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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

This happened on the way home from work and I’m so pleased I thought I’d share.

This isn’t new – many wise pastors, music ministers and the like have said these things before – but I here present it to you in alliterated form!

There are three main things that happen (or should happen) when we sing in church:

Three 'R's of Worship

As you can see, worship is like a triangle. With arrows. And a smiley face.

The important thing is what is going on in the various relationships within the church – between God, ourselves individually, and the whole congregation.

So, when we sing, there are three things going on:

Reveal – God reveals Himself through the songs we sing. This is why it’s so important to have songs true to the Bible and packed with good theology; so that we are teaching our churches, and being taught, who God truly is.

Respond – We respond to God in singing. This is why it’s good to have responsive songs that might not be one-theological-fact-a-line but dwell on what a few things about God mean and allow us to sing with our lips what is going on in our hearts.

Remind – We remind each other of important truths. We aren’t just singing to God individually, but corporately. We are teaching and admonishing each other (as it says in Colossians 3:16), preaching the Gospel to one another, and encouraging each other to keep going in faith.

There it is!

Again, I owe you an apology – I haven’t yet posted on Song of Songs. But that’s because I’ve been working on this. What follows is an adapted and extended version of a sermon I was asked to preach on singleness, a subject that is a personal struggle for me, but all the reading and listening to others’ wisdom and opening up the Bible on it as research for my talk has been a huge encouragement for me personally, and I hope it will be for you, too. So here it is!

 

The Church of England marriage service begins like this:

“Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church. The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad, may find strength, companionship and comfort, and grow to maturity in love.”

So often those of us who are single sit through the marriage services of friends and family and are delighted that they are entering in to such a fantastic thing. Yet we can end up thinking “But what about me?” We can just see a list of good things that we don’t, or might never, experience; and as much as we are genuinely overjoyed for the happy couple, the heart aches for what they have. It can be hard to be single in a world that tells you you’re abnormal if you aren’t in a relationship, or in churches that are more focussed on families than the unmarried. But we can’t afford to let that sadness have a death-grip on our lives. And churches can’t afford to neglect a section of society that’s increasing in size. Not while we’re called to live in relationship with God and make disciples of all people.

If we don’t have a proper perspective on singleness it becomes something that’s only ever seen as a waiting-room for marriage, a life-sentence of loneliness, or a dumping-ground for the undesirable. And that simply isn’t true. It’s a huge privilege to be able to share some of what I’ve learned because I have been so encouraged by it in my own struggles with being single. I hope and pray as we look at the Bible and what God says together, we shall all be refreshed by the incredible blessings that we have in Christ, and be spurred on to better love and serve our brothers and sisters in the church.

Before I come to our passage I’d like to give it some context so that we understand the full importance of what it says. In the Old Testament, God focussed His covenant-keeping faithfulness mainly on the people of Israel. Therefore being married and having children was very important for someone’s name and inheritance and for the preservation of God’s covenant people. To start with, God’s promise to Abraham was all about his physical offspring and descendants, and when He reaffirmed the promise to Abraham’s son Isaac in Genesis 26:3 He said “… I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham.” In the Old Testament Law the system where a man would marry his dead brother’s wife to carry on the name of the brother was God providing for the continuation of the name through physical children. The most famous case of this was when Boaz agreed to marry Ruth to preserve the name of her father-in-law and husband (Ruth 4:10).

As you can see, marriage and having children were key in maintaining God’s covenant people, Israel. So to be single and childless back then was hugely humiliating. Yet this background makes our passage astonishing:

“Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let no eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’ For this is what the LORD says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant – to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.’”

(Isaiah 56:3-7)

This is all possible because of what Isaiah spoke about in chapter 53: the suffering of Christ. Isaiah 53:10 in the ESV says “… it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.” When the Messiah dies as an “offering for sin” and rises again to “prolong his days” He will by that saving act produce many children – so the new people of God formed by the Messiah won’t be formed by physical procreation but by the atoning death of Jesus.

And this is why, straight after talking about how the Messiah will suffer, it says in Isaiah 54:1 “’Sing, O barren women, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.’ Says the LORD.” It’s also why Isaiah 56:5 in our passage says that unmarried covenant-keeping people will have “a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters” and “an everlasting name that will endure forever.” Can you see what this means? God promises people who keep God’s covenant, who love and worship Him – people who are in Christ – blessings that are better than the blessings of marriage and children. So what are these blessings? And how do they apply to singleness? I’m going to focus on two things that singleness isn’t and one that it is, but if you aren’t single, don’t switch off! These blessings apply to you too.

