Extravagance at Cana

Bible Reading: John 2:1-11

Everyone plans well for a party, especially making sure there’s enough food and drink for everyone. Throughout history people have celebrated together by feasting, and this is something we all really missed during the coronavirus pandemic because these gatherings were banned.

Events associated with feasting make good memories for the future, and even a funeral reception or wake can be a place of joy, nurtured by food and drink.

Of course, waste is a concern for everyone, but running short of food or drink is always a failure of hospitality. When we come to that beautiful account of the wedding at Cana, all those themes and more are woven into the fabric of John’s story telling.

On the surface, there is the embarrassing awfulness of a wedding that runs out of wine. At a deeper level, we see the extravagance of God’s love and grace. Here is an overabundance of giving made real in Jesus for those who were present with him then, and with all who celebrate his presence now. It also points ahead to the great feast when the Lord will bring his promises to their ultimate fulfilment.

I invite to dig deeper into this wonderful story for yourselves, to discover its depths of meaning that reveal the extravagance of God and his love for us.

God who touchest earth with beauty,
Make my heart anew;
With thy Spirit recreate me
Pure and strong and true.
Like thy springs and running waters,
Make me crystal pure;
Like thy rocks of towering grandeur,
Make me strong and sure.

Like thy dancing waves in sunlight,
Make me glad and free;
Like the straightness of the pine trees
Let me upright be.
Like the arching of the heavens,
Lift my thoughts above;
Turn my dreams to noble action,
Ministries of love.

Like the birds that soar while singing,
Give my heart a song;
May the music of thanksgiving
Echo clear and strong.
God who touchest earth with beauty,
Make my heart anew;
Keep me ever by thy Spirit
Pure and strong and true.

Salvation Army Song Book 320 (TB 303/Whitechapel)

The Baptism of Christ

Today in the Christian calendar we celebrate The Baptism of Christ, here depicted in the wonderful painting by Piero della Francesca in the National Gallery, London.

You can read the story in the Bible here: Luke 3:15-22

I’m reading Dave Grohl‘s book The Storyteller that Naomi bought me for Christmas. In it, he describes when his eight-year-old daughter Harper asked him to teach her to play the drums. His response was one of fatherly pride and humility, the latter because he was self-taught and didn’t have a clue where to start.

In the story of Jesus’ baptism, we are told that God was well pleased with his Son. By implication, God is pleased with us when we walk and live in the footsteps of Jesus. May we live like that in the coming days, not judging people but coming alongside them and loving them with the parental love of God.

Piero was the first artist to write a treatise on perspective – that is, creating an illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface. Here, he has painted objects in proportion, so that they appear as we see them in real life. This emphasises the depth of the landscape, but also the harmony of the figures and natural features within it. Christ stands in a shallow, winding stream as John the Baptist pours a small bowl of water over his head. Three angels in colourful robes witness the event. At this very moment, the voice of God was heard – ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:16) – and the Holy Ghost, shown here as a dove flying over Christ’s head and towards us, descended upon him. This painting was made for the small chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist in the Camaldolese abbey of Piero’s hometown, Borgo Sansepolcro. Source

The Gifts of the Wise Men

Bible Readings: Matthew 2:1-12 & 2 Corinthians 9:6-11

Christmas celebrates the coming of God’s gift, the birth of Jesus as Saviour of the World. Epiphany celebrates our giving to God, symbolised by the wise men bringing their gifts to the baby Jesus. It’s traditionally celebrated on the twelfth day after Christmas (January 6).

We know very little about them, and only assume there were three because there were three gifts. Those three gifts represent three distinct aspects of our lives that we need to present to Jesus.

Gold represents everything of material value; our money, our property, our belongings. It’s good to recognise that everything comes from God, and as Christians we offer it to Jesus. We may not have much, but let’s make sure give our symbolic gold to Jesus, for God to use.

