The mountain I want to look at today in our series ‘behind the ranges’ is Mount Carmel, and the very wonderful part of the story where Elijah has prayed and there has been no rain in the land, in order to bring the people to a place of repentance. He then has sent word to Ahab, the wicked king, that he will meet the prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel, where they will make sacrifice, and the God who answers by fire coming down on the sacrifice will be God. The prophets of Baal have tried all day and have had no success. And so we come into the reading:
At the usual time for offering the evening sacrifice, Elijah walked up to the altar and prayed, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.’
Immediately the fire of the Lord flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up all the water in the trench! And when all the people saw it, they fell face down on the ground and cried out, ‘The Lord – he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!’
Then Elijah commanded, ‘Seize all the prophets of Baal. Don’t let a single one escape!’ So the people seized them all, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon Valley and killed them there.
(1 Kings 18:36–40)
It is a theme of tremendous triumph, one that many of us love and at times have identified with as we have seen God triumph and perhaps have seen people set free from the power of darkness, and we have found the victory of Christ coming into various situations in life. There is a certainty in us that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that we have the God who answers by fire.
I thought about Elijah and his preparation for this hour. Soldiers being prepared for battle undergo very rigorous and difficult training, with great rehearsing of warfare. But we don’t read of Elijah struggling with the powers of darkness before that. We actually find a very unusual training that is very revealing and shows to us something of the hidden ways and the deep ways of God. There are three years of drought in the land brought about by Elijah’s prayer, and Elijah finds himself at the brook Cherith by God’s commandment alone. He passes many a lonely hour there, dependent on God to send the ravens morning and evening to bring him food. He has no other security than God, and he is alone. For a servant of God I think it is part of the training that there is a certain loneliness and aloneness in spirit, and I imagine that in these hours his faith was being tested. What it must have meant to him every day to see the ravens coming and the water flowing, until one day the brook dried up!
God sometimes lets us come to extremity in circumstances before He seems to act. For Elijah it would have been more comfortable, I’m sure, if God had told him before the brook dried up just what he was to do. But we read that the brook dried up, and then He told him to go to Zarepath, where there was a widow woman who would provide for him. He goes and he finds a woman, presumably poor, who has only a little oil and a little meal, just enough to make a cake for herself and her son, and then they’re going to die. And Elijah says: ‘Feed me first.’ It took some faith in the woman also! But she does that, and he says: ‘The meal in the barrel will never give out, the oil will never run dry, and there will be food for us.’ And so he is brought from the situation of absolute aloneness to being with just one person and her son, provided for – but provided for, not really by her, but very miraculously by God. But she also is blest – and what that must have done to her faith!
It seemed to me there were some echoes of our very present situation, in the aloneness, then being allowed into just one household, and a training ground for Elijah that seems to us quite unusual, and a preparation for the hour when he’s to come out of the aloneness to face the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. But the key to his victory is tremendous faith in God, and that has grown in the silent places, in the hidden quietness, in the back parts of the desert. We don’t know what was going on in Elijah’s mind and spirit. We don’t know how many a conflict he had with the enemy during that time. But we do know that he emerges with an incredible faith in God and a God-given power over the power of the enemy.
It caused me to think of where the very ultimate victory is won, and that is on Calvary. On Carmel, the prophets of Baal are seized and slain, it’s acknowledged that God is God, Elijah prays and the rain comes, and there are 7,000 that have not bowed the knee to Baal. There is tremendous victory. But Calvary is a greater victory. It’s not just 7,000 that will not bow the knee to the wicked one. Myriad myriads proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.
Christ’s preparation for Calvary in some ways is a contrast with Elijah’s, in that He is not hidden away these three years; He is actually in public ministry, even amongst the people. He is working miracles, and none are able to touch Him. And yet, in His own spirit, such an aloneness with God, nobody else walking the path that He is walking. We find too that there is that same principle, that Elijah initiates the confrontation on the top of Mount Carmel, and it is Christ – it is God – who initiates the confrontation on Mount Calvary.
Where is mine adversary? Let him come forth that I may contend with Him. (Isaiah 50:8, paraphrased)
That is faith: that is the faith that knows that the victory is secure, that is unafraid of the enemy and what he might do.
There on Calvary we know the fire came down on the sacrifice, but the sacrifice was Christ. The fire was within Him and the fire came down upon Him, and that sacrifice could not be consumed, for the life of Christ the Son of God could not be extinguished. The flesh went through the article of death, but His spirit was triumphant.
These things are told us, I think, to open to us the secret of victory: that a Christian is called to live not in the shadows and defeat, but in a place where there’s no absence of trouble and the arrows of the enemy can come thick and fast, but we have a great God. God’s triumph on Mount Carmel was just a forerunner. Elijah was like a forerunner of the Christ who was to come, who was our forerunner into an excellent glory, and He went by the way of Calvary but by the way of victory. The enemy makes dupes of us: he tricks us into thinking that we’ll not make it, that we have to struggle to get victory in life over sin, over self, whatever. And what is the secret of victory? It’s not just that we make a lot of song and shout – although there can be a happy time for that too – but it is that like Elijah we find ourselves dependent on God, drawing food from Him, often in circumstances when we can feel very alone and leaning only upon God, and then we’re ready for the crisis hour. We’re ready to see the glory of God and the routing of the enemy. And we find that He takes the fear out of us and causes us to enter into something of that yet greater victory, the victory of Calvary, because we live by the faith of the Son of God.
Still following the theme of looking ‘behind the ranges’ for treasures that can be found in God, we come now to the smallest of these hills, and yet the highest –Mount Calvary.
Calvary follows on not so very many days after the revelation on the mountain of transfiguration. Obviously we have all found treasures at Calvary if we have found Christ as our Saviour, and it is a subject to meditate upon for the rest of our lives. There are just one or two aspects that I’ve felt to focus on for today.
As we think of Calvary, there is a sense of a darkness, not in a sinister way, but Calvary was dark: it grew very dark there physically. The hordes of darkness were there to try to obscure Christ. But His light could not be hidden. And there is a sense of entering the cloud of darkness there that I associate again and again with the revelation of God in the cloud that led His people through the Red Sea and through the wilderness. On the inside it was a fiery, cloudy pillar, but there were times it would just have seemed like a dark cloud. It was a thick darkness that Moses entered into on Sinai, but on the inside found the revelation of God in a very wonderful and very beautiful way. On the Mount of Transfiguration it was a bright cloud; it seems to me that the revelation of Christ was so strong that it was the brightness of His light that was shining. We come to Calvary, and we come there often, certainly to begin with, in our dark hours; we come in our need, and in our most lonely moments: Calvary is the place to go. And for Christ there must have been a darkness about it: the hour of suffering and the hour of sorrow. We read:
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3–5)
There is a wealth of material to meditate on regarding Calvary and regarding Christ Himself. That is where the deepest treasure is: meditating upon Him. But I want today to look at the treasure that I suppose we first come upon and begin to find there at Calvary. We find Him as our Saviour, and in that discovery we find something of the love of God. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). That was the text on my calendar on Armistice Day, and it gave the example of an occasion when American troops were in Korea fighting an ongoing battle over many days. One day they recaptured their position on the hill where they were fighting and found the body of the major. A young soldier, moved by his death, said: ‘He didn’t belong on this hill, he didn’t have to be here, but he was, just the same.’ That makes us think of Calvary. He didn’t have to be there, but He was, just the same. Christ didn’t need to be there, but we needed Him to be there.
