Autumnal Easter

autumn-leaves

Living in New Zealand, we have our seasons at the opposite time of year to northern hemisphere folks. This is most obvious at Christmas when we are eating salads, having barbecues and going to the beach while the US and Europe are eating stodgy winter food and peering through frosted windows at snow.

Easter is another festival that for us is ‘back to front’ with respect to the seasons. Here it is autumn, not spring, so the tenuous link between eggs and Easter is lost, let alone how rabbits come into the picture.

Some suggestthat the date of Easter should be moved so that southern hemisphere churches can better appreciate the seasonal nuances of a spring festival, or we should reflect on the ‘refreshing coolness’ of autumn as symbolic of the resurrection. The first suggestion is unworkable and the second is grasping at another tenuous seasonal gimmick.

Autumn gives its own meaning to Easter, with a depth that goes beyond mind games. To every Christian, Easter means the death and resurrection of Jesus. Autumn brings a natural emphasis to the first part of this meaning.

The days cool down, mornings and evenings darken, and nature braces itself for the temporary death of winter. So too we walk through Lent aware of the impending death of Christ. His was also a temporary death but no less decisive for being overcome by the resurrecting power of God.

Seeing trees change colour reminds us that we’ve been here before. The winter to come may be hard but the seasons do change, the approaching season of coldness and death will also pass. This is the value of the liturgical calendar, reminders of what faith means in all the changing seasons of life and that through all such changes Jesus remains constant as our rock.

Fading light adds a solemn weightiness to our experience of Easter. The cross is symbolic of our faith and I appreciate the added emphasis autumn gives to this crucial element of Easter. Summer is over, the hardest part of the year lies ahead. At Easter we remember our desperate need of salvation and the awful cost of it. We move on into the darker months knowing the hope we have in Christ who rose again and conquered both death and the sin that causes it.

The darkening days of autumn also call to mind what Jesus spoke in relation to the death he would die:

So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” (John 12:35-36 ESV)

Let us walk in the light of Christ and the hope of the resurrection.

He is not here

This week’s 5 Minute Friday prompt is ‘here’

Go:

He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.
(Luke 24:6-7 ESV)

These women with the spices were the first Christians, and they are more like me than I usually admit. They were going to beautify a body, to anoint the man Jesus, who had died on a cross several days previously.

They did not find that Jesus. Instead they encountered Jesus as God to be worshipped, Saviour to be adored. He shattered their preconceptions and overwhelmed their ideas about God, replacing them with Himself – a person beyond their comprehension.

How often do I go seeking a man-sized Jesus with my human problems, a dead religious ritual rather than seeking God as He is?

Stop!

(Five Minute Friday is when we use the prompt chosen by Lisa-Jo and write for 5 minutes without over thinking or editing. Then link up to Lisa-Jo’s post and leave a comment for the person who linked up before us. Easy, and fun!)


Image: iStock

Bowed in gratitude this Lent

Until now I have never really celebrated Lent. I have been a Christian for over 20 years but the richness of this season has been unknown to me.
In recent years the desire to cultivate meaningful family traditions for my children has led to learning more about the seasons of the Church calendar and looking for ways to incorporate these into our family life.

As we walk stumblingly through Lent and I focus my heart on this season of preparation I am seeing deeper into the promises and anticipation of the redeeming work of Christ. His grace of accepting, cleansing and purifying me shines greater as the cross looms ever nearer.

I am also learning gratitude and thanksgiving is at the heart of this season:

In the season of Lent, the Church encourages us to “master our sinfulness and conquer our pride,” but we are to do this within the context of thankfulness. The deeper appreciation for what God has accomplished in Christ, the greater our gratitude. The sacrifices we make are simple ways of expressing thankfulness. God only asks us to accept his love in Christ Jesus. (The Little Way of Lent, Father Gary Caster)

Marching into Lent with candle in hand

Advent wreath

I did not grow up in a Christian home. The number of times I went inside a church as a child can be counted on one hand and although my Mum did make some early attempts to teach my older sister and I some of her Catholic faith that didn’t last long.
I became a Christian when 18 years old, single, with no kids. My first child changed my life when I was 32 and had already spent over a dozen years as an adult learning about God. Also, none of the churches I have been a member of use a liturgical calendar so there are elements of church traditions I know very little about.

