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!)

 

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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.

The book of Isaiah is all about how God acts for His glory, and especially how He does it in dealing with His people. The chunk of the Bible that runs between the poetry of Psalms, Proverbs and the like and the beginning of the New Testament is full of warnings to a people who had forgotten God. But it also contains a load of promises, too, and Isaiah is no exception.

Chapter 35 comes at the end of a section of chapters (28-25) that are mainly about judgment on Judah, the southern kingdom of what was Israel (Israel split into two during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. The southern bit – made of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, and whose capital was Jerusalem – was called Judah; and the northern bit – which included the other tribes, and whose capital was Samaria – kept the name of Israel), and its neighbours. Judah had turned away from God, and worse still, they were ignoring the warnings He was giving them about the judgment that was hanging over them. They treasured other things instead of the God who loved them and had cared for them for generations. They frantically made political alliances to try and gain some national security, instead of calling on the God who impossibly brought them out of slavery in Egypt and gave them the promised land. So God would strip them of everything, until they had nothing left.

Yet in these chapters we see the LORD’s passion for His glory in more than His judgment on sin. So many times in this section of Isaiah the judgment is peppered with glimpses of God’s heart for His people as He promises what He would do if only they would repent and cast themselves on Him. When God threatens to destroy Israel’s beautiful capital city, Samaria, He also says

“In that day the LORD of hosts will be a crown of glory, and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people, and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgement, and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.”

Isaiah 28:5-6

After God reveals that His people are stubborn, insisting on piling up their sin on themselves, and making plans that will only backfire He says

… the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait on him.

Isaiah 30:18

These are only a couple of examples – go and look for the rest, and be amazed at a God who justly pours out judgment but is so ready to give mercy and lavish blessing on people who will just trust Him and return to Him.

After six chapters of Isaiah describing God’s judgment on Judah for their disobedience and refusal to return to Him comes chapter 34, a final summary of the wrath that God will pour out on the enemies of His people and those that don’t trust in Him. It’s a chapter full of destruction and shed blood flowing like the sacrifices on the altar to satisfy God’s anger, finally ending in total desolation, the land left smoking and barren, a home for wild animals.

And after all this devastation come these verses:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.

Isaiah 35:1-2

The wilderness shall be glad, the desert spring into bloom, and the dead wasteland full of beautiful life. Already God has promised to be His people’s crown and beauty, to provide for their needs, to be with them and give them deep joy; and now as God comes to give them these things the dead land springs to life ahead of Him. This is the picture of salvation – beautiful life, abundant life; and not just life but close relationship with God: They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God (Isaiah 35:2)

So how do we respond to a God so holy and passionate, who is repulsed by the spiritual adultery of our sin yet promises so much for those who turn to Him? We can only approach Him with humility, knowing we are sinful, confessing that we aren’t the people He made us to be and asking for His forgiveness. But we can also approach Him with boldness because we know that God has forgiven us in Jesus! We are sinners in the hands of a holy God, but redeemed sinners, beloved of the Lord and with all His promises given to us today. We have this salvation, this abundant life! Let’s thank and praise Him for all He has done for us! And let’s love our holy God, enabled by His Spirit to honour Him with our lives. Let’s work today as worship and service to Him.

A few months ago, the word “Ebola” wouldn’t have meant anything to most of us. But since the outbreak in West Africa started back in March and came to the attention of the media a few months later, it’s been all over the news! Having been taught about viruses in my clinical microbiology Masters, I’ve been following events with geeky interest and asking: what exactly is this virus that’s made the world so alarmed?

Instead of just re-stating the safety information and news updates that are out there on good websites like the World Health Organisation and Centers for Disease Control, I thought I’d write a bit about what the virus itself is like.

Ebolavirus (say it like a Yorkshireman: “eeeee-BOH-la”) is actually the genus name of the bug, like the Homo in Homo sapiens. The species that caused the outbreak in West Africa is called Zaire ebolavirus, and it was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (used to be called Zaire).  Ebola is part of the Filoviridae family, so-called because viruses in this family look a bit like pieces of string – the Latin word filum that the name is taken from means “thread”. Marburg virus is also part of the same family.

