Easter

EASTER SUNDAY – Hopeless?

Lk 23:33,46 When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals… Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.”

In the three reflections this year on Easter, the thing that has stood out to me can be summarized by “all is not as it seems.” We saw it on Palm Sunday; we’ve seen it on Good Friday. Now the climax of it faces us throughout Saturday and on Sunday morning of this terrible but glorious weekend that stands out like no other in history.

At the end of Friday and over the first part of this weekend, from an onlookers perspective, the future of the embryonic faith of the followers of the Christ is utterly hopeless. Jesus has died. They have seen it. He has been buried in a tomb. It is all over. There is absolutely no hope.

It is made worse if you had watched this vibrant, pure life for the last three years bringing the love of God to thousands. And now it is all over. This glorious phase of human history has been utterly squashed and eradicated by a combination of Jewish religious orthodoxy and Roman cowardice and harsh power. The wonder of what might have been is utterly gone.

The future for the believers is hopeless. It appears it was all one ghastly parody of God’s goodness, a travesty of the power of God which ridiculed us and gave us such false hopes for a new world. And now it is all gone. Utterly hopeless! The end! He is dead and buried, gone!

And that is where, if we had been one of the disciples with short memories, we would have been utterly wrong, because when Jesus said something he never lied, and so when he had told them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life,” (Mt 17:22,23) he meant it!

The thing that was about to confirm his claims to be the Son of God was just waiting to happen. Waiting in faith is a not an uncommon Christian experience. As it happened on that wonderful Sunday morning, so it will happen for you and me: God will turn up, new life will come, there IS hope in the apparently hopeless scenario!

“Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said” (Matt 28:5,6)

38. God’s Rightness

Meditations in Romans : 38:  God’s Rightness

Rom 3:21-24 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

The point that Paul has been making again and again in a variety of ways, is that however much we try to keep the rules, we fail to be righteous. We’ve seen his arguments and we’ve thought through some of the issues, and the conclusions are clear: we are helpless and hopeless and cannot make ourselves righteous. Now if God wasn’t a God of love He would just leave us like that and condemn us to this futile way of living, leaving us to our frustrations and our guilt – but He is and He doesn’t!

This is one of those passages that starts with a ‘But’. ‘But’ here means that is not the end of it, for God has stepped in and done what we couldn’t do. We couldn’t make ourselves righteous but God can and it is a righteousness… apart from the Law.” God’s righteousness does not depend upon us having to keep that Law, for we’ve already seen that that is a lost cause! We can’t do it, so He has to do it on some other basis.

So what is it? Hold on, we need to see where we find out about this first: “to which the Law and the Prophets testify”. When a writer speaks about ‘the Law and the Prophets’, that is simply a shorthand way of meaning all of the Old Testament. Yes, says Paul, this righteousness from God is something that has been hinted at throughout the Old Testament – as we’ll see as we go on through Romans. It isn’t something that God has just dreamt up; it has been in His heart and mind from before the foundation of the world. There are at least half a dozen references in the New Testament that testify to that (look up 1 Pet 1:20,  Eph 1:4, Rev 17:8, Rev 13:8, 2 Tim 1:9, Titus 1:2). It is only now’, says Paul that it has been fully revealed.

So how does this righteousness from God come to us? This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Instead of the Law, God places His Son, Jesus Christ, as the focus of our attention.  Are we to become Christians by copying Jesus? No, because again, on our own that would be absolutely impossible – even more impossible than keeping the Law! On our own could we heal the sick and raise the dead? Definitely not! No, the point of Jesus’ three years of ministry was not to give us something to imitate (although there is an element of that about it) but to reveal the Father’s love to us and to show us that he was God’s Son. And that is where the focus now comes, on us simply believing that which we have just said – that Jesus revealed God’s love for us and showed us that he was God’s Son.

