Turning water into wine

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John 2:1-11

Here’s a phrase, like “David and Goliath” or “the writing is on the wall“.  It doesn’t strictly occur in the Bible.  Instead it arises as a short-hand to describe a famous story.

It’s the first of Jesus’ miracles as recorded by John.  And verse 11 tells us the purpose of it: Jesus “manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.”

As a guest at this wedding, how might Jesus have felt? Engaged couples at another wedding can’t help but have a critical eye for detail.  When the service orders are smudged, they make a mental note not to make the same mistake.

Jesus, as the ultimate Bridegroom, has His eyes firmly fixed on the wedding banquet at the end of history.  He longs for the day when He will be united to His bride, the church.  As such, perhaps he could have sympathised more than most with the “ruler of this feast” (v9). He and the bridegroom were presiding over an unmitigated disaster.

In modern weddings if the wine runs out it’s a little embarrassing.  In the first century however, it was utterly shameful – a reflection on the groom and his family.  Unless Jesus can step in, questions will be asked not just about the groom’s hosting skills, but also his ability to provide for his new bride.

Jesus acts – but with reluctance (v3-4).  Not because he isn’t concerned for the groom – but because “manifesting” His glory will release the handbrake on His public ministry.  It will set in chain a series of events that will lead to the cross.  Nonetheless He rises to the occasion.  And He does far more than anyone could ask or imagine.

Consider first, the quantity of wine produced:

“six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece (v6).”

A firkin is about 10 gallons.  So that’s around 150 gallons or 570 litres of water.  Jesus turns it into the equivalent of 760 bottles of wine.  And, as the “ruler of the feast” calls it, it’s “good wine” – not plonk (v9-10).  Jesus proves Himself to be the true Bridegroom and Ruler of the Feast.

Isaiah spoke of the days of the Messiah in which

the LORD of hosts [shall] make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.  (Isaiah 25:6)

And Amos promised that:

the mountains shall drop sweet wine.  (Amos 9:13)

Here, in little Cana, the Messiah floods this wedding with a “feast of wines.”  It is one aspect of the “glory” which Jesus manifested here: wine represents the new age of the Messiah’s reign.

But wine also means blood.  Indeed, from Genesis, wine is called “the blood of the grape” (Genesis 49:11).  At the end of His life, Jesus would pick up a cup of wine, saying “This is my blood.”  (Matthew 26:28).

In this miracle, Jesus has transformed water used for “the purifying of the Jews” and made it into the blood of the grape.  The old cleansing ritual is gone – replaced with a reminder of blood.  In this way Jesus brings in His new age of blessings and feasting.  Through His blood, He makes us clean and brings us to the ultimate banquet.

The bridegroom from Cana failed to provide.  He is a picture of all us failing husbands.  But in inviting Jesus to their wedding the couple got something right!  The Bridegroom from heaven does not merely make up the shortfall.  He floods them with a superabundance of new life and true cleansing.  He provides lavishly and lovingly for His bride, the church.  And He makes us hungry for that Wedding Feast to come.  Without Jesus we’re drinking water.  With Him, it’s the finest of wine.

Behold the Lamb of God

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John 1:29-51

John the Baptist was a wild and holy prophet whose mission in life was to prepare the way for the LORD Jesus.  John was foretold in the Old Testament as one who would cry out in the wilderness and introduce Jesus to the world.  (Isaiah 40:3ff; Malachi 3:1)  So, when his big moment came, what did John say?

Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:29)

Think of all the ways John could have described Jesus.  He could have said “Behold the Word of God”, “Behold the Christ of God”, “Behold the King of God.”  “Behold the Priest of God”, “Behold the Light of the World,” “Behold the Heavenly Bridegroom”, “Behold the great I AM”.  But here’s what John thought we needed to know first:  “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Behold the Sacrifice.  Behold God’s Bleeding Victim.  That’s the most fundamental introduction to Jesus.

