Category Archives: divine love

Loving others as God loves us…

“You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy…. love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”

(Lev 19.1&18)

Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God….. God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus.

(Phil 1. 3&8)

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.. There are three things that will endure – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.

(1 Cor 13.4-7&13)

If we love our Christian brothers and sisters, it proves that we have passed from death to eternal life. But a person who has no love is still dead. Anyone who hates another Christian is really a murderer at heart… We know what real love is because Christ gave up his life for us.. Dear children, let us stop just saying we love each other; let us really show it by our actions….. This is real love. It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love has been brought to full expression through us.

(1Jn 3.14-18; 4.7-12)

Did you notice those last sentences in the words from John’s letter? “No one has ever seen God. BUT if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love has been brought to full expression through us.” 

I find that frankly, staggering. The idea that anything involving humankind could possibly lead to a full expression of God’s love seems outrageous! But, if true, it is surely one of the greatest incentives to the church to love one another. In our lived-out gospel, it is as we love that we reveal God in his fulness to the world.

The love of God for his rebellious creatures, his eternal intention that we should be his dear companions, is the driving force behind the entire narrative of human history. We are created to know, and to be known; to love and to be loved. This is no sentimental thing, no affair of emotions, but a relentless and clear-sighted commitment to doing what is best for us, no matter what it costs. The love of God is unchanging, relentless, even ruthless in the same way that a surgeon is ruthless in cutting away disease in order to bring healing.

We, in turn, obey Christ’s command to love one another – relentlessly, sacrificially, ruthlessly desiring what is best for the beloved. Ultimately, we know that our highest good is to belong to Christ, to submit fully to his will and to obey him in all things. Daily, we know that we fail, we settle for lower goals, and we are beguiled into thinking that health, prosperity and popularity are our greatest good. But over and over, we are forgiven, prompted to return to our first love – the One who loved us best and first – and to respond in renewed commitment and love.

As God’s children love one another – in patience and kindness; in acceptance and service; in forgiveness and being forgiven; in humility and thankfulness – so the bible tells us, God’s love is brought to its full expression – like the realisation of a picture into a three-dimensional object. The love of God becomes tangible and capable of touching lives as it is manifest in the love of believers for one another. Such love must speak of God to a watching, weeping, broken and hopeless world.

The onlooker may want to say , ‘Oh, they are such nice people, such good people, see how they care for one another’. To which our response must surely be,’ Oh no, it is the Lord who loves us and lives in us who makes us able to live and love like this! It is all of Jesus, who is making us like him! Left to our own devices, we would not love like this…’

Heavenly Father, we want to be holy because you are holy; we want to love others, because you have loved us. May our hearts grow warm to reflect your love, may they expand to find room for others, so that as we love, you are revealed among us, and the world cannot help but see you. Be glorified among us, O Lord, make us lovers after your own heart. Amen.

Unfathomable depths..

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isa 51.5&6)

“I will forsake my house, abandon my inheritance; I will give the one I love into the hands of her enemies…. go and gather all the wild beasts; bring them to devour. Many shepherds will ruin my vineyard and trample down my field; they will turn my pleasant field into a desolate wasteland… parched and desolate before me; the whole land will be laid waste because there is no one who cares.  They will sow wheat but reap thorns; they will wear themselves out but gain nothing. So bear the shame of your harvest because of the Lord’s fierce anger. “

(Jer 12.7,9-13)

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice,… “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

(Matt 27.46)

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.

(Jn 15.9&10)

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us…. 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.

(1Jn 3.16; 4,9&10)

Just look at those final words in the quote from John’s gospel again, “just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” Jesus spoke these words on the night when he would be betrayed to his trial, humiliation and death. He speaks with absolute conviction that he is held in his Father’s love, in spite of what lies immediately ahead of him, and fully aware that his imminent suffering is what was planned by this loving Father.

We do not find it easy to accept that love will not always protect the beloved, our instinct is to shield and divert the danger, to go to any lengths to avoid their pain. How then do we understand what God, through Christ, is doing on the cross? Why was the only begotten Son of the Eternal Father abandoned to the full power of death, and the unspeakable agony of rejection?

