5. The Big Picture

Studies in Isaiah 54: 5. The Big Picture

Isa 54:6 “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.

Two Approaches:  As we look at this verse it appears that there can be two approaches to it. There is the approach that sees it in the context of the history of Israel and then the approach that sees it in the context of the history of the world. Put most simply we have a picture that portrays a wife who has been rejected, deserted and distressed, which can be either Israel or the world (and we will look at both) whom the Lord calls back to Himself. What follows in the ongoing verses is simply an expansion of that.

Israel, the wife: This has to be the primary meaning within a prophecy that comes from a Hebrew prophet to Israel in their time-space history. We must note the words in verse 6, “as if you were”. It is a picture, an analogy, to describe what they are like. The implication is that the Lord is like their husband. He had called them – through Abram and then later through Moses – to become a uniquely identifiable people with a uniquely distinct relationship with Him, a relationship likened to that of a husband and wife.

When? Now there is always a problem with prophecy: it may be spoken out of time, about a future time, a future time that is not yet identifiable, and it may be fulfilled more than once! So the Lord speaks of a time when He had apparently given them up: “For a brief moment I abandoned you,” (v.7a) and, “In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment.” (v.8a) Now in Isa 36 we have an historical insert: “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. Then the king of Assyria sent his field commander with a large army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem.”  (Isa 36:1,2)

It was one of those numerous times when the Lord would discipline Israel – to bring them back to Himself – by using an enemy invader. The reality is that it happened so many times – the book of Judges is full of it – that it is difficult to suggest from our perspective when the Lord was referring to. The fact that Isaiah refers to Cyrus, who later becomes an instrument in the Lord’s hand for getting Israel back to the Land after the Exile, suggests it could be that this prophecy is yet to be also used for encouraging Israel in that later time as well as in the present when Isaiah is actually speaking out these words.

A Changed People:  The point of this word – in the present at least – is to reassure Israel that they were not utterly cast away. Now the truth is that the Lord does not just shrug his shoulders and pretend that sin has not happened; He always deals with it. The Exile, possibly many years later, was a time of purging Israel of their idolatry and of creating a new faithful heart in them. Thus when the remnant eventually started returning after some forty years, they came back with changed hearts. We need to realize this, that when the Lord speaks of restoring Israel after a time of disciplining, it is a purged people He will be restoring, a changed people.

He’s not going to just turn the clock back so that the old sinful attitudes are still there and He is doing nothing about it, He is going to change them. Previously, if He appeared to be doing nothing, it was simply that He was staying His hand of judgment to give them time to repent, and if they did not, then the judgment came to discipline them: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)

So when we try to understand the ways of the Lord, we should always understand that even though discipline comes, it comes with the purpose of changing us and the end result is to be a restored and changed people, a people who have been cleansed by the judgment (discipline) and had their hearts changed and transformed. Perhaps we should also note the tense at the beginning of verse 6: “The Lord will call you back…” There is a future sense to this. It is the Lord declaring His intention of what is yet to come, but that is how it is so often with prophecy; it is not merely stating God’s will for the moment, it also so often declares it for the future.

The World:  But the second approach we said above is about the world. The big picture of salvation after the Fall is perhaps portrayed here. This is the big picture of God’s plans and purposes for the whole world. At the Fall we were cast away. His relationship with mankind – Adam and Eve – was fractured by sin. When I first studied this judgment of being cast out of the Garden, I marveled that this was not the end of the ‘God + Mankind’ equation. God did not totally abandon us, He gave us what we wanted, what Adam and Eve had revealed, autonomy, the freedom to live our lives as we will – with all the repercussions!  We would learn, we had a need, of someone to save us from the mess that we all make of life.  And thus it was that it was like He hovered in the background. It was clear that He spoke with Cain and Abel, had dealings with various others in the ensuing years, and eventually called Abram into relationship with Him.

The Anger of the Lord: The words of these verses that we are considering could equally be applied to the Fall and what followed it: “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.” (v.6) They had a relationship with the Lord to start with, but their sin meant that, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment.“ (v.7,8) The folly of sin evokes righteous anger; it is a right response to wrong.

