Tag Archives: suffering

“Redemption” ?

Luke 2:22-40 What do you make of that story? Only Luke tells it – so is it less interesting, or less relevant? It starts as a bit of ritual. Jesus was brought up as a Jew, so circumcised a week after his birth, and then at 40 days old taken with his mother to the Temple. Mary presents him in the Temple, and makes a sacrifice – the 2 pigeon option allowed for the poor – in a ceremony required by the Old Testament.

So far, not very helpful you might think. But hold on. That ceremony came from the Exodus and the Passover. You remember how the slaves in Egypt escaped after a series of plagues, and the last and worst of the plagues was – the death of the firstborn. And Exodus 13 explains how all the firstborn of the Israelites belonged in a special way to God. There is more detail, but it makes sense – Jesus belonging specially to God; a small fee paid to ransom him and return him to his family . .

Then the excitement grows again. Simeon appears. How can he tell one baby from another? Somehow the Holy Spirit makes it possible. He has been promised (and, since God keeps his promises) now understands he is seeing the promised Messiah.

He speaks of a light for the Gentiles – all the world!

And of glory for God’s people

and he warns Mary of suffering, as Jesus will bring some people down, as well as raising others up.

If you feel excited (and perhaps you should), Mary and Joseph are amazed. They haven’t forgotten the earlier messages and promises, angels, shepherds – but how does Simeon know? This Holy Spirit has something.

To reinforce the importance and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, Anna arrives – and she is a prophet. Whether she accepts Simeon’s word, or knows by her own spiritual insight – she now also give thanks to God, and talks about Jesus to all who were still looking for God to do something.

It started with a bit of Jewish ritual. It gained significance as we found a connection with the Passover (don’t forget the Last Supper was a Passover meal, and the Christian eucharist depends on it). God’s people were set free at the Exodus, as they will be again more lastingly by Jesus and his death. The idea of Redemption is interesting.

Then there is the excitement of the Holy Spirit giving revelations and warnings – the same Spirit who will be active in Jesus ministry, the same Spirit who guides and empowers Christians today. It is beginning to happen, and it is good, and we know it hasn’t stopped. Where is the Spirit active today? Who are the Simeons and Annas, praying, understanding, talking about God?

Even at 40 days old, Jesus is exciting, making things happen.

Go on listening!

I like to be right, so I can Identify with Peter in Mark 8:27-38. And Peter is; Jesus is the Messiah, and it is a terrific discovery. A high mid-point of Mark’s gospel; you can feel the excitement. And in the middle of it, Peter stops listening. He doesn’t hear – doesn’t want to, can’t ? – Jesus talk about suffering. If he had gone on, what a disaster that would have been! But Jesus doesn’t let him.

It’s easy to stop listening. I might even have done it myself. But I notice other people doing it much more easily. Perhaps you have seen it too? Someone learns “God is love”. That’s great, true and important. But then they stop listening. If God is love (and it says so in 1John 4:8 (& 16)), then God must do whatever I think is loving? And they find out he doesn’t, and get hurt and confused, because they have stopped listening. God is love, but he defines what that means and how it works, and we need to go on listening and learning to find out.

Jesus is the Messiah – the great King long expected by Jews because of Old Testament prophecy. But if Peter thinks that means he will take over, throw out the Romans, and give him an honoured, easy and rewarding place in the new government – forget it! Peter will find it hard to learn that the Messiah is also the Servant Isaiah talked about – the Suffering Servant. I think I find that hard, too. I know what it means in theory, but theory isn’t enough.

It’s much easier to preach, or hear: “Jesus is King of the Universe; once you follow him as his disciple your life will sort out and work better”.  That’s true, and important too. But somehow it is easier to say and hear than the next bit:

“Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to serve; it is sometimes difficult, embarrassing, or even painful. You may not always understand what he is planning, or why you have to play a particular part.” That’s also true, and important – but it doesn’t have quite the Wow factor. It is still worthwhile, not only because it forwards God’s plan and the Kingdom on earth, but also because it helps you grow, develop in faith and love and holiness, and be what you are meant to be. It’s just not quite so – marketable.

So you might like to think about 2 things from this gospel:

  • Jesus is the Messiah –  the greatest King ever, Ruler of the Universe; but he sets about that in a new and strange way to serve us and free us.
  • Secondly, don’t stop listening to God. Especially when you think you know what’s coming next, or you make some new discovery. You know that Christians keep making mistakes? Remember that they get away with it by keeping listening and following instructions to put things right. It’s very simple.

Peter got it right. Jesus is the Messiah. But it wasn’t a theory test; he had to keep listening to work out properly what it meant. So do we.

