“They looked towards the mountains old
And saw the sunsets come and go
With gorgeous golden afterglow
That made the West a fairyland.
And marvelled what the West might be
Of which such wondrous tales were told.”
From “Song of the Future” ~ Banjo Patterson
Not wanting to risk exposing herself to Pastor Turnbull's eagle eyes any longer than necessary, Jemimah was out the front door again within minutes.
In the little time she'd been indoors the sun had sunk considerably. It now cast elongated shadows across the grass like marks on a sundial to remind her that Angie would soon return, and that her time with Michael was fast fading.
As much as she simply wanted to be in his presence, Jemimah felt an even more pressing need to return to their interrupted conversation. Now that the jumble of conflicting pieces that had worried her for the past fortnight were beginning to fall into some kind of order, she hoped that with just a little more time he might help her see the big picture of the Gospel clearly again. Sure, she could ask Pastor Turnbull more about these things after Michael had returned to Sydney – if she knew what questions to ask. But that was the incredible thing with Michael, somehow her understood exactly what she needed to hear. More than just giving her answers, he was helping her see the questions she needed to ask.
The thrum of the open engine muffled the crunch of her footsteps on the gravel, and Michael still hadn't turned around even when she was all but a couple of steps from him.
"Michael . . . "
Bent over the running motor it was more likely that he'd hear a kitten mewing than her shy voice. Jemimah took a big breath and tried again.
He still gave no sign of awareness of her presence, but stretched his right arm further into the engine to make another adjustment with the tool in his hand. Then he paused again, his arm resting along the front of the engine bay while he listened, his head cocked slightly to one side.
There was nothing else for it – Jemimah simply didn’t have the time to wait for him to eventually turn around. With her heart thudding against her ribs she reached out to touch his arm. His skin seemed to burn her fingertips, the golden hair along his forearm unexpectedly soft and springy under her hesitant touch.
She quickly drew back as Michael swung round, a welcoming smile lighting up his grease-daubed face.
"How long have you been standing there?" he asked, leaning close to make himself heard over the din.
"Just came." Jemimah’s voice was stuck somewhere in the back of her throat. Michael wasn't quite touching her, but she could feel the heat from his body like a living force in the cool evening air.
"I'm going to leave it running for a little while," Michael spoke into her burning ear. "I had to jump start the battery, so I want to let it charge before I turn it off. Let's go somewhere we can hear ourselves talk while we wait." His breath brushed against her cheek as he spoke and Jemimah felt herself trembling all over. She stepped away before he could notice, splashing the cup of tea in her haste to move to a safe distance.
"I'm sorry." She shook the warm liquid from her hand and held the cup up to Michael. "This is yours."
He didn't reach out for it immediately, but stood still looking at her. "Really? That's very kind of you, Jemimah. Thank you."
The cup began to shake in her hand, and Jemimah was relieved when he took it from her and led the way out of the shed. Just going a little way around the side of the building cut the noise dramatically, and Michael walked toward the fence that separated the paddock from the house yard. He stopped and gazed across the plain toward the distant mountains. The sun was a fiery ball sitting just above the ranges, and beginning to colour the western sky in glowing tones.
"This is going to be worth watching," he called back, then strode toward her and handed back the cup. "Will you mind this again? I’ve got an idea."
Jemimah watched him disappear back inside the shed, returning with first one large metal drum and then another. On his third trip he carried a wide wooden plank which he lay across the top of the two drums he’d placed against the back wall of the shed.
"Voila!" He collected his cup from Jemimah and swung his hand dramatically toward his construction. "Instant park bench."
Jemimah smiled appreciatively and followed him over. Before she sat down he ran hand over the edge of the plank, as though assuring himself that there were no rough edges.
"Do you need a hand?" Michael asked as Jemimah eyed the high perch.
"No thanks," she said, and quickly hoisted herself up onto the plank. She couldn’t trust herself to hold together if he helped her up.
Satisfied she was safely settled, Michael sat down a couple of arms lengths away and took a long drink of his tea.
"Perfect," he complimented her. "Just what I needed."
His unintentional echo of his father's words sent the heat flooding back into Jemimah's cheeks, even though there was no reason for confusion regarding what Michael was referring to now. He wasn't even looking at Jemimah at all, but staring across the paddock to the distant sky.
