‘Death Itself Begins to Work Backwards’ (Following Jesus Through Narnia #7)

Many years ago when you still bought music on circular pieces of vinyl called ‘LP records’, the story went around that some rock bands had started putting secret messages about death and suicide and drugs and that sort of thing on their recordings. The trick was that you had to play the songs backwards to be able to hear the messages. Then someone with a low opinion of country music came up with a joke about this. “What happens if you play a country song backwards?” Answer: “Your wife comes back to you, your farm is rescued from bankruptcy, the kids get free of drug addiction,” and so on, and so on…!

It’s a joke, but I suspect many of us wish we could find a way to do that. We’ve all made foolish choices from time to time, and now we find ourselves living with the consequences of those choices. If only there was some way of playing the record backwards—going back to the place where things started to go wrong and starting all over again!

I’ve called today’s sermon ‘Death Itself Begins to Work Backwards’. This title comes from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this story, Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure of the magical country of Narnia, is explaining to the children what they have just seen. He says:

‘If (the White Witch) could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time began…she would have known 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 to work backwards.”

What on earth is Aslan talking about? Well, let me tell you the story.

All through Lent, here at St. Margaret’s, we’ve been using C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories as our spiritual guide. We’ve been looking at some of the characters in the stories each week, asking ourselves the question, “What do these characters teach us about following Jesus?” We’ve met Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure of Narnia, who has come to rescue his country from evil. Narnia is under the reign of the tyrannical White Witch, who has put a powerful enchantment on the whole land, so that it’s always winter but never Christmas. One of the ways she enforces her power is by her ability to turn people into stone. Over time, the courtyard of her castle has become filled with statues: people who used to be her enemies.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe starts when four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, are evacuated from London during the blitz. They find themselves at the house of an elderly professor out in the country, and Lucy, the youngest, finds her way into Narnia through an old wardrobe in a spare room.  Eventually her brother Edmund gets into Narnia too. There he happens to meet the White Witch. She knows about the old prophecy, which 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 that Edmund is one of four, she immediately sets out to entice him to her side. She gives him enchanted Turkish Delight to eat, and she goes on to appeal to his pride: she wants a nice boy, she says, who can be king after she is gone. But the king will need servants, so he should bring his brother and sisters back to Narnia and bring them to her house, where he will rule over them.

So Edmund is deceived and he becomes a traitor. When all four children get into Narnia, Edmund slips away to the White Witch’s castle and tells her where the others are. But to his surprise, he isn’t treated as he expected. Gradually he comes to realise that the Witch is evil; she’s been using him to trap his sisters and brother, and she intends to kill them all.

Aslan’s forces rescue Edmund and restore him to his brother and sisters. However, his troubles are not yet over. 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, and for every act of treachery she has a right to a kill. So Aslan sends the others away and talks privately with the Witch. Eventually he announces to everyone that he’s settled the matter, and the Witch has renounced her claim on Edmund’s blood. The Witch then leaves Aslan’s camp.

But Susan and Lucy notice that Aslan seems sad and distracted. His army moves camp, and later on that night he sneaks away by himself. Susan and Lucy see him and follow him. He goes to a place where there is a great stone table. 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 kills Aslan with a terrible stone knife. She and her followers then leave to attack Aslan’s army.

Susan and Lucy come out of hiding and throw themselves on the body of Aslan, crying bitterly until they have no tears left. They spend the night keeping vigil at the Stone Table. When dawn comes they both feel very cold, so they get up and walk around. Suddenly, when the first ray of sunrise comes over the horizon, they hear a great cracking sound. They turn and see that the Stone Table is cracked and the body of Aslan is gone.

      “Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

      “Yes,” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked around. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane… stood Aslan himself.

It doesn’t take long for Aslan to convince the girls that he’s alive, and they have a wonderful romp around the Stone Table together. But eventually, after giving an earth-shaking roar, Aslan tells the girls to climb onto his back. He then races across Narnia to the castle of the White Witch. She and all her armies are gone, and Aslan jumps the wall and lands in the courtyard, which is full of the statues of people she has turned into stone. As the girls watch, Aslan runs around the courtyard and begins breathing on the statues. Gradually, by the breath of Aslan, the whole courtyard comes alive again. Aslan’s breath creates colour, where before there was only the deadly grey of the stone. Where there was only silence, now Aslan’s breath sets voices free: “happy roarings, brayings, yelpings… shouts, hurrahs, songs and laughter.” Aslan’s words are coming true: death itself is working backwards.

I won’t tell you the rest of the story; if you’ve already read it, you don’t need me to remind you of it, and if you haven’t—well, what are you waiting for? But you may be asking “What’s this got to do with us today, on Easter Sunday at St. Margaret’s?”

Today we’ve heard once again the story of the resurrection of Jesus, which was as much of a surprise to his followers as the resurrection of Aslan was to Susan and Lucy. The first disciples of Jesus were hiding behind locked doors on the evening of Easter Sunday, for fear they would be arrested and crucified in their turn. They were terrified that Jesus’ death would lead to their own deaths. They didn’t dare hope that in fact Jesus’ resurrection would one day lead to their own resurrections.

But this is in fact what the New Testament tells us. Let me quote again to you the words of Aslan with which I began this sermon:

“If (the White Witch) could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time began…she would have known 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 to work backwards.”

This is exactly what the death and resurrection of Jesus mean for us today. You and I are Edmund—we have believed the lies of evil and so we’ve turned away from our true King and become traitors to him. But our acts of treachery have been laid on Jesus. Out of love for us, God sent his Son into the world to take our place and die our death, so we could go free.

But death was not the end for Jesus. I once heard a story of a spider spinning a magnificent web across the mouth of a railway tunnel in an attempt to derail a train. That spider was suffering from a case of hubris, wouldn’t you think? And in the same way, for Herod and Pilate to think they could derail the love of God in Jesus turned out to be a similar case of hubris. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree,” says Peter, “but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:39-40)

This is wonderful enough, because it means the Saviour of the world is not dead but alive, and he can still act in the lives of men and women today. But this isn’t the end of the story. The New Testament doesn’t see the resurrection of Jesus as an isolated event. Rather, Jesus has started a resurrection movement. Here’s how Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15, as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message:

But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries. There is a nice symmetry in this: Death initially came by a man, and resurrection from death came by a man. Everybody dies in Adam; everybody comes alive in Christ. But we have to wait our turn: Christ is first, then those with him at his Coming. (1 Corinthians 15:20-24)

Imagine being a participant on the most incredible Caribbean cruise, on the most wonderful luxury liner afloat. Imagine on the first night out, as you sit in the dining room, hearing the captain describe all the pleasures that are in store for you—beautiful islands, warm weather, swimming, luxury dining and entertainment and so on. But then imagine the chill that would fall on the room if the captain then said, “But of course, it’s not going to end well. We know that before the cruise ends the ship is going to be involved in a collision and all of us are going to drown. So, let’s do our best to have a good time while we can.” I think that would cast a pall over the proceedings, don’t you?

That’s a bit like our human situation. We may try hard to keep our bodies fit, but they’re still going to die one day. We work hard to earn money, but we’re going to leave it all behind one day. We can try to make good marriages and raise good families, but death will still separate us from them. We humans might prefer to forget this, but it’s the indisputable fact that lies behind our entire existence.

