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How Can We Be Used By God?
In April 2008, an extraordinary event took place. Two brothers held a debate in public. It was broadcast all over the world.
Christopher and Peter always had a difficult relationship. They just didn’t get on. When Peter was just nine and Christopher nearly twelve, their father persuaded them to sign a peace treaty in the hope of halting the feud. But soon the agreement was ripped from its frame and hostilities recommenced. The treaty has remained broken ever since.
In the intervening years, Christopher Hitchens had become one of the leading New Atheists, and author of the book God is Not Great. Peter Hitchens, on the other hand, had become a Christian, and was an author, broadcaster and journalist for the Mail on Sunday. After the debate, Peter Hitchens wrote the book The Rage Against God. He concluded:
‘A new and intolerant utopianism seeks to drive the remaining traces of Christianity from the laws and constitutions of Europe and North America ... Inevitably it is the Christian churches who are the last strongholds of resistance to this change … The overthrow of Christian education is a real possibility in our generation. The removal of Christianity from broadcasting and from public ceremonies is almost complete … Secularists are equating teaching of religion with child abuse and laying the foundations for it to be restricted by law … The Rage against God is loose, and is preparing to strip the remaining altars when it is strong enough to do so.’
Historically, the people of God have been through some terrible times. Israel went through very dark periods, as has the church. In many parts of the world today the church is struggling. Yet however bleak things may appear, God always seems to raise up people to be used by him. How can you and I be used by God?
1. Be prepared to take the leadPsalm 105:23-36
Do you sometimes feel you are in a spiritual wasteland in your workplace, or in your city or even in your entire nation?
The psalmist recalls one of the bleakest periods for the people of God. God had blessed them. They had become ‘very fruitful’ (v.24). But their success caused them to be hated (v.25a). Their foes conspired against them (v.25b). ‘They abused and cheated God’s servants’ (v.25, MSG).
The people of God were oppressed and enslaved. They were in a ‘spiritual wasteland’ (v.26, MSG). But God ‘sent Moses his servant, and Aaron, whom he had chosen’ (v.26). God choose Moses and Aaron. They responded (admittedly very reluctantly in the case of Moses) to the call to lead. God used them to perform miraculous signs and wonders (v.27). He used them to set his people free: ‘They worked marvels in that spiritual wasteland’ (v.26, MSG).
Lord, as we look at our nation and see the state of the church, we cry out to you to raise up people like Moses and Aaron to lead your people. I pray especially for the church that is persecuted. I ask that you would raise up men and women as your servants.
2. Turn to God in times of trouble2 Corinthians 7:2-16
Sometimes in our lives we hit a wall of pain and distress. It overwhelms us. It could be caused by bereavement, sickness, disappointment, or other circumstances beyond our control. It could even, as in the case of the Corinthians, be caused by our own sin or mistakes.
What matters is how we respond. For some it drives them away from God. For others, like the Corinthians, it is the making of them. Their distress drove them to God. It transformed them into a people whom God was able to use powerfully.
Paul himself was greatly used by God. But it was not a smooth ride; it was not a stress free life. Paul did not go around bringing trouble on his own head. He writes, ‘We have never hurt a soul, never exploited or taken advantage of anyone’ (v.2, MSG). Nevertheless, he continues to speak of ‘all our troubles’ (v.4). He writes about ‘fights in the church’ and the ‘fears in our hearts’ (v.5, MSG).
Paul loved the Corinthians (vv.3–4a). Although Paul’s love for them was not always reciprocated, it brought him enormous joy when it was. When he heard from Titus about their longing for him, deep sorrow and ardent concern for him, he said ‘my joy was greater than ever’ (v.7).
The Corinthians themselves were used by God because they had the right response to sorrow and distress. We all mess up at times. Even the great apostle Peter messed up. However, what matters is how we respond at those times.
‘You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss. Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets’ (vv.9–10, MSG).