We come there and find many treasures, too many to cover in a short time. But one of the first treasures that we find and go on finding is forgiveness. Is ‘forgiveness’ not one of the most beautiful words in the world? Perhaps even sweeter than hearing someone say: ‘I forgive you’ is when someone who has wronged us says: ‘Please, will you forgive me?’ It takes a hard heart to say No. I do remember when I was a young person one of my sisters had offended me. She asked if I would forgive her, and I said: ‘Well, I might forgive but I won’t forget!’ I’m happy to say I have forgotten! But that’s not at all what God is like. His forgiveness is so deep.
I had cause for various reasons to be meditating this week on these words of Christ:
Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:24)
They are easy words to accept until we are in a situation where there is someone that we find it hard to forgive, and we think of that prayer of Christ. Sometimes it’s because one of our friends has been wounded by another. I have a dear friend who is having a very difficult time just now, and being really persecuted by another (not by anyone in the church), and I thought: ‘Can I really say: ‘Father, forgive that person’? – because I know what I would really like to happen with that person! I would certainly like them to be stopped from their wounding behaviour. And yet God’s standard is so high. Christ is saying: Father, forgive them. What must it have been like for the Father to have to forgive those of us who have wounded His dear Son? And yet how rich, how deep that forgiveness is, how full it is. And how we sometimes stay away too long, and yet He is inviting us, saying: For the sake of My Son, the power of His blood and the efficacy of His Name, there is forgiveness.
Along with forgiveness there comes healing: by his stripes we are healed. Often when we come to God for forgiveness there are wounds of our own sinning that have to be healed. Sometimes when we have to come and ask Him for grace to forgive other people there are wounds that have been inflicted upon us, and the heart knows its own bitterness. There is only one place of healing, and it is that place called Calvary. And indeed don’t we sometimes find in a dark and lonely hour there is no other place to go, and we suddenly remember: I can go to Calvary, and Calvary always has an answer, showing to us healing.
He is called the place of repair of His people (Joel 3:16, KJV margin). In these modern days of the consumer society we tend to throw away things, but something we really treasure we like to get mended. Where it’s ourselves, whether our bodies, our spirits or our hearts, we can’t just throw them away. There is only one place of repair, but it is a tremendous place. From that hill called Calvary (dark, bitter, sore for Christ), to us there come, blown in the breezes by the Holy Spirit, a breath of sweetness, a breath of healing, a breath that wafts to us the very fragrance of heaven itself and of the Son of God. He didn’t belong on that hill, and yet in a way He does: it was foreordained from before the foundation of the world that He would lay down His life upon that hill and bring to us immeasurable sweetness. It says in the Song of Songs:
Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense. (Song of Songs 4:6)
What other mountain is that but Calvary? A place of death, associated with myrrh, and yet of healing ointments that sweep over our soul; a place of frankincense, gift given to a King, foreshadowing or foretelling the infinite sweetness, the healing spices that flow to us from that place called Calvary.
Wherever you are today and whatever state your being, your spirit, is in, it might be that you badly need forgiveness and have been too ashamed to come and ask God for it. Try Him. Try that fountain that never fails, that opened on Calvary’s hill. Try Christ. It may be that the wounds of life have stricken you, and you struggle to keep going. There is a place of repair, and it’s that place called Calvary, the place where Christ is always to be found. And the shadows become light for us as He emerges.
O Calvary, dark Calvary, the thorns, the nails, the spear,
’Twas there Thy love, my Jesus, in flowing wounds appeared.
O depth of love and mercy, to those dear wounds I flee;
I was a guilty sinner, but Jesus died for me.
Our theme for the last few weeks has been ‘exploring behind the ranges’ spiritually and finding something of the depths of God. Continuing on this theme, I want to look today at the Mount of Transfiguration.
We are not quite sure which mountain it is. Some think it is Mount Tabor, but with fortresses on top it seems unlikely. Others think it was one of the slopes of Mount Hermon. I love to think of it as Mount Hermon with its covering of snow. They probably wouldn’t be at the very summit (over 9,000 ft), but they could have been on one of the lower slopes.
Christ on this occasion takes three of his disciples with Him when He goes to pray. It is shortly after the declaration of Caesarea Philippi, where Peter has said: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. He has then gone on to argue with Christ when He predicts His own death, and soon after that there comes this very remarkable occasion, which Peter never forgot. He refers to it in his letters: We were with Him in the holy mount, and we saw His majesty (2 Peter 1:18, 16). There comes a revelation of Jesus Christ, for the recording of which we are exceedingly grateful – because it lets us know that there is this to be discovered, that in the spiritual world there is a beauty, there is a glory, there is a majesty that only the Holy Spirit can reveal to us. We may not go up a high mountain; we may not be taken up in quite the way that Christ took these three, Peter, James and John. But He still reveals Himself, and we go on a journey all our lives to discover more of this Christ. We’re not satisfied knowing about Him and even the details of His life, or even finding Him as Saviour at Calvary. There comes to us the awareness that there is a revelation of the innerness of His beauty, His glory and His purity that comes to those who truly believe in Him and whose life is a search for more.
These three men are taken out of the realm of the ordinary and transferred, or translated, for a little into the spiritual world, where they see Christ transfigured before their eyes. He is actually the same Christ, but they are now seeing Him as He is. We read in Luke’s gospel just what happened for them:
About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John and James up on a mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.
Peter and the others had fallen asleep. When they woke up, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men standing with him. As Moses and Elijah were starting to leave, Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, ‘Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ But even as he was saying this, a cloud overshadowed them, and terror gripped them as the cloud covered them.
Then a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.’ When the voice finished, Jesus was there alone. They didn’t tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
As Christ was praying, His appearance was transformed. I wonder how often that had happened when nobody was present. But they were here to see it. We read that his clothes became dazzling white and His face like the noonday sun. Another translation (literal, I think) is ‘became white, or bright, as a flash of lightning’. We know how a flash of lightning can light up the whole landscape in a moment, too dazzling to look upon. What it must have been: a sudden flash of lightning that remained, the brightness of Christ. No wonder that they went prostrate as they saw the shining out of the inner purity, the beauty that is Christ’s, wholly other. He had said He was the Son of God, they had believed Him, and now they see the absolute, unmistakable evidence. He is who He said He is.
