“And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations; and then the end shall come.” (Matt 24:14)
According to statistics published today, the Queen‘s funeral is predicted to have drawn in some 4 billion people from around the world. Every nation, apart from Russia, had sent either the head of site or an emissary to the event. As we watched the Queen’s coffin and funeral possession make its reverent way out of Westminster abbey towards her final resting place at Windsor Castle, we were not just watching the slow turning of a page of history and the end of an era, although both were true. I believe we may have been witnessing the most important shift in the spiritual realm and the most significant date on Heaven’s calendar since the crucifixion.
The Queen was a Christian: almost certainly the best known and best loved Christian in the world. She has alluded on a number of occasions to her faith in public speeches over the many years of her reign, but she never had a complete freedom politically to preach the full message of the gospel. For that she waited until her death. Although the funeral was itself a state orchestrated occasion, the prayerful Queen wrote the script; she chose the Bible passages, the Psalms and the hymns. The Scriptures that were proclaimed to nearly half of the world’s population today declared uncompromisingly that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father but by Him. Every nation apart from Russia stood under the Gospel today: even North Korea and Iran were represented.
Matthew 24:14 says: “And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations; and then the end shall come.“ I don’t know about you, but I have always imagined that this would be a gradual process, accelerating in the last days. But I believe that this morning we may have seen that scripture fulfilled before our eyes. God has prepared the nations for the reign of Queen Elizabeth over the centuries, and throughout her reign she has been a faithful witness to Him in her example of loving servant leadership. But like Samson, she achieved far more in her death than throughout the 70 years of her reign: she preached the gospel of the kingdom to the representatives of every nation and to the inhabitants of half the world in a single hour.
If this isn’t the actual fulfilment in history of Matthew 24:14, it is a profound prophetic sign of what is to come. Many millions who loved her and who heard the message will now be considering the claims of Christ on their lives. The enemy will have hated it, and we can expect a backlash to traverse the world like a tidal wave. The shaking that the world is already beginning to experience will accelerate, and the separation of light from darkness will become more and more apparent, defining the new creation just as it began the old.
A trumpet sounded in Westminster Abbey today. God put His rainbow in the sky above Buckingham Palace as a sign for all to see. It is time for the church to lay to rest the dead body of lifeless religion, tune our ears to the voice of the King of Kings and rise up to reap the end time harvest He has prepared. We may not have a lot of time.
A nobleman’s child was at the point of death. He begged Jesus, “Come down to my house before he dies!“ Jesus said, “You people will not believe unless you see signs and wonders.“ The man said again, “Come down…“ Jesus spoke the word: “Go your way, your son lives.“ The man believed him and went his way. (John 4: 46-54)
How often do we want the Lord to come into our circumstances until we see that He has changed them? We stay in the place of fear until we see the miracle. But the Lord tells us that He is in them already; He asks us to believe that promise before we see the difference that He makes. That father had to make a choice: believe the words of Jesus, or keep begging Him to come down to his house to heal the boy – maybe even thinking that his status as a nobleman would hold some sway. And he didn’t just live down the road: we learn at the end of the passage that his house was at least a day’s journey away. He had to walk away from the Healer, holding only onto His words, knowing that his son would probably be dead by the time he arrived if those words weren’t true.
We went to Liverpool to a football match recently, to watch one of the early games in the Champions League competition. We had hospitality tickets, which included a coach from the hotel to the ground, and then a return coach from the ground back to the hotel. With 50,000 people pouring out of the stadium after the game it was very reassuring to know that the coaches would be there waiting for us after the game. We were told at the hotel where the coaches will be picking us up, and that it wasn’t the usual location. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the announcement because I knew (so I thought) that we would see where the coach would be dropping us off.