Frankincense represents something less tangible than gold. It symbolises our inner treasure of thought and influence; our education, our talents, and our personalities. By offering these to Jesus we have a reference point for our actions and behaviour, recognising something greater than ourselves.

Myrrh, partly because of its use in embalming, has been identified with sorrow and suffering. We can bring the challenging times in life to Jesus, and experience God’s comfort.

Myrrh is mine; it’s bitter perfume.
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing. sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

A fourth wise man called Artaban belongs to the realm of myth and legend, but he is imagined having brought a gift representing the happier things in life. A reminder that Jesus:

…feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness.

The whole of human life can be symbolised in the three (four) gifts, personal gifts of ourselves that we can bring to Jesus.

Father, I place into your hands
The things I cannot do,
Father, I place into your hands
The things that I’ve been through.
Father, I place into your hands
The way that I should go,
For I know I always can trust you.

Father, I place into your hands
My friends and family.
Father, I place into your hands
The things that trouble me.
Father, I place into your hands
The person I would be,
For I know I always can trust you.

Father, we love to see your face,
We love to hear your voice.
Father, we love to sing your praise
And in your name rejoice.
Father, we love to walk with you
And in your presence rest,
For we know we always can trust you.

Father, I want to be with you
And do the things you do.
Father, I want to speak the words
That you are speaking too.
Father, I want to love the ones
That you will draw to you,
For I know that I am one with you.

Psalm 23 (A Psalm of David)

clouds daylight forest grass

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23 from the King James Version (1611) of the Bible. For a more modern and accurate translation from the New International Version (1978) click here. See also: 10/05/20 Sunday Reflections.

Easter Sunday 2021

One of the main things which sent the first disciples out into the world with the message of salvation was the conviction embodied in the first Christian creed: Jesus is Lord!

It’s found in Acts 2 in one of the first sermons ever preached…let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, who you crucified, both Lord and Christ.

For those first disciples, this Lordship of Jesus was at the heart of everything.

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 2 Corinthians 4:5

Belief and theology can get very complicated. The Church of England has 39 Articles of Belief, the Salvation Army has 11 Doctrines. The early church had just three words: Jesus is Lord!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:9-11

Of course, it was only after the Resurrection that Jesus was called LORD as the highest title for him. When the word was used in the gospels, its meaning was nearer to ‘Sir’ or ‘Master’, it was only later that Jesus was distinctively and characteristically called ‘The Lord’.

There are so many names for Jesus, ‘Saviour’ being especially associated with Good Friday, and ‘Lord’ with Easter Sunday. Saviour and Lord are both important. Just like Good Friday and Easter, they go together. Accepting Jesus as Saviour implies crowning him as Lord.

We accept Jesus as Saviour on Good Friday and crown him as Lord on Easter Sunday. The two go together. On this Easter Sunday, let’s humbly bow before him and crown him Lord of all.

See also: Resurrection (Rob Bell)

Good Friday 2021

I mentioned in my Maundy Thursday 2021 post that my music of choice on Good Friday is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It selects itself, and still has the power to shock and move the human spirit. 

For Good Friday this year, I simply share some of the German libretto with an English translation. See also here.

40 Chorale

Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen,
Although I have strayed from you,
Stell ich mich doch wieder ein;
Yet I turn back once again;
Hat uns doch dein Sohn verglichen
Your son has settled the account for us
Durch sein’ Angst und Todespein.
Through his anguish and death agony.
Ich verleugne nicht die Schuld;
I do not deny my guilt;
Aber deine Gnad und Huld
But your grace and favour
Ist viel größer als die Sünde,
is much greater than the sins
Die ich stets in mir befinde.
I find constantly in myself.