The words spoken by Jeremiah, among many prophets, gives us an insight into the truth, as we hear God’s words of pain and horror over the fate of his chosen people. Their disobedience cannot fail to have consequences, but even as the invading armies gather, so God mourns for the grief and loss which is surely coming. Have I ever really grasped just how much love is in these words? How much it cost God to let his beloved go into exile? Their fate was a foreshadowing of the future which awaits all humankind, unless we can be restored to relationship with our holy and just God. The exile which awaits us is not merely removal from our homeland, but eternal separation, an alienation without hope or light or anything good. It is truly awful.

And so, in order to rescue us from that ultimate exile, in order that we might live in his love, God sent his Son to be abandoned in our stead. In the mystery of the counsels of the Trinity, out of a fierce and relentless love for lost humanity, this plan of salvation was forged and committed to by Father, Son and Spirit. God loves us so much, that even his beloved Son was not protected from what had to be done, and in love, the Son obeyed the Father.

In their astonishing love for me, for you, Father and Son endured that agony of separation and abandonment in order that I, that you, might NEVER be cut off and lost to the darkness of a godless eternity. How profoundly this stills my heart, as I contemplate the depth of divine love, and its relentless, unflinching commitment to paying the price for my sin. I need have no doubt that my Father loves me…

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan; oh, the grace that brought it down to man; oh, the mighty gulf that God did span, at Calvary!

Mercy there was great, and grace was free, pardon there was multiplied to me, there my guilty soul found liberty, at Calvary!

(WN Newell, 1868-1956)

Filial love..

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

(Lk 15.3-7)

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest?’ I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. “

(Jn 4.34-36)

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love……. You are my friends if you do what I command…for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you…. I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit – fruit that will last.

(Jn 15.9&10,14-16)

…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting our sins against us. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God

(2 Cor 5.19-20)

If someone was given the task of observing from my life, my words and actions, the priorities and principles on which I make choices, what could they tell about the God whose name I confess? What does my life tell other people about his character and purpose? Would they know that the God whom I worship is passionate in his pursuit of humankind, longing to restore relationship with them and bring them home to his eternal family?

I suspect that I do not make a very clear or consistent sermon, that my life is too often dominated by self-centred concerns, and lacks the fire which characterised Paul and the early disciples as they poured themselves out in evangelism and church planting.

However, I am not an apostle, not an ordained minister, not a missionary. I live a small quiet life, in a small community, where there is strong and established resistance to the gospel. Our neighbours like having us here, so long as we don’t try to talk to them about faith and the claims of Christ….

So does that give me an excuse to just focus on those parts of being a Christian which make me feel good? By no means (as Paul would say)! I am one of those for whom Jesus died – that great act of divine love which did for us what we so desperately needed but were incapable of doing. I am one of those destined for an eternity apart from God, until Jesus died for me. I am now his loyal, loving and obedient servant, as well as a cherished daughter. And Jesus commanded his disciples to obey his commands as they remained in, lived from within, his love. I cannot claim to be God’s child and choose to ignore His great plan for re-creation and the coming of his kingdom. So, again, I ask, do I share my heavenly Father’s passion for the lost? Does His heart’s desire matter enough to me?

As one of Christ’s ambassadors, it is my duty as well as my privilege, to speak his words and show his character in the place where he has called me. This is what the word means! To represent, to show forth and speak the will of another, one in authority over me whom I serve. There can be no doubting – from scripture – what it is that will bring joy in God’s presence…. the saving of lost souls, and the growth of God’s kingdom. Does that matter enough to me, enough to make me overcome my fear of giving offence, my fear of being rejected or ignored?

 What kind of love do I have for God if I can blithely ignore his passion for souls and live as though hell did not exist and Christ’s death was simply irrelevant?!

