9-9. Expanding Our Horizons In Christ
When Nicodemus asked “How can a man be born [again]…?” (Jn. 3:4), he wasn’t being facetious. He was asking a genuine question, which we’ve all had in one form or another. Can a person really totally change? Aren’t the influences of our past life, our humanity, simply too great to break totally? Aren’t there human ties that bind, bind so closely that they can never be completely thrown off? “Truly truly I say unto you”, the Lord replied, ‘Yes’. There is a doctrine of a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), whereby we really can be made new people. This is a ladder to reach to the stars. We can overcome sin, bad habits and thought patterns. We may well think that we can’t; the way was set, the die cast, the destiny mapped out, the genes determined; our background, upbringing, life path was as it was, and so we are as we are. But we can be made new. Sin need no longer have dominion over us, as Paul says in Romans 6; or as early Genesis put it, “you shall rule over [sin]” (Gen. 4:7).
But most people fail to see beyond the very limited horizons of both their nature and their immediate life. Earth’s curvature means that we can’t see beyond horizons; but we can, if we wish, know what is there. Yet many can’t see beyond the 9-5 existence, the group at work, the family, their social circle; the very narrow limits of human possibilities, as they perceive them. I meet people who learn the Gospel well, but chose not to be baptized; or those who are baptized but never grasp the reality that they personally will be in God’s Kingdom, will live for ever. They can’t grasp the personal reality of it all. And God recognizes our problem. Of all the myriad ways He could have chosen to achieve human salvation, He chose the most public, dramatic, painful, costly way possible- the death of His only and beloved Son on a cross, 2000 years ago, on a day in April, on a Friday afternoon just outside Jerusalem. Why? To impress upon us as powerfully as possible that He is for real about saving us; that if we will believe it, we will be there in His eternal Kingdom. It’s for this same reason that the cosmos is so huge; that earth’s life forms are so many- when God’s plan was to give His Son to save only [some] humans, on this planet earth. The colossal scale is surely to demonstrate the awesomely intense focus of God’s love upon us.
Trading Our Talents
Most who read these words do believe the good news of God’s Kingdom; with albeit trembling hands we’ve signed up to it. And yet we’re still bound by our narrow vision, our short term horizons. We are made in the image of God; there’s a huge human potential in each one of us to do great things for God. Our pound really can gain five pounds (Lk. 19:18). We are each given talents to trade with, according to our individual ability (Mt. 25:15). We are each wonderfully unique, and have unique potentials set up by God in advance. There are good works for you and I to do, which were before ordained that we should do them (Eph. 2:10). Paul in 2 Cor. 10:14-16 seems to reason that each of us has been given a rule, a marked out area of operation; and he sought to focus upon his rather than work in the ‘area’ of another. Whilst Paul in the context is speaking of his desire to take Christ to geographical areas ‘beyond’ where anyone had yet preached Him, the basic principle surely applies to all areas of spiritual endeavour. Whilst we’re not to be merely parochial, the well hacked idea of ‘my corner of the vineyard’ has truth to it. Each of us has received his or her own grace, or gift- not to keep to ourselves, but in order to minister it to others (1 Pet. 4:10). To “be there” for someone, at a specific time and place. We are to “gain” more for the Lord on the basis of what He first gave us. The Greek word translated “gain” is elsewhere usually used about gaining men and women for Christ- a wife ‘gains’ her unbelieving husband (1 Pet. 3:1); Paul sought to ‘gain’ people for the Lord (1 Cor. 9:19-22); we ‘gain’ a lost brother by pastoral effort with him (Mt. 18:15). Be that going for a coffee with him, sending an email, trying to imagine his feelings and approaching him appropriately.
Significantly, the other usages of this word translated ‘gain’ are about the folly of gaining material wealth, even gaining the whole world. We can’t be successfully about the Lord’s business, of gaining folks for Him, if we are selling our soul to gain material things. That’s the point. We were “delivered” talents by God. It’s the same word used about how the Lord Jesus exhaled His last breath on the cross; how “that form of doctrine” was ‘delivered’ to us before baptism (Rom. 6:17; 1 Cor. 15:3; Jude 3). We can’t say we have no talents. Christ died for you, for me; He bowed His head towards each of us personally and gave us His last breath.
Seeing things like this, we should almost despise the worldly advantage and wealth acquisition which is the end of the horizon for most people. In Mt. 19:16 the disciples heard the Lord assuring His people that those who follow Him will “have eternal life”, enter the Kingdom, enter into life, etc. But having heard all that, Peter asked: “We have left all… what shall we have?” (Mt. 19:27). The irony of it all is tragic. They’d just been promised they would “have” eternal life. But that wasn’t enough. Their focus was very much on this life; what shall we have here and now? They couldn’t see very much beyond the present, past the curvature of their earth. Ruth’s unnamed relative could have been her redeemer; but when he realized he would have to marry her and have children, and split up his fields into more strips so as to give those children an inheritance along with that of his existing children- he pulled out. He wouldn’t ‘mar his inheritance’. He saw ahead to his death, to the next generation. His horizon was 20 years at most. But Boaz who didn’t think like this established his spiritual inheritance eternally, and is therefore mentioned in the Lord’s genealogy. Whilst the short sighted man passed off the page of history anonymously; his name wasn’t preserved.
