Reflections for Holy Week

Friday 

God is for us

“He did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.”
Romans 8:32

It takes what it takes. Salvation is a serious business. Such is the nature of humanity and what confronts us, that our Lord will do whatever is necessary to deliver us from it – which also means delivering us from ourselves. And nor does he not spare himself in the process.

It’s a remarkable thought that the One who has authored all life (John 1:3,4), who is in himself the fountain of life (Psalm 36:9), should himself die in order that we might receive fullness of life (John 10:10).

A couple of Sundays ago (29th March), we quoted from a Newsnight interview with Carlo Rovelli, Italian physicist and author. It was intriguing to see that interview referred to again in one of our national newspapers later the following week. Speaking amidst the crisis in Italy, he’d made a number of observations. In this pandemic, he said, we are “confronting mortality”. Then he continued, “It is not a battle between life and death”. We all know the final outcome of that. “Death wins anyway. We all die.” It is a battle “to give us some more life”.

In other words, our current struggle is to try and extend what we have for just a little while longer. Or, at least, to try and prevent it’s foreshortening. But the end result is always the same. “This will be a very humbling experience for humanity as a whole”, he added. “We are not the master of everything.”

Good Friday is of a different nature. It was indeed a confrontation between life and death. God’s purpose in Christ was to deliver us from the grip of death (1 Corinthians 15:54f), to destroy the one who wields the power of death (Hebrews 2:14) and to deal with what allows it such a hold of us in the first place (Romans 6:23).

“He will swallow up the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations. He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from every face and remove the disgrace of his people from the whole earth. The LORD has spoken.” Isaiah 25:7ff

Thus he, the life-giver – the innocent one – entered death himself, descending to hades, to shatter its power from within, and to set us free for himself (Hosea 13:14). “God will redeem my life from the hand of hades. He will take me to himself.” (Psalm 49:15)

“God is for us”, reads our text, and he will do what it takes to have us for his own.

To get an inkling of what that meant we must turn to the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion. Each draws out different elements and they must be taken together to get a fuller picture. Each is written from a different place.

Matthew and Mark record what they remember as they stood at a distance, watching (Matthew 27:55 & Mark 15:40) From afar, they heard Jesus’ loud cry of dereliction expressed in the opening words of Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v1) – words which express a sense of complete aloneness, abandoned by God and man, without his near presence and when the heavens are silent. Yet he refuses to give up. As we read on in that Psalm we find it’s a song of real faith. “He has not despised the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (v24)

They tell, too, of another loud cry, just before he died.

Luke wasn’t there at the time. Yet he’d carefully gathered the accounts. Along with the women, he tells us, “All those who knew him stood at a distance”. (Luke 23:49). Nevertheless, having done his research, he records Jesus’ words of forgiveness, “they don’t know what they are doing”. And, whereas Matthew and Mark recount the insults heaped upon him, even by those crucified and dying either side; Luke adds that one finally turned and rebuked the other, asking Jesus to remember him when he came into his Kingdom. Or, as it could otherwise be translated, “when you come in your kingdom power”. Although a criminal, suffering for what he had done, the man received as a result the most wonderful promise, “I tell you this day, you will be with me in paradise”.

Luke also says what Jesus shouted in his final loud cry, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”.

John’s Gospel is different. John was up close, at the foot of the cross. He relates spoken words, which perhaps the others didn’t hear. Beside him was Mary, Jesus’ mother, and three other women. John tells us Jesus committed Mary and John into each other’s care. And it appears then that John led her away, taking her back to his own home. Perhaps it was too much for her.

At some stage the remaining women must have joined the others at a distance. From nine in the morning, it took ‘til three in the afternoon before he died and Mary Magdalene is reported in both places.

Returning later, John heard Jesus speak of his thirst. And he heard also his last words before he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. “It is finished”, Jesus said. It is done.

We will never understand what it cost Jesus. And we will never understand what it cost the Father to give his Son. The suffering of the Father is never mentioned. Yet it’s all there if we read between the lines. We’re just told that he loved enough to do it – to do whatever was necessary to have us for his own.

“If God is for us, who can be against us? 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 8:31ff

“Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust!”
Isaiah 26:19

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Thursday

(With Maundy Thursday Devotions by John Hunter)

May they be One

“That the love you have for me may be in them.”
John 17

We come now to the Thursday of Passion Week. Apart from his instructions to ‘make ready the Passover’, we’re not told much about Jesus’ activity throughout the day. Everything seems to happen from early evening and then on through the night – and what a night it would be.

