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.
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