God, forgive me for my indifference and stir up within me a holy passion, like yours, to see my neighbours saved and brought into new life within your family. Let me care more for your heart than my own comfort; more for the destiny of others than their favour towards me. O Lord, give me wisdom to discern opportunities, courage to take them, and the fire of love which comes from your spirit within to keep me in prayer for others. For Jesus’ sake – his glory and exaltation, Amen

The gift of presence

Then Solomon… spread out his hands towards heaven and said…”But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! … May your eyes be open towards this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays towards this place. Hear .. your people Israel when they pray towards this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling-place, and when you hear, forgive…. bring them back to the land….teach them the right way to live…deal with each man according to what he does, since you know his heart…. do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you…. uphold their cause..

(1 Kgs 8.27-31,34,36,39,43&45)

How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, which you bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in you. In the shelter of your presence you hide them… in your dwelling place you keep them safe…Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.

(Ps 31. 19,20&24)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

(Jn 1.14&18)

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will with them and be their God.”

(Rev 21.2&3)

The list of people to whom I want to send gifts isn’t getting shorter these, days, but longer! The number of people whose presence in my life is cause of deep thanksgiving grows as the years pass, and I appreciate them more, valuing each unique creation and the privilege of sharing in their time on earth. I find myself frustrated as there is nothing that I want to give them so much as my own presence – nothing else matches the weight and worth of what I receive from them. And for me that can never be possible! I cannot be with all whom I love all the time, so I have to find some token by which I convey the honour of being called friend, having a part in their story.

This ability to value people, wanting nothing as much as their presence, is something that reflects (perhaps feebly), the character of our heavenly Father. The nature of God as Trinity is a mystery beyond human comprehension, but it does show that our God is relational, and the Trinity are continually delighting in one another – presence matters and is at the core of the eternal joy of Father, Son and Spirit. Remember the agony of Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross, when that song of communion was broken?

The bible shows us through the great narrative arc beginning with the creation of people in God’s image, that it was always God’s desire to dwell in uninterrupted fellowship with humankind. In the mystery of divine love, we are made to thrive in his presence like nowhere else. 

And our fundamental rebellion against His Sovereignty has cast us out – carrying an unassuaged hunger for God’s presence always deep in our hearts, and seeking by all and any means to satisfy ourselves elsewhere. 

The tabernacle, and later the temple were symbols of God’s presence – appointed places, surrounded by rituals which reminded his people of His holiness and their need for rescue from sin. But it is only with the coming of Jesus that God’s full intention is revealed – for God once more to dwell among humankind, to know and be known, and by his presence to bring life.

In order for us to receive the gift of His presence, and in turn be able to glorify him by our presence – to be together as God always desired – something needed to happen. The price of rebellion had to be paid, and the brokenness of humankind healed and transformed into perfection. 

The incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God in human form, was the essential first step in that redemption, atonement (payment for sin), and transformation. God is giving us himself, so that we might in turn give ourselves to him, and one day, in the new creation, those gifts will be finally and fully realised. On that day, all our Christmas hopes will be realised, and we will be together with the one who has loved us best and longest, known and knowing, without shame and with no more to fear.  

Until that day comes, we live in hope, confident in Jesus’ redeeming work, loving one another and encouraging one another to persevere in good works and joyful, godly living. Friends, I wish you a Christmas celebration which speaks peace and love from God, and assures you of his presence with you by his Spirit, until there is no more need of faith, and we see Him face to face.

 

A strong and relentless love..

O Love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee. I give Thee back the life I owe, that in Thine ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.

O Light that followest all my way, I yield my flick’ring torch to Thee. My heart restores its borrowed ray, that in Thy sunshine’s gaze its day may brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to Thee. I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain, that morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,I dare not ask to fly from Thee. I lay in dust, life’s glory dead, and from the ground there blossoms red, life that shall endless be.

(George Matheson, 1842-1906)

There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides across the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms…Blessed are you, Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword.

(Deut 33.26,27&29)

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn and settle on the far side of the sea, even there. Your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for the darkness is as light to you.

(Ps 139.7-12)

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

(Jn 6.66-69)

When I am dazzled by the wonders of the world, by its riches and glories, until I nearly forget that they are only a shadow of what is to come, of what you have in store for your chosen ones…O Love, do not let me go.