Suffering and Supremacy

In several of the Easter stories, including this week’s Luke 24:36b-48, there is reference to the Old Testament writing about Jesus’ ministry.  Modern Christians have largely given up the idea that Jesus can be “proved” from Old Testament prophecy, and that seems right.  However, the fact that you cannot prove Jesus in that way does not mean that there is not a great deal to be usefully thought through and understood from the Old Testament texts.  With the benefit of hindsight, those who accept Jesus as Lord can look back and enrich their understanding.

During his ministry, Jesus was shy of using the title King (Messiah, “Anointed One”, the promised descendant of King David, who would come to rule a golden age).  It is not that he was not the Messiah, but he would combine “Messiah” with the “Suffering Servant” prophesied by Isaiah.  This hadn’t been predicted – or at least had not entered popular understanding.  Indeed, who could have imagined that the victory of the Messiah would come in criminal execution? Only after the resurrection can Jesus use time with his disciples to explain.

We can sympathise with the disciples, who heard Jesus warnings of coming suffering without really taking them in.  Later, they were remembered and recorded in the gospel. We have the benefit of hindsight. We ought to hear, understand and remember.

What do we hear? Prophecies of the King, descendant of David, mix with the Suffering Servant, whose suffering is extreme, yet somehow beneficial.  This is not all!  There are many other elements, both descriptive (eg the prophet like Moses of Deuteronomy 18), and specific (eg Micah locates the birthplace of the Messiah in Bethlehem). It is good to read the Old Testament with an eye open for such glimpses of who is to come, and how his ministry will work.

And it is important that God chose to act in that way. The good news of the gospel is not “We win, you lose, – tough”, but much better news. Hope for all, through repentance and forgiveness, won by a suffering Messiah, who gives those who suffer hope both for the future, and that there may be purpose in what they endure.  Jesus kingship is not yet another revolution, which in time will be replaced by the next group to grab power and rubbish their predecessors.  It is a lasting Kingdom, giving more than it takes, and offering support to those who do not wish to do others down, but long for hope and relief.

All about suffering -?

There is also a Dialogue Sketch on Mark 1:9-15 here

What is done in church should not just be for the enjoyment of those who attend, but should glorify God by building up believers and communicating the gospel to others.  It’s a principle you find in 1 Corinthians 14, but a first look at this morning’s readings might not seem to be encouraging from the point of view of an outsider:

Such negative thoughts are hard, and might suggest doing something else, but that would be a sad mistake. Take 1 Peter 3:18-22, Christ suffered, but “the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” This is not miserable, negative suffering.  It is part of a battle to set us free. The God that Peter knows is a God who is ready to pay a great price, himself, for our redemption. He tells this to a group of people who obviously are not having an easy life – and it is good news for them, as it is for us.

The God he speaks of is the same God who in Genesis makes a promise – a covenant – to Noah. A promise which is to Noah’s advantage, for his security and reassurance. A promise which he has kept faithfully.

Yes, its the season of Lent. We think of Jesus going into the wilderness, not because he was the sort of person who could not enjoy himself, or who enjoyed suffering, but to get his ministry on the right track – to avoid mistakes and distractions.  If we review our own disciplines and rules of life, it is not for their own sake (as if they had an importance of their own), but to ask if our lives, our service of God, our ministry, is on the right track, avoiding mistakes and distractions.  Perhaps we need to do something more to prevent our life being self-centred?

This is a message of hope – something in short supply, and valuable as most scarce commodities are.  You won’t be thanked for hate, but hope is properly precious. (There is a Lent Study by CTBI, using prisoners’ stories of hope – see the website.)  Our hope is not in human nature, nor the beauty of creation, or the possibility of education.

Our hope is in God, who cares for us enough to plan our rescue, and to follow the plan through. That is not just for you (though it is – and that’s important) but for all.  If an outsider should join my group, or just get to know me, they should find a focus on God, and hope in his love and saving action.

– and that is the reason for us to train ourselves

to advertise and proclaim good news.

Must Jesus suffer?

As you read this post, do you count yourself as a Christian?  If so, “What do you do as a Christian?” only because you are a Christian, and would give up if you no longer claimed that faith?  You might need time to think about this – but if you cannot identify anything, does that throw doubt on your faith?  [If you do not describe yourself in this way, do you understand that to claim Christian faith should mean a real difference in ordinary life?].

A second question: “How do you do it?”.  Unwillingly, with a long face, or can you manage a positive sense of the privilege of discipleship, and the honour of service?

