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Archive for December, 2007

I’ve just preached on Hebrews 2 this Sunday.  “He shared in their humanity so that by His death…”  Or again, “He had to be made like His brothers… in order that He might make atonement.” (v14,17)

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Or to quote Kim Fabricius’ provocative post: “The crib and the cross are cut from the same wood.”

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See the crib and you’ve seen the cross ahead of time.  You’ve seen a Man falling, there’s only one outcome possible.

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Anyway, it got me waxing lyrical.  Not finished, but here’s a sketch of a poem:

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God in a manger
Defenceless, enfleshed
Immanuel crying
And fighting for breath

God in a manger
Wriggling and raw
Stranded on wood
Enthroned on the straw

God at Golgotha
Pierced in His flesh
Immanuel crying
And fighting for breath

God at Golgotha
Forsaken and lost
Stranded on wood
Enthroned on the cross

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You can read/hear the sermon here.

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Anyway, probably won’t get a chance to blog for the next week, so let me wish you all a blessed Christmas.

May we in darkness rejoice in our Glorious Light.

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In my previous post I discussed how appropriate it is to celebrate Christmas at winter.  It is the celebration of Light dawning upon those walking in darkness.

What I find fascinating is the human determination to subvert God’s intentions for the season(s).  Those (in the northern hemisphere) who hold Christmas in the dark determine to fashion their own light from their own dark materials.  They turn Christmas into Winter-fest.  Almost a celebration of the darkness or at least calling ‘light’ what is only darkness apart from Christ. 

Those (in the southern hemisphere) who hold it in the light turn Christmas into a Summer-fest.  A celebration of sunny circumstances.  Yet again such lights are darkness apart from Christ. 

The only answer must be to celebrate the Light shining in darkness.  And to know that we are darkness and only He is Light.   If we truly embraced this then:

A) We would stop being idolaters – worshipping family, feasting and festivities.

B) We would be able to truly enjoy family, feasting and festivities since we recognize that such things are not our Saviour – but Christ, the LORD is.

C) We would have good news of great joy for *all* people, including the grieving and suffering.  People need to know that Christmas is for people in dark places.  All is darkness around – let’s not pretend any different.  But the Other-worldly Light has dawned.  Look to Him.

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In the bleak midwinter

I grew up with Summer Christmases.  Mangoes for breakfast.  Roast Turkey for lunch (never mind that it’s 40 degrees/100F outside).  Backyard cricket.  Swims and BBQs.  And I loved them.  But I’ve been thinking recently.  Theologically, a summer Christmas is a contradiction in terms. 

People walking in darkness have seen a great Light.  On those living in the shadow of death a Light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

The rising Sun will come to us from heaven, to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death. (Luke 1:78-79)

The Light shines in the darkness. (John 1:5)  

Christmas begins in the dark.  The context for Christmas is ignorance, rebellion, captivity and death.  Christmas is a celebration that finds no justification in earthly circumstances.  All around is darkness and death.  The only possibility for joy lies outside.  Christmas celebrates an other-worldly Light dawning from on High.

Christmas is not the celebration of our sunny circumstances.   Nothing in our grasp is true justification for Christmas joy.   Not family, not friends, not gifts, not health, wealth, success or acclaim.   Only Christ coming from beyond our circumstances – like light into darkness – only He makes a Christmas.

Yet in the Southern Hemisphere we celebrate Christmas as though we were celebrating our happy environs – and ignore the darkness.  In the Northern Hemisphere we turn to family, friends and fesitivities to try to generate our own light – and ignore the darkness.  But darkness is the very atmosphere of Christmas.

If you’re having a tough one, know that Christmas is meant for dark places.  And let’s all seek our Light and joy only in the Son given to us.  Apart from Him, it’s only winter – no matter what side of the equator you’re on.

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To hear a Christmas sermon of mine on this theme go here.

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Check this out.  From Steve Holmes.

‘Our task is not to tell people that they must believe in Jesus, but so to tell them of Jesus that they must believe in Him.’

Spot on!

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What would happen if God really laid hold of you?  How do you respond to that prospect?

Do you fear the idea – worried about how He will treat you up close and personal? 

Do you long for it – maybe then you’d break free from the ruts you’ve been stuck in?

Well Christmas means that God has already gotten His hands on you!

