Why Have you Forsaken Me? (a sermon for Good Friday on Psalm 22)

I recently read a wonderful book called ‘Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved’ by Kate Bowler. The book is about Kate’s experience, as a woman in her thirties, about being diagnosed with terminal cancer – of looking at her young husband and her four-year old boy and knowing the chances are very good they’re going to lose her. It was written during the first year of Kate’s diagnosis – she’s still alive, thanks to an experimental drug treatment, but her diagnosis is still terminal. It’s a wonderfully honest and refreshing book; you will not find clichés here! That’s what the title means, of course. So many of us have experienced this! We’re going through some time of deep suffering and some well-meaning soul says piously “Oh well – everything happens for a reason”, and somehow we just can’t find any comfort in that phrase; it just annoys us!

In one of the funniest chapters of the book, Kate talks about how she decided to take up swearing for Lent. Now, I’m a person who one year decided to stop swearing for Lent – I fined myself a dollar off my open stage beer money for every infraction – so I was intrigued by the idea that swearing could be a good Lent discipline! As I read the chapter I realized what she was doing: she was protesting against this need that Christians seem to have to dismiss death and suffering and give easy answers for everything. Her Lenten swearing discipline was aimed at those easy answers.

She talks about how she was out for coffee with friends one night and got so frustrated with this Christian desire to jollify everything. “This is Lent”, she said. “I’m dying of cancer – I’m staring into the face of death – and during Lent the church has asked all its members to join me there. We started out with an ash cross and the words ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return’. That sets the theme for Lent! But no one is willing to stay there with me!” And then she uses this wonderful phrase – probably my favourite phrase of the whole book: “Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent!”

Well, we’re not going to ‘Easter the crap out of each other’s Lent’! Today is Good Friday, and although all around us people have started wishing each other Happy Easter, we’re going to stay with the cross today. And one of the best ways of doing that is staying with our psalm, Psalm 22. Here are the first two verses:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2).

And then in the next few verses the mood seems to change abruptly.

Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. (vv.3-5)

 In other words, ‘There are all sorts of stories about how you worked mighty miracles to help our ancestors in the past; they trusted you and you saved them. So what’s the matter with me? Am I a worse sinner than them? Am I not really one of your people after all? Or are those stories just not true?’

‘And what have I done to deserve this?’ the psalmist asks. In verses 9-11 he talks about how he has been dedicated to God since he was born; ‘since my mother bore me you have been my God’ (v.10). He looks back on a life dedicated to the service of God, and asks himself if this is all the reward he gets. Why did he bother, if he was just going to be abandoned?

Which of us hasn’t felt like this from time to time? I think of people living with long-term, chronic pain who don’t seem to be able to get any relief. They pray over and over again; they lie awake at night, unable to sleep, doing their best to hold back the tears so as not to wake their spouse. They read stories about how God miraculously heals people, and they think, ‘Why doesn’t he heal me, then? Am I some particularly vile sort of sinner, that he refuses to help me? I always thought I was a Christian and a child of God, but perhaps I was wrong – perhaps I’m really nothing to God’. You see, the worst thing this sort of suffering does to some people is not to stop them believing in God, but to stop them believing in a loving God, and give them a monster instead.

Psalm 22 is a prayer for people who feel like that; it enables us to pray our experience, honestly and openly, before God. It’s the prayer of the person who suffers chronic pain day and night. It’s the prayer of the person who’s suffered some public disgrace and is afraid to show their face in public for fear of the ridicule they’ll encounter. It’s the prayer of the bereaved person who longs for some sort of sense of companionship from God in their loneliness, but finds only empty skies above.

And this is the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. ‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ (Mark 15:34). Jesus was a Jewish boy who would have learned the psalms by heart at a very early age. Now, in his hour of greatest need, the psalms gave him the words he needed to pour out his heart to the Father he felt had abandoned him.

The early Christians developed a new way of reading the Hebrew scriptures. They came to believe that Jesus was the climax of the Old Testament story; he was the one the whole story had been leading up to. And because they believed that, they loved to look for hints of Jesus in the Old Testament passages. Some of the hints they point to seem fanciful to us, but it was all part of their belief that Jesus was the true Word of God, the highest revelation of God to us, and that the whole story up until then had been pointing to him.

