Recently I was struggling to marry two, apparently opposing ideas: On the one hand our holy, eternal, almighty God (the great I Am) can, and often does, save people without any contact with believers, yet on the other hand He gives us all an imperative to be diligent preachers of the gospel message to build His church. In other words, whilst we do not have the power to save and He effectively does ALL the work, God still requires us to share the gospel message with unbelievers: Jesus also commands us to reach out to the numerous believers who are no longer in fellowship. Why is it so important for people who have been saved and tasted God in their lives but moved away from the Church, to come back to the Church – once you are saved, you are always saved and that’s all that really matters, right? I asked God for more wisdom in this so that I could truly understand why it is so important for us to reach out to people who don’t believe and those who do believe but have left the Church. God gave me a picture of an artist’s palette with some thoughts about the purpose of the paints that had been pasted on it – but how did that answer my questions and how did that link with the local community of Maldon and our everyday Christian lives?
A few weeks later I visited the increasingly popular Farleigh’s Charity Warehouse that sits just behind Morrisons. I rummaged through the vast array of jumble, that might be described as ‘pieces of junk’, but many were clearly the remnants of peoples’ past lives, once wanted, useful and even treasured, but now strewn across industrial shelving like unwanted pets desperately looking for a new home. I wandered over to the assortment of tatty picture frames, prints and eclectic mix of DIY paintings. To my surprise I found an original John Bonny oil painting, very dirty and sadly damaged, but I paid the asking price of £3 and took it home. The painting is of a grand medieval church building overlooking a large pond with a lady standing next to two people who are casually reclining on the grass in the foreground. As I was describing this to a friend over the telephone, I suddenly realised that the picture God had given me weeks before now made perfect sense and it even had a link to Maldon (the charity shop) just for good measure! I would now like to share with you what I believe God was saying about the palette, how that relates to the discovered painting and how all of that answers my questions.
The very first sentence that we read in the bible is that ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1) and we later learn that ‘He has made everything beautiful in its time’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11). God is the ultimate artist specialising in awesome overwhelming beauty: The ultimate painter, sculptor, carver, who creates the most massive of stars and planets and the Earth in the minutest of breathtaking detail, including you and me! God loves art and He uses it to convey messages, demonstrate the importance of worship and display His glory, such as the incredible design and creation of the tabernacle and all its contents:
The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence with knowledge and all craftsmanship to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft” (Exodus 35: 1-5).
God is like a Master of art who stands holding His palette in his hand with His canvass on the easel. He doesn’t require any instruction or assistance and will not request any opinion as He applies the paint – He is perfect in all His ways and all that He does is perfect. The paints on the palette may say “He doesn’t need us, for he is the Master and we are just his paints: He makes us and uses us without needing us to do a thing!” They would of course be quite correct, but at the same time quite wrong, because without the paints that He has selected, the Master would not be able to complete the picture that He intended!
Just as the John Bonny painting of a medieval church has gathered dirt over the years, the paint scratched and damaged, its value diminished, desired only by a few enthusiasts and for a time hidden in a dark place, looking for a new home, so God’s church may be found wanting, grimy, damaged, apparently losing its appeal and devalued in the shadows of current social acceptance. This reminds me of the opening verse to one of my favourite worship songs:
O Lord, the clouds are gathering
The fire of judgement burns
How we have fallen!
O Lord, you stand appalled to see
Your laws of love so scorned
And lives so broken
So, will this priceless work of art created by God’s own hand be consigned to the metaphorical charity reject shop? By no means, because just like the John Bonny, it can be restored, but the church of Christ will be restored by the Master himself!
We are just like those paints on the palette: It is true to say that God, the creator, does not need us, the created, but He chooses to use all of us for the purpose for which we were created. It is paradoxical – He needs us because He chose to need us. If we truly grasp what Christ has done for us and if we are passionate about our Lord and all that He has in store for us, if He want us to see others share in that merciful salvation, then surely we will want to serve Him, however He chooses. God calls us to share His good news with others and encourage them to follow Him as we do, because He has made us and wants to include us as part of His great commission! He still does all the work but it is part of our blessing to see others being saved and bringing back the backsliders is part of the great restoration work. He wants us to work with Him in creating, restoring and presenting a beautiful image of the church (the bride) to the groom (our Lord Jesus) on His wedding day, despite all of the bride’s imperfections and flaws – perhaps we could call it artistic license! In the final verse of that chorus we sing:
Yet, O Lord, your glorious cross shall tower
Triumphant in this land
Through the fire your suffering church display
The glories of her Christ
This is the art of serving God!