However the coach left the hotel too early for our liking, so after the hospitality meal we decided to book a taxi for half an hour later. When we got to the ground I realised I had forgotten where the coach pickup point was to be. I have to say here that catching buses, trains and planes has always been a particular point of anxiety for me: I have always wanted to be certain that I would be at the right place in plenty of time to make my journey safely. So a dark blanket of panic started to fall: where would the coaches be? How would we get back to the hotel if we didn’t find them? It was too far to walk and there would be no taxis for hours… “Jesus! Come quickly! My son is dying!“
With Anne’s help, I was able to trust that the Lord was in control. “Go your way. Your son lives.“
I regained my peace, knowing that we would either find the coaches or get back to the hotel another way without having to face the walk. And we did: despite being given some directions we never did find the coaches, but we were able to get a taxi once the crowds had dispersed (which wasn’t long, to our surprise) after a wait of only a few minutes, and we arrived back at the hotel in time to relax in the bar and enjoy some post match TV. And here is the important point: it wasn’t just that we got back to the hotel okay, but that God did something in my heart that will last longer than the journey from Anfield (the ground) to our hotel: He didn’t just deal with the journey but He dealt with my anxiety. That journey is over, but I know that the anxiety which has plagued me for so long on my life‘s journey is also defeated, and I know that whenever I am going I can go on my way in peace.
We won the game. Jesus won the competition once and for all at Calvary. Life has defeated death. The Cross has spoken. Do we have any “sick sons?” Because we can go our way, trusting that our circumstances live, even when it seems that they are at the point of death.
If you were at Wildwood Church with me on Sunday, you will have heard a sister share the following: (I am paraphrasing as well as I remember.)
“I was on a train in the Peak District recently when the Lord spoke to me strongly. It was one of those little tourist trains. It wasn’t an express. It only had a couple of carriages. It went slowly through the countryside and you sat and watched the scenery while you had a cream tea.
We were all on the platform and didn’t know when the train would be coming in, but the station master knew everything and told us what to do and when to do it. He reminded me of the Fat Controller in the Thomas the Tank Engine stories. I felt the Lord say to me: “I am in control. I know the timetable. This is not an express, you haven’t got to hurry. All you need to do is to sit there, look out of the window, and count the sheep.“
Doreen emphasised how the Lord was reminding her, and us, that He is in control. He knows the timetable. He knows our going out and our coming in. We are safe in him and we can relax and be at peace. This was a true “now” word, as the thrust of the sermon that was to follow (and which she obviously hadn’t heard) was, essentially, “be still and know that I am God.” And also I think there are a couple of other details which have prophetic significance, alongside the timely exhortation to rest in Him, which I would like to bring out now.
The first is this. The train was going through the peak district. The peaks are a reminder of all the excesses that we see in the world at the moment: not just the peaks of chaos and anxiety that fill the news every day, but the peaks of excess that the ruler of this world is consistently seeking to tempt us with. God’s train passes among all of these, untouched by them. In Him we too remain untouched. The only real peak of human experience is our relationship with God: we do not need to climb out of the train to scale any of the tempting peaks outside, or to run away from the threatening ones, however close any of them seem to appear. If we can be still and know that He is God, we will see them disappear behind us.
Secondly, there were the sheep. Doreen specifically said that we need to “sit there, look out of the window, and count the sheep.” As I was pondering this story I felt the Lord turning it around and saying “the sheep count!“ We are the sheep of His pasture. He is the Good Shepherd. Nothing counts more, collectively and individually, than the sheep that Jesus gave His life to bring into the Fathers sheepfold.
If we rush from one destination to another, all we will see is the peaks. But if we sit still on the Lord’s train, in Heavenly places with Him, in the seat that He has bought for us, following the timetable that He controls, we will be aware of the sheep of His pasture and they will become more important to us than anything else on our journey. And sometimes He will even bring us a cream tea.
“The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
In our business, we have suppliers in China. Anne was talking to one of them on the phone just now. As I listened I was thinking how, in many ways, China and the West are practically on a war footing these days, yet Anne and Catherine (Many Chinese people use western names as well as their own Chinese ones) were communicating as individuals. They were in relationship. I saw two agendas: Satan’s agenda of war and destruction, and above that God’s agenda of communication and relationship. Anne felt exactly the same thing, and commented that the enemy’s agenda is always about the destruction of life, from abortion to Ukraine; whereas God’s agenda is always to bring life and build relationships.