Both Ebola and Marburg viruses cause something that’s called a “viral haemorrhagic fever”, or VHF. VHFs are caused by a number of viruses, and these viruses tend to be ones that have jumped from animals to humans. Normally, Ebola infects fruit bats. The theory is that these viruses are adapted to their animal hosts, so cause massive problems in humans because we’re not the same. This can be things like haemorrhaging (bleeding), hence the name of VHFs, but can also be vomiting, diarrhoea, and brain-related things like confusion and delirium, besides the standard “flu-like” symptoms of fever and muscle ache that you get with viral infections.

At the super-tiny level, the way things interact is all about shape. It’s a bit like those toys that babies have, with the holes that are different shapes and only the square block will fit in the square hole. Viruses have proteins on their outside that they use to stick to cells with proteins on their surface that are the corresponding shape. Then the virus can get into the cell and start reproducing. Ebolavirus infects cells called fibroblasts. These guys make collagen and are found in stuff called connective tissue – basically the bits of the body that stick other organs and bits of organs together. They also tend to be near to cells called endothelial cells, and epithelial cells, which can then get infected, too. Endothelial cells line the inside, and epithelial cells line the outside of things in your body, and that’s why Ebola can get transmitted through body fluids.

The reason that Ebola is scary isn’t just its horrible symptoms, but also its relatively high mortality rate (roughly 50% on average, but has ranged from 25-90% in the past) and the fact that it’s spread so much. From what I can tell, it seems like a big factor in this has been the state of the countries that it has broken out in. Sierra Leone and Liberia didn’t have strong healthcare systems to begin with, and the system has collapsed under the burden of this outbreak. They simply haven’t had the resources to contain the spread of the virus and treat people. And the worst of it is, with the proper control measures the virus wouldn’t spread because it isn’t all that contagious. If you look at the average number of people someone infected with Ebola infects, it’s less contagious than SARS, measles, Hepatitis C, and even HIV. If Ebola ever came to the UK, I reckon we wouldn’t have a full-scale epidemic on our hands here. We can quarantine people, we have beds for them, we have a health system with contingency plans for this kind of thing .

There’s no need for us in the UK to panic. But there is a huge need for us to pray for the situation in West Africa, for the people working hard to treat patients, for the patients and their families, for rich countries to help; and pray that God would use this to show His glory. No matter how bleak things look, it’s all in His sovereign plan that He works for good.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

Psalm 19:1-6 (ESV)

How would you describe beauty? I could point you to a picture of a stunning sunset or get you to listen to The Lark Ascending, one of the most stunning pieces of classical music I’ve ever heard. But I don’t think I could straight up tell you what to look for. What about majesty? It’s how we describe kings and eagles and lions. But I can’t define it in the same way that I’d define what something physical like a book is (the OED definition is “a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers”, in case you were interested). I have to use a concrete thing to communicate to you about an abstract thing.

Psalm 19 is about two ways in which God is revealed, through creation and through His Word, and this time I’m going to focus on the first six verses. So let’s see what this Psalm has to say about creation; how it, a concrete thing, displays the glory of the God who made it, and how, when we look at the natural world around us, our hearts are led to look beyond what we see and worship the God it points to.

The first thing we see as we look at these six verses of Psalm 19 is that nature declares God’s glory. The psalm bursts open with this! When he was writing this, David wasn’t making a cold observation; you can sense his wonder as he passionately exclaims:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (v1-4b)

The first thing you notice as you read this is how much communication is going on: by the heavens and the sky, day and night. It isn’t a small memo casually slipped onto your desk, either: they are declaring, proclaiming, pouring out speech, all day, all night, all over the world! And what is this message that the heavens are shouting to all and sundry? God’s glory. The goodness, the perfection, the purity of who God is in all His wisdom and power and knowledge and love and holiness and so much more! The natural world around us is communicating.

It communicates God’s glory because it is created by Him. When I was at school, I used to really enjoy art lessons. I loved painting things and making things, especially when we got to use things you don’t get to use every day. Like clay, because then you get to make stuff in 3D rather than endless drawings of random fruit and veg. It was great fun to mould it, to give it shape with my own hands rather than a brush. And to finish proudly with something that looked… close enough to the idea I had in my head, covered in fingerprints and lines that the ridges on my hands had made, and the occasional nail-mark that I’d forgotten to smooth over. The creation bore the marks of its maker. And – much better than my attempts at creativity – God’s great masterpiece, the universe, bears the fingerprints of its Maker. It reflects Him because He made it.