51 Recitative [Alto]

Erbarm es Gott!
Have mercy, God!
Hier steht der Heiland angebunden.
Here stands the saviour, bound,
O Geißelung, o Schläg, o Wunden!
O scourging,o blows, o wounds!
Ihr Henker, haltet ein!
You executioners, stop!
Erweichet euch
Are you not softened by
Der Seelen Schmerz,
The soul’s agony,
Der Anblick solches Jammers nicht?
The sight of such misery?
Ach ja! ihr habt ein Herz,
Ah yes! You have a heart
Das muss der Martersäule gleich
That must be like the post used for torture
Und noch viel härter sein.
And even far harder still.
Erbarmt euch, haltet ein!
Have mercy, stop!

65 Aria [Bass]

Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,
Make yourself pure, my heart
Ich will Jesum selbst begraben,
I want to bury Jesus himself within me,
Denn er soll nunmehr in mir
For he now within me
Für und für
Forever
Seine süße Ruhe haben.
Shall have his sweet rest.
Welt, geh aus, lass Jesum ein!
World, depart from my heart, let Jesus enter!

Maundy Thursday 2021

In the account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane we begin to glimpse something of what he went through spiritually, mentally and emotionally before his physical suffering and death on the cross.

Bible Reading: Luke 22:39-46

But let’s go back to Palm Sunday as Jesus rode into Jerusalem in defiance of the people’s expectations, they misunderstood the nature of his coming and purpose. He came as the Prince of Peace, having previously set his face towards Jerusalem, resolved to go the way of the cross.

Jesus never took the easy way out of a situation; he wasn’t going to be turned from this final challenge. He knew the direction his life was taking, he wasn’t a weak-minded person overtaken by events, he was in full command of what was happening. This resolve was thoroughly tested in Gethsemane, but his mind had already been made up.

Holy Week is not just about the victory of Easter morning, but the victory Jesus secured when he set his face towards Jerusalem.

In Gethsemane we see both his humanity and divinity; his humanity telling him to escape the situation, his divinity telling him to obey. Luke tells us that Jesus, being in anguish, prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

We can’t attempt to fathom the depths of his suffering at this time, as the hymn says, ‘We do not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear’.

My music of choice on Good Friday is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It selects itself, and still has the power to shock and move the human spirit. This moment is powerfully expressed:

He is ready to taste the bitterness of death,
to drink the cup into which the sins of this world,
hideously stinking, have been poured.

Here we have the paradox of a loving God and a suffering Christ, something we can’t fully explain, yet:

We believe it was for us,
he hung and suffered there.

Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Sin separates us from God. As Jesus took on our sin it separated him from his heavenly Father, a moment of true abandonment. But the psalm has a positive ending, it’s victorious. It foreshadows the Resurrection, and this was why Jesus was able to say ‘your will be done’ in Gethsemane.

Note: A reworking of material from here.

Cross Purposes (Palm Sunday)

This week’s Sunday devotional is a reworking from part of a previous online worship service in preparation for Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter. Bible Reading: Luke 19:28-44

Palm Sunday is traditionally the day in the Christian calendar when we think about peace, and especially the peace that Jesus came to bring. Jesus rode into Jerusalem fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah:

See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9b

He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Zechariah 9:10b

Similarly, both Isaiah and Micah looked forward to a day when the nations would beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and look to God and walk in his ways.

Jesus came bringing a message of peace, but the people were so accustomed to war and strife that they rejected it. The people expected him to lead them in military victory over their enemies and vanquish their oppressors. Instead, Jesus offered something far more profound, peace to the human heart.

So Jesus and the crowd were at cross-purposes! They misunderstood that Jesus had come for a CROSS PURPOSE! That was not their purpose, that was the last thing on their minds.

They didn’t understand, their minds were closed to the real purpose of his coming. So when it became apparent that Jesus wasn’t going to fulfil their short-sighted ambitions, they turned against him and he was crucified on Good Friday.

In Luke’s account of these events we see that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. Indeed, it was the very nationalism that motivated the people on Palm Sunday that ultimately led to their downfall years later.

