Posts tagged ‘Cross’

April 19, 2014

Sermon for Good Friday 2014

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Photo: The “Famine Cross”, Church of the Immaculate Conception, Clonakilty.

It seems like long while since I put a sermon on this blog, so here are the words I spoke from at the Methodist Church in Clonakilty last night, for Good Friday…

Text: Matthew 27:33-54

I read an extraordinary story in the news last night[1].  It happened in Iran.  A man was to be hanged for murdering a young man of 17 in a street fight.  The photos showed a large crowd all around him, pressing in on the scaffolding that surrounds the place of execution.  The condemned man is standing there on a chair with a noose around his neck.  There he was in tears and moments from death when the mother and father of the man he had killed came up to him and together removed the noose from around his neck, the mother declaring that she had forgiven him.  Understandably this has caused quite an uproar in Iran, enough of an uproar that it is even being reported about in Ireland…

Our reading for this evening concerns another place of execution and one in which the man being executed is entirely innocent.  The uproar caused by this particular execution has sent shockwaves through history ever since, shockwaves that transcend time and distance, language and culture, heaven and hell.

As we turn to Matthew 27, starting at verse 33, the Lord Jesus, who had already been flogged, mocked, spat at, and had a crown of thorns pushed onto His head is brought to the place of execution, known as Golgotha, the place of the skull.  The Lord refused the bitter wine he is offered; He wants to face what is ahead with full clarity of mind.  Matthew does not give us any details of the crucifixion, he merely writes: “And when they crucified him they divided his garments among them by casting lots.”  This is talking about the Roman soldiers who would have been the ones to nail Jesus to the cross, hoist him up and then keep watch.  It is their job to keep the people at least a spears distance away from the cross and it is easy for us to imagine a seething crowd of people around, some mocking, some grieving, and some just waiting to see what might happen.  In the crowd were Mary, Jesus’ mother, some of the disciples and many of Jesus’ friends, but also the chief priests, scribes and elders and many others who were only too glad to see the Lord Jesus as He now was.

The soldiers put up a sign above Jesus which read “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”, we learn from John’s Gospel that the religious leaders did not like this sign at all (John 19:19-22), but Pilate, who had written it would not let it be changed.

We are told that two robbers were crucified with Jesus, one on His right and one on His left and so we can imagine the scene more clearly, soldiers around the three crosses, a sizeable crowd, many of whom were mocking Jesus and even passers by we are told, wag their heads, deriding Him, saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself.  If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (v.39, 40).  Are we not reminded in these words of the words of satan as he tempted Jesus in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God…” (Matthew 4:3).  Here again Jesus is being tempted to leave the cross, to show His power.  The words of the accusers, even the chief priests, elders and scribes ringing in His ears saying: “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him…” Of course, Jesus could have come down from the cross if He had wanted to, He could have silenced the jeering and the mocking with a show of power or with legions of angels.  But He chose the path of suffering because He was on the cross not though human plan or action; He was not there because things had gone wrong.  He was there because it had been planned all along that He would give His life as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:6), to purchase freedom for all who would receive it.

Matthew tells us that at the sixth hour, (that is 12 noon); there was darkness over all the land.  This was no ordinary darkness; it can only have been a special act of God, as it lasted for three hours.  Obviously we cannot even begin to imagine the suffering that the Lord Jesus took on Himself during that time.  The pain of the nails in his hands and feet, the pain and exhaustion of hauling up His tired body to breathe, all this would have been nothing in comparison to taking upon Himself the sin of the whole world, including my sin and yours.  He experienced the full punishment that our sins deserve.  He experienced God’s anger and wrath that would otherwise have been directed at us.  He experienced the judgement of the Father that we deserved.  So great was this suffering that Jesus calls out a line from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  The Son of God, who had in all eternity known total oneness and intimacy with the father and with the Spirit, is now rejected and judged and punished for our sin, as He hangs in the place of execution, dying the death that we deserve to die.  Finally, when the time comes for Jesus to die He gives up His spirit not in weakness fading to death but with a loud voice, which John records as Jesus saying, “It is finished.” (John 19:30).

