Jonathan’s Blog

Congratulations Jonathan on your new blog.

This is my son Jonathan’s new blog. Most of it he will be writing himself using his eyes to look at letters on a plastic screen. As he laboriously spells each word, a compelling poet who is also a mischievous little boy emerges from the silence. His journey is fascinating and Chantal will be writing about his experiences and explaining the background. Please follow him – it will encourage him greatly and he’ll be sharing some wonderful things.

http://eyecantalk.net/

 

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Good Friday Reflection

Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani.  

What were you saying, Lord Jesus, when you called out from the cross? What did you mean, what did you know? Surely you quoted the twenty-second psalm, but how much of it? Was it just this verse or did you mean to quote it all? I wonder what those familiar words meant to you?

At times of great trauma, our minds detach from the tragedy around us. For self- protection, we distance ourselves, an onlooker acting out the story of our lives. Stumbling through on autopilot we dare not stop to think ‘this cannot be’, ‘surely reality will return soon’. Perhaps we travel to a safe place in our minds, a memory which dulls the pain.

Did the familiar words of the Psalm do this for you, Lord Jesus? Transporting you to a childhood in Nazareth, the synagogue, chanting with other pupils, committing those verses to memory so that when needed they would surface again. Interpreting, making sense, comforting in whatever situation. I remember my grandfather, his sofa a makeshift deathbed, quoting these words. Sometimes the psalms have been a comfort to me: ‘He maketh me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters.’

Yet those are words of strength and reassurance. You cried out from the cross in anguish. This is a cry of desolation. Did you see the psalm fulfilled all around you? The soldiers cast lots for your garments, the elders jeered – their words in Matthew’s gospel a direct quote from the Psalm. Was crucifixion like that? Hands and feet pierced with nails. A distorted body with bones out of joint. Dehydration, gasping for water. Heart melts, strength fades, death draws close.

Those around misunderstood – ‘Eli, Eli? He’s calling for Elijah’ they said, let’s see if Elijah comes to take him.

You spoke, not to a prophet, but to your Father in heaven. A father whose presence you had known throughout your life, but who was now strangely, agonisingly absent. Had you anticipated this Lord? You spoke often of what lay ahead in Jerusalem, how you would be given up to Gentiles and die on a cross. You clearly foresaw what would happen but was it possible to anticipate the darkness, the isolation the desolation of being abandoned by God your Father?

You had walked intimately with God, no impediment between you. You alone of all humanity had never sinned, there was nothing in your life to distance you from God. Only you therefore could be the innocent one who took sin upon himself, only you could offer yourself in our place. And as you did so you felt in a way that we shall never know, for the first time, separation and isolation, the judgement of God against sin.

Is that why your last words are ‘It is finished!’ Certainly not ‘I am finished’ this is the end of me. But IT is finished. Finished is the great work of atonement. God’s plan is complete. Humanity is reconciled with him through you Lord, and people from all nations will one day come and worship him.

And I wonder, Lord, I really wonder, were you adapting the last words of the Psalm as your last words? Did you use it to frame the cross? For the Psalmist sees beyond suffering to vindication. Did you see that Lord? Did you bring to mind the whole Psalm ? Did you cry out in dereliction and follow the movement of the psalm to completion, vindication? Can we see here the hope of Easter Day? ‘Before those who fear you I shall fulfil my vows’. ‘All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord.’

‘For he has done it’. He has done it. It is finished. Your work, O Lord is complete. Thank you.

 

Messiah Syndrome

What happens when someone fails to deliver? When a person is appointed to a job but doesn’t come up with the goods? How long do you give them to improve?

The game of football is notoriously impatient. A couple of weeks ago Sean O’Driscoll lost his job after only 16 matches in charge of Walsall. It seems that managers are appointed with great expectations that they will transform the fortunes of a club, and if that doesn’t happen the manager is dropped. Derby County sacked Paul Clement, even though they were in fifth place, because they had hoped to be promoted. Their expectations had not been met.

