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Ken's Pastoral Letter for March

Dear Friends,

March is almost upon us, snowdrops and daffodils are beginning to appear in our gardens; the days are growing longer and the weather warmer. Slowly but surely we are emerging from the cold death of winter into the new life and warm light of Spring - and Easter is coming: the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord. At last the prospect of an end to the coronavirus restrictions is in sight and though this is still some way off our mood nevertheless is lightening with the changing season as we steel ourselves for what we hope may be the final effort of this unforeseen and unexpected period of privations that was enforced upon us all a year ago.

As we do so we enter Lent, a season in the Christian year of penance and abstinence in preparation for Easter: a very different undertaking of voluntary asceticism rather than the patient endurance of imposed restrictions. Its purpose is to clear our minds and hearts to focus upon and better understand the death and resurrection of our Lord, and to better offer our worship thereby.

It is at Easter that we are reminded that it was at the resurrection that God justified His Son before the eyes of the world, annulling the human judgement that was imposed upon Him and reversing the sentence of death that was carried out against Him. Men convicted the Son of God of blasphemy and sentenced Him to death on a cross. But God declared Him innocent: ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him’, (Luke 9:35) and reversed the sentence, raising Him from death on the third day.

For many the idea of resurrection is fantastic and impossible to accept. Men are not raised from death they would say. Revived perhaps, resuscitated yes, but not resurrected; the thing is beyond belief. And yet the opposite view is true for millions of us today for whom the question is not could a man be resurrected but rather could this man be resurrected: the Son of God?

The scriptures inform us, both through the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the narratives of the Early Church (New Testament) that Jesus’ death was, in the purposes of God, the means of achieving the salvation of a lost humanity:

‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life, for God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved.’ (John 3:16, 17).

Many find this also difficult to accept and, not withstanding their acknowledgement of a broken and sinful world in need of God’s love and intervention, see in the intention of the Father, as portrayed in scripture, some sort of sinister manipulation of the Son, who is sent to die for the sins of humankind.

Yet Jesus is recorded as saying: ‘I am the good shepherd……..As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep……My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.’ (John 10: 11a, 15, 17-18a, b). Jesus was no unwilling victim and these words of His do not seem characteristic of a manipulative relationship. Jesus came ‘….not to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45).

But why should such a ransom be necessary? Why so brutal a solution to a problem that seems hardly important to human beings today? This of course is the alarm of the Gospel; that it provides first for an offended God before it can do anything for a fallen humanity. It reveals to us the unpalatable truth that we are not the centre of the universe after all, God is. If we are out of touch with God therefore, we are out of touch with our very reason for existence, which is to be in fellowship (friendship) with our creator, to have a close and intimate relationship with Him, a thing prevented by our sinfulness and the reason why so many ignore all thought of Him entirely.

Human beings are capable of great good but also of great wrongs and none of us is unaware of the darkness within ourselves. This darkness offends an absolutely holy God who is: ‘of purer eyes than to behold iniquity and cannot even look upon sin.’ (Habakkuk 1:13) Yet this holy God is also a God of absolute love: ‘The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving towards all he has made. (Psalm 145:17) How can these two aspects of God’s character ever be reconciled in His dealings with us? The answer is by the cross: We all like sheep have gone astray and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all!’ (Isaiah 53:6).

At the cross God’s justice and holiness are satisfied, as well as His love for all humankind. Together the Father and the Son have found a way of reconciling God’s unapproachable holiness with His unfathomable love. Once achieved in the sacrifice of the Son of God He is raised from the death which cannot hold Him.

This picture of two apparently irreconcilable characteristics of God is seen in the Old Testament book of the Minor Prophet Hosea, who is called upon by God to portray to Israel through his life the pain that God experiences owing to the rejection and faithlessness of His people. Hosea does this by entering into a marriage by divine decree that proves a source of sorrow and heartache to him. His wife is unfaithful to him, she bears children by other men and finally leaves him to become a temple prostitute. Hosea is genuinely in love with Gomer, however, and when her usefulness to the temple is at an end she is found for sale in the slave market where he buys her back at the bidding of the LORD, thus saving her from further degradation and restoring her to the status of his beloved wife. How this can possibly be in light of her behaviour is hidden in the mystery of the character of God, where His holiness is inseparable from His love. The cross in the New Testament is a clearer picture of how this can come about in the purposes of God, and perhaps explains how Gomer could be redeemed (bought back) in anticipation of a price yet to be paid by the Son of God.

Hosea further obeys his calling as a prophet when he calls upon the people to repent. In doing so he does not leave even the words of their penitent prayers to their own inclination but provides them for the occasion: ‘O Israel return to the Lord your God, For you have stumbled because of your iniquity; Take words with you, And return to the LORD.’ (Hosea 14:1, 2a) The outcome is too important for the protocols of approach to be left to the people and so a liturgy is given, short and to the point; words not their own but which they are urged to make their own in order to bring about the restoration of their relationship with God: ‘Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity; Receive us graciously, For we will offer the sacrifices of our lips.’ (Hosea 14:2a, b, c)

This Lententide we are studying together in Churches Together in Saddleworth ‘The Prayers of Jesus’: a Cover to Cover publication by CWR. In it we look at some of Jesus’ words recorded in prayer, and, particularly in the case of the Lord’s Prayer, we look at how we are encouraged to use this ourselves – how we, like Israel of old, are told to ‘take words with us’ as we come before the Lord; how we are taught that the maintenance of our relationship with God is of such importance in our lives that the Son of God Himself gives us the very words to say in the pursuit of this end – words not our own – but to be made our own. So, this Lententide as we prepare to celebrate Easter and try to better understand the Lord’s death; how love and holiness meet at the cross, let us return from any waywardness towards the Lord, and let us ‘take words with us.’

Yours always in Christian love.

Ken

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