In that most enigmatic of books, Till We Have Faces, CS Lewis has Psyche doing battle with the (pagan) gods. At one point, just when something pleasant is in the offing and a "fool-happy mood" is about to break in upon her melancholy, she resists fiercely; "The gods never send us this invitation to delight so readily or so strongly as when they are preparing some new agony. We are their bubbles; they blow us up big before they prick us." I am not at all sure that we are not inclined to think the one true God is not sometimes like that. There are times when life seems to promise so much, but then delivers so little. Our hopes that were so high are dashed so low.
It is so not only in the life of the nation where, perhaps, we almost expect it. But we also disappoint ourselves when we don't achieve our own aims and goals, when we don't live up to our own standards. And in our families as well - perhaps with our children or even our parents! Maybe a young person does not get the job or education or career they had always set their heart upon; or the young man or woman they had loved; or perhaps they did, but then children did not come as they seem to for everyone else - or so it seems at any rate.
For some life seems to go quite well and turn out well (as we say). For others it is not so - and we look at those for whom it turns out well and wonder, Why them? And why this for us? For we too have tried to serve the Lord - and it is never very far from our minds that we have tried harder to serve the Lord than they have. And if we have, then this what we so often see disappoints us most when we see it in the Church. New people come, perhaps from another Church, who have a lot of potential or gifts that could be so helpful to our Church in serving the Lord. But then they leave again, maybe for a very good reason, but it is disappointing all the same. Or perhaps there are new converts and we begin to think the Lord is blessing our work after all, but then the heat of the sun gets them or the cares of this life grow up like thorns and stifle their growth in Christ.
And when we read the Bible, our confusion may not be lessened. In fact, it may even be increased when we read the likes of Micah 4:1; "In the last days the mountain of the Lord's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream into it." For the NT tells us that Jesus brought in the last days, that "upon us the ends of the ages have come" and, that being so, we are now supposedly seated with Christ in heavenly places and so we reign with Christ.
Well, we know about service (although we grant with many failings), but we often don't feel much like a kingdom. As a matter of fact, it often seems as though the kingdoms of this world are still stronger than Christ's and apparently increasingly so. We are told that there have been more martyrs for Christ this century than in all the other nineteen combined. Yet this is the day when many nations are supposed to come and say;
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house
of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may
walk in his paths. The law will go out from Zion, the word of
the Lord from Jerusalem (the Church).... They will beat their
swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train
for war any more. Every man will sit under his own vine and under
his own fig-tree, and no-one will make them afraid.
It sounds glorious. But where is it? It just seems that God's promises don't always line up with reality in God's world. What is going on? Micah prophesied during the reigns of Jotham (a good king), Ahaz (a weakling) and Hezekiah (basically good). Jotham's father, Uzziah, although he sinned greatly near the end of his life, had presided over one of Judah's golden ages and Micah promises more to come. But it is a very mixed prophecy.
After prophesying these great things, he had then gone on to speak of the Lord's plan - and it seems to reflect just that same sort of thing I have already spoken about. It is very strange. He promises dominion and greatness to Israel. And yet there are hints of something not yet seen. He speaks about the assembling of exiles and those having been driven away being made a strong nation again. Micah then speaks of Zion, ie., Judah and Jerusalem, which was still quite strong, being in trouble; "Why, Judah, do you cry out as if you are going through birth pains?" (4:9) You have a king, don't you? And your wise counsellors are with you!
That is a very pregnant expression that - birth pains, travail. It connotes two things; intense pain and inevitability. The concept is used throughout Scripture, OT and NT. Why? The answer has to do with that reply that Jesus made to those two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection; "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?"
Just like us, those disciples were grappling with the question
why all these things go wrong, as it appears, in the world, in
our own lives, and in the Church. Things that seem so contrary
(even if only in their everyday ordinariness) to the great promises
of glory that God has made and that are supposed to be being fulfilled
in this present age.
The first thing we need to realise about them all is this:
1. God Is In Them Nevertheless
Indeed, more than that, God has done these things. "Was it not necessary for the Christ - God's Christ, God's annointed Saviour - to suffer these things and then enter into His glory?" And that applies in all of life, even as we confess in Lord's Day 10.
