I have engraved you on the palms of my hands –
the very hairs of your head are all numbered
It is difficult to convey and communicate the beautiful truths of Christianity to unknowing people today. The public perception of Christianity is affected by media comment and presentation which is usually negative. There are certainly repeated positive illustrations of Christianity, notably at the funerals of the famous or of victims of tragedies where Church services provide the context for thanksgiving and remembrance. Local churches are often seen at the centre of responses to crises as in the cases of recent floodings in southern and western England and in connection with the murdered child April Jones in Wales and others over the years. At Christmas and at Easter, the broadcasters fairly give moments to acknowledge the addresses of the Pope and of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Our Moderator, however, doesn’t get a look in. Songs of Praise still features visibly. The portrayal of Christians in soap operas and dramas is excruciatingly embarrassing, demeaning and diminishing. The other night Midsomer Murders found a retired Anglican vicar suffering from leukaemia and the weakening after effects of chemotherapy responsible for the murders of a young woman by drowning, of an older man by using a JCB to dump bricks on him and of a mediaeval art expert by handcuffing him to the four posts of his bed and dropping a perfectly placed chandelier with a downward facing three foot lance centrepiece on to him, thus impaling him. I am not aware that any retired clergyman has even been guilty of such heroic criminality. Certainly I am sure that none of the retired minister members of the Presbytery of West Lothian could be capable of such imaginative and physically demanding murders.
In the televisual age those churches with colour, pomp and splendour do better than those of simpler liturgy. Church of Scotland services are not as attractive as those of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches with their rituals, colourful garments, physical movements and congregation interaction with responsive prayers and singing. It is actually very difficult if not impossible to convey what is actually happening during Christian worship. The Holy Spirit is not discernible by TV cameras. People praying seem to be talking to no-one. God is invisible to the human eye. Jesus is seen only in reflections from stain glass windows. Songs of Praise has done away with prayers and sermons. The singing at least is audible and joyful.
Yet we are in the presence of our Maker, in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus and we are touched by and may even be filled with the Holy Spirit. Our prayers are real to us and the living Word reaches our hearts and minds. Even this is not the whole truth of our faith and worship. 'I have engraved you on the palms of my hands – the very hairs of your head are all numbered'. When we talk about God it is our own way of speaking. Our language and expressions are all we have. Music expresses our relationship with God in a different way and art seeks to convey the eternal. We are very limited in our comprehension of and description of God. But those who have lived close to God have found words and ideas to do this for us.
Isaiah the prophet was one of these. For him God is living and real close and intimate. He speaks on behalf of God not on behalf of himself. He has that calling, that confidence and assurance. So he offers these ringing endorsements. 'In the time of my favour I will answer you…I will help you…I will keep, you…Be free…the Lord comforts his people…I will not forget you…I have engraved you on the palms of my hands'. He uses the word 'engraved' – God does not write our names with a ball point pen or even a fountain pen with permanent ink like we have to use to sign marriage registrations. That writing fades with time and becomes indistinct. Engraving cannot be removed so easily. It lasts for centuries and millennia. Engravings are still found throughout the world which are thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of years old on pottery or stone tablets or on the walls of buildings or caves. Engraving means ‘forever in my heart – forever on my mind’. Isaiah says that that is how God loves us. That is how God thinks of us – that is what we mean to God our Maker. For Isaiah this was immediate and true as much as was his own life to him. You can meet people who impress you as being Christians for whom God is real. Maybe we don’t all show such a transparent witness. And our soul life is hidden from everyone. We do not easily share our deepest thoughts and feelings. Sometimes we are not free to do so. Sometimes it is dangerous to do so. We risk other people not understanding, not comprehending, not responding.
Jesus corroborated Isaiah’s words. He put it in another way… 'the very hairs of your head are all numbered'. Did Jesus mean this literally? Was it a Rabbi’s way of talking – of making a point? Jesus firstly asks ‘Are not five sparrows sold for a halfpenny?’. Matthew’s version says ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?’ So supermarket offerings are not new. ‘Two for a farthing - buy five for a halfpenny’. Jesus is saying that that fifth sparrow which is thrown in if you lash out with a halfpenny – is precious in God’s sight. It is an illustration of God’s love for us. So too the numbering of the hairs on our head. Someone has calculated that a blond/e person has about 145,000 hairs, a dark haired person has 120,000 hairs and a red-headed person has 90,000 hairs. That can’t be right. Christine has more hair than me! For years I have had my hair trimmed by Diabasio Styling in West Calder. Tossy does exactly what I ask which is just a trim and tidy keeping my hair the same length all the time. He actually takes time over each customer and unless you book there’s always a wait. He asks for Ruby and David and knows people like Jim Kelly and Dorothy and others and asks for them. However just before Christmas I was over in Broxburn getting some posters photocopied for the Church and as I came out of the shop I noticed a barber’s shop opposite which was empty. I thought I could just get a quick trim and tidy so I went it. I sat down in one of the chairs as the barber finished something at his desk. Then suddenly he rushed over exclaiming ‘I make you handsome’. My heart sank. How could he possibly do that, I thought. ‘What you want’ he inquired and I said just a trim and tidy keeping the same length please. It had not occurred to me that this barber had learned his trade at an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan but that is what the next few moments felt like. Within a minute or so he had given me what we used to call ‘a rump’. He then attacked my eyebrows with two swift blows. I had not asked for this consideration – however it did not cost extra. ‘Thank you – that’s enough’ I attempted but he came with another assault with comb and scissors. He tugged and pushed and tugged and I felt as if lumps of hair were being pulled out but it was just his lees than refined action. ‘Is this why his barber’s shop was empty?’ I now asked. It was the quickest haircut I’ve ever had. ‘How much?’ I asked and he replied ‘£4’. ‘I’ll be back’, I said and left feeling as if I had been in a wrestling match. It was value for money to some extent. I’ve often wondered why I pay the same for a haircut as someone with a full head of hair.
Jesus told his followers that each of them was worth much more to God than that fifth sparrow thrown into the bargain and that God’s love is so near and dear and personal and caring that it is like knowing how many hairs each of us has on our head. That is the Christian Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. That is what we should realise as we begin another year. It is not for nothing that we serve and follow Jesus Christ. The words of the hymns we sing are not just poetry or wishful thinking. They are spiritual food for our souls, sustenance for our minds and hearts, encouragement for our days. Contrast this image of personal care with the remoteness of God in Islam which allows its followers to do such terrible things in the name of their god Allah.
There was a small obscure article in the Scotsman on Thursday written by Tom Heneghan. He reported that an organisation called Open Doors had documented 2123 Christian martyrs in 2013 compared with 1201 in 2012. Other monitoring groups suggest the actual figure could be as high as 8,000. Open Doors stated, ‘Islamist extremism is the worst persecutor of the worldwide church’. Another research group the Pew Forum says that Christianity is the most widely spread faith in the world, with 2.2 billion followers or 32% of the human population. It says also that Christianity faces restrictions and hostility in 111 countries. I wonder if they now include this country of ours among those which impose restrictions on Christians and Christianity? One thing is sure. Muslims have nothing but contempt for Britain and other countries which have publicly abandoned Christianity. But we cannot win. If we are Christian they will enact jihad against us and if we are not they will do so likewise. If we are faithful they consider us wrong. If we are unfaithful they consider us deserving of conversion.
Did you ever think that the Lord would require you to stand up and be counted? It is happening here and now in this land or ours. In 2014. Are you up for it? Are you up for Jesus Christ? Your faith will be tested. Will it hold? Confirm in your heart whom you will serve. Make it Jesus. He loved you, Return his love.