We read of the last supper and a new covenant; the squabbling about who was the greatest and Jesus washing their feet; Jesus predictions about a betrayer and that they’d all desert him – including Peter. We have lengthy and rich teaching in which Jesus explained what was happening and reassured them with promises of things to come. We also have a prayer, both for them and for us – everyone who’d believe because of their witness.

The moon was up when they left the city and crossed the Kidron valley to an olive grove at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Here in a garden, called Gethsemane, Jesus spent time in prayer while the others dozed after their meal and a few glasses of wine. It was Passover and the moon was full. Then in the eerie light Judas arrived with soldiers and a kiss. The man who’d objected so strongly at other people’s devotion and intimacy, now feigned friendship for money.

Seized and bound, Jesus was taken first to Annas, whose enterprise he’d offended on Monday. Annas then sent him to Caiaphas, his son-in-law and high priest for the year. Condemned at dawn by the Council, they took him to Pilate, the Governor, who sent him for a short while to Herod, since he was in town. Battered, bruised and bleeding; mocked, spat upon and falsely accused, an early-morning crowd of agitators demanded Pilate authorise his execution.

We note simply some brief sentiments from his great ‘High Priestly’ prayer in John 17:

Father, protect them... may they be one as we are one (v11)
I make you known, Father, that the love you have for me may be in them, and that I myself may be in them (v26)

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Maundy Thursday Devotions

Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with us all

Let’s worship God by reading the words of Psalm 46 as said by Richard Brewes and sung to the theme tune of the Dambusters. In these difficult times the words of the Psalm have a special meaning.

God is our strength and refuge,
our present help in trouble,
and we therefore will not fear,
though the earth should change!
Though mountains shake and tremble,
though swirling floods are raging,
God the Lord of hosts is with us evermore!

There is a flowing river
within God's holy city;
God is in the midst of her-
she shall not be moved!
God's help is swiftly given,
thrones vanish at his presence-
God the Lord of hosts is with us evermore!

Come, see the works of our maker,
learn of his deeds all powerful:
wars will cease across the world
when he shatters the spear!
Be still and know your creator,
uplift him in the nations-
God the Lord of hosts is with us evermore!

(Combined Mission Praise 188)


Let us pray
May the words on our lips and the meditations of our hearts be righteous in your sight,
My Lord, My Rock and my Redeemer. Amen

Why is Maundy Thursday called Maundy Thursday? I know many of you will know the answer but having asked the question I’d better answer it! The word Maundy is a corruption of the Latin word Mandatus or possibly Mandatum from both of which we get our word mandate or command. Biblical scholars disagree about which command the word refers to, some argue that the word is based on John 15: vv12 -15 where it says,

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

Others argue that the command is as written in Luke 22: vv14-20 when Jesus institutes the Lord’s supper and particularly at verse 19 where he says, “Do this in remembrance of me”.
The whole passage reads,

“When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.”

After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

So the word Maundy comes from the command of Jesus himself, whichever command we think more appropriate.

In these extraordinary times this message of Jesus is extraordinarily relevant when so many people are giving of their all to help and offer succour to others and as Christians we all have a duty to love one another and offer what help we can in these troubled days. But let us also remember that God is our strength and refuge at all times and on this Maundy Thursday and throughout this crisis let us all do as much as we can to support each other, to support all the heroes in the NHS regardless of their job, and above all to love God. As we obey Christ let us all strive to obey the government’s requests to keep our social distance, yet to love and care for each other as we are doing so.

Blessing
May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God our Father, who has shown us such love,
and in His grace has given us such unfailing encouragement and so sure a hope,
still encourage and strengthen us in every good deed and word.

The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be among us
and remain with us now and always. Amen

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Wednesday

Totally Devoted

“While the king was at his table, my perfume spread its fragrance.”
Song of Songs 1:12, with Matthew 26:6-13 & Mark 14:1-11

How different life seems from just a few weeks ago! How swiftly things have changed! All across the world there is a shaking of nations and the economic order. National leaders are struggling to assess and respond to SARS CoV2 and the Covid 19 disease it engenders. Science and medicine are being tested in the face of a common enemy. The social fabric of each country is being stretched. Great fear has gripped many people. There is much we don’t know and few dare predict with any confidence how things will go in the near future. How long will things last? When will they change and can they ever go back to what they were before?

These are tough and sobering questions. And there is ample fuel for the prophets of doom. Yet there are also great indications of encouragement. Many are praying and seeking God in a way they haven’t done before. Many are also responding with a care and consideration for others which, although perhaps there before, was maybe less in evidence.