In January, 1901, Queen Victoria died. Her funeral was one of the last really great royal funerals; all the great of the world were there. On one occasion during his time in London, Kaiser Wilhelm II said to his nephew, the new King Edward, in the course of discussing a possible Anglo-German alliance, "Not a mouse could stir in Europe without our permission." Proverbs 21 tells us that "the king's heart is in the hand of the Lord; He directs it like a watercourse wherever He pleases." Thus we confess, on the contrary, that "All creatures are so completely in (God's) hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved."
So Micah too tells the people that not only the glory that is promised, but also the agony and the pain that are to bring the glory, are the work of the Lord. "(Go) writhe in agony, O Daughter of Zion, like a woman in labour, for now you must leave the city to camp in the open field. You will go to Babylon" (Micah 4:10). Therefore, "Listen! (In all this) the Lord is calling to the city; Heed the rod and the One who appointed it."
Sometimes we say things like: "the situation we find ourselves in" or, as I mentioned earlier, "life turns out." But that is a very loose way of speaking. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is speaking to people newly converted from paganism who were wondering, some of them whether they should marry or, some of them whether they should separate from their still unconverted husbands or wives; slaves whether they should try to free themselves from slavery and so on. Paul's answer is intriguing. He says, "Let each man remain in that calling in which he was called." In other words, so far as Paul was concerned, the social, marital and occupational status of these people, even as unbelievers, was a calling of God as much as being called by Christ to believe in the Gospel is a calling of God.
Paul's point is that where and what we are, even as unbelievers, is under the sovereign supervision of God who rules all things; in just the same way as a sparrow does not fall to the ground "without my Father in heaven," said Jesus. Not just without the Father knowing about it; simply, without Him. Somehow, without sin, God is involved in the fall of that sparrow. Cyrus, the Persian king who sent the Jews back from Babylon to Jerusalem at the end of the Exile is called by God, "My servant" (Isaiah 45). So also Assyria, which destroyed the northern kingdom, Israel (so far as it ever thought about it, by its own strength and on its own initiative), is called by God the "rod of my anger" and was, in fact, sent by God against Israel, God's people. Amos goes so far as to say, "Is there calamity in the city and the Lord has not done it?"
Why does God do this? Why was it necessary for Christ to
suffer? Why, apparently, is it necessary for the whole world to
suffer in this way? The answer to that question is that
2. It Is Because Of Sin
As Micah continued with his prophecy, he said, "You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing, because what you save I will give to the sword. You will plant but not harvest; you will press olives but not use the oil on yourselves, you will crush grapes but will not drink the wine" (Micah 6:14f.).
It sounds pretty familiar. It does not seem to matter, sometimes, how hard you save, something else in the house or the car breaks down and so you have a big bill getting it fixed or replaced. An orchardist might have a good crop one year, but the next year it is wiped out by hail. Why? The Lord says, "I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins" (6:13). And that applies to us as a nation, as a Church and as individuals today too.
Of course, it is always possible God may bring calamity on His people when they are, in a certain sense, innocent; when they have not forgotten His covenant (check out Psalm 44). He did that with Job - to prove to Satan that, throw at them what he may, he cannot move God's elect away from faith, for the Lord Himself knows them, their names are engraven upon His hands, and the Lord watches over their way while the way of the wicked will perish. But while that terrible devastation did not come upon Job for his own particular sin, God only had to make that point to Satan because there is sin in the world.
But where does that leave us? What is our sin that the historians and thinkers and 'prophets' of our age all, to a man almost, speak of a complete breakdown of western civilisation? God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever, Hebrews tells us. Perhaps then, 2,500 years removed though we be, in many ways quite a different culture though we have developed, nevertheless our particular sin may not be so different from that of Judah's when Micah wrote. "You have observed the statutes of Omri and all the practices of Ahab's house, and you have followed their traditions. Therefore, I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; you will bear the scorn of the nations" (6:16).
