When was the last time you went ‘Wow’? Was it the last time you went on holiday to a somewhere beautiful? Was it listening to your favourite music? Was it seeing something you haven’t seen before?

Now, we don’t all go ‘wow!’ at the same things. Someone can be completely obsessed about their latest gadget or favourite TV programme and it means nothing to me. But some things are just impressive. Like the fact that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on our planet. Or that although it’s only about 5cm long, a single Golden poison frog has enough poison to kill 10 people. Or that the human brain has enough memory to hold three million hours of TV! But the best impressive things are ones that you can linger over. Things you can enjoy. Like an incredible explosion of colour as the sun sets in a clear sky. Or your favourite meal shared with your closest friends.

This is an edited transcript of a sermon I recently gave on Genesis 1:1-2:3, the story of God creating the universe. In it, I hope you’ll see something that should make us all go wow. But first, here’s a bit of context.

Genesis is an introduction to the first five books of the Bible, which some people call the Pentateuch. These books were all written by Moses, when God was leading the people of Israel from Egypt, through the desert, to the promised land. During that time wandering in the desert, the people of Israel had no home. They were surrounded by other nations who worshipped other gods. Imagine what that felt like. Imagine all the questions that would be going round their heads: How could they know that their God is the true God? How could they know who they were?

Israel wandered around the desert for 40 years, long enough for one generation to die and another to grow up and take their place. How would they answer their children’s questions:

Daddy, why are we in the desert?

Mummy, why does God live in a tent?

Those people over there worship the sun and moon, why don’t we?

When are we going to stop moving?

Will we ever have a home?

In Genesis, God uses the stories of history to answer these questions. It tells the stories of how God created the universe. Why the world is in the broken state it’s in today. It then zooms in on the story of God’s relationship with His chosen people, finishing with how Israel ended up in Egypt in the first place. It’s a book of origins and generations, showing God’s people who they are and who God is.

We are on a journey to a promised home, just like the Israelites were, and we need to learn the same lessons that God’s people learned back then. We need to learn who we are. We need to learn who God is. So we are turning to the beginning of their story and the beginning of our story. The story of God’s relationship with His people over the generations.

But first…

The best place to start any story is at its beginning, but before we dive into Genesis 1 I want to acknowledge that the creation story found here can be a point of friction for us. Our belief in a Creator God has brought us under fire and ridicule from our culture. It laughs at the idea of an all-creating God as being unscientific, misguided, or just plain stupid.

How to interpret the creation story can be a point of friction between Christians, too. There has been plenty of debate over exactly what it means in terms of how long God took to make everything, and people who are Christians, people who know and love God, have different views. These views fit broadly between the two extremes of believing God created the universe in literally seven days, or over the course of billions of years.

This is a bigger issue for another time, but whatever you think, we must prioritise believing what God actually tells us in the Bible over what we think it says, or what the rest of the world tells us, because God’s Word is truth – not our ideas, and not other people’s opinions.

And to see what God is telling us in Genesis 1, we need to see its purpose. It wasn’t written to explain the details of how God created. Its focus is on the fact that God created everything.

God created… by the power of His word

And firstly, God created by the power of His Word.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” – Genesis 1:1

These are probably some of the most familiar words from the Bible, yet these 10 words are one of the biggest understatements I’ve ever seen! We are used to the world existing – of course we are. It’s been there for as long as we remember! From before we were born! But we can be so used to it being there that we forget how big a thing it is that the world is here in the first place.

Genesis says that in the beginning, the earth was formless, void, and dark. There was nothing. When we think of nothing, we often think of empty space, but really most bit of what we’d think of as being empty space are full of heat, and light, and air. In the beginning there was absolute nothingness – no substance, no light, and no order. Not just empty space, but no space to be empty!

But then we read that the Spirit of God hovered over the formless emptiness… something is about to happen.

And something does: God speaks. And the universe comes into being.

Time and time again in this chapter we read “God said… and it was so” or “God said… so God created” Have you ever stopped to think about what this means? Think about it – who can create out of nothing? I can’t make anything out of nothing – at the very least I need my body to physically put stuff together! But God spoke the universe into existence.

He said “Let there be light”, and there was light.

God said “Let there be an expanse separate from water”, and the heavens – the sky and space – were drawn apart from everything else.

God said “Let water and land separate”, and there were seas and continents.

He said “Let the earth sprout vegetation,” and the earth became lush and green.

God said “Let there be lights in the heavens to separate the day from the night” and the heart of the Sun started to burn.

He said “Let the water swarm” and “let birds fly” and “Let the earth bring forth living creatures” and we have billions of species that still fascinate us today.

He said “Let us make man…” and Adam took his first breath.

We should be utterly awestruck by God’s power.

The universe exists because God told it to exist. God is so powerful that just by telling something to exist, He doesn’t only create the outline of a thing, but all of the details of how it works and lives and moves.

