Giving reinstated

By Chris Butler

2 Chronicles 31:3:12

Under King Hezekiah’s leadership, Israel has returned from idolatry. A number of reforms are carried out: re-opening the Temple, reinstating the priests, and the revival of worship. But the crowning expression of Hezekiah’s reforms was reinstating the tithing system of giving to God and funding the Temple, which had been abandoned under the reign of Ahaz. And so generous were the people that their gifts ended up being piled into great heaps because there wasn’t enough space to store it all.

The command to tithe was given to the Israelites as part of the Mosaic law along with sacrificing animals, ritual washing, not eating pork, etc. The word tithe literally means a tenth. They were to give 10% of everything they earned or produced for the Lord’s work at the Temple. A question often asked today is Are Christians required to tithe? Well the New Testament says we are not under the Mosaic Law, we are under Grace (Rom 6:14). So unless any of those Old Testament commands are reiterated in the NT, then they are not binding on Christians today. And there is no command to tithe in the NT. So just as Christians are not required to sacrifice animals, there is no demand to give exactly 10% of our earnings.

However, although the tithe is no longer commanded, the principle of giving is certainly carried over in the New Testament e.g. Mat 6:3, Acts 4:32:36, 2 Cor 8:7, 2 Cor 9:7. Giving then is clearly encouraged and expected for Christians. But as Paul says in 2 Cor 8:7, it is not out of compulsion, but rather we should give out of love. It’s like when we give presents to our loved ones. We don’t give because we are told to do so. We don’t give grudgingly, because it’s our duty. We don’t give in order to get something in return. We buy them presents simply because we love them, and we want them to know it. Similarly we give to God, not as a legalistic requirement, but to show Him that we love Him. And just as our loved ones are super pleased when we give them gifts, so God is pleased with us when we give to him. He delights in the sincere generosity of His people. As it says, “God loves a cheerful giver.”

Another reason to give is out of gratitude. If someone has done us a big favour we might buy them a gift, a box of chocolates maybe, to say thank you…as a token of our appreciation. So if the Lord has given us a great blessing for which we are very grateful, a good way to say thank you is to give to Him…as a token of our appreciation. Are we grateful that we, or our loved ones, have been saved? Have we had an answer to prayer? Are we in good health? Do we have good jobs or pensions? Do we have food to eat and clothes to wear? Well, these are all blessings from God. And we can show our appreciation by giving back to the Lord’s work.

As we recognize all the things God has done for us, the natural response then is to offer him our praise and our thanks. And our giving becomes a natural extension of our worship. Just as it was in Hezekiah’s time.

In fact our times of worship are an ideal time to give. Paul instructed the Corinthians to give during their Sunday meetings (1 Cor 16:2 ). So we should do likewise. If we have pledged to give a set amount per week, we should make sure we keep our promises. Our churches and diocese have ongoing needs and financial obligations that require our regular support.

Not only should we give regularly for the on-going needs of the church, but sometimes extra collections may be needed when special needs arise. The apostle Paul arranged special collections from among the gentile churches to help the destitute believers in Jerusalem who were suffering persecution. And this also happened with Hezekiah. The finances of the Temple had been decimated by the period of closure under King Ahaz, but the restoration of the Temple and the renewal of worship led to an outpouring of generosity from the people, and the finances were not only restored but multiplied. Similarly the finances of the Rivers Team have been hit by the pandemic closures. And our vision as we come out of lockdown is to restore and even expand the ministry of the Rivers Team. And that needs to be financed.

However much God lays upon our hearts to give, whether less than 10% or more, remember it is always a privilege to give to the Lord’s work. It is a huge honour for us to be personally used by God as part of His plan to further the kingdom. And a successfully financed church, one that is actively helping people, will bring glory to God. The work of the church is done in the Lord’s name, and its success reflects upon God himself. It showcases his goodness and love, and leaves people with a positive lasting impression of Christianity. So let’s not let him down.

Worship renewed

by Denise Cryer

Hezekiah – 2 Chronicles 29:29-35

Today we see the final stages of Hezekiah’s reform of the temple, now cleansed of all the old idols, items which had been removed have now been restored and consecrated back to God. This restoration would result in a great revival for Judah as true worship was re-established.

Since the onset of Covid, we’ve had to re-imagine our worship and, personally, my perspective of worship has definitely been challenged! … and changed.

So “what IS true worship”? As we’ve established, the church is a building made out of people – you and I, wherever and whenever we engage with each other and with God. But the temple in our reading had a powerful symbolic role in Israel’s faith. Israel’s God was One, and the people who worshipped Him, were one – the temple represented unity – unity between God and His people, and unity OF His people – for me, with our church doors being closed for so long, this really resonated with me and I’ve really valued being able to get back to worshipping with my brothers and sisters in a church building.

Hezekiah understood that Judah had lost it’s passion for worship and the temple, just like our church buildings, had been closed and Hezekiah knew that getting people back would be difficult, it wasn’t something that was going to happen overnight – the leaders needed

to prepare adequately and set an example. After all you can only lead people to a place, where you’re prepared to go yourself. It would be no good Philip encouraging US back into church if he wasn’t prepared to go there himself. And we’ve certainly had to make preparations as we’ve moved back into St Lawrences – social distancing rules; lots of signs; facemasks and of course – hand gel! So the temple, the church, has been prepared for God’s people to go back into it – the scene is set!

