Category Archives: sacrifice

It was the only way..

On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals…I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

(Ex 12.12&13)

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement..

(Lev 17.11)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me…All who see me mock me…”He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him.”….they pierce my hands and feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment

(Ps 22.1,7,16-18)

I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight….I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.

(Am 8.9&10)

But when Christ came..he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption..without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness..Christ..appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself..

(Heb 9.12,22&26)

‘Like mourning for an only son and the end of a bitter day…’Those words jumped out at me recently when taking part in a bible study on Amos, as the Lord spoke through his prophet of the pain and anguish of the day when the full price for human rebellion against God would be paid.

The narrative of the Bible makes it so clear that humanity is incapable of keeping to the covenant which God has made with them; our hearts are unable to remain faithful to God, even when we are most in earnest. If we do not sin by falling away from God, we sin by trying through our own efforts to remain close to him – as the Pharisees were doing in Jesus’ day, and making legalism and ritual a means (as they thought) to salvation. From the beginning, God made it clear that sin would have to be dealt with, and his righteous anger satisfied before true peace could exist, and we could once more enjoy fellowship with our creator.

God’s anger against sin is an expression of his holiness, it is absolutely just (unlike most human anger), and he cannot simply set aside our sin because he loves us without violating his nature. If God is to love and welcome us into his presence again, then his perfect wrath must be satisfied – the full penalty for sin must be paid. While this may sound extreme to many in our day, the bible makes it clear that the problem is our lack of understanding of God’s holiness, not his anger with sin.

The blood sacrifices of the Old Testament were a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice – of the perfect Passover Lamb who would take God’s wrath so that we might be protected, provided for. Blood had to be shed, and in Christ, the only spotless person who ever lived, a perfect substitute for humankind was provided. But as well as our perfect Passover Lamb,  he is the only begotten of the Father, the beloved one. And so on Good Friday, when the full weight of sin was finally laid upon the son, what agony entered the heart of the Father, and what grief into the son, as they endured that separation which was the proper fate of humankind.

We cannot ever fully comprehend the pain of that hour, and indeed this is cause for humble thanksgiving, since we could not have borne it. Christ did all for us, and then offered it freely as his love-gift, and so we should surely fall in worship and praise as we accept him. God mourned for his only son, and endured the bitterness of that dreadful and glorious day – because of his unfathomable, unaccountable, unstoppable love for humankind.

Surely, our praise this Holy Week should glorify the Father who loved us; the Son who died for us, and the Spirit by whom we receive the faith to believe in and accept the freedom and new life which have been bought for us at such a price.

There is a green hill far away, beside a city wall, where the dear Lord was crucified, who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear; but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there.

He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood.

There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.

Oh, dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too; and trust in his redeeming blood, and try his works to do.

(Cecil Frances Alexander 1848)

Sweet fragrance…

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices..and make a fragrant blend of incense..It is to be salted and pure and sacred..place it in front of the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you.

(Ex 30.34-36)

The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

(Jn 1.29)

In the Messiah, in Christ, God leads us from place to place in one perpetual victory parade. Through us, he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation – an aroma redolent with life. 

(2 Cor 2.14-16, The Message)

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

(Heb 13.15&16)

In the regime of temple worship which God instituted with his people, there was a special incense – to be used only within the confines of that building, and for one purpose only. This particular smell, composed of rich spices, would instantly alert the worshipper to the fact that they were in a place set aside for meeting with God.  This building would smell different from every other, a perfume different from any flower, shrub or spice they knew in daily life, a building set apart for a special purpose. The scent would speak immediately of a holy place, one where God was pleased to encounter his people, where they were put right with him through the sacrificial system.

I believe that it is this instant recognition factor which is so significant about the incense in the temple. Even those who only occasionally made the journey to worship there would carry in their sense-memory that particular scent, and each return visit would bring a sense of homecoming, as the smell of incense reached them. Here, in this place, God is..

Our sense of smell is amazing, and scents are strong triggers for memory and recognition. How often have you been jolted from your present situation by a smell, pleasantly or painfully reminded of another time, place or person? My daughter inherited the end of a bottle of perfume which my late mother used for years. I find myself confused by the scent, worn by the one and reminding me so powerfully of the other. In a less serious vein, how many of us treasure the smell of freshly mown grass?! Reeking of spring and summer, of school games fields ready for lunchtime games, it speaks of heat, life and freedom.

What then is the significance of the aroma, or scent which Paul attributes to believers as they follow Christ? Is there something here of the unique fragrance which belongs to the place where God and humankind are reconciled – the cross of Jesus, which once for all replaced the sacrificial system of the temple?

