I once found myself (a long time ago now) all at sea in the middle of Europe.
Given that Karlsruhe (the particular place I was visiting at the time) is over 300 miles from the North Sea, even further to the Mediterranean Sea, and further still to the Atlantic Ocean, the idiom ‘all at sea’ is perhaps not the most apposite! Indeed, it was, ironically, precisely the fact that I was so far from the sea which I found so thoroughly disorienting and disturbing.
I realized then that I’m an ‘islander’, with all my roots right here in the British Isles. A big island, for sure, but an island nonetheless. And one where the sea is therefore never that far away (according to the Ordnance Survey, no matter where you go in the UK you cannot ever be more than 45 miles at most from the sea – in Scotland itself that distance is less).
It was that, I instinctively figured, which lay behind my experience: the sea was nowhere near at hand. Or more to the point, there was an absence of what I might best describe as ‘definition’, the sort of definition which a coastline necessarily affords. Perhaps that’s why I like Aberdeen as a city so much – the clarity of definition: a city bounded, at least to some significant extent, on the north and south by the Don and the Dee, and to the east by the North Sea coastline.
Lines of demarcation which hedge the city in. You know where you are. There are clear and well-defined parameters. ‘Boundary lines’ if you like. And the more I came to ponder that experience of being strangely ‘all at sea’ in the pleasant Rhineland setting of Karlsruhe, the more I came to see that it was not so much an ‘Oh-I-do-like-to-be-beside-the-seaside’ syndrome kicking in, but was much more an instinctive need for, or delight in, clear, observable parameters. Boundary lines.
Europe just went on and on, whichever direction I might choose to go, with no end in sight or in prospect at all. Uncomfortable. Disorienting. Like sailors adrift on a raft at sea with an endless horizon on every side and nothing by which to get their bearings.
We understand the need for clear parameters. It’s there from the start in the Bible. In the creation account to begin with, as the light is separated from the darkness, and the sea from the land: and then, too, in the care with which humanity is sovereignly located by the Lord. The God who’d made the world was careful to put the man in the Garden He’d already planted. Set bounds and clear parameters.
And not just geographic bounds, of course; there were moral bounds as well. The fruit of those trees: but not this one. Freedom, almost boundless freedom we might say, and yet .. with boundaries.
That’s a pattern continued when God the Creator steps in as God the Saviour: He frees the people from the bondage of their slavery in Egypt and brings about remarkable deliverance: no longer slaves, they’re free. But they’re not thereby given a license to live as they please or to go where they choose: there are boundaries again. First stop, Mount Sinai and the so-called ten commandments, hedging them in, in their new-found freedom, to the way life’s meant to be lived. Moral boundaries, first of all; but then, again, some geographic boundaries as well.
Because the next stop’s Canaan, the promised land. Though the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, this newly freed people are nonetheless not simply free to live wherever they like (any more than they were free to live just however they liked), and though they wander long enough in the training ground of the wilderness, there’s a definite destination in view. Always. Canaan, the land of promise: like the Garden of Eden, it too has got its boundaries. Each of the tribes, as well, must know their place – and thus for each of the tribes, parameters are also further given.
We understand the importance and value of boundary lines. We understand their importance for safety and security. Our older cities had 3-dimensional lines called walls built right the way round their edge – in much the same way as in certain parts of the world today you’ll find some fenced in, ‘gated’ communities. It’s a security thing. Inside you’re safe.
It’s the ‘playpen’ approach we adopt in the raising of children. Parameters. Boundaries. Lines of demarcation. Safety gates and door locks: fences, hedges, walls. To ensure that our children stay safe as they grow and explore. And not just physical boundaries, of course, but moral guidelines, too; rules and regulations – not for the earning of brownie points, but to keep them from that which would prove to be harmful. Boundaries. Because inside you’ll be safe.
Boundary lines are in part a security thing: but in part as well they’re to do with being distinctive. “Good design is about the beauty of line,” writes an automobile journalist – and we know what he meant, because we talk about the ‘lines’ of a car or a building which give the thing its own distinctive character and shape.
And such was the purpose of both Canaan and the commandments.
A particular place, with good, clear ‘lines’, which together served to highlight the distinctiveness it had – “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey”. And a particular way of life as well, with the great, sweeping lines of the commandments of God, that the grace and soaring beauty of the life of the living God might be showcased to greatest advantage before a watching world.
‘Lines’ serve a further purpose, too. They define your destination. A finishing line. Marathons have a terminal point, a point at which the running’s done, the race is run, and rest at last is yours. A finishing line. Journeys need such lines as well, a point against which the children’s “when-are-we-going-to-be-there” line of questioning may be given a meaningful answer.
The Bible is full of such ‘finishing lines’.
The wilderness wasn’t endless for the Israelites. The sand and the dust of the Sinai desert may have often stretched out as far as the eye could have seen, but they weren’t left to wander for ever: there was a line in the sand, a ‘finishing line’, a border to the promised land. And beyond that line lay the future for which they were destined.
The exile in Babylon, also, had its God-appointed ‘time-line’: a definite, pre-determined terminal point, affording His people a hope. Seventy years. A finishing line.
They needed to know, no less than we do too, that there was indeed, and always is, an end-point to our travelling. “O spread Thy covering wings around, till all our wanderings cease, and at our Father’s loved abode our souls arrive in peace.”
