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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.

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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.

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