15 December 2017

The Heart of Christianity

Isaiah 53:5 “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.”

I am sure that there are those who look at Christianity today and think it irrelevant to life. The outward form of Christianity has changed a great deal in our lifetimes and is still changing. But in days when people dismiss it because of an unattractive package, we need to go back to its heart and find our secure standing there, and there is no better place to do that than in this great chapter in Isaiah and in this verse. It tells us that at the heart of Christianity is Christ, and His death for us – nothing more and nothing less. You can add great formality to that. You can pile on ritual and ceremony with priests and choirs in multicoloured vestments. You can build structures and organisation so that it all becomes very involved, but the heart is very simple. It is about Christ and His love for us.

So take into your heart these words of the prophet Isaiah, “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.” You see, the heart of Christianity is a relationship between Him and us.

Alister McGrath speaks of a feeling of dissatisfaction in us, “This well documented feeling of dissatisfaction is one of the most important points of contact for the gospel proclamation. There is a sense of divine dissatisfaction – not dissatisfaction with God but a dissatisfaction with all that is not God, which ultimately arises from God and leads to God.” Of course some may not admit to this inner emptiness, but we can only deny it by lying. Simone Weil has written, “The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie it should persuade itself that it is not hungry. It can only persuade itself of this by lying, for the reality of its hunger is not a belief but a certainty.” A church can fail its people and offer an out of date package while denying the truth which will meet the inner emptiness of its people. God forgive us if today’s church should build barriers around that for which the hearts of all people crave, with the result that some reject it because what is presented is not relevant to life.

When we look at the heart of Christianity, as we find it in this verse, we see first of all –

A SUFFERER

“He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.” This modern translation brings out the intensity of His suffering and I think many will find a point of contact here. Our God is not a remote God somewhere up beyond the blue, looking down without concern on his little creatures. Rather, He is One who shares our suffering. Those who have not suffered, or those who have suffered only a little, may not value this, but those who have been in deep and dark places of suffering whether physical, mental, emotional or whatever will value this. God told Moses at the burning bush that He knew the sufferings of His people, “I know their sufferings,” and we sing the familiar words,

In every pang that rends the heart,

The Man of Sorrows had a part.

He sympathises with our grief

And to the sufferer sends relief.

This verse speaks to us of a suffering God. When we ask why He suffered, what it was He had done, we discover that His suffering was for us. “He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.” Iniquity has to do with our disposition and indicates a perversion or distortion. Transgression means actual breaking of a law or breaking of trust and speaks of our choice to sin. In Job 34:37 the two ideas are put together, “he adds rebellion to his sin.” This then is why He suffered, not for some personal reason but because of our rebellion and sin. He died, the just for the unjust. He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us. Those who want to deny the reality of sin and rebellion should look out on our world today. We find it at every level of society. That was why He died. And this God who suffers for us has a power to touch human hearts. At the heart of Christianity is a suffering God whose love amazes us.

In Isaiah’s words we also see –

A SUBSTITUTE

Isaiah says, “The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him.” That great hymn ‘Man of Sorrows’ explains this clearly –

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,

In my place condemned He stood.

He died as a substitute, ‘in my place’ and as a substitute for me and for you. Let me illustrate this idea of substitute simply. There is a story which comes from Auschwitz and those terrible times when an attempt was made to exterminate the Jewish people, through working them to the point of exhaustion and then gassing them to death. In one of the concentration camps a line of prisoners was waiting to enter the gas chambers where they would die and one woman in the line was panic stricken. Another prisoner who had once been a nun noticed her distress and quietly took her place in the line and died instead of her. She was her substitute. Isaiah tells us Jesus was our substitute in the same way. He took our place and died the death we should have died because of sin. Isaiah says, “The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him.” He took our punishment on Himself. He was our substitute.

Wherever people have looked to that cross in humility they have found in the substitute a power to touch the deep places in their hearts. Tokichi Ishii was the worst type of Japanese criminal, a murderer several times over. However, one day in his prison cell in Tokyo he read the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and his life was transformed. He said, “I was stabbed to the heart as if pierced by a six-inch nail. What did this verse reveal to me? Shall I call it the love of the heart of Jesus? I only know that with an unspeakably grateful heart I believed.”

At the heart of Christianity is a God who is a sufferer and a substitute. Isaiah shows us He was also –

A SAVIOUR

He says, “by His wounds we are healed.” It is by His wounds, His weals, as the word means here, that we are rescued, redeemed and saved. Let me again attempt to illustrate what is too much for one illustration. One of the finest paintings to come out of the First World War is of a signaller, unarmed, lying dead in no-man’s land. He had been sent out to repair a cable that had been broken. He is pictured holding the two ends of the cable together, establishing contact in the wire, but in doing so he has sacrificed himself. And underneath the painting there is one word, ‘Through’. We might write that word underneath the cross of Christ for that is what He did for us. Paul says we are reconciled to God by the death of His Son. He is our peace – ‘Through.’ Isaiah says, “by His wounds we are healed.”

What a wealth of meaning is in that word ‘healed’. It is wide and deep in its significance. By His stripes we are healed – healed of a stricken conscience, healed of the dominating power of sin, healed of the fear of an unknown future, healed of life without meaning, healed of an inner emptiness, healed of the heart’s dissatisfaction, healed of alienation from God, healed of an eternal loneliness. Aye, the word stretches wide and deep. No wonder then that Robert Leighton once said, “The whole world in comparison with the cross of Christ is an impertinence.” Look into your own heart this day and see if there is anything that has proved or will prove as beneficial to you as your salvation, anything so wide and deep and extensive in its beneficial effects as the results in you of that death on Calvary. All that I am and ever hope to be I owe to the man on the cross.

During the Second World War, the great Methodist minister, W.E Sangster, got to know a German POW in Britain who had been a wood carver by trade before the war. In his time in prison here he made some tools out of nails and carved figures. After the war Sangster was in Germany and looked up his old friend. He found his home but was disappointed to be told by his widow that he had died. She took Sangster in and they talked of wartime and of her husband’s imprisonment and of his carving. She went away and brought back some of the things he had carved with such crude tools. Sangster handled them lovingly and said, “You must be very proud of them.”

“ Yes,” she said, “ But there’s one thing I prize more.”

She went away and came back with a package. She opened the package and brought out the old nails he had sharpened. She said, “This is what he did it with.”

Today we prize our salvation as the greatest blessing in our lives, it touches our lives at so many points, but this is what He did it with – His body and blood. “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.” This is the heart of Christianity, so simple that a child may understand and yet so profound that it will outreach the greatest intellect.

Sidlow McFarland