Over the last 18 months, we’ve all been overshadowed by a lot of misery and, for me, going back into church has really refocussed me. Its brought me out of the comfortable bubble that I know I’d got quite comfortable in so I can really relate to this passage. Outside the temple was unpleasant with the stench of all the blood sacrifices but inside… the sweet smell of the altar’s incense. There was definitely a sense, even an experience, of change, of transformation and true worship is, or should be, a transforming experience – when we engage in worship, we engage with the living God! We’re in communion with Him; in fellowship with Him, and when we engage with the living God – we cant possibly be the same ! The Bible teaches us that there is tremendous joy in worshipping God in the right way, with the right heart. It’s not something we “take part in”, a routine we go through, something we DO, it’s a covenant with God to make Him the most important thing in our lives, to give priority to Him. We worship to have God impact our lives. I think, too often, we judge a worship experience by what others do when perhaps we should judge it by what WE do! Do we fully engage with all that we’re offered? Or is it more like a pix n mix of what suits us? Where are OUR hearts and minds focussed? We can all appreciate a good worship service, but worship isn’t what we get – it’s what we give. In Psalm 35:10 the Psalmist says, “With every bone in my body I will praise Him…” I wonder how close to this we are when we engage in worship?
Despite all the animal sacrifices that were made, fortunately, we don’t need to anymore – because Jesus was the sacrificial lamb who was slain once and for all. But just as He gave His all, He calls us to give our all too!. Worship isn’t only what we do in church – it’s a sacrificial way of life, offered to God. Over the last 18 months, lots of people have offered their time; their energy; and their gifts in order to establish worship in the Rivers Team that God is so very worthy of! I wonder, what little bit more of ourselves could we offer to God?
Over the centuries, true worship is a great path to revival. I Kings 18:5 says, “Hezekiah trusted in the Lord…” he trusted God with where He was leading – do we trust in the Lord to move us forward through the changes we’re going to have to make? through the restoration of our worship in the Rivers Team?

In Deuteronomy 12:11 it says, “then to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for His name – there you are to bring everything I command you…”. God had promised, through Moses that He would choose a particular location as “a dwelling place for His name”. WE are that dwelling place ,God’s temple – through the Holy Spirit God has taken up resi dence within us! So we really can’t hold anything back from him can we? – no sacrifice is too big, or too small.

The word “worship” comes from “Worth-ship” – so when we worship God, we’re giving Him the “worth-ship” He deserves! We’re responding to all that God’s given us. So, for YOU, how does that play out in real terms? How do You worthily worship God in a way that reflects all that He’s done for you? It’s a challenging one isn’t it? I was absolutely saddened when we were told we couldn’t sing in church because I really engage with God through song lyrics. They come, not from someone who can sing, but from a thankful, grateful heart. So – no singing – now what do I do? Its an interesting one because I’ve been much more focused on other elements of the worship service – I’ve been drawn into the fabulous artwork we’ve been seeing, and participating in; I’ve found the Holy Spirit speak to me through poetry, and especially been blessed through engaging with Denise Teale when she’s signed in church, and actually found myself more focussed on the song lyrics through the actions she’s encouraged us to join her with. I’ve found I’ve engaged with God with more of my body than just my mouth!

I’m sure none of us are fully aware of the sacrifices some of the Rivers Team have made, and are still making to ensure that connections and relationships are maintained, even new ones established. I’m sure we’ve made mistakes; not always got it right but I know for certain, and absolutely without doubt, that God is pleased with the work we’ve done! I know this because the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the temple that we are, has moved us and empowered us, through all the difficult challenges we’ve faced, to be engaging and proactive in the world around us!
The same paths taken by Hezekiah are available to us today too … are we willing to travel them?
Amen.

Preparing the Temple

by Denise Teal

2 Chronicles 29:11, 15-19

This week, King Hezekiah is preparing the temple for return to worship. It is one of many times when God returns His people to true worship when they turn to Him, genuinely, for guidance and relationship. Can you remember preparing something big? A meal? An event? A renovation? Preparation is no mean feat, however important. As Eddie told us: Ask any ancient Israelite to tell you the most important place on earth, you would get a clear answer: The Temple in Jerusalem. To the Israelites, it’s the place where heaven and earth meet, where the creator God chose to be found among his people and Eddie reminded us last week that the temple now, is in us.

But for a moment, what can we learn from Hezekiah’s preparations for THIS temple in God’s service? Because any temple, spiritual or physical, has to be prepared for its work in the Lord and that’s what Hezekiah was doing. It was a temple in a richly impressive complex of buildings but here was a window on their world for faith and it had to impress.

This temple was intended to become a clear symbol and meeting place of God’s desire to live together with his human creations; but by Hezekiah’s time that wasn’t happening. Previous Kings had taken it, and the people off the path God wanted for this temple. But, even the first preparations… the plans for it were from God. In 1 Chron.28:12 David gave Solomon all the plans “that the spirit put in his mind…” God was clear that in this temple, preparation meant serving God’s will not their own. For Hezekiah, this temple was a cornerstone of their covenant relationship with God. So long as the Temple was on the right track, life with God was on the right track. Mess with the temple…you mess with God! But it had experienced misuse; the biblical equivalent of abusing God. It’s hard to lose God’s love and faithfulness once we’ve given our lives to Him but it’s not all that hard to hurt Him, misuse His name and lose the path of faith He wanted for us before we were born. This temple, like us, was a witness of faith and worship to a watching world. As Eddie said…the temple is now us. Then and now, a place for God to work in our lives.

Hezekiah had what he needed to prepare it for use…he had the people, the equipment. But first, it had to be prepared. Equipped is not the same as prepared. How important is preparation?
Years ago, I ran in half marathons. Runners have to prepare the right way to ‘last’ 13 miles. A group of office colleagues were running one day. They were equipped; matching designer kit and shoes; all with a logo. But they weren’t prepared. Their legs gave way. They became out of breath. “Not givin’ them artificial restitution” declared a passing, seasoned runner. Like the 10 Bridesmaids in Matt.25… all equipped with their lamps and dressed for the wedding but 5 of them didn’t prepare properly and replenish their oil and they lost out.

