Sunday 18th October 2020

I want to share with you two good news stories that have come my way over the last couple of weeks. As I tell you them I do so with the people’s permission and as an act of encouragement to all of us that God is with us even in these times of uncertainties and doubts.

Story number one is about a lady from our previous church. When I was there I invited and encouraged people to become involved in helping to lead worship. Thankfully some did respond and this story is about one lady who offered to help. After we moved to our current church, St Michael’s, she has continued in the life of her church and its worship. As time passed by she felt an ever increasing sense of serving God in a more structured way. She called me with the exciting news that she had applied, been accepted and was now in training with the Church if Scotland as an OLM, Ordained Local Minister. She remembered the encouragement offered and phoned me to thank me for, in a very small way, acting as a sort of springboard for her and the ministry she is now training for.

Story number two is about our son-in-law who works for the Church of Scotland in Livingston. Already having achieved a BSc in Mathematics and Physics some ten years ago, he has just completed a two year ‘Master of Theology in Ministry Studies’. He received a phone from the university last week to tell him he is to be awarded the ‘John Hope Prize’ in Practical theology.

As I said in my introduction, there are good news stories happening even now. There are some people for whom their faith is being tested, for others there may be doubts about so many things, not least the future. I share these stories to offer all of us a hope that the light of God is still shining even in the dark.

Reading: Job 38:1-7

Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone- while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?

Reflection

Last week when we looked at the reading from Ecclesiastes we discovered the author asking the big question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’

From the beginning of time people have been asking questions. Through all ages until our present time we want to know the answers. I realise every generation could add on the strap line, ‘like no other time in history, we need answers.’ This tells me that actually each generation, each time in history, mirrors the others. The particular issues of each time in history may be unique but our desire to solve the mystery remains an inbuilt component of our psyche.  We have used different methods over the years as technology plays a bigger part in our lives. Do you remember the day when before a journey you would sit down with the road maps checking then double checking the road numbers and the motorway junction numbers you had to exit so that you arrived at your destination? Work out where comfort stops should be taken. Before setting off you ask others the best route to take. On the journey you would ask the co-pilot, better known as the back seat driver, to keep a watchful eye. Truth be told you don’t actually ask they just instinctively offer the advice. Now you buy a wee box, fit it to your windscreen, or you take out your smartphone, enter the postcode of your destination, and off you go. These mini computers do the thinking for you. They ask some satellite way up in the skies all the questions that you used to ask of the road maps.

We still need the answers but we have a new way of asking the questions. Video footage of CCTV on our streets allow people to retrace movement of people before and after an event. People with dash cams fitted to their cars more and more are being asked to provide evidence on issues that occur on our roads. Cyclist have mini cameras fitted to their helmets recording their journey. I wonder if people occasionally go into churches looking for answers on where they are going on their journey?  Who would have thought at the beginning of the year attending worship would involve logging in details and passwords to go online? What does my life mean? What am I supposed to do? Does anything matter anymore? Is it the Churches who possess the answers? Or is our responsibility to point people in the direction leading them to discover for themselves God is the answer. Take Job for instance. Job seeks answers from God. He feels sorry for himself. We discover as we read through the book of Job the enemy have taken possession of his property, his family is lost to the elements.  He is covered, head to foot, with loathsome sores. His wife holds him in contempt: “Do you hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!” Amid this misfortune, Job questions God. “Why”. “Why not destroy my life altogether? What hope is compelling me to care about life?” Job receives his reply. But he gets no answers. We join the story as question upon shattering question is fired back at him. “Where you there when I made the world? If you know so much, tell me about it. What holds up the pillars that support the earth? Who closed the gates to hold back the sea when it burst from the womb of the earth? Declare to me if you have knowledge!” And so it goes on, Job’s pleadings thrown in his face and God now asking the questions. Leaf through the pages of Scripture: “Adam, where are you?” God’s challenge to Moses, “Will you lead my people?” to Isaiah, “Who will go? Whom shall I send?” and to Job: “Brace yourself, stand with courage and I will question you.” God taking the initiative as we make our response. How often it happens when we look for answers, we end up getting more questions. This works with the big questions as well as the lesser important ones. I often ask Ingrid, ‘what’s for dinner tonight?’ Her response far too often is, ‘I don’t know, what do you fancy? Oh my goodness, how frustrating a question answered with another question. Stop making me look for an answer and just tell me what it is. Don’t make me take any more responsibility than I have too. The question sets the conditions for the answer. If it is too restrictive, such as, ‘Can I help you?’ you get the short one-word answer, yes or no. If it is broader based, such as, ‘How may I help you?’ it requires more from the one being questioned.  Ask the wrong questions, you may get the wrong answers. ‘Can I help you?’ No. That’s that then end of conversation. I wonder if people are looking for a religion that poses fewer problems and prescribes more cures, a religion to solve the riddles of existence. “Who will save us?” “Why this loneliness and heartbreak?” “Why is there all this injustice in the world?” I think this is where we need to be careful. None of us can provide all the answers and each of us need to be alert to the attraction of being able to offer them. I believe the church is in a position to offer those who are seeking an answer a way of finding it in the person of Christ Jesus. I think realizing our full humanity lies in questions being asked and answers being thought through. God stands as the question mark on the edges of social justice. Compelling us to ask about the young people without jobs and the prisoners without hope. Inviting us to search the reasons why cities and towns are broken with hostile neighbourhoods. God comes asking the questions on behalf of men and women with no fixed address, the men, women and children beaten and bruised in their own homes. God can be found in the tears of the lonely as they hunger for encouragement and grasp for friendship. God comes to you and I, the ones who make up his church here on earth, the ones who pray, your will not mine be done. And he asks us some serious questions as we trust his love lies at the heart of it all. Are you available? Do you care? Can you meet me there? “Brace yourself”. He says

“Stand with courage and I will question you.”