But there is also a third thing that he did which is vital: he died on the Cross for our sins, so that we might be forgiven; that is the third element of belief. This is how this righteousness from God comes: it comes by us simply believing these three things: a) that Jesus revealed God’s love for us (He does love us!), b) that Jesus was and is God’s Son, and c) being God’s Son he was able to step in for us and take the punishment for our sins. When we come to a place of being able to say “I believe” and it is real, so real that it causes us to respond to it and surrender to God and ask for it to apply to our lives, then He declares us righteous. This is what the Gospel is all about.  An act of faith? Yes, of course, because the Bible tells us that faith is responding to what God has said. We hear it, we believe it, and we respond to it. That is faith.

Now is this purely for Jews or purely for Gentiles? Who is this for, Paul now considers. No, he says, it is for everyone. Everyone? Yes everyone, because, There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Oh yes, we’ve seen it already,  every single one of us, Jew and Gentile are hopeless and helpless. All of us are in the same boat. We all need God to come and do what we cannot do on our own. Every one of us does wrong and every one of us fails to reach the standard of God’s perfection. There’s not one of us who could stand before God as an equal in holiness. No, we’re all doomed unless we receive the salvation that God offers through His Son.

Look at Paul’s final description of this salvation: are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. We don’t have to work for it; it is something that comes freely from God. It is an act of His grace that He doesn’t demand we keep on struggling to be better and gives us a way out by simple belief. No, we have been redeemed, bought by the blood of Jesus, snatched from the jaws of death and hell and from Satan. Jesus has paid the price and we can do no more than believe it and live it! Jesus HAS done it. Receive it, live it!

17. Futile Thinking

Meditations in Romans : 17 :  Futile Thinking

Rom 1:21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

So often we think our thinking is right and good. We trust in what we think. If we are one of today’s crusading atheists we are sure that what we think is absolutely right. We are utterly sincere in our beliefs. I remember, many years ago, hearing Billy Graham speak about sincerity and cited watching an American Football match and how through his glasses he watched one particular player grab the ball and run the pitch, and cross the back line. He was the most sincere man on the field as he made that run. The only trouble was that in the melee he was confused and ran the wrong way. He was sincerely wrong!

Now Paul doesn’t make it absolutely clear who he is talking about and so we have to assume he is speaking in generalities. This is what sinful mankind does. We didn’t start out like this but “their thinking became futile”. It was a process which, depending on individuals, is quick or slow. From the start Adam and Eve knew God. From the start Israel knew God. The knowledge of God was there from the beginning but something changed. You would have thought that mankind would have worshipped God because when you have a being as great as Almighty God and you are a mere human being, worship is the logical expression of what you would feel, but that didn’t happen.

You might have thought the Adam and Eve would have just been filled with love for God, meeting with Him on a daily basis, enjoying the wonder of the world He has obviously made for their enjoyment. You might have thought that Israel, when they encountered God at Sinai, would have just been overwhelmed by His awesome presence so that worship would have been their automatic response, which just would have gone on and on – but it didn’t.  You might have thought that humanity in general would have so enjoyed the wonder of the world which God has given us that we would be ever thanking and praising Him for it. You might have thought that but you would have been wrong! The presence of sin in us leads us to have skewed thinking. We don’t appreciate our world and we don’t appreciate God. But it is a gradual thing.

Have you ever watched little children act almost with surprise at finding a daisy? Little children ‘discover’ the wonder of our world, but then they grow up and become sceptics and take life and the world for granted and then, during this process of growing up, their thinking becomes futile. It is true of all of us; it is the effect of sin within us. We remain like that until a crisis hits and we realise our frailty and our need and God’s Spirit speaks to us and convicts us, but we did need the ploughing effect of the crisis first, before the Spirit could sow the seeds of conviction. The hardness of our hearts had to be broken up and turned over by the upheaval of a crisis. Until then our thinking had been futile.