There came a cloud over the mountain. It wasn’t unusual for Mount Hermon to have a cloud, but this was a different cloud, luminous and bright, that overshadowed them. We read that terror gripped them as they entered the cloud, because they were in the presence of the divine. They were familiar with the whole concept of the cloud that had appeared to Israel, that had led the Israelites through the wilderness, that had come down into Solomon’s temple – the luminous cloud that was associated with what was called the Shekineh glory, ‘the Lord is there’. Sometimes the priests hadn’t been able to go into the temple because of that cloud of glory. Now these disciples are being drawn into the midst of it. Did they remember Moses on Mount Sinai? Now Moses is here with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. Moses had entered into the cloud on Sinai and had heard that voice speak to him words of graciousness. Now they are entering in. And it’s bright, it’s glorious. From out of the midst of it there comes a Voice saying: This is my beloved Son. Hear Him. ‘Peter, it’s not a time for you to speak. It’s not a time to be looking at even Moses or Elijah. This is My Son. Believe what He is saying. Listen to Him.’
They were talking, Moses and Elijah, about His coming death, resurrection and ascension, His exit from this world. We don’t know all that it meant to Christ on that mountain; it’s speculation. But Peter knew that he had been wrong in contesting what Christ was saying, and we can understand something of what it meant to the three disciples. They were baptized into that cloud, just as (we read) the Israelites as they went through the wilderness were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. That cloud had come to them at a difficult time, when they were about to cross the Red Sea with no seeming means of that to happen, and with the army of Egypt behind. The cloud had appeared, protecting them from behind and leading them from the front, and they were baptized into it in that hour of difficulty. To be baptized into something means that we actually take on its properties. If you baptize or dip a piece of wool in a colour, it takes on that colour. They were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, but now they were being baptized into that glorious cloud of the presence of God, revealing Christ. What an inheritance is ours! To be baptized into the cloud of His glory, to take on something of that glory into our inner being, something of the revelation of that beauty, that purity. If you remember the priests in Exodus, Aaron’s sons were given garments for glory and for beauty. That was in the outward, but Christ’s garments of glory and beauty weren’t just outward: they were the innerness of His being.
Into the innerness of our being He would imprint something of that, so that even in our situation now and in any cloudiness that it brings, there is a place apart. There’s a place for our spirits to be lifted out of the humdrumness, the ordinariness, at times the dreariness, of life as it is at this moment. It is not dreary when our spirits begin to probe into the spiritual world … and He is revealed.
I have felt an overwhelming sense of His compassion in these days for us: for His world, for His own church, and for us in Struthers Memorial Church. Believe Him. Let your spirit – let our spirits – soar into that other world, and we’ll find the glory and the beauty that is there in the Godhead. He will show it to us.
The brightness shines all the brighter on a cloudy day.
This week we continue our exploration ‘behind the ranges’ – exploring the world of God and the depth that we can find in God. Again, it’s a word that I hope will speak to all who read it, but it is particularly for those who are very earnestly following God and searching for more of Him.
Today I want to look for a little at Mount Moriah. You will realize I’ve not been taking the theme in a chronological fashion, but rather as it has come to me – as I’ve felt God has shown to me. Mount Moriah speaks of the time that Abraham went up there to sacrifice Isaac. I thought to myself it’s one of the best-loved stories in the Bible – but then perhaps it’s not. It’s a very challenging story, though quite a comforting one because obviously Isaac is restored to Abraham unhurt.
Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. ‘Abraham!’ God called.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Here I am.’
‘Take your son, your only son– yes, Isaac, whom you love so much– and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.’ (Genesis 22:1–2)
They go together to that mountain. Isaac observes that there is no sheep for the burnt offering, and Abraham says:
‘God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son.’ (v.8)
Abraham has told the servants who have travelled part of the way with them to stay with the donkey, and he says: ‘The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back.’ We know that God speaks to Abraham and tells him not to harm Isaac as he’s there on the altar. Then He says to Abraham: ‘Because you have done this and not withheld your son, I will bless you.’
It’s a very wonderful story. It’s a very comfortable one for us in some ways if we think we’ll get our Isaac back. But sometimes we don’t get Isaac back, and the sacrifice God asks, He keeps.
This episode in Abraham’s life comes to him as a very mature man of God: he’s not at the beginning. I think if we go to Mount Moriah before God calls us there it can be too much for us, but it’s a place that does speak to us of sacrifice and suffering, and this is a part of true discipleship of Jesus Christ. Some of you who are maturing and mature in God know that; we all know that. It is actually a privilege to be called to suffer in any way for the sake of Christ and because we are faithfully following Him. Christ Himself said: ‘You must take up your cross and follow Me,’ and we cannot cut that part out of discipleship. As a man who was called the friend of God, as one who loved and sought God, Abraham was further along that road that hopefully we are travelling, where we are seeking for the unexplored territory behind the ranges, seeking for more of God.
And there comes to us unmistakeably at times the sign that says: To Mount Moriah. Sometimes there is something to be given to God, but very often it is a part of ourselves, our own nature, that has to die, or has to be prepared to suffer. Or it may be as with Abraham, where it wasn’t his old nature suffering, but it was as he was being drawn into a very deep fellowship with God: because we can see that Mount Moriah is foreshadowing Calvary, and Abraham and Isaac foreshadow the Father and the Son walking up Calvary’s hill. We can see all that, and I don’t know how much was revealed to Abraham as he took these steps up that hill that God had said – a mountain that I will show you. Any mountain that God shows to us becomes a blessed mountain. But there is that in our inner being that shrinks away, and sometimes sees a road that to be faithful to God will involve suffering.
For Abraham there would be many strands, I think, in that suffering. There would be a very lonely and misunderstood road to walk. I don’t know if he told Sarah what he was preparing to do, but if so, I don’t think he would have had an easy time with her. The servants must have wondered; Isaac wondered. What did he feel? Did he begin to suspect? What did he feel when he was laid on the altar? Abraham had to trust God, and trust God that his son would trust him, Abraham, as a father. It was a lonely road, as the road of a pioneer often is. It was a rocky road, as the road up the mountain often is rocky, literally. But spiritually it can be a rocky road, and he had to walk every step. He didn’t know what was going to happen, though he believed that God could raise Isaac even from the dead. He wouldn’t understand why God was giving him this command.
