“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. “ Matthew 11:28 NIV
It was a day not unlike most days for Jesus, walking the dusty Judean paths and interacting with fellow travelers, but on this day there was an extreme exception. There was palpable grief in the rush of people He saw ahead, moving in His direction. These were the disciples of His cousin John. In their loss, many were tearing their garments. Their anguished keening pierced the morning air. They had just received John’s headless body and had buried him. In Matthew 14:11 the one sentence says everything: “. . . his disciples came and took up the body and buried it; and went and told Jesus.”
They were seeking Jesus now, not just to tell Him about their beloved rabbi, but to find sanctuary for their grief. They were seeking Jesus for comfort. Only He would understand what they were feeling. In some cultures, even nail clippings were saved to bury with the body when that time came. For John’s disciples, burying his headless body would have been crushing to their spirits. They would grieve together. What do we do when we are in grief? We seek comfort to make sense of something so difficult that we momentarily lose our way. Grief can even feel like insanity in a temporary sense as we work through it and come back eventually to a place of stability, calm and acceptance. Jesus eventually departed to be alone. In His own grief, He would seek His Sanctuary, His heavenly Father, modeling to each of us how to find our way back. The image of Jesus as our Sanctuary becomes more evident as we read the reference that described His next actions. “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” Matthew 14:13-16 NIV
He was their Sanctuary. He set aside His own grief. Filled with compassion, He gathered their children into His arms and spoke healing over the sick. The waves of the lake lapped rhythmically along the shore, the cool evening breeze and the softening of the sun’s heat reminded them that the day was drawing to a close. Before Him, sat thousands of souls, content in His presence where worries had no place. He watched them now as they joyfully rallied to their brothers and sisters who had just been healed. Pallets that had once been occupied by those unable to walk, lay empty with celebration all around them – tears of elation over the blind who now could see.
Then they all sat down on the hillside with birdsong becoming gradually more noticeable as a hush of wonder fell over them. Countless baskets of bread and fish that had begun to appear from nowhere were being placed in waiting hands to be passed among the thousands. The memories of the oral stories passed down of quail and manna began to ripple through the crowd. Could this man from Nazareth be more than just a rabbi? Could there be more to the stories they were hearing about the miracles He was performing? Could this be their God, Yahweh, returned to them? He was not a pillar of fire or a cloud of smoke but one of them – with flesh and blood – holding and blessing their children, comforting their grieving, healing their sick and restoring sight to their blind. They ate the manna together in a place made sacred by the presence of the phenomenon before them. Jesus gave them hope and comfort, and now – sustenance. These were His people who were alienated from everything spiritual by all the legalist rules of their repressive religious leaders and the empty blood sacrifices in the Temple that were no longer held sacred. They were dying inside, but in this holy place from the exodus stories’ descriptions handed down through the generations, they felt the breathtaking presence of the God of their fathers and mothers when they were wandering in the desert bound for the Promised Land. Yahweh – who protected them from attacking enemies; Yahweh, who looked after their basic needs for food and water, joy and comfort, making them a nation whose god was the one true living God, had returned.
Their prophet Isaiah had described his experience with this Presence in the temple:
“. . . I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of his robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah 6:1-3
This mysterious Rabbi before them, who defied even their leaders and broke the rules for the sake of human dignity and justice, had come with this same power through love and compassion and most important of all offering hope and a future. Today on this hillside, they glimpsed that same Father who walked with their first parents in the garden and clothed them with animal skins to soothe the remorse and fear they were experiencing for the first time. They had innocently committed the Great Breech in all of creation, the first sin. Here was the way back. There was forgiveness. There was love. There was redemption. For those who had eyes to see, here was Yahweh sitting with them on the hillside. Here in a body of flesh, was Sanctuary – their Way, their Truth and their Life. Today, for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, they could grasp the earth full of His glory once more.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 NIV
Sanctuary throughout history has been about seeking safety in threatening life and death circumstances. Most often it was a church or the dais in a church believed to be inhabited by the presence of Christ and was respected even by ruling authorities not to invade by force to harm or remove anyone residing in that space.
We find sanctuary in the song “Amazing Grace”. It is played at funerals and solemn candlelit gatherings of those who are grieving loss. What can be so powerful about that song that we are brought to tears and life-changing decisions? Is the power in the melody or the words or both? The power may be in its origins. Can such spiritual resurrection of a person – from death to life not continue on in the continued witness of that person, hundreds of years later? This song was written by a man who once walked a path as far from God as anyone could. John Newton was a slave ship’s captain who stowed living bodies like cargo in the many 3’ high levels of the ship’s hold in wretched squalor beyond belief. The average trip in good weather to America from Africa was six to eight weeks.
