Lent Devotional 52

EASTER SATURDAY

'So what's your all-time favourite song, then?' I listened as John put his friend on the spot.

They had been discussing music of various sorts and styles. This was a way of getting to the heart of the matter.

'Let me play safe,' the friend replied. I'm not going for some- thing new. I'll stick with "Yesterday", by Paul McCartney.'

John was shocked. 'I thought it would be something by Schubert,' he complained. 'You're always on about him.'

'Yes, I know,' came the reply. 'But actually I think "Yesterday" draws together the whole tradition of earlier song, and say so much in a short space. It's beautiful, and it's packed full of meaning.'

The debate will go on. Some readers will no doubt be as shocked as John was. But the explanation was a good one. We're not talking about a whim here, a sudden passing fancy. We're talking about something that draws a much larger picture together and holds it there.
Questions like this come in many shapes and sizes. What's the best golf course in the world? Which is the finest Shakespeare play? Which Scottish mountain gives you the best walk? But one of the most famous, a question repeated in various forms throughout Jewish literature, is the one the Pharisees asked Jesus: 'Which commandment in the law is the greatest?'

Now we note that this isn't simply a question about the relative importance of the commands against stealing, murder, adultery and so on. The law — Israel's Torah — was not just a list of rules to make life a bit less unpleasant. It was the God-given blueprint for the national life, the life that would make Israel the light of the world. It was, so many Jews believed, a direct revelation from God himself, thus making the Torah almost divine in itself. And part of the point of Torah, for the Pharisees of the time, was that any Jew, anywhere in the world, could follow it. Most Jews couldn't get to the Temple in Jerusalem except at the most once or twice in a lifetime. Any Jew could study, learn and follow Torah.

Jesus' answer to the question was straight down the line. 'Love God with all your heart, soul and mind,' he said, 'and love your neighbour as yourself.' As far as it went, as an answer to the question of the time, it was beyond reproach. These are central to the Old Testament as well as the New, and contain within them pretty much everything else the law prescribes.

But what happens if we read them in the light of Easter?

We suddenly discover that something Matthew has often hinted at comes true in a new way. Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. But how did he fulfil it? Not by laboriously obeying all the biblical commands, one by one, ticking them off on a mental list. Rather, by doing and being all that Israel was called to do and be. He became the defining point, the blueprint and yardstick, for the people of God. In his death on the cross he offered God the full love, obedience and devotion of heart, mind and soul to which Israel had been called. And in that same death he reached out in love to neighbours far and near, to the whole world for whom he was dying. He became not just the teacher of a new, fulfilled Torah. He was the fulfilled Torah in person.
The resurrection of Jesus therefore declares that the law, as summed up here, has been fulfilled to the uttermost — by Jesus himself. And, precisely because of the resurrection, it can be fulfilled anywhere and everywhere. Followers of Jesus don't need to go to the Temple in Jerusalem. They can go to Jesus, which is what they do whenever they love God with heart, mind and soul, and their neighbours as themselves.

And when people say, as they will, that these things are very difficult, then Jesus is on hand, with them always to the close of the age, to explain that the more they look at him and learn from him, the more they will discover what it means to love God, and the more energy and goodwill they will find welling up inside themselves to love their neighbours as well. Jesus' resurrection is the greatest demonstration of the love of God for his whole creation, evoking in us an answering love. And when we glimpse God's new world, in which all are invited to share, we look upon our neighbours, of all shapes, sorts and sizes, with new eyes. These are people for whom Jesus died. These are people we shall learn to love as we love ourselves.

This is what it means to be genuinely human. Easter offers us the direct route to be the people we were made to be. God's people. Jesus' people. People of love.

TODAY
Gracious Lord Jesus, dying for us and rising again: show us more and more how great the Father's love is for us, so that we may be drawn to love him more and more in return; and show us, for his sake and yours, how to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

SCRIPTURE READING
Matthew 22-33-40



Lent Devotional 51

EASTER FRIDAY

Reading Jesus' parables in Easter week is particularly fruitful. Imagine Matthew's friends reading his book, with their own Easter celebrations now a regular weekly feature of life, and hearing them in a whole new way. Jesus had spoken elsewhere, after all, about his own life in terms of a grain of seed falling into the earth and dying, and then bearing a great deal of fruit. It looks as though he was applying to himself the strange picture in the parable of the Sower, where much seed seems to be thrown away (how sad, people some- times say, that Jesus died so young when he had so much still to give! What a waste!), and yet some bears fruit 30, 60 or 100 times over.

