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Musings of an antipodean contrarian

Archive for the category “cross”

Reflection for Good Friday

Novelist Peter De Vries wrote The Blood of the Lamb about his eleven-year-old daughter, Carol, who died of leukaemia. At the children’s pavilion in the New York hospital the book’s main character, Wanderhope, gets to know other parents going through similar ordeals, including the jaded Stein, who announced, “The future is a thing of the past.”

The words stick with Wanderhope, even though reassuring doctors talk about new drugs, about remissions that last for years, about promising new research. “Of course!” says a doctor, “They’re working on it day and night, and they’re bound to get it soon.”

On his visits to the hospital, Wanderhope would stop by at the Church of St. Catherine to pull himself together and maybe pray. Stein despised religion and would not go in. De Vries writes of Stein:

“In this exile from peace of mind to which his reason doomed him, he was like an insomniac driven to awaken sleepers from dreams illegitimately won by going around shouting, ‘Don’t you realize it was a placebo?’ Thus it seemed to me that what you were up against in Stein was not logic rampant, but frustrated faith. He could not forgive God for not existing.”

Visiting parents in the pavilion try to keep the talk light. Aside from Stein and Wanderhope, who “meet and knock their heads together” over the big questions of fairness, theodicy, and what God might be up to, if there is a God, conversation in the children’s pavilion goes on “by a kind of conspiracy of grace.” It’s a matter of pretending that things have a meaning, when you know they don’t.

The realities encountered in this “slice of hell,” Wanderhope concludes, mock any response other than rage and despair. “Rage and despair are indeed carried about in the heart, but privately, to be let out on special occasions, like savage dogs for exercise, occasions in solitude when God is cursed, birds stoned from the trees or the pillow hammered in darkness.”

Day after day, week after week, Carol hovers on the edge of life. Wanderhope thinks of the Slaughter of Innocents, and it seems that God and Herod are one. He tries to pray. He does not presume to pray that everything will again be all right; he prays for just one more year with Carol, rehearsing in his mind all they would do together in just one more year. And at last the day comes when the news is good; the marrow report is down to six percent, practically normal. Carol is in remission, she can go home tomorrow.

The next day he buys a cake and stops by St. Catherine’s to offer a prayer of thanks. Mrs. Morano, the night nurse, is at her prayers and tells him that an infection is going through the ward like wildfire.

“I hurried into the hospital,” says Wanderhope. “One look at Carol and I knew it was time to say good-bye. The invading germ, or germs, had not only ravaged her bloodstream by now, but had broken out on her body surface in septicemic discolorations. Her foul enemy had his will of her well at last. One of the blotches covered where they were trying to insert a catheter, and spread down along a thigh. By afternoon it had travelled to the knee, and by the next, gangrened.”

The nurse whispered it was only a matter of hours now, and all her dreams would be pleasant. “I was thinking of a line of old poetry. ‘Death loves a shining mark.’” Wanderhope saw her on her bicycle, the sun in her hair, the shining spokes; at the piano practicing, and the smile of satisfaction when she got it right; and he knew that none of this would ever be again.

The nurse left and he moved to the side of the bed and whispered rapidly in their moment alone:

“The Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord make his face shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Then I touched the stigmata one by one: the prints of the needles, the wound in the breast that had for so many months now scarcely ever closed. I caressed the perfectly shaped head. I bent to kiss the cheeks, the breasts that would now never be fulfilled, that no youth would ever touch. “Oh, my lamb.”

Later, in the middle of the afternoon, Carol died. Wanting to secure the unfathomable pain of the particulars, Wanderhope looked around for a clock. “I had guessed what the hands would say. Three o’clock. The children were putting their schoolbooks away, and getting ready to go home.”

After some legal formalities, Wanderhope went to a bar and had a drink, and then six drinks, and then seven, and then he remembered the cake he had left in the church. On his way out of St. Catherine’s he looked up at the crucifix over the central doorway, its arms outspread among the sooted stones and strutting doves.

“I took the cake out of the box and balanced it a moment on the palm of my hand. Disturbed by something in the motion, the birds started from their covert and flapped away across the street. Then my arm drew back and let fly with all the strength within me. Before the mind snaps, or the heart breaks, it gathers itself like a clock about to strike. It might even be said one pulls himself together to disintegrate….

