The verse for today is well known and one on which I have spoken many times in the past. What I have to say today is quite simple but has come to me very deeply and in a very current way, which is why I want to speak of it now.
Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. (Proverbs 29:18)
Another translation is:
Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint.
How true it is: where there is no vision, where there is no constant keeping God in our sights and our focus there, it’s very easy to grow lax and careless in our way of living and thinking. But where there is vision (and this is true of any sphere of life), where the heart is set upon a goal, there is discipline and there’s a training towards the fulfilment of that goal. It’s a very current subject just now, isn’t it, because of the problem with external examinations for school pupils and the difficulty in keeping pupils working towards the goal, when you’ve in fact removed some of that goal in the sense of taking away the external exams.
In the spiritual realm it is absolutely vital that we have vision, and that not in a vague sense. The vision always is God: every other vision stems from Him. He opens our eyes and sometimes gives us a very specific goal to aim at, but it’s all contained in this endeavour to find and to live at the heart of the life of God, and in the heart of His will. Because we are separated it would have been very easy for us each to follow our own vision, ‘every man doing that which is right in his own eyes’. Thank God, He has very wonderfully covered for us as a people, and He has kept the eyes of many of us still very trained upon Him, indeed more so in some ways than in the past, because of our acute dependency on Him to keep us alive spiritually. It is quite wonderful to see this happen. While listening to two of you singing the other night, I was realizing how the anointing is deepening rather than lessening on many lives (though not all) during these difficult days. What is vital for us is that we never sink into an attitude of mind that we’re just marking time, like a train that has stopped at the station for hours, but that rather we are travelling on into that that God has prepared for us, and our current situation is no mistake: it’s part of the pattern. I’m not saying it has all come from Him, but any circumstance has to get past Him before it gets to us, and He weaves it into His own plan and pattern.
The day gets wearisome – doesn’t it? – in this third lockdown. But God. He suddenly transfers our gaze from the world around us, and we become vitally aware again of the spiritual world. Really what drew my attention to this text was that at our Zoom meeting on Tuesday night last week, which we end with a time of prayer, there was a lovely atmosphere, a lovely covering, but just suddenly I felt a rush of power and anointing of God, and vision, and a certainty of the horizon being filled with that God who is a consuming fire, the God who is all-powerful, and suddenly the spiritual world was throbbing with life and all around, and it took me for a few minutes completely out of the limitations of our present circumstances.
I have been re-reading the books about the Rwanda revival; they stand many readings. For the church in Rwanda there came a wonderful revival that went on for many, many years. But before it came there was a dark hour, the darkest before the dawn. There was famine in the land at the time a young missionary went out there, called Dr Joe Church. He went straight into this situation of famine where the conditions were utterly horrendous, with desperate suffering and desperately hard work for these medical missionaries in particular: heartbreak and toil, and at the same time seeing that the churches at times could be full of people, but with no certainty that any of them were actually born again. And in his heart and in the hearts of some others, including some of the Africans, I think particularly from Uganda, who were truly saved, there came a desperate desire for more and for the moving of God. As a student at Cambridge he had been one of a group of young Christian men who were on fire for God (some of whom were out there with on the mission field with him by this time). They believed in the teaching that was coming from Keswick of holiness and of the fullness of the Spirit. They used to have missionaries come and speak to them at Cambridge, and many a poor missionary would have been devastated to know that after their visit the students would get together and pray: O God, never let me become like that – because there were missionaries who had got very dry on the field and very lacking in the fire that perhaps had once motivated them. These ardent young lives prayed that they would never lose that sense of fire and vision.
And so now they sought for God and began one by one to discover that what they needed was the fullness of the Spirit. They were truly saved. They were sanctified and they had known real touches of the Holy Spirit. But at the end of their tether, in desperate conditions, they needed the Holy Spirit. And He came on them one by one. This is shown in different ways, but it is always accompanied by a new power: power to live and an efficacy in preaching the gospel. In actual fact the Holy Spirit began to move in ways that seemed independent of human channels, but really much of it would be related to the prayer that was going on. And He came in convicting power, devastatingly convicting power, that brought men and women to the feet of Christ. Then those who had in some cases been professing salvation revealed that in fact their life was still full of superstition, witchcraft, occult practices and immorality. They were deeply converted, filled with the Holy Spirit, and so revival spread. It brought with it a lot of trouble inside the church – that’s usually where the main opposition comes from – and they were not easy years, but they were wonderful years of wonderful fruitfulness. The darkest hour had come before the dawn.
