one and nothing can contest His rule. Joy and peace are ours in Christ, regardless of our circumstances. He is our Prince of peace.

Christmas is the time we remember how Christ, driven by love, came into our sinful, chaotic world in real time and history. We remember that He will come again. And in the meantime, we hold out his light to those living in darkness, passing on his message of peace and goodwill to the world.

Worship the King.

Christmas also leads us to worship and adore the King, just like the eclectic group of people that God chose to greet His baby Son:

Some Magi from the East, who were trained to identify kings and stars, came to worship baby Jesus in the stable. When they saw the child with his mother Mary, “they bowed down and worshipped him”, offering him their treasures and gifts of gold, incense and myrrh (Matt 2:11). They refused to comply with king Herod’s order, recognizing the greater authority of the divine King in the stable.

Some dirty shepherds in rural fields came to check out the stable for themselves to see if what the angel had said was true (Luke 2:8-21). When they had verified the facts, they returned to their sheep, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:20). They took time to find out the truth about Jesus and then worshipped Him as King.

Likewise, a devout old priest called Simeon who had been waiting expectantly for the Messiah– “the consolation of Israel,” took the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God, saying,

“For my eyes have seen your salvation,
     which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel…

To Mary, he said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your soul also” (Luke 2:29-32).

Simeon recognized Jesus as the long awaited Messiah-King promised in the Old Testament. He said that Jesus would be a light to the entire world and would have a paradoxical effect on Israel. With Jesus, there would be no neutral ground. People would either joyfully embrace him as King or totally reject him.

Nothing has changed today. We either worship Jesus as Lord of all, or not at all. There is no middle ground. Christmas is about recognizing our great sin and need of atonement that only Christ can give. It is apt to bow to Him in repentance and faith, offering Him our lives of joyful obedience in 2022.

Unless we worship Christ as King, Christmas is meaningless.

Welcoming the Saviour of the world.

The nativity story reminds us that the King of the universe was first greeted by the lowly and the ordinary.

A devout teenage girl and a carpenter welcomed Christ into the world in a stable in Bethlehem. It was all they had to offer him. Joseph and Mary completely surrendered their lives to the angel’s extraordinary message, even though they knew they would face the mockery and shame of raising a ‘bastard’ child.

Mary recognized that the son she would bear was no ordinary boy, but the Son of the Most High God. She heard Simeon’s warning that her soul would be pierced (Luke 2:35). Although Mary understood the cost, she responded with joy to her commission. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Listen to Mary’s song of willing surrender, telling us something of the extraordinary baby in the manger and what he would accomplish:

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

We sing sentimentally of the night when Jesus was born to this teenage girl, but do we appreciate how hard it must have been for Mary and Joseph to welcome the Saviour of the world into their lives?

“Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, and all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace..”

It wasn’t all about peace and calm, that’s for sure.

Looking beyond the baby in the manger.

For many of us, the trimmings of Christmas have been stripped away this year. But Christmas is not under threat and it will always be a blessed time if we pay careful attention to the baby in the manger and remember who He really is:

The child who was born in Bethlehem is God with us, ‘Immanuel’, even if you are cut off from your loved ones on Christmas day.

He is the ‘Prince of Peace’, even if there is conflict and chaos around you.

The baby in the manger is the ‘Wonderful Counsellor’, even if it feels like there is no one to help and counsel you. Unlike the leaders of the world, this King needs no one to instruct Him (Isa 40:12-15). He is ‘Mighty God’ and ‘Everlasting Father’, the unrivalled King who has no peers. He is the God who measures the waters in the hollow of his hand, who regards the nations like a drop in a bucket.

Christmas is the perfect time to worship and welcome the true King and Saviour of the world. It is the perfect time to remember a tiny human baby who lived a perfect life, died for us, ascended into heaven and will come back to earth as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Jesus Christ didn’t issue a decree from on high or appear remotely on a computer screen. He came in person. Born to a teenage virgin in Bethlehem. During the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. This baby Jesus completely sliced history into two parts—B.C (Before Christ) and A.D (Anno Domini, Latin for ‘the year of the Lord’).

It is not the coming of Omicron we should be concerned about. It is the coming of Christ the King that should occupy our thoughts day and night, all year round.

Wherever you find yourself this Christmas, let’s sing together and worship Christ the King for who He really is:

Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth, and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful, all ye nations, rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With th’ angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem
Har, the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King

Hail, the heav’n-born Prince of peace
Hail! the Son of Righteousness
Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King