We’re born with a homing instinct, an instinct that whispers in the caverns of our consciousness that we’re somehow headed home: call it a sense of destiny, if you like, it’s all to do with the need we have for a final destination. A finishing line. A line which, when crossed, means we’ve finally, fully arrived.
That was the nub of the struggles I had in Karlsruhe. I couldn’t see the boundary lines. I looked in vain for the ‘grace-lines’ of my island life. It felt like there wasn’t a finishing line, and Europe just went on and on forever.
Without any doubt such lines are hugely important. I’ve given some stress to that, and I hope you see just why. But I hope, as well, that you’ll also see why – and when – such lines can become a problem, and indeed an obstacle to gospel work.
Think of the Gentile mission, for instance: think of the challenge the early church faced as they took their God-given message of love and joy and peace and hope and life – as they took that message beyond the bounds of Israel and the Jews, and brought it to the Gentile world. The lines, out of gospel necessity, became more blurred. Judaism was merely the ‘womb’, as it were, in which the gospel had been both conceived and grown: and because the gospel was bigger by far than the distinctly Jewish world from which it had been birthed, the lines by which that Jewish world had been so carefully defined required now not so much to be re-drawn as wholly re-imagined and top-to-bottom wholly re-configured.
Geographically, the lines were immediately blurred, if they did not wholly disappear. “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem (the clearly delineated city of God, they were OK with that), and in all Judea and Samaria (the lines are becoming a little bit blurred), and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8). Boundary lines have suddenly ceased to exist: or, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2, ‘the dividing wall of hostility’ (that 3-dimensional line) has come down.
And with that, of course, a load of necessary thinking had to be done. If the geographic boundary lines had simply disappeared, what about those other regulatory ‘lines’ on which distinctly Jewish lives had hitherto been lived? How much of the law did Gentiles require to embrace, if the gospel is indeed far bigger than its Judiasm ‘womb’? The ‘lines’ became somewhat blurred.
It’s one of the issues confronting every Scottish gospel church today. The context of our life and work has radically changed. What once, and for ever so long, was a distinctly Christian country, the pattern of our national life informed, and in large measure delineated, by the Word of God, is manifestly now not even nominally so. Scotland has become a Babylon: believers live as exiles now within a foreign land. And one of the challenges facing Christ’s church is precisely that of the exiled Jews, removed from their bounded and boundaried land, and seeking to serve the living God in a thoroughly pagan Babylon: and precisely that of the early church, too, as they engaged in Christ’s daring Gentile mission.
Draw those ‘lines’ and insist on those ‘lines’ in Babylon, and soon you become a ghetto. Draw those ‘lines’ and insist on those ‘lines’ in the world of ‘Gentile’ mission, and your message is soon one of works and not of grace. Here, then, is the challenge. Living as an exile in the godless world of Babylon, how as a faithful believer do you rightly re-configure all those ancient ‘lines’ so that you end up neither compromised and fruitless, nor irrelevant and useless in a ghetto-like ‘apartness’ from the world? And living as a Christian in a now non-Christian culture and society, how do we, too, wisely re-imagine all the ‘lines’ to which we’ve previously looked, so that we remain inclusive rather than exclusive, engaged rather than merely a ghetto, and consistently true to the gospel rather than timidly compromised in sin?
They’re not easy questions! But it’s vital that we ask them, hear them, answer them, and answer them aright. Our location here on Union Street is itself a simple, little cameo of the gospel call. The church in the world, with a message as crucial as ever. How wide (and how often) is the door thrown open? Because a shut door is a ‘boundary line’: and while a boundary line can both set a people apart (and we’re called, of course, to be a ‘set apart people’) it also will keep other people out (and we’re called, of course, to welcome people in).
Where, and how, do we draw the line? And is it line-drawings at all that we’re called to produce?
Because the lines will all cease to exist, in a sense, in the future we’re called to proclaim. I wonder if you’ve ever read the Pentecost sermon C S Lewis once preached, entitled simply ‘Transposition’? A remarkable sermon, during which, as he puts it, he ‘constructs a fable’.
A woman, who’s an artist, is thrown into a dungeon where she bears and rears a son. She teaches her son about that ‘outer world’ which he, of course, has never seen: and she does so, as an artist, very largely by drawing him pictures, the lines of her gifted artistry depicting the beauty of that ‘outer world’, and showing him (so she hopes) why that ‘outer world’ is infinitely more glorious and lovely than whatever the dungeon might offer. One day, though, there’s something of an impasse in the thinking of the boy. “But,” she gasps, “you didn’t think that the real world was full of lines drawn with a lead pencil?” The boy is totally flummoxed. The lines alone are what has given any definition to this unseen, ‘outer world’: if the lines are taken away, how can anything be seen?
“The child,” said Lewis, with his customary, incisive insight, “will get the idea that the real world is somehow less visible than his mother’s pictures. In reality it lacks lines because it is incomparably more visible.”
‘Boundary lines’: ‘grace-lines’: ‘finishing lines’. These lines are all but a drawing, pointing us out beyond what we presently see to a future whose freedoms are boundless, whose beauty is fuller and richer by far, and whose rest is endlessly satisfying. Pure, perfect, permanent. It’s there that we’re headed in Christ: and it’s that which we’re seeking to preach. The ‘lines’ meanwhile are the means we now have for depicting that coming glory: they’re never an end in themselves.
Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,