Category Archives: sacrifice

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!