Thursday, April 21, 2011
MAUNDY THURSDAY SERMON TO THE CHURCHES
"Discerning God's Justice and Love through the Cross: Christians must be Christlike!"
A Meditation on the Cross
Once again we gather on a Maundy Thursday. So it is appropriate to begin our story on the evening of the original Maundy Thursday, when Jesus saw the sun set for the last time. In about fifteen hours, His limbs would be stretched out on the cross. Within twenty-four hours He would be both dead and buried. And further thirty-six hours later, God would raise Jesus from the dead.
The cross enforces three truths – about our own characters, about God’s character and about the character of Jesus Christ.
First, our sin must be extremely horrible. Nothing reveals the gravity of sin like the cross. It is impossible for us to face Christ’s cross with integrity and yet not to feel ashamed of ourselves. It is only when we see this, stripped of our self-righteousness that we are ready to put our trust in Jesus Christ as the Saviour we urgently need.
Many Christians take the first step, an act of faith, but do not maintain an attitude of trust. Strangely, we find it easier to trust an earthly bank despite the banking debacle in 2008, than to trust the God of heaven and earth!
Why is trust so important? It reveals our estimate of God’s character, as well as our own weak character.
Second, the cross speaks of God’s character and that of Christ’s.
I am reminded of the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’. It raised many eyebrows because of its graphic depiction of the D Day Invasion of Normandy in World War II. It was never meant to be a pretty sight as heavy casualties and bodies sprawled all over the beach.
We now know that the D Day invasion spelt the beginning of the end of the war against Hitler and the Nazis. But of course, victory over the Nazis was only confirmed on 8 May 1945 or Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) when the Germans surrendered unconditionally. It would have been another eleven months of fighting across Europe, until the Nazis were finally defeated on their own soil.
Throughout the Holy Week, Christians all across the world celebrate a significant ‘D Day’ of a kind that took place 2000 years ago. Jesus Christ carried the sins of the world and endured the horrors of the cross, in order to bring forgiveness for our sins and to mend our broken relationship with God.
Have we truly wondered what it was like for Jesus, to carry the punishment of the world’s sins upon Him?
Have we also wondered what it was like for God the Father, to allow His Son to go through the sheer horror of such a death?
What is the Church all about?
Good Friday also marks the day when Jesus turned the tide against sin and the reign of the devil. Jesus declared the Kingdom of God has invaded our fallen world. The process to transform and reconcile the whole world to Himself has also begun, for which He has the ultimate victory.
Until Jesus’ Second Coming – His ‘VE Day’, He has commissioned us to be part of this amazing mission of reconciliation. Not of the world, but in the world and fully engaged!
The uneasy period we live in now is known as the last days. And just as the ensuing military battles across Europe from D Day up to VE Day, the church must face tough challenges of winning over hearts and minds for the Lord, up until Jesus’ return.
But how are we to engage, transform and reconcile the world to Jesus? Jesus commissioned us to disciple nations, baptising and teaching them. How do we do that? And where do we start?
The sad truth is the message of the church is often inconsistent, if not confusing. Precisely because we don’t have adequate answers to these questions ourselves. Perhaps, we are ourselves, confused!
In his last public sermon delivered in Keswick Convention on 17 July 2007, John Stott said this: “I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth and it is - God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.”
I agree with John Stott that when others see the church, they may see Christ manifested through us, for whom He gave all – including His very own life.
We are to be the face of Jesus to the world! That is what we must offer and that is what I wish to speak this evening.
Firstly, I wish to explore with you the notion that Christlikeness is invariably a consequence of radical discipleship. This radical discipleship is predicated on a correct embrace of the truth of God’s justice and love.
Secondly, Christlikeness is incredibly appealing, but for many, repulsive. If the world crucified an innocent Christ, the church will suffer for imitating Christ.
For many folks, the church is no longer a beacon of light or truth. It is a statement of contradiction, confusion and conflict.
John Stott makes the point that the world is increasingly defined by four contemporary trends: pluralism, materialism, ethical relativism and narcissism.
He observes that the church has been less vigorous in resisting the encroachment of these trends. Instead, allowing them to seep into their thinking and practice.
Dinesh D’Souza goes one step further to say that the church is struggling to provide an answer to these challenges. Partly because individual churches are often incapable of handling vigorous discourse put forward by proponents of these ideas and thinking. Therefore, it is not surprising that they are not resisting but even embracing much of what contemporary trends have to offer.
At most, they retreat to topics they could manage. Hence, the identification of the church in some parts of the world with certain hot topics, usually over moral issues like homosexuality and abortion. And even at that, not united and not unequivocal!
Thus, missing the opportunity to engage over important matters that even Christ Himself spoke of or dealt with from poverty, race and women’s role in society to nationhood.
Is it a wonder why the world sees a mishmash of what the church is about?
The ultimate question is whether the church has the substance to provide a defence of its existence to the world. Put differently, can it be relevant?
As quoted earlier, John Stott more than believes we could. But we must first get our house in order. Christians must be certain of what they believe first and foremost. That is why he has called the church “to a radical discipleship, to a radical non-conformity to the surrounding culture. It is a call to develop a Christian counterculture, a call to engagement without compromise.”