Verses 5-6 give an example of what we see in creation. In the UK, the sun is often a thing of myth, especially in our long and overcast winters; but when David was writing he was in Israel, where the climate is hot, and the sun would have been far easier to spot in the sky!  Let’s look at how he describes it:

In them [the heavens] he [that is, God] has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.” (v4c-6)

The sun has been given a place in the sky by God: a home, and a course to run (v4c, 6). And our closest star doesn’t struggle along as if it’s dragging its feet; no, it is like a groom going to his wedding, the happiest day of his life, all dressed up and bursting with happiness. It is like an athlete doing what they have trained for, muscles singing and heart thundering with the thrill of the race. The sun, as David describes it here, shows God’s glory as being exhilarating! And other parts of the physical world show other things about God’s glory.

This means that the physical world is good. As we want to be people who imitate God, and resist the temptation that comes so naturally to our human nature, we can fall into the trap of forgetting that the world we live in is made by God, and God made it good. We can focus on crucifying the passions and desires of the flesh, as it says in Galatians 5:24, and this is a good thing to do; but we can do it so religiously that we either don’t allow ourselves to enjoy the good things in this world, or don’t realise that God has made these things to display His glory – the nourishing taste of good food, the sweet pleasure of a well-performed symphony, the reassuring warmth of a hug from your mum.

The fact that God displays His glory through His creation also means that we have no need to worry about science. I firmly believe that you can be a scientist and be a Christian, and I think that people like Richard Dawkins who famously wield science as the antidote to God are wrong. At the end of the day, science is about discovering how the universe works. So what we find out won’t disprove God, because God doesn’t lie (Numbers 23:19), and He wouldn’t deceptively make something that disproves Himself. As we discover more about our universe, it’ll only show us more about His creative power and glory! And for those of us who are involved in discovering more about the world, it’s important to not lose our sense of wonder as we look at what God has made. We shouldn’t let rampant rationalism steal away our joy and reduce nature to a mere set of rules and processes. The heavens declare God’s glory; all the burning balls of gas that we call stars hang in space because they are held by God’s sustaining power.

But God displaying His glory through creation also means that we should look after it. When He created us, God gave us the task of looking after the world (Genesis 1:28-30). Can we say that we do that today? Do we care for our planet as the God-given reflection of His glory that it is, or do we use it as if exploiting our resources won’t have any long term effects? This is something that can be harder to bear in mind as our cultural mind-set has become separated from the land that we live in and depend on; we can forget that the food we eat is grown in the ground, that our electricity comes from energy released by burning coal and oil (mostly), that our cars aren’t carbon neutral. So part of our worship involves looking after our planet.

We’ve seen that creation displays the glory of God because He made it. The second thing we see in Psalm 19 is that creation is a hint of the true God. It is God’s glory that the heavens declare. Nature reflects Him because He actively chooses to communicate through it. Romans 1:19-20 says that “… what can be known about God is plain to them [that is, humanity], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have clearly been perceived, ever since the creation of the world.” God has given us something concrete to describe something we can’t see ourselves. His glory is something that we cannot see and survive to tell the tale [Exodus 33:20] because God is so pure and holy and we are so imperfect. So God doesn’t just communicate what He is like in words, like what we see in the Bible. God created a physical world that displays His glory, and He gave us the ability to see it, and taste it, and hear it, and touch it. The smell of cooling rain on a hot summer’s day. The quiet splendour of a winter’s morning where the sun gently rises in pastel hues of pink and orange.  The ferocity of a storm, where the rain pummels roofs and roads, thunder roars over our heads, and the sky is split by great flashes of lightning. All of these hint at how life-giving, how beautiful, how powerful God is!

But these hints can be misinterpreted – look at how many religions throughout history have worshipped nature or gods representing the sun or the sea or animals. They’re seeing the glory shown in nature, but are missing the point. And I think this could be one reason why Psalm 19 isn’t just about creation. The rest of it is about God’s “law” – God’s commands and everything else God wants us to know about Himself. It’s basically His Word, the Bible as we know it today. Henry will talk about it in much more details about it next week, but today it’s important to know that the glory creation displays in colour and sound and substance, the Bible specifically attributes to God, and only God.