So while I understand how important it is to teach my children about God and model faith to them, I have very little idea how to make it happen in practise. My wife and I are slowly gathering various ideas which we try out, adapt and use as the basis of faith-filled family traditions. Fortunately with young children it only takes several repetitions for them to gain an expectation for such stumbling traditions to continue.

With this in mind I ordered one of Caleb Voskamp’s Advent to Lent wreaths in October last year, unfortunately too late for it to arrive before Christmas. After a 12 week journey across the Pacific ocean it did arrive last Saturday, in time for the Lent countdown to Easter.

With it’s beautifully finished oak spiral and figure of Christ hauling his cross, our wreath has begun counting down to the dawning light of resurrection at Easter.

I am excited to have this visual and tactile aid as we endeavour to incorporate the living symbolism of Christianity into our family life.

A purist might say that props should be unnecessary; I am simply filling my life with more stuff and indulging in the human penchant for replacing interaction with God with man-made traditions. My reply to this is that I know my weakness. Materialism is unnecessary but inevitable because I have a physical body living in a materialistic social framework. Therefore I manipulate this natural tendency such that my heart is turned towards God by the stuff in my life rather than away from God by the independence that comfort brings automatically.

The physical presence of a wooden spiral in the middle of our dining table with a candle and figure of Christ carrying a cross on it is already reminding me that there is a meaning to life far beyond the usual daily grind. That is gain.

Lent candles

Open

It seems that 5 minute Friday has morphed this week into a six-minute Saturday, but I’m still joining the gypsymama,  with the word prompt for this week which is:

Open

When I first considered this word prompt I thought of an open door representing opportunity. Then there is the idea of being open towards others – something this blogging lark has helped me with personally because I have always been very introverted and closed but am learning that such closedness is in fact very damaging to me.

However, what really sticks in my mind regarding “open” is that now the Kingdom of God is open to me, because Jesus opened his arms to receive the nails on that cross and his heart was opened also, receiving a spear. As his side was pierced and the blood and water flowed, my salvation was purchased.  His open wounds have opened my own heart to the call He issued: follow me. And so, stumblingly I close another year and perch ready to open a new one with a focus on the opportunities open before me.

Stop

He is risen

Cross

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”(Luke 24:1-7 ESV)

He has risen!

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
(Romans 8:11 ESV)

I also live because Jesus lives!

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
(Galatians 2:20 ESV)

Lesson from a midnight alcoholic

God comes to us at times in a ‘distressing disguise’ as I discovered last night:

As I waited for my taxi home from work at around midnight last night I saw one of the local ‘characters’ of our town coming towards me. She was muttering something to herself as her rotund frame stooped to closely examine some junk mail on the footpath which I had stepped over about five minutes previously. After some debate with herself it was retrieved and carefully placed in one of the two supermarket bags she carried. Upon straightening up she caught sight of me, waved, mumbled and shuffled towards me.

Having some knowledge of this character the thought, “now would be a good time for my taxi to arrive”, crossed my mind as I was greeted by the pungent bouquet of stale urine and sweat with tones of cigarette smoke layered over alcohol. However, last night Joan was just in the mood for a chat so she yarned, while I nodded and made encouraging noises, telling her my name five times over. She was convinced she could remember me from somewhere. It’s possible, I certainly remembered her, though I do hope my general behaviour is less memorable than hers. We discussed my job and why I was out so late, she told me details of her birth and her life. One comment stuck in my mind, “the doctors tell me it’s not my fault for being like this, my parents did it to me, but I still choose to drink so it is my fault.”

