Bible in One Year

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July 10 Day 191

Invisible but Invaluable

Every Monday morning, he phones our offices. He asks about the events and services taking place during the week, and the people involved in them. For decades, Charles and his prayer group have faithfully supported the church in prayer. They are examples of many in our church who intercede for us. Their prayers may be invisible but they are also invaluable.

The word ‘intercession’ generally means praying for someone else (although, it can also be used of praying for oneself). We are all called to intercession. The apostle Paul writes to Timothy, ‘I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority’ (1 Timothy 2:1–2).

Jesus is the great intercessor. He ‘made intercession for the transgressors’ (Isaiah 53:12). He ‘is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us’ (Romans 8:34; see also Hebrews 7:25). The Holy Spirit also intercedes for us and through us: ‘The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express… the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will’ (Romans 8:26–27).

In the Old Testament passage for today, we see Isaiah’s role as an intercessor. Interceding for others is part of the role of a prophet. Intercession was also made by kings, for example, David, Solomon, and Hezekiah. You, too, are called to this invisible but invaluable ministry.

July 9 Day 190

Trust in the Lord

One of the biggest obstacles to faith is the suffering of the innocent. It is usually one of the first questions raised in an Alpha small group: ‘If there is a God who loves us, how come there is so much suffering in the world? How come there is such injustice and oppression?

These are very important and necessary questions but there are no easy answers. Yet God is able to meet us in the midst of suffering and struggles. Extraordinarily, it is often the people who have gone through the greatest suffering who have the strongest faith. They testify to the presence of God with them, strengthening and comforting them in the midst of their pain. Betsie ten Boom, as she lay dying in Ravensbrück concentration camp, turned to her sister Corrie and said, ‘We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here.’

Faith involves trusting in the Lord. The people of God in the Bible looked out on a world of suffering. But they trusted in the Lord despite what they saw.

July 8 Day 189

Listen to God

In all our relationships, listening is very important. As the philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich put it, ‘The first duty of love is to listen’.

Some people are very good at listening. General George Marshall said, ‘Formula for handling people:

  • Listen to the other person’s story.
  • Listen to the other person’s full story.
  • Listen to the other person’s full story first.’

Listening to God is one of the keys to your relationship with him. ‘To listen’, means to hear attentively, ‘to pay attention to’. Prayer means giving God your full attention first.

July 7 Day 188

The Dangers of Pride

Back when I was working as a lawyer, I remember a very straightforward case that I thought I was bound to win. I was so confident I decided that it was not worth even bothering to pray about it or commit it to the Lord.

When I stood up to speak, the judge asked me whether I was aware of a case that had changed the law in the last few days. I was not. The result was a very humiliating defeat. As the passage in Proverbs today warns (Proverbs 16:18), pride had come before a fall.

In my humiliation, I cried out to God for help. I read the recent case. Then, I wrote an opinion saying I thought the decision was wrong and would be reversed on appeal. Thankfully, it was.

We were able to go back to court and win the case. The solicitor, rather than judging me for my mistake, was kind enough to be impressed by the opinion I had written and sent me many more cases. So it became a double lesson; not just about the dangers of pride but also about the extraordinary grace of God and how ‘things work out when you trust in God’ (Proverbs 16:20, MSG).

I try not to forget the lesson I learnt about the dangers of pride and self-reliance whenever I stand up to speak. I would like to say that I have never made the same mistake again but it is a lesson that I have had to re-learn several times.

In English, the word ‘pride’ can have a good sense. For example, we would not say it is wrong for a person to be proud of their children, or to take pride in their work. However, when the Bible talks about pride it means something different from this and has very negative connotations.

It means to have an excessively high opinion of one’s own worth or importance; it suggests arrogant or overbearing conduct. It is the independent spirit that says, ‘I have no need of God.’ Arguably, therefore, it is at the root of all sin. How should we respond to the temptation and dangers of pride?

July 6 Day 187

How to Cope with the Challenges of Life

President John F. Kennedy said, ‘We stand today on the edge of a new frontier… but the new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises – it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.’

Life is a set of challenges, problems and hassles. We sometimes imagine that if we could just deal with the immediate challenge that we are facing, all our problems would be over. But life is not like that. If we resolve one problem, others are just around the corner.

The temptation is to see these challenges as preventing us from carrying out the ministry God has given us. In actual fact, dealing with the problems is the ministry. As one former Bishop of Kensington put it: ‘These are not the problems associated with the ministry, they are the ministry.’

The Bible is true to life. The psalmist faced pain and distress. Paul faced false accusation and the frustration of being kept in prison on trumped up charges. The kings in the Old Testament faced battles and a massive building project challenge.

As I read the passages for today, I am reminded that the relatively minor challenges, problems and hassles that I face are nothing compared to what the people of God have faced in the past, and still face around the world today.

July 5 Day 186

The Light of God's Smile of Blessing Is On You

After the terrifying, appalling and deadly terrorist attack during her concert in 2017, Ariana Grande returned to the Manchester Arena for the ‘One Love Manchester’ concert. Marcus Mumford, lead singer of the band Mumford and Sons, opened the concert by proclaiming that ‘love casts out fear’. In the middle of the concert, Justin Bieber declared, ‘I’m not going to let go of love, not going to let go of God. God is good in the midst of darkness. God is in the midst. And he loves you. And he is here for you.’ It was like a bright light in the midst of the darkness.  

St John of the Cross spoke of the ‘dark night of the soul’. I have gone through dark times in my life. There were dark times for the people of God both in the Old and New Testament times. There have been dark periods in the history of the church. But the light of the gospel has never gone out. The light of Jesus will always outshine the darkness around (John 1:5). You have that light within you by the Holy Spirit and wherever you go you bring a light greater than the darkness around you.