And then Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” (John 11:25) He’s talking about our being raised from the dead, with new physical bodies like his resurrection body, no longer subject to illness or decay or death, but living forever with him. Just like Aslan breathing on the statues in the White Witch’s castle, Jesus is going to breathe new life into us one day, and we will share in his resurrection.

This hope affects every moment of our present lives. If you know you’re going to live forever with God, if you know that when you read about Jesus’ resurrection body you are reading about what you are going to be like some day—well, that changes everything. You’re going to live forever, so it makes sense to ask God to help you be the best possible person you can be—forever! You can do things and say things now that will have an eternal effect. Nothing will be lost, nothing will be wasted, every good deed will be remembered as significant.

So you see, it’s not just our future that’s transformed by Jesus’ resurrection—it’s our present too. You know how we sometimes say to people, “Get a life!” Most of the people we say this to are, in fact, biologically alive! But we know instinctively that there’s more to life than biology. It’s possible to be biologically alive and yet still be missing out on life in all its fulness.

The way to discover life in its fulness is to live by faith in Jesus. The author of John’s Gospel explains to us why he wrote his book: “…these (things) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) According to John, the way to ‘get a life’ is to bet your life on Jesus, to trust him enough to be willing to gather up your life in your hands, give it to him, and live as his follower for the rest of your days.

That’s the invitation Easter is giving us. Jesus has been raised, so death itself has started to work backwards, and this changes everything. Don’t waste your time on stuff that’s not going to last forever. Put your trust in Jesus, put your life in his hands, and ask him to breathe new life into you. And don’t put it off—take the next step today.

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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.

Lucy: Childlike Devotion (Following Jesus through Narnia #5)

In 2005 Walt Disney studios brought out a lavish film production of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,using human actors rather than animation. Many of you have seen it and I’m guessing you’ll agree with me that young Georgie Henley, who plays Lucy Pevensie, just steals the show. I will never forget the incredible expression of wonder on her face when she comes through the wardrobe and catches her first glimpse of the snow-covered magic of Narnia. Throughout the movie she does a wonderful job of portraying Lucy’s sense of humour, her love of fun, and her childlike innocence. She’s a very gifted actor and gives us a wonderful depiction of one of C.S. Lewis’ most loveable characters.

Most of you know we’ve been using Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ stories as our spiritual guide this Lent. We started out by thinking about Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure, to discover what he can teach us about Jesus. We found that Jesus is not tame or safe, but he’s good, and we should approach him with absolute confidence in his love for us, and absolute obedience to his authority. We went on to consider Eustace, a boy whose selfishness turned him into a dragon. From him we discovered that only the power of Jesus can deliver us from selfishness and transform us into the people he wants us to be. In the third week we thought about Bree, Hwin, and Aravis. From them we discovered that we need to turn from pride, whether it takes the form of trying to impress others, or of thinking only of ourselves and not the interests of others. Then last week we thought about Puddleglum the Marsh Wiggle; he taught us to trust and obey our good Lord Jesus.

This week we’re thinking about Lucy, and I’ve called this talk ‘childlike devotion’. In the Gospels we discover that Jesus has a very high opinion of children.

He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2-4).

So in Jesus’ view, the Kingdom of God belongsto children—it’s their native country. If we adults want to enter it, we have to learn from children what it’s all about. Lucy Pevensie can help us there.

Let me very quickly remind you that in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobethe four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, are magically transported to the land of Narnia. They discover that Narnia is under the tyrannical rule of the evil White Witch who has made it always winter and never Christmas. But they also discover that the son of the great Emperor-over-Sea, Aslan the Great Lion, has returned, and is going to set the world to rights again. He needs their help to do it, however, because of an old prophecy about two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sitting on the four thrones of the castle of Cair Paravel.

One of the most moving stories in the whole book—and a story that we’re going to focus in on next week—is the story of how Aslan willingly gives his life in the place of Edmund, who has become a traitor. Aslan slips out of the camp at night to give himself up to the White Witch, but the two girls, Susan and Lucy, see him and go along with him. He’s sad and lonely and even asks them to touch him and put their hands in his mane so that he can feel the comfort of their presence. Later they watch as the White Witch kills Aslan with a terrible stone knife, and then her armies rush away to attack his army. The girls are left with his body, and all night long they keep vigil, crying until they have no tears left to cry.

But when morning comes, the stone table cracks in two because of ‘deeper magic from before the dawn of time’, and the girls see Aslan alive again. “Aren’t you dead, then, dear Aslan?” asks Lucy. “Not now,” he replies. “Oh, you’re real, you’re real! Oh, Aslan!” cries Lucy, and both girls fling themselves on the great Lion and cover him with kisses. A few moments later they go for a thrilling ride on his back to the White Witch’s castle, where they watch as he frees the captives she has turned into stone.

I get the sense that their presence with Aslan on this awful night forges a special bond between the two girls and the great Lion. But Susan later forsakes this special relationship. The reason is clear: she’s too interested in acting like a grown-up. And what’s the result? In the last Narnia story Peter explains to King Tirian, “My sister Susan…is no longer a friend of Narnia,” and Jill Pole adds, “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” Later Eustace clarifies what Jill means. He says that when the children are talking about their adventures in Narnia Susan comments, “Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”

Susan knows they weren’t games. She was there when Aslan died. She touched him with her own hands and saw Narnia with her own eyes. But for some reason it’s no longer real or important to her, or at least, not as important as being thought of as a sophisticated, grown-up girl. So she loses her childlike devotion to Aslan. It’s a sad story, and a warning to us all.

But Lucy never loses her deep love for Aslan, and because of that, she’s able to see what others can’t see and love when others can’t love. She often calls the Lion ‘Dear Aslan,’ and he returns her love, calling her ‘Dear Heart’ and ‘Dear One.’ Let me point out to you three consequences of Lucy’s childlike devotion to Aslan.

First, she can often see him when others can’t see him. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Edmund is explaining to Eustace about Aslan, and he says, “Lucy sees him most often.” There’s an outstanding example of this in the book Prince Caspian. The children are trying to find their way to Prince Caspian’s camp, and they come to the edge of a deep gorge. The way ahead isn’t clear, but then Lucy cries out, “Look! Look! Look!” “Where? What?” everyone asks. “The Lion” Lucy says. “Aslan himself. Didn’t you see?” But no one else can see Aslan, and the majority vote to go the other way. Eventually they run into a party of enemy troops, and they have to retrace their steps back the way they came. That night, once again, Aslan appears to Lucy, and once again she has to try to persuade the others to follow her as she follows Aslan. “Will the others see you too?” she asks him. “Certainly not at first,” he replies. “Later on, it depends.”

So Lucy does as she’s told, and she’s able to convince the others to follow her, and gradually, one by one, they are able to see Aslan. We often say “Seeing is believing,” but Lucy teaches us that in the Christian life it’s often the other way around—believing is seeing. Well, that’s not quite right either: what Lucy teaches us is that ‘Believing and loving is seeing.’ Lucy can see Aslan because she loves him; that’s her secret.