Last night I was making a hotel booking. It’s the sort of thing that I now normally do online, (often through a third-party agency) but I had a query so I phoned the hotel directly. They sorted out my query, so I asked if I could book the room while I was on the phone. She said that I could either book on the phone there and then, or book online. I chose to book over the phone, and had a pleasant conversation with the lady at the hotel.
What’s the connection between the hotel in England and the factory in China? Yes, it’s the phone call; but far more than that, it’s what the phone call represents. I chose to book my room over the phone because I wanted to affirm the importance of human contact over the impersonal Labyrinth of the Internet. Anne’s phone call was affirming a personal relationship between customer and supplier above the shadowy machinations of international politics.
Like a diminishing circle of light, the opportunities to make contact with another person in the commercial world – in fact anywhere in the world – are becoming rapidly smaller. Shopping is increasingly online. Customer services in so many cases are no longer a phone call away but hide behind Internet FAQs. ”What would you like to ask me?” says the bland AI voice pretending to be a human when you phone the bank. In fact it’s often impossible to even find a phone number on a website these days: corporations and public services no longer want to invest in people whose job is to talk to other people. Don’t talk to us, talk to our chatbot. In the domain of personal relationships, conversations between two people dangle on strings while one of them answers a text message or reads their social media feed, and at the darkest end of that thread vulnerable teenagers take their lives because their self-image doesn’t match the glittering portrait galleries of their Facebook ”friends.” The prince of the power of the air is smothering life with the fine mesh of his World Wide Web.
And so it comes as no surprise that cyber war and cyber crime are becoming lead players on the stage of the enemy’s plans for death and destruction as the great theatre of the nations moves towards the final act and the closing scene of the return of the King. The same agenda that seeks to destroy a child in the womb, erode the fertile multiplication of life through the nucleus of the traditional family, or smash the heritage of centuries with a single bomb that kills twenty people at the same time, is the one that is stifling personal communications in the family and society and closing down interpersonal transactions in the world of commerce.
God has an agenda: it is love and life. Satan has an agenda: it is death and destruction. Jesus sums the two agendas up in John 10 :10: “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” Although we are not of the world, we are still in it, and sometimes we have to use the systems that the world offers us. But where and when we can, let us do what Moses commanded the people of Israel: let us choose life.
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4: 6-7)
Jesus is the Prince of peace. The Angels announced peace on Earth. Jesus promised to leave us His peace. The above scripture is a very familiar one. But when our hearts and minds are assailed, and our prayer life seems to have packed its bags and moved to another planet, where do we find this peace?
We know Jesus is always with us because He promised that He would be, and because His Spirit dwells in us. But at the heart of a victorious and fruitful Christian life has to be the experience of walking in the reality of His presence. And if we are experiencing His presence we will be experiencing His peace. If you are like me these experiences are often short lived and irregular, like those occasional moments on a cloudy day when the sun breaks through and illuminates life in liquid gold. How do we get to walk in the sunshine?
There are different areas where this applies, but the main one – for a people called dwell in love – has to be the area of our relationships. This is where we need our hearts to be guarded. Following close behind that must be wisdom in decision-making, and here it’s our minds we need to guard; but I will look at this in another article.
As we know, the devil’s mission is always to destroy, and as often as not our sunshine is ruined not by destruction in our circumstances, but by destruction in our relationships. Paul famously goes into detail about how to stand against the onslaughts of the enemy In his letter to the Ephesians. Specifically, he writes about “all the fiery darts of the evil one.” Fiery darts often come in the form of unexpected negative reactions from someone close, often a loved one. if we let those darts penetrate our hearts, we flare up too: fighting ensues, and a fire starts, damaging the relationship. Yet we have been given a resource in that will extinguish those darts, and we all know what it is:
“Above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.” (Ephesians 6:16)
If we quench those darts with the shield of faith there is no fire. Behind the shield of faith we can find the peace of Christ.