For a moment back there inside the shed, Jemimah had read far more into his close proximity than had obviously been there. Then when he had gone to the trouble of setting up the bench she'd been expecting he’d sit close beside her, and she'd felt almost faint at the thought of what might be on his mind.
"Do you remember where we were up to?" he asked now.
Jemimah berated herself silently for her overactive imagination. There was nothing more on Michael’s mind than escaping the noise and returning to their theological discussion. Which is a far more profitable place for my thoughts to be, too.
"Yes, I think so. Was it the letter ‘I’ in the acrostic TULIP?"
"Ah, very good. You are a rewarding pupil, Miss Parker. I for Irresistible Grace." He emptied his cup with one long sip and placed it on the plank between them. "Another term for it is Effectual Calling - those people whom God calls to repentance and faith will come. It is a guaranteed effective call because it brings regeneration – new spiritual life - or as Jesus put it to Nicodemus: being born again.
Michael stretched his arms above his head and then settled back against the shed wall.
"In a sense this point is really foundational to all the others. As we talked about before your holidays, it is God’s work in the heart of those he has chosen in eternity past which brings about salvation. If you can grasp this, you will begin to appreciate the utter beauty of God's sovereignty in salvation. Between the ‘I’ of Irresistible Grace and the ‘P’ of the Perseverance of the Saints lies the whole wonderful perfection and assurance of our salvation."
Jemimah frowned, trying to tie in what he was saying with what they'd talked about earlier regarding the "all" whom Christ died for. "But what about the verses about God calling all men to salvation - how can that call not be irresistible then?"
"God does call all men to come to him for salvation - just us he calls all men to repentance. Those who hear the gospel and wilfully ignore or reject it have that sin added to them as well. But, as we looked at earlier, as all men are dead in their sins, no-one can come to him unless he first enables them. God makes a general call to all – anyone who comes to God in repentance and faith will be accepted - but the spiritually dead can not see it or hear God’s revelation through the Gospel or through creation because of their love for their sin. I don’t know if it’s a great example, but a parallel that comes to mind is that of a drunk whose alcoholic stupor blinds them to the wickedness of their violence or the irresponsibility of driving drunk. Can they be held responsible to pay the consequences for the lives of those they maim and kill? Absolutely - and so are we when we are blinded in our drunken stupor of sin. God calls all but because we are so intoxicated with sin we neither hear nor understand it. But God also intervenes on behalf of those he has chosen: 'And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified’. "
Michael looked at her searchingly. "Can you see it yet, Jemimah? Our salvation is all of God - every little bit of it. He chooses those he will, and then he changes their heart to make them able to come. That is why salvation is not a human decision, but a miraculous new birth that leads to eternal life."
"My mother said that the reason we need to choose to open our heart to Jesus to be saved is because God doesn't want us coming to him unwillingly. That if we can't chose freely that we're not coming out of love to him."
"Do you see that in the scriptures, Jemimah? That man has a free will that trumps over God's sovereign purposes?"
Jemimah shook her head. "No, I don't think so. But does that mean God really does force those he chooses to come to him?"
"No, he doesn't - they come because they are willing. When God calls his people they come because when they hear his voice they want to come. 'My sheep hear my voice ..." Sovereign choice and our responsibility work hand in hand - those God doesn't enable, he doesn't draw and left to themselves they do not want to come to him. They freely choose to reject him and to choose sin. But those God has chosen he gives new life to, and he makes them want to come. As the Apostle John wrote ‘We love him because he first loved us’.
Jemimah realised how stiffly she was sitting, and made herself relax her shoulders and leant back against the wall as she thought through what he was saying.
"What can we learn from the salvation experience of the Apostle Paul?" Michael asked a minute or two later. "I think that would put this doctrine into the context of a real life example. When we first read of Paul – or as he was called then: Saul - was he seeking Christ?"
"No - he was on his way to persecute the followers of Christ in Damascus." Jemimah began to nod, remembering the vivid scene in Acts. “Then Christ appeared to him in the road, and Saul was blinded. Then Saul did everything Jesus told him.”
"Saul suddenly became very willing to obey didn’t he?” Michael smiled. “Jesus was certainly not waiting helplessly for Saul to come to him - he sought him out and grabbed him while he was still his enemy. As the Lord said to Annanias in his vision about Paul ‘he is a chosen instrument of mine’ But Saul wasn’t forced to follow Christ unwillingly - from the moment Jesus had been made known to him, Saul no longer wanted to persecute Christ and his followers. He became a very willing servant, and his immense gratitude and love for Jesus burns through every one of his letters in the New Testament. Even though his heart had been set against Jesus – when Jesus called him, there was nothing he wanted more in the world than to obey him.”