From Eyewitness to History website we read: “In 1807 the British Parliament passed a bill prohibiting the slave trade. In January the following year the United States followed suit by outlawing the importation of slaves. The acts did nothing to curtail the trade of slaves within the nation’s borders, but did end the overseas commerce in slaves. To enforce these laws, Britain and the United States jointly patrolled the seas off the coast of Africa, stopping suspected slave traders and confiscating the ship when slaves were found. The human cargo was then transported back to Africa.” The following is a brief description written by The Reverend Robert Walsh who served aboard one of the ships assigned to intercept the slavers off the African coast: ‘On the morning of May 22, 1829, a suspected slaver was sighted and the naval vessel gave chase. Our boat was now hoisted out, and I went on board with the officers. When we mounted her decks we found her full of slaves. She had taken in, on the coast of Africa, 336 males and 226 females, making in all 562, and had been out seventeen days, during which she had thrown overboard 55. The slaves were all enclosed under grated hatchways between decks. The space was so low that they sat between each other’s legs and [were] stowed so close together that there was no possibility of their lying down or at all changing their position by night or day. As they belonged to and were shipped on account of different individuals, they were all branded like sheep with the owner’s marks of different forms. . . Over the hatchway stood a ferocious-looking fellow with a scourge of many twisted thongs in his hand, who was the slave driver of the ship, and whenever he heard the slightest noise below, he shook it over them and seemed eager to exercise it. I was quite pleased to take this hateful badge out of his hand, and I have kept it ever since as a horrid memorial of reality, should I ever be disposed to forget the scene I witnessed. As soon as the poor creatures saw us looking down at them, their dark and melancholy visages brightened up. They perceived some thing of sympathy and kindness in our looks which they had not been accustomed to, and, feeling instinctively that we were friends, they immediately began to shout and clap their hands. One or two had picked up a few Portuguese words, and cried out, ‘Viva! Viva!’ The women were particularly excited. They all held up their arms, and when we bent down and shook hands with them, they could not contain their delight;’” eyewitnesstohistory.com
As captain of a slave ship such as was described here, John Newton made his living at the expense of other’s suffering and freedom – branded and bound in chains. The average losses were between 10 and 20%, through sickness, suicide and even murder at the hands of the ship’s crew and captains. 10% means over 1,000,000 Africans died on board the ships. Newton, like Saul on the road to Damascus, experienced a life-changing, near-death experience. His conversion is one of the greatest stories of all time of how God can transform a life that is spiritually dead, steeped in inhumanity and bring it back to life. Through “Amazing Grace” written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit coming through a man who had nearly lost his soul in his pursuits, we find solace – we find sanctuary. None of us can imagine coming from those depths of such blind indifference and promotion of something so heinous as slavery and then finally waking up and finding his Savior, Jesus Christ. It is no wonder he called himself a wretch. But in that dark place of remorse and regret that he must have felt as his life passed before his eyes, he found peace and redemption in Christ his Sanctuary.
The book that played a part in Newton’s transformation, “The Imitation of Christ” written by Thomas a ’Kempis, who lived from 1380-1471 was written as a conversation between a monk and his Lord. One of the monk’s questions was worded in this way in the language of the fourteenth century:
“Lord, how oft shall I resign myself and wherein shall I forsake myself? ‘Son, forsake thyself and thou shalt find me. Stand without choice and without all manner of self and thou shalt win ever; . . . as thou hast resigned thyself and not taken thyself again, then shall be thrown to thee more grace. Ever and in every hour, as in little, so in great. I out-take (except) nothing but in all things I will find thee made bare: else, how canst thou be mine and I thine, unless thou be deprived outwardly and inwardly from all thine own will? The more swiftly that thou lost this the better it shall be with thee; and the more plainly and clearly it is done the more shalt thou please me and the more thou shalt win. Oh wonderful condescension of Thy pity surrounding us, that Thou, O Lord God, Creator and Quickener of all spirits, deignest to come unto a soul so poor and weak, and to appease its hunger
with Thy whole Deity and Humanity. . . Oh my most sweet Beloved, let heaven and earth and all the glory of them, be silent in Thy presence; seeing whatsoever praise and beauty they have it is of Thy gracious bounty; and they shall never reach unto the loveliness of Thy Name, Whose Wisdom is infinite.’” Thomas a’ Kempis
Perhaps in reading this, Newton was able to find the peace that transcends all understanding.
