Category Archives: The Cross

Grace – it’s God’s gift to share, not ours to keep…

Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin…”

(Ex 34.5-7)

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.

(Rom 5.1&2)

Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak…All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God

(2Cor 5.13&15)

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

(Col 3.12-14)

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord…….But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ..

(2 Pet 1.2 & 5.18)

What is this ‘grace’ of which the New Testament of our bibles is so full? Was it invented by the church retrospectively to explain what was going on, or is it part of the great narrative of time?

Grace is understood – in the context of God’s revelation of himself – to be the free and unmerited favour which He (as supreme and superior to us in every way) chooses to show us, mere creatures, and in rebellion against Him. That favour is compounded of many things, well beyond the scope of a brief piece of writing, but the word itself is basically shorthand for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

Grace is represented in God’s choosing of Abram, and the making of a covenant with him – one in which all the promises were on God’s side, and which God kept in spite of Abram’s failings and sin. Grace is seen in God’s powerful deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt – and especially in his bearing with them all through their sulking, rebellious and uncooperative wanderings in the wilderness. Grace is seen in their establishment in a land which was rich and plentiful. Grace is seen in God’s faithfulness to David, in spite of David’s adultery and murder of Bathsheba’s husband. Grace is seen in God reaching out to the people of Nineveh in their sin, with the offer of salvation. Grace is seen in God’s ministry to his people even in their exile in Babylon, where the prophets spoke of God’s presence among them and promise to restore them to their land.

Grace does not arrive with Jesus…but, John tells us that Jesus – as God’s perfect representation in the flesh – showed us more clearly than anything had done beforehand just what grace looks like.

Grace is to love people when they despise you; grace is to bear with people when they misunderstand and misjudge you; grace is to go to the cross, bearing all the appalling weight of a world of sin and grief, so that those who have rejected you might be saved from the consequences of their own sin. This is what God’s grace – in the person of Jesus – did. He did not wait for us to recognise his worth; did not wait until he was popular and liked; did not require that salvation be earned by lavish good works, acts of extreme piety or self-sacrifice. He died, while we were still utterly estranged from and hostile to him, so that we might live never to be estranged again from God.

If I, as a follower of Jesus, and one who calls him Lord, am not willing to show grace to others as it has been shown to me – not willing to allow the riches of God’s forgiveness and love to be offered – then I am not worthy to be called a christian. This free gift – encompassing all of God’s riches – was lavishly poured on me, and continues to be my daily portion. How dare I then choose to whom I will show it? I am no more worthy to receive God’s riches than anyone else – and no less worthy.

Lord God, forgive me when I judge that someone is not worthy of grace, when I choose to condemn instead of being compassionate; to hold a grudge instead of forgiving; to withhold love and kindness instead of reaching out. Your grace outraged the religious leaders of your day, because it was freely offered to the wheeler-dealer Zaccheus, to the disgraced woman who anointed your feet with her tears, to the lepers and the maimed, the socially marginalised. And it was offered to those who thought themselves above you, above needing forgiveness.

You invited everyone to come and receive grace, may I follow your example, and by my words and actions make it clear that all are welcome..

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We must use our words….

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth..And God said,”Let there be light, ” and there was light…

(Gen 1.1&3)

After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward…..Look up at the heavens and count the starts – if indeed you can count them…so shall your offspring be.”

(Gen 15.1&5)

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I , the Lord your God, am holy.'”

(Lev 19.1)

Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures.

(Ps 119.89&90)

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins…

(Luke 1.76&77)

For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?

(Rom 10.12-14)

 Humankind is driven by communication, the desire and ability which we have, in the image of God, to share and express ourselves. We think in words, and from the earliest age we teach our children to speak so that we can understand them and they can understand us. From the very beginning, God reveals himself as a God who speaks, who desires to know and be known by his creation. He does not leave us at the mercy of dreams and visions with uncertain meanings, but reveals his plans, his character and his commands through his words.

Perhaps we are so used to reading the words ‘And God said’, or ‘The Lord said’, that we no longer notice them, but we should. God speaks..he does not wish to be unknown. In the book of Leviticus, he speaks over and over again, laying out in detail the plans for the unique life and worship-witness of his people as they demonstrate his holiness and love before the world. We can be in no doubt about our God’s plans – although we may not always understand why he chooses to work in certain ways.

I remember saying to my children when they were young and upset about something, “Use your words”, encouraging them to give me the chance to understand what the  problem was. The fact is that we all need to use our words, all our lives, if we are to have healthy relationships and above all, if we are to bear witness to the good news about Jesus and our salvation.

While it is possible to live godly lives, to be generous and hospitable, charitable, forgiving and loving, none of these things in themselves will explain to anyone what our faith rests upon. No one can guess from watching a follower of Jesus serving the poor in their community, or facing extreme adversity with courage and faith, that they are motivated by the life, death and resurrection of a Nazarene carpenter 2000 years ago – we must tell them.