But in the afterward and in the revelation that I think would come to him of Calvary he would understand more. His faith, we read, was tested, and so is ours. It wasn’t over in a moment for Abraham. It lasted some time, between the command and the ultimate deliverance. And so it does for us, the walk of faith, the learning of that faith, the acquiring of the gift of faith: it doesn’t happen in a moment, and it happens out there in the heat of the road and the difficulty of it.
It caused me to think of another story. I was by the seaside further down the coast for a day or two recently. On a very stormy day we were walking along the shore, and seeing the waves brought to me the story of Peter walking upon the water. I saw the connection with this incident in the life of Abraham walking a very rocky road. Peter and the disciples were alone in the Sea of Galilee when Christ was away praying in the hills. They were there by Christ’s command, but they
were in trouble, far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. (Matthew 14:24)
Does it strike a chord? I know that is exactly how some of you are feeling just now, for various reasons. The wind has risen in your life, the waves are stormy, and it’s not like previous incidents when Christ said: Peace, be still, and in a moment everything was calm. And I saw more clearly than ever before why Peter had had to walk on the stormy water, why Christ was walking on the stormy waves as He came towards the boat where they were. The waves stayed stormy, and Peter came out and walked on the stormy water. He was afraid he was going to sink when he took his eyes off Christ and cried out for help, and immediately Christ saved him. But the waves were still stormy, the wind was still blowing, and they walked together on the stormy water till they came into the boat, and a calm came then.
And so for you and me. We have to learn that even when Christ is there with us the waves can still be very stormy, and our faith is being tested and tried. He wants us to strengthen and to keep walking, because the spiritual world can be quite tumultuous at times. Spiritual conflict is real, and so it doesn’t just vanish in a moment. We can be walking very carefully with God, but we are in the storm, and it doesn’t go away. But that is the key, isn’t it? He never leaves us alone in it. He has seen them there in the storm. He was watching Peter walk towards Him, and then they walked together.
As we take courage and come out of our quiet hiding place where we would stay out of trouble, we say: ‘Lord, I’ll be faithful to You whatever the cost. I’ll walk with integrity in my heart towards You; however misunderstood I am at times, I’ll do that. And the stormy waves might remain stormy, the spiritual world might stay very rocky, but You and I will walk together and You will not leave me, and together we will come ultimately to the safe harbour, where all grows quiet and is again at peace.’ Christ walked up Calvary’s hill, and He said: ‘I am not alone. Though you will all leave me, the Father Himself will be with Me.’ And He will be with us.
And so do we discover, not always in the quiet back parts of the desert, the revelation of God, but right out there on the stormy waves we discover the security of walking just with God and no other when the sea is stormy. Blessed Saviour! Do we truly want to find these deeps of God? Let Him take us by the road of His choosing. We will never regret it. We’ll enter in one day to the sanctuary of heaven, still leaning on our Beloved, whom we’ve learned to trust truly.
You may remember lines on the theme ‘behind the ranges’ that I quoted last week from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, in the context of seeking for the hidden treasure of God, and how the Holy Spirit who is poured on us is with us to help us – because we can discover the treasure of God only at a mind-level unless the Holy Spirit is there to really open up something of God to us. I want to continue with that theme and will probably do so for the next few weeks.
We looked ‘behind the ranges’ last week at Moses and the burning bush. We are still at the life of Moses and one of the times that he went up the mountain of Sinai – one of the very obvious ranges. Moses was up that mountain on several occasions, and there he met with God. He had found God in the burning bush, he’d found Him in Egypt, in the miracles, plagues and deliverance, but increasingly if you follow the life of Moses you find a concentration on God, and rather than a diminution of his hunger for God, it grows and grows until ultimately he pleads with God to show him His glory. We know that God does that and hides him in the cleft of the rock.
But first God calls him again to come up mount Sinai. In the New Testament we read that Moses had exceedingly feared and quaked as he climbed the mountain of Sinai (Hebrews 12:21). Sometimes it must have been just like climbing a burning volcano. On this later occasion the people have sinned, Moses has pleaded very successfully for them, and God calls him to come again into the mountain, where He will again give him the law to be written on tablets of stone. He says: ‘No one else may come with you. In fact no one is to appear anywhere on the mountain,’ but Moses has to go up. And so we read in Exodus chapter 34:
Then the Lord came down in a cloud and stood there with him;
What a lovely verse – we could just concentrate on that for a long time!
and he called out His own name, Yahweh. The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out:
Yahweh! The Lord! God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion and sin. These words must have been music to the ears of Moses. He had asked that his own name would be blotted out rather than that the people would be blotted out for their sin in worshipping the golden calf. And now he is hearing God. He is on that mountain that’s been on fire on occasion with the coming of God. The first words that God speaks to him are perhaps unexpected. But, you see, the Holy Spirit is showing Moses more and more of the hidden treasure, the hidden deeps of the nature of God. And God speaks to him immediately: a God of compassion and mercy … slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
There are running throughout the Bible – and indeed we will find if we seek for God there is running throughout His revelation to us – these two strands: the holiness of God that is completely other, and the unfailing love and compassion. The two are married. The love is so precious because He is so holy, and the holiness would be unbearable except for the love and compassion that brings forgiveness for iniquity. How we need that God! And to us also that revelation will increase if we seek for more of Him and are not content until both these strands are deeply embedded in our spirits.
Sinai happened fifty days after Passover, and the day of Pentecost is on the anniversary of the coming of God on Sinai. And we see in the coming of the Holy Spirit, poured out from on high, that fire is the immediate sign: the tongue of fire upon every head and a tongue of fire given to Peter very obviously as he rises and he preaches. The message to his hearers is not a soft one. It is an accusation of their guilt: he calls them the murderers of the Son of God; but it is also a message of forgiveness. It is so like the revelation that came on Sinai: the holiness, the fire, the all-consuming power, but the compassion and the forgiveness.
We see that strand tremendously revealed in the life of Peter. And it’s a hallmark of Pentecost. It opened the door to salvation, forgiveness and a knowledge of the God of all grace and all compassion. In Peter, who so courageously and wonderfully opened the kingdom of God with his sermon, there flows a tremendous vein of gentleness and compassion, something that I don’t think we would have associated with Peter before Pentecost. Something has happened in him. The Holy Spirit is revealing and imprinting in his spirit something of the very nature of God. And Peter is one who, especially in the beginning of the book of Acts, is very deeply used in healing. It he who with John is there to see the healing of the man at the gate of the temple. ‘Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk.’ In Peter’s epistles we find this strain of the gentleness and the compassion. He tells them to love each other deeply. It’s he who speaks of the preciousness of Christ: the chief cornerstone, rejected, but to us who know him He is precious. And we echo that: He is precious.
