42. Accepting Love (1)

Focus on Christ Meditations: 42.  Accepting Love (1)

Lk 15:1,2    Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

In the previous meditation I suggested that in coming to the Gospels it is easy to focus on Jesus as a teacher or as a miracle worker, for those things are so obvious, but there are other things about Jesus that are more important, even though they are not given prominence in the Gospels. The first such thing that we considered was the fact that Jesus came to reveal the Father in heaven, the glory of God, and the purpose of the Godhead.

The second thing, that we now move on to, is even more important as far as our personal lives are concerned and that is the nature or character of Jesus Christ. Now you might say that this has been implied in all that has gone on so far, and that is true, but I would like to make the implicit into explicit by looking again in the Gospels, and I want to try to do this by looking at Jesus’ way of treating people and then, in a later study, how we see it in Jesus’ teaching.

So I wonder what sort of examples come immediately to your mind when we ask the question, “To whom did Jesus show the love of God?” Now put so blandly as that the response might be, “Everybody!” but that is the same as “I love everyone in my street.” That doesn’t become real until we see specific examples. Perhaps we should ask the question first, how is love demonstrated? My shorthand response is, by accepting people as they were and seeking the best for them. (We’ll say some more in the next study)

I think it was about thirty years ago I adopted what almost became a mantra for me (and I had heard it nowhere else then, although I have since), that “God loves you exactly as you are at this moment, but He also loves you so much that He has something better for you than you are at the moment.” This means two things: first TOTAL acceptance of you the person (not necessarily your behaviour) at this moment and then, second, love desires yet a better you in the future with His help and enabling. So, when we come to specific examples of Jesus loving people, I would suggest that we need to look for his initial acceptance of that person and then signs that he wants something better for them. My choices are purely random and limited and so there are almost certainly others who you might want to add to this list.

In general terms we are told that he met with “tax collectors and sinners”, for example, While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples.” (Mt 9:10)  He had just called Matthew the tax-collector to follow him and now he is eating with him and his friends! This upsets the puritanical Pharisees (see v.11). There is no indication that Jesus challenged him over his morals as a tax-collector, change was implied when Matthew went with Jesus. From then on it was relationship and acceptance. Now in this case and, I suggest, the case of every one of the men Jesus called to follow him, it is clear he takes them as they were. For them the next three years are going to be a time of learning and change. He takes them as they were, but will change them.

In addition to this incident, Luke adds, “Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Lk 15:1,2) These people were outcasts of society and the thing we all want – and especially if we are an outcast – is  loving acceptance. We don’t want haranguing, we don’t want criticism (we know our faults already, we want to know how to overcome them and we know self-effort doesn’t work), we don’t want judging (we feel guilty enough already) and so we don’t want telling off in whatever form it comes. The thing I have found over the years in both my life and watching the lives of others, is that we change most when we are loved, not when we are nagged, not when we are exposed, and not when we are made to feel defensive. We need loving acceptance and Jesus brings it.

Perhaps nowhere is that seen more clearly than in the case of Zacchaeus (see Lk 19:1-10). This man was a chief tax collector and it is likely that he oversaw a large area. It is also probable that he was a crook who took bribes and took more taxes than he should have done, and he certainly wasn’t liked. He was probably rich and had a select group (a limited group!) of friends – also tax-collectors or others on the take. So he is a classic instance of someone we would like to point a finger at and shout, “Repent you godless, self-centred, corrupt sinner!”

But Jesus didn’t do that. Instead he invited himself to lunch or dinner or whatever meal was due.  Now it is one thing to be invited but to invite yourself to someone else’s house is not only bold and ‘not done’ but it is certainly a sign of imposed friendliness that says, “Hey, I like you and I’d like us to share our lives together over a meal.” Except the account doesn’t give any indication that Jesus told Zacchaeus what he expected of him – and it wasn’t to carry on being a traitor to Judaism and it wasn’t to carry on being a crook who was lining his pocket at other people’s expense. No, there is no record that Jesus confronted him with any of these things. No, as I suggested above, I suspect Zacchaeus knew the truth about himself, knew what was wrong, knew what was right, and just needed loving acceptance to help him to feel secure enough to face all that!