In our defensiveness we so often fail to see this, perhaps only made clear when one of our children do wrong and provoke anger within us.  Anger is a rising of indignation, a rising of displeasure at what has happened. The thing should not have happened, it was pure folly for it to happen – and of course that is true of all sin, we should know better, but there seems to be this blindness that is part of sin, so that we don’t see the folly and so proceed with the sin. It is stupid and so any onlooker with an unbiased mind would feel a sense of anger that it ever happened. If we could see clearly we would feel it; God does see clearly and so feels it.

The Compassion of the Lord:  “I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer.” We may settle in anger and fume; God never does. It may be right to respond with anger at our folly but God never leaves it there. He looks upon us and anger is tempered by compassion. He is love (1 Jn 4:8,16, Ex 34:6,7) and love always looks for the best in everyone else. Anger is appropriate but it is overwhelmed by compassion and out of that God acts to redeem us.

There is a mystery here that C.S.Lewis sought to address, that God appears to stand outside of history, like He looks down on history, as seen as a road below that He can see from beginning to end, but also He steps into history and acts as if everything is new. So although the Scriptures are clear that the Godhead planned salvation, seeing the effect of free-will, even before they made anything, when the Fall took place God’s response to the moment was anger followed by compassion, and it was that compassion that moves Him to continue to interact with mankind. Never say God doesn’t care for us, He does. He may discipline us, “for a little while” (Heb 12:10) but it is that Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.”  (Heb 12:11).

Thus in these verses we also have the wonder of our salvation. Whenever we fail the Lord and come under His discipline, always remember it is but for a moment and the compassion of God will be there to restore us to Him: “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 2:1) God’s constant intent is to redeem us and that is what the whole of the Bible is all about. See it and rejoice in it.  Hallelujah!

43. Relevancy again

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 43. Relevancy Again

Luke 4:18,19 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”

May I take a couple of quotes from earlier studies in this Part of this series. First, “Will we confront the truth of His word and seek for a church where Jesus speaks, lives change, and the world is changed?” Look at those last words: “a church where Jesus speaks, lives change, and the world is changed”. Second, “I will go on to ‘listening evangelism’ in a later study as well as ‘listening to His written word’ as well as listening for healing or deliverance and listening for changing the community.”

Now I want to link these quotes back to the study that I am sure raised some questions, about the relevancy of our faith in the face of the enormous changes that are taking place in our world, social and environmental changes as well as scientific, cyber and technological changes. The whole teaching about the kingdom of God is incredibly practical. Consider the things that took place in the simple imaginary story about the prayer meeting and the things that followed it:

  • It brought a change in faith expectancy in Alan
  • That led to him being able to help his younger member of staff.
  • It also opened up the way for Alan to offer to pray for his boss’s family and then pray over his boss, which opened his heart to Alan.
  • It also changed his approach to his client which in turn brought a complete change in him.

That prayer meeting? Part of “a church where Jesus speaks, lives change, and the world is changed”. The changes that took place could be summarised as:

  • Faith released
  • Compassion, care and concern released
  • Faith for further prayer, including healing prayer
  • Three sets of circumstances, involving unbelievers, changing.

Now you might say, yes, but no one got saved! Hold on, it was an imaginary story and so I could have made the office junior, the boss and the client all come to the Lord, but I left that hanging, a possibility for the future. The changes that will take place in respect of the kingdom of God will

  1. Come as we pray (and listen)
  2. Occur as we step out in faith, and
  3. Involve the sovereign working of God to change people and circumstances.

In the light of the prophetic words from Luke’s Gospel above

  • The (spiritually) poor (the unbeliever) will hear the good news
  • Those who are in prisons that are emotional or mental will find freedom
  • Those who are (spiritually, and maybe even physically) blind will be enabled to see
  • Those who are spiritually oppressed will be released
  • And those we touch with His love will realize that this is indeed the year when He favor is available to them.

Changed lives, changed circumstances, the coming of the kingdom or rule of God. And how?  Through “a church where Jesus speaks, lives change, and the world is changed”. That is what all this talk about Jesus being glorified through his ascension goes, this is where it ends, these are the practical outworkings. Is that your church? Is that mine?

