Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Meditation on God

Let me speak of God,
Tell you what I know.

Distinctly three
Yet indivisibly One,
Blended in perfect,
Mutual submission;
Perfect harmony,
Perfect love.

All-powerful in creation.
One God:
Father, Son, Spirit;
Pattern for our three-fold meld:
Body, soul, spirit.
Source of our diversity:
Adam and Eve.
The Light whose image we reflect.

Beyond compare
With mankind
Or any other being;
Deserving of unfeigned reverence.
Set apart,
Yet drawn alongside in compassion.

Beyond reproach;
In justice, perfect.
Yet slow to anger
And abounding in love,
Full of grace and mercy.

Exalted over all,
Yet stooping to dwell within
His precious children
By his Spirit;
Closer than breath.

Filling the universe,
Unbounded by time;
Yet expressed most clearly
To transient, limited minds
In the Son.

All-wise, all-knowing;
Complete, entire;
Yet seeking the company,
Of finite, broken man,
Lifting us to his knee.

When I speak of God,
I tell only what I know,
Or only what I think I know.
Far greater than the sum
Of all my thought and knowledge,
He may yet prove deficient
What I think I know.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Divine Encounters


Rev 1:12-18
Isaiah 6:1-8
Luke 5:1-10


In our Old Testament reading, we read Isaiah's account of his personal encounter with God.  It was one of those encounters that was extremely hard to ignore, one of those events that burnt itself indelibly into his memory, a life-changing event.  He's waited until chapter six to tell us but he can't hold it in any longer.  He can tell us exactly when it was and can describe it in vivid detail.

'In the year that King Uzziah died,' he tells us, giving us a fact that enables us to set the historical and cultural context of the event.  The nation of the Hebrews was by that time already split into two, with the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south.  Uzziah, was a king of Judah; he died in about 740 BC and was succeeded by Jotham, his son.

Under these two kings, the kingdom of Judah enjoyed a time of great prosperity and luxury.  But the whole region was experiencing growing pressure and unrest because of the expanding Assyrian empire.  The people of Judah were soon to see the northern kingdom of Israel fall, leaving them isolated and alone. 

But, in the year that king Uzziah died, Isaiah saw his vision of the LORD. 

The Holiness of God

The thing that struck on Isaiah's mind the most was the holiness of God.  God is described as 'Holy, holy, holy' by the seraphs, as if to bring clear emphasis to that fact.  The holiness of God was something that marked Isaiah's ministry forever after.  God is called 'The Holy one of Israel' 25 times in the book of Isaiah, a title used only twice in the rest of Scripture.

Isaiah really wants us to grasp this point: God is holy!

'Holy' is a concept quite alien to our modern culture.  One dictionary definition that I've found helpful is 'set apart, not for ordinary use.'

For example, we have the Holy Bible.  As Christians, we consider this book to be different from other books.  Some of us perhaps keep it set apart in pride of place next to our favourite armchair or at our bedside rather than sticking it on a shelf with all our other books.  We read it with reverence, allowing its words to speak into our lives.  We meditate upon it, and look to it for guidance.

This room we probably think of as a holy place.  It's not for ordinary use; it's a special place where we worship God.  We can be offended if people behave in here in ways we consider inappropriate.

A dictionary definition is useful but it doesn't really encompass all the Bible means in saying that God is holy.  It doesn't really convey the full meaning in Isaiah's encounter. 

Yes, God is set apart, he is altogether different from us, altogether greater, so utterly transcendent that we can only begin to imagine what he is like.  We don't really have the words to describe God's holiness.  But let's try . . .

God is glorious in his holiness.  The seraphs call out that the whole earth is full of his glory.

We can't think of God's holiness without becoming aware of his righteousness.  Isaiah writes in chapter five “... the holy God will be proved holy by his righteous acts.” 

Isaiah saw God as terrifyingly holy!  I suspect Isaiah was shown only as much as he could bear!

God is holy, and his Holy Spirit is here with us today. 

What does that fact do for you?

The Problem with the People

Isaiah was confronted with God in all his holiness.  In stark contrast to that, he became fully aware of his own sinfulness. 

Look at his response to the vision: “Woe to me! I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

At this point, Isaiah is in dread of losing his life.  He realises he has nowhere to hide.

First, he acknowledges his own problem: 'I am a man of unclean lips.'

Then he acknowledges the wider problem of his nation: 'I live among a people of unclean lips.'

'Unclean lips.'  What could he mean by this?  It can't simply mean that he used a lot of bad language . . .  In chapter 29:13, Isaiah records God as saying “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”

As far as spirituality was concerned, it looks like Isaiah and his people were just going through the motions.  They turned up at the temple, did the formalities, but it was just the practice of empty religion. 

They said one thing and did another. 

I think this is the sense in which their lips were unclean.  It's as though they were lying to God.  Their lives didn't reflect what they claimed to believe.  They were talking the talk but they weren't walking the walk.

