2-18 The 'Wow!' Factor

David spoke for every one of us when he considered the sky, the work of God’s fingers, and wondered ”What is man, that You are mindful of him, and the son of man, that You visit him?”.  We each need to take a few minutes out of our busy lives and meditate upon what eternity means. To just close our eyes and think of how the Kingdom will go on and on, and on, and on... until the mind trips, and we’re left with that sensation of ‘Surely there must be an end... another phase... but no... still on and on...yes really, for ever’. In words I have no chance to simulate this feeling... you have to do it for yourself. I think sometimes of a line that just keeps going on... of wooshing through stars eternally...

And then you come back to daily reality, and inevitably wonder: ‘Who am I, that God should pick me up and give me such a wonderful future’? Who am I, a European guy who wears glasses, born in a London hospital, living off Dzirciema Prospekt in Riga, sitting in my apartment, watching the snow fall... to live for ever? And moreover, to be given such a gift? To give me say 10,000 years of nice living in return for 70 years of mostly reasonable behaviour [by human standards] would be very generous; but eternal life is something of a different order of grace. The extent of the free gift is quite out of proportion to anything we may have done. Here we are up against pure grace. And we have to feel ‘Wow!’. But the feeling of ‘wow’ can’t remain just a passing feeling of a moment; it has to find issue in our lives. It means that we in our turn will be forgiving and acceptant of others; all the petty arguments [theological and otherwise] over which people waste the thinking and mindsets of a lifetime become so irrelevant. If God is going about doing this huge grace for me, then I will jump at the chance to be generous, forgiving etc. to others. And we too will seek to do ‘Wow!’ things for others. God's generosity is a pattern to us. Thus the words "He has dispersed abroad; he has given to the poor" are used in 2 Cor. 9:9 about God; and in Ps. 112:9 about the generosity of the believer. As our wedding anniversary approached one year, I asked a mature brother what he suggested I did for Cindy. His advice was ‘Do something which will make her gasp ‘Wow!’’. And just as God’s grace has made us gasp ‘Wow!’, we need to think how we can make others utter the same gasp at the grace we show them. It could be redecorating an old sister’s apartment; fixing up something for her; writing a letter sympathizing with someone over something apparently trivial which we noticed in their lives. But just as God must’ve ‘thought out’ His wonderful plan of lavishing grace upon us [for ‘the word’ existed first and then ‘became flesh’], we too will need to take time to think out our plans for showing grace and the ‘Wow!’ factor to others. Eph. 2:5-8 speaks of God working with us now, so that He can lavish His grace upon us for eternity. This is what He is all about. And it’s what we should be all about; taking a Divine joy in forgiving, being generous, caring, showing grace.

God’s delight in doing this is reflected in the way that He choses to work through the weak things of this world, to back the losers, to chose the younger and not the firstborn; indeed He appears to take a special joy in using the things, methods and people which are poor, despised and humanly weak- 1 Cor. 1 and 2 are all about this feature of God’s working. He chose Israel, a tiny and spiritually weak nation, to be His ambassadors to the world- He comments in Ez. 15 that Israel is a vine tree, weak and spindly, useless for serious load bearing, just fuel for the fire of condemnation (Ez. 15:6). And yet... God delights to use them. Ps. 113:6,7 speaks of how the God who humbles Himself to behold the things in Heaven and earth, is the same God who "raises up the poor out of the dust". His grace at a cosmic level is reflected in the way that on earth He choses to work with the poor rather than the mighty. As we reflect on the ‘Wow!’ factor in God’s calling of us, we need to learn this deeply- that we are the nobodies whom God has called and chosen. We find here a great levelling. The wife of the peasant farmer in a poor country is lifted up to realize that she is something, she is a future [and even present] ruler in God’s Kingdom, the specially loved daughter of God Almighty... and the wealthy, healthy [for the moment], succesful, handsome, winsom Western professional realizes what all in those positions must realize in their hearts at times: that they are nothing, nothing at all, but for God’s grace; just a lost little weeping boy, whose loving Father God has found him and will make him truly great in the future Kingdom, when all earth’s empires are swept away.

