Friday, March 24, 2017

The ideal way of governing

Isaiah 32.1-8, 15-10
Our ideal way of governing is democracy. But that’s not Isaiah’s ideal. For him good governance is not about who governs but about how they do it. Mob rule can be just as tyrannical as despotic rule.
We forget too easily that democracy has limited value unless it goes hand in hand with the love of justice. A just society is a place of refuge in a cruel world whereas an unjust society is harsh and unforgiving even when it has democratic elections, and for how long will it be truly democratic anyway?
In a just society the citizens would make an effort to see things from other people’s point of view. They would open their eyes to see what is really going on. They would pay attention to what other people are saying.
In a just society people would take time to think before they said anything. They wouldn’t rush to judgement because rushed judgements often turn out to be profoundly unjust.
In a just society voters would recognise foolish plans for what they are. They would have a sixth sense for proposals that are self-serving and unfair, that make the poor even poorer and limit access to the knowledge that we all need if we are to become equal stakeholders in society. People would know when ideas are cruel - aimed at destroying those who need help most or denying justice to the weak, and they would instinctively realise when politicians are trustworthy and are trying to help build a better, fairer world.
This sort of society, embracing the right kind of values, would be one where it was truly worth living. It’s a vision that every government and every citizen should make their aim. But, of course, it is unachievable in the real world.
Or is it? Isaiah says not. God’s Spirit is what can make the difference between an impossible dream and an amazing reality. If we allow God’s Spirit to guide us, ‘honesty and justice will prosper and… produce lasting peace and security.’ Even when things go wrong, everyone will rally round to put them right again.
For him it doesn’t matter who brings this about. An authoritarian society that was ruled in a free and fair way would be better for Isaiah than an unjust democracy. But as the Nineteenth Century historian Lord Acton once said, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’  We talk glibly about ‘the great and the good,’ but he said that ‘the great’ - by whom he meant the most powerful people in society - almost always turn out to be bad.
That’s why, in the end, democracy probably gives us the best chance of creating the sort of society that Isaiah envisioned. But only spirit-led democracy can do that. Democracies led by people who tell lies and do evil things is just as likely to turn out bad as any great man or woman.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Covering our ears

Isaiah 30.1-11, 18
The membership of the Methodist Church has declined over the last 12 years from around 300,000 to about 190,000. This decline comes against the background of a similar decline in other Churches and in Christian allegiance in general.
People have wondered why. Perhaps we haven’t worked hard enough. Perhaps we haven’t been listening for God’s guidance. Perhaps we have lacked faith.
Isaiah offers another explanation. We have been listening, but we didn’t want to hear what God has been saying to us. We were like my little brother who, when he didn’t want to hear something, would cover his ears and try to drown out the sound.
‘Don’t tell us the truth,’ we have thought to ourselves. ‘Just say what we want to hear, even if it’s false. We don’t want to hear any more’ about the more challenging way we ought to be going.
We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. The truth can be difficult and uncompromising. It can be hard to swallow. It can be much easier to take comfort in old certainties, traditional  answers, and the way we have always done things. But then we find ourselves wondering why churches are shrinking rather than growing. ‘Don’t tell us the truth,’ we think, ‘Just let us hear what we want to hear, even if it’s false.’
Yet Isaiah also has a message of hope. We don’t have to be stuck in this dead end. ‘The Lord God is waiting to show how kind he is and to have pity on us. The Lord always… blesses those who trust him.’
It’s never too late to face up to the truth and seek to move on. If we trust God to show how kind he is, and to have pity on us, and to bless us we can surely find the courage we will need to on venture to new ground and try new things, to allow God to reinvent us.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


Isaiah 16.3-5
At the height of the EU Referendum campaign some of the Leavers unveiled a poster showing a long line of Syrian refugees snaking towards the borders of the European Union. The subtext was that, if we stayed in the Union, these people might arrive on our shores, taking our homes and jobs, our school places and hospital beds.  Even some Leavers were shocked at the implicit rejection of an ‘open-hearted humanitarian response to appalling distress,’ the response someone has said we should be expected to make when a country like Syria is torn apart by warfare.
This was the situation which faced the people of Judah at the time of Isaiah. There had been deep enmity between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel and their Moabite neighbours. King Omri of Israel - someone the Bible doesn’t like very much, actually - oppressed Moab during his reign so, in revenge King Mesha of Moab attacked Israel after the death of Omri’s son Ahab, and dragged away the sacred vessels from God’s shrine and took them to the temple of his god, Chemosh. We know this because he left a record carved in stone, celebrating his victory. We also know that the Bible accuses the people of Moab of sacrificing their own children to Chemosh, which is presumably why the Bible calls the worship of Chemosh ‘disgusting’.
This long standing enmity between Israel and Judah on the one side, and Moab on the other, makes it all the more surprising, therefore, that Isaiah reports the appeal from the defeated people of Moab for sanctuary in Judah. ‘Be kind and help us!’ they plead. ‘Shade us from the heat of the noonday sun. Hide our refugees! Don’t turn them away. Let our people live in your country.’
It has to be said that Isaiah isn’t always as forgiving. He has some particularly unkind things to say about the powerful empire of Babylon and its rulers, but he confesses that, ‘Deep in my heart I hurt for Moab.’ He mourns the refugees’ fate and sheds tears for them, even though he believes it is God’s will that their country has been brought low.
Perhaps part of the reason is that the people of Israel, Judah and Moab shared similar dialects of the same language. One of the most revered people in the Bible, Ruth the grandmother of King David, was also from Moab. Isaiah finds himself recognising the shared humanity of the Moabite, Israelite and Judahite peoples.
He promises the Moabites that they will not need to be refugees forever. ‘Moab, your cruel enemies will disappear,’ he says. ‘They will no longer attack and destroy your land.’ But he goes further: ‘Then a kingdom of love will be set up, and someone from David’s family will rule with fairness. He will do what is right     and quickly bring justice.’ In other words, in Isaiah’s opinion these foreigners deserve the same God-given destiny as his own people.
That’s a far cry from our own reluctance to open our hearts and our land today to people being attacked by cruel enemies. We often imagine that we have made progress on the attitudes and behaviour of the past. This passage should give us pause for thought.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hannah Arendt & the Temptation of Christ

Isaiah 5.18-21; Matthew 4.1-11
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt was the subject of a radio programme recently and her ideas sounded very relevant. She wanted to understand what had given rise to totalitarian states like Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.
The Nazi Party in particular had come to power through democratic elections and during the 1930s the Nazis continued to hold  a series of plebiscites or referendums in which they asked people to endorse what they were doing. They took these very seriously and campaigned hard to win people’s support. In all of them they got more than 90% of the vote, and they only stopped holding them once they realised that popular support was ebbing away. No one was allowed to contest these elections and put an opposing point of view, but it’s striking nonetheless how many people gave their unthinking support. At the Nuremberg Trials, the most important surviving Nazi leader - Hermann Goering - based his defence on this mandate from the people. He said that he shouldn’t be held to account for doing things which were the democratic will of the German nation.
Having been a refugee from Nazi Germany, Hannah Arendt wanted to find out how the Nazis were able to achieve this level of political control. She believed that they had gradually taken over the discussion of ideas. Instead of allowing people to have open and free discussions, they closed down the debate by making some ideas unacceptable. It became unpatriotic, or treasonable even, to say things with which the majority of people disagreed, so there was no room any longer to challenge the direction of travel. And the same thing had happened in Communist Russia.
You might think that’s not a very original idea, but Arendt saw that what the Nazis and the Communists had also done was to close down the thought processes inside people’s heads. She said that in a healthy person there should be a constant debate going on. We think to ourselves, ‘Should I be doing this or that thing?’ - stealing a loaf of bread, for example - and then we have a debate with ourselves about the rights and wrongs of that idea. So we might think, ‘It’s always wrong to steal so I should never take a loaf of bread.’ But on the other hand we might also think, ‘If my children are starving and I can’t afford to buy them something to eat, maybe it’s all right to steal some bread for them.’
The Nazis and the Communists tried to stop people from having this debate. Arendt went to the trial of Adolf Eichman, who was responsible for organising the transport of Jewish people to the gas chambers. She observed that he never once asked himself whether this was right or wrong. In fact he patted himself on the back because he had tried to reduce the overcrowding on the trains.
Arendt said that there always needs to be a conversation going on, inside people’s heads and also between people, about what we’re doing. If somebody says, ‘Let’s give blue eyed children a free education and make brown eyed children pay,’ it needs to be possible for other people to challenge them and say, ‘That’s not fair,’ or, ‘There must be a better way of doing things.’ And even if the government organises a referendum and gets the majority of people to agree to preferential treatment for blue eyed children it still needs to be possible to dissent, to try to get the policy changed, and people still need to be able to ask themselves, ‘Is this really the right thing to do?’
Arendt’s ideas stray into the realm of religion at this point, because she says that a healthy country needs to allow  its leaders to make a promise - if they sincerely mean what they say at the time - but then break it if, when they’re challenged, other people show them that they’re making a mistake or a different course of action would be better. And Arendt says this means a healthy country has to be willing to forgive its leaders for being less than perfect.
We don’t live in that kind of country, do we? We still haven’t forgiven Tony Blair for invading Iraq, or Nick Clegg for his change of heart on student tuition fees, and we haven’t forgiven John Major just for being John Major. So when these characters from the past pop up to warn us about the danger of closing down discussion about what sort of Brexit we want, people dismiss them as discredited has-beens.
And we’re equally bad at forgiving one another, and even ourselves. We put a huge premium on success and punish people who try something new and then fail. Only those who never put a foot wrong go on receiving our support.
Paul points out that - contrary to modern expectations - failure to live up to our hopes and ideals, our promises and plans, is hard-wired into us. The first people, Adam and Eve, fell short of God’s way and ever since all human beings have been doomed to fall short. But then along came Jesus, someone who lived up to his promises, who obeyed God’s path for his life, and who - as a result - was able to break out of this cycle of failure and despair. God’s kindness shown to us in Jesus offers us the forgiveness we need to be able to start over and try again, not necessarily just once but as many times as it takes.
The temptation of Jesus can be seen as a conversation or discourse between two people - one on either side of the argument - Jesus and the Devil. It’s the sort of conversation which Hannah Arendt wanted to see taking place whenever people make important decisions. But it can also be seen as an internal conversation that Jesus is having with himself, where he’s being tempted, as we are. He’s having the sort of conversation with himself - trying out ideas, probing them, testing them  - which Arendt says all of us should have if we want to be sure we’re doing the right thing.
Should he give people free food, should he perform stunts to impress them, or should he conquer the world by force? Jesus thinks through all of these options only to reject them because they’re not God’s will. And that’s what we should do when we’re making decisions. We should debate them, first with ourselves and then with one another.
Arendt’s complaint about Adolf Eichmann was that he was thoughtless. He did terrible things without questioning. He didn’t ask where hatred of the Jewish race had come from, or whether sending Jewish people to their deaths was right. He just took the Nazis at their word and got on with the job. Arendt called this kind of behaviour ‘the banality of evil’, by which she meant that evil is sometimes done by unimaginative, uninspired, thoughtless people.
>In a way, she thought it was better to be tempted and give in to temptation - like King Richard III who kills his nephews and seizes the crown of England because according to Shakespeare, he says, ‘I am determined to prove a villain... subtle, false and treacherous.’ Thinking about right and wrong, whatever the outcome, is better she thinks than doing wrong things thoughtlessly.

