Thursday, 28 November 2013

Being led to follow

"I know His commands lead to eternal life."  (John 12:50)

The low lands call
I am tempted to answer
They are offering me a free dwelling
Without having to conquer

The massive mountain makes its move
Beckoning me to ascend
A much more difficult path
To get up the slippery bend

I cannot choose both
I have a choice to make
I must be wise
This will determine my fate

I choose, I choose the mountain
With all its stress and strain
Because only by climbing
Can I rise above the plane

I choose the mountain
And I will never stop climbing
I choose the mountain
And I shall forever be ascending -
Howard Simon

Moun­tains loom large in our cul­tural imag­i­na­tion. They rise up and erupt in our minds as much as they do on our land­scapes. The heights are well rep­re­sented in the Bible: Moses retires to Mount Sinai, where God reveals to him the Ten Com­mand­ments; Jesus gives his ser­mon on a mount, and it is on top of a moun­tain where he is trans­fig­ured into radiant and holy light.

How full of dreams and plans were our hearts when we settled ourselves on the eastern slope of this mountain. Overlooking the three rugged ridges of the Qabimbola*, I would gaze out from the wide deck of our cabin, ready to "soar on wings like eagles". These were dreams of self-sufficiency, reaching back in time to a real and earthy way of living. It felt so right, so noble and free from the pressures and greed of the "modern" world. The pull had been strong, regardless of the trials and tests that preceded our arrival. Trials which became fiercer as we were forced to face the motives behind our dreams, as well as our human disappointments and failings. Looking back they seem so unreal, a part of someone else's life. And perhaps they were...

At the heart of those early dreams and ambitions, was selfish desire. A deep need to stand for something real. But, blinded to the fact that what seemed "real" at the time, was yet another tantalising mirage. There was still beauty, but it was on the surface, like a carefully made up face that hides a broken heart.

The longing inside me burned and ached and cried for something, I didn't rightly know what. Then, on a misty day, He met me. I must have passed Him by on so many forest wanderings, and so many times while I was gazing out at those mountains, He was standing right next to me. It was not a sudden revelation or a dawning of dazzling light. More like a slow awakening to something that has always been right there in the peripheral.

But, what precedes a true "awakening" is death. The death of what was before, who I was before. Giving up so much that I thought I could not possibly do without. Gently, Jesus showed me the way to relinquish the pursuit of those "things" and areas of my life, which would ultimately just lead me back to "death". They did not seem like sacrifices, more like a joyful cleaning out of a choked and dark cupboard. His Word no longer seemed like a book of rules and archaic writings - page by page it came alive under my fingers. As His Spirit flowed and shone on the words, their truth rang like poetry and His decrees became like a long sought after map.

Christ observed the commission and instructions given Him, and He steadily acted in pursuance of them: "Whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say" (John 12:50b). Christ was so intimately acquainted with God's council, and so faithful in conveying them to the children of men. As a faithful witness he delivered souls and spoke the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is a the greatest example of obedience to us. Christ said what he was told to say, did what the Father told him to do, and so should we. (We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard. - Acts 4:20)

He obeyed the hardest command the Father gave. The command that lead Him to be betrayed by His friends to whom He so faithfully witnessed. They condemned Him to hang on a cross, to be beaten and spat on. He went down to the depth of hell itself. It is there where we remain if we do not die with Him, but it is with Him that we will rise in victory if we do. His (the Father's) commands give eternal life - is there any other choice? But the choice we make is not in fear of hell alone, but from a place of love and devotion and a longing to be part of an eternal life with our beautiful Saviour.

This was His glory, that, as a Son, he was faithful to Him who appointed Him; and, by an unfeigned belief of every word of Christ, and an entire subjection of our souls to it, we should also give Him the glory due to His name.

Our days have a new lustre to it. Like the light in my husband's eyes. The miracle of changed lives. The joy of guiding our precious boys on the way that Jesus lights before us. To follow, trust, obey and hope. The wind has blown away those early ambitions. Made them superfluous. Day by day we are made new as His mercies are new. And being confident of this, that he who began a good work in (me and) you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6).

