Saturday, April 27, 2013


It is an indescribable experience to be regurgitated by a fish, and I would rather not relive it in any attempted depiction. It is sufficient to say that it happened, a new birth from a living death, and that I found myself on dry land. I had learned the hard way that I could never outrun the determined mercy of God, so I accepted the inevitable and made my way to Nineveh, to do exactly what I should have done in the first place and preach the unequivocal message of repentance.

When I arrived there I was astounded. Rumour had told stories of the magnificence of the city, but who takes rumour seriously? In this case rumour had fallen short, as if the further one was away from Nineveh, the less believable its true magnificence was. It took three days to cross the city, warning of impending judgement (that their city would fall in forty days if they did not repent), and all the time my resentment grew. I have never felt so provincial, so backward and unsophisticated as I did in that place. They had so much, as all the riches of their growing empire flowed into their hands, whilst I, a member of God’s own chosen people, called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, felt unkempt and uncouth by comparison! That rankled, and my anger against their luxurious, God-defying ways energised my preaching.  The fact that they all took heed of what I said, from the greatest to the least, and put on sackcloth and fasted did nothing to soothe my indignation.

It simply wasn’t fair! The godlessness and evil of the city overwhelmed me as I walked through it, yet with just a little repentance they would escape the judgement they deserved? And yet I, prophet of the most high God, faithful keeper of the Law, had just been through a horrendous experience for wanting to stay away from such a dreadful place. I found myself a place to sit and constructed a basic shelter, overlooking the city, watching and waiting; but, just as I had expected, nothing was happening. They went about their day to day lives and their heedless pleasures, but no fire and brimstone rained from above, nor did the earth swallow them up. I was furious! How could God show them so much mercy?

And as I sat there, counting out the forty day period, I became aware of a vine growing across my shelter, bringing me shade from the ferocity of the sun. I would never have expected to be so grateful for a common gourd. But even that pleasure was taken away from me. The very next day my vine withered, and then a scorching east wind came up. As I withered in turn and grew faint under the assault of heat, I mourned that simple vine which hadn’t even known I existed. It was then God challenged my heart, and I finally began to understand His. If I could have such concern for a mere vine, which I didn’t even create in the first place, then how could He not care about so many people in that great city? 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Lesson

“What does a man do when he feels cornered? He runs away if he possibly can, doesn’t he?”

The thought played over and over in his head.  He knew there was a huge flaw somewhere in his plan, but it was the best he could come up with. He knew that his God was the God of Israel in particular, they were His chosen people, set apart to Him forever in honour of their father Abraham. So, logically, if he moved far away from Israel’s sphere, right to the edges of the known world, God would no longer care about him, or pursue him with this impossible calling to go and preach repentance to Israel’s worst enemy. Of course, no one had ever heard of a prophet trying to flee the very God he was bound to, but what other God would call a man to do something so contrary to His own people’s best interests? That’s not the way it was supposed to be at all! There was no way this could play out well. He knew that Israel was unfaithful to the covenant, he knew what the Law had promised would happen if they were. So, he counted his options, one hand against the other, either the Assyrians would not repent, in which case he would have gone to all that humiliating trouble of preaching to Nineveh for nothing, or else they would repent, and God would have mercy on them, and in the fullness of time they would crush Israel with the armies of their malice. By refusing to preach to them he had done the only thing he could for his country, and now, worn out by the stress of it all, and rocked by the motion of the ship, he fell asleep.

Some hours later, he was roughly wakened by a group of terrified sailors. The ship was no longer gently rocking but pitching violently, and he wondered how he had slept through the noise of wind and waves and screeching timbers. When they drew lots and found that he was the reason for this unnatural storm, he realized the truth. Of course there was a flaw in his plans, God wasn’t going to let him off that easily – there was no escape. He had disobeyed the Creator of the world, and the end was inevitable. He persuaded them to throw him in the water (why should they die along with him?) and the last thing he heard was their cries of amazement as the waters immediately calmed.

But before he could sink into the oblivion of death, a mighty fish appeared and swallowed him whole. It was a terrible salvation: the pitch darkness, the nauseating smell, and only the noises of its physical organs for company. It was a place where all a man’s pretensions and self-delusion were ruthlessly stripped away, till he was left with nothing but his broken prayers. But in this death there was life, and there was the light of understanding to illuminate his darkness. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs,” he prayed, finally understanding that even his love of his own people and nation could become idolatrous when it got in the way of understanding that God wanted to extend His saving love to all peoples and nations. And there was nowhere in the world that was far enough to escape from God’s pursuing love.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why Should You Pray for Your Church?

