The glory of his cross - John 17:1-5

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 15th November 2009.

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Have you ever wondered what would have happened to the beast had the beauty not arrived? We all know the story. There was a time when his face was handsome and his palace pleasant; when he was a prince with a glorious future. But that was before the curse, before the shadows fell across his castle and fell across his heart. And when the darkness fell, that is when the prince hid and acted more like a pauper. Secluded in his castle, afraid to look at his reflection in the mirror, he became a skulking monster with glistening snout, curled tusks and a very bad attitude.

Of course all of that was to change when the girl came along, as it usually does. But what would have happened had she not appeared. More to the point, what would have happened had she simply not cared? No one would have blamed her if she hadn’t. After all, he was such a –well, beast! A constant bad hair day, foul tempered, with a breath so pungent that no amount of Listerine would clear it up. This is not the sort of guy who would have made it through to the finals of Blind Date. And the girl could not have been more different- stunning, caring, sweet natured- a real peach. If ever two people lived up to their names it was the Beauty and the Beast. It would be obvious even to Cilla Black that the two were quite incompatible. So, who would have held it against her if she hadn’t cared? But she did care. And because the Beauty loved the Beast, the Beast himself gradually became beautiful.

It is a wonderful story. But like most fairy stories it does tap into something deep about us. We may not always like to admit it, but there is something of the beast within each one of us-there is the ‘beast in me’. This of course was something  Robert Louis Stevenson was trying to explore in his novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the celebrated statement, ‘Man is not truly one but truly two.’ As a result of his experiments Dr Jekyll says this, ‘I have learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man. Two motives contend in the field of my consciousness. Even if I could rightly be said to be neither, it is only because I am radically both. It is the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots are thus bound together. In the agonised womb of existence, these polar twins are continuously struggling.’ That is our experience isn’t it? We all have a Mr Hyde lurking inside of us. And the Bible being a realistic book would agree.

But the Bible tells us something else, namely, that this wasn’t always so. There was a time according to the Book of Genesis when humanity’s face was beautiful and the palace pleasant. A time when man - Adam -was truly one, both with himself and his Maker. But that was before the curse, before the shadow of sin fell across the garden giving rise to the dual personality with which we are now born -wanting to do right and yet invariably drawn towards the wrong-what the Bible calls sin. Ever since the curse we have been different- beastly, arrogant, defiant. We do things we know we shouldn’t do and then we are at a loss to explain as to what possessed us to do them. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that we don’t do good, but I am saying that we can’t help but do wrong. Worse still we find ourselves in the bazaar position of both detesting it and approving of it at the same time.

One of the darkest mysteries of the 20th century was the holocaust. If you were to go to Auschwitz today you would immediately approach the main gate which has written above it, ‘Work makes You Free’.  The place is full of vicious ironies. In one little courtyard between buildings where tens of thousands of people were lined up and shot you would see a place for torturing people. In one stone cell there is a figure of Christ on the cross which has been etched into the stone by fingernails. You can still see piles of human hair waiting to be shipped east into Germany to be made into fibre, as well as children’s shoes and clothes ready to be recycled. Now what continues to perplex people about the holocaust is that it was done by Germans.  Not because Germans are worse than anyone else, but because everyone in the Western world thought they were the best. They had the best universities, the best technology and were the leading lights in many ways. But what we see at Auschwitz is the outworking of the philosophy which doesn’t so much deny the beast in man but allows it free reign. But where does Auschwitz begin? It begins in our hearts. So how is the beast within to be changed? It is by the arrival of the beauty from above- the Lord Jesus Christ. In a way he speaks of his beauty, which he calls ‘glory’ in John 17.

