A FREE OFFER
In newspapers and magazines and in many shop windows we see "Free Offers" of everything from food mixers to Caribbean cruises. Free coupons are given by which you can get certain articles at a reduced price (very acceptable in these inflationary times!) and trading stamps are offered as an incentive to buy at a particular store. You can get a toy or a tea set with so-many packet tops, and so on. The hope of getting something for nothing naturally appeals to us all, yet we know perfectly well that a free offer in most cases is only an advertising gimmick — a sprat to catch a mackerel. The advertisers have an ulterior motive; they want you to get involved with them, so that when you need to buy the product they sell, you will favour their brand over others. They are not philanthropists; they simply want to expand their trade and so make bigger profits.
However, within a family, or in the context of religion in its widest sense, you will sometimes get a genuine offer of "something for nothing." This was supremely the case when Jesus said to the milling crowds in Galilee of old: "It is your father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom." (Luke 12:32.) A free offer! Christianity is as simple as that!
Those people who were privileged to hear Jesus in the flesh must have been deeply impressed by the extreme simplicity of His new gospel. The traditional religion of the Jews was anything but simple. It was complicated and costly, in time, energy and money. Obedience to the precepts of the Mosaic Law was almost a full-time job, and these had been vastly added to by the "traditions of the elders." Our Lord cleared the deck — sweeping these formalities aside. No wonder he was unpopular with the professional religious leaders of the day! If someone goes around telling people they don't need an expert for a certain job but can do it themselves at home, and that most of what they were required to do in the past was quite unnecessary — naturally the experts get annoyed: which is exactly what happened when Jesus told the people they could worship God direct — "in spirit and in truth" — without necessarily attending the temple in Jerusalem, and without the expensive trimmings of religious observance required by the established Church.
Nor was it merely a simplification of ritual that Jesus effected. The change He introduced into the human situation was a deeper one. The way of life really was made easier by His coming into the world. Previously, the only way in which man could gain contact with God was by ritual or acted symbolism. But this method of approach, once so beautiful and effective, was becoming silted up with formalism. The channels were choked. The machinery of temple worship, which had originally been designed to bring men closer to God, was now actually blocking the way. And so, by Incarnation, God made a breakthrough. He took upon himself a human nature, and was born and grew up in Israel like any other man. This humanity, formed in a physical "mould" provided by Mary of Nazareth, he glorified and made Divine, uniting it with the Divinity of which it was begotten. He thereafter retained it as a permanent part of Himself — the DIVINE HUMANITY, by which He is now able to contact all of us on every plane of our lives. The awful, remote Jehovah of the Old Testament, whose Name could not even be uttered, has become the "God-with-us" of the New Testament, our intimate loving Father in heaven. All the animal sacrifices and rituals were thereafter abolished; they had become as obsolete as foot-messengers in the days of the telephone. (That's an excellent analogy!) No longer did a professional priesthood need to mediate between man and God; the Divine had come down onto the human level as the man Jesus and was thus mediating himself to mankind. No longer was it necessary to address prayers to "Almighty God;" we can now speak direct to the Infinite Creator in and through our Lord Jesus Christ.
"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . and to as many as received him He gave power to become sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, but of GOD." By rebirth we become God's children. I feel a thrill at the very thought of it! We can walk straight into God's presence, without even making an appointment. To approach a Great King in his palace, a commoner has to go through a terrific rigmarole of protocol. But when the King happens to be your Father, there is no problem. You are ushered right into the royal Presence, and the King receives you with a loving welcome.
This idea that God could be approached as a FATHER was probably the point of our Lord's teachings which would have stood out most vividly in the minds of His hearers; and indeed it is the core of Christianity. Everyone knows something of the relationship between father and child. There are tragic exceptions, child-bashing and so on, but we all know the peculiar and quite irrational love which, under natural conditions, parents feel for their offspring. Listen to a conversation between two mothers. One is telling an anecdote in praise of her child; the other is not listening but is waiting for an opportunity to interrupt with a much better story in praise of her own child. How we stick up for our offspring! The excuses we make for them when they go astray; the selfless interest we show in their affairs; the endless sacrifices which their upbringing entails . . . most parents would be willing to face starvation and death if necessary for the sake of their children, however undeserving those children might be.
Do you make your children earn the hospitality of your home? Of course not! What's yours is theirs. When they grow up, they will probably leave you of their own accord — nor will you attempt to hold them back; but your door will always be open to them whenever they wish to return or pay you a visit. Whatever is good for them you will be only too willing to give them, to the limit of your resources and beyond. Why? Simply because they are your children! This illustrates in a crude way the Lord's vastly more wonderful and selfless love for us who are his children. It is quite undeserved; there is no reason why the Lord should love us so. But his very essence is LOVE, and Love seeks to give itself out to the loved-ones without thought of recompense. "What man is there of you," said Jesus, "who, if his son ask bread, will give him a stone? Or, if he ask fish, will he give him a serpent? If then you, with all your human imperfections, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to them that ask him?"