* Xhosa name for the Hogsback

Friday, 15 November 2013

Joyful Gentiles

"Rejoice, you Gentiles, with His people." (Romans 15:10)

Delight comes in unexpected packages. Waterfalls that cascade with unrestrained tumbling in the sunlight, collecting in mossy pools and spilling over rock terraces. A day becomes a gift when the horizon is stretched wide, unhindered, clouds piled high and riding on the breeze. On any given day I can "wax lyrical" about the wonders of these mountain slopes, but never more so than on an unashamedly brilliant early summer's day. Surrounded by the scent of indigenous herbs and flowers released by the heat of the mid-day sun, topped by the earthy notes of forest undergrowth. There is always more to delight in and all the more to a discerning eye. Eyes trained to notice the dart of an unusual butterfly, a speck of colour revealing a rare wild flower, the spoor of an elusive wild animal. What often remains out of sight, can be heard, when we are willing to listen. The distinctive call of the jackal buzzard, the raucous sound of the Cape Parrot. When all this can be experienced in the company of dear friends in shared reverence for the Creator who spoke all these things into being, the joy is complete.

But delight can be found alone with Jesus in a quiet room, in a new understanding, an unexpected revelation. It can be a moment of sweetness or a turning point. While I read and re-read Romans 15 last week, a new light fell on words that never held much meaning for me before. The first place I was made to hesitate was at verse 8, where Paul writes: "For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed". In Matthew 15:24 Jesus himself says to the disciples, imploring Him to deal with a persistent Canaanite woman: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel". So how did I end up being included into the covenant that God made with the people of Israel? Verse 9 deepens the mystery by starting in the middle of a sentence with so that...

Jesus came to minister to the Jews in obedience to God his Father and in keeping with the covenant that the Father made with his chosen people. But His own people did not accept Him as their Saviour. The ministry was extended to all nations - so that the Gentiles (us) may glorify Him (the Father) for His mercy. I love the "so thats" and the "therefore's" in Scripture. More simply - the adverbs. When my little ones bring me dandelions and periwinkle flowers from the garden it always brings a smile to my face, therefore they know that I love and appreciate the gift. They bring it to me so that I may know that they love me. God never leaves us in the dark in his Word. If we truly seek His heart, the Holy Spirit will reveal it to us, even in a book like Romans, often perceived as a legalistic treatise rather than a book of hope, truth and practical instruction.

We may glorify Him for his mercy... What did His mercy afford us, the foreign branches from a barren tree? We where picked up and gently grafted into the true vine, reaching deep, thirsting for the sap, the life. With His sacrifice, Jesus literally "purchased" us with His blood into a new covenant - bringing us in right standing with the Father. Into His Kingdom, heirs without a birthright. Adopted into a life of hope. When Jesus lifted us up to the Father as a love offering, we were made acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Why did the Father show us this mercy? Was it truly only because of his unfathomable love? Paul continues in verse 9 with: "as it is written:" and then refers to four different places in the Old Testament, revealing the same reason for our salvation. Digging a bit deeper, I paged back to one of these quotes in Deut 32:43.: "Rejoice, O nations (Gentiles) with His people (the Jews), for He will avenge the blood of His servants". Another translation says "Make His people rejoice". How on earth do we make His people rejoice? No-one needs to make us wave our arms and cheer when the Bokke claim a victory, but to convince people, (and more specifically his chosen nation) to throw their arms up and cheer (rejoice) for Jesus' victory is another story.

I so clearly remember when I first slipped into the seat of my "new" and long sought after set of wheels. I turned the key and marveled at the familiar purr of the old VW Beetle engine. I could not wait to drive it out the gate, waving at neighbours, seeking out friends. Making them envious of my new-found freedom.

If we, as Gentiles, glorify the Father in the sense that we shower Him with adoring praise, honour, recognition and worshipful thanksgiving for His mercy, it could serve the purpose of provoking His chosen people, who have not acknowledged the new covenant of freedom, to envy. Not only did Christ confirm the promises made to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), but His blood brought in a new covenant. It confirms and sets free, with such amazing grace, it remains "unreal" to many.

(I was also reminded that we need to honour the fact that the Jews are God's chosen people and be obedient to the purpose set before us, for "He will avenge the blood of His servants".)

The mystery is not that the Gentiles were saved. This was also prophesied in Isaiah. The true mystery is that we have become fellow heirs with Jewish believers, fellow members of the body of Christ and fellow partakers of the covenant promises to Israel! We now share in the spiritual riches God gave His chosen people because of His covenant with Abraham. We are now part of the one body of Christ, each individual member with its own unique purpose, sharing in the ministry ("...we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love" Eph 4:15-16).

There are four great unconditional covenants of promise to Israel, including the future restoration of Israel during the millennium, and although they were specifically given to Israel (Romans 9:1-6), the church does and will still benefit from them since they are in union with Christ, who is the ruler of Israel.

