God comes down

I’ve been reading through Revelation recently, and have at last reached the glorious words of the start of Revelation 21.  But to get to there you have to go through some tough and bizarre passages.  Revelation 12 tells of a dragon, Revelation 13 of two beasts.  Bowls of God’s wrath follow as judgement ravages the earth.  Finally comes a vision of a woman, a city, Babylon, who rides on the beast, drunk on the blood of the saints.  These lurid visions are followed by chapter 18 where there is a call to rejoice over the fall of Babylon.

It sounds harsh – rejoicing over the fall of human beings.  But Revelation 17-18 tell us of the seriousness of the sin of Babylon.  Of the wealth and riches built on human trafficking. Of the blood of the saints spilt in that city.  For John’s 1st century readers Babylon would surely be Rome.  For us it is any system of human government and economics conducted without reference to God. It is any system which bows to the beast of human power, or to the beast of false religion. It is any system which oppresses those made in the image of God.

These systems are literally beastly.  We don’t have to look far in our land to see the results of abandoning God.  To see the rise in cruelty, the desire for ever more enjoyment now.  We don’t have to look far to see this coupled with false religion which makes it all about our best lives now.  All of that is part of the beastly kingdoms.  The beast can look dangerous and frightening like a crazed dictator bent on wiping out the church.  The beast can look harmless and comfortable like our western wealth built on the oppression and poverty of others.

It is the fall of such beastly systems that we rejoice over.  The fall of all who oppose God and his plan of redemption, his plan of rescue, his plan of making the world right and new.  There is a judgement day coming John tells us through his Revelation, and at its bottom that is fundamentally good news.  It is hard for us to hear because humanity as a whole has chosen rebellion against God’s purposes, and needs to turn back to the living God.  But there is no other way for God to save his world and his people except through the judgement of those who oppose him.  What the beastly visions of Revelation do is give us the correct glasses, the correct lenses through which to see the world in focus and realise the horror of what opposition to God means.  It is literally de-humanising, of self and of others.

The fall of Babylon is followed in John’s vision by a vision of the last battle – John’s vision isn’t always consecutive – sometimes we see the same thing from several angles, or through several images (a good simple guide to this is Michael Wilcox’s The Message of Revelation in the Bible Speaks Today IVP series, or at greater length from a similar angle “Discipleship on the Edge”, a series of sermons by Darrel Johnson – Regent College Publishing). The last battle has all earth’s armies gathered to oppose the white rider (not Gandalf, obviously).  There is no lurid account of an actual battle being fought – the rider, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, wins the battle by the sharp two edged sword from his mouth.  Think Hebrews 4:12 and 2 Thessalonians 2:8 and it is obvious.

Jesus wins the battle simply by speaking.  As he calmed the storm from the boat, so one day he will speak and every storm will be stilled.  Every opponent crushed.  Every wrong righted.  John goes on to describe the day of judgement when the books are opened, and every deed is laid bare. All the dead raised to be judged.  The sea, death and Hades (equivalent to Sheol in the OT, the place where souls were believed to go after death) give up their dead, and all are judged. Then the sea, death and hades are all thrown into the lake of fire.  The sea here is not a nice place to go for a holiday.  It is a place of chaos and turmoil, a place of risk and a place of likely disaster.  A place of monsters.  A place that claims lives.  It needs to go for God’s new creation to come.

And we dare not miss that also destined for this lake of fire are those whose names are not in the Lamb’s book of life – those who are marked with the mark of the beast – those who have not bowed the knee to Jesus as Lord.  Willing submission is needed to Jesus.  CS Lewis put it something like this “There are only two groups of people: those who say to God ‘your will be done’, and those to whom God says ‘your will be done'”. Those who refuse to bow the knee to the King cannot be subjects in his kingdom, and are shut out for ever. (A good place to go to read more on thinking through the issues this raises is “The Great Divorce” by CS Lewis – I don’t think the book is intended to be read as Lewis’ final word on the subject, rather it is useful thought experiment to read with Bible in hand and brain engaged – rather in the way of approaching any  book – or blog post – really!)

Then at last we reach Revelation 21.  We see that there is a new heavens and a new earth.  The chaos has gone, and God’s new work begins.  That is why there has to be a judgement.  And then we see a good city, the right city, the true city.  A city bowed to God’s will.  A city with human input and glory involved (look at Rev. 21:26), but fundamentally a city that is God’s.  A city that is also a bride dressed for her husband.  And then in the midst of the picture John sees comes a voice declaring these words.

“Behold, the dwelling place* of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,* and God himself will be with them as their God.* 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The word that caught my attention as I read was “with”.  God’s dwelling place is with people.  He dwells (“tabernacles” – like in John 1:14 where the word became flesh and dwelt among his people) with them.  He himself will be with them.  He is with us now by his Spirit, but then he will be with us in person and we will see him – Revelation 22:4 – We will see his face.

Stop and think about that for one minute. The face of the creator. The face of the Law giver.  The face of the one who, when he came down on Sinai, Israel could not approach, and whose presence was veiled in thick darkness and unapproachable light.  Moses was only allowed a glimpse of the back of God’s glory because “no one can see my face and live”. And yet we will see his face and live forever.

This God of all glory and splendour and majesty will wipe away every tear from every eye.  I set up the church for two funerals this week.  The second was for an elderly great grandmother who died secure in Jesus’ love and knowing where she was heading.   I was almost undone during the tributes read from her grandchildren.  I had noticed her year of birth, and realised that, had she not died of cancer my own grandmother would have been the same age.  At the age of 17 I thought she was old when she died.  At the age of 39 I realise how long she could have lived.  She could have seen our children, could have been at family gatherings with great grandchildren gathered round.  Death once more seemed so unfair.  And yet reading Revelation 21 I remembered my reaction when I realised she was going to die.  I remember reading these final chapters of Revelation with my sister.  I remember highlighting chunks of these chapters and knowing that she would be with Jesus.   That is the peace.  That is the assurance that these verses give. Death is not the end.

One day all of us who have trusted in Jesus will stand before his throne and see his face.  And he will wipe away every tear.  Death itself will be no more.  No more crying or mourning or pain.  The first things have passed away.  God makes it all new.  The day that all creation longs for with eager expectation.  It caught me afresh this morning.  This is reality.  We live in a world saturated with self and saturated with instant pleasures.  A world that promises much, but delivers little.  Reality is set out in the images and pictures of Revelation, and in the words of the one who is seated on the throne.  We need to listen.  And we need, and I need, to re-orientate our lives around the reality that Jesus is coming back.  Around the reality that “we will see his face, and never never sin, and from the rivers of his grace drink endless pleasures in” (Isaac Watts).

The first hymn at the funeral on Thursday was a wonderful reminder of how the one who stilled the storm with a word will one still every storm:

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessèd we shall meet at last.

(Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel)

Right fear, true delight

Recently I was stewarding at a wedding where the final hymn was this one:

Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ.

Of his deliv’rance I will boast,
Till all that are distressed
From my example comfort take,
And charm their griefs to rest.

O magnify the Lord with me,
With me exalt his Name;
When in distress to him I called,
He to my rescue came.

The hosts of God encamp around
The dwellings of the just;
Deliv’rance he affords to all
Who on his succor trust.

O make but trial of his love;
Experience will decide
How blest they are, and only they,
Who in his truth confide.

Fear him, ye saints; and you will then
Have nothing else to fear:
Make you his service your delight,
He’ll make your wants his care.

The hymn is actually a paraphrase of Psalm 34 which is worth a read through too.  I was really struck by the last verse.  It seemed to cut right through the complexity of life in someway, and get right to the heart of the matter.

Fear him.  Fear God.  We don’t talk much about fearing God, but it is a theme that runs right through the bible.  It’s not about a cringing fear that we have to tiptoe around God in case he suddenly explodes like an irascible old man.  But it is a right fear of the One who holds our lives in his hands and who will bring  down the final verdict on our lives.   It is a fear that causes us to run to him, for the only place of safety from our God, who is a consuming fire, is his embrace.

