Saint Andrew Press
1. Changeless and Changing
Readings: Hosea 2:14-23; John 15:1-17
Most people like love stories. Sales of Mills and Boon novels confirm it, as do long queues outside cinemas whenever a new celluloid romance is released. Whether it’s in print or on film, most love stories fall into one of two categories.
The first category we might call LOVE AGAINST THE ODDS… this is the Romeo and Juliet variety. It’s even the Cinderella variety.
Such stories tell how two lovers struggle to maintain and deepen their relationship in the face of opposition. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, the opposition comes from their warring families. In the case of Cinderella, the opposition comes from two ugly sisters with hairy chests and whiskers on their chins. And when people read of, or see, this kind of tale, they come away with their hearts warmed when love triumphs.
The second type of love story we might call LOVE IN THE FACE OF DISLOYALTY… this is the kind of story which is as much witnessed in the daily papers as in novels and films.
It’s the kind of story in which one partner in a relationship – often the woman – retains her devotion to her husband or lover
despite his reckless living,
despite his chasing after other women,
despite his obsession with personal ambition,
despite his treatment of her as a utensil.
Despite all this, the woman remains faithful, her love forgives and constantly reconciles. Of course, we don’t have to go to the extremes of popular journalism to find evidence of this sort of love story.
I’m frequently annoyed when I’m in company where a man is receiving a presentation from his firm or club or even his church. He’ll be extolled to the heavens for his ardour and virtue, presented with a trophy, and then the male who is making the speeches will say, rather condescendingly, ‘Of course, behind every good man there is a good woman’, and offer the customary bouquet to the wife. And what is sometimes flagrantly overlooked in that situation is that
while he was chasing ambition,
while he was downing the shorts at the nineteenth hole courtesy of the
company’s expense account,
while he was making the decisions and taking the floor,
while he was forgetting her,
she was remembering him… and his children
and his stomach
and all his other needs.
There’s one of these stories of LOVE IN THE FACE OF DISLOYALTY in the Bible… though it’s not about an unfaithful, ambitious and cavalier husband. It’s about a wife who goes whoring behind her husband’s back and sometimes in front of his face. And
though the husband feels like leaving her;
though the husband at times would gladly abandon her to discover the shallow
affections of her playboys and toyboys;
though the husband sometimes wants to call her the foulest names in his vocabulary;
he doesn’t do any of these things.
Instead he decides to be more faithful, more loving, more loyal, and he says to his wife, in all her wantonness:
‘I’ll keep my promise to make you mine.
I’ll keep you mine forever.’
And people like you and me, reading this tale, might feel that the man is going too far, that he is showing compassion well beyond the call of duty and reasonableness.
People like you and me, if we met this husband in the street and had a quiet word with him, would maybe suggest that he separate, advise him to divorce, start again with a worthier wife.
But we dare not. Because this faithful husband is God. And the shameful hussy of a wife is us.
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The prophecy of Hosea offers a penetrating insight into the inability of the people of God to keep their word, to be loyal. The people of God are depicted as the ones who go for easy relationships, who forget what they have promised, who distance themselves from their Maker.
But the prophecy of Hosea also offers a penetrating insight into the heart of God…
whose faithfulness does not depend on us playing fair,
whose loyalty does not depend on us keeping our word,
whose devotion does not depend on our love always being at full strength.
God is faithful, always faithful, because God is God and can be nothing else. And it is one of the unspeakable privileges of anybody who preaches the Gospel to declare this: that God’s love is changeless. You cannot stop God loving you. God has made a promise to you and it was sealed at your baptism that he would never leave you or forsake you.
just because sometimes you forget him;
just because sometimes you put your personal ambition on a higher plain than your faith;
just because sometimes you don’t feel that your relationship with your creator is at full strength;
just because sometimes you can’t stand the Church;
don’t think that God feels the same way about you. Don’t judge God by your standards!
God is faithful even when you have no thought for him. God cannot be other, because in his love and mercy, God is changeless. And what a glorious thing to realise, either if you’re unsure about the strength of your own commitment or if you have suffered at the expense of someone else’s fidelity. God is love and that love is constant and changeless.
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But when I say that God is changeless, I realise that I say not only a very comforting thing, but a very dangerous thing. Because it only takes a little thought or a little thoughtlessness to deduce that we should be changeless too.
If from Scripture we learn that we are made in God’s image, and we learn that God is changeless, we presume that we should be changeless too. If from Scripture we learn that we are made in God’s image, and we learn that God is changeless, we presume that we should be changeless too. But it doesn’t work that way.
The proof that we have been grasped by the changeless love of God is that we never remain the same, but are transformed, converted, turned upside down, inside out.
