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.
Greetings on this fourth Sunday after Easter as we journey towards Pentecost at the end of this month. First of all, an opportunity to watch and listen to our Territorial Commander Commissioner Anthony Cotterill, and then some reflections on the Psalms and other Bible passages. See also: Psalm 23 (A Psalm of David).
The Book of Psalms in the Bible is the oldest hymnbook of the people of God, and it’s still going strong. I recently heard a suggestion on the radio that because the psalms are so emotionally expressive, reflecting such variety of feelings, they are useful for anyone to read in this coronavirus pandemic whether a person of faith or not. They are universally applicable.
The psalms echo down through the centuries the universal language of the human condition, resonating with the heights and depths of the human soul and experience. Whatever our emotion, there is sure to be a psalm which reflects it; whether triumph or defeat, excitement or depression, joy or sorrow, praise or penitence, wonder or anger.
But, above all, they declare the greatness of God and the wonder of his creation. We can come to know him better through the psalms, falling down at his feet and worshipping his greatness and majesty.
Here’s two short and well-known psalms to start us off, Psalm 23 and Psalm 100. Click on the links and read them now. Both have been paraphrased as hymns, and we have a number of them in the Salvation Army Songbook. Here’s one of my favourites.
Psalm 46 reminds us that God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble, and it encourages us to come before him in quietness, Be still, and know that I am God.
Turning away from the psalms for a moment, Romans 8:35-39 contains some of the most comforting and profound verses in the New Testament. If we know and experience the love of God as expressed through Jesus Christ, nothing can separate us from that love. His death and resurrection is proof of his unconquerable love, and we can have his constant presence with us.
Both the psalms and many passages in the Bible reassure us of God’s spiritual protection. We might find ourselves in challenging circumstances, as many are in the current crisis, but God promises to give us rest and peace in the midst of them.
In quietness and trust is your strength. God still speaks to those who take time to listen. He wants us to acknowledge him in our lives, and relax in his presence and care. Quietness and confidence in God brings strength and hope. As we are surrounded by God’s love, even when we are in the darkest valley, we can have hope and security. God will carry is through.
Be still, and know
Will J Brand
Only the quiet heart may know
Thy secret ways, O God;
And they that hasten to and fro
These paths have never trod,
Nor journeyed where still waters flow,
Supported by Thy staff and rod:
Only the quiet heart may know
Thy secret ways, O God.
Peace of the tranquil heart,
Fall upon me;
Gift of the Father
My sentinel be:
Guard Thou my heart
In the presence of ill,
Hold me – encompass me –
I would be still.
Only the quiet heart is strong
It’s daily load to bear;
To greet the waking morn with song
And end the day with prayer,
Glad, though the road be hard and long,
That Love has borne the larger share:
Only the quiet heart is strong
It’s daily load to bear.
Yes, but the quiet heart is sure
That God is over all;
‘Be still, and know’, His words endure
Though crowns and empires fall.
Wait thou for Him, content, secure,
He serves thy need’s unspoken call:
Rest, quiet heart, forever sure
Thy God is all-in-all.
Please Note: I’m currently preparing to retire, you can find more information here. Blessings, Major John Ager.
Just some Bible thoughts this Sunday, when we would have been uniting in worship at Wallsend with North Shields and Shiremoor Corps, rather than a full online meeting. This is neither an apology nor excuse, merely a reflection of the kind of week I’ve had in lockdown. I’m simply doing what I can and not what I can’t. My hope and prayer is that these thoughts will be an encouragement to you, as well as stimulating your own reflections and thoughts. God bless you, Major John Ager.
Bible Reading: Philippians 2:1-11
One of the corps I was appointed to in the past had the following mission statement, this was its raison d’être: To put Jesus first and grow as Christians, through Bible reading, prayer, worship and fellowship. To share God’s love and forgiveness, especially through loving service in the local community.
That was and (as far as I know) still their purpose as a church and community centre; the focus of that group of Christians, both individually and collectively. It’s important to have focus and purpose as a fellowship of God’s people. Yes, I know businesses have mission statements, and the church is not a business; but the principle still applies. Having a defined focus helps us to be better Christians.
The church is currently unable to meet because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, and some of the things that are essential are not able to happen in the normal way. Having said that, the church is finding new ways of doing things, although nothing can fully replace the actual meeting of people in a place of worship. Collective worship and fellowship are a vital part of the Christian life. Whilst many people say you can be a Christian without going to church, I disagree.
A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island
I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island
Don’t talk of love
But I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries
The words are very telling, we need each other. The lyrics of this wonderful song are actually the very antithesis of what it means to be a Christian. Yes, we can be hurt when we tear down the walls we build around ourselves, because we become vulnerable. But, as Christians, we follow one who became vulnerable for us, and when we open up to him we open ourselves to the love of God and others.
As we gather together again for worship and fellowship, at some yet unknown date in the future, we may have to reassess our overall vision.
As Salvationist poet Will J. Brand once wrote:
…so much we deemed essential is forever left behind.
See also: No man is an island (John Donne)
Because I’m currently on ‘holiday’ (at home obviously) here’s an edited version of the Bible message I gave last year at Wallsend Corps when we united with North Shields and Shiremoor Corps on the Sunday after Easter. I’m hoping to publish a full online worship meeting next Sunday. Major John Ager.
Bible Message: The Road TO and FROM Emmaus
Bible Reading: Luke 24:13-34
The well-known song You’ll Never Walk Alone from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel has become the ‘anthem’ of Liverpool Football Club and has very poignant associations with Anfield following the Hillsborough disaster.
It’s the song that sums up so much for the club and supporters alike. It captures the importance of unity crucial to everything achieved by the team, and it remains a source of comfort to those affected by the tragic events that have hit the club.