If we really fear God, then all other fears fall into perspective.  The fear of what others will think.  The fear of failure.  The fear of not measuring up. The fear of mistakes.  The fear of loss.  Because if we really fear God we will make his service our delight.  And then our wants (i.e. the things we lack to serve him – our real needs) – he will make his care.  His care.  There is a childrens CD playing in our sons’ room right now with a song on it that has this line “remember, God knows what you need, remember to follow him first, and he’ll provide the rest…”)

Remembering that  is hard right now in the fog of no sleep.  In the fog of a baby waking twice each night to feed, and a 2 year old who wants the comfort of our big bed half way through the night.  In the fog which results from broken night after broken night, and consequent exahustion.  In the fog of figuring out how to get work done, and of how to go about looking for the next steps.  In the fog of not getting done what should be done.   So I put up this hymn as a great reminder of what it means to trust in God, and pray that I might do what it says.

Cracks in everything

Today was one of those interesting days – it will be best to draw a veil over the scene in our living room around 9am, but suffice it to say that it required packing two small boys into the back of our car, so that they could get some downtime/sleep in order to restore calm.

While this did mean sacrificing some work time in order to go for a drive, I didn’t mind too much.  I needed downtime and head space too.  So I politely declined the offer of listening to Zog, or some other exciting tale and left the CD my lovely sister Kath produced for us this Christmas playing in the car.  I drove up Cleeve Hill, to the  highest spot in the  Cotswolds, up into the rain and cloud, but was greeted by sunshine as I went down the hill towards Winchcombe.

The rest of the drive was lovely, sometimes wet,  always surrounded by clouds hugging hill tops, and frequently greeted by sunshine through the rain.  Youngest boy fell asleep and oldest almost did.  One song on the CD has caught my attention in recent days as I’ve listened to the CD.  I can’t recall who it is by, and it’s really just the refrain that has grabbed me.  The line is this:

“Forget your perfect offering
There are cracks in everything
It’s how the light gets in.”

I may not have quoted it exactly.  I may well be wrenching it out of context – but these words are the ones sinking in to me deeply.

Forget your perfect offering.  It gets me because I want to be right. I want to get it right, to do it right, to be a father who does it right. A husband who does it right. A student who gets it right.

But I don’t.  I get it wrong. I answer impatiently.  I put things in the wrong order. I miss the obvious cues.  I forget something.  But I want to be right. I want to get it.  I want to be right when it comes to God. I want to be 100% devoted. I want to have avoided sin.

But I don’t.  And I can’t. And it wears me out.  I’ve been watching West Wing while rocking baby to sleep these last few weeks.  LAst night was the episode where Santos, the presidential candidate addresses a packed church after the shooting of a young coloured man.  His refrain “we’re tired” as he highlights the brokeness.  From another of his speeches comes the line “we are all broken people”.  We are. I am.

And so “Forget your perfect offering” is getting into me.  Forget your perfect offering.  Forget it. My life is not, and will not be a perfect offering. It is full of cracks. Perfection is never acheived this side of eternity. On this earth we always fall short.

There is only one perfect offering.  Only one who actually lived out how he should.  His perfect offering covers me.  God does not require perfection.  I’m reading Genesis at the moment, and I’m in the middle of Abraham’s life.  Abraham yo yo’s between promise and failure from chapter to chapter: God’s promise, Abraham lies about Sarah as his sister, Abraham does well with Lot, God’s promise, Abraham sleeps with slave girl and allows wife to cast her out, God’s promise, Abraham interceeds with God, Abraham lies about Sarah as his sister…  Abraham gets it  wrong.  He doubts God.  And yet he also trusts.  Not perfectly.  But he does.

There are cracks in everything – that’s how the light gets in.  I know in family life that  some of the best moments are when we put things right when stuff has gone wrong.  In that vulnerability comes new trust, new communication, new awareness.  The same is true with God as we bring our brokeness and failure and sin to him.  He can make all things new.

