We found our visit to Christ Church Cathedral in Stone Town, Zanzibar, deeply moving, for it sits on the site of what was formerly the largest slave market in East Africa. The designers of this cathedral wanted to show through a physical symbol how the gospel breaks the chains of slavery. No longer would the location be a place of evil deeds and horrible atrocities, but of God’s embodied grace.
Those who built the cathedral wanted to express how Jesus’s death on the cross provides freedom from sin—that which the apostle Paul speaks of in his letter to the church at Ephesus: “In him we have redemption through his blood” (Ephesians 1:7). Here the word redemption points to the Old Testament’s notion of the marketplace, with someone buying back a person or item. Jesus buys back a person from a life of slavery to sin and wrongdoing.
In Paul’s opening words in this letter (vv. 3–14), he bubbles over with joy at the thought of his freedom in Christ. He points, in layer after layer of praise, to God’s work of grace for us through Jesus’s death, which sets us free from the cords of sin. No longer do we need to be slaves to sin, for we are set free to live for God and His glory.
One afternoon I spent two hours at an art exhibit—The Father & His Two Sons: The Art of Forgiveness—in which all of the pieces were focused on Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:10–31). I found Edward Rojas’s painting The Prodigal Son especially powerful. The painting portrays the once wayward son returning home, wearing rags and walking with his head down. With a land of death behind him, he steps onto a pathway where his father is already running toward him. At the bottom of the painting are Jesus’s words, “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion” (v. 20
I was deeply moved by realizing once more how God’s unchanging love has altered my life. When I walked away from Him, He didn’t turn His back, but kept looking, watching, and waiting. His love is undeserved yet unchanging; often ignored yet never withdrawn.
We all are guilty, yet our heavenly Father reaches out to welcome us, just as the father in this story embraced his wayward son. “Let’s have a feast and celebrate,” the father told the servants. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (vv. 23–24).
The Lord still rejoices over those who return to Him today—and that is worth celebrating!
Susannah Cibber gained fame in the eighteenth-century for her talent as a singer. However, she was equally well known for her scandalous marital problems. That’s why when Handel’s Messiah was first performed in Dublin in April 1742, many in the audience did not approve of her role as a featured soloist.
During that inaugural performance, Cibber sang of the Messiah: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Those words so moved Rev. Patrick Delany that he jumped to his feet and said, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
The connection between Susannah Cibber and the theme of Handel’s Messiah is evident. The “man of sorrows”—Jesus the Messiah—was “despised and rejected” because of sin. The prophet Isaiah said, “My righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities” (v. 11).
The connection between Messiah and us is no less apparent. Whether we stand with the judgmental audience members, with Susannah Cibber, or somewhere in between, we all need to repent and receive God’s forgiveness. Jesus, by His life, death, and resurrection, restored our relationship with God our Father.
For this—for all Jesus did—be all our sins forgiven.
We sat around the table, each person adding a toothpick to the foam disc before us. At our evening meal in the weeks leading up to Easter we created a crown of thorns—with each toothpick signifying something we had done that day for which we were sorry and for which Christ had paid the penalty. The exercise brought home to us, night after night, how through our wrongdoing we were guilty and how we needed a Savior. And how Jesus freed us through His death on the cross.
The crown of thorns that Jesus was made to wear was part of a cruel game the Roman soldiers played before He was crucified. They also dressed Him in a royal robe and gave Him a staff as a king’s scepter, which they then used to beat Him. They mocked Him, calling Him “King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:29), not realizing that their actions would be remembered thousands of years later. This was no ordinary king. He was the King of Kings whose death, followed by His resurrection, gives us eternal life.
On Easter morning, we celebrated the gift of forgiveness and new life by replacing the toothpicks with flowers. What joy we felt, knowing that God had erased our sins and given us freedom and life forever in Him!
As a boy, I watched my father plow fields that had never been cultivated. On the first pass the plowshare would turn up large rocks that he hauled away. Then, he would plow the field again, and then again, to further break up the soil. With each pass the plow turned up other, smaller rocks that he cast aside. The process continued, requiring many passes through the field.
Growth in grace can look like a similar process. When we first become believers, some “big” sins may be exposed. We confess them to God and accept His forgiveness. But as the years pass by, and as God’s Word passes through us and sinks into our innermost being, the Holy Spirit brings other sins to the surface. Sins of the spirit once thought to be mere peccadilloes—small, seemingly unimportant offenses—are revealed as ugly, ruinous attitudes and actions. Sins like pride, self-pity, complaining, pettiness, prejudice, spite, self-serving indulgence.