So many of the parables build up to a final climax which is the essence of the point the Lord was trying to get across; and this ‘end stress’ is also seen in the talents parable. The warning is not to be like the man who didn’t have the vision to do anything with his talent, but buried it and returned it unused to the Lord. This perhaps is our greatest temptation in our postmodern age of passivity, of staring at computer screens and clicking a mouse. “Lo, there You have what is Yours” suggests an air of confidence in this man; he really didn’t get it, that he was asked to trade what he’d been given. There was a popular rabbinic story at the time of Jesus, preserved for us in the Sohar Chadash, fol. 47: “A certain king gave a deposit to three of his servants: the first kept it; the second lost it; the third spoiled one part of it, and gave the rest to another to keep. After some time, the king came and demanded the deposit. Him who had preserved it, the king praised, and made him governor of his house”. The Lord is purposefully alluding to this parable, and deconstructing it. Passivity, ‘holding on to the faith’ in a passive sense, is what may be glorified in human religion; but it’s exactly this attitude which will be the ground of condemnation.
Perhaps we have never thought of being generous to someone else [even if it’s a few pennies from our poverty]; of actively telling an acquaintance about the Gospel; of doing acts of kindness for someone ‘out of the blue’, thinking up something nice for them which will make them feel ‘Wow!’; doing mission work; reconcilliation with our enemies; seeing beyond our immediate emotions of hurt, pleasure, anger, passion. When we step out in faith and do these things, we start living a totally new kind of life. We find God setting us up with situations, working with and through us- and we feel it. We will see beyond the steely silence of the skies to know the reality of Angelic existence. One of my favourite Bible stories is that of Elisha and his frightened servant. Elisha asks God to open the man’s eyes so that he might see the Angelic armies surrounding them; Elisha [and I so love this] didn’t ask for his own eyes to be opened to see them; he was so certain they were there.
One of God’s greatest tragedies must be all the potential He has set up, which we don’t use- the plans He’s made possible, which are left unfulfilled because we don’t rise up to it. Ez. 40-48 describe a great temple which the returning exiles could have built; but they didn’t. Most didn’t even bother returning from Babylon; those who did traded with the Gentiles, married their women, and built their own houses rather than God’s. Zech. 6:15 says the same in the context of this temple being built: “And this shall come to pass, if you will diligently obey the voice of the Lord”. Israel could’ve had honey out of the rock; but they got only water (Ps. 81:16). They could have had peace and serenity when under attack- “but you would not”(Is. 28:12; 30:15). There may be people in your neighbourhood, in your life, who would come to the life eternal if you engaged them about the Gospel. There may be specific victories over personal failures which have been potentially enabled by God, in great detail. Reconcilliation with our separated brethren can be achieved; because potentially the enmity is slain, we are already reconciled in one body by the cross (Eph. 2:16). It’s for us to live this out in practice. We can move away from the tribal, jungle mentality that ‘my enemy’s friend is my enemy’- if we see and believe how God loves them too as His dear children. We justify our narrow horizons, our defeatist mentality, by implying that these things aren’t God’s will. But think of the man who came to the Lord with his sick child and asked: ‘If you can do anything… help us’. The Lord turned the terms of the request right around: ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him that believes’ (Mk. 9:22,23). It is us, and not the Lord, who have our finger on the button, our hand on the dial, to control [as it were] how much He does, the extent of His working.
Whilst in the final algorithm of Divine working “God requires not help from man”, we must still understand that what we do does make a difference. A huge and crucial difference. God has structured His working so that we are described as saving people, or stumbling them. If we don’t share the Gospel with people, they won’t hear it. This gives a huge importance to every minute we live on this earth, every resource we expend. We can do so much with it. And we can waste, fritter away, our time and lives all too easily.
‘Disciple’ is a big word for a toddler. And so the Toddler’s Bible which I read to Evija describes the call of the disciples like this: “Jesus asked His friends: ‘Would you like to help me?’. ‘Yes!’ they said, ‘We’ll help You!’. So they became His helpers. Do you want to be one of Jesus’ helpers, too?”. When Evija seems to nod in earnest agreement, I look into her eyes and tell her: ‘We’re very very little, just little people, aren’t we. But we can help Jesus; so let’s be Jesus’ helpers”.