Those who truly suffer, who experience real poverty (in spirit or materially), simply yearn for the end. And that end is, for the Christian, the coming of Christ and establishment of His Kingdom. As the early church became wealthier and less persecuted, so their focus on the second coming dwindled. And if our 'Wow!' sensations come merely from the things of this world, the good news of the coming Kingdom will likewise have little real meaning for us. But it’s not only the eternity of the Kingdom which is so awesome; but the quality of that life. I don’t suppose we’ll be marking time, smugly grinning as the millions of years tick by. It will be the non-stop spirituality, relationship with the Father and Son and each other, service, glorification of Him... that will be the essence of existence. Indeed, the life eternal which is promised by the Lord Jesus refers far more to the quality and nature of that life than the fact it won’t end. It is in this sense that He can give us the eternal life now, in that we can live the essence of the Kingdom life today. Here again, ‘our hearts and minds with all their powers, are in the boundless prospect lost’. When one considers the sheer distance between ‘Heaven’ and earth, the billions of light years between earth and the furthest known galaxies... who am I, that I ‘down here’ should break God’s heart ‘up there’, thrill Him by my small obediences, worry Him by my desperate cries for help? Can it... be really so?

Yes it can. And yes it is so. That’s the wonder of it all. But the more we appreciate it, the more we tread in this relationship with God with reverence and awe. It's not surprising that we should wonder whether really God is only gracious and fear that His 'harder side' may somehow come into action against us at the last day; for the Bible records His anger with both sin and sinners. I see throughout Scripture a tension between God's grace and His rightful judgment of sin; and that tension is painful and consumes even His huge energy. Yet in the end, mercy rejoices against judgment, both within God and in His actions on earth which reflect His mind. We see something of the struggle when He cries out in Hosea "How shall I give you up, Ephraim...?"; as if to say 'OK, how can I really bring upon you the judgments I promised?'. We see the same struggle after the flood. God promises: "Never again". And He set His bow in the cloud. It's been observed that rainbows are in the form of an undrawn bow, as if God is a victor in some conflict. What conflict? I don't feel it is in any conflict with humanity, that He as it were beat us in fair fight. That seems a thoroughly inappropriate interpretation. Perhaps rather it is an indication of the victory of His grace over His judgment? So awesome is all this that we should resolve, firmly resolve, at least one thing: never, ever, to presume upon this wonderful grace that is the result of a struggle within the mind of Almighty God Himself.

In the early days of God seeking out people on whom to lavish His grace, God worked through the tabernacle system:

The layout of the tabernacle was intended to reflect the court and throne room of a Middle Eastern king; the various items leading towards the throne room would’ve been understood by the Israelites as what had to be passed through to come into the presence of their God. The progression of the priest towards God, moving from right to left on the diagram, is a picture of our path towards the God who is trillions of light years away from us, physically and spiritually. The first requirement was to make an offering. There can be no approach to God without an initial acceptance that we are in this to give, to sacrifice what we perceive as ours. That of course stands quite opposite to the idea that we become Christians, or join the Christadelphians, for some kind of personal benefit. Only after that realization of sacrifice, there was the washing in the laver which pointed forward to baptism and cleansing in Christ (Heb. 10:21; Eph. 5:25,26). After that there was the Holy Place, with the table of shewbread and candlestick speaking of ecclesial life and the breaking of bread. Note that ecclesial life is a necessary step in our path towards God. There can be no such thing as a truly ‘out of church Christian’. For all our frustrations with the community of believers, we can’t go it alone; the whole idea of relationship with God is that it occurs within the context of a community. This also highlights the danger of excluding our brethren from ecclesial life; we’re excluding them from part of their path to God by doing so. But beyond the shewbread and the candlestick there was the altar of incense, speaking of prayer (Rev. 5:8). It’s interesting that this was placed after the symbols of ecclesial life [bread and candlestick]; personal prayer to God is actually a place beyond ecclesial life. God forbid that we should think that mere attendance at an ecclesia is what relationship with God is all about. The essence of it is in deep personal prayer.

