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(This is an adapted transcript from a sermon I preached at my church back in August. You can listen to the real thing here.)

 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

Revelation 3:14-22 (ESV)

In the letters from Jesus to seven churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation, we can see that these churches faced a spectrum of challenges that every church faces today, whether it’s having to endure persecution from people outside the church, resisting false teaching from within, or dealing with problems in our own hearts.

If you aren’t a Christian, you might well be wondering how looking at the Bible could ever apply to you and what the point of even reading this is in the first place. But keep reading – see how God talks to His people, but also keep an eye out for how this might be relevant for you.

Let’s turn to this final letter that Jesus sends, addressed to the church in Laodicea.

In Romans 11:22 we’re called to “consider the kindness and the severity of God” and we’ll see that here. We’ll see the severity of Jesus towards a church that’s indifferent towards Him, and His immense kindness and generosity to that same church if she would turn to Him again.

 

The Severity Of Jesus

In the other letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus had something to commend them for. To Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and Philadelphia He said, “You are enduring persecution and clinging to Me.” He commended Thyatira’s servant-heartedness and faithfulness. He even had something good to say to Sardis, who were spiritually dying but still had sparks of life and goodness to encourage.

But unlike His other letters, Jesus has nothing good to say about Laodicea. To them He says “I will spit you out of My mouth!” [v16].

Why?

A quick skim of the letter shows this is because Jesus sees them as lukewarm wretches; poor, blind and naked. To fully understand what He means, we need to understand the Laodicean church’s situation.

Laodicea was a wealthy city in the south east of modern-day Turkey. It was a big commercial and banking centre, with a large textiles industry famous for its wool and tunics. Its wealth made it a city of arts, science and literature. It was a leading centre of medicine, and was renowned for its healing eye ointment. Think about somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge today – beautiful, prosperous, and famous for its academia.

The city of Laodicea wasn’t just rich, it was absolutely loaded. In fact, the people of Laodicea were so well off that when the city was destroyed by an earthquake and the Emperor offered to help them rebuild, they said, “No thanks, we’ve got this”!

And it looks like the church in Laodicea had a similar attitude. In v17 Jesus tells them “… you say, I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing…” and why wouldn’t they? They lived in a wealthy and prosperous city. And do you notice – this letter doesn’t talk about persecution? On the surface, they were doing well.

But Jesus had a bombshell to drop on them: “You, are poor, blind and naked. You think you have everything, but you have nothing.”

The great irony of Laodicea’s situation is that they are the exact opposite of what they think they are. And they can’t see it! It’s their blindness to their spiritual situation that makes them think they don’t need anything.

And this complacency disgusts Jesus.

He says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Hot and cold water are good in different ways, and the Laodicean church would have known this well. Hot water from the springs in Hierapolis a few kilometres to the north would have been good for bathing in. Cold water from the springs at Colossae just down the road would have been beautifully refreshing on a hot summer’s day.

But Laodicea didn’t have its own water supply, so it had to be piped in by aqueduct. And by the time that the water got to the city, it was lukewarm. It wasn’t refreshing like the cool water at Colossae or useful like the hot springs at Hierapolis. And it was full of stuff that made it taste absolutely gross. So gross that the Romans said it was only fit for slaves!

That’s why Jesus says, “I will spit you out of My mouth!” He’s saying that they were as foul and unusable to Him as their tepid water was to them. Their smugness and self-satisfaction made them indifferent to Him, and it makes Him sick.

It sickens Jesus that the church He has died and risen for has a relationship towards Him that could be described as: Meh.

Jesus isn’t being needy and whiney. He starts the letter by describing Himself as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness” [v14b]. He is the embodiment of God’s faithfulness and truthfulness. He sees things as they really are, and He doesn’t lie about it.

And Jesus will not pull His punches when it comes to challenging this complacent church. If they stay like this, He will reject them.

Because what can He do with a church that doesn’t love Him? That doesn’t listen to Him?