There is another facet of all this that we haven’t really touched on because it was necessary to first of all pick up on the fact of the largely absent belief in much of the modern church that Jesus is alive today wanting to do exactly the same things he did on earth two thousand years ago. It is the aspect of the compassionate and generous and hospitable expressions of the church. It is the practical ministry summarized so often as ‘caring for widows and orphans’ but which has been observed throughout the church era as establishing schools, hospitals, clinics and so many other things that have impacted our worlds for good.

“Good works” (Mt 5:16) are not to be one thing or another, but both spiritually supernatural and humanly natural. The ‘supernatural’ may include the miraculous or simply people and circumstance changes, as we’ve recently been considering, or they may be the incredible grace that sometimes enables believers to act as they do beyond usual abilities. The ‘natural’ is being kind, compassionate, caring, hospitable and generous and, of course, all these are expressions of Christ, expressions of his grace in believers. It’s not one or the other, it is both. Both require the power and the presence of the Lord and both reveal the kingdom of God in action – but it is action.

I have just now suggested why we have taken so much time working on our faith levels for the works of Jesus through the body – the absence of it so often in the modern church – but there is something else linked to this that I have observed in the modern church. It is the ‘good intentions’ that people have to reach out to the world around them with the good news of the Gospel of Christ, and even start community projects which are in themselves good.

However, what I also witness is an absence of the manifest presence of God so often in these things, absence of clear direction to start these things, or how to go about these things, i.e. their origins that should be clearly coming from the heart of God, people ‘doing stuff’ but with the absence of the presence of God or the revelation of God (because they haven’t learn to listen) or the power of God to bring changes. i.e. often such ‘projects’ seem such hard work because they come from human enthusiasm, and they operate with human effort so that when crises come (and they do) the resources are not there to cope. The truth is that a lot of charities and other ‘good works’ operate in a godless environment. Our activities must originate from the Lord and be carried out with the revelation of the Lord and the power of the Lord. When this does happen, the world will know, and God will be glorified. That is what all this kingdom stuff is about. May it be so.

26. The Caring Church

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 26. The Caring Church

1 Cor 14:3 the one who prophesies speaks to people for their  strengthening, encouraging and comfort.

Recap our Goals: In the previous study we laid out our strategy again: we are examining things that will help us grow. We are examining that through the perspective of being seated with Christ in the heavenly realms, and we are examining aspects of the ministry of Christ through us in bringing in the kingdom of God on earth through the body of Christ, the Church.

The Challenges of Change: We went on to reflect on the incredible changes that are coming in our world and the challenges that the enemy would make to our faith in the light of those changes, the challenge of relevancy. I suggested that these things did not affect the reality of the existence of God nor the fact of human sinfulness and our need for salvation.

The Nature of the Church/Kingdom: Now, before we move on into practicalities, I think we need to highlight something that comes out of these two things I have just mentioned, and it is the nature of the church and the nature of the kingdom of God that we have been considering earlier.

Human Need: My starting point is to face the reality of life, and that includes for Christians. Put in its most simple form, it is that each of us needs to feel loved; it is a basic human need. Put another way, each of us from time to time (if not most of the time), need strengthening, encouraging or even comforting. We go through times of feeling weak, we go through times of discouragement and we even go through times of worry or anxiety or pain – and so we have needs to be met.

The Caring Saviour: The second thing is that we have a Saviour who cares for us and who wants to help us. If we had been one of the twelve travelling with Jesus and we were looking down and dejected, I don’t believe Jesus would have ignored us or even chided us; I believe he would have strengthened, encouraged or comforted us privately. But now he has a different body, you and me, but his intentions do not change. His intention is still to strengthen the weak, encourage the downcast, comfort the grieving.

Failure Talk? It may be that someone reading this comes from a military background or a background of high achievement expectations (family expectations can often lay some ungodly perfectionist expectations on us) and emotions get suppressed by macho “get a grip on life for goodness sake!” outlooks. In some churches there is an inability to be honest – everything is just fine (always!) – and any talk about weakness etc. has been made to sound like failure.

