Preached 6 July 2008 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
All right … (banging on pulpit) settle down you lot. Quickly. And less noise at the back there. Now …
Abbot … Here, sir!
Aspinall … Aspinall, wake up boy! Sorry, sir. Here, sir!
Atkinson … Here, sir!
Birch … Here, sir!
Blackwell … Blackwell? … He’s not here, sir.
I can see that, Carter. Stupid boy. When I want your help I’ll ask for it!
Booth … Here, sir …
The taking of the register. We all remember it don’t we? I’m not sure how it’s done now, but that’s how it was done when I was at school. And, thinking about it, I suppose the school register was one of the first books in which my name was ever written. Not the very first. There is a Register of Births that is kept at Somerset House in London, and that’s the first book in which my name was written. Here is a copy of the entry … my birth certificate.
But according to Jesus, there is another book in another place; and if my name appears in that book, it is the one thing above any other that should fill me with joy.
In the gospel, we heard how 72 disciples of Jesus had been out on a mission. Jesus had empowered them to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, cleanse lepers, and so on. And they had come back full of excitement, bursting with news. ‘Jesus,’ they said. ‘Wait till you here what happened. We did everything you gave us power to do. Everything! We even cast out demons. Great big wooly ones. And they didn’t even stop to argue … they just went. Wow, it was awesome.’
And Jesus says: ‘I’m sure it was. Little did you know it, but when you dealt with the powers of darkness, it shook the heavens. I felt the tremors. I saw Satan lose his balance and fall. But please don’t get hooked on that. Don’t rejoice in being ghost-busters. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’
Rejoice that your names are written in heaven. Rejoice that when God calls the register, he’ll be calling ‘Tobit, B; Medley, A; Hartley, M; Kelly, W; Tyndale, H; Dening, J; Harrison, C; Pyrah, G and so on. Rejoice that you’ll be able to shout … ‘Here, Lord’. Rejoice that, as the old Negro spiritual puts it, ‘When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there!’
And it’s this heavenly register that I want us to think about this morning. What is it? Who started it and when? How do you get into it? When will it be closed? And what will it be used for?
It seems that all ancient peoples, once they had learned the art of writing, became fanatical about keeping registers. And the Jews were no exception. They kept hundreds of them. If you want to see what they were like, you need only turn to the First Book of Chronicles which houses a collection of some of them. (And, by the way, I strongly recommend it to you as bedtime reading if you have trouble getting to sleep. ‘Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, etc etc.’ The list goes on and on.)
Now the Jews may well have caught this passion for keeping registers from the Egyptians among whom they once lived. Moses, you will recall, had been brought up by Pharaoh’s daughter and, according to the Bible, he had been ‘instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’ (Acts 7.22). And there, at the royal court, he would have learned how to write hieroglyphics with ink on papyrus and hide; and he would also have learned Canaanite script. But, more to the point, he would have seen and learned to read the vast store of parchments in the public records office, recording the names and genealogies of all the great Egyptian families and landowners.
So it’s not surprising that, back in the time when Moses was leading the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land — about 13 centuries before Christ, he should have taken it for granted that God kept registers too. And, indeed, it’s way back then that we first hear tell of this book in heaven that Jesus is talking about.
The background is this. The people have encamped at Mount Sinai. Moses has gone up into the mountain to meet with God. He is there a long time. Then God gives him the ten commandments and Moses comes back down from the mountain. But he finds, to his horror, that the people have already turned away from God and are worshipping a golden calf they have made. In great anguish, Moses returns to the mountain and says to God: ‘Please forgive their sin — but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.’ Did you hear that? ‘Blot me out of the book you have written’. And what does God say? ‘Book? What book? Don’t be silly, I haven’t written any book!’ No. He says: ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.’
So there is a book. There is a register … or God is keeping some sort of record that we can best understand by thinking of it in that way. And we encounter this ‘book’ again in Psalm 69. There, David, who is having a hard time, calls God’s attention to his enemies: ‘Charge them with crime upon crime;’ he prays. ‘Do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous’(Psalm 69:28).
Aah! So we now we know what this book is. It is the ‘Book of Life’. And we know what it contains. it lists all those who share in God’s salvation, those who have a ‘right standing’ before God.
And that is confirmed when we next hear about the book in Daniel, chapter 12. An angel is telling Daniel what will happen at the end of the world and he says: ‘There will be a time of distress … But at that time … everyone whose name is found written in the book will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake; some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.’
More information. Now we know why it’s called the Book of Life. Because that’s what belongs to those whose names are in it. Eternal life, everlasting life … life with God. And right at the end of the New Testament, in chapter 21 of the book of Revelation, we are given complete confirmation that that is so. There, we are shown a picture of the new heaven and the new earth that will be brought into being when this earth passes away. And the crunch comes at the end. Who will be admitted through the gates? Who will dwell there with Jesus, the Lamb of God? ‘Only,’ it says, ‘only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life’ (27).
So whose names are in there? We know that it contains Moses’ name. And David’s. And that of Daniel. And the names of the disciples. We know, too, that a chap called Clement features in it. Writing to the Philippians, Paul speaks of ‘Clement and the rest of my fellow-workers, whose names are in the book of life’ (4.3). But is my name in it? Is yours?
You see, it’s all very well Jesus telling us to rejoice that our names are written in heaven, but how do we know that they are? If I want to know whether my name is in some company’s database, I can write and ask them, and they have 40 days under the Data Protection Act to tell me — maximum charge £10 . But no organisation on earth can tell me whether I’m on God’s database; whether my name is written in his Book of Life.