With a word, God brought you into existence – every cell in your body in its place, every way that you think and feel written into your heart, every ability you have assigned and given to you. With a word! I can sing quite loudly but I can’t bring anything into existence with my voice!

Only God has that kind of power.

Isn’t that just awesome?

If God is powerful enough to command everything to exist and keep it existing with that same command, who are we compared to Him?

Who are we to make our own rules and decide for ourselves the way the world should be?

Who are we to tell Him how to behave?

Instead of trying to pretend that we are masters of our own universe, shouldn’t we be bowing to the One who has given us bodies and breath?

We should be awestruck by how God has shown His power in making the universe, and give ourselves to Him as people that He has created and rightly rules over.

God created… with purpose and order

God doesn’t just create with power. He creates with purpose and order.

We see it in how Genesis describes God creating the universe. He has six working days and makes a different thing in each. And each day has an evening and a morning – at the end of every day God stops working, and at the beginning of the next day He starts working on the next thing to be created.

He creates with purpose and in order. Each day builds on the last. God starts by separating light and darkness, the heavens and the water and the land. He then fills them. He fills space with stars, the Sun and the Moon. He gives them the job of measuring time. He then fills the earth with things that are more and more complicated. Plants sprout from the new ground. Animals soar and swim and scuttle. And finally, God creates humans. He makes us in His image, to reflect Him more than any other part of creation. And that means He made us to know Him. To have a relationship with Him.

When God has finished creating, He rests. God sits back and enjoys His creation.

Because God has created the universe to enjoy it!

God created… to enjoy

As our passage says, God creates everything, and the sixth day ends. Then it says:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.”  – Genesis 2:1-2

God rests. But what does this mean? Isaiah 40 says that God is the everlasting God who doesn’t get tired. So is God just not bothering to do anything any more? We know that isn’t true – God is constantly at work in the whole Bible and through history. So He can’t be sitting around, doing nothing for the rest of time because He’s finished His work and left the universe far behind on His desk at the office. What is He doing?

Look at Genesis 1:31:

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good…” – Genesis 1:31a

The last thing God does before He rests is to look at all He has made and declare it to be “very good”. God sits back, not to have a snooze, but to take pleasure in His finished work. To enjoy it. To spend time enjoying it.

God delighted in His creation! God was happy with it. We can think of God being stern and serious and maybe a bit scary, but God is a joyful God. He takes pleasure in what He has made. And He intends for us to enjoy the universe too. God has commanded us to work as He worked, with six days of labour and one of special rest, as it says in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. This isn’t just giving us a working week, it’s giving us rest, too.

As God’s people today, we should have one day a week where we stop our work. Where we leave the office behind. Where we leave the coursework on the shelf. Where all the chores, and the life admin, and anything else that distracts us gets put on hold. So that we can enjoy the universe God has made. But far more import than that, so we enjoy what God made us for – relationship with Him. So make time to enjoy God and enjoy His creation. Make time to enjoy Him as part of God’s people together – that’s what church is for.

I’m not saying that the world is perfect now. I know it isn’t. There are parts of it that are hard and confusing and painful. But God made the universe to be good. And although creation has been corrupted by our sin, it still hasn’t lost that goodness. It can still be enjoyed, and we can still delight in the smell of flowers, the roar of the sea, a fantastic lunch when you’re absolutely starving.

Creation hasn’t just kept its goodness now. One day it will be made completely new again. In Colossians 1 it says that on the cross Jesus reconciled everything to Himself. He dealt with our sin, that had broken our relationship with God.  Jesus made a way for creation to be made new, and for us to be made new to live in that creation. To live in a world that is better than what we see now because it won’t be twisted by evil any more. A world that will be everything that God has made it to be. Where we will truly enjoy God and the universe at its best without anything getting in the way. But the only way we will get there is if we believe in God and trust in Jesus as our Saviour.

In God’s Word today we have seen that God created everything. He created by the power of His word. He created with purpose and order. And He created the universe for Him to enjoy, and for us to enjoy it with Him, because creation is good and we are made to know God. And if you trust God and believe in Jesus, you can look forward to this universe being made perfect again in the future.

So the next time you see something that makes you go ‘Wow!’ remember how it got there in the first place.

Remember that God spoke it into being.

Remember that God made it to be good and that you can enjoy it.

Remember that if this world feels painful and confusing, it will one day be made perfect, and if you’re a Christian you will enjoy it forever.

But most of all, remember that you are made to enjoy creation with God, in relationship with Him. So if you don’t know God, why not choose today to believe in Him? To become what you were made for?

 

If you want to listen to the audio recording, it can be found on the St Mary’s website.