They sat quietly for a while then Michael said, "While you're mulling that over I'll go on to the last point: The Perseverance of the Saints. A true Christian who has genuinely been saved will persevere in a life of faith until the end. Again, it is like sovereignty of God in salvation where God’s work is brought to fulfilment through our obedience to his command.
We are told to work diligently to make our calling and election sure so that we will not be lost, and a believer’s hatred of sin and growth in holiness is evidence of their salvation. The Bible warns that without that determined seeking after God they will fall away and be lost – and there are many who profess to love God but whose lives prove they never knew him, like we read of in the Parable of the Sower. But that can never happen to a true Christian, they will continue in good works because God will make them continue.
There may be seasons of sin and estrangement from God - like we see in the life of King David - but if a person has truly been born again they will always return to God in repentance and faith. The doctrine that the saints will certainly persevere to the end is a beautiful teaching, because those saved by God’s mighty hand can have full assurance that they are saved forever because their salvation is a perfect work.”
"Because it is God's work," Jemimah murmured.
"Yes, because it is God's work from start to finish. He chooses, he calls, he enables, he justifies, he sanctifies and he holds fast in his hand until we safely reach heaven. It is a wonderful salvation because it is all of God - even His grace in giving us the desire to pursue holiness. It is nothing of our own making – or we’d surely ruin it – the whole of our salvation, now and forever is entirely the result of God’s incredible grace mercifully bestowed upon us."
Jemimah stared across the mountains to the glorious colours that stretched upward from the horizon. To be chosen by God . . . to be sure you would not fall away . . . if only she could know for sure that included her.
"But how . . . how can we know if we are chosen," she asked a little shakily. "And what if . . . what if we're not elected?"
Michael's voice was like a comforting arm around her shoulders. "We know we are chosen because we long for Christ's salvation.
We see and hate our sin, and know there is no help for us but the mercy of Jesus. We don't have to worry about whether we're elect or not - that part is God's business - our business is to obey when we hear him call us to repent, because if we don't, we will die in our sins. And that's why we preach the gospel to all men - knowing that those who are God's sheep will hear his voice, they will be convicted of their sin and their need of forgiveness in Jesus."
"Oh." Jemimah answered, her eyes fixed on the incredible beauty of the sunset as she worked through his reply. "I couldn't see that. My pastor said that if you really believed in election there would be no reason to evangelise or show God's love to others because those he'd picked would be guaranteed heaven without us having to do anything. I could see that couldn't be right, but . . . ."
"And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? That’s from Pauls letter to the Romans " Michael quoted. "This is the way God has chosen to gather his people into the kingdom - through the preaching of the gospel of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. He is pleased to bring salvation to all the world through the faithful labour of his servants."
Jemimah tried to get her mind around the concept that God could ensure something would happen exactly according to his will but through people’s own choices and actions. She’d gotten a glimpse of it earlier that year in the sermons on Joseph and God working through the evil intentions of his older brothers to bring about God’s plans for good for his people – but this seemed so much deeper. Before she could put it into words Michael continued.
"Why do we pray, Jemimah - if God is sovereign and already knows our needs? What is the point?'
This was an area that had confused Jemimah before. Why ask for what God already knew? She replied with the answer she’d given to herself. "Because he wants us to?"
"Yes, and because he has ordained that his purposes will be brought into effect through prayer. God graciously allows us to participate in his work. What he has planned he makes us long for, and pray for and rejoice in when he grants it. It is the same with salvation - he knows his sheep, and he sends us out to bring his message of reconciliation to them. We can't know beforehand who are the sheep - we only know that when they embrace the message we bring and respond with obedience to Christ’s commands.
This is why proclaiming the true gospel matters so much, Jemimah. We can lure anyone to agreement with promises of peace and happiness or a free ticket to heaven but only the in true message of repentance and faith in the finished work of Christ will the voice of The Shepherd be recognised and work powerfully in their hearts. His sheep won’t find the message of the cross offensive - to them it is the aroma of life unto life."
Jemimah nodded and let her head rest against the shed. Her eyes were full of the magnificent sunset, and her heart full of the vast concept of God as a loving Shepherd working through all things to bring his sheep to salvation.