All well and good, but how? There are 2000 years’ worth of applications of the image of the shield of faith, so I do not pretend that the following is the only way of understanding the scripture. But in this context I see the shield that we hold as the one that tells us that Jesus has overcome the world, and has lifted us into a heavenly place of fellowship with Himself and the Father. Now it becomes simple. When a fiery dart comes our way, do we sit on our heavenly seat with Jesus, and say: “excuse me Lord, while I just pop down there and argue with my spouse?“ Or do we receive His peace and hide our hearts behind the shield that tells us that His peace is ours?
This still may sound easier said than done, and I am sure it is, especially when she said this! And he said that! And that’s just not true! Maybe so. But at His trial Jesus said nothing to His accusers, and went on to tear down the veil of the temple with His love. The trials of “unfair“ words that come our way are not even the tiniest whispers in comparison with what Jesus went through on our behalf, so if we cannot respond with a healing word to the hurt/anger/disappointment that in some way we have caused, then at least we can say nothing and stay behind our shield where God’s peace reigns. We don’t put our heads out again until we can share what the Prince of peace has given us.
If we hold up our shield to the darts that come our way we can be peacemakers, but if we don’t we become peace breakers. We know which of the two groups are called the children of God.
“My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.”
There was a story going round in Christian circles a few years ago about a dream that someone had had, of people sitting at a long table covered in food, but with knives and forks that were too long to actually get the food into their mouths. The solution was simple: they just fed each other. It’s a lovely illustration of how God wants us to live: not for ourselves, but for others. I saw an illustration of this principle operating in the natural world the other day, when I had the pleasure of watching these two spoonbills recently at a nature reserve near Leeds in the UK. Their beaks are too long to preen their own necks, so they preen each other’s.
After teaching the crowds with the parables of the Sower and the revealed light, Jesus says this: “Therefore take heed how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him.” (Luke 8: 18). Immediately after that He illustrates exactly what he meant by that. Luke’s account continues: “Then His mother and brothers came to Him, and could not approach Him because of the crowd. And it was told Him by some, who said, “Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see You.” But He answered and said to them, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.” (vs 19-21)
The sequence here is not random: He told the parable of the Sower at that moment, following it with the illustration of the revealed light, because He knew in His Spirit what was going to happen next. We can either hear actively or passively. When we hear actively –“with a noble and good heart”- we do the sayings of Jesus and we bear fruit. Choose your metaphor: our talent multiplies; our seed bears fruit; our light shines; the river flows. When we hear passively, like someone who looks in the mirror and turns away (see James 1:24), we bury our talent in the ground, we hide our light under a bushel, our seed has no root or is choked with thorns, our river is silted up. The Greek word “kalos”, translated here as “noble,” has a strong sense of ‘goodness in action.’ One of the top-level Strong’s definitions is “good, excellent in its nature and characteristics, and therefore well adapted to its ends.” A good and noble heart is a heart with integrity; the opposite of the heart of the hypocrites, of whom God says they “draw near to Me with their mouths and honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.” (Matt 15:8). The fruitful heart, the light that shines so others may see it, is the one that will “hear the word of God and do it.”
James 1:17 tells us that “All good and perfect gifts come down from the Father of Lights.” I have written about the Father’s waterfall here: the Father calls us to it so that we can pass on what we have received. This chapter of Luke carries on with a sequence of miracles; illustrations of faith in action beginning with Jesus calming the storm and culminating in the raising of Jairus’s daughter. Our spoons are for sharing. The Gospel is “for babes:” it might not be easy, but it’s simple. Carry your cross and walk after the Spirit who always wants to give life, and don’t walk after the flesh that always wants to hang onto it. We all want to see Jesus, but we stay outside unless we do what He says. And when we do, and those seeds of His take root in a noble and good heart, anything can happen.
“Of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1: 16-17)
Any Christian who believes that the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit are available and operational in the Church today will know of, and quite possibly tell others of, the need to be filled with the Holy Spirit, as Scripture exhorts us in Ephesians 5:18. But as I’ve become more aware lately of what it is to be standing under the waterfall of God’s Grace, (see the last article, Mountains and Waterfalls) I’ve been considering what it actually means to be filled with the Spirit.