So, the blessings that we have firstly mean…

Singleness is not missing out – Isaiah 54:1-5

That singleness is not missing out. So often when single people hear about how great it is to be in a relationship, or to have a husband or wife, we can feel like there’s something big that we’re missing. “Oh, but it can be so hard being in a relationship,” our coupled friends say; and we think “yeah, right”. I even get it now; every so often I think “Oh no! I’m almost in my mid-twenties and still single; I’m on the shelf, nobody will ever love me and I’ll die ALONE as a CRAZY CAT LADY and NOBODY WILL NOTICE THAT I’M GONE!”

…Breathe…

There’s something really important that we need to get our heads around here. In Matthew 22:30 Jesus said, “At the resurrection [heaven] people will neither marry nor be given in marriage” – this means that marriage is a temporary thing. Let me say it again: marriage is not eternal. I won’t lie, the first time I came across this I refused to believe it – marriage had become such a huge thing for me that I hoped that even if I didn’t get married in this life, I could get married in heaven. After all, I’d have an eternity to find a husband! Surely SOMEONE would want me, right? But when we get to heaven, there won’t be marriage because the thing it points to will be a reality.

Let’s skip back a couple of chapters to Isaiah 54:

“’Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.’… ‘For 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.’”

(Isaiah 54:1, 4-5)

Marriage points to the complete intimacy and union that we have with God – partially now, but completely in heaven – so when we get to heaven, there will be no more need for the picture of union with Christ because it will be a complete reality. This means that if you aren’t married, you aren’t missing out on the big picture. And if you are married, you get to enjoy a foretaste of what is to come. We shouldn’t idolise marriage and put it above our relationship with God, because that is the prize we’re all headed for.

At this point I can imagine some of you (especially the men) might think “Hang on there! God is my husband? Isn’t that a bit weird?” Keep going with me here. Think about what it is to be a husband – the depth of love for a wife, the depth of concern, the long-term commitment, the longing to protect and provide and pursue – that’s what God feels for His people. For you. And women, think about what you long for from a husband in affirmation, protection, comfort, every part of you being known and loved – that’s what God gives us in our relationship with Him. And this is my greatest comfort when it aches to be unattached; knowing that the God who created the cosmos loves me. Loves me – honours, protects, comforts, and is faithful to me for better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness and health. He loves me. And you.

So if you are single, when you see a couple together and long for that kind of relationship, when you ache for good things like commitment, or children, or just for someone to know your heart and love you as you are, remember this. The most precious, the closest, the most faithful relationship you have is the one you have with God. Cry out to Him, because He cares for you and Jesus knows what it’s like to be single. And pursue that relationship with Him – rejoice in it, spend quality time with God, talk to Him in prayer, and eagerly wait for the day when you will see Him as He truly is, face to face. The same goes for those who aren’t single. Our identity is in Christ, not our relationship status. And we need to be careful about saying things like “I feel sorry for the girls at such-and-such a church, there aren’t enough eligible young men for them”, or “How are they still single?”, or even trying to play matchmaker to our single friends. These things might seem harmless, but they undermine people’s confidence in their identity in Christ and assume that people aren’t fulfilled unless they have an “other half”. God does not promise us an earthly husband or wife; He promises us Himself. So we should be constantly pointing each other to and encouraging each other in such a priceless blessing.

As the 17th Century minister Richard Baxter once said:

“Is it a small thing in your eyes to be loved by God? To be the child, the spouse, the love, the delight, of the king of glory? Christian, believe this and think about it. You will be eternally embraced in the arms of the love which was from everlasting and will extend to everlasting. Of the love which brought the Son of God’s love from heaven to earth, from the earth to the cross, from the cross to the grave, and from the grave to glory. That love which was hungry, weary, tempted, scorned, scourged, buffeted, spit upon, crucified, pierced. That love which fasted, prayed, taught, healed, wept, sweat, bled, and died. That love will eternally embrace you.”