He is being so severe because this is so important. Jesus wants a Church that loves Him with all her heart, soul, mind and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37), because true worship and obedience to Him only comes from loving Him above all else.

If we find ourselves in a similar situation to the church in Laodicea – if we have plenty, if we are in a comfortable place and are enjoying life going well – we need to ask: are we as healthy on the inside as we look on the outside?

I’m not saying that good things like health and wealth are bad in themselves – after all, God provides good things for us to enjoy. But we can’t assume that doing well for ourselves on the surface means that our hearts are in the right place.

In fact, it can blind us to how we really are spiritually.

Think about it: when do we pray the most? It’s when we need something, isn’t it?

If I think I really need something, like a good night’s sleep after a week of insomnia, or a holiday I’ve been desperately looking forward to, or for the bus to really not be late today, God hears about it from me a lot.

But He rarely hears anything from me about the roof over my head, the wages I’m paid, or anything else I take for granted. But nothing has changed – I still need Him to provide those things, even though I’ve forgotten that.

You see, if we don’t feel how much we need God, we can forget that we need Him.

We can forget that He provides everything for us.

We can forget that in and of ourselves we are wretches with hearts prone to wander into sin.

We can forget that it’s by God’s grace and Jesus’ blood alone that we are saved from hell.

So, like the church in Laodicea, we’ll think “I don’t need anything” and our hearts will cool towards Him.

Our attitude towards the Saviour who provides for us, cares for us, who died to save us, will go from passionate worship to: Meh.

How do we stop that?

Jesus tells Laodicea, and us, the answer.

 

The Kindness Of Jesus

We’ve seen that Jesus has warned the church in Laodicea that if they don’t change He will reject them. But Jesus hasn’t given up on this tepid church. We’ve seen His severity. And now we’ll see His kindness.

You see, the Laodicean church’s indifference to Jesus may have made Him want to throw up, but He hasn’t abandoned them yet.

If you look at the beginning of Revelation 2, you’ll see a picture of Himself that Jesus gives in His letter to the church in Ephesus. He held the stars and walked among the lampstands that represent the churches He is writing to. Jesus still holds the church in Laodicea in His hand, and He is still with her.

He says in verse 19, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” He is brutally honest in telling the church in Laodicea how it is because He loves them. Because He wants them to turn away from their complacency and love Him again.

And He gives this blind, naked church the remedy to her disease and poverty: “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” (v18)

But how can a spiritually poor, blind and naked church do this?

The answer comes in verse 20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

They need to stop shutting Jesus out and invite Him in.

And when Jesus is invited in, He will eat with them. When the Bible was written, sharing a meal was all about intimacy. You wouldn’t invite just anyone round for dinner; eating together was about close friendship.

Jesus is using this as a picture of what knowing Him should be like. It’s not having Him safely on the outside and only talking to Him when we need something, and even then only through the letterbox of the closed door of our hearts. No, it’s welcoming Him in to the very core of our being and inviting Him to stay there, to live in the closest relationship that it is possible to have.

And Jesus doesn’t only offer close relationship with Himself. Each of the letters to the churches in Revelation finishes with a promise to “the one who conquers”, to those who endure in faith to the end. The promise He gives in this letter is this: “I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” (v21)

This is huge! If we persevere in faith, we will sit on the throne of Jesus, who sits on the throne of the God the Father. We will one day share in Jesus’ rule over the whole universe!

This is God’s incredible grace, that the Lord Jesus would see a wretched people and call them to come to Him for riches. Riches that they can’t afford, but that He has already bought for them on the cross. Not the ‘health, wealth and happiness’ of the prosperity gospel, but the faith, purity and clarity of sight that Jesus has bought for us through His blood.

On the cross He paid the price to give us His righteousness to cover our shameful sin.

And faith in His sacrifice for us is worth far more than gold, because it is by faith alone that we have a right relationship with God.

And as part of having a living relationship with God, He sends His Spirit to live within us to help us see clearly.

