Our Covenant-making God: 1 John 4:8-9, The Covering and enabling power of Love.
On the One Show on BBC 1 this week there was a story about ‘Reconstructive Justice’. The story featured a middle-aged woman called Margaret whose house had been broken into two or three years previously. Many personal possessions had been stolen. I think it was shortly after this that Margaret’s daughter died and she became more aware that the laptop which had been stolen had contained so many family photos’ which were irreplaceable. The man who was eventually convicted and imprisoned for the crime was Ian, a heroin addict who looked to be around his late thirties or early forties. Whilst in prison he was enrolled in the ‘Reconstructive Justice’ programme where Margaret, whose house he’d robbed, came and met him in prison. Ian said that the meeting was far harder than any court he had been in and made him see just how much he had affected others through his addiction and stealing. They met up on a few occasions and from her side, Margaret said that she began to understand the sort of problems and lifestyle that Ian had become trapped in. Ian rightly paid for his crime and is now out of prison. He has met up with Margaret at her home as she helps him work things out in his life. He said that ‘Restorative Justice’ gave him the ‘kick that he needed.’ In looking at both people during an interview you could see something beautiful beginning to grow as their thinking and attitudes began to be transformed through engagement.
Reconstructive Justice is about dealing with issues and building relational communication where nothing existed before and in a not dissimilar way it is a business God is also involved in. For example, in Isaiah we read, "Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. “ Isaiah 1:18
God is in the restoration business and it is the biggest business in the world. Whilst the Bible rightly points out what sin, suffering and tragedy are like and reveals that God is totally against all sin also reveals the incredible truth: God’s grace and willingness to provide for us and stand in our place of judgement, is bigger than anything else we will ever encounter in our lives.
What we see when we see God’s work of restoration is breath-taking and challenging if we really think about it. For example, in Genesis we see our heavenly Father going after a couple that had ‘blown it’ (Adam and Eve) and offering them help which ultimately would have to include the death of His own Son because God is holy as well as loving.
Then in looking at the words and actions of Jesus recorded in the Gospels we see God’s willingness to go after the lost sheep (Lk 15:3-7), the lost coin (Lk 15:8-10) and the lost sons (15:11-32) all speaking of God’s care and concern for people. In these and other parables we see that Jesus’ motive in reaching out to people is not only compassion for the lost, but also recognition of the value of the lost. He rescues sinners not only because they are lost but also because they are of incomparable value and so must be sought and restored. Yet do we realise how valuable our lives are and just how valuable the lives around us are to God?
The heart of covenant.
The heart of the covenant agreement in the scriptures is always the presence of God’s Spirit with His people, and the purpose of His presence is to help man come back into fellowship and friendship with God. Throughout the Old Testament and the New, we see the Spirit working with individuals (in the OT) and all believers (in the NT) with the sole purpose of making believers God’s people in every respect, and His work is always going on and often in extraordinary ways; for example…
Reg Dean, Britain’s oldest man died last week at the age of 110 years and 63 days. He had been heavily involved in charity work all his life including a sponsored walk at the age of 90. He had also been a Church of England minister for decades. During the Second World War Reg was an Army chaplain out in Burma, and throughout his life remembered a time when he had been surrounded by the enemy and taunted with the words, “Johnny – we will come and kill you tomorrow.” Reg spent the evening in prayer and, to the great surprise of those with him, found the enemy had disappeared by the next morning. Reg was obviously very encouraged, yet so was I, a total stranger, over seventy years later in 2013, because it spoke so clearly to me of our Father’s work.
God intervenes in mysterious ways, with John telling us how this is possible in writing, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:8-9) In the word ‘atone’ we have the answer as to how it is that God can help the rebel without compromise to His holiness. God is the One who makes atonement possible. He covers our sin, with the word atonement being derived from ‘at one with another’ and ‘being reconciled.” The word’s root is found in Gen 6:14 and speaks of the covering of Noah’s ark inside and out with Bitumen: this gives us a picture of how God’s work convers us when we accept Christ as Saviour. It is also a word used when the angel reached out and touched Isaiah’s mouth and said, ““See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7).
Over Christmas there was a short film called ‘Mr Stinky’ which was about a tramp who ended up living in a family’s shed on the invite of a teenage girl. It was an amusing film and occasionally when the tramp belched, you’d see a cloud emerge from his mouth and then see the impact of this on the facial expressions of those who caught a whiff of his breath: hence ‘Mr Stinky.’ In the New Testament there was a young man welcomed back into the family home. His was hungry, dirty form having worked amongst the pigs and undoubtedly smelly – but the best coat was put on him even though there was no mention of him having a bath. The best coat was put on him covering all the effects of his lifestyle and he was totally accepted back into the house. Perhaps some of the servants caught a whiff of the boy as he went in; no matter – he was accepted. He was now in the place where cleansing, renewal and growth could occur. We, through Christ, are in that place, and today we are here together. What sort of picture do we present to a struggling wold?
We have often commented on what it must have been like in the early church concerning an ex-prostitute sitting next to a synagogue ruler who had come to Christ, who in turn sits next to a slave, who in turn sits next to an international business person, and noted how amazing a community it must have been. Yes it would have had its ups and downs and indeed did, along with its difficulties, but that does not detract from how amazing it must have been in the sense of the most unlikely people meeting and worshipping together.
We have to work at meeting and worshipping together because we are in a society where, according to the radio this week, some people take different shopping bags to the place where they get their groceries so that they don’t have the cheaper supermarket bags showing where they have been. Yet you and I live in a society where all are invited to partake of God’s grace, and where all are covered in the work of Christ no matter what we may have been like. And it gets even better than that…
Let’s go back to the people who made up the early church again. Think of the wonder of it all when a recently converted prostitute gives a word of knowledge that uplifts a Jewish Christian suffering the gauntlet of words from old synagogue friends. Think of the wonder of seeing a slave lay hands on a sick landowner whom God then miraculously heals. Think of the wonder of a labourer having just learnt to read and reading from the word of God in such a way that an intellectual seeker repents and submits their life to Christ. Are these not amazing and wonderful things to behold – something to treasure in our lives?
As Christians we should never be taken in by first appearances or make judgements based on no more than a fleeting glance, because we are the church of the living God. As the church we are called to recognise that all people are made in the image of God and show what a redeemed community looks like as modelled on the life of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We are the church of God where there should be a deep respect for all, regardless of what is going on, because all believers are covered in the work of Christ and identified through Him and not personal failings. We are also a work in progress in a community of believers where Christ is equally willing to reach out to all of us, and we are called to do the same, and there is great blessing in doing so. We are not made to be alone; we are created to walk with the King of Kings in a community that has an amazing range of gifts in the Holy Spirit working through the most unlikely group of people to ever come together.
Jesus is equally willing to go out of His way to help us, as indeed He did a Samaritan woman by a well in the middle of a hot day, and an isolated tax-collector standing on the branch of a tree. This is our King; this is our Saviour, this is our friend: this is what the covenant keeper looks like: who covers our failings in His work, and nurtures us with His presence so that we can reap a harvest that is ultimately of His doing amongst, to the world, the most unlikely group of people to ever come together. This, in a sense, is transformative justice: His love in action through our lives covered in the work of Christ.