Sunday 11th October 2020

Introduction

We have a responsibility to use time in a balanced way that enables us to enjoy life as God intended it to be. We know that we are creatures of time by the way we set our clocks and watches so that we will know what hour it is.

We have schedules and appointments set by dates on a calendar. We know larger amounts of time by measuring the months and years. We also know the seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. We see it in creation as we serve a God of season. God doesn’t measure seasons with clocks and calendars, but through truth and revelation.

Our lives will change, and we will enter and exit many seasons, but there is one who remains constant yesterday, today and forever. There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens

Reading: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

Reflection

The name Ecclesiastes comes from the Greek word Ekklesia which simply means assembly. From this we can understand the book may be read as a leader or teacher speaking before some form of assembly or gathering.

The opening verse leads scholars to conclude the author is King Solomon, ‘The words of the teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem.’ The second verse reads, ‘Meaningless! Meaningless! Says the teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’ It could be argued that what we have before us is a sermon that sets about exploring the big question that we all ask at some point on the journey. What is the meaning of life? I wonder if it is mostly when we experience that meaningless feeling we ask the big question. Our Scripture says to everything there is a season

and there is a purpose and a reason for those seasons. In travelling through them we learn things about ourselves and about God. Things we may not have learned had we not travelled through. Change is inevitable. It is going to happen. We look at the world around us and notice things are different today than they were 10 years ago, last year or even yesterday. I want to read this morning a comment one of our members made when responding to the favourite Psalm choice that we held a couple of weeks ago. ‘We have much to do and it is pleasing to note that during these difficult restrictive times our own St Michael’s family have adapted and coped exceptionally well. Now that we have been taken out of our comfort zone and shown that we can adapt and accept change we should be showing further initiative and continue to seek pastures new and take up other challenges.’

Cast your minds back to last summer when most of our services were very different and some were the same as in years gone by. We had the annual kirkin of the honest lad and honest lass. We had a joint worship service and lunch in the hall. The other services included a guest speaker from Crossreach as well as different groups from within the Church family; Bible Study group and the choir leading our worship services. All very different from our services of worship this year. Either way they are all services of worship offered to the living God and in my opinion to deny this is to deny that we serve a God of seasons it is to deny that his hand is leading us through this season. He created the seasons. He created time. And each season is different than the others. Some are meant for things to grow, and others for things to die off. God gives us revelations and truths to propel us into new and different seasons. Because we are creatures of habit if things did not change we would become complacent stuck in the one place. When we think about gifts from God, we should begin at the beginning. The gift of life we receive from God provides us with many opportunities to enjoy the beauty and wonder of creation, to work and to rest, to give and to receive. God’s gift of life is the gift of unique life: each one of us is different, each of us with our own strengths and weaknesses. God’s breaking into the created time through Jesus Is his commitment to this world and its people. Martin Luther said, ‘Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my little apple tree and pay my debts’. Luther agrees that the return of Christ ought to make us more faithful in our duties to God and man. Living expectantly does not mean living recklessly.

Keep your perspective balanced. Until that day, let us live expectantly, let us live responsibly and let us live for His glory. Let us live like there is no tomorrow, because one day, there will be no tomorrow only eternity to enjoy His presence and love forever. Don’t become obsessed with what will happen, but keep your mind fixed on faithfully following Jesus whatever happens. Don’t lose your head or your faith, no matter what happens! Do not let what may nor may not happen distract you from praying for God’s will to be done. Never let the headlines discourage you from trusting God to do His will in your life. God’s gifts are full of variety. His purpose is that we should use our gifts to help and bless other people not to hide them and certainly not simply to please ourselves. Our purpose in life is not to see our will done, but His will done on earth as it is in Heaven. Giving glory to God. Let us offer back to God that which he first gave to us that all may be blessed for the work of his kingdom.

Sunday 4th October 2020

John 5:9–13

We live in an uncertain world, and in it, we do our best to live with certainty.

“Will you be there?” someone asks.

“You bet—the Lord willing and the rivers don’t rise.”

And there’s the crux.

We’re not always sure if the Lord is willing or how high the river will rise.  A young mother runs to and fro, tending to everyone’s needs but is unsure if she’s doing right in it all and asks, “Can we slow it down?”

Change is always around us, and every change brings its own uncertainty. Yet forty-three times in the little letter of 1 John, the word know or to know is used to describe our experience with God. This we know: God loves us. Jesus died for us.

We have eternal life in his name. These we can count on.  But some uncertainty is not a bad thing. When defined as mystery, uncertainty is next to holiness. Moses stood before the burning bush, not knowing, and called out, “Mystery, tell me your name.”

Tennyson echoed the same in his poem, “Flower in the Crannied Wall.” Flower in the crannied wall I pluck thee out of the crannies. I hold thee in my hand, root and all, little flower and if I could understand What you are, root and all, and all in all, I would know what God and man is. We can’t know it all.

All our questions aren’t answered. We are confined to a realm of awe and wonder—and I am glad of it. It’s that touch of mystery that feels so good when worship is real. But there is a different kind of uncertainty that is neither good nor holy. There is uncertainty that is really lack of faith, and this uncertainty yields utter confusion. That’s what we don’t need.

In the church to which John wrote, there existed a complicated and confusing deviation of the faith, a heresy rightly condemned in the early Church, called Gnosticism. It taught that God is good but separated from the world, that in each person there exists a “spark” of God that can find its way back to God if we have the right “knowledge,” and only a few special people will discover it. Because the world was evil, Jesus wasn’t human. And because he really wasn’t human, he didn’t really die.