“Surely it is not angels who He lays hold of but it is the seed of Abraham He lays hold of.” (Heb 2:16)

At Christmas, Jesus Christ lays hold of His people – the seed of Abraham.  In fact, as the Seed of Abraham, He comprehends in Himself the totality of His people, like a Vine comprehends its branches.  Jesus assumes our humanity and in doing so draws us into Himself.  This is a comprehensive ‘laying hold of’!

Jesus does not come to offer advice.  He does not come to direct us in righteous paths.  He does not make possible our living for God.  Instead, as the Seed of Abraham, He lays hold of His people and wrenches them from the clutches of sin, the world and the devil.  He sums up and puts away their sin on the cross and rises as the Vindicated Servant.  Now He is enthroned at the Father’s right hand – taking with Him the humanity He assumed. 

Christ has placed His hands on us in the most radical and thorough-going way.  He has commandeered the totality of our existence.  We may wish that He had a more ‘hands-off’ approach.  We may want to cast ourselves as free agents who can consider whether or not to offer Jesus our allegiance.  But when this Word comes to us we realize that we are already claimed, already grabbed, already Man-handled by Jesus.  He has gotten His hands on us and He has worked an incredible salvation in us. 

Now we find ourselves caught up in His life, His death, His resurrection and His ascension.  Our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3).  God has gotten hold of our life and done in us what we could never do ourselves – what we could never dream of doing!  And His purposes in doing this are entirely for our blessing (just read about His purposes in the context: Heb 2:14-18).  We have nothing to fear from this ‘Man-handling’ and everything to be thankful for.

As you look into the manger this Christmas, look with irrepressible hope.  There, in the face of Christ, you see not only the Father’s self-giving love.  There also you see yourself.  There in the manger is your humanity laid hold of by Immanuel.  God has gotten hold of you, permanently, irreversibly.  Christmas guarantees it.

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State, Explain, Illustrate, Apply.  That’s apparently the blueprint for the young preacher.  Find three points in the text (regardless of the genre of the passage, regardless of how many ‘points’ the Scripture might be making).  For each of the points (it’s best if they all begin with ‘P’): state it, explain it, illustrate it and – in a discrete section of the sermon – apply it. 

This almost inevitably means turning each point into a law to be enjoined on the congregation.  Thus: point one – Jesus is faithful.  Application – how will you be faithful this week?  For the preacher who is very keen on ‘application’ they will offer all manner of suggestions as to how the congregation can be faithful in the minutiae of their lives.

All this begs the question: what is preaching for?  If it is faith that comes by hearing why do our sermons aim at awakening works?   Why do both preachers and congregations love to cut to the ‘application.’  You know the phrases that get a whole church wide eyed, edging to the front of their pews, pliant in the preacher’s hand: “Now where does the rubber hit the road?” “What about on a Monday morning?” “How does this play out in the nitty gritty of life?”  And of course the answer given by the preacher (the answer that all our flesh longs to hear) is “You’ve heard this abstract, ‘unearthed’ stuff about Christ’s righteousness, now, go, establish your own righteousness in your home, school or office.  You’ve heard of Christ, now you go and be the Faithful One.” 

On this understanding, application looks like this:

preaching 1 

In my experience the more ‘concrete’ and ‘earthed’ an application the better.  Specific moral instructions are thought to really liven up the sermon.  Now of course this puts a huge onus on the preacher to be able to discern the thoughts and attitudes of the heart – something which surely only the Spirit by His Word is competent to do.  And the more specific these applications become the more easily they slide off the backs of a congregation safe in the knowledge they didn’t commit that sin this week. 

But that’s not the real issue with such an understanding of ‘application’.  The real issue is – what are we aiming at in preaching?  Here’s my question: what if we took seriously the fact that the gospel is to be believed?  Christ is to be received.  The Word is to be heard.  What would application look like then?  I suggest it should look much more like this:

preaching 2

Application ought to be the pointed driving home of the gospel.  It is the lively and repeated application of the Word to the heart of the congregation to the end that it might be believed.  It is not the derivation of principles which can then be turned into moral instruction.  Application is the Spirit’s work of awakening faith in the Christ who we proclaim.  It is a work which we cannot perform ourselves but to which we are called nonetheless.  In prayerful dependence we follow the way of witness in the Scriptures as they point to Christ.  And we point too.  With excitement, with passion, with entreaty.  And we say like Moses did regarding the bronze serpent: Look and live!

