I hope you tuned in into our Easter Sunday night service in time to listen to that wonderful piece sung by our Greenock choir in a happy day a few years ago when they could sing together:
O rejoice, for the Lord has arisen,
He has conquered the power of the grave,
He has broken the gates of the prison
And arisen in glory to save!
The last night of our Easter Conference would normally have been a baptismal service, which we couldn’t have although there are people waiting to be baptized. As I was thinking of the service, obviously very aware of it being Eastertime, but looking for a word specially for us, it came to me quite clearly:
Speak to My people, that they go forward. (Exodus 14:15)
God spoke the words of this well-loved verse to Moses at a time when it did not look possible to go forward, the Red Sea in front of him, and the Egyptian army behind. ‘Moses, why are you crying to Me? Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.’ It was a time of change for the Israelites and a difficult time ahead through the wilderness. I’m hoping that in the wilderness that we are coming through we are a bit nearer the Promised Land than they were at that point! The word came to me along with the lines of a hymn that was written for one of our musicals in connection with the same theme:
I’ll go before you, My holy fire will lead you on.
The Land of Promise waits ahead …
Land of Promise – ‘the place where My glory dwells’.
It was a time of change for them, and it is and has been a time of change for us. We have been very aware over the Easter weekend of the death and the resurrection of Christ Himself. And I often meditate on what it was really like for the disciples after Christ had risen from the dead: that time in between his resurrection and ascension and then the glorious outpouring of Pentecost. I think it was a wonderful time, increasingly so. We read that after they’d seen Him ascend into heaven and the angels spoke to them, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. But I think during these days until that ascension, while there were times of glory, times of deep healing, deep restoration and wonder, it was also a time of uncertainty, because sometimes He appeared in their midst and sometimes He didn’t, and they didn’t quite know what the future was. We know that they were gathered with the doors shut because of their understandable fear of the Jews. In the midst of that uncertainty we find Peter saying: ‘I’m going fishing.’ It may have been that they needed food, it may have been for livelihood, but it may have been just a feeling of ‘let’s go and do something familiar’, in this in-between time of uncertainty. On that occasion Christ wonderfully again appeared to them.
And so for us. We are easing, we hope, out of lockdown (very slowly in Scotland). And as we look to the future, it’s a time of some uncertainty. We don’t quite know all it holds, and we don’t know for certain if we’ll be back together, able to worship freely, even by New Year time; we hope by next Eastertime. And as we come out of lockdown, we have this lovely verse:
And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture. (Malachi 4:2)
I saw a picture the other day of the calves being let loose out of the back of a lorry into the pastures, leaping for joy as it was happening. And I thought of our young people and the children, hopefully leaping for joy from all the restrictions – although I do know that one secondary teacher from elsewhere in Scotland said that the children were just a bit flat this time coming back to school, probably because of ongoing restrictions and not knowing what is ahead. But we hope to be spiritually like calves let loose out to pasture after a long winter. I am aware that for some who are getting older, in which I obviously have to include my own generation, there is the danger that having slowed down, it’s a bit harder to speed up again. We need the grace and power of God to keep us full of vision, and to respond to this word: Speak to My people, that they go forward.
It is the wonderful one that was given to Miss Taylor, one of our founding ministers, as the word of her calling. ‘Speak to My people, that they go forward.’ Not just rest; not go back; not go down into any kind of despair, or just a kind of complacency; but keep moving forward: a Land of Promise waits ahead. On Saturday night when I was in the church listening to Jennifer, just in the atmosphere as the presence of God deepened, I felt Him drawing very close, and there came over my spirit again that sense of His nearness that I’d felt terribly clearly all the time when we’d met together after the first lockdown: a sense of the unutterable compassion and understanding of God, and His nearness to us as a people and as individuals. To all who have been listening or are now reading this, and to all of us in the Struthers Memorial Church movement (for we would normally have been gathered together en masse on Easter Sunday night), God says: ‘I will go before you.’
The angel rolled the stone away. And He knows the stones that are in our way. The stone was across the door of the tomb, and the angel rolled it away not in order to let Christ out, but as an evidence to all that Christ’s body was not there, and they could go into the tomb. No stone could have kept Christ in that place. Is that not a wonderful thought, that with Christ within us, no stone that seems to block our life is too much for Jesus Christ? The stone might be a big or a little one that just stops the rising life of Christ within us, that seems to block our pathway and weaken us in the way. Christ says: ‘I’ll move that stone. Move forward – I’ll go before you. My holy fire will lead you on.’
Thinking of that, I remembered it was the other half of our New Year Promise:
Our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:29)
Young, old or in between, you think: How can I go forward? How can I stay alive in God, no matter what the circumstances are, and the stones might be stones that are not of my making? (Yes, some are government restrictions, aren’t they!) But who can move them, triumph over them? Who can keep the life of Christ – how can I keep it alive inside me? And I thought: this is the way. We keep the fire burning inside us by coming to the God who is a consuming fire. One step at a time He’ll lead us on. The way will open up as we go.
But we’re not to trudge along wearily, making our way homeward. We should be, whatever age we are, like the calves let loose from the stall. And that happens as we become aware of the God who is the consuming fire. This is not always a popular theme. And yet if you’ve had the smallest encounter with that God who is eternal, who is the inexorable light, whose light is in the midst of His world – the God who said: Let there be light, and there was light, and who said it into the souls of men, and who is light – to have come anywhere near that God, to have caught any glimpse of that God, is to sense our soul is coming home, coming back to the great deep from whence it was originally born. ‘O God, let that consuming fire touch my life.’ We know what was ahead of the disciples. Not many days hence they were going to be transformed. We live in the afterward, and it’s the same God, the same holy fire. Let that fire burn up the dross inside us, the clutter that obscures the vision of God. Let that fire come into our midst, come into your heart and mine, come into our young people, into our children, and our children’s children, and lead us on.
I want to finish with a few verses from a week or two ago in a daily reading that has stayed with me, and I’ve gone back to it again and again. It seems peculiarly apt for this time. One verse in particular has really spoken to me and I hope will speak to you as well.
O Lord, come back to us: how long will you delay? Take pity on your servants! Satisfy us each morning with your unfailing love, so we may sing for joy to the end of our lives. Give us gladness in proportion to our former misery!
– that’s speaking of this last year! –
Replace the evil years with good. Let us, your servants, see you work again; let our children see your glory. And may the Lord our God show us his approval and make our efforts successful. Yes, make our efforts successful. (Psalm 90:13–17)
Let us, your servants, see you work again; let our children see your glory.
Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus – the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance.
But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, ‘That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.’ Not that he cared for the poor …
Jesus replied, ‘Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’ (John 12:1–8)
Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.
And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.
And when they heard it, they were glad, and promised to give him money. And he sought how he might conveniently betray him. (Mark 14: 9–11)
This story of the anointing of Jesus is a part of Scripture that I come back to again and again at any time, but always have it in my remembrance around Eastertime, because it takes place just before the crucifixion. There are different versions of it in the Gospels, and it’s not quite clear what the date is: it could be Saturday night, or it could be the Wednesday night. But suffice to say that it’s around the time of Palm Sunday, either just before it or after it.
On Palm Sunday, as we know, the crowds welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem, waving their branches, and sang ‘Hosanna (“save now”)! Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord.’ They really were acknowledging Him as their King and their Messiah. We know that these shouts changed in a few days’ time to ‘Crucify Him!’ But in the midst of all that, there were those who truly loved Christ, and whose worship was not a passing thing caught up in the excitement of a crowd, but was true and deep.