I wonder if this is typical of prosperous times.  Today, we see the church in decline in our prosperous land.  Church-goers are labelled as a boring bunch of hypocrites who offer nothing different, and religion is seen as irrelevant. 

Interestingly, God seems to think religion is irrelevant too!  You see, God doesn't want our religion. He wants our hearts. 

I'm not talking about being sentimental about our faith.  In our modern world, we use the word heart to mean the seat of our emotions.  So, I might say to my wife, 'I love you with all my heart.' 

In Biblical times, the bowels were thought of as the seat of the emotions – and it makes more sense really: we talk about having butterflies in our stomachs when we get nervous about something.  So, to be scriptural, I should tell my wife that I love her with all my guts!

In the Bible, the heart refers to the very core of our being, the essential us.  God wants all of each one of us, right to the very core of our being.  He wants our whole lives, our total devotion, our all-out commitment.  As God says through Jeremiah, 'You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.'

God wants people who are holy, who consider themselves set apart for him, who are not for ordinary use.  To borrow words from the prophet Micah, God wants people who will do justly, love mercy, and walk in humble relationship with him. 

Without this, our religious practices are without value or meaning before God.  And, 'without holiness,' Scripture tells us, 'no-one shall see the LORD.'

Are you walking the walk?  Does God have all of you?

Salvation and Service

Exposed by the holiness of God, what was Isaiah to do?  He couldn't think of anything.  He's seen what God is really like and has nothing to say in his own defence. 

But then, Isaiah sees a seraph coming towards him with a live coal taken from the altar.

Now, the altar is another holy thing.  Exodus 29:36b-37 says, " ... the altar will be most holy, and whatever touches it will be holy." NIV

So the seraph brought a holy, burning coal from the holy altar and touched Isaiah's unclean lips, transferring holiness in the process, setting Isaiah apart and taking his guilt away. 

The live fire on the altar speaks of a current sacrifice, an atonement for Isaiah's sin.  It seems that God was ready for Isaiah.

Imagine the transformation!  There you are before a holy God, condemned because of all that is wrong with you and suddenly you're forgiven and cleansed.  What would your response be?

In our New Testament reading, we saw Peter –  impetuous, impulsive Peter – who's had cause to spend some time listening to Jesus.  And in reward for his time, Jesus brings about a miraculous catch of fish. 

Well, Peter suddenly catches on to something.  This man Jesus, his words, his power – he must be a holy man!  And Peter is only too aware of his own condition. 

“Please go away,” he says to Jesus, “I'm a sinful man.”  But Jesus tells him not to be afraid.  He has a job for Peter: he is to become part of Jesus' team.  And so Peter leaves his livelihood and follows Jesus.

I've experienced something like it in my own life.  A number of years ago I went through a time of clinical depression (which God brought me through, but that's another story) and for a long time after I was no longer engaged in any sort of ministry, whereas before I'd been very involved. 

I lay fallow, if you like, for about 10 years and, to be honest, I found myself somewhat adrift and somewhat lax in my lifestyle. 

Then came the renewal of my call to preach.  I took a local arrangement service at my home church and was hugely encouraged that I was hearing a call from God.  But as I began to respond I found myself bombarded by memories of the things I'd done wrong in the past and the things that were wrong with me at the time – a whole pile of evidence for why I was unfit for service. 

It is not a pleasant experience to have God deal with you in this way.  But I'm so glad he did.

  • God confronted me not to demolish me but so that he could turn me around and make me useful.  He was refining me and dealing with the things that would stop him from working through me. 
  • When Jesus met Peter it was not to destroy him but to turn him around and work with him. 
  • When the risen, ascended Christ revealed himself to John on Patmos it was not to slay him but to give him a message of hope and encouragement for a persecuted church.
  • When God confronted Isaiah it was not to condemn him but to change his heart and give him a mission.

And if you are hearing any challenge today, God is not after your downfall: he wants to transform you and then work with and through you.

And so Isaiah hears God's question: Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us? 

Now, God has Isaiah's heart, not just his lip-service.  He doesn't yet know what the mission is but it doesn't matter and he can't hold back:  “I'm here!  Send me! I'll go for you!”

There's a great sadness in the mission that Isaiah was given.  He was to proclaim the truth to his people.  He was to deliver a severe warning that judgement was imminent.  But right from the outset he was told that the people would not hear, that judgement would come and the nation would go into exile.  But he was also given the promise of eventual recovery.

You see, God's longing in sending his word to us is that we will repent, turn our lives around and be restored to fellowship with him.  But if we reject the message, if we fail to heed the warning, all that remains is judgement.

I wonder if the Methodist church is on its final warning.  People have been telling us for years of the need to change but still we plough on towards extinction.  Will there be a remnant?  Unless God has our hearts I fear there will not be...

Final Challenge

If you find yourself confronted with God's holiness today, what will your response be?  Will you run away?  Or will you allow him to refine you and change you?

If you hear God's challenge and call to service today, what will your response be?

Does God have your heart?