‘After Jesus had said this, he looked towards heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” God’s glory is not like our glory. Ours tends to be self- centred- a ‘look at me’ kind of glory. God’s glory is other centred, a ‘giving away’ glory. You see, the word used in the OT to describe glory is ‘kabod’. It carried with it the notion of weightiness, substance or even a radiance which invariably creates an overwhelming impression. The same goes for the Greek word used here, ‘doxa’. It is the manifestation of God’s supreme power and luminous presence; it is the sum of his perfections. When you see a bride walking down the aisle radiating beauty, her very presence creates an impression on the people around her causing their heads to turn. What are they doing? They are responding to her ‘glory’. Multiply that by infinity and then you will have some idea of what the Bible is referring to when it speaks of God’s glory as we see it in Jesus. But how is this glory supremely seen? Look at v2, ‘For (literally ‘Just as’) you granted him (the Son) authority over all flesh that he might give eternal life to those you have given him.’ So Jesus is saying that the Father is honoured, his person is glorified when people receive eternal life. What is that? Jesus tells us- v3, ‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know you and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’  Eternal life isn’t the same as endless life, a timeless extension of this one. It is more of an enrichment of a quality of life which begins in this life and is consummated in the next life. And it is all to do with knowing God, which means knowing Jesus for you cannot know the former without knowing the latter because the Son is the revelation of the Father- he is the glory, the beauty. But what is most astounding of all according to this prayer of Jesus is that this glory is manifest shown amongst the most appalling bestiality- the cross. That is what Jesus means when he speaks of his ‘hour’- the time of the crucifixion and the time of glorification.

 

And this was the time when all the beasts were out in force.

First, there was the political beast, the Roman Governor Pilate. Just take a look at what happens in 19-4-5 : Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him." 5When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!"

Pilate was a seasoned political operator. He was what today we would call a pragmatist. As long as something works then who cares about principle? He had heard what Jesus had to say. He concluded that he was innocent and yet he caved in to the voices which drowned out his verdict and so he washes his hands of the whole sorry business- ‘Nothing to do with me he says’ although it had every thing to do with him, after all he was governor. That is pretty beastly isn’t it? Not giving a man a fair trial. But you know people still do that with Jesus. Without listening to the claims he made for himself that he was divine, without taking a careful look at his wonderful life and the overwhelming evidence for his resurrection-again all pointing to his divine nature- he is still dismissed as just another religious leader, a good moral teacher or a deluded political activist.

But it involves more than that doesn’t it? Pilate had heard Jesus own testimony that he was in some sense ‘king’, that he was innocent, but didn’t have the courage to act on it. No, you see, he wanted the quiet life, no hassle. And it could well be that the reason why you are afraid to take Jesus seriously is that it will mean you having to face hassle: The taunt of family and friends that if you became a Christian you will have got ‘religion’. That some things you are doing now will have to be given up because they don’t fit with following him. That you will have to go against the flow of a society which thinks little of Christ except as a swear word, and to be frank that will take guts. It is sometimes easier to wash your hands of responsibility and walk away from the truth rather than face up to the truth. But that is the challenge Jesus presents us with- to go with the truth rather than give in to the crowd.

Then there are the religious beasts- v 12 ‘From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar." Here the term ‘the Jews’ refers to the religious leaders. They knew how to work a crowd and for all their religion and piety they wanted blood- Jesus’ blood. And it has to be admitted that a fair amount of evil in this world has been committed in the name of religion. But then again, a fair amount of evil has been committed in the name of politics but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of politics. You have to assess each religion and each person in their own right rather than damning them all. But all this goes to show is that religious people, like non-religious people, can be pretty beastly at times and that religion in terms of ritual and deeds can no more tame the beast within than a political philosophy can, you need something more, you need an inner cleansing power.

But then we have the military beasts –v 1-3, ‘Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3and went up to him again and again, saying, "Hail, king of the Jews!" And they struck him in the face.’ The soldiers’ assignment was straight forward: take Jesus to a hill and crucify him. But they wanted to have fun first. Burley, battle hardened soldiers surrounded an exhausted, nearly dead Galilean carpenter lie a hungry pack of wolves and beat him up. The flogging itself had almost killed him. He was going to be put to death by the most painful method ever devised by man, so what could spitting achieve? It couldn’t hurt him and it wasn’t meant to. It was meant to degrade him. His face was so battered he hardly looked human anyway, now that same face was spat upon like you might spit upon a dead dog. It was a sign that you were no longer human; you were little more than a beast. I guess that is where taking Christ’s name on our lips as a swear word comes in. By using his name as a means of cursing is to demean him- he no longer is a person to be worshipped, he is merely a blasphemy to be used. And which one of us hasn’t done that in thought or deed? But the result is just the same- Jesus is made to look small. How beastly can you get?