When we marvel at the vastness of the sky and open ocean, God says “He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the LORD is his name” [Amos 5:8]. When pride gets the better of us and we start thinking we have the right to tell God what to do, He says “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – tell me, if you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” [Job 38:4-7] When life gets too much, God points us to the star-filled night and says “Lift up your eyes and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power, not one is missing… He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.” [Isaiah 40:26].

God uses creation to points beyond itself to who He is. So get out there! Walk round the lake in Wollaton Park. Climb mountains! Go rockpooling! At least, watch a David Attenborough documentary! One of the sad things of our modern world is how we are separated from nature. We work in office blocks away from the sky and grass and trees; we stay up late in artificial light, not noticing the moon and stars and the soft evening breeze; our food comes from the supermarket rather than fields watered by rain and ripened by the sun. Nature becomes something to be controlled and bent to our will, rather than something to delight in. And so we can be missing out on something that’s really refreshing for us, and spiritually refreshing as well as emotionally or physically refreshing. The beauty of the natural world shows God’s glory, and God’s glory is transforming [2 Corinthians 3:18].

And while you are being refreshed, remember Who it is that nature points to. Remember that God is the God who made everything, things we can and can’t see, mountains, DNA, rainforests, atoms, supernovas. This is our God! He is our loving Father and awesome Saviour and invincible Lord. And delight in the world God has created because it points to Him!

As we’ve looked at the first few verses of Psalm 19, we’ve seen that creation displays God’s glory and point to Him as the better reality of what it reflects. But as I’ve been talking, I wonder how easily you believe what I’ve said? Have you taken it all in, thinking “Yes, the world is wonderful! It’s so obvious how great God is!” Or has a seed of doubt, a shadow, passed through your mind? Do you wonder whether what I’ve said really is true, because as far as you’ve seen nature isn’t all sweetness and light?

I’ve just finished a Masters degree in Clinical Microbiology. Over the last year, I’ve studied a whole load of infections and what causes them. Besides seeing how fantastic our immune systems are and how sneaky some bugs can be, I’ve realised that viruses, bacteria and fungi aren’t intentionally horrible. It isn’t like the Ebola virus decided that one day it would destroy humanity and started infecting people in Africa. Infection is an intrinsic part of how these bugs survive, reproduce and even flourish. You can’t separate their life cycle and the effect they have on the people they live in. The same goes for all infections. It’s a tragic reality. So can a good God really exist when the universe He has made contains disease and disaster and wasps?

I don’t often agree with Richard Dawkins, but he puts the issue quite well:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

[Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life]

Dawkins, and others, use this as a reason not to believe in God. But how should we deal with the fact that the world is messed up? That sometimes it does look like there’s no justice, no reason behind all the suffering we see, and surely no loving God behind it all! Turn with me to Romans 8:19-23. It says:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Creation is groaning. Our whole universe has been made subject by God to decay, to suffering, to futility. Why? Why would an apparently good and loving God force something He created good to submit to this horror? Because of sin. Genesis 3 talks about the first time humanity rebelled against God, which has had consequences that have spun through our entire history. Our relationship with God and with each other was broken, and creation was plunged into misery. Humanity was thrown out of the garden that was a place of safety and provision, and the world became a place where life would be hard and filled with suffering. All that Dawkins was talking about in that quote, the gruesome destruction of life to feed life, the starvation, the misery; these all show what a world without God is like. They show how horrendous rejecting God is, and the appalling consequences of sin. God is so completely perfect that sin is repulsive to Him, so as we are disgusted by the misery we see, creation is still displaying God’s glory by enabling us to understand His hatred of sin.

But, as verse 20 says, creation was subjected to futility in hope. As we have been shown the horror of sin to a holy God, He will show His glory again. Did you notice, v21 says that creation was subjected to futility in hope “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” There will be a day where God will free creation from the decay-ridden state it’s in and transform it into a place of peace with no death or mourning or crying or pain, as it says in Revelation 21:4. Creation will be at peace; wolves and lambs, calves and lions, children and cobras will be safe to put together because they won’t harm each other [Isaiah 11:6-9]. And this was made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross, where God reconciled to Himself all things [Colossians 1:20]; and so those of us who believe in Him, who are called God’s children, have an incredible future ahead of us. We and creation will have freedom and glory [v21] where we shall be so transformed that nothing gets in the way of us truly delighting in God and being satisfied in Him!