Come and find more of that preciousness. We can skim over these truths. We find something of them initially at our salvation, but there are hidden deeps, hidden treasures. I know that some of you are not finding life easy just now. I know that some are in need of physical healing, some in need of healing in your mind, in your spirit. The God of all compassion is with us; He’s here in this moment. Why not open your heart, open your mind, open your spirit? Say: ‘Lord, give me some of that hidden treasure. Maybe that’s why You’ve let me come this way of trial and difficulty, that I might be forced to seek in the deep mine for the deep treasure and find the nature of God revealed through Jesus Christ by the power of the outpoured Spirit.’
The start of what I want to say comes from part of a New Year promise:
I will pour out My Spirit upon you. (Joel 2:28, adapted)
I think that in spite of the present circumstances many of us have found how true that is, and He has poured out on the unsaved in saving power and in baptizing power and in healing and other ways. For this we are very grateful. And it’s a verse that comes to my mind again and again, with the sense that God means it. I will pour out of My Spirit upon you. The promise is upon all flesh, and upon people in different conditions. But I’m speaking tonight particularly to those who have already found Christ as Saviour, and those who are hungry to really know God’s ways and follow His calling. The call of God on Moses is described in the following verses, which in my Bible have the lovely title of The Call of the Rescuer:
One day Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led the flock far into the wilderness and came to Sinai, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the middle of a bush. Moses stared in amazement. Though the bush was engulfed in flames, it didn’t burn up. ‘This is amazing,’ Moses said to himself. ‘Why isn’t that bush burning up? I must go see it.’
When the Lord saw Moses coming to take a closer look, God called to him from the middle of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’
‘Here I am!’ Moses replied. ‘Do not come any closer,’ the Lord warned. ‘Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ When Moses heard this, he covered his face because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1–6)
God spoke to him of knowing the suffering of his people in Egypt, and he said to Moses:
Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out of Egypt. (Exodus 3:10)
And you might say: Well, where exactly is the connection with that verse, I will pour out My Spirit?
In the days leading up to Pentecost, the disciples of Christ were waiting and seeking for the coming of the Holy Spirit. He had told them to wait until the Spirit was poured out from on high. And so they waited, and so they sought, until He came. And for us, we need to wait on Him, and we need to seek for Him. He that seeketh findeth … Ask, and it shall be given to you … Knock, and it shall be opened.
The call of God comes to us to seek. His treasures are often hidden treasures that don’t just fall readily into our hands. We have to show the desire for them, and the desire for the Holy Spirit to be outpoured, to reveal to us the hidden treasure. The following lines of a poem by Rudyard Kipling are quoted at the beginning of the book Behind the Ranges, which tells of Fraser of Lisuland, a very powerful missionary:
‘Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges –
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!’
God took care to hide that country till He judged His people ready,
Then He chose me for His Whisper, and I’ve found it, and it's yours!
Something lost behind the ranges, something hidden. The Bible does speak of the hidden riches of God in secret places that He will open to us. That is lovely poetic language, ‘behind the ranges’ – but it made me think of some of these meeting places in Scripture where God meets His own and His Holy Spirit is actually outpoured on people as they meet with God. And the first one that came to my mind was this encounter with God that Moses had at mount Sinai, where he was to meet God again and again. But on this occasion he’s in the wilderness, on his own so far as we know, when he sees the bush that burns and is not consumed. He discovers that really it is God who is in the bush, and that is why it is burning. He meets with God. We don’t know if he had really met with God before then. It may be his first real encounter, and it has a profound and life-changing effect upon him.
He discovers first of all something of the holiness of God. He was hungry to serve God. He was hungry to be of service to his people, and that all seemed to have gone wrong. But now the plan of God is coming into action, and it’s beginning where it has to begin: with an encounter with God. We can quickly try to rush into action for God – which is very worthy, to want to work for Him, to serve Him – but fundamentally there has to come again and again in our lives an encounter with God. We have to be hungry for that. Moses learned a hunger for God that grew as the years passed, and the story of his life shows that. And he discovered first of all that God is holy. God said to him: ‘Moses, take the shoes off from your feet, for this is holy ground.’ The ground where God is is holy. That word holy hasn’t occurred in the Bible until now, and after this it is frequently used as a description of God Himself. The same root word is used in other semitic religions to depict something that is wholly other, but only of our God does it depict One who is morally righteous and good, and holy in that sense: other, different, but righteous. I think there would come over Moses’ spirit a trembling and an awe, and yet a strange delight that gripped him from that hour on.
God spoke to Moses, and in spite of that awareness of a holy God, Moses is inclined to dispute with God when He says: ‘Moses, you go. You go to Pharaoh. I’m sending you to rescue My people.’ The old Moses had said: ‘I want to rescue them,’ and he thought he knew how to do it, but that plan had all gone awry. Now he has no confidence in himself, and he has to become very dependent on that God with whom he is meeting, until eventually he agrees to go to Pharaoh, and he goes again and again.
It made me think of Christ, of whom we read that though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience through the things that He suffered. But Christ was never disobedient. Christ was one with the Father, but clothed in our flesh, walking our way. I spoke last week of the incredible identification of Christ with us as He walked amongst us. So in His flesh He learned obedience through the things that He suffered. He was willing, without any argument. And Moses became willing. He’s very like us: he yielded eventually. How much better to yield immediately – as I think he learned again and again through the subsequent months and years of his life. He found that hidden treasure ‘behind the ranges’ of mount Sinai. I don’t know if he was up the mountain at all, or just at the foot of it in the wilderness, but he was there. And he discovered God.
Is there an answering thrill in your spirit? There is in mine: the sense that God has promised to pour out His Spirit, and He’s calling: Go and seek for the treasure … Something hidden, go and find it … lost and waiting for you: go! … God took care to hide that country till He judged His people ready, Then He chose me for His Whisper, and I’ve found it, and it’s yours!
Do you hear that whisper in your own spirit? Go and find it. Though it’s not so easy when we’re not at church all the time – a little bit now, which has been a delight – he says: ‘I’ll meet you in your wilderness; I’ll meet you where you are. But go and look for it. Look for the treasure.’ You’ll find the holiness. You’ll find the encounter with God that awes your spirit, that sears you for time and for eternity, till God fills your horizon, fills the empty spaces. I know that some of you feel the loneliness of this time of isolation and lockdown, but I know that there is a living God who satisfies to the deeps every lonely place within. And indeed there is a lonely place that nothing else will ever satisfy: no human company. Treasure, there in God. Go and seek Him. During these coming weeks, please God, He will pour out His Spirit, and we’ll find more and more of the hidden treasure.
I want to say just a little on the very wide subject of our Inheritance.
