Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Fire and Brimstone

"...Whose fan is in His hand, and He will throughly purge his floor, and gather His wheat into the garner; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." ~ Matthew 3:12 (KJV)

The elements have taken a leap from frost, ice and snow-peaked mountains, to hot dry summer conditions in the short span of a week. Berg winds bring warm dry conditions to our hills and everything crackles with static. The animals grow hot-headed and get into daily quarrels with the neighbour's "pack". I have nursed a torn ear and a bleeding eye but still they do not let up. Tender vegetable seedlings have to be pampered with a regular misting and early blossoms wilt and drop before the promise of fruit are formed. Our children thrive in the freedom the sudden heat has afforded, and have been the least affected by the sudden climate change. It still is a prolific time of long amber days, warm air sweetened with floral bouquets and new birdsongs at dawn. But there is a shift, a sense of change, which goes beyond the early arrival of Summer.

My husband called it a sifting, and I was reminded of what John the baptist said to people on the banks of the Jordan river about himself and Jesus: "I baptise you with water for repentance, but after me will come One more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and to gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11,12 - NIV)

The scene before us is that of the large hardened surface which was the “threshing-floor” of the East, the sheaves of corn thrown over it, the oxen treading on them, the large winnowing fan driving on them the full force of the strong current of air, leaving the wheat in the middle, while the chaff is driven to the outskirts of the field to be afterwards swept up and burnt. The metaphor was a familiar one. (Job 21:18; Psalm 1:4; Psalm 35:5; Isaiah 17:13; Isaiah 29:5;Hosea 13:3.) The new features mentioned in Matthew are (1) that the “coming One,” the expected Christ, will be the one holding the winnowing fork (fan) (2) that in the Old Testament there is a “scattering” of the chaff, and this now passes on to the “burning”; (3) that the fire is said to be “unquenchable.” The interpretation of the parable is quite simple. The chaff are the ungodly. The unquenched fire is the wrath of God against evil, which is eternal, and can only cease when the "evil" is ceased or transformed. The word translated “chaff” includes straw as well. Everything but the actual, useful grain.

When I was a girl, there was a time when our church was overseen by a "dominee" (preacher) who was passionate, loud and expressive. He often made people uncomfortable, but was respected by most. No one dosed off when He spoke. I have a sense that this was not a man who cared about being popular. He cared about the Truth. I was too small to understand the messages, but I imagine part of what he preached would have been classified as "fire and brimstone". Which became so unpopular and scorned, that Christians started avoiding the uncomfortable topics of sin and hell - the one being the consequence of the other.

Personally, I have again and again, been confronted with the reality of both, and it has not diminished my love for God. It has grown stronger, more reverent, deeper. More careful about taking grace for granted.

I love it when my husband comforts, showers affection and has fun with our boys, but what I respect him for most, is that he does not compromise on discipline. This is what a good father does. Actions have consequences. Why should this be different with our heavenly Father, who loves and wants what is best for us more than any earthly father ever could? 

"Fire and brimstone (brimstone - Hebrew: גפרית ואש - gophrith - pitch or sulphur) is an idiomatic expression of signs of God's wrath in the Hebrew Bible.  In the Bible, they often appear in reference to the fate of the unfaithful. "Brimstone", the archaic (old) name for sulphur, evokes the acrid odour of volcanic activity. The term is also used, to describe a style of Christian preaching that uses vivid descriptions of judgement and eternal damnation to encourage repentance.
The King James translation of the Bible often renders passages about fiery torments with the phrase "fire and brimstone". In Genesis 19, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with a rain of fire and brimstone, and in Deuteronomy 29, the Israelites are warned that the same punishment would fall upon them should they abandon their covenant with God. Elsewhere, divine judgements involving fire and sulphur are prophesied against Assyria (Isaiah 30), Edom (Isaiah 34), Gog (Ezekiel 38), and all the wicked (Psalm 11).
The breath of God, in Isaiah 30:33, is compared to brimstone: "The breath of Jehovah, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it."
Fire and brimstone frequently appear as agents of divine wrath throughout the Book of Revelation culminating in chapters 19–21, wherein the devil and the ungodly are cast into a lake of fire and brimstone as an eternal punishment:

"And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone" (Revelation 19:20, KJV).

