Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you…
…O Israel, if you would but listen to me!
…Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
For we do not proclaim ourselves;
we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. …
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. ….
… “The sabbath was made for people, and not people for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
…He (Jesus) looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart …
The readings today carry us through that narrow place between the absolutes of the law and the freedom we have as people to show compassion; the way the world should be and the way it is.
For most of us, life throws perplexing circumstances and we find we cannot know what to do; there is no answer. Jesus commands us to be obedient to his word and his word is that we are to love God and love our neighbour. The high calling for us is to come to Jesus with the decisions we have in life and know peace as his teaching is not a burden; God from the beginning calls us to choose life.
So where do we stand when people celebrate the freedom to abort babies? We are told it is a human right that women are able control their fertility. We are told that the right to life is a human right. The UK has amongst the most liberal abortion laws in Europe. Abortion is available up to 24 weeks and beyond if necessary. The foetus has no human rights until it is born; up to this point it is only the life of the mother that is considered to have human rights. As a follower of Jesus, the truth is we know the reality of hardship and its ability to crush us; we look around and we see people despairing and abandoned.
Personally, I stand with new life being life from the beginning. I have known people tormented by the power of nature to abort. I have accepted as natural babies being lost through miscarriage and been saddened by hearing of babies being born dead, alive till the moment of birth. I have communed and rejoiced with those desperate for children who in conceiving one life have destroyed the remaining embryos. I have grieved with those whose babies have been born disabled. Am I conflicted?
Abortion will happen: John Wesley in his book Primitive Physick opens with how an abortion could be done. His heart was to see health care extended to the poor. The tragic stories of the lengths women would go to abort a baby remain in our folk memory. John Wesley’s response was to make this safe. To some of us this may be horrifying.
For the Jews, controlling fertility was at the heart of the story of Moses; his abandonment under order of the authorities resulted in him becoming a prince in Egypt. In our time the Chinese have tried to control fertility as have the Russians and the government of Peru to destroy the native population.
At the time of Jesus and into the first 300 years of Christianity, child exposure was practised by the Romans to get rid of unwanted infants, but not by the Jews. Two abandoned babies were said to have been the founders of Rome, brought up by wolves. Babies were left out to die or be claimed as slaves. Many were disabled and most were girls.
What was the Christian response, but to collect these babies and care for them. This has to be my response; my path between law and human freedom. Life sucks for some people and we need to care for all. Yes, the rejoicing over abortion sickens me but what I need to do is show compassion.
The ideal is that life starts at conception, the reality is that every birth is a miracle. This has been my own experience being at the birth of my own children; life is fragile. The world is mucked up.
Given the widespread practice of infant exposure, the Christian practice was to care for the poor and the abandoned, not condemn the poor. By 374 BC they had shown the way and the practice was made illegal. Our weapon is to love, not condemn.
I know it is wrong to argue from silence, but nothing in the scriptures condemns the practice of infant exposure, but we know it is wrong. We do have the wonderful story of John the Baptist recognising his saviour whilst in the womb of Elizabeth and our heart tells us that life is precious from conception.
Conception and birth are redeemed in Christ. Being in Christ, our practice is to care for the afflicted, the crushed; those abused and abandoned. Through our being true to love we can work to create a world around us where there is no abortion only hope.
“It is worth noting that the ‘fire and brimstone’ school of theology who revel in ideas such as that Christ was made a sacrifice to appease an angry God, or that the cross was a legal transaction in which an innocent victim was made to pay the penalty for the crimes of others, a propitiation of a stern God, find no support in Paul. These notions come into Christian theology by way of the legalistic minds of the medieval churchmen; they are not biblical Christianity.”