When I am bewildered by the disintegration of moral order, by the strident voices preaching a gospel of self-determination and individuality at all costs, O Love, do not let me go.

When I am sinking into a rut, losing my zest for the life you daily renew within me; when my appointed tasks seem dull and pointless and I grow weary of persevering, O Love, do not let me go.

When the violence, evil and cruel indifference of the world to the suffering of millions threatens to overwhelm me, and I feel as though the light is going out, O Love, do not let me go.

When the agonies of my family and beloved friends surge up under the feet of faith until I am like to be thrown down into despair and the temptation to abandon my God’s service, O Love, do not let me go.

When my own years of unanswered prayers mock me, when your promises seem empty and vain, when the evil one is lurking close to steal my peace, O Love, do not let me go.

Your love, my God, holds firm through all my storms of anger, fear and disappointment. The tantrums and sulking silences are met equally with the outstretched arms of love that reach from Calvary to measure the immeasurable, to demonstrate the unimagineable depth and breadth of the love of God in Christ Jesus….even for me.

Your love, my God refuses to entertain the idea of abandoning your children. Your grace and mercy absorbs all that we throw at you, and like struggling toddlers, we are held firmly and lovingly while the storm passes. 

O Love, that will not let us go, we rest our weary souls in Thee. We are tired of fighting, we long for peace in the midst of bitter sorrow, fierce temptation, paralysing prosperity, wearisome warfare against the indifference and even hostility of our culture. We give Thee back the lives we owe – bought by the blood of Jesus, saved for a glorious future – that in closer fellowship and deeper dependence, we might live more fully. 

May we walk in the light of Christ, not by our own feeble, imagined illuminations; may we know his joy, in spite of the griefs that dog our steps; and may we never stray far from the cross, where our new lives began, and by which we receive all the treasures of grace.

  

If not me, then who?

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you – may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem…..” Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites – everyone whose heart God had moved, prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem….

Now these are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles..they returned..each to his own town, in company with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum and Baanah: The list of the men of the people of Israel: the descendants of Parosh, 2172; of Shephatiah, 372…the men of Bethlehem, 123; of Netophah, 56…

(Ezr 1.1-5; 2.1-4,21&22))

The great Hebrew Scripture narratives of exodus and exile are associated with lists….huge lists of names and numbers, relating to the people who were involved in these historic events. As modern readers, we are tempted to skip over them – we can’t pronounce most of them, and they mean nothing to us! But consider their significance to generations of Jews, who would trace their own family name back to one of these, and remember with awe that their ancestors were part of those hugely significant events. The inclusion of these names is a reminder that all of God’s work in history has involved individuals, real people like you and me, whose lives were caught up into his overarching purpose. 

As those called to be God’s people, we are pledged to obedience and faithfulness (as God enables us), and we are not free to dictate the terms on which we will follow where God is leading – we are slaves to Christ, not his employees and certainly not his employers! If all the exiled Israelites had responded to God’s prompting of their hearts by saying – ” returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple is a great idea…let someone else do it, I am quite comfortable here with the way things are and I don’t like change..”: then there would have been no return from exile. I wonder how those who chose not to go felt in later years? Did they regret their failure to be part of that work of return and rebuilding, or had their faith never been in God at all, but rather in the trappings of prosperity and security which they now found in Babylon?

It is our personal commitment within the body of Christ which leads to corporate obedience. If I choose to delegate obedience to another, what is to prevent them doing the same? It is entirely possible for us to miss out on being part of God’s work in the world – but we will be the losers, and our faith and spiritual health will suffer. Is my trust in Jesus as my Lord, or in the habit of meeting in a certain place at a certain time? Is my faith a matter of habit and laziness – of letting someone else tell me what to think and avoiding the difficult questions and self-disclosure which might prompt self-examination, confession, repentance and change? 