What started life, then, as Jesus' explanation of how his own kingdom-work was going ahead during the course of his public career can be translated, without difficulty, into the explanation that the Easter church now needs for how the work of world mission will fare. One of the standard objections to the Christian message, as we saw, goes like this: how can you say the kingdom of heaven has arrived on earth, when it's obvious, looking around you, that nothing of the kind has happened? Things are still pretty bleak. Often Jesus' followers seem to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Jesus' own explanation of how the kingdom works is still the classic answer to this question. What did you expect: that God would send in the tanks like a totalitarian dictator, crush the opposition and set up a 'kingdom' which would leave half the world bruised and resentful? What sort of a 'god' would that be? No! God will bring in his kingdom by the same means, the same strange process, that he seems to use in the natural world. Seeds will be sown; many will apparently be lost, but others will be powerfully fruitful. Or, as the chapter goes on, there will be seeds sown which are then threatened by weeds. One day the weeds will be pulled up, but for the moment they grow side by side. Or again, the kingdom will come like seed growing secretly. At the moment there may be nothing to see, but suddenly, one day, people will be putting in the sickle because it's harvest time. In other words: yes, the kingdom has indeed been launched; yes, it is making its way in the world; but no, it isn't doing so in the way you might have imagined. It is doing so in the way God has imagined: by the Sower himself becoming the seed sown in good soil, and rising again to celebrate the harvest of God's new creation.

TODAY
Give us the faith, good Lord, to see your kingdom at work even when seeds seem wasted and the soil seems bare. Thank you for the promise of the great harvest, of which your resurrection was the first fruits.

SCRIPTURE READING
Matthew 13:1-23


Lent Devotional 50

EASTER THURSDAY

Now, in Easter week, try reading the whole Sermon on the Mount as a blueprint for how Jesus' Easter-people should live. Now at last, with Jesus leading the way through death to new life, we see what it might mean to be poor in spirit, to be meek, peacemakers, and so on. Now, already, the mourners are being comforted, the pure in heart glimpsing the living God in Jesus himself. Now at last, as well, those who follow Jesus will be persecuted because of their love for him and the new world of justice and joy which he has opened up, which challenges the old world to its core. Now, at last, we can see the sense in the demanding new way of life which he has launched.

That is the spirit in which, for instance, we should read the bracing commands of 5.21—48. This is what it might mean to be genuinely human! The Easter message declares that it is possible to live without anger, without lust, without divorce, swearing, revenge and hatred. Most of the world doesn't know this, but Jesus knew it; and at Easter he calls us to die to all those things, and come alive to his new way of life. Yes, it will be tough. Yes, dying in any sense is hard and unpleasant. So many theories about human behaviour have assumed that we ought to feel as comfortable as possible as much as possible. Then we wonder why life goes downhill, rather than attaining the heights we glimpse from time to time. Easter is where we not only see those heights but start to scale them.

Then, as the Sermon reaches a kind of climax, we have this passage about worry — or rather, about not worrying. Modern life, of course, thrives on worry. We only have to think back a century or two before radio, television, regular swift mail around the country and the world, and so on, to realize that for most people most of the time the world beyond their immediate village was a closed book. Worry was localized — none the easier for that, but think what we have done. We have made a global issue of it: we worry about nuclear power in the Middle East, about bush fires in Australia, about ecological disasters in Alaska. And, of course, this doesn't remove the local and personal worries about meeting the bills, about feeding the family, about the uncertainty of life itself.