On Jesus’ previous day in the temple, he was asked which were the greatest commands. He said ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ - the first and more important of these being the former (see Matthew 22:36f & Mark 12:29f). Love of neighbour, if it’s to be truly characterised by God’s love, requires first a relationship with him. And it’s precisely here that many stumble.

On the Wednesday of Passion Week, Jesus’ day ended with a meal at the home of a man named Simon. While at the table, an unnamed woman came in with a very expensive jar of perfume (pure nard), which she broke open and anointed him with, pouring it over his head. It was a lavish expression of appreciation and devotion. But the disciples criticised her harshly.

Jesus told them to leave her alone. It was a beautiful thing she had done. Nevertheless, for Judas, it seemed to have been the final straw. And it’s salutary to note that his visit to the authorities, to ask what he might get for betraying Jesus, came in direct response to this event.

Just four days before, when Jesus first arrived back at Bethany (immediately before Palm Sunday) a similar thing had happened at a meal being served in his honour. On that occasion Mary had taken about half a litre of nard and poured it over his feet, then wiped them with her hair. The whole house was filled with the fragrance. (John 12:1-8)

On that evening it had just been Judas who objected. And Jesus had responded with exactly the same words he used later in the week, telling him to leave her alone. [It’s interesting to observe how one person’s initial criticism can quickly become the complaint of others. Criticism is contagious. One person kicks off and, before you know it, they’re all at it.] According to Judas it was a waste. The perfume could have been sold for a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.

This wasn’t really his concern, however, and John comments that he didn’t really care about them. He was the one looking after the money they set aside for the less fortunate – and he used to steal from it. Judas was a ‘taker’ rather than a giver. Mary’s heart and devotion rankled him.

But now, on the Wednesday, the same thing had happened. This time others joined him in objecting. Was it partly perhaps because the second women was less well known? We’ll never know. But however Judas might have understood things, it got to him, and must have challenged him deeply. He never shared the love these women had. And he responded to their expressions of devotion by going the other way. There’s always a mystery to sin and evil, or as to why anyone would turn from the Lord. It makes no moral or rational sense. He just did it. He closed off his heart and “satan entered him...” (Luke 21:3)

It’s interesting to note some folk’s responses to two Prime Ministers.

Despite the country’s lockdown and restrictions on travel, the New Zealand Prime Minster offered some reassuring words in response to questions last Monday:

“You’ll be pleased to know that we do consider both the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny to be essential workers. But as you can imagine, at this time, of course, they’re going to be potentially quite busy at home with their family as well and their own bunnies. And so I say to the children of New Zealand, if the Easter Bunny doesn’t make it to your household, then we have to understand that it’s a bit difficult at the moment for the Bunny perhaps to get everywhere.... the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are an essential service... But because we’re all in isolation at the moment, the Easter Bunny might not make it to every house this year.”

Hailed as a ray of light in a time of great darkness, this prompted the recognition that “once again New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern showed why she is one of the great world leaders”.

Meanwhile, some chose to strongly criticise Australian PM Scott Morrison for his part in a private online prayer time from his parliamentary office. It was subsequently recorded by mobile and posted online. He spent some time discussing the hardships Australians were facing, as well as asking for prayers for his fellow politicians, before praying himself. Having a strong religious faith “doesn't change what you face every day,” he said, but “fellowship with God” can help.

His prayer is given below. It’s very moving. You can see part of what was posted by going to the ‘Prayer’ section on the website or by clicking here.

SCOTT MORRISON'S CORONAVIRUS PRAYER FOR AUSTRALIA

'Heavenly father, we commit our nation to you.

'In this terrible time of great need and suffering for so many people.

'And we do this also for the entire world, places far from this country there are people suffering even more, going through tremendous hardship, crying out, we pray you'll hear their voice.

'Pray you'll deliver them, that you'll send them peace and that you'll send them comfort and you'll send them strength in this time of great, great need.

'Father, give us strength here in this country. Give us wisdom, give us judgement, give us encouragement.

'Let your peace reign, let your love shower this nation in this time.

'And let your people, let those whu trust in you, Lord, be instruments for your love, for your compassion, for your justice, for your mercy, for your grace.

'Let us be lights, Lord, in a time of great darkness.

'May you lift us up in this time, may you strengthen us and encourage us and in all things, Lord, may you shine upon all of us at this time as we seek your grace, we seek your strength and we seek your favour.

'We pray this in Jesus' name. We pray also for our leaders, my colleagues in parliamentary roles, doesn't matter what party they're from.

'I pray particularly for my colleagues in the cabinet, ministers making difficult decisions each and every day.

'And I especially pray for my colleagues in the national cabinet, premiers and chief ministers, faced with terrible challenges that were unthinkable only a few days ago as they become realities.