If all the fullness of God dwells in Jesus (Colossians 1:19), and Christ, the Hope of glory, is in us (Col 1:27), then how much of Christ dwells in us? Do we believe that it is a fragment? A cell? Maybe just a fragment of a cell? Or do we dare to believe that our loving Heavenly Father will answer Paul’s prayer for every Christian of every age, that we would be “filled with all the fulness of God?”
We are called to love one another; to have grace in our dealings. Jesus made in clear in the Sermon on the Mount that Kingdom relationships are characterised by the fact that what we give does not depend on what we receive: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matt 5:46) On the contrary, if we “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,” we have the astounding promise that “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Verse 47) We won’t just be good, because we have obeyed the rules, but we’ll be like God – because actually, as far as the rules of the world are concerned, we have broken them.
So a basic principle in the Manifesto of the Kingdom is that what we give to men does not depend on what we receive from them. We don’t love according to the tit-for-tat rules of the world, any more than we are to depend for what we need on the get-what-you-pay-for provision of the world. When Jesus preached repentance unto God, it was more than an exhortation to stop behaving badly: it was a call to throw out man’s rulebook and embrace God’s – whose book consists basically of two sentences: love God, and love one another. If we seek this Kingdom, everything else will be given to us.
“Of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace.” Just as we have received out of the fullness of God in Christ, so it is only out of our fullness that others can receive grace from us – the grace that rises above the tit for tat of the world, that enables us to overcome negative reactions to damaging words and quench fiery arrows with living water. The Grace that enables us to be perfect, just like our Father in Heaven.” The purpose of being full of the Holy Spirit is not so much to have access to supernatural gifts, but to have access to supernatural love, supernatural gentleness and supernatural generosity. If our Saviour had not been filled with all the fullness of God, Satan would have shown Him a good carnal reason to disobey His Father; but He could say that Satan “has nothing in me” because He was completely full of God.
So two questions. The first is this: how full of the Holy Spirit are we? Because if we are really full, like Stephen was, we don’t run away when the stones start to fall, but we “see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55) It’s often said that we leak, which is why Paul’s exhortation is the present continuous tense – “Be being filled.” But I don’t think it’s true that we leak, and every now and then have to go back to the fountain (often at Church) for a top-up. We can’t fill the flesh with the Spirit. I think we are more like completely broken bottles, and the only way for Scripture’s present continuous tense to operate in our lives is to stay under that waterfall, standing permanently in the Grace of God, morning, noon and night; work, rest and play. And at church as well. What a blessing we could be at church by just staying soaked all week. And if we can do this, out of our fullness others will receive, grace for grace. At church, in the home, and in the workplace.
And here is the second question: what is our expectation of the “fullness of God” in our lives? I was in a zoom gathering last night, and the word that Father spoke to us by His Spirit was that He wants to bring a new level of creativity to His people: that the atmosphere of Heaven is the Beauty of Holiness, and that He wants us to release that beauty into the world in all that we do – our work, or pastimes, our creative projects, our relationships of course – and that He would bring us new gifts, new resources, new skills, new levels of faith, in fact all that we need out of the infinite unseen storehouses of Heaven to start bringing this about. It was a beautiful, encouraging Word, and I do not do it justice with my single-sentence paraphrase. And it would be so easy for it to remain on the shelf, along with the library of other beautiful encouraging words that I have heard over nearly 40 years in the faith. Except for one thing. If you know me or follow my site, you will know that I am a “birder”: I love watching and photographing birds. I was sitting in the sunshine in my garden this afternoon, enjoying a cup of tea, when I heard a birdsong in the tree that I did not immediately recognise. I managed to get a picture, and I identified it as a female linnet. The linnet is a little finch with a sweet song, which the Victorians used to keep in cages as songbirds. Linnets are not particularly rare, but I do not recall ever seeing one in my garden before – and we have lived here since 1998. It was something unexpected, beautiful, and new.