And Jesus tells us — the Easter Jesus tells us — not to worry about any of them. He could give that instruction already, during his ministry; how much more can he give it now that he is raised from the dead, now that he has overthrown the greatest worry of all, death itself? One of the chief notes in the life of the early Christians was joy: joy because a new way of life had been launched, new creation had begun, and it was clear that God had commenced his reign and could be trusted to bring it to completion. 'Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,' said Jesus, 'and all these things will be given to you as well.' And Easter reaffirms, gloriously, the way in which Jesus drew his examples from the natural order. The birds don't plant seed and reap harvests, but they get enough to eat. The lilies don't work at weaving, yet they are dressed magnificently. Other philosophies might scoff at such examples: they come from this world of space, time and matter, not the eternal world of ideas. But Easter reminds us emphatically that the world of space, time and matter is redeemed, not abandoned. In raising Jesus, God has reaffirmed the goodness of the natural world, and his compassionate care for it. In that care we can rest secure.

Worry and Easter, then, don't go together. Someone once asked that great teacher and saint, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. 'I am neither an optimist', he said, 'nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!' He had learned the Easter lesson which brings the Sermon on the Mount to life. Our life.

TODAY
Help us, gracious Lord, to live our whole life in full and joyful trust in the power of your resurrection.

SCRIPTURE READING
Matthew 6:25-34


Lent Devotional 49

EASTER WEDNESDAY

We are now going to do something rather different. We have followed the story which Matthew tells, the story of Jesus from before his birth to after his resurrection. But Matthew was of course writing for Christians who already knew more or less 'what happened'. They were already people who believed in Jesus, that he had died to rescue them from sin and death, that he had been raised again and was now the world's true Lord. How would they then read Matthew's gospel, not just as a faithful account of what had happened in the past, but as a blueprint and set of clues for how they should be living as followers of this risen Jesus today?

I have chosen four passages that we haven't looked at in detail earlier in the book, to take us forward from the Easter story itself into the much longer Easter story that continues to this day. Jesus' Easter people — you and me, in other words — now read the gospels in order to discover, again and again, the presence and power and leading of Jesus in and through our lives and witness. And we begin with that wonderful story about the three wise men.
Here, Matthew is saying, Jesus was already mysteriously revealed as 'Lord of the world' — even though the present Jewish ruler, the sad and bad old king Herod, had no interest in such things except to kill enough people (in this case, little babies) to make sure nobody would upset his own shaky grip on power. Wise men from the East: we are not told here that they were 'kings', though later legend has seen them as such.

Certainly Matthew intends them as representatives of the 'many who will come from east and west' to share the ancient Jewish dream of God's kingdom, and all because of Jesus (see 8.11). By the same token, he is seeing Herod as typical of those 'sons of the kingdom' who will, at the same time, miss out on the promise. As John the Baptist would say in the next chapter, God can raise up 'children of Abraham' from these stones (3.9).

The story of the three wise men, then, can be seen in the light of Easter as a great encouragement to the little church as it sets off on its mission to the wider world: the wider world has already heard about him and begun to come looking for him! But here there is a delicate balance to be kept. Some, eager to show how much God loves the whole world, have seen all non-Jewish religions and philosophies as equally valid, merely needing to be encouraged and developed. But that's not how the story works.

The wisdom of the East, including the stargazing which was such a major part of ancient learning, had brought the wise men to the point where they were ready to travel to the land of the Jews to find the new king. But they needed help to find the right spot. Help was at hand in the form of the Jewish scriptures. They and they alone provided the clue to Bethlehem. Without them, the wise men had simply ended up at the wrong address — a dangerous place to be, as anyone in Herod's court could have told them. But, with great irony, the chief priests and scribes who have told the travellers where to find the royal child have no interest in going themselves to see whether it's true. They assume it isn't — until, later, Herod smells a rat and sends in his thugs to kill the babies.

Matthew seems to be saying, to his resurrection-based church, that their mission will remain rooted in the Jewish scriptures, and that they will be able with their help to draw the wisdom of the world into homage to the world's rightful king. But he is also warning them that they must not expect all the Jewish people to join in. As Paul would put it, God has subjected all people to disobedience, so that he might have mercy on all. The good news of Jesus, his kingdom-message, cross and resurrection, is always humbling to all people. It is the place where the scriptures and the wisdom of the world can meet and celebrate, but it will take something more as well. The 'wise men' could just as well have been called 'the humble men', or indeed 'the obedient men'. It's people like that who could then be called 'the overwhelmed-with-joy' people.