Today’s gospel (Matthew 16:21) says “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised”.
He must.  It is clear in all 4 gospels, and the New Testament generally. The story works up to the cross. But Peter doesn’t get it – like many today. He sees Jesus as Messiah – King, and is looking forward (perhaps with some doubts) to celebrity, glory, winning. But God has very different ways, and the Messiah will win through suffering. Jesus tone makes it clear that is not negotiable, not a detail to be skimmed over.

I think we might all have some sympathy for Peter, and find it hard to keep in focus this strange way God chooses to work. Why does Jesus have to die? What good does it do?  Evangelical Christians will say firmly that He pays the price for our sin, and it is only by his death that we are free. That’s true, and if you haven’t come to terms with being in debt for your life, you need to do some thinking about it with God, and perhaps with 1 Peter 2 esp v24.

But be aware, too, that Jesus is unique, and all descriptions are metaphors which help us understand, but eventually no one picture covers all the angles. The New Testament does not give just one picture to explain, but many, to build up our understanding. So:

  • Jesus changes places with us 1 Peter 2 (esp v24)
  • Jesus is the sacrifice, the “Lamb of God” John 1
  • Jesus is the High Priest who offers a unique and effective sacrifice Hebrews 7, Hebrews 9
  • also the Pioneer Hebrews 2:10, Hebrews 12:2
  • and Jesus is Teacher (Matthew’s gospel has 5 collections of teaching, “new Law”, like a new Moses (see Deuteronomy 18).
  • this isn’t a full list, you can go on finding other pictures describing Jesus, his work and importance.

That is in danger of being confusing! Let’s summarise and say: It was no accident that Jesus suffered, died, and rose – it was all central to God’s plan to save us in love. The New Testament reflects on something very strange to our culture, assumptions, and ways of understanding, and offers a number of comparisons and pictures in explanation.

If you read another of today’s lessons (Romans 12:9-21), you will find the life described is reformed around Jesus – finding hope, patience, and love for enemies. This is the life which brings hope to Christians in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan today. It is the same life which must characterise our learning to work together. I am sure there are those sitting at home today saying things like, “I don’t like going changing my habits, why can’t I have it the way I want it?” I think Peter would have had an answer, for the Christian must follow Christ and become like him. I think Jeremiah would have sympathised – he had a hard time (Jeremiah 15:15-21) – but also knew the discipline of obedience.

We follow a Lord whose Kingship was shown in the suffering of the Cross. We begin to see how God wins, in situations like yours and mine, in a way totally different to anything Hollywood, or the Islamic State, or Westminster can get their heads around. “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering” Peter, and the others who followed then and later (even now!), would have to learn Jesus way of winning, and see in it the glory of God’s love.

Reality

This Sunday we leave the sequence of readings from Matthew to read a strange story for 6th August (Luke 9:28-36) – 3 disciples seeing Jesus all lit up, and talking to 2 Old Testament characters from long before. What is it all about? Does it matter?

It starts before this of course with Peter recognising Jesus: “You are the Messiah!” (Luke 9:20). Messiah? – The promised King, the one who would put everything right, who would bring all God’s promises true!!!

It’s true. Jesus is that person – but it’s not going to work the way the disciples expect. The Great King will win his place by dying on a cross.  It’ll be a shock and a disappointment to the disciples, but they really need to know this is the best way – this is God’s plan. So a week later they see Jesus in heavenly glory, discussing his “departure” (the Greek is “Exodus”) with Moses and Elijah, representing all the Old Testament hopes and promises Jesus will fulfill. And to underline it, a heavenly voice says  “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him” v35

They are not allowed to stay and enjoy the experience for long – they have to get back to the journey to Jerusalem, and the cross. Later, they will remember, and understand. [There is a point there about Christian experience. The nice ones are not for prolonging and repeating, but for preparing us for better service.]

Do you think this has anything for you?  Jesus is the Messiah / the Great King / the one bringing all God’s promises true!  We like that bit, and prefer to forget: Jesus wins by sacrifice. Only by allowing himself to be killed, and rising to life again, can he win. And he invites us to be his friends and followers, saying that some of the same things will happen to us. We may not always enjoy being Christian.  Doing the things we are told to do may be difficult, unpopular, and hard. But it is the way to get things right, the way we find God’s promises come true.

[I’m sure Peter could have imagined things turning out another way – and took time to understand it was not going to happen like that, and for good reason. We also need to understand that God has to be in charge].  I like to think I know better. It isn’t really like that, I don’t really need to . . . And I need to read this story again and listen to that heavenly voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

Fitting it all together

The gospel reading this Sunday is long – either the full account of Jesus’ Passion from Matthew, or a shorter version.  That leaves us to try and make sense of all that is going on.  It is rather like a detective story.  Different events, perhaps connected, but is there a pattern?  It all comes together at the Cross, as Jesus dies, with the last strands tied up at the Resurrection.

