This is the second part of the sermon by my husband Michael Thomas. If you haven’t read the first part go here.
As believers, as we do determine to follow after God, we soon find it isn’t, even now, an easy road. We have each other to deal with. When the world does us harm we consider it a privilege to suffer for and with the Lord. We remember Jesus saying, ‘No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.’ (Jn.15:20) But who hasn’t been hurt by church? damaged by God’s family? Just as Joseph, who was, himself, not without fault, became victim to his brothers’ jealousy, so we must come to terms with the fact that the people around us, even the people of God, may harm us when we expected them to help.
Like Joseph, we may find ourselves suddenly in a deep, dark place, confused by what has just happened, on a journey we never planned to take, sold out by those we trusted, in a prison, with a deep sense of injustice having been perpetrated by those we have faithfully served. We are on the road to Egypt, the road no one wants to take because it seems so full of peril, danger, and harm, so far, surely, from what we thought were God’s purposes. Canaan, the fulfilment of his promises, deliverance, life, abundance. Where is all that now?
The road to Canaan for the people of God may well lead us through the perils of Egypt, but what was intended for ill, God turns to the good. Paul reminds us, ‘All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.’ (Ro.8:28 KJV)
The road to Canaan may lead us through desert places, but do we trust him that his promises are sure, or are we even now glancing back at Egypt? Have we the faith and perseverance to continue to call on God, even as the world crowds in around us, even as family lets us down, even as we are called on to live day-by-day, not knowing what the future holds, but confident he holds the future? Do we have an eternal perspective? Can we say, with Paul, ‘Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’
Back to Babylon
Much more dangerous than the bad times are the good times. History teaches us that a Christian in an armchair, with a full larder, a soft bed, a familiar religion, and good neighbours, soon forgets his God. In those fruitful times, in those days when blessings rain down, do we, like Israel, quickly forget that ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.‘ (Js.1:17)
A people who forget their God soon find themselves back on the road to Babylon, to exile in Babylon. Here is the danger for the believer, the temptation to fall back in step with the world and its ways. Remember the times, the many times, when Israel thought to serve the God of Abraham with the religious practices of the pagan society around them? The high places, the sacred gardens, the Ashera poles, the desperate compromises.
There is a trap into which we are prone to stumble during the comfortable times, the confusion of decency with Christianity…Decency avoids hurting people’s feelings. It looks for compromise and reconciliation.
‘They are my neighbours,’ says decency, ‘good people, how can I criticise, how can I refuse their invitation to join in with them? These ways are good enough ways, what harm is there?’
But there are times when we may have to hurt people’s feelings, when compromise is wrong and reconciliation impossible. The road back, the road back, compromise is the road back to Babylon, to exile, but we too often find ourselves on that road.
Back to Canaan
Remember how Paul wrote about our being, ‘by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in our transgression…’ (Eph.:2:33-4) Like the father of the Prodigal, God is filled with mercy for the returned exile. Perhaps this is you today. Maybe you have come to realise that you are not, as you thought, living like royalty, but living like the common heard, eating swill and thinking it a banquet. Like the Prodigal’s father, God waits earnestly, at the head of the road, watching for your return.
The older brother in that story of the Prodigal threw his toys out of the pram, rather than take responsibility and rejoice with dad that his younger brother was back. Being a Christian comes with the responsibility to be gracious towards with the weaker brother, to be grateful for all the Father has given and promised us, to be patient as we await our inheritance, when Christ comes again. This is the cross Jesus challenges us to take up every day:
‘If anyone would come after me,’ he said, ‘he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose his very self?’ (Lk.9:23-25)
In another place Jesus said, ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (Jn.16:33)
Just in case anyone runs away with the idea this is all about the great bye-and-bye, we still have the road to Pentecost to walk. Pentecost, where the promises of God began to be realised among the saints. When the promised Spirit came down on the people of God and they went out and turned the world upside down. Paul describes the coming of the Holy Spirit as, ‘a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession-to the praise of his glory.’ (Eph.1:14)
This is the right and should be the experience of all who, having heard, come to him in faith, confess their sin, seek forgiveness and redemption, and are now included in that great body of people, the saints of God from every people, place, and time. ‘No more foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household…’ (Eph.2:19)
There is this idea, especially prevalent among former cult members, that your journey begins when you kneel at the foot of the cross. That there are, behind me, so many wasted years. But God was with Abraham in Babylon, already speaking to him.
God was with Jacob, even as he fled to Haran, standing atop a ladder, promising, ‘I am Jehovah, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.’ (Gen.28:13-14)
God was with Joseph, even as he was led away into servitude in Egypt. What his brothers meant for harm, God turned to good.
God was with Israel, hearing their cry. He was with Moses, even as he fled to Midian and wrestled to be free of his destiny as the leader of God’s people.
God was with his people, in the desert, in battle, in their troubles and travails long before they reached the promised land.
God was with them as they went into exile, speaking to them through prophets, warning them of false prophets, schooling them in how to live, even as they were far from Canaan.
There are no wasted years from his perspective, all are finally bent to his will, to serve his eternal purposes. The Lord has promised, ‘I will restore the years the locust as eaten.’ (Joel 2:25)
Even today, God is calling us out of the world, into his purposes. Will we, like Paul on the road to Damascus, need to be knocked off our horse, like Jacob, be wrestled to the ground, before we bend the knee and acknowledge he is Lord?
Will we, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, think seriously on these things, open even in our doubts, to the possibility we might yet meet with him along the journey?
Or will we, like Abraham, hear the call and answer with a simple act of obedience, trusting our lives, our eternity, to him?
However we come, our journey is not at its end. There is work to do, a cross to bear, a message of life to tell a dying world. We look forward to that time when he will appear and, as the Good Book promises, ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ (Rev.21:4)
Until that time, we are invited to gather at his table to remember his sacrifice, to know his presence with us even now, and to remember the great and glorious eternity he has won for us.
Ann Marie Thomas is the author of three medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Find out more at www.annmariethomas.me.uk