He doesn’t want our perfect offerings. He doesn’t want our clinging to being right. He wants us. As we are. The chorus has it right: “Jesus take me as I am, I can come no other way”.  And he does take us, he does change us. He does make us more like Jesus. But it doesn’t happen by us trying to get it right. It happens by us knowing our failure. Desiring to be made whole, but knowing how far we fall short.  But coming.  We just need to come.

Here is Charlotte Elliott’s great hymn “Just as I am” which seems like a good place to finish. This post is not perfect. But I’ll stop now.   West Wing episode is about to finish, and hopefully baby will transfer to cot – and hopefully boys will sleep.

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Hath broken every barrier down;
Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Rest or Work?

Today’s hymns have titles that seem at first sight rather contradictory: “Go labour on: spend and be spent…”, and “I heard the voice of Jesus say, come unto me and rest”.  Both are great hymns by Horatio Bonar, a Scottish writer of wonderful hymns  in the 19th century , and are focused around two great themes: labour, and rest.

It struck me that often as Christians we tend to major on one or the other. Some are very strong in their focus on doing the work that God requires, but so much so that the reality of Christ’s work for us gets neglected.  Others emphasis the rest and completeness of Christ’s work, and give the impression that all the Christian is required to do is more deeply focus on what Christ has done – no more striving or effort is required.  Some practice a Christian life based around “work”, others around “rest”.

The reality is that both are true parts of the Christian life.  We are placed in Christ, given a new status in him, and as such we rest in his work, and his accomplishments for us.  In addition when we come to be in Christ, his life is placed in us, and we work out that life in our lives. We work hard at doing the will of Christ.

That seems to be the pattern all through the Bible. Israel are saved by God’s mercy and compassion from Egypt, and given a new land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  But to live out life in that land  they are given careful instructions. In a letter such as Ephesians there is a focus in the first half on what Christ has done for us, and then in the second on how we are to live it out.  If it all just happened automatically it would seem a little pointless to write in such detail what the new life looks like.

These hymns provide us with the clue to how we are to look at rest and work.  With respect to knowing God, and enjoying his salvation we rest. It is done for us.  With respect to a world that needs Christ, and needs Christians to live authentic lives of discipleship, we need to work – yes in the strength of God, but the struggle is still ours – as Paul writes in Colossians 1:29: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”

Furthermore the result of resting in Christ’s work for us is a desire to work hard in his service, and to make every effort to be holy – sometimes that desire burns more strongly than at others, and sometimes it is only the desire to desire, but it will always surface.

And indeed when that desire lapses, when our work fails, when we fall into sin or we choose to sin the process of rekindling that desire to work hard for Christ does not come from us, from our gritted teeth and fixed grin.  Instead it comes from going back to the cross each day and making a new start in the light of all that has been done for us.

So read both hymns and be encouraged to live out the dual reality of rest and work in and for Christ.

Go, labour on: spend, and be spent,
Thy joy to do the Father’s will:
It is the way the Master went;
Should not the servant tread it still?

Go, labour on! ’tis not for naught
Thine earthly loss is heavenly gain;
Men heed thee, love thee, praise thee not;
The Master praises: what are men?

Go, labour on! enough, while here,
If He shall praise thee, if He deign
The willing heart to mark and cheer:
No toil for Him shall be in vain.

Go, labour on! Your hands are weak,
Your knees are faint, your soul cast down;
Yet falter not; the prize you seek
Is near—a kingdom and a crown.

Go, labour on while it is day:
The world’s dark night is hastening on;
Speed, speed thy work, cast sloth away;
It is not thus that souls are won.

Men die in darkness at thy side,
Without a hope to cheer the tomb;
Take up the torch and wave it wide,
The torch that lights time’s thickest gloom.

Toil on, faint not, keep watch and pray,
Be wise the erring soul to win;
Go forth into the world’s highway,
Compel the wanderer to come in.

Toil on, and in thy toil rejoice!
For toil comes rest, for exile home;
Soon shalt thou hear the Bridegroom’s voice,
The midnight peal, “Behold, I come!”

I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down Thy head upon My breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was, weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting place, and He has made me glad.