Yet for now, we see the cruelty of nature. Creation shows God’s glory, but creation is tainted by the corruption that stains us all. And this is why God’s Word, the Bible, is so important. Because it addresses the problem of our spoiled world and shows us what true goodness is. It says that we’re right to be appalled at death and suffering, but it won’t last forever. And it says that a holy and glorious God has made a way for us to be renewed, and made right with Him, at great cost to Himself. So let the darkness of this world drive you to the refreshing Light of Jesus. If you aren’t a Christian today, I really do hope that you’ll come to know this great God.

If you are a Christian, be encouraged! Look around you at what God has made! And delight in the fact that God, who is so glorious and powerful, is our God! One day we will see Him as clearly as we see the earth around us, and hear His voice as clearly as we hear a thunderstorm. One day we will be freed from all death and pain, and the universe will be transformed into something more incredible than it is now!

As we’ve looked at the first bit of Psalm 19, we’ve seen that the natural world around us declares God’s glory. It shouts it out for all to hear. And the glory we see in creation is the glory of God Himself – every speck of beauty, every hint of majesty points to the Lord its Maker. Still, this world is broken because God has subjected it to decay so that we would see sin for the monster it is and turn to Him. And one day God will renew the universe, and transform us, into something perfect and a people who will completely enjoy Him forever. So as we see the splendour of the world around us, let’s worship the God who made it! And as we see the misery of its fallen nature, let’s be driven to turn away from the corruption of sin to the God who will make all things new.

There are many unknowns in life. Some aren’t all that important – for me, it makes no real difference whether or not I keep up with this year’s World Cup. I normally have an “I don’t know and I don’t care” view of football, so whether or not England get kicked out in the semi-finals on penalties yet again doesn’t affect me. But I’ve come to the stage in my Masters degree where unknowns are important. I’m doing my research project, and the point of research is to make unknowns known, to find out new things and ask what works, and why and how things are the way they are (and to spend plenty of time groaning “why-won’t-you-WORK?!?” when the experiment fails yet again).

But besides my research, a much bigger unknown is looming. Beyond the end of the next few months, little is certain; which means that answering the barrage of questions that naturally get asked when one comes to the end of a degree, like “what do you want to do next?”, “have you got a job yet?”, and (unspoken) “why haven’t you sorted your life out?” is a real nightmare! I’m someone that doesn’t get on well with uncertainty, either. I hate not knowing what I’m going to be doing at the weekend, let alone what direction my life is heading in. And with such a big thing like that, uncertainty is really scary. What if I can’t find a job? Or end up in one I hate because I’m desperate? Or can’t afford to live? Or end up moving somewhere else for work that’s far from everything and everyone I know and I’ll be so far away and DIE ALONE!?

Uncertainty is something that worry loves to latch on to because it means that, at least for a time, circumstances are out of our control. I know that when I get desperate, I can’t stand things being out of my control because it means I have to rely on something or someone other than myself, and because they aren’t me, they’re an unknown. And as worry grows, my perspective shrinks and I end up imploding in a dark little ball of stress.

But Jesus said “Do not worry.” (Matthew 6:25-34)

Why shouldn’t I worry? Don’t I have every right to be concerned about my life?

“… do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (v25)

Well, yes. But how am I going to earn? I need money. If I don’t have money, I don’t have a roof over my head and I’ll go hungry.

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?… And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?” (v26-30)

God sustains the world. We have an ecosystem where every species has something to feed on. Granted, living things die of hunger or lack of other resources, and nothing on this world lives for ever. But the point isn’t about God not letting things die. The universe is still here, and it still works. When God created, and when He sustains creation now, there isn’t a gap where he missed something out like forgetting to make things edible or accidentally missing an important thing out of physics like a dodgy line in computer code so that the moon will randomly explode tomorrow or something like that (to you physicists out there, I’m so sorry if I got that wrong. I’m a microbiologist, physics is all a bit weird to me). The point is that God has created the world, with its complexity and beauty, and He has ensured that living things can live. And not just live, flourish. So if our Father can feed animals and make even grass beautiful, won’t He care for you, whom He cares about far more? Won’t He care for you, whom Jesus shed His blood for? For you, whom He has promised to be with and protect and keep safe until the day you see Him face to face?