In today’s world, we need to be so careful that national pride doesn’t become narrow prejudice. Nationalism and prejudice are so often at the roots of conflict, and they take root first in the human heart.

It’s a troubled world out there, and God needs Christian soldiers who bring his message of peace to others. All manner of conflict starts with us. It comes from within, and that’s the very place Jesus wants to come and bring peace.

On this Palm Sunday we need to recognise that true peace can only be built on a right relationship with God. That’s both the foundation and source of all peace; peace with ourselves, peace with others, and peace with God.

The whole of the Bible testifies to this truth. Psalm 29, for instance, starts by calling us to worship: Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to his name; worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness.

The Psalmist speaks of God’s greatness, which inspires our worship, and concludes with a wonderful promise of peace when we’re in a right relationship with him: The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace.

Similarly, Isaiah speaks of promised peace given to the one who seeks after God: You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. Isaiah 26:3

Our human nature often wants to run away from the very thing that can bring our peace. Jesus said, if you had only known on this day what would bring you peace.

We have freedom as individuals, but there’s part of us that desires us to act selfishly, to do what we want rather than what God wants. This tendency to think we know best and do what we want is very powerful, unfortunately it separates us from God.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem to announce the possibility of reconciliation with God and the resulting peace it brings. As we approach Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter, we see very clearly the cost of peace-making. The cost for Jesus was the way of the cross; he died that we might live.

Peace is not something that just happens, it requires action. The very word for peace is active rather than passive. ‘Shalom’ carries the idea of wholeness, well-being and harmony, rather than merely the absence of strife or tension. It’s what God wants for each and every one of us.

It’s astonishing that with the cross looming before him, Jesus was able to speak of peace, and that through the events of Holy Week he was able to demonstrate such confidence and poise. With his betrayal, his agony in the garden, his trial and death so near, he promised peace; peace that the world cannot give, a peace that passes all understanding.

He promised those who follow him an inner confidence and serenity that can overcome any situation life can throw across our path. Our security in the world can be very fragile, but our spiritual security is of an altogether different nature. It comes from God himself; it’s strong and we can rely on it.

It was won for us on the cross. Peace and security can be ours as we enthrone Jesus at the very centre of our lives. Not at cross-purposes with him, but embracing the CROSS PURPOSE for our lives.

See also: Misunderstanding Palm Sunday

For God so loved the world

This week’s Sunday devotional is a reworking from part of a previous online worship service in preparation for Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter. Bible Reading: John 3:14-21

This Bible reading contains one of the most well-known verses from the New Testament: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

But the short passage we shared is not the whole story, you might like to read the whole chapter for context. It had no mention of Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night seeking answers to his questions and no mention of being born again.

Instead, the teaching of Jesus is linked to the story of Moses in the wilderness having to deal with a discontented people found in Numbers 21:4-9.

Life used to be better for them, but now they have left Egypt. Under the leadership of Moses they have achieved freedom. They are no longer slaves. This was what they longed for, the fulfilment of their hopes. But now they are hungry. What food they have is boring. It’s not like the good old days in Egypt when at least they had good, interesting food to eat. The memories of their hardships have faded and all they know is that their bellies are empty and life is tough.

They are and should be people who are journeying towards a high destiny. They’ve been called by God for his purposes. They must reach out to the future and not dwell in the past, particularly on unrealistic memories of the past.

Moses is told by God to make a bronze serpent and to put it on a pole. When anyone who had been bitten by a poisonous serpent looked at this bronze serpent they would live. For many centuries this symbol has been used by those involved in healing and health care as their sign. One of the explanations of this clearly links it to the story in Numbers.

The symbol is still used widely today and maybe part of what it’s intended to convey is that health and healing are gifts. It was God’s gift of healing to an undeserving people, a rebellious, complaining, petty-minded people. Here it was a gift that would help them to become what they were capable of being, God’s chosen people that now includes all who name Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

In the Bible reading (John 3:14-21) Jesus refers to this passage from Numbers and sees it pointing to his own destiny. The Son of Man will be lifted up and whoever believes in him will have eternal life.