The bible tells us that as we receive Christ’s sacrifice for us, by faith, so we receive new life – his life in us. We are now welcomed into God’s presence because we are ‘in Christ’, and all his triumphs and blessings are counted as ours. This surely means that we are to God as an acceptable fragrance too – we speak of atonement for sin, of reconciliation, of peace. As we seek to live faithfully, increasingly transformed by the Spirit into likeness of Christ, our lives yield the unmistakeable scent of grace. In the same way that the hyacinth fills a room with its fragrance – simply by fulfilling its nature and coming into flower – so also as believers, in obeying and trusting God, we are spreading the scent of the gospel to all with whom we come in contact.

Some will react against it, finding all that the gospel stands for abhorrent, and condemning all that we hold most dear. But even as the hyacinth cannot change its scent simply because some people find it unpleasant, so we as believers cannot change the truth about us – that we are saved, because we needed to be rescued, because sin is a reality which humanity alone cannot deal with. The gospel is indeed a stumbling-block to many, but we as believers are not accountable for how people react to it, only to for sharing it.

As I live by faith in Christ, depending on his once-for-all sacrifice, and representing in myself the place where God by his Holy Spirit dwells with his people, I pray that the aroma of grace might be the most noticeable thing about me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Relentless, single-minded…love?

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. You are my friends if you do what I command.

(John 15.12-14)

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love….. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

(Eph 4.1&2; 15&16)

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

(Mark 11.25)

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?….You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye……If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you…”

(Matt 7.3&5;18.15)

Lord, your love is perfect: mine is so imperfect.

You fear nothing: I fear so many things.

Out of your love, you cause me to face pain and difficulty, that I might become the glorious creature you know that I can be.

Out of my feeble shadow of love, I shy away from inflicting pain or causing others to face difficulty, because I am afraid of what they might do to me.

If I loved you as I ought; if your will truly ruled in my heart; if I truly loved others, then nothing would stop me from speaking the truth in love that they might grow according to your glorious purposes for them.

Oh Lord, forgive me, that I do not love as I ought. Forgive me, that I have failed to love others as I ought, and have let fear of my own pain hold me back from obedience to your will.

Have you ever considered that laying down your life for others might look more like a sentence of hard labour than a death sentence? That sounds a little severe, but let me unpack what I mean..Jesus spoke these words on the night before he died, and so we often associate them with his sacrificial death – and rightly so. But is it not also possible to apply them to the years leading up to this night?

Jesus had given up his life for his disciples, for three years. He had lived and worked with them, walked and eaten with them. He had borne with their foolishness and ignorance, their misplaced ambitions and squabblings, he had even borne with the presence of the one whom he knew would betray him. His life had been a living sacrifice of service to these men, a worked example of divine love in action.

I have been challenged recently to apply this to myself, to see that my life is also poured out in love to others, for their blessing and growth in grace and faith. If I choose to follow my own instincts – which are for peace at any price, and the avoidance of all confrontation – then I will effectively fail in my calling. God asks me to be his agent of love to people – to speak truth in love to them, that they might hear through my loving voice the word of God calling them to repentance and change. This is a huge responsibility, and for one like myself who goes in great fear of doing “the wrong thing”, it is terrifying!

But God gives me no choice; as his child, one in whom Christ dwells by the Spirit, I am called to play my part in building up the individual members of his body and that means helping others to see the truth about themselves. Will I choose to trust that He can and will direct my words; give me wisdom and humility; use what I say for the good of those to whom I speak; and above all, help me to overcome my fear of everything except disobeying him?

Loving Lord, I pray that you will so fill me with your relentless love that I will no longer hold back, but will speak the truth in love; humbly acknowledging my own great sinfulness and need of forgiveness; depending on your grace and power to change us all according to your will and looking forward eagerly to the day when we all stand revealed in the glory that you have in store for us. 

It’s not about the music….

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

(Romans 12.1&2)

Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him. Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness. Tremble before him, all the earth!

(1 Chron 16.28-30)

But the Lord said to Samuel,..”The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

(1 Sam.16.7)

Jesus declared,…”a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

(Jn 4.23&24)

Worship….what does it look like in my life, to really ‘worship’? I believe that to worship anything is to give honour, to defer and make that object the grounds and goal of all one’s decision-making. It is to express humble adoration, to elevate the adored object and rejoice in being in a position to serve, to dedicate all that is best in myself, to the glorifying and blessing of that which I worship. A worshipper delights to be with others who share the same faith, but is also delighted to have solitary time to contemplate and dwell with the beloved.