What has been impressed upon my spirit for us is that we keep making progress. Frances Ridley Havergal, famous Christian writer and singer (many of whose hymns we still sing), as a little girl lost her mother when she was eleven years old. But she always remembered her mother had said to her again and again: ‘Fanny, get yourself ready, prepare yourself, for what God is preparing for you.’ And that is our responsibility just now, to prepare ourselves for what God is preparing for us, that we are ready to step into the blessing that He will bring and is bringing. What was impressed upon my own spirit was to seek for a greater enduement. We’ve been baptized in the Holy Spirit, so we ‘understand’ what people are meaning when they speak about the fullness of the Spirit … but we don’t really. We have a little, tiny understanding. O to be flooded and to have that vision, that there is a greater enduement for His church and for us as individuals, no matter what age we are, young or old: we’re not going to coast to a finish, those of us who are a bit older, but rather to come in eventually to the harbour at full tide, borne along on a mighty tidal wave of the Holy Spirit. He says:
I know the plans that I have for you, plans of good and not of evil, to give you a hope and a future.
Take courage. The road is brighter ahead, not darker. The glory of God never decreases. It remains the same, but our perception grows. Moses viewed the Promised Land, but one day he stood in it by the side of Christ. And that is our goal: to be at Christ’s side, in the harvest field, for His glory.
Our theme today is quite a simple one, and yet it’s one that we never come to the end of. It’s quite simply the loveliness of Christ. Beginning to meditate upon it, I find there are so many strands that they are actually quite difficult to separate out and choose from. But I’ll do what I can and see where it goes.
When I was growing up, in fact for many, many years, there was a sign on my uncle’s farm. According to my memory, on the one side it said: ‘What think ye of Christ?’, and on the other: ‘He is altogether lovely.’ And it had an effect on me; it just was always there in my consciousnesss. Never despise wayside pulpits. My husband Wesley’s father had a farm with a different text on it, but I think one was: ‘It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.’ Many years later one of the family was talking to someone who said that they had been brought to Christ partly if not completely through that text. Alison Speirs, known to us all as the minister of our Glasgow church, was a thorough atheist in her youth, but in the months leading up to her conversion she was pretty pierced by a wayside text that said: ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.’
But to come back to my uncle’s wayside sign, the answer to the question ‘What think ye of Christ?’ – ‘He is altogether lovely’ – is from the Song of Songs, when the daughters of Jerusalem ask the Bride:
What is Thy beloved more than another beloved?
and she answers:
His mouth is most sweet: yea, He is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.
Talk of the loveliness of Christ in language such as this can be like mere words to us, until the day comes when we actually have caught a glimpse of Him in His sanctuary. We sing that lovely piece sometimes:
Within the veil I now would come,
Into the holy place, to look upon Thy face;
I see such beauty there, none other can compare;
I worship Thee, my Lord, within the veil.
The ‘veil’ within which we are invited to come speaks of that veil in the Temple that separated the general populace and even the priests from the Holy of Holies. Christ has entered in there, we read, into the heavenly places. He has ‘rent the veil in two’ so that we can come into a place of real beholding of the Godhead, shown to us in the face of Jesus Christ.
I think there are different roads by which people come into this place of beholding. For some of us it happens in a moment after yielding our life to Christ. There comes a moment when we are in the Spirit and into a new place, a new realm that we didn’t know existed, in which something of the loveliness of the face of Christ is shown to us, and life is never the same again. We are captivated by Him and by the beauty that shines out – Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined. And we know, surely, something of the loveliness of Christ and of that face that attracted the disciples and made them leave their means of living and follow after Him and say: ‘We’ve found the Christ. We’ve found the Lamb of God.’ And so have they done through the ages. But we come, I think, by different roads into appreciating and really understanding in our hearts and in our spirits, as well as in our minds, the loveliness of Christ. The very creation around shows the hand of a Creator who loves beauty. And He is the One who is altogether perfect. I know that Isaiah says: He has no beauty in him that we should desire Him. That is what He seemed like to those who hated Him without a cause. But to those who loved Him and to those now who love Him, He is the altogether lovely.
The bride in the Song of Songs says: This is my beloved, and this is my friend. Isn’t that a lovely title for Christ? My friend. He calls us his friends. Often when addressing His disciples He called them His friends. And they who hated Him called Him the friend of sinners.
Thou art the sinner’s friend,
So I Thy friendship claim.
To have a friend, and one who can be altogether trusted, is often the desire of the human heart. If a friend lets us down or betrays our trust, the friendship is never quite the same again. We look for one on whom we can rely, and also one who will not look for our weaknesses, and will not point a finger at us. Not that we want them to be blind, but we prefer them to be the kind of person who will overlook our weaknesses or take them into account and still give us loyalty and friendship.
It is said of someone I read of that they had led a life better than perhaps had been expected of them. When asked the secret of it they said: ‘Well, I had a friend.’ They had a friend who set a high standard. C. S. Lewis speaks of the days before his conversion, when in the army during the First World War. He had a friend who was moving towards Christianity, and he discovered that this friend took for granted the Christian virtues of chastity, truth, honourableness. C. S. Lewis was not living like that, but he didn’t want this friend to know, and indeed he began to adjust his life to match his friend’s standard.