I’m sure that over this period of time we have discovered how deep that love for Christ is, and how deep the worship, when we’re not part of a crowd in the tremendous atmosphere that can come when we are all singing together, but finding that in the secret place of our own heart love for Christ wells up and overflows, which is what I think happened for Mary of Bethany. She’d been through the trauma of losing her brother and then the wonder of his resurrection. She had, I think, doubted Christ to some extent in her heart when her brother had died, but now she’s wonderfully drawn to Him, and I think that she sensed all the hostility and enmity surrounding Christ. At that feast in Lazarus’s house, there were those who wanted to kill Lazarus as well as Christ because of the miracle that had happened. There were all these swirling feelings and emotions going on around the Son of God, and He Himself was in the midst of it with the knowledge of the coming cross, and something of that gathering around His spirit. I think that registered with Mary, and she didn’t care what anybody else thought, but she just wondered: ‘How can I show Him that I believe in Him, that I love Him, and just want to worship Him?’
How could she show that?
Women of these days often wore around their neck a gold chain with a little phial or box, with very expensive perfume. We read that Mary’s was an alabaster box whose value would have been enough to feed more than the five thousand. Normally a woman would use only a very tiny drop of that perfume, so powerful and so beautiful was it. But as she looked at Christ, she thought: ‘I want to give it all to Him.’ And she poured it all out onto Christ. The whole house became filled with the odour of that ointment, and the fragrance surely came not just from the ointment but from the One to whom it was given. And she broke the box.
Evidently there was a custom in the land that if, for example, a very eminent person had dined at your house and had drunk from a glass, you would break that glass afterwards; it was too precious for anyone else to drink from, too special. She broke it on Christ, and she was criticized. But Christ said: ‘Leave her alone: she’s done what she could, and moreover she’s anointed my body for the burial.’ I don’t think that Mary would know that, though she would have heard what Christ had said, that He was going to die and rise again. We don’t know how much she would have understood or believed of that. But she had acted in accordance with the prompting of the Spirit and had taken the moment of opportunity. Sometimes we let these moments of opportunity pass us by and we’re very sorry afterwards. Other times we grasp them and respond in whatever way the Spirit prompts. If we respond to His prompting when there is a draw just to come and worship Christ, how richly we are actually blessed as we find an access to pour out on Him our worship.
There is the thought of the beauty of worship in the midst of all that was going on, all the tragedy that was happening around Christ, His desperate suffering, the betrayal of Christ by mankind – and in the midst of it there is this act of pure worship and love for Christ.
With tremendous foreknowledge Christ said: ‘Wherever the gospel is preached, this that she’s done will be spoken of as a memorial.' We know that’s true. Consider also the faith of the Son of God, that He knew that after the Cross there was a Resurrection, and the Gospel would go out to all. He said: ‘She’s done it against my burying.’ We know that she couldn’t do it later. When the women went to the tomb He was gone, risen. But she broke the box with the perfume upon Him then. When a person in that eastern land was buried, it was common not only to put spices amongst the burial garments but to put the broken pieces of the jar that held the spices in the tomb also. So how accurately she had done this, and it’s just in her love and worship for Christ.
I love the sense of it being just something between her and Him. There were people seeing, in whom that aroused hatred. It was the last straw for Judas. He just thought: ‘That’s enough – wasting all that. I’m going to betray Him.’ And so an act of real love and dedication to Christ can arouse hostility in others, sometimes quite irrationally so, but it doesn’t stop the love that wants to be poured out on Him. They said: ‘To what purpose is this waste?’ How could anything be wasted that’s given to Christ?
And so it is in our lives. Sometimes people think: ‘I don’t want to waste my life. I want to be sure it counts, even counts for God.’ But we don’t see the future when we really yield ourselves to Christ. It is an act of faith, and nothing and no life is wasted that is poured out on Him. That perfume is normally used drop by drop, and sometimes that’s what a person can be tempted to do with Christ: just pour out drop by drop a little bit at a time of our life. But He demands all. And it’s when we pour out unreservedly and say: ‘Lord, take everything. I’m not making any conditions; just take my life,’ that we discover the fragrance that comes to us, for we discover as we really break our lives on Him, that His life has been broken for us, to feed us, and really the fragrance that comes is not from our offering, but from Him and the offering that He has given as He has poured Himself out.
Come and taste Him. Come and worship Him. It’s drawing so near to Eastertime – a time of glory and rejoicing and yet a time of deep meditation and access to Calvary, to God, to Christ. In the midst of it let us renew our covenant of love, and come and worship Him in the midst of where we are just now at this stage in life and the church life, and say: ‘Lord, You are my reason for living. I yield myself afresh in worship to You.
First of all, some scattered verses from the Old Testament:
Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (Exodus 20:21)
Moses speaks to the people:
These words the Lord spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me. (Deuteronomy 5:22)
Later on, where Solomon is dedicating the temple to God, we read:
Then Solomon prayed, ‘O Lord, you have said that you would live in a thick cloud of darkness. Now I have built a glorious Temple for you, a place where you can live forever!’ (1 Kings 8:12–13)
It is a description of the appearing of God that for me has always held a rich attraction: one of these descriptions that brings a sense of God to your spirit, God who dwells in the thick darkness – because it seems a contradiction to many other verses where we read that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. And yet there is a sense of what is meant by that cloud of thick darkness. Sometimes if you have really gone out in the Spirit and He has come near to reveal God to you, you may have found, as your own senses are being almost dismissed and you’re entering into truly spiritual revelation, that there is a sense of a beautiful darkness, a beautiful enfolding, with the thickness of the covering that is round about God. We know that He dwells in light, but nevertheless we are told of this thick darkness, and of going into the thick darkness of this cloud, in the centre of which is God.
Another translation for that thick darkness is ‘secret or high place’, which immediately reveals that it’s a secret place, where God is. As Solomon was dedicating his temple and the thick cloud came down over the temple, it seemed like darkness. But on the inside was the holy place, the holy of holies, the secret place where God is.
Even in nature there is a kind of blackness that has nothing sinister in it. An example is one of my favourite roses, ‘Dark Lady’. It is such a deep velvety red that you could almost think it was black.
And so there comes to us a sense of that draw into the deep mystery of God. He comes to us in different ways. As I was meditating on this thought, I realized something about what looks to us like a darkness in circumstance, in life, that we cannot see anything good in, that perhaps has been unavoidable, that we’re not responsible for but we still have to face. There came over my spirit the knowledge that in a deeper trust in God, we find that even that is a way into what lies at the heart, which is the revelation of Christ. The psalmist David said in that well-loved psalm: He spreads a table for me in the presence of my enemies … Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow, even there You will be with me, you will guide me. David knew that at times sheep could be surrounded by wild animals, who could rest on higher places looking down on the valley in which the flock was feeding. Normally the sheep would not be very ready to eat if there was danger around, but with the shepherd there to take care of them they could do it. With our Shepherd to take care of us, even in the presence of our enemy, we can feed on Him. We can find in Him the rest of soul that enables us to drink in and to eat of the spiritual food that God provides for us.
Sinai was covered by a dark cloud. And we read again and again of the fire and the light that blazed inside, and of how God spoke to Moses in that fire and light.
