Peace (Henry Vaughan)

My Soul, there is a country
Afar beyond the stars,
Where stands a winged sentry
All skillful in the wars;
There, above noise and danger
Sweet Peace sits, crown’d with smiles,
And One born in a manger
Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious friend
And (O my Soul awake!)
Did in pure love descend,
To die here for thy sake.
If thou canst get but thither,
There grows the flow’r of peace,
The rose that cannot wither,
Thy fortress, and thy ease.
Leave then thy foolish ranges,
For none can thee secure,
But One, who never changes,
Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)

Holy Saturday 2021

Wait for it…it’s not Easter yet!

Today is Holy Saturday, not Easter Saturday. Easter starts with the resurrection of Jesus when darkness is turned to light. In stillness, earth awaits the resurrection.

For Holy Saturday this year, I simply share some of the German libretto with an English translation (as I did yesterday for Good Friday).

67 Recitative [Bass, Tenor, Alto, Soprano] and Chorus

Bass:
Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh gebracht.
Now is the Lord brought to peace.
Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!
My Jesus, goodnight!

Evangelist:
Die Müh ist aus, die unsre Sünden ihm gemacht.
The trouble is over, which our sins caused for him.
Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!
My Jesus, goodnight!

Alto:
O selige Gebeine,
O sacred bones,
Seht, wie ich euch mit Buß und Reu beweine,
See how I weep for you with penance and remorse,
Dass euch mein Fall in solche Not gebracht!
That my fall has brought you into such distress!
Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!
My Jesus, goodnight!

Soprano:
Habt lebenslang,
As long as life lasts,
Vor euer Leiden tausend Dank,
Have a thousand thanks for your sufferings,
Dass ihr mein Seelenheil so wert geacht’.
For having valued so highly the salvation of my soul
Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!
My Jesus, goodnight!

68 Chorus

Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder
We sit down with tears
Und rufen dir im Grabe zu:
And call to you in your tomb:
Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh!
Rest gently, gently rest!
Ruht, ihr ausgesognen Glieder!
Rest, you exhausted limbs!
Euer Grab und Leichenstein
Your grave and tombstone
Soll dem ängstlichen Gewissen
For our anguished conscience shall be
Ein bequemes Ruhekissen
A pillow that gives peace and comfort
Und der Seelen Ruhstatt sein.
And the place where our souls find rest.
Höchst vergnügt schlummern da die Augen ein.
With the greatest content there our eyes will close in sleep.

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.

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

Living Life in God’s Love

Love it or loathe it, you’ll know that today (14 February) is St Valentine’s Day. It’s a Christian festival, but also a huge marketing opportunity for shops and online retailers. While I was a corps officer and leading worship, it was always helpful when this day fell on a Sunday, and this year (2021) it does just that.

Although there was a Saint Valentine, there are several after whom the day may have been named. I’ll focus on the traditional attribution, but you can find out more here.

Legend has it that the emperor was dismayed that the men of Rome were not enlisting for the army, because they loved their wives and families too much to become soldiers. So he decreed that engagements and marriages were against the law. Valentine was a priest and doctor in Rome, and he refused to obey. He went on marrying young men and women because he believed that was God’s way. He got dragged before the authorities in Rome on 14 February 270 (actual date not known) and, having refused to change his ways, paid the price.

We’ll never know how true the legend is, but Saint Valentine has been associated with this lovers’ festival for many centuries. As Christians, the one love story that we especially celebrate is that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great love for us, he was prepared to sacrifice himself in life and on the cross.

Bible Reading: Ephesians 5:1-20

Paul wrote: […] live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God

The love expressed on Valentine’s Day might be deep and meaningful, it might just be shallow and expected, and it might even be it might be a joke or a bit of fun. But the one thing we can be sure of is that we are all loved with the very love of Jesus. No one deserves it and no one is left out.

None of us are perfect, none of us deserve this love, because we are all flawed human beings. Sometimes we don’t recognise our collective failings, thus making it difficult to cope with human weakness, both in ourselves and others. Sometimes we ascribe sinfulness to others and not to ourselves, it’s the oldest human failing.

Of course, there’s clearly goodness in individuals, but we are all flawed because of our basic humanity. This is a big subject, and the discussion of inherent evil or inherent good is for another time and place.

Christian teaching shows us that we are insignificant and worthless in relation to the universe, but significant and of infinite value to God, even though flawed and without any claim on grace.

Edward Norman has written: The supreme loveliness of the life of Christ exhibited the sacrifice of God himself for creatures who were undeserving. It was not because men and women were good that Christ died for them. How can it have been? On the hills of Galilee and in the desert places of Judea the Saviour had loved those whose lives encouraged no love and inspired no pity. Nothing in human nature has changed, and it is not going to. Jesus came into the world precisely because we were not good, and because we are not capable of self-correction. People today will begin to cope with the evils of existence if only they will bring themselves to accept that their own natures are inherently flawed. And the hand of God himself extends from the cross to lift and save those who reach out to him.

Accepting responsibility for our own sinfulness can open the floodgates of God’s mercy and love in Jesus, and we can be transformed. We can also better accept the sinfulness of others. Although we don’t deserve it, God offers us love through Jesus, and he challenges us to live a life of love in response, loving him, others, and ourselves.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:1-2

Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:15-20

On this Valentine’s Day, do we need to give more of ourselves to God? Giving ourselves to him as a fragrant offering and sacrifice? As Rick Warren has written, let’s move from smelling the odour of waste to the bouquet of grace.

In our brokenness (Stephen Poxon)

I’ve just finished this devotional anthology by my author friend Stephen Poxon, who wrote a guest post for this blog a while back. You can find his books on Amazon by clicking here.