It’s worth mentioning physical intimacy here. It isn’t easy to talk about, but it can be hard to be a Christian single with a sex drive. We know that sex within marriage is a great and beautiful thing, but can’t enjoy it ourselves unless we are married. How do we deal with it? If you remember back to our Autumn series on Song of Songs Henry talked about the greater truth sex points to. Since marriage is a reflection of Christ and the Church, the complete unity and intimacy of sex is the only metaphor strong enough to describe the intimate relationship that Christians have with God. So when you struggle with a desire for sex that you can do nothing about, remember what it points to and thank God that our need for love and intimacy are ultimately fulfilled in our relationship with Him.

Being single isn’t missing out on a thing. One of our great blessings is that we have a relationship with God that answers our need for personal intimacy; a relationship that marriage can at best only ever reflect. The only people missing out here are those who don’t know Jesus.

Singleness does not mean being alone – 1 Peter 4:8-10

Secondly, singleness does not mean being alone. A common pang felt by lots of single people is loneliness. Sometimes it’s not about wanting dates or flowers or a ring; sometimes it’s a case of just wanting another person to do things with. Someone to cook for, to go for walks with, share a relaxing night in with, or just to come home to after work.

Loneliness has been described as “the painful feeling of separation from an unacceptability to others” – but we have been made acceptable by Jesus’ death and resurrection eradicating our sin, and so we aren’t separated from God. Not only is our relationship with God restored; He has given us a family and community where we are accepted in the Church. And we should remember that this family is not only spiritual, but eternal. We’ll all be in heaven together. Doesn’t this make our relationships with other believers important? Next time you’re at church, have a good look around you. These people you see are, first and foremost, your brothers and sisters in Christ. So we should treat each other like the spiritual family that we are.

So what does it look like to be a family? 1 Peter 4:8-10 says:

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

It looks like loving deeply, offering hospitality, and serving each other.

How members of the church relate to each other shows the world that our lives are focussed on God, and that our relationships aren’t only defined by family or peer group, but by Christ. So being a family for each other is about worshipping and displaying Jesus to the world as well as being about being there for each other. For the sake of His name, and for the love of each other, we should be interested in each other’s’ lives. We should care about what other people at our churches do, how they really are, and what they think about things. And we should especially care about their relationship with God (because it’s so important!).

As someone who doesn’t have one automatic go-to person about anything, it’s been so helpful for me to have a small group of close friends who know me well and who I have a lot of respect and affection for. And they aren’t all women. We can sometimes be over-cautious about close male-female relationships and it is important to keep our friendships at an appropriate level of closeness. But guys and girls can be friends without wanting to marry each other! Too often our culture tells us that if people are close, they’re sleeping together. But the Bible celebrates close, intimate and committed friendships like that of Naomi and Ruth, and Jonathan and David, which weren’t sexual at all.

We are called to love each other deeply, and we can do this by offering hospitality to each other. It doesn’t have to be limited to formal dinner parties. Sometimes it can be as simple as inviting people over to watch Eurovision together, or as fun as going on a day trip together, or as everyday as walking to lectures together. It’s about taking the opportunity to invite people to share in your life. Over the last few years I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a couple at my church quite well, and I can’t tell you how much of a privilege it’s been to be invited to share time with them as a family, grabbing a quick dinner between work and Prayer & Praise, or hanging out on a Sunday afternoon, or holding the baby for a few minutes to give them some free hands!

This is a challenge to both single and married people – make the effort to open your home and your lives to others. We should all throw ourselves into this community called Church. Single people, don’t isolate yourselves. Non-single people, remember that it can be hard to be the single person in a room full of couples. Students, think about putting down roots and building relationships where you are now. Everyone, remember that all types of people can feel lonely, and think about who you could have a meaningful friendship with over the next few years. Who has God put into your life that you can encourage?

These kinds of relationships also answer the question of future security. We know that God as a plan for each of our lives, and has promised us a glorious future in heaven, but we can still worry about the practical parts of life between now and then. When you think about it, in a spouse and a family you have an automatic next of kin and someone to look after you when you’re old. Single people don’t naturally have this. If I were to be knocked over by a car, who would I get the paramedics to call? My parents? My housemates? My boss? My vicar? If I’m stuck in hospital for weeks on end, who will visit me? Who will look after me if I can’t look after myself? If I’m sent to be a missionary abroad, who will I go with? I can think about these questions and feel so alone in the world. But this is where my church family comes in, and this is why it’s so important to nurture close friendships with them. Because as a church we’re called to look after each other and to be there for each other.

