Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Reflections on Abandonment

Matthew 27:45-49 (A talk for Good Friday 2011)

We will all experience moments of abandonment

It might be when the partner walks out on you or when the child or the parent rejects you.
It might be when the organisation or party or church, for which you have given your everything, tells you that you are no longer needed or wanted.
And perhaps the greatest tragedy of death is the sense of abandonment that the surviving partner can feel. As WH Auden so powerfully put it, 

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
We find ourselves in a place of abandonment when we lose, for whatever reason, the other who has made our life significant.

Jesus, as he hung on the cross, experienced abandonment. 

For eternity, Father God had been to him his North, South, East and West. His identity as Son of God rested on the Father. His eternal beginning, his past, his present and his future were secured on the Father. He had abandoned himself to the Father, and everything that he did or was depended on his Father. 

And now, as he becomes sin for us, as he takes onto his shoulders the sin of the world, he is abandoned by Father God. Obviously this is a mystery that is far too profound for any human mind to penetrate. As Jesus hung on the cross he was most at his most obedient to the Father - as Paul writes, 'Obedient to death, even death on a cross'. If, when Jesus humbled himself and was baptised, the Father said, 'This is my Son, my beloved', how much more now could the Father say, 'This is my Son, my beloved'. But as Jesus hung on the cross, he not only endured physical suffering for us, but willingly 'became sin for us'. He took onto himself the curse of sin. He drank the cup of the wrath of God. And instead of saying, 'This is my Son, my beloved', the Father looked away. 

And so Jesus cries out, using the words of Psalm 22:1, a dreadful cry of abandonment: 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me'. His Father God really had abandoned him. 

There are times when, as believers, we lose the intimacy that we have had with Father God. Most usually that is because we have chosen to deliberately turn our back on him, to do that which he hates. In those painful moments, we glimpse what a life would be like without God. But we have not been abandoned. At any time, at any moment, we can call out to him and turn back to him. 

But when Jesus took the sin of the world onto himself, when he became sin for us, he did not sin. He remained completely open to and obedient to God his Father. He rejects the temptation to come down from the cross. His thoughts were for his mother, for a dying thief and for those who crucified him. He turns to God and he cries out to God. But for those three hours, God his Father is not there. Along with the physical pain of crucifixion, Jesus endures the utter agony of abandonment by God, an abandonment which transcends time. His past is lost, his present make no sense, and there is no future. Instead there is pain and fear and hopelessness and utter emptiness. That is why the Apostles creed sums up the experience of Christ by simply stating, "He descended into Hell". 

Misunderstanding greets his cry of dereliction. The bystanders think that he has lost his mind. That is why they are about to offer him the bitter poisoned wine, to dull his senses. But others think that he is calling Elijah to come and rescue him - there was a Jewish belief that Elijah would come and save the righteous when they were in distress - and they want to see what will happen. And then, we are told, as if he knew that work had been completed, Jesus finally gives up his Spirit. 

The great Christian hope is that because Jesus took our sins onto himself, because he experienced the ultimate abandonment by God which is the final penalty for our sin, then there are two life changing consequences.
Firstly, we have someone who can identify with us in our human experiences of abandonment. He knows, because he has been there.
Secondly, because he has tasted the abandonment of God for us, we need never be abandoned by God. 

Of course there will be times when we feel as if God has abandoned us; times when others do abandon us, or when we are taken to dark, desperate places and maybe even times of dreadful suffering. I heard last week of the story of a church family in Colorado. They were due to go overseas as missionaries, had come out of church and were getting into their car when a gunman shot two of the girls. The father lay on the ground by his car, unable to get to one of his dying daughters because he too had been shot. And as he lay there this thought came into his mind, 'You can't go round this; you can't go over this; you've got to go through this'. 

And there will be awful things that we have to go through, and there will be little and big abandonments. We may have all our stuff taken from us, we may go through a physical hell, we may at times find ourselves in the pit. People we love will die. But because of Jesus, and because of his death on the cross, we can affirm that, whatever our feelings or experience, there is nothing that can separate us from the Love of God (Romans 8:39). If we choose to live our lives centred on him, to shape our identity around him, to see our story in terms of him and to fix our destiny and hope on him, we will not be disappointed or put to shame. His love really is a love that will last for ever. He will never abandon the man or woman who chooses to abandon themselves to him.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

What happened on Palm Sunday?