Worry takes all of this and says “I’m not so sure that’s true.” Because worry is us trying to be in control, rather than trusting God to be in control. At the moment, it’s very easy for me to worry because it does seem like my life has to be in my control. In a sense, it is and will be: God loves me too much to hand me everything on a silver plate. He doesn’t promise that a job will fall into my lap, He doesn’t promise that life will be without hardship. As His child, He loves me too much to take away such opportunity to learn and grow to be more like Jesus, however hard the road is. Yet when nothing’s moving forward and my future is uncertain day after day I still doubt whether things will actually work out for my good in the end. Has God forgotten me?

God’s people Israel went through a lot in the Old Testament. They started out as an ethnic minority group in Egypt, made into slaves. They were rescued by God and brought to a new land. When they were established in the land, they had enemies to contend with at their borders. But the worst of it was that they turned away from the God who has rescued them and given them everything, and because of that God allowed them to be conquered and sent into exile in a foreign country. They were far from home, living among people who spoke a different language, who had different customs, and worshipped other gods. The symbols of their connection with God like the temple in Jerusalem had been removed from them. Where was God? Was He back in Israel? Had He abandoned them? Had He forgotten them?

To these people, God spoke prophetically through Isaiah:

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.

Why do you complain, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, my cause is disregarded by my God”? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no-one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint

– Isaiah 40:26-31

Look at the stars – who made them? Who makes sure they are all there? Who knows them by name? Who is it that created the earth, who has limitless power and understanding and strength? Isn’t it the Lord, your God? Your God? Don’t you know that He gives strength and power to the weak and tired? Don’t you think He would remember you, His people? Don’t you think He will give you all you need?

Don’t I believe that God will provide what I need? Don’t I believe that I can apply for jobs, and trust God for the outcome, and He will work for my good – wherever I end up?

To this worry has no answer, because it has no place in us who are God’s. We have a heavenly Father who loves us and never forgets us. We have no need to worry, because our God is the God who sustains the world and commands history to achieve His purposes.

“Know” is a funny word. Besides its silent letters and homonymic quality that make the English language so special, what does it mean? There are different types of knowing: knowing of, knowing about, and truly knowing, you know?

There’s a difference between memorising a piece of information to be able to recite it and truly grasping what it means. An isolated piece of data is meaningless until you connect it with significance. The wavelength of the light that I’m currently seeing reflected is 450nm, which means nothing until you connect it with the information that light of a wavelength of 450nm is royal blue, and means more when I tell you that it’s my favourite colour and I’m looking at one of my favourite scarves.

I’m in a season of being challenged about what I know. I’m in the middle of exam season for my Masters course. I’m about to start a research project that explores an area I haven’t learned about before. But also, a number of things have challenged me about what I know about God – or rather, how I know Him. The quality of my knowing Him. I  know a whole lot about God. Time as a church intern, going to Christian conferences, and years of Bible study groups mean that I could probably get a good mark on an R.S. test about Christianity. Yet our latest sermon series at church on Job and sermons on John (link at the bottom – have a listen!), and what I’ve read about the challenge to stay connected to Christ and grow because of it (link at the bottom – have a read!) and my own cold-heartedness have made me ask: how well do I know God?

I’ve just started reading Knowing God by J.I. Packer in response to this. I’m only on chapter 3, but already God’s been continuing to challenge my heart. I’m very excited about knowing Him more – as those who know me will agree, I get very excited about things that look at who God is. But I already see, in a way, how little I know Him. How easily I slip from times of being passionate for God, eagerly reading the Bible, lapping up everything I can about Him, to going to having lots of head knowledge but not seeming to relate to God very well. I grow cold and weary of the struggles of life. God feels distant, or smaller things seem closer and so I latch on to them. Do you know the feeling?

