Rev. Donald G. MacDonald (2019 Moderator of The Free Church of Scotland)
Come with me
And you'll be
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look
And you'll see
Into your imagination
With a spin
The world of (God’s) creation
What we'll see
(Pure Imagination© Taradam Music, Inc)
Look through the telescope and you will see a show that is a remarkable expression of the imagination of God, and it is spectacular. He is the Director that has written every part, he is the Artist who painted the whole canvas, he is the Architect who drew up the grand design, he is Engineer who pieced it all together.
Look through the telescope into our observable universe and you will see at least 200 billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, a universe that is ever expanding but held together with forces and counter forces so finely tuned in order to allow something quite special to exist, each part obeying laws that have been established with mathematical precision. And in the vastness of it all there is one galaxy, brilliantly constructed with 140 billion stars, the biggest of which, the sun, is orbited by spinning planets all placed so precisely that one becomes particularly interesting, the blue planet, earth. A planet of vast oceans, and land masses, all teaming with a thing called life, the diversity of which is mind boggling. For,
“God made humming birds as small as bees and whales as big as buses, chameleons that can change to any colour, sloths that grow moss on their backs, parrots that can talk and swifts that sleep while they are flying, moths that look like leaves and insects that look like sticks, skunks that smell disgusting (except to other skunks), squirrels that fly, bees that dance, worms that eat mud and goats that eat anything, dolphins that smile, crocodiles that grin and hyenas that laugh, butterflyfish and parrotfish and lionfish and batfish and catfish and dogfish and hogfish, hairy caterpillars and bald eagles, beavers that build dams and moles that dig tunnels, kangaroos that carry their babies in pouches and pelicans with beaks like shopping bags, sharks with teeth like razors, beetles with antlers, gorillas as strong as ten men, jumping fleas and jumping spiders, toads that blow themselves up like balloons, electric eels and beetles that glow in the dark, bears that sleep all winter long, termites that make tall houses tough as concrete, salmon that can swim up waterfalls, lizards like dragons, elephants with noses like hoses and squids that squirt ink. He made animals that sing and squawk and pout and hiss and hoot and howl and honk and chirp and peck and pounce and flap and fly and slide and slither and squirm and creep and crawl and prowl and growl and gallop and glide and dive and swoop and jump and hang and warble and squeak and roar… and he made the duck billed platypus too!” (Nick Butterworth, Wonderful Earth)
All this began in the mind, the imagination of God. And as his imagination is expressed in this extraordinary universe, so his glory is revealed.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4, NIV)
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, (Romans 1:20,NIV)
But he is the God not just of the big picture but also of the tiniest pixels. Come away from the telescope and look down the microscope and you will see universes in miniature that are equally spectacular. Here too are worlds where he is the Director, the Artist, the Architect, the Engineer. See an atom with its own nucleus, made up of a specific number of protons and neutrons, with electrons whizzing around them. They provide the tiny building blocks of everything. These minute worlds are also governed by rules and laws, which they too obey with mathematical precision. There begins endless atomic possibilities. Bonds are made between the rather negative anions and the ever-positive cations, because opposites attract. Others decide just to share electrons because they are especially close. Molecules and compounds form with unique characteristics, and then there is the greatest mystery of all, living cells, thoroughly researched and yet their very existence still defies explanation, and their beginning defies replication. There will always be mystery in the world of God’s creation. This fantastic expression of his pure imagination will always be fascinating to explore.
IMAGINATION OF GOD IN MAN
God imagined man. And he imagined woman. He imagined us. We are specs of dust and yet we would act as mirrors and containers of his imagination more than anything else in the grand expanse of his universe. We would be uniquely handcrafted by him to stand out in his created order. Into us he would breathe living souls. To us he would give a different level of intelligence and self-consciousness, but more than that, “astoundingly in the course of his creation of man and woman, he imagined himself” (Veith & Ristuccia, Imagination Redeemed) For God said,
“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 126-27, NIV)
Upon us he would stamp his likeness so that, like him, we would live in community; it would not be good for man to be alone. Like him, Father, Son and Spirit, we would have the ability to intelligently communicate with each other, ever developing languages and technology that would enable us to do so effectively. Like him we would have this desire to create, we too would want to be directors and artists and architects and engineers. We would be unable to imagine an existence where there was no community, no creativity, no communication; we would have to compose and paint and write and talk and make and build and research and discover and explore, and why? Because when the imaging of God was stamped upon us, the imagination of God was placed within us.