"This is the incredible beauty of the doctrines of grace,” Michael said slowly, as though he were savouring the thought himself, rather than just answering Jemimah’s questions. “It isn't about us, about our choice, or our will - it is all about God bringing his eternal plans to fulfilment. We are just humbly grateful that for whatever unknown reason according to his will - he has plucked us from the refuse heap of our own sin, cleansed us in the blood of his Son and given us eyes to see his great salvation. If it depended on us, we couldn't do it right, we would fail and we would be lost - but the work that God undertakes from beginning to end will be perfect."
The skyline swam in Jemimah’s eyes and she let the tears run free, not even caring that she was crying in front of Michael Turnbull again. “But how can I serve him when I find it so hard to learn and understand these things? When I think of how much I’ve misunderstood . . . and what I’ve said to other people . . . how can I ever be any good at-- ”
Michael turned quickly to face her, his eyes dark with emotion.
“God has chosen you for his purpose, Jemimah, don’t ever let yourself become discouraged,” he said forcefully. “He has your work prepared in advance for you to do and he will make you able to do it. If you are frail, then God’s grace shines through your frailty. This is not about you and what you have to bring God, it is all about him and his plans for his glory and for your undeserved good.
He could have sent angels to deliver the gospel in all their perfection and glory - but He didn't. He chose to make the way of salvation known through people like us - the poor, the lame, the blind, the weak - so that his glory might be hidden from those who reject him in their rebellion, and shown gloriously to those he reveals it to. God doesn’t give us any explanation whatsoever for why he calls whom he calls,” Michael said, his eyes still on Jemimah, “but I do know how incredibly and undeservedly blessed we are to be adopted as sons and heirs by him.”
The whine of the motor in the shed changed its tone slightly, and Michael sprang to his feet. "Yikes - it would never do to run the tank empty! Excuse me." He dashed past Jemimah, but she barely noticed, her gaze fixed on the vivid colourscape in front of her.
It was as though the glorious light of the sunset had poured in through her eyes and pervaded every part of her heart with its immense majesty. The thought of salvation, the Christian life - her whole future - all being part of God’s great plan, and her being merely the blessed recipient, was overwhelming.
It was just like it happened with Mary, Jemimah thought. The angel appeared to tell Mary that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Lord Jesus, and Mary could only respond to such incredible news with the humble acceptance of God’s will, ‘I am the Lord’s servant, let it be to me according to your word.’
”My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,”
Jemimah sang softly to herself as she remembered the words of Mary’s song from Luke chapter 1 she’d learned as a chorus years ago,
“for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.”
The sun slipped behind the mountains and Jemimah was sure she’d never see another sunset without remembering that very moment - and the incomprehensible glory of God.
The engine was suddenly silenced, and a moment later Michael came back around the shed just as the last rays of the sunset began to fade from view. He didn't speak but stood still beside Jemimah until stars like diamond studs began to pierce the dark blue of the western sky.
“And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars." Michael quoted softly. “"I think that is the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen. Thank you Lord - what a beautiful gift for my last night here."
His words brought Jemimah back to the present and she quickly wiped the moisture from her face. "Of course, you're heading home tomorrow."
It felt strange to talk about such normal, down to earth things again.
"Uh-huh, straight from church. It wouldn't do to have too late a night before diving back into the next term. And are you all ready for the new term?"
Twin headlights appeared at the bottom of the driveway. Reluctantly, Jemimah rose to her feet. As much as she wished their time together would never end she knew she must return to the lights of the house and everyday life sooner or later. The afternoon’s conversation with Michael – and sharing with him that sunset - had been one of the most incredible experiences of her life, but now she must treasure it up in her heart and take it with her.
"Yes, I’m ready,” she replied, walking by Michael's side toward the house, where Angie's car was now heading. "I took my schoolwork home to Newcastle with me, so I wouldn't have to worry about it when Angie and I got back home." She laughed at her own confusing labels. "Home home - and home here. Funny isn't it?"
"Yes - but that's okay. After all, as followers of Christ we belong to two homes as well.Our earthly one here and," he turned to smile at her, his teeth white in the semi-darkness, “our home-home in heaven."
Jemimah smiled back, and went with him to meet Angie. For a few hours this afternoon it was almost as though she’d had a glimpse of that eternal home-home that she longed for most.
© R. L. Brown 2008