When was the last time you lived without light? Because we have electricity in our homes we can live with the lights on 24 hours a day if we want, although it wouldn’t be very eco-friendly! Light is useful. Plants use it to generate food, we use it to see, to have the internet, to watch DVDs.

But besides being useful, light is beautiful. White light is made up of a whole load of different colours of light. When it shines through a prism it refracts, which means it is split into all the different colours that make up white light and looks really pretty like this:

prism-DSCN4982

(C) Andrew Davidhazy

This isn’t something you only see in a school science lesson, it’s what makes gemstones sparkle. Diamonds are especially good at it. When white light goes through a well-cut diamond, it bounces around inside it and shines out in different colours from its different facets, beautifully sparkling and shining. One beam of white light, shining through a diamond, gives off a whole host of different colours through its different facets:

20160305000536-diamond

(C) Shutterstock.com

Not only that, but things that light shines through are really useful – things like light bulbs and windows and magnifying glasses. They are useful because light shines through them to do something, like make something look bigger, or find your way around in the dark, or let you see through a wall.

At my church we’ve been going through a sermon series about the Holy Spirit and the gifts that He gives. Before this sermon, we’d seen that only the Holy Spirit can make us spiritually alive and believe in Jesus. We learned that the Spirit’s main goal is to point people to Jesus and glorify Him. We also learned that the Spirit works in Christians to transform us and grow godly character and behaviour in us.

In this sermon, we moved from looking at what the Holy Spirit does in us to what He does through us. In 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, we’ll see where they come from, who they are given to, and why. Have a look at 1 Corinthians 12:7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Spiritual gifts are given by the Holy Spirit, to every Christian, for the sake of others. Let’s pick that apart:

Given by the Holy Spirit

Paul wrote the book of 1 Corinthians to the church in Corinth to correct wrong behaviour in their life as a church together. This passage is part of a number of chapters about what worship together should look like. Before he launches in to talking about spiritual gifts, he reminds the Corinthians where their relationship with the Holy Spirit began:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.”

1 Corinthians 12:1-3

It is only by the Holy Spirit that someone can say “Jesus is Lord”. This doesn’t mean that someone who isn’t a Christian can’t say a combination of “Jesus” “is” and “Lord” in that order, but that only the Holy Spirit enables us to truly mean it when we say it, to truly place Jesus as Lord over our lives. This is the Spirit making Jesus known to us and giving spiritual birth to us, making us spiritually alive, as we saw a couple of weeks ago. When we become Christians the Holy Spirit actually comes and lives in us. Earlier in 1 Corinthians, in chapter three verse 16, Paul says “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Think about that – God’s Holy Spirit, that hovered above the unformed waters before creation, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you.

And the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual gifts. Just quickly skim verses 4-11 – different gifts are described, but they are all given by the “same Spirit” (v4), “through the Spirit” (v8), by “the one Spirit” (v9), and are all “empowered by one and the same Spirit” and apportioned by Him (v11). As verse seven says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” a “manifestation” is something that clearly shows or embodies something that you can’t see, so these “manifestations of the Spirit” are visible signs of the Holy Spirit living in someone and working through them. A diamond doesn’t shine because it generates light, it shines because light from somewhere else shines through it. So the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives aren’t about an abstract sense of spirituality where we’re given power to become some kind of demigod. No, the Spirit empowers us with gifts so that He can do something through them. We’ve seen before that the Spirit’s main concern is to point people to Jesus and glorify Him. So a gift isn’t spiritual because it looks supernatural. It is spiritual because it is given by the Spirit to point others to Jesus.

The Spirit also chooses who gets given what. Verse 11 says He “apportions to each one individually as he wills.” Sometimes we can downplay who the Holy Spirit is and end up reducing Him in our minds to merely a force sent from God. But He is a Person in the Trinity. He is God, and He has sovereign will to give gifts as He sees fit.

 Given to every Christian

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit…” [v7a]. The Holy Spirit gives every Christian spiritual gifts. He doesn’t assign them to us because we earn them, but because of God’s grace. He doesn’t see someone and think they are a good enough Christian to be given the gift of wisdom, or healing, or whatever. No, the gifts the Spirit gives are given to us as part of the renewed relationship that we have with God because Jesus bought it for us on the cross. This means that every single Christian in this room has spiritual gifts. If you are a Christian, there are visible ways in which the Holy Spirit has equipped you and works through you.

Not every gift the Spirit gives is the same in everyone. As it says in verses 4-6, there are varieties of gifts given by the Spirit. Paul gives a list of some of them a bit further down the paragraph: utterance of wisdom and knowledge, God-given wisdom and insight in particular situations that’s beyond the ordinary. A special equipping of faith to see beyond circumstances to trust in God. The working of miracles: God manifesting His power in supernatural acts. The ability to distinguish between spirits: discerning whether something someone says or does comes from the Holy Spirit’s work, Satan’s activity, or their own sinful human nature. The other gifts of healing, prophecy and speaking in and interpreting tongues were covered later in this sermon series (you can find the sermons here). All the things that Paul lists here are impressive, but it isn’t a definitive list of Spirit-given manifestations of Himself. In verse 28 Paul mentions apostles, teachers, helping and administrating. In Romans 12:6-21 he talks about teaching, encouraging, generosity, leading and being merciful. In Ephesians 4:11-15 he describes evangelists too. In 1 Peter 4:10-11 Peter talks about speaking God’s words to people and serving others.