“It’s startling at first to realize that we’re the only creatures who have been given the gift of an imagination. With it, God has given us the capacity to image the imperceptible; that is, to visualize things that aren’t present.” (Richard Doster, God’s Purpose for Man’s Imagination)
All too often we dismiss our imaginations as a childish thing that creates a world of make-believe and fairy tales. Or we see imagination as the reserve of the arty types whose heads are in the clouds. It is not so. Our imagination is God-given and God-like. It is threaded into the very fabric of our beings. It is not divorced from reason and intelligence. God-given imagination removes dullness and not only allows us to see and create beauty and magnificence, it gives us the capacity to picture the not-yet, to make that picture a purpose, and to realise that purpose through a plan. It is the driving force behind everything. Ultimately its intended function was always to reveal the glory of God.
IMAGINATION AND THE FALL
However, into the garden the devil came with evil intent and immediately he went for the jugular. ‘Eve, can you imagine how good it will taste? Can you imagine the effect it will have? Can you imagine being equal to God?’ When she saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she imagined,
“not Death but Life
Augmented, op’nd Eyes, new Hopes, new Joyes,
Taste so Divine, that what of sweet before
Hath toucht (her) sense, flat seems to this and harsh, (John Milton, Paradise Lost)
And so, she took some and ate it.
Paradise was lost. Everything changed. It was no longer a world of pure imagination, but rather a world where ‘every inclination and thoughts (imaginations) of the human heart was evil all the time. (Genesis 6;5 NIV) What was given as a gift for God’s glory to dream and plan for him, now schemed and plotted against him.
Greater resistance would be encountered in the desert, from the one who was more than the image-bearer, for he was the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of his being (Hebrews 1). He too would have the devil appeal to his imagination; “imagine this stone as bread, imagine the angels being sent to save you, imagine the glory of the kingdoms being given to you”, but his imagination remained resolutely harmonised with the Father’s in heaven, he would remain obedient, even to the point of death, ever imagining the joy set before him. He would model for us what it meant to have our imaginations subject to the mind of God. In addition he would open our eyes to see the significance of the imagination as a formidable factory for sin.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27, NIV)
In the picture-house of our minds a secret life can be lived. In the factory of our hearts our imaginations can act as conveyor belts of sinful desires, producing things contrary to the mind and heart of God, none of which expresses his imaging, none of which brings him glory.
IMAGINATION OF GOD IN REDEMPTION
The same God who imagined creation also imagined redemption. A redemption that would result in a ‘palingenesis’, a recreation of all things, ushering in a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwells righteousness. All that was forfeited in Eden would be restored. Redemption was pictured in the mind of God even before the creation of the world and, as with creation, that picture was his wise purpose for which he had the perfect plan. Redemption, however, would come at a price,
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. (1Peter 1:18-20, NIV)
For (God) chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will - to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. (Ephesians 1:4-7, NIV)
There is, and there will be, a redemption because there is a Redeemer, Jesus, God’s own son. The created order has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth waiting to be liberated from its bondage to decay, eagerly waiting for the children of God to be revealed.
All too often we, the children of God, speak of Jesus saving our souls, forgetting that he came to redeem us completely; mind, body and soul. This involves the process of putting off the old self with its practices and putting on a new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of the creator. It involves spiritual worship, but also the offering of our bodies as living sacrifices, and it involves being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). Our fallen imaginations may entertain sin and lead us to idolatry but under the new management of Christ, fed by the Word and led by the Spirit, our imaginations redeemed are again tools to be used in his service and for his glory.
By now you will have realised that It is not my intention to give an academic philosophical paper, nor an in-depth theological study on the nature of imagination. I haven't discussed the relationship between imagination and reason, or imagination and memory, or imagination and knowledge. I have not examined inclusive and exclusive imagination. I will not be discussing the thoughts and writings of Aristotle, or Descartes, or Satre… and not just because I imagine I would bore you to tears, but also because, “I am a bear of very little brain and long words bother me”, (A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh) You see, even if I wanted to, the truth is I Kant, with a capital K!
And yet, despite being a ‘bear of little brain’, I dare to disagree with Albert Einstein who said, “the imagination is more important than knowledge”, for I recognise that knowledge and imagination are not competitors but perfect partners. Just as imagination is not more important than knowledge, neither is knowledge more important than imagination. Yet we tend to exalt one, often at the expense of the other. The philosopher David Hume observed, “men are mightily governed by the imagination”. I want to make an appeal for us to be more ‘mightily governed’ by our imagination when it comes to our Christian living, our pastoral care, our preaching and teaching, and our mission.