And we need to learn that secret too. If you wait for conclusive proof of love before you marry someone, you’ll never get married. If you wait for conclusive proof before you choose to believe in Jesus, you’ll never believe in him. There are things we can only understand from the inside. They make no sense at all when we’re on the outside looking in.

Many years ago, when I was a student, I went with some friends one Sunday evening to a healing service. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember that there were some remarkable healings in answer to prayer that night. One of my fellow-students had brought a friend with him, a man who wasn’t a Christian and was extremely skeptical. He spent the entire journey home after the service pointing out to us the obvious rational explanations for the things we had seen. He didn’t believe and he didn’t love God; therefore he couldn’t see. How very grown-up!

Because Lucy loves Aslan, she can see him when others can’t. Also, because Lucy loves Aslan, she’s quick to accept correction from him. Aslan isn’t a tame lion, remember, and so even though Lucy is his dear one he doesn’t shrink from correcting her. On the first Sunday of Lent, when we were talking about Aslan, I mentioned the story we were thinking about a moment ago—the story of the time Lucy tried to lead the others after Aslan when only she could see him, but they wouldn’t follow. When he appears to her again that night, this is what happens:

      ‘Yes, wasn’t it a shame?’ said Lucy. ‘saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so…’

      From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.

      ‘I’m sorry’, said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. ‘I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?’

      The Lion looked straight into her eyes.

      ‘Oh, Aslan’, said Lucy. ‘You don’t mean it was? How could I – I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that… oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you…’

In the Gospels Jesus makes a very clear link between love and obedience: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). In my experience this is a sort of ‘chicken and egg’ type of affair. If we want to grow in our love for Jesus, one of the best ways is to do our best to follow his teaching. If we want to grow more conscientious in following his teaching, one of the best ways is to deepen our conscious contact with him, to get to know him better and to love him more, so our obedience isn’t a dreary and dutiful thing but the childlike obedience that Lucy gives to the Aslan she loves so much.

Because Lucy loves Aslan with a deep and tender love, she can see him when others can’t, and she is quick to accept correction from him. Likewise, if we love Jesus our ‘good Lord’, we will be able to experience his presence and we will be quick to accept his correction.

One more thing: because Lucy loves Aslan, she also has a tender heart toward others. Of all the characters in the Narnia stories, she’s probably the one who’s most patient with the failings of others. She’s always ready to reach out to people others find hard to love. For instance, in the second week we heard the story of how Eustace became a dragon because of his greed and selfishness. When he went to sleep on the dragon hoard he put a gold armband on his arm; when he woke up a dragon, his arm had gotten a lot thicker and the armband caused him terrible pain. Lucy was the one who noticed this: “Oh, look,” she said, “there’s something wrong with its leg.” And she tried to help the dragon by using some of her magical cordial to ease its pain. Earlier in the story, she was the one who tried to help Eustace when all he could think of was himself. And at the end of the series, The Last Battle—which is sort of like the ‘Book of Revelation’ of Narnia, in which Aslan brings an end to the world he created so long ago— it’s Lucy who weeps for the world she’d come to love so much, until she realises that all that was good in Narnia now lives on in Aslan’s country.

The apostle John points out to us that if we don’t love our sisters and brothers who we have seen, how can we love God whom we haven’t seen? And the reverse is also true—genuine, childlike love for Jesus will always soften our hearts to the sufferings of others, even others who aren’t easy to get along with.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God belongs to children. We adults have to learn to be childlike to enter it. Lucy’s childlike devotion to Aslan teaches us about this. She loves him with a deep and tender love, and so she can see him when other can’t. She’s ready to accept correction from him. And she’s ready to love others with the same love she learned from him.

At the end of John’s Gospel Jesus meets Simon Peter for the first time since Peter denied him three times in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. I’m sure Peter expects some word of reproof, but instead Jesus asks him a single question, in slightly different form, three times over: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16). The first question Peter is asked by the Risen Jesus isn’t about his failures or his expertise or his successes. It’s about his heart’s devotion.

I suspect the same will be true for us one day. I suspect that when we see the Son of God face to face, his first concern won’t be our Bible knowledge or our successes or any of that stuff. I suspect that his first concern will be, “Do you love me?” Learning to love Jesus like a little child is apparently a high priority in the Kingdom of God. Lucy Pevensie can teach us how to do it. Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to follow her example.

Bree and Hwin: ‘It’s Not About You!’ (Following Jesus through Narnia #3)

Today I want to tell you a story about two horses.

As we’ve been going through Lent this year, we’ve been taking C.S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ stories as our spiritual guide. These stories weren’t written as textbooks about following Jesus, but they’re full of insight into what it means to be Christian disciples. Each week we’re taking one or more characters from the Narnia books and asking ‘What do these characters have to teach us about following Jesus?’

We began on the first Sunday in Lent with Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure from Narnia. We learned that he’s not a tame lion and he’s definitely not safe, but he’s good. Aslan shows us what Jesus is like and teaches us to approach him with absolute confidence in his love for us, but also absolute obedience to his authority.

Then last week we thought about Eustace Scrubb. He was a boy who became a dragon because of his selfishness and greed, and he could only be changed back into a boy by the power of Aslan. Eustace taught us that only the power of Christ can transform us into the people God wants us to be.

This week our characters are two talking horses from the book The Horse and His Boy. Their names are ‘Bree’ and ‘Hwin’. Hwin is a gentle mare, and Bree is a proud and fierce war horse. His full name is actually ‘Breehy-Hinny-Hooey-Hah’ but we won’t mention that again! The title of the book, The Horse and His Boy, comes from something Bree says in the story. He points out that in Narnia talking horses are free and not slaves of humans, so he’s not Shasta’s horse. You might just as well say that Shasta is ‘his’ boy!

The Horse and His Boy opens in Calormen, a huge land south of Narnia. There we meet a boy called Shasta, who is the adopted son of a poor fisherman. One night a great Tarkaan, or noble lord, demands to spend the night at their house. Later in the evening Shasta overhears him talking with the fisherman about how much he’ll pay to buy the boy as a slave.

That same night Shasta discovers by accident that the Tarkaan’s horse, Bree, is a talking horse. Talking animals are completely unknown in Calormen, although they’re common up north in Narnia. Shasta and Bree decide to escape together to Narnia and freedom, and they manage to pull it off. When they’ve been on their way for a few days, they’re pursued by hunting lions and are forced into the company of another talking horse—the mare Hwin and her rider, a young and proud daughter of a Lord, the Tarkheena Aravis. The book goes on to tell of the adventures the two horses and the two children have on their way to Narnia.

Bree explains that he was stolen from the land of Narnia while he was a foal, and has lived in Calormen for years, ‘hiding my true nature and pretending to be dumb and witless like their horses’. Along the way he’s become very proud of himself. He’s often concerned about how he appears to others, and even though he wants to get back to Narnia, he has worries about it, too. He’s been away for a long time and he’s afraid he might not know the proper protocol! For instance, one of the things Bree really loves is getting down on his back and having a good roll. Shasta sees him doing it one day and bursts out laughing. Immediately Bree gets worried:

“You don’t think, do you,” said Bree, “that it might be a thing talking horses never do—a silly, clownish trick I’ve learned from the dumb ones? It would be dreadful to find, when I get back to Narnia, that I’ve picked up a lot of low, bad habits.”