The smell of the incense passed through the veil, and into the Most Holy Place, where the presence of God Himself was symbolized as being over the blood-stained cover of the ark. The simple wonder of it all is that the words of our prayers really can penetrate to Heaven itself. And in Christ, the veil itself has been done away, and we can with boldness enter into that Most Holy Place and personally have direct fellowship with God (Heb. 9:7-13; 10:19). Our heart can touch the heart of God. It's a priceless wonder to know and experience this. God saw Israel's depressed minds in Egypt and was moved to 'come down' to them in response (Ex. 3:7- the word translated "affliction" is rendered by Strong as 'depression'). And negatively, the evil heart of mankind troubled the heart of God (Gen. 6:5,6). This "heart to heart" between God and man is amazing. As Joseph's heart was 'warm' for his younger brother Benjamin, so the same word is used about how the heart of God is 'warm' in yearning for His ungrateful people (Gen. 43:30 cp. Hos. 11:8). Kneel down and pray; pray long and / or hard enough till you 'get the feeling' of heart to heart contact with God Almighty.

But how can this be... that I, sitting here on earth, with all the limitations of my understanding, hedged in by humanity, can have this fellowship with God Almighty? It’s here that we come to the endless significance of the fact that the Son of God was of our very nature. He opened the way into the Most Holy in that He Himself passed through the vail of having human flesh, as Hebrews explains at length. Throughout the Gospels, it’s apparent that both explicitly and implicitly, the Lord was almost desperate to persuade His followers to see Him as their brother, one to whom they could realistically aspire- and not a superhuman icon to be trusted in to get them out of temporal problems. His preference for the title ‘Son of man’ rather than any more direct reference to His Divine Sonship is an example- although to the Old Testament mind, “son of man” was a title which upon closer reflection associated Him with the glorious Son of man of Daniel’s visions. The Lord’s struggle was prefigured in the way Joseph-Jesus had to urge his brothers “Come near to me, I pray you”, and begged them to believe in His grace and acceptance of them (Gen. 45:4; 50:18-21).  We experience the “Wow!” factor once again when we begin to grasp what the Lord Jesus actually achieved for us; that One who had the same plasma and skin and blood and temptations and irritations as we do, could actually be perfectly God-like 24 / 7.

Beyond “Wow!”

Take the incident of the withered fig tree in Mark 11:20-24 as an example of where Jesus didn’t want us to perceive Him as too different from us. The disciples are amazed at the faith of Jesus in God’s power. He had commanded the fig tree to be withered- but this had required Him to pray to God to make this happen. As the disciples looked at Him, wide eyed with amazement at His faith, very much into the “Wow!” experience, the Lord immediately urged them to “have faith in God... whosoever [and this was surely His emphasis] shall [ask a mountain to move in faith, it will happen]... therefore I say unto you, Whatsoever things you desire [just as Jesus had desired the withering of the fig tree], when you pray [as Jesus had done about the fig tree], believe that you receive them, and you shall have them”. I suggest His emphasis was upon the word you. He so desired them to see His pattern of faith in prayer as a realistic image for them to copy. How sad He must be at the way He has been turned into an other-worldly figure, some wonderful, kindly God who saves us from the weakness and lack of faith which we are so full of. Yes, He is our Saviour, and the “Wow!” factor leads us to have a burning and undying sense of gratitude to Him. But He isn’t only that; He is an inspiration. It is in this sense that the spirit of Christ can and does so radically transform human life in practice. Of course, we have sinned, and we continue to do so. For whatever reason, we are not Jesus. But our painful awareness of this [and it ought to be painful, not merely a theoretical acceptance that we are sinners]... shouldn’t lead us to think that His example isn’t a realistic pattern for us. It makes a good exercise to re-read the Gospels looking out for other cases of where the Lord urged the disciples to not look at Him as somehow separate from themselves, an automatic Saviour from sin and problems. Thus when it was apparent that the huge, hungry crowd needed feeding, the Lord asked the disciples where “we” could get food from to feed them (Jn. 6:5). In all the accounts of the miraculous feedings, we see the disciples assuming that Jesus would solve the situation- and they appear even irritated and offended when He implies that this is our joint problem, and they must tackle this seemingly impossible task with their faith. The mentality of the disciples at that time is that of so many Trinitarians- who assume that ‘Jesus is the answer’ in such a form that they are exempt from seeing His humanity as a challenge for them to live likewise.

