Bitter sweet. Lemon drizzle cake and a God of opposites.
Even the best life is bitter sweet. If you’re very fortunate it’s sweet bitter. But it’s sure to be both – for everyone – no exceptions. You don’t get one without the other.
‘Joy unconfined’ doesn’t exist in this world, at best it’s sorrow denied and dismissed. There is never, in any life, an absence of sorrow so to talk only about peace and joy, and an untroubled existence, is to present a lie. Too many churches and philosophies do that. A life in which we would never worry, or grieve, or fear, in which we would never be torn apart by regret or longing, would not be a blissful state, a Nirvana for super-Christians. It would be hypocrisy or delusion, or at its worst, smug self-satisfaction. One of the three. The person who claims that he or she is never fearful or distraught because they have complete faith in Jesus is not telling it as it is, or they’re emotionally crippled. I simply do not believe it.
Jesus Christ didn’t come to bring perfect peace in this world to those who love Him. He left those promises to Buddha, whose followers strive to attain ‘a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self….’ I don’t think that’s what Christians should be striving for. We strive to be Christ-like.
What was Christ like?
Jesus Christ brought His humanity and His divinity to fallen man. His humanity had him weeping, angry, sorrowing, fearful, full of dread. His divinity had Him triumphant in submission, powerful in weakness, victorious over death. Bitter sweet.
Today I’ve made lemon drizzle cake for a very sick friend, and as I mixed sugar into lemon juice, smelling that wonderful citrus zest, I thought about the Christmas story. Bitter sweet.
Advent begins on Sunday 29th November, just over a week away. I know that I’ll be swept up in the Christmas pattern, the tree, the mince pies, gift sorting, all the familiar rituals. Christmas will be strange this year, a friend dead, family miles away and even then split up into different households, a family member lost to us, but I know that the miles between us will be filled with love and joy. So, why am I banging on about bitterness?
The dictionary definition for the word bitterness, in this context, is “a sharp, pungent taste or smell” because of course I’m not talking about sourness, a sense of resentment or hatred, but of something we appreciate and balance against the opposite.
Life is sharp and pungent, sweet and gentle. Life is balance.
Think of the child Jesus, a perfect child, born to an obedient, Godly woman, a baby boy with a new born baby smell, unfocussed eyes, grasping hands, sweet, sweet sweet. And then think of that same child, born into poverty in an occupied land, to a young virgin mother, an outcast, into a strained and new family, forced to walk a hundred miles to fulfil the census of a powerful and brutal conqueror, bitter, bitter, bitter.
And looking beyond that night of His birth, looking to the future of this child, what do we see? A child born to die. A child whose whole purpose in being born was to die in pain and shame, betrayed, alone and torn from fellowship from His Father, torn from the light and lost in the dark. Laid in the tomb, alone, abandoned. Bitter, bitter.
Whose whole purpose was the saving of mankind. Sweet, sweet.
Because the tomb isn’t the last scene of our story. In the promise of that child’s birth, we find an eternal and overwhelming sweetness, sweetness enough to that kiss all tears away, mend all grief, a sweetness that’s so breathtaking in its majesty, so compassionate in its power, so majestic and sovereign in its humility, that we fall to our knees in wonder and delight. Our God is complete and whole, our God of opposites, of all things, without beginning or end, who created space out of unthinkable nothing, our God who spun the all the suns and the stars and the moons of the cosmos from His breath and spoke time into being. That God, that God is love. Creation is love. He is love. Love so fierce and so gentle, so righteous and so forgiving, so immovable and so compassionate, that He – the mighty I AM – became flesh. Became muscle and sinew and weak, vulnerable, flesh. Our God of opposites.
Who else could have righted the wrong that man had become? Only God. And so He did.
Who is good enough, loving enough, sacrificial, submitted and pure enough to save me and a whole history of fallen irredeemable souls? Only God.
Sweet, sweet God. In all our bitterness, sweet God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16
Our Pastor, over the last 5 years that I’ve known him, has often spoken to us about 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 and Philippians 4:4
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!
Not an easy teaching, but he plugs on, faithfully, doggedly, and finally, I think, I get it. Bitter sweet.
You know when there’s a certain phrase or image or memory that just wrings your heart so that you have to bite back a gasp? When we share communion in my little church, and the Pastor holds up the bread, I’m lost in wonder. ” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’” (Luke 22:19)
That’s a breath taking momement in every communion service. The sight of that bread, the hands breaking it apart, the imagery of a body broken, for me, for me…. The thought of my God saying those words on that dreadful night…. Every single time I’m overwhelmed by the realisation that these words were spoken by Jesus, who was already – at that very moment – being betrayed to the thugs of the synagogue, knowing fully what was in front of him, and still He gave thanks.
My God gave thanks that He was about to die in agony, for me. He loves me so much that even as He faced that ordeal, He was thankful for my redemption even at that terrible price. Thankful that He would save me. In that bitter sweet moment, as He broke the bread, He loved us all, and gave Himself. Just as He gave Himself when He came into this world, a baby.
Bitter sweet. We do our God a dis-service if all we see in Christmas is the sweet, failing to see the sacrifice, the cross and the tomb.
Bitter. Sweet, sweet, sweet.