Remember Genesis 22?  It’s 2000BC and Abraham is walking up a hill in the region of Jerusalem with “his son, his only son Isaac whom he loves.”  He’s told to put a knife to his son as a sacrifice of atonement.  Isaac asks, “Father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  Abraham replies: “God Himself will provide the Lamb.”  And on that occasion, the LORD provides a ram.  The ram dies instead of Isaac.  But from that day onwards that mountain was called “The LORD will provide”(Genesis 22:14).  What will the LORD provide?  The Lamb.  The LORD will provide the Lamb on that mountain in the region of Jerusalem.

Fast forward 500 years to the first Passover.  The LORD’s final plague on Egypt strikes both Egyptians and Israelites alike.  He passes through the land and strikes down the firstborn son of each household – unless a lamb dies instead.  The blood of this lamb must be painted on each household’s door with hyssop.  Then they will be saved.  Israel is redeemed by sheltering under the blood of the lamb.  And Passover becomes the most important festival of the calendar.

500 years on, we’re listening in to a prayer of King David.  He’s just committed adultery and murder and in his famous Psalm 51, he’s praying for forgiveness.  He says to God “Cleanse me with hyssop and I shall be clean.” (Psalm 51:7)  God has hyssop it seems.  Does God also have a Lamb, a sacrifice that averts judgement?  David prays with confidence, knowing that the Lamb of God can cover even his sins.

Fast forward another 500 years and Isaiah foretells the coming of the Messiah: He would be led ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’.  In this way Christ would be sacrificed to bring us peace.

Fast forward another 500 years.  We are on the hillside outside Bethlehem.  And the angels appear, not to dignitaries, butto shepherds.  Just as Norfolk is known in Britain as the place that rears our Christmas turkeys, Bethlehem was known as the place that produced Passover lambs.  The angels are telling them: Do you want to see a real passover lamb?  Hurry to the stable!

Now come forward 33 years and Jesus is entering Jerusalem on a donkey.  It’s the tenth day of the first month – and as all of Israel are bringing their Passover lambs into their houses, Jesus enters into God’s house.  On the 14th day of the 1st month, while everyone else is holding their Passover meals, Jesus is hosting His last supper.  He’s meant to be carving the lamb and passing it around.  But there is no lamb on the menu – not that we’re told of.  There is a Lamb at the table though.  And on that Friday, Jesus is slaughtered.

No wonder the Apostle Paul says, “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

No wonder the Apostle Peter calls us redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.”

The Apostle John hears the song of heaven, and it’s the Lamb they are singing about:

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.”  (Revelation 5:12)

In fact, Revelation has a wonderful phrase that’s repeated: “the Lamb in the midst of the throne” (Rev 5;6; 7:17).  The throne represents the power and authority of God.  And Jesus our Lamb is at the centre.  Where do we see the Godness of God shining at full strength?  In the slaughter of Jesus, our Lamb.  The Lamb is at the centre of the throne.

Do you ever worry that behind lovely Jesus lurks a stern God ?  Do you ever think that the cross was a nice gesture from the Son, but who knows about the Father?  No: Behold the Lamb.  When you see Jesus your Lamb you see to the very centre of the throne – the very centre of God.  God’s eternal nature is revealed in the Lamb: bleeding for you.

Shining light

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John 1:19-28

Surely the adjective “shining” is redundant when attached to the word “light”?  After all, what else does a light do  What can it do except shine?

Surely there’s no such thing as a light that doesn’t shine.  Well Jesus, as we’ll soon see, speaks of people who “put their light under a bushel” (Matthew 5:14-15).  Christians are the light of the world, and yet many are lights that do not shine.

Not so with John the Baptist.  He is described by Jesus as a “shining light.”

“Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth. But I receive not testimony from man: but these things I say, that ye might be saved. He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.”  (John 5:33-35)

How did John shine?  Was it through his talents? Yes, he was talented(Matthew 11:11), but that’s not why he was a shining light.  Was it because of his achievements?  No, the very opposite.  John shone by pointing away from himself entirely.  In paintings which depict John, he is identified by his pointing finger.  This was the secret of his radiance – he pointed to Jesus.