I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one, stoop down, and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in Him.

I heard the voice of Jesus say, “I am this dark world’s Light;
Look unto Me, thy morn shall rise, and all thy day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found in Him my Star, my Sun;
And in that light of life I’ll walk, till traveling days are done.

A wall of fire

I’ve reached Zechariah in my read through of the minor prophets.   Haggai and Zechariah fit together in terms of chronology – both come after the return from exile at the time of the rebuilding of the temple.  At one level this is a positive time for Israel, on another it is disappointing.  The disappointment comes out in the first verse of both books:

Hag. 1:1  In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month…

Zech. 1:1  In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius…

The contrast with previous prophets is striking.  Most of the prophetic books open with a similar statement, but the reference is always to a king or kings of Israel or Judah.  Here the time when the word of the LORD comes to the prophet is given with reference to Darius, King of Persia at that point.  Judah may be back in the land, but only as a minor province in the vastest empire yet known in that part of the world.  When the people do rebuild the temple Haggai notes that those who remember the previous temple know that the rebuilt temple is nothing compared to the temple built by Solomon.

Zechariah’s prophecies begin to address the situation of a people who have lost hope, assuring them that if they turn to God he will indeed turn back to them, and that there will come a point when Jerusalem will be fully restored.  There are some slightly strange visions which make this point in different ways.  At the start of chapter 2 Zechariah sees a man with a measuring line over Jerusalem. From a measuring line itself we don’t know if this will be good or bad.  Amos talks about Israel being divided up with a measuring line in judgement, but Ezekiel has an angelic figure measuring the new temple.  In Zechariah this is how it goes:

Zech. 2:1-5 And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a man with a measuring line in his hand!  Then I said, “Where are you going?” And he said to me, “To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.”  And behold, the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him and said to him, “Run, say to that young man, ‘Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it.  And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the LORD, and I will be the glory in her midst.’”

Here it becomes apparent it is good.  An angel has to go and tell the man with the measuring rod not to bother, Jerusalem cannot be measured because there are too many people for her to be contained by walls.  Instead the LORD is her wall of fire.  The “I will be” is significant.  If you were to translate it super literally it would be “I, I will be for her a wall of fire”.  Technically just “I for her a wall of fire” would be enough, as would “I will be”.  The use of both “I”, and “I will be” is emphatic, and it doesn’t happen very often.

In the Old Testament it is only the LORD who uses the phrase.  He uses it talking to David, about David’s son when he promises that he will be as a father to David’s son.  He uses it in Jeremiah and Ezekiel talking about the new covenant, where God says “I, I will be their God and they will be my people”, and later in Zechariah 8:8 where he says the same thing – “they will be my people, and I, I will be their God”.  The phrase carries certainty, and reminds the reader of God’s promises to his people.  Ultimately it goes right back to the promise of the LORD to Moses at the burning bush: “I will be with you”, “I will be what I will be”, “you shall say to the elders of Israel  ‘I will be’ has sent me to you”.  What God “will be” is determined by God alone – and no one and nothing can stop him.

Here in Zechariah the LORD is promising that he will be a wall of fire for the people, and that he will be in their midst for glory.  He will both protect them, and be with them.  Not only will he be with them, he will be with them for glory or as glory.  His presence will be what gives the city solidity and weight.

When do we see this promise fulfilled?  In Zechariah’s day Jerusalem remained an occupied city.  In Jesus day it was still an occupied city, and in AD70, as Jesus had predicted, Jerusalem was overrun – and only those who acted as Jesus warnings suggested and got out were saved.  It is beyond the physical city of Jerusalem that a fulfilment must be found.

Zechariah later goes on to speak of a time when the LORD will deal with the iniquity of the land in a single day.  On that day the Son of David who was faithful to the end took on himself the iniquity of us all.  The one who encapsulated faithful Israel suffered and died in our place, and then rose again.  He defeated death, and won the victory.  All who trust in him are in him, and in him are part of Israel. Not replacing Israel, but completing Israel.  This renewed Israel, incorporating Jew and Gentile is God’s people. The temple is Jesus. By his Spirit we are built on him.  Those who trust in Jesus are citizens of Jerusalem.