TODAY
Risen Lord, give us a vision of the whole world coming to worship at your feet, and enable us to play a part in bringing that to reality.

SCRIPTURE READING
Matthew 2:1-12


Lent Devotional 48

EASTER TUESDAY

All four gospels tell a story which many in today's world have forgotten, or have never even known. It is the story of how Jesus became the king of the world. That's where we have been going, ever since, back near the beginning, Jesus came into Galilee announcing that 'heaven's kingdom is at hand'. So often this has been turned into a very different message, about 'telling people how to go to heaven', that we have ignored the far more startling truth that Jesus was actually talking about how heaven was coming to us. In other words, how God, the God of heaven and earth, was coming to earth to establish his sovereign, saving rule.

Now, risen from the dead, Jesus declares that it's happened. 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me!' In other words, the prophetic picture in Daniel 7, which Jesus quoted in 24.30 and 26.64, has come true. Jesus has been exalted to be God's right-hand man. All that God now does, in heaven and on earth, he will do in and through Jesus. (Within a generation, early Christian theologians like Paul, John and the author of Hebrews would point out that this is because Jesus, long before he became human, was God's right-hand person in making the world in the first place.) This is the great message of the whole gospel. Jesus is King and Lord, not just 'in heaven' (that would be quite a 'safe' idea) but on earth as well.

But what — what on earth, we might say — does that actually mean? If Jesus is really King and Lord, why is the world still in such a mess? How does he exercise this 'lordship'? How does this sovereignty, claimed so strongly in this passage, work out on the ground?

The whole gospel, once more, is written in order to give the answer to that. Again, it's an answer many people today have not even begun to think through. Ask yourself this question: how did Jesus come to this point of being king? The answer is obvious. He didn't do it in the way the disciples expected, in the way the crowds wanted, in the way which the chief priests and Pilate assumed he would behave. He didn't follow the normal human path to power, pushing and shoving his way forward, fighting and killing until his position was established.

He came as the Servant, the one who took people's infirmities and diseases on to himself, the one who suffered insults and mocking and torture and death. He was obedient, through- out his life, to a different vision of power, a different sort of kingdom-dream. And his resurrection not only showed that he was right. It established his kingdom, his type of kingdom, once and for all.

But if that's the sort of kingdom it is, it must be put into operation, not by his followers bullying and harrying and forcing the rest of the world to come into line. That's what people are afraid of today when they warn against 'theocracy', a rule-of-God which would quickly turn into the bossy, self-righteous 'rule' of those who claim to speak for God. Sometimes, indeed, the church has behaved in exactly that way. But that is a denial of the Lord they claim to worship.

Jesus' followers are to implement his kingdom by going and making disciples, learners, students, followers who will be shaped by Jesus' example and teaching. They are to 'baptize' them, plunging them into the very name and life and character of the true God, who is Father, Son and Spirit. They are to teach them everything Jesus commanded, particularly all those wonderful words in the Sermon on the Mount about the meek inheriting the earth, about a different way to be human. That is the character of Jesus' rule, and that is the means by which that rule will be established.

We live at a time of great transition and turbulence in our society. Dreams of 'progress' and 'enlightenment' seem to have produced the exact opposite. Supposedly civilized society has gone back to the use of torture. Supposedly grown-up society cannot educate the rising generation in anything but trivia. This same society regularly tells the church that it is on the way out. The Christian message is bad for you, they say; it's out of date, it's disproved.

This is ridiculous. There is every reason to hope that this year, or this decade, or this century, God will do new things. Jesus is still Lord — but he rules in the same way that he lived, taught and died. When his followers learn again to do the same, we shall see a fresh start. And the encouragement we need is found in the final words of Matthew's gospel, picking up neatly the promise made to Joseph at the very beginning. His name will be 'Emmanuel', said the angel, which means 'God with us'. That God-with-us promise, that heaven-on- earth assurance, has come true in Jesus. Millions of Christians know this in their daily experience, their praying, their living, their work for his kingdom. 'I am with you always, to the end of the age.' That is a promise you can stake your life on. It is also a challenge: if Jesus himself is 'with you', what should you be doing? How then should you live? Easter is a time to ask precisely that sort of question. It is also a time to discover God's powerful answer.

