42. Two

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 42 :  The Strength of Two

Eccles 4:9-12 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

I find there are times when I am challenged by my casual approach to Scripture. When I first looked at these verses, I thought, “Whatever made Solomon jump to thinking about companionship?” and it wasn’t until I looked again at the context that I realised that these verses flow on in small section that starts, Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone” (v.7,8) and yesterday we considered the frustration  of that man as he worked with no one to hand it on to. But now Solomon thinks on and essentially declares, “It’s not good to be alone.”

He lists the benefits of not being alone. First two working together can achieve far more than two individuals working alone. Second, if one stumbles and falls, it is good to have another alongside to help you up. Third, when it’s cold at night, it is good to have one to warm you. Fourth, when you come under attack it is good to have another alongside you to stand against the attacker with you.

Yes, these are the obvious benefits of not walking through life alone. It may refer to friendship, it may refer to having a partner in business or it may refer to having a spouse. There are many circumstances in life where two together are better than being alone, yet sadly in our day, I believe loneliness is growing. With the fragmentation of families there are individuals separated off from the group and that makes the loneliness even harder. In a permissive age there are those who have been encouraged to express their difference but who have found that doing that has isolated them from many others. I was part of a conversation only yesterday that was talking about tattoos which have become very common, and yet despite that, they still act – in many people’s eyes at least – as a brand that separates out and declares that this is a certain sort of person who is wanting! So many things in modern life, it seems, separate and divide and cause loneliness.

Possibly one of the most obvious ways in our modern society is what used to be called ‘courting’. How alien that concept seems to have become in a world where it seems it is common to not even wait for the third date to end up in bed. Yet sexual intimacy has proved to be elusive for many. Sex isn’t necessarily intimate; it can be purely exploitive, and we feel used. The excitement of once-forbidden fruit lasts only a while and then the couple realise they are miles apart; there is inner loneliness, even though there is outer closeness.

The advice I used to give to young people, and still do if they are willing to listen, is develop your relationship in three slow stages. First of all get to know each other by just being with each other, talking and sharing and finding out about each other, i.e. build the social aspect of the relationship first. Second, if the couple are Christians (and if they’re not I have no hope for their long-term relationship, and if one is and the other isn’t, generally, don’t walk this path together) then develop your spiritual relationships together – read the Bible together, pray together, go to church and worship together, and seek God’s will together and serve God together. Then, and only then, if these two facets of your relationship together indicate you are compatible, you talk about life-long commitment and only when you are committed for life, do you develop the physical side of your relationship.

Our modern society is full of young people who are essentially lonely, even though they go to clubs together, bed together and whatever else together. I have been there and I have seen it and that is how it is for so many young people who are desperate for closeness, desperate for real intimacy, desperate for trust and desperate to find real love, which is all about commitment as well as feelings, and yet the way that the world proclaims is not bringing home the goods!

I said as an aside earlier, and you may not have liked it, that I have no hope for a long term relationship without God. Yes, there are married couples who have lived it out for decades without God, but increasingly that is becoming a rarity with the pressures of modern life. Solomon’s enigmatic final phrase hints at the truth: A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” What is the third strand? God, of course!  With God genuinely in your relationship you have a real fighting chance of have a good life together ahead.

But why do Christians get divorced, I hear you ask, before I finish. Consider Jesus’ words: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” (Mt 19:18).  If we have allowed ourselves to get into a place where we have been hardened (and it may only be one in the partnership) so that we are no longer open to hear God’s counsel, either directly or through a counsellor/leader, then yes we will end up divorcing, but that is a path where we have hardened God out of our experience, which is why just now I spoke of having God genuinely in your relationship. These are serious matters in these days of anguish and loneliness.