It is for us that the LORD is a wall of fire, and glory in our midst.  He protects us in the midst of all dangers and fears.  And yet we still suffer, we still await the final completion of this promise. The day when the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven as a bride dressed for her husband.  The day when the LORD will make all things new.  When all tears will be wiped away, and death will be no more.  On that day the Lamb will sit on the throne, and we will see his face.

Until that day we live in the confused, confusing world of Zechariah’s day. As God’s people doing God’s will, but feeling tiny, despised and small perhaps, as if our obedience is hollow and pointless. But Zechariah reminds us that it might look like the time of small things, but that small obedience is not to be despised. We may find that actually our small obedience is a seed for something unimaginable to come.  Zechariah reminds that God brings about his rule “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit”, by the Spirit of the LORD God of hosts. “God of angel armies”, “God all powerful”.  What he has said, he will do.

I think this wonderful hymn by John Newton encapsulates the heart of this promise of God to be a wall of fire protecting his people.  I can’t help wondering if a wall of fire is what happens when a fiery pillar stops (see verse 3 of the hymn or the book of Exodus) and the destination is reached.  And of course the fiery pillar became a wall of fire stopping the Egyptian army reaching the people.  Read the hymn and rejoice in the unseen reality in the midst of a world in turmoil.

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God;
he whose word cannot be broken
formed thee for his own abode;
on the Rock of Ages founded,
what can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
thou may’st smile at all thy foes.

See! the streams of living waters,
spring form eternal love,
well supply thy sons and daughters
and all fear of want remove.
Who can faint, when such a river
ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace which, like the Lord, the Giver,
never fails from age to age.

Round each habitation hovering,
see the cloud and fire appear
for a glory and a covering,
showing that the Lord is near.
Thus they march, their pillar leading,
light by night, and shade by day;
daily on the manna feeding
which he gives them when they pray.

Blest inhabitants of Zion,
washed in the Redeemer’s blood!
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
makes them kings and priests to God.
‘Tis his love his people raises
over self to reign as kings:
and as priests, his solemn praises
each for a thank-offering brings.

Savior, if of Zion’s city,
I through grace a member am,
let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy Name.
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion’s children know.

 

Nahum and the wrath of God

In my minor prophet read through I’m 2/3 of the way through Nahum.  It’s not a book that starts off promisingly:

An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
    the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
    and keeps wrath for his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
    and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
    and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
    he dries up all the rivers;
Bashan and Carmel wither;
    the bloom of Lebanon withers.
The mountains quake before him;
    the hills melt;
the earth heaves before him,
    the world and all who dwell in it.
Who can stand before his indignation?
    Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
    and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.

The anger and wrath of God are at the centre of this prophesy.  It makes for uncomfortable reading.   Jealousy, wrath and anger are not generally seen as virtues in people. Why is God any different?

In thinking about the answer to this it’s important to read chapter 1, v1 and remember that this is a prophecy about Ninevah.  Capital of the Assyrian empire.  An empire run by boastful, proud kings (don’t take my word for it, take a trip to the British Museum and read the inscriptions of Senacharib), an empire which uprooted peoples and scattered them.  God’s people lived in fear of Assyria.  Only Hezekiah managed to stand firm and see that YHWH would indeed fight for his people.  Read through Isaiah 36-38 and see how fierce the Assyrian onslaught was, and how cunning their propaganda machine.  Ninevah boasted of its conquests and of its atrocities against others.

Miroslav Volf, a theologian from Croatia wrote these words about the wrath of God which I think get to the heart of the matter:

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where over 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love

God’s love for his people and his world means that his anger burns against all who treat people as less than bearers of his image.  Ninevah was proud and gloried in its might and power.  There may have been some kind of repentance at some point (see Jonah), but this does not seem to have lasted.  Ninevah carried on just as before.  And God declared:

13 Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions. I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voice of your messengers shall no longer be heard.