I was then presented with a hand-made Easter card, given a hug and God’s blessings and she wandered off into the night.

An odd wee encounter which did leave me thanking God – thanking Him for Joan and a number of other people like her in various ways who have survived many years of wandering the streets in all weathers, at all hours of day and night, enduring constant mocking, jeering and abuse. Thanking God that they are ‘OK’, they are still around, some of them do know Jesus, and that in faltering ways our society at least protects their basic humanity and some dignity.

Of course I also thanked God that I am not living my life as an alcoholic wandering the streets.

I thank Jesus for reminding me of his grace in keeping the choices I make from so very easily tipping me into a chaotic life.

He also is thanked for reminding me to pray for these, His children, the little ones whose being led into sin will be punished, these lost who He came to find, these sick and cold and hungry who He commands us to heal, feed, clothe and comfort. I thank Him that even despite the lousy attitude of my heart He conversed with Joan and had compassion on her, leading me as a petulant child on a brief interlude of love.

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.
(Luke 19:10 ESV)

Gifts I have noticed this week (#323 – #334):

323) A calm, sunny autumn afternoon at Long Beach.
324) Cuddles from my wife as her stress eases.
325) A diagnosis for a child, even though I don’t like it.
326) Bellbirds and Tuis singing in our street.
327) Warm woollen slippers as winter cold begins to creep in.
328 to 334) mentioned above

(Credit to Mother Teresa of Calcutta for the perception of Jesus coming to us in a distressing disguise)

O blissful rest

I must confess to enjoying a rather unspiritual delight this Easter — the prospect of four whole days off work is bliss! Not having to get up so early to trudge through the mourning routine, the chance to catch up on some jobs around home and being able to have time with my kids other than at the beginning or ending of each day when we are all tired and grumpy.

In Matthew 11:28 Jesus invites us into his rest, and really that is what Easter is all about — Jesus purchased rest for all of us on the cross (see also Hebrews 4:9-11). In his abundant blessing to us as a nation initially founded on christian values he has also provided a short national holiday for us each year to remember his world-changing work.

So, as I bask in the rest I am receiving now, I can also rejoice in the eternal rest I am given which yet awaits me.

O blissful rest

I must confess to enjoying a rather unspiritual delight this Easter – the prospect of four whole days off work is bliss! Not having to get up so early to trudge through the mourning routine, the chance to catch up on some jobs around home and being able to have time with my kids other than at the beginning or ending of each day when we are all tired and grumpy.

In Matthew 11:28 Jesus invites us into his rest, and really that is what Easter is all about – Jesus purchased rest for all of us on the cross (see also Hebrews 4:9-11). In his abundant blessing to us as a nation initially founded on christian values he has also provided a short national holiday for us each year to remember his world-changing work.

So, as I bask in the rest I am receiving now, I can also rejoice in the eternal rest I am given which yet awaits me.

The cup

Sermon delivered on Sunday 28 March, 2010

Before reading the text for this sermon, there are a few things I want to point out and ask you to take note of: Notice the repetition; the same anguish again and again, the disciples sleeping again and again, Jesus goes away to pray again and again. There is also the repetition of the story itself in each of the three synoptic gospels, and when we consider that such repetition in the Bible indicates superlative importance, then we do well to examine this event.

The garden

Matthew 26:36-46
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here and watch with me.” And going a little further he fell on his face and prayed, saying “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch and pray with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

This rather strange scene occurred after the last supper and the long discourse and prayer of Jesus as recorded in the gospel of John, chapters 13 through to 17. The garden of Gethsemane is a place that Jesus often met with his disciples, so Judas knew exactly where he would be (John 18:1-2).