Sound confusing? It is.

All this confusion, John said, is counterproductive. Listen to the witness that has been given to you. Don’t be fooled by the smooth talk of others. Uncertainty spills over into Christian belief. But enough of uncertainty. John wrote that we would know. Jesus said that he knew where he came from and where he was going. Now that’s the kind of certainty that matters! When matters like that are settled, we can relax—and perhaps not until then.

The text looks something like a trial. There is talk of testimony given and witnesses received. “You believe the witness of men.” OK, you should.

Hebrew law suggested that two witnesses were required before a claim could be verified. John says there are three witnesses: Spirit, Blood, and Water. Here is the witness of John’s gospel: Jesus was a real person, born of water like all of us, thus the witness of water.

He was God’s atonement, thus the witness of blood; and the Spirit reveals both. God is the witness, and God is the testimony. You can bet your life on it. Of what are we certain? Of God’s unconditioned love for all people. I don’t know how God does it, but I believe it.

I believe in Christ’s full sacrifice for all. I don’t understand the theories of atonement, how Jesus’ death opens up access to heaven, but I know that what Jesus did was of everlasting consequence and that he is the centre piece of all faith and of history. Of the assurance of life eternal, that eternal life begins now (“I have come that you may have life— and have it abundantly” [John 10:10]) and that eternal life never ends (“In my father’s house are many mansions or rooms . . .” [John 14:4]).

Of these, we are sure. In addition, we have the certainty to accomplish God-sized tasks. Today’s text says, “We have confidence that if we ask anything in his will, he hears us—and more, we have already obtained the requests even in the asking.” Does that mean that we can have anything we desire? No.

Can we manipulate God to do our will for us? No.

If we pray and don’t get what we want, are we to blame? No.

It does mean, though, that we are confident in God’s presence with us and that as we align our wills with his, we find the answer to our prayers. I was speaking to a young lady the other day Who said even if God says no to our request He is still with us to comfort and help us. Of that we are confident.

Christian certainty declares, in proper humility, that God is in control, that God is our authority, our creator, saviour, judge—and that in his care we find solace. God is love, Jesus is our saviour, and heaven is our home. Those things we are sure of. Between here and there, between earth and heaven, we may discover much we can’t understand.

But the sure knowledge of Christ is enough.

Sunday 27th September

Harvest

John 7: v1-5 & 37-40

Not so many years ago, a shopping trip to the greengrocers would reveal a small assortment of locally grown produce – various root and leaf vegetables, a selection of, pears, bananas, oranges and possibly some plums, the odd melon, pineapple or coconut.

The vegetables tended to be those which you could grow in the garden, greenhouse or allotment – though perhaps delivered a few weeks earlier than you could expect from home-grown produce. Everything had its season, and one could look forward with eager anticipation to the first strawberries of summer, or the arrival of the cauliflower, cucumber or tomatoes. This seasonality in the food that we ate meant that each season held its own delights for the lover of fresh food. But don’t things change? Now I’m not necessarily saying that this is a bad thing, and that we should go back to the “good old days”. For one thing it’s opened up some new markets for smaller countries to export the crops that they can grow and we can’t – even if at times the West has exploited these smaller producers. But it does mean for children growing up today the whole concept of a Harvest Festival really doesn’t mean as much as perhaps it did to my grandparents.

Silage gathered into round bales wrapped with polythene doesn’t have the same mystique as the sight of a combine harvester and fields of gently waving golden corn. And by the time the churches get around to celebrating harvest, most of the crops have already been safely gathered in for some time. Not so of course in some countries. We’ve all seen those horrific television pictures of the problems some African countries have had with a total lack of rain. In some cases the seed hasn’t even managed to germinate, let alone get anywhere near ripening.

What celebrations there must be in such countries when conditions are favorable and sufficient crop is harvested to ensure that the family will not go hungry through the winter months. For in countries such as these, there is little chance of a shortfall being made up for by imported produce – other than and charitable aid which might come after the peoples’ plight has reached the eyes and ears of the world’s media. So if there is no really defined time in late September when we can breath a long sigh and say that the harvest is safely gathered in, why do we still continue to have Harvest Festivals?

It seems a question worth asking – I mean, is it simply tradition – a throwback to the Victorian lifestyle with echoes of Constable’s Haywain? Is it a chance to fill a few pews at a point in time between Easter and Christmas? If we no longer rely on a satisfactory harvest in this country to supply our needs in the way that our forefathers did in the past, then why all the fuss? It doesn’t even help us much if we look back at the history of the festival, I’m afraid. After all, throughout the ages people have given thanks for the maturing of crops that would sustain them through the following months. And of course like many other ancient customs, harvest rituals – such as the offering of the first fruits to the gods – were taken over by the early church in an attempt to water down the influence of the traditional pagan beliefs. By the Middle Ages the first corn from the harvest was made into the Eucharest bread on August 1st, Lammas day. When the harvest had been gathered, “Harvest Home” would be celebrated in a farmer’s house. It was customary to use the last sheaf of grain to make a corn dolly, based on the belief that the corn spirit was contained within the dolly. When the feasting was over it was taken to the farmhouse and kept there until the next harvest supper.

Nowadays, harvest is usually observed late September or early October – a tradition that I was surprised to learn only goes back as far as the middle of the last century and curtesy of a Cornish vicar. And sad to say, the corn dolly is still in evidence in the decorations of some churches – a rather unwelcome remembrance of harvest’s pagan past. This is all a bit depressing isn’t it. The closer we look at the harvest that has been handed down by the established church from its pagan past, the less it seems to have relevance to our modern world. To understand the real significance of this festival, it seems we have to go back much further – back to the real roots of our Christian faith within the Old Testament and among the Jewish people, and their relationship with their God.