"And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (Revelation 20:10, KJV).

"But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whore mongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death" (Revelation 21:8, KJV).

Two archaeologists found brimstone in the ancient cities of the Holy Land reported to have suffered from the disaster. William Albright and Melvin Kyle set out to find the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in 1924, and found brimstone at Southern end of the Dead Sea.

According to Jewish historian, Josephus, "Now this country is then so sadly burnt up, that nobody cares to come at it;... It was of old a most happy land, both for the fruits it bore and the riches of its cities, although it be now all burnt up. It is related how for the impiety of its inhabitants, it was burnt by lightning; in consequence of which there are still the remainders of that divine fire; and the traces (or shadows) of the five cities are still to be seen,..." 

With our "carnal" hearts, we are apt to put aside the convincing commanding power of the Word of God. We become prone to rest in the honours and advantages of being members of an outward church, which falls short of heaven. But faced with the Truth in God's word should fill the careless and secure heart with terror. Our corrupt hearts cannot be made to produce good fruit, unless the regenerating Spirit of Christ has grafted the good Word of God on them. And every tree, however high in gifts and honours, however green in outward professions and performances, if it does not bear good fruit, the fruits in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8), is cut down and cast in the fire of God's wrath. The only place fit for barren trees. If not fit for fruit, they are fit for fuel.

No outward forms can make us clean. No regulations can replace the baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire. The purifying and cleansing power of the Holy Spirit alone can produce a purity of heart and the fruits that accompany salvation. Christ baptises with the Holy Spirit. He gives the gifts that follow this baptism.

True believers are as wheat - substantial, useful, and valuable; hypocrites are as chaff, light and empty, useless and worthless, carried about with every wind. These are mixed, in the same outward communion or association. But we are warned that there is a day coming when the wheat and chaff shall be separated. The last judgement will be the distinguishing day, when saints and sinners shall be parted for ever. In heaven the saints are brought together, and no longer scattered; they will be safe, and no longer exposed; separated from corrupt neighbours without, and corrupt yearnings within, and there is no chaff among them. Hell is the unquenchable fire, which remains the portion and punishment of hypocrites and unbelievers. Here life and death, good and evil, are set before us: as we now are in the field, we shall be then in the floor.

We shall all face the winnowing, the separation - no one shall escape it. There is much that a true child of God can rest in, take comfort from. But to be complacent about being judged is a mistake. We are loved, so fully loved. But this does not mean that our sin is overlooked - grace alone does not guarantee a place with Christ in eternity. Sin has been forgiven, not accepted. Heaven is not merely a place above the fluffy clouds where we shall no longer face heartache and sorrow. It is a reality of being in Jesus' presence - He is our heaven. Hell is the opposite reality - removed from the presence of the One who is the very spindle around which everything revolves. This is what we should fear most, not being thrown into the unquenchable fire, but being removed from the One who truly completes us.

God did not intend for anyone to end up in hell with the devil and his demons. That is why His Son Jesus went there on the cross in our stead. But this is not a gift to be taken for granted.

John Bunyan said: "There is a road to hell, even from the gates of heaven."

Empty and alone in utter darkness for eternity.

Or transformed - in the sweetest, most beautiful, presence of Jesus. As David Pawson said when he spoke about being in the presence of the Lord. "They will look at my face and the face of my Saviour, and they will not be able to tell the difference. For having looked upon His face I shall finally be, as He is."

Ah Lord, with trembling I confess,
A gracious soul may fall from grace;
The salt may lose its seasoning power,
And never, never, find it more.

Lest that my fearful case should be,
Each moment knit my soul to thee;
And lead me to the mount above,
Through the low vale of humble love. ~ Charles Wesley

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Progress and Joy

"... I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith" ~ Phil 1:25
(The apostle Paul's words)

Yesterday I walked down the winding path which leads to our cabin and became aware of a quickening. No longer only tight green buds held in secret on the top branches of the birches, but a burgeoning life on every sprig, vine and branch. The tender Camellia blooms swoop with the grace of young belles in their ballgowns. Crab-apple blossoms are borne lightly on slender limbs. From the damp, fragrant earth the lilies wake up to the call of Spring. Early dawn brings fresh sounds and scents - a new song rises with the sun. Lanky-legged calves and fleecy lambs totter after their mamas with sweet dependence and trust. There is an impulse to gather flowers and watch clouds drift by. To dig hands deeply into the earth and plant seedlings, to nurture new growth. To gawk in wonder at nature being renewed, while the world at large sinks into disconnected despair or a false sense of security.