Ah, you might say, but perhaps that happened but Luke wasn’t told about it. I doubt it. Look at the way Zacchaeus responded to Jesus and the way Jesus responded to him. There is a sense of light-hearted joyful freedom about what takes place. You don’t see that sort of response when there has been judgmental chiding and challenges to repent. No, that was the approach of the Pharisees and I would almost guarantee that the Pharisees and the tax collectors – especially powerful ones like Zacchaeus –   walked on the opposite sides of the street of life, so to speak, and the tax collectors called them  ‘religious hypocrites’ and in turn the Pharisees called them ‘sinners!” and that in a most derogatory way. No, challenging or telling off someone does not produce an immediate response of generosity – even if it is using the unlawful gains of the past! The change comes from being accepted!

The ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ were the primary group of obvious people to whom Jesus expressed his Father’s love by accepting them as they were, and that brought the fruit of change. There were others but as space runs out, we shall look at some of the others in the next study. But for personal thought, how about you and me? Would we have accepted Zacchaeus as Jesus did? Indeed, do we lovingly accept as they are, the ‘sinners’ (all those we view as less than us) around us in our lives? Jesus does.

8. Life Flow

Meditations in Romans : 8:  Life Flow

Rom 5:3-5  Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us

Having started off with what we might call the fruits of justification – peace with God and access to His grace – this, says Paul, produces a rejoicing in us as we realise that we are entering into a personal relationship with God whereby we share in His Spirit and in His future. It also means that that rejoicing flows over into all areas and aspects of our lives and that includes the hard bit where we suffer as Christians. So, yes, His resources, His grace, are there available for us in every area of life and in every circumstance.

But actually, he goes on, we can rejoice in the difficult circumstances not only because of the power source we have within, but also because of the effect that such suffering will have upon us. He then embarks on a list of things that flow from one another.

Because we have this access to His grace, when suffering comes, His grace enables us to continue without wavering – that is what perseverance is. How often today do we watch people face a difficulty and then just give up? Young people, it seems, so often get married and then go through a difficult patch and give up on the marriage. Perseverance sees you through that time into better times without giving up. How often does a student find that the work was harder than they thought it was going to be and so give up the course?  How many inventors or writers or composers would fail to succeed in their work if they gave up the moment they hit a dry patch. No, perseverance is a key to success. I wonder how many “How to Succeed” manuals cover perseverance. When the enemy comes and opposes us, it is perseverance that sees us through.

But perseverance is also an ingredient in itself that goes to form that thing that we call character. If you look up a dictionary definition of ‘character’, you tend to find such things as, “pattern of behaviour or personality found in an individual, moral constitution, moral strength; reliability, self-discipline, fortitude, etc that produces a good reputation”. We also speak of ‘bad characters’ in a play or story or film, meaning disreputable, unreliable, dubious, and so on. The act of having to struggle with life and to fight your way through difficult circumstances brings about a change of being within you. There comes a steadfastness and reliability or unchangeableness. You learn to cope, you learn to press through and all these things bring about an inner strength that we call character. It isn’t much spoken about in today’s society because we prefer the easy, comfortable way, but such people give up easily. Not so Christians!

These things were exhibited in Paul himself when he wrote, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:12-14). Note the language! It is the language of an overcomer who is not going to give up but who is going to make effort to get where he knows God wants him to be. Is that us? Do we too press on, strain forward in our calling, or do we look for the easy way, the way that requires little or no effort. Even in writing these notes every morning I have to press on, for the temptation is always there not to bother. There are the key words the enemy uses, “Oh, I wouldn’t bother if I were you. It won’t matter. Give up. Stop all this straining and struggling. Surely the Christian life shouldn’t be like that.” Don’t listen to him!

Now when this character forms in us, this steadfastness, we find something else becoming clearer and clearer within us – hope. Hope in the Scriptural sense is a sure confidence, an assurance of what is coming. Hope is about what is still in the future, the goal that God has called us to, to become more like Jesus, to accomplish some particular task perhaps, to achieve the vision that He has put on our heart. As we persevere, so we find this strong steadfastness becoming established in us, character, and as that forms we have this growing sense that what we are aiming for WILL be achieved. That is hope.

As this process continues, we find also a greater awareness of God’s love within us, for we realise all of this is no accident, but a process that was initiated and empowered by God Himself and is one of the ways He is pouring His love into your life. As we wait for the vision to be fulfilled we realise that this love, His presence, is there sustaining us and encouraging us. In fact the whole process is part of His love and as we progress, as we develop, as we mature, we realise that all that is going on in us is a work of His love. How wonderful!