Our passage today is headed ‘The Triumphal Entry’. It is about the events that happened on the first Palm Sunday.

Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a colt, glory is given to God

1.      Jesus, God’s King, comes to Jerusalem, God’s city

Jerusalem was God’s city: it was the home of the temple, the place where God had said that his name would dwell, the place where God and humans meet together. But he comes openly as King.

And Jesus is God’s King. We’ve been told that in Luke from the very beginning – from when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that her child will be the Son of the Most High, and that he will reign over God’s people for ever.

Earlier in Luke, Jesus has kept his identity hidden.

In Luke 9:21, we are told that he strictly charged and commanded his followers to tell no one that he was the Christ, that is – the one who was to be God’s anointed ruler

But now, on this first Palm Sunday – now there is to be no concealing.

He comes riding on a colt

We need to know a little bit of the Old Testament to realise what is happening here.

In Zechariah 9:9, the prophet says,
“Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Jesus is being totally explicit here: He is God’s King is coming to God’s City

He comes as the humble, the gentle one

He is humble and gentle in the sense that he is not going to stand over people and command that they worship him.

His authority is not exercised with the sword.
His authority is the authority that comes from love.
And he comes to bring peace

He comes as the compassionate one

Most people rejoice when their enemies are done in.

We get some of that in the Old Testament: things like rejoicing when we bathe our feet in the blood of our enemies (Psalm 58:10)

Yet in Luke 19:41 we read that Jesus wept.
He doesn’t weep for himself: tears of anger at being rejected.
He doesn’t weep for what the people of Jerusalem are going to do to him.
He weeps for Jerusalem, for the city, for the people, for the children.
He weeps for the suffering that is to come

That is why he says (v42), ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’.

I don’t know how I hold together Psalm 58 and Luke 19:41. But I do need to remember that Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, and that what Jesus does God does. And I need to read Psalm 58 in the light of Jesus.

And even though Jerusalem is going to reject her king, Jesus and God do not delight in the consequences. Jesus weeps over the destruction that will come to the city, God weeps. He is the King who has compassion.

But do not let the fact that he is humble take away from his saving power.

Jesus comes as the one who brings salvation. He is the one who saves.

The NIV translates the Greek word ‘dunameis’ as miracles.

That is not the best translation. In fact the New Testament doesn’t have a word for miracle. It talks instead about God’s mighty works.

Some of those mighty works may be miracles as many people understand the word – but they certainly were astonishing works that Jesus did, in order to bring God’s saving power.

This is Jesus, the victorious king, who exercises authority over demons and sickness and nature. This is the one who fed 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fishes, who walked on water, who calmed the storm with a word. This is the one who has authority over space and time and death.

And this triumphal entry anticipates another entry:

When Jesus on the last day will come to meet his bride, the new Jerusalem, the people of God, the church. He will come to his people and his people will welcome him. That will be the day when we see the new creation, heaven and earth united, a place of peace; it will be a day of joy when the whole of creation gives glory to God and honours Jesus Christ, God’s King. This is our hope.

So Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Zechariah, and his followers realise what he is doing. They recognise him as God’s King.

They say: ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord’.

Notice: it is an acclamation and a prayer. They recognise that he is the King who comes in the name of the Lord, and that he is blessed. And they pray that he will continue to be blessed.

Before, Jesus told them to be silent.
Now Jesus doesn’t tell them to be silent.

Indeed when others tell him to rebuke his disciples, he says to them, ‘No: what my followers are doing is absolutely right. You couldn’t stop them.’

And notice also his followers do not simply acclaim him as King. They serve him as their King. They obey him.
The disciples are sent by Jesus, and they go.
The owners are told to let Jesus have the colt, because ‘The Lord has need of it’. We don’t know whether Jesus has prearranged something with them. It doesn’t matter. What is important here is the fact that if the Lord has need of it, then the Lord must have it.

So there is nothing hidden here. Jesus, God’s King, comes openly to God’s city.
He comes in humility, in love and compassion
But he also comes triumphant and victorious; he has the power to save.

2. Glory is given to God

Earth hears the anthem of heaven and echoes it.

The angels in Luke 2:14, at the birth of Jesus, sing, ‘Peace on earth’.
The people of earth, recognising God’s King, now sing, ‘Peace in heaven’.

When the people of earth welcome the King from heaven, there is peace on earth and peace in heaven.