Reality: Look, Paul would not have written, “Do not be anxious about anything,” (Phil 4:6) if we didn’t get anxious sometimes, and as for, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God,”  (2 Cor 1:3,4) he certainly wouldn’t have described God like this if we didn’t need comforting from time to time “in all our troubles”. When it comes to times of contact with God or His angels, there are numerous “fear not” or “don’t be afraid” times (e.g. Jud 6:23, Mt 1:20, 2:22, 8:26, 10:26,31, etc. etc.) so that when we are real we can see there are many, many situations where the natural response is fear and so God comes to lift us above that – but it is the natural thing!

Beware Hardness: The problem that also arises here is that when we have been brought up or trained or disciplined into this hard-nosed way of confronting life, not only do we suppress our feelings, but we also look down on those who appear weak or who are showing their feelings. Over the years I have been to many funerals, and taken quite a few, and the spectrum of human feelings is more clearly revealed at a funeral than any other place. Some people stand in the funeral service absolutely stony-faced, while others cry or even wail in ways that are symptomatic of Old Testament Judaism. There is no ‘right’ response and if we look down on people who don’t grieve like we do, or down on people who find it difficult to express their emotions, we are not walking the walk of Jesus. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn,” (Rom 12:15) said the apostle Paul.

Carriers of Love: Now why am I saying these things in this Part when we are thinking about reigning with Christ to bring in the kingdom of God? I am saying this, because whatever else we might say about this, if we are not a church of love brought into being by One who is described as love (1 Jn 4:8,16) we are missing the goal. The kingdom is an expression of the love of God and the way we ‘reign’ over circumstances is, at the very least, to be a demonstration of God’s love. When I witness to someone, when I pray over someone, when I preach to people, when I share a word from God with someone, if I do not do it in love, I am missing the point! And that goes for you too!

To Church & World: When I look around me in the church, if my heart is not moved by compassion for those expressing obvious needs, I am missing the point. When I encounter people in the world expressing their needs, if my heart is not moved by compassion to pray for wisdom to know how to act on their behalf, I am missing the point. The kingdom, I say again, is all about bringing and expressing the love of God. That has to be of paramount importance. There is another of these things to be considered in the next study before we move on to the practicalities but these things, I suggest, very much flow over into the practicalities.

17. Aspiring to Compassion

Aspiring Meditations: 17.  Aspiring to Compassion

Col 3:12 “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

Ex 33:19  the LORD said, “….. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

Mt 9:36  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them,

Eph 4:32    Be kind and compassionate to one another.

We have come to the end of the list we started with in 2 Peter and now the list in Gal 5:22,23 but as we covered those we came across that top verse from Col 3:12 and note, therefore, another two things to which we are to aspire, the first being compassion. The word ‘compassion’ simply means to have a deep sympathy which urges the person into action.

The first indication that the Lord is compassionate (having compassion) comes in the Law where we see, “If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” (Ex 22:26,27) where the Lord sees a need – of a cloak to keep the individual warm at night, lost because given in a pledge – and is moved by the need to tell the Israelite to take action to remedy that.

But then we see it in the Lord’s declaration in Ex 33:19 (see above) but also a little later as we read, “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God.” (Ex 34:6). Thus three times in the early corporate live of Israel this is revealed to them.

When it comes to the ministry of Jesus we see it recorded a number of times: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” (Mt 14:14) and “Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people;” (Mt 15:32) and “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him” (Mt 20:34)

Now this is quite remarkable and before we move on we should pause and focus on this truth – that God, the Father, and Jesus, His Son, both reveal they are compassionate, i.e. they have this affinity with mankind whereby they are moved by mankind to act on our behalf. We accept so easily, as Christians at least, that God is love (1 Jn 4:8,16) but the fact is that love has a practical face to it, compassion which moves God to act on our behalf.

The word compassion is not used there, but the intent is, in the account of the Lord coming to Moses at the burning bush: “The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering,” (Ex 3:7) which echoes what we see at the end of the previous chapter: “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” (Ex 2:23-25) God is moved by our plight, moved to action!  That is compassion, and a compassionate God recorded in the Bible is far from the God often conveyed by crusading atheists!