Repeatedly, the Lord Jesus carefully worded His teaching in order to use the same words about Himself as about His disciples. He was the lamb of God; and He sent them forth as lambs amongst wolves; He was “the light of the world”, and He stated that they too must be likewise. As He was the source of living water to us, so we are to be to others (Jn. 4:10,14). John grasped this, by using even some of the language of the virgin birth about the birth of all God’s children. It’s as if even the Lord’s Divine begettal shouldn’t be seen as too huge a barrier between us and Himself. The wonder of the virgin birth is something which elicits the “Wow!” mentality; but the miracle continues into our lives. Many of the Lord’s parables had some oblique reference to Himself. The parable of the sower speaks of the type of ground which gave one hundred fold yield- and surely the Lord was thinking of Himself in this. And yet the whole point of the parable is that all who receive the Lord’s word have the possibility of responding in this way. Or take the related parable of the mustard seed [=God’s word of the Gospel] which grows up into a huge tree under which all the birds can find refuge (Mk. 4:31,32). This image is replete with allusion to Old Testament pictures of God’s future Kingdom, and the growth of Messiah from a small twig into a great tree (Ez. 17:22). Here we see the power of the basic Gospel message- truly responded to, it can enable us to have a share in the very heights to which the Lord Jesus is exalted.

I suppose most challenging of all is the Lord’s invitation to us to take up our cross and follow after Him, in His ‘last walk’ to the place of crucifixion. This image would’ve been chilling to those who first heard it, who were familiar with a criminal’s walk to his death. Quite rightly, we associate the cross of Jesus with our salvation. But it is also a demand to us to be like Him, not only in showing the courtesy, politeness, thoughtfulness etc. which is part of a truly Christ-like / Christian culture, but in the utterly radical call to self-sacrifice unto death. It is in this matter of bearing the cross after Him that we would so dearly wish for the crucified Christ to be just an item in history, an act which saved us which is now over, an icon we hang around our neck or mount prominently on our study wall- and no more. But He, His cross, His ‘last walk’, His request that we pick up a cross and walk behind Him, the eerie continuous tenses used in New Testament references to the crucifixion- is so much more than that.  If He washed our feet, we must wash each others’ (Jn. 13:14). Everything He did, all He showed Himself to be in character, disposition and attitude, becomes an imperative for us to do and be likewise. And it is on this basis that He can so positively represent us to the Father: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (Jn. 17:16).

So our sense of ‘Wow!’ can never excuse us from the life of active commitment to this wonderful Father and Son. Indeed, it is to be the very basis for it. And yet the ultimate ‘Wow!’ is in God’s grace in promising to save us; and in having saved us in Christ now. This God who seeks to lavish His grace upon us is understandably a God who takes no pleasure in condemning people. Our sense of ‘Wow!’ battles with and is at times crushed by our sense of sin and failure and God’s inevitable displeasure. But His grace, His desire to save, His mercy, is ultimately greater than His severity and need to judge sin. The whole Bible carries this message. His sensitivity to all His creatures is evident. Finally, just put together two Bible passages: Cain felt that his condemnation was greater than he could bear, and so God put a mark upon him so he wouldn’t be slain (Gen. 4:13,15). Now 1 Cor. 10:13: God will not allow us to be tested more than we can bear, but will make a way of escape so we can bear it. I take this as meaning that if God is even sensitive to the feelings of a condemned man like Cain, rather like putting an animal to sleep in a humane way... then we who are saved in Christ can take comfort that even in this life, we will not be asked to bear the unbearable, and yet we have the prospect of eternity in front of us when this life is through. And in a very quiet, sober way, we have to respond with gratitude: ‘Wow’.

'Wow' of course strikes us as a quite inappropriate word to use for these wonderful things. But any word is insufficient; language is no longer useful to express these things. "What shall we then say to these things?"- i.e. 'what form of words, of 'saying', is adequate response to them?' (Rom. 8:31; Paul uses that phrase seven times in Romans, so beyond words did he find the atonement wrought in Christ). Words aren't symbols sufficient for our experience of God's grace and love; all commentary is bathos, like trying to explain a symphony in words; we experience a collapse of language. What remains, I suppose, is to live, to exist, in the sober knowledge of this grace, to never lose sight of them in our hearts; and all the rest, the rest of life and living and all the decisions and responses we are supposed to make, will somehow come naturally.