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A little detour on Barth…

Last century, Karl Barth was key in re-emphasizing mission as the outflow of the life of God.  At the Brandenburg Missionary Conference in 1932  he said:

“Must not even the most faithful missionary, the most convinced friend of missions, have reason to reflect that the term missio was in the ancient Church an expression of the doctrine of the Trinity-namely the expression of the divine sending forth of self, the sending of the Son and Holy Spirit to the world? Can we indeed claim that we do it any other way?”

The mission of God flows from Father to Son to church and out to the world.  And just as the God from whom this mission flows is a Gospel God – One who is who we see in the events of the gospel – so His mission is a gospel mission.  Just as the Father committed His words (remata) to the Son (John 14:24), the Son entrusts them to His followers (John 17:10) to be taken out into the world (John 21:20).

For this reason Barth was very particular about what he thought mission to be.  It is a word-y business.  It is about proclamation, about publishing this Gospel to the world.  Consider these quotes from a variety of his writings:

“The essence of the Church is proclamation.”  (Homiletics, p40)

“the event of real proclamation is the life-function of the Church which conditions all the rest.” (I/1,p98)

“The first if not the only thing in its witness is the ministry of the viva vox Evangelii to be discharged voce humana in human words.  It is its declaration, explanation and evangelical address with the lips.” (IV/3, p864)

“…we learn from the Biblical witness to revelation that, over and above the command to believe, love and hope, and distinct from the command to call in common upon His name, to help the brethren, etc., Jesus Christ has given His Church the commission to proclaim, and to proclaim through preaching and sacrament.” (I/1, p62)

“At bottom, the Church is in the world only with a book in its hands.  We have no other possibility to bear witness except to explain this book.”  (God in Action, p107-108)

Now, before we ever write off such a mission as narrow – ignoring the social and political needs of the day – consider article 6 of the Barmen Declaration which Barth penned in Germany in 1934:

“The Church’s commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ’s stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver to all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God.”

Consider the context.  Germany. 1934.  Wouldn’t there have been immense pressure to deliver another message alongside that of the ‘free grace of God’??  Wouldn’t we have been tempted also to address the extemely pressing social and political needs of the day??

Yet Barth’s definition of mission speaks extremely pointedly into the social and political needs of the day because it refuses to deal with those needs on their own terms.  Instead, the church serves and confronts the world (even Nazi Germany!) by first serving its Lord.  This service is gospel proclamation.  And through it, the world is confronted with its true Fuhrer (Christ) and its true Reich (the Kingdom).  The church most engages the world when it most rejects the world’s agendas and presses its own – the Gospel of Christ.

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For more on this see my essay on What is the mission of the church?

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I’m preaching on this sobering passage on Sunday.

I’m struck by the sins of the fathers repeated in the children.  Just as 2 Samuel 11 showed lust => deception => illicit taking => death => further chaos so it is here.  In fact, just as Genesis 3 involved lust, deception, illicit taking, death and a spiral into chaos so this is re-played once again in the royal house.

From 1 Sam 16 until 2 Sam 10 we see good king David.  A wonderful mirror of Christ.  David is anointed among his brothers (1 Sam 16) then fights on their behalf to win victory for God’s people (1 Sam 17).  While the world acknowledges one king, there is a faithful remnant who serve God’s choice as king.  The women sing his praises, the mighty men join him in battle.  Eventually he is vindicated (2 Sam 5ff).  He ascends Zion and is enthroned.  He shows unfailing love to those in covenant with him (2 Sam 9) elevating the helpless to table fellowship.  He makes peace to the ends of the land/earth (same word in Hebrew) by defeating all his enemies and bringing peace. (2 Sam 8 and 10 – see my recent sermon on 2 Samuel 10).  There ends the narrative of good king David.  From chapter 11 we have bad king David.  In fact, from here, we see the outworkings of sin in the kingdoms of the world.  The house of David had been a mirror to the house of the LORD (see 2 Sam 7).  But now (see 2 Sam 12:20) the house of David is contrasted with the house of the LORD.

Think of how important the ‘house’ is in Scripture.   Just as the world is a ‘house’ (e.g. Isaiah 66:1), so is a kingdom, so is a family.  These family problems are a microcosmos – a little world in crisis.  (think of the Genesis 3 link above).  Everything that is so heart-breakingly wrong with this family is everything that is so heart-breakingly wrong with the kingdom of the world.  The sin we read about here cannot be held at arms length.  It is being brought home to us because it is the problem at the heart of every house, every kingdom, the whole world.

Note how these four men are distorted pictures of true men:

Amnon is a lover.  But it’s love turned to lust. 

Jonadab is a wise man, yet it’s wisdom turned to deceit. 

