Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Mighty Voice of God

It has been a bit longer than usual between posts. Between researching my next post ‘Paul and the Law’, starting back at university for my final BA Semester, and family… life’s been busy. But I thought I would take the time to share something I learned/experienced in my devotional time a couple of weeks ago. I want to share it because my mind felt so overwhelmed by the breadth, depth, and significance of what I was reading in Scripture. This, in popular nomenclature, is referred to as ‘mind blown.’ Normally I like to properly get my head around things that I learn and discover, and feel restless and ‘anxious’ when I can’t. But this time I felt a sense of peace and contentment in the midst of ‘drowning in information’, and delight in the enormity of the love of God. My prayer is that as you consider these things, God will meet you in a special way too.

My time in scripture began with the reading of Deuteronomy 4 as part of a reading plan. In it, Moses was warning the people of the blessings and curses of obedience to God’s Law whilst living in the Promised Land. In particular, this warning in verses 25-27:
“…if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed. And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you.”
God’s warning was that if the people fell to idolatry, they would be exiled from the land as punishment. And, as history makes known, this indeed did happen. Despite constant warning, idolatry ran rampant in Israel and they were sent into exile first into Assyria, and then into Babylon. The next part of the reading plan took me to Isaiah 40 and this is where God showed me something I hadn’t quite seen before. The words of Isaiah 40 were written to those who were in exile, and were words of comfort saying that God would restore them and bring them back:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
    double for all her sins..

But the part that really struck me was verses 25-26:
To whom then will you compare me,
    that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
    who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
    calling them all by name,
by the greatness of his might,
    and because he is strong in power
    not one is missing.

Here I’d always just read that as ‘God has names for all the stars, and how awesome is it that He knows my name too’. But note that it says that God calls out the stars, each by name. I was thinking about the context of the passage and I realised ‘God is trying to say “I have the power and wisdom to be able to call out each and every star, from darkness to light, by name. If I can do that, then surely I have the ability to call each of you, from captivity to life, by name.” This means that God called each and every person who returned from Babylon by name, they responded, and they went into the inheritance God had for them.

Also notice the second part, ‘by His power, none are missing.’ I’m not sure what ancient Israel’s concept was of stars, or how aware they were of their size, but the fact there were so many meant they knew keeping track of every star was quite a feat, but not for Yahweh. And so, if God could ensure none of His stars were lost, He’d make sure none of His people would be lost. This would have no doubt have reminded them of the Lords promise to Abraham, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars.’ So, not only can they have confidence in the power of God, they can also have confidence in the faithfulness of God.

It reminds me of this scene in Blackhawk Down after one of the crashed helicopter pilots were captured. A helicopter with loudspeakers was flying over Mogadishu declaring over and over “Michael Durant, we won’t leave you behind. Michael Durant, we won’t leave you behind…” Yahweh was doing a similar thing through Isaiah in Babylon: “Children of Judah, I won’t leave you behind…” And true to his word, when Cyrus of the Persians came to power, the southern kingdom was free to return to Jerusalem.

What was true for Israel in this instance, is a type of what is true for humanity as well. Because of his holiness, God has effectively said through scripture, ‘if you want to live with me in the fullness of life, there is a certain way you must live. If you don’t, you won’t.’ In the Garden, Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they were expelled. Their sin, as all sin is, was idolatry: they exchanged the authority and supremacy of God for their own autonomy and the lies of the enemy of what eating it would offer: “But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen 3:4-6). This reflects Tim Keller’s definition of idolatry:
It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship (xvii-xviii).

The Garden was a place where they shared close intimacy with the presence of God and it became a sacred space. Being removed from the Garden removed them from being near to God. So because of sin, we are all in exile in the world, away from the Garden, away from the fullness of His presence. We have all exchanged the supremacy and authority of God for our own autonomy and earthly pleasures. But like He did with Israel, God calls us back to Him through Holy Spirit because of what Jesus did for us. He died for our idolatry. He took the punishment so that we can be forgiven and reconciled to God. And so now God calls all people to repentance. Just like in Babylon, not all will come out from there into God’s Kingdom, but nonetheless, He desires none to perish but all to come unto eternal life (2Pet 3:9).