“It was miracle enough that the pastry should reach its target at all, at that height from the sidewalk. The more so that it should land squarely, just beneath the crown of thorns. Then through scalded eyes I seemed to see the hands free themselves of the nails and move slowly toward the soiled face. Very slowly, very deliberately, with infinite patience, the icing was wiped from the eyes and flung away: I could see it fall in clumps to the porch steps.

“Then the cheeks were wiped down with the same sense of grave and gentle ritual, with all the kind sobriety of one whose voice could be heard saying, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’”

Then everything dissolved, and Wanderhope, no longer able to stand, sat down on the worn steps of the church. De Vries concludes: “Thus Wanderhope was found at that place which for the diabolists of his literary youth, and for those with more modest spiritual histories too, was said to be the only alternative to the muzzle of a pistol: the foot of the Cross” …

Reflecting on this story, Richard John Neuhaus writes, “In the experience of abandonment by God we are most securely embraced in the love of God.  This love of God is the very life of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It is the love of the Father that incorporates the godforsakenness of the Son by the power of the Spirit …

“The human suffering and death of Jesus is an event in the triune life of God, and because Christ is also the Word by whom and through whom everything exists and is sustained in being, all innocent suffering and death has been enclosed in the life of God.  Every heartbroken cry of ‘Oh, my lamb’ is taken up and finally overtaken in Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi [the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world], in whom is our peace.”

In a cupboard

In a cupboard in heaven
stands a big old bucket
into which God pours
our suffering and pain
and sadness
and all the colours
of our helplessness

and out of which he takes
deep draughts every day
draining, drawing its terrible
rainbow profusion
into his heart

and drinking, hears
words uttered long ago
by his own cracked
lips: “I thirst!”
and the crucial echo in that
God-forsaken waste
the declaration:
“Finished!”

and from that ancient place
the future rushing near
finds tears and pain and death
incomprehensible:
beside the shining River
beneath the scented Tree
there shall be no more need
for buckets

 

Sermon 496 copyright © 2003 Rod Benson. Preached at Compass Church, Sydney, Australia, on Friday 18 April 2003. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

References:

Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961).

Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

“In a cupboard,” poem by Rod Benson, December 2002.

Festive bun brawl

Broadcast on 2CH Sydney, 13 Jan 2013.

Last weekend, perhaps because it was a slow news week, several media organisations ran stories on an alleged “unholy row” or “festive brawl” over the earlier-than-usual sale of hot cross buns.

Major supermarket chains began rolling out the traditional Easter fare more than three months before the Easter weekend, with some stores selling hot cross buns from December 27.

The pressure for early sales disappointed some church leaders, who view the move as crass commercialisation denigrating an ancient Christian symbol reminding the faithful of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, with the cross on the buns referring to his crucifixion.

Others see it as an irrelevant sideline to what matters in Christian faith: an encounter with Jesus that challenges us to practice justice and mercy toward the less fortunate, and walk humbly through life with God, regardless of how many hot cross buns are within reach.

I’m Rod Benson for the NSW Council of Churches.

An Easter poem by Steve Turner

Have you ever wondered why shops often feature nativity scenes in the lead-up to Christmas, but not crucifixion scenes at Easter?  Poet Steve Turner has thought about this, and here’s what he had to say:

Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they’d do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection.

~~~

The NSW Council of Churches wishes you a safe and happy Easter weekend.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.

Broadcast on 2CH Sydney, 8 Apr 2012.

Why was the death of Jesus unique?

Detail from Pierre-Paul Prudhon, Crucifixion (1822)

Sermon preached by Rod Benson, Good Friday, 28 March 1997

Alexander the Great once found his philosopher friend Diogenes standing in a field, looking intently at a large pile of bones.  Asked what he was doing, the old man turned to Alexander and replied, “I am searching for the bones of your father Philip, but I cannot seem to distinguish them from the bones of the slaves.”  Alexander got the point: everyone is equal in death.  From the greatest to the least, from the most beautiful to the most ordinary, death is the universal equaliser.

Most of us know the shock and grief that comes with the death of a loved one or colleague: the sense of loss, perhaps numbness or anger, perhaps the realisation of our own mortality.  Jesus – the King of the Jews, the Messiah, the Son of God – shared the human experience of death.  His heart stopped beating, his lungs ceased their constant inhaling and exhaling, and the electrical impulses within his brain slowed and subsided into nothingness.

Each of the Gospel writers describes the event of Jesus’ death: “When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit”; “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last”; “When he had said this, he breathed his last”; “He bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; John 19:30).  But none of the Gospel writers focuses on the physical sufferings of Jesus.  Each tells part of the whole horrific story, with his own emphasis and understanding of its significance.  The death of Jesus was not only unusual – it was unique.

Jesus shared the common experience of death that we all must encounter.  Some die accidentally, others by their own hand; some die deserving death; others unjustly or prematurely – but all die.  Yet Jesus’ death was unique because it was perfectly timed.

People die in different ways.  Sometimes the spirit leaves peacefully while the person is asleep.  Sometimes it is violently removed, and there’s an agonising battle as the sufferer struggles frantically to hold onto life.  Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died in 1953, and his daughter Svetlana penned this graphic description of his last moments:

The death agony was horrible . . . At what seemed like the very last moment he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room . . . He suddenly lifted his left hand as though bringing down a curse on us all.  The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace . . .  The next moment, after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh (Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend).

Not so with Jesus: “After he took the wine, Jesus said, ‘It’s done . . . complete.’  Bowing his head, he offered up his spirit” (John 19:30, The Message).  Even as he hung suspended by Roman nails between earth and heaven, he was in control, bringing his life mission to its ultimate climax.  Augustine reminds us that “Jesus gave up his life because he willed it, when he willed it, and as he willed it.”

Until Sir William Deane signs the Andrews Bill nullifying the Northern Territory’s euthanasia legislation, you and I can choose to die in the Northern Territory by computer-administered lethal injection.  We can choose the mode and time of our death, but we’re not masters of our spirits, able to dismiss them and expire.  Jesus had that power, and he dismissed his own spirit; in this respect his death was unique.

His death was also an act of worship.  Throughout his life Jesus pleased his Father.  At his baptism heaven opened and God declared, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  To the Jews who persecuted him Jesus said, “I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:30).  And Hebrews 9:14 reveals that on the cross Jesus “offered himself unblemished to God.”

With the Old Testament sacrificial system in mind, the writer reminds us that Jesus Christ offered not a lamb or a bull but himself in sacrifice to God.  Jesus was both the person offering the sacrifice for sin, and the sacrifice!  Nothing less would take away the sin of the world, and nothing more valuable could take his place.

Unlike the temple priests who first sacrificed an animal to remove their own sins before sacrificing on behalf of the people, Jesus offered to God his own body – his own life – for our sins.  In doing so, he demonstrated his complete obedience to God as his holy Father, and the complete worthiness of God as the object of his worship.  In this respect also his death was unique.

When Jesus dismissed his spirit and died, the soldiers stationed nearby were surprised he had died so quickly; some victims remained alive for up to two days before dying.  But they were not the only ones surprised.  Across the valley, in the city centre, at the precise moment of Jesus’ death, Matthew records that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  The earth shook and the rocks split.  The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life” (Matthew 27:51-52).  The death of Jesus had supernatural consequences.

The enormous, thickly lined curtain separating the holy of holies from the holy place was torn in two, symbolising that through the death of Jesus the way into God’s immediate presence was open to all, regardless of the distinctions often made between clergy and laity, Jew and Gentile, master and servant, man and woman.  All people now had equal access to God and to his salvation, and equal opportunity for worship and service.

