Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Commitment - God's Way

Sometimes the most significant thing about the Bible is what it doesn’t say! For instance the word love is not found in the book of Acts. Yet the whole book is about love in action. The absence of the word does not mean the absence of the reality that lies behind the word. The book of Esther does not mention the word God – the only book in fact where God is not mentioned. Yet it is impossible to read the story of Esther and not see God’s providential hand at work. The gospel of John doesn’t mention the word faith, only the verb form is used, believe (which has the same Greek root as faith: pistis). This is because John wants us to see faith as an ongoing disposition of heart and not just an initial response to Jesus.

But there is one word that is not found in the entire Bible. I’ve checked. It’s neither in the KJV nor the NKJV. It’s not in the NIV or the NASB. It’s not in Darby’s translation or Young’s. It's not in the RSV or the ASV. The NLB, a paraphrase, has it in a couple of places, Is 9.7 and 1Chron 16.15 repeated in Psalm 105.8 The word is commitment. Imagine that! It’s not in the Bible. But what conclusion should we draw from such a blatant omission?

It is difficult to read the pages of scripture and not be impressed by all the commitment that we see displayed over and over again; Abraham’s commitment to obedience when he offered up Isaac on the altar. God’s commitment to Abraham when a son was born to him in his old age; Jonathan’s commitment to David despite his father’s jealous persecution of him; David’s commitment to walk in integrity and not to force God’s hand by killing Saul when he had the opportunity, on no less than two occasions. The list is endless. So if the concept is there why is there no mention of this word in the Bible?

The problem I find with much preaching on commitment is that it is rooted in ideas of duty or obligation; words that evoke an ‘I have to’ mentality rather than an ‘I want to’ attitude. These are often fear based or guilt based ways of behaving. When God wants to demonstrate commitment to us He uses a different word. It is the word covenant. Covenant is how He expresses commitment! And all His commitments are rooted in Covenant. The NLT translation of Pslam 105.8 says, "He always stands by his covenant-- the commitment he made to a thousand generations". And here the translator has got it right.

There are a number of things about covenant we need to understand.

Firstly this word is highly relational; for God’s covenant is always between Him and someone else, another person. Covenant is relational because God is relational in Himself – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We easily commit to ideas, political ideologies, even vision. And we change our ideas more often than we are prepared to admit. All these things are rooted in abstract concepts. We want to evaluate another believer’s orthodoxy according to a ‘statement of faith’. In doing so we are trying to objectify things so that we can know what to commit to. But God works differently. He calls us into relationship and commits Himself to us as people first. A faith response to Jesus is sufficient for God to totally commit Himself to us, before we get our lives or our theology straight. How outrageous!

This is a totally different way of understanding commitment. It is meant to be rooted in relationship. Vision is not fulfilled by people committing to vision alone. They have to commit – in relationship, to those who are committed to the vision. It is the sense of togetherness that we must seek to get first. Everything else flows out from that. The first call of the apostles was to be with Jesus, That’s it. Period. Their commitment to Him came out of relationship. Remove the relationship and all you are left with is duty and obligation. And these are guaranteed to kill any joy in serving. This is why Jesus had one question to Peter, John 21.15 “Do you love Me?” That question is all about relationship – nothing more, nothing less. Peter’s commission came out of that loving relationship. And it fired his ministry in a way that took him way beyond his own ability. He tried personal commitment to Jesus in his own strength and it led to a threefold denial. Now he found something better – covenant. God’s commitment to us despite ourselves; rooted in His grace and ability to transform us into His own image.

Secondly covenant is not only relational it is also freely given and freely recieved. In other words God didn’t have to make this commitment – He chose to; freely; out of His great love. The best kind of commitments are those we enter into freely, that are rooted in love. Jesus put it like this; “If you love Me, keep my commandments”, John 14.15 This is covenant language. It is the language of ‘I want to’ not ‘I have to’. It is the language of internal motivation not external pressure through guilt or fear.

Now let's be clear here, we don't bring an equal share to this covenant. All we bring is faith. God makes up all the rest. When God made a covenant with Abraham in Gen 15 Abraham waited all day for God to show up. The idea in the OT was that both parties would walk between the animals that had been divided and laid out. By crossing over they both became committed to fulfilling the terms of the covenant. But in Gen 15 God waited for Abraham to fall asleep. The He showed up amd walked through alone - meaning He was totally committed Himself to fulfilling the terms of the covenant. This forshadows the New Covenant where Jesus has done all that is necessary to secure our salvation. We bring nothing, other than a faith response.

Thirdly biblical covenant is always rooted in sacrifice. Something has to die. Blood must be spilled. This is what makes the covenant so powerful. It’s not just words. The blood of a poured out life testifies to the agreement made and binds both parties together. And so obligation is a part of covenant but notice it comes after freely choosing. For love removes the sense of obligation and replaces it with joy. From the outside I appear obligated, from the inside I am not even conscious that it is an effort – I love.

This is why in the judgement of the Nations in Matt 25.34-38 we find the true disciples shocked when Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me...” Their response is telling, “When did we.....?” They were not even conscious of their actions; for they came from a deep place of knowing. They made sacrifices and they weren’t even aware of it. Such is the nature of commitment rooted in Biblical covenant. Jesus made sacrifices but He did so willingly.

Currently we have taken on a big project as a church – renovating a Youth Centre that has been closed for nearly 10 years; a place that has been vandalised and neglected, needing a huge amount of time, energy and money to put it right. But the goal is not just to have a new centre – it is the need to have a base for existing and new ministries to grow, flourish and expand so that we can touch and change the community where God has placed us. So how do we get people to commit to such a vision? How do we get them involved?

The key must be in understanding that we are in this together, as a church, as the people of God – in covenant. God is in covenant relationship with us and so He commits all He is to us. We are in covenant relationship with Him and to each other and so we commit all we are to serving Him and each other. Because of love, we want to be involved. Because of love we want to make sacrifices that for others may seem excessive but to us seem reasonable.

In Eph 4.11-16 Paul speaks of the church growing and maturing – coming to the full stature of Christ. Notice that the growth is in love by speaking the truth in love, vs15. This is how we grow. It’s how we change. It’ how we mature. Someone has to dare to say something that challenges us to go higher. We can be offended and withdraw, or we can listen – truly hear, embrace what is said, and change.

But notice too that in this text every part must do its share; “From whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love”. This is what causes growth of the body – in love. Everyone is meant to be involved. Everyone is meant to do their share.

The danger of course is that we don’t think we can make any real difference and so step back and do nothing. Imagine if the small lad who had five loaves and two fish had not stepped forward and given them to Jesus. Imagine if the young girl who was handmaid to Naaman’s wife had not mentioned the prophet in Israel who could heal. Imagine the tragic consequences for David if Abigail had not ventured out and spoken to him on his way to slaughter Nabal’s men. All these actions seem inconsequential in themselves but they were key in releasing and preserving the purpose of God.

So what is God asking you to do that perhaps you have not given value to? What simple act of obedience is He waiting for that may in some way connect to the obedience of others and that in turn will release the purpose of God? Elisha added salt to water and all could drink it. David took lunch to his brothers in battle and by the end of the day had slain a giant. Don’t despise what you can do. One thing can lead to another. Rather, recognise that you have been placed by God where you are – in relationship with imperfect people. And together your sacrifices are an expression of covenant love – freely given. Let this be how you live a committed life.