So they took their cue from Jesus praying the first verse of this psalm on the cross, and they looked for other hints of his story in there. When they read the psalmist saying, ‘O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest’ (v.2), they thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that God would take this cup of suffering away from him – and not getting what he prayed for. When they read, ‘All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads”’ (v.7), they thought of the soldiers mocking Jesus, putting the crown of thorns on his head and dressing him in a purple robe to taunt him. They thought of the chief priests saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him’”’ (Matthew 27:42). When they read ‘They pierce my hands and my feet’ (v.16 BAS), they thought of Jesus on the cross with the nails through his hands and feet. And they remembered how the soldiers divided his clothes between them and threw dice for his seamless outer robe, and they read, ‘they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots’ (v.18).

Old Testament scholar John Goldingay explains that this psalm isn’t a prophecy in the sense that someone wrote it thinking “One day there will be a Messiah and all these things will happen to him”. This is a prayer for Israelites to pray when they need to – it gives them permission to acknowledge their sense that God has abandoned them. But it’s also one of the most horrifying prayers in the Book of Psalms, so it’s not surprising that when the Messiah comes – and goes through excruciating suffering and a sense that God has abandoned him – this is the prayer that comes to his lips.

Goldingay goes on to point out a really important truth. Of course, Jesus wasn’t abandoned by God in the sense that God wasn’t present at the Cross. God was there all right; that’s why Jesus prayed to him! You can’t address someone who has wandered off out of earshot! God is watching as Jesus is executed; God is suffering as deeply in his spirit as Jesus is suffering. And maybe more. It’s hard to imagine the depth of agony involved in watching your son be executed when you could stop it. But God doesn’t stop it. God listens to Jesus asking, “Why have you forsaken me?” and does nothing. God’s forsaking Jesus doesn’t lie in going away, but in being present and seeming to do nothing.

So many people feel they’ve experienced that! They’ve gone through awful suffering, and all the while God was sitting in heaven, knowing what was going on, and doing nothing to stop it. How could he do that?

We can attempt to give a rational answer to this question, which is good as far as it goes. We can say, “God has set up the world in such a way that people’s decisions are really free. He doesn’t make wood hard when we build houses with it, but soft when people want to use it to hit other people. He wants to teach us to truly love him, and so he can’t compel us to obey him”.

All of which is true, but it tends not to help people who are hanging on the Cross, or being unjustly persecuted, or dying of terminal illnesses. They want a sense that God is with them in their suffering. Why does he seem so far away?

And that’s the difference the Incarnation makes. Of course, we’re limited by human language; we’ve been talking about Jesus hanging on the Cross and the Father as a separate entity altogether, watching on the sidelines. But St. Paul changes the language a bit: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three in one and one in three. God was not separate from Jesus on the Cross. Jesus is God, and in Jesus God was suffering too.

And this was not something that just started on Good Friday. Throughout the whole of Jesus’ life, he had been identifying with us in our sufferings. Think for a moment of the many and varied sufferings he experienced. As an infant he was the target of Herod’s death squads and had to run to Egypt as a refugee with his family. He grew up in a working-class family and experienced the same economic pressures we all go through. He seems to have lost his earthly father at a very young age, so he was no stranger to the pain of bereavement. He was misunderstood by his family – they even accused him of being out of his mind. He went through hunger, thirst, tiredness, and homelessness. He was betrayed by a friend, subjected to a mock trial, stripped, flogged and nailed to a cross where he died one of the cruelest deaths human beings have ever devised.

Crucifixion was a terrible form of death. The fact that the sufferer was suspended by the arms would force the rib cage open and make it very difficult to breathe; in fact, the only way to do so would be to push oneself up on the nail through one’s feet, and it is easy to imagine the unspeakable agony this would cause. Eventually the sufferer would be too weak to do this, and then death would come, not so much from loss of blood as from asphyxiation.

Jesus has gone through all of this, and God has gone through it in him. As the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are…’ (Hebrews 4:15). In Jesus, God has allowed himself to be subjected to all the pain and suffering that his creation experiences. And this knowledge that God has firsthand experience of human suffering can be an incredible comfort to us.

In 1967, at the age of seventeen, Joni Eareckson broke her neck in a diving accident, and she has been a quadriplegic ever since. For the first few months she was in the depths of despair; she was often tempted to abandon her Christian faith or even to attempt suicide. But she was not even able to kill herself, because she was immobilized in a Stryker frame with absolutely no control over any of her bodily functions.