So how do we buy this from Jesus? By being zealous and repenting like He told the church in Laodicea to do. By deliberately turning away from thinking we’re fine, and throwing ourselves on Him for everything.

If you’re a Christian here today, can you see what’s at stake?

Listen to the warning Jesus gives! Ask Him to show you the real state of your heart, not just where you think you’re at. And if you find you’re cold towards Him and you’ve shut Him out, then pray and ask Jesus to come in to your heart again – not just the threshold, but the kitchen and bedroom and even the downstairs toilet!

Because He wants your heart. He wants you to be spiritually rich and clothed and able to see through your faith and relationship with Him.

And when we turn away from being complacent, when we realise our blindness and self-satisfaction and ask Jesus to make us burn with passion for Him again, He promises to do just that!

So pray, ask to know Him more, to love Him more. And as He shows you how things really are, don’t stop talking to Him about how you need Him to change you.

Ask God to give you a greater yearning to know Him better. That you’ll look forward to hearing Him speak to you every day as you read your Bible.

That you will read your Bible!

This is the most precious book on earth! It is a record of God’s dealings with His people and what He has spoken to us. He has ensured that it would be written down for us to read. And thousands of others throughout history. God has given us the Bible so that we will know Him, and so we will know how to live in the best way possible.

So read it, every day, and ask that through reading it God will give you a greater desire for, delight in, and dependence on Him above anything else.

Ask God to give you a greater passion for Him that spills out into obedience to His command to love your brothers and sisters in Christ, and to love those who without hearing the Gospel will suffer God’s righteous judgment when they die.

If you’re reading this and don’t believe in Jesus, then can you see what’s at stake for you? Our God is not an idea. He’s a person. He cares about the way Christians live – not just the things you see them do, but in how they think and feel about Him. He cares about the way you live, too.

Jesus isn’t blind to our imperfections, although we might be. He knows what we’re really like, everything we regret and everything we hide. But time and time again He gives us the chance to choose what is right. That’s what repentance is – turning from doing what is wrong and going in the opposite direction.

This might sound terrifying. But God isn’t waiting for you to give Him the opportunity to attack you. He’s waiting for you to ask Him to forgive you so He can give you treasure beyond anything in this life, and heal your brokenness, and cover your shame.

The Laodicean church’s indifference towards Jesus disgusted Him, and we need to realise that if we’re lukewarm towards Him, or even don’t care about Him, the danger of rejection is real for us, too.

But Jesus gives us time to change, and if we repent, there is so much that He offers us.

Forgiveness for sin, every wrong that we’ve done.

Being accepted by God.

The right to become a child of God. To be loved by Him. To be protected by Him. To never be separated from Him.

Transformation from broken sinfulness to beautiful holiness.

An heir of God’s perfect kingdom.

That He will make everything work together for your benefit.

That when you die you will leave behind all pain and tears and live with God forever in a perfect world, and He will be more real to you than anything else you’ve known on earth.

Wouldn’t you want to be loved by God like that? You can! Jesus says that if anyone hears His call to repent of a lukewarm heart towards Him and lets Him in, He will.

So let’s remember the kindness and severity of God. How seriously He takes our relationship with Him – so seriously that He will reject us if we don’t truly love Him. But oh, how kind He is to us, that He promises so much to those who will let Him in.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Draw me close, let Your love surround me./ Bring me near, draw me to Your side./ And as I wait, I’ll rise up like the eagle/ And I will soar with You, Your Spirit leads me on/ In the power of Your love.

(Chorus of Lord, I Come To You by Geoff Bullock (C) 1992)

What do you think when you hear worship songs like this? Do you shudder, roll your eyes and think:

I must confess, you probably could have described me as one of the “Jesus is my boyfriend” crowd when I was younger. There’s a lot out there on the interweb about songs like that, and most churches will have come across worship songs that sound romantic.

