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3 I stand amazed

25 March: I stand amazed in the presence; talk by Frances Ballantyne, summary awaiting proof check.  Listen again via Spalding Baptist

Introduced by John Bennett, Frances offered a brief introduction to the author of this week’s hymn of the cross, Charles Hutchinson Gabriel (1856-1932).  Delighted to discover that he was a Methodist who wrote between 7-8,000 hymns or gospel songs, a prolific writer.  Frances described I stand amazed as a conversion hymn akin to Amazing Grace or And can it be – a personal, profound, passionate expression from a condemned, unclean sinner.  The phrase How marvelous, how wonderful runs through the heart.  As the wider church celebrates the annunciation this week, an image of an icon of Mary and Joseph was shown as Frances said that the hymn chose her; a powerful image, restoring our vision to the person we were meant to be.  It is impossible to find a more profound image than the cross; tonight’s talk took us through the journey of Lent and beyond to the other side of the cross.  Frances led the meeting in a time of prayer.

I had the privilege a few years ago to stay at the Tantur Institute just outside Bethlehem, so as I deconstruct this hymn this evening, we’re going to be looking at some photographs I took of Israel, that I actually took of the Garden of Gethsemane, that I took in the 21st century what it looks like now.  It’s a real place, a real garden; they might have built churches on some of the famous sites, but this is the Holy Land, this is the place where these songs, as it were, were written from, or the story came out of the Holy Land.

We look and we travel and we travel into darkness.  There’s a phrase in the hymn that reminded me of Isaiah (6 v5): ‘Woe is me’ says Isaiah, ‘I am a man unclean, unworthy, I’m aware of my sin.’ As I said at the beginning, the author of this hymn was very much aware that he was a sinner.  I was aware as I was looking at the hymn that Isaiah, too, as he encounters that vision of the Lord, says ‘I am a man unclean, unworthy.’  Isaiah sees angels flying around singing ‘Holy, holy, holy’ and he worships as he sees the Lord lifted high, a vision of beyond sight, a vision of heavenly beings, an encounter with the great I am.  But hope is not lost; as Isaiah is raised up, he is called and he is commissioned and he has purpose in God’s plan.  ‘Wow,’ exclaimed Frances, that’s amazing – restoration and redemption, not banishment or judgement, so even though the very dark place as we come face to face with the reality of our sin, there is hope - so that’s why I’m saying it’s amazing because we’re not slaughtered, we are not slayed, we are raised up.  Again I say, that’s amazing.

[Showing another picture] Doesn’t it look different in daytime, doesn’t it look beautiful as we descend through the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem?  The pathway to a garden.  And I imagine the author, Charles Gabriel walking this pathway with Jesus, entering into the Passion Week of Jesus, aware that we too are entering into that holy pilgrimage, walking where Jesus walked, seeing the garden in our context, experiencing Jerusalem in our day and age.  That historic setting in the Garden of Gethsemane becomes present as we hear that prayer of relinquishment ‘Not my will, but yours’, the struggle between human wants and God’s will.

But it gets darker, even darker; this [photograph] is taken in the church at the Garden of Gethsemane.  It is dark; the sun might be shining through it but it’s really weird, it’s really showing how stark and dark and the symbolism and the patterns make it really creepy.  Jesus is bowing lower and lower as the world’s weight of sin and evil were being laid on him, he didn’t buckle or cave in but more than that he carried Charles’ sins and wept.  And even more than that, he carries our sins and we weep.

We visited the Garden of Gethsemane in the daytime and it doesn’t work, does it?  The Bible story tells us of the Garden of Gethsemane at night; I haven’t got a picture of it at night.  But I also thought when I saw this picture, went through the words of the hymn that sometimes we need that contrast of night and day, light and darkness, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  It’s obviously not going to feel the same walking through this garden in daytime, life never is the same in the morning; the morning does dawn but it’s the dark night of the soul that tests our mettle.  Faith has to have a place in the darkest of experiences and it’s hope-building for me and for us this evening that Jesus knew suffering and his life wasn’t all on the light side of day.

When I saw this as I was walking on Jesus’ Palm Sunday route down the hill, down into the Valley of Kidron and then up into Jerusalem we all stopped with astonishment as we saw this graveyard.  We’d never seen anything like it in our lives before.  And when the guide told us that there was no point putting flowers on them because the flowers would wilt within hours and so the relatives would pick up a stone.  The picture showed scatterings of dark stones on the tops of the sepulchres, described by Frances as stones of respect, showing how much the relatives were coming to pay their respects to their loved ones.  This graveyard on the hillside opposite Jerusalem made sense of one of the verses: ‘Even the stones would cry out,’ and I’m sure Jesus was standing nearby there when he said that and we read that in the Bible.