16. God’s Qualities

Meditations in Romans : 16 :  God’s obvious Qualities

Rom  1:18-20 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Often in Scripture one little word provides the clue or makes sense of what is being said. In the previous meditation we considered the wrath (or ‘anger-in-action’) of God but remaining in verse 18 we didn’t see the reason for it. Now we have verse 19 which starts with the simple word, ‘since’. An alternative word might have been ‘because’. God is angry because His character should be able to be seen by people because it is obvious when you look at the world.

The design argument for God was brought into focus by William Paley who, in the latter part of the eighteen century brought forward the idea of the watch and the watchmaker. He simply suggested that if you come across a watch and opened it up and looked inside it you would automatically conclude that there was someone who had made that intricate design. It doesn’t prove God but suggests, along with Paul, that if something is clearly designed then there is clearly a designer. God is such a designer. Now atheists have subsequently sought to punch holes in this theory but the word of God still stands.

As Paul says, God is angry at stupid people who insist on being blind to the obvious. To the simple and straight forward, it should be obvious when you look at the incredible world that we live in, that there is a wonderful Creator behind it because, says Paul, “God has made it plain to them.” It IS obvious to the open-hearted seeker. It doesn’t matter what YOU say, God says it is obvious and if you refuse to see it, that is an act of will and that raises His anger against you!

Even the most famous of the modern crusading atheists uses words like “has an appearance of being designed’ when referring to the world, while at the same time denying God’s existence. To the Corinthians Paul said, The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor 4:4) Satan has whispered into the minds of unbelievers and reinforced their willful blindness. They are blind because it pays them to be blind. If they cannot see then they can deny the One who made all things, but it is a willful blindness.

In more recent year these crusading atheists have realised how dull and sterile they appear to the rest of us and so the strategy has been to wax eloquent on how wonderful this world is – but not made by God of course! We know how the world works, they say, so we don’t need a Maker of it. Of course this is just another form of their blindness. It is like looking at a Ford car, examining it in detail and coming to an understanding of how the engine works and saying, “Ah, now we understand. There is no need to postulate a Maker of this car because we know how it works.” It ignores Henry Ford who designed it originally and as such is just another expression of this willful blindness. Oh the efforts these men go to, to try to deny God’s presence!

Note that Paul doesn’t say it proves God’s presence but simply that it points to His presence and it has done so ever since “the creation of the world”. The modern atheist struggles with his own inconsistencies. On one hand he puts up a scientific theory that says that nothing can come from nothing and then puts forward the ‘Big Bang’ theory and says it was something from nothing but, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, you can’t get something from nothing-nothing. If you can imagine absolutely ‘nothing’, nothing at all, not even a single particle of energy, first of all we can’t imagine that and second our logic says that it is absolutely impossible for something to come from absolutely nothing on its own – unless we are an inconsistent modern atheist of course!

So, says Paul, God’s invisible qualities, His power and divine nature are, and always have been, patently obvious to anyone with an open mind. Everything about this world says it wasn’t an accident, everything says it was designed by an all-powerful, all wise Supreme Being and this is the God who is revealed in the world and in the Bible. So obvious is it, says Paul, that men don’t have an excuse.  You can scream and shout about it as much as you like, but God says you don’t have an excuse and so your willful rebellion raises His righteous indignation and displeasure. As we go on we’ll see how that indignation and displeasure is expressed.

God who Judges

God in the Psalms No.12 

Psa 7:6-8 Awake, my God; decree justice. Let the assembled peoples gather around you. Rule over them from on high; let the LORD judge the peoples. Judge me, O LORD

These verses introduce us quite clearly to a new description of the Lord: the Lord who is a Judge. What does a Judge do? He (or she) assesses a case in the light of the Law and pronounces a verdict based on that Law. For the Lord this is a circular thing for the Lord designed the world in accordance with His character (perfection) and decreed the Law to ensure people lived in accordance with that design.  Now He judges according to that Law, according to that design, according to His character.  Justice is weighing actions in the light of that Law and bringing appropriate action to bear on the miscreant to make right the situation.