As the church of God, we need to consider the right kind of preparation for life in God’s service too. Hezekiah brought people back to making God the focus of their worship, in their lives, and that involves both spiritual and practical preparations.

Last week, Eddie talked about the temple in us; the spiritual side. We prepare this side by growing that relationship through prayer, studying His word in the scriptures, discerning, listening for God, seeking guidance for what we’re called to do… being mindful, tending to the areas where God wants to grow within us. But as Eddie said, faith in isolation isn’t ideal. We’re called to be God’s temple in our community… worshipping together as a church, we are bigger than the sum of our parts. So, like Hezekiah, we are also thinking about practical preparations; what we need as we serve God in the days ahead.

Hezekiah’s practical preparation first meant some cleansing; leaving behind some things from the past that had become ‘unhelpful’. He destroyed the ‘iconic’ bronze snake Moses had made when the Israelites were beset by snakebites in the wilderness (see Num. 21:8). It was a key artifact of Israel, but had become a focus of their worship (They burned incense to it) rather than focusing on God. Are there things we hold dear in our collective worship but we consider them so important that focused on them, we forget why we are here? It’s easy to accumulate a great deal of “religious stuff”, like how we do things… but there is a natural need to want to do new things in the church too. Perhaps we could clear out an activity that takes up too much time… to leave a space for a fellowship group we don’t meet with yet or develop another activity that is serving God really well?

Secondly, Hezekiah installed things… some new, some renewed that they were going to need; activities that focused on worship and growing the faith, like the creativity we’re adding in our services. Maybe there’s a missional activity much needed in our community. Spiritually and physically, let’s think how we prepare our temples for God’s work. Some places can get completely clogged up with programmes and policies and committees and so on! Hezekiah didn’t let the past hold him back. He was bringing back a good relationship with God in his own temple.

Today’s focus was about preparing the temple, the one in us and the one in the community where we meet… still to be a witness of faith and worship to a watching world and a holy place intended for worship of our creator God. Let’s not forget why we’re Christians and what the church is for as we look forward in hope, not back with regret. Like Hezekiah, let’s roll up our mental sleeves, prepare and seek God’s wisdom for our church for its work tomorrow and for life everlasting. Amen.

Opening the Church

by Eddie Short

Could you still be a Christian if you were stranded alone on a desert island?

This is a question I was asked as part of the Foundations for Ministry course I did a couple of year’s ago with St. Peter’s college, the diocese of Sheffield’s learning community for mission & ministry. At the time, I remember thinking there was obviously a really clear-cut answer, but I was surprised to find that a few of the others on my course didn’t all hold this same view. I’ll tell you what I originally thought, and how my fellow students challenged my thinking a little later, because it ties into today’s theme. But first, let’s start with a little bit of background on the new series we’re starting today looking at the story of king Hezekiah.

Hezekiah was a king of the kingdom of Judah, which had separated from the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He was the son of Ahaz who had not been a good king. Ahaz had made idols and encouraged the worship of foreign Gods. This had led to God allowing his army to suffer a crushing defeat in a battle with another nation. Ahaz’s response was to double down in turning his back on God, offering sacrifices to the God’s of the other nation and desecrating and then shutting the doors to the tem ple. Which was the situation when Hezekiah ascended to the throne.

And his first act as king – the bible tells us it was in the very first month of the very first year of his reign – was to repair and open the doors of the temple. So, whilst the reasons behind the suspension of in-person corporate worship that we’ve experienced over the past 18 months and the closing of the temple prior to Hezekiah’s reign may be quite different, there is a clear parallel. Our doors have been largely closed for over a year and we need to re-engage and reform as a community in worship. And so there ends the sermon!

I’m sure that we’re all eagerly awaiting the day when the COVID restrictions are fully lifted and we can gather together again in church – young and old – with no masks, with no social distancing, with no attendance limits. And, as the vaccine roll out continues to be moving fast, and the government road map seems to be on track, I think we can be hopeful that we won’t have much longer to wait.

But actually does ‘opening the doors of church’ really parallel ‘opening the doors of the temple’, or is there more to it than that? I think there’s deeper meaning, a deeper level of understanding, a deeper message for us to unpack. Let’s start by thinking about exactly what the temple was.

It was a sacred building in Jerusalem, constructed during the reign of king Solomon, as a permanent successor to the Tabernacle, that portable holy place that God instructed Moses to create for housing the Arc of the Covenant during the Israelites’ wilderness years. It was also more than a building, it was a gigantic symbol that visualized God’s desire to live together with his human creations. If you were to ask any ancient Israelite to tell you the most important place on earth, you would get a clear and consistent answer: the temple in Jerusalem. It was the place where heaven and earth meet, where the creator God had chosen to take up residence among his people. The Holy of Holies, the inner most part of the temple, was home to the tangible presence of God. It could only be entered once a year, on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would walk through the curtain, the veil that separated it from the rest of the inner space, to sprinkle the blood of the atoning sacrifice. This was because the people were separated from the presence of God because of their sin.
So the Temple was at the centre of the relationship between king Hezekiah and his people, and God. God resided in the temple, and through their priests, the people worshiped and met with Him there. That was their story, that was their identity that was their relationship with their creator God. But it isn’t ours. Because Jesus came and changed everything.

John 1 v14 says “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The glory of God was no longer constrained to the Holy of Holy’s separated from the people, but it was embodied in a man. Jesus became the living temple, superseding the physical one.

Before his death Jesus said, as recorded John 2 v19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Which both predicted his resurrection and asserted His identity as God’s new temple.

This was confirmed at the moment of His death, when the veil covering the Holy of Holies was torn in too. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross meant that the people were no longer separated by their sin from God. And as we celebrated last Sunday, on the day of Pentecost the Spirit of God came to reside within the new temple built on the foundation of Jesus.

