Sunday, 19 March 2017

Blessed are those who mourn

During the past week I had to take my elderly cat, Natasha, to the vet and received the news that she is suffering from advanced kidney degeneration. She has returned home and is now on a special diet but the outlook is not good. She’s been a much loved part of our family for about fifteen years, so the thought of losing her is very sad.
“Blessed are those who mourn…” Jesus states in the record of the sermon on the mount, Matthew chapter 5, verse 4, “for they will be comforted.”
To “mourn” is described by the Oxford dictionary as “feel sorrow or regret (for or over dead person, lost thing, loss misfortune, etc.); show conventional signs of grief for period after person’s death”.  Just a few words to describe a process that can, in some cases, last a lifetime.
John Piper, in a succinct discourse on the subject available from his “Desiring God” ministries on Facebook and YouTube : , describes two kinds of losses: to have something precious and lose it, and to hope for something precious and never have it. There are few, if any humans who live without experiencing one or both of these losses. Some losses are obvious and draw understanding of the fact that a person may be grieving: the death of a spouse, or parent, friend or family member. Yet in the western world death is often sanitised and neatly packaged. Following the funeral there may be little social support for the bereaved.
Other losses can be less obvious. The pain of a miscarriage is no less real if the couple are able to conceive another baby. The pain of a love affair that has concluded is no less real even if “there are plenty more fish in the sea.” Parents can mourn the impact of disability in a much- loved child. The loss of a pet may be insignificant in comparison to the loss of a person, but it is still the loss of a loving relationship. Then there are losses that don’t necessarily involve relationships. One can mourn the loss of health due to a serious illness or accident. The loss of employment can strip a life of self-esteem. The loss of a home and personal possessions can be devastating.
Then there can be mourning for something precious that a person desired and has not had. Some people would love to be married and remain single. Some deeply desire children and are unable to have a family. Some have particular dreams and aspirations that are put on hold due to financial constraints or personal obligations until a point is reached when it appears that they will never be realised.
Like poverty, mourning was never God’s intention for the human race, but rather a result of sin. The good news is found in the fact that those who mourn “will be comforted”- that is if they believe in Christ. Only through Jesus Christ do we have the hope that death and disappointment have been overcome through Christ’s redemptive work on Calvary. He died to give mankind a pathway back to God, direct access to salvation. All we have to do is pray a prayer of repentance and faith in Jesus and commit our lives to Him. 
Again we see the similarity and sequencing of what are given as blessings in the sermon on the mount to the verses in Isaiah 61 which Christ used in the synagogue at Nazareth early in His recorded preaching ministry- "He has sent me to bind up the broken -hearted." (Isaiah 61:1). Christ understands and identifies with suffering humanity in a way that no other false god ever has or ever will.
Unlike other religions, those who believe in Christ have an assurance of where they will be going after death, because we are told that we will be with Him in Heaven, not through any of our own efforts, but because of Christ. God of the Bible is not capricious. All the promises in the Bible prove true. Christians have this sure hope. We know that our loved ones who have died believing in Christ are with Him. This is our great comfort in times of sorrow.
God comforts through the presence of His Holy Spirit- the Parakletos or “one who comes alongside”. He comforts through the Bible, His word, a “living word” which has great power to those who read it to sustain and comfort in times of need. He also comforts through His people, whom He uses throughout the world to minister to others of His love. We are not alone.
It is natural to mourn. John Piper also encourages us to appreciate the life that we have been given to live in its various forms. There are times and seasons that we pass through, knowing that God is there and that He cares for us in every one. This life is a small space in the eternity of our lives with Him. We have the comfort and joy of His presence in this life and the hope of Heaven.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth disappeared, and the sea vanished. And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared and ready, like a bride dressed to meet her husband.  I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne: “Now God's home is with people! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them, and he will be their God. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain. The old things have disappeared.” (Revelation 21 :1-4)