I believe that little bird was a sign from the Lord of all Creation to remind me, and you, that He has so much more for us than we could ever ask or imagine, and that even now, as the world seems to be rushing to pull down its tents, He wants us to stretch forth the cords of ours and enlarge our vision of who He is and what it means to be filled with all of His fullness. If we do this He will fill whatever we give Him with more of who He is so that when the needy come to us they can be filled in turn from our fullness, grace for grace. Whatever your garden is, and whatever those linnets might be for you, watch out for them, because the Holy Spirit is releasing them from their cage.
“Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because
“All fleshis as grass, And allthe glory of manas the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away,But theword of the LORD endures forever.”
Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.” (1 Pe 1 22-25)
I was on a mission trip to Switzerland in May, staying at a Bible college up in the hills overlooking a lake, facing some prominent peaks of the Alps. I was walking down a path one morning to check out the bird life, having read the above passage from1 Peter before I left. In all the times I have read that scripture, I had never thought about “the flower of the grass,” until this moment when I found myself standing in it, looking across the valley at the view which the photo above captures a corner of. I took the picture from where I stood with the flower of the grass at my feet, the Bible school behind me, representing the enduring Word of God, looking across the valley at the beauty and majesty of God’s creation, drinking in liquid bird song and the flutter of butterflies among the wildflowers, drenched in peace, and above all feeling cradled in the love of the one who had made it all. After nearly 40 years in the Lord, I felt the Father’s love in a new, intimate way that morning. And while I was standing there trying to contemplate the majesty of my loving Father through this tiny fragment of His creation the thought occurred to me: the flower of the grass doesn’t even last anything like as long as the grass itself. And this is as much as our glory is worth!
The thoughts tumbled in: how often do we try to elevate ourselves with our opinions, our superior “wisdom,” our spirituality, our ”rightness” – especially our rightness? But our glory is no more than the flower of the grass at my feet compared with the glory of God in all His majesty and the eternal truth of His Word, and my opinions are of no more value by comparison than a used bus ticket buried in the folds of my pocket. “All fleshis as grass, And allthe glory of manas the flower of the grass.” And yet we carry within us the glory of the One who made the mountains. How can I possibly offer people my bus tickets instead of letting them know something of the love, the peace and the glory that has been poured out into my heart by the Holy Spirit of Creator Father God? Why do I even look at them?
Without love, we stand alone, and all we manifest is what is corruptible; the flower of the grass. When we reach out in love to others we can manifest the glory of God and the incorruptible truth of His word, quickened by the power of His Spirit. Switzerland is full of waterfalls. I was telling a wise friend about my experience on the hillside, and likened the idea of standing in the flow of God’s love to standing under a waterfall (I am hardly the first person to do so…) My friend said “A waterfall pours into a pool, then flows out of it. Our job (actually he said “your job,” but it applies to all of us) isn’t to try and direct the flow of the water, but just to stand beneath it. It will take its own course out of the pool.”
Our hearts are that pool. The love of God has been poured into them (Romans 5:5), and it pours out as rivers of living water (John 7:38). I don’t think we can truly love unless we stand under that waterfall. Jesus came and died to make it possible. The Father’s waterfall carries no negative pollutants; it always brings forgiveness, always drives away hurt. It always renews, always washes away the old, it is always fresh, always new, always clean, always pure. It is the Father’s waterfall that drives the dynamo of His power on the Earth. When we stand beneath it we cannot hold onto pain and disappointment, but letting go we can let the water come, and in our own situations we can be like Jesus, “who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.” (1 Peter 2:23)
“Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), and so the greatest and most perfect gift of all, the love of God, must also come down from above. It can’t return from where the waterfall has already passed. If we look to any other source to meet our deepest need we are looking for secondhand water.
“Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; All Your waves and billows have gone over me. The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, And in the night His song shall be with me— A prayer to the God of my life. |(Psalm 43:7-8)
Isaiah exhorts all who are thirsty to “Come to the waters” (Isaiah 55:1). When we do, it is not just our thirst that is quenched, but the thirst of those around us as the Lord commands His lovingkindness with the water that pours out of the pool of our hearts. If we will stand in the Father’s waterfall we will see the glory of the mountains made manifest, not just the flower of the grass.