Peter says in the bible: “4As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—5you also, like living stones, are being built into a temple of the spirit to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ So for us today, the temple isn’t a building, it is us, together, as a community, together as the people of God, filled with the Spirit of God. We are the temple.
Which brings me back to the question from my Foundations course: Could you still be a Christian if you were stranded alone on a desert island? The answer that came to me instantly back then, was: yes, of course you can, because Faith in Jesus is what makes you a Christian. And I still stand by that answer. If any of us ever did find ourselves stranded alone on a desert island, I’m sure God’s grace would cover us in that situation, as it has over the period when we haven’t been able to meet together in person during the pandemic.

But faith in isolation is not the ideal; we are called to be God’s temple in community; built together – as Peter describes – like living stones. God created us in His image; but God is infinitely bigger than any one of us. God also created us uniquely to be who we are, so we all have a unique identity and relationship with Him.

This means that we can see and experience different facets of God through relationship with other Christians. In the way he made them and in the way He reveals himself to them. That’s why it’s important to be part of the temple, to come together as brothers and sisters in faith, to worship together, to love one another and to serve together. So, while we would still be Christians living on that desert island, we wouldn’t be able to live out the fullness of what it means to be a part of the temple of God, standing side by side with other believers.

So, finally, if we – together – are the temple of God, what does it mean to open the doors of the temple? Well I believe that it’s about finding ways of opening up the people of God – our church community – to those who are not yet a part of it. It’s about welcoming in with love and going out in faith to share the Gospel with those who don’t know they need it, but desperately do. It’s about making the temple – which is the people of God and our worship of Him – as accessible and welcoming and loving and accepting as possible.

Yes, we’re all longing for the time when we can get back to worshiping in our church buildings with no masks and no social distancing, hugging each other and singing at the top of our lungs, but to truly open the temple, we also need to be doing all we can to invite other people – who don’t yet know Jesus – to discover Him for themselves.

That is a temple with doors wide open.

Peter and the Power of Pentecost

by Tara Cryer

Wow what an amazing series this has been! – all those characters who wrestled with their emotions. For me, it has been comforting to discover, through these significant characters, that we are not alone, and that there are great examples of God’s presence in those trialling moments.

Let’s go back to the start of Peter’s journey. Formally known as Simon, Jesus gave a man who was, at times, overwhelmed by fear, the name Peter, meaning “rock” – symbolising stability and strength! I believe this is a powerful message – a valuable thing for us to grasp! Later on, Jesus says to Peter “you are the rock on which I build my church”. I really admire Peter as there’s such a lot to learn from his story. One thing that really stands out for me, is his clear wrestle with his emotions. Remember what I said at the start of the series, that today we sometimes see mental wellbeing and spirituality as two separate areas of concern but, here, Peter’s journey shows that the two can go hand in hand. Peter has very obvious ups and downs and, whilst it doesn’t state that Peter has an anxiety disorder, fear clearly overwhelmed him at times. I’m sure many of us can really connect to this. I believe that Peter had a deep love for Jesus and don’t believe this was ever in question. We can’t ignore that Jesus calls him that perfect name, and that despite all the trials and tribulations Peter goes through, Jesus, still at the beginning calls him “Rock”. As we’re told, in Jeremiah 29:11 “for I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”.

Peter throughout his life did some amazing things and it was through his love for Jesus that he became the disciple he was, and known as the disciple Jesus loved. Let’s look at some of the times that he wrestled with his emotions. A fine example of him wrestling with his trust and his fear is when Peter walks on water. When Jesus first appeared to the disciples, the disciples were afraid, they thought he was a ghost. Peter in the midst of that fear calls out to the Lord and and says “if that is you Lord command me to come to you” and all Jesus says is “come”. Peter then steps out of the boat and on to the water. Amazing example of his loyalty and love for Jesus. Don’t forget that while this is happening the seas were stormy and as Peter walks to Jesus he notices the wind and starts to sink. Peter was a sailor and when sailors saw wind they saw danger, this was hard wired into him. I believe this is what frightened and panicked Peter. It distracted him from the Lord and he took his eyes off Him and started to sink. Peter refocuses his eyes and heart back onto the Lord and Jesus lifts him out of the water. In that moment fear get the better of him. When I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder I was told about what was happening in my head and what was causing me to feel like I did. When we are face to face with fear something incredible is triggered in our brain, a physical process starts to happen called the fight or flight reaction. Everybody has this, God created a defence mechanism within us. This process is how we react to difficult situations. For example if we are faced with a bear, then a chemical in our brain is released and creates adrenaline which helps us to make the right and quick response. I think Peter in that moment was caught in his fight or flight, reality had hit him. Not to mention his experience of being a sailor. He was frightened, who wouldn’t be?, put in that vulnerable place? We can’t forget Peter was human, as were all the other characters we have looked at throughout this series. The most amazing thing about this story I think, is that even though Peter doubted, if only for a brief moment, Jesus didn’t give up on him!, Jesus didn’t walk away!. He actually pulled him from the water and saved him!. It seems Jesus was building resilience in Peter. Sometimes, when we feel engulfed in the storm, it can seem as if Jesus is being cruel – how many times do we say “why Lord?”. But I believe, Jesus’ answer to this question is as the Joe King song goes, “…call me heartless, call me cruel, that’s how I appear to be, every time I lead you to the crucifixion tree, but to be the overcomer that I want you to become, means I’m going to have to give you things to overcome…”

Too often, Christians are made to feel guilty when they experience anxiety, as their trust in God is questioned. However, Peter’s journey shows how this is not correct. I don’t believe that Peters trust was ever in question. He trusted Jesus enough to step out of the boat and on to the water – Peter simply got distracted.

If Peter loved and trusted Jesus with all his heart, now we’re left with a BIG question! – WHY did he deny him, not once, but three times? This can be difficult for us to comprehend but let’s have a look. In Matthew 26:31 – 35, Jesus predicts Peter’s denial. Jesus knew what Peter was going to do.