A Response to Grace is ‘a gathering of thoughts, jottings, poems and songs’, with the premise that God is present in the everyday things of life with its sometimes mundane circumstances and problems.

Grace is permanently concerned, available, widespread, willing, and reliable. Empowering grace is promised and indefatigable. Grace understands and meets us where we are.

In this anthology is all of life, its ups and downs, its best and worst, and all embraced, redeemed, and lifted up by grace. Here you will find drama and cabbages, heartache and Handel, politics and prayer, even marching in the rain – and that’s just the first five devotions! Here are heartfelt observations and reflections drawn from real life encounters, along with deeply personal insights that speak to the depths of our human condition.

I could have quoted from any of the pages, but I specifically chose this poem (which can be sung to the tune ‘Trust in God’) because it speaks to our humanity and (to some extent) our current circumstances in the coronavirus pandemic.

In our brokenness, we see the Saviour,
Gently holding lives now torn apart;
Consequence of sin and our behaviour
Chosen wrong that breaks the Father’s heart.
There we see, as well, the God of comfort,
Showing lame and weary how to dance,
Cradling innocents and weeping victims,
Those who never really stood a chance.

Through the moments of our greatest weakness
Runs a strand of pure sustaining grace;
When the stuff of life is fraught with burdens,
Then our gaze is turned to Jesus’ face;
And our God, all merciful and gracious,
Sweeps attendant evil all away,
And our hearts again are drawn to love him,
Lest those hearts should ever Love betray.

This is God, so gentle, kind and tender;
Pain of guilt removed, its stain erased;
This is God, so infinitely patient,
Hanging there, in every sinner’s place.
Every blemish covered by his mercy,
Every scar, by pity made to fade;
This is God, who knows our greatest sorrow,
This is God; our ransom wholly paid.

With a broken world, so marred and fractured,
Broken people share a God of love;
He whose charm our wayward lives has captured
We impart as manna from above;
Beggars sharing of our bread with others;
Calv’ry’s cross upright on level ground,
Where the heaviest burdens can be lifted,
Where a peace supernal can be found.

© Stephen Poxon (reproduced with permission)

Please Note: This book is only available from Stephen directly. If you would like to buy it, message him directly (or via myself if necessary). Ten per cent of all income from this book goes towards the Salvation Army’s Training College in Sri Lanka.

You can find me on Goodreads (click the link), and see all my 2021 books here.

Easter (Edmund Spenser)

people crowd walking
Photo by Ingo Joseph on Pexels.com

Most glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye,
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live for ever in felicity!

And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
—Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Edmund Spenser

12/04/20 Easter Sunday

Welcome to Easter Sunday worship. This is much shorter today because our Territorial Leaders Commissioners Anthony and Gillian Cotterill are leading online worship with contributions from across the United Kingdom Territory.

Bible Reading: John 20:1-18

Easter Bible Message (Major John Ager)

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.

But why am I going back to Thursday on Easter Sunday?

Actually, I could go back further, to Palm Sunday and even back beyond that. On Palm Sunday he 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 his 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. Yes, this resolve was thoroughly tested in Gethsemane, but his mind had already been made up, and we see his composure during the trial. Jesus even spoke of his coming death as an accomplishment, referring to it as his victory.

So it’s not just about the victory of Easter morning, but the victory secured when Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.

The time of anguish in the garden sums up his whole life and ministry:
‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’ Mark 14:36

We see both his humanity and his divinity; his humanity telling him to escape the situation, his divinity telling him to obey. We can’t attempt to fathom the depths of his suffering at this time; we do not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear.

Luke tells us that Jesus, being in anguish, prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Luke 22:44

The words in an earlier verse cannot adequately be translated into English; he experienced severe horror and suffering. The best we can do are the words distress and anguish, different versions try to plumb the depths of his experience.

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.

That’s the victory, the mystery of God’s love that Christ should suffer for us. The paradox of a loving God and a suffering Christ, we can’t fully explain it, the reality will always be bigger than the theology of our finite minds, yet:

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

The innocent one suffered for us and, in that moment of death, took upon himself the whole load of humanity’s sin and folly.

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

Sin separates us from God and, as Jesus took on our sin, it separated him from his heavenly Father, in a moment of true abandonment.

Yet the psalm has a positive ending, it’s victorious. It foreshadows the Resurrection, so Jesus was able to say, Thy will be done.

I hope you can see now why I’ve gone backwards from Easter, because the Resurrection was the vindication of the victory already achieved in his life.

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

Be Easter people in a Good Friday world.

See also: Resurrection (Rob Bell)

Good Friday (George Herbert)

cross-sunset-sunrise-hill-70847.jpeg

O my chief good,
How shall I measure out thy blood?
How shall I count what thee befell,
And each grief tell?

Shall I thy woes
Number according to thy foes?
Or, since one star show’d thy first breath,
Shall all thy death?

Or shall each leaf,
Which falls in Autumn, score a grief?
Or cannot leaves, but fruit be sign
Of the true vine?

Then let each hour
Of my whole life one grief devour:
That thy distress through all may run,
And be my sun.

Or rather let
My several sins their sorrows get;
That as each beast his cure doth know,
Each sin may so.

Since blood is fittest, Lord to write
Thy sorrows in, and bloody fight;
My heart hath store, write there, where in
One box doth lie both ink and sin:

That when sin spies so many foes,
Thy whips, thy nails, thy wounds, thy woes
All come to lodge there, sin may say,
‘No room for me’, and fly away.

Sin being gone, oh fill the place,
And keep possession with thy grace;
Lest sin take courage and return,
And all the writings blot or burn.

George Herbert