But you see the disturbing thing is that this passage acts like a mirror in which we see ourselves and the beast within- we too can be like Pilate, like the leaders, like the soldiers. Far too often our actions are ugly, our words are harsh, our deeds despicable and our consciences accuse us and worst of all the beast within us drags us down and cuts us off from the one for whom we were originally made- God. And the more we drift away from him, the more beastly we become. Our situation is pretty serious isn’t it? And it would remain hopeless had it not been for one thing- the beauty-the glory.

John gives us an account of a man who can only be described as pure beauty-glory- the Lord Jesus Christ. There is not a trace of cynicism, prejudice or arrogance in his person. He was gentle with the weak and patient with the strong. He was not afraid to challenge the hypocrites and offer hope to the marginalised. Tennyson said: ‘His character was more perfect than the greatest miracle.’ And it was, even his opponents couldn’t find fault with him and accuse him of sin. Whatever charges were brought against him at his trial was fabricated. So why did the Son of God come into the world, willing to be treated this way? Well, because the beauty came to save the beast. That’s why.

In the fable, the beauty kisses the beast and all is well. In the Bible the beauty became the beast so that the beast can become the beauty. Let me explain. Look at vv28-30, ‘Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 30When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’ The death of Jesus was no accident it was the fulfilling of Scripture including this Scripture from Isaiah 53:‘He grew up before him (God) like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised ( his face so badly beaten he looked like a beast), and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.’

He was taking our place, dying the death of a sinner, although he hadn’t sinned, killing the beast by becoming the beast so taking our punishment in our place that we might be forgiven. What is more, God the Father willed for his Son to die so that we could live and in this he displays his glory- the glory of a compassionate and merciful God. This beauty doesn’t just kiss the beast, he dies for the beast so that as we come to him who is now alive and is in heaven as the rightful ruler of the world ,we  are not only put right with God, we become part of his family and slowly begin to take on the family characteristics of Jesus himself, until one day, as the apostle John puts it, when we die and go to be with him, we shall become like him-that is when the transformation will be complete-that is when the beast will no longer exist and we shall be all beauty for we will be reflecting his beauty- his glory. That is what the Gospel.

Let me give an illustration of the transforming effect this can have. Most tourists, who go to California, go to Disneyland. Heather and I went there a few years ago. And one of the most spectacular sights is Cinderella’s castle, which is the logo of Disney. Well, on one such evening, parents and children were packed into Cinderella’s castle when suddenly all the children rushed to one side as Cinderella arrived. This gorgeous young girl was perfect for the part, with every hair in place, skin which shone, immaculately dressed with beaming smile she stood waist high in a sea of children, each wanting to be touched. But, on the other side of the castle, now vacated by most of the kids, stood a little boy maybe seven or eight years old. It was difficult to determine exactly his age because of his disfigured body. His height was dwarfed, his face contorted from some congenital defect and he stood watching quietly and wistfully, holding the hand of his older brother. Of course what he really wanted was to be with the other children. He longed to be near Cinderella calling her name, reaching out his hand to touch her hand. But he held back because he was afraid. Maybe he was self-conscious. He wanted to go to her, but he couldn’t. So what happened? Well she came to him. She noticed the little boy and politely but firmly made her way through the crowd of children and finally broke free. She walked quickly across the floor, knelt at eye level at the stunned lad and placed a delicate kiss on the side of his face. The other children had only received a touch, he received a kiss.

Of course that is a woefully inadequate illustration of what we have just been reading, but maybe it will help capture something of the glory of what Jesus has done. Cinderella gave only a kiss. When she left, she took her beauty with her and the boy was left as he was. But Jesus gave his life. Jesus took on our spiritual and moral disfigurement in exchange for his spiritual and moral beauty. You see, it is not a list we are to take into heaven when we die- ‘look at what I have done’; it is a likeness- the likeness of Jesus.

 

 

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