LORD of hosts could be translated “LORD of armies”.  However puffed up nations become, God is always stronger.  All mighty empires will crumble to dust.  That is the encouragement we can take from God’s wrath.

However there is also a challenge in what Volf goes on to say

Once we accept the appropriateness of God’s wrath, condemnation, and judgement, there is no way of keeping it out there, reserved for others. We have to bring it home as well. I originally resisted the notion of a wrathful God because I dreaded being that wrath’s target; I still do. I knew I couldn’t just direct God’s wrath against others, as if it were a weapon I could aim at targets I particularly detested. It’s God’s wrath, not mine, the wrath of the one and impartial God, lover of all humanity. If I want it to fall on evildoers, I must let it fall on myself – when I deserve it.

Ninevah stands condemned. The problem is that so do I.  That is why we need a way for God’s wrath to be dealt with.  There is no way we can run from him.  No place we can escape.  Nahum hints at the solution:

The Lord is good,
a stronghold in the day of trouble;
he knows those who take refuge in him.

We must take refuge in God.  We must bow the knee. Stop running and come to the God who in his own Son absorbed his own wrath against sin.  The God who substitutes himself for us.  Who pays our penalty so that we might live.  He knows those who stop seeking their own salvation and flee to him for refuge.  I haven’t posted a hymn for a while, but I think this one sums up what it means to take refuge in God.

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew,
me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.
God unknown,
he alone
calls my heart to be his own.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power,
hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.

God’s great goodness aye endureth,
deep his wisdom, passing thought:
splendor, light and life attend him,
beauty springeth out of naught.
Evermore
from his store
newborn worlds rise and adore.

Daily doth the almighty Giver
bounteous gifts on us bestow;
his desire our soul delighteth,
pleasure leads us where we go.
Love doth stand
at his hand;
joy doth wait on his command.

Still from man to God eternal
sacrifice of praise be done,
high above all praises praising
for the gift of Christ, his Son.
Christ doth call
one and all:
ye who follow shall not fall.

Holding together difference

DSCN0619 Today my sons and I went into the Forest.  More particularly the “Secret Forest”, a small corner of the Forest of Dean.  Like most “forest” in England, this isn’t a continuous forest at all, although it does have a larger continuous area than many “forests”.  The Secret Forest is a small corner of the forest that contains a number of deep mini-valleys through which you can walk with a replica Iron Age village in the middle.  It means that for a small fee you can get to the type of landscape which is in many parts of the Forest of Dean, but which you would usually have to walk a way to get to – so ideal for small feet.

I love the drive out to the Forest. It comes with a stack of memories of youth weekends away, of minibuses crammed full of people and kit – on benches facing each other with a pile of kit down the middle and not a seatbelt in sight.  Of corners taken at speed, and loud singing to pass the time in a bus without CD or tape (remember them?) player.  Of arriving to a cold, slightly damp cottage, throwing kit down in the living room, and gathering by the fire in the dinning room for soup and garlic bread.  This would be followed by a talk introducing the theme of the weekend away. Remarkably I still remember what the verses of the first weekend I went on were: “Be careful how you live – not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil” – in general “be careful how you live” probably captures the practical emphasis of most of the weekends.  Games and conversation would follow, and then bed – 8 or so to  a room, DSCN0632with 4 or so double mattresses laid out on boards.  Eventually sleep would come – although I do remember conversations late into the night.  The next day tea would be served, followed by a cooked breakfast and another talk.  Then we’d make up lunches and dive into the minibus, and head for part of the Forest, always accompanied by a trusty rugby ball which would be kicked around the group.  Pot holes would be crawled through, rock faces climbed, mud slopes slid down and suspension bridges bounced over.  Covered in mud we’d arrive at a local swimming pool to clean off, and then head back to the Cottage for chilli and an evening talk.  Sunday morning might well be off to a local church, followed by lunch, a walk through a disused railway tunnel and back to Guildford for the evening.

So I love introducing my sons  to the same rocks and trees, and I hope too that the lessons I learnt in those weekends have helped shape me into one who can be a good father to them.  I love too the memories of the talks and conversations from those weekends away.  I loved the way that leaders and “lads” discussed together, and that differences between leaders could be heard and seen, and yet a deep rooted friendship also shown.

