Luke 12:6&7 “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Jesus has been solemnly warning his hearers to fear God the holy one who can cast the defiant and unrepentant into hell. Should we not all fear such a God? This is the God with whom we have to do, but then, after his very next intake of breath, he tells them something else about God, another divine attribute that is very different, that should now stir us to love and praise this heavenly Father whom we are also to fear. “God,” Jesus tells them, “will never forget, ignore or be less than utterly loving to the least of his own children.” We matter so much to him, he says, that God numbers every hair on our heads.
1. GOD IS CONCERNED FOR THE HUMBLER CREATION.
I was paying the check-out woman in a thrift shop in the USA this year and she put a book into my plastic bag. I told her that I hadn’t bought it. “It’s a free gift we’re giving to every customer,” she said. The book was written by a local woman and privately printed. It was about the death of a dog that had been her pet for many years. It described the effect the dying of this animal had had on her and how she had coped and her affection for this faithful dog. She loved this dog. It was well written. It is easy to mock indulgent pet owners and be aghast at the expensive meat that some will buy for their dogs and cats, and that would need to be examined by any Christian whether such expense is necessary or justifiable, but many Christians are helped at lots of levels by their pets. I wouldn’t normally have read a book like that but I was far from home, and I left it in the house where we were staying that the owners when they returned might read it too.
There was no hint in the book that the author was religious but we know that she was made in the likeness of God. She would reflect God in her awareness of right and wrong, her conscience, her sense of beauty, her creativity, her reasoning and also in this love she had for her pet. I believe that love for animals is a consequence of being made in God’s image. As God made the world, stage by stage, he pronounced all he had made to be good. It is a sin not to love the good creation of God. There were the birds and the fish that he made on the fifth day, and the animals he made on the sixth day – on the very same day that he also made man, both beasts and man being “formed out of the ground” (Genesis 2:19). The description of the animals God made is a weighty statement: “And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:24&25).
There are references to God’s esteem for animals and birds and fish throughout the Bible. He provides for every living thing: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Psa. 145:15&16). He is not just their Creator, he is their Sustainer. He drops food in the mouths of fledglings through their mothers. At the end of the book of Jonah the prophet is protesting about God’s mercy to Nineveh. Why hasn’t God done what he promised and poured out his wrath on that wicked place? God replies to Jonah, “But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jon. 4:11). There were herds of cows in that place. Should they be nuked and God shrug his shoulders at their destruction? A farmer of a smallholding will develop an emotional attachment to his beasts. I drove to Welshpool though Llanfaircareinion at the time of the foot and mouth epidemic and saw the empty fields and then, nearer and nearer, smoke and a fire, a pyre in a long trench into which tractors were tipping the carcases of hundreds of sheep and cows to be incinerated. What a terrible sight. We sing,
“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small;
All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” (Cecil Alexander).
Destroying things bright and beautiful, wise and wonderful! Yuk! Evangelical believers led not only the opposition to the slave trade, and the protection of children from working as little boys and girls in factories and mines but Christians also agitated for laws that punished cruelty to animals and they preached against such torment as a degrading sin that would put people in hell. I have just been reading a reprint of a biography of John Ashworth, the remarkable Rochdale pastor of the 19th century, a man who reached the underclass and saw hundreds of them transformed by the grace of God. I was touched reading of this incident. Listen:
“When a boy there was no man I feared so much as Niff; for on all hands he was considered one of the worst of men, and he tried, in every possible way, to make all the men for miles around as bad as himself. He was a great encourager of bull-baiting, and bull-baits were held about once a fortnight; he kept a number of fighting-cocks, trained for the degrading sport, besides the dogs he kept for gambling purposes.