13. A Leper

People who met Jesus : 13 :  A Leper

Mt 8:1-4 When he came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cured of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

We move on now from looking at the disciples, to consider various men in need who came to Jesus. It has been suggested that despite this being a day of immense communication, many, many people nevertheless feel distinctly isolated from their fellow humans. The need to be loved, accepted and cared for is very strong in us and when that is absent there is a strong sense of loneliness and isolation. People have commented that you can be lonely in a crowded room. For such a person the future as well as the present looks bleak. The cause is psychological and the person in question does not know how to change it. Some even suggest that with the so-called sexual freedom in the West in the twenty first century, the absence and even inability to find love is greater today than ever before. Now we face these things here because this loneliness and isolation is what this leper in our verses today would have faced.

There are disagreements about the nature of leprosy as described in the Bible, but it is probable that it began with pain in certain areas of the body and numbness followed. Soon, the skin in those areas loses its colour and becomes scaly, and then turns into sores and ulcers. The skin around the ears and eyes swells, eye lashes and eyebrows drop out, and fingers and toes can drop off. The throat is affected so the voice can become croaky. The leper also smells badly. It is no wonder that such people were isolated and not allowed to live in the main areas of population. The existence of lepers in both Old and New Testaments is common; Luke records Jesus as commenting, there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet.” (Lk 4:27) On the way to Judea from Galilee once, we read, “on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him.” (Lk 17:11,12).

The leper would not only have a sense of isolation and loneliness, but also of hopelessness. Such would have been the state of this man who comes to Jesus. He isn’t even given a name; he’s just one of the faceless, nameless rejects of society that we’d rather forget about because they seem beyond us. The fact that he came at all is quite amazing. Somehow the word about Jesus must have spread even to the leper community. Already the word had spread about Jesus’ healing abilities and something in the man rose and he determined to come. His determination is made even more clear when we are told of Jesus thatWhen he came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him,” and so this man would have to face the revulsion of the crowds to even reach Jesus.

When he comes, he kneels before Jesus and humbly confesses his belief: “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” The word clean indicates something of the feeling about leprosy. Those who have been raped testify to feeling unclean for a long time afterwards. These people felt unclean and were called unclean. Imagine working in the garden for a day and getting very dirty, dusty and sweaty – and then being required to go straight into a banquet where everyone is in evening dress – and very clean! That is the sort of comparison that we have here in terms of feelings, but he is so desperate that he dares come through the crowds to Jesus. Nothing will put him off.

And then, wonder of wonders, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. How incredible! Jesus isn’t put off by the man’s state. In the Phantom of the Opera, the heroine, when faced with the phantom’s awful face distortions, kisses him and her willingness to touch him breaks his heart. The need to be touched, accepted and loved is very strong in all of us, and no more so than in the leper. And Jesus touches him! He is accepted. How wonderful. But then Jesus affirms his willingness and simply speaks the words of authority against the disease. What follows is so easily read yet must have been incredible to behold:  Immediately he was cured of his leprosy. The skin changed, the voice changed; everything that had been affected by the disease was changed and restored.

Sometimes I feel the Gospel writers want slapping for their brevity, for surely at this point the leper must have been weeping and all the onlookers must have been weeping. I have been around when God does stuff and you don’t stand there passive, you are moved, deeply!  If you have every watched a film where everything had been going disastrously wrong and then, finally it all works out with a happy-ever-after ending, and found yourself with tears streaming down your face, you’ll know what I mean. If you have never known that experience you are to be pitied!  It is the awareness of the wonder of the goodness that has entered into this situation. This is a staggering miracle, a wonderful life-changing miracle! And it has been brought with love and compassion.

When we looked at the apostles it sometimes seemed a little academic, the wonder of their lives following Jesus and being changed. Yes it is wonderful, but nothing like what we have just witnessed here. This is heart-stirring, tear-jerking stuff and if we don’t see it, it is simply because we don’t think and pray ourselves into the situation.  We are now encountering people who have got to the end of themselves and have then met the wonder and love of heaven in the form of the Son of God. Let your heart be moved, and if it hasn’t, go back and read it all again and pray for revelation. This is the glory of heaven coming to earth and it is wonderful. Appreciate it!

