What should the Home Secretary do with Shamima Begum? Until approximately four years ago she was an unknown pupil of Bangladeshi background at Bethnal Green Academy in east London; but at the age of fifteen she went off to Syria with two of her fellow pupils and another young woman to join the Islamic State terrorist organisation. At the time of her departure the rapid advancement of its evil empire was terrifying millions of people in the Middle East, especially the people of minority ethnic or religious groups in the region. The level of barbarity in their behaviour was shocking to any civilised people of all faiths and none. Fast forward to 2019 and the territory they control in eastern Syria is restricted to a less than a square mile, though they occupy a much larger region of mountainous caves in central Syria where several thousand fighters are said to be well-set with their equipment in difficult terrain for the Syrian Army and their allies to retake. It is likely that remote parts of nearby Iraq also contain some of their fighters. However, there are in Kurdish prison camps several thousand children and family members of IS fighters. What should happen to them, not least when they appear to have no regrets for their actions like Shamima Begum? Do we agree that she should be stripped of her citizenship and left to an uncertain fate? After all she was certainly happy for other men, women and children to suffer horribly and die appalling deaths. Or do we suggest that we have different values and insist on bringing her home to face possible justice if there are legal grounds for charges? These kinds of questions are very real and pressing issues and we cannot avoid them. Sometimes we have a dilemma between what our heads say and our emotions. As Christians our values are not the same as some of our fellow citizens because we want to ask how would Jesus want me to think through this situation and, where appropriate, act in response to it? To ask the question doesn’t always lead to a clear sense of direction as on many occasions life gets very complicated. However, there are times like this example I will mention from a decade ago that stayed in my mind and reminded me that in following Jesus we do have higher standards and values to follow.
One of the first news stories of 2008 on the BBC News website was the sad account of how the British Armed Forces have officially recognised its first recognised Satanist. Naval technician Chris Cranmer, a Scot from Edinburgh, a crew member on HMS Cumberland, based at Devonport Naval Base in Plymouth, will be allowed to perform satanic rituals on board the vessel. Mr Cranmer like other registered members of this religion live by the Nine Satanic Statements, which include “Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence”, “Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek” and “Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification” [BBC News 1.1.08] 2,000 years ago on a hillside outside the city wall of Jerusalem were three crosses the outer two were occupied by men convicted of armed robbery, extreme violence, possibly even murder. The occupant of the central cross was convicted of being the Messiah, the King of the Jews (Luke 23:38). To the people who were humanly responsible for putting Him on the cross He had these words to say in Luke 23:34: Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. Could there be a bigger contrast with the beliefs of Chris Cranmer and his fellow Satanists than the words of Jesus. In our world today there are two main religions Christianity and Islam, the latter word means “submission”. In the ‘model’ Islamic regimes in Saudia Arabia, Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan countries marked by brutality and cruelty where people of other faiths at best are second class residents denied basic legal and political rights, let alone freedom of worship and association and at worst live in fear and risk murder by the authorities or Muslim mobs. In such a world we hear the words of Jesus: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. The way proclaimed by Jesus is so counter cultural that some feel inclined to ridicule it with blasphemous films like The Life of Brian in which actors like John Cleese who regard our faith and our Lord with utter contempt think they can have a laugh at our Lord’s expense; other people view the message of Jesus and the way of discipleship to which He calls us as too hard a path to follow as the message is too difficult to live in secular twenty-first century Britain. At the time of painting his famous work The Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci was apparently very annoyed with one of the workman engaged on the task and came out with some harsh words to the man. Shortly afterwards he went back to the painting and sought to paint the face of Jesus, but could not do it with bitterness in his heart. Only after he had sought the man’s forgiveness could he resume his work successfully.
