Looking Beyond Ourselves

‘We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves. Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them; and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation. When the sun is vertically above a man he casts no shadow; similarly, when we have come to the Divine meridian our spiritual shadow (that is, our consciousness of self) will vanish. One will thus in a sense be almost nothing: a room to be filled by God and our blessed fellow creatures, who in their turn are rooms we hep to fill.’

C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3 (30 November 1954)

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Edmund: He died that We Might Live (‘Following Jesus through Narnia #6)

All through this Lent we’ve been focusing on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories—not just The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but the other six books as well. We’ve been thinking each week about some of the characters and what they can teach us about following Jesus. This week, on Palm Sunday, we come to the heart of the matter. This week we remember that before we can think about following Jesus, first of all there’s something Jesus has to do for us. Or rather, there’s something Jesus has done for us that we need to acknowledge. There’s a gift he’s given that we need to receive.

So let’s think today about Edmund Pevensie. Let remind you briefly of the story. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are four children evacuated from London during the blitz. They find themselves at the house of an elderly professor out in the country, and it’s Lucy, the youngest, who first finds her way into the magical country of Narnia through an old wardrobe in a spare room. There she meets a faun, Tumnus, who tells her about the tragedy of life in Narnia: it’s ruled by the evil and tyrannical White Witch, and she’s put an enchantment on the country, making it always winter but never Christmas. Of course, when Lucy gets back into our world no one believes her tale of this magical country.

However, eventually her brother Edmund finds his way into Narnia too. There he happens to meet the White Witch. She is well aware of an old prophecy that says that when two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones of the castle of Cair Paravel, her reign will be over. So when she hears Edmund is one of four she immediately sets out to seduce him to her side. She does this by appealing to his self-indulgence and pride. She invites him to sit with her and gives him Turkish Delight to eat. Lewis tells us this was ‘enchanted Turkish Delight and anyone who tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.’ The Witch then goes on to appeal to his pride. She wants a nice boy, she says, who can be a prince and can be king after she is gone. But the prince will need servants, so he should bring his brother and sisters back to Narnia and bring them to her house. There he will rule over them, and they will have to obey him.

Edmund gives in to her temptations. He’s decided where his loyalty lies: with her. He goes back to our world and doesn’t tell anyone what’s happened to him. Even when Lucy warns him about the White Witch and her evil ways he chooses not to believe her, because of the wonderful memory of the Turkish Delight and the Witch’s promise that he will be a prince.

Eventually all four children find their way into Narnia. The time comes, in the house of the beavers, when for the first time they hear about Aslan, the great Lion, the Son of the Emperor over Sea—the true ruler of Narnia. For Peter, Susan, and Lucy, the name brings them excitement and joy. But Edmund feels ‘a sensation of mysterious horror’. He’s chosen to side with evil by giving his allegiance to the Witch, so true goodness has begun to scare and repel him. Even though he’s never met Aslan, in fact he’s already rejected him.And this decision affects his relationships with his siblings. Lewis says: ‘He kept on thinking that the others were taking no notice of him and trying to give him the cold shoulder. They weren’t, but he imagined it’.

But the time comes when even Edmund comes to see the truth. He goes to the White Witch’s castle and tells her he’s brought his three siblings very close, to the beavers’ house. We read that ‘Edmund…expected that the witch would start being nice to him… But she said nothing at all. And when at last Edmund plucked up his courage to say, “Please, your Majesty, could I have some Turkish Delight? You—you—said”, she answered, “Silence, fool!”’ Edmund finally wakes up to the truth: the Witch isn’t kind at all. She’s evil, and all her promises to him are lies.

This story of the temptation and fall of Edmund is an illustration of our human condition. The four Pevensie children are destined to be kings and queens, caring for Narnia in the name of Aslan. In the same way, the Bible tells us we’ve been created by God in his image to be stewards of his creation. But the forces of evil are well aware of the potential for good if human beings accept this role, so throughout our history we’ve been seduced by the power of evil.

Two of the most common temptations are self-indulgence and pride. For us it probably won’t be Turkish Delight. But it might be the desire for more and more luxuries. You know how it works: you see something advertised on TV or online, and you think, “That’s it! If I had that, I’d be really happy!” So you buy it, and you are really happy—for half an hour. But then a vague sense of unease begins to set in. It’s actually just a thing, and it hasn’t given you the deep inner satisfaction you’re looking for. It’s like enchanted Turkish Delight—no matter how much of it you eat, you want more and more, even if it kills you.

It might be the desire for possessions; it might be the desire for excitement and thrills or illicit sexual pleasure. Whatever form it takes, self-indulgence is a powerful temptation to seduce us from the side of the one true King.

The other temptation is pride. Edmund wasn’t content to be just one of the four Pevensie children. He wanted to be noticed above all the others, to be recognized, to be the prince over his brother and sisters. In Robert Bolt’s play ‘A Man for All Seasons’, young Richard Rich asks Sir Thomas More to find him a place at the court of King Henry VIII. More refuses and advises him to be a teacher: ‘You would make a good teacher’, he says. Rich replies, ‘And if I did, who would know?’ That’s the allure of pride: I want everyone to know what an amazing individual I am!

