Category Archives: sacrifice

Looking around…

Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath..Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: he bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it…But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.

(Psalm 39. 4-7)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. so don’t be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows.

(Matthew 10.29-31)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”

(Matthew 16.24-26)

For many people, the end of a calendar year is a time of reflection, a time to reassess their lives and discern patterns, changes, new opportunities which might be opening up. There is also much – often hidden – pain at this time of year, as people remember those whom they have lost, to death, to breakdown in relationships; and also recognise disappointments, dashed hopes and unfulfilled expectations. Look around, and all the people you know will be experiencing this potent cocktail of emotions to varying degrees. We carry joy and pain simultaneously; anger and bitterness alongside thankfulness and appreciation.

Those who follow Jesus are human too, not immune to this annual malaise, and we need to think carefully about how we deal with these feelings. The bible shows us humanity in all its variety, expressing every emotion under the sun; and in the book of Psalms particularly, we find such transparency and honesty as should give the lie to any idea of the “stiff upper lip” and brave smile being the correct Christian response to life!

We have a perfect loving Father, and a great Saviour who is also a man. We have nothing to hide from our God; no emotion which can shock or make him turn away. Indeed, I believe that it is when we refuse to recognise and name our feelings before God that they begin to rule us, and that is so dangerous.

Our feelings change like the weather – and in my part of the world, that means from minute to minute! But our God is unchanging, and as followers of Jesus, we have a relationship with him which is grounded and held in his character, his promises, his love – not our feelings. The truth about our lives is not how we feel about them, but what he says about them!

So I bring my sometimes toxic cocktail of feelings to my Father, pouring it all out as I sit close and then I listen for his voice. In the place of my sense of failure and loss, I hear the loving voice which says that I am precious, that in him I can do all he desires for me – and all that he knows is good for me. I hear his repeated forgiveness for my failures and sins, and the promise that I have a fresh start. I hear the heartbeat of his love which is the only thing that matters, and which drowns out the clamour of the world around me, to measure and value myself on the basis of my looks, my status, my talents, my connections and achievements.

As I sit there, I receive confidence and courage to go on living quietly, living for him, living without worldly acclaim and trusting that this portion is all I need. My days are brief, but in his eyes they are not wasted; my voice is small, but he always hears me; the hairs on my head are increasingly white, but his hand is still over me in loving and tender protection. I am indeed worth more than many sparrows!

My life surrendered into his hands, is lost to me, but given back to be lived for him and in that transaction, I am the winner, the prize of eternal life is mine. A soul saved, a child brought home, who can look around her beautiful and troubled world, and be at peace because she knows the one who keeps her in it. May this be your experience in the year ahead..

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A sacrifice…and a responsibility

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no-one knows but himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God….out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ” He will rule them with an iron sceptre.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS

(Revelation 19. 11-16)

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

(John 15.13)

Every year, it seems to me that the number and scale of events of remembrance grows, and I wonder why it is that although we are apparently more attentive to the sacrifice of so many on behalf of peace – and particularly on behalf of the freedom which was preserved for us from oppressive regimes – yet still the world teeters on the verge of war. Nations posture, leaders make grand statements, and we shiver in horrified anticipation of fresh conflict.

The brutal reality is that war really cannot change people, cannot make them peaceful. Centuries of conflicts have left humanity still unable to resolve difference in a generous and peaceful way. I do not in any way want to dismiss or diminish the sacrifices made by so many, and indeed find remembrance a very moving time, when I am deeply thankful to those who fought and fight on, that I and so many others might have freedom. But we have to face the truth..humanity is aggressive, selfish and unable to live at peace. It seems that the responsibilities we have to those who have paid such a high price – to find ways to compromise that all might thrive together – are somehow beyond us. We must make the effort, of course…but somehow I fear that it will never be entirely successful.

In the bible narrative, we find another story of a sacrifice, of a life laid down for the sake of others, that they might have peace. The life of God himself, in his beloved son, was given up on the cross, so that hostilities might cease, and humanity might live not just in the absence of conflict with God, but in a wholesome, healthy and flourishing peace. I believe that it is through this sacrifice alone that peace will ultimately rule in our world – as the hearts of individuals are surrendered to and transformed by this sacrificial love.

