This morning I had the privilege of picking up garbage in our neighbourhood park and some of the surrounding streets here in Vanier, the historic part of Ottawa where Marion and I make our home with our daughter Bethany. I was volunteering as part of a city-wide effort to get citizens involved in cleaning up parks and neighbourhoods.
Cleaning up garbage may not seem like a very enjoyable task. However, I actually did enjoy the work. It was a beautiful morning and the work was not difficult. I easily filled a garbage bag with cigarette butts, pop cans, coffee cups and other debris.
It wasn’t only the beautiful fall morning that lifted my spirits, although that certainly helped. I was listening to the voice of the Spirit as I worked, and it dawned on me that cleaning up other people’s garbage is an apt metaphor for what Jesus did for us on the cross. He took our filth – it didn’t belong to him, but he took it upon himself. He took it upon himself so that we wouldn’t have to carry it any more.
Not everyone cares about their filth. Some people make very little effort to get themselves cleaned up. This is true of some of the more run-down properties in our neighbourhood. People just seem to get used to living with a mess and to them it’s normal. Some of these people probably care very little if someone else cleans up their garbage. They may not even notice. In the same way, lots of people are so used to living in spiritual and relational darkness that they think it’s normal, and they may not even want to change. For lots of people, broken relationships, anger, unforgiveness, mistrust, immorality, selfishness and pain are just the way life is. Although Jesus paid a high price to clean up their garbage, they don’t really care. They’d rather live with their mess so they can at least live under the illusion that they are free to do as they please.
But others did appreciate the cleanup effort. I was thanked by several people this morning. A young mother in the park seemed pleased that I smiled at her cute six-month-old baby. She thanked me for cleaning up the park. Later, on my way back home after finishing my cleanup work, I was thanked by a man on the front step of the Inuit housing co-op where I had picked up all the cigarette butts an hour earlier. He seemed really surprised that someone would do that. I told him it was no big deal and he apologetically explained that there is a coffee can on the step that people are supposed to use for their cigarette butts, but some people don’t bother and just leave them in the street.
This, too, is a parable of spiritual awareness. Although many people seem completely unaware of what Jesus has done for them in taking their filth onto himself, others are genuinely humbled and grateful when they recognize his undeserved gift to them. The Holy Spirit prompted me throughout the morning to pray blessing on the homes and people that I was serving by cleaning up their garbage. I prayed that those who don’t already know God’s love would have their hearts awakened and their eyes opened. I prayed that they would see their need for a spiritual cleansing. I prayed that (like the ones who thanked me for cleaning up their garbage) the folks in our neighbourhood would have a revelation of the amazing gift that Jesus has offered them. I prayed that they would find gratitude arising in their hearts as they realize that Jesus has cleaned up their filth and taken their sentence of death onto himself so that they could go free.
Some people say that prayer by itself is of little value – that only when it is accompanied by action does prayer become practical. I agree that when we pray, we also need to be willing to be part of the answer to our prayers.
Jesus only spent three years in public ministry. He preached to thousands of people, healed many, fed several thousand, entered Jerusalem as Israel’s rightful King but was rejected by her leaders, gave his life on the cross for the redemption of all, rose from the dead and appeared to more than five hundred people – and still he was left with only a hundred and twenty followers praying in an upstairs room in Jerusalem. That was his public ministry. Though it was laced with spiritual power, the results were relatively small. Only a hundred and twenty people were willing to call him Lord after three years.
Faced with this relatively meager result, what conclusion did Jesus draw? What did he do?
He prayed for his people. Faced with a world that needed saving, He did not conclude that he had failed. Instead, he poured out power on the hundred and twenty who were praying and waiting for him in Jerusalem, and set himself the task of praying for them and all that would believe because of their message. He has been faithful to his ministry of prayer for the last two thousand years.
Not everything that was done in Jesus’ name those two thousand years has been glorious. There have been episodes that were downright shameful, when you would be hard pressed to recognize that the church belonged to Jesus at all. And yet – and yet – because Jesus has faithfully prayed for his people, even in the deepest darkness there have always been witnesses to his truth, grace and mercy. And amazingly, the true life of God has erupted over and over again, sometimes at the most unexpected times and places, in the midst of the greatest barrenness and seeming despair. Why? Because Jesus was praying, and the Holy Spirit was stirring in the hearts of His people. The times when the church has glistened with hope and shone with His life and power have been the times when the church had its face turned towards Jesus in prayer and adoration.
Today, despite world-wide upheavals and trouble in many places, despite poverty and sickness and suffering, despite compromise in much of the church, despite decay in society, the good news of Jesus is spreading like never before. Leaders of the major missions agencies estimate that by the year 2020 (2025 at the latest), every people group on the face of the earth will have a witness of the gospel of the Kingdom in their own language. This is unprecedented, and is one of the Scriptural signs that His return is near.
And what has Jesus been doing these last two thousand years? It is written that He has been praying. For two thousand years he has been praying for his bride, waiting for her to come to maturity so that she will be ready for the great wedding feast to come.
I had a great time cleaning up garbage with Jesus this morning. Although the physical cleanup was of some value, far more important is the cleansing of people’s hearts that was the subject of my prayers this morning. And though the results of those prayers were not immediately visible to me, I am confident that not a word was wasted. Jesus heard every one. He has stored them up in the heavens, and they are awaiting their answer. Many in Vanier will come to the light, as will many in every nation. Many will recognize that they don’t have to live in their own filth any more. Instead they can live in the freedom of God’s children, they can know the joy that the Holy Spirit gives, they can live with clean hearts and bright spirits as sons of the resurrection and heirs of the Kingdom that is coming on the earth when Jesus returns.
Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift.