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Let the Vain World

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 15 May 2019

In this modified extract from 'The Forgotten Cross', Lee Gatiss introduces one of Augustus Toplady's great hymns, which we often sing at Church Society events, 'Let the Vain World'.

Do you remember the story of Hansel and Gretel?  Two young children are taken out into the forest one day and then abandoned by their father, who can’t afford to look after them anymore. (Perhaps it was during the credit crunch?) But they discover that this is going to happen just before they leave home, so they pick up lots of white pebbles.  And as their father leads them into the darkest parts of the forest they drop the pebbles every so often, to mark their way back home.

Well, I’ve missed out the wicked stepmother, the botched attempt to use breadcrumbs instead of pebbles, and the evil witch with the gingerbread house, but we can save that for another time. We may feel sometimes like Hansel and Gretel.  We may feel we have been abandoned by our Father, forgotten. Left alone to face a merciless and dangerous and unjust world, to fend for ourselves, to suffer, and to die.

But our Father in heaven is not like the father in Hansel and Gretel.  For some reason we do find ourselves, for a little while, suffering and straining—far away from home, as aliens and strangers in a world which doesn’t have our best interests at heart.

We may never understand his reasons for bringing us to this place.  But before he brought us here, the Father sent his Son out first, to suffer and to die in this vale of tears.

And as he goes to the cross, Jesus leaves behind him not pebbles or breadcrumbs, but drops of his own blood, sweat, and tears.  He leaves them there for us to follow, through thick and thin, walking in his footsteps.  Until we reach home again, safe and sound.

So we must follow his example.  As the great 18th century hymnwriter, Augustus Montague Toplady says in one of his greatest hymns, we “tread the sacred way that Jesus watered with his blood.”

Let the vain world applaud or frown,
still may I Heaven’s path pursue:
still may I stand unshook, and keep
the centre of my hopes in view!

O Light of Life, still guide my steps -
without your friendly aid I stray;
lead me, my God, for I am blind,
direct me and point out my way.

What is the world’s good word to me,
if by my God from glory driven?
Can that redeem my soul from Hell,
or recompense my loss of Heaven?

Resolved to tread the sacred Way
that Jesus watered with his blood,
I bend my fixed and cheerful course
through that rough path my Master trod

The way that leads to glory lies through ill-report, contempt, and loss. That’s the way that Jesus walked, with the cross on his shoulders, for us. And that’s the way that we too must walk if we want to find our way home. There is no other way.  Anyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will face these trials.

No bright pebbles light our path to glory. The birds swoop down to eat the tasty breadcrumbs.  We will not float up to heaven on a cloud of comfort, applauded and respected by the unbelieving world. Or sail into glory without a fight against our sin.

The only way home is to follow the blood.

It may not be pleasant.  It will sometimes feel lonely as we place our feet in the footsteps of the one who cried “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But we know that he’s been that way before, and we know where he’s leading us - to an inheritance that is certain - imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us.

We sing ‘Let the Vain World’ to O Waly, Waly, which you may know as one of the tunes for When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Why not introduce it to your congregation this Sunday?

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and editor of our latest book, Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion

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