IMAGINATION IN CHRISTIAN LIVING
Rankin Wilbourne, who gets a thumbs up from Tim Keller, in his book Union with Christ, claims, “imagination is necessary if we are to know and enjoy God... We must use our imaginations if we want to fully inhabit and experience the Christian life”.
How we imagine ourselves before God greatly affects our relationship with him. How we imagine God is hugely significant in how we approach him. Do we visualise a God with a clenched fist or a God with open arms? To enable us to understand the relationship that we should enjoy with him, the supreme picture he gives us is that of him as our Father, we as his children. “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1John 4:1) It is in that picture we find our true identity; in that picture we see his wondrous love. But that is not the only picture he gives; he is the shepherd, we are his sheep; he is the husband, we are his wife; he is the vine, we are the branches; we are his body, he is our head; we are the building, he is the cornerstone; he is the Master, we are his servants. Each of these images are needed to help us grasp who and what we are before him. As his children we can trust him, as his sheep we receive his protection and care, as his wife we enjoy his love and self-sacrifice, as branches we must be in constant communion with the Christ-vine, as his body we are ever united to him and each other, as his building we find our strength in him the Cornerstone, as his servants we learn from him and live a life of obedience to him. Picture after picture is given to encourage us to ‘fully inhabit and experience the Christian life’
And picture after picture is given to encourage us as we go to serve him. We are to imagine ourselves as farmers planting seed, as soldiers wearing armour, as athletes straining to win, as fishermen casting a net, as slaves set free.
No one picture fully captures the richness of what we are and have in Christ, so several are given. They hang like outfits in the wardrobe of God’s Word, and depending on the occasion we can choose the most appropriate thing to wear. Today, just in case, I chose the full armour of God.
IMAGINATION IN PASTORAL CARE
Into a broken world came the Son of God clothed in humanity. The Word was made flesh and set up tent among us. He shared in our humanity. He had to be made like us in every way in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God. Because he himself was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18) We have a great high priest who is able to feel sympathy for our weaknesses because he has been tested in every way just as we are, so that we can confidently approach him to find mercy and grace in our times of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16). The incarnate Christ became one of us, he knows us, he understands us, he is full of compassion towards us. Jesus wept.
In our broken world, we, broken people, encounter broken lives and broken hearts. We are called to minister the love of Christ in increasingly complicated situations for which we often feel unprepared and ill-equipped. There are occasions when we find ourselves ministering to others in circumstances that reflect our own experiences. At such times we give thanks to God for the ability to appreciate and understand what they are going through so that we, ‘can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God’ (2 Corinthians 1:4. NIV). But whether the situations are familiar or not, for us, incarnation into the lives and experiences of others is achieved through imagination. We have to imagine what it must be like for them, what it must feel like for them, and we are to imagine ourselves in the same situation. It is only as we do so that we can rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It is imagination that gives birth to empathy and compassion as we incarnate ourselves into someone else's shoes. It is only then that we can say, “Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Corinthians 11:29, NIV)
It is our failure to imagine that is often the cause of inadvertent pastoral insensitivity. Whereas we have to teach and apply what the Bible says about issues such as marriage and divorce, about sexuality and gender, about family and children, about suffering and death, sometimes we need to stop and imagine what it must be like to hear the things we are saying, and the way we are saying them, if we, or those close to us, were going through a break up, or struggling with sexuality, or unable to have family, or grieving the loss of someone we love. I am not suggesting that understanding the complexities of many of these issues can be done simply by imagining, but it does help in guarding against being pastorally insensitive and lacking empathy. We can never change what we teach, but if we imagine what it is like for others, we may have to reconsider the timing and tone of our teaching.
Christ also gives us another important picture to imagine in order to transform our pastoral practice. There are times that you go into a Care Home to take worship and hardly anyone is awake, times when you are having nonsensical conversations with someone suffering from advanced dementia, times when you are sitting at the side of a bed reading and praying with someone, that you suspect, may not even know you are there, and there is temptation to ask the question, what is the point?
Jesus asks us to imagine the Day of days when he the King returns and says,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40, NIV)
Pastoral care is transformed when we recognise the image of God in those we care for, when we appreciate their inherent worth and beauty, when we incarnate ourselves into their situations, but also when we imagine ourselves ministering for Christ, and to Christ.
