So it’s that time of year to do favourite lists. I’ll be rolling a few out in the coming weeks, including books, albums, movies.
But first, and most important: Bible Verse Of The Year, or BVOTY for short. Drum roll please:
The Lord kills and brings to life;
There you go. That’s it.
This little gem of verse – half a verse actually -, 1 Samuel 2:6a, has been of huge pastoral significance both in our church and beyond. We read it in our sermon series on Samuel, called The Crown that covered the first half of our preaching year.
Seems a little strange, doesn’t it? A little obscure to take out title of BVOTY. Why not Romans 5:8? Why not John 3:16 for the 853rd time?
The context helps to explain my choice for BVOTY. It’s from Hannah’s song of praise, echoed in Mary’s Magnificat centuries later, in which Hannah, once the barren, sorrowful woman, boasts in God the Great Role Reverser. God is giving her a son, replacing her anguish with joy, and putting an end to the taunts of her rival wife, Peninnah.
1 Samuel 2 is chapter full of role reversals in a book full of role reversals, and we get a hint of it in the surrounding verses.
The bows of the mighty are broken: The feeble are strengthened. The barren bears seven children: Those with kids are forlorn. The needy are lifted from ash heaps and sat down next to princes.
Notice the order. NOT the LORD brings to life and then kills. Of course we know He can do that. This is different in order. Different in nature.
The LORD kills, first, and then, and only then, brings to life. And what comes to life is of a palpably different quality to what He had to kill in order to get to. He had to kill in order to bring to life. It could be no other way.
God had to do that in wicked Israel. His people were rotten to the core; putrid all the way to the altar. In order to bring life to his people again the LORD had to kill. And only when He killed, was he able to bring to life something different, something new, something according to his plan.
And if you don’t know what I am getting at, read the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. There’s a lot of killing in there before we get to much life!
Of course the fulfilment of this Scripture is in Christ. Resurrection happens, but only after the LORD allows his Son to be killed, indeed not only allows it, but as Acts 4:28 tells us, predestined it to take place. In a real, daring and shocking way, the LORD killed and brought to life. We can barely bring ourselves to say it, but say it we must as the alternative is a neat, tidy, fleshy all-too-human excuse.
The LORD has to kill because it’s only in the resurrection that gives rise to the age of the Spirit. When Christ died, the age of the flesh was killed. When Christ was raised the age of the Spirit was brought to life
And that all may sound just like theology. And it is. Which is a good thing. Because theology is, at its core, pastoral. Theology that is not pastoral is not theology, it is just empty wind.
And you know something? That verse has sustained some difficult relationships in our church in 2017. That verse has held together a marriage in 2017. I have had people phone me up and ask me mid-week, when they’re going through a torrid time and ask “What was that verse again?”.
People have clung to the fact that the old them; the old way they did life; the old way they did marriage or family or other relationships; the old way they did significance and security; the old way they did comfort and desire had to die if the LORD was going to bring something new to life!
It wasn’t easy hearing it. It wasn’t easy saying it. It was hard. But say it I did. Hear it they did. And lo and behold, life!
Preaching that hard verse from that hard chapter in that hard book from that hard period of Israel’s life was hard beyond what we thought! But worth it! Worth it for me. Worth it for our church.
Why? Because it is only as and when the LORD kills that he does bring to life. Relationships live again – the same but totally different. Marriages live again; married to the same person, but they’re so different. Confidence in God lives, as confidence in man withers on the vine. Joy and peace spring forth in the midst of turmoil.
Was it all plain sailing? Of course not. But something about that concept took hold in church this year.
And it was worth it too as we looked wider in our culture. As we explored how the culture is increasingly hard against the gospel and God’s people. It was worth it as we watched the church in the West struggle under the weight of a tougher secular landscape. A church culture in which many are falling away, or are betraying the gospel in deed and word.
The LORD may well be killing our fleshy desires for security and comfort that the West has afforded us for so long. The LORD may well be killing our craven need to be spoken well of by all, or at least have our privileges maintained. The LORD may well be killing some gangrenous parts that need to fall away from the body who love the praise of humans rather than the praise of God (watch this space). And there is still a ways to go before that process has finished. We haven’t bottomed out yet.
But the LORD will bring to life. What He will bring to life may look different. More humble. More willing to lean on him and not look to Egypt or Assyria for help. It’s bound to look different if its in the Spirit and not the flesh. It’s bound to work with a different operating system. It won’t co-exist any longer with the fleshy life that is destined for the grave. It may well live leaner and lighter, but it will live because the LORD will bring it to life, not us.
This BVOTY is our hope. Just as Jesus’ resurrection is the hope of our last day resurrection, so too the ongoing process of the LORD killing the flesh and bringing to life in the Spirit give us hope along the way.
We do not know what the LORD will have to kill in 2018 among us individually or as a church contending in the wider culture, but it’s never without the hope that He will bring to life, and bring to life something far better than we could have hoped or imagined.