David is a king, but inactive in the face of evil. 

Absalom is an avenger, a rescuer – yet he silences Tamar and seems to protect his own reputation more than hers. 

How wonderful the lover, the wise man, the king and the rescuer could have been.  But they are perverted and together make for one dysfunctional house!

And what is the state of the virgin daughter in the royal house?   (This very broken mirror of the church (cf Psalm 45).  How is this virgin daughter in this kingdom treated?

Desired (v1)

Deceived (v11)

Disgraced (v14)

Despised (v15)

Discarded (v17)

Dismissed (v20a)

Destroyed (v20b)

And what a word to describe her in v20: Desolate!  Literally – destroyed.  It’s such a violent word.  It’s the word for Job and his household – devastated.  It’s most used with regard to the curse of exile – the ravaged land, the desolated temple, the agriculture dried up.  She is destroyed like a war-torn country, like a shrivelled up vine, like a desecrated temple.  (There is hope though for the Desolate woman – cf Isaiah 54!)

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Now v15 has intrigued me for a long time.  Can anyone help me with the psychology of this.  Literally it says that after he raped her “Then Amnon hated her with a very great hatred.  In fact the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her.”  What’s going on there?  What is it about this illicit taking that makes him despise what he had previously desired so fiercely??

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This is a short introduction I gave to our church prayer meeting held on Wednesday night…

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Job 16:19-20

19 Even now my Witness is in heaven; my Advocate is on high. 20 My Intercessor is my Friend as my eyes pour out tears to God;

I have to tell you that you were all late for the prayer meeting.  I want you to seriously consider the fact that you all came late to the prayer meeting.  And last month, you were late to the prayer meeting.  And the month before that.  In fact, you are always late to prayer.

Because the real prayer meeting, the heavenly prayer meeting, has begun before we ever join in.

Job here speaks of his heavenly Intercessor.  Job has a friend in high places.  And this friend prays for him ‘Even now’.

Jesus Christ is described many times as our Intercessor.  Because intercession (prayer) is one of the key things Jesus does for us as our High Priest

The High Priest of the Old Testament tabernacle system would, once a year, take the blood of the atonement sacrifices and take them through the curtain and into the Most Holy Place – the dwelling place of God Himself.  There He would sprinkle the blood before the LORD and make atonement for the sins of the people.  Now that’s wonderful enough, but one of the things the High Priest was wearing was a breastplate in which were 12 stones.  Engraved on the 12 stones were the names of the sons of Israel.  Exodus 28 says this:

29 “Whenever Aaron enters the Holy Place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart (on the breastpiece of decision) as a continuing memorial before the LORD.

So this is the picture: The High Priest makes atonement for His people and in doing so He carries His people on His heart before the LORD.  The people are remembered before the LORD because the High Priest carries them on His heart.

Now the Old Testament tabernacle system was only a multi-media presentation.  It pointed forward to the time when Jesus Christ would enter into heaven itself to make atonement and intercede for His people.  In the Old Testament, the High Priest got into the Most Holy Place and got out again quickly, lest he die in the presence of this Holy God.  But Hebrews 7 contrasts that with Jesus’ priesthood.  It says:

“because Jesus lives for ever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”

Jesus always bears us on His heart before the Father.  He always remains before the LORD.  He is our Intercessor – always praying for His people.

We are always late to prayer.  Because Jesus is always ahead of us.  Our prayer is the Amen to His ceaseless intercession!

Now let’s just look at our passage and learn a little something about out Heavenly Intercessor.  He’s given four names here:

First: He is the Witness.  It’s legal language, and here we have what you might call a Star Witness.  While Satan may be called the Accuser in Scripture, Job knows a Witness for the defence.  And He’s a Witness with the very best reputation.  Here is a Witness who will be listened to on High, because He belongs on High.  The case for the defence can rest because this Star Witness has given unimpeachable testimony.

Second: He is the Advocate.  We’re still in legal territory here.  John also calls Jesus ‘the Advocate’ in 1 John 2:1.  He is not only the Star Witness, He’s also the Star Barrister.  That’s so important in court.  Because if you’re on trial, how do you look to the Judge?  You look as good as your lawyer.  If your lawyer is good, you look good.  The Christian looks very good in the court of heaven.  Their Witness and their Advocate is flawless.

Third: He is the Intercessor.  Christ doesn’t just witness or advocate, He prays. He petitions, He intercedes.  Jesus said to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith will not fail.”  (Luke 22:32)  And the LORD Jesus prays similarly for you.  And He prays, as Job says (v19) ‘even now‘.