TODAY
Risen Lord Jesus, be with us as you have promised, and help us to go into all the world to bring all nations under the rule of your love.

SCRIPTURE READING
Matthew 28:16-20


Lent Devotional 47

EASTER MONDAY

One of the things people have often said about the early Christians' belief in Jesus' resurrection is that they were obviously so devastated by the failure of their dreams and hopes that they found a way of saying it was all right after all. A grand-sounding phrase has been developed to describe this: 'cognitive dissonance', the clash between something you have passionately believed and something which now turns out to be true. They jangle against one another, like badly played musical notes, and eventually people find a way of bringing them back into harmony. That way they don't have to adjust their original beliefs. Much easier that way.

Part of the answer to this is that the early Christians certainly weren't expecting anything like Jesus' resurrection. It wasn't part of the game plan. 'Resurrection' was something that would happen to everyone at the end, not to one person in the middle of history. They wanted Jesus to be 'king of the Jews' in the fairly ordinary sense; look at James and John and their request in chapter 20. They weren't expecting Jesus to die, especially to be crucified. They were not twiddling their thumbs on Holy Saturday saying, 'Well, that was very nasty, but of course he'll be back tomorrow.' If they were going to make up stories to explain that Jesus' project would somehow go ahead, they would have done what other Jewish groups of their day did when their leaders were killed. They would find themselves another leader, perhaps from the same family. In fact, Jesus' own brother James became the great leader of the Jerusalem church for the next 30 years. But nobody said James was the Messiah.

But the other part of the answer to what the sceptics have said is that it is in fact the sceptics, from that day to this, who are guilty of the very thing of which they are accusing the Christians. It is the sceptical world-view that has been blown apart by Jesus' resurrection. Ever since that day they have been only too eager to find stories to tell to show that actually it didn't happen, that their original world-view (in which dead people cannot, do not and will not rise again) was correct after all, that some other story will explain it. You can feel the sigh of relief in the sceptical camp each time one of these stories is put forward, however unlikely it may be. Phew! We don't need to believe that Jesus rose again. That's all right then. We can cope with him as a great teacher (with whom we may from time to time disagree). We can even see his death as a great example of love in action. We can share his vision of a world in which people live at peace. Only don't ask us to accept that he rose from the dead. That's just too much.

This reaction of the sceptics to the news of the empty tomb began very early, as we find here. Look at the way all the different parties are involved. The guards tell the priests. The priests tell the elders. Together they bribe the soldiers. They agree to tell the governor their new story. Phew! That's all right. We can continue with business as usual. Life as before — in which we run the world, we call the shots, we are the people in power. Al Gore, the former US Vice President, wrote about the ecological crisis under the title An Inconvenient Truth. That's as may be. The biggest inconvenient truth of all — inconvenient not just for a 'modern world-view' but for all people in positions of power and responsibility — is the belief that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Large sums of money change hands, then and now, to make sure the rumour is squashed. But it's all in vain. The best answer to the sceptics is the fact that there is now a community of people who not only say Jesus was raised from the dead. They show it by their own lives.

TODAY
Sovereign Lord, help us to meet the scorn of unbelievers with the evidence, in what we do and who we are, that you are indeed alive.

SCRIPTURE READING
Matthew 28:11-15


Lent Devotional 46

EASTER DAY

Earthquakes, angels, women running to and fro, a strange command. A highly unlikely tale. Yes, indeed, and that's the point. Nobody thought in the first century, and nobody should think now, that the point of the Easter story is that this is quite a reasonable thing to happen, that dead people really do rise if only we had the wit to see it, that it should be quite easy to believe it if only you thought about it for a few minutes.

