Drawing near to God
DRAWING NEAR TO GOD Luke 15:11–24; Hebrews 10:22-25; James 4:8 On two separate occasions quite recently, out of the blue, I felt that God had spoken to me the words “DRAW NEAR”. I wasn’t thinking about them. They just popped into my consciousness. And since then, it has seemed like God has continued to stress that same message, because without searching for them, three related portions of scripture have paid me a visit. One, as a memory that inexplicably came back to my mind, and then, two others were highlighted for me by the Holy Spirit as I read my normal daily portions of scripture. So clearly my message this morning, if for no one else, is very much for me. But I’m trusting it will also strike a chord with some of you. First then, that distant memory. As a young Christian studying in Birmingham, I went with a group of Christian Union friends to Hockley Pentecostal Church which was led at the time by two amazing and trail-blazing Assembly of God lady ministers, Miss Olive Reeves and Miss Harriet Fisher, to experience one of their legendary Saturday Evening Revival meetings. Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced that night as a relatively new Christian. I witnessed floor boards that bounced with the flexibility of a well-used trampoline, as the assembled congregation danced, to the man, with unbridled vigour and joy. I also witnessed, and this is true, a man, eyes firmly closed, yet hopping at great speed on one leg all around the auditorium. But I witnessed too, a church engulfed in stunningly vibrant praise and worship so that you knew, we all knew, without a shadow of a doubt that God was present. Oh for days like that to return – and I think they will now; I think they will! That night, I also heard what is probably still the most anointed sermon I have ever heard, by a man, who also mostly had his eyes tight closed throughout, as though he were relaying the message directly from God’s throne room, such was the anointing on his words. The preacher’s message was on the parable of the prodigal son part of which highlights a wayward son returning, or DRAWING NEAR, to his father. So, to start today I’d like us to look at the first part of that familiar parable together. So, if you have your Bibles with you, or you have the Word on your phone or tablet, do please turn with me to Luke 15:11–24 (NIV84) so that its message can really hit home. Starting with verse 11 then, it says: 11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. Now, while this parable has often been used to present a gospel message, I think it is much more concerned with the nature of the relationship between each son and their father. And, though it provides a thrilling illustration of the grace of the gospel it is very much in the context, not of those who are unsaved, but of those who are already members of God’s family. Verse 12 then goes on: 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. The story unfolds then as the younger son says to his father “GIVE ME” – and that, I think, is very telling. He said, “give me MY SHARE of the estate.” This kind of statement I think is often the birth place of sin in our lives. It’s the place where we can go wrong. We begin to focus on something that we want; nurturing that desire until it consumes us. The parable is teaching us about where our heart is as we live out our Christian lives. It is a parable about what happens to us when we prioritise our desires and neglect what our Heavenly Father wants from us. With the young son we see what happens when we step out of God’s best and choose instead to gratify OURSELVES. It illustrates what happens when we put ourselves first and fail to live in grateful submission and obedience to our Saviour. Sadly, I think this is a not uncommon malady amongst many Christians today – especially perhaps those, who like us, are living in prosperous parts of the world where we are engulfed and saturated by a society that does little else than seek personal satisfaction and where whispered words from the Saviour, like those spoken to me - “Draw near”, can barely be heard above the prevailing clamour for personal gratification. This parable pictures an approach to our lives as Christians where we put ourselves at the centre. In the words of the younger son, it is about getting “MY SHARE”. Words that indicate our determination to take the reins in our life and shape it’s direction and focus on what we see as our best interests. Essentially, of course, this is a wilful and arrogant approach to the Christian life, and while it appears to offer satisfaction, and indeed may do so for a while, it ultimately leads to misery and perhaps more critically, to personal fruitlessness. Notice though that in the parable, the younger son got what he wanted - his father gave him his inheritance ahead of time. And sometimes, I think, that God will take the very same approach with us. If we persist, he will allow us to have what we want and so find out for ourselves the hard way, that a self-centred approach, far from bringing blessing, can lead to heartache, distress and even disaster. As an aside, it is a challenging thought, isn’t it, to realise that choosing, like the young son, to take our inheritance now, in the form of some material blessing, means