(William Neil in The Cross of Christ by John Stott, p202)
“The cross was not a commercial bargain with the devil, let alone one which tricked and trapped him; nor an exact equivalent…to satisfy a code of honour or technical point of law; nor a compulsory submission by God to some moral authority above him from which he could not otherwise escape; nor a punishment of a meek Christ by a harsh and punitive Father; nor a procurement of salvation by a loving Christ from a mean and reluctant Father; nor an action of the Father which bypassed Christ as Mediator. Instead, the righteous, loving Father humbled himself to become in and through his only Son flesh, sin and curse for us, in order to redeem us without compromising his own character… The biblical gospel of atonement is God satisfying himself by substituting himself for us.”
(The Cross of Christ by John Stott, p188)
The biblical gospel is one that promises peace with God and a life of holiness. This is a gift of God; faith. Knowing God and his peace is our rock and foundation in good times and in troubled times. The gift is precious and it breaks our hard hearts so that we might receive grace to live in the knowledge of our own forgiveness.
Our lives so often are at odds with this truth, as we live as part of the world. Through the message of the cross we discover God is above all, through all and in all; a redeeming presence in our lives to free us from the bonds of sin. We find a calling to live as the redeemed in the world, as those not of the world.
We are forgiven, is a sweet sustaining truth that anchors us in the storms of the day. God is good. As we feed on this truth it enters us, we digest it and we are formed by it. Yes, God is good. Our hearts are stirred by it but, how often do our stomachs churn as we encounter our own failings, our own culpability in the injustice and cruelty of our times? What was sweet to the taste becomes bitter in our stomachs. Our hearts cry out for justice and mercy. As we dwell in the truth and listen to our hearts, the voice of Christ becomes clearer. Being saved is not being self-satisfied and inward looking.
This is what the life of faith looks like. We are given the truth, it sets us free and then we live the truth and grow in the truth. The truth is at odds with the daily life we live. Outwardly, we live and breathe and have our being in a world in bondage to sin, subject to chance and time, but inwardly we carry the presence of God however fragile. Living out the truth and persevering in it forms us.
This life becomes our blessing; strength for the day and hope for tomorrow. As we draw near to God he draws near to us and we are kindled into a life of blessing. However useless we feel, weak in our humanity, it is enough to live by our revelation in our heart.
This is becomes the power of our testimony. It doesn’t look like much of a victory. Is this how we proclaim that God is alive and active a counter narrative whispers? We can think that in the face of martyrdom we might stand and it would be glorious. But standing in the onslaughts of the day is a testimony?
How many times does the accuser parade our failings before us and the Father? How many times does the accuser, our adversary, parade our failings before God? My pitiful failings paraded before my Father in heaven? Surely they deny the truth of my salvation Satan insinuates.
To be martyred is to be wondered at, but the daily onslaught of stress, emotional vulnerability and the expectations of life- the daily grind of troubles is poisonous. What can we do? What can we say? We proclaim Christ crucified. His death has saved me from sin. The cross is the victory. As we gaze on the cross are we healed?
We live this life of hope in contrition; brokenness in the face of our own fallibility and find victory in the knowledge of the Holy. It is enough. This is God’s grace to us and his peace in us.
Look at Revelation 14: 18 – 20
…“Swing your sickle now to gather the clusters of grapes from the vines of the earth, for they are ripe for judgement.” 19 So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and loaded the grapes into the great wine-press of God’s wrath. 20 The grapes were trampled in the wine-press outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine-press in a stream about 180 miles[d]long and as high as a horse’s bridle.
Here it is, fire and brimstone to shock you. Not in the Old Testament but at the end of the New. Having taken the message so far set before us, we might have hoped that John’s long journey of faith might have resulted in a gentler gospel. Have we been led astray by our own sentimentalism so far? Am I speaking peace where there is no peace and we should be more fearful that our actual condition is that God is holding on to us as we dangle over the abyss, only to let go of our hands to let us slip at the last in to the pit where we deserve to be as some have suggested?
The grapes are fully ripe and are being piled up into the winepress of God’s wrath where holy feet trample on them, releasing their juice. The blood of the evil ones rises as high as a horse’s bridle for miles. The fruitfulness of the grapes is their evil. The whole event takes place outside the gates of the city. The image is of God treading to a pulp those who have not repented and are evil and their blood is a symbol of death.
