I hope you tuned in into our Easter Sunday night service in time to listen to that wonderful piece sung by our Greenock choir in a happy day a few years ago when they could sing together:
O rejoice, for the Lord has arisen,
He has conquered the power of the grave,
He has broken the gates of the prison
And arisen in glory to save!
The last night of our Easter Conference would normally have been a baptismal service, which we couldn’t have although there are people waiting to be baptized. As I was thinking of the service, obviously very aware of it being Eastertime, but looking for a word specially for us, it came to me quite clearly:
Speak to My people, that they go forward. (Exodus 14:15)
God spoke the words of this well-loved verse to Moses at a time when it did not look possible to go forward, the Red Sea in front of him, and the Egyptian army behind. ‘Moses, why are you crying to Me? Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.’ It was a time of change for the Israelites and a difficult time ahead through the wilderness. I’m hoping that in the wilderness that we are coming through we are a bit nearer the Promised Land than they were at that point! The word came to me along with the lines of a hymn that was written for one of our musicals in connection with the same theme:
I’ll go before you, My holy fire will lead you on.
The Land of Promise waits ahead …
Land of Promise – ‘the place where My glory dwells’.
It was a time of change for them, and it is and has been a time of change for us. We have been very aware over the Easter weekend of the death and the resurrection of Christ Himself. And I often meditate on what it was really like for the disciples after Christ had risen from the dead: that time in between his resurrection and ascension and then the glorious outpouring of Pentecost. I think it was a wonderful time, increasingly so. We read that after they’d seen Him ascend into heaven and the angels spoke to them, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. But I think during these days until that ascension, while there were times of glory, times of deep healing, deep restoration and wonder, it was also a time of uncertainty, because sometimes He appeared in their midst and sometimes He didn’t, and they didn’t quite know what the future was. We know that they were gathered with the doors shut because of their understandable fear of the Jews. In the midst of that uncertainty we find Peter saying: ‘I’m going fishing.’ It may have been that they needed food, it may have been for livelihood, but it may have been just a feeling of ‘let’s go and do something familiar’, in this in-between time of uncertainty. On that occasion Christ wonderfully again appeared to them.
And so for us. We are easing, we hope, out of lockdown (very slowly in Scotland). And as we look to the future, it’s a time of some uncertainty. We don’t quite know all it holds, and we don’t know for certain if we’ll be back together, able to worship freely, even by New Year time; we hope by next Eastertime. And as we come out of lockdown, we have this lovely verse:
And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture. (Malachi 4:2)
I saw a picture the other day of the calves being let loose out of the back of a lorry into the pastures, leaping for joy as it was happening. And I thought of our young people and the children, hopefully leaping for joy from all the restrictions – although I do know that one secondary teacher from elsewhere in Scotland said that the children were just a bit flat this time coming back to school, probably because of ongoing restrictions and not knowing what is ahead. But we hope to be spiritually like calves let loose out to pasture after a long winter. I am aware that for some who are getting older, in which I obviously have to include my own generation, there is the danger that having slowed down, it’s a bit harder to speed up again. We need the grace and power of God to keep us full of vision, and to respond to this word: Speak to My people, that they go forward.
It is the wonderful one that was given to Miss Taylor, one of our founding ministers, as the word of her calling. ‘Speak to My people, that they go forward.’ Not just rest; not go back; not go down into any kind of despair, or just a kind of complacency; but keep moving forward: a Land of Promise waits ahead. On Saturday night when I was in the church listening to Jennifer, just in the atmosphere as the presence of God deepened, I felt Him drawing very close, and there came over my spirit again that sense of His nearness that I’d felt terribly clearly all the time when we’d met together after the first lockdown: a sense of the unutterable compassion and understanding of God, and His nearness to us as a people and as individuals. To all who have been listening or are now reading this, and to all of us in the Struthers Memorial Church movement (for we would normally have been gathered together en masse on Easter Sunday night), God says: ‘I will go before you.’
The angel rolled the stone away. And He knows the stones that are in our way. The stone was across the door of the tomb, and the angel rolled it away not in order to let Christ out, but as an evidence to all that Christ’s body was not there, and they could go into the tomb. No stone could have kept Christ in that place. Is that not a wonderful thought, that with Christ within us, no stone that seems to block our life is too much for Jesus Christ? The stone might be a big or a little one that just stops the rising life of Christ within us, that seems to block our pathway and weaken us in the way. Christ says: ‘I’ll move that stone. Move forward – I’ll go before you. My holy fire will lead you on.’
Thinking of that, I remembered it was the other half of our New Year Promise:
Our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:29)
Young, old or in between, you think: How can I go forward? How can I stay alive in God, no matter what the circumstances are, and the stones might be stones that are not of my making? (Yes, some are government restrictions, aren’t they!) But who can move them, triumph over them? Who can keep the life of Christ – how can I keep it alive inside me? And I thought: this is the way. We keep the fire burning inside us by coming to the God who is a consuming fire. One step at a time He’ll lead us on. The way will open up as we go.
But we’re not to trudge along wearily, making our way homeward. We should be, whatever age we are, like the calves let loose from the stall. And that happens as we become aware of the God who is the consuming fire. This is not always a popular theme. And yet if you’ve had the smallest encounter with that God who is eternal, who is the inexorable light, whose light is in the midst of His world – the God who said: Let there be light, and there was light, and who said it into the souls of men, and who is light – to have come anywhere near that God, to have caught any glimpse of that God, is to sense our soul is coming home, coming back to the great deep from whence it was originally born. ‘O God, let that consuming fire touch my life.’ We know what was ahead of the disciples. Not many days hence they were going to be transformed. We live in the afterward, and it’s the same God, the same holy fire. Let that fire burn up the dross inside us, the clutter that obscures the vision of God. Let that fire come into our midst, come into your heart and mine, come into our young people, into our children, and our children’s children, and lead us on.
I want to finish with a few verses from a week or two ago in a daily reading that has stayed with me, and I’ve gone back to it again and again. It seems peculiarly apt for this time. One verse in particular has really spoken to me and I hope will speak to you as well.
O Lord, come back to us: how long will you delay? Take pity on your servants! Satisfy us each morning with your unfailing love, so we may sing for joy to the end of our lives. Give us gladness in proportion to our former misery!
– that’s speaking of this last year! –
Replace the evil years with good. Let us, your servants, see you work again; let our children see your glory. And may the Lord our God show us his approval and make our efforts successful. Yes, make our efforts successful. (Psalm 90:13–17)
Let us, your servants, see you work again; let our children see your glory.
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