Part of a series based on The Cross of Jesus by Dr Leon Morris audio (5MB)
You may have seen any of the countless programs about the sinking of the Titanic over the past few weeks. One of the things I find interesting about the sinking of the Titanic is that when they wanted to call for help all they had was Morse code, a technology that had been in use for a couple of decades to transmit messages by radio. That’s just 100 years ago.
Since then we’ve seen an explosion in communications technology. From telegraph using Morse code to telephones, to radio to television to Internet technology until today we have unprecedented access to others through mobile phones, email, facebook, twitter and probably a dozen other social networking tools that I haven’t even heard of yet.
It’s interesting though, that despite the many ways we have of connecting you’ll still find that many people feel a deep sense of isolation. Even young people who communicate regularly through social media can feel alone, unable to connect in any real way, unable to experience the closeness of a relationship that allows them to express the deepest feelings within them. A sociologist from MIT in the US claims that the growth of social media has actually resulted in an increase in isolation. She says this: “Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.”
When I realised we’d programmed this topic on Mother’s Day I wondered whether it was a bit too morbid a topic for such a day of celebration. But then I realised that young mums also feel a sense of isolation at times. When our children were young I remember the mothers at the time commenting how much they yearned for someone to have an intelligent conversation with. Now I don’t think that was a comment on their husbands. Rather it was an expression of the sense of isolation they felt when most of their time was taken up with looking after babies and toddlers who they could love but couldn’t really communicate with in any depth.
You could say it seems strange that people could feel this sense of isolation when they live in a busy city surrounded by people. Let me suggest that it’s not so strange when you think about the way humanity has chosen to live. We ignore God; we refuse to do what God commanded; we each try to be the centre of the universe. One of the immediate results of Adam and Eve’s disobedience was the breakdown in relationships between the man and the woman. They began to blame one another. They began to compete with each other. Their first sons fought over the offering they brought to God with the result that one brother killed the other out of jealousy.
And that was just the beginning. Now we find it’s an epidemic. People are lonely, even in a big city like ours. In many cases we no longer know our neighbours. We may never even get to speak to them. There’s a real lack of connectedness with those we do come into contact with. Our workplaces are often cold, heartless places more reminiscent of something out of Dickens than the 21st century - except they’re cleaner. People work in cubicles shielded from contact with their work mates by screens and room dividers. The pressure to increase productivity means there’s no room for social contact at work.
As I said, the illusion of social contact through social networking is often just that - an illusion. I might learn the most trivial thoughts of someone yet never actually understand where they’re coming from or what really moves them
And finally, family breakdown seems to be the great marker of our social experience of the last century.
I was reading an article this week by Gordon Brown, who was the head of IFES for a number of years and who’s currently working as a University evangelist at large. He says: “I asked John Stott shortly before he died what he thought were the three greatest issues that people grapple with in the Western world today. He replied that they were engaged in a search for something transcendent, a search for personal significance and a search for community.” And I thought, that’s right. People today are looking for something transcendent, that is something outside themselves in the spiritual realm; for personal significance, that is something that’ll assure them that they matter, that they're not just an accident of the universe; and they’re searching for community. That is they’re searching for connectedness, for a lessening of the isolation they feel from the world around them.
It’s interesting that even the first of those desires, the search for transcendence, is related to our isolation: not physical isolation but spiritual isolation.
You see the primary result of the fall wasn’t a breakdown in our relationship with each other, it was a breakdown in our relationship with God. Because we live in a broken world, because we’ve turned our backs on God, people sometimes feel like God is remote or even non-existent. They may reach out to him but are unable to sense his presence with them.
They ask God to help them but they don’t know how to tell if he does. What’s more they pray for his help then they blindly pursue their own personal agendas, often without thought for others and never asking how he’d like them to behave in the meantime. They assume that he’ll provide good things yet they never ask what sort of behaviour best fits the way he’s created the world. The thought that he’s given us rules to live by so that life would be better for us never crosses their mind.
One of the more serious problems we experience in our world is the suffering we see around us, particularly the sorts of disasters that have no real explanation as far as we can see. Why is it that some people can suffer disaster after disaster while someone else cruises through life with never a problem? Why is it that a young child is born with a birth defect that will affect the rest of their life, or another develops a life-threatening illness at an early age. Why does a tsunami kill thousands of people of all ages, nationalities, religious beliefs, you name it, without discrimination.
It’s all too easy when those sorts of things happen to feel forsaken by God - abandoned in a world where things continually go wrong; to question whether God cares, whether he even understands how it feels to be abandoned.