From very early times the Jewish year was punctuated by festivals – the “Feasts of the Lord”. Some were timed to coincide with the changing seasons, reminding the people of God’s constant provision for them and also allowing them to return by way of offering, a token of all that he’d given them. Others celebrated some of the great events of Israel’s history, and the ways that God had intervened to help his people when they were in need. All were occasions of joy and celebration reflecting on all the good things that God had given to and done for his people, as well as times where the people could come close to their God and ask for forgiveness and cleansing. We know that they were never intended to be observed out of mere formality and empty ritual. The prophets warned the people against reducing these festivals to that level. The real purpose was spiritual – a great and glorious meeting together of God and His people.

Among the various festivals that the Jews celebrated are two which seem relevant to this Sunday. The first was the Feast of Weeks, which we read about in Leviticus 23. Celebrated fifty days after the beginning of Passover, it was essentially an agricultural celebration at which the first fruits of the harvest were offered to God. The priest offered two loaves of bread made from the new flour, along with animal sacrifices. The festival later became known as Pentecost – from the Greek word meaning “fiftieth”. Doesn’t life get confusing? Now it seems as though we ought to be having our Harvest Festival on Whit Sunday. The second festival which I want us to think about is that of the Feast of Ingathering (or Tabernacles), which is an autumn festival held at the end of the fruit harvest. This was the most popular and joyful of all the festivals and lasted a full seven days. Celebrations included camping out in gardens and on roof-tops, in tents or huts made from the branches of trees. These tents (or booths or tabernacles) were a reminder of the time that the people lived in tents after the Lord brought them out of Egypt and led them toward the promised land. The festival included a ceremony in which water was poured out and prayers made for good rains for the coming season. It’s also suggested that it was during such a ceremony that Jesus stood up and declared “Whosoever is thirsty should come to me and drink. As the scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in me, streams of life-giving water will pour out from his heart. (John 7:37-38) Can I suggest that it’s somewhere between these two Jewish festivals, The Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles that we can look for the real significance of our Harvest Festival today.

In a time when it is difficult to relate to the Victorian print depicting harvests of old, and Constable’s ‘Haywain’ is only a fading copy on the wall, and so many inner-city children wouldn’t recognise peas or broad beans if they saw them growing in a field, maybe we should be looking for a deeper spiritual meaning. In this way the offering we bring, the fruit and vegetables, the beautiful flowers and foliage which decorate our chapels today can still remind us of all the good things that the Lord has given to us, and for which we can too easily become complacent. And while we’re saying thanks for the food we eat, what about the gas and electricity that is used to cook the food, the petrol that gets us to the supermarket, the homes within which we eat – there are so many things in our lives that we should be grateful for. But Jesus’ words in John’s gospel remind us that our needs are not just met by a constant supply of brocoli and sweetcorn. Jesus had a way of taking the ordinary things of life and bringing out of them a tremendous truth. On the occasion referred to in our reading water from Siloams pool was solemnly offered in the temple – possibly as I’ve mentioned a rite invoking God’s help in bringing the refreshing rain to end the long summer drought. Jesus seizes the opportunity in the way that only he could – any thirsty soul was invited to find deep and lasting refreshment through faith in him. The blessing which Jesus offered was to be made available through the Holy Spirit – which had not yet been given in a new way to believers. The Spirit had been active in the world from the beginning of time, but was not given to the believers in the full Christian sense until Pentecost, after Jesus had died, risen and ascended to His Father in heaven. And there of course is another link to the first of our festivals – which was the celebration of the first fruits but held when we now celebrate Pentecost. I’m drawn to the conclusion that the overriding need of Christians in today’s world is to be constantly reminded of all the good things – both spiritually and materially – that our God offers to his people, in the same way that the people of Israel used those two festivals to thank Him not only for the provision of a sufficient harvest, but also for the fact that their God was constantly acting in their best interests – that His love for His people could look beyond all the bad things that they did, all the times that they strayed from following him sincerely, and still provide for their needs.

For that reason I have included among the usual gifts on the table, a glass of water – to remind us of the spiritual food without which we could not function as effective Christians. For it was the gift of the living water, the Holy Spirit, to the believers in Acts that was the starting point, the birth, of the church, and without which we wouldn’t be sitting here and singing hymns of thanks to God for his love for us. So it is that two of our festivals, Pentecost and Harvest are seemingly linked by purpose and aim, and enable us now to thank God for all his good gifts – for food to eat, for our material needs, for the meeting of our spiritual needs. And with so much to give thanks for, our Harvest Thanksgiving should never be a mere formality or ritual – it will be as the prophets intended, a great and glorious meeting between God and His people.

Sunday 20th September 2020

This week we have come to the end of our journey through the Book of Psalms and we had our Top of the Psalms top 10 for St John’s and St Michael’s as well as revealing the Minister’s No1 Top Psalm. The top three voted for by the congregation were: in 3rd place no1, in 2nd place no19 and the top Psalm is Psalm 23. These are some of the comments that went with the votes. No1 ‘it is the gospel in a nutshell’. No19 ‘raises the morale and gives hope for the future.’ No23 ‘wonderful, poetic imagery, which stands for all time.’  The Minister’s favourite is Psalm 100. 

Reading & Reflection: Psalm 100. A Psalm of Praise

I want to quickly recap where we began our journey in the book of Psalms, in themselves a journey as they take us through several centuries that the people of Israel journeyed. The final form as we have it today came about when they had returned from their exile experience. As our Bible is presented to us in its current form we find the Book of Psalms at the very centre. The middle book, the beating heart of the scriptures. How fitting as it surely has to be amongst some of the most honest, heartfelt, soul searching pieces of writing anywhere. The innermost thoughts and prayers of the people of the Old Testament are found here and they speak very clearly to our time in history just as they have addressed people’s needs down over the centuries and as each generation has journeyed through their trials, tribulations and celebrations.