How much more is that the case for us with the Lord Jesus Christ? He comes alongside us to be our friend, and we begin to discover how true that that friendship deepens. There are passing friends whom we don’t know very well and who don’t know us well. But there are others who get much further into an understanding and a knowledge, and they become close friends as we get to know them. Often as we get to know a person we become less friends with them, or we become greater friends.
Christ doesn’t need to get to know us. He knows us, and yet He does not turn away. And He allows us to come further into His sanctuary so that we begin to know Him. He that regards purity in his heart … has the king for his friend (Proverbs 22:11). If we regard that, and if we basically clean our lives up in every aspect of living, we find that Christ, the friend of sinners, is the King, and the friendship of the King is worth having. As we get to know a friend, we get to know their faces better, and whatever they might have appeared like to us originally, we begin to see no flaw in them. There is an attraction, because of their personality that outweighs any defects they might have. With Christ, the innerness of His being is altogether lovely, and so is the countenance that is revealed to us by the Holy Spirit in spiritual places. Someone said of Garibaldi, a very courageous, charismatic leader in the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century: ‘I have today seen the face of Garibaldi, and all the devotion of his friends is made clear as day to me.’
Who hath once seen or in the least descried Him
Dimly and distant, hidden and afar,
Doth not despise all excellence beside Him,
Pleasures and powers that are not and that are?
The beauty of that face of the Lord Jesus Christ. It has in it all the facets one could ever look for. The kindness, the love, the strength, compassion, loyalty, purity, sheer loveliness … He is perfect in His beauty.
Thou vision of undying loveliness,
Once glimpsed, can not by any be outshone;
No fragrant morning, noon or dappled evening
Compare in any facet with the Son.
This one thing can we do, as the Psalmist said in Psalm 27: we can come within the temple to desire the beauty of the Lord and to seek Him; to be like Mary of Bethany who unashamed poured out what was most precious, the ointment, upon Christ. And we can break our lives open in a cascade of love to that one who is altogether lovely.
In her recent Conference address Diana alluded to a remark of mine earlier in the year. Having no recollection of it, I later checked my texts (I probably keep more texts than anyone I know!) and discovered one that had been written following her online communion service (5 July):
It was a lovely service this morning yet again. In particular, I found something profoundly stirring in the thought of people all over the world linked to us. Trying to capture just what it was, I felt it was this: we sometimes think of the love of Christ flowing across the world ‘out there’, but this morning it felt as if the world was being brought inside under the same canopy of His love that we were experiencing.
Re-reading it, I thought it might be worth sharing and perhaps expanding. Although there was probably no particular verse of Scripture in my mind at the time, there was a definite feeling associated with the word ‘canopy’ that was likely to be scripturally based, and so I went in quest of its actual use. Very rapidly I found what I was looking for.
‘Canopy’ in this context spells both protection and a love that unites those under its embrace. Its equivalent in Hebrew is huppah, a word still in use today.
We encountered it memorably in an earlier New Year Word (2007):
And the LORD will create upon every dwelling place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a covering (canopy: huppah). (Isaiah 4:5)
An alternative rendering is that over everything the glory will be a canopy. In either case, the idea of protection is to the fore. The older translation (KJV) actually used the word defence.
But the word means even more than this. It is specifically used in two instances in the Old Testament to denote the bridal chamber, and to this day it refers to the canopy under which a Jewish wedding is conducted – a practice that goes back centuries into the mists of time. It is an awning supported by four posts, representing the shared home or chamber of the couple entering into mutual commitment. Thus we have a reference to the bride and groom coming out of their chamber or closet or retreat (huppah) as required by a solemn assembly (Joel 2:16).
A wonderful metaphorical application of this meaning of the word occurs in the psalmist David’s celebration of God’s manifest handiwork in the heavens:
[The sun] is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber (huppah), and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. (Psalm 19:5 KJV)
God has made a home in the heavens for the sun. It bursts forth like a radiant bridegroom after his wedding (huppah). It rejoices like a great athlete eager to run the race. (Psalm 19:4–5 NLT)
Here the sun is like a bridegroom inspired by joy in his bride to set out on his exultant daily journey.
In both of these instances, in Joel and the Psalms, there is a leaving of the shelter or retreat to engage in the ordained activity, be it solemn assembly or joyous sowing of heat and light. And there is a sense in which we know this principle very well as it applies to us. We love to nestle in the shelter of God’s protective love and to commune with Christ in the inner chamber of the soul, but we are called also to engage in work and warfare, in the ordinary duties of life and in emotional and spiritual conflict. This can cause a feeling of distance between the place of shelter and the place of outward activity and struggle. But in fact we have not left the canopy of God’s love, and as we turn to Him in the midst of daily life we can sense again the sweet impartation of His grace, the reassurance that His Presence is near.