July 4 Day 185

Opposition Turned into Opportunity

Stephen Lungu came to our home and told me his story. He is the oldest son of a teenage mother from a township in Zimbabwe. She was trapped in a difficult marriage to a man more than twenty years her senior. She dealt with her struggles by drinking heavily.

One day, when Stephen was three years old, his mother took him, his brother and baby sister into town. Saying she needed to go to the toilet, Stephen’s mother left him holding his sister in the busy town square, while his brother John played on the ground. Two hours later she had not returned. Their mother had run away, leaving the three children in the reluctant care of an aunt. By the age of eleven, Stephen too had run away – preferring to live on the streets.

Growing up, Stephen developed a strong bitterness against God. As a teenager he was recruited into one of the urban gangs, called the Black Shadows, which carried out violence, theft and destruction on the streets of Zimbabwe.

When a travelling evangelist came to town to speak to thousands of people about Jesus in a large tent, Stephen went to firebomb the event. He carried a bag full of bombs. He wanted to attack the event because he wanted to attack God. As Stephen awaited the moment for his attack, Shadrach Maloka, a South African evangelist, took to the stage and announced that the Holy Spirit had warned him that many in the audience may die soon without Christ. Astonished, the Black Shadows thought someone had figured out their plan. Stephen Lungu was captivated by the preacher.

In each of the passages for today we see attacks of various kinds and how God turns opposition into opportunity.

July 3 Day 184

God's Purposes for You

I trained as a lawyer and worked as a barrister. Then, back in 1981, Pippa and I felt that God was calling us to full-time ministry in the Church of England and for me to become an ordained minister. We also felt that we should do our training in Durham, starting in September 1982. I was at the top of the waiting list for the theological college at Durham University. I was told it was almost certain someone would drop out and I was virtually guaranteed a place. Based on this I announced our plans widely, including telling all my colleagues at work that I was leaving.

Just before I was due to start we received news that, exceptionally, no one had dropped out that year and it would not be possible for us to go. We tried everything to persuade them to change their minds. We desperately tried to find another theological college that would accept us. We prayed and pushed as hard as we could but to no avail. The door was firmly shut.

The following year was extremely difficult. I was given very little work by my workplace as people knew I was leaving and so had no incentive to build my career. It was a huge disappointment and mystifying at the time.

In the end, Pippa and I went to Oxford to study the following year and I eventually started as an assistant pastor at HTB in 1986. With hindsight, had we got the place at Durham, the timing would have meant that a job at HTB would have been out of the question and we would not be doing what we are doing today. I am so thankful to God that he blocked our plans and strategically ordered our steps.

If you are going through a setback or disappointment, remember that his purposes for you are ‘good, pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2). Nothing happens without God’s permission. God is in control and in everything he is working for good (8:28).

July 2 Day 183

Transform Your World

My new friend from Scotland, Dez, told me, ‘I was a doorman; a bouncer. I was quite a violent guy. I took a lot of drugs. I was a cocaine addict. My life revolved around fighting, taking drugs, partying and living in that cycle.’

He said, ‘One night I had taken a massive overdose. I felt like I was having a heart attack. My heart was jumping out of my chest. And I cried out in what I didn’t know then was a prayer: to live. And I woke up the next day and I never touched coke again.’

After that, Dez kept meeting Christians. One in particular was Fiona, who really lived out her faith. He asked her out a few times, but she said ‘No’. Mainly because he wasn’t a Christian.

She gave him a Bible and he started reading: ‘I started tearing through it trying to find something and I ended up finding Jesus. Suddenly, my whole life made sense.’

He called Fiona and asked her to take him to church. There he heard about Alpha. ‘On Alpha, I met Jesus and it changed my life. I was this drug-fuelled, violent person and now I love people and love God. I just want to share my story.’

Dez has just finished his studies in Theology and is working for Alpha Scotland.

And, he married Fiona. He is now a happy husband and a loving father.

Dez sums up his complete transformation: ‘Jesus turned the questions I had about whether God exists into a belief that God cares about me. I have changed from a violent, loveless drug addict to a man who is happily married and full of love. I’m now running Alphas for all types of people, from gangs to grannies, and I’m seeing their lives changed.’

July 1 Day 182

Seven Characteristics of Great Leaders

An online survey listed all the qualities that people expect from ‘perfect’ pastors:  

They preach for exactly twelve minutes.
They are twenty-eight years of age, but have been preaching for thirty years.
They work from 8 am until midnight every day, but are also the caretaker.
They frequently condemn sin, but never upset anyone.
They wear good clothes, buy good books, drive a good car, give generously to the poor and have a low salary.
They make fifteen daily calls to parish families, visit the housebound and the hospitalised, spend all their time evangelising the un-churched and are always in the office when they are needed.

They are also very good-looking!

Of course, we all know that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect pastor’. Nevertheless, daunted by the high expectations that people have of their church leaders, on 1 July 2004 (when I had been asked to take on the role of Vicar at HTB in London), I felt both excited and a little overwhelmed by the responsibility. That day, I wrote my prayer in the margin of my Bible in One Year: that I, like David, would shepherd the people with integrity of heart and lead them with skilful hands (Psalm 78:72). This is still my prayer today.

In yesterday’s passage we saw how Paul said to the Ephesian elders, ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood’ (Acts 20:28). Pope Francis urged the spiritual leaders of the church to ‘be shepherds living with the smell of sheep’.

The task of an overseer is to pastor God’s flock, following the example of Jesus who said, ‘I am the good shepherd’ (John 10:11). In the passages for today we see seven characteristics of good shepherds which are seen in all great Christian leaders.