that our reward will be strictly time-limited, and our blessings earth-bound. Blessings that simply don’t compare to the eternal rewards of those who faithfully serve the Lord in the way that He chooses. Is this, I wonder, what Jesus was advising when he urged us in Matthew 6:33 (NIV84) to “. . . seek FIRST his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” This parable then encapsulates a truth that we can so easily side-line in our lives. The truth that DRAWING NEAR to God involves putting Him first. We need to recognise that whilst the benefits and blessings of the tangible world around us are attractive and desirable, and may offer a short term return, it is only submission to God that offers a real and truly lasting blessing. Verse 13 then goes on: 13“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. So here we have a snapshot of our experience, should we fail to draw near to God. We lose out big time on all that God wants for us. Thinking we know best, we follow our noses and ultimately find ourselves floundering; duped into missing out on the real blessing and bounty that God wants us to enjoy. Notice too where this happened for the younger son. This verse tells us it was “a distant country” So determined was he to secure the life he wanted for himself, that he set out to take himself as far away as possible from the contrary voices of any who might seek to undermine his search for personal blessing. Many of us, one way or another, do this today. Some choose to leave the church; some begin to avoid their Christian friends; but more commonly many just put up a mental barrier to keep out those irritating warning messages from their conscience or the Holy Spirit, until with time those voices are completely silenced. Though we may kid ourselves that it is not the case, when we do these things, we are in reality spiritually in a “distant country” and actively squandering the short time we have here on earth to serve the purposes of our Saviour and bear the fruit that He has called and chosen us to bear. Verses 14 to 16 illustrate the shocking spiritual place we can find ourselves in when it says this: 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and HE BEGAN TO BE IN NEED. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. This is a graphic summary of the experience of those of us who reject a life of willing submission to the Saviour and seek instead to substitute a close walk with God, for a life that puts ourselves at the centre. We begin to find ourselves spiritually “in need”. Then, instead of repenting and seeking a renewed submission to God, we begin to look for ways to get ourselves out of our mess, only to find we become even more miserable, and are powerless to change what needs to be changed. “When he came to his senses,” verse 17 tells us: “he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ This is the key for all of us whenever we recognise that we have been getting it wrong in our lives. We need to CHOOSE TO GET BACK TO THE FATHER. We need to recognise that we are far away, and we need, to use the Bible term, to REPENT. Or, in the words that the Holy Spirit spoke to me twice, we need to “Draw near.” Verse 20 to 24 then tell us the GOOD NEWS of what happened next. We read:“20So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” This passage is, of course, a glorious illustration of the power and grace of the gospel. If only we could get non-Christians to really hear this message. If only they could hear that our Christian faith is not about religious rituals, or about compliance with the rules of an angry God. But rather, it’s the wonderful good news that because Jesus Christ has taken every iota of the judgement that our sins and failures truly deserve, and has paid for them IN FULL and FOREVER through His death, we can be forgiven and go free. Who, in their right mind, would want to turn down such an offer? Jesus has done everything we couldn’t do ourselves so that we can be forgiven by God, and, when our final day comes we can be welcomed into Glory because of His righteousness and His amazing grace. This is the spectacular joy and blessing of the gospel. Just as the father in the parable was waiting open-armed for his wayward son to return, and welcomed him home, so, whatever our failings; however much we may have got life wrong; however much distance we may have put between ourselves and our loving Heavenly Father; because of Jesus, while we are here on earth, the GOOD NEWS is, that we will ALWAYS be welcomed back, however awful we may feel, into the warmth and blessing of his household, should we seek to do so, because the real message of the gospel is “DRAW NEAR!” Now, I think that all this highlights the need to be very clear about the PROCESS OF DRAWING NEAR TO GOD. So turn with me, to the first of those passages I referred to from my daily readings. It is Hebrews 10:22–25 (ESV), because this is a portion of scripture that does just that. 22 LET US DRAW NEAR with a true heart in full assurance of FAITH, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our HOPE without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to LOVE and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Very significantly, I think, the three elements in the process of drawing near