A conversation on a train.
I didn’t expect that subject to arise in a conversation on a train.
My wife, Marti, and I were with two friends waiting for the train home from London when we noticed two people sitting on one of the benches drinking gin and tonic from cans. When we boarded the train, the lady, who we learned was Rachel, boarded to the left, as we did, and sat across the aisle from the four of us. The man went to the right, but half a minute later he came back, apologised to Marti for pushing in front of her as we boarded, and sat down on the other seat across the aisle from us. We had not noticed that he, who we learned was Tom, had pushed in front. I suppose it was a coincidence that they were each drinking gin and tonic from a can because they didn’t know one another but had struck up a conversation as they waited for the train.
We undoubtedly stirred their interest; we were two men, one Egyptian and one Ghanaian, and couple who spoke English with an accent that was not from London. We smiled, said hello—breaking English protocol for behaviour on public transportation—and they smiled back and started asking the obvious questions: Who are you? Where have you been? Where are you going? What do you do?
Aha! There was that question, “What do you do?”, the wide open door to talk about how Jesus has changed us and wants to bring life to everyone.
Is he the angry God?
Tom had watched a film, Noah, the epic biblical drama starring Russell Crowe. That had raised an important question for him, “is God the angry man in the sky who wipes out the human race, except for Noah and his family?”
Well, is he? The question was asked in the week leading up to today, the day we remember that the God/Man surrendered to a tortuous, ignominious death. WHY?
If you had asked me that question at the age of 20, having grown up in a Pentecostal church, I would not have had an answer except, “Well, he just did—because he loves us.” But that simple answer, while true, never satisfied my mind.
It really does make sense.
A brilliant engineer, executive of a high-tech company (high-tech for the 1960s), taught us for a week at the first Lausanne-based School of Evangelism—it finally made sense.
When God created us in his image, he also told us how we could live “rich and satisfying lives” (John 10:10 NLT). All we had to do was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. (Mark 12:30,31)
That was such a kind law, but it was a real law. Laws are mere advice if there is no punishment for disobeying them. Minor laws have minor penalties for those who break them, but vital laws have serious consequences for the law breaker.
When do we respect the law?
Think about that; here’s an example. For the first 45 years of living and driving in England the speed limit on our motorways (freeways, autoroutes, autobahnen, autostrada etc) was 70 miles per hour. But it was widely known that the police would not stop anyone who was driving faster—up to about 85 mph. So, I drove 85 mph. That all changed about five years ago. I didn’t even see a warning notice in the news. I realised it had changed when I opened an envelope one morning to find a speeding notice and a very large fine for exceeding the speed limit by about ten miles an hour. Within a short time I noticed that it was rare to see a car driving over the 70-mph limit.
All drivers in England became aware that the speed limit was more than advice. The enforcement of penalties resulted in respect for the law.
The most important law of all.
The commandment to love God and others is the most important of all the laws ever made. If we break it, what happens? If we don’t love God, our sense of purpose becomes shallow and eventually meaningless; our identity becomes vulnerable. These consequences gradually become more and more serious, undermining our very existence and making the way for destructive ideologies and practices to fill the vacuum.
If we don’t love ourselves and others, society declines to the point of being unbearable. Our conversation this morning around the breakfast table (with extended family) was about the damage done to children who were unable to interact normally with others during the years of misguided government responses to Covid19. With no personal interaction with friends at school and social events, life was sucked out of them as so many of them sat in front of screens by the hour. We are not made for that.
Our conversation with Rachel and Tom unfolded along these lines and their interest was obviously intense. Rachel’s stop was approaching so we had to condense the story of God’s solution to the problem. The problem is this: if the lawgiver just forgives the offenders, then the law is weakened to the point of seeming irrelevance.
God did not design us to die.
But God tells us that he takes no pleasure in the death of anyone. (Ez. 18:23) The death we are thinking about is not just in this age but in “the age to come” (New Testament for Everyone). This dreadful penalty shouts to us that the commandment to love is foundational to life. And yet everyone fails to live up to it fully.
So this is the divine dilemma: Forgive everyone and the law becomes meaningless and that is the end of humanity. Hold everyone to the penalty and that is the end of humanity.
But what if the lawgiver becomes one of us, and loves God and others perfectly and then still suffers the penalty? Then the seriousness of the law is demonstrated more than the death penalty could ever do. Therefore, the law-giver can do both—uphold the law and extend forgiveness to all who will turn to him.
Why did he die? He HAD to.
Thank God for Good Friday!
So grateful for knowing and receiving this privilege.
I can hear Harry Conn through this. I recently found some of his lectures on YouTube. So good. Thank you for not only your own teaching, but for exposing us to people like Harry Conn.