God has allowed the fruit to ripen; evil comes to its full fruition by God’s will. God allows it to flourish. This is the reality- the real world. Hope calls in the face of daily evil and together we are taught to pray for deliverance from evil. Hope is that, in the end, God’s wrath wreaks vengeance on evil and treads out the life of all evil. God’s goodness is satisfied as, in wrath he at the last treads out the life of the evil. Vengeance belongs to God but none the less there is vengeance, fulfilling a visceral need in our being.
Maybe we recoil at the monster God portrayed, and wonder how we can trust him when he teaches us to love our enemies then tramples to death his enemies. Where has the message of the gospel gone that enables us to forgive? Are we fearful that we have not forgiven enough to be forgiven and we will find ourselves in the winepress? Or is our comfort, there is no winepress? Silly John!
The story of the cross tells us Jesus was taken outside the city gates and he took the wrath of God in our place. Jesus’ blood flowed outside the city gates. God in Christ gave himself so that we are not crushed. God is satisfied in substituting himself for us so that in Christ he is crushed. The blood of Christ was shed for all men; it was a mighty flow.
The blood that flows, I see as the blood of Christ. Can this gruesome picture awaken in us the scale of what Christ has achieved? Do we come closer to understanding what Christ has achieved by looking at the violent portrayals of God and realise they have achieved their fullness on the cross? In the disgust, can we feel wonder? How is this good is rational question? As it lays bare our doubt, can we find reassurance?
Jesus gave himself for our sins, for now, for today. The evil, present age has an end and God is good. I hold there is a hell for the evil, but that where Jesus finds life, it is his nature to redeem life. What is God like? Look at the cross. As to what hell looks like, look at the cross. And as has been said by another, heaven is not yesterday or tomorrow but here and now, the ever-present age revealed in Christ.
May God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ[b] give you grace and peace. 4 Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live. 5 All glory to God forever and ever! Amen.
Idolatry is a powerful and divisive force in the world – it is evil as it is the outworking and instigator of sin, taking away from the worship that is rightly only given to God, capturing the hearts of men which is the abiding place of God.
Jesus teaches that the way to glory is narrow and found by few while the way to destruction is wide. The narrow way is Christ, knowing no other and trusting no other. Few find it while many follow the crowd.
Idolatry and violence are the wide way; trusting in ways, powers and gifts, leads to disaster. We see this time and time gain – movements fail, nations falter and leaders bring disgrace – the poor and needy are trampled into the dust and kept from feeding on the truth because the truth is muddied by false teachers.
Followers of Christ inherit the promise of Abraham. We are a people of faith, adopted into the family of those who are children of God. We are a blessing to all and the healing of neighbourhoods and nations. We draw strength from God and God alone, drinking from the flowing water of the Spirit. In this knowledge, we read the scriptures, the times and the world around us. Each knows the voice of God by virtue of being in Christ. Any one who tries to take away that gift is an imposter.
In Genesis 1, the sun and moon are mere lights in the sky put in their place by God to govern times and seasons. They are not to be worshipped. In Exodus 20 the foundation of the commandments is love for God and no other gods and the forbidding of worship given to idols, the work of our hands. Our relationship with God is to be immediate. Proverbs 17:17-18 calls us to a narrow way naming pride as contrary to the true way. The letters of Paul tell us idols are not real and echo the prophets in a strong warning against the power of idolatry. Reading these scriptures in the light of the message of Jesus we see why; I am the way, the truth and the life he says – he sees that true worship is not to be confined by places, traditions and peoples but to be in Spirit and truth. The realisation of this truth is the revelation of Christ.
We must guard our hearts and test the spirits. We need to allow the light to discover the darkness in our hearts; the obscuring beam in or own eye.
