If you can spare seven minutes, I have a very old story for you.
The Christian concept of ‘sin‘ is a heavy one. The word has settled into a space in popular culture and parlance that is associated with ‘human vice’ or ‘wrongdoing’, and that’s half of the picture. The full picture of sin, as the Bible would have it, is ‘wrongdoing against God‘, or rebellion, and so the heart of sin is not some unspeakable mythic evil, but a persistent love of self and self-absorption.
Easter is not exempt from human self-absorption. Some two thousand years back, a captive and oppressed Jewish people thronged about Jerusalem as they eagerly awaited the coming of a promised Savior. To them, this Savior’s arrival would mean their rescue from Roman rule, and their personal victory over the Roman captors. And Jesus – in Hebrew, Yehoshua, or ‘God rescues’ – was the candidate for the job.
He was wise, he amassed a huge following in just three short years, he was pretty fit (he walked everywhere, even on water – see Matthew 14 for the full story), and God seemed to really really like him. He also said this:
“the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Which his disciples (or ‘dedicated followers’) heard, and dismissed, because here was Jesus! Here was their personal victory and triumph over all the humiliation and oppression that they had suffered. They had been brought low for centuries now. It was their time to rise up and be the ones in power. Then Jesus was captured, charged, and crucified on a cross, and the disciples scattered like stray sheep, their hopes of a better life dashed to bits.
Some two thousand years on, human triumphalism and self-assertion remain firmly in the picture. If you’re not a Christian, think for a moment about all the ‘good things’ and ‘good causes’ that you’ve ever wanted to contribute to and give your time and money to. A pet shelter, or a humanitarian crisis that plucked at your heart-string, or a charitable cause that you swore to volunteer for during some school holiday. And if you are a Christian, think about all the causes that you pray for in church but forget in the six days in between services, or how we treat God like a pocket genie that we try desperately to summon when exams encroach or our career trajectories need a boost.
Think about that, then think about self-righteousness: how swiftly we decide someone’s true nature for them when we would protest and hope for a thousand chances for ourselves. At work – a perceived slight, a raising of the voice, a terrible scolding or tongue-lashing, and bitterness and anger swell our heart till it almost bursts. We fortify our rage and prop up our wounded ego till we sit justified in our righteous anger. How dare they. How dare he raise his voice at me, how dare she take that tone with me. I would never do that, I will never respect this person, (and in that angry and rage-filled moment), I wish them all the worst.
But if you have heard of this man, this Jesus – as his own people, the Jews, screamed for Jesus’ death, as they jeered at him and pressed thorns into his skull and stripped Him naked and spat on Him, He was not moved. Before he made it to the cross, in a small garden called Gethsemane, Jesus fell to his knees. He knew what was coming, he knew the suffering and humiliation that was right before him, and he was scared to death and afraid to bear it. Mark 14/Matthew 26 tell us that Jesus fell to his face in the garden and begged: Father, all things are possible for you. (God, you can do anything). If You will, take this cup of suffering from me. It doesn’t get any less heroic than this. Jesus is saying: Dad, please, please please do this some other way, if there is another way please not this, not the cross.
It is terribly easy to move us. We have little love in our heart for those who cannot help us. But it was impossible to move Jesus, who had unending love in His heart for those who would crucify Him, and for those who watched silently, and for those who turned their backs and ran, and for those who would call themselves ‘Christ-ians’ two thousand years on, yet be so unlike this Christ in so many ways.
And so on this Good Friday, this day of Easter, I am reminded that we are not beautiful. When the pomp and show and compulsory CIP hours have faded away and we are left to ourselves, there is very little in us that cares for our neighbor and for those in need, whatever the religion we embrace or abhor. But there was a man, a divine man (how strange!), who looked at us and said: I will die for you not because you are lovely, but to make you lovely. And with that picture of us set firmly before him, radiant and beautiful and unblemished, he walked resolutely to the cross, scorning its shame, and bore it for us.
Today, two thousand years on, he calls us to do the same. It is the rallying call of any Christ-ian – Matthew chapter 16, verse 24.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.”
And that’s as far as I can tell this story. But it’s not just a story because – I think and I hope – there is a very old truth in it that your heart can hear and taste and see. You see, all the selfishness, all the striving and struggling for meaning in a world that feels broken – all the stories point to this one. Lord of the Rings – a darkness has fallen on the land, and it longs for the true King to return. Beauty & the Beast – I am a monster, not the person that I want to be, I am trapped but I long to be free, and there must be a love that can break the curse. Sleeping Beauty – there must be a love that can break death itself. There must be a way. If only I could get out of myself and into the story.
And there is a song by a very old band, Relient K, that sings out the story of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
“it’s always winter
but never Christmas
it seems this curse just can’t be lifted
but deep inside our hearts we know
that You are here and we will not lose hope”
This is the true and better story that doesn’t end when we close the book. That on the morning of Easter, there was a God who so loved our world that He gave us His only precious and begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but will have eternal life. So when I am mired in my own selfishness, and cry out:
What a wretched man I am! who will save me from this body of death and sin?
The answer rings out as clearly today as it did all those years ago – thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
A very blessed Easter 🙂