So what makes the difference? A life is given up, for my sake, and I am called to live as one who no longer belongs to herself, but to the one who has paid the blood price which I owed to my just and perfect judge. I am not my own, and in love to the one who saved me, I respond with obedience and a continually growing desire to become like him. And, praise God for his great mercy and kindness to us, the power to change is from him, not from me. It is by his spirit, now dwelling in me, his heart now beating in mine, that the transformation is effected. This is what makes the difference – God has made my heart his home, and is making me new. Without this power within me, I could achieve only a barren and desperate adherence to rules, and – like humanity today – my desire to be worthy of the sacrifices made on my behalf would continually be undermined and betrayed by my human fallibility.

I will continue to pray for the cessation of war and all conflicts; I will pray for those who have paid a terrible price and lost limbs, sanity and hope as a result of the conflicts they have survived; I will pray for politicians and policy makers to pursue peace. But I will also pray and work and witness for the discovery by all peoples, of the true peace which has been purchased for all his children by our good and gracious God. This is my responsibility, and the very least that I owe to the one who sacrificed everything for me, my Lord Jesus Christ.

 

What on earth is going on?

Jesus took the twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be turned over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”  The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

(Luke 18.31-34)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me?…All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads:..I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me….They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing….

(Psalm 22. 1, 7, 1, 14 &18)

Bewildered, but loyal; unable to see what was in store beyond the certainty of trouble for the man whom they loved and had followed for years, yet willing to go with him for a little longer. Do you ever wonder how the disciples made sense of the last weeks of Jesus’ life, what did they tell themselves was happening? The methodical author of Luke’s gospel leaves us in no doubt, and presumably he has it on good authority from one who heard the disciples themselves tell the story… They had no idea what Jesus was up to, it simply made no sense to them at the time! I doubt whether we would have done any better in their place given our limited understanding of God, and poor grasp of his big plan for the world.

The disciples had all the clues – as Jesus reminds them when he points out that all which is to come had been foretold – and yet they remained so wedded to the popular Jewish idea of a military and political deliverer as their Messiah, that it all passed them by. How patient Jesus continued to be with his foolish followers, and how lonely it must have been..When we face great trials, are we not much comforted by sharing our apprehension with trusted friends and praying with them? There was no one who understood, no one except his Father. As it says elsewhere in Psalm 22..”Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no-one to help.”

 For love of his friends, for love of all those who would one day follow their journey into faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, for love of me, he chose to walk that lonely road. Each day brought the final trial closer, more clearly into focus. Each step of the journey that was gradually drawing him closer and closer to Jerusalem was a triumph of his will to obey his Father, and a demonstration of the power which is available to us now, his followers, as we live in him.

Even in their confusion and ignorance, Jesus’ disciples were still so dear to him, so precious, and he knew that their participation in the events which were to unfold was crucial. These men would be the witnesses, the recorders and preachers of all that they had seen, and in time would found the church, that body of redeemed humanity which is Christ’s beloved and for whom he died. He was full of compassion for their weaknesses, and bore with their foolish, misguided ambitions, and above all, he loved them well enough to complete his work. His presence alone would never have been enough to atone for their sins, or ours; we needed his death – what a humbling thought. His teaching alone cannot change our hearts or avert the right anger of a holy God against rebellious people. We needed his death, and he knew and determined to love us to that uttermost extent.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who from the beginning of the world had purposed to pursue his fallen children and to restore them, spotless and pure, to fellowship with him.

Praise be to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who submitted himself entirely to the planned work of redemption, for love of his people, and held nothing back in meeting our utmost needs. 

May we be found fully submitted to Christ, to his transforming power in our lives; so moved by and indebted to his love for us that we hold nothing back in our turn, as we seek to live for and glorify him.

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.

Dying to live..

Then he said to them all:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.

What good is it for a man to gain the whole world and yet lose or forfeit his very self?

(Luke 9. 24&25)

Some people would have us believe that the christian life should be a happy, smooth and fulfilling one, and that if we do not have that experience, then we are somehow failing to grasp our inheritance as God’s beloved children.

Where does Jesus call us to such a life? Not here, not in these words, which are recorded in all four gospels, indicating their centrality to our understanding of his teaching. Jesus calls us to die for him, no more, no less. For many, it is a call to physical death – whether by martyrdom, or by being exposed to unusual risks by virtue of the work we do in his name. For all of us, it is a call to die to ourselves, to the ways of thinking and acting which put our needs, welfare and personal fulfillment first.