This is the point which first Zechariah, and then Paul make. Zechariah sings to his infant son – the future John the Baptist – of the unique role which he will grow into, the task of being the truth-teller about the coming Messiah. John’s ministry would have been nothing without his words! And Paul states quite categorically that no one can believe in something that they do not know about, that saving faith depends upon hearing the truth-words about Jesus.

This is why people learn the languages of those among whom they serve overseas, why they labour to create written forms of unrecorded languages so that text can be created – in order that the good news about Jesus may be heard in the heart-language of those who listen, so that they might believe and be saved. This is why in illiterate cultures, story-tellers are trained in the gospel narratives, and radio broadcasts and recordings of scripture are created – so that people might hear, believe and be saved…

So much effort is being expended across the world, to enable people to hear and respond, to call upon the one name by which they may be saved….What am I doing? All too often, I am saying nothing. Fearful of giving offence, of saying “the wrong thing”, of being rejected by my listeners; I keep the good news to myself.

Lord God, forgive my stubborn silence, my failure to share the good news. Liberate my speech, and so fill my heart with love for the lost and with the glory of Jesus that I MUST speak…

Nowhere to hide…

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

(1Jn.1.5-7)

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.

(Deut.19.16)

“The most important [command],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this:’Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

(Mark 12.29-31)

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

(1Jn1.8-2.2)

I have to confess to having a very soft spot for the apostle John, author of the gospel and widely accepted as the author of the three short letters which we find immediately preceding the book of Revelation. His approach to unfolding the mystery of the Incarnation, and the narrative of Jesus ministry is profound, and touches my heart. His writing also seems very warm and loving, and especially in these letters, gentle and coaxing. In his last years, the apostle is reaching out in earnest concern for believers who are being misled and in danger of accepting false teaching. His desire that they should know, and stand in the truth arises from his deep love for them, and it is this which speaks through everything he writes.

Perhaps the old man was speaking out of his own years of experience of seeking to follow the master whom he loved so well, and of seeing himself fail, time and again, to meet those exacting standards of perfection. We none of us like to disappoint those whom we love, and who love us, and yet as fallen creatures, this is what we do to our loving, faithful God. I know, that I am often tempted to fall into self-pity and even despair, over the ways in which I fail. Perhaps we might argue that our sins are not so bad as they might be, that we have done nothing worse than anyone else in our church and community….but Jesus clearly set a standard which none of us can claim to achieve every minute of every day.

When I consider my thoughts, deeds, motives and words in the light of the great commands, I am silent before my God. I have not loved either my God, or my neighbour as I ought. I have made excuses, blamed others for my failures, and allowed the powers and attractions of a fallen world to guide and direct my thinking and acting. May I not add to these sins by denying them, and claiming that God has lied! May I be aware of the seriousness of my situation, and not call trivial that for which God sent Jesus to die.

Rather, in tenderness of conscience, may I look ever to the cross, to the place where God’s wrath and God’s mercy met; where divine justice was satisfied by divine love poured out in the blood and broken body of the God-made-man on behalf of sinners.

Because Jesus died, I CAN have fellowship with this holy God. My sins – persistent, ugly, polluting and utterly offensive to him – are dealt with and my guilt washed away as I stand with my holy advocate before the throne of God. In Jesus holy name, I am welcomed into the presence of the light and indeed walk always in it. My persistent sinfulness is no barrier to that light – so long as I remain fully aware that it depends entirely upon my remaining in Christ.

Let me not hide away from this light, ashamed of my sins; but rather come boldly to the throne, claiming the forgiveness and cleansing which I need and which is promised. Let me rejoice in the unbounded grace which delights to give to those who delight to admit their need – not proud of the sin, but so very, very proud of the Saviour whose loving sacrifice deals with it.

Hiding in plain view?

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil..The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written:’Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,”he said,”throw yourself down. For it is written:”He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “It is also written:   ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

(Matthew 4.1-7)

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

(1 Corinthians 10.12-14)

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

(James 4.7)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the command to die to self, about the supreme example which Jesus set for us as we follow him and God transforms us into Christ-likeness. And almost immediately, I was plunged into a turmoil, a maelstrom of emotion and trouble which threatened to overwhelm me as I struggled to cling to Christ,to discern truth and solid ground on which to stand. In God’s goodness, he provided me not only with praying friends, and sufficient self-restraint not to act or speak out of my agony, but also a clear insight into the source of my troubles..