A little later on the journey the horses and their humans have to go through the huge city of Tashbaan. They’re worried it’ll be obvious to everyone who looks at them that the horses have come from rich houses, and everyone will think Shasta and Aravis are horse thieves. So they decide the horses will have to be made muddy and bedraggled, with their tails cut short and ragged. When he hears about this plan, Bree objects strenuously:

      “My dear madam,” said Bree. “Have you pictured to yourself how very disagreeable it would be to arrive in Narnia in that condition?”

      “Well,” said Hwin humbly (she was a very sensible mare), “the main thing is to get there.”

For Bree, arriving in Narnia in a bedraggled condition would give a bad first impression, and he wants to be seen by everyone as the fine stallion he believes he is. In contrast, Hwin speaks humbly and modestly. For C.S. Lewis, to be humble is to be sensible and to have a realistic view of yourself.

When I read about Bree he shows me some very unwelcome truths about myself. I realize in many ways I’m like him. I wish I wasn’t, but I am. I’d like to be able to say, “I don’t really care what other people think of me”, but in fact I care a great deal. I notice there are many times when I do things or say things or wear things or join things, not because I like them or because I think they’re what God wants for me, but because I think they’ll make a good impression on other people. People will be impressed, and if they give me the right amount of respect and attention, I’ll be able to feel that I’m somebody after all. Perhaps I’m the only one who does this, but I don’t think so. I expect we’ve all done it from time to time.

In Philippians 2:3-4 Paul says: ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.’Bree’s pride takes the form of ‘conceit’, but there’s another proud character in The Horse and His Boy—the Tarkheena Aravis, the young noblewoman who is escaping to Narnia with Hwin to get away from a forced marriage. Aravis’ pride takes the form of ‘looking to her own interests and forgetting the interests of others’—especially people of a lower social class than her. For instance, she tells how, when she was escaping from her home, she drugged her stepmother’s maidservant so she wouldn’t prevent her escape. Shasta asks what happened to the maidservant.

“Doubtless she was beaten for sleeping late,” said Aravis coolly. “But she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her.”

Aravis sees her maidservant as inferior and doesn’t care about her suffering; she’s just a tool. But to Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure in the Narnia stories, this incident is very important. Later in the story he pursues Aravis and strikes her across the back with his claws. When he explains to her why this happened, this is what he says:

‘The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like’.

Bree needs to learn not to think of himself as better than others, but Aravis needs to learn to think of others and not just herself. We’ve seen how Aravis learns her lesson, but Bree’s lesson is interesting, too. He likes to come across as a big brave stallion, but there’s one chink in his armour: he’s terrified of lions. We first see this the night he and Shasta meet Hwin and Aravis. They hear the roar of a lion, and Bree runs in terror. Later on he says to Shasta:

“Shasta, I’m ashamed of myself. I’m just as frightened as a common, dumb Calormene horse… I don’t feel like a talking horse at all. I don’t mind swords and lances and arrows but I can’t bear – those creatures.

But Bree isn’t really brought face to face with the truth about himself until we get toward the end of the story. The children and the horses are approaching the land of Narnia, just ahead of Prince Rabadash who is bringing an invading army. A lion pursues them—it later turns out to be Aslan, who wants to give them the extra speed of fear so that they can warn people in time about the invaders. The lion leaps at Aravis, and Bree runs away in terror, but little Shasta jumps off and runs back to help Aravis. The lion runs away, and the four of them all reach safety in the home of a Hermit, but the experience has been a revelation for them all. Bree finally sees the truth about himself, and later he says to the Hermit:

“I who called myself a war-horse and boasted of a hundred fights, to be beaten by a little human boy—a child, a mere foal, who had never held a sword nor had any good nurture or example in his life!”

Proud Bree finds this truth devastating. He feels he’s lost everything, and he talks of going back to Calormen. But the Hermit of the Southern March is a wise man, and he sees the reality of the situation. He says to Bree:

“My good horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit…If you are really as humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses”.

Bree’s problem has been that he thinks he’s more than he really is. He believed a lie about himself, and now he’s been forced to accept the truth. The truth isn’t that he’s a bad horse; it’s just that he’s not quite the star of the show he believed he was. Humility means accepting the truth about ourselves—that like every other person in this fallen world, we’re a combination of strengths and weaknesses, no more or less important than anyone else.

A moment ago I referred to two verses from Philippians chapter two. In many ways, the story of The Horse and His Boy could be a commentary on this chapter. Let me read to you the first five verses:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

Bree needs to learn the truth of verse 3. He acts out of conceit and sees himself as better than others. But we also get the sense that there’s a basic insecurity in him; he’s always wondering what others think of him and he’s terrified they might not think well of him. That rings true to me, because I’ve noticed that many people who come across as proud and arrogant actually have a deep insecurity inside. They have an inner need for attention and praise, and that’s why they want people to look up to them.

Aravis, on the other hand, needs to learn the truth of verse 4. She grew up thinking only of her own interests and not the interests of others—especially the ‘others’ in a lower social class than her. She doesn’t worry about her maid’s sufferings; all she cares about is getting away. She’s not being intentionally malicious. This is just the way she’s been taught to think, and she needs to be retrained to see others as equally important and significant as her.

The solution to both these forms of pride is in the rest of the passage:

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).

Jesus is the one who has the highest claim on a position of respect and importance. And yet he humbled himself, became one of us human beings, and went so far as to die on the Cross for us. Can you ever imagine Jesus asking the question, “Is anyone noticing me?” Jesus didn’t need to ask that question. At his baptism he’d heard the voice of his Father in heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Once he knew that truth about himself, it didn’t matter whether people noticed him or not.

This is the secret of true humility: coming to believe the truth about yourself as God sees you. All of us are children in the Father’s family, no more and no less.  Each of us is no more important and no less important than any of God’s other children. So the important thing is not that the other children admire you, but that the Father loves you. Once you believe that, you can put your mental mirrors away and stop worrying about how you look and what sort of impression you’re making on others. Instead of looking to others to bolster our low self-esteem, we can concentrate on loving them, because God loves them, and we’re the children of God, and it’s in the nature of the children of God to imitate what their Father is doing.

Eustace: Changed by the Power of Aslan (Following Jesus through Narnia #2)

C.S. Lewis’ Narnia story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read in a children’s book, or in any other book for that matter: ‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb—and he almost deserved it.’

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a wonderful story that works on at least two levels. On the surface, we have a classic tale about a sea voyage and the adventures of the sailors along the way. But on a deeper level we have a story about the transformation of Eustace Clarence Scrubb. Eustace starts off as a thoroughly self-centred and unpleasant character, but as the story progresses, he’s gradually changed into a person who thinks of others and has a more realistic view of himself. And this transformation is accomplished through the power of Aslan the Lion.