1. The Revelation of God’s Nature
We offer apologies for minor slights such as bumping into a stranger in a crowd even when our actions were totally unintentional. As the degree of offence increases the more necessary it is to offer a heartfelt apology. Yet here there has been the betrayal of a friend by Judas with a kiss; the abandonment by His followers when He sought their conscious presence as He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane; the denial of Peter who declared to a servant girl that he was not in any way associated with Jesus; the self-centredness of Caiaphas and the other Jewish leaders who requested the Roman governor to put Him to death; the cowardice of Pilate in agreeing with their request; the brutality of Roman soldiers who carried out the scourging and mocking taunts and then the act of crucifixion itself; the sin of billions of His followers in each generation, including your sin and mine that necessitated His going to the cross in order to procure our salvation –in such a context each of the above requires to confess that we were responsible, yet for each of us Jesus pleads on our behalf: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. This amazing utterance was spoken repeatedly, literally ‘Jesus kept on saying’ Father forgive them… [Greek imperfect tense]; over the process of His humiliation Jesus continued to utter these words to the undeserving sinners who were responsible for their misconduct. Forgive them [aorist imperative] is a request for a once for all time forgiveness, which we understand as taking place when we are converted, that time when we ask Jesus into our lives as Lord and Saviour. For they do not know [perfect tense] is a past action with ongoing future consequences. In essence Jesus was saying, the people responsible for putting Me on the cross have not grasped the significance of what they have done, nor the seriousness of their wrongdoing and the ongoing consequences of their actions.
The prayers of Jesus recorded in the Gospels are brief, mostly single sentences and all address God as Father. In the same way Jesus would instruct His disciples to pray to God in this manner: this is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven (Matthew 6:9). God is our creator, our sovereign Lord and King, the sustainer of His world and the judge of all humankind. Yet it is as ‘Father’ that we are granted a revelation of His nature that led Him to send His beloved Son to die as our Saviour on the Cross. The Fatherhood of God is not a bland vague utterance of general interest to humanity in general regardless of whether they desire a relationship with the living God or not; instead it is a truth of vital significance to the men and women, boys and girls who have reached out by faith to receive His amazing promises and the hope of eternal life. No wonder Paul says: What then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all –how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? [Romans 8:31-32] In a brutal violent world Jesus sought to reveal to us the heart of the Father towards His children. Hans Egede was a pioneer Lutheran missionary from Denmark sent to labour in Greenland. His early work begun in 1721 continued to 1733 seeing precious little response to his preaching. It was more than eight years before a single person responded to the gospel. Moravian preacher Anthony Ulrich told the story in 1733 to Moravian missionaries in training at Herrnhut, Saxony, Germany. Young missionaries Matthew Stach and Christian David volunteered to lead the mission work. As they settled down among the people they resolved at first to be very systematic in their method of preaching the Gospel; and to this end, like Egede before them, they expounded to the simple Eskimo folk the whole scheme of systematic theology, from the fall of man to the glorification of the saint. The result was dismal failure. At last the Brethren struck the golden trail. The story is a classic in the history of missions. As John Beck, one balmy evening in June, was discoursing on things Divine to a group of Eskimos, it suddenly flashed upon his mind that, instead of preaching systematic theology he would read them an extract from the translation of the Gospels he was now preparing. He seized his manuscript. “And being in an agony,” read John Beck, “He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” At this Kajarnak, the brightest in the group, sprang forward to the table and exclaimed, “How was that? Tell me that again, for I, too, would be saved.” The first Eskimo was touched. The power was the story of the Cross. From that moment the Brethren altered the whole style of their preaching. Instead of expounding systematic theology, they told the vivid human story of the Via Dolorosa, the Crown of Thorns, the Scourging, and the Wounded Side. The result was brilliant success. The more the Brethren spoke of Christ the more eager the Eskimos were to listen. In this good work the leader was Matthew Stach. He was ordained a Presbyter of the Brethren’s Church. He was officially appointed leader of the Greenland Mission. Egede returned in 1741 to lead the Christian Church in Greenland till his death in 1758. [J.E. Hutton, History of the Moravian Church ch.6] For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life [John 3:16]
2. The Revelation of Christ’s Mission
The mission of Jesus was planned in eternity and prophesied many centuries before He was born in Bethlehem. Isaiah 53 records the extraordinary account of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. 3 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, and we esteemed him not. 4Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.5 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. 6We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. 7He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.10Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and though the Lord makes His life a guilt offering, He will see His offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.11After the suffering of His soul, He will see the light of life and be satisfied; by His knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and He will bear their iniquities.12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and He will divide the spoils with the strong, because He poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. Throughout His life Jesus prayed for other people and taught other people how to pray. He would get up before dawn to find a quiet place for prayer; after the feeing of the ‘five thousand’ he would go alone up a hillside for a time alone with God. With a heart of compassion He would restore to life the son of the widow at Nain; with tears and anguish of heart He would cry out for His friend Lazarus at his tomb and then cry Lazarus come out. He was the Lord of Glory yet revealed on earth that total dependence on the Father bringing the needs of other people before the living God, confidence that His Father in heaven would heed His earnest appeals.