So we passed places of sadness and sorrow and grief; maybe it’s here that Jesus stops, maybe it’s here that the human side is at its most desolate.  Jesus’ human side here; maybe he’s stopping here, sorrowing over the state of the capital city, the heart of worship, weeping with unfulfilled longing, weeping at the religious, and if they kill the prophets, Jesus is on his way to being killed.  He is on his way to his own Good Friday, the Friday when all the Songs of the Cross were written for.  Entering into the meaning and the purpose of the cross, the solitariness, the solitary figure on that centre cross, the poignancy of his words and he died alone - that’s in the hymn - and that’s always the case.  Death isolates, death separates, death divides, even suffering has its isolation.  How can we possibly know how much he suffered?

I find it, if I might say so without being disrespectful, that nobody can outdo his story.  I know sometimes when in conversations somebody will say something about they’ve got a toothache and someone else says that their son was in hospital and had four wisdom teeth out.  There is comparison and competition and rivalry and I’d like to say to that that nobody’s got a story like Jesus.  Think about all of the hymns about his story.  There’s no better personal story that can take anything away from the personal story of Jesus.  Yes, we sing about it, yes we engage our emotions, yes we can experience dark experiences, yes we can make feeble attempts to explain all the atonement theories.  The wrath of God, last week’s elephant; there’s other atonement theories about substitution and the propitiation … I don’t know, but I know that Jesus loved me enough to die for me; it’s personal, it’s pertinent, to me looking at the cross and standing there like Gabriel did and wondering how it is amazing, how wonderful – what is it that is so mystical about the cross that makes us sing about it and live it?

As I looked at the hymn again, I don’t think I wanted a song that hadn’t got thanksgiving or praise in it.  I could have chosen one which was a lament or melancholy, a slow march and one where one could be sitting down but maybe this hymn chose me because there is praise in there, there’s colour in there, there’s a beyond.  How marvelous, how wonderful this is thanksgiving, this is rejoicing, this is something about ‘Yes,’ there’s a beyond about Good Friday to Easter Sunday, beyond ascension beyond Pentecost, beyond Second Coming, even, until ‘his face at last I shall see’.  No matter what we are going through, no matter what this life’s like, his face at last I shall see.  The end times, the kingdom in all its fulness, that place called heaven where he wipes away all the tears, where there will be tears of joy, where it will be all worth it, where it will come to pass, where the truth will be the truth, and it is the truth; faith will have light whereas faith is blind now.

I think this hymn chose me because that’s where I want to be, that’s what I want to see, I want to see the face of my Saviour, I want to know that he’s there – ‘his face I at last shall see’.

Then, I wonder, will we look back and reflect on what earth is like or will kingdom glory, praise and worship take us to realms where we’ve never been before?  Do we really know what real worship and can we really worship until we see him face to face?  So we could say that Good Friday means a wonderful, glorious new beginning, a new day, in the sense that beyond it we can bring it into our Good Fridays and that the beyond it will help us in our days when it all seems dark and sorrowful.

How marvelous, how wonderful and my song shall ever be’ and he stands as he sings it.  He is amazed.  Maybe I chose it because of the fact of his posture – he stands amazed.  Maybe we were brought up that we have to kneel or we have to lay flat down and that we have to be humbled and come low.  For me this is posture of uprightness, this is posture that says I can stand.  It’s not a posture that Good Friday usually gives us. How can this be?  When I imagine the women around the cross sobbing their hearts out, they’re huddled – I always imagine them huddled.  I can’t imagine anyone wanting to stand and look at Jesus the Nazarene suffering on the cross.  I don’t want to look for a start, the very humbling place – but this song says ‘I stand’.  How can we stand when suffering all around us?  I found this, I found this.

Gabriel is thinking about the cross; it means discovering the cross at the heart of our everyday experiences, we’re carrying the cross around in our hearts, we’re discovering the cross like self-giving of God at the very heart of our own existence and experience.  We understand from our own deep down experiences our own roots, our own death, that it is of the nature of love to share and to create. God is love, love like the cross, and out of his love and for his love and to share his love he has made us, each one of us, and all the world.  For that reason, if we’re carrying the cross-heart that ‘God is love’ aspect in our hearts all the time, we can’t simply think about the cross as simply a day or an event in the past, fairly remote from our 21st century with all its ways, customs and habits.  It means that we are to see the powers of creation all around us and in some way, however we try and imagine it … is streaming from the cross.  For the cross is the very heart of God.  We shall then begin to see the ordinary as the extra-ordinary and as a cause for wonder.  How marvelous, how wonderful we shall with awe and wonder re-value creation, re-value life, re-value ourselves, re-value all our relationships, re-value all God’s people, we shall re-value all of God’s world as God’s shared gift, as God sharing himself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cX0QWYZGBY
So when today we think about the cross, we have to see ourselves, our own creation, as God sharing himself.  All we are comes from the pure stream of God’s created love flowing from the cross at the heart of God.  So let’s gaze at this hymn, let the song words speak again, let the imagery take you toward the heart of God who is cross-shaped.

Video shown at the close of the evening via YouTube

There is colour at the cross; Frances concluded by reading from Revelation 7: a great multitude singing ‘Salvation belongs to our God,’  Amen
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