In the sense in which we do go forth, could it be as the Sun? Could it be like Christ Himself? Being with Him we become like Him. It is His love, and the assurance of that love, it is His very Person, that sustains and strengthens us on our mission and on our journey. And indeed, if we refuse to embark on whatever He calls us to do, or if we lag in the doing of it, we also lose that keen sense of being under His canopy of love and protection.
Diana’s response to my original text vividly illustrates the way in which the two aspects are harmonised. She wrote:
That's a lovely thought of others coming under the same canopy. Could feel rivers flowing worldwide from Calvary at the end.
What I had originally pictured as two contrary movements – the bringing in and the sacrificial outpouring and the outgoing of the Evangel – is but two aspects of the same wonderful reality. As we go forward into this New Year, strengthened and inspired by what has been a remarkable online Conference (literally ‘a bringing together’), we are all under the protective canopy of the love that flows from Calvary.
‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.’ This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. (Hebrews 12:26–7)
God will shake the things that can be shaken, so that the things that are unshakeable may remain.
For many people in the country it has seemed that foundations have shaken. What was known before and relied upon is changed, and there is no certainty of the way ahead or of the future. Similarly for us as Christians, there has been change and shaking of much that seemed very stable, and we’re caused to discover more and more the things that cannot be shaken. In the words sung by Andrew and Rhian immediately before this word was first given in the Greenock church: ‘You have been faithful … You have been so, so good.’ And that is of course what we know cannot be shaken. It’s just God Himself.
I come back to a story in Genesis that I love: the story of Sarah’s slave-woman Hagar. Abraham has taken Hagar to be his concubine, that he might have a child. He won’t be the child of promise, but Sarah and Abraham have tried to take matters into their own hands. Hagar begins to mock Sarah when she knows she is going to have a child, and Sarah is so cruel to her that she runs away.
The angel of the Lord found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur. The angel said to her, ‘Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ ‘I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai,’ she replied. The angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her authority.’ Then he added, ‘I will give you more descendants than you can count.’ And the angel also said: ‘You are now pregnant, and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means “God hears”) for the Lord has heard your cry of distress. This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him …’ Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, ‘You are the God who sees me.’ She also said, ‘Have I truly seen the One who sees me?’ So that well was named Beer-lahai-roi (which means ‘well of the Living One who sees me’) … So Hagar gave Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael.
Assuming that she must have told Abraham just what had happened, I wonder how Abraham felt when he heard how God had spoken to Hagar, and if he felt bad that he had let Sarah be so cruel to her.
Hagar wasn’t perfect, and therein lies comfort for us. She was partly responsible for her troubles, but not wholly. The main responsibility lies on Sarah. But Hagar had been very unwise; she had been very cruel to mock at Sarah her mistress because Sarah couldn’t have a son and she herself was going to have a child. But she is now in a desperate plight. She is a slave, she’s a victim, she had no say in the matter; she was just dictated to. And now, having run away because she had been so cruelly treated, she’s alone and doesn’t know what to do. She finds a spring of water in the wilderness; and there we have this lovely incident where the Angel of the Presence, whom we believe to be Christ Himself, sees and speaks to her.
He says: ‘Where are you going?’ In other words: ‘Hagar, what are you doing?’ Hagar explains, and the Angel says to her: ‘Return; submit,’ and He speaks to her of the son she is going to have. She is beside a well of water, so she’s not going to die of thirst there in the wilderness. She’s able to get back to Abraham and Sarah. But she’s not the same person, for she has met with God.
I think we can identify to some extent with Hagar, in her loneliness, her need, and her imperfection. God finds her, and speaks to her. He lets her know that He has heard her cry, and that is what she has to call her son: ‘the Lord who hears’. He had heard her the instant she cried. And she now knows God by this name that means ‘the well of the Living One who sees me’. In her need God found her, God sees her. Is that not all we need? Just the assurance: ‘O God, You see me.’
Sometimes if we can’t physically run away from our circumstances we try inside ourselves to escape from it all, but we can’t. It may be something like a thorn that is continually piercing and bringing a cruelty into the deeps of our spirit, a cruelty of life, and we can’t escape … until in a moment we wait by the well of living water, and we know where that well is, even God. We wait – but glorious moment, when suddenly out of the silence He speaks. Sometimes He doesn’t even speak, but we just know: ‘O God, You see me. You hear. That’s enough.’
The years pass for Hagar, and she finds herself in a very difficult plight again when her son Ishmael is about seventeen. Isaac the son of Abraham and Sarah has just been weaned, and Ishmael (perhaps a bit like his mother seventeen years earlier) is now mocking Isaac. Sarah is incensed, and tells Abraham: Send her away.’ This time God speaks to Abraham, who is very grieved, and He says: ‘Do it. I will be with him. But send him away.’ And with a heavy heart Abraham does so.
