Faith Is The Key
There’s a business called ‘Pets At Rest’ which makes memorial stones with inscriptions for pets. Here are some examples. For a Westie called Gypsy the wording is ‘My greatest and most loyal friend’. For Duke, 2001 - 2014 ‘If love could have saved you, you would have lived for ever’. And for a spaniel called Mindy Moo ‘ The angels took you back. You were here for a short time but will stay in our hearts for ever. Rest peacefully, sleeping angel’. That begs the question ‘Do animals survive?’. Is there a heaven for dogs? Does it have trees? Do they just sleep all day? Are there no cats? Is it the same heaven for other animals? These are not such daft questions. Isaiah after all had a vision of animals living together in peace in a state beyond the food chain. 'The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them'.
It may be that on the top of your coffin the words ‘At Rest’ will be placed as the standard default adornment. What does it mean? From what we know of Jesus’ resurrection, he is not resting. He is very active. He met Saul. He spoke through John to the Seven Churches of Asia. He was growing his Church throughout the Roman world. People very often use the world ‘He is at peace now’, ‘She is at rest now’ to describe a recently deceased loved one. That makes sense if there has been a long illness or if the last days have been a struggle. But Paul thought that we are to be immediately transformed when we leave this life and it is not to go to sleep again.
Hebrews chapter 4 deals with the issue of entering or remaining outside God’s rest. This means living within the peace and provision of God. Rest is not sleep. It is a state of grace. Some of you know this. You do live in peace in your hearts and in your life and circumstances. You are subjects of grace. You have received and held on to God’s promises. Verse 2 gives a straightforward explanation as to why some people are Christians and others are not. 'For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith'. People can hear the Gospel but they just mentally put it aside. The key is at that point of hearing, to respond positively in faith. To take it on board and make it part of a different way of life. To act upon it as a commitment and not just leave it as an interesting idea or indeed as an irrelevance. Even just to try it to see if it works. Jesus Himself talked like that. He commended people who responded positively to him. Not everyone did. But within us there is a power of gravity that drags us down, a deadness, a resistance. Paul called it ‘a body of spiritual death’ that holds us back from making that step of faith that will transform our lives into Christian lives. You know many people like that. So do I.
God’s rest is God’s peace and promises and providence. It is granted in the lives of those who trust in the Lord in every day and for the whole of life’s journey and beyond. It is the peace we share after taking Holy Communion. That’s not peace just for a moment but our sharing in God’s eternal peace here and now. Jesus said this before he left his disciples. 'I am leaving you with a gift - peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give'. Jesus was able to speak this way even although his own life was fraught with struggle, suffering and early death. Most of us have our lesser or greater traumas to negotiate. It is the things that happen unexpectedly that are the most difficult to cope with, like a sudden illness diagnosis, or an unwelcome event in a family member’s life, or the loss of a job, even an unforeseen marriage break-up.
In the little Our Daily Bread at the end of the May notes, there is a story which is quite moving. It is told by someone called Carol Kent. She and her husband Gene were committed Christians prominent and respected in their local church and community. She writes 'I squinted at the alarm clock as Gene reached for the phone. It was 12 35 am. Who could be calling at this hour? Gene put the receiver back and choked out the words. “Jason has been arrested for the murder of his wife’s first husband. He’s in jail”. The next hours were a blur of tears, panic, fear and erratic activity. Two parents in the grip of a nightmare. Our son was a disciplined and compassionate young man who had dedicated himself to serving his God and his country through military service. But without warning our dreams for Jason came crashing down in a thousand pieces. There were multiple allegations of abuse made against the biological father of our son’s stepdaughters. Also it appeared he was about to receive unsupervised visitation. Feeling powerless to protect them, he began to unravel until he did the unthinkable. How we grieved for the family of the deceased! While we were planning a murder trial, they were planning a funeral'.
Jason was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. His Mum and Dad had to decide between withdrawing and curling up and dying socially and spiritually and seeking to make the best of their circumstances. Jason however used his imprisonment to witness to others for Jesus Christ. A woman member of their church said to Carol, 'I used to think you were perfect, but now I think we could be friends'. Carol went on to found an organisation called 'Speak Up For Hope' and to write a book called 'Waiting together: Hope and healing for families of Prisoners'. The story ends with Carol quoting Romans 5:5 'This hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love'.
Next to the actual loss of a child, this must have been a most painful and heartbreaking thing to have happened to devout Christian people. But we know today that many decent people are seeing their children’s lives made into wreckage, especially through drug misuse and criminality. What that story tells us is that our Christian faith enables us to cope with, survive and overcome the most grievous of events and circumstances. Jesus’ victory is so great that it enables us to be victorious over our times and trials. We can find his peace and his providence. He can turn adversity into triumph. We can find and know and experience God’s rest in our souls.
The writer of Hebrews warns new Christians thus: 'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts'. He suggests that a sinful unbelieving heart turns a person away from God. He says that sin’s deceitfulness hardens us again to God – we become inured to wickedness and our sense of God is dulled and dies within us. That surely is the story of our times in this land. Our politicians offer us no sense of God. What is politically acceptable conduct is not what we know brings us close to God. There was a very good letter from John Munro of Glasgow in The Scotsman on Wednesday about children’s education. The Scottish Government is keen to close the attainment gap. John Munro wrote, 'Children of similar age...have diverse abilities and interests and learn at different rates….Most young adults now read little….We are to have a world class education...Will we also have “world class” parenting, health and housing? Without huge improvements in these areas there will be little change in education'. Our state schools have little or no Christian ethos now. It is hard to see how it could ever be re-introduced. Can unbelieving head teachers and unbelieving teachers show forth Christianity? No. Do unbelieving parents want any Christianity in schools nowadays. Some do, some don’t. The don’ts win. In spiritual terms this is all rebellion against God, even if not everyone is consciously doing so.
Have you noticed how hard and crude life is these days? There are not as many courtesies. There is much bad language. People are on edge; they are brittle, easily offended, retributive, angry. Greed characterises so much. We are caged by a non-believing government and it is no wonder that we are stressed. This House of Prayer is so special because it remains as a sanctuary which gives us the peace and rest of God in our hearts. We can take off the spiritual armour that we need to defend ourselves just to get about in society. We can relax. We can blossom like a flower in the sun. We can lift our minds and hearts upwards to heaven – to the Risen Jesus. We can sit back and welcome in the life and power of the Holy Spirit. We are refreshed and encouraged and strengthened.
During the revival which took place at Shotts Kirk in 1630 it was said that the crowd was affected by such a deep and unusual awe, melting their hearts and subduing their minds, stripping off prejudices, awakening the indifferent, producing conviction in the hundreds, breaking down the stubborn and imparting to many an enlightened Christianity and a large increase of grace and spirituality.
The Word of God, says the writer of Hebrews, 'is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart'. Today with our scientific knowledge we might say that the Word of God penetrates our very DNA. The writer is talking about a Christian conscience. Sometimes it can be hard to be a Christian because you have higher standards than others. You may feel that you constantly fail to live up to what you know you should be. This writer knew that too and he ends chapter 4 with some reassurance. 'Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need'.
We are not on our own with our consciences. We are not on our own with our troubles and faults. We have a great high priest who intercedes for us. Who understands and appreciates our problems, weaknesses and struggles. We are not to be afraid of our sins and let them keep us from the peace and rest of God. We are guaranteed forgiveness just for the asking, mercy and grace to continue fully in our lives and living. That is the Christian story, the Christian purpose, the Christian calling. It is yours and it is mine. Thanks be to God.