Jesus tells us the secret of John’s brilliance:  “he bare witness unto the truth.”  As John 1 says:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light…  The true Light, which lighteth every man… cometh into the world.  (John 1:6-9)

Christ is the uncreated Light of the world.  John shines as he points away from himself to the true Light.  John’s light is not a light that draws attention to itself, rather his light spotlights the true Light.

We’re all meant to shine (Matthew 5:15) but John shows us the way.  We’re all witnesses (Acts 1:8) but John is the ultimate human witness.  And what do we learn from his example?  We learn to point away from ourselves to Jesus.  We shine the most, when we forget ourselves and turn to the true Light of the world.  May his self-appraisal be ours:

I am not the Christ. (John 1:19)

I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, (John 1:23)

[The] shoe’s latchet [of Jesus] I am not worthy to unloose. (John 1:27)

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)

The Word was made flesh

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John 1:1-18

Tom Torrance was an army chaplain in World War Two.  He claimed that the number one question soldiers asked him was this, “Is God really like Jesus Christ?”

With bullets flying and lives on the line, this is what they needed to know.  Why? Because if God is like Jesus then, ultimately, it’s going to be ok.

For this reason, it was Torrance’s greatest joy to point to verse after verse in the bible that said: Yes, God is exactly like Jesus.

One of the places he opened up was John chapter 1 and verse 1.  It’s a phrase we thought about yesterday:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Before there was anything else, God was there with His Word – and His Word could also be called “God.”  God has always had a divine Communication.

Words communicate.  They express.  They reveal.  It follows that the Word is the Expression of God.  Everything God wants to say is wrapped up in this Person called “the Word.”

Who is this Word?  Verse 14 declares:

The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.  (John 1:14)

The Word is the Christmas baby!  Born of Mary and laid in a manger, the Word is Jesus.  Or maybe it’s better to say that Jesus is the Word.

Jesus did not begin His existence in Mary’s womb.  As He stood before the Jews of the first century He declared, “Before Abraham was, I AM!” (John 8:56)  He has always existed along with His Father and the Holy Spirit.  He has always been God’s Word.

To know what God is like, we must see Jesus.  Everything we hear Jesus saying and everything we see Him doing, reveals God the Father.  As Jesus draws near, stoops to our level, loves, heals, touches, teaches, suffers, bleeds and dies for us, Jesus shows us God.

Lord Byron once said, “If God is not like Jesus Christ, then God ought to be like Jesus Christ.”  But God is exactly like Jesus- because Jesus is the Word.

I like to put it this way: Jesus is God-sized.  And God is Jesus-shaped.

Firstly, Jesus is entirely God-sized.  He is the eternal Word of God, there in the beginning, the Craftsman of all creation.  You cannot think too highly of Jesus!

And God is entirely Jesus-shaped.  In the words of one archbishop “God is Christ-like and in Him there is no un-Christ-likeness at all!”  Any God we imagine who is not like Jesus, is not God.

This is what it means to say that Jesus is the Word.  He is the Explanation of God.

What does it mean that He was “made flesh”?

If someone has just been particularly callous we might ask them, “Where’s your humanity?”  When we do so, we’re trying to tap into their sympathy.  We want to stir up love for their “fellow man”.  Here “humanity” is synonymous with “compassion.”  A person without “humanity” is a person without a heart.

Does God have sympathy for humankind?  Does He love us – or have a heart?  Yes.  Because, incredibly, He has humanity!

The Word “was made flesh.”  The eternal Son of God became man.  A member of the Trinity became a member of the human race!

And our verse really wants to drive that point home, so it uses a word that’s shockingly base.  “Flesh”.

