The world is riddled with injustice. On an international level, rich countries throw away the same amount of food that would feed the entire population of poor countries where there is starvation. Billions of pounds are spent on cosmetic surgery while millions of people die from not having clean water. War rages in countries using military equipment and munitions manufactured in rich countries where the only beneficiaries are the shareholders of the arms manufacturers. I could, of course, go on. Similarly, there are injustices in our own communities. There is harassment, prejudice and unfair dismissal in our own work places, almost daily. We may well have been the subject of injustice in the past or now and if not, we can be sure that it will come one day. How as Christians do we make sense of all of this and what hope do we give to those to whom we minister who find themselves in the midst of such injustice? The passion narrative which we reflect on during this Holy week is quintessentially about injustice. Whatever injustice we have experienced, it cannot compare with the injustice that Jesus experienced for our sake. And yet it was obedience, humility and love which drove Jesus to the heights of self-sacrifice. Nothing but admiration can fill our hearts and from this, hopefully, the ability to keep going with the injustices we face every day.
A work colleague in the Middle East said to me earlier on this week that as he travels the world and meets new people, he has reached the conclusion that all people from all nations are basically good. Is he right? It is very tempting to sometimes think that. Does the devil want us to think that because it reduces the need for the cross? Of course, we only need to consider the plight of persecuted minorities (including Christians) around the world today to realise that not everyone is good. But is there also something fundamentally wrong with all of us? In the Bible passage from John’s Gospel assigned to this week, Jesus tackles this question head on. He says, “Now is the time for judgement on this world.” Clearly there would be no need for judgement if everything and everyone was indeed ‘good’. If we are too much in love with ‘this world’ with its shallow values, corruption and injustices, then Jesus’ warning to us is a stark reminder to change. As citizens of heaven our eternal home is elsewhere, and we should focus on those values, not ‘worldly’ values. However, as always with Jesus, there is hope, even in this corrupted world. He goes onto say that when he is lifted up (onto a cross), all people will be drawn to him. Praise God for this indescribable sacrifice. The power of the cross is as strong as ever and while people are not basically good, in Christ, they can become so.
It was John Newton, the famous 18th century hymn writer, who once said that he remembered only two things: firstly, that he is a great sinner and, secondly, that Christ is a great saviour. It is precisely this tension that lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Only when we realise our own sinfulness can we begin to grasp the breath-taking nature of God’s love for us. This is precisely the message of this week’s Bible passage from John’s Gospel, chapter 3. In this, the fourth Sunday of Lent, we see part of this love as Jesus wrestled with temptation for our sakes in the desert. Although it is not always culturally acceptable to talk about our sinful natures, the message from the Gospels is unequivocal. Men and women have chosen darkness and condemnation if they reject the light of Christ. Perhaps in our modern age we do not dwell enough on our sinful natures. Perhaps in our preaching and worship today we only focus on the love of God and not the wrath of God. Therefore, it is good to sometimes read old Christian books and sing old hymns so that we don’t get caught in the blind spots of our present culture. The amazing reality is that, because of God’s grace, we do not need to perish or stand condemned. Of course, it was John Newton who captured this truth so eloquently in his most famous hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’. This is a marvelous basis for reflection as we continue to journey through Lent.
As Christians, is it ever right to be angry? Is it ever right to show hatred? In truth, most Christians shy away from these character traits. Perhaps, as children, we have been overly influenced by Sunday school messages of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. In our churches, we emphasise love, forgiveness and ‘turning the other cheek’. Anger and hatred do not seem to be a feature of the modern church. Nevertheless, is there a place for anger and hatred in our Christian ministry? The Bible passage for this week, the third week in Lent, is the account of Jesus overturning the tables of the money lenders in the temple. This is one of the times in Jesus’ life where he demonstrates anger – profound anger. I wonder whether we, as modern day followers of Jesus, should be angrier. Angry at the injustices of poverty, homelessness, sex trafficking and countless other ills that confront our world. In a society where the gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider, shouldn’t we vent our righteous anger by speaking up against these divisions in our society? What about hatred? If we are simply passive towards social injustice then we will not be sufficiently motivated to act. If we hate injustice, we will have a greater incentive to put right the wrongs. Therefore, in answer to the question posed at the beginning, yes, I believe it can be right to be angry and to hate injustice. More importantly, this was precisely the attitude shown by Jesus as he confronted the social ills of his day where the bankers were ‘fleecing’ the poor people in the name of religion.
The Bible passage for this week, the week beginning 25th February, is the story of Jesus explaining about his need to suffer and be put to death. Peter then takes Jesus aside and reprimands him for saying such things. Peter, Jesus’ great friend, then receives a stinging rebuke from Jesus for wanting to protect Jesus from harm. Why such harsh words for Peter? Surely Peter was just showing concern for his Messiah, so why the telling-off? The answer is that it wasn’t Peter who was speaking these words to Jesus. Jesus, being fully human, was wrestling with enormous temptation to avoid the path of suffering. As the Son of God, he could easily avoid any pain at all. Here, from the mouth of Peter, Satan is replaying the wilderness temptation that Jesus faced about self-glorification. Satan is skilfully using one of Jesus’ closest friends to dissuade Jesus from the road he must take. No doubt, Peter’s arguments made absolute sense in human terms. Why should God’s Messiah have to suffer at the hands of the Gentile oppressors? The answer to this is that there was no other way to save humanity. What is the application for us in this, the second week of Lent? In our lives, we will frequently be presented with very persuasive arguments to turn away from God’s path for us. Indeed, sometimes those who are nearest and dearest to us, who are completely unaware of Satan’s plans, will make these arguments. Nonetheless, if we are convinced of our calling by God to do something, then we must be faithful to that calling irrespective of the temptations to do otherwise. This is a message for us all, not only in this season of Lent, but at all times throughout the year.
This week, beginning 18th February, marks the beginning of Lent. The Bible passage is the account in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. In our world, we generally regard temptation as a bad thing. Temptation is viewed as something that Satan uses to make us stumble and fall before we become wracked with a sense of guilt and inadequacy. However, it is pertinent to note, according to Mark’s Gospel that it was the Holy Spirit that sent Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted. Why? One simple answer is that for God, temptations are not sent to make us fall but rather to strengthen us. Temptations are not meant for our ruin but for our good. In some translations of the Bible, the word temptation is replaced by the word testing. While we do not like the pressure of tests, we do acknowledge that by being tested we emerge a better person. In a physical test, we emerge a better athlete and in mental tests, we emerge a more knowledgeable scholar. It is the same when God allows Satan to tempt us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to emerge a more spiritual person and a better warrior for God. Remember, God does not want us to lead easy contented lives as much as purposeful lives in which we continually grow in character. As we journey through Lent, let us rejoice in all the temptations that face us and see them as a way of deepening our relationship with God. In addition, if we do stumble and fall, let us just pick ourselves up, seek forgiveness, resume the fight and continue the journey.