But what was Hagar’s heart like? This time it’s not just Sarah’s cruelty that has made her run away; it’s actually God who has told Abraham: ‘Send her away.’ This time she’s just wandering in the wilderness, and there’s no well of living water. Having put the boy in the shade of a bush, she goes a little distance away and bursts into tears; she doesn’t want to watch the boy die. But God heard the boy crying, and the Angel of God called to Hagar: ‘Hagar, what’s wrong? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy crying as he lies there; go to him and comfort him.’ Her plight seemed even worse this time, but sometimes it’s when we’re at our greatest extremity of real need (not imagined need) that God speaks. And on each occasion you notice that He comes looking for her. She’s not a saint; nor has Ishmael been. It’s not like Elijah, such a mighty man of God, when God found him in the wilderness and fed him. Hagar we can identify with more in some ways: so ordinary, but so suffering, so badly treated, and it seems being shut out by God until out of the darkness He speaks, and then He opens her eyes and she sees the well of living water.
Is that not what He does for you and me, when it seems at times there is no water to be found in the wilderness, and there is a peculiar aloneness such as was Hagar’s lot. Who could help her? The ones responsible for her had sent her away. But wandering there she was seen and found of her God, given the well of living water, and cared for. Does He not do as much for you or me, the least of His children? Does He not see us? Does He not come searching, until He finds us? ‘Even in the darkest valley I will fear no ill: You are right beside me, Lord.’ He was right beside Hagar and found her wandering, to leave her never lonely – that’s why Christ came, to leave us never lonely again, but to cause us to find that which cannot shake. There in the beginning of the Old Testament right to the end of the New Testament is the goodness and the faithfulness of the same God that we worship today, and that we need to find for ourselves, as Hagar did. She said: ‘Now I know, I call Him the Living One who sees me.’
I close with an extract that really speaks of the heart of that which cannot be shaken, and that is the friendship of God:
… to have seen evermore revealed behind the complicated troubles of this strange, mysterious life, the unchanged smile of an eternal Friend, and everything that is difficult to reason solved by that reposing trust which is higher and better than reason: to have known and felt this, I will not say for a life, but for a single blessed hour, that, indeed, is to have made experiment of Christianity. (Wm Archer Butler)
That is to have reached the heart of it, and the heart of God.
To have seen, in this our very present life, the unchanged smile of an eternal Friend, is to experience Christianity. As an old Scots saying has it: It’s better felt than telt. There is no exchange for the actual divine moment of the touch of God, and the lingering of Him by us. And we know: ‘Thou God seest me.’
I know that many of us are very focused on Christmas at this time. There are two verses that I want to bring out from the story.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.’ (Matthew 2:1–2)
We know how Herod reacted to this news, and he sent them to Bethlehem.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. (vv. 9–11)
For all of us there are probably different parts of the Christmas story that particularly live, and perhaps different verses that encapsulate it for us. For me, it is always something about these two verses: We have seen his star in the east (or: We have seen his star as it rose), and have come to worship him, and then: When they saw his star again, they rejoiced with exceeding joy.
Even in the secular world there is a tremendous focus on Christmas. As one of you texted to me, this from one point of view is a good thing. It is very interesting that so much attention is being given, for it is a Christian festival, although many people who celebrate Christmas are hardly aware of that fact. Also there is a certain joy and happiness that affects even people who don’t understand where it comes from: it really is still the overflow of the joy of that first coming of Christ.
Among many signs that foretold it was the sign of the Star. Very interestingly, this Christmas week sees a crossing of the planets Saturn and Jupiter on 21 December, and if our skies are clear enough we will see what will look like an exceedingly bright star. Astronomers reckon that it happened about 2,000 years ago also; they have been able to work back to when these phenomena would occur. Could it have been something like that that the wise men saw? There were astronomic phenomena in the skies around the time of Christ’s birth, not exactly to where we date it. There was great belief in the pagan world that there was coming a ruler and a king, and they felt that the signs in the heavens such as this were foretelling it. This is documented by Roman historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius, who recorded the belief among many people that there would emerge a ruler of the earth, and he would actually come from Judea. But of course the Roman emperor Augustus was born about this time also, and came to his throne as the first emperor, and many saw in him the fulfilment of this promised messianic figure. Even in 5–2 BC, in the Egyptian month of Mesori, the daystar arose at sunrise with exceeding brilliance. And that word mesori means ‘the birth of a prince’. So we see that even secular history tells us there were phenomena. I don’t myself have any difficulty in believing that God had a star for Christ, not recorded generally but seen by the wise men, and that, as someone has suggested, that star was the Shekineh glory that had been homeless since the Temple had been destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant lost, now finding its home again on earth in the person of Christ, born that night in Bethlehem. But isn’t it a beautiful picture? We have seen his star in the east, and we have come to worship him.