If we are sci-fi enthusiasts we have come across the word ‘futile’ before. We have heard the cry of the Borg that, “Resistance is futile!”  It simply means hopeless, so when Paul says “their thinking became futile” he is really saying, “their thinking became hopeless.”  This is what the stupid thinking of sin does – it goes nowhere! It is hopeless. It goes round and round in circles as sinful, self-centred man tries to reason and work out his own salvation. He knows he is in a mess and struggles to better himself. That’s why so many work so long hours trying to climb the ambition ladder which they think will achieve greatness. It doesn’t; it just wiles away the years until, when we reach the end of it, we realise we have achieved so little that is meaningful in eternity. Solomon, in Ecclesiastes, arrived at this place, of wondering what it had all been about when, within a few years after death, you are forgotten. Until our lives have been ploughed by adverse circumstances that bring us to our senses and then the Holy Spirit has sown the seeds of conviction, we remain in futile, hopeless endeavour. It is only when we come back to God and submit our lives to Him do we find ourselves with a new sense of genuine meaning.

In the meantime our minds and our hearts are ‘darkened’. Light and darkness are contrasts we use when speaking about good and evil. Darkness represents evil. Our hearts became evil in that they became rebellious against God and put self on the throne of life instead. The heart is the place of origins of intent. It isn’t that organ that pumps blood round the body, not in this context at least. ‘Heart’ here refers to the centre of our being (wherever that is) where we make decisions which are expressed then in the mind. Somehow, somewhere within us, we settle our intents – to be godless, to be self-centred. We rationalise it so it doesn’t sound as bad as that to us, but that is what it is. We settle our intents and then all thinking flows from that and all behaviour flows from that. Our hearts are darkened and our thinking is futile; no wonder we need saving. But how does God go about that? We’ll see in the coming meditations.

16. Saved by Grace

Ephesians Meditations No.16

16.  Saved by Grace

Eph  2:8,9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast.

These are possibly some of the most famous ‘grace verses’ in the New Testament. We’ve been saying a lot about grace in the previous meditations but, because of misunderstandings about the Christian faith, perhaps we can’t say enough about it. Despite education we still hear of many misunderstandings about the Christian faith in today’s world.

At one end of the scale there is the public perception. Here in the West, drawing closer to the end of the first decade of the twenty first century, public perception has been honed by the constant scraping of an unbelieving media and unbelieving government, to believe that ‘being a Christian’ is rather like being a member of the Women’s Institute, a member of a minority grouping that is fun to laugh at but which has little relevance to everyday living. Of course the truth is that nothing could be further from the truth. At the other end of the scale is the person who ‘goes to church’, who is nice and respectable, middle class, and sees their once a week attendance at a Sunday morning performance as their entry ticket to heaven. Again very far from the truth!

Yet again we would do well to pick up on the ‘link word’ at the beginning of these two verses – “For”. Verses 1 to 3 were full of human pronouns – you, we, us, but at verse 4 it turned to what God has done: God… made us alive with Christ ….And God raised us up with Christ …in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace … to us.” The first three verses emphasise our foolish activity before we were saved; the next four verses emphasise God’s activity in saving us.

Thus it is when we come to verse 8 we find, “For” where Paul could have written “And so” or “And thus it is” summarising all that has gone before in these crucial words. Some of us may have blanched as I referred to us being saved in the paragraph above, because people don’t like using that expression today, perhaps because it reveals the need that we had that verses 1-3 showed up, but Paul is unapologetic in using it here: “For it is by grace you have been saved.” ‘Rescued’ is a word with a similar meaning that Paul uses elsewhere: For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” (Col 1:13) As we commented previously, we were hopeless and helpless and the only way for getting us out of that darkness in which we lived, was by God moving and saving us.

The old analogy of a lifeboat is a good one. You were on a sinking ship and the lifeboat came to rescue you. Once you were winched off the sinking ship you were saved. As the boat took you back to shore you were being saved. When you stepped on to the shore you were well and truly saved. No one objects to that sort of language in that situation and we should not here. When you were converted or ‘born again’ you were saved. Between now and the time when you die and go to heaven you are being saved. When you arrive in heaven you are well and truly saved. That is al the work of Christ and the work of his Spirit.