Best of all, of course, is to be like Jesus, tempted in all points as we are and yet without sin; to have that conversation with the Tempter and then renounce all his works. And if we fail, and make the wrong choices, to find forgiveness in Jesus and try again.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sharing in the terrible sufferings of Christ

2 Corinthians 1.3-11
This is an unusual prayer because it is a celebration or thanksgiving, but not a celebration of all the good things we receive from God but a celebration of God’s goodness to us when bad things happen and when we are suffering. Paul says that God wants to ‘comfort us when we are in trouble.’ But God doesn’t just want to cheer us up and make our troubles more bearable, he wants to comfort us so that we can then go on to share the same sort of comfort and encouragement with other people who are in trouble too.
All of this is built on the example of Jesus who, Paul says, endured ‘terrible sufferings’ - whipping and crucifixion - not for their own sake but in the hope of bringing comfort and strength to us when we are suffering. He came through his ordeal so that he could hold out a hand to us, to encourage and help us, in our troubles. And Paul says that, having been encouraged himself by the example of Jesus, he believes he has been able to share the same sort of comfort and encouragement with his own friends.
Paul goes on to tell his friends about his own horrible and unbearable experiences while working as a Christian minister in modern day Turkey. They were so bad that he thought he and his companion, Timothy, were going to die.
He’s probably referring to beatings and imprisonment, or to being attacked by a mob in the city of Ephesus. But he also had a long term eye condition which affected his sight and may have contributed to his sufferings. He always got someone else to write his letters down for him, probably because he couldn’t see well enough to write.
Fortunately, some good did come out of these troubles. As well as giving him the strength to comfort his readers, as they patiently endure the same kind of sufferings, it forced him to stop trusting in himself and start trusting in God.
The point Paul seems to be making is this, obviously al of us would like to live a trouble free life but, if trouble and suffering should come our way, we can either let these things make us bitter, resentful and inward-looking, or we can seek comfort from other people to help us cope with troubles and then share that comfort with others and try to make their lives a little bit more bit more bearable too.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Mary and Martha

Luke 10:38–42
It’s easy to forget that ‘a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home’. It was Martha’s home and Jesus was her guest. And when it’s your home, you’re in charge and you expect your guests to be grateful for your hospitality.
Was Martha the older of the two sisters—or the younger one who was left behind to look after her parents in their old age? Almost certainly, she wa the keepers of the house, even if she had a younger brother, Lazarus, waiting to inherit when he came of age, and that makes her the dominant player in our story, as she is also in the story about her in John chapter 11?
Was Mary there by Martha’s invitation? Had she perhaps come over from her marital home to help with the catering for this special occasion, or so that she too could meet Jesus?
Whereas Simon the Pharisee simply 'invited’ Jesus into his home but did not offer to wash his feet, we’re told that Martha ‘welcomed’ Jesus. Luke doesn’t go into details, but presumably a welcome to a special guest did include foot washing otherwise Simon wouldn’t have been reproached by Jesus for not washing his feet. One commentator points out that ‘we don’t know who did the foot-washing on this occasion, but we do know that ‘Mary sat at Jesus’ feet.’
Did Martha intend to get Jesus’ attention and approval all for herself by playing the role of the generous and hard working host? If so, things now began to backfire, because while Martha busied herself with getting the meal ready, the culmination of tasks which may have taken several hours, Mary obstinately remained at Jesus’ feet, apparently hanging on every word he uttered, and in doing so she began to deflect attention from the very different way in which Martha was being attentive to him. Perhaps Martha felt she was being sidelined and cast in an unfavourable light by Mary’s very different way of expressing her devotion. After all, none of us likes to be taken for granted or to have someone else ‘take the Mickey’ out of us!
Whatever Martha’s motives may have been, Jesus took Mary’s side when she intervened. He publicly rebuked his host, telling Martha - somewhat ungratefully I feel - that Mary had chosen ‘the better part’. As the commentator puts it, ‘Rather than wanting Jesus to look at her and be impressed by all her hard work, Mary was content to listen and discover all that she could about Jesus’ [message].’
Martha felt that she was looking after and supporting Jesus, whereas Mary was looking to him for  support. Perhaps, therefore, the story is supposed to show us that discipleship is about attending to Jesus’ words and example, not about attending on him or doing things to make a good impression. The mistake people often make is to imagine that discipleship is primarily about us and what we can do for Jesus, whereas it must begin with Jesus and what he can do for us.

Have you heard the one about the rich farmer and the pension plan?