As for the wise men (we assume there were three because there were three gifts, but we don’t know for certain), there certainly were people called Magi, wise men, who did read the stars, and who did interpret dreams. And so it’s not at all an uncommon or unbelievable thing that they should have come at the Saviour’s birth – as the poem says: ‘A cold coming we had of it’ – just at the very worst time of the year. There is something about that, the coming of the Magi, to where Christ was born, coming at a hard time of the year, but coming to worship this one to whom the doors were shut: with no room in the inn, born in a stable (probably a cave), born in a hard world that was full of darkness, full of sin, that part of the world ruled by a very wicked king, Herod, with unbelievable cruelty. Into that world He came, heralded by the angels where music heralded often the birth of a son, and there was no music for Christ but this music of the angels singing; and the wise men come and they find Him in the stable. There in that stable it is hard not to feel the light; there could even have been a physical light coming from Him; but there would certainly be the sense of the light of the presence of God.
But also, in the words of Graham Kendrick’s lovely hymn ‘Thorns in the straw’:
And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn?
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night?
There was a thorn there, wasn’t there? We know that. We know that the sword was piercing Mary’s heart: she would already have suffered even before Christ was born. And we know that the world was dark. But nothing can take away from that light that came with the birth of the Saviour, Jesus, who would save His people from their sins. And even for us – although we know the birth of Christ is to be followed by His death on the cross, there is to me an unalloyed joy at the heart of Christmas, mirrored in the beauty of that shining Star. They rejoiced with exceeding joy when they saw the Star again, because there is the light of God there in Christ: He is that light, and not all the darkness in the world can encroach upon it or upon His joy and what He came to share with us. They brought Him beautiful gifts: the gold fit for a king, or so often associated with deity. They brought Him frankincense associated with the priestly worship, and He is the Priest, the bridge builder. They brought Him myrrh, given for the One about to die. They brought Him treasure, but they found that He was the treasure.
Gifts to the Saviour I’m bringing,
Love’s richest treasure to lay…
But what gift have we to give Him except what He has given us? And we find He is the treasure.
Just as at Bethlehem the darkness can’t take away from the beauty of the light, so we find that not only at the beginning of his life is that the case, but also at the end of His life that is the case. How dark it grew at Calvary as the hordes of hell were summoned to try to extinguish that light of the dying Saviour, who perhaps seemed to be taking the light of the world with Him, as Dorothy Sayers says. But in actual fact, as in Bethlehem that night a kingdom was born in the hearts of those who saw Him and believed on Him, how much more at Calvary, where it seemed that the darkness was winning, was the light being established for ever and the kingdom being born and established in the hearts of men and women, till myriad myriads are now the guardians of that light, and the treasure is lodged deep within our heart. And that is something to truly rejoice and believe in, that the Christ is not now in a manger but He is actually within us, His life, His light inside. And if the enemy still tries to extinguish that light, he cannot touch Christ now. He never could touch that light, although he tried. He tries to do it in you and in me, but that light is stronger than any darkness in any assault and in any suffering. Indeed, the treasure that is Christ that has taken residence within shows all the brighter against the dark background, as the star shines when it is dark.
For some today there could be a cup of grief. There has been much bereavement this year. There has been difficulty of various sorts. If some of you feel cocooned in a place of worship and delight, that’s wonderful. But if you have found the enemy has tried to put a dark wing over your joy, remember: he cannot touch that light that is the Lord Jesus Christ, and He remains ours. The sorrows of Bethlehem never can remove the exceeding joy. So it is also at Calvary: the glory exceeds even the suffering. And because of Calvary, for you and for me our light affliction is but for a moment, and is not to be compared with the exceeding weight of glory. Let us bring our worship to this King.
This is the last of our series on the theme of looking for the treasures of God ‘behind the ranges’.
Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness. Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King. God is known in her palaces for a refuge … Let mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of thy judgments. Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. For this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death. (Psalm 48:1–3, 11–14)
When the theme of the series opened up to me, immediately there flashed into my mind nearly all the mountains of which I have spoken, including this as the last one, and it came as a surprise. I wouldn’t have naturally included it. But the more we think about it, the more wonderful Mount Zion appears to us.
Zion was one of the mountains on which the city of Jerusalem is built, but it became synonymous with the name Jerusalem for the geographical city. Far more than that, it also became the name to describe the New Jerusalem and heaven itself, the City of God. And so the term Zion can refer to both, in both the Old and especially the New Testament. And that is when we begin to identify very much with the thought of Mount Zion. When I was a child we often sang the hymn that includes these words:
The hill of Zion yields
A thousand sacred sweets
Before we reach the heavenly fields,
Or walk the golden streets.
So you can understand the kind of connotations that had for me as a child, where happiness was definitely associated with Zion. When we look at some of the sweets that Mount Zion yields, they are very, very wonderful, far too wonderful to go into all in a short meditation.