From a simple song in a musical, it’s become a worldwide secular hymn of encouragement and hope in the face of difficulty, suffering and death. But Christians, because of Easter can truly sing You’ll never walk alone because it sums up the whole message of the resurrection.
The Crucifixion must have traumatised Jesus’ disciples and followers, even though he’d tried to prepare them for it, not just once but repeatedly. They failed to realise the full significance of his words and so ‘the penny didn’t drop!’ The bottom had fallen out of their world; they were defeated and downcast, devastated and discouraged.
Significantly, the Risen Jesus came alongside two followers walking on the road to Emmaus. But they were kept from recognising him. The original Greek here uses what’s known as a ‘divine passive’, with God as the implied subject. It’s as if God intentionally blinded their eyes until the moment of revelation, that moment when Jesus broke bread with them. He asked them, ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, ‘Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ ‘What things?’ he asked. ‘About Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. ‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.
No wonder they were surprised that someone hadn’t heard. The Romans conducted crucifixions at major public crossroads to make examples of their victims and warn others against revolt. It really was quite unthinkable to these disciples that a Passover pilgrim wouldn’t have heard about Jesus’ crucifixion.
All their expectations had been dashed, even if they misunderstood or hadn’t fully comprehended the nature of Jesus’ purpose and ministry. The phrase ‘we had hoped’ speaks volumes about their feelings, but it’s also a Messianic reference; his coming to save Israel, the message of Palm Sunday hadn’t taken root in their hearts. One version says they stopped short, sadness written across their faces.
And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.
These verses help us to understand their confusion and disorientation; they were struggling to make sense of it. Wanting to believe the reports, yet doubting in their hearts.
He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Just imagine what it must have been like to have Jesus himself explain the scriptures? But ultimately the road TO Emmaus is the road of confusion, doubt, and weakness.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going further. But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them.
Then comes the moment of insight, the moment of clarity, the moment of recognition; here is such a wonderful moment of recognition and insight: When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’
See also: Supper at Emmaus (Caravaggio)
Suddenly they received new energy from somewhere: They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, ‘It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’
They initially failed to recognize him, but as he stayed and broke bread with them the truth dawned, and they realised they would never ‘walk alone’ again.
Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart,
And you’ll never walk alone…
You’ll never walk alone.
The disciples were changed from being defeated and downcast, devastated and discouraged, to being confident in their Saviour and Lord. They faced the future with hope and returned to Jerusalem with a new spring in their step because they were not walking alone.
Good Friday and Easter prove that he knows the worst about us, yet still loves us, enough to die for us, and he’s with us forever in the journey of life. Moments we share with each other in worship, fellowship and eating are so important. Times we might appreciate more after the current coronavirus pandemic lockdown. The Last Supper in the upper room was a highly significant occasion, as well as being a tremendously poignant one.
As Christians meet together in worship, fellowship and yes, feasting, we’re sharing something divine. The Risen Christ comes and blesses us with his presence: While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’
What incredible moments these must have been as they gathered in the presence of the Risen Lord; such moments of collective insight and clarity, everything falling into place, especially after Jesus opened up the Hebrew Scriptures to them.
In contrast to the road TO Emmaus, the Road FROM Emmaus is the road of clarity, insight, energy, and peace. It’s the way of peace and the presence of Jesus.
Those disciples must have been so weary after their long journey, travelling home always seems longer and harder when the heart and emotions are burdened. But they were still able to offer hospitality though, and I’m sure it was genuine.
How important it is for us to come alongside others on their journey through life and offer love, support and hospitality. None of us fully know what the other person is feeling or going through, the pain and the daily struggles.
Brother, sister, let me serve you,
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant, too.
It can be very moving when we dedicate ourselves to being with each other on life’s sometimes difficult journey, but also sharing the joys as well. This is something we do in our individual corps and as we unite together as brothers and sisters in Christ, walking with each other and walking with Jesus. Even though this is now happening online.
Song 79 (TB 199/Brantwood)
I know thee who thou art,
And what thy healing name;
For when my fainting heart
The burden nigh o’ercame,
I saw thy footprints on my road
Where lately passed the Son of God.
Thy name is joined with mine
By every human tie,
And my new name is thine,
A child of God am I;
And never more alone, since thou
Art on the road beside me now.
Beside thee as I walk,
I will delight in thee,
In sweet communion talk
Of all thou art to me;
The beauty of thy face behold
And know thy mercies manifold.
Let nothing draw me back
Or turn my heart from thee,
But by the Calvary track
Bring me at last to see
The courts of God, that city fair,
And find my name is written there.
Benediction: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.
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)
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.
Bible Reading: John 19:38-42
Prayer: O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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.
There are some Christians who look for easy answers to situations we face in everyday life, and this is especially so in the current coronavirus pandemic. I’d love to be able to give you a ready-made answer to why this is happening, but I can’t. This is the age-old problem of evil in a world created by a loving God.
What I can do though, is point you to the events of the first Good Friday and suggest that we find the beginnings of an answer there.
I came across this article at the end of March and I’ve been saving it to share here on Good Friday. N. T. Wright is the Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, a Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University and the author of over 80 books, including The New Testament in Its World.
No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t?
Well, you can read the article for yourself.
Good Friday is a day when we reflect on the most profound and spiritual things, and many will have time to do that today in lockdown and I encourage you to do so. You might find poetry and prose helps, music might work for you, maybe paintings or other forms of art.
Let me finish though with one more quote from the article:
It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope.
Here is a worship song that may help you in your thoughts on this very sacred day.
Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing,
God never changeth!
Patient endurance attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth. Amen.
Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), translated Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)