'We pray that you'll keep the national cabinet strong and united and that we may be able to face each day and each challenge with unity and purpose.

'I pray all of these things, Lord, as we praise you always.

'May your kingdom come, may your will be done, Lord, on earth as it is in heaven and bring peace to our world and to our nation.

'In Jesus' name we pray.'

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 Tuesday 

Signs of the Times

“Stand and lift up your heads. Your redemption is drawing near”

Luke 21:5-36 (see also Matthew 24 & Mark 13)

Following the events of the day before, when Jesus cleansed the temple courts, he was able to spend much of the rest of the week teaching unhindered. The Tuesday of Passion Week saw his authority questioned and a number of challenges from the religious authorities, as they tried to trip him up and drive a wedge between him and the people. Should taxes be paid to Caesar? How is the resurrection possible? What are the most important commands?

He answered them all, responding with his own searching questions and culminating in a challenge to his opponents about the Messiah, plus a series of denunciations against them. As they left the temple later, his disciples remarked on the magnificence of its structure. With its front covered in gold, it was one of the grandest buildings in the ancient world.

There would come a time, Jesus said, when not stone would remain upon another (a prophecy fulfilled in 70AD when the Romans laid siege to the city and destroyed it completely).

This met with a flood of questions. When would this happen? What would be the sign it was about to take place? What also would be the sign of his coming, and of the end of the age?

These questions merge into each other as if they all relate to the same thing. Yet it’s important to recognise there are various strands to Jesus’ response, in which he distinguishes between the soon-coming catastrophe for Jerusalem and the final dramatic events of world history. [His disciples understood this and heeded the warnings. Most Christians fled Jerusalem in AD68 and were thus spared. Others left it very late in the day, only finally leaving in the early weeks of AD70. These encountered starvation in the countryside due to the devastation brought about by the Romans]

It’s simply not possible to explore all Jesus had to say in these verses but we can note a few brief things. His first response was to warn them about deception in this area. Many will come in his name, he said. They will acknowledge him as Messiah but then go on to lead people astray. There would be many troubles but they must not be afraid. The end will not come right away.

There will be conflicts, great earthquakes, famines and pestilence, even great signs in the heavens. All these, he said, are but the beginning of birth pangs. [Matthew 24:8 & Mark13:8] Significant though they are; in themselves they do not (on their own) herald an imminent culmination. For this he points to environmental and cosmological events, as the earth, the sea and the heavenly bodies are shaken – to which we must add also his concluding parable of the fig tree (which refers to Israel).

Jesus’ comparison with the onset of labour is noteworthy. As the time for birth approaches, an expectant mother experiences contractions. At first they are occasional and weaker in strength. Yet as things things proceed, there is increased regularity and a gathering intensity. In the earlier stages, many take themselves to the hospital too soon, only to get sent home again. Although, depending on the woman, things can sometimes swiftly change and the final stages can come on with great speed.

Some have asked whether the current pandemic is a ‘sign for the times’? The simple answer is, yes! Each such event is like a labour contraction. They are all signs – pointers to a greater series of events to come. But that does not mean that any single occurrence is in itself the final indicator. An event may of course form part of a greater picture. But, considered simply on its own, we cannot say. It might be! And, there again, it might not. We must remember Jesus warning against taking the ordinary tragedies of history as evidence that the world is about to end immediately.

The crucial thing for us in Jesus discourse is his caution about taking care, lest our hearts become weighed down with too much feasting and drinking on the one hand, or with the anxieties of life on the other. “Be always on the watch”, he says. Keep alert. And pray – both that you may escape what is to happen and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man (v 36).

“By standing firm you will gain life” (v 19)
“Stand and lift up your heads, your redemption is drawing near” (v 28)

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Monday 

Jesus Clears the Temple Courts

“My house will be a house of prayer for all nations”

Mark 11:15-18 & Isaiah 56:6,7 (see also Matthew 21:12-17)

To understand the enormity of the confrontation which took place during ‘Passion Week’ we explore a selection of significant events. Today we look at what happened on the Monday, when Jesus overturned tables, drove out buyers and sellers and stopped people passing through. It’s one of the few occasions we see Jesus angry. And it ends with miracles of healing and children shouting praise.

Setting the scene

There was a warrant out for Jesus’ arrest. The religious authorities wanted Jesus dead. Things had come to a head shortly before, when Jesus brought his friend Lazarus back to life, four days after dying. It was an extraordinary miracle which displayed Jesus’ authority over the grave. Everyone, including his enemies, knew it.

