On Saturday, I had the immense privilege of attending, via youtube, the Commissioning of the cadets in the Messengers of the Kingdom session at William Booth College. They have been in training for two years and are now being sent out as Lieutenants to their new appointments as Officers in the Salvation Army.
In normal times, it would have been a massive affair at Westminster Central Hall with families and friends joining together to celebrate along with thousands of others.
This year was very different. It took place at the William Booth College and was attended by the cadets being commissioned plus those in their first year of training, a few of the staff and those who were leading the service including the Territorial Leaders Anthony and Gill Cotterill.
They did a beautiful job of it. Some parts were live; The commissioning itself – where each Cadet was called forward to be commissioned and given a portion of Scripture chosen for them – and the message from the TC. Some bits were prerecorded; Testimonies from some of the Cadets, songs which we were able to sing at home but they just had to listen to there as singing is not allowed in corporate worship at the moment, reflections for prayer etc. It might not have been the massive spectacle that it usually is but I have no doubt that it was an incredibly special occasion for each of the cadets and for all of us who were able to watch. I don’t know how many got to see it but I would think it was a wider audience than it would usually have been.
During the service, we watched a presentation by the Candidates’ Department, which contained a challenge for everyone watching and I would like to share that challenge with you today. When someone becomes a soldier in the SA they sign a Soldier’s Covenant, which has two sections. The first one lists our doctrines, those things that we believe are crucial to our faith. The second are a response to that and each begins with the words, ‘therefore I will’.
The challenge that everyone listening was given was the question, what is your ‘therefore I will’ in response to God’s love for you? It was a challenge asking people to consider whether maybe God was calling them to leadership within the Salvation Army as Officers, Territorial Envoys or Pioneers but also wider than that, maybe to some kind of leadership within their churches or to something completely different.
God has a purpose for your life right up to the very end. You can’t be too young, too old, not clever enough or too clever for God to want to use you to bring the good news of his love and grace to those you meet day by day. For most of us, that involves staying exactly where we are but there is always a possibility that God is calling us to something different, somewhere different.
It could be easy at the moment for us to believe that God isn’t asking anything of us as we are in the middle of a lockdown but actually, I believe that God is asking something very specific of his church right now. This week, in my bible reading, I came across this passage from Amos 5:21-24:
I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.
This is from the Message paraphrase of the bible and as I read it, it brought me up short. Actually, punched me between the eyes is more accurate! It’s quite difficult reading, isn’t it? Is that really how God feels about our churches? I said last week that I believe that the bible is the word of God which can and does speak to us today but that it has to be interpreted correctly and understood in the context in which it was written.
Amos was a shepherd. He had no training, had not been to ‘prophet school’. He was a simple man who God chose to use to speak his words to the world, first to the Gentiles and then to the Israelites. He was speaking during the time when Israel was divided into two – Israel and Judah – with two kings. I remember hearing of Amos as being ‘the prophet of doom’ and it’s easy to see why. He announces God’s judgement on the world and it’s not easy reading!
In Chapter 5, the message is for Israel and it’s a call for them to seek God, to stop the awful way they were treating each other, particularly the poor and oppressed within their nation. They were bringing their ‘worship’ to God by way of honouring the feasts and sacred assemblies and yet their hearts were hard and injustice reigned. It’s not that God wanted them to stop honouring the feasts – they were part of his law, after all. It’s not that God would want us to stop meeting together, singing together and worshipping him through meeting congregationally. It’s that he wants to see the outworking of that time together in how we respond to others.
This particular passage would have been a shock to the Israelites who considered that their religious practices were honouring God and that he was pleased with all that they offered to him. In truth, though, it had become ritual. Their heads and their hearts were somehow detached and so it had become meaningless and not God honouring in any way. It was going through the motions rather than worship.
There are other passages in the bible similar to this one. In Micah 6, 6-8 we read these words:
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.
In both of these passages and others, we see clearly what it is that God considers worship. ‘I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it.’ Another translation might be more familiar to you. The NIV says, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”.
What God wants to see, what he considers as worship, is us treating each other in the right way, where we look out for the needs of others, where we are committed to fighting for the rights of those who are oppressed and giving food to those who are hungry.
Jesus, too, talks about this when he is speaking about eternity. Have a look at Matthew 25:31-46. This will probably be a familiar reading to you. It says, in essence, that how we care for each other, how we love those who are ‘least’ in the world’s eyes will be indicative of how we care for him, how we love him and will have a bearing on where we will spend eternity.
True worship, then, is shown in our actions. We are saved by the grace of God, not by our works or our actions, but we demonstrate that salvation (we work out that salvation!) in the way that we treat others. We are called to fight for justice. We are called to show mercy. We are called to live lives where justice and mercy are at the core of everything we do.
So today, I ask you, what is your ‘therefore I will’?
God has saved you. He loves you. He calls you. How will you respond to that in your actions from today?
What is our ‘therefore I will’ as a church? Whilst we are prevented from meeting together, we have an amazing opportunity to rethink what it will look like when we can come back together again. How can we worship God by fighting for justice? How can we demonstrate his mercy? How can we offer our love to God in our response to those the world considers ‘less’?
There is a song written by Stephen Pearson and Andrew Blyth called Compelled by Love. It has been a real challenge to me over the years. It has been my ‘therefore I will’ as I consider God’s love to me. Have a listen, read the words and consider your ‘therefore I will’ as you do.
Compelled By Love called to serve wherever there are souls in need. Compelled by love, called to find the lonely and the lost. Touched by God’s grace, I’ll love where hearts are hurting. How can I offer less than all When I am born again by his forgiving? I’m compelled by love. Compelled by love, Called to toil wherever there are mouths to feed. Compelled by love, called to work where life is at its worst. Moved by God’s grace, I’ll prove that I am willing. How can I offer less than all When his love fills my heart, my spirit thrilling? I’m compelled by love. Compelled by love, called to follow Christ no matter where he leads. Compelled by love, called to give and not to count the cost. Filled with God’s grace, I’ll lead a life worth living. How can I offer less than all When I am made anew by his infilling? His love calls me, his love claims me, I’m compelled by love.