Our need of God — really?
As the pubs re-open and people once again enjoy the drinks they now order remotely and have brought to them, I can guarantee one topic of conversation will NOT be how much we need God.
Some drinkers might be open to that as a possibility. It’s an interesting philosophical question… but not one we feel the need to express or talk about.
Ever since the beginnings (Genesis 3), man has been discovering his free will, and also exercising independence from God. The first is good — God created us in His image to relate to, not to keep as pets or robots — but the second is not. We were created for intimacy and fellowship with God, but where free will has veered off into independence from God, we have a fair definition of the very basis of all sin.
Why we fall away, and revival gets us back
Over the centuries there have been cycles: moving away from God, not needing Him, and then moving back to Him because we find we do need Him. Every few hundred years God has raised up a Joel or an Isaiah or a Jeremiah to call people back to Him. Such urgency is not always received well.
It seems, from an establishment point of view, like undermining its governmental authority — and Jeremiah experiences yet another beating and the agonising cramp of the stocks, ordered by Pashhur, the priest who ruled the temple. (Jeremiah 20:1–6) Much later in Georgian Britain, John Wesley was reprimanded by Bristol’s Bishop Butler who told him: “Enthusiasm [meaning spiritual passion] is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing indeed.”
Let’s not dwell on whether the lesson to be drawn from that unfortunate speech is still ongoing. God is always in the business of drawing people back to Him, using us as those who hear His word, who repeat His word — at some personal cost, sometimes — and who make His word our prayer, knowing that what God is saying is a powerful source of change. This word doesn’t just echo and fade, but resonates as we pick up the call and return it to heaven, multiplied by the addition of thousands of voices.
The seed and the soils
Jesus taught this same principle in one of His best-known parables, painting a picture about the seed of His word finding different kinds of soils. It’s the one about the about the seed of His word finding four different kinds of soil. (Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23)
The hard path offers no cover for germination, and the stony section, only a rootless and quickly fading growth. The clump of weeds is already full of growth of the wrong sort, not producing any fruit and leaving no room for the word to grow. This is about what Paul will later call the flesh nature, hearts which are hard and resistant, or shallow and unengaged, or so preoccupied with the person’s own ambitions and agenda, there just isn’t space for God to sow anything new. (Romans 8:5–8)
There is another kind of soil, prepared soil with some depth and structure, where the word of truth germinates and grows. The open, willing disciples that Jesus seeks are like that receptive soil, bringing growth upon growth, and as it is shared among others, the multiplication is far beyond what a regular crop could yield.
Jesus is looking for those who want Him, and who want the word that He brings, more than they want their own preferred and independent way.
Our motivation — opinionated flesh or teachable spirit?
The early church was familiar with this teaching. The Old Testament was their go-to Scripture and Jesus’s teaching was being repeated by the apostles who had heard it at first hand. Former tax collector Matthew wrote his gospel account quite early on and it was beginning to circulate. And Paul, who became an apostolic envoy by a different encounter with the Lord, reinforced this teaching about how we receive and multiply the word, with reference to the change the Holy Spirit works in us.
The human will is either powerfully obstinate, or powerfully collaborative, when God sets out a direction. We can be slaves to our strong opinions and preferences, not free to hear and respond. Who wants to change? But that’s the point, are we governed by what we want, or does what God wants govern what we want? The person truly belonging to Jesus will be enlivened by His Spirit and the result is the hardness of our human spirit, or heart, is softened to be able to go with God’s need of the moment. How do we hear the word which God is bringing? As a threat to what we think, or as the good news we want to hear and act on?
His word to us now
For a good couple of years now people have been hearing the word about God doing a new thing — we are to let go of our love for our tradition and allow Him to show us what He Jesus doing now. Isaiah 43:16–21
Then Covid hit, and all gatherings for worship had to stop. There was a mighty re-think and those responsible for weekly services responded in one of two ways.
One way was “We must keep our routine going (my identity and the church finances depend on it)”.
The other way was the complete opposite: “The one thing we cannot do, is to try and pretend it is the same — we must be creative, use the tools we have been given, reach more people and learn to meet and worship differently (I need to change)”.
That’s an ongoing challenge. The flesh part of us will always want to go back to how it was before, but the leading of the Holy Spirit seems to be that things will not be the same, nor should they be. God wants His church to be about Him, not about what we do, or watch, or even the preaching skills we may want to parade. The enforced break has been a big nudge to re-imagine, to think about those outside the walls, and whether expecting them to be stepping inside an unfamiliar building to observe unfamiliar rituals is the real thing — or logging on to a live stream that is vibrant and creative and varied is a better way for them to connect with God. And us as well…
We DO need God. A pandemic without a cure is a frightening reminder of that. Needing God IS the real news, the pressing conversation of the moment — in pub gardens and everywhere else. Let’s not bury what He is saying under our desire not to lose something we consider precious — but which may be already lost.
See also on this theme: The kingdom of God is not the church… by Skye Jethani in ‘With God Daily’, July 9
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