So we’ve seen that being single does not mean that you’re missing out on a close relationship because that’s exactly what we have with God. And it doesn’t mean that you have to be lonely because you are a part of a close and eternal family that is the Church. These are huge blessings! Now let’s look at one thing that singleness is.

Singleness is a great opportunity – 1 Corinthians 7

We’re called to serve each other, and singleness is a fantastic opportunity to do this.

1 Corinthians 7:6-8 says:

“I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am [meaning single]. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” And if we skip down to verses 32-34 Paul says why: “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world – how she can please her husband.”

Single people have more time and energy to give than married people, because a married person’s spouse and children rightfully get first dibs at their free time. This doesn’t mean that they are less of a Christian or that it’s bad to be married, it just means that we single people have a great opportunity before us.

Did you notice that it talked about singleness (or marriage) as a gift there? The idea of the “gift of singleness” is one that’s been misunderstood as some form of special inner peace over being single where you don’t ever want to get married. That isn’t what Paul’s talking about. The Greek word he uses that’s translated as “gift” here (that’s “charisma” for you Greek geeks) carries the sense of being enabled to do something. The same word is used in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” And it then lists a whole load of different gifts. This means that, as a gift, singleness is an empowerment to serve the Church in a particular way. As 1 Peter 4:10 said earlier, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

Because God gives to each of us the gifts He wants to give us, people aren’t single because they are too old or ugly or there aren’t enough young men or women to go round. And this doesn’t mean that people are married because they’re in some way better than the single people. People are single or married because that’s where God wants them. That’s the opportunity He’s given them to serve. And God gives us the gifts He gives us “for the common good” – to bless and build each other up. Therefore singleness isn’t a waiting-room until someday my prince comes and I can start living life; singleness is an opportunity to bless my church right here, right now. And that’s what I’ve found over the last couple of years. If I had been married, I wouldn’t have been able to be an intern at my church last year and get into serving in the music team as much as I have been able to. I wouldn’t be able to spend as much time writing this sermon as I have, because I should rightly have spent some of that free time with my hypothetical husband. I couldn’t have people over for dinner as much, or agree to go for a coffee with a friend at 10 minutes’ notice. I’m not saying that they should be doing too much, but that single people can invest much more time, energy and flexibility into relationships and ministries.

So the challenge is to do it! Single people, what can you use your free time for? Could you invite newcomers over for dinner to help them feel more at home? Could you get involved in serving on a Sunday? Could you help out at the church toddler group? Could you celebrate the end of exams with friends and stay in touch over the summer? Are you investing in others’ lives? Could you take on a one-to-one pastoring role? Or visit the elderly, or help lead a housegroup, or start up a new ministry? And to the rest of us there’s a challenge too: How are we empowering single people to glorify God with their free time and energy? Are we encouraging those serving in church? Are we mentoring them so that they are equipped and trained to serve? Are we giving them opportunities or inviting them to get involved? And are we affirming their value as single people in Christ and their value as members of our church family?

Another fact is that single people can display truths about God that married people can’t. Because we are a part of the Church, we show that God’s family grows through people turning to Him in faith and not by Christian couples having children. Because of the close relationship we have with God, and because we wait for when we will see Him in heaven, we show that marriage is a reflection of something eternal and much greater. And if we live lives faithful to our Saviour, we show that He gives us value and our identity. Marriage shows the passion and exclusivity of our relationship with Christ as His bride; singleness shows the inclusivity of the offer of salvation and love and community that God sets before all people.

Conclusion

So we’ve seen that as God’s people we are promised blessings that are far better than marriage and children. We’ve seen that the great relationship that we have with God means that single people aren’t missing out on a personal and close relationship. We’ve seen that the spiritual family that God has given us in the Church means that singleness is not about being alone. And we’ve seen that singleness can be seen as a great opportunity to bless our church and proclaim truths about God in ways that married people can’t.

Singleness is in no way a Plan B or falling short of the best in life. Our challenge here is to live up to our calling as God’s people to love Him, love others, and proclaim the Gospel with our lives.

You can listen to the original sermon here: http://stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/podcast/?p=episode&name=2013-05-28_singleness.mp3

Here are a couple of questions that I would have liked to answer in my talk, but ran out of time:

Are there good times to be alone? Yes. Some people naturally need time away from others to emotionally recharge, but this doesn’t mean that time alone is only for introverts. There are good things about solitude, because it isn’t about avoiding people or escaping from the world, but a spiritual discipline where you intentionally spend time alone with God. God is always with us, but we need to consciously focus on Him and spend quality time with Him. It’s during these times that we can reflect on things, and often God shows us things about Himself and ourselves that help us in our own growth.

