This world, green and blue, suspended in one of countless galaxies, so small and insignificant, yet so large as to contain the lives and ambitions of billions of people. This world, teeming with life and yet existing only because of an exquisite balance, which you uphold Lord my God; daily and hourly you decree that we should continue.
All our boasted scientific knowledge only reveals to us more about your creating genius, leaving us more to marvel at and a humbling sense of the responsibility you gave us in putting all this into our hands as your stewards. How unworthy we have proved to be of that great trust, squandering your riches; destroying your creatures; polluting the air, the water and the land.
And not only have we abused the bounty of nature, but one another too. Our failure to see that every human creature bears the imprint of a heavenly Father’s nature, reflects – however imperfectly – his character, has brought untold misery and suffering upon our race.
We are deserving of judgement and destruction – indeed, we are perhaps hastening the day by our own actions! We have rejected you, rejected the idea of ourselves as subjects, and grabbed selfishly at some pseudo-lordship of our own.
Oh God, in your holiness and utter ‘otherness’, we are so completely cut off from you, rebellion against you is in our very bones, and we cannot overcome it of our own efforts. What hope do we have?
And into that void, you speak.
Into our despair, our rebellion, our darkness, there came a voice, a man, who said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
And you took our rebellion, our shame and guilt, and he bore it away, so that we are free for the first time. Free from the stranglehold of sin on our lives, free to see and taste, smell and touch, hear and speak of all your goodness and love to us.
Such love: selfless, sacrificial, soul-searing and saving.
takes my breath away.
Rejoice greatly; O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey…… He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners.. Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you!
The bible narrative from Genesis onward is not an easy read, as the consequences of sin make themselves felt at a personal and national level for God’s chosen people. Time and again they rebel and pay the price for their disobedience. But alongside this sadly realistic picture of human nature, we find words of hope – hope for temporary relief from distress, but also of a future perfect peace, a dwelling together of God and his creatures in mutual delight and harmony. This prophecy from Zechariah, addressed to a people in long-term exile, is one such word. The promise of a coming deliverer, bringing freedom, rejoicing and justice without borders.
The exiles circumstances were bad; there was no earthly reason to hope that the future might see an improvement – and their hopelessness was compounded by the knowledge that their exile was a direct result of persistent disobedience to God, and of breaking the terms of the covenant God had made with them!
Once again, God sends through his prophet a word of encouragement to the people, a word of grace, of unmerited favour and his faithfulness to an unfaithful people. Once again, God is revealed as the hero of the story, preparing to bless those who have so deeply grieved him and got themselves into a dreadful mess as a result. He alone can and will deliver the imprisoned and despairing. Any hope for salvation depends utterly on this grace of God, who chooses to act because he must be true to his own promises.
What makes us prisoners? Too often it is our fears; sometimes it is our success in the world’s eyes; and for some it will be circumstances which are beyond their control and which bring great distress. Think of the prophet Daniel, who spent his entire life in captivity in Babylon, or the exiled Ezekiel, born to be a priest in the temple but doomed never to fulfill his ambition.This passage in Zechariah promises that in God, we have a deliverer, and a sure hope for future freedom from whatever binds us now. We are called by faith to turn again to the stronghold which in this case is not a physical fortress, but the Lord God himself! The psalmist writes enthusiastically of this truth:
In you O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame…Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me for you are my rock and my fortress… For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. (Ps 71.1,3&5)
When by faith we are drawn to hide ourselves in God, our fortress, then we are no longer prisoners of our fears or circumstances.Our obedience in clinging to him means that we are now capable of receiving his blessings – and our whole view of our lives is transformed.
We will be hope-prisoners in the tower of the Lord, walled about by his promises, with the light of his love shining in our lives and holding us as close to him as the tightest chains. This kind of imprisonment is not something to shun, but rather to seek! There is no safer place than in God: our great,powerful and good God.
This hope can open the door of the deepest, darkest places, bringing assurance that our God is always with us, and where he is, there is life now and will be abundance to come. Our hope is certain because it is based on the character of God, not on our own strengths, or ability to work out our own salvation. And it is the fulfillment of this hope which we celebrate in the birth of Christ, who would one day ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, deliberately recalling this prophecy, and through whose death, the basis for peace between God and man would finally be established.
Let us rejoice in this promise fulfilled. Let us live as prisoners of this great hope, turning ever and again to the stronghold which is our God, and seeking to share the good news with our neighbours.