God is longing to give good things to His children — full measure, pressed down and running over; to all his children alike, without discrimination. With regard to my own children, I would be most upset if someone suggested that my wife and I had favoured one more than another. Parents have no favourites. If anything, they show their love most to the child who is most in need — the one with some physical, mental or emotional handicap, or the one who has gone wrong. Not the most deserving, but the most needy. So, when Jesus was on earth, it was to the weary and heavy-laden, the lonely outcast, the despised tax-gatherer, the fallen woman, even the thief on the cross . . . it was to such as these rather than to the righteous Pharisees and successful business men that He showed most tenderness. Why? Simply because they needed it and recognized their need. They asked Him for it.
"Ask, and you shall receive," said Jesus. This was the one condition he laid down: we should feel our need and actually want what he is offering us. But if we do ask, in all sincerity, and ask in the Lord's name (i.e., in line with His will), then no matter what the circumstances we shall at once be given the blessing. It is a FREE OFFER.
You may feel that such a doctrine makes things too simple. If all we have to do is to ask, why so much talk about the discipline of life, the self-sacrifice and self-denial, the need to shun evils and keep the commandments? The point here is that to "ask" in the sense implied means more than a mere verbal statement of what you think you want. You must really want it, deep down inside you, and be prepared to do something about it. People who are engrossed in the selfish pleasures of the world do not really want the blessings which the Lord is holding out to them. All this feverish worldly activity must be laid aside before they can honestly ask, seek and knock. Referring back to the "Free Gifts" offered in the magazines as an advertising ploy, even here the reader is expected to do something to show his bona fides — he must send in a coupon or think up a slogan or show some knowledge of the firm's products. There has to be a kind of co-operation with the organizations giving the Free Offer.
Remember the parable of the Prodigal Son. So long as the young man was away in the far country wasting his substance with riotous living, he didn't want anything to do with his father at home. His father would have given him whatever he wanted that was good, but the young man had other ideas! When he eventually changed his mind and decided to seek his father's blessing, he had to give up his own life and make the long journey back home. When he reached there, he was received with joy — no punishment or recriminations, no demand for an explanation of his past behaviour; nothing but acceptance and a warm embrace.
The heavenly life is simple enough, but most of us are anything but simple. We need the blows of misfortune, the famine, the hunger, the humiliation, to compel us to "come to ourselves." We need the hot fires of tragedy to melt us down to a homogeneous personality, capable of establishing a simple son or daughter relationship with our Father in heaven. Only then shall we be able to cooperate with him in the work of his estate, on earth or in heaven.
"Fear not, little flock," said Jesus; "It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom," provided only that you are prepared to receive it as a gift. It cannot be received in any other way. It is not for sale at any price. The wealthiest man in the world cannot buy it, nor the holiest saint. It cannot be obtained by struggle and effort, nor can it be earned. But — as a gift it can be obtained at once by anyone who is not too proud to accept it.
This being too proud to accept gifts is a common failing in our culture, especially among respectable middle-class people. To receive seems to put us in an inferior position, and that we cannot tolerate. Our pride makes us feel we want to be at the giving end, not beholden to anyone for anything. But suppose the gift is marked: "From so-and-so, with love?" Won't we damage the love if we reject the gift? What about our friend's joy in giving? Do we want to spoil it for him? And if we are not prepared to receive from a friend, shall we be able to receive from the Lord? And if we cannot receive from God, we are utterly lost.
When you die and wake up on the other side, you are not going to be quizzed as to what church you belonged to, whether you were baptized or took Holy Communion, what your theological beliefs were, nor even what good works you performed. Instead you will find yourself surrounded by the powerful sphere of the Lord's Divine mercy and grace. To this you will react, either by opening yourself joyfully to receive it and bask in it, or, on the other hand, by anxiously trying to escape from it, being embarrassed by it, running away from it as fast and as far as you can. You will be assured that the Lord loves you with infinite compassion, that He has already forgiven all your sins, and He desires only that you will live happily to eternity in one of the mansions of the "royal palace." Will you accept this gladly, or will you feel like a fish out of water, gasping for breath in the refined atmosphere of heaven? I hope and pray that you and I will be able to relinquish our self-centred pride and let Him fill us with his joy and peace. The FREE OFFER is a genuine one without any strings attached. Take it and enjoy it — it is yours!