I can be in the presence of great natural beauty; be struck by the awesomeness of the heavens, the sky by day and the sky by night. I can wonder at the power and beauty of creatures and maybe fear their potential to do me harm or maybe good, giving food or even companionship. I can wonder at the potency of cycle of nature and its life-giving efficiency. I can glory in the beauty and intellectual depth of music, art and poetry – the works of great craftsmen. I can revere great men, their legacy and memorials. There may be places and stones of significance that evoke a connection with their greatness. There may be possessions; a guitar or a handbag, that have come to represent the persona of celebrity and are valued.
To ascribe any of these feelings with spiritual value is wrong if we begin to think that by relating to them we can begin to absorb the essence of the owner. It’s an abomination to think we can come to God through such things. The only way to the Father is Jesus, every other way is pure fantasy, not real and evil.
Our hearts cry foul when we hear of the exchange of great sums of money for handbags, guitars and pieces of the cross, or bishops seated on relics to enhance their authority. Believing relics are powerful is an abhorrence and lie; the idea that their presence exudes holiness is anathema. We are ashamed when people claim vials of blood liquefy and candles burn perpetually, statues rock and virgins walk. We are not those who recognise power in springs and wells and hang out scraps of cloth for luck; we run from charms, symbols and incantations; horoscopes, Spiritism and divination. We are suspicious of the idea of thin places and that the merit of a place is anything but an imaginative engagement with a story. The power is not in the pilgrimage, periods of detachment or maze, it is in taking time to engage and reflect. A song is a song and a prayer is a means not an end. All things are good but not all things are helpful to everyone.
The human heart is a deep well of feelings and emotions, and knowledge of this should be a warning. The heart not bathed in the Spirit of God and washed clean, can easily be moulded by celebrity, fame and renown and be fickle in the midst of strong opinions and crowds – tossed and turned with every wave of excitement – hungry for a new thing, a new phenomenon, a fresh spectacle.
Even the scriptures can substitute for God, written in either words or pictures. Devotion to scripture or icons can easily slip into worship of the form and so become idolatry. We see this when people hang on to old translations, pictures, traditions and places. The consequences are obvious; wars, brawls and gossip. The way to destruction is wide and many find it. You are in a crushing crowd.
We are safe if we stick to the pure message of Jesus. Keep clear of thin places, grave soaking and supposed manifestations of glory in case your good character is ruined. Be more than sceptical, deny their power and in prayer speak to your heart and come fresh to the immediate presence of Christ.
Continue to meet in twos and threes with those whose lives match their words. Be wary of those who would control and shame and deny you liberty insisting that Christ is more present in larger gatherings. You will recognise them as they try to mould your thinking by attrition rather than encourage you to pray and reflect; they reveal themselves by insisting on their interpretation and aggressively deny you your understanding – by their actions they do not trust the power of God as much as their power of persuasion. They demand unity on their terms and lack accountability denying the authority of the gathering of the saints insisting on their own rights. People who stand against them are shamed and undermined, removed to the outside and excluded.
Detach yourselves from those whose thoughts are revealed as being impure in the words they choose and jokes they make. If someone invades your personal space and insists on secrecy or secret knowledge or denies your freedom, they are not of God. If your heart is troubled it is the voice of God. Listen to it. No one in Christ is bound to the power of another – Christianity is not established by compulsion or violence to the individual.
The kingdom of heaven is won by those who are prepared to aggressively stand up for right and by those who are prepared to stand firm in Christ alone, by the Spirit and the whole of Scripture and endure for this cause. True followers won’t be popular but meek and winsome.
You have no need of a mediator as in Christ alone there is salvation, sanctification and glorification: the knowledge of the Holy is found in Christ.
I have written, thought and spoken a lot of my belief in God’s gift to us of a sovereign will. I think I believe it is this free gift to us – God’s grace to us – that makes us humans in the image of God. Our sovereign free will is God’s image in us, a principal of grace. God has perfect free will. What we contend for and call our free will is truly slavery; slavery to guilt and shame; slavery to the drives of our lusts and desires.
