Category Archives: Mystery

The hope of the resurrection

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I and not another.

(Job 19.25-27)

In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you..

(John 14. 2)

When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each seed he gives its own body….so it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a supernatural body…..then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

(1 Corinthians 15. 37,38, 42-44, 54&55)

There is so much that we do not know about what God has in store for us on the other side of death, so many unanswered questions and it can be tempting to indulge in speculation, seeking for comfort in bereavement and struggling to accept the absence of a precious companion.

But I believe that most of what lies ahead for us is simply beyond our understanding, and therefore God in his mercy has hidden it from us for the present. It makes sense, that even as we struggle to imagine the eternal present which is God’s presence, so we cannot begin to comprehend how humanity can exist within that context. We are utterly bound within time and space, and our future lies in a different realm!

I believe that we have been given as much as we need, grounds for hope and assurance, and glimpses of glory to whet our appetites. We see Christ, our Saviour and elder brother, going ahead of us through death into a resurrected body. His people could hold him and recognise him, and yet his body was – as Paul says – raised in glory, raised imperishable. This same body is in heaven now, a glorified and perfect human being is there in God’s presence – so we know that we too will dwell in recognisable form with God. That in itself is incredible to us, and wonderful!

A human form, imbued with eternity and perfectly equipped to thrive in the new heavens and new earth which are promised after God has wound up this era of suffering, pain and toil. Does this not thrill us? Are we not deeply conscious of a longing to explore all that humanity is capable of in its perfect state? We don’t long eagerly for a disembodied state, nor for annihalation – that is to reject the promise which God created in us, and is a rejection of his vision for humankind. We are broken and marred, yes indeed, but the solution is not the destruction of self for ever, rather it is the redemption and transformation of self by the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.

I believe that the piercing joys, the fleeting moments of glory and intense gladness which are our experience here are simply foretastes of what God has in store, in that home for which we are all looking and longing. There we will belong, there we will have tasks which inspire, enthrall and satisfy us – perfectly suited to our unique qualities and characters. We will not disappear into some bland uniformity, but rather become more intensely and gloriously ourselves, the “I” whom God saw in us from the beginning, now free of all weakness.

Oh, friends, may God give us patience and courage to wait for this, wait for his timing, and meantime to exult in the hope we have! These words express something of the ecstatic joy which fills me even as I write, perhaps they will lift you too for a moment, to glimpse the glory:

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship, when, at his bidding, every storm is stilled,   Or who can say how great the jubilation when all the hearts of men with love are filled.  But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture, and myriad, myriad human voices sing, And earth to heaven, and heaven to earth will answer: At last the Saviour, Saviour of the world is King!

(William Young Fullerton, 1857-1932)

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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!

When morning gilds the skies..

Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?….Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?… Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?

(Job 38.1,4,6,7,12&13)

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens! Praise him from the skies! Praise him, all his angels! Praise him, all the armies of heaven! Praise him, sun and moon! Praise him all you twinkling stars! Praise him skies above!.. Let every created thing give praise to the Lord, for he issued his command, and they came into being. 

(Psalm 148.1-3,5)

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2.9-11)

O Lord, let me wake in my right mind tomorrow.. so that my first thoughts are not of the unsettled sleep of the night; nor of the aches and pains of my ageing body; but of you.

O Lord, let me wake in my right mind tomorrow…so that my first thoughts are not of the fragility of the lives of my loved ones; nor of the troubles, trials and temptations they are facing; but of you.

O Lord, let me wake in my right mind tomorrow….so that my first thoughts are not of the tasks which I must accomplish; nor of the pleasures in which I hope to indulge; but of you.

Who or what am I, that I should differ from all the rest of creation, by failing to praise you, my creator, with every breath and every fibre of my being?

Who, or what am I, that I should demand an accounting from the almighty, eternal God, for his dealings with me, instead of worshipping him in prostrate adoration, and freely confessing his right to do exactly as he pleases?

Who, or what am I, that I should believe that alone among all people, I have trials and difficulties which are beyond God’s care or capacity to deal with?

May I be forgiven, in the name of my sweet and glorious Lord, for such foolish, wicked arrogance. May I realise more clearly than ever, that I can trust God, in all his ways, because in Christ he has revealed his love for me. May I let that love so heal my thinking that I no longer doubt him, or when doubting yet claim his promises and refuse to despair.