Much ink and many pixels have been used in talking about what’s wrong with romantic imagery in worship, so I won’t add much more here. And I won’t belittle the people who wrote those songs, because I’m pretty sure that most of the time they were written with good intentions. The main danger – and one that I’ve been caught up in myself – is that in singing to God like we would sing to our boy/girlfriend we can forget that it isn’t a human being that we’re singing to. We worship God. “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of their fathers to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7) The one who sits in heaven on a throne surrounded by angels and heavenly creatures constantly singing praise to Him; who knows and sees everything; who created the universe and commands it; who is so perfect and impressive He looks like jewels; and who is so powerful He’s like a thunderstorm (see Revelation 4; Ephesians 1:15-20; and many other places in the Bible)! We can’t sing to Him like He’s one of us. It dishonours who He is.

Yet we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. It’s wrong to treat God like He’s not God, but I think it’s also wrong to misunderstand the relationship that He has with His people. As John Piper says, “The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever” (Desiring God), and we won’t delight in and enjoy a God we don’t want to love. And we won’t want to love a God who seems cold, distant, or permanently angry with us. When I feel like I’m drifting away from God, or my faith isn’t going cold, I find it helpful to be reminded of the relationship that my Saviour has won me into.

I first discovered the awesomeness of the book of Song of Songs through a sermon series at my church and some talks by Mike Reeves (some links below). I found it so encouraging I wanted to share it on here, in the hope that it’ll encourage you lovely people who read this blog. It’s taking me a while (sorry!), but here’s what I’ve found great as I’ve been learning about Song of Songs. I’ll focus on what it says about the relationship we have with Christ, rather than what it says about marriage. Having a healthy, Biblical view of marriage is important for single people as well as married people or those in a romantic relationship, but Song of Songs can deeply encourage us in faith because it speaks deeply of the relationship that we have with God.

Hmm, really?

If this is sounding a bit weird, stick with me.

The book of Song of Songs contains a whole load of love poetry from a husband to his bride, and the bride to her husband (subtitled “She” and “He” in the ESV), with a few verses from their friends in the mix. It’s packed with colour and imagery and sensuality as the couple express their joy in each other and their friends rejoice in their love as well. It’s much like how I remember the weddings I’ve been to – the bride and groom, beaming, can’t take their eyes off each other, and their friends and family delight in celebrating the couple’s relationship and new commitment. The book also celebrates the sexual relationship of the couple, too. Many people have been happy to leave it there, as a book talking about the goodness of love and marriage. But if all of Scripture is about Jesus (see John 5:39), what do we do with Song of Songs? It can seem a bit weird to say that a book that talks about romance and marriage and sex and all that is about God Himself, but let’s have a look at what it says about its main players:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the maidens love you! Take me away with you – let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers.”

– Song of Songs 1:2-4 (emphasis added)

The woman (She) is talking about her love for this man, whom she describes as a king. And later in the chapter, she describes him as a shepherd:

Tell me, you whom I love, where were you grazing your flock and where you rest your sheep at midday. Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends?

– Song of Songs 1:7 (emphasis added)

These aren’t two different men that She is talking about. And looking after a herd of sheep is a strange hobby for a king. In chapter 3, She describes him like this:

Who is this coming up from the desert like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant?

– Song of Songs 3:6 (emphasis added)

Ring any bells? A king, coming from the wilderness, like a column of smoke? That’s how God led Israel out of Egypt in Exodus. And perfumed with myrrh and incense – myrrh was used to anoint the high priest and embalm dead bodies, and incense was used in the temple to represent prayers going to God as they worshipped. So He is not only a king and a shepherd, but a priest, and looks a lot like God. Verses 9-10 also talk about him arriving in a carriage made of gold.

Come out, you daughters of Zoin, and look at King Solomon wearing the crown, the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, the day his heart rejoiced.

– Song of Songs 3:11 (emphasis added)

And a king who is getting married! All these things together point to Jesus – the King of all who would die to be our perfect high priest, who has made us able to worship God and become His own as His bride, the Church, and who looks after her as a good shepherd would have cared for his sheep.