During the time that I was writing Sanctuary, I awakened one morning at 3AM. It was the morning that I began including Amazing Grace and John Newton’s story as I considered the forms of Sanctuary that we all recognize. I went back to bed and when I awoke around sunrise, I found myself overwhelmed and in tears as I started to come to even a slight realization of the relief Newton must have felt in his state of deep remorse over what he had done in his life and then become fully aware of Jesus Christ and the love and forgiveness He offered him. It was then that I could understand, if even slightly, the relief he had to have felt finding redemption and the degree of the Holy Spirit alone that it would have taken for him to eventually reach such a place of humility, awareness and gratitude that formed the words of this song. Amazing Grace was written in that place.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see. John Newton ca. mid 1700s
This is a remembrance written about John Newton in his later years:
“John Newton was a rough, dirty sailor with a foul mouth and an appetite for rotten living. He hated life and life hated him. He was captain of a slave ship. Then someone placed in his hands a copy of Thomas a Kempis’ ‘The Imitation of Christ’. He also had the gift of a good mother who told him about the Savior when he was young. And then he was saved. He went all over England sharing his faith. Well past his retirement age, he had to have an assistant stand in the pulpit with him on Sundays. He was nearly blind and spoke in whispers, but nothing could keep him from preaching while he still had breath. One Sunday, while delivering his message he repeated the sentence: ‘Jesus Christ is precious’. His helper whispered to him: ‘But you have already said that twice.’ Newton turned to his helper and said loudly, ’Yes, I’ve said it twice, and I’m going to say it again.’ The stones in the ancient sanctuary fairly shook as the grand old preacher said again: ‘Jesus Christ is precious!’” Source unknown.
From this story in Luke, we understand even more clearly Newton’s conversion experience and his great love for Jesus:
36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii (a laborer’s day wage) and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” 48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Luke 7:36-48 NIV
Today, in a time when the latest trends, material pursuits and electronics consume our every waking hour, how do we grasp the source of everything we need which is in the divine personhood of Jesus Christ? How do we grasp that Jesus Christ is precious? We would have to be able to understand that Christ is:
A love that can never be fathomed
A life that can never die
A righteousness that can never be tarnished
A peace that can never be understood
A rest that can never be disturbed
A joy that can never be diminished
A hope that can never be disappointed
A glory that can never be clouded
A light that can never be darkened
A purity that can never be defiled
A beauty that can never be marred
A wisdom that can never be baffled
Resources that can never be exhausted. (source unknown)
To draw his creation to himself, God has typically used a sanctuary – the altar of stones, the tabernacle, and then the temple – built by human hands. Then God came in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, and demonstrated for us that sanctuary is not a building but it is Him!
As God created us in his image and with similar desires, in that, He did not want us to be separated from him. He wanted to be able to walk the earth with us, sit down with us, eat with us and talk to us face to face. He sent Jesus to show us, that filled with His spirit, we too are a sanctuary. We can comfort those who come to us. We can fix a simple meal and share it for physical and spiritual sustenance. Jesus is our Savior, personally, but meant to be shared with all who come to us so that His glory can fill the earth and be a blessing to everyone.
Part of the awareness that washed over me when I awoke in tears was that most likely John Newton never touched or beat a slave but he had men who did within earshot and his view when it was happening. He was very much a part of the status quo of that day who looked the other way. How much guilt do we need to share with the status quo when we look the other way knowing that injustices are being carried out on our watch?
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Edmund Burke
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. 9 Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
“But greatly must we mourn and lament over our lukewarmness and negligence, that we are not drawn by greater affection to become partakers of Christ, in whom all the hope and the merit of those that are to be saved consist. For He Himself is our sanctification and redemption. He is the consolation of pilgrims and the eternal fruition of the Saints. Therefore it is grievously to be lamented that many so little consider this health-giving mystery, which maketh heaven glad and preserveth the whole world. Alas for the blindness and hardness of man’s heart, that he considereth not more this unspeakable gift, and even slippeth down through the daily use, into carelessness.”
Thomas a’ Kempis, Imitation of Christ
” You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” I Peter 2:9-10 NIV
During this celebration time of Christ’s death and resurrection, with the psalmist David, we declare our praise and devotion:
1 You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.2 I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. 3 Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. 4 I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. 5 I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. 7 Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. 8 I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63:1-8 NIV