But solitude also makes us appreciate community more. Al Hsu says:

“The antidote to aloneness and alienation is community. While it is good for us to develop solitude, we are not meant to stay alone all the time. We are social beings, designed to live in relationship with others. While some may genuinely prefer to live solitary, isolated lives, most of us yearn to belong to a group and have a place where we are acknowledged and needed… Fellowship with God is the solution for loneliness. Companionship with fellow Christians is the cure for aloneness. Our identity with Christ, though personal and individual, is also corporate and communal. The discipline of solitude should not isolate us – solitude should move us toward community. Solitude actually helps us appreciate people more. Solitude and community are two parallel disciplines, two sides of the same coin, which need to be held in balance.” (The Single Issue p.138)

 

What if you have a good theology of singleness, you love your close relationship with God and are content to be in whatever situation He puts you in, but still want to be married? How do you deal with what seems like a conflict of desires? Well, it isn’t wrong to pray for a spouse. Tell God what you truly want, and don’t worry about praying the “wrong” prayer, because He knows what’s good for you. And actually, as we pray and really do pour out our hearts to God, we find that He changes our hearts. If, in our aching, we press into Him and say by our actions that we choose to put Him first; in this worship, He changes us to be more like Christ. So talk to God about it, and then trust Him. Trust that God will give you what you need in the situation that He’s put you in. Also, be aware that marriage can become an idol when our vision of God is too small. We obsess about things because God doesn’t have the place that He should have in our hearts. It’s been said that we have a “hole” in our hearts that’s designed for God to fill. And if our vision of Him is too small then He won’t fill it, and that hole will just churn out desires that become controlling obsessions and idols. It seems counter-intuitive, but the way to fight such desires isn’t to try and make yourself not want them but to focus on something else, something much greater. Focus on knowing and loving God, and delighting in Him, and He will change those desires in such a way that they will be satisfied in Him.

And let me say that out of experience, it does hurt sometimes. You can know these good things and love God, and enjoy being able to serve with your free time, but being single still aches. And I know that in heaven all my deepest desires will be satisfied in seeing my Saviour face-to-face, but heaven is a lifetime away. So far, and so long to wait! Sometimes I just have to carry that burden, but I know that Jesus will help me bear it. And I know that between now and Glory there will be joy as well as pain. And I know that heaven will be all the sweeter for having known my God closely now, and having my longing for more completely satisfied when I get there.

You can listen to the original talk here: http://stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/podcast/?p=episode&name=2013-05-28_singleness.mp3

Here’s a list of the things I listened to and read (you’ll see some shameless pinching of wisdom!):

Paige Benton Brown’s article on singleness: http://www.pcpc.org/ministries/singles/singledout.php – kind of kick started my thinking on singleness and God’s goodness.

The Single Issue by Al Hsu (IVP) – lots of practical application of how to “do” singleness in a Godly way.

John Piper’s talk “Single in Christ: A Name Better Than Sons and Daughters”: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/single-in-christ-a-name-better-than-sons-and-daughters – that’s where I got the main theology from.

Piper’s book This Momentary Marriage (Crossway) is free online. Its chapter on singleness is basically the talk above, but it’s also got some stuff in chapter 10 about the relationship between married couples and single people.

Carolyn McCulley’s talk on “Singleness and Sanctification”: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/singleness – more practical stuff on how to live out singleness.

Short article on longing to be married based on podcasts asking John Piper questions: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/ask-pastor-john/how-can-i-long-to-be-married-without-obsessing-about-it

Article by Marshall Segal on “Mission for the Not Yet Married”: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/single-satisfied-and-sent-mission-for-the-not-yet-married

Another Carolyn McCulley talk on “Biblical Femininity for Single Women”: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/were-not-on-hold-biblical-femininity-for-single-women – she’s got a load of good stuff to say!

Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage (Hodder & Stoughton) has a helpful chapter on singleness as well.

Something really helpful that was published since I wrote this sermon is this article about how it’s not wrong to have a sex drive when you’re single, and also how we can deal with it (for want of a better phrase) in a pure way: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/the-single-person-s-good-desire-for-sex

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