And when He expressed this to Peter, Peter declares, in vs 35, “..even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you”. I think Peter truly meant what he was saying at the time – that he WAS sincere in his words. Jesus knew what Peter would do, just as he did Judas, which raises another question – why did He forgive Peter’s betrayal and not Judas? (pause) I believe the answer to this, is the key to understanding why we shouldn’t feel guilty, as Christians, when our hearts are focussed on but we are wrestling with our emotions. Peter, unlike Judas, had a divine understanding of who Jesus was and He acknowledged what He had come into the world to achieve. He loved and trusted Jesus deeply –, Jesus knew and understood this. And that’s it, Jesus knows what’s on our hearts, what’s truly on our hearts.

By the time Peter denied Jesus, Jesus had been arrested; he knew what was going to happen. When Peter was questioned by people around him – he was scared, frightened for his life. I think most of us would say “of course I’d never turn my back on Jesus, of course I love Him” but in that vulnerable place, when your life’s in danger, knowing you will probably be killed for just acknowledging you know Jesus, would you be so certain that you’re going to say the same thing when asked? Fortunately, we live in a country where we can be free to express our faith, but that may not always be so.

When Peter heard the cock crow 3 times as Jesus had told him Peter then realised what he’d done and felt guilty, this remorse came out of his love for his Lord. I believe this was another example of Peter wrestling with his fight or flight – he had to make quick responses in a vulnerable situation.
Despite Peter’s heart, he had human limitations but through all his experiences he was growing, being moulded in to the person God knew he was to become.

On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit uses Peter’s words to change the hearts of around 3000 people in the same day!

Biblical scholars believe his sermon only took 3 1⁄2 minutes to deliver! Wow – How much Peter has grown! He is the one who stands up and raises his voice and addresses the crowd! Don’t forget this was only 6 weeks after the resurrection of Jesus – how bold!

On the day of Pentecost, Peter, who has been on one heck of a journey with Jesus, who had gone through so much, had come to that perfect moment in time. The time when he would actually become the rock on which God would build His church.

I’ve only scratched the surface of Peter’s character but, hopefully, I’ve built up a picture that we can all relate to and which brings us peace of mind. I firmly believe this peace comes from the work of the Holy Spirit – the Comforter Jesus promised in John 14:6, within us

What is really fascinating is what Peter did in the wake of receiving the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem. Peter understood that something new and mighty was happening – that, with the work of the Holy Spirit, God was making the ground fertile for new ministry. Peter recognised where God was working and he took courageous action – and God used him to reach many who didn’t believe in Jesus. I really hope that, we, like Peter, can recognise when and where Jesus is working, so we too can get involved in building the kingdom.

Nebucchadrezzar

by David Vickers

Daniel 4 v 28-37

This story is set in Babylon (what now is in northern Iraq). Neb’s father had been an Assyrian officer and had led an uprising which resulted in Babylon becoming the power in the region. Neb had been married off to the granddaughter of the ruling Mede king to keep a peace with the neighbouring Persian Empire. Neb had been responsible for the destruction of Solomon’s temple and the walls of Jerusalem with the capture of many of its inhabitants, whom he took as prisoners to Babylon. Some of these young Hebrew men were selected for training in his court, probably for political reasons. They were given Babylonian names which gave glory to Neb’s family god – Nebu, but they never gave up worshipping the God of their ancestors. Neb recognised that these men were different. They had confidence in their god. They had a certain wisdom which he respected. Neb’s own advisors were magicians, astrologers and other yes-men that he increasingly distrusted. Neb also saw some of these men protected from the flames of the furnace where they were thrown as a result of a trick played by Neb’s advisors. In the flames he had seen a fourth man who he assumed was something to do with their god.

So Neb had a conflict of truth and reality. He was a powerful and rich man. Was this due to him personally, or to his gods. And yet these Hebrew men showed him that there may be a higher god which wen counter to his own culture and beliefs.

Daniel interpreted one of Neb’s dreams in which he was out in the wilderness, long matted beard and claw-like finger nails – living wild with the animals. A year later, at a time when his pride in himself was particularly great, the interpretation came true, exactly as Daniel had said. I do not believe that God caused this insanity, but He would use it as part of His plan for His people. Neb lost all contact with any reality. Today he might be diagnosed as having a psychotic illness like schizophrenia. According to the Bible, this lasted for seven years. It was certainly a long time. But he did not die. Someone was feeding him and protecting him all this time.

And then Neb, in a lucid moment, cried out to the god of the Hebrews, “Yahweh, help me”. God heard his cry from the heart and Neb was healed. He returned to his palace and everything was restored. Now he believed and would follow this God of gods. He found his kingdom in good shape. Daniel and his Hebrew friends had ruled in his absence and done well. They were well respected by the Babylonians. So he let them continue in their roles. He was so grateful to have been introduced to Almighty God who had done this great thing in his life. His people could have abandoned him, been frightened by him, have not allowed him back into the palace. But God had sorted everything out. God is able to heal any illness. Even in the illness, He does not abandon us but is in it with us. All those around can do is prayer and ask for mercy and restoration.

So what of God’s great plan. Daniel carried on as Prime Minister with his friends beside him. even after the death of Neb. When the Medes annexed Babylon into the Persian Empire, they too saw their value and kept them on. All this led to King Darius and later King Cyrus allowing the exiles to return, to rebuild Jerusalem and the prophecies of Isaiah and Habakkuk were realised. God had told Isaiah that a remnant would return. He had told Habakkuk to look to the nations and expect something incredible to happen in his life-time. The restoration of Jerusalem and the Hebrews was to set the scene for the ministry of Jesus 600 years later. God used a mental illness as part of His plan. We often don’t understand why illness happens. We just need to trust in God’s plan for us and for all.