In latin it’s the word “carnis”.  It’s the source of the word ‘incarnation’. And, less impressively, the origin of chilli con carne.  A.k.a. chilli with meat! That’s the sense of the word ‘flesh’ here.  The Word became meat.

Ask a biologist to describe humanity and they might use the phrase ‘homo sapien’.

Ask a philosopher to describe humanity and they might say ‘a rational animal’.

Ask a butcher to describe humanity and they might say ‘carnis’, ‘flesh’, meat!

When Jesus came it was not in a dreamy visitation.  He didn’t float 6 inches off the ground or don a halo. He didn’t descend like a deep sea diver, wearing a man-suit.  The Word did not ‘put on’ flesh, ‘enter’ flesh, ‘borrow’ flesh, ‘hide behind’ flesh ‘get diluted’ in flesh.  The Word was made flesh.

God has humanity.  And His name is Jesus.

If a king remains on the throne and never climbs down, that’s one kind of greatness.  But there’s another kind too.  It’s the greatness of the King who climbs down, who humbles Himself and who condescends to join His people.  And what about a King who descends even further – becoming a slave, serving His people in poverty, suffering, fighting, bleeding and dying for them.  That’s another kind of greatness entirely.

Think of an adult who speaks to a toddler while towering over them.  And now picture one who stoops down to their level.  Or imagine a homeless man, drunk and lying in the gutter.  One ‘helper’ gives advice from on high.  Another lies down in the gutter, speaking face to face.  This is the gutter-level glory of the Word made flesh.

He became what we are, so that we might become what He is.  He came into our situation to invite us into His situation.  He entered our family – the human race – so that we can enter His Family – the Trinity!  He, the Son of God, became flesh, so that we who are flesh might become sons and daughters of God.

In the beginning was the Word

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John 1:1-18

One of the most common questions about prayer is this: “Should I really pray to God about such and such?”  Sometimes we feel that “bothering God” with the minutiae of our lives is beneath the majesty of the Most High.  Surely God is too lofty to consider me? What He wants are grand acts of devotion, not needy requests.

This is nonsense – but we all fall into such thinking.  That’s why we need the Apostle John to revolutionize our thinking.  Listen to the opening phrase of His Gospel::

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.  (John 1:1)

John takes us to the ultimate beginning: Genesis.  The God who was “in the beginning” was not Word-less but Word-full.  Indeed it is by the Word that He has made all things.  But God and His Word go way back – before creation.  God has never been without His Word.  He has always had Another alongside Him.

This “Other” is “with” Him (v1) and “in His bosom” (v18).  Verse 17 names Him most clearly as “Jesus Christ.”  But there are three other names by which He is known in this chapter: the Word (v1), the Light (v4) and the only begotten Son (v18).

We could spend years considering what such names mean for Jesus.  But, for now, let’s explore what this means for the God in Whose bosom Jesus has ever dwelt.

It means that God is eternally Speaker/ Shiner /Father.  Rewind the tape into the depths of eternity and you will only ever see the Speaker communicating His eternal Word, the Shiner radiating His eternal Light, the Father begetting His eternal Son.

This is wonderful news, because these three qualities are quintessentially outgoing characteristics.   God is not first God (in all His Godness) and then Speaker / Shiner / Father.  No, God has never been anything other than Speaker / Shiner / Father.  God is other-centred, to the depths of eternity and to the core of His Being.

Someone who grasped this and its profound pastoral impact was the puritan Richard Sibbes.  He wrote:

“God’s goodness is a communicative, spreading goodness. . . . If God had not a communicative, spreading goodness, he would never have created the world.  The Father, Son and Holy Ghost were happy in themselves and enjoyed one another before the world was.  But that God delights to communicate and spread his goodness, there had never been a creation nor a redemption.  God useth his creatures not for defect of power, that he can do nothing without them, but for the spreading of his goodness. . . ”

God is a Speaker, a Radiating Light, a Father, a Fountain and a spreading goodness.  He is not first concerned for Himself and then complaisant to the needs of others.  His whole being is condescension!

