Thursday, 7 November 2019

Kicking against the goads

In the Biblical book of Acts, chapter 25, the apostle Paul is standing before King Agrippa in Caesarea, defending his teaching of Christianity. He describes his conversion on the road to Damascus, where Jesus appeared to him and said:
Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ V14.
Jesus often used simple pastoral references, easily understood by the people of that age. The goad referred to here was what we would today call a cattle prod- a simple tool used to steer or prod oxen when ploughing, a long stick, sometimes with a sharpened end or nail in the end. It was used to prompt or direct an animal, and a stubborn or feisty beast would kick back when prodded rather than simply obeying the direction. Today we talk about ‘goading” a person, referring to deliberately and continually provoking a person until they respond.
Paul (called Saul prior to his conversion) was an educated and intelligent man, one schooled in Jewish law, yet he persecuted followers of the new and rapidly expanding sect, the Way, or Christianity. He tells us that whenever a vote was held for the death penalty for Christians, Paul voted for this (v9). Yet Jesus says it was hard for him to “kick against the goads”. I believe that the goads for Paul were a continuing troubling of his conscience and a growing awareness of the Christian witness of those he persecuted, including the martyred apostle Stephen.
What was true in the time that Luke penned the book of Acts still holds true today. We often encounter people who are opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They will argue long and persuasively against Christianity and oppose it at every opportunity. In some countries they will imprison and put to death followers of Jesus. Yet God is still in the business of prompting knowledge of His presence. We must remember that it’s hard work for those people who deny Christ, and futile work at that. They are kicking against the goads.
Jesus told His followers to
love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44).
 Perhaps members of the early church were faithful in intercessory prayer for Paul’s conversion. Likewise, we have a responsibility to pray for our unsaved friends and relatives and those throughout the world who are suffering persecution for their faith. We have the commission and responsibility to live a life full of witness of the love and power of Jesus.

The Twelve Apostles, Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia,  Nov 2019

From the wonders of coastal scenery to the wondrous design of small creatures, God's mighty hand is evident. Butterfly house, Melbourne Zoo, November 2019

Friday, 11 October 2019

He had it all

Whenever I read the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-42) I’m drawn to the character of the elder brother. The father and his errant son are more easily understood, the loving, grieving and forgiving Father and the wayward and repentant Prodigal. The elder brother is perhaps more ambiguous.
It’s possible to be quite sympathetic towards the elder brother. After all, he’s the one who stayed at home, worked hard and supported his Father throughout his life, particularly in the absence of a sibling who could help. Then the wastrel turns up and is feted with exuberance and the bitter words spill forth from the elder brother’s lips.
There are many modern -day equivalents. Families may have fractured relationships due to the responsibility of managing family finances or the care of elderly parents. We see siblings divided over the sharing of their parent’s estates. Children frequently feel that the parent’s love is not distributed evenly, that one child is the “favourite”.
Satan has been at work in families from the beginning. The first murder recorded in the Bible was Cain slaying his brother Abel, brother against brother. He’s still trying to fracture families, the basic units of stability in a society, equally so in church families.
It required the prodigal’s father to remind his eldest son that he had it all:
Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (v.31)
Perhaps the eldest son requires a different kind of sympathy. He doesn’t at that moment realize what he does have- the constant love of his father and the inheritance of everything that his father owns.
The story of course is a parable, a story through which we learn lessons about life with God. At some point Christians have all been prodigals, aware of their sin and need for forgiveness. And some of us have also been like the elder brother, becoming bitter and critical rather than generous and forgiving.  We need to be reminded to rejoice in the blessings of others and to just keep on working for God, each day.
This story is a reminder to be thankful for all the blessings that God has given us and the riches that we have in living with Him, of which His presence in our lives is by far the most precious.

Grape vines, Barossa Valley, South Australia

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

The Lord is my Shepherd

Over the past few weeks, my church has been studying the 23rd Psalm, one of the most recognisable of the psalms, and one of the most quoted and loved. The familiar verses often have a comforting and reassuring effect on the reader or listener. It’s the psalm that Robert Falcon Scott turned to in his Bible as he was perishing on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition. It’s the psalm that was quoted to a dying woman by one of her fellow captives after a desperate and brutal trek in the movie “Paradise Road”. It’s been read at countless funerals. Why? Because it brings words of reassurance and hope, that in spite of adversity and sorrow, love triumphs, hope triumphs and Jesus reigns.
Jesus here is our Shepherd and it’s interesting the way in which shepherds are depicted in the Bible. The job of a shepherd was regarded as one of the most lowly in ancient Israel. It was a tough and lonely life, tending what was usually not owned by the shepherd. The sheep were the property of rich men and were tended by poor ones, or, as in the case of David, the youngest son. It wasn’t a job that men aspired to. Sometimes one became a shepherd because they were on the run and hiding out – as Moses did when he fled from Egypt to Midian.
Anyone who has watched the sheep dog trials at a country fair will understand that sheep are not the smartest of animals, nor the most cooperative. Farmer and dog must work together to coerce the creatures through a series of obstacles and into a holding pen. Usually sheep will follow each other, but often there is a beast that breaks away on its own, or stubbornly will not move. Sheep require careful attention and monitoring. They cannot care for themselves, forage for their own food, shed their excess fleece or fend off predators.
No wonder the psalmist places us in the position of sheep- silly, wilful, crowd-following, helpless sinners that we are. We need a shepherd – the Good Shepherd, as Jesus described himself. He was ever one to identify with the humble. When this psalm was written shepherds walked in front of their flock, which followed wherever the shepherd led, listening to the sound of his voice. The shepherd used his rod and his staff to guide the flock, keeping them together. The rod and staff were also used as weapons to ward off predators.
“The Lord is my Shepherd” are words of a personal promise. He is my Shepherd. He cares for me. I will not lack nourishment, provision and guidance. He has restored my soul from a place of sin and death to life and hope. Even when I pass through difficult times I know that He is with me and I need not be afraid because He protects me. I am blessed throughout my life because I know Him, and at the end of this earthly life I will go to Heaven to be in His presence forever.