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There stood by the cross of Jesus….

…..his mother.

Of course she was there. With her sister and her friend. Watching the long, slow, agonising death of her special son.

What did it mean for her to be standing there, amidst the mocking and the taunting and the jeering? Watching the soldiers divide his clothes among them? Hearing him cry out for a drink?

During Jesus’s life on earth, Mary had had a very special relationship with her son. We know more about her side of the relationship than we know about his.

His birth had been promised to her by an angel. When she had heard the news, she was, of course, greatly troubled. She was a young girl and she was to become pregnant with the Son of God! But the angel told her not to be afraid and Mary responded: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). From that moment, she welcomed this special son.

We only have a few snapshots of Mary’s relationship with Jesus:

  • When he was born and the shepherds visited the manger, sharing their stories with Mary and Joseph, Mary ‘treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19). Why had angels appeared to the shepherds to announce his birth?
  • When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple, Simeon blessed them and he told Mary: ‘a sword will pierce through your own soul also’ (Luke 2:35). This was more to ponder. What did it mean? What lay ahead for her, for him, for them?
  • When Jesus was 12 and remained in Jerusalem after Mary and Joseph had left, they had to retrace their steps and they found him in the temple, chatting with the teachers who were there. Mary ‘said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them.’ (Luke 2:48-50).  To our ears, this sounds almost like a rebuke from her not-yet-a-teenager son. But we read that he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart’. It was more to think about.
  • At the wedding in Cana, when they ran out of wine, Mary went and told Jesus the problem, but he said to her ‘ “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” ‘ (John 2:4-5). Again, it seems that Jesus almost rebuffs Mary – but her trust in him is implicit –  “Do whatever he tells you.”
  • One day, when Jesus was engaged in his public ministry, Mary and her other sons went looking for him. He was told they were outside, desiring to see him but he said: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:21). It must have seemed to Mary that he was keeping his distance from her and his brothers.

Mary’s relationship with this son of hers must have given her plenty to ponder, plenty to wonder about.

But, like any mother would do, she stood at his cross and broke her heart. This baby she had brought into the world in such miraculous circumstances, this child who had such wisdom, this young man who had turned water into wine, who had healed the sick and raised the dead, this miracle-worker, this healer, this preacher, this teacher – was her beloved son.

No son should die before his mother. And no mother should have to watch her son die, especially like this.

And so she stood at the cross, supported by her sister and her friend, determined to stay till the bitter, bitter end.

She heard every word he said – what we have come to call the Seven Words of the Cross:

-When he spoke to his Father about those who were crucifying him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).

– When he spoke to the dying thief hanging beside him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43).

-When he cried out with a loud voice: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

-When he said simply: “I thirst.” (John 19:28).

-When he uttered those climactic words: “It is finished,” (John 19:30).

-When he finally relinquished his spirit: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:36).

But there were words which were specifically spoken to his mother Mary. We are told that ‘standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.’ (John 19:25-27).mary and john at the cross

As the soldiers laughed and divided his clothes among them, Jesus must have seen and heard them while he struggled to draw a breath. But he also saw his mother Mary, standing with her sister and her friend. Some of his last words were reserved for her: ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ and to John he said ‘Behold, your mother!’. He wanted to make sure his mother had someone to care for her. He chose ‘the disciple whom he loved’, the one who had been close to him, the one who had sat beside him at the Last Supper, one of the three who had gone with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, the one he knew he could trust to look after his mother.

If Mary had ever wondered about Jesus’s love for her, she knew in that moment that he loved her.

 

 

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My God, why have you forsaken me?

Jesus cries these words from the cross, after three hours of darkness which ‘covered the whole land’. We can only imagine, can only speculate as to what happened in those three hours of darkness. We do know that God the Father forsook God the Son as Jesus fought and won the battle against the darkness, against death, against sin – forever.

Jesus suffered the worst – separation from God – that we might have the best – a relationship with God forever. Jesus was forsaken by God that we might never need to be.

How great the pain of searing loss,

The Father turns his face away.