He is not driving on a moral highroad towards fundamentalist religiosity and switching off one’s brains. Some actually do!
On the contrary, he wants the church to be what it is – believers who identify with Jesus Christ. If we claim that Christ is indeed God, then the Christian faith must be able to stand up to scrutiny – which it has done for centuries.
He writes: “… we are not to be like chameleons, lizards which change their colour according to their surroundings, but to stand out visibly against our surroundings.”
“We are to be like Christ, ‘conformed to the image of God’s Son’ (Romans 8 v 29).”
Considering these are probably John Stott’s last words, they are particularly meaningful.
God’s Justice and His Love
Of course, there are many aspects to radical discipleship. But if we wish to be radical disciples, the cross must be at the centre of our being.
Naturally, we must see and discern clearly God’s justice and His love.
In my mind, no passage speaks more powerfully on God’s justice than Romans 3 v 23-26:
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood – to be received by faith.
He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in His forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – He did it to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
Emil Brunner says, “Sin is defiance, arrogance, the desire to be equal with God…the assertion of human independence over against God…the stuff of autonomous reason, morality and culture.”
Describing the malaise of western society, renowned American psychiatrist Dr Menninger adds that “one misses any mention of “sin””.
What became of sin?
Dr Menninger notes first that “many former sins have become crimes”, so that responsibility for dealing with them has passed from church to state, from priest to policeman. A convenient device called ‘collective irresponsibility’ has also enabled us to transfer the blame for some of our deviant behaviour from ourselves as individuals to society as a whole or to one of its many groupings.
But the Bible takes sin seriously because it takes man (male and female) seriously!
We affirm that diminished responsibility always entails diminished humanity. To say that somebody ‘is not responsible for his (or her) actions’ is to demean him or her as a human being. It is part of the glory of being human that we are held responsible for our actions.
Dr Menninger takes preachers to task for soft-pedalling it, and adds: ‘The clergyman cannot minimize sin and maintain his proper role in our culture’. For sin is an implicitly aggressive quality – a ruthlessness, a hurting, a breaking away from God.
God’s holiness exposes sin; his wrath opposes it. So sin cannot approach God, and God cannot tolerate sin.
The passion of Jesus Christ is the judgment of God, in which the Judge Himself was the judged! Instead of inflicting upon us the judgment we deserved, God in Christ endured it in our place.
But our proud hearts rebel against it. We cannot bear to acknowledge either the seriousness of our sin and guilt or our utter indebtedness to the cross.
Our Lord is holy! He cannot condone sin. He hates sin with utmost hatred.
Sin is also abhorred because it rips apart the goodness and excellent worth of what God has beautifully created. Namely, our souls! It hurts Him to see the world rummaging through rubbish to find worth and meaning, when He has all that is noble, excellent and precious to offer us, in their abundance!
Yes, sin insults Him!
That is why sin cannot be ignored. Equally, all who sin against the Lord make themselves enemies of God. Effectively, all of us!
That is why nothing we must cherish more than our Christ who hung there on the cross 2000 years ago. For the wrath of God, of every injustice and insult God has ever had to endure, was laid upon Him on that tree. So that justice was served. And through Christ’s death alone was God’s wrath placated.
Taking God’s grace lightly
Superficial remedies are always due to a faulty diagnosis. Those who prescribe them have fallen victim to the deceiving spirit of modernity which denies the gravity of sin.
When Christians become earthly, they lose the vision of eternity. They cannot see beyond the things of this life. Concerning such people Paul says: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15 v 19). Christians like that often consider themselves prosperous and successful. God considers them pitiable. We must never ever belittle God as some kind of a cosmic ‘vending machine’.
Today, we have controversies stemming from accusations that Christian leaders and preachers are downplaying biblical truths relating to the seriousness of sin; causing Christians to become careless with personal holiness.
We must face the facts that some preachers today are more gifted than others in preaching God’s grace. It is good however to be reminded that while gifts represent ability, fruit represents character. As we have learned, a gift comes through a single brief impartation, but fruit comes through a slow process of development. Receiving a spiritual gift does not, in itself, change a person’s character. If a person was proud or unreliable or deceitful before receiving a spiritual gift, that person will still be proud or unreliable or deceitful after receiving it.
We are indeed saved by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. If the cross is not free and unmerited, then we do not have the gospel at all. Then we are still doomed!
Jesus Christ died for us precisely because we cannot save ourselves. Paul said in Galations that to preach otherwise is to preach another gospel.
However, Paul also warned against abusing grace! We are not to live and sin as we pleased, with the excuse that we will be forgiven. Abusing grace is cheapening it.
For Paul, cheapening grace amounts to insulting the truth and meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. Instead, we must live out our salvation in fear and trembling. Holiness is a visible fruit of being saved by grace through faith in Jesus.
As such, Christian discipleship and faithful obedience to God’s laws are mandatory. And because of the cross, we are given liberty to live fully in the boundaries that God sets for us. Only when we move out of God’s boundaries, that is when we are enslaved by sin!
