Monday, October 17, 2016

The Story 26. The Hour of Darkness

Readings: Psalm 98, Isaiah 53:3-10, Romans 4:6-11, Mark 15:12-26
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 16, 2016

Sir John Bowring was fluent in 17 languages, served his homelands of Great Britain in numerous offices' twice being a member of Parliament, the British Commissioner to France, Foreign Minister to China and Governor of Hong Kong. At the age of 30 he was editor of “The Westminster Review” a highly influential journal that featured the writings of the brightest intellectuals of his day, including philosopher John Stewart Mill, naturalist Thomas Huxley and novelist Mary Shelley, (famous for her novel 'Frankenstein')

On his tombstone he is remembered for one thing. It is none of the above. But that he was the author of a hymn, said to have written when on a boat, sailing past the coast of Macao, China. On the shore he glimpsed the remains of an old, fire gutted church. Above the ruins, he saw that the church’s cross was still standing, bold against the skyline. The view so inspired him that he wrote down words we sang for in opening hymn, and which were eventually inscribed on his tombstone;

In the cross of Christ I glory, Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story, Gathers round its head sublime.

In our journey through “The Story” we have reached chapter 26, passages which form the mountaintop of all that the 66 books of the Bible are seeking to tell us. These are accounts we place on our annual calendars related to“Good Friday.” Even if you have not read “The Story” you are hopefully familiar with the events being talked about. It begins with the disciples preparing for Passover and a supper where Jesus not only washes His disciples feet but also institutes a remembrance that we know as Holy Communion.

The story transitions to a Garden called Gethsemane where Jesus pleads in anxious prayer that the cup of suffering He is about to endure may pass from Him, yet in obedience concludes, “Father, not my will, but thine be done

Soon afterward He is arrested and placed on trial before both Caiaphas and Pilate, who after discourse with the crowd allows for a prisoner called Barabbas to be released, whilst Jesus is led away to be crucified.

As the disciples deny and abandon Him, a stranger is forced to carry His Cross. Though tortured, insulted, robbed and victimized, an inscription is placed upon His cross “The King of the Jews” In this darkest hour Jesus speaks to His disciple John telling him to take care of His mother.

Among other statements that are made from the Cross there is an agonizing cry of desperation, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” As Jesus dies, declaring “It is finished”, a curtain in the temple is ripped in two, the ground shakes, the skies darken and witnesses say holy people have been seen resurrected among the tombs. Chapter 26 in 'The Story' finishes with the observation that only a few, including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, actually stick around to observe the proceedings.

The Story of the Cross. But why is the Cross so central to Christianity? Why do we make such a big deal out of this hour of darkness? I would suggest to you that it is at the Cross that God reaches to the deepest needs of our lives.

  • Firstly, at the Cross we meet a God who expresses total solidarity with all humanity.
  • Secondly, at the Cross we discover that reconciliation with God is a glorious possibility, not because of anything we have done, but because of everything Jesus has done for us.
  • Thirdly, at the Cross, we witness God's ability to set us free, our redemption is actualized and we are offered the chance to walk free and forgiven in the light of God's grace.

At the Cross we meet a God who expresses solidarity
A question we often ask is “Where is God when suffering comes our way?” The Cross gives us an answer to that question. God stands with us. On that fateful day of 911 God was not in the hearts of those plotting evil and destruction but seeking to comfort and hold those who became the victims of that diabolical act.

If ever we are the victims of a robbery, remember how they stole Christ's robe and gambled for a portion. If ever we are lied against, or have violence committed against us or are unfairly treated, remember that such is the road Christ walked. If ever we stumble and fall and can go no further, remember that Christ could not carry His cross on the road.

If ever we face an injustice or an unfair trial or plead with God for another way around suffering and that way is denied, remember the prayers of Jesus in Gethsemane, the accusations of His foes and the corrupt system that allowed for His death.