Remember this next time you pray.  God’s life and being are directed outwards.  We do not exist as a distraction from His divine glory.  We’ve been birthed by that glory – an outgoing glory that delights in affirming and upholding the other.

He is more committed to listening than we are of praying.  More desirous of helping than we are of help.  His “goodness is a communicative, spreading goodness.”  So now, speak to your Father who loves you more than His own life.

Prisoners of hope

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Zechariah 1-2; 9:9-17

We’ve all met people who are prisoners of despair.  Perhaps we feel this way ourselves. Depression could be described in these terms: as a helpless and hopeless condition, with no prospect of release.  We don’t want to collapse in despair, but feel impelled to do so.   But Zechariah (a contemporary of Haggai) speaks of something incredible – not prisoners of despair but prisoners of hope.  In fact he describes the people of God in exactly those terms.  They are bound to hope.  They may not even want to hope, but they can do no other – they are prisoners!

Zechariah is speaking to a people who have been battered by the superpowers of their day.  They were uprooted from their homeland and carried away to strange lands and stranger peoples.  Now, after 70 years of exile, they are back in Canaan, desperately impoverished and under constant military threat.

But Zechariah doesn’t describe them as prisoners of Babylon, or Persia or Greece.  He doesn’t call them prisoners of circumstance or fate.  They aren’t prisoners of economic or political conditions.  Something even stronger has taken hold of the people of God and made them “prisoners of hope”.  Left to their own devices they would plunge into world-weariness, fear, cynicism and melancholy.  Instead, something has arrested them and halted their despair.  What – or rather, who, is it?

It’s a lowly man, riding on a donkey:

9Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.  10And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth.  11As for thee also, by the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water.  12Turn you to the strong hold, ye prisoners of hope: even to day do I declare that I will render double unto thee;

Zechariah holds up this picture of the Messiah to a bruised people.  He is not a Mighty Warrior on a white stallion but a gentle King riding on a donkey.  The Messiah will not meet the powers of this world with more worldly power.  Instead, he conquers them with simple justice, lowliness and words of peace.

This is the revolution that will bring in a global kingdom of righteousness – from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth. It’s a revolution that even prisoners can believe in.

In fact, such prisoners can look to Christ, their Stronghold, and identify with a verydifferent story.  The lowly King will die – shedding that precious “blood of the covenant” which redeems lost sinners.  And He will rise again to bring a future more glorious than the paradise we have lost.  Through Jesus we will be rendered double.

The waterless pit of our circumstances seems to demand despair.  But we have a gentle King who knows our sufferings.  And His redemption will satisfy all our longings.

Have you lost your dreams, your health, your dignity, your innocence, your peace, your children, your marriage, your youth, your job, your reputation?  With any other king, this lowliness would keep you from him.  But look to the Lowly One riding on a donkey.  Not even your deepest sins or sufferings could separate you from Him, for He knows and has felt it all.  He is your King and He will render double unto thee.  Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ.  With this King you are bound to hope.

The desire of all nations

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Haggai 2

There is a limit and a longing to us all.  And that interaction between the limit and the longing defines our human condition.  We are finite creatures, and yet this finite world does not satisfy.

The prophet Haggai wrote to the Israelites in the 6th century BC: a strange kind of in-between time.  They had returned from the Babylonian captivity, but they hadn’t exactly returned from exile.  The true end of exile would be the coming of the Messiah.

And so the people had an experience something like our own.  They, like us, were waiting for the Messiah to restore all things.  And they, like us, felt their limit and their longing very keenly.  The prophet describes their experience as one of constant frustration:

“Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes.” (Haggai 1:6)

It brings to mind Lord Byron’s description of his own longings:

“drank early, deeply drank, drank draughts. That common millions might have quenched; — then died. Of thirst, because there was no more to drink”.

Our longings and limits collide and disappoint us all.