Now with the Lord, nothing can be hidden.  The writer to the Hebrews was able to write: Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13).  So, when the Lord assesses the situation He does so with full and complete knowledge. But there is more. Paul described the Lord as, the only wise God (Rom 16:27).  The Lord is the only one who not only knows all things but knows that is right to do in every situation.  (Wisdom is knowing what to do). Therefore the Lord looks, the Lord knows, and the Lord knows how to respond.  The one thing we will never be able to do when we get to heaven, if the Lord should allow us full vision of all that has happened, is criticize anything the Lord has said or done.  His ways are perfect (Deut 32:4).  Thus in heaven they cry, Just and true are your ways” (Rev 15:3).

So it is, that when we come before the Lord we may never fear injustice. But do we want justice?  Do we want to be judged by the One who sees all things, every wrong thought, every wrong word, every wrong deed? If every such thing throughout our lives were brought out for accounting, it would truly be a terrible thing.  There would be no doubt; we are guilty!   Piled up before, us all these things condemn us.  It’s all right for David in this one situation to say, Judge me according to my righteousness. Oh, yes on specific occasions we can say, well, yes, I was righteous then, I did respond well then. But what about all the other times when we were not so careful, the times when we do not quite come up to the mark, or even fell well short of it?

Yes, this is why we need an advocate, one who will step in and speak up for us. But what could he plead?  Extenuating circumstances?   No, there were none.  We were guilty, it was our fault!   No, there is only one ground on which he can plead – that he himself has already stood in for us and taken our punishment and the penalty for every sin has been paid.  That’s what John had in mind when he wrote: if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 Jn 2:1,2)

Here is the advocate speaking for our defence and here is the one who has paid for our sins – and they are one and the same person, Jesus Christ. Thus when God stands as Judge before the whole of Creation, He CAN bring justice, He can decree rightly in respect of our sins. There is no ‘letting us off’, there is no turning a blind eye. The judgment is given, justice is done, the sins are paid for.  It has been done!  The Judge does give a right judgment – and we are released!   How wonderful!

God who disciplines

God in the Psalms No.10 

Psa 6:1 O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath

Our initial response to these words may not be one that lifts our spirit. Most of us would read these words and say, “Oh dear!” (or something similar!). The thought of being rebuked or disciplined is not a comfortable one! These exact words are repeated in Psa 38:1. In fact the concept of the Lord disciplining His people is a very common one in Scripture, and when we see it in context we will see what a good thing it is.

Psa 39:11 says, “You rebuke and discipline men for their sin”. So, there discipline is linked with our sin. Well we would expect that perhaps but look at Deut 4:35,36: You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you”. The ‘things’ referred to there were His acts of deliverance in Egypt before the Exodus and their experience of Him at Sinai.  This idea is repeated in Deut 11:2,3: “Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the LORD your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm; the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt.” Again the discipline that is referred to comes about by observing the mighty acts of God as He dealt with Pharaoh and led them to their land.

Well let’s consider a general definition of discipline and see how it might fit what we’ve seen here:

discipline = training that develops self-control and character.

Now what would have been the effect upon Israel of watching God at work in Egypt? It would have gradually brought the revelation to them that He is all-mighty, all-powerful and that He deals with pride, arrogance, idol worship and sin generally. This should have taught them that God was not to be trifled with!   Psa 94:12 says, “Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law”. In other words, discipline comes about when we realize God’s Law, when we realize God’s standards, the way God has made things to be, when we realize the boundaries God has given us in life.

Discipline can thus be seen to be conforming our understanding and our lives to God’s design, God’s character and God’s will. The Lord made us perfect when He made the world but with the Fall, sin made us think and do things contrary to that perfection. Discipline is both the process and the product that brings us back to God’s way of thinking and acting. David was feeling very low in Psalm 6. It wasn’t that He objected to discipline but he didn’t want God to have to discipline him in anger because of sin.

Heb 12:5-11 is probably THE New Testament passage on discipline. The writer encourages us to
not lose heart when he rebukes you (v.6) and then gives the reason: the Lord disciplines those he loves” and “God disciplines us for our good” (v.10), so that Later on… it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (v.11). Now substitute the word, “trains” for discipline and we see more clearly what this is about. It’s not about punishment; it’s about bringing us into conformity with the truth – the truth of who God is, how He’s made the world to be, and how we are to live to get the best out of it.

Yes, it so often needs difficult circumstances to mould us. That was what was happening to David. We learn patience by having to wait, endurance by having to hang on in with difficult and trying circumstances, to love by being given difficult people, and so on. Each of these is God training us, disciplining us, and conforming us to His likeness – because He loves us and wants the best for us.