As wounds which mar the chosen race

Bring many sons to glory.

Jesus knew the theology of it all. He knew that God the Father had to leave him alone while he took the sin of the world. In Gethsemane, we realise that he knew that. ‘If it is possible, let this cup pass from me…..nevertheless….your will be done.’

So why does he ask ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ It was not a theological question. It was a cry of anguish, as the Father abandoned him to the darkness of separation from God.

And it silences the debate about whether we can ask God ‘Why?’.

As Mags Duggan says of her own experience:      empty bowl

” ‘Why?’ was not a word of doubt, but of naked trust. It was an honest admission of my own lack of wisdom and, perhaps more, an admission that God and his ways were so beyond my own understanding, that through my own thinking I couldn’t even begin to fathom what was going on….The word ‘Why?’ was the empty bowl which I held out before God, day after day, trusting, hoping, it would be filled with answers, with reasons, with peace.” p.47, God among the ruins.

So don’t be afraid to hold out your bowl and ask God ‘Why?’.

And, as we contemplate Jesus asking ‘Why?’,  let’s thank him. Jesus suffered the worst – separation from God – that we might have the best – a relationship with God forever. Jesus was forsaken by God that we might never need to be.

Waiting and wondering on Easter Saturday

Easter Saturday – or Holy Saturday – is that in-between time. The worst has happened. Jesus has been crucified. The hopes of many have been dasheIMG_6347d. The disciples are confused, disappointed and frightened. They retreat behind closed doors and withdraw into their fear, scared to look ahead, afraid to hope.

The two disciples who walked along the road to Emmaus were walking the long way home from Jerusalem to Emmaus, talking about all that had happened in Jerusalem on Good Friday. They were joined on the road by a Stranger, who wanted to know what they were talking about. Surprised that he didn’t know – wasn’t it the talk of the town? – they told him that Jesus had been crucified. They confessed, ‘But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’.

The One they had put their trust in had disappointed them. They were confused and disappointed and were retreating – going back home. They didn’t understand what had happened. Things hadn’t turned out as they had hoped. Had they been wrong all along? Confusion and disappointment ate at their broken spirits and their hopes were dashed. They must have wondered what was going to happen next. Some of the women had said they had been to Jesus’ tomb but his body wasn’t there. They couldn’t work out what it all meant.

So the Stranger began to talk to them about the Scriptures. He explained their meaning as they walked that long way home. And – I love this part – when they reached their house, the Stranger ‘acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”’ He wasn’t going to impose – He never does – but always  waits to be invited.

And so it was that, in the breaking and blessing of the bread, they recognised the Stranger. Was it his hands as he broke the bread? Was it his voice as he blessed it? And just as suddenly as he had appeared, he vanished.broken bread

But it was enough. They knew who he was. They knew what he had been talking about. Now it all began to make sense. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” And immediately they set out to return to Jerusalem to share the good news.

We live between the ‘now’ and ‘what is yet to be’. We have put our faith in God but so much of what we read in the Bible belongs to the ‘what is yet to be’. Our lives are often filled with disappointment. Our hopes are dashed. Often we are confused; often we are frightened. Sometimes we don’t dare to look forward. Sometimes we are afraid to hope.

Some of us have hopes that have been dashed. Life hasn’t turned out the way we had hoped it would. We are struggling with broken health or broken relationships or some other loss. Some struggle with the loss of mental health. For them, just to get out of bed in the morning is a huge act of faith – a heroic thing. What they had hoped for hasn’t happened. Can they dare to hope?

Some of us have questions related to our faith that make us afraid to hope. It’s all too good to be true. What if it’s all a lie? Can we really base our lives on it? Does it really work? Does it make sense? Our faith is wavering. Can we dare to hope?

We all live in a broken world, a terribly frightening world. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. It doesn’t make sense. Can we dare to hope?

As we wait and as we wonder, let’s give the Stranger time to draw alongside us. He won’t impose but, if he’s invited, he will come. Things might begin to make some sense. And even if they don’t, the presence of the Stranger will bless us in our brokenness.