And what of the name Nebuchadrezza? This was the name that his father gave him and it means, “Nebu, preserve my son”. But the Hebrews altered all their scriptures (our Old Testament) to call him Nebuchadnezzar as a term of abuse meaning “Nebu, preserve my Jackass son. So Neb was remembered for this period of mental illness with name-calling for all time.

Let us learn to understand mental illness, to care for and protect and not call names. Mental illness can come to any of us at any time. As Christians, our attitude should be different from those around us. In our compassion we also have confidence that God, in his plans, sees the bigger picture and is capable of doing the incredible.

Self Esteem

by Nicola Short

Exodus 3 v 1-12 Exodus 4 v 1-12

Have you ever felt that you weren’t good enough? That you weren’t clever enough, or pretty enough, or experienced enough or strong enough to do something you’ve been asked to do? In Exodus 3 & 4, Moses certainly did. God appeared to him in the burning bush and asked him to go and talk to the Pharaoh about freeing the Israelites. And Moses’ response… are you sure? Are you really sure? I don’t think I’m the right man for the job – I think there are people out there who’d be much better at it than me! In Exodus 4 verse 10, one of Moses’ excuses is that he is not as eloquent as some other people in Egypt. And in using this excuse, he was comparing himself to other people and feeling inadequate. And as is so often the case when we have low self-esteem – when we feel like we’re not good enough – the things that we measure ourselves against, and compare ourselves to, are created by the human world, not by God. And because these standards are created by us as humans, and not by God, it means that next month or next year, these standards might change, or the people we are comparing ourselves to will change, meaning we are always chasing after something and changing who we are in order to meet these expectations.

And of course, that’s impossible. And at some point in our lives, to a greater or lesser degree, we usually throw our hands up and say we don’t care anymore – people sometimes use the phrase ‘perfectly imperfect’ when referring to themselves – they are saying that they don’t meet society’s expectations, but they are ok with that. But actually, as Christians, I’m not sure that’s the right attitude to have, and I don’t think that’s how God sees us. I think God sees us like Andrew Lincoln’s character sees Kiera Knightley’s in the film ‘Love Actually’. In the iconic scene, where he holds up handwritten signs whilst stood at her front door, he tells her ‘to me, you are perfect’. And I think this is how God sees us. Psalm 139 verse 13 says that God created our inmost being – that he knitted us together in our mother’s womb; verse 16 says that that he had a plan for our lives before we were even born. And so, if God took so much care over the creation of each one of us, are we doing him a disservice by telling ourselves, and the world, that we don’t think we are good enough, and making excuses to him and ourselves about why we can’t dSo things like Moses did?

To counteract this, we need to learn how to love ourselves – not in an egotistical or narcissistic way, but in a healthy way. The ancient Greeks had a word for this – Philautia, which is based on the idea that if you love yourself and treat yourself with compassion and kindness then this actually enhances your ability to love other people. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, said that “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.” In order to love others, we first need to learn how to love ourselves. Now I know that this is all easier said than done – we all experience negative thoughts and we can’t control them popping into our head.

But what we can control is how we react to and deal with these thoughts. If we listen to the negativity and the doubt, and measure ourselves against the standards set by society we will start to believe it is true – that we are not good enough. But by reminding ourselves that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, to God’s perfect design, and that he has a plan for our lives that will prosper us, we can drive out the negativity and impossible standards and start to see ourselves as perfect in God’s eyes, rather than imperfect in society’s eyes, and start to be a little kinder to ourselves.

We can do this by keeping ourselves close to God and listening to him – by reading the bible and praying, and also surrounding ourselves with people who have similar standards and
outlook to our own. Another way that we can maintain this healthy self-love and self-esteem is to remember that although God perfectly created us, we are not the finished article – as we submit to God and the call he has on our lives he will continue to transform us through the Holy Spirit. We are perfect in that we are exactly who God intended us to be – he crafted us the exact way he did with a unique character and abilities so that we might accomplish only what we could accomplish in a way that only we could accomplish it. We see this with Moses – looking back on his life with hindsight you can see that God was preparing him right from his birth to rescue the Israelites, that everything that happened to him, was working up to that moment. And the same is true for us – we can’t see the overarching plan that God has for our lives, we just need to trust that no one else can do what each of us have been created to do. We all have a unique purpose, and a unique part to play in the reconciliation of our human world with God’s holy one. And so, instead of focusing on what we can’t do – these things that are viewed by human standards as flaws and imperfections, we should consider what we can do within the limitations of our unique self, using the strength that God gives us, and then work on loving that version of ourselves. Consider what Jesus achieved – limited by a human body, cut off from his Father in heaven, living alongside people who couldn’t even begin to comprehend what was going to happen, and sentenced to death because some people felt threatened by him. So next time you feel like you are not good enough, remember that God made you exactly who you are, and to him, you are perfect.

Hope and Despair

by Laura Smith

1 Samuel 20: 1-42; Psalm 1; 40

Dear Lord, may these words bless Your name and help us to think about our human emotions, through the wisdom of Your word. Amen.

The themes today are the contrasting emotions of hope and despair – emotions that many of us know and live with every day.

Hope is perhaps the more familiar word, not just wishful thinking – but an active, positive feeling – having a clear idea of a want or need and having the plan and motivation to work towards achieving it.

And then on the other hand, we’ve got despair or hopelessness, which to me seem a bit harder to define because they are not just about not having hope, but a more deeply involved, extremely individual, story of losing all hope.

Experiencing despair can be overwhelming, intense, relentless, filled with anguish, and pain. (And speaking as a chronic pain sufferer or rather someone who battles with pain on a daily basis) When you are stuck in the middle of these emotions they seem never ending because you just can’t see how to get away from them.