“All the wicked publicans in the neighbourhood kept on good terms with Niff. He would get up a cock-battle at the house of one, a bull-bait at another, a trail-hunt for a third, a dog-fight for a fourth, or a foot-race for a fifth; seldom did a week pass without hundreds upon hundreds of men and boys, and sometimes even women, coming rolling into the village from surrounding towns and districts, when scenes the most revolting took place. Dogs worried to death; cocks killed; the bull’s nose and face torn by the fierce dogs, making him bellow and roar in agony, and in his rage snap the strong rope that bound him, and dash into the dense mass of men, women, and children, amidst yells, shouts, screams, and cursing, as if hell itself had broken loose. Human beings, more brutal, savage, and degraded than either bulls or bull-dogs, furious as fiends, and maddened with drink, rushed upon each other in deadly strife, until midnight mercifully covered with darkness the revolting horrors, leaving us to wonder that the earth had not opened and swallowed up the guilty multitude.
“One day I met Niff, not for the first time. He had the same dirty appearance and savage look as when I saw him twenty years before, with a short, filthy pipe in his mouth, and three gambling or trail-dogs in leading chains. He was again going to a dog-race. The moment we met, I stood still right before him, and said, ‘Well, Niff, how are you?’ He, too, stood still, pulled the short pipe out of his mouth, and, rather gruffly, answered, ‘I don’t know that it much matters how I am; just stand on one side, and let me and my dogs have room to pass.’ ‘But before you pass I should like to tell you what thought was passing through my mind the moment I saw you and your dogs.’ He looked defiant, made no reply, but stood still. ‘I have been thinking you are the worst man out of hell, and I am amazed you have not gone there long since . . .’” (Amazing Conversions: John Ashworth and his Strange Tales, Tentmaker Publications, 2010, p.120) What holy courage! John Ashworth then went on to invite him to his church – which was called the ‘Chapel for the Destitute.’ In the course of time Niff was saved from that wretched life, John Ashworth insisting that he got rid of all his dogs before accepting his profession of faith was genuine.
We are told of the only God there is, that he designed this world and all its living things, and aren’t we mighty glad he did? What a world it is, of such delight in the humbler creation. Iola and I were thrilled this summer when dolphins leaped singly, doubly or in threes in the wake of a boat we were sailing in. For almost an hour they delighted us. In the Derbyshire Dales driving down a country lane I had to park the car to go across to five dapple brown horses and stroke their noses and feed them with dandelion leaves. I went to the Elan Valley on Wednesday night because there was a Harvest Service in a country Baptist church which has seven members. The farmers who have been drifting away from church attendance for years yet will come to that event and hear that although we plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, yet “it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand,” and will give him some kind of thanks that he is the faithful God of seed-time and harvest.
Jesus in our text tells us, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God” (v.6). Small birds like sparrows are caught, sold, taken home, killed, skinned, roasted and eaten even today in many parts of the world, song-birds are considered by some to be delicacies. They are an article of commerce. The sparrow would be the cheapest of any bird sold in the market, five for twopence. God sees those little birds in a cage, silent and fearful, and God knows and cares about the feeblest one. Not one is forgotten by God. We are right to be concerned about animals because God created them, and God sustains them, and God notices what happens to them. The God who sustains our own galaxy, the Milky Way, with its billions of stars and all the other billions of galaxies and their solar systems – he is a God who observes with compassion a donkey being whipped mercilessly, badger baiting, bull-fighting, wings torn off butterflies, lobsters being plunged into boiling water and other crass cruelties in this groaning creation. God sees. It matters to the only God there is. He is not an unmoved deity; he is a personal God, with affections – wrath, love, tenderness, compassion. He loves goodness; he hates what is evil. He won’t shrug indifferently at the plight of a ‘wee cowering timorous beastie.’ Jesus said to them, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God” (v.6).
2. HOW MUCH MORE IS GOD CONCERNED FOR HIS OWN CHILDREN.
Do you see this familiar approach of our Lord? He is arguing from the lesser to the greater. God is really concerned about the life of a little sparrow – who will live for a year and lacks a soul. Yet God doesn’t ignore a single one of them! Now multiply by infinity! How much more than this real concern of his for the lives of small birds will be his affection for his disciples? He says with a lovely divine irony, “Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (v.7). Imagine a celestial scales of super accuracy and on one side God places you his child, and he is going to measure your worth in sparrows, and so on the other side of the scales he places a million sparrows, and the scales doesn’t go down, and then another million – it doesn’t budge. Then another million, and another million, and millions more and more and more; the angels are hurrying in bringing vast crates of sparrows, and still the weight of all those sparrows doesn’t begin to lift up one of God’s children. “You are worth more than many sparrows.”
Then Jesus uses another striking metaphor to tell us of his loving knowledge of each one of his children. He says, “The very hairs of your head are all numbered” (v.7). God knows you better than you know yourself. In other words, his love for us has not arisen because he doesn’t really know us. Xerxes loved Esther not knowing that she was an Old Testament Christian. The devil sometimes insinuates that if God really knew about our past, our thoughts, our imaginations and desires that he would stop loving us, that somehow we have succeeded in pulling the wool over God’s eyes, that we have put on a masquerade that has fooled God so that he thinks we are what we’re not. That is what the devil suggests, but in fact God’s love for us is founded on comprehensive knowledge of us. He knows everything there is to know about us; he can divide between our souls and our spirits, and none of us can do that. There is not a thought that we have that God does not know it altogether. He has seen us at our most hypocritical and cold and proud and mean. He has seen the most sub-Christian thing we have done and yet, knowing all that, he thinks we are worth more than a billion, billion sparrows. The very hairs of your head are all numbered by God, yet he still cares for you. How can we describe God’s extraordinary divine concern for sinners like you and me?
i] God’s concern for you has had no beginning. Now my love for my wife began only when I first met her over fifty years ago. I didn’t love her before that. I didn’t know she existed. You have to meet people to feel any affection for them. We say, “To know them is to love them.” They must first be known. So for many people whom we now love we recognize there was a time when we didn’t love them, and then we met them, and we began to love them. God’s love for us is different; he has cared for us with an everlasting love. There never was a time when God did not know us and have us on his heart. He says, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore with loving-kindness have I drawn thee” (Jer. 31:3). Before the heavens and earth had their existence; before God said ‘Let there be light’ then God cared about us. He had set his heart on our eternal welfare then, saying, “I will do great good to this vast number of people.” An eternal love, yet his love was spontaneous, and it was an act of his will. One of the first things that Paul told the Ephesian Christians was this fact, “God chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephs. 1:4&5). So you see how this reality is linked to Jesus’ exhortation, “Don’t be afraid” (v.7). God knew all about you in the beginning; there was nothing at all hidden from him. He knew the real you; then he loved you. Nothing you have done in your life or will do can shock him, or disappoint him, or make him regret that he had set his love on you in the beginning. So don’t be afraid whenever you fall into sin that God will start to ignore you and leave you all alone. Don’t be afraid that you will ever have to live for a day, for a moment without him. His love endures unchanging on – and it is focused on you.
ii] God’s concern for you is uninfluenced. Now your love for your wife was sparked off by her beauty of face and loveliness of character. Such things influenced you to you’re your wife as the fact that she was about the same age as yourself, and she had similar interests, a sense of humour, an intelligence and a caring spirit that drew you close to her and constrained your love for her. The love which one person has for another is because of something in them. It is not like that with God. In fact God is at pains to point out that it was nothing in us that caused him to care about us. Why did he choose Israel, of all people? It was not because they were the same type with the same interests and loves. There was no equality of interest whatsoever: “To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today” (Deut. 10:14&15). Was there some secret attraction that they had that drew his affection? No. He wants them to understand that. “Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Deut. 9:6). He had seen the file on them. Perhaps there was some political motive. Was Israel a strategic prize? No. We are told this, “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you” (Deut. 7:7&8). That was the sole reason why he made these people his own, “because I’ve loved you.” It is like a romantic fiction, Pretty Woman, where a millionaire businessman marries a prostitute, or a fairy tale where the Crown Prince marries Cinderella. Mills and Boon writers have unconsciously taken their story lines from this greatest of all stories, of God’s love for his bride, setting his love on her simply because he loved her. There could be no other reason for so unequal a match. It is sheer undeserved, unconditional, uninfluenced, free love from the Infinite to the finite, from the Creator to the created, from the Almighty to the weak, from the Immortal to the mortal, from the Upholder of all things to the dependent – and all simply because he chose to love her.
The apostle John wrote, “We love him because he first loved us” (I Jn. 4:19). He loved us when we were loveless. He loved us while being entirely unmoved by anything in us. There was nothing to attract the heart of God when he examined our hearts, on the contrary there was much to repel even the very best of us. It was an inspired Christian who wrote, “I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwells no good thing,” and another that his heart was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Yet God cared about me.
iii] God’s concern for you is sovereign. In other words there is not some higher law or higher being than God to which God is accountable and which explains God and his actions. It is not that when a certain set of moral conditions are met that then God has to love that person. No such law exists. God is not ruled by law. God is under obligation to no one and nothing; he does his own good pleasure. As Jesus says, “Even so Father, for so it seemed good in your sight.” So we are emphasizing this, that God loves whom he will. He loves Jacob and not Esau. He loves his Son and not Beelzebub.
In Ezekiel 16 the prophet tells the story of the cry heard out in the country coming from a field. Is it a cat caught in a snare crying to be free? He goes seeking the source of the sound and comes across an abandoned new born baby girl mewing and wailing naked, unwashed under the sun, the vultures beginning to circle overhead. He loves the child. He takes her. He covers her. He feeds her. He washes her. He nurses her. He gives her life. He protects her and sustains her while she grows up. He did not turn away from her. He numbered the hairs on her head in his love for her. It pleased him to do so. His love was not regulated by passion, or caprice, or sentiment. It reigned through righteousness . It was sovereign love for the helpless.
iv] God’s concern for you is infinite. Of course everything about God is infinite; he does not have to pause and calculate how many hairs are on your head. His knowledge is exhaustive; his wisdom is illimitable; his power is immeasurable for there is nothing too hard for him to do. He is only restricted by his own will. His care is limitless. What a contrast with us; we are limited in caring for friends and family by our own resources, by the limitations of our energy, our finances, our vision, our manpower. God has no such limitations. We say, “But God . . .” We take it from Ephesians chapter 2 which begins with a description of the depravity and impotence of man, “but God” acts and intervenes. “But God, who is rich in mercy for his great love wherewith he loved us even when we were dead in trespasses and sins” saved us by grace. Paul stands on the edge of the precipice of God’s care for his people saying, “What a height . . . what a depth . . . what a length . . . what a breadth . . .” The care of God for his people is higher than the height of the heaven above the earth. It is an infinite care.
v] God’s concern for you is holy. Men can show some concern for women and children simply for what they can get out of them. Men will promise to support their wives, but then someone else comes along and the former concern vanishes. God’s concern for us is not like that. It is not amiable weakness; it is not effeminate softness. He does not wink at sin. His love is pure and unadulterated lacking anything base. Hosea cared for Gomer his wife, but she had a roving eye. She liked men; she was thrilled by the excitement of romance and passion and sex. Yet Hosea wouldn’t stop loving her. His calling was to love her alone with a holy love. He lavished his love on a worthless woman feeling the bitterness of her unfaithfulness and adultery. He pursued her, and forgave her, and took her back. Though she spurned him he still loved her with a love that wouldn’t let her go. Isn’t this a love that is worth more than many sparrows?
3. A PARABLE OF GOD’S CONCERN FOR HIS BRIDE.
There was once a girl who came to university in a small town like Aberystwyth. At the end of her second year, after living a worldly life and building up a huge debt she was taken to a local church, heard the gospel and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and began to follow him. The girls in the Christian Union would often talk about one student in particular whose character and personality made them all weak at the knees, such a terrific fellow, but she kept missing him and grew weary of their adoration of this guy. No one could be as great as that. One day she had a phone call out of the blue from the man’s father telling her that he had heard about her and would like her to get to know his son and he had booked a table for them that night at 7.30 in the best restaurant in town. She was flustered, and wondered what she would wear, but she found something and finally met him. That night, as her excited housemates gathered round her, she told them that he was as wonderful as they had described and that he had asked to see her the next night again.
Six months later he asked her to marry him and she did not hesitate for a moment to answer yes. Now she had to consider her enormous debts from her first two years of indulgence and over-spending at university. She went to the bank to talk to them about it, but they said that her fiancé had called in and he had cleared the entire debt. She went to the garage to return her car whose monthly payments she could no longer afford but there she found that he’d paid the outstanding payments on her car. When she was booking a nice hotel outside town for the wedding reception she discovered that he had told them they were to arrange everything that she chose and planned and he would pay. Anything she wanted in decorations and flowers and table arrangements and the meal itself – “you give them to her” he said. When she arrived at the wedding dress shop in the big town two hours away and wondered whether she could afford a top of the range dress the manageress told her that he had phoned to tell her he would cover whatever dress his fiancée chose.
They were not married yet but he was meeting all her needs and caring for her so lovingly. She was thinking, “He knows all about me. He seems to have numbered the hairs on my head. He makes me feel so valuable to him. He has not forgotten one thing that I need.” That is how their marriage began, and that is how their marriage endured with a husband deeply in love with her, caring for her, providing all she needed, standing by her and supporting her through every trial, generous in his loving kindness which only seemed to grow as the years went by.
Now that is a sweet story that I made up, but it is also a parable of a great reality that we find in the Bible. I have been describing the relationship of the people of God, the bride of Christ, to the Lord Jesus their loving bridegroom. Listen to the wedding blessing that God pronounces on this bride and groom on their wedding day; “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Roms. 15:13). Their married life is one of hope, joy and peace. That parable is also the message of Ephesians 1. God the Father has called us to be the bride of his Son. Not only has Christ asked us to become his bride, but he has also removed all the hindrances to our being a good wife. He has wiped clean all the debts that we’ve incurred. He has dealt with all our liabilities. He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ. He has supplied all our needs from his riches in glory. He has made us heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ. He has lavished upon us his riches of forgiveness in order for us to become the most contented and grateful of wives, so that we can say, “I am completely satisfied with my Lord Jesus.”
What do you think would be that girl’s motive in being the best possible wife to that husband? You know that it has to be overwhelming gratitude and thankfulness. She was so full of love for the new freedom she’s been given, I mean her deliverance from her burden of debt – and she was so full of thankfulness for the way he has understood how foolish she’s been in the past and he has completely forgiven her. What motivation she has to be an excellent wife. Some men say to us, “You evangelical Christians, all you need to say is, ‘Sorry God’ and all your sins are forgiven just like that. That’s a license to go on sinning.” If that’s how you think then you are a stranger to the wonderful love of Jesus Christ. The highest motive in this world and in the world to come to fear God and keep his commandments is the love we have received flowing from God’s grace.
If a dear uncle cleared all your student loan you’d be filled with quiet thankfulness and deep gratitude. You’d visit him, and you’d say, “What can I do for you? Can I help you in any way?” Love so amazing as his demands your life and soul. Are you in love with the Lord who numbers the hairs of your head, to whom you are more valuable than many sparrows? Could you say that the reason you’re seeking to live a new Christian life is because you’re in love with this loving Lord? Whenever you hear his word do you seek to put it into practice? Does the love of Christ for you constrain you to do that? When he says go, do you go? When he says stop, do you stop? All true love involves sacrifice. When God speaks to us then he might ask us to cease doing something that previously didn’t seem wrong to us. Do we argue about it, or do we give it up? Is he so unimpressive and undemonstrative in his love that we don’t feel like offering him anything in return? Real love motivates us to newness of life. It makes us sensitive to the person who loves us. Real love makes us full of gratitude!
Paul was in prison for following the Lord. Jesus did not say that men wouldn’t be able to kill us. Sparrows can be bought and sold, and Christians can be persecuted, but not apart from the caring love of God. He keeps us in his loving care just as he was keeping the apostle Paul so that he could say, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phils 4:11-13). Paul was so in love with the Lord—so sensitive to what God wanted. He pleased God by being so thankful for even the little things. Paul would say thank you to the Lord for being all he was to Paul.
Are you trusting this God who says he never forgets you, and that you are always far more valuable to him that billions of sparrows, that he cares for the very hairs of your head? Or are you sinfully, distrustfully afraid of the future? Be confident in this great promise of God’s care for you from this day forth and even for evermore.
19th September 2010 GEOFF THOMAS