We have thought quite a bit about our journeys and how a life of faith is very much a journey with God and with fellow believers, our community of faith. In looking back over a journey you do not have to desire to remain back there but appreciate more a sort of forward motion of moving from the old into the new, from the known into the unknown and from your comfort zone into a place of challenge and I think that is where some people struggle when you speak about moving on in a journey they hear the word challenge and somehow it conjures up negative connotations. Remember God’s people in the Psalms had spent forty years in exile. They have learned new ways of worshipping God as their temple has been destroyed, they are carrying the presence of God with them in the Ark of the Covenant. They lament the destruction of their temple but they realise God can be and is with them wherever they travel.

How does their experience resonate with ours today? Our churches were not destroyed, their doors were temporarily closed. We were not locked out for forty years, we were not even locked out for forty weeks.

Our worshipping of God did not come to end but rather it moved into a new way of being. Has our worship of the physical attributes of the church building and its contents got confused with our worship of God?

All of this leads me to my favourite Psalm.

I was not brought up in a church family, therefor I did not know a lot about the Bible other than the weekly Assembly at the Knox Academy and truth be told not many of us listened to the person addressing us. I got introduced to this Psalm when I was about twenty years old and over the years it has played a big part in my life I got very familiar with its words, in particular the form taken in the hymn, ‘All people that on earth do dwell’. As we have spoken about journeys through life my own journey took a massive change of direction but such is the truth in this Psalm, God gave it to me as he journeyed with me, and it still holds that special place within my heart, albeit I see it in a different light and with a fresh understanding. When taken in its entirety it says, for me, everything that needs to be said about God and me and everyone else and the relationship that we all share in this world.

V1 ‘Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth’ God created by his own hand all that is seen and unseen. God did not create the barriers that separate us from each other we do that for ourselves.

V2 ‘Worship the Lord with gladness: come before him with joyful songs’. My heart bounces when I come before my God. Even in times of heartache and sadness, God knows these things about us, Worship is intended to be joy filled and God restores gladness to our lives.

V3 ‘Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture’. To know that our God is the Lord of our life. To know that his love for each of us goes so deep, that he claims us as his own. He feeds and nourishes us with all good things.

V4 ‘Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name’.

The Psalmist undoubtedly is writing about the temple. The exile happened and the people had to learn a new way. I do not think we have to take a literal physical understanding that the gates and the courts are to be specific geographical places. Christ came and brought with him a new way. He left for us his Spirit that blows as the wind, wherever it pleases.

V5 ‘For the Lord is good and his love endures for ever; his faithfulness continues through all generations’.

My/our journey here on earth will without doubt come to an end. But the love that God has for me/you will never die. I/you may have moments when faith wavers.

But the faithfulness of God journeys through all generations.

Psalm 100

A Psalm that says to me this is trusting in God and this is God loving me.
A Psalm that says to me shout for joy to the Lord.
A Psalm that says to me God we lead me from one step to the next as we all journey together.
A Psalm that says to me this is everything that I owe to my God.

Sunday 13th September 2020

Reading & Reflection; Psalm 24

V1 The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;

V2 for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.

All that we see, all that we know about of our universe, all of it is the Lord’s. It was God who made the dry land and the seas, it was God who made the birds of the air and all the beasts, it was God who breathed life into every living creature. 

V3 Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD?

Throughout scripture we read of the mountaintop experiences of God’s people; the giving of the ten commandments, Moses and the burning bush, Jesus with his disciples on the mount of transfiguration, Jesus and the sermon on the mount.

V3 Who may stand in his holy place?

The Temple in Jerusalem the place where God was held to be present before the exile story. The inner sanctum, where only the great high priest may enter to offer sacrifices. Who enters into such fellowship with the Lord our God?

V4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god.

To have this fellowship with God requires a righteous attitude and righteous actions. Every time we swear by whatever, when we try to cement our word and our action. Are we creating an idol that will take care of us, are we trusting in a false go? What about when we use that throwaway phrase, ‘touch wood’? What does that say about where our trust lies, or does it imply we actually don’t have any trust? 

V5 They will receive blessing from the LORD and vindication from God their Saviour.

Is it only the people of God who receive a blessing from God? Do we need to claim God before God claims us? If that is true then how does someone on the outside become someone on the inside?

V6 Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, God of Jacob.

As we stand with arms outstretched waiting to receive good things from God what about our generation? Are we seeking those things of God, are we knocking on the door and waiting to receive? We seek the God of Jacob, the God of yesterday. But we seek him still for he is the God of today. We seek to travel in his company for he is the God of tomorrow also. Young and old, male and female, together the family of the same God.

V7 Lift up your heads, you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.

The golden gate on the east wall was the main entrance to the temple area during the first and second temples. Over the centuries the gate has been closed and reopened several times when eventually in the 16th century they were closed and have never been reopened.

8 Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.

The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord. Described in Exodus as where the tablets of stone were placed and kept. Carried by God’s people to remind them of the covenant God made with his people. The sight of the Ark symbolized the presence of God.

V9 Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.

The only one of eight gates on the walls of Jerusalem that remains closed and sealed. This is the gate which Jewish tradition says the Messiah will enter. This is the gate Jesus entered on that humble donkey to the great cheers of Hosanna from the people. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

V10 Who is he, this King of glory? The LORD Almighty— he is the King of glory.