There are a whole load of different gifts that we can be given. It all comes from the same God, but will look different in each person, like one beam of light coming in to a diamond shines out through its different facets in different colours.

Given for the common good

Having these abilities in and of themselves is not why we have them. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (v7) We are not given these gifts to keep to ourselves and think how great and “spiritual” we are. No, the whole purpose of the Holy Spirit giving every Christian manifestations of Himself is so that we use them for the good of other people. The church that Paul is writing to here had a problem with arrogance and disunity. They saw their meetings together as a way to show off how spiritual they thought they were. But verse 7 says there is no place for that in the Church. Looking back at verse 4, it says there are varieties of gifts and varieties of service and activities.

A magnifying glass is no use if it holds on to light. The whole point of it is that light goes through so it can be used to help someone see something better. And what use is a completely blacked-out window? If you cover a light bulb, the bulb gets the light but it’s no good to anyone keeping that light to itself! If the Holy Spirit gives you a certain gift, enjoy that you have it but realise that you have been given it in order to serve others with it. If the Spirit gives you the ability to speak wisely and knowledgeably, it is so that you can share that wisdom with others. If He gives you extraordinary faith, it is to encourage others to trust Him, too. If working miracles, it’s to serve others and show God’s power, not your prestige. If you are gifted in discernment, it’s to help others see what is from God and what isn’t.

It’s no mistake that straight after these verses come a passage about the Church being made up of many unique but united parts, like a body. Because just as God has created us all unique, by His Spirit He has equipped us all uniquely to serve others in the context of the Church. Like the facets of a well-cut diamond shine out all the different colours in white light, as each of us uses the gifts that the Spirit has given us for the sake of others in the church family we will show each other a beautiful spectrum of who God is.

Shining bright

In this passage we’ve seen that the Holy Spirit gives gifts and abilities to every Christian so that we use them to serve others. So how should we respond?

Firstly, we should be filled with wonder at what God does in and through us. His Spirit gives manifestations of Himself to each and every Christian. If you truly believe that Jesus is Lord, you have Spirit-given gifts. Not because of whether you think you’re a good Christian or not, but because the Spirit has enabled you to be a Christian. So if you struggle to believe that you have something to contribute to your church family, be encouraged – you do. The gifts you have been given are manifestations of the Spirit. God’s Spirit visibly lives in us! So let’s be in awe of the God who chooses to put His Spirit in us to make us more like Him, and empowers us to do things that reflect Him.

Secondly, we must be humble. Because gifts of the Spirit are gifts of God’s grace, we must remember that they have been assigned to us by God. We don’t spiritually “level up” to get them, and they aren’t skills to be learned and collected. No one of us is better or worse than another because of the particular set of gifts that God has given. If you do have a particular gift it isn’t a thing that you own, like a spiritual multi-tool that fixes other people’s problems and makes you feel good because you’ve Done It Yourself. It’s a way that God works through you, not you work to be like God.

We should also humbly depend on God to give us gifts and empower us to serve. If you long to have a particular gifting, pray for it! If you can recognise gifts in yourself, praise God for them and ask Him to show you how you can serve others with them. If you see them in someone else, thank God for them and also encourage that person in using their gifting.

Finally, since we have been given spiritual gifts to use to serve other people, we should use them to serve other people! This could be telling people on the other side of the world who have never heard the Gospel the good news that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means that we can be right with God. Or it could mean telling the people who live next door or share an office with you. It could be sacrificially giving up time and energy to help a brother or sister in Christ who is suffering. It could be praying persistently for people, situations or countries that so desperately need God to act in or for them. It could mean spending your life working hard to lead a church. It could mean bringing up your children to know and love God and what it looks like to live as one of His people. Or standing up for truth when it hurts, or serving week after week on the welcome team, or a well-timed humble word of correction, or welcoming someone you don’t know… there is no end to what this practically looks like, because God is endlessly creative in not just how He has made us as individuals but also in how He empowers us to work for others’ good and His glory. Every single Christian has God-given ways that He has empowered them to serve, so let’s serve each other with what God has given us in that He has equipped us to do it. And as we serve, let’s humbly depend on God and serve in His strength and power, so that we will point people to Jesus and not ourselves. Let’s choose to use what the Holy Spirit has given us for the sake of other people, so God will show the full spectrum of His glory through us.