Most of us recognise that many formal church structures are collapsing, and that perhaps it is time for far-reaching change if we are to support local believers in authentic witness and outreach to our communities. What will my response be to change that hurts? Will I reject it and cling to my own comfort, or will I allow Christ’s love to compel me along the difficult path, trusting his provision and enabling? If each member of the church in turn says, “Change is good, but let other people change, I am comfortable here”, then there will be no corporate submission to God’s leading into new things.  We will have shown that even the abundant grace shown to us in Jesus, and all the lavish promises of God are not as valuable to us as our comfortable traditions.

Change starts within each one of us….

Do I worship Jesus as Lord of my life? Then I must at the least be willing to set aside anything which hinders his work – including cherished music, forms of worship, translations of scriptures – and also to make myself available to do things differently – perhaps to learn in new ways, to be more active in sharing with others. The pain or struggle of doing this will be real, but is his love not worth anything I can give? What does the old hymn say?

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life my all.”

I hold my personal comfort in an open hand, I offer it to the Lord and say, take this and use it according to your pleasure. I will trust you to be with me, no matter where and when I meet with your people; no matter what we sing – or don’t sing; and to speak to me whether there is an ordained minister present or not! Lead me into whatever you have for me, and I will follow, all that matters is that Jesus is honoured and obeyed.

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He never said it would be pretty…

Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt…they put slave masters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labour..but the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. ..then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every [Israelite]boy that is born you must throw into the Nile…”

(Ex 1.8,11&12,22)

In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel…Ahab..did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him..he married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him….Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him…

(1 Kings 16.29-33)

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour, he was enraged. yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

(Esther 3.5&6)

“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you though him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross..God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact..

(Acts 2.22-23 &32)

We are easily overwhelmed by the rampant violence, evil and brokenness of the world in these days of the 21st century, and wonder just where God is in the midst of the chaos? We hear those who do not follow Jesus exclaiming that ‘if there was a God, surely He would not let such things happen!’, and struggle to know how to respond ..at least I do.

I have been helped recently through a series of sermons on some of the truly evil, powerful and apparently uncontrolled characters of the bible narrative, thinking about what their stories have to teach me – about our world and God’s plans for us. I should say at this stage that I am not setting out to give easy answers to the big questions about evil, only to share some insights which have helped me to be less afraid of the questions.

We find that from the very beginning of the great story of redemption, evil was active in humanity, and that God never claimed to be in the business of addressing every wrong at the moment it occured – or even of preventing things which appeared utterly contradictory to his promises and plan.

The bible shows that God is so far above our thoughts that we simply can’t begin to understand how love and goodness can be expressed in the ways which he chooses….how could a good and loving God permit generations of Israelites to suffer and die under brutal slavery in Egypt, and finally see a form of genocide enacted against them? How could he permit his people to be led astray by king after king, into idolatry which would bring judgement upon them? How could he permit the destruction of all he had promised, and the people’s exile under threat of extinction from the scheming Haman?

His ways are beyond our understanding, and although sometimes we receive glimpses of his working – as when Joseph speaks of God’s planning for good through his brother’s evil plot; and when Esther is made queen and therefore empowered to protect her fellow Jews – we are more often called to trust. When we demand that God be accountable to us, abiding by our definitions of love and goodness, we only demonstrate how limited is our grasp of his greatness, and how selfish our understanding of our own role in the unfolding fulfilment of his plans. We want to feel safe…he wants to make us glorious, in his coming kingdom!

We should never be surprised when things don’t work out smoothly and easily; when God’s people go through great tribulations; when death, disease and suffering of every sort appear to be afflicting increasing numbers of the world’s population. God never said that it would be beautiful in our eyes; but he did say that he would bless the whole world, every people and nation, through the one who would come from Abraham – the Christ whose life and death once for all defeated the power of evil in the lives of God’s children. That is why our good and loving God permitted the suffering and death of the only perfect man who ever lived; why the Son of God willingly entered the unimaginable darkness and pain of separation from his Father.

On the cross, we find the place where God declared his love and goodness, and evil appeared to triumph, only to be defeated by it’s own plans, as God’s infinitely greater wisdom and power overcame death and showed us that no matter what is happening, the things that really matter are safe in his keeping.