The Corinthians, like Peter, responded in the right way. The wrong kind of sorrow, typified by Judas, did not lead to repentance but rather to death. Worldly sorrow brings death (v.10c).
But the Corinthians responded to the pain and distress in their lives by allowing it to draw them closer to God. As a result, it transformed them into people who could be greatly used by God.
‘And now isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible’ (v.11, MSG). Thankfully, the Corinthians responded with this kind of godly sorrow.
Titus witnessed the transformation in their lives as a result of their response to distress. He was exuberant about it. He was himself revived and refreshed by everything the Corinthians did for him.
He could not stop talking to Paul about them, ‘Going over again and again the story of your prompt obedience, and the dignity and sensitivity of your hospitality. He was quite overwhelmed by it all! And I couldn’t be more pleased – I’m so confident and proud of you’ (vv.15–16, MSG).
Thank you, Lord, that when we turn to you in times of trouble you transform us and make us more alive, concerned, sensitive, reverent, human, passionate and responsible. As we hit problems in our lives may we always turn to you and become more useful to you as a result.
3. Respond to God’s call and say ‘I’ll go’Isaiah 5:8-8:10
As we look around the world today we see many nations, like Zimbabwe, in desperate times. The description here is of a nation rife with injustice.
The leaders ‘grab all the land … evicting the old owners … taking over the country, leaving everyone homeless and landless … Those extravagant estates will be deserted. A ten-acre vineyard will produce a pint of wine’ (5:8–10, MSG).
Meanwhile, the leaders make sure ‘their banquets are well furnished’ with music and ‘plenty of wine’ whilst the common people ‘die of thirst’. Their leaders call evil good and good evil (5:8–22, MSG).
But what authority does Isaiah have to speak to the society in this way? During a dark period in Israel’s history, God called him. He describes the vision he had around 740 BC, in the year that King Uzziah died (6:1):
- He encountered God
Isaiah describes an overwhelming sense of the presence of God – his majesty, holiness, glory and power (6:1–4). The key words are ‘I saw the Lord’ (v.1). The key to his call was an encounter with the living God. It was not just a nice experience; it was a life-changing encounter.
- He was cleansed
Before God can use us, he needs to cleanse us. Isaiah saw the holiness of God and said, ‘Woe to me ... I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty’ (v.5). The closer we are to the light the more it reveals our sin. It is important to see our guilt, but God does not want to leave us there.
God took the initiative and provided a means of cleansing: ‘Look. This coal has touched your lips. Gone your guilt, your sins wiped out’ (v.7, MSG).
We now know that it is through the cross of Christ that our guilt is taken away and our sin atoned for. We do not need to go around loaded by guilt, but rather we can be filled with a sense of God’s love for us.
- He said to God, ‘I’ll go’
Isaiah responded to God’s call. God asked him the question – I have done all this for you, now will you go for me? Your whole life is before you, what are you going to do with it? He said, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ (v.8a).
Isaiah responded, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ (v.8b). He saw there was a desperate need. He made no excuses. He did not delay. He said to God, ‘I’ll go’ (v.8, MSG). God used him greatly.
This was nothing compared to the one whom Isaiah prophesied about. He says, ‘The Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’ (7:14). This had a historical fulfilment in the birth of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (8:1). However, Matthew sees that the ultimate fulfilment of this prophecy was in Jesus Christ, who is Immanuel, God with us (8:8,10 – see also Matthew 1:23).
Lord, thank you for Isaiah and his call. Thank you that the more we glimpse your holiness, the more we know that we are people of unclean lips who live among a people of unclean lips. Thank you that you say to us ‘your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’ (6:7). Thank you that Isaiah also had a glimpse of the one who was to make this possible, Immanuel, God with us. When we hear your call, may we respond like Isaiah and say ‘I’ll go’.
2 Corinthians 7:2
‘Make room for us in your hearts.’
It is the beginning of a new academic year. A new Alpha Course will be starting soon. There will be lots of new people coming to the church. It can feel a bit daunting. But this is a reminder to me to open my heart to every new person I meet.