David gave this talk when as a family we were preparing to move from Holy Trinity Church, St. Austell to St. Andrew’s Church, Chorleywood in 2010.
To hear David preach this talk, head to the podcast section of the website or click this link.
Love bade me welcome.
For some time now I have wondered whether I could do what I am going to do tonight. Will it feel too much like being at school? And anyway the poem isn’t written in today’s English, and perhaps folk will be bored.
However, the thing is, in leaving St Austell I have been forced to think about what I really want you to get hold of, what would be the most wonderful help if I could only get it through to you. And chief of these (this week anyway!) is: God loves you much more than you realise, and we need to live glad lives based on that fact. We tend to think that God’s love was first historically. And so it is for as the first epistle to John says, “we love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) But what we fail to grasp is that God’s love is first, in place waiting for us, whatever we do and wherever we are. Thus, we wake up and God’s love is there, waiting on us and for us; we turn to the Lord throughout the day and there he is again, in his love, attentive and attending to our needs; and at the end of the day, as we turn to sleep, his are the arms of love that hold us.
Understand this and you are going some of the way in getting your image of God healed. Funny to talk like that, isn’t it? But I have found all of us have views of who God is that distort his true reality. We have grown up with ideas of him as a cosmic policeman, or as an indulgent sugar-daddy, or as some pleased but distant parent, who never dares to express what he feels like. If only we could have our imaginations cleansed, if only we could be cut free from all the distorting views we have of the Lord (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), then I am sure we should be able to trust him more, to see more of him at work.
So tonight, I am going to look at this poem, written by a C17th priest, renowned for his holiness and piety – George Herbert.
“Love bade me welcome”. Here is God’s nature, according to Herbert. He’d agree with John when he says in 1 John 4:8, “God is love.” That is his nature to love. Throughout this poem, you could substitute the word ‘God’ for ‘love’ and you will come closer to Herbert’s meaning. Thus, God bade me welcome; God took the initiative and wanted me to feel at home in his presence. God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) has sent me an invitation – “love bade me welcome.” It is God’s intention that I should feel the force of his love, and feel wanted, and at home with him.
“Yet my soul drew back.” Here is the response of the sinner – remember Peter’s words, “depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.” The sad truth is this: our natural state, our benighted, befuddled, unregenerated state runs away from God’s invitation to draw close. Ever since Adam and Eve hid in the garden, we have been doing just the same – cutting ourselves off from the pressing, pursuing love of God.
“But quick-ey’d Love”. What a great description of the Lord! He sees our hiding, he knows the tenderness of our hearts – how afraid of him we are because our consciences are accusing us. So yes, God does indeed see us, but with eyes awash with compassion, keen to minister mercy and not judgement to those who need him most. See 2 Chronicles 16:9.
“Observing me grow slack/from my first entrance in”: here Herbert describes how much he is hesitating. It is such a true insight: God invites us close, we draw back, he sees quickly why we are running away – and we, who are aware of the Hound of Heaven chasing us, think he is only doing that to eat us up – where in actual fact he just wants to hold us close to him. All of us can think how our love has slackened since we first put our trust in Christ. As with the church at Ephesus, it’s not hard to find folk who appear to have lost their first love – and such folk may even be us. And in our guilt and shame, we think God is after us only to punish us.
“Drew nearer to me”: here is the Lord pursuing us in utter devotion. He has seen us falter and draw back, all too ashamed of accepting his gracious invitation. And in masterful assertions of his grace, he won’t be put off that easily.
“Sweetly questioning”: what does the voice of God sound like in your heart? Is it accusatory? Hard to please? If you are ‘into’ trying and trying to win God’s favour, his voice will sound unpleasant, harsh and grating, always demanding what you in your shame and guilt cannot give. But no! Herbert reminds us that the Lord draws near, only to sweetly question.
“If I lack’d anything.” Right, Lord, you have got to be kidding surely! Aren’t you going to call me a rotten sinner? A good for nothing? But you come near, which in itself frightens me, and you ask if I am all right, if I have everything I need. It just doesn’t feel right. Here he comes and sweetly asks, ‘what is it that I can give you that you lack?’ Oh, amazing love!