17. Forsaken?

‘WHY?’ QUESTIONS No.17

Psa 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?

Rejection is one of the most horrible of human experiences. Rejection occurs when someone you love and who has professed love to you, turns away from you and leaves you. In human terms it is usually linked with them turning to someone else, but it can simply be a giving up by the other on our relationship. It leaves a horrible feeling of loneliness, isolation and inner hurt. At the heart of rejection is the cry of “Why have you done this? What have I done to you that has made you treat me like this?”

Before we look at this verse, I want to take the unusual step in these meditations of stating from the outset my conclusion: God never abandons us! I have the feeling that I need to say that from early on for some who might read this. God has NOT abandoned you. As many of these meditations show, there are many times in life when God seems at a distance and the reasons behind that feeling vary. Your sense of being alone may not have anything to do with what I am just about to share. It is right and proper to ask the Lord why you are feeling as you are and seek answers and solutions.

This cry in today’s verse is probably the most significant prophetic cry in the Old Testament, which is literally heard in the New when Jesus cried out to God on the Cross. (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34). The whole of Psalm 22 is littered with prophetic utterances in respect of Jesus and his redeeming work on the Cross. This, being the most significant of his words on the Cross, starts the psalm off, which then reflects other aspects of it.

Let’s take it at face value first of all, as how it appears in the human sense. It is the cry of one who feels rejected and abandoned. In the psalm he cries,O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.” (v.2) He cries to God day and night and seems to get no answer. It seems like God has abandoned him. God has rejected and left him. For a moment, at least, that is how it seems. It is the worst of feelings. It is a real heart cry, this cry of anguish. There is no pretence about it; it is utterly genuine, this cry of anguish.

And of course that is exactly how it was with Jesus on the Cross. Throughout the sacrificial law of Moses, is the picture of the one sacrificing the innocent creature placing their hands on its head in identification, with the idea of their sins being transferred to it. In 2 Cor 5:21 Paul said, God made him who had no sin to be sin.” Even if we take the alternative here, to be a sin offering,” the sense is the same: Jesus had your sin and my sin put on him! The writer to the Hebrews (Heb 9:28) wrote, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” If you bear something, you carry it. The picture is of Jesus carrying the sins of the world as he hung there on the Cross. Imagine every individual sin as a little bit of blackness, and then imagine every sin that is every committed in the entire history of the world coming on Jesus in that three hours. It says that in that time, he was enveloped in the most horrible blackness imaginable.

Imagine this utter darkness of sin coming down upon Jesus, imagine him utterly surrounded by the hoards of hell. The Father has not moved; He is still there, nothing has changed, but for the man-God hanging on the Cross enveloped in this blackness, surrounded by the demonic world, it is impossible to see or sense anything else. All he can sense is blackness and evil. At that point the fullness of Sin put upon him means that his awareness of the Father’s presence (which was still there) was denied to the man so that he cries out, My God, why have you forsaken me?” because that is exactly what it feels like.

That’s why there was this terrible cry piercing history. It was the Son of God himself sensing the awful separation that sin causes. Sometimes it is like that for us. God hasn’t moved, God hasn’t abandoned us, He hasn’t left us – but it feels like that because we are more conscious of other things. It may be our own failure; it may be the pain of attack by the enemy through others. All we know is that it feels, from our perspective, like God has gone away. He hasn’t, He’s still there for you with arms open wide to you.

Do you have a sense of failure and feel like the enemy is crucifying you? Don’t let him! There is no sin, no failure that is too great to be able to be dealt with by Jesus’ work on the Cross. Confession, the acknowledgement of it and the cry out to God for forgiveness, is the prayer that will always reach the Father’s heart, and He responds instantly with words of love. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice for sin so, as Paul said, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:38,39). Know that as a truth and experience it.