That’s how Job felt when everything in his world began to unravel. He couldn’t understand how God could let so many things go wrong in his life. So what did he do? He cried out to God in protest. He wanted God to appear before him to explain himself. He wanted to experience the presence of God. That’s what we need in these sorts of moments don’t we? When everything appears to have gone wrong we need to know that God is there with us.
It’s at that moment that we need to meditate on the cross.
The cross is the place where we find our experience of isolation and God’s connection with us coming together.
There’s a terrible moment on Good Friday, where a haunting cry goes out from the cross. I think we lose something of the stark terror of the moment through the familiarity of repetition. There’s been three hours of total darkness, from midday until three in the afternoon, when suddenly Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
Jesus became a human being at the cost of his close fellowship with God the Father. Yet even then he was able to spend time in prayer with him. But the cross is a different matter. In the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death Jesus prays in such agony that drops of blood appear on his forehead. He knows what the cross will mean for him and he longs for an alternative solution. And when the time finally comes all he can do is cry out in despair as he takes on himself our sin, our separation from God and God abandons him.
Now I should add that while we too can feel abandoned by God at times it’s not the same thing. Even when we feel like that God isn’t far from us. Still we are separated from God. Our sense of spiritual isolation is real. It’s real because of our sin.
But as I said, that’s where the cross comes in. Christ has dealt with our sin - at that moment of abandonment by God he was taking our sin on himself. Taking on himself our spiritual isolation. On the judgement day it would have been us making that cry of horror. But we no longer need to. Jesus has died in order to reconcile us to God. In our Bible reading today we read: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” (2 Cor 5:18) Isn’t that amazing? We feel abandoned by God, but God takes the initiative. He reconciles us to himself. It should be the other way around shouldn’t it? We’re the ones who have done the wrong thing. We should be making up for it. But no, God reconciles us to himself through Christ, through Christ’s death on the cross.
And it’s even better than that. In Ephesians 2:14 we’re told that in Jesus flesh, that is in his death on the cross, he has ... broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. No longer do we need to be separated from one another. God has made it possible for us to renew our relationships with one another. That’s why he’s put us in the church: so we can enjoy the sort of community that everyone longs for. And he’s done that so that others will see how good life is for those in God’s community and want to join us.
Of course that won’t happen automatically. Having placed us in the church, God has called us to be his ambassadors. He’s given us a mission: to take his appeal for reconciliation to everyone we come into contact with. And the success of our mission will depend on how faithfully we carry it out.
I wonder how you’d rate St Thomas’ as far as churches go. Is this the sort of place that visitors will enjoy coming into? Would you feel comfortable inviting someone here? Is this the sort of place you think they’d receive a warm welcome? Let me check something. Put up your hand if your a welcomer?
Thanks. You can put your hands down. Now I’d like every one else to put your hands up (apart from visitors). Well, I have some bad news for you. Those with their hands up have got it all wrong. The people on the door have a particular job of welcoming to do but everyone of us needs to be a welcomer. You need to be looking around on a Sunday and checking that there isn’t someone new who needs to be made welcome. If this is their first or second time here they might need someone to sit next to them and explain who the people up the front are, or when to sit and when to stand. If they have kids they might need to be reassured that we love kids even when they make a noise. They’ll need to know how Sundays4Kidz works. They might want to meet the S4K leaders. Do you get the idea. That’s your job. You’re the ambassador of God, sent to welcome people to his church.
If you’re a visitor today then let me invite you to join this community, to join with us on a regular basis so you can enjoy a connection with God and with his people.
There’s no longer any need for us to feel isolated. If you do have those moments when you feel alone let me encourage to take the brave step of ringing someone from the congregation. If you’re not feeling alone then maybe that would be a good time to ring someone who just might be. Or someone you haven’t spoken to for a while. You may be surprised at who warmly your phone call is received. Better still, arrange to have a cup of coffee with them; invite them around for a simple lunch after church. Loneliness and isolation will continue to be a problem for most of us as long as we live in this broken world, but it doesn’t have to defeat us. God has made it possible for us to live together in community. He’s created the church to do just that. But we need to bring that plan into reality for both ourselves and those we come into contact with.
Do you remember our Mission statement? Speak the Gospel - the message of reconciliation; Teach the Bible; and Build Community that reflects God’s love. Those aren’t just a set of words to make us feel good. They’re an expression of our mission from God. So let’s do it. Let’s take Jesus work of reconciliation on the cross and make it a reality in the way we live together as his people.