This is a very important theme for us as we continue our journey through Lent.  C.S. Lewis is our guide, and especially his Narnia stories. Last week we thought about the character of Aslan the Lion. We discovered he’s definitely not a tame lion, and neither is he safe: “Course he isn’t safe!” Mr. Beaver exclaimed, “But he’s good!” Aslan helps us understand our Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us with a love that’s absolute and uncompromising. His love isn’t just about being nice to us. It’s about telling us the truth about ourselves and helping us become more than we are right now, even when that growth is hard and unpleasant. We approach this Jesus with absolute confidence in his love for us, but also in absolute obedience to his authority.

This week we have to grapple with the subject of change, and how change takes place. We have to look at the reality of sin, and how sin has a literally monstrous effect on us. We have to realize how hard it is for us to change—in fact, unless we have the help of Christ, change isn’t going to happen. And we have to look at some of the effects of that change when it finally comes about.

So—back to Eustace. Eustace is the cousin of the four Pevensie children we met last week: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. Chronologically, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader  is the fifth of the seven Narnia stories, and by this time Edmund and Lucy have a lot of experience with Narnia. Now, however, they’re back in ourworld, and they find they have to spend their summer with their cousin Eustace. Lewis lets us know right from the start what sort of person Eustace is:

Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card…Deep down inside him he liked bossing and bullying…He knew that there are dozens of ways to give people a bad time if you are in your own home and they are only visitors. He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators.

In other words Eustace is a thoroughly selfish person, intensely practical, with absolutely no imagination—which, for Lewis, was one of the worst things you could say about someone. He also enjoys inflicting misery on other people, and he’s gotten quite good at it.

In the first couple of chapters of the book the three children are transported magically back to the land of Narnia. There they find themselves on the Dawn Treader, a Narnian ship on which King Caspian is on a voyage into unknown seas to find seven lost lords. The Dawn Treader is a sailing ship, and Eustace loses no time in starting to criticize it. He ‘kept on boasting about liners and motor boats and aeroplanes and submarines.’ Of course, boasting is all about trying to seem better and more important than other people.

We get more opportunities to find out what a self-centred character Eustace is as the story continues. One of the finest characters in the entire Narnian series is Reepicheep, a valiant and chivalrous talking mouse who comes across as a sort of ‘D’Artagnan’ figure from The Three Musketeers. One day Eustace finds Reepicheep perched on the figurehead of the ship:

As soon as (Eustace) saw the long tail hanging down…he thought it would be delightful to catch hold of it, swing Reepicheep round by it once or twice upside down, then run away and laugh.

Unfortunately things don’t quite work out the way Eustace thinks they will, as Reepicheep is just as good with his sword upside down as he is right way up! On another occasion, when the ship is becalmed and the water is running low, Eustace makes excuses to try to get more than his fair share of the water supply. In these and many other ways Eustace makes a thorough nuisance of himself through his selfishness and self-centredness.

Eventually, after a severe storm, the Dawn Treader arrives at an island where they can get fresh water and repair the ship. Eustace slips off into the hills by himself, and comes by chance to the cave of a dragon. Of course, he finds the cave filled with treasure. I say ‘of course’, because you’re all very imaginative people, and so you know that treasure is exactlywhat you expect to find in a dragon’s cave! But Eustace doesn’t know this, and so he doesn’t suspect that he’s stumbled on a dragon’s lair. All he sees is the treasure, and his mind immediately begins to play on what it could do for him. Eventually he falls asleep on the pile of treasure with his mind still full of greedy and selfish thoughts. But when he wakes up, he discovers to his horror that in his sleep he has been transformed into a dragon himself. As Lewis puts it, ‘Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard, with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.’

This is what sin does to us: it reduces our humanity. Romans 3:23 says ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ John Bowen says, ‘Sin may tempt us to try to become more than we were made to be, but its effect is ultimately to make us less than we were made to be.’

Eustace chose long ago to be a selfish and self-centred person. The dragon he has now become is just an outward expression of the inner state of his heart. This forces him to begin to face the truth about himself. He realizes he doesn’t like the person he has become. Lewis spells this out for us:

He wanted to be among friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realized he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see that the others had not really been fiends. He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed. He longed for their voices.

So he goes back to join the others, and succeeds in letting them know that even though outwardly he’s a dragon, inwardly he’s Eustace. They want to receive him back but they can’t decide how they can possibly take him along on the ship in his dragon form. For Eustace, this just shows up the fact that all along he’s chosen to be a misfit. As Lewis puts it,

Poor Eustace realized more and more that since the first day he came on board he had been an unmitigated nuisance and that he was now a greater nuisance still.

There’s nothing Eustace can do to change himself back into human form, and things seen hopeless for him. But then one night he has a mysterious meeting with a lion. We, the readers, know who that lion is – the Great Lion, Aslan himself, the Christ figure in the Narnia stories. Aslan leads Eustace to a well of water. Eustace wants to bathe, but Aslan tells him he must undress first. Eustace remembers that dragons can shed their skin, so he scratches and scratches and eventually the dragon skin comes off. Underneath, however, he finds another dragon skin, and then another, and another. He eventually despairs, and then Aslan says to him, “You will have to let me undress you.” Aslan uses his lion claws, tearing the dragon skin away completely, tearing so deeply that Eustace feels as if it has gone straight through his heart. It hurts him worse than anything he has ever felt, but the next thing he knows Aslan is throwing him into the water, and then he finds to his great joy that he’s been turned into a boy again.

Eustace then goes back to join the others. He knows Aslan’s power has changed him, but he also knows he’s got some things to put right with the others. He meets his cousin Edmund, and he says, “By the way, I’d like to apologise. I’ve been pretty beastly.” He’s now on the way to becoming a much less selfish and unpleasant human being. But the change is not instant. Lewis is far too honest about our Christian experience to pretend this can happen. He says, ‘It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that, “from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.” To be strictly accurate, he beganto be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of these I shall not notice. The cure had begun.’

This story of Eustace has a lot to teach us about transformation. Transformation is what the Christian message is all about. The Greek word is ‘metanoia’, which means change—deep, lasting change. It’s sometimes translated as ‘conversion’; in one place Jesus uses the image of a new birth, which is about as powerful a change as you can imagine. But transformation isn’t a one time only event for us Christians. It’s a process that continues throughout our Christian life.

The story of Eustace tells us what sin is all about. In the Bible, sin is essentially selfishness or self-centredness. It’s rejecting the rule of the one true God and claiming the right to be God for ourselves. It’s a happy coincidence in the English language that the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ in the centre of it. This reminds us that when I put myself at the centre of my life, and see everyone else—even God—as just there for my convenience, then I’m in a state of sin. That’s what Eustace does. He lives a totally self-centred life.

The story of Eustace shows us what sin does to us.I said at the beginning that sin has a literally monstrous effect on us. Sin transformed Eustace into a monster, but the monstrous form was simply a reflection of his monstrous heart. Sin makes us something hideous, something far less than the fully human persons God wants us to be. And sin spoils our relationships, too, isolating us from others. Even Lucy, the youngest Pevensie, who has the kindest heart of anyone in the Narnia series, finds it hard to put up with Eustace. Her brother Edmund, who usually calls a spade a spade, simply calls him a ‘record stinker’!