How thankful I am, that I have a God who is so much greater than all that evil can do, so much purer than I can imagine, with a love that knows that suffering is not all bad, and that the glory and eternal goodness which await are worth the fight. May I learn more and more to trust him in the darkness, and not to be surprised by evil, but to rejoice in its defeat in Christ.

Relentless, single-minded…love?

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.

(John 15.12-14)

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love….. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

(Eph 4.1&2; 15&16)

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

(Mark 11.25)

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?….You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye……If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you…”

(Matt 7.3&5;18.15)

Lord, your love is perfect: mine is so imperfect.

You fear nothing: I fear so many things.

Out of your love, you cause me to face pain and difficulty, that I might become the glorious creature you know that I can be.

Out of my feeble shadow of love, I shy away from inflicting pain or causing others to face difficulty, because I am afraid of what they might do to me.

If I loved you as I ought; if your will truly ruled in my heart; if I truly loved others, then nothing would stop me from speaking the truth in love that they might grow according to your glorious purposes for them.

Oh Lord, forgive me, that I do not love as I ought. Forgive me, that I have failed to love others as I ought, and have let fear of my own pain hold me back from obedience to your will.

Have you ever considered that laying down your life for others might look more like a sentence of hard labour than a death sentence? That sounds a little severe, but let me unpack what I mean..Jesus spoke these words on the night before he died, and so we often associate them with his sacrificial death – and rightly so. But is it not also possible to apply them to the years leading up to this night?

Jesus had given up his life for his disciples, for three years. He had lived and worked with them, walked and eaten with them. He had borne with their foolishness and ignorance, their misplaced ambitions and squabblings, he had even borne with the presence of the one whom he knew would betray him. His life had been a living sacrifice of service to these men, a worked example of divine love in action.

I have been challenged recently to apply this to myself, to see that my life is also poured out in love to others, for their blessing and growth in grace and faith. If I choose to follow my own instincts – which are for peace at any price, and the avoidance of all confrontation – then I will effectively fail in my calling. God asks me to be his agent of love to people – to speak truth in love to them, that they might hear through my loving voice the word of God calling them to repentance and change. This is a huge responsibility, and for one like myself who goes in great fear of doing “the wrong thing”, it is terrifying!

But God gives me no choice; as his child, one in whom Christ dwells by the Spirit, I am called to play my part in building up the individual members of his body and that means helping others to see the truth about themselves. Will I choose to trust that He can and will direct my words; give me wisdom and humility; use what I say for the good of those to whom I speak; and above all, help me to overcome my fear of everything except disobeying him?

Loving Lord, I pray that you will so fill me with your relentless love that I will no longer hold back, but will speak the truth in love; humbly acknowledging my own great sinfulness and need of forgiveness; depending on your grace and power to change us all according to your will and looking forward eagerly to the day when we all stand revealed in the glory that you have in store for us. 

My God…the reader of my thoughts

I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed…Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty. …”you have said harsh things against me, “says the Lord. “Yet you ask,’What have we said against you?’ “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evil doers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.'”

(Mal.3.6,7,13-15)

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked….When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny….Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

(Ps73.1-3,16,17,27&28)

Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name. “They will be mine,” says the Lord Almighty, “in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.

(Mal 3.16-18)

How easy it is to forget that while we may hide our inmost thoughts and motives from even our dearest friends, we cannot hide a single, fleeting notion from our holy, almighty and just God. How foolish we are, reckoning that because we fool some of the people, for some of the time, that somehow God – who made the mind, in all its complexity, and who alone understands the human heart because He formed it – is deceived by our lip-service and nominal obedience.

In the book of the prophet Malachi, God challenges his people, stripping away their defensive arguments, to reveal the truth of their hearts, the things they really believe about Him and about themselves. They have fallen into the classic misunderstanding which continues to dog humanity in its dealings with divinity – that somehow they can and must earn favour by going through certain prescribed motions. The absurdity of the notion, that these little rituals of sacrifice/cleansing and fasting, by insignificant mortals, can in some way alter the attitude of an eternal, unimaginably holy and powerful God, just keeps slipping away from us and we assume that our performances put God in our debt! It is beyond ridiculous, and it also betrays a complete failure to understand the character of God, and our own utter helplessness.