And what about his other half?

Dark am I, yet lovely, daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon. Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun. My mother’s sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I have neglected.

– Song of Songs 1:5-6 (emphasis added)

There’s a lot of vineyard imagery in Song of Songs. In the Old Testament, it was a metaphor for Israel, the people of God (see Isaiah 5) – and this points to the Church, the “New Testament” people of God. There are also contrasts in who She is, e.g. “Dark am I, yet lovely… dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon.” Kedar was one of the sons of Ishmael (i.e. the son without God’s promise, unlike his brother Isaac) and the place was in Arabia (non-Jewish territory) but it talks about “curtains of Solomon”, temple imagery. It’s a dual identity – someone from outside the country and God’s promises, but brought in. And isn’t this our identity as Christians? People who are imperfect and sinful and broken – dark and stained – yet united with Christ, given His purity and righteousness – lovely?

There’s much more to say about Song of Songs, and you’ll have to wait for further posts to read about that (and get excited! :D). It’s a good reminder of the relationship we have with Christ – one with God, who also makes His people His beloved Bride.

There’s a danger with romantic-sounding worship songs in that they can almost bring God down to a human level. But we mustn’t forget the relationship that God has chosen to have with His people: as a husband has with his wife. I think Isaiah 54:5 strikes a good balance between these two things “… your maker is your husband – the LORD Almighty is his name – the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth.” We must not make out that God is like us. He isn’t. And we also must not forget how He loves and cares for His people: intimately, passionately, devotedly. When we forget that God is God, we dishonour Him by not giving Him the worship He deserves, and harm ourselves by not having a true picture of the God who is worth all and gives us hope because He is God. When we forget how much He loves us, we dishonour Him by forgetting an important part of His character and end up fearing Him without loving Him, and this hurts us, too.

Is Jesus my boyfriend? No. But Christ is the heavenly Husband of the Church, and as members of the Church, His Bride, Christians should worship holding both parts of God’s character together. We should worship “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light” (see 1 Timothy 6:15-16) with intimacy as well as awe.

These were the things I read and listened to for writing this post, and I’d recommend reading/listening to them yourself:

“Expressing Love to God” article by Bob Kauflin: http://www.worshipmatters.com/2005/11/22/expressing-love-to-god-in-worship/

“The Love of Christ in Song of Songs” series of talks by Mike Reeves: http://www.theologynetwork.org/unquenchable-flame/the-reformation-in-britain/getting-stuck-in/the-love-of-christ-in-song-of-songs.htm

Song of Songs sermon series (October 2012): http://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/podcast.html

November is moving fast, and Christmas is approaching! Time to think of what presents to buy for friends and family! I quite like planning what to buy for the people I know well enough to have a good idea of what to get them, but some people are harder to buy for than others. At times like these the invention of vouchers is something invaluable. I tend to always get vouchers from a member of my family at Christmas, and it’s quite fun choosing what to spend them on. I enjoy the satisfaction that comes from getting a good bargain. But although I want to get the most out of what I spend, I know it isn’t worth spending money on something that’s cheap and low-quality. It’s far better to exchange my shiny pieces of paper for something that I know that I’ll enjoy for a while. You wouldn’t redeem something broken or old or tatty with your vouchers, would you?

You might be wondering why on earth I’m talking about what I’ll be spending my Christmas money on, but I think that as we go through the short and sweet chapter of Hosea 3 we’ll find something surprising. We’ll see a God who spends big on something that we might think is a rip-off, but something He thinks is worth every last bit of what He paid.

In Hosea 1, God describes Israel’s relationship with Him like that of an unfaithful wife. They were a people who keep on forsaking God for idols, and God says He’ll judge Israel because of their spiritual adultery. God originally warned against forgetting Him a few generations before in Deuteronomy 8, yet we see in Hosea 2 that Israel did just that, and left God her husband for the empty promises of other gods. So God says He’ll take away everything she has to bring her to her senses. He will then allure His unfaithful wife, and give back all He has taken away, and Israel will once again call Him her husband. Not only will God restore their relationship but He will make it a closer, deeper, purer one. An eternal one.

