Advent 9: Isaiah 9:6-7, Revelation 19:1-16, 1 Timothy 6:11-16

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We all get the concept of justice. You do something wrong and there is retribution, you are made to pay in some way for your wrongdoing. It is central to our society that we try as hard as we can to stay within the law of the land as set out by our government or face justice.

Of course, not everyone manages to do this. There are and will always be criminals, those who cheat the system or those who choose to disobey the law as a form of protest. The former two groups do so out of greed and selfishness in many cases, with a total disregard of the law. The latter, those who protest, often do so because they perceive some kind of injustice which is to be railed against; often they’re right because the laws of human beings are, by their nature, flawed.

The same is true of God’s law. He is referred to as sending Jesus to govern over us in Isaiah and there are many references to his justice and law. There are still laws we must try our hardest to keep; laws regarding worshipping God, loving and caring for others, keeping God’s commandments etc. we have a choice as to whether or not we follow these laws, but they are there.

The difference is in the way justice is meted out. We all face it, but we can throw ourselves on God’s mercy. This is where the difference lies. When you throw yourself on the mercy of a human court you may need to make deals to get leniency. However, throwing yourself, sincerely, on God’s mercy and…

suddenly you are innocent of all charges. You’re sent from the court a free person and told to keep within the law. And, because of that, you try even harder to do so.

The thing is that, at some stage, you’ll break those laws again. It’s one of those things you can’t help. So you go back to court, worried that your past errors will be taken into account. You throw yourself on God’s mercy again and…

suddenly you are innocent of all charges, again!

That’s grace. You don’t deserve it, but Jesus, who came to Earth at Christmas, took the punishment we should have had on the cross. He did it, not to save us from himself, as some thinks it means, but to save us from ourselves. To save us from that spiral towards destruction that sin leads us to. We must face justice for our sin, but we have Jesus to stand up for us and declare us not guilty.

It’s not a get out of jail free card. We can’t just ask for forgiveness then keep doing the same old thing. It is a second chance, though, and a third chance. And a fourth, fifth, sixth…

Lent Day 19: Mark 15-16

Desmond Tutu recently wrote this piece in the Guardian about forgiveness. As a man who grew up witnessing his father abusing his mother, who explains the story of putting his father off of a conversation until the following day only to find that he died overnight, ans who lived through the brutal Apartheid regime in South Africa, he knows a lot about the subject. So when he writes the following, we need to take note,

“Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.”

Forgiveness is at the heart of emotional healing. It is the key to giving us peace and it is the cornerstone of Jesus’ actions at the cross.

Many of the new atheists see this as a vile thought. Richard Dawkins, speaking on the Premier Christian Radio show ‘Unbelievable?’ said that the idea that God could only forgive our sins by torturing himself was “revolting”. Others state that it’s ridiculous to suggest that God feels the need to do this to save us from himself.

All of this is to miss the point about forgiveness. This is the ultimate act of forgiveness, not only because it allows for everyone to be forgiven everything, but on the many levels that forgiveness happens.

The one thing everyone thinks of is God forgiving us. That is, of course, the main thing. Jesus took the punishment we were all due so that we could come to him and ask for forgiveness. He is our proxy and our way to the father. It is an amazing act of self sacrifice that was  needed because sin had, and has, such a hold in this world that only a massive act would break it’s power. We can all be forgiven, if we ask.

But being forgiven and seeing the power of sin broken don’t just mean that. It also gives us the power to forgive. Jesus is our example in this. He didn’t think about the personal cost, he knew that this forgiveness was God’s will and he obeyed. We now have a new way.

Jesus quotes this passage in Exodus,

“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:24-25 NIV)

This is what people of the time will have seen as their moral code; retribution and revenge. Jesus turns it round, though,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39 NIV)

Forgiveness of others is at the heart of his action. Not just forgiveness of the little things, either, but of evil. He knows it’s hard, look at the agony he has gone through to show us, but it is God’s will, so we should follow. If we want forgiveness, we should always be willing to forgive as well.

This isn’t a natural thing for us to do. If it was then we wouldn’t see extremism sprouting up in the face of injustice. If it was then we wouldn’t see baying mobs outside courts where suspected killers or paedophiles were being tried. If it was then we wouldn’t see so much conflict in the world.

On 8 November 1989, during a Remembrance parade in the Northern Ireland town of Enniskillen, an IRA bomb went off and killed 12 people. One of those was a young nurse called Marie Wilson.

Her father, Gordon, was with her, but survived. You would expect and understand if he wants revenge. If he was consumed with hatred and a desire for retribution. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be if I were in his shoes. He said, however,

“I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge.”

He forgave the bombers, prayed fir them, then strove and worked fir peace in Northern Ireland until his death in 1995.

That is forgiveness! That is God’s will and the example of Jesus.

There is still more to it than that, though. Being forgiven by God and by others is amazing. Forgiving others is freeing and healing. But how hard is it for us to forgive ourselves?