The great temple of yesteryear has gone. The Ark of the Covenant and the throne no longer there. How then may the king of glory enter in? Christ Jesus is the new covenant, sealed by his blood. Christ Jesus will return and reclaim the throne of David. Through the gateway of our heart the king of glory will enter. His reign will be established, not only in the temple courts, but from corner to corner across all the earth. The Lord God Almighty He is the King of Glory.

Sunday 6th September 2020

Introduction

The Book of Psalms is the title we know but the Hebrew name was The Book of Praises. Many of the Psalms were read repeatedly meaning some became more well-known than others and it grew from there that certain Psalms were read at particular festivals and occasions such as during the feast of booths, the seventh and last feast recorded in the Bible when all Jewish males were required to appear before the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem. Very similar to the modern church that we know today, in ancient times the Psalms were used liturgically. Week six of our journey through the book of Psalms and what a huge change in the journey today. We were back in the church building. Yes, socially distanced, yes complying with all the regulations in an attempt to keep us all safe. But as the Psalmist says praising the Lord. How apt that this final Psalm in the book is a call to praise God. We have journeyed through the five sections or books of the Book of Psalms and discovered along the way many truths about God. We have discovered God in his interaction with humanity. We have discovered God as our deliverer. We discovered God as place of sanctuary. We have discovered God’s reign over all things. And last week we discovered God’s word and the depths of his truth. Much of this we have known and held firm to for years, other things we may have discovered either for the first time or found in a new refreshing way as we visited detail not done so for a while. The Psalms are a melting pot of human emotion with cries to heaven turning into heavenly praise. There is a spiritual intensity that compels us to hold the Book of Psalms in a rather unique place in scripture. We are equally at home with them when we read them alone and reflect on them from a purely personal focus as we are when we read them in a setting such as this during public worship.

Reading: Psalm 150

Reflection

The final Psalm in the book and it is a call to praise God. What a way to conclude everything written in the Psalms. Having experienced every emotion known from the highest peaks into the lowest depths. God has always been there with and for us. Throughout the journey we have noted God is God and we are not. Our relationship is with the creator of all things. Praise God in the sanctuary, the physical place, the temple in Jerusalem. From that earthly recognisable place we are called to praise him in the mighty heavens. Remember in Psalm 121 last week.

The author looks to the hills and asks the question, ‘where does my help come from?’ Not from the hills but from God is the answer. We lift our praise not to the mighty heavens but to God who find there. And here we are once more in that place of sanctuary with him, the physical and the spiritual, the place of sanctuary and the emotion of sanctuary. Just as we have seen all aspects of life covered through the Psalms, here in the final verse of the final Psalm, we read everything that has breath should praise the Lord. Over the generations including our own of today. People have asked why praise God?

In our journey of faith and discovery we praise God for acts of power in the creation of all things and in the redemption of humanity. People will argue there are other causes of and theories for creation, the future of humanity lies within its own hands. This is where the journey of faith becomes so vital in the journey life. People of faith will praise God for his surpassing greatness. Who is like this God of ours? We may have been created in His own image but there is none like Him. Every single line of the Psalm is about praise. Possibly the most fitting aspect for us today is there is no specific place for it to happen, yes it can happen in the church building, yes it can happen in the open air as we walk along a journey, yes it can even happen online during a zoom service. God’s greatness goes way beyond any limitations we can think to place upon him. The list of musical instruments shows us there is no one way to praise God.

Our offer of praise can be as varied and as wide as we like. We should not worry ourselves so much about the noise we make when praising God, we should not worry ourselves so much about the physical place where we engage in God, I believe God is more interested in the music that beats within our hearts, the noise that we make in the silent places of our soul. If something happens when we least expect it and we instantly say out loud, ‘praise the Lord’ is that any less praise than when planned as part of a worship service? Yes, it is a very different form of praise but I would argue it is very much praise.

A spontaneous reaction to encountering the divine that results in us recognising God in our lives surely that has to be praise. We praise God when we have loving, hope-filled hearts; when we hear his word and apply it to our life; when we witness to others his gospel story; We praise God when we serve to advance his kingdom here on earth. Although the Psalmist lists all these musical instruments God wants to hear us praising him with everything we have as it says in Deuteronomy, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ That is praise worthy of such a God as ours.

Sunday 30th August 2020

We enter into the final book, book five of the book of Psalms, it centres on the Word of God. When God spoke his Word heaven and earth were created. When God said, “let there be”, it was so. Creator God of everything, what better help could a person have? I have to say there was a wave of devilment flushed over me when I sat down to look at the Psalms in this section. I was tempted to go for Psalm 119 and if you know your Psalms then you will realise the devilment in my thinking as that Psalm has 176 verses.

The Psalm I finally decided on is one that will be well known to all of you, both as a Psalm and as the hymn, ‘I to the hills will lift mine eyes’, of course it is Psalm 121. This psalm certainly fits into our recent focus on journeying, not only through the book of Psalms but our journey through life and our journey of faith therein. Our journey through life can lead us into the valley of despair, as the psalmist finds himself, where everything looks hopeless. But such is the power of the Word of God that in that very valley is where the answer becomes most clear. In this life as we go through those valleys we look for help that once more we may head for the summit and climb back up to the mountaintop. The Psalmist convinces us not to be in cast down fashion, look up to the hills, for help is on its way. There is only one help for the psalmist, or for anyone else, who is surrounded with problems. Look up and rejoice, God will come to your rescue. There is a wonderful poem written by M.S. Lowndes entitled ‘Hidden in my heart’. I recommend it to you.

Reading: Psalm 121

Reflection

The focus of God watching over his people is central to the Psalm. No less than five time the phrase, ‘watch over’ is used in a Psalm that is, after all, only eight verse long. This is why I think so many, over the generations, have turned to this piece of writing making it one of the most loved of all the Psalms.