Imagine we are on a ship, an old-style sailing ship, and we want to cross the ocean. We have excellent charts that can tell us exactly where we need to go, with clear warnings about the dangers we need to avoid. The ship is well-stocked, and reasonably comfortable (this is a sailing ship after all, not a cruise liner!) and we have enough people to do all the essential tasks. We even have regular lectures covering every subject from safety on board to the delights of the land we are intending to reach.  We only lack one thing, but this one thing makes all the difference.

Nobody has thought to raise the sails! And although everyone is having a marvellous time, they’re not actually moving very far, just drifting along, in sight of the shore, as the slight current takes them. Without sails to catch the wind and move with its power, there are only two possibilities. One is to take it easy, drift about in the shallows, and eventually decide that the stories of the further shore and the depths of the wild ocean are just inspirational mythology. The other way is to start rowing, and the most dedicated people will break themselves trying to accomplish this. But it isn’t possible to row all the way across the great ocean, human effort, with all its blood, toil sweat and tears, will only take you part of the way before the point of exhaustion is reached. The only answer is to raise the sails. Yes, it still takes work to sail a ship, it doesn’t just magically happen (unless, of course, you’re just a passenger), but when those sails catch the wind, something wonderful happens, and a new power propels the ship.

So it is with the church.  Humanly we have the choice to either compromise, find our comfort zone and stay in it, drifting in ever narrowing circles. (It doesn’t sound much like the Kingdom of God, though, does it?) Or, we can put our shoulders into it (as rowers must), and put all the effort we can into it, guilt tripping others into wearing themselves out alongside us. And when we have burned ourselves out, we will only have done what mere human effort can do.

Or we can pray, hoisting our sails (as it were) in faith to catch the wind of the Spirit. We know that it is the will of God that churches should grow, that people should be saved, that believers should grow in Christ-likeness, so we can pray in confidence for the “core business” of the church: for the preaching and worship when we meet together on Sundays, for our outreach ministries, for our home groups, for everything that is part of our ministry, that God’s transforming presence will be at work among us, proclaiming truth, bringing salvation, equipping each one of us to do the work that God has called us to do.

Some practical things to pray for your church:

  • Unity, that we may be one in Christ, working together for His kingdom
  • That we might have the knowledge of God’s will, and the willingness to do it
  • That the Holy Spirit may empower all that we do
  • That we, as a church, may exhibit both the fruit of the Spirit (godly, loving character) and the gifts of the Spirit  (ministry gifts)
  • Fruitfulness, that our labour isn’t in vain, but God’s kingdom grows through us
  • That the words of truth spoken and sung in our Sunday services may impact lives and change hearts
  • That people will come to our services with prayerful, open and prepared hearts – fruitful soil for the sowing of truth
  • That God will ignite in each one of us a hunger for Himself – to “see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly and follow Him more nearly”
  • For the preparation of preaching, bible studies, kids’ ministry etc,
  • That in all we say and do, as the Body of Christ here in Oatley, Jesus will be clearly and gloriously proclaimed

Saturday, April 13, 2013


It is never an easy thing to be a prophet of the Living God. Men who see only the outside may imagine ecstasy, power and glory, they do not understand that to receive the wisdom God sends is to have one’s heart transfixed by overwhelming realities, and that the perceived crown of light is more often, in reality, a crown of thorns. Heartbreak and holiness are what he beholds, but he holds on because, beyond the horror that must be, is the promise of redemption, not just redemption from something, but redemption into something, ultimately the consummation of history, the fulfilment of all things.

From the beginning it had an overpowering experience. There in the temple, faithfully at worship, he had suddenly seen that vision of the magnitude of God’s grandeur and holiness – the whole huge edifice of the temple could not even hold His train! “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips,” he had said – the cry of man who is crushed by the realisation of awful holiness.

