The God Who Never Lets Go

As you’ve heard, we’ve been working as missionaries in Japan. It’s a fascinating country to live and work in, and we thoroughly enjoy being there. But for missionaries it’s often seen as a challenging place. The Christian population is under 1%, and has been for as long as missionaries have been there.

One of the problems that missionaries have seen is that Japanese people find it hard to really relate to the Christian message. There was a missionary after the War called Norman Kraus, and one night, a Japanese man called him up, and asked him why Jesus had to die. Well, the missionary started explaining about our sin and Jesus’s sacrifice, and the man stopped him and said “I know all that. Actually I’m a pastor. But it doesn’t make sense to me.” He knew the Gospel, he understood it and he believed it. He taught it. He wasn’t being a hypocrite, he really believed the gospel. But something about it didn’t quite click for him. It didn’t really work for him right down in his heart. There was a piece missing.

And so Japanese Christians have been trying to find the missing piece that makes the Gospel resonate with Japanese people so they could get it and it clicks and they can say yes, this makes sense for me. One of those Christians, a guy called Kitamori, was reading his Bible and he came across this verse in Jeremiah, 31:20:

“Is not Ephraim my dear son,

the child in whom I delight?

Though I often speak against him,

I still remember him.

Therefore my heart yearns for him;

I have great compassion for him,”

declares the LORD.

And this verse really hit him and it made sense to him, and he found in this verse a story that goes right the way through the Bible. I don’t know how you see the Bible. I used to think it was a load of different stories, and the ones about Jesus were really important, and the others were not quite so important, and they were outdated now, and frankly they were often a bit weird.

Then I thought that it was two different stories: what God did before Jesus, and what God did after Jesus. And often there didn’t seem to be much connection between the two. But just like that man Kitamori, something clicked in me and now I can see one story going all the way through the Bible. In our generation, we don’t so much like the one big story that everyone signs up to - we prefer to have our own little stories. But the Bible gives us both. It gives us little stories of how different people have found their place in God’s big story. And it challenges us to find out place in God’s big story. God’s big story is the story of His longing to be with His people. It’s the story of God who will not let go.

Right at the very beginning of the story, it starts with Adam and Eve in the garden. God has this wonderful relationship with them, but they choose to go their own way. They turn away from God and they reject Him. And what happens next? This is the dramatic high point of the whole Bible right here - what happens after they sin! Does God sit up there in Heaven and say “Right, that’s it, you blew it! I’ve had enough of you! No more second chances, you obviously don’t want a relationship with me, good luck to you.” No, amazingly, when humans first sin in front of a holy God, and turn away from Him and reject Him, He reaches out to them. God goes to them. He goes back into the garden. He makes the first move towards them. He loves these people and although they have hurt him, He is not prepared to let them go. So He goes back into the garden and says “Where are you?” God knows exactly where they are. He’s not asking for information. He is crying out for the relationship between them to be restored. He tells them about the consequences of what they’ve done. He doesn’t ignore their sin. It has serious consequences. But He still wants to be with them. And so He kills an animal and brings them clothes made of skin as a sign of reconciliation between them. God was prepared to kill something precious to bring about our reconciliation with Him.

The rest of the Bible is exactly the same story. God wants to be in relationship with us. We reject Him. He is not prepared to let us go so easily, so He tries to bring reconciliation with us, and he gives us a sign of his reconciliation. It’s the story of God who will not let go.

Next up is Cain and Abel. Cain gives an offering that doesn’t please God. And God says “well, why not give a better offering instead?” But Cain is already angry, and he kills his brother. But despite that God comes to Cain. God makes the first move towards him. Yes, God tells him about the consequences of his sin - He doesn’t ignore their sin. It has serious consequences. But God does not walk away from him. In fact, God gives Cain a sign on his forehead to protect him.

God wants to be in relationship with us. We reject Him. He is not prepared to let us go so easily, so He tries to bring reconciliation with us, and he gives us a sign of his reconciliation.