IMAGINATION IN PREACHING AND TEACHING
The God who is there is not silent. He speaks through his world and he speaks through his Word, and just as his world expresses his imagination and reveals his glory, so does his Word in all its technicolour brilliance. As the Spirit carried men of old to pen the Scriptures, he employed a variety of characters and styles; kings, butlers, shepherds, fishermen, doctors; historical narrative, prophecy, wisdom, song, poetry, gospel, epistle and the fascinating apocalyptic revelations. The Bible is a storybook, a songbook, a picture book, a history book, but never a boring book.
Authors and artists have sought to engage our imaginations to convey further the stories and the teaching of the Bible. John Milton takes us to Eden to see the tragedy of the Fall. John Bunyan in the Pilgrims Progress invited us to walk with Christian on the way to the Celestial City. While we walked, we recognised places and experiences along the way. We knew doubting castle, we had been in the slough of despond, we had felt the burden fall of our backs at the sight of the cross and with Christian we sang “blessed cross, blessed sepulchre, blessed rather be the man that was there put to shame for me!” With thankfulness and relief, we yielded to Francis Thomson’s Hound of Heaven,’ for we too had fled him down the nights and down the days, we had fled him down the arches of the years, we fled him down the labyrinth ways of our own minds, and in the midst of tears we hid from him’. We have crawled through the wardrobe into Narnia. We have met Aslan. We have listened to the conversations between Screwtape and Wormwood, and in doing so became less ignorant of the devil’s devices.
But, you may say, ‘we are not poets and novelists, we are preachers of the Word’ - and so we are. Preachers of a Word that is peppered with pictures in order to capture our attention by engaging our imagination. It is our task to ‘rightly divide the Word of truth’, to study thoroughly, and exegete accurately, and preach faithfully the biblical texts. However, as the late Warren Weirsbe wrote,
“In our noble attempt to be biblical preachers, we have so emphasised the analytical that we have forgotten the poetic. We see the trees waving their branches but we hold the branches still, examine them scientifically, leaf and twig, and all the while fail to hear the trees clapping their hands at the glory of God” (W. W. Weirsbe, Preaching and Teaching with Imagination)
Jesus was a preacher, and what a preacher! He would minister because as he looked at the people he saw them harassed and helpless and imagined them as sheep without a shepherd. To them he would preach the truth knowing that the truth would set them free. In order to communicate that truth effectively Christ preached imaginatively. Often he preached as if ears were eyes and in doing so he projected powerful points for his hearers to see. He would take the familiar scenes of everyday life and use them to illustrate and communicate the gospel message.
When he sat on the mountainside and taught his disciples he began with a brilliantly constructed rhythmic piece that taught them what it meant to be blessed. He used the simple examples of household items, salt and lamps, to remind them of their function in the world. He brings them into the temple and to the familiar scenes of making an offering at the altar, of the pompous giving of alms by the Pharisees, and the elaborate prayers they made. He takes them in their mind's eye, out to the field and says ‘Look at the birds flying in the sky and see how God looks after them. See the flowers of the field how they grow, and God provides for them. Are you not more precious than birds, are you not more important than flowers?’ He uses pictures that are shocking, ‘if your right hand offend you cut it off!’ And pictures that are humorous, ‘you see the speck of dust in his eye but not the massive plank in your own, your son asks for a fish, do you slip him a snake?’ He finishes with a story, ‘there were two men each going to build a house, one was wise and one was foolish, one built on a rock the other on sand and the rain came down and the floods went up and the house on the sand went crash! And the rain came down and the floods came up and the house on the rock stood firm’. The point? Build your life on the Lord Jesus Christ and the blessings from heaven will come down. (Matthew 5-7)
Listening to his teaching is often like watching film-shorts. Have you seen the one about the good Samaritan, or the prodigal son, or the great feast, or the lost sheep, or the rich fool, or the fig tree, or the unforgiving servant, or the pearl of great price, or the sower, or the tenants, or the talents? For once seen, never forgotten.
He would demonstrate and illustrate with familiar scenes, people’s life experiences and new stories. He would use current affairs (the Tower of Siloam), and visual aids (he took a child and stood him among them). He would use horror and humour, but all in order to engage his hearers so that they would listen, and remember, and respond to, the message of the Kingdom.