A few months ago I stumbled across an entry in my journal from a day I spent praying and looking at the Bible. Every so often I go through cycles of just being fed up with myself and my own sinfulness, so when I had a day to spend time with God I read Romans 5-8 and prayed about it. I don’t think it’s unusual for Christians to go through times where we get really fed up of our own sin and worry that God isn’t all that far away from giving up on us because we’re so rubbish at being godly. Sin feels like this monster that won’t let us go, and we wonder whether we’ll ever be able to resist that temptation or be free from that weakness or know what it means for that thing to not be a struggle. The below post is based on what I wrote in my journal that day, and what God showed me about assurance through those chapters in Romans.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:8-9

… while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

Romans 5:6, 8-9

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8:1-2

Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1) – yet this so often is our struggle: when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law that dwells in my members… I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:21-25) We can be Christians, love God, and know we have been redeemed and forgiven but yet can’t seem to shake sin. It digs its claws in; our sinful old nature doesn’t want to let go. And so we groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our full adoption as children of God, the complete redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23). This is our fight of faith: we hate the sin we commit and the temptations we fall into. It sickens us.

Yet this groaning is a good thing. Our horror and disgust at our own sin is a good thing, because it is a result of the Spirit’s work to convict us of sin and drive us to Jesus. The Spirit of life has set us free in Christ from sin and death (Romans 8:2) and lives in us (v10-11), giving us life. Our old body of death keeps needing to be put to death and it distresses us to still be attached to it – because we are children of God (v15-17) – and so we moan and cry out and ache and long for the day when our sinful nature will finally fall away to be remembered no more.

Further still, sin does not have the final say by any means. In ourselves we may be helpless, but we are not “in” ourselves any more. We are in Christ. While we were unable to do anything to help ourselves, Jesus died for us (Romans 5:6). He took all this sinful nature from us upon Himself, and took it to the grave. So as much as we can’t yet get away from our sinful nature, it has no lasting hold on us because we are dead to it. Because of Jesus, sin has no power over us (Romans 6:14) because we are under grace now – just as death has no power over Jesus because He has been raised from the dead. Sin clings to us, but only as dead ivy clings to a wall because its roots stubbornly stick in. God is slowly removing those roots – because He has predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).

Pre. Destined. God has spoken this over us and commanded it over our life’s path so that whatever happens we are being pulled in a Christlike direction. We are being made to be like Jesus! Granted, this won’t happen passively and we need to actively work at growing in holiness so that we don’t fall away (Hebrews 6: 1-12) but God won’t deny that growth to those who want to know and love Him and honour Him.

Until the day He returns we must still put sin to death, but the overwhelming truth for Christians (although hidden for now – Romans 8:19) is:

  • We have peace with God (Romans 5:1)
  • God’s love has been poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5)
  • We are reconciled with God (Romans 5:11)
  • We have been given righteousness (Romans5:17)
  • We are dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11)
  • Sin has no power over us (Romans 6:14)
  • We are freed from sin, and a slave to righteousness which leads to sanctification and eternal life (Romans 6:22)
  • We are not condemned (Romans 8:1)
  • We are in the Spirit, who is life and through whom God will give life to our mortal bodies (Romans 8:9, 11)
  • By the Spirit we can kill off our sinful nature (Romans 8:13)
  • We have the Spirit of adoption as a son and heir of God with Christ (Romans 8:15-17)
  • We have a glory that will be given me in the future (Romans 8:19, 21)
  • The Spirit prays for us better than we can, and the Father knows His mind (Romans 8:26-27)
  • All things work together for our good (Romans 8:28)
  • We will become like Jesus in character (Romans 8:29)
  • God will give us all things (Romans 8:32)
  • We are justified by God – no charge can stand against the righteousness we have been given (Romans 8:33)
  • Jesus, who died for our sin, is alive and praying for us – I cannot be condemned for the sin He took to the grave (Romans 8:34)
  • We cannot be separated from Jesus’ love, and everything that would try to destroy us and take me from Him will be made to serve us (Romans 8:35-39).

The fact that we feel broken over our sin and hate it is evidence of the Spirit of life being at work in us. So God can use precisely what would discourage us for our good if we remember that this anguish over sin is the result of His active work in us, and not evidence of us irreversibly falling away.

Our problem is our hearts that are so riddled with sin we can’t get away from it. But God has and will change them. In Jeremiah 31:33-34 He promised to write His law on our hearts so that we’ll want to do what’s godly. It will take a lifetime to get there, but day by day God is making us to be more like Jesus, to “make our hearts beat with His love, mercy, and passion for His glory” as my pastor put it in his sermon this morning. One day we will be free of the sin we hate. For now, we must pray and trust that God will change us and work against the dead sinful nature that does cling to us, but that one day will be long forgotten.