Am I the only christian who needs regularly to be reminded that my Lord calls me to this radical discipleship? To have it drummed into my heart and thinking again and again that my own happiness is not the goal of my life, in spite of the bewitching messages with which contemporary culture tries to persuade me. When I get my eyes fixed back onto this vision of the life to which I am called, for which I was saved by my Lord, then it is like finally seeing past a smokescreen, to a clear sky and a straight road. But oh, how hard it can be to look up, to shake myself clear of the smoke and see properly!

Jesus does not give me options on obedience, I am not in a position to qualify the extent to which I will do as God commands according to my circumstances and feelings! If I once allow my feelings to become the driving force behind my willingness to obey, then I will become utterly bogged down in self-obsessed inaction. God has given me a will to act, a mind to understand, and has shown me what to do. How I feel must follow, not dictate, my obedience to those commands.

Did it not cost Jesus more than we can begin to imagine to obey God’s will in his life on earth? He wept and toiled, and embraced suffering and death because He knew that this was God’s will for him. What am I saying when I protest against the cost of obedience in my life, that I am not willing to suffer in turn? That my immediate comfort and temporary self-fulfilment are more precious than eternal life and union with Christ? That his love for me is not worth very much if it must be paid out of my own ease?

I have been reminded again of the words penned by martyred missionary Jim Elliott, who wrote :-“he is no fool, who gives what he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose!”

God forgive me that I protest so bitterly against the small crosses which he asks me to bear, against the small sacrifices which he asks me to make in his name. Should I not rather rejoice that I may suffer through obedience? My Lord sees the pain I experience, and commends me as I seek to obey in spite of it. That same pain causes me to lean ever harder on His arm, to listen closer for his loving voice, to sit ever more lightly to this world and hope more gladly for the next. Is this not reason for giving thanks in my struggles? God give me courage to obey, understanding to see what I must do, and fuller knowledge of his love that my desire for him might continue to grow.

All to Jesus I surrender; all to Him I freely give;

I will ever love and trust Him, in His presence daily live.

I surrender all, I surrender all; all to Thee my blessed Saviour, 

I surrender all

(Judson W. Van De Venter 1896)

God of the impossible….

“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

Peter said to him, we have left all we had to follow you!”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no-one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and in the age to come, eternal life.”

(Luke 18. 24-30)

Many of us are familiar with the sad story of the rich young man who came to Jesus seeking assurance of eternal life, and who went away downcast, because Jesus challenged the stranglehold which his wealth had on his heart – he could not let it go, it had become his god. That is the point of the hilarious picture of a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle – it is simply impossible, laughable and to be dismisssed. In human terms that is… and that is the point which Jesus made to those who questioned how anyone could be sure of salvation if even a rich and law-abiding person could not. With God in the picture, everything changes!

It is God who can do the impossible. By his power at work in hearts and minds, he transforms people so that they recognise the idols which are dominating their lives, and brings them to a point where they can surrender everything to God as rightful king and lord. The proper names for these things are repentance and faith, and they are not once-in-a-lifetime experiences either. It is true that for many people there will be a particular occasion when they know that a decision has been made, to follow Jesus, to accept forgiveness for past sins, and to trust him for the future. But it is also true that as disciples, we spend the rest of our lives working out in each new situation, what we need to repent of and what it means to exercise faith in God as our trustworthy heavenly Father!

I think that I have a bad habit of forgetting what Jesus says in the passage I quoted above – that it is God whose ability and strength is the issue, not mine! How often do I look at a situation and feel overwhelmed, unable to cope with what is being asked of me?! If God is sending me along a particular path, then He is also providing the resources which I will need as I go – and I need to trust Him to be faithful, and to recognise the things which are holding me back.

The disciples pointed out to Jesus how much they had given up to follow him – and his response is a staggering promise, which holds good for all disciples, that no one will be the loser as a result of their obedience to God’s call on their lives! Do I believe him? When I am faced with the loss of something – or someone – precious to me, do I trust God to provide for the gap which will be left in my life?

How often do we ask God to show us in advance how he will replace what is lost, repay what we feel we are sacrificing?! That is not to trust him, that is not faith in the promise, and I need to guard against such an attitude when I am facing up to the prospect of obedience resulting in loss.

I know that God gives good gifts to his children, but also that everything I am and have is a gift from his hand – not deserved but freely given. I hold all things on an open hand, not in a closed fist, and must learn to say with Job -“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1.21)

My God is Lord of the impossible, and in any time of sacrificial obedience, I can and must trust him to do just that, to turn what seems an impossible sacrifice into one which I make gladly for his sake, and one which he will more than abundantly make up for, in the ways which he knows are best for me! Blessed be the name of the Lord!