I’m sure we can see similar things happening in other walks of life. In fact, it’s so common it’s got a name: Messiah syndrome. It happens when people build up great hopes for a leader. They project all their hopes and worries onto that person. We hear things like: James knows what he’s doing, he can sort this business out. Jenny’s been a great headteacher and can turn this school around.

It’s understandable why that happens. Sometimes we can get stuck or tired and look for a new leader to bail us out – and it may be that the injection of vision and energy can make a real difference in getting everyone going again. However if people want a leader to make their problems go away without any effort or change on their part, that’s doomed to failure. And if that executive does not deliver, everyone turns their disappointments against them.

Maybe some of us have experienced this. It doesn’t just happen when you’re in charge. Any of us can find we’re suddenly popular when folks want us to do something for them. ‘You’re so wonderfully community minded and very capable – would you like to help out with the village concert?’ Yet if you say no you can find yourself cast aside like a broken tool. That’s painful – let’s not ever do that to one another.

Surviving this needs integrity, a consistency so that you know who you are and what you are willing or not to do, and a resilience so that your self-identity is grounded in God rather than what others think of you.

It doesn’t even have to be about people either. We can end up pinning all our hopes on a project – something which may be perfectly good in its place but cannot be the sole plank we rely on. For instance, we are putting a lot of time and effort into our plans for the building here (and a new service), which is absolutely the right way to go.

But it would be unhelpful if we ever thought ‘Once we get the church reordered then that means people will start coming.’ For improving our building lays a practical foundation on which we must develop. We still need to reach out, to communicate well with the village, to reflect on the worship and events we offer. The point of this Messiah syndrome is that one action or one person cannot fix everything for us.

It’s obvious that this happened to Jesus during Holy Week. On Palm Sunday he was acclaimed as the Messiah, God’s Saviour. Barely 5 days later, the crowd were baying for his blood because he did not conform to their expectations.

It wasn’t that Jesus was unable to deliver. Surely he could do anything? This isn’t like President Obama and the Middle East. Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize after less than 9 months in office – there were great hopes for what he might achieve. Sadly, peace in the Middle East seems even further off. One can hardly blame the President for that – it was ludicrous for anyone to imagine that any individual, however powerful, could resolve all those challenges. Peace has to come from whole communities within that region. That’s a classic example of expectations other people put on the leader and he couldn’t deliver.

What is happening with Jesus is different. Jesus refuses to give the crowd what they want because their desires are not God’s plan. It’s not that he can’t deliver, but that he knows it’s not right for him to follow their agenda. He’s clear about his purpose. Throughout his ministry the crowd often wished to make him king, but Jesus always withdrew from it, because he knew that God’s offer of salvation comes through the way of the cross. Jesus rejected the crowd’s hope of a military saviour, but chose to submit to death in order to save us. He knew our greatest need was reconciliation with God, achieved when he died for our sins.

Now I expect we can understand why the crowd hoped for a worldly saviour. The Old Testament seems to encourage that hope. You can see how they might have come to that conclusion from our Zechariah reading. ‘Lo your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem.’

It sounds wonderful. Wouldn’t it be tremendous if the Roman chariot no longer roamed through Judea and the riot police were no longer needed in Jerusalem? How will the Messiah do that? By commanding peace to the nations says Zechariah in verse 10– and they thought this would be through battle. Imposing God’s peace. It didn’t occur to them that ‘cutting off the battle bow’ might apply to both sides. That ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’, so there is a limit to what military might can do, and God’s peace might come a different way.

Nonetheless, Jesus does make a deliberate choice to fulfil Zechariah’s prophecy. He doesn’t avoid it because of its connotations. Instead, in the gospel reading, Jesus gives detailed instructions to the disciples, making sure that he can enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey. The crowd understand what he’s doing: it’s a clear claim that he is the Messiah. They go wild, quoting Psalm 118 they greet Jesus as their coming king.

It is true. Jesus is the Messiah. If you ever hear anyone say, ‘Oh Jesus himself never claimed to be the Messiah, it was a title his disciples gave him’ – then here’s the evidence to correct them. Jesus chose to fulfil the symbolism. He wants us to know that he is God’s Saviour. He wants us to be confident that he is the King. Jesus accepts his identity and allows us to celebrate. So rejoice that God has kept his promises! Be thankful for our Saviour! Praise God for Jesus! We are allowed to celebrate, even at the beginning of Holy Week. Palm Sunday is a day of rejoicing.