“Holy” is a word that’s hard to define. Like “glory”. What do you think of when you hear the word “holy”? Can you picture it?

A quick look at my Bible Dictionary shows that “holy” is hard to define. The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament carries connotations of separation and brightness; of God being so much different than we are, so pure, so powerful, so unique, so glorious, so transcendent. God is not like us. We are made in His image but how much is a person “like” the photo taken of them? The picture is like its subject, but the ink printed on a bit of photo paper isn’t the same as the real person in the flesh.

We sing about God’s holiness, and about Him making us holy, so often that we can take for granted what it means. A few months ago I was reading through Leviticus and Numbers, and I was struck anew by the fact that God’s holiness is… dangerous. It’s absolutely terrifying, like being trapped in a cage with a hungry tiger. It’s lethal. I’ll try and explain what I mean.

The book of Leviticus is part of the Old Testament Law given to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai after they were rescued from slavery in Egypt. It deals with a lot of rules about how the OT worship system worked, and as part of that it talks a lot about cleanness and uncleanness. Cleanness in animals Israel were allowed to eat, in death, in childbirth, in disease and illness, in houses with a mould problem, in sex, in how you treat the vulnerable, in a whole load of everyday things! You read all the rules, and God can be pretty specific about what cleanness, or holiness, looks like.

Why does God care? Well, back in Exodus 20 the Law is given to show Israel what it looks like to be God’s people. And it looks like absolute perfection. Complete holiness, because God, their God, is holy (Leviticus 11:45, 19:2, 20:7). And God’s people are to reflect Him to the rest of the world – this is part of how all nations would be blessed through them (Genesis 12:2; 22:18) – and show them how good knowing God is – because when His people keep the covenant Law, God will bless them in abundance (Leviticus 26:3-13) and it looks amazing! Beautiful, lush, fertile land that provides a fantastic amount of food (v3-5); peace, and victory against all enemies (v6-8); a growing and flourishing nation (v9-10); and, best of all, God Himself living among them (v11-12).

But also, God requires a perfect people so that He can have relationship with them. God is perfect, pure, and holy, and can only be approached on His own terms. Israel had to worship in a certain way, the way God designed. Otherwise they would die. In Leviticus 10, two of Aaron’s sons try to offer incense to God in a way other than what He prescribed, and God literally vaporised them (10:2). The priests had to be completely sober when ministering in the tabernacle, otherwise they’d die (10:9). The Day of Atonement, a highlight in Israel’s religious year, the one day where the high priest was allowed to go into the bit of the tabernacle where God’s manifest presence was, was a matter of life and death. He had the awesome privilege of being able to meet God as face-to-face as someone could, but he had to burn incense so it made a cloud over the ark where God’s presence was otherwise he’d die (16:12-13). And this was besides having a complete wash, putting on special clothes, sacrificing a bull (as a sin offering to atone for his own sin), sacrificing a goat (sin offering for the nation), sprinkling the blood of the dead bull and goat on the covering of the ark to make the innermost bit of the tabernacle holy, and doing the same for the rest of the tabernacle, and sprinkling the altar outside with the blood to consecrate that as well. Then he takes a second goat, puts his hands on its head and confesses the sins of the nation, and then sends it off into the desert to figuratively carry their sins away. (Lev 16:1-22)

The priests had specific clothes they had to wear to just work around the Tabernacle (see Exodus 28 – I especially enjoy v42-43 where God commands them to wear pants or risk death). There were specific rules about who they could marry, prohibitions against touching dead bodies – even of their loved ones – what they did with their hair; and they had to be physically healthy and unblemished. See Leviticus 21 for a description of those rules. Coming near the Tabernacle was an offence punishable by death if you weren’t from the same tribe as the priests (Numbers 3:10), and all the things in the Tabernacle had to be carefully wrapped up in several layers of cloth and skins when being transported to prevent people being killed. (Numbers 4).

It’s insane how deadly God is, and this is just His presence. Human beings are sinful, so we can’t be in the same place as God, or even look at Him and expect to live, which is often why when people in the Bible see God they’re absolutely terrified. He is so pure, and we are so impure, that to dare to go near Him is to risk obliteration; as Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”. So why do we dare to even try to worship God? How can we dare to pray, to sing together on a Sunday if to approach the Holy One is to dance with death?