In chapter 3 we take a short break from God’s message to Israel to see what is happening in Hosea’s life. This is the last time we hear about Hosea himself in the book, and again God uses it to show profound and powerful truths about His relationship with, and His plans for, His people. In this passage it involves two actions: redemption and restoration. This won’t be an easy passage to look at. We will be challenged. We will be humbled. But we will also be allured by the unrelenting love and astonishing forgiveness of our God. A God who willingly redeems a broken people at a cost much greater than a gift card.

So let’s look at the passage:

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love has as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin-cakes.”

So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me for many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.”

For the Israelites will live for many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol. Afterwards the Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days.”

Redemption

Firstly, the passage describes redemption. The chapter begins with God giving Hosea some instructions: ‘The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin-cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley.’ (v1-2)

Gomer has left Hosea. Not only has she left him, but she has left him for another man while still being his wife. By Old Testament law, Hosea was well within his rights to drag both Gomer and her lover to the city gate to be stoned to death. And, let’s be honest, wouldn’t you sympathise? If the man, or woman, you loved, you had married, you had given all that you had to, you had looked after, who had promised to be with you for life, one day turned around and said “Sorry, I’m in love with someone else” upped sticks and left – wouldn’t you be angry? Wouldn’t you be hurt? Would you ever want to see them again? It’s incredibly painful when anyone you’re close to hurts you, and all the more for a marriage, a relationship that’s meant to be one of intimacy and close trust.

Yet what does God tell Hosea to do? “…Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites…” (v1) God is using Hosea’s life as a picture of His relationship with Israel. Can you see the parallel here? “Go, show your love to your wife… though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin-cakes.” (v1) God is saying that just like Gomer left Hosea for another man, Israel has abandoned her divine Husband for the idol Baal, and loves not God, but raisin-cakes, things used in rituals. She does not love God Himself, but desires things, and has turned to other gods to give her those things. And God, being holy, righteous, and just, has every right to condemn Israel to destruction for her unfaithfulness.

Yet He doesn’t do that. If you remember, in chapter 2 God didn’t declare intentions to annihilate Israel, although He would punish her. He said He would love her and woo her and betroth her to Him for ever. And as God decided to show His love in restoring His idolatrous people, He asks Hosea to do the same for his wife. And verse 2 says that that involves buying Gomer back. The price is fifteen shekels of silver and one and a half homers of barley. Some interpreters think this adds up to thirty shekels of silver – this was how much it cost to buy a slave’s freedom. Hosea doesn’t say why she needs to be bought back, but Gomer’s return came at a price. And the fact that Hosea had to make up the difference with barley shows He couldn’t pay in cash. It was costly for him.

God didn’t give Hosea the option of backing out of his relationship with his wife, because God is uncompromising in His relationship with His people. He would not give up on Israel, although abandoning them would save Him the pain of their unfaithfulness; and He wouldn’t settle for anything less than for them to call Him their husband. The love that God asks of Hosea is but a taste of God’s own love for His people – vast, relentless, eternal.

But was it worth it? Hosea knew that Gomer was adulterous right to the core, it was why God told him to marry her in the first place. Wouldn’t Gomer just keep on running to her lovers? Wouldn’t Israel just turn away again? It’s what they had been doing for generations! It wasn’t enough to merely remove the wife from slavery. No, she would have to change as well.

 

Restoration

Therefore, after redemption the second act we see is that of restoration. After Hosea has bought Gomer, he says to her, “You are to live with me for many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.” (v3) This sounds a bit cryptic, but Hosea is saying that she is to remove herself from the temptation of adultery. She is to live with Hosea as his wife, yet since sexual intimacy was her downfall, she is not to sleep with any man – including Hosea – for a time. Gomer had to get out of the habit of unfaithfulness so that she could be a faithful wife. And then Hosea would fully be a husband to her again.