But in both cases the angels and men sing ‘Glory in the highest’.
And here we are told, ‘the multitude began to rejoice and to praise God’.

So the King arrives and glory is given to God

I’ve always found it hard to apply the triumphal entry to us.
I could ask whether you have received Jesus as your King
I could ask whether we are with the Pharisees or the Followers

But I would like to speak to those who “have seen the things that make for peace”, who are followers of the King who is compassionate, humble and victorious.

We are invited to join the disciples in giving glory to God: “The whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and to praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

We are invited to praise God for Jesus Christ, to rejoice for what he has done, and for who he is.

Maybe you have not seen many ‘miracles’, and maybe you find it hard to think of the ‘mighty works’, but they are there if we are prepared to remember them: the astonishing answers to prayer, the dramatic changes in the lives of people as they receive Jesus, the way that God works through very weak and very ordinary men and women – and does remarkable things.

I came across this story. We were told it at Spring Harvest. I did a bit of research and came across a letter written in 1995 by Mils and Sandy Becker, missionaries with Co-mission, who were working in Russia,

“In the 1920s Stalin ordered a purge of all Bibles and believers. In Stavropol, this order was carried out completely. Thousands of Bibles were taken and believers were sent to the gulags, where so many died for being enemies of the state.
“Last year a Commission team was sent to Stavropol. They didn’t know about the history of the city at that time. But when the team had difficulty getting Bibles shipped from Moscow, someone mentioned that they knew a warehouse existed outside the town, where these Bibles had been stored since Stalin’s time.
“The team prayed together and one member had the courage to go to the warehouse and ask the officials if the Bibles could be removed and distributed again to the people in Stavropol. The answer was, ‘Yes’.
“The next day the Commissioners returned with a truck and several Russians to help load the Bibles. One helper was a young man - a skeptical, hostile, agnostic university student, who came only for the day’s wages. As they loaded the Bibles one man noticed that the student had disappeared. Finally they found him in a corner of the warehouse weeping.
“He had slipped away, hoping to quietly take a Bible for himself. What he found pierced him deeply. The inside page of the Bible he picked up had the handwritten signature of his own grandmother. It was her personal Bible. Out of the thousands of Bibles still left in that warehouse, he stole the one that belonged to his grandmother - a woman persecuted for her faith all her life.
“No wonder he wept. God was real. His grandmother had prayed for him and her city. His discovery of the Bible was only a glimpse into the spiritual part of his person. And now this young student is in the process of transformation by the Bible that his grandmother found so vital. God is making Himself known to people around the world.” (Scocaster, April 23, 1995, p. 7)

God is at work. He is at work dramatically in many places. Maybe for us in the West, we’re in a bit of desert period as far as the mighty works are concerned, although I strongly suspect that we are coming to the end of that desert period, and as it becomes more costly to serve Jesus in our society so we will see more mighty works.

But if we really cannot think of any mighty works today we are still called to praise God, and to rejoice in what Jesus has done. Because there have been many mighty works in the past, beginning with creation. And the mightiest of those is the event that we will celebrate next Sunday, the resurrection and the defeat of death.

We are commanded to rejoice. Of course joy is a fruit of the Spirit. It is like love. God grows it in us. It is, to a degree, beyond our control. You cannot manufacture joy. But praise is not. And sometimes, in our prayer times, in our worship together, we need to make the effort to praise God. We might be feeling lousy and depressed, things may be dreadful, but those are the times when we need to say a psalm of praise out loud, to sing a song of praise in our own prayer time, to karaoke along with the iPod or YouTube, or to begin to praise God with our words for what he has done. And as we praise, maybe, just maybe, we might glimpse joy.

We may not feel like doing it – but time after time – the duty of praise leads to the joy of praise. When we focus on God, when we look at his King, and at what he did, and what he does, praise begins to take us out of ourselves, out of our self-focus, out of the pit in which we find ourselves,  and enables us to focus on him.

My dear brothers and sisters, today on this Palm Sunday, we can join with the Pharisees – we can stand on the side and scowl (I speak to myself in saying this) – we can look at the uninhibited praise of others and say: it’s shallow; it’s immature; it’s self-honouring. Or we can try to forget about ourselves and begin to let go and praise our God for giving us such a King – who is humble, loving, compassionate, victorious, for doing such works and for giving us such a future.