Chapter 2 in Knowing God paints a picture of people who know God. Packer says that you can know a lot about God, and even a lot about being godly, without knowing God Himself. Taking the example of Daniel (of lions’ den fame – see Daniel 6), Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (the guys who got thrown into the fiery furnace – see Daniel 3), he makes these points:

Those who know God have great energy for God.

“…the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action” (Daniel 11:32b, RSV). Daniel and his friends knew God, and so reacted against the anti-God culture around them by praying to God (Daniel) and refusing to worship a statue (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) when such things were illegal and carried the penalty of death. They weren’t rebelling for the cause of Jewish freedom in the Babylonian Empire. Instead, they were sensitive to attacks on God’s truth and glory and actively stood against it. Packer says that a measure of how well we know  God is how much we pray:

“… the invariable fruit of true knowledge of God is energy to pray for God’s cause – energy, indeed, which can only find an outlet and a relief of inner tension when channelled into such prayer – and the more knowledge, the more energy!… If, however, there is in us little energy for such prayer, and little consequent practice of it, this is a sure sign that as yet we scarcely know our God.”

Knowing God, p.29 (reference at the end of this post)

Those who know God have great thoughts of God.

Daniel et al had a huge vision of God’s sovereignty. They lived in the middle of the Babylonian Empire, the huge world superpower that had swallowed up their homeland and dragged them and their people into exile miles away from home. Daniel served under kings who controlled this power. Yet in the middle of all this, they knew that God was truly in control of all the power and wealth and military strength they saw:

“…Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons, he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness and light dwells with him.”

 – Daniel 2:20-22

“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands… Lord, you are righteous… the Lord our God is merciful and forgiving… the LORD out God is righteous in everything he does”

– Daniel 9:4, 7, 9, 14

Those who know God show great boldness for God.

Daniel et al weren’t men to shy away from danger. They put their very lives on the line for God. They weren’t stupid or deluded; they knew full well what they were doing and that it could (and probably would) be the last move they made. But they cared more about God’s glory than their own lives. It was more important to them to obey God than to stay comfortable.

Those who know God have great contentment in God.

“There is no peace like the peace of those whose minds are possessed with full assurance that they have known God, and God has known them, and that this relationship guarantees God’s favour to them in life, through death, and on for ever.” (Knowing God p. 32) This is how Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when threatened with being burned alive for not worship a statue of the king could calmly look him in the eye and say, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand. O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18). This is how Daniel could face being thrown to the lions for praying when prayer was legally banned. This is how thousands of Christians over the years have faced martyrdom, suffering, ostracism. This is how we can say that we count all else as rubbish compared to Christ (Philippians 3:8).

I look at these things and see myself falling short. I thank God for His grace and that He will change me, but I don’t want to be content with where I am now. I want to hunger for God, to thirst for Christ, the living water (John 7:37). Don’t you?

But how can we know God? It’s all very well wanting to know God, but what’s the use of passion and hunger if you’re left feeling empty? That can often be what life feels like when we feel far from God. Yet if we believe in Jesus, we aren’t far from Him. As the song goes: “My name is graven on His hands, my name is written on His heart, I know that while in heaven He stands, no tongue can bid me thence depart.” As our great High Priest in heaven, Christ carries us into the presence of God. When we’re on fire for Him. When we’re cold. When we feel buried under the stresses and strains of life, of responsibility, of suffering, of exams or tiredness or confusion and there’s too much to do and we can’t see the way forward. God is there. We just need to turn to Him. We need to recognise how much we need Him, how much more we want to know Him, and then seek Him. Look and search and press on, badgering God to show us more. Asking that His Spirit would open up a whole world of discovering Him when we read His word, and pray, and do what things we do as worship. Asking that over this Easter weekend Christ would excite our hearts for Him again as we remember His death and resurrection that was planned before time to save our souls. And trusting that “it is those who have sought the Lord Jesus till they have found him – for the promise is that when we seek him with all our hearts, we shall surely find him – who can stand before the world to testify that they have known God.” (Knowing God p,34). Trust that “since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” (Hebrews 4:14) Lets keep on seeking God and holding firm to Him even when He seems distant. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Link for those sermons: http://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/podcast/mp3-list.html

Link for that blog post: http://henrycurran.wordpress.com/

Reference for that book: Knowing God by J.I. Packer (2004) Hodder & Stoughton

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