No. It was always a strange, crazy, wild story. What else would you expect if, after all, the ancient dream of Israel was true? If the God who made the world had finally acted to turn things around, to take all the forces of chaos, pride, greed, darkness and death and allow them to do their worst, exhausting themselves in the process? If Jesus of Nazareth really was, as the centurion (greatly to his own surprise, no doubt) found himself saying three days before, 'the Son of God'? What else would you expect? A calm restatement of some philosophical truths for sage old greybeards to ponder — or events which blew the world apart and put it back in a new way?

The unlikeliest bit of the story is the bit that really does show they weren't making it up. Women were not regarded as reliable witnesses in a court of law in those days, and every- body knew it. Even the early church, where women played an important part, formulated the first official statement of resurrection faith in such a way that the women were quietly removed from the story (1 Corinthians 15.3—9). It is a thousand per cent more likely that the women were in the story at the start and then airbrushed out, rather than that they were never there in the earliest forms of the story and then inserted, in different ways, by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. How to ruin a good story for public use! Everyone would surely say, and many sceptics did indeed say, 'How can you believe a crazy tale on the evidence of a few hysterical women?'

But, as Paul put it elsewhere in that same letter, God chooses what is weak in the world, what the world counts as foolishness, to put to shame the power and wisdom of the world. That is part of what Easter is all about. God is doing a new thing, and, as Jesus said earlier in the story, the first shall be last and the last first. Easter is a day to put everything upside down and inside out. Maybe we should have Easter processions with the young, the weak and the stranger in pride of place, letting the normal leaders sink into oblivion somewhere. Maybe we should let the children's band lead the worship and send the professional choirs into the congregation for the day. Maybe the women should lead the entire service and then, at a certain point, go and tell the men that it's time they joined in. Giving the women pride of place in the story makes exactly that point. Instead of the men getting the message and then solemnly informing the women later on, the women are in on the action from the start. It is they who have to go and tell Jesus' 'brothers' (verse 10).

But the main thing is that, once more, they are told not to be afraid (verse 5). What is there to be afraid of, if Easter has dealt with the greatest monster of all, death itself? Why should you be afraid of anything, if Jesus has been raised from the dead, if the old world has cracked open and a new world has been born?

And Easter always looks outwards. From the very start, the news that Jesus is risen contains a command: 'Go!' Go, first to Galilee; go back to where it began, back to your roots to meet the risen Jesus there and watch him transform everything, including your oldest memories. And, as you obey the command of the angel, Jesus himself may perhaps meet you in person (verse 9). Take hold of him. Worship him. This is his day, the Day of Days. Make it yours too.

TODAY
We praise you, Lord Jesus Christ, because you have overcome death, and opened God's new creation to all believers.

SCRIPTURE READING
Matthew 28:1-10


Lent Devotional 45

HOLY WEEK: HOLY SATURDAY

They tried to keep Jesus safely dead then, and they try it still today.

Again and again, when the newspapers or the radio stations want to talk about God, they ignore Jesus. We hear experts pro- claiming that science has disproved God — without realizing that the 'god' you could squeeze out of the picture by more and more scientific discoveries is not the God whom Christians worship. Our world is still full of the modern equivalents of high priests going to the governor to have a guard placed on the tomb — the sceptics appealing for help to the powerful. It didn't work then and it won't work now.

Sometimes, though, we Christians need to observe a Holy Saturday moment. On Holy Saturday, there is nothing you can do except wait. The Christian faith suffers, apparently, great defeats. There are scandals and divisions, and the world looks on and loves it, like the crowds at the foot of the cross. When the Pope visited the United Kingdom in September 2010, he spent almost all his time talking about Jesus while the commentators in the media spent almost all their time talking about sex. And where the church, through its own fault, has caused scandal, a time of silence may be appropriate.

But God will do what God will do, in God's own time. The world can plot and plan, but all of that will count for nothing when the victory already won on the cross turns into the new sort of victory on the third day. In many parts of the western world today, the church is almost apologetic, afraid of being sneered at. It looks as though the chief priests of our culture, the Pharisees in today's media, and even the political leaders, have won. Give them their day to imagine that. It's happened before and it will happen again. The Romans tried to stamp out the Christian faith once and for all at the end of the third century, but within a few years more than half the empire had converted and the new emperor gave in. Many people in England were sceptical about Christian faith after the religious turmoil of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but great revivals of various different sorts took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth. Who knows what will happen next, after the sneering and scheming of the sceptics of our day? Our part is to keep Holy Saturday in faith and hope, grieving over the ruin of the world that sent Jesus to his death, trusting in the promises of God that new life will come in his way and his time.

