Thursday, 25 June 2015

Angry love

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

There was a football manager who was famed for giving his players the "hair-dryer treatment" when he was angry with them. It wasn’t something they enjoyed; it made them flinch.

Well, the first chapter of the long book of the prophet Isaiah is similar - fearsome stuff, a real blast of divine judgment for the people of Israel.

 "Can't you see that you are just bringing suffering on yourselves?" God shouts. "Can't you see that things are just going from bad to worse because of your stubbornness and sin? I've had enough of you! Even your supposed worship is offensive to me! Why? because it's all hypocrisy - fine on the surface, oh yes, but sheer falseness deep down. I don't want any more of it! Go away!" (And if you think I'm exaggerating, just get your Bible out and read verses 11-17; preferably aloud.)

Phew. I'm glad I wasn't around in the Jerusalem market place or temple when Isaiah first stood up to deliver this withering message from God. That football manager seems tame by comparison.

But then suddenly it all changes, when we get to this beautiful verse 18. Exactly like any loving parent who just can’t stay angry long, God makes a tender suggestion: “Look, let’s sit down and talk this thing through...”

Right out of the blue he promises his people purity and newness, innocence and fresh hope. Yes, their sins may very well be the colour of blood - crimson and scarlet. But not any more! They'll be as white as thick, new-fallen snow, as beautiful as wool off the newly-shorn sheep.

Why this dramatic change in tone? What has happened? Answer: nothing, not at least as far as we can see. And the fact is that very soon the hair-dryer will be turned on again.

But the message is clear: the mercy and grace of God have this irresistible way of breaking through his anger. God's holiness is such that he cannot tolerate sin in any form. His judgment may indeed burn hot - and this is something we need to take seriously. But his tenderness and love constantly wax warm.

God loves nothing more than to forgive. Can I say that again? God loves nothing more than to forgive.

Jesus puts his own gloss on this wonderful truth in many places in the gospels. The great fifteenth chapter of Luke, the chapter which gives us the stories of the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son, is a great example.

Jesus describes the sheer joy of the woman who finds her coin, the shepherd who finds his sheep, above all the father who finds his son, and then adds very simply, "In the same way there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." That's worth reflecting on... yes, the very vaults of heaven ring with laughter and gladness every time one miserable no-hoper like you or me comes to God and humbly says sorry.

Are you living with a guilty conscience? Are you lacking peace with God? Are you only too conscious of the mess you have made of your life? Well, here is good news. Isaiah 1:18 isn't just for the nation of Israel two and a half thousand years ago. It's for you too, and for me. Today. Now. Yes!

Oh God, I confess that so much of my goodness is just outward show and pretence. I know deep down that I am full of shame and guilt. Thank you so much for the offer of your free forgiveness. Help me to take it to myself this very day, to enter into the joy of heaven - and never ever to look back. Amen.

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