Many of us spend our lives tearing ourselves apart over things we have dine in the past. We see ourselves as worthless, weak, evil, dirty. We dwell on those thoughts until they consume us and affect the way we live our lives.

Jesus says stop. He has forgiven us, the father has forgiven us. We are clean. We are right again. We need to see that in ourselves.

Coming to the cross is not a way to ease our conscience, rather it is a way for us to truly change. It allows us to move on from the past, from the person we have been, and to move forward with a clean slate. Our past sins aren’t forgotten, but they are forgiven. They are lessons, to ourselves and others, in what to avoid, how to avoid and how to move on.

If we can’t get past our own failings, how can we expect others to? How can we expect to be able to truly forgive others?

Jesus died so that we are all forgiven. By God, by others and by ourselves.

He died so that we all forgive both others and ourselves.

He died so that we can learn and move on together.

That’s not revolting! It’s the most amazing thing you’ll ever hear.

Lent Day 18: Mark 13-14

I’d love to be able to say that I always do the right thing

I’d love to be able to say that I always practice what I preach.

I’d love to be able to say that I’ve never hurt anyone.

I’d love to be able to say that I never feel shame over my actions, words or thoughts.

I’d love to be able to say that I live my life differently to those around me.

I’d love to be able to say that I don’t let the world affect the way I choose to live.

I’d love to be able to say that I always trust God.

I’d love to be able to say that I can talk about my faith, about Jesus, openly and without inhibition.

I’d love to be able to say all of this and more.

But I can’t. I’d be lying to you and to myself.

I fail every day. I fall away every day. I do, say or think the wrong thing every day.

This isn’t some man-made structure forcing guilt and shame on me in the way that many would tell you. It’s not even depression convicting me of things which won’t bother me once I’m better.

We all know that we do the wrong thing, we sin, day after day. The ability to know and feel that is in each one of us. We know that things are wrong without a human hierarchy heaping guilt and shame on us, because God has put that there for us.

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:   

“ ‘I will strike the shepherd,  and the sheep will be scattered.’” (Mark 14:27 NIV)

Jesus knew his disciples would fall away. They would run, deny knowing him, hide away and pity their misfortune. They’d let the cares of the world in and get between them and him. They would sin.

However, he also knew they’d pick themselves up, with his help, and come back again. And again. And again…

The measure of us and our faith isn’t how many times we fall. It’s how we pick ourselves back up again. Do we struggle to our feet, worry about the rips and dirt on our clothes and head off in our own direction? Or do we let Jesus help us back up, clean us, mend our clothes then lead us back along the right path?

We need help in life. With God’s help we can have the right guide, rescuer and teacher. Eventually we will fall less often. We will learn where all the potholes are and how to avoid them, or to get through them without tripping. We’ll still stumble and fall occasionally, we can’t avoid that, but he’ll always be there to pick us back up if we ask him to.

I’m fed up of having my face in the dirt. I need a hand.

Lent Day 13: Matthew 27-28

This feels so familiar to me. The part of Jesus’ life which, ultimately, defines why those of us who choose to follow him do so.

All seems totally lost. Abandoned by the disciples at Gethsemane. Disowned by Peter outside the temple. Condemned by a crowd agitated by the religious leaders. Discarded to his fate by Pilate. Mocked, whipped, beaten, paraded through the streets and, finally, nailed to a cross and left to die the most agonising death you could imagine.

All seems totally lost.

He dies.

Then, drama. The ground shakes. Rock splits open. The dead are raised to life.

And my favourite part. The temple curtain, the piece of fabric separating the holiest part of the temple from the masses, keeping ordinary people from God’s dwelling place, is torn in two.

We are no longer separated from God. Jesus’ death has seen to that. He has taken everything which was killing us, keeping us from God, and it has died with him. He has given us the ability to turn away from the evil which has found its way into the world, into our hearts, and be reunited with God.

But, there’s more. Much more. He beats sin and evil, but that’s not enough. He has to beat death itself.

So there, by an empty tomb, with unconscious Roman guards replaced by an angel, stands Jesus. Alive, as he said he would be.

He returns to the disciples. They react as the world has reacted for the last 2000 years. Some readily accept. Some seriously doubt. But he’s there, they can see him, so they all, eventually, believe.

Then he gives them what has become known as the Great Commission,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV)

As a follower of Jesus (at least, I try to be) I believe that what we read in the last two verses of Matthew is the most important event which has ever happened, both globally and personally. I believe that it really happened, no matter how fantastical it seems. I believe that this gives me, not only the incentive, but the ability to get past everything which is bad about me as a person and to improve. To grow closer to God. To view and treat others with love and respect.

I am not perfect. I do things which I know are wrong every day. Some little things and some really big things, but I keep coming back to this moment at the cross and it helps me to move on. To stand up to temptation and refuse it. To recognise when I’m doing wrong and to do better in future.

I believe that Jesus will come back, because he said so. I believe that God’s kingdom will come to earth, because He said so.

And I believe that, in my own ham-fisted way, which may or may not make sense to people, that I should share the news that Jesus died so that we can all live.

Because he did. And because he said so.