Sunday, March 22, 2015

The wonder of the cross

I spotted it on Tuesday evening.  I have a weather app on my phone that told me there was to be a major magnetic storm, registering 7 on the kp index.  That’s high.   It’s usually 1,2, or 3 … I had never seen it so high.

I instantly went to another app from NASA called Space weather.  That enables you to access live pictures from the NASA telescopes that are trained on the sun.  You can then put pictures from the last 48 hours together into a mini video.  And there you could see it – massive prominences coming off the sun.

What did not occur to me was that there might be a stunning Aurora Borealis to be seen.  And there in the Echo a couple of days later was a spectacular photograph taken on Cleeve hill of the Northern Lights.

So near and yet so far.  I could have gone and had a look!

What a missed opportunity.

At least we caught the solar eclipse on Friday, projectred in the most wonderful of ways through a Colander that’s something of a family heirloom.

When Brian Cox tried to explain the Northern Lights in his book and TV programme the Wonders of the Solar System he found the scientific language inadequate to describe the wonders of what he saw.  He turned instead to ancient Nordic stories that told of dancing lights – because somehow it was through the imagination of the story-teller that the wonder was best communicated.

For me, something similar happens when we come to think of the cross of Christ.

Today, a fortnight before Easter, is  Passion Sunday, the Sunday when churches often focus on the story of the passion, the cross of Christ.  In this evening’s service we are going to do just that. 

We mark Passion Sunday today with a special service this evening that takes us on the journey Jesus made to Jerusalem, to his death and to his resurrection.  We are going to tell the story of that journey from Luke’s Gospel as we are reading through Luke’s gospel on Sunday evenings.  We are going to tell the story in words and music with readings shared by the choir.  Our service will be very much in the style of and in the spirit of the many services Diana has put together over the years for Passion tide.  Indeed, we shall be using prayers and readings that Diana has used at such services over the years.

It’s not inappropriate as Diana, her mother and her family placed the cross at the front of the church in memory of her father, Talvan Rees.

One approach to understanding the cross of Christ is to  use the language of doctrine with very precise meanings, almost a kind of scientific approach that spells out exactly what Jesus accomplished through his death.

I don’t find that helpful.

Indeed. I find it positively unhelpful.

In the cross of Christ, indeed in the life, the death and the resurrection of Christ something happens that is a mystery, it is a wonder, it is something at the very heart of the faith that cannot be defined in the quasi scientific language that traditional Christian doctrine sometimes uses.

I find sometimes that it is in story telling that something of the immensity of what happened is conveyed.  I love the story telling of C.S.Lewis in the Narnia Chronicles and especially in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Once C.S.Lewis was asked who Aslan was.  He gave a very indirect answer … but you cannot help but recognise so much of the story of Christ.  All sorts of things are there.

That wonderful feeling as Aslan is near.

The strength.

There is a battle and an apparent defeat.

Yet the victory finally is Aslan’s.

It’s as if on the cross the battle between good and evil, God and the reality of evil comes to its climax – at first it seems to be defeat – but then it becomes a great victory.

Thanks be to  God, says Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians 15 when he has explored the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, Thanks be to God who gives us the victory thourh our Lord Jesus Christ.

Talk of the cross of Chrsit as the moment of the victory of Christ over all that is evil was the way the cross was understood for a 1000 years.

It’s a powerful image.

But then … Aslan is slain on the stone table – there are echoes of sacrficice.  The Lion becomes a lamb in one of the later Narnia Chronicles and as John the Baptist says, Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

There is a strong sense in the days of the bible that we live in a broken world – broken relationships, broken society, broken nations, a broken relationship with God.

To set things right people turned to sacrifice – in all sorts of different ways, to say thanks, to bring freedom in the Passover lamb, one of the common threads in the tradition of sacrifice is that it is about restoring broken relationships, and the brokenness of the relationship we have with  God.

That’s the sense you have as Aslan is slain … that in a perverse way, what happens sets things right, restores things that are broken.

Thinking of the death of Christ people speak of it as atonement, an old English word that really can be broken down into its constituent parts – at – one – ment

John pointed at Jesus and said, Behold the lamb of God.  Jesus broke bread and shared a cup around the time of the Passover and went to his death according to John’s gospel around the time the Passover lambs were sacrificed.

The focal point for the presence of God with his people was in the Temple – and in the holiest of holy places – that presence of God can only be accessed as animals were sacrificed.  Their screams would have filled the sky and the stench would have been awful.