Let me try and bring two major strands together. One picture of Jesus comes from the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of a “Suffering Servant”.  It doesn’t make easy reading:

Isa 53:6 All of us were like sheep that were lost, each of us going his own way. But the LORD made the punishment fall on him, the punishment all of us deserved.

His suffering is, somehow, for us. By his death, he sets us free. It’s not obvious – partly because it is not flattering. It means I need someone else to die in my place. Coming to terms with that is part of the offence of the gospel – like the reminder that Christian life begins with repentance, and trusting God to do for me what I am incapable of.

But I talked about a detective story. Alongside this theme of Suffering for us in the way Isaiah described, there are others. Perhaps the easiest is Jesus the Messiah King:

Mat 21:5 “Tell the city of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you! He is humble and rides on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem, cheered by excited crowds.  All through his ministry, he had spoken of the Kingdom of God (Matthew calls it the Kingdom of Heaven), and slowly his friends came to understand that it didn’t mean a revolution against the Romans. It meant a community of people, for whom “God rules” – God in charge, directing lives, activity, priorities.

It seems that Jesus was the first to put together these 2 great ideas – the King, and the Servant. 2 ideas which nobody else had imagined could combine in one person!  But don’t think that is all there is. We could talk about why it was important that his identification with us included suffering, so that all who suffer and have suffered know he understands. We could talk about Sacrifice, and how Jesus is both priest and sacrifice. Or we could see that through the language of the “Lamb of God”.  That’s not a complete list! There are so many things brought together, resolved and explained at the cross. But if that is difficult to focus on, or to remember for more than a minute, just take the two.

Jesus is the Suffering Servant. Isa 53:5,6  But because of our sins he was wounded, beaten because of the evil we did. We are healed by the punishment he suffered, made whole by the blows he received.  All of us were like sheep that were lost, each of us going his own way. But the LORD made the punishment fall on him, the punishment all of us deserved.

Jesus is the promised King  Psa 89:3,4  You said, “I have made a covenant with the man I chose; I have promised my servant David, ‘A descendant of yours will always be king; I will preserve your dynasty forever.’ “

and if nobody expected those to come together, that is why it was unexpected!

Not what I expected! (Advent 3a)

I find it easy to sympathise with John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).  Not only is he in prison, but the man he identified as the coming Messiah doesn’t seem to be baptising with fire as predicted.  Doubt sets in, probably made worse by John’s situation, and inability to go and ask questions himself.

Still, he does the next best thing – he sends someone else.  The question is direct, “Are you the one?”  Doubt and uncertainty are difficult to handle, but Christians are always allowed to ask questions – and it is better to do something to resolve doubt than let it fester.  (What is not allowed is encouraging the “you can’t be sure of anything” state of mind.)  So John sends to ask a question.

Jesus doesn’t give a simple answer.  Instead of “yes” or “no” he tells the messengers to report what they heard and saw.  Jesus is not making claims for himself, but pointing to the fulfillment of prophecy – something John would understand.  Jesus may not have fitted John’s expectations – or ours – but he fits into the prophecies and predictions of the Old Testament, making us think again about the things we might not have expected, and might not like.

Jesus then talks about John as a prophet – and the one Malachi had foretold.  He is honoured, but we are left with the amazing thought that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”.  Why?  Perhaps because John still has to wait for a saviour, while those of us who follow Jesus as our Lord are already included in the kingdom.  We are honoured by the comparison, but also challenged.

Good Friday with Luke 23

Reading Luke’s account of Jesus death suggests several points of contact with life today.

Luke 23:1-5
Jesus is brought to Pilate, Roman governor, and we notice that truth is the first casualty in the campaign to get rid of him. ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ 23:2 Yet Jesus had answered differently on taxes – “ give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” 20:25 and he had been careful not to claim Kingship, knowing that it would be misunderstood – Messiah was a different kind of king.
We might think about truth. How the truth about ourselves and those around us is important in an age of PR, spin, and confrontational presentations. Pilate was cynical “What is truth?” John 18:38, but Jesus had earlier suggested ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ John 8:31,32

Are we ready to see the world, and ourselves, as God sees?

“Father, help us to care about the truth, the reality you see. Show us the world from your perspective, and help us to understand Jesus, ourselves, and your priorities.”