But that had only been the beginning, and as the years wore on and he was given the very words of God to speak out to a (mostly) unheeding nation, he himself was slowly transformed by  what he saw and heard and understood. It was as if that coal which the angel of his vision had placed on his lips had lit a slow-burning flame within him, slowly melting and consuming the man he had been,  and melting his heart to the fluidity of holy love. And the burden was heavy. And the hunger for righteousness engulfed him.

He could see how far his people had fallen away from their covenant, and he knew that the time of reckoning was coming when they would be sent forth into exile. How could they stay in the Land of Promise if they turned their backs on the Promiser? It was heartbreaking to see their sin, it was heartbreaking to see the devastation and desecration that would follow on from it.

But the story did not stop there. They would return, or at least a faithful remnant would, when their exile was completed, the Lord would redeem his servant Jacob. Babylon in her turn would have to answer to God for the way she had treated the apple of His eye. And there was more. Beyond this, somewhere in the mists of the future, loomed a shadowy figure whose features he could not clearly see, but the anguish of this one, the Servant of the Lord, wrung his heart, “for He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities”. And yet this one, the Sufferer, would also be a light to the gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth. The more he pondered this, the more he sought understanding from God, the more he saw the heart of God and was undone by what he understood. For the Holy One, the God of infinite greatness and majesty, was also the God of Love. His children strayed and wandered, but He would bring them back, back, back ... at infinite cost to Himself. Who could serve such a God and not be broken by His compassion?

And still the story continued, to its point of absolute fulfilment. Somewhere, beyond all these days in the ebb and flow of history, there would be a greater Jerusalem, glorious beyond any earthly city, and all the nations of the world would stream up the mountain of the Lord bringing their offerings. He knew himself to be a man both broken and blessed beyond ordinary measure, for, whilst still clothed in frail flesh he had glimpsed how the heart of God was expressed in the consummation of all things.

Saturday, April 06, 2013


The whole situation was tormenting me. How could I believe them? It would be unfair to call them frivolous men, I had seen too much of their hearts for that: the deep questions, the tears, the confusion, the wonder. They certainly gave weight to the important things. And yet they were impetuous, impulsive, prone to act first and think later, and some thinking was definitely needed. Nothing was making sense, and their garbled accounts of what they had seen and heard were just confusing me further. But, or so I thought at the time, if they were going to come up with such an amazing, world-changing, heart-delivering story, couldn’t they at least have made it consistent and compelling?

I realise now that I was being completely unfair, but back then I think most of us had the effrontery to believe that we, ourselves, uniquely, had the best insight into what Jesus was all about, and loved Him the best. And of course, all of us were significantly wrong in some respects. But back then I thought that because I was more serious-minded than some of the other disciples,  (read pessimistic), I took Jesus more seriously than they did. There were moments (I admit it now with shame) when Peter’s grandiose gestures that made no sense, or John’s starry-eyed intensity, or Andrew’s relentlessly cheerful practicality left me biting my tongue in frustration. Couldn’t Jesus see that I was quiet precisely because I was thinking deeper thoughts than the others?

So, when they started gabbling that Jesus was still alive, even though I had seen them lay Him in the tomb, I just wanted to shut out their interminable words. The wound was too raw! All this talk about His appearing in their midst sounded just like a ghost story, and the part about being glorious yet still showing His wounds made no sense to me. I was sure that in their grief they were imagining things, or perhaps they had been comforted by angels? “I am not going to believe,” I told them,  “unless I can actually see, and touch, those nail prints in His hands, and that wound in His side.” For how can a man bear to mistake dreams for reality if the awakening would destroy him? There is only so much pain and disappointment that a man can bear.

Then, of course, a week later, it happened, and my world, and my life, were changed forever. There we were in the upper room, with me still not wanting to hear. And there He was. There was no walking through walls or any of the strangenesses of pagan tales, He was simply there in our midst. And He was real, more real than my own flesh and blood. All my grief, all my wounded, broken disappointment, rushed to the surface in their jagged desolation. Then He spoke peace to us, and it was like that moment in Galilee when He had spoken peace to the writhing wind and waves. The world resumed its proper shape again. But He was not yet finished. He turned to me, displaying His wounds and bidding me to touch them so that I might believe.

There was no need. I knew, and in the act of knowing I was transformed and released into worship. I would be wrestling with the significance of it all for many days to come, but I would never again doubt the most important thing of all. With tears of wondering love I knelt before Him. “My Lord and my God,” I said.