By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. (Hebrews 11:8)
We are familiar with this thought of the call of God on Abraham, and we probably dwell more on the idea of him being called and not knowing where he was going than we do in thinking on the inheritance that he was going to receive. That was a tremendous inheritance, and he died in faith that it would come to pass after his death. He believed there was an inheritance there beyond what he had already realized in God. And it is an inheritance that is saved for us. It’s something that God has for us in the future, but also now. Sometimes Christians have been teased and criticized for thinking of the future and ‘pie in the sky when you die’, and Satan is so clever in how he distorts the truth and makes ridicule of something tremendous, wonderful and life-changing, as we realize when we stop and think of the inheritance that is ours in Christ Jesus. He said: I go to prepare a place for you … Father, that they may behold Your glory, that they may be with Me where I am … In My Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. He has prepared for us a city and a wonderful inheritance that is beyond our understanding. It’s related to the peace of God, it’s related to the glory of God; it is where Christ is, for where Jesus Christ is, that is heaven to our souls and shall be for time and for eternity.
Peter speaks of this inheritance in a passage that in my Bible is entitled The Hope of Eternal Life:
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. 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. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see. (1 Peter 1:3–5)
What has brought me to this meditation about the Inheritance is a personal situation during which I felt God bring the passages to me a week or two ago. For some time past we have realized that it would be wise to move house. We loved the place where we were, but due to health considerations particularly, and also to the ageing process that one doesn’t think about in earlier days, we felt it really was the best thing to do. But it was very hard to find anything at all suitable for us in the small area where we wanted to be and where the church is located, and we had more or less put it to the side when the house that we have now bought came on the market, and in a very short time (about two weeks) it was ours, our own was sold, and we moved in a few days ago.
As I thought about the whole situation and became aware of what had happened, I felt it was quite miraculous how certain things had worked out, and I had absolutely no doubt that God had provided for us. This is the bit that I find exceedingly moving: though I had seen God provide for other people in many ways, I knew the difficulties that we were facing, and it actually seemed quite a dark tunnel. I hadn’t really heard very much from God on our own particular difficulties (I’d heard from Him on many other matters). And when this happened, with the suddenness that often characterizes events when God moves, I have been overwhelmed with the sense of His goodness, His kindness, and simply His light: the light had come on in a very dark tunnel, and really He’d been there all the time, and He had stored up the right place for us.
It made me think all the more of the heavenly inheritance. I thought, if God has taken care of three of His children out of millions and millions, and has provided for us something that exactly fits our needs with a lot over (He’s an abundant giver, isn’t He? And lots of things are a bonus) – if He’s taken such care to provide this for us on earth, what care is He taking at this moment in heaven to prepare an inheritance there, the heavenly dwelling place? And much as I love where we are now, if He said to me: ‘You are to come home tonight to heaven,’ I would say: ‘Amen!’ But what care, what preparation, must there have been?
It caused me to think again of these verses in Peter - a favourite part of mine, because God spoke to me terribly clearly, a number of years ago, these very verses. It was at a time when I had lost various of those close to me in my family, and in quite quick succession – which made me feel that for me it was just round the corner, and it would soon be my turn to be going home to be with Christ. A few years had passed, and I always had this feeling. It wasn’t in my mind; it was almost like an inner felt assumption, and yet my mind didn’t really think that. And I remember one Saturday night going home after the meeting and sitting alone in my lounge, when I turned to my daily reading Bible and it opened at these verses in Peter. If ever God spoke to me, I felt Him speak to me that night. And I pass it on to you, because it’s not for me alone (obviously), but it’s for all those who love Christ Jesus and wait for His appearing. He said: All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … 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.
We can have an earthly inheritance, and it might have disappeared before we’re actually due to inherit – all sorts of unexpected changes happen in life. But our inheritance in heaven, the beauty, the joy and the perfection, the knowledge of God that shall be ours there, the dwelling place with Him: it’s priceless, and it’s being kept in heaven, it’s pure and undefiled and it won’t decay – and it’s real, it’s there, it’s waiting. No matter how difficult life might be for you just now, God is preparing that inheritance, and one day, sudden in a moment, the change will have happened, and we’ll be there with Him. And it’s being kept safe for us. But more than that, He says: And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be be revealed on the last day for all to see. He’s protecting you. He’s protecting you from the enemy; He’s protecting you from every arrow that the enemy sends; He’s protecting you from all the unhappiness – and should I say also all the distraction that can come into our lives through joy. He’s protecting us so that we’re ready for the inheritance that He is keeping safe for us. And He says:
So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. (I Peter 1:6)
The people to whom Peter was writing were enduring trials beyond anything that we are enduring. The following verse continues:
These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold – though your faith is far more precious than mere gold … and it will bring to you praise and glory and honour (1 Peter 1:7)
To you – but also to Christ. And there is wonderful joy ahead.
Another verse that really spoke to me during last week I will leave with you. I wasn’t reading it at the time, but as I was praying it came into my mind with a tremendous sense of power and certainty:
Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. (Malachi 3:10)
We often, I think, concentrate on the first part of that verse: Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, and that can sometimes bring a sense of condemnation or trepidation: ‘O God, what more have I to bring? Am I lacking in something? … Oh, if I don’t get blessed, it’s my fault.’
This is not just about personal blessing, though we are included in it, but it’s the second half of the verse that has been really living for me: I will open the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it – or a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in. ‘Try Me: put Me to the test. There is blessing in the cup, there is blessing still in the vine, and it shall overflow. Prove Me now,’ says God. ‘See if I will not open the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to contain.’
In these very present days some of us are returning as congregations to church. Next Sunday night we’ll have a meeting here again in Greenock with limited numbers and all the restrictions. Many of us are returning to church if we can, others are not, and online services are continuing as well as those in the church. And I have just such a sense that the heavens are waiting to pour out blessing upon us all: in our homes, through the online activity, in our services, and in our churches - O blessed, blessed house of God! I know we don’t worship the building, but we worship God in the building, and our building in Greenock, hallowed for over a hundred years, is very precious, because He is here, and He will be here. But He’ll be here with us and at home, wherever you are, wherever you will be over the next weeks, drinking in the blessing, expecting it: See if I will not open the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing. Anticipate it. In these days of real difficulty and gloom and uncertainty, there is an inheritance secure, and we begin to realize it here on this earth, and long for others to receive it also.
There’s a lovely verse in Colossians that I love in both the old and new translations given in a Bible that I have, but the verse has a peculiar significance for me in the newer version. Paul writes:
We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy … (Colossians 1:11 NLT)
And the old translation is:
Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness (KJV)
– which is much easier to remember, but somehow the more modern translation brings the meaning home, and it underlined to me the fact of the joy of God. We read: The joy of the Lord is your strength, and how significant the joy is in the New Testament! We call Christ the Man of Sorrows, and that is His title; it comes from Isaiah 53, and He does speak of His grief, more than any man’s, but He speaks again and again of His joy.