The story of Eustace shows us that transformation starts by facing the truth about ourselves.The Letter of James, in the New Testament, tells us God’s law is like a mirror that shows us what we are really like. But some people don’t want to face that truth: ‘They look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they are like.’ (James 1:24) But after his dragon experience Eustace can’t do that anymore. He realizes he’s been a thoroughly unpleasant person, he accepts that truth, and he longs more than anything else to change.

The story of Eustace shows us that we can’t change ourselves.Eustace gets to the point where he longs to change. He hates what he’s become, and he wants more than anything else to be just a boy again. That’s a moment we all have to come to. We choose to change direction, to repent of our sins, to learn a new way of life. We read the story of Jesus, we’re inspired by his teaching, and we think, “This is what I want!” So we make some resolutions, plan to make some changes, and off we go.

Crash! It might take twelve hours or twelve days, but sooner or later we come face to face with our human weakness. Sinfulness goes far deeper in us than we thought. Some people say that Christianity is difficult. The truth is far worse than that: Christianity isn’t difficult, it’s impossible! All Eustace can do is make himself into a slightly less wrinkly dragon. He can’t make himself into a boy again.

The story of Eustace shows us that we can only be changed by the power of Christ.Aslan is the only one who can rip the dragon skin off Eustace, and the first tear pierces Eustace all the way to the heart. His problem started with his self-centred heart, you see. Superficial solutions can’t accomplish anything.

Over and over again, Christian people have discovered that only the power of Jesus can help them become different. We come to the point where we cry out desperately: “I’ve tried, I really have, but I just can’t change myself.” So we call out for his help. Often the help is painful to receive. Eustace said it hurt more than anything he’d ever felt in his life. Things happen to us, or we find ourselves asked to do things, that we shrink from because they seem too painful. But, as the Twelve Steps of A.A. say, ‘Half measures availed us nothing.’ If we’re going to be changed, it will have to be with the help of Christ.

Finally, the story of Eustace shows us that transformation is gradual.The mountaintop experience with Aslan leads down to the daily decision to follow him. And this daily decision, too, is made with the help of Christ. Often it feels like two steps forward and one step back—or on some days, one step forward and two steps back! But the Christian disciple is wiser now. She realizes self-confidence is a dead end, so each day she looks to Jesus for guidance and strength to take the next step.

Let’s sum up. Lent is about change, and change is difficult. We’d like to think we can change ourselves, but all our failed attempts only show us how weak we really are. By ourselves, we’re stuck.

But the gospel tells us we don’t have to be stuck. By the power of Aslan, Eustace can be changed from a dragon to a boy, and then he can go on to live like a boy and not a dragon. And by the power of Jesus, I can be changed into a child of God, and then I can go on to learn to live like a child of God. It’s impossible for a human, but with Christ all things are possible. So let’s put ourselves in the hands of Christ and ask him to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

Aslan: Not a Tame Lion (Following Jesus through Narnia #1)

In the late 1940s C.S. Lewis was a teacher of English Literature at Oxford University. He had gradually moved from atheism to Christian faith in his early thirties. He had written a number of scholarly books about English literature, as well as some books defending the Christian Faith. He had also written three science fiction novels.

In the mid 1940s Lewis began getting some pictures in his head. He began to see a faun—a character from Greek mythology with the body of a man and the legs and feet of a goat. The faun was walking in a snowy wood, under a lamp post, with some parcels under its arm. Lewis wondered what the faun was doing there, and so he began to write a children’s story to find out. He wrote about sixty pages or so, and then suddenly a new character came bounding into the story—a great Lion called Aslan. Lewis said later that ‘when Aslan came into the story, he pulled the other six stories in after him’. The seven children’s stories about Aslan and the land of Narnia have become Lewis’ best-loved and most popular books.

Lewis often explained that the books are not allegories. He called them ‘supposals’. ‘Suppose there was another universe, and God and Christ appeared there and did things, but in a different form than in our universe. What might they be like?’

The Narnia stories present Christian truth to us in an imaginative way. For the next seven weeks, as we go through Lent and Easter Sunday, we’re going to look at characters from the stories, to see what they can teach us about Christian discipleship. My outline for the series will tell you which of the books each week’s sermon is based on. If you have time, I strongly recommend you read them. They’re very short and easy to read—not to mention being very enjoyable!

Today we’re going to start with the central figure of the whole series, Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure. In one of the books, it’s said of Aslan that he’s ‘not a tame lion.’ ‘Of course he isn’t safe!’ says Mr. Beaver, ‘but he’s good!’ Let’s see what Aslan has to teach us about Jesus.

When I was a little boy, I used to sing a bedtime hymn that went like this: ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child.’ This went along with the popular view of the blond-haired Jesus with little lambs in his arms. But is that really an accurate picture of the Jesus we read about in the New Testament?

The truth is that the character of Jesus is just too big for us to get him all in. Trying to describe him is like trying to take a photograph of the mountains around Jasper with just a tiny camera! Because of this, we all tend to ‘leave bits out’ when we think about Jesus. In medieval times the church emphasized his majesty and authority, and people were afraid to even approach him. Our age, on the other hand, has gone to the opposite extreme with Jesus. We’re a therapeutic age, and we like the gentle, non-judgemental Jesus who specialises in warm fuzzies and active listening.

Throughout his life as a Christian, C.S. Lewis was determined not to ‘leave bits out’ of his picture of Jesus. His oldest friend Arthur Greaves had been a Christian long before him, but after his conversion Lewis soon came to suspect that his friend wasn’t really taking the gospels seriously. In a letter to him he said, ‘I’m beginning to think you can only get what youcall “Jesus” out of the Gospels by leaving a lot out.’

Some years later Lewis was writing a letter to a woman who was thinking about becoming a Christian. He says something like this to her: ‘Everyone told me that if I read the gospels I’d find Jesus irresistible. Well, I didn’t find that at all! What I did find was that most of the time we aren’t even invited to give an opinion about him—he’sthe one who will give his opinion aboutus!’ So it’s not surprising that when Lewis came to give us his picture of Jesus in the character of Aslan the Lion, he tried to portray this combination of kindness and severity—in other words, total authority, but also absolute love.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first of the Narnia stories to be written. In it we meet the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They’ve been evacuated from London during the Blitz and are staying in the countryside at the stately home of an old professor. Little Lucy is the first one to discover the magic wardrobe that sometimes acts as a doorway into a completely different universe. She goes through it, meets the faun Mr. Tumnus, and finds out about the tragedy of life in Narnia: it’s a country ruled by the evil White Witch who has made it ‘always winter, but never Christmas.’

Edmund is the next one to get into Narnia, but instead of Mr. Tumnus he meets the White Witch and is foolish enough to become one of her followers. Eventually all four children get in at one time. Lucy takes them to meet Mr. Tumnus, but they discover his cave has been destroyed and he’s been arrested for helping humans. As they’re wondering what to do, the children are guided to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (if you haven’t already realized, Narnia is peopled by these talking animals!). There the beavers tell them that Aslan, the true ruler of Narnia, has returned and plans to set Narnia free from the rule of the White Witch. But he needs the help of the four children to do it, because there’s an old prophecy of two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sitting on the four thrones in the castle of Cair Paravel.