“So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? 8 But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded [a]him? I think not. 10 So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ “ (Luke 17: 6-10)
The parable of the unprofitable servant was the Lord’s answer to His disciples’ request to increase their faith. We can read it as saying that increased faith comes from increased obedience, but the context that we are given is far less straightforward than such a simple equation: real faith, even as tiny as a grain of mustard seed, will accomplish impossible acts. Even a tree that has no ears will obey a command that is given out of faith, when that faith is itself an obedient response to a command from Above.
Every believer wants to increase their faith, and we all long to command those mulberry trees to be planted in the sea. Whether we spiritualise the image or take it literally, we want to see God’s hand transforming our landscape. And all the while that this desire motivates us, we can be wrestling with another question: what is it that God has asked me to do, so that I can obey Him?
If we know our Bibles at all, we can quote any number of Bible verses that give us the answer, and many of them will be found in the writings of John: if we want to obey Jesus, we love one another. Simple. The trouble is that obedience to the New Commandment isn’t of itself a guarantee of progress along the pathway of faith: the imperative to love can be a guiding principle in the Christian life without being a requirement for mustard-seed faith, and while this guiding principle is fundamental – there is no Christian life without it – it is not enough alone to equip us to “be strong and do exploits” as promised in Daniel 11:32. Love is the only good ground where the seeds of faith will be fruitful, but the seeds have to come from the Sower as well. The question is, how do we get those seeds?
Again, many answers come readily to mind, because the Holy Spirit has been given to us, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and His sheep hear His voice in many ways. But about a week ago I said something to the Lord that I have never said before. It was this: “Lord, are there any jobs you want me to do today?” I suppose you could say it was the prayer of the unprofitable servant. And there was. It wasn’t a miracle on the streets, and no-one fell to their knees and said ‘What must I do to be saved?’ It was just (just?) a simple manifestation of our Heavenly Father’s lovingkindness. This is what happened.
I was on a birding mini-break, driving out of a pub where I had had lunch, and was flagged down by an elderly lady walking up the road who asked me if I knew how far we were from a certain village. I checked on Google maps and told her, “Two miles.” She was devastated: she actually lived there and had gone for a walk, but had taken a wrong turning and got lost. When I offered to drive her home her gratitude was palpable. I was able to tell her that I had asked the Lord that very morning if He had any jobs for me, and this was clearly one – so He was the one to thank for sending me to rescue her! She said “I will!” She was a Christian herself, and told me that she had been at church the previous day to celebrate Ascencion Day. We chatted a little more on the short journey, and she arrived home thoroughly blessed, and with a story to tell about how much the Good Shepherd cared for her by sending a “good Samaritan” (this is what she called me) to rescue her when she was lost.
I was so encouraged by this unexpected answer to my prayer that I asked the Lord the same question the following morning. “Is there anything you want me to do today, Lord?” I said. I was spending the day at RSPB Minsmere, which is a lovely nature reserve in Suffolk (Google it if you’re interested). I arrived early and saw no-one else around (birder’s bonus!) until I was walking along a path and saw a chap behind me looking with binoculars into a field that a rare protected species is known to frequent. I waited for him to catch up. “Did you see the stone-curlews?” I asked. “Nah,” he replied, and we fell into step and started chatting birders’ talk. We were heading for the same hide, and went in together. As we both watched the birds through our optics – me with my camera and zoom lens, he with his binoculars – we soon started chatting about ourselves. He was about 15 years younger than me, but looked fairly grizzled by life’s mill. We warmed to each other, beyond the pages of our field guides, and defences came down. His name was Bert.