I have been shown the loving face of God, the Almighty and unimaginably other, in the person of Jesus, his son. I have been given the revelation of God’s love in action, the story of his great plan to redeem his creation from its bondage to decay. I have seen glimpses – all that the human mind can bear – of the glory which is assured to me through his promises to all who call Jesus Lord. And do I still dare to allow my own sin-skewed perspective to twist the truth about him into lies?

Oh God, give me the clear-sight which I need, so that I see things straight again. Let me see that everything, all creation, all humankind, is here solely that your Son, your beloved one, might receive the glory you desire and which is his due. In your astonishing love and mercy, you have set your love upon us, and plan for our blessing; but the end of it all is so much bigger than that!

Let me join daily with the morning stars, as they rejoice together in the dawn, and praise the eternal Word from whom they sprang; let me think not of myself, but of him and be so entranced by his beauty and worth that all the shadows of my own life shrink into their proper size, and no longer dominate my thinking.

When morning gilds the skies my heart awaking cries, may Jesus Christ be praised!

Alike at work and prayer, to Jesus I repair: May Jesus Christ be praised!

Be this, while life is mine, my canticle* divine, may Jesus Christ be praised!

Be this the eternal song through all the ages long, may Jesus Christ be praised!

( German 19th century; translated Ed Caswall, 1814-78)

*canticle – a song

 

Accepting my limitations

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.     “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, ” declares the Lord.

(Isaiah 55.6-8)

Then Job replied to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted…Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know….My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

(Job 42. 1-6)

Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

(Habbakuk 3. 17&18)

Has it ever struck you that many of the stories contained in the biblical narrative are of people in really horrid situations? The bible is not shy of confronting us with the brutal realities of life – war, torture and destruction; famine and starvation; murder, rape, abuse, enslavement and humiliation inflicted by one human being on another; abuse of power and status – and we recognise them all around us today.

Why are the stories there? It is not because in every case, God intervened to make everything right again and to create some fluffy happy endings. There are individual examples of particular provision, miraculous escapes, healings and even resurrections, but they are the exceptions not the rule. Why?

I believe that one of the main reasons we have these stories, is to help us to face our own realities with faith – not in a God who makes everything ok at once, or even in our own lifetimes; but a God who is big enough to see from beginning to end, to see the roots of the trouble and to be willing to deal with it. This is what the bible narrative reveals – a God who never gives up. Many generations of Israelites died in abject slavery in Egypt before Moses arrived to lead them out. Countless, nameless thousands died over the centuries in wars and famines, just so much collateral damage in the power games of nations.

And yet, we have the testimony of prophets like Zechariah, that in the midst of the apparent chaos, lawlessness and despair, God is not absent, that he is and is good, and that justice, healing and wholeness will come. We have the examples not only of the psalmists, but also men like Job, who when things appeared to have gone hopelessly wrong and God was surely absent or even powerless, chose to respond by passionately appealing to him for justice, and lamenting their wrongs.

We don’t need to have faith in something when we can see and understand how it works, we need faith when there is a mystery, when we cannot make sense of what is going on. The stories of the bible show us what such faith looks like – the faith that says with Habakkuk that we will rejoice in the God who is our Saviour even though there is no sign of his salvation.

In our time, the pride of man in his achievements has made it hard to accept that anything can or should remain mysterious, and it is common for people to use the mystery of suffering as a condemnation of a just and loving God. But, as Job learned, who are we to put the creator upon the stand and accuse him of being inscrutable? Am I willing to accept that God is beyond my understanding, with all that implies? Indeed God has revealed himself to us in Christ Jesus, and there we see love and purity and so many of the wonderful characteristics of God. But surely it is only to be expected that a God who can create on the scales that we now perceive, a God who is outside time and space, must be utterly other than we can comprehend?

In the face of suffering and evil in all its dreadful manifestations, as the hand of God in judgement is still withheld and creation groans, I have a daily choice. Either I allow the inexplicable darkness to poison my mind and spirit, and bitterly reject any notion of a sovereign and good God; or I turn to him in faith, in that trust which says, “I cannot begin to understand this Lord, but I see your love laid bare upon the Cross of Christ; I see there the pain that this darkness causes you, and I will choose to believe that none of it is wasted, and that you know what you are doing. You will not delay a moment longer than you need, and in the end, the judge of all the earth will surely do right!”