Our pure and holy God has always provided a way for the unworthy to approach Him. In the OT, this was an extensive sacrificial system where an animal bore the death penalty your personal sins deserved. The shed blood of a bull, or lamb, or goat, or pigeon, replaced your own to satisfy justice. But this pointed to something far greater that was to come. Because how can a dead sheep or cow be a decent substitute for the life of a human being? The poor animal probably doesn’t have a concept of God, let alone good and evil. And I’m pretty sure they weren’t lining up to get slaughtered on humanity’s behalf. As it says in Hebrews 10:4, it’s impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

But Hebrews also talks about Jesus Christ, the great High Priest and Sacrifice that the Old Testament worship system pointed to. Have a look at this:

“But when Christ appeared as high priest… he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Hebrews 9:11-14

On that rugged, blood-stained bit of wood on a hill 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ, the perfect, holy Son of God let Himself be beaten, whipped, mocked, abused and sentenced to death by suffocation while hanging in agony from some nails. And this death was His perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins and the sins of the human race for eternity. He swapped places with us and was obliterated by God’s wrath in our place so that we could be made holy (Colossians 1:22; Hebrews 10:10) Holy! You know, holy like God? The God who is so holy and pure Israel couldn’t go near Him unless they had a death wish? How awesome is that, that Jesus would give up His holiness and swap it for our moral filth at Calvary! And now we are counted perfect, righteous, pure, holy, forgiven; and not just merely acceptable and “safe” to go near God but sons, heirs, the beloved Bride of Christ! We haven’t just been given permission to approach the Throne, but to be close, so close to the One who sits on it! To call the God who once could not be approached “Father”, to be united in intimacy with the King of the ages, to have the Spirit of power who raises the dead live in us and work to help us and teach us… this is no small thing, and it should fill us with wonder.

Here’s what I read in my quiet time this morning:

“Jacob… I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again…”

Genesis 46:2-4

Some context: This comes at the end of what we’d call the story of Joseph (of technicolour dreamcoat fame) in Genesis. If you remember, Joseph was pretty irritating to his older brothers, a bit of a spoiled brat, and he annoyed them so much that one day they sold him into slavery in Egypt – and to further cut a long story short, Joseph ended up being in charge of all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. He forgave his brothers, who came to Egypt from their home in Canaan in search of food in a time of famine, and invited his whole family to join him. This included his father Jacob.

Jacob was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. God had promised to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and give them the land of Canaan…. the same land that Jacob’s son Joseph was inviting him to move out of. What was Jacob to do? He was delighted that Joseph, who for many years he thought was dead, was alive; but how could he leave the land that God had promised?

God’s plans are bigger than ours. We can’t always see where He’s leading us; and sometimes it can seem like we’re going in the wrong direction. But can you see what God’s doing here? If you read ahead through the next few books of the Bible you can see that God takes Jacob and his family to Goshen, a good part of Egypt where they flourish and become a nation. Exodus 1:7 says that they became a very strong nation there and filled the land. Could they have flourished that well back in Canaan? Personally, I don’t have the historical knowledge to comment but since God works in all things for the good of those who love Him I wouldn’t be surprised if He took Israel to Egypt so they could grow and flourish into a great nation before He led them to take Canaan some generations later.

God says to Jacob, “Go to Egypt” – in the opposite direction to the promised land – “for there I will fulfil the promise I gave to you, your father, and his father before him.” God has the power to send us in the opposite direction from where we think we should go, and it still be Him leading us in the right direction for His purposes. As He says in verse 4 above, He goes with us when He leads us. He will take us there, and He will lead us out again.

CHRISTMAS IS ALMOST HERE! Carols are being sung, the Christmas candlelight service has come and gone, and it might even be bleak-midwinter-y for Christmas Day. One more sleep left! But what’s far more exciting than the presents (ooh, in shiny paper) and epic roast dinner (mmm) and seeing family (ahhh) is what it is that we’re celebrating. It’s pretty obvious on a blog like mine, talking about all this Jesus stuff, but as I’ve looked at Isaiah 35 I’ve got more and more excited about it. I’m used to hearing about the baby in the manger that was God become human, and we can get so used to hearing about it that we forget the layers and layers of meaning, promise and hope behind God the Son becoming completely like us so that He could completely redeem us.

In the last Isaiah 35 post we saw an encouragement to be strong because of the hope that is coming, and these next verses open up what that hope looks like:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah 35:5-10

The land, once dry and desolated by judgment, will be full of life – the burning desert sand will be turned to cool springs and lush grass. A people afraid and surrounded by enemies and exiled in a foreign land will be brought home to a place of safety.

God will physically restore His people to their home, but more importantly He will also restore them spiritually. They will be led home along the highway of holiness – they will finally walk in God’s ways; a rebellious people blind and deaf to God’s Word made pure and given the ability to know Him again. Their focus won’t be beautiful cities or a powerful army or their own affluence, but walking with God Himself. Their home will be a place where there is no sin, and they won’t stray from holiness any more.

There’s a clue to how this will be brought about in verse 10 – the “ransomed of the LORD shall return” God would redeem His people from their exile. We know that this didn’t happen to Israel; otherwise, it would look like a far different country today! Instead, this hope is still yet to come. It’s a picture of heaven, the home that God has promised to His people, to us. And this is what Jesus began when He came to earth. When John the Baptist’s disciples asked Him whether He was the Messiah (Luke 7:18-23) He said “Look! The blind can see, the lame walk… all these things Isaiah promised are happening!” Jesus brought about this hope; He has redeemed us with His own blood on the cross and as the ransomed of God we can look forward to a day when we will have everlasting joy in a perfect home with our God.

