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.