It is Paul who is writing to the Colossians, and that gives this verse peculiar significance because he suffered so much, and he emphasizes in all his letters again and again: Rejoice … and again I say, rejoice! … Rejoice always! Often we are contented if we can have the patience and the endurance, and we think we’re doing pretty well if we manage that in all circumstances. But Paul says: ‘and with joy’. And I realized just how significant joy is. Joy is part of the strength, and it’s absolutely necessary for us to live the kind of life God wants us to live, where we have a joy that is untroubled by fightings and fears without and within. That joy is strength, and it is the joy of God. And patience, yes, in tribulations, that we may be strengthened with all his glorious powerso that we will have endurance and patience, but with joy.
Strengthened in the inner man – how we need it! We can have a respectable exterior and everything seems fine, but inside we know the weakness and the utter dependency on God. That’s a good thing: as long as we are dependent on Him, we begin to find the strength.
In a house that we once lived in, when we were about to move we ran into a problem because the previous owners had made alterations without planning permission, and so we had to ask the council for a letter of comfort. They were not pleased with what had been done, and they said that although it all looked very nice the construction was not strong enough, and we were instructed at some expense to get a steel bar put in which ran almost the length of the house. Now that steel bar couldn’t be seen: it was hidden, but they said it had to be there for strengthening. And I thought, that is exactly what we need inside us: a steel bar of the strength of God. It’s hidden, but it’s absolutely vital.
How does it come? It comes with going through trial: just with going through life there comes patience and endurance. But how does the strength come? It’s developed through life, but it’s also linked to that joy. And the joy is linked with peace. Christ speaks of both in the same conversation with His disciples at the end of His life: that my joy may remain in you (John 14:27), and my peace I give to you (John 15:11).
Paul writes to one of the churches:
Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace always in every way. (2 Thessalonians 3:16)
There is a very beautiful verse in Isaiah, where we read in the old translation:
But there the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby. (Isaiah 33:21 KJV)
The Lord shall be a place of broad rivers and streams, and there will be no galleys with oars: that makes me think of a slave ship. There will be nothing like slavery in our life. But the new translation says:
The Lord will be our Mighty One. He will be like a wide river of protection that no enemy can cross, that no enemy ship can sail upon. (NLT)
That is where our peace lies. The Lord will be our Mighty One; He will be like a wide river of protection, a broad stream ‘wherein shall go no galley with oars’. A galley with oars was usually a fighting vessel, so that it’s a river that no enemy can cross and no enemy ship can sail upon. And I think we can all immediately recognize: that’s exactly what we need. An ocean of God around us, cocooning us, that the enemy cannot cross.
Is this possible? Well, I think that’s where the apostle Paul lived. It’s probably where quite a number of them, like John, lived, where the enemy couldn’t reach them. Suffering, yes, in their life, but something in their spirit that was strengthened with the joy of God and the peace of God. It came from that protection that can be around us. Think of Aaron and Hur strengthening Moses there as he lifted up his hands to pray while the Israelites were fighting the Amalekites. He couldn’t hold his hands up any longer until they came on each side and held them up for him. We feel like that sometimes – and who comes to hold our hands up but God Himself and His Son Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we are strengthened. And we find around us, like a broad river, our God.
A line in Myers’ poem sums it up:
Then let me feel how infinite around me
Floats the eternal peace that is to be,
Rush from the demons, for my King has found me,
Leap from the universe and plunge in Thee!
(F W H Myers, St Paul)
Eternal peace, the eternal calm that is ours, and it comes on the wings of joy that is to remain with us. Blessed be His Name.
The Lord took hold of me, and I was carried away by the Spirit of the Lord to a valley filled with bones. He led me all around among the bones that covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out. Then he asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones become living people again?’
‘O Sovereign Lord,’ I replied, ‘you alone know the answer to that.’
Then he said to me, ‘Speak a prophetic message to these bones and say, “Dry bones, listen to the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again! I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”’
So I spoke this message, just as he told me. Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them.
Then he said to me, ‘Speak a prophetic message to the winds, son of man. Speak a prophetic message and say, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, O breath, from the four winds! Breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again.”’
So I spoke the message as he commanded me, and breath came into their bodies. They all came to life and stood up on their feet – a great army.
Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones represent the people of Israel. They are saying, “We have become old, dry bones – all hope is gone … ” Therefore, prophesy to them and say, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again … I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live again and return home to your own land.”’
This part from Ezekiel, though not our actual New Year promise, was closely linked to it, and I spoke on it on the night that the Word was given. It has been really living for me. In my Bible it is headed A Valley of Dry Bones: A Renewed People (NLT), and it spoke to me so much of the church of Jesus Christ and of ourselves. Hopefully we are not the dry bones! I hope we’ve not become absolutely desiccated by being away from church but rather the opposite: that we are not dry. But we can identify so much with this. It speaks to me of the church in the wilderness. What we have been going through (and this true across the world) is in some ways as the church of Jesus Christ in the wilderness, because of the restrictions and at times being forbidden even to meet in God’s house.
If you think of this, God always has a plan for your life and mine, and a plan for His own church – and a plan for our church, which is a lovely thought. But the enemy has a plan, and his plan for the church of Christ is that she becomes like dry bones scattered in a wilderness, desiccated, good for nothing, dead. That’s what he wants, and to have us all scattered apart. And that’s what this pandemic has done: at times we weren’t allowed even to see each other. But there comes a breath of the Holy Spirit into that valley of dry bones that Ezekiel saw, and the bones weren’t dry any more: they formed into people, and the breath came into them, and they became as a mighty army. And that is God’s plan.
In the words of another verse:
Who is this that cometh up out of the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? (Song of Songs 8:5)
No matter how much we have found God during these days (and some will have found His presence more easily than others), we miss being together, and the strength and the sense of forward movement that comes from being in His house. Who is this that comes up out of the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? It is your life and mine. It is His church. Pray God she will come up out of this whole experience leaning upon her Beloved. Whom else should we lean on? Whom else should we look to for guidance but the Lord Jesus Christ Himself? Because He has been there: He has been in the wilderness. He was there at Calvary. He was there in that hour when He was like the goat that took the sin of the people and went out into the wilderness. He was there in the days of His sojourn on earth, the forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, being tempted and tested and tried of the enemy. There the enemy planned to leave Christ as dried bones, finished. But that wasn’t God’s plan.