In His prayer here He continued with the work of mediating between God and humankind. I Timothy 2:5 declared that: there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all men. Hebrews 2:17 states that Jesus is a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God [so that] he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. [NLV] Now in heaven Hebrews 7:25 records: therefore He is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:44 urged His followers to: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Now on mount Calvary in His darkest hour, from the human point of view Jesus repeatedly asks: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. He could easily have asked the Father for an angel army to wipe out the Roman authorities in Jerusalem, together with the iniquitous Jewish priests led by Annas and Caiaphas. Instead He lived in His toughest moments what he had called us as His followers to do.
Mennonite preacher John Drescher recalled a Laymen’s Missionary convention held in Chicago in which a missionary told the story of a holy man in India. The holy man had come to enquire of the missionary the nature of his message that day. The reply was this saying from the lips of Jesus: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. The holy man listened with increased agitation. At the end of the message he told the missionary: ‘get out of here, get out of India! You will convert all our people if you talk to them that way. In our religion we have no story of love like that.’ No other religion has such a focal point. Its leaders may have miraculous births; may carry out miraculous deeds; may proclaim many wise sayings but Jesus alone through His sacrifice on Calvary was both priest and offering, as mediator reconciling God to us and us to God.
3. The Revelation of Our Condition Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? Were the people complicit in the crucifixion of Jesus responsible for their actions? Yes they were! Their motivations were mixed. The Sadducees were jealous at the popularity of Jesus and the fact that the ordinary people heard Him gladly. They were convicted by His holy life in contrast to their self-centred materialistic lifestyles. His cleansing of the Court of the Gentiles (Mark 11:15-18), although of only limited effect as business was probably only disrupted for one day at the most, was a powerful symbolic statement of a completely different religious agenda. Jesus told the astonished religious authorities: Is it not written: My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers’ (Mark 11:17). Was there repentance for allowing commercialism in the House of God to get out of hand? Did they thank the Lord for pointing out their shortcomings and seek God’s face in prayer concerning this matter? No! The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill Him, for they feared Him, because the whole crowd was amazed at His teaching (Mark 11:18). There are people in this land and in every country on this planet who are repelled and repulsed by goodness. When good work is done motives are questioned in an attempt to undermine the person who did the good work. It is no surprise that Christopher Hitchins, one of the militant atheists who until his death on 15 December 2011 was amongst those most prominent in promoting their hatred of God and people of faith, had previous picked on human beings doing good work. He had, for example, ridiculed Mother Teresa and her order of Nuns in Calcutta for helping the poor in order that other people might think well of them! Peter in Acts 3:12-19, following the healing of the lame man, speaks about the conduct of the Jewish people with respect of the death of Jesus: Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus. You handed Him over to be killed, and you disowned Him before Pilate, though he had decided to let Him go.14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.15 You killed the author of life, but God raised Him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.16 By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus name and the faith that comes through Him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.17Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.18 But this is how God fulfilled what He had foretold through all the prophets, saying that His Christ would suffer. 19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord. Stephen the first Christian martyr echoed the words of Jesus at his death recorded in Acts 7:60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out: Lord do not hold this sin again them. When he said this he fell asleep. Likewise on 6 July 1415 in the Council of Constance, when he was being burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church for his faith in Jesus Christ, Jan Hus, probably the greatest ever Christian leader to be raised up in the Czech Republic, declared: ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’ At the heart of the gospel of Jesus is radical forgiveness to those who have no right to expect it. Grace to the undeserving! Have you received it? The word of forgiveness from Jesus is so counter-cultural it is shocking to a world where vengeance to respond to wrong-doing is so often assumed to be the only course to take. For those who have received it we face a different challenge – Will you share it with other people in Jesus’ name? May we do that in the coming days, for His name’s sake Amen. \lsdpriorit