But then one day it occurred to her that Jesus knew exactly how she felt. After all, when he was nailed to the Cross he also lived in constant pain and lost the ability to move. This realization was a turning point in her attitude toward what had happened to her. It was still a long struggle, but she no longer felt alone. She felt that Jesus is ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with us’.

So we don’t have a God who is far removed from our sufferings. We have a God who has chosen to make himself vulnerable and suffer with us. We could even go so far as to say, we have a God who has chosen to make himself vulnerable and suffer at our hands. Humanity’s anger and hatred and rejection was poured out on God on the Cross. God knows what it’s like to be rejected, brutalized, tortured, and unjustly murdered. He’s experienced it from humans just like us.

Edward Shillito was a pastor in England during the First World War, and he was haunted by the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers returning to England with shattered bodies and traumatized minds. But he found comfort in the thought that the risen Jesus was still able to show his disciples the scars of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write his poem ‘Jesus of the Scars’. In it he talks about how a pain-free God is no comfort to those who are suffering. To humans who are scarred by the physical and emotional scars of trench warfare, only a God with scars of his own can comfort them. The last verse goes like this:

The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

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‘Good Friday’, by Christina Rossetti

Am I a stone and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop
Thy blood’s slow loss And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in the starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon —
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more,
And smite a rock.

Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2018/03/good-friday-by-christina-rossetti.html#OlQDxL4pjEpDYMMF.99

5 ‘Looks’ of Holy Communion (a sermon for Maundy Thursday)

In the early years of the Christian Church there were all sorts of wild rumours floating around about what those mysterious Christians got up to in secret. One of the more persistent rumours was that they were cannibals. “Haven’t you heard? When they get together they eat someone’s body and drink his blood!” If we find that a ridiculous rumour, that’s because we’ve had two thousand years to get used to the idea! If you were hearing it for the first time – “Eat my body…drink my blood” – you’d be freaked out.

So what does it mean, this special meal that Jesus gave us? I suspect that very few of us could clearly explain what we believe about it and what we experience as we share in it. Many Christian teachers have tried to find ways to help us grasp it. One that has been a big help to me was something I read years ago in a little book by a theologian called Griffith Thomas. He said that it’s helpful if we think of the different directions we’re looking in as we share Holy Communion together. There are five of them.

First, we’re looking backwards – back in time, that is – to the Cross. Paul says:

‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me”. In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me”. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

So Holy Communion is all about Jesus’ death; we ‘proclaim his death until he comes’.

Why do we need this reminder? Because the Cross of Jesus is where we see most clearly the amazing love and grace of God. The Cross is where human rebellion against God reaches its lowest point: God comes among us himself, as one of us, in the person of his Son, speaking nothing but truth and sharing nothing but love. But, as John’s Gospel says, ‘people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil’ (John 3:19). So we reject God, we condemn him and whip him and nail him up on a cross to die.

But what’s God’s response? Not judgement or vengeance, but forgiveness. ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’. On the Cross Jesus demonstrates most clearly what has always been God’s character, even though human ideas have sometimes obscured it: grace, mercy, forgiveness. We have a God who loves his enemies, and that’s the heart of the Christian Gospel. So we need this regular reminder – this dramatic reenactment at the Lord’s Table as the bread is broken and the wine poured out – so that we don’t forget the way Christ’s body was broken and his blood poured out to embody the love of God for the whole world.

We had a parishioner here once at St. Margaret’s who used to look at the cross whenever he received communion. It was very vivid to me. I would place the bread in his hands – ‘The Body of Christ, broken for you’ – and he would say ‘Amen’, and then look up at the Cross while he was eating the bread. I’ve never forgotten that.

So first of all, we’re looking backwards. Second, we’re looking forwards, to the coming of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus gives his disciples the bread and wine at the Last Supper, he says, “I tell you, I will never again drink from this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).

The idea of the kingdom of God as a great feast was very common in the time of Jesus, and it often appears in his parables. He says the kingdom is like a wedding banquet that we’re all invited to – and the invitation list is wider than we often think. He says, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).