God’s plan was that Christ the perfect Man, perfect Son of God, within that wilderness, wrestling with the enemy, wrestling in His flesh against the power of the enemy, wrestling against the temptation to give in and just bown down and worship Satan, should instead triumph gloriously. Christ’s triumph in that wilderness won for you and me the power to overcome temptation, the power to resist with faith in the living God and to discover the sense of faith that is the faith of the Son of God. So whom else should we come out of our wilderness leaning upon but on Jesus Christ? He came up from His baptism in the Jordan and He went into the wilderness full of the Spirit, forty days and forty nights without food, and we only read of the temptations that came at the end; we don’t know what happened during these forty days and nights. We know that He was so weakened in His body that angels came and took care of Him at the end. We know the temptation to doubt that Satan tried Him with there at the end. But as we read of Him going up from the banks of Jordan, full of the Holy Spirit, driven of the Spirit into the wilderness, we also read that He came out of the wilderness full of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes at the beginning of this lockdown when I pictured us coming back to church, I thought: ‘We’ll be war-weary by then, we’ll be tired, a bit wounded, and oh! the joy of the restoration of then coming together again!’ But actually I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think we’ll be like that at all. I don’t think that’s God’s plan. That’s more like Satan’s plan, which is that we never come back together. But he’ll not win on that. What is God’s plan? That we will come out as full of the Spirit as we went in. In fact Christ came out, speaking reverently, stronger than He went in – if we can say that of Christ, because He was always strong. But in His calling and ministry and in His manhood he had been tested and had overcome. And He came out winning for us the laurels of victory, winning for us the power to overcome temptation, winning for us the power to worship God because He would not worship Satan, and He won for us the power to bow down and worship the holy God, and the power to remain full of the Holy Spirit, even as He was. Tremendous is His provision for us.
In praying one night I felt overwhelmed by the sense of His victory, the anointing of His Spirit, the fulfilment of His Word: I will pour out of My Spirit. And as His Spirit is here with us, among us (not dry bones, but any bit of us that has got dried), as the breath of the Holy Spirit is here, call upon Him. You don’t even need another to prophesy over you. Call out to Him yourself, saying: ‘O come, Thou breath of the Holy Spirit, fill me, flood me, overflow me.’ And when that day comes that we are together, when we are together fully and without any restrictions (whether or not we come back before that, but when we come back like that), or in any form, we’re full of the Holy Spirit and of the victory of Jesus Christ – ours today. O may that Holy Spirit flood us, come into our homes where we are, that you may feel Him as He is in our church, where the atmosphere is always rich – even when it’s empty, still rich with His presence.
Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil – the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead … For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:1-6)
These verses paint a wonderful picture of salvation, the grace of God that has sought us when we were in our sin and caused us to be now united with Himself through Jesus Christ. It is our heavenly calling, and the calling is to live there in heavenly places with Christ Jesus. That we were in our sin when God found us is an evidence of the seeking, searching heart of God.
We talk a lot, and rightly so, about our need to search for Him, and the Bible is full from beginning to end of the encouragement to do that. The Old Testament is full of the pleas of His people and of the psalmists for God to answer, and there is a search for Him; it is vital that we engage in that. But never let us forget to consider the seeking heart of God. We are familiar with verses such as Christ spoke when He said: The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost. We know and love the stories of the prodigal son, the lost coin and the lost sheep, and we are very aware of that seeking of God for us initially to become His own through Jesus Christ, and we’re very aware of the joy of being found. But sometimes we will find it very fruitful if we meditate on that searching heart of God, and begin to ponder on the pain in the heart of God.
The prophet says:
I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me. (Isaiah 65:1)
The pain in that, the pain in God’s heart in Eden when Adam and Eve had lost contact with Him, and He came looking for them – they weren’t looking for Him, and they were hiding when He called them! And all through the ages since, God’s heart has been broken and is searching for us. It is tremendously comforting to think how He has sought until He found us, and finds souls still in their sin and draws them to Himself. It’s tremendously comforting if you’re burdened for another life to realize that God is looking for them, even if there seems no response in them, and that God’s heart is still turned towards His people and His lost ones.
But what I want particularly to draw your attention to is God’s search for you and me, and His hunger for us who are His own, whom He has originally found. But – we know what it’s like to hear somebody calling our name. They maybe haven’t been able to find us in our house or wherever we are, and when we hear them calling we can have various reactions. Sometimes we are engrossed in what we’re doing and don’t want to be disturbed. But other times with an overwhelming joy we hear our name being called. We hadn’t known the person was in the house, and we’re pleased to be found. And I think of our heavenly Father and His constant search for us. He always wants to be found of us. He doesn’t need to look for us, in the sense that He knows exactly where we are. But He calls us and He seeks us, and sometimes we are more responsive than others. Sometimes we don’t hear because we are busy with our own affairs. Sometimes we are too engrossed with our own distresses even to hear Him calling our name. If only we might stop and think of God, His grief and His desire to be united with you and me always. He created us for Himself and for us to enjoy constant communion with Him, never a shade between.
Sometimes the reason that we might not be very quick to hear or to answer is the age-old reason that there can come a veil between: and sometimes that veil is actually sin. Often a person will say: ‘I can’t find God. I’ve looked, and I can’t find Him.’ I often remember my own father’s story as a teenager looking for salvation. He had gone to one of his leaders and was told to go and find it for himself. But then he spoke to another one, a very godly man, who said to him: ‘Is there any sin in your life?’ He’d never thought of that – but he knew there was plenty of sin in his life. He put that sin right, and wonderfully found salvation in Jesus Christ. Talk in the Christian world these days is very full of the knowledge of the grace and the love of God, and that’s all true. There’s not so much said about sin, and I often feel it’s like the elephant in the room: what about sin? Peace, yes; forgiveness, yes – but that’s when sin is repented of and put away. Sometimes there’s just a scance of it in our lives like a scance of dust, stopping a clarity of vision. We were born in it; God rescued us from it. We read in Ephesians that God seated us with Him in heavenly places. Don’t be careless with sin. Keep short accounts with God. Don’t break His heart by being careless. We can’t ignore it, because it immediately forms a barrier, but let us look for clean hands and pure hearts, live within our houses with integrity, set no unclean thing ever before our eyes – just never. I’m aware of what a snare that is to so many people. There should be zero tolerance, and you will know its huge effect in your lives. You will become much more aware of God Himself, and fall in love with God, and share His passion for others. Knowing the passion and the love of God, we find ourselves in true communion.
The line of a poem says something like this:
Over against His dead, God sat weeping.
When we catch a glimpse of that God, we want never to offend Him again, but to come and be at His side and say: ‘O God, keep me close.’ He sets us in His safe place: ‘Then was I in His eyes as one that found peace.’
What seekest Thou, O Master mine,
In yon far country of life’s waste
Searching each haunt of sin and want
Where souls are spent in wanton haste?
Let’s not leave Him alone in that search, but let us be ones that identify with Him and endeavour never to grieve His faithful heart.
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