Category Archives: The Cross

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.

 

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Tell me again..please?

Therefore, I will always remind you about these things – even though you already know them and are standing firm in the truth you have been taught. And it is only right that I should keep on reminding you as long as I live….For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendour with our own eyes….because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets.

I want you to remember what the holy prophets said long ago and what our Lord and Saviour commanded through your apostles.

(2 Peter 1.12,16,19 &3.2)

Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the good news I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. It is this good news that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you…I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the scriptures said.

(1 Corinthians 15. 1,3&4)

 Our world in these early years of the twenty-first century is driven by rapid change – population growth; expanding economies; transforming technologies. We in the prosperous and stable European nations enjoy an unprecedented standard of living and are swept along in the current of constant innovation which drives our economies and personal lives. Every few years, we replace appliances, cars and pieces of furniture, and obsolescence is built in to much of what we use,  we accept it cannot last for long. We are increasingly driven by novelty, the lure of the new and different. It was ever thus, humanity is easily bored, but the pace of change today is breath-taking.

Do we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking about faith in this way, as if there ought to be some innovations by now, some new and exciting insights and teaching which will render much of our tradition obsolete? Well, perhaps there is a case for arguing that much which is traditional is no longer helpful, but actually obscures the gospel, and it could therefore be set aside. But, there is a foundation of truth upon which our faith must rest if it is to have any validity at all, and that foundation remains today as it was when the apostles wrote about it two thousand years ago..

We believe in a God who became human, lived a perfect life, died the death of a sinner, and was raised to new life, ascending into heaven where all those who accept his death in their place will also be received. It can be reduced to the simplest of statements, as the children’s hymn puts it, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so..”

There is sufficient profound theology behind this truth to occupy the greatest minds; and yet it is clear enough to be understood and embraced by the youngest and simplest of us. And it does not change…this is what we believe, and without this, we are astray upon a sea of conjecture, tossed by fashionable philosophies, driven by ruthless atheists, and without any real grounds for hope. It is this truth which we need, more than anything else, to give us courage to face life, to face ourselves in all our weakness, failure and malice.

Jesus loves me – therefore I am of worth, I have value in God’s eyes and can hold my head high no matter what others say of me; Jesus loves me – and his death has dealt with all my sins, the past, present and future, I am forgiven and the burden of guilt has no weight for me: Jesus loves me – I want to live in a way that honours him and recognises that my life is no longer my own to waste; Jesus loves me – and that love is for all who will receive it, therefore I have good news to share with my world!

This old story, of Jesus and his love, is what I need to receive afresh every day of my life. It is as basic to my existence as the food I eat and the air I breathe. Without this story, I have no hope, and am at the mercy of my own sin, the wiles of the devil, and the power of evil in the world.

Praise God, in his infinite wisdom, that his great story of redemption is complete, that nothing need be added by all the cleverness of humanity to make it effective. There is no need to look for new versions of the good news of Jesus; the old story, the unchanging story, is never obsolete, always effective, and the only sure foundation of faith. Alleluia, and Amen!

Therefore go!

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

(Matthew 28.18-20)

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle..for the gospel of God..regarding his Son who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace..to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

(Romans 1. 1-5 & 16-18)

An imperative, a command with no exceptions – the risen, glorified Lord commands his disciples to ‘GO’. His death and resurrection has ushered in a new era, has opened the door of heaven to broken and lost humanity, that they might come home; finding fullness and joy such as they have never known.

It is good news for the weary and grieving; for the proud and lonely; for the driven and unsatisfied – and a challenge to the self-satisfied, all those who rely upon their own righteousness and achievements. It is good news, because it addresses the deepest needs of humankind – whether they recognise and acknowledge those needs or not – and is the only guarantee of obtaining the security in this life, and hope for the next which we pursue in so many different shapes and forms apart from God.

This is the command which sends men and women across the oceans to serve as missionaries in lands where they are aliens; learning strange languages and submitting to challenging climatic and living conditions – all that their beloved Lord might be made known to people who have never heard of him. It is not personal glory that they pursue, but his glory and the growth of his kingdom; it is with Christ’s sacrificial love that they go, for the sake of those walking in darkness, knowing nothing of the beauty of Jesus’s death and resurrection.

This is the command which draws men and women into full-time and professional ministry in their homelands – that they might reach their neighbours with the good news of a saviour; might make disciples of young believers, seeing them grow in strength and understanding, persevering through trials and testifying to God’s power in their lives. It is not institutional glory they are pursuing, but the rescuing of as many as may respond from a bleak, black, hopeless future without Christ.