It took place in Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem where enormous crowds were gathering for the annual Passover Festival. To get an idea of numbers: thirty years later, a Roman governor estimated about 250,000 one-year-old lambs were killed for the feast. [Think of this as a host of corporate barbecues] Since the minimum number for a Passover meal was a group of ten, that suggests in excess of 2.5 million people staying in Jerusalem and surrounding area for the occasion.

It was a celebration of God’s power in deliverance. And they came from all over the world – Jews and God-fearing Gentiles alike. It was a party atmosphere and a great opportunity to catch up with current events and local gossip. The news about Lazarus had spread far and wide. So, when Jesus arrived back in Bethany, crowds went out to meet him and then accompany him as he journeyed to Jerusalem on (what we call) Palm Sunday.

In context of the price on his head, it was a blatant act of defiance. But, given the large crowds and his welcome by the people, the authorities could do nothing about it. To make it worse, Jesus was being hailed by many as their Messiah King, the promised deliverer sent by God. So they were afraid – fearful of what would ensue if Jesus instigated a rebellion, yet frightened of causing a riot if they arrested him.

Jesus, however, had other plans. In riding a donkey he’d indicated his peaceful intentions. This was in accord with Middle Eastern custom. If he’d been out for battle, he would have ridden a horse. There was indeed to be a showdown – a deliverance and the dawn of a new freedom. But the enemy in view was death and the powers of darkness. And to win this victory required a dealing with sin and the offering up of his own life to restore people to the loving purposes of God.

This in turn required a cleansing of the temple – the central place on earth where people around the world could come and meet with God; where they could find mercy and healing, present their needs and troubles, and receive blessing and grace. It was a house of prayer for all nations.

The Temple

Centuries earlier, the first temple had been built on the spot where God called a halt to a plague – a deadly pestilence which had ravished the countryside and was poised to overtake the people of Jerusalem. It was a time of national crisis and David had responded by erecting an alter for worship and personal devotion. [see I Chronicles 21 & 27:23,24. Compare II Samuel 24 & Exodus 30:11-16]

Similar sentiments are expressed when David’s son, Solomon, completed the temple’s construction. Following its dedication, the LORD spoke to him in these words:

“I have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I withhold the heavens and there is no rain, or give charge to locusts to devour the land, or release pestilence among my people; if my people, who are called by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn back from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to prayer made in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this house so that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there all the days.” [I Chronicles 7: 12-16]

It’s a wonderful promise. Even when God has himself authorised the crisis, his eyes and his heart are open to prayer. Even when we sin, there must be a way for us to come to him for restoration and healing. This is in perpetuity, both for his own people and any foreigner who wishes to do so.

Yet in Jesus’ day, barriers had been placed in their way. The poor were being exploited, Gentiles hindered in their approach, and the character of God was being obscured.

With such vast numbers flocking to the city at this time, there were rich opportunities for merchants, shop owners and anyone offering accommodation. Such is life! But what drew Jesus’ ire were the religious racketeers who had set up their stalls in the Court of the Gentiles – the only part of the temple complex open to people of other nationalities – thus destroying it as a place of prayer and personal devotion. Some were using it as a thoroughfare, a short cut to carry their goods. Jesus drove them out and would not allow anyone with merchandise to pass through.

He overturned the tables of the money-changers and those selling doves. There was a temple currency and in order to buy offerings or pay the temple tax, people from other regions needed to exchange money. Although not in itself an abuse, it was open to dishonest gain and the charging of exorbitant commissions. Doves were the offerings of the poor – and for others too, such as when women came for their purification after childbirth or when a leper came to have his cure attested and certified before rejoining ordinary society. These could be bought outside at a reasonable price. But they needed to be without spot or blemish and there were official inspectors to make sure. It was easy to deny access with doves or other animals and insist they be bought at double the price from ‘previously approved’ sellers inside.

Large profits were there for the making. It was a deliberately planned victimisation of the ordinary, humble worshipper and nothing less than legalised robbery. [See Jeremiah 7:11] The temple shops were known as the Booths of Annas and belonged to the family of the Chief Priest. [It was to Annas that Jesus was first taken when arrested later in the week] Jesus struck a blow at their monopoly. And they could do nothing about it. The people were on his side.

The day ends with Jesus healing those who came to him and children shouting praise. The officials were furious and more determined than ever to kill him. Yet, despite all the wrath of man, the grace of God extends to all who draw near. In these acts of Jesus we see into the heart of the Father, ever open to our prayers. His mercy still extends to all who come to him through Jesus.

“Let them lay hold of my protection. Let them make peace with me. Yes, make peace with me.”
Isaiah 27:5

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