It is God’s favour to us – undeserved, boundless and eternal – which calls forth from us a response of worship and obedience to his revealed will. The prophet is speaking on behalf of God, beseeching them to repent of their superficial religiosity, and instead to embrace obedience from the heart, not in order to earn favour, but in order to appropriately respond to what they have received. Ingratitude, rejection of God’s love, of His rightful place as Lord, all speak of hearts which are full of pride and self-reliance. Earnest – if flawed – obedience; the desire to keep on pursuing holiness by all the means of grace at our disposal, speak of hearts which are humble, realistic, and dependent on God.

The same rituals which were dismissed as bearing no fruit by the merely religious, could be a source of encouragement, a form of true worship by those whose hearts were changed. In our day, the so-called ‘duties’ of a believer – bible reading and prayer; attendance at church and active membership in a congregation; faithful giving of time, talents and money are all means by which we may choose to be blessed if we bring the attitude of a redeemed sinner to them, instead of a self-serving, self-reliant critic of God.

Let us be on guard against this attitude of entitlement – God owes us nothing, but has given us everything we need for this life and the next. Those who try to earn salvation by their deeds; or who reject the idea of God altogether and choose to live without him, will have their reward in this life, but will have no part in the treasure-house of God when He comes to gather it for eternity. May we be faithful in proclaiming this truth to those who do not know it, and meantime live humbly depending upon His grace to us, and not our worthiness to receive it..

Gathering clouds…

The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!..”

(John 1.29)

Moses said to them, “Go..and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood…and put some on the door-frame…When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the door -frame and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.

(Exodus 12.21-23)

Jesus took the twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be turned over to the Gentiles. They will  mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

(Luke 18.31-34)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. ..those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins….But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God..because by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those  who are being made holy.

(Hebrews 10.1, 3, 12&14)

As a boy growing up in a Jewish family, Jesus would have celebrated the Passover many times before the night in Jerusalem when he shared that final meal with his disciples. Do you ever wonder at what stage he began to discern that it was to be his privilege and pain to become the ultimate Passover lamb, The One who would die once and for all, so that God’s wrath against sin might be turned away from all who accepted the offered sacrifice?

The only scriptures he had were those of what we call our Old Testament, and that in itself should encourage us as 21st century believers to take those books seriously. In them, Jesus found mapped out the path which he was to take – as he reminds his disciples when he says that he is going to Jerusalem so that all that the prophets had written about him should be fulfilled. In the book of Genesis, he found the first promise of the coming saviour, and the assurance even then that suffering would be involved. In the story of Abraham and the covenant promises, he found that God’s blessing was intended for all the peoples of the earth. In the miraculous Exodus narrative, he found the decisive image of a sacrifice to avert destruction, and later a whole structure of temple worship which demonstrated that the wrath of a holy God against sin could not simply be set aside; that there was a price which must be paid; and it was a blood price.

I grew up in churches where the Old and New Testaments were held together, taught together, and I am so thankful for that heritage, which means that the oldest stories are full of symbolism, fore-shadowing what was to come, and that all through the wandering, rebellion, exile and restoration, the fine line of God’s faithful promise can be discerned.

As Jesus approached Jerusalem for this last time, after all these years of celebrating Passover in peace, he knew that his time was come, that there would never again be any need for sacrifice of lambs or any other beast in the temple, after his body had been broken and his blood poured out. These days were the culmination of centuries of God at work in his people, they were the centrepoint of time and the object of all His Father’s loving plan.  If the angels and heavenly beings had been “on the edge of their seats” at his birth, how much more were the host now intent upon the drama of the coming days? What weight of expectation lay upon those human shoulders, and coloured all the thought and actions of the son of Mary?

As we approach the season of Easter, and remember particularly – and fittingly – all the events of that last week of Jesus’ earthly life, I am humbled and drawn once again to worship this God-made-man, in his incredible love for humankind, and his complete submission to his Father’s will.

Worthy, worthy is the Lamb, all praise and glory to the One who walked unwaveringly into death, that we might live!