And then the earth shook and rocks were split in pieces!  The event was, quite literally, earth-shaking, as the natural environment responded to the death of its creator.  Burial chambers broke open, probably through the force of the earthquake.  Then something occurred that no earthquake could achieve: the bodies of many dead people returned to life (verse 52)!  The death of Jesus Christ triggered the resurrection of God’s people, and his resurrection guarantees our future resurrection when he returns to earth.  There was no other death like it, before or since; in this regard also the death of Jesus was unique.

But his death also had eternal consequences.  Immediately before he died, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30).  What was finished?  The work he came to earth to accomplish.  Michaelangelo, the Renaissance artist of Sistine Chapel fame, was a genius.  He excelled as a sculptor, designer, painter and architect.  His statues of Moses and David are widely recognised and appreciated.  What many people don’t know is that in Florence, there’s an entire hall filled with his ‘unfinished’ sculptural works.  As great an artist as he was, he left much unfinished.

Jesus left no unfinished work – he accomplished everything he came to do.  He completed his monumental mission.  Hebrews 2:9 says with majestic simplicity, “In that death, by God’s grace, he fully experienced death in every person’s place” (The Message).  Jesus not only died – he died in your place.  He died so you could have life.  He suffered so you could find peace.  He endured the darkness of Calvary so you could experience the light of the Good News.  He endured the curse so you could enjoy the blessing.  He was alienated from God so you could be reconciled to God.

He who never did wrong suffered under the agonising weight of your wrongs, so you could be put right with God.  “He personally carried the load of our sins in his own body when he died on the cross, so that we can be finished with sin and live a good life from now on” (1 Peter 2:24, LB).

In his death Jesus demonstrated God’s love for us in the fullest possible way, achieved total victory over evil, and made our salvation possible.  He was not merely a good man who died as an example of virtue or meekness; he was the perfect God who took our burdens of sin and guilt and made them his burden.  His death was not merely an example to inspire us but a sacrifice to save us!

As John Stott says, “A pattern cannot secure our pardon . . . an example can stir our imagination, kindle our idealism and strengthen our resolve, but it cannot cleanse the defilement of our past sins, bring peace to our troubled conscience or reconcile us to God” (Basic Christianity 1971:89).  Only the death of the holy Son of God could achieve those purposes.

His death was an example, but it was much more than that.  It was the only way God could bring you into relationship with himself, into his glorious kingdom, his new community.  Jesus’ death was unique because it was perfectly timed, it was a priceless act of worship, and it had supernatural consequences; but above all his death had eternal consequences

“There is one God and one mediator between God and men,” says Paul to Timothy, “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).  Jesus did not step out of his human body when he rose from the grave, nor when he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  And heaven will be filled with people from every nation, tribe, people and language because Jesus came, and lived among us, and died in our place.  Will you be there?  Thank God for Jesus, and his great love for us!

That’s the good news of Easter!  It’s the kind of news that both sobers me and fills me with joy and a desire to know my Lord better.  But you may not yet have surrendered your life to Jesus Christ and experienced his forgiveness and joy.  Don’t let the opportunity pass by!  I invite you, right now, to thank Jesus for dying for your sins, in your place, and ask him to enter your life, to cleanse you and take control of your life.  Pray this prayer with me:

“Lord Jesus Christ, I acknowledge that I have gone my own way.  I have sinned in thought, word and deed against you.  I’m sorry for my sins.  I turn from them now in repentance.  I believe that you died for me, bearing my sins in your own body.  I thank you for your great love for me.

“I invite you to enter my life.  Come in, Lord Jesus, as my Saviour, and cleanse me.  Come in as my director, my Lord, and take control of me.  Fill me with your Holy Spirit, and with your joy.  And I will serve you as you give me strength, all my life.  Amen.”

Sermon 108 preached by Senior Pastor Rod Benson at Flinders Baptist Community Church, Ipswich, Australia, on Friday 28 March 1997. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980). 

The cross is not enough

Ross Clifford, the new President of the NSW Council of Churches, and known to many 2CH listeners as a long-time Sunday night talkback host, has a new book out, co-authored with Philip Johnson, with an intriguing title: The Cross is Not Enough.

The book explores how the resurrection of Jesus Christ, rather than his death by crucifixion, is the centre of the Christian faith.

The authors set out to restore the doctrine of the resurrection to what they say is its rightful place as the basis of the Christian hope, the Christian worldview, and the way we live from day to day.

They compare Christianity’s unique understanding of resurrection to other world religions.  They explore why the resurrection connects so readily with the human psyche.

And they trace themes of resurrection through movies, books, music, and other aspects of popular culture.

Their conclusion is that without the resurrection there is no life.

With Easter on the horizon, it’s a compelling argument and a great read.

Broadcast on 2CH Sydney, 5 Feb 2012.

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