It is no surprise therefore, that the teaching (not extensive) of the New Testament is that we too are called to be compassionate. We see it in Col 3:12, our starting verse and also stated very simply in Eph 4:32 (also see above) and it also comes in the teaching of the apostle Peter: “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” (1 Pet 3:8) Now in Study No.10 we considered all the excuses we make for not exercising love, and as compassion is an expression of love, the same could be applied here. But ‘compassion’ seems to go further than basic ‘love’ for compassion has a greater sense of ‘applied love’ or of the ‘emotion of love’ that moves a person into action.

With the advent of TV we can become almost saturated with the needs of the world. When a famine in Africa takes its toll and camera crews film the terrible state of people – and especially children – our hearts go out to them and yet our mind balk at the enormity of the problem, a problem which often has politics at its root, and so we send off a few pounds or dollars and appease our conscience that way. The problem is almost too big to handle but unless we take at least one small step towards it, it will continue and people will die.

But if it is not starvation or sickness, it is persecution, oppression or slavery, all of which still exist in today’s world in a large measure. Again the magnitude of the problem is so great that we almost back away in horror and a sense of being unable to do anything about it. But some of us will be called by the Lord to make it the focus of our lives. Others will simply be background supporters.

But then comes a need in the life of the church. If we are not too prim and proper and affluent, we may well have people in our congregation who are fleeing from homelessness, or maybe even are refugees. Compassion says what can we do to help these people, we cannot leave their plight to go unattended? Now let’s go an extras mile. Compassion, I suggest, feels for the needs of other people. So often we exist in ignorance of needs and so compassion remains dormant, but that is a cop-out. If we live insulated and isolated lives, living in comfort and ease and remain ignorant of the needs of the people around us, it means our church life needs to take on a new relational dimension. Can we get to know people, not only the ‘nice’ people of our own social strata, but also those who do not fit in that ‘nice’ social strata, and when we do, we will start observing needs that we had never before realised were there, and at that point, risk that compassion will kick in, if we are truly open to God, Jesus and His Holy Spirit. Dare we do that?  Dare we not.

117. Compassion

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 117. Compassion

Mk 6:34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

Jesus’ intent, you will remember, is to take the tired disciples away to a place of quiet and rest – but the crowd have seen them go and have followed them along the coast so when the boat lands they are there waiting for Jesus.

So when Jesus lands, does he chastise them and sends them off? No, he feels for them, he feels compassion. Compassion is a sense of deep concern for the needs of another, and Jesus feels that for this people. They are, says Mark, like sheep without a shepherd. This crowd look like they need looking after, and despite all else, Jesus is willing to look after them and teach them. The disciples can sit in the background and fall asleep (perhaps?).

Again and again in the Gospels we see Jesus moved by compassion. He is someone who sees need and feels for the person in need and it is that which so often seems to motivate him into action. He said he only did what his Father was doing (Jn 5:19) but perhaps His Father’s will is being expressed through the way He allows His Son to feel. When the Father ‘looks down from heaven’ He sees everything that goes on and He knows what is going on, including the feelings of people (see Him with Moses in Ex 3)

When Ezekiel prophesied about the coming work of God through His Messiah, he said, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ex 36:26,27) Part of the package of salvation is to receive a new heart, a heart of flesh, that is pliable, that is soft and open to be moved. In the world round about us people are stony hearted and are unmoved by the wonder of God. Indeed a phenomena we have witnessed in modern times is people moved by their emotions following a death but that is more of a self-serving emotion and not one that prompts servant heartedness.

No, compassion sees a need and is moved into action on behalf of it. There are people who are shaken by the circumstances of life into feeling for the needs of others and into action but mostly we are self-centred and self-concerned. May we become more like Jesus.

 

51. Jesus Distressed

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 51. Jesus Distressed

Mk 3:5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.

It is easy, when we are focusing on just one or two verses a day, to forget what has gone before. Mark has left us in no doubt about Jesus’ ability to heal people. First there had been the demon possessed man (1:23-26), then Peter’s Mother-in Law (1:30,31),  then mass healings (1:34), then the leper (1:40-43), then the paralytic (2:10-12) and now a man with a shrivelled hand.  This one is slightly different though, because Mark is showing us this healing in the context of the conflict with the Pharisees.