God the Father responds in a dramatic way.  The curtain of the temple is torn in two.  No longer would an elaborate system of animal sacrifices be necessary.  No longer would God be inaccessible and hidden.  No longer would there be an enormous unfathomable chasm between God and us.  There was now a bridge, in the shape of a cross, and we are free to cross over that bridge into the Holy of Holies.  The dividing barrier, symbolised by the curtain in the temple was now torn in two.  Next we see that there is an earthquake, strong enough that rocks are splitting and tombs opening.  Godly people who had died are now raised from the dead and come out of the tombs.  Later, after Jesus’ resurrection these risen saints go into the city and appear to many.

The reading ends with the Roman centurion being filled with awe.  What had started out as a day like any other day for him had become utterly like any other day in history.  He had seen how the Lord Jesus had calmly and silently dealt with the mocking and accusations, even uttering words of forgiveness (Luke 23:34).  He had seen the dignity and authority of Jesus even in the midst of unimaginable pain and suffering and he had witnessed the supernatural darkness, the earthquake and the raising of the dead saints coming out of their tombs.  All this had an effect, a profound effect on the centurion, enough for him to utter those famous words:  “Truly this was the Son of God!” (54)

This is the point where we come into the story.  What is our response to it?  This is not just ancient history, the cross of Christ transcends time and space and it is indeed a crossroads in all of our lives.  How do we respond to Jesus?  How do we respond to the fact that He died for us, that He willingly and totally gave His life for us in order that we might be forgiven and made right with God?  How do we respond to such incredible love?  Surely when such an overwhelming gift is offered to us, we take it, then with tears of gratitude in our eyes we say ‘thank you’.

The Lord Jesus not only takes the noose off our neck, He places it around His own neck and dies in our place.  Not only that but He wants us to be with Him, to allow Him to live in us and to be His friend and disciple and to walk with Him and talk with Him and share our whole life with Him.  How could we not want to do this?  It is the most beautiful gift and it is one that He offers to ever single one of us, please I ask you, accept it with all your heart.  Amen.

 

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27070087

 

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October 18, 2012

Galtymore

Earlier this month we took our Confirmation group away for the weekend and one of the highlights of the trip was a walk up Ireland’s highest inland mountain, Galtymore.

It was a beautiful day, bright and clear, yet with an autumnal chill in the air.  As we climbed higher the wind became increasingly ridiculous, (just watch the video at the end to get an idea of what I mean)!

I left my camera behind, relying on an iPhone 4 to take the pictures…

April 7, 2012

Joseph & Nicodemus

Good Friday - the shadow of the cross

Kilmalooda Easter Vigil, 7/4/12. John 19:38-42

Not long after I became a follower of Jesus, at the age of nineteen, my Mother gave me a small golden cross on a necklace as a present. I wore it every day, as a constant reminder to myself of what Jesus had done on the cross. One day at college, a fellow student noticed me wearing it and he asked me, ‘I see you are wearing a cross, does that mean you are a Christian?’ A perfectly normal question, but it suddenly dawned on me that I had told very few people about my becoming a follower of Jesus and for a brief moment I was faced with a choice; do I keep my faith a secret (in which case it would all be a sham) or am I willing to stand up and be counted as a believer in Christ? Thankfully, by the grace of God I found my voice and was able to reply, ‘Yes, I wear this cross because I am a Christian.’ It is not always easy to admit to being a follower of Jesus, as I have experienced many times since (and not always successfully) and no doubt many of you have also.

In our reading for this evening, two disciples of Jesus who had previously been afraid to show their allegiance to Him, come out from their hiding place and show, finally, that their faith really is genuine. Joseph of Arimathea, a respected leader in the Jewish council and Nicodemus, a Pharisee and also a member of the Jewish council come and bury Jesus’ body.

Joseph approaches Pilate and asks permission to take the Lord’s body away from the cross, and when the permission is given, he takes away the body. Nicodemus brings about a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes and together they wrap Jesus body in the spices and in linen cloths and they place it in ‘a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid'(41). In Matthew’s gospel we learn that this tomb belonged to Joseph and that he had recently cut it out of the rock (Matt.27:60). It was then in this new tomb, in which no one had ever previously been laid that they left Jesus’ body.