We think of another mountain that our hearts have been very much turned towards, particularly as we draw near to Easter. For us Easter has a tremendous joy in it. But in meditating upon the events leading up to Resurrection we see that the Lord Jesus Christ began His ministry tempted in the wilderness, tested and tried by the wicked one, who then left Him for a season. Yet we know that as Calvary drew near, that darkness came near to Christ. We know because He told us. He said: This is your hour, and the power of darkness. The prince of this world comes and has nothing in Me. Calvary was a dark place. It grew dark over the land from the sixth to the ninth hour as Christ hung there on His cross. We get a glimpse of something of the fearful struggle of soul in the depths of the garden of Gethsemane, in the darkness under the olive trees. Christ’s pathway we cannot quite follow. It was a very lonely one. We cannot enter into His suffering; we catch just a little glimpse. What we do know is that the enemy couldn’t find a foothold in Him. There was no darkness in Christ.
But what we also know is this. Sinai was unapproachable: only Moses could go there. But at Calvary … there was no volcano. There was no evidence of the fire and light. There was an evidence of the darkness – and it doesn’t hold us out. We’re invited in, and we can draw near. And what we find is that the darkness holds in the very midst of it that blessed Sufferer, and from His face there streams to us the very love of heaven, that same consuming fire that was on Sinai all there in that Christ who died amidst the darkness of Calvary. Was that darkness the encroaching of the wicked one – or was it actually, ultimately, the veiling of the suffering Saviour from prying eyes? What we do know is that when we approach, our darkness goes, blessed be His Name. It goes; it completely goes. The darkness of the guilt in our life is lifted, but so too is the darkness that we can feel comes with pain and any kind of suffering. We find as we approach that mountain called Calvary that the light breaks again in our spirits, for we see there the One in whom the light could not be quenched.
The thick darkness can mean the secret or high place, and that secret, the very mystery of God, begins to be revealed to us as we come through any thick cloud and find Him. At the very heart of Calvary that seemed such defeat, we know (for we’ve been there) that for us there is healing, there is consolation, there is forgiveness, there is Christ. As I was meditating on all this today, I felt welling up inside fresh love for that lonely Sufferer, that dear Christ, who has given so much, who has given everything, to rescue us from out of our darkness that we may be enclosed and enfolded in the mystery of God and find His secret places, the treasure that is worth the seeking.
Today’s theme is not new. I think of how John, when reminding his readers yet again of what Christ had said about loving Him and loving our neighbour, says: No new commandment do I give unto you.
My theme is the oft-recurring one of how to cope with anxious fears. The Bible is so full of words from God, from the Old Testament and the New, about how to cope and not be anxious. Fret not: it tends only to evil doing (Psalm 37:8). Let not your heart be troubled: neither let it be afraid (John 14:1). It’s characteristic of the love of God that He knows us just so well. He understands every human heart. Some are very given to anxious fears, others much less so. This pandemic has probably caused there to be more suffering from anxiety than normal. But I think most human beings at some time, for some reason, are familiar with an anxious thought about today or tomorrow, and Christ, who shared our human lot, said (I paraphrase): Don’t take any anxious thought for tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself. The sparrows are not worried. Your heavenly Father cares about the fall of the sparrows to the ground, and you are of much more value than many sparrows. So He really understands us, He really cares, and He speaks to us again and again in reassurance.
I had intended to meditate on quite a different theme, and the reason that I came to this one was because one day recently, in the context of certain business to be conducted and decisions to be taken in relation to church work, I had some anxious thoughts. The verse on the calendar for that day spoke deeply to me:
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. (Isaiah 26:3)
It immediately brought a stirring and a sense of peace. The word of God is so powerful. It is the weapon that we know Christ used again and again against the enemy; it’s a living word. He said to Martha: ‘You are anxious and troubled about many things.’ We often concentrate on what follows when He says that Mary has chosen the better part, and we could feel a bit sorry for Martha, but He is actually being very kind to her. He says: ‘Martha, Martha, you’re anxious and troubled about many things,’ and shows her the way not to be like that, but to sit in His presence and listen to Him. It is God’s presence that brings us peace. It is as we come into that presence that there comes a stillness inside.
We read in the book of Acts of the apostles and the kind of lives that they had to live. I have been rereading Hudson Taylor, and the exposure to danger and hardship, and trouble from without and within the new work that he was establishing. It was incredible pressure upon him, and yet the testimony of all around him was to the peace that marked his life and in which he conducted the business no matter how oppressed he was. The peace of God that we read of in the book of Acts is phenomenal. And I think that they could live in that peace, could find peace in the midst of persecution, because they were so aware of the actual presence of God. We sing a lovely hymn: ‘Your presence is heaven to me’, but we could equally sing: ‘Your presence is peace to me.’
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusts in Thee. His ‘mind is stayed on Thee’. Often the thing that brings us dispeace is a thought that comes into our mind, but it’s not always that. Sometimes it’s quite simply in our spirit. It may be that we waken up one morning or start going through the day with an unease in our spirit, and we do not actually know why. It’s not related to something that definitely has happened, but it is certainly there, like a thorn in our spirit. What is that to do with my mind? Well, our mind then begins to get active. So we must turn and stay our mind on God. Paul tells us:
Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8)
It’s as we turn and resolutely keep our mind fixed on God that His peace comes in, even though there is this something in our spirit. As our mind is fixed on Him, we find that His peace stays in our heart. And I remembered that in one of James Stewart’s books there was a chapter with a lovely title: ‘When God’s peace guards the door’. So I went to it and was presented with this verse from Philippians, in Moffatt’s lovely translation of Paul’s words:
Never be anxious, but always make your requests known to God in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving. So shall God’s peace that surpasses all our dreams keep guard over your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
Keep guard over: that’s actually a lovely thought. As the author wrote, Philippi was a Roman colony with a Roman garrison. So the citizens of Philippi to whom Paul was writing were very used to seeing sentinels pacing up and down, guarding the gate. And our sentinel is peace.
Paul is writing this to the Philippians. Now the church in Philippi had been established in the midst of a riot and imprisonment and an earthquake, and they knew about persecution, they knew suffering, in which the church had been established and which could come at any time. Paul says to them, first of all: Rejoice (4:4). Then he says: Never be anxious. Coming from Paul, it carries such weight, doesn’t it? Paul, how could you be so at peace? He points to God’s peace that surpasses all our dreams acting like a sentinel. God’s peace ‘means the very peace that dwells in the heart of God Himself’ (Stewart), which is a lovely thought. We think of God as being the God of peace – He is. He’s the Prince of Peace. He is peace. But also it’s the peace of God that dwells in His very heart. Speaking reverently, it’s the peace that keeps Him peaceful. The peace that was in the very heart of Christ was the peace of God. And He has not given us less. He’s saying that’s the peace that can dwell in your heart. It’s the very peace of God, and it acts like a sentinel, a guard, that keeps the things that disturb at a distance. The ‘peace of God is not something to be captured once for all: it is something requiring to be recaptured all over again every day’ (Stewart). I think that’s actually quite reassuring, answering some of the confusion that can be in us. We’ve had peace one day, and another day we don’t feel so at peace; sometimes we feel the peace of God has come definitely to abide forever, and then another day we feel that we are being storm-tossed. But we learn it every day. We learn to trust in it and expect it. It’s not that He goes away or withdraws His peace, but we have to learn how to practise it. It’s not captured once for all as if it was put in a box. We have to recapture it in some senses every day, this day, this moment.