I am a target, as are all believers, for the hostile and insidious activities of that enemy who was defeated on the cross but who nonetheless remains at large – a mystery of God’s sovereignty for which we must trust him. There is a devil, and his whole powers, such as they remain, are devoted to undermining the church, the body of Christ in the world, by all and every means possible. It behoves us, as those desiring to live for Christ, to be aware of this enemy – not in an obsessive way, but alert to the possibilities of his presence.

Our culture has largely dismissed this agent of evil, and if we are not careful, we forget and fail to recognise him at work – which makes us vulnerable to his tricks. He is a master deceiver, so adroit at clothing himself in selected truths and borrowed garments that we entirely fail to unmask him, and think we are meeting a friend, a trusted adviser who has our good at heart.

We see from the temptations of Jesus, that the devil is a master at using our natural desires and needs in order to undermine our trust in and dependence on God. Of course Jesus was hungry, and he had every ‘right’ as the Son of God, to transform the barren rocks into food. But Jesus discerned that this was not the time, and resisted, trusting God to meet his hunger instead. The devil quoted scripture to Jesus, persuading him that it could only be right to prove God’s care for him – again, Jesus resisted, taking scripture on his own side as vindication.

My particular weaknesses, needs, deep hurts or anxieties which I carry through life, are my points of greatest vulnerability to these attacks by my great enemy. And if I cannot recognise his hand at work, oppressing me; or discern his tones within the voice which is counselling me to put my own needs first, because “of course that is what my loving Father would want…”,it is all too clear how easily we can be led into dangerous thoughts and actions which result in the havoc in which the devil delights.

It is surely fitting that in the Lord’s prayer, we are taught to ask to be delivered from temptation, from the hands of the evil one! But we are also assured by God’s word that in every place of temptation, there will be a way out, the possibility of obedience to God is always there, no matter how loudly our feelings may be screaming at us to follow another direction.

Thanks be to God, for his kindness in revealing the source of my troubles, for unveiling the enemy, and thanks be to Christ, in whom I have the victory. I may be a wounded soldier, but I am still on the winning side, and my captain is always ready to respond to my call for his help!

It’s not about the chocolate..

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

(Mark 8.34)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2.20)

You attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.. he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!

(Philippians 2.5-8)

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

(1 Peter 2.21-23)

As followers of Jesus around the world take time over the next few days to remember particularly the events of the last week of his life, looking forward to his death for all who would believe in him, I have been thinking how easy it is to forget a very significant truth about how he lived for us first.

Before Jesus died to save us from the power and consequences of sin – to offer hope for all the brokenness that each of us carries and cannot by any amount of our own effort overcome – he died to himself.

He deliberately set aside his own desires, the urge for self-preservation, comfort and privacy, for a “normal”life and the freedom to grow old without pain, and in peace. He gave up his rights as the eternal Son, setting them aside in order to become as a servant, one to whom no honour was due; and whose life might be disregarded and set at little worth. He gave up his rights to have his needs met in the ways he desired; he gave up the right to justify himself and to have the last word in an argument; he gave up the right to seek justice on his enemies for the wrongs they did to him. He set aside any notion of status or human authority, and never fought for recognition for his gifts and talents. He did not sulk or scheme against others when their opinions prevailed and his was set at nought.

It is far too easy for us to read Jesus’ words about denying ourselves, and to take them in as 21st century people – immediately thinking of diets, or other forms of privation; as many people still do in Lent, even when they have no faith in the Saviour whose life and death that season is associated with in many church calendars. It is far too easy to confine self-denial to food, or tv, or our favourite social media, or some other relatively innocuous item which doesn’t touch the heart of the matter.

It is ‘self’, the root of all human rebellion against God which must be denied, and that goes so deep with us, that most of us will spend our lives discovering ever more ways in which it rules and must be toppled from the throne over again.

I have no rights. I can demand nothing from life which I am entitled to receive. As a believer, all that I am and have is a gift from God, freely given, for him to use or withdraw according to his purpose and pleasure – for a greater and more glorious future than I can currently imagine. Will I trust this God – as Jesus did? Will I choose to cling by faith to his goodness and his promises when all my dearest hopes are gone; if my health were to be chronically undermined, or my children materially to suffer? Will I choose to let him look after the honour of my name and reputation, if all around treat me like dirt? Will I choose to let the justice of my cause go undefended, trusting in God to see and know, and resting on his love and acceptance of me for all my peace?

Jesus did this. He calls me to follow, rejecting the self which weeps and cries, fights and resists, clinging to every last foothold in my spirit and mind with incredible tenacity and hiding itself behind so many specious arguments.

My precious Lord and Saviour, for whom every step along the road to Jerusalem, every word and deed that last week was an act of obedient submission to the Father, and of ruthless denial of self, may I receive grace to follow and to carry my cross as simply, humbly and selflessly as you. Put to death in me that fierce enemy of the King of my heart, so that he might reign alone, and be glorified by who he makes me.

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.

 

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!