To be saved

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Our Gospel reading for today is the rather curious passage from Luke 20:27-38, which involves a convoluted story about a woman who was married and remarried to seven brothers in succession, with the hope that one of them would impregnate her. The question asked of Jesus by the Sadducees was which of them would be her husband at the resurrection. It is a rather awful story, filled with patriarchal beliefs about women, marriage and child bearing.

I did not feel God leading me to preach on this passage today.

However, the point of the story is of interest. Jesus affirms that there IS a resurrection, that there is an afterlife, and that it will be wonderful. And this affirmation of Jesus – that life does not simply end when our bodies die – prompts us to think about salvation and what it means to be saved.

For that, we turn to our Second Testament reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 (I’ve bolded some of the key words):

13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings[b] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

What do we learn about salvation from this passage?

  • First, God chose us – God called us. Salvation is always God’s initiative. And God chooses and calls every person into fellowship with God. God’s mission is to reconcile the WHOLE world to God’s self, under the headship of Christ (Ephesians 1:9-14). When God calls us, God calls us by name. It is personal. God wants YOU personally. It is not just that God wants to save everyone, like some anonymous conglomerate of humanity. No! It is that God’s has chosen YOU personally, by name, and called you to be in fellowship with God, to be saved.
  • Second, we are saved through two main actions (according to this passage):
    • First, we are saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. When God calls us, Holy Spirit comes and resides in us. Spirit makes a home in our hearts, comes and lives inside of us (1 Corinthians 6:19). God works to transform us into the image of Christ, from the inside out, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
    • Second, we are saved through our belief in the truth. And what is this truth? Jesus Christ is truth (John 14:6; John 8:31-32). We can do nothing to attain salvation; salvation is in its entirety the result of Christ’s work, through creation, his incarnation, his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his ascension to the right hand of God. We can’t add to this. All we can do is respond to the truth of it. And ‘to believe in’ something or someone is much the same as ‘to trust in’ someone or even better, ‘to entrust ourselves’ to someone. We entrust ourselves into the truth of Jesus.
  • Third, the result of this salvation is that we get to share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not so much that we become glorious, but that we bask in the radiance of God’s glory. We can be confident that when we die, we enter into the enjoyable and wonderful presence of God. Jesus spoke about this in our earlier reading (Luke 20:36): “they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”
  • Finally, because of all of this, we are encouraged to stand firm and hold fast to our faith. Sometimes, maybe often, our faith is frail and feeble. Sometimes life gets on top of us. Sometimes we succumb to sin. Sometimes pain, suffering and illness burden us. Sometimes evil in the world – violence, hatred, exclusion, oppression, poverty and injustice – overwhelm us. In these times, especially, God calls us, urges us, to stand firm in and to hold fast to Christ.

In Paul’s final words in this brief passage, he offers a blessing. I liked this blessing so much, we read it four times during the service, twice as a blessing, with my hand outstretched. I again stretch out my hands to you in blessing, saying:

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 10: Persistent Love

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Many of us have a view of the Old Testament as portraying a God who is wrathful, violent and primitive. I had a friend who decided to stop reading the Old Testament entirely because he found the God presented there incompatible with the God that Christ knew. While his behaviour might be quite extreme, this is probably a view that is common to many, perhaps even most Christians. And truth be told, many of us have read little of the Old Testament.

So, one day I decided to start reading the Old Testament to hear the historical narrative and to see what this Old Testament God was all about. I opened at Genesis 1 and kept reading until I got to the New Testament. The thing that stood out most strongly for me from this, was that the God of the Old Testament was a loving God. I could see the angry God bits – they surely are there. But what was more dominant to me, was the loving God bits. And in particular, I was struck by the persistence of God’s love. In the face of repeated failure by the nations of Israel and Judah, God continues to love, and to love, and to love. Despite the persistent failure of God’s people to maintain their covenant with God, God remains faithful and engaged. God never gives up on them. If the Old Testament narrative as a whole taught me anything about God, it is that God persists in love.

Let’s pick up the story in 2 Chronicles after Solomon’s death. Solomon’s son Rehoboam succeeds him (chapter 10). Jeroboam and the people of Israel go to Rehoboam and ask for a lightening of the heavy labour burden Solomon had placed on them. After receiving sage advice from the elders, Rehoboam decides to follow the advice of some younger men who urge him to impose even heavier demands. Naturally, the people turned their backs on him, leading to the split of the kingdom between Israel in the north and the much smaller Judah in the south. Nevertheless, Rehoboam was a wise king in many ways and Judah flourished.

But in chapter 12, we learn that he “abandoned the law of the Lord” (12:1) and as a result “Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem” (12:2). One of Rehoboam’s prophets gives him a word from the Lord, “You have abandoned me; therefore, I now abandon you to Shishak” (12:5). God’s judgement has come on Rehoboam. Immediately, Rehoboam and his leaders “humbled themselves and said, ‘The Lord is just’” (12:6). In other words, Rehoboam grants that God is right in judging him. God sees their repentance and relents in judgement, “My wrath will not be poured out on Jerusalem through Shishak” (12:7). However, there is a lesson to be learned, “They will, however, become subject to him, so that they may learn the difference between serving me and serving the kings of other lands” (12:8).

This episode is a good example of God being “slow to anger”, which we read yesterday. God was certainly angered by Rehoboam’s abandoning of his faith. But God acts with restraint. And as soon as Rehoboam repents, God relents. The Chronicler summarises, “Because Rehoboam humbled himself, the Lord’s anger turned from him, and he was not totally destroyed. Indeed, there was some good in Judah” (12:12). Rehoboam lived out his life as a capable king. His son Abijah succeeded Rehoboam and was a good king (chapter 13). Abijah’s son Asa succeeded him and reigned in peace for ten years (chapter 14). In one battle, Asa prayed, “O Lord, you are our God; do not let man prevail against you” (14:11). His faith won him the battle. Asa’s son Jehoshaphat succeeded him and reigned for 35 years as a Godly king (chapters 17-20).