Paul was a preacher, he would go into Athens, a place full of intellects and thinkers, but as he stood up to preach in the Aeropagus he would not give a dry scholarly exegesis of a passage of Scripture but he would tell his audience about his personal experience of the city. He would use a well-known landmark as his starting point, an object of worship, very familiar to his hearers, something that they saw every day. He would remind them of words that they read every time they walked by it, TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. He would directly and indirectly make reference to old stories and scripture texts, and he would quote contemporary poets. But always with the intention of leading his hearers to imagine the possibility of knowing God through the man appointed to judge the world, the Christ who had been raised from the dead. (Acts 17)
As we prepare and deliver our sermons it should be our aim to be faithful to the Word, but that should not be our only aim. We are not just to relate, but we are to communicate the Gospel. The question we should ask ourselves is not, ‘did I tell them?’ but ‘did I tell them in a way that they could engage with, in a way that the message could be understood, in a way that they could see, In a way that they will remember?’
Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar said, “The key pathology of our time, which seduces us all, is the reduction of the imagination, so that we are too numbed, satiated, and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.” (W Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience)
If that is true with respect to our preaching and teaching, we are without excuse. We have endless resources at our fingertips. We have Scripture with which to illustrate Scripture, but also we have life experiences to observe and to share, we have history and current affairs, we have politicians and celebrities, we have literature and art, we have poetry and song, we have film and tv, we have Google! All providing materials to illustrate and demonstrate scripture truths. We can use everything from Banksy to Stormzy to illustrate, the pain of ‘Love in the Bin’, or the wonder of being ‘Blinded by His Grace’.
Some of you may have read Spurgeon’s ‘Lectures to my Students’. In one of his lectures he is scathing about the standard of preaching in his day, he says,
No (anaesthetic) can ever equal some discourses in sleep-giving properties; no human being, unless gifted with infinite patience, could long endure listening to them, and nature does well to give the victim deliverance through sleep. I heard one say the other day that a certain preacher had no more gifts for the ministry than an oyster, and in my own judgment that was a slander to the oyster, for that worthy bivalve shows great discretion in his openings, and knows when to close. If some men were sentenced to hear their own sermons it would be a righteous judgment upon them, and they would soon cry out with Cain, “My punishment is far greater than I can bear.”
We have been blessed to come from a tradition of some remarkable preachers whose discourses could never be accused of possessing sleep-giving properties. Their preaching and teaching could transport you to much better places than the Land of Nod.
I have walked with Douglas MacMillan in the cool of the day and was startled by the voice that shouted with such arresting power, “Adam! Adam! where art thou Adam?”. I sat under a tree with Professor Collins and Nathanael contemplating the meaning of Jacob’s ladder, until Jesus came along, and Nathanael had to go. I got on board with Davie Paterson and Captain Will sailing into a storm on Shipman Soul, and heard the cry, ‘turn back, turn back’. I hid in the shadows of Gethsemane with Donald Macleod with our eyes fixed on Jesus, witnessing that jaw-dropping moment when an angel came to strengthen our Lord. I stood beside Alex MacDonald outside Pilate’s Palace and we cried together as the guilty Barabbas was set free and the innocent Christ was condemned in his place. I watched in wonder with Alastair I Macleod as Jesus was lifted heavenward; his arms outstretched in benediction. And myself, D N Macleod and Paul visited the third heaven on several occasions, whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, but I do know that each time on my return, I was convinced that God's grace was sufficient for me and that his strength was made perfect in my weakness.
These men, ever faithful to the Word, used words to engage the imagination so that we not only heard the Gospel story, but saw it, felt it, smelt it, touched it, lived within it and our lives were changed by it.
We must not lose that ability to communicate the glorious gospel of salvation in a way that is clear and engaging. We correctly emphasise the need for rigorous theological training, and continuous theological study. We correctly stress the need to exegete accurately the Scripture texts so that we can present to our congregations the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We correctly seek to instruct the minds of our listeners as we give the reason, the logic, for the hope within us. However, to quote John Piper,
“The supremacy of God in the life of the mind is not honoured when God and his amazing world are observed truly, analysed duly, and communicated boringly. Imagination is the key to killing boredom. We must imagine ways to say truth for what it really is. And it is not boring. God's world - all of it - rings with wonders. The imagination calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to say old, glorious truth. Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.” (John Piper, God is not Boring)
Given the limitless libraries of resources, given the endless albums of pictures, given the volumes of dictionaries available to us, given the wonder of the glory revealed in the World and in the Word, how dare we preach the good news of the Gospel in monotone, and present the wonder of the Saviour in monochrome? We must make ‘the communication of his beauty beautiful’.