“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”: most Christians (and I include myself) don’t ‘get’ grace. We feel so unworthy of such unparalleled, unending, unmerited love. Our sins, it would seem, have left impressions deep on our psyche, and we feel embarrassed, worse, ashamed of how we have been; or what’s been done to us. And don’t call me a guest – I am no such thing, I’m just a servant, and a bad one at that.
“Love said, ‘you shall be he’”: Augustine once wrote these profound words – “by loving us God made us lovable.” Said Jesus, ‘behold I have chosen you.’ We may think his choice is crazy. But that’s just too bad. The Lord (read Ephesians 1 for example) chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. He makes no mistakes. He hasn’t ‘accidentally’ got the wrong person when he chose you – or you - or you – or me, for that matter. There is nothing about us which can be merited, earned or achieved. In his love, in his grace, simply he has gifted us with his love, and he takes great pleasure in his choices.
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee.”: here is the pathology of sin again – and how hard any one of us find it to receive gifts from God, that are all about grace. We live in a world that runs on merit, that is about earning. Why, we even picked up from our parents that if we did thus-and-so they would love us more. And so we respond to this amazing love of God, this pursuing intrusive (as we see it) love of God, this cosmic Lover, ‘what me! There must be some kind of mistake! Do you have any idea how bad I am? I am so ungrateful I forget to thank you for any of your blessings. And I am so full of impurity and anger and impatience I can’t even raise my eyes to look at you. Sorry God, but you’ve got the wrong person here.’
“Love took my hand and smiling did reply,/who made the eyes but I?”: are you shocked now by what Herbert says? Can you think of God SMILING on you, even now? Do you see God as proud of you? Do you know, really know that God likes you, that he loves being in your company? And for all our shame and guilt that makes us feel unworthy to approach God, to draw near to him, or even look into his face for fear of what we might find, in actual fact, God says he knows all that, and in any case, he made the eyes. What a glorious gospel we have! And what a stunning Saviour!
“Truth, Lord, but I have marred them”: well while it’s true Lord that you have made my eyes (we say), we have not used them well or wisely. We have looked at stuff we shouldn’t; we have coveted with them; we have lusted with them; we have used them to gain forbidden knowledge.
“Let my shame go where it doth deserve”: I am fit only for Hell. I can’t stand your mercy – give me justice. Herbert I think (as he is throughout the poem) is psychologically spot on here. Often we reject God’s mercy simply because we are so aware we don’t deserve it. But that’s the nature of mercy – God comes to us and he flings his arms around us, though we smell of pigswill, though we have wasted the inheritance he gave us. Better to treat me harshly – or this mercy will break me. “And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”: At this point God agrees – we are in a mess. We do deserve to be shut away from his eternal presence for ever. However, Herbert is pointed to the cross. There is where all our muck and filth, all our shame and disgrace, all our sin and selfishness were dealt with. We cannot progress beyond the cross. All must come again and again to the foot of the cross and there see our burdens roll away onto Jesus, as he fully takes the can for everything we have ever done, or said, or thought, and for everything we have failed to do, say or think. [General Confession in BCP] Our sin is real. The penalty is indeed death. But God’s Son, Jesus Christ, took the blame, paid off our debt, and our sins were nailed to the cross. He is the judge, judged in our place; he is the healthy one made sick with our muck; he is the whole one, broken in two that we might be healed.
“My dear, then I will serve.”: and still revelation that touches our heart is hard to come to. Here Herbert responds in faith and trust (“my dear”), and that is often the case when we see the lengths our Saviour went to, to rescue and deliver us. But there is something in each of us which also retorts, ‘yes Lord, I will try harder, I will serve you longer and longer hours, ask me anything you like, I promise I’ll do better, I’ll even go and be a missionary – anything, I just want to serve you, I love you that much.’
But the Lord is having none of that. Having got so far by grace, he is not going to settle for a works-based response again. “You must sit down”, says Love, “and taste my meat.” Here is the point of our relationship with God: we must be with him, sit down with him at his feast. You see, he doesn’t need us to serve him, or do anything for him. He made us because he loved us. And he delights that we let him serve us (think of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet). That’s at the heart of God towards us – that we be with him, at rest in his presence, relaxed in him, at ease with the mighty Creator and Lord of the universe, because he has done everything necessary for us to enjoy him.
“So I did sit and eat.”: Here is where it ends. Revelation 3:20 (for the church).