It has been said that joy craves eternity and others say that eternity is to be found in the moment, living the moment to the full. I am sure there is some truth in this. This is always expressed in the context of our ability to choose. But how do we effect this choice. Is the fact of our faith in our own will in reality binding us to a law, and this in fact is the source of our sin in turning from the grace set in each of us. We are not who we are created to be; sin then is not living as those who are sovereign by God’s will but by a principle of law, the knowledge of good and evil.
Is the existence of law the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Law is the masking of our created godliness; a denying of the gift of grace within all of us. What does it mean in Genesis 3:22…”The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live for ever.” And in Genesis 11:6… “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them”
Is God jealous for his deity? Why then had he made man in his own image? Isn’t becoming more like God progress?
I wonder if, given that God is supremely good and named as Love, it’s the truth that the sovereignty of our own will is only evil if it is not the perfect expression of the perfect will of God. It is a grasping of who we are made to be in our own will on our own terms.
Adam’s grasping after and taking of the apple asserted his will, not the will of God. Adam creates a morality not inherent in the grace of human sovereignty but in knowledge; in the death and curse of the law, creating a law; in judgement: this is good- this is evil. It is this principle of death Christ destroys, crushing under his foot.
Could it be that in Christ, the exact image and revelation of God, we see the law and its curse nailed to a Cross, the awful expression of Jesus’ living the life expressing, “Your will, not mine” to God his Father? The Cross is a powerful undoing of the power of the law, redeeming the grace within us.
I wonder if the story of the Bible is God’s revelation of the absolute value of his image in us. We measure our freedom in our ability to choose, but could it be that God is leading us to a place where we live from that inner place of sovereign grace.
I return again to the absurdity of this story. It begins in the very act of creation where we measure our being by the ultimate Being, God, and in the despair of sin we cry out, “Why did you create me for such suffering? Is that Justice?” Through Noah we see God’s commitment to humanity; to bear the pain of creation.
It continues in Abraham where God’s promised one is demanded as a sacrifice – a call from God to break all laws. A Call from God to have faith in God to be a god who he is not – a child killer – demanding what he has himself forbidden. Is the deep lesson here that all morality is within us and is perfected in trusting in the grace within us – our only source of Joy and Delight is being in communion with God’s perfect will? Is God saying in this that there is a higher purpose, a higher calling that we are to realise; that which is within us, beyond what we can conceive as being good and evil, beyond what we can conceive as being God.
By pushing beyond our own judgement, we become who we are created to be; who Abraham is – our father in faith – and discover who God is. God is revealed. And then the incarnation, life and death of Christ – God on the cross with all its manifold meaning presents itself. What is the outcome? We stand in the presence of the living God and partake in his deity, living in communion with the Spirit through grace.
It is a strange place to be where our high conception of God’s sovereignty makes God less than he is. We come to believe that God has destined everyone’s ultimate destiny and created us either for damnation or glory as an act of his sovereign will. Our freedom is to choose the course of our lives which in some mysterious way only confirms God’s un-resistible grace choice of us. We proclaim God to have known us from the beginning, conceived us in love and given us sanctity by knitting us together in our mother’s womb but, for the praise of his glory, he has created some whose unchangeable destiny is to suffer eternal conscious torment.
Anyone who counters this doctrine is called filthy and described as baying like animals.
But this idea of being destined for eternal punishment is abhorrent. For people who come to know God but accept this theory, they become what they dismiss – Universalists, believing all are saved- all are created for glory and in their heart of hearts they believe this but speak something else. We all deserve eternal punishment but some are chosen not by merit but for the glory of God’s grace. In believing this I confess one thing with my mouth and hope the contrary becoming double minded and ineffective in proclaiming Christ as good news. When this movement of thought focusses on mission and service, it somehow grasps at assurance through works; the very works it denies are effective. God is truly only satisfied in Christ – his whole delight in humanity is not in works but in faith. So faith transforms itself into works that give us the solace, that we are elect.