What must have been going through Joseph’s and Nicodemus’ minds at this point? I suppose we can hardly imagine what they felt. But now, when all the other disciples have scattered and fled, the two followers of Jesus that will stand up are the ones that previously were too afraid to do so. Something has happened, something has changed these two men, turning them from cowards to bravehearts. They no longer care what other people think about them, their lives are in danger for what they are doing, but that no longer matters, Jesus comes first, giving Him a proper and honorable burial is what matters now, and that is what they do.

One of the things about Jesus is that there is no sitting on the fence; either we are for Him or we are against Him (Matt 12:30). There is no cosy middle ground where we can pick and choose, where we can walk with Jesus when we need Him to help us and abandon Him when everything is going well once more. He wants all of us all the time!

I pray that all of us this now this Easter would see things as they are more clearly. Even if only for a moment would we shut out all the distractions of our busy lives and let ourselves be carried in our minds and in our spirits to the foot of the empty cross? Let us look at the hard, rough and cracked wood, the dry, dusty soil splattered in blood and ask ourselves, ‘What does this mean to me?’ Would it not change your life forever if someone died for you like that, and how much more so if it was God’s own Son who died for you like that? Guess what, it’s really true, He did it, He really did, and He did it for you … Amen.

December 20, 2011

“Upon another shore…”

Gullanes Sunset

The Sun setting yesterday.  

You may recognise the words in the title as part of the ‘bidding prayer’ at the traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The full paragraph reads:

Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in the Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.

Beautiful words, but do they stand up?  I think that they do, which is all the more amazing because standing up to the the full blast of darkness that is death is some achievement.  The words are of course inspired by Scripture, (from John chapter 1 and Revelation chapter 19 in particular).

Why has this come to my mind?  In the last few days, three people I know have died.  All of them as it were ‘went before their time’, their lives cut short through illness or disease and one, the mother of young children.  It is heartbreaking.

In trying to respond I realise that any words I have to say are wholly insufficient.  I recall some words written by C.S. Lewis in his overwhelming book, ‘A Grief Observed’:

And we think of this as love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid career or a flower with its head unluckily snapped off – something truncated and therefore lacking its due shape…

I suppose that we only have a limited view now, not only of death but even more so of that Life which follows.  The Apostle Paul, inspired by the Spirit of God wrote:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

One day it will make sense, and this knotted, tangled, painful life of fragility and contradictions will find its shape – even the shape of the Cross, where even God was not free of the pain and anguish of death.  To paraphrase Tony Campolo – ‘Yes it’s Friday now, but Sunday is coming…’

August 31, 2008

Picking up our cross and following Jesus…

There’s a story of a young woman who wanted to go to University, but her heart sank when she read the question on the application form that asked, “Are you a leader?” Being both honest and conscientious, she wrote, “No,” and returned the application, expecting the worst. To her surprise, she received this letter from the University: “Dear Applicant: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our University will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower.”1

The way of this world is ingrained in us from an early age. It is all about success, about reaching the top, about being whatever we want to be. It’s about having enough money and material possessions so that we feel secure. We look up at successful people, we want to be like them. We want their fame, their money, their houses and cars, we may secretly long for the amount of attention and adoration they receive. Do you know anyone famous, anyone that is looked up to by thousands or millions of people? No, I don’t either, I suspect that the images we have of their fame and fortune is perhaps quite different to the reality. A writer by the name of Philip Yancey has this to say:

“In my career as a journalist, I have interviewed diverse people. Looking back, I can roughly divide them into two types: stars and servants. The stars include NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, famous authors, TV personalities, and the like… Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these ‘idols’ are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seem tormented by incurable self-doubt.”2

Few would doubt that Jesus is the biggest super-star that ever lived. There is no-one else in history that comes even close to His sustained fame that has shaped world history over centuries, (not even Elvis). Yet He achieved all this in just about three years of activity in the public spotlight. There was nothing neurotic about Him whatsoever. As a man he was the most together person who ever lived. Yet He was (and still is) a real hero. Peter and the other disciples worshipped Him as the Messiah, they thought (quite rightly as it turned out) that He was invincible, but the way He carried out His mission to save people from their sins was very different from what Peter and co. expected. So imagine their surprise, confusion and perhaps even anger when the Lord Jesus turned to them and said:

“I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life.”
(Matthew 16:21 GNB)