Good Friday and the darkness we don’t like to talk about

What’s good about Good Friday? There’s so much negative stuff going on – betrayal, denial, lies, deceit, anger, hatred, jealousy, anguish, pain, death.IMG_0961 - Version 2

We remember the fact that Jesus’ disciples forsook him and fled, the fact that Peter denied him and Judas sold him, the fact that the authorities believed the false witness against him, the fact that Pilate washed his hands of him, the fact that he died the most painful, shameful death known at that time.

Many of us sit uncomfortably between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, anxious to get to the glorious hope which the resurrection bring to us. We don’t like the time in between. We run from the negative stuff – the betrayal, denial, lies, deceit, anger, hatred. jealousy, anguish, pain, death. We would much rather rejoice and celebrate in the victory which Sunday brings.

But it’s Friday. And sometimes it’s good for us to linger here for a while among the negative stuff. Why are we so afraid of it when it is so much a part of the biblical story? I see it again and again – I’m sure you do too. Some people like to hear me talk about my depression because it gives them a voice too – but others are uncomfortable with it. Why dwell on the negative stuff? Why look back at the pain? Why talk about the darkness? Because that’s where many are living today.

I see it when people ask how my dad is. Remembered by many as a man who loved God’s Word and preached it round N.Ireland, today he is in a nursing home, struck by a form of dementia which has mostly robbed him of the gift of coherent speech, among other things. When people ask how he is and I tell them, some will quickly say ‘Well, at least he’s content’ and sometimes I tell them no, I don’t think he is. And I want to cry, ‘Would you be content? Would I?’ But I see the look on their faces – the pain at having to process that, the not knowing what to do with it, the not having a category to put it in. This is not how it’s supposed to be.

And they are right – this is not how it’s supposed to be. God never intended us to have a world with depression and dementia and death in it. So we don’t have to pretend he did. We don’t have to pretend it’s alright – because it isn’t.

Good Friday is Good Friday, not because there’s anything good about any of this, but because out of the darkness and shame and pain and death, there actually is a glimmer of hope. Jesus takes on himself all of our pain and shame so that we we know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he understands it all – there is nowhere we have been that he hasn’t been; and in taking it all on himself, he redeems it and by a miracle of grace transforms it into something good and beautiful and true.

So that on Easter Sunday there is something wonderful to celebrate – Jesus has conquered sin and death forever. The fact that Jesus rose again means that we will rise again too.

Everybody dies in Adam; everybody comes alive in Christ. But we have to wait our turn: Christ is first, then those with him at his Coming, the grand consummation when, after crushing the opposition, he hands over his kingdom to God the Father. He won’t let up until the last enemy is down—and the very last enemy is death!  I Corinthians 15.

We are not there yet – we still live in Good Friday a lot of the time, among the shadows and the darkness and the pain. But Jesus has won the war and, as Paul Tripp says, he is ‘still doing his sin-defeating work’. He is still in control. He is reigning even when it looks like he’s not. And he understands the pain and darkness of Good Friday. Because he’s been there.

Old age, death and Maundy Thursday

Today I’ve been thinking about old age (see previous post) and death – two serious subjects for a beautiful spring day.

My father is struggling with the effects of dementia and it’s the anniversary of the death of my mother-in-law. Death and old age.

What is there to look forward to? Old age is often not pretty. The description of it from the book of Ecclesiastes (quoted in my previous post) is so apt:

‘Your hair turns apple-blossom white,
Adorning a fragile and impotent matchstick body.’

It often includes physical, mental and spiritual challenges. And after the struggles of old age, what then?

As I am caused to think today about the death of my mother-in-law (which itself was a struggle), it would be easy to think there is not much to look forward to at the end of our lives, apart from pain, suffering and the anguish of separation from our loved ones.

But today is Maundy Thursday and we are also thinking about the death of Jesus Christ – and that death makes all the difference. All the difference to our lives and all the difference to our deaths.