But the promises of evil are false. Trying to find ultimate satisfaction by following the lies of the devil is like trying to quench your thirst by drinking salt water: the more you drink, the thirstier you get. The White Witch doesn’t deliver on her promises. She doesn’t intend to make Edmund a prince at all. She intends to use him to trap his three siblings and then kill them all.

But her plan doesn’t work out. Some of Aslan’s soldiers rescue Edmund, and he’s restored to his brothers and sisters. There’s great rejoicing in Aslan’s camp, and the four children think Edmund’s problems have all been solved. However, this is not the case. The Witch has an ace up her sleeve.

The Witch asks for a meeting with Aslan, at which she reminds him of a law put into Narnia at the very beginning by the Emperor: the law that says every traitor belongs to her. For every act of treachery, she has a right to a kill. This is called the ‘Deep Magic’. Susan says, ‘“Oh Aslan… can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?’ ‘Work against the Emperor’s Magic?’ said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again’.

It becomes clear that there’s a law of right and wrong in Narnia, and Aslan has no intention of challenging it. Treachery is evil, and evil can’t be indulged. So Aslan sends the others away and talks privately with the Witch. Eventually he announces to everyone that he has settled the matter, and the Witch has renounced her claim on Edmund’s blood. Of course, there’s great rejoicing all round.

But Aslan isn’t rejoicing. Susan and Lucy notice that he seems sad and distracted. His army moves camp, and later on that night he sneaks away by himself. Susan and Lucy see him, and they follow him. He allows them to walk with him, even asking them to touch him and put their hands in his mane so that he can feel the comfort of their presence. Eventually he tells them to hide themselves, and he goes on alone to a place where there is a great stone table—obviously a sacrificial altar. There we see the Witch and all her evil followers waiting for him. Aslan allows himself to be tied up, and the Witch’s servants shave off his magnificent mane and drag him up onto the Stone Table. There the Witch taunts him: Aslan may die in the place of Edmund as they agreed, she says, but once he is out of the way, what’s to stop her from killing Edmund and the others anyway? Then all of Narnia will be hers forever. ‘In that knowledge’, she says to him, ‘despair and die’, and she kills him with a terrible stone knife.

But that’s not the end of Aslan. The Witch’s knowledge reaches only to the dawn of time. She wasn’t there before the dawn of time, and so she didn’t know about the Deeper Magic. This magic goes further than justice; it allows for forgiveness and redemption as well. Aslan explains it later to the two girls: apparently it says that, ‘When a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards’. So it’s not the end of Aslan.

But for today, let’s stay with the idea of Aslan’s death. Very obviously, Lewis is giving us a picture of the death of Jesus and what it means for us. He’s trying to do a very daring thing. Christian theologians have tried for two thousand years to explain exactly how the Cross saves us from our sins. Every one of their explanations works well as an illustration, but when we start trying to apply all the details, we run into trouble.

What Lewis is giving us in this story is sometimes called the ‘substitution’ idea of the Cross of Jesus. The idea is that we human beings are the guilty ones, but God in his great love for us comes among us in Jesus and takes our place, the innocent in the place of the guilty, so that we can be freed and forgiven. The idea has strong biblical roots, perhaps most strongly in the book of Isaiah, chapter 53 – a passage that we read every year on Good Friday:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Edmund’s act of treachery has been laid on Aslan. Edmund was the guilty one; Aslan had done no wrong. But out of love for Edmund and respect for the principles of justice on which Narnia was founded, Aslan took Edmund’s place and died for him, so that he could go free. The story is teaching us that this is the incredible gift that God has given us in Jesus.

We shouldn’t take it any further than that. I know some people have taken it further, and they’ve been bothered by it. “If Aslan is Jesus and the White Witch is the devil”, they ask, “does that mean that God and the devil have an agreement, and every time someone sins, the devil acts as God’s executioner?” That’s the problem with an illustration. Most good illustrations work well as long as you stick to the main point, but start to unravel when you try to make every little detail fit. Of course there was no bargain or agreement between God and the devil. The forces of evil are usurpers with no place in God’s ultimate plan. The Cross was the great victory over evil, not some sort of accommodation with it.

Still, it’s a powerful story. I’m Edmund, and so are you. We’ve given into temptation, believed the lies of evil, and found in it not the good life it promised, but a sentence of death. But God in his great love for us has come among us in Jesus and taken that sentence of death on himself. He died that we might live.

On Thursday night we’re going to hear again the story of how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. When he came to Peter, Peter protested: “You shall never wash my feet.” Peter understood that Jesus was his master. It wasn’t the master’s place to wash the servants’ feet.

But Peter didn’t understand that before he could do anything for Jesus, Jesus had to do something for him. And the same is true for us. Long before we did anything for Jesus, Jesus did something incredible for us. The Christian life starts when we acknowledge what he has done, thank him for it, and accept the gift he’s given to us through his death on the Cross. The rather quaint words of an old chorus express it well:

There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin;
There’s a door that is open that you may go in.
At Calvary’s cross is where you begin,
When you come as a sinner to Jesus.