Previously we had seen him moved by compassion (1:41) and we have already seen him arguing against the opposition before healing (2:8-10) but this incident involves his emotions more than any one previously in this Gospel. This time it is not compassion that moves him but an angry challenge to the hard hearts that surround him – in a synagogue of all places!

Yes, this seems to be the main issue here – it is in a synagogue in the midst of the apparently faithful people of God who gather week by week to hear the word of God read. These are supposed to be the people of God, the people who have given themselves to the will of God; that is why they are there, and yet their hearts are hard and stubborn and resistant when God Himself turns up in the form of His Son with the power available to alleviate this suffering.

Surely the people of God should be reflecting the character of God? Haven’t they realised that God is a God of love and compassion and grace and mercy? All those things ARE revealed in the Old Testament – and they listen to it week by week, and still they don’t take it in and still they don’t live it out and still they don’t apply it!

Surely a godly community, hearing of all the wonderful things that Jesus had been doing, would welcome him into their synagogue and basically line up everyone with a physical need? But no, they are more concerned to object to him and oppose him because he doesn’t come out of their mould and he shows them up. There is not an ounce of care and compassion there; it has been lost in legalism and in their unrighteous negativity towards Jesus because he reveals the emptiness in their lives. No wonder he is upset.

 

30. Compassion

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 30. Compassion

Mk 1:40-42 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.

There is healing and there is healing! I mean, it is all very well to stand at a distance and speak a word of command and watch someone be healed, but it is something else to go up close and touch them – especially when they have a possibly infectious skin disease! There is clearly more to healing than simply speaking words of command when you have the authority.

Jesus, it appears, is much more concerned with the man as a whole person than with just his skin. If it had just been his skin he could have spoken a word and that would have been it – healed! But Jesus feels for this man, he is moved by this man, he feels compassion for this man, he enters into his plight and that plight means that here is a man who is isolated by his disease. People would have kept a distance from this man and so as much as having his skin healed, he is in need of human contact, and so Jesus gives it to him – he touches him and then heals him.

You know, you can be in a room full of people and yet be lonely. Some of us struggle with a sense of isolation. The way we have been brought up, or the things that have happened to us in life, means we are left feeling isolated. We either long for or fear human contact. For some it may be a “if only…” as we dream of someone putting an arm around us. The church should have many arms to offer on Jesus’ behalf, but even so, isolated people sometimes need to be made to feel secure before they can respond to such overtures of friendship and contact.

And then there are some of us who deep down fear the contact, fear the change. If I open myself up to others, then the inner me will be revealed and I am not sure I want that. When Jesus approaches such people he does so ever so gently. He understands our needs and understands we can only cope with slow change and so it is just the lightest of touches to start with – the thought of a complete embrace would make us run a mile!

Lord, thank you that you understand each of us and you meet us in the way you know we can cope with. Thank you that you feel with us.

56. Where is Wisdom?

Meditations in Job : 56.  Where is Wisdom and Understanding

Job 28:12,13 But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? Man does not comprehend its worth; it cannot be found in the land of the living.

In this final discourse from Job we have noted his cynical challenge to his friends (26:1-4), his acknowledgement of the mystery of God (26:5-14), his claim to righteousness (27:1-6) and his acknowledgement that God deals with the wicked (27:7-23).  Next he challenges the very basic premise of these friends – that wisdom and understanding can be found this side of heaven.

In chapter 28 he ponders on where wisdom comes from. In 28:1-11 he simply speaks about man’s activity in mining gold (v.1), iron and copper (v.2), and sapphires (v.6). He majors on the great endeavours that are needed to dig deep into the earth to find these things of great worth, and he does this to contrast the finding of wisdom.  In our verses above he asks where wisdom can be found.  Man doesn’t value it, he maintains, so it is in very short supply. It’s not in the natural world (oceans, v.14), it cannot be bought (v.15,16) and yet its value far exceeds that of precious stones (v.17-19).  Where therefore does it come from, he asks again (v.20), for it is hidden from us (v.21) and even the afterlife hasn’t got it (v.22).  No, he concludes, God understands the way to it and he alone knows where it dwells,” (v.23).  Why? Because, “he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens.” (v.24)  i.e. because the Lord knows everything and sees everything and therefore knows how everything works (v.25-27).   Moreover, He has declared to man that, “The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.” (v.28) i.e. wisdom comes with a right relationship with the Lord and a life that flows out of that relationship. This is what wisdom is all about.