How well God knows us! How well Christ understands us. In what love He speaks to us. He says: I know you. I know the human lot, and I know how a great deal of what brings unpeace is anxiety and fear for the morrow. So don’t take any anxious thought for it. I’ll take care of you. ‘His mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee’. Isn’t that at the very kernel of a peaceful walk with God? It is that we trust in Him. A child with a good parent will trust that parent and will probably ascribe to him or her powers that the parent does not actually have to keep life all on an even keel, but there’s just a sense of security and safety if we have that parent by our side. But we have the all-powerful One, who can keep us in perfect peace.
Oh, the loveliness of the Saviour, the sudden dropping of the Spirit of God of dews of quietness into all our unrest, as He brings to us His own serenity, His own peace. Blessed be His Name.
‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’
‘Come and see,’ he said.
It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when they went with him to the place where he was staying, and they remained with him the rest of the day. (John 1:38–9)
It’s a lovely part, isn’t it? Just as Christ is beginning to appear on the public scene at the time of His baptism in the river Jordan, two of John’s disciples hear him speaking about Christ the Lamb of God. They say to Him: ‘Where are you staying? Where are you dwelling?’ And Christ simply says: ‘Come and see.’ He could so easily have given a vague answer. He could have told them where He was staying but not given them an invitation. Or He could have said to them: ‘You could drop in some day.’ But He really wanted them, and He didn’t give a description of where He was staying. He said: ‘Come and see.’
These are words that could be echoed down through the centuries, coming from Christ, from God, to us. There’s an old Scottish saying: It’s better felt than telt, which is really the same kind of principle: Come and see.
We have recently moved to a new house, and because of lockdown very few people have been able to be inside it. Lots of folks have asked me: ‘What is it like?’ and I’ve said: ‘Well, you can come and see it once we’re allowed.’ That is nothing to the invitation that Christ gives us. ‘Come and see where I live. Come and see Me in My own’ – I was going to say: ‘My own atmosphere,’ but Christ is never out of His own atmosphere. He is saying: Just come and see Me in My world.
It brought me to a part in the Old Testament that used to be preached on quite often, but I don’t think I’ve heard preached on for many years: the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon.
When the queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame, which brought honour to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. She arrived in Jerusalem with a large group of attendants and a great caravan of camels loaded with spices, large quantities of gold, and precious jewels. When she met with Solomon, she talked with him about everything she had on her mind. Solomon had answers for all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the Queen of Sheba realized how very wise Solomon was, and when she saw the palace he had built, she was overwhelmed. She was also amazed at the food on his table, the organization of his officials and their splendid clothing, the cupbearers, and the burnt offerings Solomon made at the temple of the LORD. She exclaimed to the king, ‘Everything I heard in my country about your achievements and your wisdom is true! I didn’t believe what was said until I arrived here and saw it with my own eyes. In fact, I had not heard the half of it! Your wisdom and prosperity are far beyond what I was told. How happy your people must be! What a privilege for your officials to stand here day after day, listening to your wisdom! Praise the LORD your God, who delights in you … (1 Kings 10:1–9)
It is to us a lovely picture that somehow foreshadows the Lord Jesus Christ in His glory and what it is like to come and see Him. She was a great Queen of Sheba, which evidently is modern-day Yemen; it is quite tragic when you think of the state of Yemen today. She was very wealthy, and she hadn’t believed all the reports she was getting about Solomon. And so she thought: ‘I’ll go and see him.’ I think that in her mind she was certainly going to impress him with all the riches and the spices and the camels and the attendants that she came up to him with. But when she saw him and his palace and his throne and his attendants, she was overwhelmed with all the magnificence – but even more, she had a lot of questions in her mind, and she had heard that he was wise. I wonder what all she was asking him about. She ends up praising his God and seeing that honour has been brought to the Name of Solomon’s God. So I think she must have had questions about what he believed and about his God. Having asked him hard questions, all of which he was able to answer, she was overwhelmed and said: ‘I heard about it all. I didn’t believe it all, but actually the half was not told me: it is so much better.’
Christ says to us: Come and see. We cannot ever know the riches of Christ until we take the leap of faith. This happens at various stages along our Christian way, that we take a step of faith, a step of belief. It might come when we are initially finding Christ as Saviour. It does come then, but it comes sometimes when we might be at a point of deeper surrender to Him, and there are choices to be made. For some of you reading this who are younger, you’ve got life before you … The Queen of Sheba didn’t believe the King’s messengers, and I don’t know if you believe what I and others say. But we cannot tell you the half of the beauty, the splendour, the wonder that is there in Christ Jesus. His Word is true, His invitation is repeated: ‘You need to come and see. You’ll not know until you actually take the step of faith and try.’ Sometimes we come to a place of surrender where we’re not guaranteed the future, we’re not guaranteed a blessing, we’re not even guaranteed that He’ll use us, but we just say: ‘Lord, I would rather die with my face towards heaven and trying to find You than walk away and fill my life with this world and its goods and its pleasure.’
One of those who went with Christ to see where He was living was Andrew, who then brought his brother Peter to see Christ. So Peter also came to see where Christ was dwelling, and he immediately received a prophetic word from Christ and a new name. And all through his life from then on Peter really lived where Christ was. We know all his difficulties, we know the few hours for which he wavered, maybe just even a few moments – we don’t know. But essentially he didn’t leave Christ. His heart was always entwined with Christ from that first hour that he saw Him. And we know that he followed Him through a long life until what was almost certainly his martyrdom. It is from Peter that we get some absolutely wonderful words about what is to be found in Christ when we ‘come and see’. It is he who speaks of the inheritance:
… Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance – an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay … So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead … (1 Peter 1:3–6)
He could see into the eternal realm with the wonder that he already had in Christ. His heart passionately loved Christ, I think, from the moment he saw Him, and he learned to dwell increasingly in the light of His presence. He wasn’t disappointed with Him. He suffered for Him and counted it a privilege. He could see the eternal inheritance which was priceless, wonderful joy, and he said: To you who know Him He is precious.
He is not precious until we know Him. We can have a concept about Him; we can know that we ought to love Him, that He ought to be precious: and so He is in a measure, but when we begin to spend time with Him, yield our lives more to Him and obey Him, He becomes the One to whom we cling, He becomes the One who is truly altogether lovely, and is sustenance and life for every day. He is the well that will not run dry. The whole New Testament throbs with the life of Christ, the glory of God, the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ. Come and see!
The Queen of Sheba asked Solomon a lot of hard questions. He was able to answer them all. Some of you reading this might have questions about God … heaven … eternity … suffering … But in that day when we see Christ we will ask Him no questions (John 16:23). His Face will be the answer, and, wonder of wonders, it can be the answer even now. Just one glimpse, Lord: only Your Holy Spirit can reveal You. Just one glimpse within the veil of the real Christ, and we have no more questions, except: ‘How long, Lord, do I need to wait until I get to be there with You?’
I close with two verses from a poem of Gerhard Tersteegen, translated by Frances Bevan:
O God, Thou art far other than men have dreamed and taught,
Unspoken in all language, unpictured in all thought.
Thou God art God – he only learns what that great Name must be,
Whose raptured heart within him burns, because he walks with Thee.
Stilled by that wondrous Presence, that tenderest embrace,
The years of longing over, do we behold Thy Face;
We seek no more than Thou hast given, we ask no vision fair,
Thy precious Blood has opened Heaven, and we have found Thee there.