Why did Hosea do this? “For the Israelites will live for many days without a king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol.” (v4) God will remove from Israel the things that were leading them astray. They weren’t all bad things in themselves. It wasn’t wrong for Israel to have a king, to offer sacrifices, or to have objects of worship. These were all good things. But Israel’s rulers had led them astray, and more often than not had rejected God. Sacrificial offerings were something ordained by God, and in previous years God’s people had set up memorial to remind them of what God had done for them. Yet the people were now sacrificing to other gods and making idols in honour of them. Even ephods, parts of the system of worship that God had set up through Moses, had become idols. In fact, the history of the northern kingdom of Israel was founded on idolatry and a broken relationship – they rebelled against King David’s grandson and set up their own king and made their own rival religion. Israel was riddled with idolatry! Like a shopping trolley with a dodgy wheel, they kept veering away from God and running in the wrong direction.

Like Gomer, Israel needed to be removed from the things that were leading them astray. It would be hard: They would be conquered, and their system of worship would be removed. Yet instead of being an unloving thing for God to do, this purging is a part of His love. God will remove the very pillars of Israel’s culture, but He will not remove Himself. And He knows that for Israel this will prove to be ultimate gain: “Afterwards the Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days.” (v5) The people of Israel needed to have these things removed so that they would return to God. So that they would see that it was the Lord who gave them everything, the Lord who heard their prayers, the Lord who kept them safe – not anything else. They would turn to God again, remembering their divine Husband for who He really is. Hosea says that they will come trembling – in repentance, knowing the wrong they have done, and asking for forgiveness. But there is more to this, and I’ll come to that soon.

The best is yet to come…

In this chapter of Hosea, we’ve seen two things: That an unfaithful wife was bought back at great cost, and that her husband would help her to be someone who would love him fully again. Does this story sound familiar?

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly… God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

That’s Romans 5:6&8.

“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures… But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”

That’s Titus 3:3-7.

You see, in verse 5 Hosea when talks about “the last days” he isn’t just looking for a time when Israel would be restored. No, he is talking about something beyond the Old Testament, looking forward to a time when God would fully restore His relationship with His people. He was looking forward to the time when God would buy an unfaithful people from a master that would drive them to death, paying a great cost, and making them His own people. A people who love and desire Him greatly.

We saw first that Hosea bought back his wife at great cost. And this is what God has done at the cross. Sin is not just breaking rules – it’s the breaking of a relationship. The breaking of God’s heart as His beloved people run after other lovers. As the Titus quote said, we were enslaved by desires and a broken nature that couldn’t help but be unfaithful to God. Like that Romans passage said, we were powerless to get ourselves out of the situation.  And just like Hosea had every right by the law to have his adulterous wife executed, that same law condemns us to death for our sin. Yet at this time, when we had rejected the God who created us, when we had turned to other things to satisfy our cravings for love or security or hope, at this time Jesus Christ died to free us from our slavery to sin. He swapped places with us so that we could be free from the punishment we deserve, and instead be made into God’s perfect bride. As 1 John 4:10 says, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and send his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Isn’t this the greatest display of love? God didn’t give up on the human race, even after we had rejected Him from the beginning, after the people He chose to display Him to the world consistently turned to other gods, and even now when those He has redeemed still fall by the wayside every so often.

If you aren’t a Christian, then please hear this. The relationship that God has with His people is not a cold contract of rules. It’s a living, breathing, vibrant relationship; one that satisfies our need to be known, to be accepted, to be loved. It’s a relationship that has cost God dearly to have. Isn’t that something worth thinking about?

For those of us who may think that we’re too broken for God to want anything to do with us, or know that we keep on getting things wrong and wonder whether we’re one mistake away from being abandoned, who know that secret darkness in the deepest corner of our heart – don’t disqualify yourself from coming to God. Jesus knew what He was doing when He died for you. And He came back from death so that you could be made whole again and be caught up in the life that He has. And don’t be fooled – these Christians may look like they’re all sorted and holy, but they’re not. I’m one of them, and I’m far from being the woman that I’d like to be. Becoming a Christian doesn’t instantly transform you into a perfect demi-god. It just starts the journey of being made right.