And there is usually something to be done in the present, even when times are sad and hard. It took considerable courage for Joseph of Arimathea to go to Pontius Pilate and ask for Jesus' body. Peter and the others had run away to hide because they were afraid of being thought accomplices of Jesus. Joseph had no such qualms, even after Jesus' death.
Some of Jesus' followers might well have thought that, if the Romans had crucified him, he can't have been the Messiah, so he must have been a charlatan. They might willingly have let the Romans bury him in a common grave, as they usually did after a crucifixion (always supposing there was anything left to bury once dogs, birds and vermin had done their work). But Joseph didn't see it that way. A clean linen cloth; the tomb he had prepared for himself; and the security of a great stone.

It all had to be done in haste, with the sabbath approaching (that's why the two Marys were watching, so they could go back on the first day of the new week to complete what should be done to the body). But what was done was done decently. Sometimes, as we work for and with Jesus, it may feel a bit like that. We aren't sure why we've got to this place, why things aren't going as we wanted or planned, and the life seems to have drained out of it all. That's a Holy Saturday moment. Do what has to be done, and wait for God to act in his own way and his own time.

TODAY
Help us, gracious Lord, to wait for your victory, and in the mean- time to serve you in whatever way we can.

SCRIPTURE READING
Matthew 27:57-66


Lent Devotional 44

HOLY WEEK: GOOD FRIDAY

Overwhelmed with horror at what we are seeing, we join the crowds as they hurry along behind the soldiers with their prisoner. Forget the calm tableau of so many historic paintings of the scene, with Mary and John standing at a discreet distance from the foot of Jesus' cross. In the Middle East, then as now, there were always more people in the crowd than would fit into the small streets, always people pushing and shoving. The soldiers might keep people at arm's length, but not much more. There were probably fifty people within ten feet of Jesus, jostling, shouting, jeering, pointing, spitting. Some weeping.

You could tell the story a thousand different ways, and they'd all be true. Jesus' followers quickly came to tell it in such a way as to bring out what Jesus himself had been trying to say all along, and what Matthew has been trying to tell us through- out his gospel: this is the event through which Jesus became king. King of the Jews. King of the world.

To see how Matthew has done this, you have to imagine yourself, in that crowd, as someone who has prayed and sung the Psalms all your life. The Psalms turn the hard lumps of Israel's story and hopes into liquid poetry, flowing along like a great river, carrying you with it. And as you stand at the foot of the cross, you have a nightmarish sequence of flashbacks, of déjà vu moments, watching Israel's hopes and dreams come to life, or rather to death, in front of your eyes. Bits and pieces of the Psalms, acted out right there. Jesus is offered sour wine to drink. They cast lots for his clothes. They hail him as 'king of the Jews'. They mock him with his own words. And, after three hours of darkness, Jesus screams out the words that begin the Psalm (22) where some of those things happen: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' The fulfilment has come, and it is a moment of utter terror and hopelessness. It is as though the sun were to rise one day and it would be a black sun, bringing a darkness deeper than the night itself.

As you stand there in this strange, powerful mixture of recognition and horror, bring bit by bit into the picture the stories on which you have lived. Bring the hopes you had when you were young. Bring the bright vision of family life, of success in sport or work or art, the dreams of exciting adventures in far-off places. Bring the joy of seeing a new baby, full of promise and possibility. Bring the longings of your heart. They are all fulfilled here, though not in the way you imagined. This is the way God fulfilled the dreams of his people. This is how the coming king would overcome all his enemies.