So in all the things we go through in life, we have this encouragement: We can look forward to a glorious future in heaven now. When we are fed up of the struggle with sin, we can hope in the fact that one day we will walk in holiness with God and not fall off the road. When we struggle with illness or our bodies are breaking, we know that one day we will know perfect healing and health. When we feel surrounded and friendless, we know that one day we will live in a place without danger or threat. We will sing with joy round the throne with brothers and sisters from every tribe and nation. So let’s pray that God will use our future hope to strengthen us in life today, and that He’ll keep us close to Him as we wait for it to be fulfilled. And as we celebrate Jesus’ birth tomorrow let’s remember just what it is that He has done for us. The turning point of history began on the day God became man.

(Hey, that rhymes!)

 

Isaiah is a pretty cool book, and surprisingly relevant for Christmas. We’ve been going through it in our sermon series at St Mary’s this term, and I hadn’t noticed before just how much it’s about Jesus. In a way, that’s quite daft, because the entire Bible points to Jesus (see John 5:39), and we have those famous passages that we bring out at Christmas like Isaiah 9 (…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given… etc.). But as we’ve looked at it in church I’ve seen just how much it’s about Jesus. Isaiah contains a lot of warnings about coming destruction because God’s people had turned away from Him, but in it God also says I will take your guilt away and promises them so much good if they would come back to Him. And He keeps on hinting at how He’ll bring this about …to us a child is born… (Isaiah 9:4); Behold, your God… will come and save you. (Isaiah 35:4); Behold my servant… (Isaiah 42:1). And then in chapters 49-53 He goes into a whole lot of detail about the “servant”, who would take upon himself the sin of God’s people, die willingly in their place, and bring restoration once again… Jesus!

Isaiah 35 contains another hint:

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”

Isaiah 35:3-4

Your God will come and save you. This was a message for the remnant of Israel, the faithful few people that God kept for Himself while the nation was being judged. They would have seen the destruction of their country, their home, as war advanced and their armies were defeated. Ultimately, they would be taken into exile.

God was speaking to people in a very real political situation. I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to forget that the events in the Bible were real bits of world history, and some of them big and scary like we’re seeing today in Syria and Iraq and Ukraine. At the time Isaiah was writing, the country of Assyria had become a world superpower. It had conquered the mighty Babylonian empire and now had its sights set on Judah. So to try and save their skin, Judah made defensive alliances against the Assyrian empire, and the alliance’s attempt to take on their enemy failed. Assyria advanced, and war was on their doorstep.

It’s easy for us to look at the people in the Bible and wonder how they could be so daft as to not trust God when clearly only a few pages before He’d done something incredible, but I know that I can all too often forget who is really in control of the world, and that can be only about something small like catching the bus! But in Isaiah, and in these verses, God is speaking to a people on the verge of international war. He is giving them warnings of worse things to come, but He is also giving hope to those who will trust in Him – don’t be afraid, your God will come and save you.

We know that ultimately He has done this for us in Jesus. When Christ died, He took upon Himself all the punishment that we deserve for our sin and every offence we have committed against our holy God. And when He rose from the dead three days later He showed that He had defeated death once for all, the Father’s wrath was satisfied, and now we have eternal life in Him. And this is eternal life beyond what happens to us in this world – we are alive in Christ no matter what gets thrown at us! We are safe in Christ no matter what difficulties we have to come, no matter what opposition, no matter what illness or persecution we have to suffer. No matter what family situation, breakdown in relationships with people, fear for the future, whatever makes us anxious. We have encouragement from God’s Word to take heart and stand firm because He will come. That may mean that He saves us from the situation we are in now. But that might also mean that He leaves us in the place where we are. Either way, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28) and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. So we are safe, no matter what, because we can never be snatched away from our Saviour.

Christmas day is almost upon us, the day when we celebrate that God has come and saved us. He has shown His glory through a baby born in Bethlehem, God made human, who died for the sins of the world. And because of this, we can have such confidence in our God, that we are His children, His beloved people who can never be snatched from Him. Let’s pray this confidence for ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ, that whatever we do we will be encouraged by the fact that God is with us now, and whatever happens He is our Saviour. Let’s praise God that He is far bigger than the world, and makes us more than conquerors in Christ – He hasn’t just defeated death for us, but even makes suffering work for our good. Let’s thank Him that one day He will end all suffering and persecution, and our trust in Him will be shown to be justified. But also, let’s pray that more people would come to know this peace; that people will turn to Christ as their Saviour.

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