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit…..for God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
(2 Corinthians 3.18; 4.6&7)
Glory and light, brilliance and beauty, purity beyond telling and might unimaginable. These verses take my breath away, and move me to cry to God in prayer for more, ever more transforming power to be at work in my life, that I might reveal this glory to the world I live in.
I am indeed like a clay jar, an everyday household pot. Nondescript and mundane, patched and worn with chipped edges, useful but hardly spectacular. And that is the whole point of Paul’s use of the image here, that no one, not even the great apostle himself, is worthy to receive and show forth this light. It is not we but the God who dwells in us, that is the source of glory and power. In the same way that a flower or a leaf can seem to glow from within when the sun catches it a certain way, so also believers in Christ can shine, illuminated by his love.
As we learn to look more and more steadily into the face of Christ our Lord – by whom God reveals himself to the world – so the glory that we see begins to permeate our being. Our eyes become stronger, and hungry for more light, more beauty; our hearts are increasingly unsatisfied by all that the world offers. The glory that shines from Jesus is purifying, cleansing, healing, transforming power, it acts like a spotlight to illuminate the darkness in our lives and like a laser to burn it away. By that glory, we see clearly and truly, deeper into our own sinfulness and need of Christ, deeper into the need of our neighbour for salvation and the redeeming love of God.
Our growing knowledge of the glory revealed in the face of Christ is the channel through which God transforms our lives, as we see more and more clearly that in Christ alone we have hope, but that in him we also have all that we need. As we learn to depend more and more on his faithful love – giving us security and significance – and to trust his power at work within us – enabling and equipping us – so we are set free to love others as He has loved us.
It is this love, this irresistible force of God at work, which is the treasure we hold in our jars of clay, our chipped mugs and bowls. We are not the focus of attention, He is. Our cracks and flaws simply act to draw attention to the beauty and glory of the love which is being poured out through us.
The following verses beautifully express a prayer to be effective channels of love, utterly surrendered to our beloved Saviour and Lord. May they be a blessing to you this week.
May the mind of Christ my Saviour live in me from day to day, By his love and power controlling all I do and say.
May the love of Jesus fill me as the waters fill the sea; Him exalting, self abasing, this is victory.
May His beauty rest upon me as I seek the lost to win, and may they forget the channel, seeing only Him.
(Katie Barclay Wilkinson, 1859-1928)
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
It would be the easiest thing in the world for me this week to do no more than write out the words of some of the many hymns and songs of praise which have been written over the centuries in an attempt to respond adequately to the love which is revealed to us through Jesus Christ. As I sit, I have line after line running through my head, tunes swelling up in adoration and worship of the God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who loves me. And perhaps that the best place to start. If I can discipline my thoughts long enough at the start of this new week to deliberately focus on the wonderful love poured out through Christ, then I will have the best possible attitude to whatever the week will bring.
What does this love look like? It is the relentless pursuit of the eternal good of the beloved – even us, even rebellious, stubborn and proud humanity! It is the willingness to pay the ultimate cost of redemption – of putting right that which was so badly damaged – and to fulfill justice by dealing with the need for sin to be punished. And not only are we put right, but we are adopted into the family of God, given a birthright, and a guarantee of eternal life.This love pours out daily in grace upon our lives; it is continually working to transform us so that sin loses every foothold, and we become truly the image of God, reflecting his character, and finding fulness of life and joy as we live in him.
The Scottish preacher Samuel Rutherford was a man utterly enchanted by his Lord and Saviour. Over and again in his writings, he exhorts his readers to look to Christ, finding there all and more than their heart’s desires. This little extract – although archaic in language – clearly expresses his frustration at his own inability to grasp the fullness of love offered in Jesus, and I am deeply comforted even as I identify with him. “Christ all the seasons of the year, is dropping sweetness; if I had vessels I might fill them but my old riven, holey, and running-out dish, even when I am at the well, can bring little away. Nothing but glory will make tight and fast our leaking and rifty vessels… How little of the sea can a child carry in his hand; as little do I take away of my great sea, my boundless and running-over Christ Jesus.” Praise God, there will be a day – in glory – when I will no longer feel that I catch but a glimpse, and remember but the tiniest fraction, of the wonderful love so freely given! Then I shall receive in full the answer to the wonderful prayer of Paul for the disciples in Ephesus:
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God. (Ephesians 3. 17-19)
This love waits patiently by my side as I dither and wander, as I doubt and rebel, drawing me back over and over in repentance and new dependence on God. This love is overflowing with kindness towards me – expressed through other people, and through the gifts and signs that only I notice and appreciate as coming from my God. This love is never boastful, but always wooing, never forcing itself upon me. This love restrains anger, and has lost any record of my past failures. This love rejoices in every small indication of my true desire to serve and honour my Lord, and every little effort to be faithful and obedient – forgetting the frequent failures and unfulfilled promises. This love is constant in protecting me, faithful in believing that I will be transformed, relentless in seeking the best for me.