But Haggai tells them the solution.  The people must invest in the Messianic future.  They need to rebuild the house of God (1:8).  Physically speaking it won’t be a patch on Solomon’s old temple (2:3).  But in another sense it will be more glorious (2:9) because Christ Himself will come to it.

Just as Malachi also prophesied, the Messenger of the Covenant will grace the second temple with His presence (Malachi 3:1).  And when Christ and the temple come together it makes both Malachi and Haggai consider the end of all things.

Why would this be?  Well Jesus comes to tear down the House of God and to build it again (John 2:19-22).  In the Bible, God’s House could mean the temple, it could mean the world or it could mean Christ Himself.  And actually all three will go through a death and resurrection.  Christ comes to demolish and then to renovate.  And when Haggai thinks of Christ colliding with God’s House, he starts to think of this world’s cosmic renovation:

For thus saith the LORD of hosts; “Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land;  And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory”, saith the LORD of hosts.  (Haggai 2:6-7)

Haggai sees beyond his current circumstances, beyond Christ’s first coming and describes the end when Christ shakes this world right.  It’s a fearful prophecy.  Not just an earth-quake.  A heaven-quake.  A creation-quake!

But through it, there’ll be a renovation.  On the other side there will be glory!  And notice the interaction between limit and longing.  The One who shakes down the whole cosmos is also our true Object of desire.  The nations will end in him and delight in him!  He is their destruction and their desire!  Beyond the destruction is a glorious and much-desired future.  The Messiah will be this world’s true limit and longing.

He is the Desire of all nations.  The deepest longings of the Japanese, the Argentinians, the Fijians, the Swedes, the Kenyans, those from all ages, all backgrounds, all nations – they are met in Jesus.

Who could possibly shake this world right?  Who could possiblysatisfy this world’s thirst?  What kind of Person is Haggai describing?  Only Jesus, Messenger of the Covenant, Hope of the Ages, the House of God, the Faithful Bridegroom, the Fountain of Living Waters – the Desire of all nations.

From of old, from everlasting

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Micah 5

How did Israel understand its Messiah?

That’s a question Jesus himself asks in Mark chapter 12.  Jesus directs his hearers to Psalm 110 and asks the question:

35 How say the scribes that Christ is the son of David?  36For David himself said by the Holy Ghost,

“The LORD said to my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool.” [Psalm 110:1]

37David therefore himself calleth him Lord; and whence is he then his son?  (Mark 12:35-37)

Here is the argument: ‘The Christ’ must be far more than a descendant of David.  ‘The Christ’ is David’s “Lord”.  So there is no excuse for an Israelite to think of the Christ in such miniature, earth-bound terms.  The Christ is Cosmic and He is Ancient.  He was present to the Old Testament saints and was consciously known and loved by the faithful.

It’s true that David looked forward to the time his Seed would sit on his throne to rule the world (2 Samuel 7:12-16).  But David also knew that his Seed was his Lord!

In the words of Revelation 22:16, Christ is both the “root” and the “offspring” of David.  Christ produces David as his Lord, yet He is also produced by David as his Seed.

All of this means that the child born in the town of David was old.  He was an ancient baby.  Micah, the prophet, spoke of this in words made famous by Christmas readings:

2But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting… 4And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth. 5And this man shall be the peace

Just imagine it: ‘goings forth’ from everlasting.  This is the nature of the Messiah.  He is the Light of the world, eternally radiant.  He is the Word of God, eternally communicative.  He is the Sent One of the Father, eternally outgoing.  When we see Christ in the Gospels, we are not witnessing a limited and local saving concern.  In Jesus we see the eternal nature of Israel’s Ruler.  From of old, from everlasting He has been the Mighty Shepherd.  He always goes forth to feed us, to give us a home and an unshakeable peace.

