Friday, 19 April 2019

The Window and the Mirror: A Good Friday Meditation

Windows and mirrors have something in common, they both enable us to see things that ordinarily would remain hidden to us.

We can’t see through walls. Windows enable us to see beyond our field of view into a space which would otherwise have remained invisible to us. Imagine living in a house with no windows. Likewise, God’s heart is hidden from us, but the cross of Jesus Christ is a window onto God’s heart and mind. They are on full display for all to see.

Also, we can’t see what we really look like. Mirrors enable us to see things about ourselves that would otherwise remain invisible to us. Imagine if you had never seen your own face. What idea would you have about yourself? The cross of Jesus Christ holds up a mirror to humanity showing us what we’re really like.

Jesus says it another way in John 3:19-20 “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed."

Jesus is our window onto God’s life, but he is also a mirror held up to ours and whether it’s the passive faithlessness of the disciples deserting Jesus or the active faithlessness of the Jewish and Roman authorities sentencing him to death, all of us, by nature, are lovers of darkness. Isaiah said it well (53:6): “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Our readings from Mark’s gospel help us to see this window/mirror contrast up close. The trauma of the crucifixion reveals the simple, profound and beautiful truth of all Jesus was, and at the same time it revealed how deceived, dark and dysfunctional we are.
  • Where we, like Peter, James and John, were disobedient and prayerless, Jesus wrestled in prayer on our behalf saying: “Not my will, but yours be done.”
  • Where we, like the disciples, refused to stand with Jesus, he stood with us, choosing out of love to bear our disgrace rather than leave us to face the wrath of God as the appropriate consequence of our actions.
  • Where we, like the guilty disciples, fled, because we didn’t want to die, the innocent Jesus offered himself up to die in our place.
  • Where we, like Peter, denied all knowledge of the truth before a low status servant girl, Jesus faithfully confessed the truth before the highest spiritual and political authorities in the world of that time.
  • Where we, like the rulers and authorities of this world, postured before Jesus challenging his seemingly ridiculous claim to be King and Messiah, Jesus silently rested in the confidence that who he was and what he had come to do had been given to him by God the Father and prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures.
  • Where we, like the common people, reviled Jesus because he didn’t do the miracles we hoped to see, Jesus performs the miracle of bearing all our sin and turning the other cheek to their mockery, saying “Father forgive them, they don’t realise what they are doing."
Perhaps the place where this window/mirror contrast is most obvious is when Pilate presents Jesus and Barabbas before the people and asks them to vote for who should be released. Consider what it is he offers them at the Passover festival:
  • Barabbas, is a zealot: a nationalistic, religious freedom-fighter. He will stop at nothing to see his homeland of Judah – the “Kingdom of God”, established in his the pattern of his revolutionary political and religious ideology, free from Roman occupation and with a fully Jewish king on the throne. He has tried to do this by violent force and as a result, he is on trial for murder.
  • Jesus is an itinerant preacher and miracle worker, also looking to establish the kingdom of God, but not by violently kicking out the Romans and re-establishing a pure-bred race, rather, by obedience to his Heavenly Father. It is for his obedience to his Father that he ends up on trial before the people.
  • Matthew tells us in his gospel (27:16-17) that Barabbas’ full name was Jesus Barabbas.
  • The name Jesus means “salvation.” The name Barabbas means “son of the father.”
  • So Pilate presents the people with two alternative “Salvations,” two “Sons of the Father.”
  • Jesus Barabbas is mirror to us of our own hearts. He is a treacherous and estranged rebel son made in the image of Adam his spiritual father. Adam, in Genesis 1, was the first “son of the Father.” Barabbas, like Adam, and like us wanted to seize God’s kingdom and establish it on his own terms. The consequence of that action was death for all.
  • Jesus Christ is the true and better Barabbas, the true and obedient son of the Father, who did not seize his Father’s kingdom or try to refashion it in his own image, but by faithful obedience he has established it according to his father’s will, meaning life can now be offered to all.
The crowd, stirred up by the religious authorities, chose to side with the one who is like them – the rebel son of the father, condemning the innocent son of the father to death.

Yet here is a simple but profound picture of the gospel. For as we look in this mirror we remember that we, like Barabbas, were the guilty ones who deserved death, but we go free.

We also look through this window and see how, in love for God and love for us, Jesus suffered on our behalf so that our declaration of acquittal and freedom might not come, like it did for Barabbas, through the false decree of a corrupt legal system, but by the true decree of the eternal, righteous God.

Praise God that when we were at our absolute worst: proud, arrogant, ignorant, self-deceived, mad, rebellious and wicked, to name but a few, God used all our evil actions to work something breathtakingly beautiful and enabling us to born again of the Spirit and to return to him as dearly beloved adopted sons and daughters.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Some Historical Background to Isaiah 8

The bit I didn't have time for from Sunday's Sermon...