To hear the voice of God is one of the most wonderful things that can happen to us. Most people don’t hear an audible voice, although that can happen. The enemy of souls does not want us to hear the voice of God and will sometimes make us a bit afraid of it, in case His voice asks us to do something that we don’t want to, and the enemy is certainly afraid that God might speak to us and we hear and respond.
There’s a lovely verse in one of David’s psalms:
I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with my eye. (Psalm 32:8)
I don’t think that thought of God’s eye being upon us is meant to strike fear into our heart, but rather a sense of relief, knowing that our heavenly Father has His eye upon us in all our ways. He says: I will instruct thee and teach thee.
When Paul was just converted, we read that very early on he didn’t consult with flesh and blood but went away by himself into Arabia for three years, and God revealed Himself, and revealed Christ to him. Now I know there’s a danger in this – because it is a good thing that we do listen at times to the advice of others, that we are open to it, and that we don’t think ourselves so self-sufficient or even sufficient in God that nobody can instruct us. But the other side of this is that sometimes we can have started off quite independent in God (or dependent on Him) in a good way, but we discover that we can get a lot of help from others, and we can begin to want the help and instruction to come that way. It can become easier: it’s like the people saying to Moses: ‘You go up the mountain, Moses, and hear what God has to say to us, and then tell us.’ But that would certainly not have satisfied Moses, to send someone else up instead of him. He certainly wanted himself to hear from God.
It must have been one of the sweetest moments for Adam in some ways when in that garden of Eden, after they had sinned, he heard the voice of the Lord God calling. We don’t know how long it was after they had disobeyed that that voice at last came. And although it brought judgment, it also brought mercy and hope.
God wants us to hear directly from Him and to become very dependent on His voice. You say: ‘Well, how will I know that voice? – because I’ve sometimes thought it was the voice of God and it’s taken me off in a direction that caused me to realize afterwards: I don’t think that was God at all.’
But we grow to recognize God’s voice, as we find again and again He speaks to us through His Word, and it certainly will be witnessed again and again by His Word – by the Bible. There is a sweetness in that voice. The voice of the enemy, as my father often used to say, has a sense of rush about it and tends to cause panic – you know, 'Do this now, or you will be damned for ever.' God doesn’t speak like that. Again and again His voice comes like a warmth within us. When Samuel heard the voice of God he thought it was Eli’s voice, the most familiar voice of the one who had become like a father to him. And that is again and again what the voice of God is like.
He allows us to come into circumstances where we are forced to seek Him and to hear His instruction, because sometimes there’s no one else that knows what the right thing is for us to do, or even knows that we’re maybe doing the wrong thing. But God does. Take a man like Hudson Taylor, who was preparing to go out to the mission field in China to pioneer that huge country for the gospel. He took himself deliberately into circumstances where he was alone and living by faith, and walking with God. He was so young, too (that is what strikes me about him): he was just 18 or 19, and he was 21 when he went to China. He’d learned to be wholly dependent on God, and so his faith grew. He deliberately put himself in these circumstances, but he did it because he actually did sense God telling him to. Most of us are not tested in the way that he was, but we certainly do come into situations where we can go from one to another looking for help. There is a place for that; that’s why these ministries of help are in the church. But oh, the sweetness of the hour when we turn from everything and everyone and say: ‘Lord, I need to hear from You.’
I remember Miss Taylor speaking of her desire to see a greater move of God in the church. After reading all sorts of different books about revival and suchlike, she eventually put them away and turned to God and said: ‘God, what do You say? Won’t You speak?’ Her room began to fill up with light as He began to give revelation to her.
It is a beautiful thing when we sense our deepest dependency has become on God, and we expect to hear that voice of God. Listen for Him, even this week. He speaks to us of Himself. He doesn’t tell us what He thinks we’re going to do for Him, but He speaks of Himself and gives us revelation. It can speak a word of comfort, and it can speak direction: I will guide thee and counsel thee; I will instruct thee and teach thee. And it certainly again and again speaks to us in our hour of deepest need, because then we are desperate and we become aware it is only God’s voice that we want, and we begin to shut out everything else to hear from Him.
Jonah is not the most attractive character in the Bible. He was one of those that Alison Speirs used recently as an illustration that gift and holiness don’t always go together. I’m sure he was holy in many of his ways of living, but he had certain qualities about him that were not good and not very holy, such as disobeying the voice of God that he quite clearly heard. But Christ Himself refers to Jonah, and we read of him in his hour of desperation:
I cried out to the Lord in my great trouble, and He answered me. I called to you from the land of the dead, and LORD, you heard me! … I said, O LORD, you have driven me from your presence. Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple. I sank beneath the waves … As my life was slipping away, I remembered the Lord, and my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy temple. (Jonah 2:2–8)
I cried out to the Lord in my great trouble, and He answered me. Christ refers to Jonah: ‘This is the only sign that will be given you. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights’ (Matthew 12:39–40: paraphrased).
I spoke last week on second chances. Jonah was one who was given a second chance. After disobeying God and being swallowed by the fish he went to Nineveh and preached there with outstanding results. But in the hour when he was in the belly of the fish and prayed, God answered him, and God gave him also, as He had to David, an insight into the Christ who was to come – because it’s Christ who uses Jonah’s experience as an example. Christ too would be buried. All the waves and billows would flow over Him also. He would sink beneath the waves of great suffering. He would be ‘imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut for ever’, but He too would be ‘snatched … from the jaws of death’ (Jonah 2:6). He too cried from the cross in His hour of trouble: My God, why have you forsaken Me? He longed to hear that voice of his Father, and there was for a while no answer.
What a Saviour we have! He always answers us. He never leaves us too long. He didn’t leave Jonah in his desperate need: He answered him. We don’t know at what point Christ again became aware of the presence of God. We don’t know if it was just as He laid down His life and said: Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit. But we know He is in His presence now. What did that Voice say to Christ as He returned home? Will we find that out when we get to heaven? Will that scene be re-enacted for us, as He comes up out of the deep grave, out of hell, where He was not allowed to see corruption, and He returns to His Father, bringing many sons to glory? Will we see when we get to heaven that hour when He goes in to His Father and says: ‘Father, it is accomplished’? The heavenly hosts must have made way for Christ as they welcomed Him in there.
Guided and counselled by God Himself when He was here on earth, He says to you and me: Listen for My voice. My sheep know My voice. I will bring you to the green pasture where you’ll know the eternal life of the eternal God. I will take you by the hand and I’ll bring you to My Father.
It is not quite the right title, because God gives us more than just a second chance.
I felt this word quite opposed by the Oppressor, and I wonder if it’s because so many people face this problem. We become Christians, followers of Christ, and at some stage, sometimes very early on, we want to really give our lives to God, to answer the high calling of God and be available to Him. We set out with high hopes but discover that we are still ‘us’ with our old nature, and sooner or later for most of us at some point we spoil it, and we feel that we have spoiled the call of God. This can happen more than once, and we think of plenty of people in the Bible, people like Joseph, of whom Jennifer and I have spoken in recent days.* He says to his brothers ultimately: ‘You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.’ We can see lots of examples like that: another is Daniel, whom the evil one meant to destroy, but God had His own purpose. That’s fine, that’s wonderful. They came out with flying colours.