The worshipper who is a follower of Jesus Christ, one who is – by faith in the redeeming power of his death – privileged to enter freely into the presence of Almighty God and to call him ‘Father’; that person has the joy of giving their adoration, service and  commitment to one who is utterly worthy. We need have no doubts about our God, our King, He is splendid in his holiness; glorious in his purity; faithful in his justice; and awesome in his grace.

Is the worship – the elevation of, the service to, the humble commitment and dedication of all that I am – of this God to be expressed only when I sing? Surely not! Music may form a very small part of my worship of God – for some people it may be more significant than others – but it cannot and must not be the only way in which we think of this word. My God sees my heart, sees my thoughts, and knows my secret desires and failings. This God is not taken in by the public face I may put on at church on a Sunday, not fooled by enthusiastic singing, or particularly delighted by ecstatic emotional experiences which can arise just as readily at a concert of secular music as in a church service of praise!

He sees my heart, weighs my motives, discerns my private rebellions and those things which I refuse to surrender to his will and purpose. It is here that my true worship begins, in the willed abandonment of any claims to self-government, in deliberate aligning of my own thinking to his law and his truth. True worship, stems from the prostration of my spirit at the cross and results in a life which – in every aspect – is at his command.

I am only too well aware of the extent to which I fall short of this true worship. And I am thankful for this awareness, because it keeps me from the dangers of pride or boasting, or of judging others. I am completely dependent on his loving forgiveness, and daily grace for the small measure of obedience and worship which I am able to render. Praise him for his fathomless mercy and love towards his wayward children, whom he is tenderly leading home!

 

Worshipping God faithfully requires that I remember that I am not my own, but His; bought with a price and for a purpose. My body, intellect, emotions and will are gifts, and I am accountable to God for the use I make of them. True worship requires that I steward these resources according to His will and for His glory – pursuing holiness, selflessness, a proper appreciation of all His gifts. I must continually be asking – why am I doing this, does it glorify God, build up His church, proclaim His love and mercy?

Joyful, faithful, humble stewardship – this is my worship.

Gathering clouds…

The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!..”

(John 1.29)

Moses said to them, “Go..and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood…and put some on the door-frame…When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the door -frame and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.

(Exodus 12.21-23)

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)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. ..those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins….But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God..because by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those  who are being made holy.

(Hebrews 10.1, 3, 12&14)

As a boy growing up in a Jewish family, Jesus would have celebrated the Passover many times before the night in Jerusalem when he shared that final meal with his disciples. Do you ever wonder at what stage he began to discern that it was to be his privilege and pain to become the ultimate Passover lamb, The One who would die once and for all, so that God’s wrath against sin might be turned away from all who accepted the offered sacrifice?

The only scriptures he had were those of what we call our Old Testament, and that in itself should encourage us as 21st century believers to take those books seriously. In them, Jesus found mapped out the path which he was to take – as he reminds his disciples when he says that he is going to Jerusalem so that all that the prophets had written about him should be fulfilled. In the book of Genesis, he found the first promise of the coming saviour, and the assurance even then that suffering would be involved. In the story of Abraham and the covenant promises, he found that God’s blessing was intended for all the peoples of the earth. In the miraculous Exodus narrative, he found the decisive image of a sacrifice to avert destruction, and later a whole structure of temple worship which demonstrated that the wrath of a holy God against sin could not simply be set aside; that there was a price which must be paid; and it was a blood price.

I grew up in churches where the Old and New Testaments were held together, taught together, and I am so thankful for that heritage, which means that the oldest stories are full of symbolism, fore-shadowing what was to come, and that all through the wandering, rebellion, exile and restoration, the fine line of God’s faithful promise can be discerned.

As Jesus approached Jerusalem for this last time, after all these years of celebrating Passover in peace, he knew that his time was come, that there would never again be any need for sacrifice of lambs or any other beast in the temple, after his body had been broken and his blood poured out. These days were the culmination of centuries of God at work in his people, they were the centrepoint of time and the object of all His Father’s loving plan.  If the angels and heavenly beings had been “on the edge of their seats” at his birth, how much more were the host now intent upon the drama of the coming days? What weight of expectation lay upon those human shoulders, and coloured all the thought and actions of the son of Mary?

As we approach the season of Easter, and remember particularly – and fittingly – all the events of that last week of Jesus’ earthly life, I am humbled and drawn once again to worship this God-made-man, in his incredible love for humankind, and his complete submission to his Father’s will.

Worthy, worthy is the Lamb, all praise and glory to the One who walked unwaveringly into death, that we might live!

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..

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)