The Hanging Tree

In Euripides’s Alkestis the Spartan king, Admetos, is to die unless he gets a substitute. His wife Alkestis becomes his substitute but the thought of losing her is driving Admetos crazy. Heracles (Hercules), son of the gods and a regular guest at Admetos’s house comes to visit, learns of the situation and goes out and rescues her from Death.

The poet Robert Browning zeroes in on the reputation of Heracles as a helper of mankind against the forces that are too strong for it. He makes the point that this going to humanity’s defense is one of the authenticating marks of genuine godhood. Here’s how he puts it:

Gladness be with thee, Helper of our world! I think this is the authentic sign and seal Of Godship, that it ever waxes glad, And more glad, until gladness blossoms, bursts Into a rage to suffer for mankind, And recommence at sorrow: drops like seed After the blossom, ultimate of all. Say, does the seed scorn the earth and seek the sun? Surely it has no other end and aim Than to drop, once more die into the ground, Taste cold and darkness and oblivion there: And thence rise, tree-like to grow through pain to joy, More joy and most joy—do man good again.

Browning lays hold not only on the theme of suffering to help humanity, he stresses the gladness of heart in which the enterprise is undertaken. It isn’t a grim, reluctant, foot-dragging approach to the matter (Heracles “strode” off to effect the rescue). And it was “for the joy set before him” our Savior despised the pain and loss barring his way.

As P.T. Forsyth insisted, the coming of God as the weak and wounded Jesus Christ is not only not surprising, it would be astonishing if he had not come in Jesus Christ in a rage to suffer on humanity’s behalf. In this, Forsyth doesn’t only have in mind the tender side of God, his gentle love and compassion though he does have that in mind; he’s thinking of God’s infinitely holy character. If God was moved in love, it was a holy love. Christ doesn’t come simply blessing, being sweet, talking kindly and taking us in his loving arms—he comes sharing the suffering that exists in this pain-filled world, the suffering that under God is the out-working of our spellbinding slavery to sin.

This wasn’t salvation at a distance! God wasn’t shouting instructions to us on how to save ourselves; he didn’t send us religious tracts or writings nor did he send some exalted messenger—he came himself!

He came to rescue us from our self-destructive ways; he came to save us from the powers we corrupted, powers that then in their corrupted and corrupting state became our vicious and too-powerful enemies.

The forgiveness of sins, the reconciliation of the world is achieved through love’s judgment on and exposure of evil—the word of the cross says that [John 12:31-32]!

It was God and it was God in and as Jesus Christ who came to our rescue. The motivation for this coming and sending is, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16-17).

Not to be able to see that in the cross blinds us to the possibility of seeing it anywhere else in the world.

And why would such a one bother with the likes of us? Yes, we’ve been told why but while that means we’re not left utterly in the dark, how much light does it really give us? He’s infinitely above and beyond us. It isn’t just his power and wisdom—it’s his character, his love and mercy and grace, they drive us to pile up words on words and phrases on phrases in a vain attempt to grasp and express something of the meaning of it all. It doesn’t surprise us to hear David ask in Psalm 8, “What are humans that you bother with them?”

But incredible as it seems and however often we look around to see if anyone else can believe it or if we’re the only ones who find it difficult to take in—incredible as it seems, it’s true! He cares about us.

Well, all right then, so it’s true, but can we gain access to him or must we always speak of him and deal with him at a great distance? If we do gain access to his presence, what is it that gives us this privilege? What hoops do we have to jump through? What great feats do we have to accomplish? What Herculean tasks do we have to undertake to be assured of entering into the company of the Great God? What assures us, even now, of his favor and of the claim that a day is coming when the communion we now enjoy by faith will have an added dimension—his very presence? What gets us from the gutter, through the door and into the palace?

A wooden stake, a public gallows, on a little hill just outside ancient Jerusalem!

Why is that? Is there some magic in wood?

Is there a mysterious power in a hanging tree?

Does the cruel and brutal death of some young man make God cry and go all weak and tender? There have been millions of deaths like that down the centuries! How does that one, that particular one, enable us to enter God’s presence in peace (Ephesians 2:17-18)? What is it about that death that opens the gates to breathless wonder?

It isn’t God’s love of shed blood that opens his home to us! It’s God himself—his nature and character. His shed blood didn’t make him a loving or welcoming God—it proclaimed that he has eternally been like that! The hanging tree didn’t turn God into a gracious God—it revealed the truth that he already was this!

Nowhere else in time or limitless space can we find the proof that God wants us to be home with him. Nowhere else, only at the hanging tree! It’s only because of that that sinners like us dare to imagine we are welcomed home.

It is in and through this hanging tree that the power of God that opens our eyes and draws us to himself in Jesus. It is this love of Christ that creates the New Testament elect whose business is then to gospel to the world that God hasn’t abandoned it, that he will right all wrongs and on that day the glory of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.

©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.

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