This same command is given to me, a housewife, with no formal theological training to undertake, no foreign mission field to go to, no difficult languages to learn or challenging climate to deal with. I am tasked with sharing the good news of Jesus with my natural neighbours, in my own tongue, from the comfort of a good home and with a strong support network of believing friends to help me… What possible excuse can I make for failing to do it?

None.. and I know that the desire of my heart is indeed to see those around me come to faith. I see how their lives are distorted and blighted by the lack of peace, the sense of worthlessness, the anxiety and fear which all stem from ignorance of God’s accepting and forgiving love. And yet it seems so hard to speak of that love in a way which will they will hear, and how I dread alienating them by a word spoken out of turn..

It is not that my words must be powerful in themselves, nor clever and persuasive like those of a clever lawyer or spin doctor; no, I believe that God can use simple and even clumsy speech to do his work. And this is perhaps the key which I need to grasp more fully – to pray that he will be at work by his Spirit in the lives of those around me; that I will discern that work, and then discern how to speak to them. All the labour of drawing a soul to saving faith is God’s labour, and my task is to be a willing agent in his plan.

May I walk more and more in step with him, so that I recognise his hand at work and know his prompting to speak – or not speak but act – so that the power of God which is the gospel of Jesus Christ might be revealed in the lives of those around me. May I be blessed by seeing men and women come alive in Christ in my community – perhaps through some labour of my own, but ultimately all through God’s gracious power and to his glory!

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.

But I will boast!

As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of  that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died. It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle, they are the new people of God.

(Gal 6.14-17)

This is what the Lord says: “Don’t let the wise boast in their wisdom, or the powerful boast in the power, or the rich boast in their riches. But those who wish to boast should boast in this alone: that they truly know me and understand that I am the Lord who demonstrates unfailing love and who brings justice and righteousness to the earth, and that I delight in these things. I, the Lord, have spoken!”

(Jer 9 23-24)

The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…. there is a subject upon which one could lavish a lifetime of study and reflection and still never reach the end! It is the pivotal point upon which all of history revolves, and by which the eternal destiny of humanity is determined. And for every individual follower, it is the foundation of their new life, the power which re-creates them as children of God with the promise of eternal life and the guarantee of his constant presence.

In the cross, God demonstrated that he was indeed a God who brings justice to the earth, because it was there that the price demanded by holiness for sin was paid – the wages of sin is death. And there too, was demonstrated the unfailing love of God, because it was God himself who paid the price, so that we might be spared! Our God, he it is that delights in justice, in unfailing love, and righteousness – that all should be done well. How great should our delight in this God be! We can most legitimately boast in our God, the only one who can fully deal with the brokenness of our hearts and our world, while at the same time restoring us to the perfect relationship with him for which we were designed.

What human wealth could ever buy a clean conscience or a quiet mind? What power on earth can bring a holy God back into fellowship with rebellious, proud and stubborn creatures? What wisdom could discern the only way to restore the broken image of God in his creatures? When we begin to understand what was achieved on the cross, then we begin to understand our great God, to glimpse the unfathomable love, the amazing grace, which are his essential character. There can be no end to the ways in which we can truthfully glory in, boast about our wonderful God.

This afternoon, I watched my small nation’s rugby team winning – against the odds – the opening game of the 2017 Six Nations tournament. It was thrilling, nerve-wracking, exhilirating – all the things a great sporting occasion can be; and I am proud tonight to be a Scot, to identify with the team in their commitment, passion, skill and doggedness. But as we all know – especially Scots! – sporting greatness is a fleeting thing, and not to be relied on for national pride or peace of mind. As individuals, we dare not invest our security or identity in such things, because they CANNOT be relied upon, they will fail us and leave us adrift and vulnerable. That is the point which Jeremiah is making when he dismisses the claims of wealth, power and wisdom to our loyalty and reliance.

There is nothing upon which it is safe to build our identity, our lives, except the Lord of unfailing love, who delights to bring justice and righteousness to the world. And it is supremely in the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord that we see this God revealed to us, when everything  needful was done to restore us. We add nothing, no matter how wise, powerful or rich we are, to the cross. If we cannot accept it without paying or contributing in some way, we have failed to understand what God is doing, and what a state we are in before his holiness. Let us rejoice in this complete work, in the cross, and be at peace!

I will not boast in anything, no gifts no power no wisdom;

But I will boast in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection!

Why should I gain from his reward? I cannot give an answer;

But this I know with all my heart, his wounds have paid my ransom.

(Stuart Townend) 

 

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)

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.