Mr. Beaver is the first one to describe Aslan to the children. Susan asks who Aslan is, and Mr. Beaver says:

“He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time or my father’s time.”

Lucy asks, “Is he a man?”

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not! I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—theLion, the great Lion.”

A moment later Lucy asks if this great Lion is ‘safe’.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

And over and over again, throughout the Narnia stories, people are reminded that Aslan is ‘not a tame lion.’

Peter, the oldest of the four, says, “I’m longing to meet him, even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.” And this is exactly what happens. Later in the story, when the children first meet Aslan, this is how Lewis describes him for us:

People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.

Good and terrible, gentle and severe, loving and commanding—this is Aslan. In other places in the books we see this combination of characteristics again. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Aslan ends up giving his own life in the place of Edmund the traitor, just as Jesus gave his life for us. Aslan is portrayed as being very close to the two girls, Susan and Lucy, especially to Lucy who he often calls ‘dear heart’ or ‘dear one’. But he never shrinks from confronting his dear Lucy with her shortcomings. In Prince Caspian he’s been trying to get the children to follow him, but only Lucy could see him, and the others had not believed her. When Lucy finally gets to talk to Aslan about it, here’s what happens:

      ‘Yes, wasn’t it a shame?’ said Lucy. ‘saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so—’

      From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.

      ‘I’m sorry,’ said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. ‘I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?’

      The Lion looked straight into her eyes.

      ‘Oh, Aslan,’ said Lucy. ‘You don’t mean it was? How could I—I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that… oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you…’

There isn’t time for me to recount this incredible conversation, but you get the sense of how Aslan doesn’t shrink from helping Lucy to see the truth about herself.

Let me give one more example. In the book The Horse and His Boy, Aravis is the young daughter of a great lord, but she runs away from home to escape a forced marriage. She drugs her slave girl, so that she will go to sleep and won’t be able to stop Aravis’ escape. Later we learn that the slave girl has been whipped for letting this happen. Toward the end of the story Aravis meets Aslan in a terrifying fashion; she is riding her horse, Hwin, and they are chased by a Lion. The Lion catches them, and strikes Aravis across the back with his claws, wounding her with great stripes. Later on, explaining this to Aravis, Aslan says,

‘The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like.’

Aslan loves people with a deep and tender love, but it’s also a tough love. It’s a love that never shrinks from telling them the truth, and sometimes even subjecting them to painful discipline, so that they may grow and become the people they were meant to be.

We see the same thing in the Gospels with our Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes we see his tenderness, like the time when he takes off his outer robe and washes the feet of his disciples, the job the slave was meant to do. He’s patient with them, forgiving them and restoring them when they fail. When Peter denies him three times, Jesus doesn’t reject him, but gives him an opportunity later on to reaffirm three times that he loves his Lord after all.

But the sense of authority is also very clear. Sometimes we read that his disciples were afraid to ask him things. We don’t get the sense that a fireside chat with Jesus would necessarily be a cosy thing. Jesus tells his disciples the truth, even if they don’t want to hear it. At the last supper, when Jesus warns his disciples that they are all going to desert him, Peter says, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” (Matthew 26:33-34) And when a rich young man asks what he must do to enter the Kingdom, Jesus tells him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. The man turns away, refusing to pay the price, and Jesus doesn’t run after him to negotiate with him. He’s the King, so he gets to dictate the terms. He drives out the money changers from the temple with a whip, and he tells the Pharisees that they remind him of whitewashed graves—nice on the outside, but full of bones and corruption inside.

So how should we approach this Jesus? First, we approach him with absolute confidence in his love for us.Aslan gave his life on the stone table so that Edmund the traitor could go free. In the same way, the Bible tells us the Son of God loved us and gave himself for us on the Cross. He held nothing back. So we can be absolutely confident in his love for us.

But his love for us isn’t always the same as ‘being nice to us.’ It’s a tough love that doesn’t ‘let us off the hook.’ If he knows something is good for us, he’ll be relentless in pointing us toward it, even if it’s hard and painful. He’ll always tell us the truth about ourselves, in hope that we’ll accept it and move forward in our relationship with God.

And so we also approach him in absolute obedience to his authority.‘He’s the King,’ says Mr. Beaver. The Kingdom of God isn’t a democracy. The Son of God is our Lord, and we are summoned to follow him.

I find the picture of Aslan in the Narnia stories helps me understand and follow Jesus better. Toward the end of one of the books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund that they won’t be coming back to Narnia again. Lucy is heartbroken at the thought of never meeting Aslan again. But Aslan reassures her, “But you shall meet me, dear one.”

      “Are—are you there too, sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. That was the very reason you were brought into Narnia, that by knowing me for a little, you may know me better there.”

And that’s also my hope for you as we go through this Lent sermon series—that as we read the stories of Aslan, they’ll help us know him by another name: our Lord Jesus Christ.

Bree and Hwin: It’s Not About you!

As we remember C.S. Lewis fifty years after his death, I post a mild rewrite of the third in my 2006 Lent series on characters from the Narnia stories, and what they can teach us about following Jesus. Again, I thank John Bowen of Wycliffe College, whose book ‘The Spirituality of Narnia‘ I was privileged to read in draft form when I was preparing these sermons.

Today I want to tell you a story about two horses.

Over the past few days we’ve been taking as our spiritual guide C.S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ stories for children – and for childlike adults as well. Although these stories were not written as textbooks about following Jesus, I believe that they are full of insight into what it means to be Christian disciples. Each week we’re taking one or more characters from the Narnia books and asking ‘What do these characters have to teach us about following Jesus?’ We began with Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure from Narnia; we learned that he is not a tame lion and he’s definitely not safe, but he’s good. Aslan shows us what Jesus is like and teaches us to approach him with absolute confidence in his love for us, but also in absolute obedience to his authority. Then we moved on to think about Eustace Scrubb, a boy who became a dragon because of his selfishness and greed, and could only be changed back into a boy by the power of Aslan. Eustace taught us that only the power of Christ can transform us into the people God wants us to be.

Today our characters are two talking horses from the book The Horse and His Boy. Their 017996-FC222names are ‘Bree’ and ‘Hwin’. Hwin is a gentle mare, and Bree is a proud and fierce war horse; his full name is actually ‘Breehy-Hinny-Hooey-Hah’ but we won’t mention that again! The title of the book, The Horse and His Boy, comes from something Bree says in the story; he points out that in Narnia talking horses are free and are not slaves of humans, so he’s not Shasta’s horse; you might just as well say that Shasta is ‘his’ boy.

The Horse and His Boy opens in Calormen, a huge land south of Narnia; there we meet Shasta, the adopted son of a poor fisherman. One night a great Tarkaan, or noble lord, demands to spend the night at their house, and later in the evening Shasta overhears him talking with the fisherman about how much he will pay to buy the boy as a slave.

That same night Shasta discovers by accident that the Tarkaan’s horse, Bree, is a talking horse – something completely unknown in Calormen, although of course it is common up north in Narnia. The two of them decide to escape together to Narnia and freedom. When they have been on their way for a few days, they are pursued by hunting lions and are forced into the company of another talking horse the mare Hwin, and her rider, a young and proud daughter of a Lord, the Tarkheena Aravis. The book then goes on to tell of the adventures that the two horses and the two children have together on their way to Narnia.