In his typical style, Peter rushes in before anyone else. He takes the Lord aside and begins to rebuke Him, to tell Him off. In Matthew’s account he says to Jesus:

“Never, Lord! … This shall never happen to you!”
(Matthew 16:22b NIV)

Of course Peter should have known better, had he not read about the suffering servant in Isaiah 53? Did he not remember that John the Baptist had called Jesus “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”?3 Peter and probably most of the other disciples wanted to follow the Messiah the King. They were happy to be associated with someone who was powerful and mighty and who could perform miracles. They were not so happy (at this stage) however to follow someone who would be so humble that He would willingly walk the road to death. Unknowingly, Peter was trying to get Christ to avoid going to the cross, the central part of Jesus’ mission, and that is why the Lord Jesus responds so harshly, He replies to Peter:

“Get away from me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my way, because these thoughts of yours don’t come from God, but from human nature.” (v.23 GNB)

Jesus fully realises that at the back of Peter stood Satan, who was attempting to turn Jesus away from the cross4 and it is to the enemy speaking through Peter rather than to Peter himself that the words are addressed.

Peter and the other disciples were motivated in love to protect their master and friend, they didn’t want Him to die, He was everything to them. But they had a very important lesson to learn, that what was true for Christ is true also for his followers. It is only by way of the cross that we enter glory. Of course Christ’s death is totally different in that He died for our sins, we only die to our sinful selves, but nevertheless the saying is true that “the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear”5

So the Lord Jesus says to the disciples and the crowd about them:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?
(v.24-26a NIV)

The Disciples, knew what taking up the cross meant. Death on a cross was a form of execution used by Rome for dangerous criminals. A prisoner carried his own cross to the place of execution, signifying submission to Rome’s power.

Jesus used the image of carrying the cross to illustrate the submission required of his followers. He is not against having fun, nor was he saying that we should seek pain needlessly. Jesus was talking about the heroic effort needed to follow him moment by moment, to do his will even when the work is difficult and the future looks bleak.

We should be willing to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel, not because our lives are useless, but because nothing – not even life itself – can compare to what we gain with Christ. Jesus wants us to CHOOSE to follow him rather than lead a life of sin and self-satisfaction. He wants us stop trying to control our own destiny and to let Him direct us. This makes good sense because, as the Creator, Christ knows better than we do what real life is about. He asks for submission, not self-hatred; he asks us only to lose our self-centred determination to be in charge.”6

Remember at the start I quoted the writer Philip Yancey saying that he had interviewed people who were stars, and yet what a mess they were in? Well he also interviewed many people who he called servants. These were people who worked amongst the poorest of the poor, people who left high paying jobs to work with leprosy patients in rural India and people all over the world who gave their lives in the selfless task of helping and serving others in many different ways. This is what he had to say about them:

“I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the stars and servants side by side, the servants clearly emerge as the favoured ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, (supposedly) wasting their talents on the poor and the uneducated. But somehow in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the ‘peace that is not of this world’”.7

So the message to us then becomes clear; we must let go of our own desires, plans and ambitions for our lives and submit to Christ and His plan and purpose for our lives. In Jeremiah 29:11 God says:

For I know the plans I have for you, … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.

Look, it doesn’t take much faith or life experience for us to realise that God knows a whole lot better about what is best for us that we do, the only difficulty is that we are naturally so proud and so sold on the illusion of thinking we know what’s best. Like chasing a rainbow, happiness always recedes from those who pursue it for their own selfish wishes. Of course we cannot take up the cross and follow Christ in our own strength and that is why the Holy Spirit is and must always be our Guide. But every new day the choice is there for us. Will I go my own way, or will I go the way of Christ? Which, will we choose?

References:
1 http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/f/follower.htm
2 Philip Yancey, “Where is God when it hurts?”, Zondervan 1990, p.57
3 William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary MARK, Banner of Truth 1999, p.328
4 Hendriksen, p.328
5 Philip Yancey, What’s so Amazing about Grace, Harper Collins, 1997, p.132
6 Life Application Bible, Tyndale House 1991, notes for verses 34 and 35, p.1742
7 Philip Yancey, “Where is God when it hurts?”, Zondervan 1990, p.57, 58