Bluebells, botanical gardens, Hobart

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Blessed are the poor

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” (Isaiah 61:1)
These words spoken by the prophet Isaiah were read aloud in the synagogue in Nazareth by Jesus as He began His teaching ministry, following His baptism and temptation in the wilderness by Satan. This choice of scripture demonstrates to us Jesus’ love of and mission to suffering humanity.
We live in a world which glorifies riches of every kind. To be wealthy is to be successful. In my lifetime, I’ve heard countless discussions by groups of female friends about the desirability of marrying a rich man. I’ve heard many acquaintances discussing how wonderful it would be to win the latest lottery. So much money is spent on the trappings of materialism, intent on making an impression- cars, houses, clothes, sporting equipment, restaurants, etc. Industries exist to create wealth and maintain it- through investments, real estate portfolios and other means.  
Then there are those who are poor. We consider the poor to be those with little income or assets. In my work in community health I often visited those whom our western society would deem poor. One lady said to me “I never expected to end up like this.” She had suffered much from the effects of an abusive alcoholic husband and ill health. Another couple had lost their home through entrusting their savings to a corrupt investment broker. There are many varied factors which contribute to success, conversely many factors contribute to distressed circumstances.  
When Jesus spoke about preaching good news to the poor, however, He was not primarily talking about physical poverty. Later in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 5, in the passages we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes (the blessings) Jesus says:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
Again, Jesus begins an important session of ministry with reference to the poor. Who are these poor people?
When God created the heavens and the earth, back in the first chapters of Genesis, He is pleased with all the He creates, calling it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Mankind is given an earth full of wonderful natural features- light and darkness, water and sky, heavenly sun, moon and stars, fish, plants and animals. Adam and Eve have each other for human care and company. Most of all they have a deep and abiding relationship with God. They wanted for nothing, including free will.
Yet, because they chose to sin, Adam and Eve and all their descendants- the entire human race and all the natural creation was cursed by God. From then on there was strife and enmity, brother striving against brother, jealousy and murder. This sin has pervaded the earth in many forms and includes the greed and covetousness which can promote poverty. Adam and Eve were cast out of bounteous Eden into a land which produced thistles and thorns and required hard toil to cultivate. Far worse, the intimacy of personal relationship with God was severed.
Humanity since the fall has suffered from a deep spiritual poverty, which applies to both rich and poor alike. There comes a point in life where a person realises that they are sinful and unable to feel complete through their own efforts, that what they have been trying to achieve through work or human relationships or material possessions does not fill the emptiness within. Only by re-establishing a relationship with God can this poverty be eradicated, which is one of the main reasons that Jesus was sent to earth. He alone is the way to God for fallen humans:
 I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
It is this deep spiritual poverty that Jesus addresses in the synagogue in Nazareth and in the Sermon on the Mount. It is useless being surrounded by beautiful furnishings and driving an expensive car if one feels spiritually empty. Some of the happiest people on the earth are those who have very little in the way of worldly goods yet have a great faith and hope in Christ. A prayer of repentance and commitment to following God is the way to receiving Christ as your personal Saviour. His Holy Spirit will fill that empty place in your soul as nothing else can. Riches indeed.

We must be careful that we do not judge others on the basis of their material riches or lack thereof. Some godly people are blessed with material riches, others may experience poverty. It is very much part of Christian doctrine and practice that those who are blessed should use their blessings to assist those who are in need and to further the expansion of God’s kingdom through the work of the church. My own ancestry includes a forebear who established a series of alms houses in England and traditionally it has been Christian culture which has established charities to assist the poor. In the Biblical book of Proverbs there are many verses concerning acting fairly in business practices. In the book of Ezekiel, the city of Sodom is berated, not for its sexual immorality, but its lack of concern for the poor:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)
In my current employment, I work with those who might be considered physically poor- those with brains and bodies damaged and distorted, unable to walk or talk as others do. Yet I imagine that they are some of the most rich in spirit for they create a community of such love and care. In a world in which some would say that they should not have been allowed to survive at birth, they are people who enrich the lives of others in so many ways. I believe that they have a special place in the heart of God and as such deserve the best care and attention that they can be given.
In the book of Job, we see a very wealthy, God-fearing man who lost a great deal – his children, wealth and health, yet he maintained his relationship with God. He remained wealthy. When we have that relationship with God, He will be our source of well-being, no matter what the circumstances. As the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi:
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-13)