The year is 732 B.C. God’s people (in the bottom left-hand corner of the map) have been divided for about 200 years into the northern kingdom of Israel (light green blob) and the southern kingdom of Judah (brown blob). During that time they have had a stormy relationship - sometimes getting on with each other and at other times brutalising each other.

At the point we join the story, relations are at an all-time low and tensions are running high. This is because Israel under King Pekah and Syria, under King Rezin have joined forces to invade Judah and mount a coup to depose Ahaz. They want to place a puppet king known to us only as the “son of Tabeel” on the throne. Understandably, Ahaz is irked by this threat to his kingdom.

Enter Isaiah, God’s prophet who comes to Ahaz and says do not fear, trust in the Lord and all will be well. Problem is, although he had a godly father and was brought up in a godly household, Ahaz has become a spiritually dark whirlwind of a man. He knows all the right Christian jargon to say, but he has no interest in actually following what God says. In fact, he is hell bent on doing the exact opposite. He ignores everything that Isaiah says.

But there’s more to the intrigue. The reason Israel and Syria are ganging up on Judah and trying to mount a coup is because they fear the rising power of Assyria (not the same as Syria) as represented by the large purple blob on the map. Warlord King Tiglath Pileser III is violently and mercilessly throwing his weight around and creating the largest empire in the world at that time. Israel and Syria want Ahaz on board as an ally so that they can have a chance of fighting off the advancing Assyrians. But Ahaz doesn’t want to join forces with them so they decide to take matters into their own hands, trying to force Judah to join them through a coup.

The reason Ahaz ignores Isaiah and doesn’t want to enter into an alliance with Pekah and Rezin is because, deep down he seems infatuated with Tiglath Pilezer III (Tig for short) and when Pekah and Rezin eventually invade, instead of calling on the Lord for help, he sends messages to godless King Tig begging for him to come and rescue him. That rescue comes, but of course, it comes at a price; unswerving allegiance and lots of money for Tig and his empire. This will mean Ahaz raiding God’s house, the temple in Jerusalem, rather than his own, to pay off Assyria and leading God’s people even further into idolatry, forsaking the Lord who loves them.

In short, everyone seems to be bewitched by the power of Assyria, either living in fear of it, like Pekah and Rezin, or wanting to be like it, like Ahaz. Note that the issue here is not politics. The issue is confidence. In the face of the Assyrian threat, Pekah is putting his confidence in a military alliance with Syria (and Judah if he can coerce them) and Ahaz is putting his confidence in being able to win Assyria over. None of these kings are putting their confidence in God.

And it’s not just the kings who are godless, the people too are hell-bent on pursuing their idols with them. They might follow the living God with lip-service, but no-one is actually interested in meaningfully loving and serving the Lord. All the mighty acts of God in the nation’s past have been forgotten. As they place their confidence in the worship of idols, they are about to embrace catastrophe. The very thing they hope will save them, will soon almost destroy them. That’s the problem with idols, you think they will save or prosper you, but they end up destroying you by giving you what you thought you wanted.

Isaiah and the few left with him in Judah who refuse to go along with this idolatry and sham worship are overwhelmed with fear. For they know that the nation’s spiritual treachery will bring down a mighty judgment from God upon everyone, and they will be caught up in the disaster, possibly losing everything they have along with everyone else. It doesn’t really matter whether Ahaz throws his lot in with Tiglath Pileser on the one hand or with Pekah and Rezin on the other, they see beyond the immediate surface things and see that through the pursuit of dark passion and desire God’s people and God’s nation is suicidally bent at every level on its own destruction.

Now there are many differences between this story and our own times, but here are three similarities worth highlighting:
  1. Our current political crisis of deadlock and division over Brexit is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem. Whether in the form of military might in Ahaz’s day or money in our day, everyone seems to be enthralled both individually and collectively to the false god of worldly power and prosperity and what the best way is to get it and keep it. Irrespective of the outcome over the next days, weeks or months - whether Brexit happens or not, pursuit of worldly power and prosperity will eventually bring catastrophe.
  2. The voice of God coming through his faithful ones seems to have no traction in the public debates that are shaping our collective future. None of our leaders are publically seeking God. Whilst many will be praying in private, none are obviously praying. Though God is the reason they exist, people either don’t believe he exists or don’t believe he can help or they have been damaged by hypocrite Christians or they are just not interested in the kind of help he offers.
  3. The few faithful people who are left like Isaiah and others may have lived following God as best they know how, but they and their families will not be sheltered from any turmoil or fallout that may come. What happens to the nation, for better or worse, will also happen to them.