Eighteen months ago, as churches, we were exhorted to pray for our nation. We on the North Shore thought about that: how should we pray for New Zealand at this time? Especially considering the fact that we too, the Lord's people are part of this nation and have also played our part in bringing her to where she is today. When Daniel prayed for his nation near the end of the Exile, holy man that he was, he never set himself off from his people and said, "Lord, it was the others that sinned and brought this tragedy upon us. But I am simply one of the righteous who has been caught up innocently with the wicked." Instead, he confessed the sins of the nation as one of the nation. How often is it that we do just exactly as the world does; blame the politicians or someone else - anyone will do.
The moral and social decline we see in this country and in the whole western world is God's judgement upon us for our sin. And we, the Church, have played our part in that, even if only by default. As a culture, we have replaced God's law with the statutes of Omri and the practices of Ahab. We are explicitly, self-confessedly, and with pride, not a Christian country but a humanistic and pluralistic one. "Therefore, I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; and you will bear the scorn of the nations," saith the Lord.
That, then, is the explanation of our queries with which we began.
But our question still remains. Why does God do things this way?
Why has He made the world to work this way? The answer lies in
what I mentioned earlier, in the idea of suffering and birth pains,
travail. We find this idea right throughout the Bible. I said
it connotes two ideas: intense suffering and inevitability. But
a third should also come to mind just as readily; labour pains
produce great joy. So the answer to our question is this;
3. The World is Still in the Labour Ward
Jesus had to suffer before He could enter into His glory. Micah speaks similarly about Judah; "For now you must leave the city (even as Jesus had to suffer outside Jerusalem) to camp in the open field; you will go to Babylon; there you will be rescued. There the Lord will redeem you out of the hand of your enemies. But now many nations are gathered against you. They say, 'Let her be defiled, let our eyes gloat over Zion!' But they do not know the thoughts of the Lord; they do not understand his plan" (4:11f.).
The Lord is involved in all these sufferings through which we, the Church and the world in general go. The Lord is bringing these sufferings because of sin. We cannot always draw a direct line between a particular sin and particular suffering, but that is the general outline. It was because of sin, and it was part of the curse upon sin that "in pain and suffering, Eve, you will give birth to children and by the sweat of your brow, Adam, you will produce food". That is now the only way joy or glory may be had in a sinful world. That is the Lord's plan which the world does not understand but which we ought. So those disciples on the road to Emmaus say to Jesus (albeit unrecognised by them);
Jesus was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. He promised so much; He had such potential; indeed, He did so much good. But the chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death and they crucified Him. We had hoped that He was the one who was going to redeem Israel, but all our hopes for the end of our nation's agony were dashed to the ground.
But since then, three days later, some of our women amazed us
when they found His tomb empty and they reckoned some angels told
them He was alive. So some of our mates went to the tomb and found
it empty alright. But they didn't see Him. So we feel as though
we've been blown up big again only, like a bubble, to be pricked
How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that
the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer
these things and then enter into His glory?
What are these things that the prophets have spoken that we are so slow to grasp? Simply this principle of travail, birth pains; that the world is in the labour ward. The world says, "Let our eyes gloat over Zion, over the Church; let her be defiled." They are filled with glee as they trample in her temples, as unbelief and immorality are preached from her pulpits, as Christ is denied when He is worshipped alongside Islam's Allah, Hindu deities and Judaism's strictly theistic God* as was the case in an Auckland Anglican Church last year; when the Presbyterian Church can keep homosexuals out of its pulpits by only one vote at its last General Assembly; when some Reformed Churches around the world do little or no better.
But they do not know the thoughts of the Lord; they do not understand His plan. The Christian, however, should not be dismayed for he does know the Lord's plan. "For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself would be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:20).
Hosea had to do his great work as a prophet of the Lord by his wife becoming a prostitute. Paul had to do his great work with a thorn in the flesh that made him strong. Christ was only following the rule, God's plan; He had to suffer to go forward to glory. So how do we pray for our crumbling civilisation? It still has great streaks of Christianity running through it. Well, some of the child is always in the mother. Could it be even that we are simply like a mother giving birth to a child who will one day became great; greater than our civilisation has ever been? Other great civilisations have come and served God's purpose and gone. Do we really believe that the continual coming of God's kingdom is somehow inextricably bound up with Western European culture?