IMAGINATION IN MISSION
‘You are my witnesses’, he said. ‘Go in to all the earth and make disciples of all nations’, he said. It was not so much a suggestion; it was an instruction.
Yet this instruction we receive as if we were Ethan Hunt so that whatever Christ actually said, what we hear is, ‘this is your mission if you choose to accept it’. And we do accept it, sort of. We do what we can but often without a real sense of expectation or conviction or ambition because at times it seems to us like an impossible mission. To address such a spirit the Bible stimulates our imagination with astounding pictures.
God took the prophet Ezekiel into a valley of bones and challenged him with a simple question. “Son of man, can these bones live?” What do you imagine can happen in this situation? What possibility can you see in your mind’s eye? Can this place be transformed? Ezekiel had the sense to recognise that his imagination was limited, so he answers, “Lord, you alone know”. And God gives him a command to speak to the bones, which at any time would seem like madness. He is to say to the bones, “Dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord”, something he will only do if he pictures what God pictures, it is something he will only do if he has glimpsed and shares in, the imagination of God. And so he speaks, and so he prays, and amazing things happen. The bones come together, bone to bone. Tendons and flesh appear, and skin covers them, and breath comes into them and they stand on their feet, a vast army. Imagine! (Ezekiel 37)
Scotland is a secular country and increasingly so. Church attendance is falling, the national denominations are largely in a mess, the politics of our day has rejected Christian principles, the Christian voice is ridiculed as being outdated for the 21st century. Yet to bring the gospel to our nation is our mission; if we choose to accept it.
Some years ago, we imagined planting one church each year for ten years. We had sufficient imagination to see the picture but not sufficient to make it our purpose or to draw up a plan. That was then, this is now. Some have seen the possibilities and imagined new churches being planted throughout Scotland. The picture became their purpose and for that purpose they made a plan. And now we have Cornerstone, Esk Valley, Haddington, Charleston, Govan, Stirling, Christ Church, Merkinch, and more to come.
We have watched a steady decline in many of our established congregations, urban and rural. Some have seen the possibilities and have imagined revitalisation, and for them it has become a purpose and for that purpose they have tracked a plan.
As we look across Scotland perhaps we can hear the challenge, “Sons of men, can these bones live?” What do you imagine can happen in this situation? What possibilities can you see in your mind’s eye? Can this place be transformed? If we have but glimpsed what God pictures to us in Scripture, we will speak and we will pray, and breath will enter in, and Scotland will come to life and we will know that God is the Lord.
The mission, if we choose to accept it, is not just to Scotland but to all nations. We are thankful that we can now find all nations in Scotland, and we have opportunities on our doorstep. However, we still have that call to go to the ends of the earth with the gospel of Jesus Christ. How we do so is challenging and changing. Increasingly we will need to use our imagination as how best to resource and fulfil the great commission. But fulfil it we must. To assure us that such efforts are not wasted God gives us a snapshot of what he sees, a snapshot of what will be.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Rev 7:9-10, NIV)
Can you see it? A great multitude. Every nation, every tribe, every people and every language; and they are all before the throne! Imagine.
And can you see what they see? Look who is at the centre of the throne. There is the Creator, there is the Redeemer, there is the Lamb, there is the Lord our Shepherd, there is the King of Kings.
To him praises are sung:
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain
To receive power and wealth and
Wisdom and strength
And honour and glory and praise (Rev 5:12, NIV)
Before him the angels fall down on their faces and worship.
Before him the elders cast their crowns and say,
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.” (Rev 4:11,NIV)
Can you see it? God has exalted him to the highest place and given him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11, NIV)
This is the picture of God, this is the purpose of God, this is the plan of God. And we are part of that plan. That’s why we live for Christ, that’s why we pastor, that’s why we preach, that is why we church plant, that is why we revitalise, that is why we go to the ends of the earth. Every knee bowing! Every tongue confessing that Jesus is Lord! Can you see it? Can you hear it? Imagine. You may say that I am a dreamer, but fathers and brethren, ladies and gentlemen, as I look around today, I thank God I can see that I am not the only one.
It is therefore with that picture, with that purpose and with that plan that we now meet together in General Assembly.