Today we can rejoice.  If we have laid hold of Jesus, we have laid hold of the eternal love of God

Sackcloth and ashes

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Jonah 3-4

Is Jonah the Bible’s most successful evangelist?  In Hebrew his sermon consists of just 5 words.  And yet, in response, the 120 000 residents of Nineveh cover themselves ‘in sackcloth and ashes’ and turn to the LORD.

Sackcloth was the clothing of mourning.  Ashes were also a reminder of mortality.  To cover oneself in sackcloth and ashes was to identify oneself with the death-dealing judgement of God.  When the LORD sees their repentance, He turns from His wrath and brings salvation instead.

This is even more remarkable because of the preacher’s blatant rebellion and xenophobia.  Jonah detests the Assyrians, whose world capital, Nineveh, he is commanded to evangelize.  And he does everything he can to thwart the missionary purposes of God.

When he is commissioned in chapter 1, he flees in the opposite direction.  But the LORD does not want to save the Ninevites apart from the preached word.  He sends a storm to bring down Jonah’s ship.  Jonah, the guilty one, is hurled into the sea to save the innocents on board and in chapter 2, he is brought even lower.  Swallowed by a monster of the deep, he spends 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of a fish.  Yet after this death and resurrection experience, Jonah is sent to the nations.  And, just as Jonah had feared, they repent.  So, in chapter 4, Jonah is furious at the grace of the LORD.  The book ends with a petulant missionary despising the salvation of God while the LORD explains His global love.

It’s then that we realise the truth.  Jonah is not the Bible’s greatest evangelist.  The LORD is.

When He came in the flesh, it was in total obedience to the missionary call of His Father.  Though we had sinned, He was cast into the depths to save the guilty.  He spent 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth before rising again to a global mission.  By the sending of His Spirit He gladly accompanies and empowers the evangelisation of the nations.  He is the true expression of the Father’s heart who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  (2 Peter 3:9)

For every soul that repents “in sackcloth and ashes” it is Christ who saves them by His Spirit.  He remains the world’s greatest evangelist.  And so great is His passion for the lost, He can even use faithless preachers like Jonah.  And like me!  Evangelists take heart: nothing can thwart His gospel mission to the ends of the earth.

Jonah and the whale

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Jonah 1-2

“Arise, go to Nineveh” says the LORD.  Jonah arises and runs in the opposite direction.  There is much that is comic about the book of Jonah.  Its protagonist is something of an anti-hero.  Jonah does everything in his power to thwart God’s evangelistic mission to Nineveh.  First he runs in the opposite direction.  Then when he’s humbled and brought to the great city against his will he preaches a five word sermon of destruction.  Finally, when the LORD saves the Ninevites, he becomes furious at the grace of God.  If we’re looking for a hero in the book of Jonah, it’s not Jonah. But Jonah does picture his LORD in an incredible way.

You see as Jonah flees from the LORD he boards a ship heading to Spain (Tarshish).  The LORD hurls a great wind onto the sea, stirring up “a mighty tempest.”

When we considered Psalm 107, we saw how storms are a sign of the chaos and darkness of this world.   So in Jonah chapter 1 we have the LORD’s prophet on a boat in the midst of the tempest.  And how will these sea-farers be saved?

Jonah said unto them, “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.”  (Jonah 1:12)

The prophet of the LORD is hurled into the abyss.  He is swallowed by a great monster of the deep (it’s not called a “whale” in the Bible, but that’s how we’ve come to remember the story).  And through the judgement of the one, the many are saved.

And Jesus said:

40For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. (Matthew 12:39-41)

Jesus is One far greater than Jonah!  We were the ones fleeing from the LORD, He was the one true Innocent.  Yet He joined us in our predicament and willingly cast Himself into the abyss.  He was swallowed by that greatest monster – death – so that we might be saved.

This is the LORD’s heart – He is not just for the Ninevites.  At the cost of His own blood, He pursues a lost world to the pit of hell.

As we see God’s grace in the face of Christ, do we love His outgoing mission?  Or do we flee it, like Jonah?  More tomorrow…