In chapter 29 he looks back on how things had been, before these calamities had come upon him. He remembers how God had been with him and he had been blessed (29:1-6). In those days he had been respected in the city (29:7-11) because of all his good works in helping the poor and needy (29:12-17).  In those days he had felt utterly secure (29:18-20) and his counsel had been gladly received by all who sought him out (29:21-25).

In chapter 30 he faces what has happened.  Now all that has changed!  He had counseled and sought to help those who were the dregs of society (30:1-8) but now their sons mock him (v.1,9), they detest him (v.10), they throw off restraint (v.11), they attack him (v.12-14) and he is left in a place of terror (v.15).  Now he is in a place of physical anguish (v.14-19) and although he cries out to the Lord he gets no answer (v.20).  Indeed it seems like the Lord attacks him (v.21-23).  It’s like it’s all been turned upside down. “Surely no one lays a hand on a broken man when he cries for help in his distress.” (v.24)  That’s what you’d expect!

He thinks back to those he has responded to in similar situations: “Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor?” (v.25) Might he not have expected similar?  But, “Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness. The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me. I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.” (v.26-28)  Part of the awfulness of this trial is the absence of help, the failure to be given comfort. Instead of comfort he’s just received accusations (darkness) and ongoing anguish continues as he has to defend himself (churning inside) and his character has been blackened and he’s left crying for help.  He feels a total outcast, “I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls,” (v.29) and his physical affliction has just got worse: “My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever,” (v.30) and his inner anguish just gets worse: “My harp is tuned to mourning, and my flute to the sound of wailing.” (v.31).

As we have quickly scanned these three chapters of Job’s outpouring, we have caught again a little of the awfulness of what has happened to him, the terrible contrast between what was and what he now is.  We have also seen the awfulness of the lack of help, encouragement and solace.  It has been said that the Christian army is the only army that shoots its wounded.  Perhaps this is the original example of that.  When he needed comfort, all he received was criticism.  When he needed compassion all he received was condemnation. His afflictions are far more than merely physical, or even the loss of his family and life; his afflictions include that lack of understanding and feelings from his friends. How do we stand up under such scrutiny? How do we measure up in the light of our responses to the fallen around us?

20. Judgment & Mercy

Meditations in James: 20 :  Judgement & Mercy

Jas 2:12,13     Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Sometimes in Scripture we move into areas where there is language being used that is not used in common, every-day life, and which, therefore, requires some definition.  This is one such place. ‘Judging’ is fairly easy because we have TV programmes where people have to perform and are then ‘judged’ by a panel. When we talk about judging, we talk about assessing or, to use an older phrase, being weighed in the balances. ‘Mercy’ is not so commonly used. Mercy is unfounded compassion. Mercy isn’t earned or deserved; it is just given. Now we have to apply these two words to see what James is saying in these rather complex verses.

First of all he makes a call in respect of our behaviour – speak and act. But we are to speak and act in a particular way, a way governed by what is going to happen to us in the future. He says, when you speak or act remember that you are going to be judged or assessed by the law of love that we have been recently considering. That law of love brings a freedom of movement; it allows us to reach out and touch others in very positive and purposeful ways. The law of love will be the yardstick by which we are measured.

Now earlier we didn’t go the full extent with the definition of judgement because it doesn’t only refer to the act of assessing, it also involves the act of determining what happens to the person being judged.  On these performance-TV shows the person or couple who is judged to have been bottom of the contestants, leaves the show and doesn’t appear any more. When we read of judgement in the Bible it can be either eternal judgement – where our eternal destiny takes us – or judgement that is short-term discipline, or even long-term if that discipline doesn’t bring the fruits that God is looking for when he brings it.  Judgement is also used in terms of rewards in heaven.