Wandering in the dark and walking in the light

‘Once again Jesus addressed the people: “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall wander in the dark; he shall have the light of life.’” (John 8.12 New English Bible).

The REB revisers changed this NEB translation to the more common ‘no follower of mine shall walk in darkness’, but I’m struck by the vividness of the NEB rendering: ‘wander in the dark’. I’ve done a lot of that wandering in the dark, trying to find the right way forward. It might be a relational issue with a friend or loved one, or a problem in my parish that I need to find a solution for, or a time when my relationship with God seems to have gone dry and barren, or my struggles with my own sins and weaknesses. I seem to spend a lot of time wandering in the dark.

Today’s psalm includes the familiar verse ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light on my path’ (Psalm 119.105 REB). What the psalmist says about the Torah, or Law of God, John’s gospel applies to Jesus: he is the Word of God, so he is the light of the world. His light shines in the dark places and shows us how to live, how to love, how to serve God, how to be a blessing. The opposite of ‘wandering in the dark’ is following Jesus. Lord Jesus, help us today to intentionally shape our lives after your teaching and example. You have shown us the way, so now help us to follow it—to follow you—so that we may have the light of life. Amen.

Wisdom

‘The child (Jesus) grew big and strong and full of wisdom; and God’s favour was upon him.’ (Luke 2.36 REB)

‘As Jesus grew he advanced in wisdom and in favour with God and men.’ (Luke 2.52 REB)

As I get older, I find that wisdom is a gift I prize more and more highly. Wisdom means knowing how to live and what to do in all the situations life throws at us. Heavenly wisdom is informed and shaped by faith in God and God’s will for us. Several Old Testament texts tell us that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (fear, not in the sense of terror, but in the sense of a proper awe and reverence for God as our Creator).

Lord Jesus, as you were guided by your Father, so guide us today in the way of wisdom. Amen.

Desertion

‘Then the disciples all abandoned Jesus and ran away.’ (Mark 14.50 REB)

The Bible is not a book of heroes. It’s a book of ordinary, scared, fallible, imperfect human beings who are touched by God and yet still struggle with our human propensity to mess things up.

Lord, you know that I am not a hero. There have been times when I’ve stepped up to the plate and owned up to my faith in the company of others. But there have also been times when I’ve deserted you. Sometimes when the going got tough and a challenging word needed to be spoken, or a difficult deed done, I’ve preferred to run away, or just keep quiet.

Forgive me, Lord Jesus, for the times I’ve deserted you. Teach me the faithfulness and courage I need so I can follow you in the way of the cross. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Numbers 11:24 – 13:33, Mark 14:22-52, Psalm 52, and Proverbs 11:1-30

Drifting off course

‘That is why we are bound to pay all the more heed to what we have been told, for fear of drifting from our course.’ (Hebrews 2.1 REB)

I really like the REB translation ‘drifting from our course’. I suppose that in the days of sail, when holding to a course involved careful trimming of sails and sometimes steering as close to the wind as possible, ‘drifting from the course’ was an ever-present reality. It certainly is in my Christian life! Jesus has given me the course heading pretty clearly—love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself, in response to God’s love for you in Christ—but I seem to be oh so talented at drifting off course into fascinatingly esoteric religious practices and discussions, not to mention the glittering distractions of a world drunk on materialism.

Lord Jesus, as Lent begins, help us not to drift off course. Help us pay all the more heed to what we have been told—to the teaching you gave us—so that we may stay on the right path. And when we are distracted, please alert us to the fact, and show us the way back. Amen.

The Way Up is Down

‘So they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus had gone indoors, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They were silent, because on the way they had been discussing which of them was the greatest. So he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a child, set him in front of them, and put his arm round him. “Whoever receives a child like this in my name,” he said, “receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” (Mark 9.33-37 Revised English Bible)

In recent years there have been literally hundreds of books published about church leadership. Many of them say that the proper role of a pastor is not actually to be a servant, but to be a leader. You need to let others do the serving, while you cast a vision, inspire them, equip them etc. etc.

I find it interesting that Jesus led by example, and the example he gave was not just teaching and vision casting, but included huge helpings of serving others. He never seems to have thought that he should get out of the healing business himself so he could organize the healing roster and start new classes for healers. No, he chose a few disciples, let them watch him heal the sick, and then invited them to follow his example.

Jesus says, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” (v.35) When Jesus was looking for leaders, he looked for those who had the potential to be good servants (Even though their hearts were sometimes seduced by the leadership bug too). Looking at the political chaos in many parts of the world today, it strikes me that Jesus was onto something. The world is plagued by leaders who only want to be leaders—to build their own empires and line their own pockets. To Jesus, in contrast, the way up is down. He’s looking for people who are competing with each other to get to the back of the line. I need to hear that this morning.

Lord Jesus, deliver me from the love of power and prestige and help me follow you in the way of loving service. Amen.

(Today’s One-Year Bible readings are Leviticus 22:17 – 23:44, Mark 9:30 – 10:12, Psalm 44:1-8, and Proverbs 10:19)