So how can I tell. How can you? I know that I threw out the names of one or two members of this congregation a little earlier, but the truth is that I don’t know whether all or any of those names are in the Lamb’s Book of Life. How can they find out?
Paul tells us how. In Romans 8 and verse 16, he says this. If we truly belong to God, ‘the Spirit himself — the Holy Spirit — bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’. Or as J B Phillips puts it: ‘The Holy Spirit endorses our own inward conviction that we really are the children of God’. There are, in other words, two sides to our knowing that we belong to God, that our names are in his Book of Life. And the first is this — that our own spirit tells us so. When we turn the spotlight on our own life and see what is going on in it, we find sufficient evidence to give us an inner conviction that we do, really and truly, belong to God.
We discover that we have a love for other Christians and a deepening desire to share our lives with them. We recognise them as ‘family’ and we delight to ‘come together in Jesus’ name’. In short, we ‘love the brethren’; and that, says Saint John, is a sign that our names are written in heaven. 1 John 3.14: ‘We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren’.
We discover, too, that we obey God’s commandments, not to gain heaven or to avoid hell, but because we have an ever-growing love for the Father and a deep desire to please him. We are not ‘under law’ — indeed the written law of God has, as Paul says, been done away with, nailed to the cross of Christ. But we find that somehow God’s law is now written in our hearts and we delight to obey what we have no need to obey. And we find too that to break this inner law grieves us more and more. Another sign, says St John, that our names are written in heaven.1 John 2.3: ‘We know that we have come to know God, if we obey his commands’.
And then we discover that we have God’s Spirit in our lives. We find the fruit of that Spirit growing on what were once barren branches. Maybe not a lot and maybe not Class 1 quality, but fruit for sure. Little clusters of love and joy and peace. Small but undeniably real bunches of patience, kindness and goodness. Ripening berries of faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And we begin to discover the Spirit’s gifts and graces. People start getting blessed through us and we begin to realise that it is the Holy Spirit, active in us, that is giving the blessing. Another sign, says St John, that our names are written in heaven. 1 John 3.13: ‘We know that we live in him and he in us because he has given us of his Spirit’.
And to all that witness of our own spirit, to all that inward conviction, the Holy Spirit brings his own endorsement that we are truly children of God. He personally tells us so. How does he do that? What is the witness of the Holy Spirit? John Wesley describes it like this: ‘The testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; and that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.’
Do you know the witness of your own spirit that you are a child of God? Do you have the witness of the Holy Spirit that that is so? Do you have the ‘blessed assurance’ that your name is written in heaven, that it’s recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life? If you do, rejoice in it, says Jesus. Rejoice in it more than you rejoice in any other thing in heaven and earth.
But what if you don’t have that assurance? What if neither your own spirit nor God’s spirit is telling you that you have passed from death to life and that your name is written in heaven?
Then you need to remember Naaman in our first lesson. That leprous, unclean, commander of the Aramite army. He wanted to be clean, oh how he wanted to be clean. So much so that he demeaned himself sufficiently to visit Elisha: A scruffy desert prophet in the bordering hostile nation of Israel. But Elisha asked too much of him. Not even bothering to give him a personal interview, Elisha sent his assistant with a message: ‘Go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan and you will be made clean.’
The Jordan — a river despised by all but the Jews. A pathetic river. A dirty river. A river full of old bedsteads and dead donkeys. A river that didn’t even begin to compare with the rivers of Damascus. ‘If I must wash myself in a river to be clean,’ says Naaman, ‘Let it be in the River Abana or the River Pharpar, but not in this muddy stream.’ But no, it has to be the Jordan. And when Naaman finally humbles himself sufficiently to do what he is told, ‘his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.’ A ‘new creation’ as Paul put it in our New Testament lesson from Galatians.
In Hebrew, the name ‘Jordan’ means ‘the Descender’ and the river that Naaman so much despised was so called because it starts its life nearly 10,000 feet in the air, high above the clouds, in the snows of Mount Hermon and, in the short space of 75 miles, pours itself out into the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the surface of the earth, over 1,000 feet below ordinary sea level. That river became for Naaman the river of healing, the river of God’s love. And there is a river of healing, a river of God’s love for us too. It is Jesus himself. He too is the Descender: the one who, as we say in the Creed, ‘came down from heaven’. And like the Jordan, he outpoured himself for us into the place of death.
If, like Naaman, we would be made clean and new; if we would have our names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, we must immerse ourselves in that River of Life which is Christ Jesus himself. The rivers of Reason and Self-determination may seem grander, more sophisticated, less humbling, but they just don’t do the job. The river that flowed from Calvary and flows there still is the only river in which we can find salvation. This message, the message of the cross is, as Paul says, foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. The cross, like the Jordan, may be viewed with contempt by the world, but it is the only place in which we can get our names written in heaven. It is the only place where we can be enrolled in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Booth? Yes, Lord. Here, Lord …
Let us pray …
Thank you Father for the river of life that still pours out from Calvary — the river of your love, the river of your cleansing, the river of your healing. Father, we would plunge into that river now. And we would surrender ourselves — all that we have and all that we are — to its redeeming and renewing flow. Grant that, before we leave this place this morning, each one of us here will, by the power of the cross of Christ, have passed from death to life. Write all our names in heaven. And cause us to rejoice now in the knowledge that they are truly written there. In the name of Jesus we ask it. Amen.