But this is a different scenario. It’s when we know that we’ve taken wrong turnings and perhaps made seriously wrong decisions; we may even at times have seriously backslidden and brought dishonour on the name of Christ. Or it may be in more subtle ways that we feel we have marred our calling and really made a mess of life in some ways. I don’t know whether it’s a help or not when we hear those who have been further along the road and very deeply used of God say that they have felt a failure. In some I’ve drawn comfort, but in other ways I’ve just thought: ‘Well, I don’t need to worry any more. If they’re a failure, obviously I am, and there’s no point in worrying.’ Whether I’m a success or a failure is not actually something I give any attention to nowadays. But what is very weakening is if we feel that we have displeased God along the road and seriously marred our calling, and we hardly have the courage to keep going, or to keep trying to serve Him.
Our God is the great Creator, and He gives us not only a second chance but more than that. And He does something, I think, that is very wonderful. Out of what has been a mistake and has marred life for us and interfered (we think) with our usefulness, He brings something that is actually good. He sometimes brings out what proves to be the deepest part of our ministry, and He has done that out of our failure.
An easy illustration comes from the life of Sir Edwin Landseer, the great painter of Scottish Highland scenes. He was staying at a home in the Highlands where his hostess had just had her room decorated, and somebody had spilled soda water, leaving a mark that wouldn’t come out of the newly painted walls. He said to her: ‘Don’t worry,’ and when they all went out one afternoon and he was left in the house, he transformed the stain into a beautiful painting. And that really is marvellously what God manages to do.
A wonderful example of this is the life of King David. I often feel that like most of us I would do anything to remove certain parts of David’s life. We hate the sin, we hate the fact that he brought such dishonour to God in murdering Uriah and in his immorality with Bathsheba – shocking sins. But he terribly deeply repented. He had to suffer the consequences, and God warned him hat he would suffer a consequence in his own family because of the way he had behaved. It brought sin into his house and it ultimately resulted in Absalom, a very beloved son, murdering another of his sons and then rebelling against David in the most serious rebellion in David’s reign. He is an old man by now when Absalom, his beloved son, rebels. In this whole tremendous story, as David is fleeing with his followers from Jerusalem because Absalom is coming against him, we have these wonderful verses:
They crossed the Kidron valley and then went out toward the wilderness … David walked up the road to the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went. His head was covered and his feet were bare as a sign of mourning. And the people who were with him covered their heads and wept as they climbed the hill. When someone told David that his adviser Ahithophel was now backing Absalom, David prayed: ‘O LORD, let Ahithophel give Absalom foolish advice!’ (2 Samuel 15:23, 30–31)
Later on he is being cursed by one of Saul’s household, and his generals want to kill this man, but David says: ‘My own son is trying to kill me. Doesn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so?' (16:11). And we can feel the incredible depth of grief in David’s heart.
But we cannot read the story without seeing another figure that crosses the brook Kidron to face the wilderness – the wilderness of great grief. David climbs the Mount of Olives, weeping as he goes, and hears of the betrayal of his friend and counsellor Ahithophel. And we see another, don’t we? We see Christ crossing the brook Kidron (John 18:1); we see Him suffering the rebellion and hatred of His own whom He had come to save and whom He so loved. We hear in his ears the words of Judas’s betrayal. He has climbed the Mount of Olives to Gethsemane, and He climbs the little hill Calvary.
David is one of the outstanding messianic prophets in the Old Testament. His psalms, more than any other book than perhaps Isaiah, speak of Christ. Psalm 22 has the very words that Christ utters upon the cross. And his confession ‘I am a worm and no man’ is so fulfilled in Christ. Out of his sin has come the rebellion of Absalom. But the grief of that has opened up in David a fountain of compassion, a fountain of love, an actual feeling of bearing something of the sin of Absalom. He really wanted to take it and the punishment on himself. That becomes very evident when he hears of Absalom’s death. He so wanted to spare him:
O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son. (2 Samuel 18:33)
There is no bitterness; but he is really bearing Absalom’s sin and rebellion. What an insight he must have had into Calvary. I don’t know if anything would be revealed concretely to him at that point, but it comes out through his psalms, in the prophetic utterances concerning the Messiah. His heart was opened, and out of his very failure God has woven something very wonderful. So behind that figure of David we see that other King in whom was no sin, whose grief and sorrow were all because of our rebellion. But He took it as His very own upon Himself. ‘O that I had died instead of you!’ – but He did die instead of us, His children. And so God brought something very wonderful out of something that was not good in David and can’t be denied.
Can He not do for you and for me something wonderful? Instead of spending time mourning, grieving over the mistakes and wrong decisions and wrong turnings that have left you scarred and feeling you’ve fallen far short of God’s high calling, say: ‘Lord, I come exactly as I am. All that there is of me I commit to Your hands. Can You do something with it?’ And indeed we stop thinking of ourselves and we see our God revealed in Christ. He is the great Creator, and He understands. He has never made any mistakes. He has never done anything wrong. He had made a beautiful creation that got spoiled: His plan got spoiled too. And what has it resulted in? The redemption of mankind! How deep the relationship now between God and His redeemed souls. We love Him, and I think I dare to say we love Him now even more than Adam could have, though not more than Adam does now, for he has been redeemed too. But oh, the devotion that God awakens in His followers, the loyalty that He wins from even the weakest of us, as we find how faithful He is. He is the great Creator who has become our Saviour, and He is forever in the business of making another plan for His child. Blessed be His dear Name.
*Between the recording and transmission of this message, Diana also spoke on Joseph.
I’m speaking this morning around a very particular word which will become clear as you read the following verses from Scripture:
I waited patiently for the LORD to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along. He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the LORD. Oh, the joys of those who trust the LORD, who have no confidence in the proud or in those who worship idols. O LORD my God, you have performed many wonders for us … You have no equal. (Psalm 40:1–5)
The word I particularly have in mind is patience. It recurs very frequently in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. The Apostle Paul speaks of it: ‘Tribulation works patience, patience works experience, and experience works hope’ (Romans 5:3–4). Christ tells us to possess our souls in patience (Luke 21:19), and it’s also one of the descriptions of God, in a lovely title that Paul uses: ‘the God of patience and consolation (Romans 15:5).
The word ‘patient’ is derived from a root meaning ‘to suffer’. But it has evolved from that to taking the meaning ‘suffering with calm’, and then it has become ‘enduring with a calmness’. For us patience is very much associated with a calmness and serenity, and not being irritable when we’re having to wait for something. We all have different temperaments, and some will be more naturally patient than others. I have an object lesson in this at the moment, because we have moved to a house where my garden to me is a stony wilderness, and it is not pleasing to my eyes. I keep reminding myself that my previous garden hadn’t been an awful lot better when we moved to that house; but by the time we left it was definitely a green oasis. And one day that might happen again. But there’s no point trying to be a gardener if you don’t have patience, because that garden took 20 years to establish. I don’t know if I’ll be here for 20 years, but I’m hoping that maybe in about five years it will be transformed from a stony wilderness into something much better.
Patience is needed in the spiritual life for fruit to grow and for the fruits of the Spirit to develop, not just in our own lives but in the life of the church and in other people’s lives. It takes patience to watch over a younger soul in Christ, to let it grow and Christ take root and to let change be effected. It does not happen overnight. And to find our way into the deeps of the knowledge of God there is, I think, no fast route. It takes time, it takes endurance. And patience is really a lovely word, because it does contain this sense of a calmness such as the farmer has to have at times – not when the harvest has to be gathered in and he has to beat the rain coming! – but there is a certain patience in sowing the seed and waiting for growth to come. And so with the kingdom of God.