Luke 23:6-12

Herod had his own agenda, and Jesus didn’t fit. He is not going to make the effort to listen or understand – it is much easier to mock. The soldiers join in. Like so many people, they realise that Jesus is dangerous – taken seriously he might challenge their assumptions and prejudices, might make them want something different and better. Don’t listen, poke fun, victimise.
We wouldn’t do that – would we? In theory all Christians are followers of Jesus, bound to obey and serve him above all. Yet service has not always been our main reputation, and obedience is difficult.
Put it another way, many of us, just like Herod, have our own agendas. I don’t mind being church as long as . . but I must keep time for . . I’ll do that, but don’t ask me to . . The mockery of Jesus comes because he doesn’t fit in their list of priorities.

Are we ready to change our priorities to fit in with Jesus?

“Lord, forgive all those things which mock your direction of my life. My own agenda of what I want, my laziness, my pride. Remembering a Lord who gave all for me, help me to learn his way in everything.”

Luke 23:13-25

Pilate as governor has the responsibility of administering justice. The Roman occupation was not always popular, but if it was fair, it would win acceptance, and if not, opposition would grow.
He knows what is happening – he says Jesus is not guilty, but is too weak to find a way not to listen to the crowd (no doubt carefully manipulated). Is he stupid, not up to the job? He must know that his credibility, as well as Jesus life, is at stake. But he is driven by the mob voice.
We would think someone who claimed “the voices made me do it” was a case for psychiatric help. But how often do we say, “It’s not right, but it’s how you have to do it at work”; “None of my friends would think twice about that”; “it’s how things are”. And how often do we deliberately support someone trying to do right when it is criticised or unpopular?

“Father, help us to practise justice. Not rules and judgements, but standing out for right, supporting those who take the way of caring, not cheating, not causing pain and wrong. Let our voices be those that speak what is good, true, right, pure, lovely and honourable. (cp Phil 4:8)”

Luke 23:26-46

So they take Jesus and crucify him with a batch of criminals, and that’s – not the end of it at all. There are all sorts of consequences, and that’s why we read and ponder.
Some of them are quite minor – a visitor is conscripted to carry the cross, the soldiers share some clothing. Some are strange and unexpected – darkness, a curtain torn and opened.
But the most important go two ways. Jesus warns the weeping women of greater loss of life to come. Jerusalem will suffer siege and defeat – it happened in AD70, after the rebellion. Is this the inevitable consequence of rejecting the opportunity Jesus offered? Will taking the way he does not lead always carry great danger?
Jesus is not looking for revenge. He asks forgiveness for those who crucify him. He makes a promise of hope to the penitent thief. One consequence of his death is the way of forgiveness, reconciliation, service and peace.
But the choice is not forced. We have to make it, and go on making it. Words are easy, but faith has to show in daily life, truth telling, agendas, justice. The consequences of Jesus death were not at all what his enemies expected. They bring hope, and perhaps also danger. What do they bring you?

“Lord, as we have spent a little time reading again the story of Jesus’ death, let us go to take full advantage of its consequences. Teach us to accept forgiveness, and to offer it. Give us the hope he won, and the readiness to explain it to any who ask, as we live as his disciples.”  (cp 1 Pet 3:15)

Failure and Success (Lent 6c, Palm Sunday)

Palm Sunday – sixth in Lent and last before Easter – invites us to read a longer section of the Passion story.  (Luke 22:14 – 23:56, or the shorter but still substantial Luke 23:1-49).  It is not an easy story – not to read, to enjoy, even to understand.

All the gospel writers insist that this is no mistake or accident.  Jesus goes to his death knowingly, and, while horrified at the nature of it, willingly.  The story is the climax of the gospel, and represents the victory of God’s plan.  How can this be victory?  That is the paradox, the challenge to our usual ways of thinking of success.  Only when we glimpse what this is all about can we say we understand – and even then, we will tend to lapse into old ways of thinking.  Somehow, Jesus execution is what sets us free.

It may help to look at the many failures that happen.  Jesus friends fail.  Their loyalty rapidly disappears; their understanding was even more limited, and their sympathy is overwhelmed by fear and exhaustion.  The governing authorities fail to govern properly.  The justice system fails repeatedly.  Even at the most basic level, the soldiers who mock and then gamble as men die, lack humanity.  Those failures contrast with God’s success.  God remains in charge, and the loving plan to work our salvation moves on to completion despite human failure.  The contrast is so extreme that it dazzles.

At the same time, those who pass judgement seem unaware that there is double trial in process.  Jesus may be under judgement, but so are the judges.  As their scorn, their contempt for evidence, procedure, and equity are documented, they face appraisal – and fail.  We like to think that we can sit back as superior beings, judging the judges.  We easily forget that all who read of the Passion and death of God’s Son are themselves liable to appraisal on their reaction.