Today’s bible reading gives some insight to the life of David – the lowly shepherd boy destined to become a great king. As a boy – he slayed the giant, Goliath, in battle, and was honoured by all the people, praised, and brought into the royal family.

But then he was faced with king Saul’s anger and jealousy towards him. In the end the threat to his life forced him to run away from Saul, who he had served and loved.

David had formed a strong friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan and this, in part, helped David to survive the attempts of Saul to kill him, as they planned a way for Jonathan to warn David of the danger, using arrows, fired to land in different positions.

Fortunately, Jonathan had a good aim – a misplaced arrow might have sent a different message.

David had many qualities, he was brave, strong and above everything else – loved God, and had a trusting and lasting relationship with Him. Maybe God was watching and sent a well-directed breeze to make sure the arrows Jonathan sent, landed correctly?

David was a man of emotions and knew what it was like to really feel – with deep intensity, and he knew what it was like to be completely afraid for his life, forced to live on the run.

Have you seen the TV programme ‘hunted’? Or similar in film, tv or books.

In this reality show teams of two ordinary people are chased by ‘the hunters’ who come from military or policing backgrounds, and have access to certain information like, if they have phoned a loved one, or used their bank account. The teams have to get to a meeting place at a specific day and time, and not get caught to win the show.

As a viewer, you feel like you are almost running and hiding alongside the contestants, who depend on help from strangers and well planned strategies. Then you see ‘the hunters’ following their activity and movements, as they close in to capture the teams. (I’m sure there must be some clever editing to add to the tension).

David also relied on the secrecy of trusted people to move hiding place when Saul’s spy’s and soldiers moved in on him, which might have been almost exciting at first – but I think would soon become exhausting. This was his real life after all, not a reality TV show.

Not having a place to feel safe and secure, or experiencing continued fear in what should be trusting relationships, can be damaging, and are known to have negative effects on mental health and wellbeing.

Neuroimaging gives evidence of the physical changes in the brains of people who have experienced such things. The connections that form thoughts and influence behaviour have, over time, become misaligned because of their experiences.

The positive news presented by the professionals in this field, is that these changes are not necessarily permanent. Given the correct help, support, and nurturing, new and healed connections can be formed, inside the brain. What a brilliant creator we have!

Maybe we should just take a moment to think about people in the world today, who live in fear, for any reason. And let’s remember the abusers, bullies, or those causing fear, and ask that God fills their hearts with so much love and peace, that they change their behaviour, Amen.

We are able to get an idea of David’s self-awareness of his feelings in many of the Psalms he wrote. One example is Psalm 40 – here David describes his despair and misery, describing it as being in a slimy pit, mud, and mire. Just try and imagine what that looks, feels, and even smells like.

Now, the thought of having my feet in mud or slim makes me squirm. So, I’m just imagining standing on the beach at the edge of the sea, and as each wave washes over my feet, I start to sink, and then another wave, and I go a bit deeper, the cold wet sand creeping up over my toes – or at least it would if I could bare it any longer!

In this situation I just hope that no seaweed touches me while I’m trying to run away up to dryer sand!

I wonder what this place looks like for you. Literally or metaphorically?

Next in Psalm 40 David does something amazing in his writing, he gives thanks and glory to God, for lifting him out of these terrible places and providing a solid ground to stand on. Not once complaining about his situation but patiently waiting for God to rescue him. Then in praising God by singing a new song, David witnesses to the people, to trust in the Lord, as David trusts that God will save him.

Writing his Psalms, David expressed every emotion, a full spectrum – the extremes of these sometimes only one line apart.

They are poetic, like lyrics in a love song, an expression of the greatest love and awe – followed by heartbreak or frustration – returning to thankfulness and exalting God in the highest way our humanness allows.

Writing (or drawing) can be both a therapeutic and encouraging activity to try and is something that I’ve done from time to time in the form of journaling. There are many products and stationary items available for journaling, and Christian journaling, where bibles are printed with extra space at the side to doodle, draw or make notes.

These items can provide beautiful images to inspire and offer an outlet for creative expression with prompts and ideas to get going.

Asking yourself questions about yourself in order to know yourself better! – As a tool to learn self-awareness.

Now don’t get me wrong – I love a matching pen and ombre effect spiral bound notebook. But, well I think anyway, there is a problem – they can be a bit girlie and feminine. A bit pink and flowery, or sparkly, or both.

And this doesn’t really do much to encourage boys and men to take part, only adding to the perception that this is a female pass time. Perhaps this is part of a bigger conversation to be had about men’s mental health, and cultural expectations around self-expression.

But where would we be if the men of the bible did not express themselves in these ways. If Paul and others had not recorded events in Acts 27 and 28, we might not have known about they’re adventures across the sea, the dangers they faced, the healing, preaching, and teaching that took place, for example.

So, whatever your notebook, journal, art pad, scrap book looks like, please be encouraged to have a go. Maybe write a letter to God, be real, honest, and as expressive as you like about your difficulty, either past or present, and by doing this God will lift you up and be a firm rock to stand on. In doing this you can learn things about yourself and God that you never imagined and grow in faith, regardless of despair.

I’ll finish with a quote that I found when researching for this talk, the perceptive and wise words of Dr Suess, from the book ‘oh the places you will go!’

“When you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.”

But we don’t have to ‘un-slump’ ourselves because freedom and rest from our desperation and slump, is found in God and at the cross.

So, if you feel you are in a slimy pit of despair – please reach out and talk, and if you know someone in this position, let them know you are there for them – and offer to listen.