For me the error is in trying to understand the Cross from the perspective of judgement and not on the realisation of grace, resurrecting the very principle the Cross destroys. Our election in Christ is because of our original grace. Our alienation from God, from the beginning, is because we choose law and reject grace, preferring a principle of morality over the work of grace of the indwelling Spirit.
Any reading of the Bible calls us to intimacy with God, not the comfort of our own theories. By appealing to God as a judge we make God unjust and, in our hearts, fear his justice, secretly denying God the power to judge, if we think it through. This idol of our theory of God’s sovereignty saps our humanity and our very words are tinged with a monstrous intent. We become a mouthpiece of a god who is not God. We do not find Christ in the Bible. We cry out to the god of our own conceiving, “Where is the justice!” We have made an attribute of God our idol.
I heard a thing that was strange to me – the idea that on the cross we see that violence does not succeed. The cross says to the principalities and powers, all your vengeance, all your cruelty, all your measure for measure is defeated. Your vindictive acts – your solutions to all problems, killing, maiming, shaming – are defeated. The hypocrisy of the accusers and cruelty of the oppressors are exposed and defeated. Nothing separates us from the love of God, because on the cross, Father, Son and Spirit defeat death and even the wrath of God- his judgement on sin doesn’t extinguish the light of life.
I realised the urgency of Paul in his letters. I became aware that his message was to persevere in the face of accusation and oppression because of the cross and, no, you are not defeated! All because of your faith in the Cross… In all circumstances believe and hold to the Way and trust in Christ’s righteousness as your righteousness.
We live in a universe of time, gravity, chance and attrition. The light of life pierces this darkness. Light and life are attributes of our God, creator of a system where everything decays, where entropy dissipates and light brings new life into a system.
None of this has a moral character but God is God and he knows good and evil we are told. Our existence as bearers of God’s sovereign image, and in some way, the principalities and powers, makes the universe a moral universe. We are created from the beginning to walk with God, to know his voice and to serve in light and life, stewarding the gift of creation. And it was good – it is very good. This is our original blessing.
The revelation of God in the Bible is our Ararat, our Moriah, our Red Sea, the Incarnation, the Transfiguration, Calvary, Ascension and Pentecost – all beautiful. Personal.
Suffering is with us as is sovereignty and we are called to trust, to realise the original blessing in faith and know the sovereign power of our creation – to heal the sick, raise the dead and live free.
When Jesus declares the blessing, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… “ I wonder if we are slightly bemused – being poor in any way is not a blessing.
I wonder if the message is a glimpse of God’s view of suffering. We are all blessed. We are blessed in our being and God’s assured blessing works through all these troubles. Truly in creation we are good – God knows us from the beginning. Those who would marginalise and reject the lowly, the mourning, the peace makers, basically the losers in society, need to hear and see that all bear God’s blessing. The beginning is God’s blessing.
We are created in the image of God and in Christ we see the exact image of God though human like us. Christ is God and God is Father, Spirit and Son. God draws us into himself so that we know him because we are like him. Jesus humbled himself on the Cross and our troubled circumstances are given meaning in his suffering.
God himself takes the wrath and curse upon himself and dies in our place. Our faith is that his victory over death- his suffering and death – brings victory in our lives as he walks free from the last and greatest enemy, death. We follow and are made free to live, alive in the image of God, Father, Son and Spirit, dwelling in us- abiding within us – enabling us to live the good and perfect will of the Father. This is freewill in deed, to know and live from the perfect will of God; Christ within is our hope of glory.
God wants us to break through – he wants us to realise the blessing of creation – we are good. We are very good. God empowers us to put down sin and put on his righteousness turning away from our wilfulness and with Jesus, proclaim the Way, Truth and Life of Jesus; Father! Your will not mine!
We do well to study this, meditate upon this and listen to God in prayer. To pray at all times and in every way so that we can know and live the perfect will of the Father.
This is how we stand assured before the unapproachable light of God. This is how our weakness becomes strength. Truly, truly, truly, we are blessed.