It’s the same story with Noah. Humanity is getting more and more rebellious, but God does not give up on humanity. He goes out to humanity; he makes the first move towards humanity, and He saves Noah and his family, and gives him the sign of the rainbow as a sign of reconciliation.

God wants to be in relationship with us. We reject Him. He is not prepared to let us go so easily, so He tries to bring reconciliation with us, and he gives us a sign of his reconciliation.

Next humanity decides it can do without God, and they build a tower to show how powerful and clever they are. But God still will not let go! He calls one person, Abraham, and makes him and his descendants a model of the relationship that God wants with His people. And this time He gives Abraham a command - go, leave your country, leave your people, and go to the land that I will show you. God sends Abraham out because God Himself is all about going out to rescue us. God is all about making the first move towards a faithless and sinful humanity. God goes to us because God will not let us go.

So Abraham becomes the first missionary in the Bible. Missionary means “someone who is sent out”, and Abraham is sent out by God as a sign of reconciliation. And his people become a missionary people, a model of the relationship between God and humanity. The people of Israel in the Old Testament are a sign of God who will not let go, and their story is the story of God not giving up on them.

I was reading one of those stories the other day - in 2 Samuel 14, there’s the story where one of King David’s sons kills his brother and goes into exile. And David really wants to have him back. Despite what his son has done, David loves his son and wants to see him again. So one of David’s officials gets this old woman to come in and persuade David to take his son back. And this is what she says to persuade him: “Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.” This is brilliant! This woman understands the big story of the Bible; she understands that God does not let people go and that He continually tries to work out ways for people to come back into fellowship with Him. And because God makes the first move towards us, we make the first move towards other people. This woman says to David “You have to go out and seek reconciliation with your son because God goes out and seeks reconciliation with His children.” Jesus taught us to love our enemies? Why? Because when we were God’s enemies, He loved us. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

I don’t know how you see God. I think most often the picture of God we have is of a judge. We think that God secretly wants to send us to Hell because we’ve failed Him, and it’s only by trusting Jesus and belonging to Jesus that we can escape from God’s judgement. I think this misses the big story of the Bible - God made us, He loves us, and although our sin has serious consequences that we need to deal with, God does not give up on us! He does not want to condemn us. He is not willing to let us go. In fact, He makes the first move towards us and He devises ways so that we don’t remain estranged from Him. God actively tries to put things right.

This is good news! The Gospel is supposed to be Good News. The Good News is that God is longing to get to know us. He’ll do anything to get to know us. He is yearning to be in relationship with us. If you’re not in relationship with God, then God’s heart is troubled. He cares. He wants to get things sorted out with you.

And this is what we see in that strange verse in Jeremiah:

“Is not Ephraim my dear son,

the child in whom I delight?

Though I often speak against him,

I still remember him.

Therefore my heart yearns for him;

I have great compassion for him,”

declares the LORD.

This was written when Israel was rebelling against God, and God reminds them that He loves his children and delights in them; He rebukes them and He corrects them. But He doesn’t let them go. His heart yearns to be in relationship with them. In the Hebrew it says “my bowels are troubled for him” - I’m sick to my stomach, God says, that the relationship has broken down; but I won’t let go. I want to do something to fix it.

And in the end God does something to fix the relationship once and for all. He sent Jesus to put right our sin. And He sent Jesus to die for our sin. Just like with Adam and Eve, God was prepared to kill something precious to bring about our reconciliation with Him. And once again, He gave us a sign of His reconciliation. He gave Adam and Eve clothes of skins; He gave Cain a mark on His forehead; he gave Noah a rainbow; and two thousand years ago, He gave each one of us the sign of the cross on a hill in Palestine as a sign that He desperately yearned for reconciliation with us, even when we were still far off from Him. There’s a lovely line in the Anglican liturgy which says “when we turned away you did not reject us, but came to meet us in your Son.” Before you turned to God, before you trusted in Him, He came to you. God’s desire is not to condemn us, it is not to judge us - in fact, He doesn’t want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”. That’s why Jesus came.