Francis Schaeffer talks about the importance of Jesus’ death when he writes about His Transfiguration and what Moses, Elijah and Jesus talked about when they met together:

‘What would you think would be important enough to discuss at such a moment?….The only subject worthy of conversation at this moment was Jesus’ coming death….If Jesus had not died, if he had turned aside (as Satan tried to make him do so many times), if he had, in Peter;s words, actually had pity on himself and not gone on to the cross, everything would have been gone. There would have been no hope for Elijah, translated or not. It would have meant the end of Moses, the disciples, and everyone else, because the redemption of everything depends on the single focus point of Jesus’ death…..Jesus’ resurrection is certainly important. So too are his ascension and his teachings. But the welfare of every believer and the entire creation depends upon his death.’

It is the death of Jesus on the cross that makes sense of my life – and will make sense of my death. Because Jesus died, I can face tomorrow – whether life or death. When He died, He removed the sting of death.

‘“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (I Corinthians 15:55-57).

In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand

In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save
‘Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live

There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave He rose again
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
‘Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

Johnny-land

I have a wonderful little boy in one of my French classes. He is only 5 years old. He has a charming smile and a winning way with him which would melt the hardest of hearts. He is also extremely intelligent and has a phenomenal memory. We will call him Johnny.

While Johnny’s peers are desperately trying to remember one of the 4 French words we might have learned during one lesson (and sometimes resorting to just putting ‘le’ or ‘la’ before the English word, as in ‘le chair’), Johnny will inevitably be able to remember all 4 words – and all of the words from the previous lesson too. This week I wanted to revise the colours with the children so I asked if any of them could remember one colour in French. Johnny was able to rhyme off all 7 colours of the rainbow in French, in order.

Johnny is a delight to teach. He saps up information like a sponge. He is also a delight to know. You never know what he is going to say next. This week, he told us that his name is ‘Professor Johnny Michael Anderson’ (names changed for protection). He went on to say, ‘I live in Johnny-land. In Johnny-land we speak Johnny-ish’. When I asked him to speak some Johnny-ish for me, he came off with some gibberish and then translated it for me: ‘I would like some ice cream please’.

Last week he walked into class and asked, ‘Where is Emma?’ When I pointed out Emma to him, he gave her an invitation to his birthday party. This was repeated with another little girl (while he completely ignored the fact that there are actually 3 girls in the class). Then, when they were colouring in some pictures during the lesson and he saw Emma’s new rainbow felt tips, he said, ‘I would like those for my present’. I tried to explain that we don’t usually tell people what we want for our birthday, unless they ask, but he was completely oblivious of that social convention and couldn’t see why on earth not. Fair enough.

We find such behaviour in a child cute. But somehow this kind of attitude, while cute in a child, can become ugly in an adult. It strikes me that most of us still live for a lot of our time in Johnny-land and still speak Johnny-ish. Our worlds revolve around ourselves and what we speak about is often when we want, what we hope for, what we desire.

O I know we have learned how to cleverly camouflage that and we do sometimes genuinely seek the good of others instead of ourselves. But try running an experiment for a day. Tune into what/who you think about and what/who you talk about most. Tune in to your self-talk – for we do talk to ourselves all the time, just not audibly most of the time!

What do I talk to myself about? I tried this yesterday when I was driving. I realised that what I talk to myself about in a traffic jam, or when I am driving behind a car driven by a learner driver, is not the good of others! I am thinking about myself – about my schedule, my time, my need to be somewhere. So yesterday instead of just praying for protection as I drove, I asked the Lord to make me a more gracious driver, courteous and looking out for the needs of others instead of my own. That’s quite a challenge. I would rather live in Pauline-land and speak Pauline-ish. It meant that when I had parked my car at the supermarket and saw that I hadn’t left a great deal of room for the next car, I had to get back in and try again.

And that was only one small thing. Why not join me today and listen to your self-talk? See if you can begin to think and talk about others’ needs more than your own – even for a little part of the day.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:3-11.

In this season of Lent, when we are encouraged to think about the cross, there is no greater picture of the selflessness of Jesus. He didn’t think about Himself. He thought about us. He emptied Himself – to save us. Let’s follow Him. Let’s get out of Johnny-land.