And God knows this. I find it incredibly moving that Jesus deliberately took the punishment for His unfaithful Bride upon Himself. That as He was taking those last excruciating breaths on the cross Jesus knew He was saving a people for Himself that wouldn’t get it right until He brought them to heaven. This is the greatness of God’s grace – that He knows we will hurt Him again, and forgives us anyway. He knows that before the day is out, I’ll have acted like something is more important than He is, probably done something to hurt the people I know and love, and definitely got something completely wrong, but still when I ask for forgiveness He can’t wait to give it. He is our heavenly Husband, who betrothed us to Himself at the cross, and again and again when we turn from Him He is ready to welcome us back with open arms. All we need to do is come trembling to the Lord, fully acknowledging our weakness and asking for Him to take away our wrongs, and trusting that He will forgive us like He’s promised.

The second thing we’ve seen in Hosea 3 is that Hosea had to guide Gomer away from running after other livers and bring her back into living as his wife. If you are a Christian, we’ve got a great warning and encouragement to take from this. We have been saved by Jesus from condemnation and judgment. He has given us His righteousness so that we have a good relationship with God. But we would be fooling ourselves to think that we’re all perfect now, wouldn’t we? The battle against sin in our hearts is still ongoing. I know that if I take a long, hard look at myself I won’t like what I see. Because I see that I do still have a heart that runs to things other than God. As human beings, we are very good at making things into idols and putting them in the place that God should have in our lives. And I find that this is still a problem now that I’m a Christian. It’s not just the obvious things that we can see people who aren’t Christians run after – things like money, or escapism, or success, or the dream house or family or car. More dangerous is when good things, sometimes God-things like having quiet times or serving at church or praying – anything that can become a box-ticking exercise – these become idols because we can easily fool ourselves that it’s out of some desire to please God that we care so much. But the thing is, idols consume you and leave you empty. They promise us everything, and give us nothing. Every time I sin – and I sin frequently – it’s because I think doing wrong is better than doing the right that pleases God. In that moment, I believe that I will get more satisfaction, more pleasure, by that thing rather than by loving God; whether it’s getting my own way, or not doing something because it puts me at risk of rejection, or giving in to that constant temptation because I just can’t keep fighting it any more.

We need to keep an eye on where our priorities lie because if you’re anything like me it’s all too easy to forget that it’s God, not my money or job or that relationship, who gives me joy and is worth everything. We’re on the right track, but the wheel of our proverbial trolley isn’t quite fixed yet. So we need to make sure that we aren’t led astray permanently. We should pursue God first and foremost, and if something is stopping that happening we need to do something about it. Also, we shouldn’t be afraid of times when God does take things away that distract us from Him, or when life gets hard, because He is growing us to be more faithful and could well be preparing us to be captivated by Him again.

As we’ve looked at Hosea 3, we’ve seen that Hosea buying back his unfaithful wife was meant to reflect God’s unrelenting love and forgiveness of His people; how God refused to give up on them despite their constant turning away from Him to other gods. And we’ve seen that God has bought us for Himself with the blood of Jesus, who died so that we could be forgiven.  And we’ve seen that, although we still do get things wrong, God forgives us time after time. He does not leave us to die in our sin, but welcomes us back to Him, and He will make His people to be a perfect Bride for Himself. A Bride who longs for Him, and who will enjoy perfect relationship with Him into eternity. In verse 5 what it says Israel will return to “the LORD and his blessings”. The blessing of relationship with Him now, and the future blessing of heaven – where there will be no more death, or evil, or anything that would cause us pain; where we will spend eternity with the Lover of our souls, seeing Him face to face, forever. This is what we have to look forward to! So let’s leave the empty seductions of this world and run towards the Husband who will give us more than we can dream of.

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