Or bring the fears and sorrows you had when you were young. The terror of violence, perhaps at home. The shame of failure at school, of rejection by friends. The nasty comments that hurt you then and hurt you still. The terrible moment when you realized a wonderful relationship had come to an end. The sudden, meaningless death of someone you loved very much. They are all fulfilled here, too. God has taken them upon himself, in the person of his Son. This is the earthquake moment, the darkness-at-noonmoment, the moment of terror and sudden faith, as even the hard-boiled Roman soldier blurts out at the end. (Don't forget that 'Son of God' was a regular title claimed by Caesar, his boss.)

But then bring the hopes and sorrows of the world. Bring the millions who are homeless because of flood or famine. Bring the children orphaned by AIDS or war. Bring the politicians who begin by longing for justice and end up hoping for bribes. Bring the beautiful and fragile earth on which we live. Think of God's dreams for his creation, and God's sorrow at its ruin.
As we stand there by the cross, let the shouting and pushing and the angry faces fade away for a moment, and look at the slumped head of Jesus. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in him, here on the cross. God chose Israel to be his way of rescuing the world. God sent Jesus to be his way of rescuing Israel. Jesus went to the cross to fulfil that double mission. His cross, planted in the middle of the jostling, uncomprehending, mocking world of his day and ours, stands as the symbol of a victory unlike any other. A love unlike any other. A God unlike any other.

TODAY
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for all that you bore that day. Thank you for your victory, the victory of love and justice. Thank you that you are the Son of God.

SCRIPTURE
Matthew 27:33-56


Lent Devotional 43

HOLY WEEK: MAUNDY THURSDAY

A few years ago there was a great railway disaster. Two trains, approaching London, speeded on to the same bit of track. Many were killed, several injured.

There was a long official enquiry. At the end of it, after countless hours of agonizing testimony, a report emerged. It was a grievous mistake, said the report. But there was nobody really to blame.

I have oversimplified, of course. But again and again that seems to be the verdict in such cases. Yes, it was terrible. But no, it wasn't really anybody's fault. Most of us, looking on, can't quite get our heads round that.

Matthew has told the story of the events that led up to Jesus' death in order to make exactly the opposite point. Yes, this was a terrible event. And yes, it was everybody's fault. The chief priests have already shown their true colours, and are clearly to blame. Now Judas realizes his own guilt. Then Pilate plays his own cynical game: some have suggested that he was a good man, trying his best to have Jesus acquitted, but most likely his main motive was to try to establish his superiority over the chief priests. Then the crowd join in, and they help the priests to beat him at his own game. But he was certainly to blame as well.

Then the soldiers join in the fun. King of the Jews, eh? We'll see about that. The previous mockery, in front of the chief priests, was making fun of Jesus' claim to be a prophet (26.67— 68). This time it's the claim to be king.

The point is that they all contribute. The crowd may indeed have shouted 'his blood be on us, and on our children' (verse 25) — a chilling phrase which has been horribly abused by many so-called Christians who have used it as an excuse to persecute Jewish people, Jesus' own blood relatives. But Matthew's point is that, though the crowd are indeed complicit, everyone else is too. Only the minor characters like Pilate's wife (verse 19) and Simon of Cyrene (verse 32) stand out in the other direction, and they can do nothing to stop the brutal killing of the innocent Jesus.

We may begin by watching from the sidelines, but the story is designed to draw us in. We find ourselves there in the crowd, shouting like football supporters for this man rather than the notorious Barabbas (the first person in history, but by no means the last, to discover that Jesus was dying in his place). We feel the surge of emotion, of anger that our national hopes have been trampled on by this upstart from Galilee. Or, in the back room of Pilate's headquarters, we find the soldiers, so long fed up with having to police Jewish uprisings, finally discovering someone on whom they can take out their frustrations. These things happen, we think. This is how people react. And, in a sense, who can blame them? That's how it is.

It is precisely 'how it is' that sent Jesus to the cross. Matthew is telling us, in these vivid and shocking human scenes, what Jesus' death is all about. There is a dark twist in 'the way things are'. Jesus came to enter that darkness, to have his own body twisted in pain on the cross, so that the world could be straightened out, so that light could dawn at last.

TODAY
Almighty God, as the darkness closes around Jesus, help us, like Simon, to carry his cross, to be there with him to the end.

SCRIPTURE READING
Matthew 27:1-32