As the Psalmist writes this he was most likely on a journey that was also a pilgrimage to and from the temple in the great city of Jerusalem. As with all scripture there should be a note of caution when reading any part of it as though it were separate from the rest. There are Psalms that speak quite clearly about the author’s feeling of abandonment. There are Psalms that speak quite clearly about the fear from surrounding nations and their armies. Nothing in this Psalm suggests that these things do not exist. But this Psalm centres on the positives of God on the journey as a protector. This journey through the hills can be filled with anxiety and the Psalmist is fully aware of potential dangers it poses.

What we read are his concerns around the uncertainties faced on such a pilgrimage but also in the journey of life itself. The arid desert exposes the pilgrim to the elements and in particular the heat of the day if they did not find shade. Of course the desert at night is a place of cold frosty air in a moonlit night. God will be the shade both night and day. The psalmist is not looking at the hills as a source of help but rather he is raising his head, raising his eyes and looking outward. I am sure we have all done something similar when we are musing over something.

We look in a particular direction or we focus our eye on a specific item and ask a similar question as the Psalmist does, ‘how am I going to get through this, where am I going to find the answer, where will my help come from? I quite often sit staring out the office window, looking at a hedge with my eyes but in my mind’s eye I am somewhere very different. We are not looking to the item to provide the answer or indeed to be the help that we stand in need of. We are simply focusing our mind more on the problem than we are our eye on an item. The circumstances may be unknown but there is a strong assurance that God is our help and our protection keeping us safe from harm. “I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from.” Something very different from the way we pray in church today, the Psalmist with eyes wide open, surveying the scene before him, expresses boldness and confidence in prayer, with hope and expectation of help and salvation. God is with His own every step of the way to make sure our journey is completed.

The presence in the wilderness was the fire by night and the cloud by day. The presence with the believer now is the Holy Spirit which is our Comforter and our Guide. Around the clock protection. Day and night God is our Protector in all the regular routines of life. He will guide us to our promised land that is eternal life in heaven. ‘The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.’ That is for all places and for all times, through this life and for ever. To all who put their trust in God this gracious assurance is made. I think there is something to be said for sometimes, whilst not forgetting the hazards of life, we concentrate our thoughts on the positive aspects. Instead of, as I said last week, living in either mode of, ‘don’t panic’ or ‘we’re all doomed’.

It is nice to look and be satisfied that God is there, God is here, and we need be neither panicked nor doomed when our help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.

Sunday 23rd August 2020

Introduction

What times they must have been when the Psalmists were putting pen to paper, so to speak. All sorts of trials and tribulations. All sorts of defeats and victories to reminisce over. All sorts of potential threats that lie ahead of them and their people to worry about. So many things to add to their prayer request list. So many people to remember before God. So many injustices that need to be righted. And so we continue on our journey as we enter the fourth book in the Book of Psalms. This next collection of Psalms is centred around the Reign of God. As I was reading the Psalm and reflecting on what might all of this mean for us today. I couldn’t help but think of that old comedy classic ‘Dad’s Army’ Filmed for television between 1968 and 1977. The first two series, twelve episodes filmed in black & white. I remember asking the question, ‘Granny what is black & white?’ I reflected on two of the main characters and their well-used phrases. Corporal Jones, ‘don’t panic Mr Mainwaring’ and private Fraser, ‘we’re all doomed’. I know so many people who appear to be running around in some kind of permanent chaotic state screaming at everybody else not to panic. Thankfully, I think, I know fewer people who go about telling everybody in a fine-tuned Scottish undertaker’s droll monologue that they are all doomed. It began to resonate with me that must have been what life was like for the Psalmist and the people of his time then we fast forward and I wonder if it still resonates with us and our generation of today. If it does, then where do we go with all of that stuff of life? For the people in the time of the Psalms they believed in many gods but all of them had limited influence over certain aspects of life. Some of these so called gods only held sway with certain groups of people, particular localised geographical areas would call on different gods to perform something or other and their neighbours over the hill would call on another god all together to conduct the same need for them or in some cases entire nations would call on different gods. For some even within the same communities, different gods were called upon in regards to the weather, nature, land and sea.

Particular aspects of life were addressed by which god was called forth. The god of war or the god of fertility, the god of the daytime or the god of the night, no matter which one was called neither does it matter which task they were being asked to oversee. Who are the gods for particular groups of people for our world? The amazing rapper, who is a music icon for the younger ones. For the older ones maybe the beautiful screen goddess of the silver screen. People like me who enjoy their sports place individuals on pedestals that elevate to something greater than mere mortal.

Gods of limited influence, gods for particular people and specific circumstance. Gods who are adored and revered by some but who are dismissed as nothing by others. The reality is that none of these other gods written about in the psalms were real. The same as the gods that people generate for today are not real gods. How strange and how easy to overturn the order of the universe. In a world where the Divine creator, the one who made you and I in his image, is somehow replaced or superseded by these false gods who have become the created in order to satisfy our image of what a god must be.

Reading: Psalm 95

Reflection

Psalm 95, a call to worship. Not a call to be static in one place, not even a call to be in a church building. But rather a call to worship the one true God, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Remember when Jesus said, ‘follow me.’ He did not lead the people into a building but led them on a journey. Of course that journey over the ensuing generations led us to church as a physical place but whatever importance or significance that physical place holds for each of us we should not lose the understanding of church as the people. The writer of the Psalm is putting it all out there as the modern speak would say. In this world that we inhabit there is good and bad coexisting. There are a multitude of vices to entrap us on our journey. There are myriad ways in which we can take the wrong path, make a wrong turning, and through the power of temptation combined with the weakness of spirit be led by the way of evil things. There are many ways in which this can happen but there are not many gods to combat these things individually. There is one God, the God of our world, the God of our universe, the God of all created things. Having set that truth before us the Psalmist leads us to the response we ought to make before this God of ours. The NIV says in verse 6, ‘Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.’ Then he continues on writing something that needs us to know the context if we are to understand the relevance of it. He warns that if the people hear the voice of the Lord they should listen to it and not harden their hearts against it as they did at Meribah and Massah.