I must admit, this is still often too "huge" to truly make my own. How did I end up worthy of a crown when I have no royal bloodline? How did I end up being part of the true and living Vine, when my branch was withered and worthless? How did I end up with a room in the eternal mansion for which I paid no deposit, laid down no payment? Through God's great mercy and the loving obedience of his Son. What is simple enough to grasp is that I have been saved to bring Him glory, to rejoice, to sing praises. Right now that seems like the most natural thing to do - don't you think?

"The root of Jesse will spring up, One who will arise to rule over the nations; the Gentiles will hope in Him. 

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Rom 15:12-13)

Friday, 1 November 2013

Hope floats

"But hope that is seen is not hope at all." (Romans 8:24)

From our "nest" the sky seems swollen, grey and without cheer. Dawn without the sun slips in quietly, unassuming, like a stage-hand behind the heavy curtains. No bright robin's song or glowing rays to touch the treetops. I rise reluctantly, starting the day cold and sluggish until the fire glows in the hearth, giving some compensation for the sunless skies. To most, indoor days hold images of slow indulgence, but when you share your "indoors" with two lively boys, it takes on a different hue. The floor creaks under their buoyant bodies, the elderly cat flattens her ears and finds safety behind the wood-stove. My own challenges often seem so real. And at times rather overwhelming, if not put into perspective, and weighed against the blessings. On a scale which has eternity as the balance.

I have thought much on "hope" lately - this being the topic of our current bible study. At first I thought; this could be a worthwhile journey, learning about how "Wisdom is sweet to your soul - If you find it, there is future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off" (Prov 24:14). Confirming that faith and hope is not about what you will receive, it is about what you believe. Making it a way of thinking, a way of living.

Up to this point, my perception of this "future hope" was very limited to surrendering my tomorrows and those of my family, to the hope I have in a sovereign God. But when that shaky selfish hope comes tumbling down in a crisis, we again turn to God, clinging to Him with a desperate need for Him to fix and restore. And often He will and He does - but what if our hope is not His will, and in a time of tragedy it all lies in a tangled mess at your feet? I can transfer the mess to the foot of the cross, but "If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Cor 15:19). We can and should build our hope on God's sovereignty rather on what he can do for us.

The words of this verse is what really stopped me short: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never spoil or fade, kept in heaven for you". (1 Pet 1:3-4).

Why are we to be pitied if we have hope in this life only? It can be compared to when someone gives you a gift, and you hold onto the parcel, thrilled by the magic of receiving it, but just wanting to keep it wrapped up, feeling loved and cared for in the moment of being remembered. But the content is uncertain, and in not opening it and accepting it, the "value" of the gift cannot be appreciated. In God's mercy he gave us the gift of a new birth into a living hope. In this life we can never fully comprehend the full extent of this gift. But if we limit our hope to this existence, only a fraction of His glory is revealed.

We cling to the cross and the knowledge that we have been saved, but it is through His resurrection that we received the inheritance into an eternal life with our Saviour. Without that, Christ would have been just another martyr, a great prophet who died for a people with their eyes locked on the gift rather than the great reality at the heart of it.

I felt a despair growing in my belly - there is so much I hold incredibly dear in this life - do I really value this gift - look forward with an "inexpressible" joy to the day that I will leave this broken world behind to go to my real home? My hope is an apprehensive, tentative looking forward, rather than a sweet longing. "In this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is not hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not have, we wait for it patiently."(Romans 8:24-25)

I realised that I do not have a problem with placing my hope in God through trials. I wouldn't know what else to place it in, that has not disappointed me already. But the living hope that goes beyond trusting that God will bring me through trials and tests is vague. The kind of hope that will give you the desire to praise Him through the hard times. I have a "cognitive" realisation that my home is in heaven, but my heart keeps on digging its roots in the infertile soil at my feet. In this all, the enemy questioned my dedication to God, but: God never questioned it.

In His wonderful omnipotence He knows the struggle in my heart. He also knows that I can have victory over it. I learned that "although I may lay victim to my circumstances, God never looses hope in me". As long as I long for the things that will bring Him glory, I know that He will be faithful in growing the hope in my heart.

Until then I just keep on unwrapping this gift. At each layer my desire grows, and a small quickening stirs in my heart. Right now I place my hope in the knowledge that through God's mercy it will expand until it bursts the banks and overflows with a joy that will not only be inexpressible, but will join the stream of living water from the throne. Pray with me that your hope will join this joyous stream, bringing life to parched souls and thirsty hearts. And glory to God the Father and Christ his living Son.