Obviously we’re speaking in symbolic language here – when you think of the millions of saints who have gone before us, it’s hard for me to imagine a banquet table big enough to seat them all! But this small gathering tonight, this little taste of bread and sip of wine, is a foretaste of the fellowship we’ll share with all God’s people when his kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. So we’re not just looking back to the Cross – we’re also looking forward to the future, when God heals the world of evil and sin and we’re all joined together around his table as members of his family.

Third, we’re looking upwards, to Jesus, asking for his daily help. We’re asking him not just to be far away from us at the Father’s right hand, but also close to us – as close as the food we eat.

For two thousand years Christians have debated exactly what Jesus meant at the last supper when he said ‘This is my Body, broken for you’, and ‘This is my blood, shed for you’. Some have taken a very literalistic interpretation: the physical form of this bread and wine is changed ito the physical form of the body and blood of Jesus. Others have seen it as being symbolic – just as we need to receive our food and eat it, so we need to receive from Jesus the benefits of forgiveness he has poured out on us at the Cross.

For myself, I stick to the words of Jesus in John 6:35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never been hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. In other words, Jesus is as essential to my life with God as food is essential to my physical life. Just as food sustains me, so the presence of Jesus sustains me. If I’m feeling a deep spiritual hunger and thirst, then I need to come to him and believe in him.

Receiving communion together is one of the ways we ‘come’ to him and ‘believe’ in him. We come with empty hands and hold them out in faith; we receive the bread and wine, looking to Jesus; we eat and drink, and through these simple bodily acts our union with Jesus is strengthened. He lives in us by his Spirit, and his life in us becomes more real and vivid as we share his sacrament.

Personally, there are two prayers I find really helpful just before I receive communion. One is a traditional Roman Catholic prayer: ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and I will be made whole’. The other is a line from an old hymn I’ve known since I was a child: ‘O come to my heart, Lord Jesus – there is room in my heart for thee’. I use these prayers almost every time I receive communion.

So we’re looking back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there. We’re looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God where we will all be invited into the heavenly banquet hall. We’re looking up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger. Fourthly, we’re looking around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table.

We don’t eat this meal alone. We always eat it with others. This is not just about ‘me’ receiving ‘my’ communion; this is about our unity with others. Paul puts it simply and beautifully in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17:

‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’.

We can see the lovely symbolism here: the Corinthian Christians meeting for the Eucharist in their little house church – small enough that one loaf of bread and one cup of wine is big enough. One loaf is broken and shared – one cup is passed around – and they who are many are one Body.

Which is why the reality of unity is so important. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that if we’re coming to give our gift to God at the altar and suddenly remember a quarrel we’re having, we need to go first and be reconciled to our sister or brother, and only then come back and offer our gift. The early church applied this to the Eucharist too. The sharing of the peace was not just an empty symbol for them; it was a time to go to the person we had something against and make up with them, before coming to the Table with them.

I remember years ago, in a small church, noticing that a man who always came up for communion had not come up that Sunday. I went to him after the service and said, “Is everything okay?” He replied, “I had a fight with my wife before I came to church today, and I just knew I wasn’t in a fit state to receive communion – I have to go home and apologize to her”. That man really ‘got’ the idea of Holy Communion as a call to reconciliation with one another.

So – back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there – forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God – up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger – around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table. Fifth and last, we’re looking into our hearts before we come, preparing ourselves for this sacred feast.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul talks about how the Corinthians weren’t taking the Lord’s Supper seriously. In those days it wasn’t a service like we do now – it was more of a pot luck supper, with prayers and teachings attached. But some of them were coming early and eating all the food, some of them were getting drunk, others were going hungry. What’s this about, he asks? And then he says, ‘Examine yourselves, and only eat then of the bread and drink of the cup’ (1 Corinthians 11:28).

So it’s good for us to have a time of preparation each week before we come to communion. Maybe we can get up a little earlier on Sunday and spend some time in prayer. Are there sins I particularly need to repent of and ask God’s forgiveness for? Are there people I need to call and apologize to – bad relationships to put right? Are there people I’m refusing to forgive?

When the Book of Common Prayer invites people to confess their sins before communion, it says it like this:

‘Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort…’

So the two issues that are flagged here are repentance and reconciliation.

I’m not saying we have to be good and holy and perfect before we can come to communion – of course not. If that were true, none of us could come! The BAS says, ‘God welcomes sinners and invites us to his table’. But, as someone once said, ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there!’ This meal together is meant to strengthen us and teach us to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways. And so we prepare ourselves by repenting of our sins and being reconciled with God and with our neighbour.