But Mount Zion is referred to again and again in the Old Testament, and this verse, found in both Obadiah and Joel, has lived very strongly for me:
Upon Mount Zion shall be deliverance. (Obadiah 1:17; cf. Joel 2:32)
The city of Zion, or Jerusalem, was Israel’s fortress and ultimately their capital, built on the hill and associated with strength and power. We think of God coming down on Mount Sinai, one of our early mountains, imparting the sense of His power, His fire, His might. That is nothing compared with the power and the strength that are there in Mount Zion, the city of God, the fortress of God. God is known in her palaces for a refuge: He is greatly to be praised in the mountain of His holiness; and on Mount Zion there shall be deliverance. It came to me with a tremendous sense of the authority of God: there shall be deliverance.
For those reading now in need of deliverance of various kinds, let this strike a chord and awaken the note of faith inside your being. It may be that you know you need deliverance because of sins in your past or even in your present. Along with your inability to overcome and your awareness that you really do need deliverance from the power of the enemy, because of the lockdown you’ve been a bit more cut off from ministry that could have been available to you. But our God is the Deliverer: from Mount Zion there comes the Deliverer. He is there to deliver you and me from the power of the enemy in whatever way that enemy tries to assert himself. Take courage into your soul today: upon Mount Zion there shall be deliverance. Believe it, and claim it, not just at a mind level, but so that deep into your spirit there comes victory, there comes power to overcome sin, weakness, lack of faith, and fear. Is fear not something that is stalking so many people at this time? Some are left very untouched by fear of Covid, whereas the lives of others are almost being dominated by it. For a child of God He is our refuge, our strength and our future, and there is deliverance from fear and anxiety and the burdens of this life. He is our Deliverer: from Mount Zion He shines. As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the LORD is round about His people. (Psalm 125:2) They shall stand secure as Mount Zion (v.1 NLT).
With that awareness of the strength and power associated with the God of Mount Zion, there comes to us a tremendous sense of security, where (to cite an illustration that I have just read) we find that our feet are not just standing on the rock, but they are embedded in the rock. If we’re standing on the rock, we can slip, as we maybe know on a rocky hillside. But if our feet are embedded in the rock, then we don’t slip. That is the security that Mount Zion brings us: that deep treasure, to be found and explored all our life.
And then there is another aspect of it. She is beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth.
From Mount Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines in glorious radiance. (Psalm 50:2)
And so that describes the city there, the New Jerusalem, heaven itself. Of that mount we read:
I saw the Lamb standing upon Mount Zion (Revelation 14:1)
and we read of the beauty of the New Jerusalem:
I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away… And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. (Revelation 21:2, 4, 23)
Let us meditate upon that Mount Zion, the New Jerusalem, our destiny. We can’t explore all its treasure yet: that lies in the future. But some of its treasure comes spilling down to us now, and we can begin to explore it. The perfection of beauty, the radiance of God Himself shining out, is a beacon to us; it’s the light that is guiding us on our journey.
It is Christ Himself who said: ‘I go to prepare a place for you.’
In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. (John 14:2)
In other words: ‘If there wasn’t one for you, if there weren’t enough for you, I would have told you.’ He has gone to prepare a place, and the light of that dwelling place comes to us, the exquisite sweetness of it, the beauty, the place where there is no sorrow, no more tears, no more thirst. The Lamb Himself will be our guide to lead us to the fountains of water. In the midst of your thirst today – and have we not got thirsty spirits? – draw near to Him. In the words of the hymn we sing at Christmas time: Travelling home, heavy laden … The hills are parting, we see the lights of Bethlehem. And it’s not Bethlehem we’re going to; it is heaven, it is Zion, the New Jerusalem. We see the lights – the hills of this life with all its difficulties and its joys begin to part, and we see the lights of home. Let the joy of it begin to spill over us. They who trust in Him shall be as Mount Zion: citizens of a new country, in the world but not of it.
O the blessed joy of meeting,
All the desert past;
O the wondrous words of greeting
He will speak at last.
He and I together ent’ring
Those fair courts above,
He and I together sharing
All the Father’s love.
(Tersteegen, tr. Frances Bevan)
O the blessed joy of meeting, all the desert past – entering His home, which is ours, to be greeted by the Father.
Is there not deep treasure here? I don’t think we meditate enough on all that lies ahead, so as to prepare ourselves now for that heavenly home.
In following the series ‘behind the ranges’, we have been trying to discover something of the deep things of God. Last week I wrote about Elijah and his wonderful victory over the powers of darkness on Mount Carmel. This week we are still with Elijah as he travels to a different mountain, a journey of forty days and nights away: the mountain of Horeb, or Sinai. It’s a fascinating part in Elijah’s life, and one from which we can learn a great deal.