There is a clear Scriptural teaching that we Christians will receive in heaven according to how we have lived here: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Cor 3:12:12-15) and For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10) and Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” (Rev 22:12). The message is very clear. When we are Christians we have an eternal destiny in heaven with God, but the nature or character of that destiny (to start with at least) appears to be determined by the nature or character of the lives we lived here.  That is the judgement that James is possibly referring to.

But we need to consider his comments about mercy as well. Remember that he has just been speaking against favouritism and favouritism puts some people down while it elevates others. The poor needed our kindness and we didn’t give it.  We failed to show them mercy is what James is implying.  Oh yes, this isn’t a branch off to some completely different subject; this is an extension of his argument about treating all people equally and well.  If you don’t show people mercy, is what he is saying, you will not be shown mercy when it comes to your judgement time.  When you have finished your performance and are being assessed on it, if you haven’t included mercy in your performance, don’t expect to be shown mercy.  Expanding that word, if you haven’t shown undeserved compassion to those who needed it, don’t ask for special favours to get more than you deserve in heaven. Everything we have and will have, comes by God’s mercy and grace. He doesn’t HAVE to give us anything. We deserved eternal punishment, but in His mercy, His undeserving compassion, He offered us salvation through Jesus. That gave us a new eternal destiny.

But within that new life, He still gives us free will to choose how we will respond to His word and His Spirit and, therefore, we can be dilatory and casual and fail to be the people He wants us to be. If we are like that, we need to realise there are consequences. We may not loose our eternal destiny (though I believe Scripture indicates that is possible where there is apostasy) but we may not get all we could get if we had fully entered into the will of God, what He desired for us – which included letting His love reach out through us to those who were poor and needy.  Oh yes, there are definitely long-term consequences to what we do or don’t do today, and we really do need to consider those in determining how we will live now.

13. One Good Guy

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.13

13. The Challenge of One Good Guy

Matt 1:18 -19 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

In our world, in the West in particular, we have many problems in society, but one of the worst it seems, is that of husbands abandoning their wives and their children, to go and live with someone else. In one prophetic place in the Bible, a prophet speaks for God saying, “I hate divorce” (Mal 2:16). The context was a spiritual one but the explanation is clear: God hates covenant breaking, and a marriage is a covenant between two people to live together for life. Jesus reiterates the Law of Moses when he said that the only ground for divorce was marital unfaithfulness (Mt 19:9), and that only when couples were so stubborn they could not receive counsel and help (Mt 19:8).

Now we come to something strange: our verses above say that Joseph was a righteous man. Let’s think about this. To have that description means he was a good man who sought to obey God’s laws and to please God. So, here he is, engaged to Mary and she tells him she is pregnant and it’s God’s fault. He now has a serious problem! Everything he knows about God doesn’t include God making young girls pregnant. This has got to be a lie! The girl he is about to marry is carrying someone else’s baby – it’s certainly not mine! – and to make it worse she’s making up fairy tales to cover her infidelity.

For a righteous man, the only answer is to flee the sin. If she is unfaithful before the marriage, she is likely to be unfaithful afterwards, so there is no hope for this relationship, so the best thing is to end it quickly. Moses’ Law permits that, so that’s what I’ll do. We’ll break the engagement but I’ll do it quietly; there’s no need to expose her more than I have to. There is in this last part, a distinct air of compassion and care in this man. He is a good man – it’s just that he hasn’t got the whole picture – yet! (He will soon – you’ll see that in tomorrow’s meditation).

Consider what we’ve said so far: Joseph is a good man, a righteous man who desires to do what is right, and doing right means quietly breaking off the engagement – but he hasn’t yet got the whole picture. When he does get it, he may think differently.

Here is one good guy, and he presents us with a challenge. Goodness isn’t enough. Knowing the whole counsel of God is what is needed and that only comes from a close encounter with God. So many people say foolish things about God because they have never bothered to think through the issues or seek Him for answers. Are there things about God and your life that you don’t understand? That’s not a cause to walk away and ignore Him. Only you lose from that. The right response is to seek Him for answers. We can be sure that we’re right in our assessment of life, but still be missing something – before we become a Christian and after we become a Christian. The danger is that our righteousness becomes ‘self-righteousness’ and that is bad news! Becoming aware of my need of God to bring me understanding is the first stage to really moving into God’s purpose for my life!