Of course, we know what is coming. Jesus fulfils Zechariah’s prophecies in other ways too. Zechariah spoke of 30 silver coins, the price Judas received for his treachery.

At the last supper Jesus quoted Zechariah 13:7 ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’ When Jesus the Good Shepherd was arrested, his disciples fled.

With the benefit of hindsight it would be easy for us to criticise the crowd. I wonder though. Would I have acted any differently? If I’d been living under the Roman yoke wouldn’t I look for deliverance? And if this famous miracle worker deliberately rode into Jerusalem in the way Zechariah foretold, I would probably expect him to fulfil the rest of the prophecy without too much worry about the details.

I’m sure I would find the promises about liberation and world peace much more attractive than the teaching to ‘love your enemies’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. ‘Today I declare I will restore to you double’ sounds rather better than ‘Give to those who ask of you.’ Yes I’m inspired by what Jesus brings. I’m challenged by the path he sets out to get there.

We do have a habit of rationalising the hard sayings of Jesus, of applying them to our situation in ways which rob them of their force.

For the prophetic voice is uncomfortable. It’s easier to contemplate Jesus dying for our sins than it is to respond to his call to take up our own cross and follow him. To find our own vocation and ministry, whatever that may be. Yet responding to Christ’s call is ultimately the way to the fulfilling life he desires for each one of us.

Jesus calls us to follow him, to have faith in him, to believe we are forgiven through him, and to share with him in the task of building God’s kingdom. Let us follow our Saviour, not because he does what we want him to, not because he promises us an easy life, but because he loves us and does what is right for us all. Amen.

Passion Sunday – OT Series 4

How many people here have seen the most recent Star Wars film? The Force Awakens? My childhood was spent playing with little plastic figures and a toy X-wing so I would very much like to see it – though I think I’ve left it too late for the cinema. It will have to be on DVD.

Part of the reason I haven’t seen it yet is the difficulty of finding a free evening with the right timings. Partly it’s because I’m married to someone who claims not to have seen any of the original films, and is not keen to start now. In vain do I claim it’s not really sci-fi – Chantal says it won’t make sense if she’s not seen all the others beforehand.

I guess there’s some truth in that. People say the film is perfectly good as a stand alone but I imagine you’d get more out of it if you knew what a Stormtrooper does and who Luke Skywalker is. The background is important and helpful even if the story does make sense without it.

Often the Bible is like that. The life and teaching of Jesus is wonderful and if those gospels were all we had we could still have a Christian faith. Yet if we understand the background we can get so much more out of what Jesus says.

Take the readings we just heard as an example. If all we had was that gospel we would understand that Jesus knew he was destined to die, we would see that a woman called Mary poured her incredibly precious perfume over him as a gift of love and worship. We would feel the tension between the practical, rational Judas who has a hidden agenda, and Jesus who understands extravagant generosity. We see there is no calculation in love. Jesus gave himself to us so freely – and if we’ve understood that love then we will love him unreservedly too.

That all makes sense. But if we want to understand why Jesus was heading towards that destiny then we need to know the previous story. That’s where our reading from Isaiah in the Old Testament comes in.

It was written at least five hundred years before Jesus but it includes some incredibly accurate predictions about him. God told his people what was going to happen.

Throughout the Old Testament God points the way towards Jesus, so that when he comes people will be able to understand him. This reading Isaiah 53, is a prophecy of the events around Jesus’ death and resurrection.

v.8. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. An innocent man, Jesus was condemned in a show trial. Pilate knew Jesus was not guilty yet washed his hands of the whole affair

v.12. He made intercession for the transgressors – in other words he prayed for those who were doing wrong. As his hands were being nailed to a plank of wood, Jesus prayed: ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ What amazing compassion.

v.9. They made his tomb with the rich. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, took the body of Jesus and laid it in the tomb he had had made for himself.