At that point Jesus body is broken, his blood is shed.  And now there is no longer need for any more sacrifices because this is the once-and-for all sacrifice that means the relationship with God is restored, the veil of the temple is torn apart and we can enter into the very presence of God with the confidence of faith, the assurance of hope and a readiness to put our faith and hope into action in love.

We come to the foot of the cross and hear Jesus say to us even now, Father, forgive them … and we know that forgiveness is real.   This is love, as John said in 1 John 4, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins, the means by which our sins are forgiven.

This is wonderful .. it’s a mystery.

And it is most wonderfully communicated in the story telling of the Narnia Chronicles and in The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe – do join us on Saturday afternoon if you can!

It’s a mystery
It’s beyond all our imagining.
It’s a life
It’s a death
It’s a resurrection
So come to Narnia
The magic world where
Aslan is king
And discover that that life,
That death, that resurrection
Changes everything.

But there is more to this life, death and resurrection than that

Someone has asked the question that we are considering today … When in his life did Jesus realise that he came to die as a sacrifice?

I’m not altogether sure he did.

I have a feeling that was one way, and only one way that people following in his footsteps saw what had happened.

There are others too.

Follow the story of Jesus in the Gospels and something else can be seen as well.

There comes a point in Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus when for the first time Jesus speaks about his impending death.  Luke’s not the first to notice that – Mark had done before him, and Matthew also tells the story in the same way.

It’s the climax to the first part of the story of Jesus.  He takes time out, as Mark and Matthew make clear, near the Herodian Roman city of  Caesarea Philippi to check how effectively his work of proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God and bringing healing to hurting people is going. 

‘Do the crowds get it?’ is the question he asks of the disciples.

Yes, indeed they do! 

The have come to see that Jesus has brought to fulfilment the whole  line of the prophets that stretches back to Elijah and beyond.  He has come to usher in God’s rule on earth just as God’s earth prevails on heaven.  

A prophet, he is yet more than a prophet.  He is the anointed one of God who is King in the Kingdom of God.

It’s at that point that Peter and the disciples are excited, expecting him to be an all-conquering hero Messiah.  But Jesus thinks differently and explains he is to be rejected, he is to suffer, he is to be killed … and on the third day rise again from the dead.

Three times Jesus describes his the climax to his life in terms of his suffering, his death and his resurrection.

It’s as if he is working out and bringing to fulfilment the role he had taken on from John the Baptist of the prophet.  That’s how he had described himself the very first time he taught in the synagogue in Nazareth.

As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem he has no doubt about what he is doing.  He is absolutely clear.  He is going head to head with the powers that be … challenging the very nature of the worldly understanding of power and offering a totally different way of understanding God’s rule in the world, God’s kingdom.
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.”

Jesus thinks of his own impending death as something that fulfils all the prophets are about. 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey that was a massive prophetic act that said, God’s way of ruling is totally different from the world’s way of thinking.

When he turned the Herodian money changers out of the temple that was a massive prophetic act that said, God’s house should be a house of prayer, not the den of thieves the powers that be of his generation had turned it into.

He knew full well that going head to head with the powers that be would have one outcome.

And this is where Jesus, great prophet that he was, was more than a prophet.   Peter too had got it right when he had said, You are the Christ, the Messiah, the son of the living God.  But Jesus was not going to be the warrior messiah who would overthrow Rome by might of arms.  He would be the suffering servant messiah who would bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth and see that God’s will was done on earth as it is in heaven in a very different way.
This Jesus walks a walk of love and compassion that doesn’t make sense in the world’s terms, but is life-transforming for all those who take it seriously.

This Jesus walks a walk that takes him through the suffering of the valley of the shadow of death, that plumbs the depths of god-forsakenness … a walk that draws him to resurrection and the presence of God’s eternal love.

His life, his death and his resurrection open up for us the way into the presence of the God who is love – it’s a way that we can follow as we live a life of love for one another.

This is nothing other than the way of the cross.

Wow, it’s a mystery.

Maybe we can only sense it by telling the story

On Tuesday we are having Messy Church – a celebration for Easter.

It’s the first time we are going to have our Experience Easter outside to share.   Then from then through to the week after Easter we are going to have four places around the grounds of the church that simply invite us to re-live the story of the life of Jesus as it reaches its climax in death and resurrection.   They are, if you like, living pictures of the Easter story.

For it is as we put ourselves in the picture and re-live that story that the Cross of Christ becomes part of us and transforms our lives.

It’s a mystery
Beyond all our understanding
So look to some pictures,
Step into them
And discover a life, a death and
A resurrection that

Changes everything!

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