This is a recurring theme in the gospels, that believing is what brings about the change in people and in their situations. Believing is the gift of God, the grace of God, and with that gift of grace all sorts of things become possible in people’s lives.

God loved us so much that he gave his only son. But that’s in the past tense, it needs to be in the present tense, because the activities of God are always in the eternal now. God loves the world so much that he gives his only son. That love is from eternity to eternity and nothing can separate us from that love.

Temptation 2 (Lent 3)

This devotional post follows on from last Sunday’s post. You might like to read it before continuing this post, it can be found by clicking here. Although I use a photo of food again, temptations are much deeper than just craving chocolate.

Bible Readings: Mark 1:9-13 and Matthew 4:1-11

Lent is traditionally a time of fasting, but spiritually it might better be considered a time to feast. A time to feed our souls by reflecting on the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter.

Jesus resisted temptation with exactly the same resources that are available to us: namely the Word of God, prayer, self-discipline, obedience and faith. This comes as a great encouragement to us.

This wilderness experience of Jesus has much to teach us, more than might be immediately apparent, especially as the account can only have come to us from Jesus himself. He clearly wanted us to know about it.

The first thing we learn is that it’s not a sin to be tempted. Temptation isn’t the same thing as sin. If Jesus was tempted, it follows that we’re not immune. So the moment the inappropriate thought comes into our head we have a choice to accept or reject it, to act on it or dismiss it. Jesus was at his weakest, the time when temptations often come, yet he was prepared.

Temptations often come to us when we are at our weakest, and they can sometimes take us by surprise. As Christians, temptations are bound to come, we should expect them and be prepared for them.

And the nearer we are to God, the closer our walk with him, the more likely we are to be tempted. C. S. Lewis wrote: There is a silly idea about that good people don’t know what temptation means.

The second thing to learn is that temptation often comes after a spiritual high point. This was the case with Jesus. He’d just been baptised in the River Jordan, been owned by a voice from heaven, and experienced perfect communion with his heavenly Father.

After being especially aware of God’s presence in our lives is often the time when we are thrown into a wilderness experience: when doubts, fears and temptations can come flooding in. What was true for Jesus is true for us.

The third thing to learn is that it’s not the Spirit who tempts. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert, but it wasn’t the Spirit who tempted. God may allow us to be tempted, but he never tempts. The fact that Jesus was tempted alerts us to the fact that it can serve a useful purpose.

Someone has said that our character is not usually developed by drifting along in the calm waters of tranquillity.

Speaking of trials and temptations, Peter writes: These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:7

Our trials and temptations are God’s opportunities. Opportunities to be filled with the same Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus. The dove that made him gentle also made him strong.

In conclusion, Jesus was tempted to turn from the way of the cross, but he was victorious for us. His Kingdom was established and his mission fulfilled. This is perfectly expressed in Song 74 of the Salvation Army Songbook, based on Philippians 2:5-11 that I’ve written about recently.

At the name of Jesus
Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess him
King of Glory now;
’Tis the Father’s pleasure
We should call him Lord,
Who from the beginning
Was the mighty Word.

At his voice creation
Sprang at once to sight,
All the angel faces,
All the hosts of light,
Thrones and dominations,
Stars upon their way,
All the heavenly orders
In their great array.

Humbled for a season,
To receive a name
From the lips of sinners
Unto whom he came,
Faithfully he bore it
Spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious
When from death he passed.

Bore it up triumphant
With its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures
To the central height,
To the throne of Godhead,
To the Father’s breast;
Filled it with the glory
Of that perfect rest.

In your hearts enthrone him;
There let him subdue
All that is not holy,
All that is not true;
Crown him as your captain
In temptation’s hour;
Let his will enfold you
In its light and power.

See also: The Essence of Lent