Amen

Anxiety and Peace

by Alison Shaw

Mark 14: 32-42 – Jesus Prays in Gethsemane

What are you scared of? Spiders, like me? And do you get worried? Do you worry about your health, or that of a loved one? Your job, perhaps? Or meeting strangers? These feelings of fear, of being scared, or worried or nervous are what we call anxiety, and we all experience these feelings from time to time, typically before an important event. But there may be times when we feel anxious or worried, and we don’t really know why. When this happens for a long period of time, or the fears and worries are out of proportion to the
situation, it makes it hard to go about living our normal lives and we can become unwell.

But we are not meant to live feeling scared or anxious. The most frequent command by far in the Bible is ‘Do not be afraid’. And it is often followed by a reason why we shouldn’t be
afraid. For example, Isaiah 41:10 says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with
my righteous right hand.”

But….we are human and we do worry! Most of my adult life I have experienced crippling anxiety and a few years back it got to the point where I became very ill and couldn’t work. I sought help from my GP. With a combination of exercise, medication, therapy, plus prayer and support from my family, friends and church family, I recovered. I wouldn’t say I am cured, but now I am in a much better position to manage my anxieties and help prevent them from taking over my life.

What can we do when we feel anxious, or others around us are anxious? Let’s look at what Jesus did in our reading, Mark 14:32-42, and follow his example.

How can we help others?

Jesus took Peter, James and John with him to the Garden of Gethsemane and instructed them to ‘sit here while I pray’. Verse 33 says Jesus began to be very upset and troubled. Notice that Jesus didn’t need the disciples to say or do anything. He was simply comforted by their presence, nothing more. We can help others just by being at their side. No fancy words, just fellowship.

When we are anxious

Jesus prays and asks God to change his mind. But Jesus knows that God’s plan must go ahead, Jesus must be punished by death to take the blame for all the things we have done wrong, so that we can be forgiven by God. And so Jesus asks God to change the way Jesus is viewing the situation. He then says, “But let what you want be done, not what I want”. I see this as a positive affirmation, something that if you say it enough times you start believing it.

Jesus is trying to accept the situation, because he knows it is the right thing, even though he doesn’t like it. This is Jesus at his most human.

Jesus prayed the same prayer three times, so he clearly was still anxious. Repeated prayer is not a sign that we are not praying properly, or that God is not listening. Prayers are
answered by God in his own time, not ours, and Jesus shows us here that it is ok to keep praying about a situation.

It feels good to not be anxious, to feel calm and confident. But our relationship with God goes one step further and by believing in Him, God gives us peace. In John 16:33 Jesus says,
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Jesus also says in John 14:27
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

What does peace feel like?

Think of your happy place, somewhere whereby just thinking about it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It might be the settee where your curl up with loved ones and watch your favourite film, snuggled under a blanket and plenty of popcorn. Or a walk by the sea, the sound of waves gently lapping on the shore and the occasional cry of a seagull overhead, the sun warm on your back.

As you think about your happy place, notice how it makes you feel. Relaxed…Happy…Calm…Content… Secure… Safe…Loved… This is what I think peace is. And God offers us that peace,
that we can experience all the time, not just in our happy place.

Amen

Joy and Sorrow

by Liz Shaw

Job 1:8-22 2:3-13

Why? This short three lettered word is one of lives most asked question. Asking Why is part of our natural response to a situation and to help us make sense of and deal with it. As adults we also ask the question Why does God allow…? In a world full of suffering, illness, death, tragedy, disasters and poverty we have a human desire to know why God who is supposed to be loving and gracious allows such things to happen. I don’t know is not the answer people want to hear but only God can give an answer. Only He knows why things happen as they do. This is where we have to have total faith and trust in God. Proverbs 3 v5 says Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. Our reading today focuses on Job, a man whose life was built on God, his faith was tested but
ultimately his faith endured. Job experienced the loss of all his children, his animals and his servants. When Job found out what he had lost he worshipped saying “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” How many of us would feel like doing that! He was then tested again and his wife even told him to curse God and die. He replied “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble. Job was in effect saying Why not me, instead of saying why me. Job trusted God no matter what and learnt that when he
had nothing left, He had God and that was enough. Job shows that those who endure the testing of their faith can and will experience God’s great rewards in the end. But to get to this point we need to go through trials and tribulations. It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when.

In suffering God can expose the fullness of his character, his love and mercy, compassion, concern, forgiveness and his grace. In a world without suffering, we would never experience the fullness of God. James 1: 2- 3 says “Consider it pure joy my brothers and
sisters, whenever you face trial of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” Joy is certainly not a word you naturally expect to hear when you think about pain and suffering. But what is joy? Isn’t it the same as being happy. No,
happiness is what happens in a moment and can go as quick as it comes. Joy is the attitude of the heart and spirit, it is a commitment to gratitude regardless of the circumstances. Job still worshipped with joy despite his losses. We cannot know joy if we don’t embrace pain.

One way to do this is to Lament. It is a form of prayer, an expression of grief, suffering or sadness. It is a way to put our fears, frustrations and sorrows for the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God. Through expressing our raw emotions and questions to God, it enables us to have an honest relationship with him, which in turn can open us up to healing. A lament can be in four part, an acknowledgement of turning to God, bringing your complaint to God, asking boldly for help, and choosing to trust in the Lord.

Grief is an emotion that we have all experienced or will experience in our lives. The death of a loved one is one of lives painful events whether its unexpected or expected but death is part of our earthly life. Christian faith holds the hope that death is not the end. It is dependent on the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus leads us to life through death. Our churches are a place where grieving people can come to be reassured that they are not alone and know they are loved. The best thing Jobs friends did for him was sitting with him in silence. Listening is the best thing anyone can do. We have been given two ears and just one mouth. What we really need is the gift of time and a safe space to release these raw honest feeling. A chance to lament. We have a great opportunity to provide this. Life throws many things at us which we can not explain and only God can give an answer. In our times of sorrow, we can find joy that come from knowing a loving, faithful God who opens His arms wide to those who seek him.

Love and Blessings,
Liz Shaw

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