In coming to faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, we become grafted into Israel and become citizens of His Kingdom, but we are still physically in exile in the world. And like Ezekiel, we can all experience the manifest presence of Yahweh in exile, the difference now being under the New Covenant is that we ourselves are now the Temple of God with Holy Spirit dwelling within us (and this opens up a whole other analogy for another post). But a time will come that God will call His people physically out of Babylon to Himself. The church in Thessalonica was aware of this and there was fear and anxiety about people missing it, asking questions like ‘Did we miss it?’ and ‘What about those who are dead?’ And this is why Paul wrote the words of what has become famously known as ‘the Rapture Passage’:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1Thess 4:14-18)

There’s two things to note here. One, Paul is saying that those who are in Christ, whether dead or alive, will not miss out. The second is the reference to ‘a cry of command’. What the command is, we are not told, but Jesus gives us a clue in John’s Gospel:
 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live… Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:25,28-29).
So, the cry of command will be like the one the crowd heard in John 11:43, “Lazarus, come out.”

The reason we need not fear if we are in Christ is that, as Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27). Jesus, on that last day will call you up to be with him. You will not miss it, dead or alive. Not merely because you’ll respond when you hear it, but the fact that you will hear it. This is how mighty and powerful the voice of the Lord is.His voice can penetrate through death and into the grave. 
We often hear, based on Elijah's experience, that 'the voice of God is a still soft voice.' But that was just one instance. John the Apostle said he heard a voice like rushing waters (Rev 1:15), and a trumpet (Rev 1:10). The people of Israel at Sinai (Ex 19:19), and the people in Jerusalem (Jn 12:29) said the voice of God sounded like thunder. I think we can conclude that God will use whatever voice the situation calls for, so if He needs to yell, he will. The implications of this are encouraging:
There is nowhere He can’t call you from.
I remember hearing stories from people in the 50s and 60s, being told that if they go to the movies and Jesus comes back He won’t get you. If Jesus can handle touching something as spiritually unclean as a leaper and a corpse, I'm sure some buttered pop-corn and coke won’t stop Him. If Jesus can enter a world containing things much worse than what you might see on a cinema screen, and live in in for 30 odd years, I’m sure He can handle going into a movie theatre for a couple of seconds. 
There is nothing He can’t rescue you from.
No matter how long or far you’ve run from Him, and no matter how deep a hole you’ve dug for yourself, it will never be too deep for him to pull you out of.
There is no one that He will miss out.
I’ve heard stories from the 70s and even up to today, about preachers warning people that if Christians aren’t ready, they’ll be left behind at the rapture because he will be coming like a thief in the night. But just like those words from Isaiah 40, He will call his saints out of the grave and the earth, one by one, each by name, and not one of them will be missing. I think about how I mix up my kids names, calling one the other and another by the first, or how easily I can lose track of where they are. I think about how my grandfather, mixing up my name with my uncles, has given me my second official name: ‘Gav-ah-ryan’, and the times I got lost in the shops as a child. Jesus won’t do that. He knows you by name, and he knows exactly where you are, always.

I feel that if I talk about it or try and explain it too much more, I’ll lose the purpose of this post. My purpose was to share with you a revelation about the might of the voice of God that just blew me away. Can I encourage you to spend some time meditating and reflecting on this? As God told Abram, go and look at the night sky and consider how many stars there are, thinking about how God knows then each by name. But don’t just go outside, too much light pollution, do a google-image search for Milky Way photos. Also, go and read Isaiah 40 and listen for God to speak into your situation right now where you might need comfort, or assurance for the future.

Keller, Timothy. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. Penguin: New York (2009).