to God identified here happen also to be the same three matchless qualities that Paul identifies in 1 Corinthians 13:13 as those that will abide - FAITH, HOPE and LOVE. Verse 22 tells us we are to DRAW NEAR in “full assurance of FAITH”; verse 23 tells us we will draw near as we “hold fast the confession of our HOPE”, and verse 24 challenges us to “consider how to stir up one another to LOVE and good works”. So the process of drawing near to God involves the exercise of our FAITH, the confession of our HOPE and, stirring ourselves up to support one another as brothers and sisters in God’s family by our LOVE and our good works. Now, I have spoken before many times, here and elsewhere, on the key role of faith in our lives. We all know in the words of Hebrews 11:6 (ESV) that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for WHOEVER WOULD DRAW NEAR TO GOD MUST BELIEVE that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Without faith we cannot please God; we cannot DRAW NEAR to Him; and, we cannot be used by Him. Faith is mission critical for the Christian and without it we remain spiritually dormant, ineffective and fruitless. So STEP ONE in the process of drawing near to God is to build and exercise our FAITH. And how do we do that? Well, we need to really hear God’s word because the Word says in Romans 10:17 (ESV) “. . . faith COMES from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. “ So, if like me you hear God calling you to “DRAW NEAR”, what we MUST do is to give more time to really hearing God’s Word, because the more we hear the Word the more our faith will grow. But here’s the secret, while it is great to hear the Word from the lips of others, the way to really magnify the power of the Word in our lives is to hear it FROM OUR OWN MOUTH, and SPOKEN OUT WITH CONVICTION. The Word PROMISES that OUR FAITH WILL GROW if we set ourselves to hear it; and really hearing it is the way to walk in “the full assurance of FAITH”. STEP TWO in drawing near to God, is to “hold fast the confession of our HOPE. This tells us that we need to “confess” or “speak out” about our hope. The word “hope” here is the Greek word “elpis” and is defined as “the reasonable and confident expectation of a future event”. So Bible “hope” has nothing in common with the vague and tenuous “wish” that we express when we say we are “hoping for the best” or “hoping we will be successful” or “hoping things will work out”. Bible hope is a hope based on a truth underwritten by God Himself. It is a hope that is CERTAIN and ASSURED. And drawing near to God requires us to “confess” or “speak out” our assurance that God will deliver on His PROMISES and, as verse 23 tells us, we are to declare that hope “without wavering”. We are to hope unswervingly and unwaveringly and we can do so BECAUSE God’s integrity is unshakeably secure. But STEP THREE in the process of drawing near to God, identified in this passage is, perhaps strangely, that our drawing near to God is a joint effort, and we MUST also work to support one another in that process by our LOVE and GOOD WORKS as a powerful and practical expression of both our faith in God, and our recognition that other Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are family and therefore also our responsibility. How do we do this? Well we certainly need to take responsibility for praying for one another. Before they joined us, I urged us all to pick up the responsibility for praying for our new Pastor and his whole family, and I trust that we are all still taking that responsibility seriously. It is so important! But we should also be praying for one another here at Elim Hope because together, we can strengthen and support the body of Christ, the family of Christ. And, as we’ve seen, demonstrating our love through prayer and support is key to us all DRAWING NEAR to God. But let me give the last words to the Apostle James from that other scripture that jumped out as me as I read my daily reading last Tuesday. In his typically strong and unequivocal words he says this in James 4:8 (ESV) 8 DRAW NEAR TO GOD, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. “Cleansing our hands” requires us surely, to transform our deeds, the things we do. And “purifying our hearts” suggests tackling and transforming our thinking, our thought life. This is the two-pronged approach that will ensure that we are no longer sin-focussed and double-minded, and so can begin to truly draw near to God. Now, if we are serious about developing our relationship with God and drawing nearer to Him, then according to our texts this morning, we will need to do at least three things: 1. Make a DAILY place in our lives for boldly speaking out God’s Word because the Bible PROMISES that this will cause our FAITH to grow. 2. Choose to start affirming and confessing our certain HOPE in what God has promised every one of us. And, 3. Make a practice of praying for and about the Pastor and his family and all our brothers and sisters in Christ at Elim Hope Church and then RESPONDING ACTIVELY should the Holy Spirit prompt us to demonstrate His love for them in some practical way. Do these things consistently and I believe that the results will see us transform our lives in both thoughts and deeds and see us DRAW NEAR, or nearer still, to God.