And the truth that I need to remember at all times about this love – the truth which sustains the thousands of our brothers and sisters across the world who are suffering for their faith – is that no one, and nothing, can ever take this love away from me! I am going to finish with words from Paul again – Romans 8 – as found in the Scottish Paraphrases, my heart language, where he celebrates and affirms this wonderful truth. May it bring you comfort, strength and joy this week!
The Saviour died, but rose again triumphant from the grave;
And pleads our cause at God’s right hand, omnipotent to save.
Who then can e’er divide us more from Jesus and his love,
Or break the sacred chain that binds the earth to heav’n above?
Let troubles rise and terrors frown, and days of darkness fall;
Through him all dangers we’ll defy, and more than conquer all.
Nor death nor life, nor earth nor hell, nor time’s destroying sway,
Can e’er efface us from his heart, or make his love decay.
Each future period that will bless as it has bless’d the past;
He lov’d us from the first of time, He loves us to the last.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Genesis 1 v27
These words, coming at the outset of God’s revelation of himself to us in the bible, give us an enormous amount of information about ourselves, not least the easily overlooked idea that it takes both masculinity and femininity to fully express the image of God in human form! The human package simply can’t contain all the necessary characteristics in one unit, and so two were created. Their interaction through life, and union in marriage reflect aspects of God’s character too – the delight that God has within the trinity, and the love which is continually expressed there.
In the same way I believe the bible reveals that human love – in all its forms – reflects aspects of divine love for us. No single human love is rich and complex enough to convey the full treasury of love which God has for us, his beloved creation. Through our experiences of relationship and love, we taste a little of the goodness of divine love in all its variety. Although it is sadly true that many people experience a great deal of pain, and are let down badly by those who should love them, yet the principle remains valid. Through our human loves, we learn about God’s love, and in time learn to receive directly from him all that our hearts need, so that no human failure to love can ultimately destroy us.
I was privileged to have a godly and loving father, who was spared to see my children born, and who – through his faithful loving of and genuine delight in me – showed me so much of the heart of my heavenly Father. Even as I mourned him, I knew what kind of fatherly love was being poured out on me from God, full of comfort and steady as a rock.
What of a mother? A mother just wants to be with you, to share in all the ups and downs, to hear all the little details of your life, because it is a delight to her to watch you living. She has yearned over you for years, laboured to care and equip you for life, borne the tantrums and sulks, the laundry and faddy diets, the bizarre fashion and messy rooms – because she loves you, and her love goes so deep that you are part of her. Your joys are hers, your heart is her heart beating, when you weep, she weeps.
Two years ago this weekend, my mother died, and there is no one now to do these things for me. No one to whom I can safely pour out my mother pride in my own children, or share the little frustrations of life. I cannot get a picture of her life into words, cannot find a way to close the chapter yet, but this I know, that her loving of me was faithful, costly, and a great joy and pride of her life – and that I never said thank you enough!
The bible has very few explicit references to mothering as a quality of God, but when we explore what it actually involves, it is clear that when he made mothers, God put an enormous amount of himself into them! My God delights in my company, in sharing my thoughts and all my activities; remember those lovely words in Psalm 139 v 2& 3
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
He wipes my tears away, and numbers the very hairs on my head; my name is engraved on his hands and he will never forget me. The gift of Christ his son, to be my saviour and lord, to be my very life, means that my heart is his heart, and all that grieves and wounds me, is felt by him. I am and will always be a daughter, even though my mother is dead, because my God mothers me, and I am comforted, nourished and affirmed by that faithful, costly and joyful love, which always puts my needs first.
How can we rightly praise and thank our God for such love? Nothing will ever suffice, but a delighted awareness of our debt, and continuing thankfulness for all that we receive is surely a fitting way to use the gift of life which we have been given. May God enable us more and more to receive and share this love, to his glory and the blessing of the world.