It makes me think of how as Christians we can hold together differences of emphasis and voice.  I’m thinking about this also because I’m reading the “minor” prophets (the book of the 12) for my OT reading at the moment. I finished Hosea and Joel, and I’m now reading Amos.  What strikes me about this is the differencesDSCN0633 between them.  Hosea is based around the image of adultery.  Sin is faithlessness – and the main problem is Israel’s love for idols. The book contains many references to God’s love for Israel, and compassion for them.  Sometimes God seems torn between compassion and judgement.  Amos seem, so far, quite different.  God is judge, of the nations around, and of Israel.  The message is that sin is about injustice and lawbreaking, and God’s judgment will come.

This difference seems to be paralleled in the church today.  The two children’s bibles we use most have this sort of difference of emphasis.  One is based around the love-faithlessness imagery, the other around God as King, and sin as breaking his laws.  Sometimes we go to great lengths to persuade people that the system we have chosen captures God best.  That everything should be seen through the lense of God’s love as Trinity, or through the bible as being all about God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.

I think we do need people who will try to present God’s truth as systematically and coherantly as is possible – but I also think we always need to be aware that God is above and beyond understanding, and that aspects of Truth about God may well look contradictory to us, but need to both  be emphasised.  That’s why we have the Bible as a story – not a systematic textbook. DSCN0634

So I’m happy to use both children’s bibles, because at different times our boys will need to know different aspects of truth about God.  And as (very) different individuals they will need to hear those things in different ways.  Which is why I want them to get into the whole Bible, and get to grips with it’s wonderful diversity of presentation and content.  To know that it does contain different  perspectives, and yet serves a fundamental unity.

Which picture here after all is truer representation of the Forest of Dean?  Is it about roots? Or trees? Or people? Or a bigger landscape of farm and wood, town and village? All are true.  A picture of a skyscraper would be false – it has nothing to do with the forest, but all of the pictures in this post capture a true aspect.  As I read Amos next to Hosea (actually Amos next to Joel, next to Hosea, and Amos before Obadiah) I can see that though describing the same God, and the same problems, there is a difference of approach and perspective.  Different  times, different groups need differing emphasis, and they also need to hold the differing emphasis as part of one whole.

I love the attitude of Charles Simeon (19th Century Vicar in Cambridge) whose understanding of how Scripture operates in this regard of apparent contradiction, and therefore what his response as a preacher should be is summed up in the following quote:

“As wheels in a complicated machine may move in opposite directions and yet subserve one common end, so may truths apparently opposite be perfectly reconcilable with each other, and equally subserve the purposes of God in the accomplishment of man’s salvation… …it is an invariable rule with him to endeavour to give to every portion of the word of God its full and proper force, without considering one moment what scheme it favours, or which system it is likely to advance.”

So I worry when people advance the latest great idea they have heard as if it is the answer to the churches problem, the concept that everyone else needs to grasp and read everything else through.  Chances are that it may well be a great help – but it might well also need another idea to hold with it if it isn’t going to become a distortion.  The best way to grasp this is to keep in relationship and friendship with those whose perspective is different.  If iron is going  to have any chance of sharpening iron it has to come into contact.   That is also the best way to filter out the ideas and concepts that are completely false and that need to be weeded out.

That discussion and difference  around a central unity based on a shared love for Jesus and devotion to him is the legacy of those weekends in the Forest as a teenager – and so the rocks, and the trees and the woods all remind me of that reality.  This hymn by John Mason reminds of God’s unfathomable greatness and prays for us to be able praise rightly.

How shall I sing that Majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears,
Whilst I Thy footsteps trace;
A sound of God comes to my ears,
But they behold Thy face.
They sing because Thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
For where heaven is but once begun
There alleluias be.

Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire;
Then shall I sing and bear a part
With that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
With all my fire and light;
Yet when Thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

How great a being, Lord, is Thine,
Which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
To sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere.