Monthly Archives: March 2016

Good news from beyond…

For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power.

But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.

(1 Corinthians 15. 56&57)

Were the hosts of heaven holding their breath? The son of God has put himself forward as the chosen champion; the one who will dare all against an implacable foe for the sake of an otherwise hopeless cause – a humanity under God’s judgement.

As the sky darkened that Sabbath eve, it was as if a curtain was being drawn between the watching eyes and the two protagonists. The final glimpse of Christ our elect warrior, is as he breathes his last, and enters the theatre of death for us. Then the stage appears to fall silent and empty, and we know no more.

All seemed lost as the sun set that night. All the long hours of Saturday, the bewildered disciples hid, nursing their grief and loss, profoundly confused and stunned by what they had experienced. How they must have been tormented by the memory of their failure to stand by him at his trial, by the soul-searing knowledge of their own weakness and all the appalling “If only..” thoughts which haunt those prematurely bereaved. Did they recall anything of what Jesus had taught them on the road to Jerusalem a few weeks earlier? Did his words return with the weight of fulfilled prophecy behind them? He had told them that he would be handed over to suffer and die.

Did they remember the other thing he had told them would happen…. that after three days, he would rise again? What did they make of those words during the long hours after his body had been taken to the tomb, as time crawled by and all the savour and vigour drained from life ?

And then, in the early light of Sunday, the women came tearing from the tomb, gasping out that the body was gone, and an angel had told them the Christ was risen! Did they dismiss it as feminine hysteria, grief-deluded wishful thinking? Or did Jesus’ friends finally begin to realise that – along with everything else he had told them – this was also true?

Surely, heaven must have exploded with the song of triumph as the son of God surged forth, presenting himself before the Father to receive the victor’s crown. This was what had been planned for, agonised for, laboured for – the great divine conspiracy to deliver captive humanity from the slavery of sin and death. And now, it had been fully achieved, as Paul tells us :- “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again, death no longer has mastery over him.” (Romans 6.9)

In his great love for us, God did not leave us in any doubt about the nature of that victory, so that the word which came to the women, to the disciples, and above all the absence of the dead body of the Lord all proclaimed the victory won. The warrior had conquered, succeeding in his battle beyond all that they had dreamt – not a small political triumph over an occupying power, but an eternal, universal defeat of the power of evil to cut humanity off from God.

We shall never know what our champion faced for us, what agonies he claimed the privilege of bearing for our sake. We can only wonder at his courage and worship him for the love which drove him. He fought the fight for us. He gives us the prize, his victory is ours. And as we see his transformed, resurrected body, we get a glimpse of the incredible future in store for all of us who believe.

This too is for us, this new life beyond the grave. How bright is the light that shines on us on Easter Sunday morning; what glad tidings we hear, of the death of the power of sin in our lives. The past has no power over us now. The victory of our champion sets us free to live in bright hope, with steady courage and a confident step. God grant that we may indeed live in that victory!

No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me;

From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.

No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand:

Till he returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

(Stuart Townend & Keth Getty, 2001)

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Walking into the dark

I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.

(Isa 50. 6&7)

As the narrative of Jesus life draws to its climax and close, all four gospel writers slow down the pace, and give us great detail of these last days and hours, leaving no room for doubts about the significance of what is happening. I get the impression of a spotlight growing increasingly focussed on the one figure on stage, and the surrounding scene growing dim. The background music becomes more and more urgent, full of tension, apprehension and even horror as events unfold.

On Palm Sunday, the scene is full of light and hope, colour and rejoicing. Many in Jerusalem think that they are greeting a potential leader who will deliver them from Roman rule – although his choice of a donkey as a steed must have made them wonder!! But as the week goes by, and Jesus continues to confront the religious authorities, orchestrating their opposition and determination to bring him down, the light begins to fade. The crowds in the background are beginning to wonder about this Messiah and just what kind of redemption he is offering.

Jesus is walking steadily towards a long-desired goal, his face set like flint and his will holding him on course. He is the long-awaited and only true Lamb of God, come as the Baptist had said to take away the sins of the world. And there was only one way in which that could be done.

From the very beginning of God’s dealings with humankind, it had been clear that only by the shedding of blood could the abhorrence of sin be truly dealt with. A price must be paid, the highest possible – as represented in temple sacrifices by spotless or perfect animals. The anger of a holy God against sin could not be turned aside with soft words, there was no justice in that, and it would make a mockery of his purity. If God is God, utterly holy and utterly just, then in order to receive sinful humanity back into his family, their offence against him has to be paid for. And we cannot ever pay that price – our chronic sinfulness makes it impossible that we should be the perfect sacrifice.

So Jesus came. The spotless one who would live the life we could not live, and die the death we should have died, so that we might live again as new creatures, no longer stained and abhorrent to God, but welcome and beloved. It is beyond the power of words to tell or music to express the greatness of such love for the unlovely. We can and must simply fall in worship, aghast that such agony was necessary, but also amazed with gratitude that it was offered and sufficed!

As I watch Jesus walk into the darkness of Good Friday, with the stormclouds of evil gathering around him and his friends fleeing in terror – as I surely would have done too – I am overwhelmed with pity, and grounded by grief and shame for my own part in his suffering. His trust in his father was absolute, it was the ground beneath each step towards the cross, and the breath behind every word he spoke in preparing his disciples and answering his accusers. Was there ever such courage? Where shall I find another hero like this one? One who would dare all for my sake, even to the extreme agony of separation from his father as the weight of sin finally descended upon him.

There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin;

He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.

(C.F. Alexander 1818-95)

May I be filled once again with a sense of the debt I owe, that I might surrender over again to this relentless, redeeming love, holding nothing back from my Lord who held nothing back for me.

Right isn’t always easy

Keep me from lying to myself; give me the privilege of knowing your instructions. I have chosen to be faithful; I have determined to live by your regulations. I cling to your laws. Lord, don’t let me be put to shame!

Make me walk along the path of your commands, for that is where my happiness is found.

Turn my eyes from worthless things, and give me life through your word.

(Ps 119. 29-31,35,37)

How often in our human frailty do we manage to convince ourselves that the easy path is the right one – simply because it is the easy one? We know somewhere deep inside that we are lying to ourselves, and that the attractively easy option is not God’s best, not the choice that echoes His character and instructions for holy living. But we choose not to hear that truth, to deafen it by our own arguments, tuning in to the culture around us that clamours of our self-worth, our entitlement, the obvious morality of looking after ourselves first!

There is a very real danger of course that as followers of Jesus we wrongly assume that good things are somehow wrong, since we know we cannot ‘deserve’ them. This is a trap, and leads to a bitter, martyred attitude to life, where we end up wallowing in self-inflicted discomfort or difficulty, and that is no more glorifying to God than a self-centred, lazy life!

But there is a necessary balance and we need to be honest – as the psalmist is here – in recognising that it is only with God’s help that we can learn to regularly make godly choices in how we live, in the paths along which our lives are taken. The prospect of pain, being out of our comfort zones, difficulty and even loss, should never be deterrents if we see God clearly summoning us. Think of the prophet Jonah, who heard a clear call from God, and deliberately chose to go in the opposite direction, rejecting the uncomfortable job of preaching repentance to the enemies and oppressors of his people. God’s grace finally turned him around to obedience, but what a dreadful time he had of it!

When he wrote to the little church in Philippi, Paul reminded them of the example of our Lord and Saviour – always a good idea when we are unsure about what to do! Jesus was called on to abandon his throne, the privileges of heaven, the freedom of eternity, and to embrace the limitations of time, space and flesh. He “did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being…he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”(Phil 2.6-8)

Jesus obeyed his Father’s will, aligning his own will with it, submitting in love for the Father, and in love for us, to this humiliation and suffering. Obedience may well involve us in suffering. And if so, then we can rejoice that we should be counted worthy to share in the experience of our Lord! Does the love of Christ not compel us to seek ways in which we may glorify and exalt him; to show that we are profoundly indebted to him and delight to honour and serve him in any way we can? Is it fitting that the disciples of a suffering and crucified Lord should have soft feet and no scars of their own to testify to their journey with him?

I do not desire the martyr-complex, I choose not to invite pity. But I will beseech my loving and faithful God to give me courage to embrace with a whole heart the consequences of the call which he places on my life. May I not be like Jonah, running away from a costly obedience, but rather like Christ, who steadily faced down every painful encounter, that he might obey his Father. May I choose to offer my suffering, grief and pain to the God who is walking the path with me, as offerings of praise to his keeping of me through trials.

There will be grace sufficient for every step, let me only be willing to keep walking!

The foundation of obedience..

Take off take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy..

(Joshua 5.15)

So Joshua has successfully led the wandering people of God’s promise into the land where they are to settle. He has seen the floods of the Jordan back up to create a dry pathway for their feet, and heard the thunder of returning waters after the last foot left the river bank. He knows from his spies that the people who live in the land – even in the great fortified cities like Jericho – are terrified at the coming of this bunch of nomads, because of the reputation of the God who goes with them.

He could be forgiven for becoming a little presumptuous about the next steps, for assuming that he just had to walk up and challenge the gates of Jericho, to see everyone flee in terror. But it seems he was not – one of the things I love about the stories of Joshua, are the way they reveal an utterly humble and faithful servant heart, I look forward to meeting this hero of God’s story in heaven and hearing all about it!

Joshua went wandering, prowling around the hills near the city, perhaps debating in his mind how God would want him to proceed. He is answered, in a heart-stopping encounter with an armed stranger, who is revealed to be neither an enemy, nor a member of his own army! This is the true commander, come to remind Joshua that God is God, and owes alliegance to no man. It is the work of God which will open the land to his people, not the strength of Joshua’s strategies or soldiers. The question is, where does Joshua’s alliegance lie? Has he become proud – as Saul would later in Israel’s history – and unwilling to wait on God’s leading?

There is no question in Joshua’s mind, as he drops to the ground in reverence, and identifies the stranger as ‘my Lord’, asking what the instructions might be. We should be cheering this faithful servant, rejoicing that God has answered him so directly and convincingly! But we can also learn from him, and the way that God dealt with Joshua – as he dealt also with Moses all those years before in the desert encounter with a burning bush.

Our God is a holy God – that means that anything impure is utterly abhorrent to him and it cannot abide in his sight, but will be consumed as if by fire. Joshua, this mere man, a creature of flesh and weakness even as we are, knew that to be on holy ground was a terrifying thing, fraught with danger. He surely knew as the writer to the Hebrews would later put it that ‘It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.‘(Heb 10.31)

We shrink from the idea of a God who should be feared, preferring to dwell on the wonderful love which is revealed through Christ’s life and death for us. And it is good so to dwell. But the same holy and righteous God is active in the life of Christ. We see him condemning those who reject his kingdom, assuring all who listen that those who continue to shut their ears to God will suffer and know his wrath. This is not easy reading, it should frighten us! Our God is above all one who must be taken seriously – both in his love for us, and also his power and holiness.  Do we? Do I sometimes sit far too casually with my familiar sins, instead of seeing them as my living God does – as the appalling and deadly thing they are? Does my obedience and desire for growing holiness of life really spring from a growing awe at the God who has called me to be His own?

I believe that Joshua served God gladly, with joy and even pride in what God had called him to do. But there was a right spirit about his service that I desire for myself – a spirit of prostrate worship before an utterly holy God; to whom nothing but perfect obedience should be given, because nothing less could be an acceptable expression of his love and devotion.

May God grant us each an ever deepening grasp of his beautiful, terrible holiness, blindingly bright, and irresistibly lovely, so that we might worship and serve Him worthily, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.