Jehoshaphat’s son Jehoram took over next (chapter 21) and aligned with the apostate Israelites. We get the first of nine iterations in 2 Chronicles of, “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (21:6). However, “because of the covenant the Lord had made with David, the Lord was not willing to destroy the house of David” (21:7) – here we see God once again, ‘slow to anger’ and exercising his side of the chesed agreement. It would seem appropriate if God had decided to wipe out Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah – they had, after all, forsaken God and their covenant with God. But God remains faithful and engaged. God does not give up.

God shows this engagement by stirring up the Philistines and Arabs, who invade Judah and carry off most of Jehoram’s family and Jehoram himself is afflicted with a horrible and fatal bowel disease. We are told, “he passed away, to no one’s regret” (21:20). Jehoram’s last remaining son, Ahaziah, took over and walked in his father’s footsteps and died (22:9). Ahaziah’s mother, Athalia, a worshipper of Baal, took the throne for six years and endeavoured to exterminate David’s descendents (chapter 23). The high priest, Jehoiada, having protected Ahaziah’s son Joash, organises a people’s rebellion, kills Athalia and crowns Joash (just seven years old) and reinstates the worship of God (chapter 23).

Now, this may not sound like loving behaviour from God – everyone who stands against God suffers and dies. However, it is striking that God remains actively engaged and present in the events of Judah. God never folds his arms, so to speak, or closes his eyes or reads a book. God continues to send prophets to warn the kings and enemies to defeat and humble them. This is always with a clear intention to turn the people back to God. Heavy handed they may be, but the purpose is to reconcile not obliterate.

We see this pattern of God’s blessing when the people follow God’s ways and God’s discipline when they do not through the next few kings. Joash walked for most of his 40 years as king in the ways of God, but forsook God and killed the prophet God sent to warn him (chapter 24). So, God’s judgement fell on Joash in the form of the Aramean army, who executed Joash. Joash’s son, Amaziah, takes over, follows in the ways of God and wins his first battle, then engages in idolatry and suffers defeat at the hands of the Israelites and dies (chapter 27). His son, Uzziah, follows a similar pattern of initial devotion and success, and later abandonment of God and untimely death (chapter 26). And so it continues through Jotham (chapter 27) and Ahaz (chapter 28).

Hezekiah (chapters 29-32) takes over from his father Ahaz and sets out to purify the temple, to renew the covenant with God and to celebrate a massive Passover festival. Hezekiah prayed for the people, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God” (30:18-19). The Chronicler says, “And so he prospered” (31:21). Hezekiah was faithful to the covenant and God bestows blessing and chesed on Hezekiah and the people of Judah. Sadly, in his last days, Hezekiah’s pride took him over and the wrath of God fell on him (chapter 32).

Manasseh took over from his father and “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (33:2) leading Judah back into idolatry. God spoke to Manasseh and the people of Judah, endeavouring to reconcile them to God, but they did not listen (33:10). So, God brought the Assyrians against Judah and Manasseh was taken into captivity. But Manasseh repented and humbled himself, “and when he prayed to him, the Lord was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea.. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord is God” (33:13). God here continues to engage, chastising wayward behaviour, responding positively and quickly to repentance and rewarding Godly behaviour.

Manasseh’s son, Amon, later took over and did evil in the eyes God and was subsequently killed (chapter 33). Josiah then took up the reigns and “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (34:2). Like Hezekiah, he purified the land of idolatry and moreover recovered the lost Book of the Law. After reading it, he called the people of Judah together and they renewed their covenant with God and celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem (chapters 34-35). He had a successful reign, was blessed by God and made a lasting contribution to Jewish faith, which sustained them through the exile. Four kings reigned after Josiah, until eventually Nebuchadnezzar invaded, sacked Jerusalem and took the people of Judah into captivity in Persia (chapter 36).

I agree that this may not sound like the most loving and friendly of relations. But I hope you can recognise that through all the ups and downs of the history of Judah (and a similar pattern can be found in Israel, as recounted in Kings) God remains engaged. God never gives up on the people of God. God repeatedly sends prophets to speak sense into those who deviate from the path of righteousness. God is quick to forgive and restore and bless. Even when God sends judgement it is designed to elicit repentance and a return to faith. Although we stopped at the exile in Persia, we could have continued, seeing God’s persistent faithfulness towards those in exile and their subsequent return to Jerusalem through the edict issued by Cyrus at God’s instigation (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).

In God’s relationship with you and with me, God always remains engaged. God’s love persists. There are times when we are turned open-hearted towards God and God is delighted and blesses us – a happy parent. But there are other times when we turn away, we ignore, we close our hearts and stop our ears, we transfer out love elsewhere, we forget. This disturbs and upsets God. Of course it does – God wants uninterrupted fellowship with us. But God does not turn away or forget us. God remains always engaged, always hoping for a breakthrough. God may send or permit life experiences that may turn us back to God, and some of these may involve suffering. These too are designed to draw us to God, to soften our hearts, to open our eyes, to restore fellowship.

God’s love persists, no matter what.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on the persistence of God’s love in the Old Testament history of the Jewish people. Think about your own relationship with God – are you persisting with God right now? How about last year? What does it mean for you that God persists with you, even when you don’t persist with God?

Prayer for the Day

My God, I thank you for the persistence of your love for me. That even when I have lost sight of you, you do not lose sight of me. That you will try and try and try again to get through to me. Please don’t ever give up on me, no matter how hard I try to make you.

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