That kingdom of God, Christ says, is within us. And patience is an absolutely vital quality for us to have or to learn. It is a patient waiting on God: I waited for Him and He heard my cry. Why do we need patience? Because we don’t always get the answer right away. And indeed in my calendar today there was a nicely relevant reading about Daniel. The angel came to him and said: ‘Your prayers were heard from the moment you offered them,’ but he had done spiritual battle on the way to come to Daniel. Often for us to see the answers to prayers and the fulfilment of God’s promises, we don’t know all that has gone on in the hidden spiritual world. But He is on His way. There are promises that are unconditional: I will never leave you. I will never forsake you. I will care for you. I’ll be with you to the end of the way. And there are lots of other promises He may have given us that are very personal – though we do have to be very careful that these are definitely of God, and not just our own wishes.
To find somebody who is a patient person, and patient in their following of Christ, is very heart warming. But there is an aspect of it that we have to be slightly on guard about, and it just occurred to me as I was reading in Revelation about the church at Ephesus. This was one of the most successful churches, with a very numerous membership, and it was the one associated with the apostle John. I often feel it must have broken his heart when he got the message, because at first everything that Christ was saying to them was good:
I know all the things you do. I have seen your hard work and your patient endurance. I know you don’t tolerate evil people … You have patiently suffered for me without fainting. (Revelation 2:2–3)
But then He says:
I have this complaint against you. You have left your first love. (You don’t love me or each other as you did at first) … If you don’t repent (come back to that), I will take away your candlestick.’ (vv.4–5)
It caused me really to ponder. We can go on enduring with patient endurance, we can keep going, but we have got so wearied with that, that we are just trudging along, and our first love and our zeal and passionate love for Christ, we have lost. The Ephesus church is so good, but because they have lost that first love they are in danger of losing the candlestick altogether. I don’t think that was an arbitrary judgment on God’s part. I think it was rather the inevitable outcome of having lost their first love: that right at the heart was a deadness that would eventually spread out to the perimeter, and the church candlestick would have gone.
What do we do at times in life when the pressure is such that we feel we’re doing quite well if we’re managing to go on patiently enduring? We’re not suffering persecution like the church at Ephesus. But how then do we keep the first love? How do we avoid falling into that trap? And if we think it’s beginning to happen, what do we do?
I have no short answer to that. The true answer is we return and look towards Christ, and we keep looking at Him. As I was thinking on this, I felt, well, it’s not quite enough, because we can do that, but still we sense we’re just trudging along. I remember someone who had been very full of zeal for Christ being in terrible, deep waters, and they said to me: ‘You know, I’m just trudging along now. Where I bounded over the road with joy, I’m trudging along.’
What do we do when we sense that is happening? Well, we do look towards Christ. But we really wait on Him with faith, with patience, till He hears our cry and He gives us the enduement of the Holy Spirit. There is no substitute for that. It is vital. It’s as vital as putting oil or fuel in the car to make it go. D L Moody was an outstanding preacher, but he was nothing like as successful as he was after the Holy Spirit had fallen upon him one day in the streets of New York and flooded him with the love of God. He was then a different man and a different preacher. And it is just as it was for the Israelites having to gather the manna. The falling dew brought the manna – and they needed it every day. And when we discover in our spirits that we are just holding on and no more, and the joy and zest has gone out of spiritual life, ask Him to let the dew fall upon your spirit, for the dew will bring the manna, and the manna is Christ. And your first love is renewed in a moment. But it is vital; we need that. And we hold to His promise that He would give us water that we would not be thirsty.
But I think if we are honest with ourselves we know that there are times when we feel: ‘God, I’m holding on, but that’s about it.’
‘I can do better for you than that. Hold on until you feel the enduement again.’
We think of Christ. Patience is something we associate with Him, a serenity and a calmness. But we don’t think of Him as trudging. Stumbling up Calvary’s hill, but in His spirit – it says in that same psalm:
Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me. I delight to do thy will, O my God: Yea, thy law is within my heart. (Psalm 40:7–8)
And we see that Christ’s love blazed in Him always, upon the cross still loving: Father, forgive them … Father, into Thy hands I commend My Spirit.
Our privilege is to do the same: to have that love for God, love for others, a love and a faith that says: Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.
I want to speak today from the thought ‘Christ our Healer’. These words have been with me throughout the week. I’m not going to give any kind of theological discourse about healing. The subject is not so much physical healing (although that is included very much), but the healing of the whole being. In the words of the prophet, is there not a balm in Gilead?
For they have healed the daughter of my people slightly … For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt … Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered? (Jeremiah 8:11, 21, 22)
The line in question has been turned into a spiritual:
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul;
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole.
As people face life wounds are incurred, and in some lives more than in others. What may have given rise to my present thoughts was an exchange with someone who has been going through a very difficult time, to whom I quoted the lines of a hymn that keep coming to me especially during these days: ‘the Man of Sorrows, on whom were laid our many griefs and woes’.
I don’t know how you react when you hear these words, based on Isaiah 53, but they bring to me such a sense of Christ, with the awareness of Him and His love – the great Burden Bearer who has carried all our griefs and woes, our sin, our sickness, our human need. He stands with us as the mighty Healer. His Name is called Wonderful Counsellor (Isaiah 9:6). It’s very much a feature of modern life that counselling is offered to people who have gone through trauma or are in particular need, with mental health issues and so on. And counsellors, I am quite sure, can be very helpful and do a great deal. But Christ is the Wonderful Counsellor, and He’s the perfect Counsellor. I find again and again, and I think this is true for many, that it’s not always a long-drawn-out process: just in a moment of time the presence of the great Counsellor changes everything.
Is there not a balm in Gilead? They got from Gilead salve made of resin from trees and sold for its healing properties: the balm can soothe wounds and bruises and has many uses. In the history of the church it has been thought of as the balm that Christ can give. The word Gilead means ‘the hill of testimony’, or ‘the mound of witness’. Isn’t the Bible a wonderful book? Even in the names of the Old Testament, there’s such significance. You immediately recognize that description: the hill of testimony, the mound of witness. For us it speaks of Calvary, which is just a mound; it is not a mountain. But it is the place where healing comes from – healing of body, yes, but healing of soul, healing of the inner being, which is so much needed. There is a balm to heal the body, the mind, the soul, the heart, that nobody and nothing can reach except Jesus Christ. And today’s word is really one of hope and encouragement to believe in Him, our wonderful Counsellor. The Bible is full of illustrations of this, and so is Christian literature. In our own lives we can think of lots of examples too of times He has come to us as the mighty Healer, to do in a moment of time what no one else could do.
My daily reading has been on the wonderful life of Joseph. He starts off with some faults, I do think, certainly a lack of wisdom in relating his dreams – although perhaps it’s not really a lack of wisdom, because these dreams were one day to be fulfilled, and his brothers ultimately recognized it. But he goes through a terrible time, all before he is 30 years of age: being sold as a slave by his family, being wrongly accused in Potiphar’s house just as it seems his fortunes have turned for good, and ending up in prison. He rises there to a place of prominence because he is so blessed of God, but he is forgotten about by those whose dreams he has interpreted. But ultimately he is brought out in order to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. To me a very remarkable thing is that he is only 30 years of age. He has suffered desperately and totally unjustly, and he has come out with strength. We read that the iron had entered into his soul. He has come out with strength. But there is an incredible lack of bitterness. Most of us feel a bit imprisoned just now, don’t we? It’s nothing to the prison that Joseph was actually in. And he has emerged in close touch with God, able to hear from God phenomenally in the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, having about him such an air of calm authority after all these years in the prison that Pharaoh promotes him to the highest in the land after himself. What an indication of the power of the God in whom he trusted!