For many people the shift from one season to the next is a time of conflicting emotions. There is anticipation and excitement - tempered by a hint of sadness, for yet another phase and it's associated routine, joys, comforts and challenges - coming to an end. 

We have moved furniture, pruned, worked compost into the tilled soil, stretched stiff joints from unusual activities and soaked up the warmth on sun-kissed days. Tried new recipes, kicked off shoes to dance to an old song, and filled the house with blooms and blossoms.

Then a cold, pale day arrives with a hush and a whisper and the familiar crackle of the fire reminds me that winter will not be pushed back that easily. But it is not only in the seasons that there is a tension and a seeming contradiction from one day to the next. In the last week alone I have read Psalms of praise, reminders of God's anger and wrath, blessings and curses. Confirmations of the expanse of His love and grace to all people, as well as His fierce judgement of His own bride. I have been convicted of a personal stagnation, a tendency to rest too much in the comfort of this all-encompassing grace. I have been reminded that the subject of "end-times" can no longer be viewed with the notion of  "we will deal with it when it comes", for it is already here. 

I have realised that it is no longer enough to pray, read books and passages of Scripture, or listen to teachers - even if all they say is scriptural and sound. There is too much information, even the most solid in the faith can get confused in it. I wake at night, trying to sort out all this knowledge, vying for a place in the already congested place of remembering. Names swirl through my mind. People in need. People who are sick, lonely, broken hearted, poor, hungry, scared, LOST.  But what remains once the list has been placed at Jesus' feet is a certain knowledge that this is no longer enough.

I would love to go on and on about all I am learning through my confusion, but I am held back by the conviction that each person needs to work out his or her own salvation with Jesus. Never before has it been more crucial to have a deep personal relationship with our Saviour. A marriage can never flourish if the man keeps on bringing his wife flowers, but has an affair with his secretary. Or when a wife dutifully irons her husband's shirts and cooks his favourite meals, but finds her satisfaction and fulfilment from meetings with her friends. There is a handful of people from whom I have learnt so much, and at times feel so indebted to, but they would be the first ones to remind me that the greatest way of thanking them for this, is to live out the Truth that they have entrusted in me. And the only way I can do this is by following Jesus.

There is no way I can follow the course of a star in the heavens if I look at the telescope. I need to look through it to see it's illuminated path.

In the course of reading and listening and trying to learn and discern and trying to do all I needed to do, I have certainly felt a sense of achievement. Until I realised that what I felt was pride in all I had done or tried not to do. This took me back to my knees and I rose stiffly, knowing that it is "God alone who works in me to will and to act according to His good purpose." ~ Phil 2:13

It is not the works that work out my salvation, but the regeneration by His mercy to a "new birth". Having been reborn, the old is gone, the new has come. The "new" longs for Jesus, feels lost without Him. The more the "new" is regenerated to the likeness of Jesus, the more His goodness and the desire to "to do good" flows into those who are being renewed. By doing good we reveal God's purpose for His people. By doing good we reveal Christ's grace in our lives. And this grace provides life change.

"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, as we wait for the happy fulfilment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good." ~ Titus 2:11-14

Being eager. We have a seven year old who is excessively eager to learn. And when a new concept becomes clear to him, he does a jig and jumps up and down with the joy of this new knowledge.

When all is said and done and there are no words left to convince or describe, it is my eagerness to pursue the Lover of my heart,  the irrepressible joy that comes from a love-relationship with Jesus, that will continue to speak the loudest. The need to sing and dance like David. It is the one instance when "everything with moderation" can happily be thrown overboard. "Excessive admiration and adoration, deep reverence offered, extravagant respect or devotion." 

Jesus is worthy of nothing less.