Fourth:  He is my friend.  All of this would be nothing if not for the fact that Christ is our friend.  We don’t simply have a Lord in High Places, we have a friend in High Places.  There is One who loves you more than you love yourself.  He is the One interceding for you ‘even now.’

Finally.  You might think that all this would make you not want to pray.  Perhaps you think: ‘Why should I bother praying if Jesus is doing the job?’  This thought doesn’t occur to Job.  He makes the opposite conclusion – because He has such a Witness, Advocate, Intercessor and Friend on High therefore his eyes pour out tears before God.

When we understand that our High Priest has given us such access to the throne of grace then we will pour out our hearts to God.  Before Christ made friends with us, prayer could only ever be a wish list or a religious rite – and who knows whether our words just bounce off the ceiling.  But now, carried on Christ’s heart, assured of a hearing, now we can pray.  Now we can call the Almighty God ‘Abba, Father’.  Now we are invited into the ultimate prayer gathering.  We may have turned up late, but we are very welcome.  And all our prayers become the Amen, to Christ’s heavenly intercession.

Heavenly Father, we approach You because Your Son, our Brother has become our Priest.  We praise and thank You because He ever lives to intercede for us.  Send the Spirit of Your Son now into our hearts, that same Spirit of Christ, who calls out ‘Abba, Father.’  Draw us into your life of prayer.  Help us this evening to know the privilege and joy of joining in with Christ’s intercession.  Answer our prayers not because of our own righteousness but only because Christ our Witness on High intercedes for us.  It’s in His Name we pray,  Amen.

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For audio sermons of mine and some others I highly recommend go here

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Poem: “Thorns”

All but cursed, the men of dust,

From garden’d bliss dejected thrust.

Cast down to blood and tangling thorn,

Flat-faced in mud, bereft, forlorn. 

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Unmoved as ages droned along,

Resigned to sighing pity’s song.

To mouth their sadness with each breath,

In love with self and sin and death. 

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Then glancing back, a glimmering sight,

Through gnarling weeds, a shaft of light.

The tree untouched, of matchless type,

Engorged with life, effulgent, ripe. 

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It lay beyond the thorny wall,

A tantalizing siren’s call.

All wrong reversed, all tears made good,

All hunger filled with holy food. 

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New drive possessed the men of dust,

They set to work with primal thrust.

To have the fruit at any cost,

If failing this then all is lost. 

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And so they pressed against the wall

Of thorns and blades and jagged sprawl.

Their eyes aglow with mad intent,

Their bodies pierced and torn and rent. 

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Their flesh sliced through by razor wire,

Could not abate their one desire.

No hurt could halt their desperate zeal.

“Once through, the tree alone will heal!” 

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Their bodies strewn along the route,

Their hands outstretched to reach the fruit.

Yet none would cross this death-divide,

Their hope lay on the thorny side. 

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Behind them in the other way,

Another tree for sinners lay.

It stood apart and unacquired,

Gnarled and grim and undesired.  

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It did not catch the eye of men,

Who sought a ripeness there and then.

Yet this one pledged a golden yield,

To all who ceased and turned and kneeled. 

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For hanging lone across its form,

The Lord of Life enthroned in scorn,

Was off’ring all a bloodied balm,

With up-raised voice and out-stretched arm. 

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Thus from the midst of cursèd death,

Is raised His call with rasping breath.

“Come every man, leave off your quest

Find life within my piercèd breast.” 

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“He lies!” they shrieked through raging tears,

They scoffed and mocked with angry jeers.

What life could this cadaver give?

What guarantee that we shall live?” 

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“Just this” He said with pity’s call,

“I’ve come direct from o’er the wall.

All bliss that moves your frenzied glee,

Such fountains first begin in Me.” 

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At once they spluttered daft disdain,

“No wounded Man or tree of pain,

Will be our well or way of life.

We’re free! You pledge us only strife!” 

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“Dear friends!” He pleas, “regard your plight,

Your freedom bonds you, blinds your sight.

Your wounds for self, for self are loss,

Come lose them in my wounded cross. 

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“Your life is death, My death is gain,

Now trust the word of Paschal slain.

Come hide in Me through darkest night,

Soon heaven’s dawns shine fresh delight.” 

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Just so His promise stands above

All men, inquiring which they love:

To seek the fruit and Him defy,

Or heed Life’s call to “Come and die!”

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