When Jesus arrived at the garden on the Mount of Olives, he left eight of the disciples together and took Peter, James and John with him. Then he told the three to watch and pray (that they would enter into temptation, Luke 22:40), before withdrawing from about a stone’s throw from them (Luke 22:41). At this distance the three disciples would not be able to hear what he was saying if spoken at normal conversational volume, though this could be the situation that the writer of Hebrews refers to, saying:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death.
Hebrews 5:7

So, given that most of the content of his prayers were probably not heard by James, John and Peter and that they were asleep most of the time anyway, the gospel accounts must be informed by Jesus himself. No doubt in the forty days after his resurrection he told them much of his sufferings, presumably the details of what occurred in this garden were important enough for him also to tell.

The anguish

According to Luke, Jesus kneels down and prays, asking God to remove ‘this cup’. We could deceive ourselves into thinking that this is an ordinary prayer from a man who does not want to die.

Yet about a week prior to this Jesus stated clearly that his purpose in going to Jerusalem was to die (Mark 10:32-34). There has to be more to it than human fear of death, especially when you consider the descriptions from Mark and Matthew of Jesus being greatly distressed and troubled and that he said to the disciples that he was sorrowful even to death (Mark 14:33-34). Jesus is described as falling to the ground — this looks like terror, not simple fear.

Luke tells us that an angel came to strengthen Jesus, this is no ordinary fear. The other time an angel (or angels) came to strengthen Jesus was in the encounter with Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11). Consider the extreme torment he had been under on that occasion — forty days fasting in the wilderness with Satan tempting him! That is not normal human experience, it was a unique encounter between the incarnate Son of God and Satan. A cosmic spiritual battle of wills. In Gethsemane too we see Jesus’ will to obey his Father tested to the utmost.

Luke’s description of Jesus sweating blood (Luke 22:44, this does actually occur on rare occasions — it is called hematidrosis) confirms the agony and torment of soul that Jesus is enduring.

The prayers

The content of Jesus’ prayers tell us why he is in such extreme anguish. His first prayer asks God to remove ‘this cup’ from him (Matthew 26:39). Jesus knows that all things are possible for the Father, but submits himself to his Father’s will (Mark 14:36). In this we see total submission in the face of agonizing terror — Jesus knows the Father could take the cup away if he wanted to, yet submits to his Father’s will.

Matthew gives detail of the next prayer:

“Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
Matthew 26:42

This is essentially still a prayer asking for the cup to pass and submitting to the Father’s will, but the emphasis shown to us by Matthew is that Jesus is willing to drink the cup. If this is to be fulfilled then Jesus is asking his Father to ensure he has strength enough for the ordeal.

Jesus then prays a third time. We know the outcome of the three prayers because in John 18:11 when Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword, he also says:

“shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

Which is a statement rather than a question, indicating that Jesus has resolved to drink the cup.

The cup

All of which bring us to the question: What is in the cup?

The answer to this question explains the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane, it also explains how God can forgive me yet remain holy and just, causing me to weep, tremble and rejoice simultaneously.

What do we already know about the cup?

  • It is assigned to Jesus by the Father (John 18:11).
  • Jesus asked for it to be removed from him (Mark 14:36).
  • Jesus must drink what is in the cup before it will pass (Matthew 26:42).
  • It was in accordance with the prophets that Jesus must drink the cup (Matthew 26:54).

So what did the prophets have to say about the cup?

Psalm 22:2
O my God, I cry out by day but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.

Psalm 22 is a messianic psalm and Jesus has poured himself out in prayer asking for the cup to pass but his Father is silent — the cup will not be removed.

Isaiah 53:4
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God and afflicted.

In Gethsemane we see clearly that Jesus is stricken and afflicted. His bearing our griefs and sorrows will become clear as we look at part of Isaiah’s prophecy that I think is crucial to understanding Gethsemane:

Isaiah 53:10-11
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring;
he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one,
my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.

We have seen that it was the will of the Father for Jesus to drink the cup, and by Jesus drinking the cup the will of the LORD prospers in the hands of his servant (Jesus). There is also hope, out of the anguish of his soul he (Jesus) shall see and be satisfied. The offspring are God’s adopted children who are accounted righteous because he bore our iniquities (see also 1 Corinthians 15:3).