But as well as coming to us and dealing with our sin, Jesus also came to show us what God is like. And one of the ways he did that was to go out to people and tell them the good news; and he sent his disciples out to tell people the good news. Because this is what God is like - He is not content to let people go, but He makes the first move towards them, wherever they are and in whatever state they are in. God is a going God, He is a missionary God, He left heaven to come and find us. God makes devises ways to reconcile us to Himself. This is the big story of the Bible.

And as Christians we are called to join in with that big story. In fact, that’s what we call mission - it’s just joining in with God’s story. God is finding ways to draw people back into relationship with him, and He’s called us to be part of that story.

I find that for many Christians this is the missing link in their faith. We come to faith, we come into this wonderful relationship with God, we grow in that relationship - but what for? If we don’t know the big story, if we don’t see that God is constantly going out to build relationship with those who are far from Him and that He calls us to join Him in this work, then we don’t find our place in what God is doing. Mission is not what missionaries do. Mission is what God does, and what God invites each and every Christian to find their place in. It is being prepared to go, just like God does, to those who are far off, whether they’re on the other side of the world or the other side of the street.

We’ve been interested to see what the house church in Japan is doing, and one of the things they teach people, when they show people how to explain the Gospel, they say that the Gospel is made up of three relationships: right relationship with God, right relationship with others, right relationship with yourself. And that “right relationship with others” means helping others to come into relationship with God. One of the very first things that new Christians in the Japanese house church learn is that they need to tell other people about what God has done for them.

I think this is a great thing. I think that so often we can see mission as an optional extra. We can think that just before Jesus ascended into heaven he said “Oh, by the way, tell everyone else about this.” No. I hope we’ve discovered this morning that right at the very heart of the Bible, on every page and in every story, you will find a God who makes the first move to bring people back to Himself. This is God’s great plan, and it’s always been God’s great plan. Mission did not start with Jesus, it did not start with the church. God has always been finding ways for people to come back into relationship with Him. That’s always been the plan. And now we have an opportunity to join with Him in this great plan.

I don’t know where this opportunity is going to take you. It took us to Japan, and we have the privilege and the joy of joining God in the work that He’s doing there in bringing people back to Himself. It might take you overseas. It might not. But God is calling you somewhere. He is calling you to join Him in reconciling people to Himself. God might be calling you to stay here in Barnstaple and bring the good news to your friends, to your family, to people you don’t know here in town. It doesn’t matter where you go. But go! Take the opportunity that God is giving you to get involved in His great plan. This is not an optional extra. As Christians, we want to walk with God and do the kind of things that He does. And what He does is go out and make the first steps towards people to reconcile them with Himself. So that’s what we want to do.

How do we do it? What does it look like? Well, you can tell people what God has done for you. You can show them that God wants to reconcile the world to Himself. In the Japanese house church again, they train people to give testimonies in 90 seconds or less - just short things that they can drop into everyday conversations and give others a glimpse of what God is doing. I got an email a few days back from a friend who’s a missionary in the north of Japan, and he asked the men in his church why there are so few Christians. And one of them said “it’s because we don’t tell people about Jesus. No evangelism happens in our every day life.” That’s a big shame for those people around them, but also a big shame for those Christians as well, because they’re missing out on being part of what God is doing. If you don’t know how to talk about Jesus to your friends, then talk to Graham or some of the guys here and I’m sure they’ll help you.

You can also go out into the world; that’s what God does, He goes into the world to seek and save the lost. You can go short-term. Jesus was the ultimate short-term missionary, he only spent three years as a full-time evangelist, and if you want to do what he did, you can go for as little as one month or as long as two years. I promise you that if you do, you’ll never see the world the same again. Or you can go longer, and join a mission organisation like we did. You can talk to us about either of those, or talk to the Global Action Team, and we’ll help you to find something that’s best for you.

But it doesn’t matter where you go, and it doesn’t matter how long you go for. As Christians, we have to go, and we have to offer people the chance to reconcile themselves with God, because we want to be part of what God is doing. It’s exciting, it’s challenging - but it’s not optional. I want to be part of God’s big plan, and I hope that you do too.

Passage: 
Jeremiah 31:20

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