Bree explains that he was stolen from the land of Narnia while he was a foal, and has lived in Calormen for years, as he says, ‘hiding my true nature and pretending to be dumb and witless like their horses’. Along the way he has become very proud of himself. He is often concerned about how he appears to others, and even though he wants to get back to Narnia, he has worries about it, too; he worries that, having been away for so long, he might not know the proper protocol. For instance, one of the things Bree really loves in getting down on his back and having a good roll. The boy Shasta sees him doing it one day and bursts out laughing. Immediately Bree gets worried:

“You don’t think, do you,” said Bree, “that it might be a thing talking horses never do—a silly, clownish trick I’ve learned from the dumb ones? It would be dreadful to find, when I get back to Narnia, that I’ve picked up a lot of low, bad habits.”

A little later on the journey the horses and their humans have to go through the huge city of Tashbaan. They are worried that it will be obvious to everyone who looks at them that the horses have come from rich houses, and everyone will see Shasta and Aravis as horse thieves. So they decide that the horses will have to be made muddy and bedraggled, and their tails will have to be cut short and ragged. When he hears about this plan, Bree objects strenuously:

“My dear madam,” said Bree. “Have you pictured to yourself how very disagreeable it would be to arrive in Narnia in that condition?”

“Well,” said Hwin humbly (she was a very sensible mare), “the main thing is to get there.”

For Bree, arriving in Narnia in a bedraggled condition would be ‘disagreeable’ – it would give a bad first impression, and he wants to be seen by everyone as the fine stallion he believes he is. Hwin, in contrast, speaks humbly: to be humble, for C.S. Lewis, is to be sensible and to have a realistic view of yourself.

Now, when I read these stories about Bree, they show me some very unwelcome truths about myself. I realize that in many ways I’m like him. I wish I wasn’t, but in fact I am. I’d like to be able to say, “I don’t really care what other people think of me”, but in fact I notice that I care a great deal. I notice that there are many times – more times than I care to remember – when I do things or say things or wear things or join things, not because I like them or because I think they are what God wants for me, but because I think they’ll make a good impression on other people. People will be impressed, I hope, and if they give me the right amount of respect and attention, I’ll be able to feel that I’m somebody after all. Perhaps I’m the only one who does this, but I suspect not. I suspect we’ve all done it from time to time.

In Philippians 2:3-4 Paul says: ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others’. Bree’s pride takes the form of ‘conceit’, but there’s another proud character in The Horse and His Boy – the Tarkheena Aravis, the young noblewoman who is escaping to Narnia with the horse Hwin in order to get away from a forced marriage. Aravis’ pride takes the form of looking to her own interests and forgetting the interests of others – especially those who are of a lower social class than her. For instance, she tells of how, when she was escaping from her home, she drugged her stepmother’s maidservant so that she would not prevent her escape. Shasta asks what happened to the maidservant.

“Doubtless she was beaten for sleeping late,” said Aravis coolly. “But she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her.”

Aravis sees her maidservant as inferior and doesn’t care about her suffering; she’s just a tool. But to Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure in the Narnia stories, this incident is very important. Later in the story he pursues Aravis and strikes her across the back with his claws. When he explains to her why this happened, this is what he says:

‘The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like’.

Bree needs to learn not to think of himself as better than others; Aravis needs to learn to think of others and not just herself. We’ve seen how Aravis learns her lesson; Bree’s lesson is interesting, too. He likes to come across as a big brave stallion, but there’s one chink in his armour; he’s terrified of lions. We first see this the night he and Shasta meet Hwin and Aravis. They hear the roar of a lion, and Bree runs in terror. Later on he says to Shasta:

“Shasta, I’m ashamed of myself. I’m just as frightened as a common, dumb Calormene horse… I don’t feel like a talking horse at all. I don’t mind swords and lances and arrows but I can’t bear – those creatures”.

But Bree isn’t really brought face to face with the truth about himself until we get toward the end of the story. The children and the horses are approaching the land of Narnia, just ahead of Prince Rabadash who is bringing an invading army. A lion pursues them – it later turns out to be Aslan, who wants to give them the extra speed of fear so that they can warn people in time about the invaders. The lion leaps at Aravis; Bree runs away in terror, and it is little Shasta who jumps off and runs back to help Aravis. The lion runs away, and the four of them all reach safety in the home of a Hermit, but the experience has been a revelation for them all. Bree finally sees the truth about himself, and later he says to the Hermit:

“I who called myself a war-horse and boasted of a hundred fights, to be beaten by a little human boy—a child, a mere foal, who had never held a sword nor had any good nurture or example in his life!”

Proud Bree finds this truth devastating; he feels he has lost everything, and he talks of going back to Calormen. But the Hermit of the Southern March is a wise man, and he sees the reality of the situation. He says to Bree:

“My good horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit. . . . If you are really as humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses”.

Bree’s problem has been that he thinks he’s more than he really is; he believed a lie about himself, and now he’s been forced to accept the truth. The truth isn’t that he’s a bad horse; it’s just that he’s not quite the star of the show he had believed he was. Humility means accepting the truth about ourselves: that, like every other person in this fallen world, we are a combination of strengths and weaknesses, no more or less important than anyone else.

A moment ago I referred to two verses from Philippians chapter two. In many ways, the story of The Horse and His Boy could be a commentary on this chapter. Let me refer you to the first five verses:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:1-5)

Bree, as we’ve seen, needs to learn the truth of verse 3: he acts out of conceit and sees himself as better than others. And yet, we also get the sense that there’s a basic insecurity in him too; he’s always wondering what others think of him and is terrified that they might not think well of him. It’s my observation that many people who come across as proud and arrogant actually have a deep insecurity inside; they want others to look up to them because they have an inner need for attention and strokes.

Aravis, on the other hand, needs to learn the truth of verse 4: she grew up thinking only of her own interests and not the interests of others – especially those of a lower social class than her. She doesn’t worry about her maid’s sufferings; all she cares about is getting away. She’s not being intentionally malicious; this is the way she’s learned to think, and she needs to be trained to see others as equally important and significant as her.

The solution to both these forms of pride is in the rest of the passage:

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).

Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who had the highest claim on a position of respect and importance. And yet he humbled himself, became one of us human beings, and went so far as to die on the Cross for us. Can you ever imagine Jesus asking the question, “Is anyone noticing me?” Jesus didn’t need to ask that question. At his baptism he had heard the voice of his Father in heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Once he knew that truth about himself, it didn’t matter whether people noticed him or not.

This is the secret of true humility: coming to believe the truth about yourself as God sees you. The truth is that all of us are children in the Father’s family, and each of us is no more important, and no less important, than any of God’s other children. The important thing is not that the other children admire you; the important thing, rather, is that the Father loves you. And once you believe that, you can put your mental mirrors away, and stop worrying about how you look and what sort of impression you’re making on others. Instead of looking to others to bolster our low self-esteem, we can concentrate on loving them, because God loves them, and we are the children of God, and it’s in the nature of the children of God to imitate what their Father is doing.