Some years ago, a boy called Jonathan used to come about our house. He was invariably untidy, a bit slovenly and often incomprehensible. He slurred his speech badly. He disappeared to England for a couple of years and returned on our doorstep late one Friday night. He looked different and he sounded different, but I didn’t get a chance to ask much because it was late and besides he wanted a bath… something he had never requested before. So I ran the bath for him and when I returned to show him where the towels were kept, I noticed what looked like coloured plastic baubles, about half a dozen of them, in the bathwater. And as I looked they melted, and their colour and scent began to spread. I wandered if perhaps Jonathan had an allergy or a skin infection and whether these were for medical purposes. But he assured me they were not for illness, but for pleasure. Bath oils, he informed me, were the ‘in thing’.
As he spent the next day with us, a hole lot of changes began to emerge – not just in his speech and appearance, but in his attitude to life, in his ability to save money, in his confidence in a crowd. But why?
Eventually the truth came out and the penny dropped. He had met a girl who loved him. Oh, he had known other girls in his life, but they had made no impression. This girl, however, quite definitely loved him, and because he knew and felt and believed that he was loved, all things changed.
People who know that they are loved, and people who accept the love of another, are transformed. People
who do not change,
who are not touched or influenced or moved by another,
have a shallowness in their relationship.
And this is true of relationships of the people of God to their Maker.
Go from the beginning of the Bible to the end and see if you encounter anyone who has met God and stayed the same.
Some people… like Sarah and Hannah and Elizabeth and Mary became fertile and
gave birth to children.
Some people… like Moses and Abraham and Jonah went on a journey.
Some people… like David and Isaiah and Paul wrote love songs.
Some people… like Jeremiah and Matthew and Zacchaeus got rid of their money and
changed their lifestyle.
Some people… like Peter and Andrew and James and John changed their jobs.
Some people… like the host of cripples and blind folk and lepers whose names we’ll
never know changed from begging to dancing, from sitting on the
circumference to being in the centre.
And why?… why?… Because the changeless love of God had had its effect on them. And we… we, if we are all seized and fascinated by that love, will never remain the same, but CHANGE from glory into glory till in heaven we take our place.
Stagnancy, immovability, is no virtue in a Christian. It is a sign of spiritual lock-jaw, from which we should pray to be delivered.
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But what is true of us as individuals is true of the Church also, the Bride of Christ.
Can you imagine what kind of a relationship a man and wife would have if, fifty years after their wedding, she was still saying the same things to him as she had said when they first met:
‘I love your curly red hair and your sparkling white teeth’
… even though he had become as bald as a coot, and wore dentures?
The Church as the Bride of Christ has to change as she responds to the insights Scripture offers and the love which God shares. We are the body of Christ, not his corpse; and if there are no signs of growth, change and development then we should call for the undertaker rather than the evangelist.
There is a story told about two elderly ladies from Kelvinside who decided to go on an expedition to the far east. So they came to Edinburgh and stayed in the North British Hotel and despite all their expectations to the contrary, they enjoyed themselves thoroughly. When they got home, they couldn’t stop talking about the great time they had had. One day their cousin Agnes came to visit. Effie, the older sister, started on about the wonders of Edinburgh…
‘And you should have seen where we were living, Agnes,’ she said, ‘We were in the North British Hotel, we had a lovely room with a lovely view, and best of all a beautiful bathroom. Isn’t that right, Nell?’
‘Do you know Agnes, it was tiled from ceiling to floor. It had a heated towel rail, gold taps on the sink, and the biggest bath you’ve ever seen. It’s such a pity we couldn’t use it. We only stayed until Wednesday – Thursday’s our bath night.’
Of course, we laugh at that kind of inflexibility; but it’s a pattern of behaviour into which the Church is ever in danger of falling. It is in the Church that people, irrespective of their background, their politics, their life experience, are at their most conservative.
So… despite eighty percent of our congregation being female, we pray that all men
might be saved and sing ‘name him brothers name him.’
So… despite the fact that in Africa and South America, the Church is growing, while in Britain it decreases in strength, we still think that we should be sending missionaries, rather than receiving them.
So… in churches where there are fifty attenders and five hundred seats, we sit apart
as if the body of Christ had acne rather than unity.
And, if anyone should breathe the word ‘change’, the grumble and rumour goes around about ‘change for change’s sake’.
If the doctor said to us, ‘I’m changing your prescription… I feel these tablets would be better for you’, would we say ‘change for change’s sake’?
If the car mechanic said ‘I want to change your brake blocks… these new ones are better suited to your car’, would we say ‘change for change’s sake?’
Then should we say it to God, especially when with God it is never, NEVER, change for change’s sake; It is always, ALWAYS, change for love’s sake.
In St John’s Gospel, Jesus talks about himself as being the vine and we the branches. And the picture he gives is slightly painful, because he does not say we can ramble where we want or remain the same. He says that if we are united to him, we will be
changed… to become more fruitful still.
If we know we are loved by God we will not be scared by that kind of transformation, we will embrace it, knowing that it is God’s will to make all things new.