Bert told me he used to be a new age traveller, living off-grid for years in the 1980’s. He was steeped in new age spirituality, actually calling himself a “born-again pagan.” Before I met Jesus in 1983 I too was a “new ager,” so we had many touching points in our pasts; and before long I was not only sharing the gospel in the context of my testimony in a depth of detail that he could identify with, but was suggesting that he should read the gospel of John and revisit the account of Jesus with fresh eyes. And all of this was happening as we looked out from the bird hide and shared what we were seeing. The conversation went something like this: “Look! Little ringed plover there on the mudflat! Actually my background is Catholic”– “Yes, got it! Look at him running along the water’s edge. I love those little birds. But if you read John you get the spiritual truth behind the packaging of religion. You need to know Jesus for yourself. There’s a black-tailed godwit by the reeds – have you got it?” “Yes, I can see it. Beautiful male. It’s Matthew Mark, Luke and John, isn’t it?”
And so it went on. It was one of the warmest and most authentic evangelistic conversations I have ever had, and by Bert’s question about the location of John’s gospel I know he was listening – please pray for him with me. You can read the story that I shared with him here, (scroll down the the section entitled “Which Yoke?”) and you’ll see how significant it was in the context of that meeting; but the main point is that I had asked the Lord if He had any jobs for me that day, and that’s what He gave me to do.
I pray that prayer every morning now, and each day so far has been marked in some way by a fresh and unexpected unveiling of God’s purposes for my life in the path that I am walking. And what is more is that I am more aware of the reality of His Love and of that guiding principle of the New Commandment as I walk it, because I am looking out for the next job He has got lined up.
Try it for yourself. We are unprofitable servants. All you are doing is showing up for work, doing what it is your duty to do. The Sower will send the seeds.
Jesus tells us clearly in chapter 14 of John’s gospel that loving Him is keeping His commandments. In practically the same breath He says “and I will send you another comforter… I will not leave you orphans… If my word dwells in you my Father and I will come and manifest ourselves…“ ((John 14 :16, 18, 21) As He approaches the end of His days on Earth with the first citizens of His kingdom, Jesus goes to great lengths to make clear what life and service in His kingdom entails: we are to do what He says, the Holy Spirit will come to help us, and if we do, with the Spirit’s help, He and the Father will make their presence known among us and His Church will be built.
When Jesus tells the disciples about the coming Holy Spirit, He calls Him Spirit of Truth, and promises that this Helper will come and bring to remembrance everything that He has said. The word He requires us to keep, that He had spent three years teaching and preaching, was the truth about His kingdom. If we want to find the summary of this truth – the manifesto of the Kingdom – in one Bible passage, we usually look to the sermon on the mount at the beginning of the gospel of Matthew. To put it simply and succinctly, Jesus teaches here that God’s ways are not our ways, and that if we want to live a life that pleases God it must be according to his Ways and not ours.
He spent the next three years preaching this message, and demonstrating by His miracles that He had the authority to preach it. At the end of His ministry, when He was giving His disciples the concluding message recorded by the apostle John, He sums up His teaching with the one commandment: “love one another.“
The kingdom values outlined in the sermon on the mount are the values of the King who is love: they are the roadmap to the Narrow Way; the same map that He says is impossible to follow. (Luke 18:27) The sermon on the mount is like a set of instructions on the principles of flight to people who don’t have wings. For three years Jesus taught an earthbound world how to fly, then through the cross He says ‘I know you have no wings. It’s alright: you can have mine,’ and “Hegave us the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)
And so we have the bookends of the gospels. At the beginning we have the principles of flight, a life that pleases God. At the end we have the instruction to love one another – because this is what pleases God – by using the wings that God has given us, with the promise that the Holy Spirit will remind us of the manufacturer’s instructions for use. Without them we cannot fly, and what pleases God is flight. This is the gospel of the Kingdom. Between the bookends is the demonstration of flight.
We have been sent to preach the same gospel. The question for us is this: is it the gospel that we are preaching? Because if we preach the sermon without the wings we give people religion, and if we preach the wings without the sermon we ignore the truths of repentance and the requirements of Love. Without both bookends the message does not stand and the books fall over. There is only one gospel of the Kingdom, and Jesus demonstrated His authority to preach it by the works that he performed (John 10:38). If we want to see the Holy Spirit confirming the word that we preach with “signs and wonders following,” (Mark 16:20) we need to preach the Word that we have been given.