Some of the things that are said here wouldn’t have made much sense until Jesus came and made it clear. For instance, verses 8, 9 and12 clearly say that God’s servant is killed. He is dead. And yet in v.11 ‘out of his anguish he shall see light’. If he’s dead how can that be? Unless he has come back to life again. The Resurrection makes sense of it.

These remarkable, accurate, predictions show us that God knew what was going to happen. He declared it beforehand. Jesus understood that, and yet freely went towards his destiny. But why did he go through all that suffering? What motivated him? Love for you and for me.

Here again Isaiah explains. In v.4, anyone looking at a cross would see a naked, tortured man. It was a horrible death, and at the time people widely believed that if you were crucified you were cursed by God. Although ‘we accounted him stricken’, Isaiah tells us that Jesus ‘bore our infirmities and carried our diseases.’ Jesus, God’s own Son, identifies with us so closely that he even shares human suffering.

So whenever we are in pain we know that Jesus has been there too. We can pray to him and ask for his help knowing that he understands.

When my son was born early as a result of a car accident I was so traumatised – and yet there was an almost tangible sense of God’s presence with me. It’s impossible to put into words just what a difference it makes knowing that God really cares. God is not some distant deity in a steely heaven, Christ has tasted everything this world can throw at you.

And there’s an even deeper meaning to this. In v.5 it says ‘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.’ This is a profound truth that the sufferings of Jesus give us healing. Not long ago I heard of someone who jumped into the sea to save struggling children and did so, but succumbed themselves. Jesus is like that, he gives himself to rescue us: his death saves us from sin.

Remember the beautiful story Jesus told of the Lost Sheep? How the one sheep from a flock of a hundred wanders off and the shepherd goes to find it, searching high and low until he returns with it safely. I’m sure Jesus had verse 6 in mind. ‘All we like sheep have gone astray’. I expect most of us have at some point in our lives been like the sheep wandering from the right path. I suspect we all still do and say and think things that we’d be embarrassed about if everyone knew them.

In the year 2000 a film came out called ‘What women want’. The blurb describes it thus: ‘After an accident, a chauvinistic executive gains the ability to hear what women are really thinking.’ So someone is talking to him and he not only hears what they are saying but he can also hear what they’re thinking too. Imagine though if we could all do that! Life would become impossible. I think I’d stop talking!

Many people go through life with a vague sense of unease or even guilt about this. They have their standards but know they often don’t reach them. If they believe in God, they’re not sure how he’ll deal with the times they do wrong. Perhaps we don’t like to think about that much because it feels uncomfortable, perhaps we hope for the best but are not sure on what grounds, maybe we try and build up our credit balance with a few good deeds here and there – or a mixture of all three.

The thing is: Isaiah tells us there’s no need to be uncertain. Clarity brings healing and confidence. Isaiah is very blunt but there’s a kind of healthiness and lack of self-deception about what he says. He doesn’t beat around the bush but recognises that we all need God’s forgiveness. We do wrong. It has consequences.

But accepting this can be good news if we also receive what Jesus has done for us. Isaiah shows that Jesus took the punishment for sin on himself. In v.11 ‘The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.’ That’s what we remember on Passion Sunday. Jesus gave himself for us. Not even death could stop his love.

Perhaps what I’ve been saying is familiar to you – if so do remember it this Easter and let that truth inspire you with love for Christ who did so much for you. If you once knew this but had forgotten – don’t slip back into that vague unease but be confident that God loves you and forgives you when you return to him. So accept for yourself what he has done.

Now it maybe that what I’ve said has been new to someone. If so, that’s great. I hope it’s made sense and you feel able to accept what Jesus has done for you. If it’s new and you’re not sure you’ve understand it then please pray to God to make it clear and please do talk with me afterwards – I’m not in a hurry today! What we’ve just thought about it the good news God wants us to hear – not just this Easter but always!

Let’s finish with a prayer:

‘Lord God, we thank you for Jesus who shared everything in human life. We thank you for the great sacrifice he made for us. Help us to understand and accept what he has done so that we can know your forgiveness and love’ Amen.