“Tsunami Warnings, Written in Stone”
But let me add that there is profound wisdom in obeying God’s laws and commands. It is life-saving!
An article entitled ‘Tsunami Warnings, Written in Stone’ appeared in the New York Times yesterday or 20 April. It details “hundreds of so-called tsunami stones, some more than six-centuries old, dot the coasts of Japan, silent testimony to the past destruction that these lethal waves have frequented upon this earthquake-prone nation.”
The flat stones, some as tall as 10 feet, are a stark warning to the locals not to build homes below a certain point. They would be foolish to ignore the stones!
“But modern Japan, confident that advanced technology and higher seawalls would protect vulnerable areas, came to forget or ignore these ancient warnings, dooming it to repeat bitter experiences when the recent tsunami struck.” The journalist writes.
Similarly, God’s laws – exemplified by the Ten Commandments – which God wrote with His finger on two stone tablets, are for our wellbeing. God gave them to us so that we may live abundant lives, free from the grip of sin, free from what we term these days as the failures of human potential.
God’s laws also serve as clear warnings of the boundaries we do not cross!
But as we so carelessly and readily ignore human warnings to our peril, as so tragically demonstrated in Japan, aren’t we playing with fire when we ignore God’s warnings and the boundaries He set?
The Bible in Romans 6 v 23 reads that “for the wages of sin is death” – condemnation and punishment for our sins.
However, the same verse also reads, “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Clearly stating that because of God’s love for us there is a way of salvation – a life-saving alternative.
It is therefore not a mystery, nor is it unthinkable, how Christians could live freely by grace and at the same time, have the passion and genuine desire to follow after God’s laws and commands.
Our Abba Father’s Love
God’s love must be wonderful beyond comprehension. He could have left us alone to reap the fruit of our wrongdoing and to perish in our sins. It is what we deserved. But He did not. Because He loved us, He came after us in Christ. Christ pursued us even to the desolate anguish of the cross, where He bore our sin, guilt, judgment and death.
It takes a hard and stony heart to remain unmoved by a love like that. It is more than love. Its proper name is ‘grace’, which is love to the undeserving.
How then, could God express His holy love – His love in forgiving sinners without compromising His holiness, and His holiness in judging sinners without frustrating His love? Confronted by human evil, how could God be true to Himself as holy love? In Prophet Isaiah’s words, how could He be simultaneously ‘a righteous God and a Saviour’?
His saving initiative was indeed compatible with, and expressive of, His righteousness. At the cross, in holy love, God through Christ paid the full penalty of our disobedience Himself. He bore the judgment we deserve in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve. On the cross, divine mercy and justice were equally expressed and eternally reconciled. God’s holy love was satisfied; God’s character eternally righteous!
Often, when discussing the cross, one gets the impression that God the Father is angry with the world and His Son comes along to placate the Father. So, the Father is the angry one, and the Son is the loving one.
This is the most inconsistent notion imaginable about their characters.
If we speak only of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the initiative of the Father. If we speak only of God suffering and dying, we overlook the, mediation of the Son.
Apostle John reminded us that only one act of pure love, unsullied by any taint of ulterior motive, has ever been performed in the history of the world, namely the self-giving of God in Christ on the cross for undeserving sinners. That is why, if we are looking for a definition of love, we should look not in a dictionary, but at Calvary.
This is love, holy love, inflicting the penalty for sin by bearing it. For the Sinless One to be made sin, for the Immortal One to die – we have no means of imagining the terror or the pain involved in such experiences.
And in that awful experience which divides God from God to the utmost degree of enmity and distinction we have to recognise that both Father and Son suffer the cost of their surrender, though differently. The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son. The Fatherlessness of the Son, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father.
The human mind cannot fathom how it is that God the Father would ever allow His Son, Whom He loves, to ever embrace the curse of the cross. The justice of God, as I mentioned earlier, is a factor. But then, can anyone imagine the Father’s love for us not being a factor?
And if I, as a human father, may have to experience a sacrifice of this nature, involving my son Jacob, I would be inconsolable and distraught. What more, God the Father Who was and is perfectly in unison with Jesus?
Such Father-Son dynamics is perhaps the fundamental reason why I believe that the church must embrace the truth of God’s love without having to water down the message of His justice.
Standing before the cross we see simultaneously our worth and our unworthiness, since we perceive both the greatness of our Lord Jesus’s love in dying for us, and the greatness of our sin in causing Him to die.
Is it not clear to us now that no-one is more trustworthy than the God of the cross?
The cross assures us that there is no possibility of a miscarriage of justice or of the defeat of love either now or on the last day. “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8 v 32).
It is the self-giving of God in the gift of His Son which convinces us that He will withhold nothing from us that we need, and allow nothing to separate us from His love (vv. 35-39). So between the cross, where God’s love and justice began to be clearly revealed, and the Day of Judgment when they will be completely revealed, it is reasonable to trust in Him.
The interplay between justice and love is core to our understanding of the Christian faith, one which gives hope to us and to the world at large.