So – let’s walk around this one last time! We look back to the Cross and the love of God poured out on us there – forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God – up to Jesus, asking him to come into our hearts and lives and satisfy our spiritual hunger – around us at the family of God gathered around the Lord’s Table – and into our hearts before we come, preparing ourselves for this sacred feast.

As the altar guild are preparing the water for the footwashing, let’s take a few minutes of silence to think about which if these five ‘looks’ speaks most clearly to us tonight, and what we can do to live into it more fully.

2018 Random Lent Thought #34: God’s Love for Us Always Comes First

We began Lent this year on Valentine’s Day, which seemed appropriate, since Lent is about discipleship and discipleship is all about love.

But let’s remember that the fundamental love is not our love for God; it’s God’s love for us. Long before we ever thought of loving God, God loved us with an indestructible love.

So let’s close these Random Lent Thoughts for 2018 with a passage of scripture that sums it all up:

‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

‘This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

‘God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

‘We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister’. (1 John 4:7-21 NIV)

2018 Random Lent Thought #33: Perseverance

“But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop” (Luke 8:15 NIV).

I am not very good at persevering. I am much, much better at starting well and then giving up.

I can begin a new discipline enthusiastically, and be sustained by that enthusiasm for a few days. But then boredom sets in – or the desire to relax and have a good (or easier) time – and so I fall away. This is why so many of my efforts to grow spiritually have failed.

That’s probably why I love this word ‘perseverance’ so much (in the NRSV it  is translated ‘patient endurance’). ‘Patience’ and ‘perseverance’ go together. Patience helps me remember that the crop will not be produced overnight; everything good and worthwhile takes time to grow and mature. So it makes no sense to give up overnight. I need to persevere – to ‘keep on keeping on’ – even when the discipline gets hard, even when I get discouraged at the slowness of the growth.

Perseverance in what? According to verse 15, it’s perseverance in hearing and retaining the word of God. In Luke 8:21 Jesus adds ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice’. I love the double meaning of ‘practice’ in English! It can mean ‘doing’ something as opposed to just ‘thinking about it’ – but it can also mean ‘doing it over and over again so that I can get better at it’ (which is how we form a habit). Both these understandings are vital parts of perseverance. So I hear the word of God through Jesus – I realize I’m being called to a new holy practice – I decide how to do it, and then I intentionally do it over and over again until I get better at it, until it becomes habitual, until it’s part of who I am.

I think the motivation for perseverance comes from keeping our goal in mind. Our goal is to see Jesus face to face and be transformed into his likeness. This is the big, overarching goal and it’s worth every ounce of effort we put into it. But of course there are smaller goals we establish as well, in the context of this big goal. By keeping our goals in mind we can motivate ourselves to persevere.

I’m getting better at persevering, but I’m still a long way from where I would like to be. Lent is nearly over. Lord, help us all to persevere with the good changes we have been practising through this holy season. Amen.

2018 RLT #32: Loyalty

Sorry the RLTs have been a little more sparse in the past couple of days; life has interfered a bit!

One of the key texts for Lent is surely these words of Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34b).

In the Christian church we have a long history of spiritualizing this text. We’ve sometimes done it by broadening the definition of the ‘cross’ to include any suffering that we’re called on to bear. So my cancer is the cross I have to bear, or my difficult relationship with my spouse, or the loss of my job, etc. etc. Another way we’ve done it is to understand ‘deny themselves’ either in terms of ‘saying no to yourself (i.e. turning away from self-will and submitting to the will of God), or even to understand it as ‘to deny things to yourself’ (giving up coffee for Lent etc.).

I’m sure there’s plenty of spiritual fruit in these approaches. I do think, though, that they do not reflect the meaning the words originally had. Mark wrote his gospel for Christians in Rome who were being persecuted by the Roman empire. They were being arrested, taken before the magistrates, and given the choice of denying Jesus or dying in horrible ways. In this context, let’s pay attention to the whole passage, not just verse 34:

‘Then Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38, NIV 2011. Note that in Greek the words translated ‘life’ and ‘soul’ are the same).