"Lord," said Peter, "now that you have risen again, are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" "No Peter," we may interpret Jesus' reply, "Israel is to be laid aside for I have planned far greater things. Don't be so small-minded Peter."
So Graeco-Roman culture, in which Christianity was cradled, had to go. So the great Roman empire had to go. And so, later, the Holy Roman Empire had to go. Is it possible that Christ, on David's throne now in heaven, has vistas for His kingdom that go far beyond ________
What Christian, a true son of Abraham, does not love the Jews? But the truth of 1 John 2:22f. stands; "Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father." See also Jesus' (a Jew Himself, like John) words in John 8:44. our horizons? Would we limit the work of God in the world for love
of our poor, little western world? It is not necessary to feel particularly brave about it. I don't. To think of the barbarian hordes pouring through Rome 1600 years ago with torch, murder and rapine; or the Russian troops through east Berlin fifty years ago; or what we have seen the Croats do to the Serbs fifty years ago and the Serbs in kind to the Croats not five years ago - it all makes one shudder. That it could happen to me or mine fills me with dread.
God said to Israel in Isaiah 49:6, "It is too small a thing for you to be My servant to raise up the tribes of Israel only; I will make you a light to the nations." But to do that, Israel, as a nation, had to go; she had to die. So Israel saw the horrors of the Babylonian Exile and the desolations of 70AD and 130AD. Could it be possible that God might say something similar in His heart about the Church today? Is that what Paul spoke about in Romans 11:25? "I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery (God's plan; His way of working in a sinful world), so that you may not be conceited; Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in."
Could it now be our turn to be used for great and noble things? I would never seek martyrdom; I do not have the courage. I abhor pain with all my being; I am a coward. But Paul tells us that it has been given us not only to be saved but to share in Christ's sufferings. Shall we dare receive Christ's blood-bought salvation and not be willing to suffer alongside Him? To go into labour with Him redeeming the world?
Peter tells us "we have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example to follow in His steps and when we patiently endure it, it finds favour with God." Do we not want to find favour with God? This is what Paul gloried in. "Yes Eve," says God, "in pain and in sorrow" - but to give birth to new life! "Discipline for now seems painful, but it yeilds the peacable fruit of righteousness."
It is not pleasant, of course. It was not for Judah either. "Writhe in agony, O Daughter of Zion, like a woman in labour, for now you must leave the city and camp in the open field; you will go to Babylon but there you will be rescued; there the Lord will redeem you." Old Israel had to be planted in the ground and die so that a renewed Israel could sprout forth. That was God's plan. That is how God works in a sinful world. "He has bound all men over to disobedience so He may have mercy on all." So Paul was weak that he might be strong. Creation has been subjected to frustration, but in hope. We are to go out weeping, but only that we might return rejoicing, carrying many sheaves (Psalm 126). In the end "we will break to pieces many nations; we will devote their ill-gotten gains to the Lord, their wealth to the Lord of all the earth" (Mic.4:13).
That is the Lord's plan, the Lord's modus operandi; we are in labour - as a culture, as a nation, as the Church. And perhaps in our personal lives also, we find ourselves, at least in our minds, almost writhing in agony. We have to remember, because of sin in the world, creation has been subjected to frustration, but in hope, a sure expectation, that it will be liberated from its bondage and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God, the glorious freedom that is every believer's. For in just the same way, "Christ had to suffer, but to enter into His glory!" "For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross and scorned its shame." The disciple is not above his Master. Christ left precisely that example that we should follow in His steps. And in a certain sense, the disciple is not below His Master either. So Paul could say, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."
Maybe we are now in the labour ward but that means there is a
beautiful baby coming! - "praise and glory and honour at
the revelation of Jesus Christ" when the new heavens and
the new earth shall have been delivered out of the womb of this
old one. As with Christ the first-fruits, so with the whole new
creation; "it has to suffer to enter into its glory."
* Before someone leaps emotively to the cry "Anti-semitism"
let me remind them of my excellent Judaeophilic pedigree. I
was brought up a dispensationalist and I love them not one
whit less today.
John Rogers (North Shore)
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / email@example.com / revised April 1998 / Copyright 1998