This reminds the people of Israel of one of the worst memories in their history. When we read in the book of Exodus, the journey of exile, it tells us of a time when the people ran out of water. They were on the road, they were on the journey to the promised land, the place where God said Moses would lead them to. It was here the people rebelled, they rebelled against God and they rebelled against Moses. They grumbled about their lot, they argued with God and they tested him. Even though they had witnessed, God delivering them from bondage in Egypt. What follow this display of lack of faith was a forty-year journey of wilderness. We should note that the Israelites never did find permanent rest in the promised land. Under Joshua and David rest was theirs when they were faithful to God. Now the Psalmist hundreds of years later is warning the people. Do not make the same mistake as previous generations did. Do not miss the rest God is promising you. Do not miss that state of being at peace with God. As I said last week ’The state of sanctuary in God. Today through Christ there remains that offer of permanent rest, permanent security, permanent sanctuary and peace with God. The choice is there for everyone to make. Move forward with Christ into that promised land or turn away in unbelief. A message for then which has stood the test of time and retains its relevance for today. Today, if and when, you listen for the voice of the Lord do not harden your heart.

Sunday 16th August – Reflection

Introduction

I wonder as I look at your faces on my screen how many of you at some point in your life have shared in this experience? It may have been at school or university, it may have been at work. As you sit down to write a piece of work, depending on how far back you have had to go in your memory banks but one of two things might happen.

The sheet of paper stays blank and your pen refuses to move or in a more modern setting the screen in front of you has a curser blinking back at you and I’m convinced if you listen hard enough you can hear it laughing at you too as you dearly wish for a set of invisible fingers to start rattling the keyboard on your desk. You shout at your brain to start thinking. Oh aye it thinks all right. It thinks to itself not today, thank you, I’m having a day off. And you are left sitting looking forward with at best a vacant look and at worst feeling as though the lights are on but nobody’s in.

The irony in all of this is that is where I was once I had chosen today’s Psalm, Psalm 86 is a prayer. My prayers or my conversations with God almost fell behind the urgency to look elsewhere for inspiration. As I read around some books trying to glean information that would inform my reflection. Going nowhere fast, I thought, why don’t I write about not being able to think of something to write about and lo and behold about ten minutes before the service was due to start I found something to write. Only joking it was more like fifteen minutes.

I mentioned last week that scholars suggest that the Book of Psalms can be divided into five sections or five books.

This morning we move into number three which could be the book of Psalms about sanctuary. Sanctuary can be a physical place where one is safe or it can be a state of feeling safe or protected. We hear it often used in the context of people fleeing some particular difficulty and they are offered sanctuary, both in the way of a place or as an emotion or state of mind. It is something that is addressed in several places within Scripture and certainly in the Psalms as the writer comes before God with the issues of life. How fitting that we think on this Psalm of prayer on the Sunday leading up to the Moderator’s call for pray for church and nation.

At 8am each morning a pre-recorded reflection will go live on the Church of Scotland website and on Facebook.

In the evenings a ‘live’ gathering on Zoom will commence at 8.30pm. The prayers from each evening will also be watchable on catch-up through the Church’s digital platforms.

Reading: Psalm 86

Reflection

Possibly this Psalm could be used as a model prayer for any believer. It is a prayer that asks for God’s help when enemies are all around. Of course the word enemies may be any kind of trouble that is facing us at any particular time of our journey. And as we all know, and has been spoken about quite a bit lately, in the current situation we are living through. Troubles can come at us from within as well as from out with. This Psalm, this prayer, is mostly a reflection on God’s goodness and God’s greatness. The Psalmist does not write so much about his own needs as he does about God himself.

Compared to the greatness of God the Psalmist’s troubles are small. But be assured they are very real for him and concerning enough that he feels this desire that he needs to take them before his God and by doing so affirming God’s sovereignty over the world. The connection we made last week about the Divine Creator journeying with humanity the created continues here in this Psalm. David says teach me your way Lord. In the midst of all that has gone earlier in the Psalm; David stating that he is poor and needy, asking God to bring joy into his life, asking this forgiving God to hear his prayers, stating quite clearly that God alone is God. Teach me your ways, David says. In the midst of all that living this human life means and all that this life can throw at us David says to God.

May I learn your ways that I may learn from these hardships, that I may remain faithful and steadfast in service.

Then something that we may struggle to understand fully if we don’t put it into proper context, David asks for an undivided heart. For David and his people talking about the heart is not only referring to emotions but any mention of the heart is to refer to the whole person. David is praying to God, ‘Make all of me yours that I may offer all that I am in praise of you. That all of my journey may be in a single direction where the focus is you my God.’ All of this makes the Psalm very usable for us today. It may still be used as a commitment to God demonstrating our belief in his deliverance from our enemies, whatever that may mean, for any individual or community. What a place and state of sanctuary to be in when we have an undivided heart and we are able to love God with all of who we are.

As we pray today as individuals and as a congregation, as we join with the wider church this week in prayer and reflection, we join with the people of our nation, we join with the people of the Psalms, we join with the people of God from generation through generation,

‘hear, O Lord, and answer me
teach me your way, O Lord,
I will walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart.’