The hour of victory is wonderful, as I said last week: ‘Try it!’ But it’s also the dangerous hour, because with victory there can come a relaxation, an exultation in God, and a feeling of tremendous safety and happiness. That’s all very good. But the anointing, I suppose, lifted from Elijah for the purpose for which it had been there on top of Mount Carmel, and his life is threatened by Jezebel the wicked queen. We find him fleeing for his life. He is going through the wilderness, and the Angel comes and feeds him – the Angel of the Presence of the Lord (I always think it is probably Christ who comes) – and he is fed more than once; he is given enough to last him for a journey of forty days, and these lovely words are spoken to him: Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you. We see there the tremendous understanding of God of His tired servant in an hour of danger. He’s had a long, long time, these three years without the rain, walking closely with God, then on Mount Carmel, and now that terrible sense of aloneness sweeping over Elijah in a way that left him quite spent. But he journeys on until he comes to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God.
There he came to a cave where he spent the night. But the LORD said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ Elijah replied, ‘I have zealously served the LORD God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.’
‘Go out and stand before me on the mountain,’ the LORD told him. And as Elijah stood there, the LORD passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
(1 Kings 19: 9–13)
We follow Elijah to Mount Sinai. Why did he go there? It would be associated strongly in his mind and spirit with the revelation to Moses in the wilderness. The Burning Bush was thought to be at Mount Sinai. And then the revelation of God came down in tremendous fire and power when He revealed Himself to Moses. The suggestion is that the cave that Elijah came to was the same place where God hid Moses as His glory passed by.
God says to him there: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ And Elijah makes his complaint. We find later that it’s not quite justified: there are many who have not bowed the knee to Baal. But we can understand Elijah. Having been told that he’s ‘a man of like passions with us’, most of the time we say: ‘Well, he doesn’t seem it!’ But we are quite grateful for hours like this, when we think: ‘Yes, we can identify with you now, Elijah.’ Everything seems dark to him; he feels peculiarly bereft. And God says to him: ‘Go out and stand before me on the mountain,’ and again: ‘Come out of the cave, Elijah.’
God had come in tremendous power on Carmel, and on Mount Sinai in the past. But now God is not in the mighty windstorm, or the terrible blast, or the earthquake. It’s not in any of these that Elijah finds God. He is passing by, but He is somehow not in these phenomena. And then we read that he heard the sound of a gentle whisper. Other translations are ‘a still, small voice’ and (the one which I think is my favourite) ‘a sound of gentle stillness’. Elijah then wraps his face in his mantle and covers himself from the glory of God that is being revealed to him. There is a deep, hidden revelation of God to his soul now. The stillness of God, the quietness of God. The psalmist says: Your gentleness has made me great, and Paul writing in one of his letters says: We were gentle in the midst of you as a nurse that cherishes her children. And there comes to Elijah the revelation and the instruction of God, but there comes to him the sound of the gentle whisper.
That sense of the stillness of God is very wonderful. Living in an urban society it can be very hard to find real stillness. We don’t tend to find true quietness; there’s always some background noise. But sometimes, perhaps at the top of a mountain or out in the country, we stop and listen, and there is this stillness, a quietness that can be felt, a quietness that isn’t just the absence of sound: it’s far more than that. It’s the sense of the atmosphere being full of a stillness and a quietness. And that, only much more so, I think, is the stillness of God. It comes sometimes after a tremendous victory, and sometimes in hours of need, and comes to the hungry soul. The stillness of God is His essential being. In the same way that we speak of the ‘King of Love’ because He actually is Love, and the ‘Prince of Peace’ because He is Peace, we could call Him the King or the Prince of Quietness or Stillness – an essential stillness in the very heart and being of God.
And how we need that. You know, this recurring lockdown brought for many an isolation and a quietness, but it didn’t bring a rest. There are people who have found that their mental faculties have been greatly strained and their mental health has deteriorated because there’s not been a rest in that quietness. Who can enter into the rest of God, the deep innerness of the quietness of God that can begin to pervade our spirit? That serenity of Christ that’s so evident in Him is not so easily obtained, is it?
It’s related to a deep faith. Elijah’s faith had got rather rocked for a little while. And there was no reproach from God. Rather He fed him and cared for him and looked after him and spoke gently to him, till he was strong enough to go on again with the commission of God.
And so He does for us. These thoughts had been in my mind when someone sent me this closely related verse:
Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest (Mark 6:31).
The rest comes into the soul when our faith reaches out to grasp Him. And so, as Samuel Rutherford puts it: In the way of duty and the silence of faith we go on.
God took Elijah by a new way for him, but He let him feel the extremity of weakness, and he knew what the apostle Paul was to learn in a later day: My grace is sufficient for you; My strength is made perfect in your weakness. And so it is for you and for me. It’s a wonderful aspect of God: In Thy quiet strength, O God, I shall be strong again.
I close with lines from a well-loved hymn:
O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!
(John Greenleaf Whittier)
Let us seek to share something of that also.
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.
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