God reveals each sin so He can cast it aside. He reveals to heal. When harmful hidden attitudes come to the surface, we can pray as the psalmist David did, “For the sake of your name,
Humbling exposure, though painful, is good for the soul. It’s one of the ways in which He “instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way” (vv. 8–9).
Last December, my family and I went to the mountains. We had lived in a tropical climate all our lives, so it was the first time we could see snow in all its magnificence. As we contemplated the white mantle covering the fields, my husband quoted Isaiah, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).
After asking about the meaning of scarlet, our three-year-old daughter asked, “Is the color red bad?” She knows sins are things God dislikes, but this verse is not talking about colors. The prophet was describing the bright red dye obtained from the eggs of a small insect. Clothes would be double-dyed in this bright red so the color became fixed. Neither rain nor washing would remove it. Sin is like that. No human effort can take it away. It’s rooted in the heart.
Only God can cleanse a heart from sin. And as we looked at the mountains, we admired the pure whiteness that scrubbing and bleaching a piece of cloth dyed in scarlet red can’t get. When we follow Peter’s advice, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19), God forgives us and gives us a new life. Only through Jesus’s sacrifice can we receive what no one else can give—a pure heart. What a wonderful gift!
In Japan, food products are immaculately prepared and packed. Not only must they taste good but they must look good too. Often I wonder if I am purchasing the food or the packaging! Because of the Japanese emphasis on good quality, products with slight defects are often discarded. However, in recent years, wakeari products have gained popularity. Wakeari means “there is a reason” in Japanese. These products are not thrown away but are sold at a cheap price “for a reason”—for example a crack in a rice cracker.
My friend who lives in Japan tells me that wakeari is also a catchphrase for people who are obviously less than perfect.
Jesus loves all people—including the wakeari who society casts aside. When a woman who had lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at a Pharisee’s house, she went there and knelt behind Jesus at His feet, weeping (Luke 7:37-38). The Pharisee labeled her “a sinner” (v. 39); but Jesus accepted her. He spoke gently to her, assuring her that her sins were forgiven (v. 48).
Jesus loves imperfect, wakeari people—which includes you and me. And the greatest demonstration of His love for us is that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). As recipients of His love, may we be conduits of His love to the flawed people around us so they too may know that they can receive God’s love despite their perfections.
“You can’t see me!”
When small children play “hide and seek,” they sometimes believe they’re hiding just by covering their eyes. If they can’t see you, they assume you can’t see them.
Naïve as that may seem to adults, we sometimes do something similar with God. When we find ourselves desiring to do something we know is wrong, our tendency may be to “shut God out” as we willfully go our own way.
The prophet Ezekiel discovered this truth in the vision God gave him for his people, exiled in Babylon. The Lord told him, “Have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The LORD does not see us’” (Ezek. 8:12)
But God misses nothing, and Ezekiel’s vision was proof of it. Yet even though they had sinned, God offered His repentant people hope through a new promise: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you” (36:26).
For us, God met the brokenness and rebellion of sin with His tender mercy at the cross, paying the ultimate penalty for it. Through Jesus Christ, God not only offers us a new beginning, but He also works within us to change our hearts as we follow Him. How good is God! When we were lost and hiding in our sinfulness, God drew near through Jesus, who “came to seek and save” us (Luke 19:10; Rom. 5:8).
After centuries of war and destruction, the modern city of Jerusalem is literally built on its own rubble. During a family visit, we walked the Via Dolorosa (The Way of Sorrow), the route tradition says Jesus followed on His way to the cross. The day was hot, so we paused for a rest and descended to the cool basement of the Convent of the Sisters of Zion. There I was intrigued by the sight of ancient pavement stones unearthed during recent construction—stones etched with games played by Roman soldiers during their idle moments.
Those particular stones, even though likely from a period later than Jesus, caused me to ponder my spiritual life at the time. Like a bored soldier passing time in idle moments, I had become complacent and uncaring toward God and others. I was deeply moved by remembering that near the place I was standing, the Lord was beaten, mocked, insulted, and abused as He took all of my failure and rebellion on Himself.
“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
My encounter with the stones still speaks to me of Jesus’s loving grace that is greater than all my sin.