The original meaning is stark and challenging. You have been brought before the magistrates and you have two choices: you can deny Jesus and live, or you can deny yourself and die a horrible death. Taking up the cross means literally that: being willing to be seen as a rebel and a traitor to the empire because of your allegiance to Jesus, and being willing to die for that. Taking up the cross does not mean crucifying lust or selfishness or greed – at least, not originally. It means being willing to be publicly identified as a follower of Jesus, and if that means suffering and death, being willing for that to happen, just as Jesus followed his Father’s will and was crucified for it.

So this Lent thought challenges our ultimate allegiance. Let no one give an easy answer here. Peter was faced with this issue a few chapters later, in the middle of the night before Jesus died. He confidently predicted that even though all the other disciples would abandon Jesus, he would never do so, and yet a few hours later he denied Jesus three times. So let’s not say with shallow self-confidence ‘Though none go with me, still I will follow’. Rather, let’s be aware of our own weakness, and pray for the strength to give our allegiance to Jesus, to live it out day by day, to be willing to be publicly identified as his follower, and if necessary, to suffer for it.

Most of us in the western world are not going to be executed for our faith. The price we pay, though occasionally still a challenge, will be much less serious than that. All the more reason for us to be willing to stand up and be counted as followers of Jesus, to be unafraid to live by his teaching, and not to be dissuaded from it when folks around us are not jumping for joy about it.

Sermon for Palm Sunday on Mark 11:1-11

How do you change the world?

Some people try to change the world with a business plan. They identify a need, they come up with a product that meets that need, and they get out there and aggressively sell it. Along the way they may need to beat down a few competitors. They may need to be willing to take a few risks and work some very, very long hours. If they’re successful, the rewards can be amazing! The world is a very different place now because of Alexander Graham Bell, or Henry Ford, or Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg. But along the way there have been a lot of failed plans as well.

Some people try to change the world with a battle plan. They raise an army, establish an objective, and unleash the dogs of war. Maybe they’re would-be emperors out to enlarge their empires by force. But they might also be would-be liberators, wanting to set their people free. Either way, there’s going to be a lot of blood spilled on the way to their goal. And when they reach their goal, they’re not going to be secure. Victories won by military force can be overturned just as easily, in five years or ten years or a generation.

Some people try to change the world with a political plan. Maybe they’re the first people to articulate a particular political philosophy, like Thomas Paine or Karl Marx. Or maybe they’re just a charismatic leader or a good organizer, someone who can mobilize the party and fire them up and help them believe they can reach the goal – a Margaret Thatcher, a Nelson Mandela, a Tommy Douglas. Whatever their political philosophy may be, they can only put it into practice if they can gain power, which gives them the ability to see their vision turned into laws that people have to follow and policy they have to implement.

So you can change the world with a business plan, or a battle plan, or a political plan.

And then there’s Jesus. What’s he up to this week? How’s he going to try to change the world? What’s his plan?

Well, let’s look at the big picture. You see, we have a problem when we read the Bible mainly in little bits; we don’t notice the big picture, the way the story develops, the twists and changes in the plot. And one feature that has been fairly consistent in Mark’s plot up ‘til now has been that Jesus hasn’t been particularly up-front about his claims. Some of his followers have been using the word ‘Messiah’, but Jesus hasn’t used it himself – he’s used the more ambiguous phrase, ‘Son of Man’. His followers have wanted to spread the word about his healings, but Jesus has warned people not to tell anyone about what he’s done for them (a vain hope that turned out to be!). When he’s been getting a lot of attention in a place like Bethsaida, his disciples have urged him to stay around and enjoy his popularity, but Jesus has insisted on moving on to new territory. It’s as if he’s trying hard not to make too big a splash – as if he doesn’t want to attract too much attention from the Jewish leaders or the Romans. John has a phrase he uses for this in his gospel; he says, ‘Jesus’ hour had not yet come’.

But now all this changes.

Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem as pilgrims for the Passover festival. They would not have come by themselves; they would have come as part of a large party of pilgrims from Galilee, travelling together for safety as well as for fellowship. Their journey would have been about a hundred miles, and as far as we know, Jesus walked all the way. In fact, in all four gospels, we have no record of him ever having ridden anywhere, except this one story. After a hundred-mile journey on foot, he chooses to borrow a donkey’s colt and ride the last two miles, down into the city of Jerusalem. Surely he didn’t just do that because his feet were tired?