So did you have a part to play in all this? Yes, of course but it was a minor part: you have been saved, through faith.” The “through faith” part refers to you. It was simply you responding to what God said. He drew you and when, like Moses at the burning bush, you responded and went to see what it was all about, He spoke (even though you were probably not aware that it was Him) and He convicted you of your need. In your desperation you cried out to be saved, to be forgiven, to be given a new life. That was you responding to Him; that was faith, but it was a pretty lowly level of faith wasn’t it! When you put it like that you can see that it was 99% Him and 1% us. As Paul explains it, “and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Oh yes, the person who ‘goes to church’ once a week’ or does the flowers or whatever else it is that makes them feel they are doing good, ‘helping the church’ completely misses the point. It’s nothing to do with their activities.  It is “not by works” because nothing we do can be good enough to make up for all the other times when we sin by thought, word or deed. Because we were godless and self-centred THAT was our sin and it only changes when we surrender our life to God and accept Jesus as our Saviour (to save us from our sins) and Lord (to lead our lives from now on).

Oh yes, when we have been through this process of being drawn, of being convicted to bring us to a point of surrender, and then of receiving His Spirit so we are ‘born again’ (see Jn 3), only then do we start to fully realise the wonder of all this. Until we do, we remain defensive and seek to justify ourselves and try to convince ourselves why Paul and these notes are wrong! No, “this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God and so if you are still ‘trying’, it’s time to give up and surrender to God and receive the salvation that Jesus earned for you at the Cross. Give up – now!

Rescued

EFFECTS OF THE CROSS 7 of 7

Gal 1:3,4 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father

We considered yesterday the apostle Paul saying that before we came to Christ we had been stuck in a spiritually dead life, a life that was self-centred, godless and unrighteous, and there was nothing we could do to get ourselves out of it. We thought about iron filings and a magnet and saw how it was impossible without an opposing, opposite, stronger force for those iron filings to be set free from the attraction of the magnet. The picture that we have in today’s verses comes with the same idea but, perhaps, expands on it.

Paul, here, says we were trapped in “the present evil age” and we needed rescuing from it. Again the implication is that we were incapable of getting out of it on our own. But what was he saying when he said we were trapped in the present evil age? He was actually saying that we were trapped as part of this age that is godless and unrighteous. Paul is referring to the fallen world when he speaks about this “age”. Since the Fall (see Gen 3) every human being has been born with this tendency to be self-centred and godless, and so subsequently live unrighteous lives; it’s in our genes!

So there we were, one hundred per cent part of the fallen world, unable to escape the tendency to sin – and guilty! Deep down we knew we were guilty. We may have tried to deal with our guilt in a variety of ways. Perhaps we justified why it was all right to do what we did, perhaps we said, well everyone does it (as if that makes it all right!), or perhaps we did what many people do and denied there is any right or wrong and say anything goes (but we didn’t actually believe that either!). So there we were struggling with our guilt, caught up in this self-centred, godless lifestyle that we couldn’t break free from. Helpless and hopeless!

And then Jesus stepped in and dealt with our guilt by paying the punishment for all our wrongs by his death on the Cross. If you accept this, said God, I will not hold your sin against you. Jesus will have taken it. It seemed too good to be true, but we accepted it for we were desperate. But that wasn’t enough! It was wonderful that we were told we were forgiven and cleansed but we were still the old, powerless people we’d been before. So, at the moment of true repentance, God put His own power, part of Himself, His own Holy Spirit, into you and suddenly you felt different, suddenly you were different! There was a channel within you flowing with goodness from heaven. You were still in this world but now different. You had a different motivation and a new power that enabled you to live out that new motivation. You had been rescued from the old evil world that you were part of. The past has been dealt with. The present is empowered. The future is in God’s hands. How wonderful!

(This will be the last of this brief series for the time being. We may continue it in the future)