Thus we see that the cup is the furious wrath of God against sin, and in Gethsemane Jesus became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) and accepted this cup to drink it to its dregs. We cannot fully comprehend what was in that cup, but scripture does give us some descriptions as we will see.

The wrath

The wrath of God against sin is without pity:

Ezekiel 8:18
Therefore I will act in wrath. My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. And though they cry in my ears in a loud voice, I will not hear them.

God poured out His wrath upon Jesus without pity. He did not spare His Son. He did not listen to his cry.

To get a taste of a people under the wrath of God, read the book of Lamentations.

However, it is easy to read accounts of suffering in the Bible in an unconsciously detached manner so I want to present a passage from a modern writer which vividly describes the terror of being on an inescapable path towards a hellish end. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus chose such a path.

Extract from Night by Elie Wiesel, pp32–34:

“Poor devils, you are heading for the crematorium.”

He seemed to be telling the truth. Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes… children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?)

So, that was where we were going. A little further on, there was another, larger pit for adults.

I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps… Soon I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books…

My father’s voice tore me from my daydreams:
“What a shame, a shame that you did not go with your mother… I saw many children your age go with their mothers…”

His voice was terribly sad. I understood that he did not wish to see what they would do to me. He did not want to see his only son go up in flames.

My forehead was covered with cold sweat. Still, I told him that I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes…

“The world? The world is not interested in us. Today, everything is possible, even the crematoria…” His voice broke.

“Father.” I said. “If that is true, then I don’t want to wait. I’ll run into the electrified barbed wire. That would be easier than a slow death in the flames.”

He didn’t answer. He was weeping. His body was shaking. Everybody around us was weeping. Someone began to recite Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I don’t know whether, during the history of the Jewish people, men have ever before recited Kaddish for themselves.

Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shmey raba… May His name be celebrated and sanctified…” whispered my father.

For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?

We continued our march. We were coming closer and closer to the pit, from which an infernal heat was rising. Twenty more steps. If I was going to kill myself, this was the time. Our column had only some fifteen steps to go. I bit my lips so that my father would not hear my teeth chattering. Ten more steps. Eight. Seven. We were walking slowly, as one follows a hearse, our own funeral procession. Only four more steps. Three. There it was now, very close to us, the pit and its flames. I gathered all that remained of my strength in order to break rank and throw myself onto the barbed wire. Deep down, I was saying good-bye to my father, to the whole universe, and, against my will, I found myself whispering the words: “Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shmey raba… May His name be celebrated and sanctified…” My heart was about to burst. There. I was face-to-face with the Angel of Death…

No. Two steps from the pit, we were ordered to turn left and herded into barracks.

I squeezed my father’s hand. He said:
“Do you remember Mrs Schachter, in the train?”

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Never.

This is a harrowing description of the hellish suffering endured by one soul. It is a glimpse of what the wrath of God might look like against one sinner. In Gethsemane, Jesus stared straight into the full fury of God’s wrath against all sin, of all people who are ransomed from hell. At such a sight his soul was filled with terror, he was about to become sin – he, the Holy One, would take upon himself the sin of the world (1 John 2:2) and then bear in his body the furious wrath of God against that sin.

The cup of God’s wrath did not pass until Jesus drank all of it – he had to endure God’s wrath to its fullness, and he did:

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
John 19:30

The suffering of Jesus was complete:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God,
1 Peter 3:18

Our response

The only appropriate response to the unfathomable riches of the mercy and grace and love of God in Jesus Christ is to worship Him, saying “Worthy is the Lamb” (Revelation 5:9-10).

Credit where it is due:

The thinking behind this sermon was largely prompted by a sermon on the topic of Gethsemane delivered by C.J. Mahaney at Covenant Life Church.