Notice the careful arrangements; obviously Jesus has thought ahead. He doesn’t appear to own a donkey himself, but he’s going to need one. Ah yes, there’s that man we know in Bethany – he’s got one we could borrow. So somehow Jesus has sent word to the owner; he’s arranged a signal by which his disciples can be known. And the disciples have made plans for the entry, too – the first century equivalent of the ‘red carpet treatment’ – coats and cloaks thrown on the ground, palm branches waving in the air, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest”’ This, by the way, was not the Jerusalem crowd saying these things; the most natural way to read the story is to understand that it was the pilgrims who came with him from Galilee. A few days later the Jerusalem crowd is going to have a different response: “Crucify him!”

So what’s going on here? Any Jewish boy or girl would have remembered the words of the prophet Zechariah:

‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth’ (Zechariah 9:9-10).

Here comes the king of Israel! But he’s not riding a huge great stallion or war horse like a conquering king riding into the city at the head of his army. He’s ‘triumphant and victorious’ says Zechariah, but then in an almost comic twist he adds, ‘humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (v.9).

Kings in the ancient world did sometimes ride donkeys, and it meant that they were coming in peace, not as conquerors. This fits in with Zechariah’s context – the king to come will cut off the chariot and war horse and battle bow, and he will command peace to the nations.

So this is what Jesus is up to. This is why, for the first time in his ministry as far as we can tell, he chooses to ride instead of walk. He’s intentionally acting out the prophecy of Zechariah. To ride a donkey in procession into Jerusalem was to claim to be the King Zechariah had promised.

So no more subtlety! No more ambiguity! No more trying to stay out of the limelight and avoid the attention of the establishment. Now Jesus is being intentionally provocative. He’s moving right into their face, making his claim. As John says, ‘his hour had come’. What comes next is even more provocative: he marches into the temple and starts throwing out the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals – acting as if he owns the place. After all – if he’s the king, he does!

Which makes what comes next even more remarkable. Everyone’s expecting a battle plan, or a political plan. What do we do first, Jesus? Go to the Sanhedrin and get their support? Raise up a Jewish army in the name of the Lord of Hosts to drive out the Roman legions?

No – how about we just go into the temple, sit down and start teaching people? Let’s heal people, and talk about the kingdom of God. And at the end of the week, let’s refuse to hide; let’s make it easy to be arrested by the establishment. Let’s submit to mocking, and whipping, and torture, and a rebel’s death on a Roman cross. Instead of grasping for political and military power, let’s allow ourselves to be defeated by the powers that be. And instead of calling down vengeance from heaven, let’s forgive them instead. That’s the plan, boys; glad you asked!

I’m sure Jesus was as disturbed by the abuses of the Romans and the Jewish authorities as anyone else, but he knew they weren’t the most important enemy. The most powerful enemy humans face is inside us: our human propensity for messing things up, for breaking things, for breaking people and relationships – in other words, the evil and sin that infects us. This is the enemy that spoils our relationship with God and with other human beings. This is the enemy that energizes every evil dictator and tyrant who’s ever lived. This is the enemy that must be defeated before injustice and oppression can be broken forever.

Jesus chose to defeat this enemy by the power of love, not the love of power. His whole life was a demonstration of the fact that God is love, and that God loves everyone he has made. God loves us so much that he is willing to come among us, teach us the way to know him, and give us the power to follow him. And when we get mad at him for doing this – when we reject his love – he still refuses to take revenge or force us to follow him. He overcomes evil with good, and hatred with love.

So Jesus doesn’t have a business plan, or a battle plan, or a political plan. Jesus has a love plan. It begins with God reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us, but forgiving us. And it continues as we, the followers of this strange new King, choose to do the things he taught us to do: loving one another, refusing to treat people as enemies, forgiving them, serving them, laying down our lives for them. This is the love that changes the world.

“That’s a tall order!” you say. Yes, indeed! Three chapters before in Mark’s gospel, Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The way of the cross is the way of costly love. It’s always hard – but it’s the way Jesus has chosen to spread the Kingdom of God.

So let’s resolve again to follow the example of Jesus – speaking the truth in love, and walking the hard road of the cross in love for others. Jesus doesn’t have a business plan, or a battle plan, or a political plan – he has a love plan. It’s the only plan he has, and there’s a place in it for every one of us, as we walk the way of the Cross with him.