If ever we feel that God has totally abandoned us and deserted us, recall those desperate words that came from Christ's lips, “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?” At the heart of God's being there is a love that stands with us as life happens, it's good and its bad, at its best and its worst.

Such wonderful promises are made. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” “In my Fathers house are many rooms.” Eternal promises that go beyond any life on earth. The words He speaks to a man who dies on a Cross next to Him, who recognizes in Jesus One who was unique. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

As another hymn, “Great is thy faithfulness” declares, in Jesus we find “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!” At the Cross we meet a God who expresses total solidarity with the human condition.

At the Cross we discover that reconciliation with God is a glorious possibility
The whole story of the Old Testament is about humanities striving to be reconciled with God, that paradise lost may be regained. Always, sin gets in the way. What is sin? The human capacity to total mess everything up. The human inability to love God and love our neighbor. Our inbuilt capacity to not obey commandments, twist laws and fail to be the people God intends.

Throughout the books of the bible we see how sin always has consequences. It destroys the relationships between people and their creator, people and the creation and people with each other.

Through a system of sacrifices, Old Testament religion brought it to peoples attention that when we mess up, it's no little thing. As Paul reflects in Romans 6:23 “The wages of sin is death”. An innocent victim lost their life. Yet all those sacrifices still failed to convince people that sin was a bad idea, but rather became a way for them view sacrifices as a way to carry on sinning... but not personally face the consequences!

From Adam to Abraham, from Joseph to Moses, from Israel's greatest king David to the great prophet Elijah, it is crystal clear, that even for the greatest of the greats, reconciliation to God, through our own efforts and striving, just never works. We can be good, but never good enough. Our only hope is for God to intervene and restore the relationship.

The Presbyterian Book of Confessions explains how reconciliation is offered us in many different ways through the death of Jesus upon the Cross. “It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of a debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil.”

I like the way William C. Placher, professor of philosophy and religion, at Wabash College, Indiana explains it...

God seeks us out to reconcile us. Sometimes, if I have done wrong to a friend I can make it right. But sometimes the wrong is irremediable. Nothing I could do could fully fix what I have broken. What could a friend do who still loves me? To say “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter” is to deny the seriousness of the love I betrayed. If it really doesn’t matter, we were scarcely friends. Even to say the wound is deep and cannot be healed would be more loving than that.

But a loving friend might say, “I am wounded. I am angry. That is the proof that I cared about you. It costs me to reach out toward you, to try to trust you again. Yet I love you still, and so I will take on that pain and bear that cost because I do not want us driven apart forever by the consequences of what you did.

Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5 “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them ... For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

At the Cross we meet a God who expresses solidarity. At the Cross we discover that reconciliation with God is a glorious possibility. Thirdly...

At the Cross our redemption is actualized
In the early church a redeemer was the person who paid the price to buy another out of slavery. At the Cross God does for us what we can not do for ourselves. It is Paul in Romans 7:21-25 who outlines the dilemma.

I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Randy Frazee, one of the compilers of “The Story” reflects; “Do you understand the immensity of this gift? What God has done for you offsets any difficulty you may ever have for the rest of your life. God cherishes you. God owns you. God bought you, not with gold or silver, but with the precious blood of the Son, Jesus Christ. When God was forced to choose between an eternity without you and an eternity with you, God said, 'I'll do whatever it takes to make sure you are with me'”

Another hymn writer, Isaac Watts, captures the response we should make to God's love. shown to us in Jesus Christ; “When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.”
  • At the Cross we meet a God who expresses total solidarity with all humanity.
  • At the Cross we discover that reconciliation with God is a glorious possibility, not because of anything we have done, but because of everything Jesus has done for us.
  • At the Cross, we witness God's ability to set us free, our redemption is actualized and we are offered the chance to walk free and forgiven in the light of God's grace.
I pray that the shadow of the Cross may fall upon each of our lives in such a way as we are drawn into deep praise of God and the desire to live lives that reflect to others the tremendous love shown to us in Jesus, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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