‘Joseph, do you not need long, long sessions to debrief you after all that wickedness that you have suffered at the hands of your brothers and then Potiphar’s wife, and so on?’
Somehow there he had found the Counsellor who brought him out without bitterness, able to save an ancient world with his wisdom as to how to store the food that would feed the people in the hungry years, able when his brothers came to have the wisdom to know how to handle them. He was wise; he knew he couldn’t just trust them to go and get his brother and his father; he had to take steps to ensure that they would do that. But they come, and he makes them welcome. He gives them a home. He takes care of them. And Joseph there in that land of Egypt is given a wife and sons. He calls one of them Manasseh, saying: ‘God has made me forget all my troubles and everyone in my father’s family.’ (His son’s birth obviously precedes the reconciliation.) He is able to put behind him the pain and grief. And he calls the other son Ephraim, ‘for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction’. And that is what Christ does.
And to you who are in affliction just now, which is made even harder – much harder – by the constricting circumstances, there is One who heals. You might be in an unhappy home situation which you just can’t escape while we’re in lockdown. You might be the kind of person for whom everything feels worse when you can’t go out and be with somebody else. You might be finding that although God is richly feeding in other ways, yet the absence of the possibility of being able to meet together and worship together is dragging your spirits down. But there is One who transcends all bars and constrictions. He wasn’t held out of Joseph’s prison. He transformed Joseph into someone bearing the very likeness of Christ. Can He do that for you and for me? Why not?
He stands as the mighty Healer now,
And He says: ‘Look unto Me.’
We’ve got a wonderful Counsellor. He is a wonderful Saviour. He can always outwit our enemy; He is stronger than he is. And He’ll not forget you, He’ll not forget me, and He’ll not forget His church. Reach out, just look towards Him, and find coming pouring in the balm of Gilead that flows from the hill of testimony where Christ bore witness to His faithful love to His creation, to us. Taste the sweetness of the healing streams; they flow freely, and they are enough. Blessed be His Name.
Today’s thought was triggered by something I read in David Wilkerson’s writings last week. Some of you may have read it also. The subject was monsters and vultures – not pleasant creatures! – in the context of the book of Job. At the end of the book God speaks to Job about the crocodile and hippopotamus, over which he is helpless: the only one who has power over these is God. Then Wilkerson talks about Abraham when he had made sacrifices and had laid out the carcases. As darkness descended the vultures came to steal the carcases, and he drove them away. Wilkerson is picturing the assault of hell at times, and how we are all subject to it. The monsters can be those of thoughts, discouragement, depression, fears and anxieties. The vultures are things that can interfere with the sacrifice of a life to God. He writes powerfully about getting rid of them and driving them away.
It caused me not just to think but actually to be aware of God speaking to me about His defence of us personally, but also of His church – not just Struthers Memorial Church, but the church of Jesus Christ in which we are included. It really is a wonderful picture: the thought of God dealing with the monsters. It gives a tremendous sense of security. Abraham drove away the vultures, and sometimes we have to do it, but again and again God comes to our rescue and He does it for us: He drives away the vultures. The vulture is not a very pleasant creature – at least, I don’t think so. I started to watch a little video of them, but stopped, because I thought: ‘This will give me nightmares, so I’ll just not bother.’ But those of you who are bird lovers might like it. They prey on the dead carcase, obviously, but they also prey on the wounded and the sick. And that, of course, is what the enemy does. He picks out those in the flock of Christ that are rather defenceless, or are at a vulnerable moment even though normally strong, and he looks for our weak points.
We are so dependent on God. I have a picture in my mind that in a small way illustrates this. One night many years ago three of us (Miss Taylor, my sister Mary and myself) were sitting alone in the hall in our Greenock church. In those days we didn’t worry about locking doors, so the back outside door was open. It was late after the end of a meeting, and we were alone, except that in the little recording room off the hall my father and Chris were doing some business. It was a soundproofed room for recording purposes. At the back door of the hall appeared three youths intent on mischief, who started to tease and torment and mock us. I don’t know how my father and Chris heard, but suddenly erupting out of that room like a wild bull came my dad and behind him Chris, charging down the passageway. I’ve never seen people disappear so quickly as these three youths at the open door. I’ve never forgotten the scene. Suddenly the fear was transferred from our hearts to the hearts of these youths, and there was no fear at all in the two that had suddenly erupted out of that room! It has always left me with a picture of how fiercely God looks after His own, how He defends us, and how foolish it is to be anxious or fearful or afraid of the enemy – because sometimes we have conquered all our other fears, but we’re afraid of what he might do. There is a cruelty in him, and a darkness. When Diana was preaching one Sunday morning recently she mentioned something about a darkness that may have attached itself to you. I don’t think she meant because of something wrong that anyone had done, but sometimes we are oppressed as he’s after us. And God is so powerful, and He is so on our side. He loves His church and He acts in defence of us. Again, there’s a lovely picture that I connect with this:
When a strong young lion stands growling over a sheep it has killed, it is not frightened by the shouts and noise of a whole crowd of shepherds. In the same way the LORD of Heaven’s Armies will come down and fight on Mount Zion. The LORD of Heaven’s Armies will hover over Jerusalem and protect it like a bird protecting its nest. He will defend and save the city; he will pass over it and rescue it. (Isaiah 31:4–5)
We know that a bird will give its life to protect its young. It will perish in a fire so that its young emerge unscathed from under its wings, rather than desert them. And of course we know that is actually what God has done for us, in that He spread His wings and gave His own life, that we would emerge safe. Having done that, is He going to leave us in any danger? In the ongoing dangers of our daily life, the dangers to our spirit, He defends and He protects.
The name of the God of Jacob … send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee … (Psalm 20:1–2)
When we stop and think of where that help comes from: it’s the sanctuary that we associate with safety. We use that word when speaking of seeking sanctuary, or of someone or somewhere being a sanctuary, not necessarily now a holy place, but a place of refuge. But it’s also very beautiful, God’s sanctuary, heaven – His own being. He is our sanctuary, and He sends us help from there. Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary (Psalm 96:6). And so there comes to us an invincible strength that is of God to chase away the attacker, to chase away the monsters who could try to raid our peace, to chase away the vultures. It is His strength, but it also comes pouring down to us from that place of strength and beauty, the beauty of God, the beauty of His own peace, the beauty of strength. Some of those animals that are strong are also the most beautiful, such as a lion or a horse. In this they are but a pale reflection of their Maker. The beauty of God is part of His strength, and His strength is part of His beauty. We need both. We need the strength of the lion, we need the gentleness of the lamb, and they’re both found there in Jesus Christ, who is our sanctuary.
Rest confident in His love and His overpowering defence of us. Think how we would defend our own children or anyone that we love: we would give our life for them. Think of the fierceness of the defence of a mother for her child. And think of the defence of our God for us. We might say: ‘Ah, but … I’m a sinner.’ We all are. That’s why Christ came. Thank God, the Bible records for us His rescue again and again not only of the Daniels, but of the Jonahs, the Davids, the Peters, and Paul before he was saved. He rescues the penitent as well as the ones like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who seem to have no fault. He is on our side; He is not against us. Festo Kivingere, who preached in Britain, America and elsewhere in the 1970s, said he felt that what Western Christians needed was the actual breath of the presence of the love of God. We all need it, and in that love is our sure defence.
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