Luke 12.13-34
At Christmas we played a board game called The Game of Life. The game is about planning for your retirement. For most of the game you make decisions about your career and your family but, as you progress round the board, retirement looms larger and larger, and you can buy a portfolio of investments to fall back on when that day arrives.
Then, for the last section of the game, you are actually retired and have to make it to the finish line where you will hand on whatever is left as your inheritance to your family. The player with the largest inheritance is the winner. As one of the players put it very aptly, during this retirement phase the game rinses you; what seemed at first like a generous pension can soon be frittered away as you are hit by a series of horrendous disasters. Factories burn down, taxes have to be paid, storms wreak havoc, and so on.
It probably sounds terribly boring - a financial adviser’s idea of how to have fun, but actually it’s not. Let me give you an example. I was a popstar. During my working life I amassed a small fortune including a holiday villa, a flash car and an executive jet, but by the time I reached the last square of the game I was on welfare benefits. It was a true rags to riches and back again story.
The parable of the Rich Farmer is, of course, about retirement planning. The farmer was playing The Game of Life. He had already provided for his retirement but a series of abundant harvests allowed him to pull down his barns and build even bigger ones. Not only could he now envisage leaving a generous inheritance for his wife and family, which is the dream of every peasant farmer, but he could also afford to retire. He thought he would be able to relax for many years to come,  eating, drinking and making merry. Instead life dealt him a cruel blow and he died on the eve of realising his ambition. Jesus called him a fool.
Does this mean that retirement planning is a bad idea? Should we live for today and let tomorrow’s worries take care of themselves? Jesus’ own approach to  life certainly encourages us to think only of the immediate future. He told his followers not to build up a fortune in this life, where it can be rinsed away by various adversities such as theft, moth and rust. Instead, we are to follow the example of nature and put our trust in God’s provision. He encouraged his followers to sell their possessions and donate the money to the poor and, to underline the point, he himself did not retire and the only inheritance he left was a spiritual one.
However, let’s look at the parable more closely. The first thing to observe is that the farmer had already been financially prudent and had planned for his retirement before he rebuilt his barns. He’s not condemned in the story for making reasonable provision for his old age and his family’s inheritance.
Part of his undoing was his greed. He didn’t know when enough is enough. An active retirement as such was, of course, virtually unheard of in the ancient world. People retired when they could no longer work, and then they passed on their inheritance to their children, who were expected to look after them in return. Only the very wealthy could retire to eat, drink and be merry. And yet that became the farmer’s ambition.
Another mistake he made was to focus narrowly on his own financial well being to the exclusion of his moral well being and the well being of his neighbours. We hear nothing about charity - his obligation to help those in need, like the poor widows and orphans in his community who could never hope to benefit from an inheritance of their own, or the beggars at his gate who couldn’t work because of illness or misfortune. He didn't build a new synagogue, or pay for a community hall, or endow a bursary for the village school. he left no lasting legacy of any kind. There was no one outside his family who was left to mourn his passing. Instead, they probably rejoiced that he had got his comeuppance.
And his final mistake was to concentrate narrowly on his financial well being at the expense of his spiritual well being. Just as he had given no thought to his neighbours, he gave no thought to God and to the afterlife. This was his most foolish error of all. Retirement planning should go hand in hand with spiritual planning. But that doesn’t mean trying to buy favour with God. It simply means trusting God first and then letting our trust in him guide our other decisions - how we play The Game of Life, what provision we make for our old age and our family, how much help we offer to the poor and needy and how much time we devote to spiritual things. We should let God be the magnetic pole to which we are drawn and around which all our important decisions in life are shaped.
This is challenging advice for people who are well off, like the Rich Farmer in the story. It’s even more challenging for ordinary people who are just getting by and who are tempted therefore to focus everything on coping financially. And, of course, it’s framed by Jesus’ own commitment to give away everything he had, to sit light to this world and its cares and concerns, and to devote his whole life to God.

Samson

Judges 16.4-30
Samson is a most unlikely holy man. His story reminds us that God works through all kinds of people, not just the stereotypical saints who are - as the writer of Hebrews puts it - too good for a world like this.
There is a pattern running through Samson’s complicated love life. Although he’s dedicated to God he genuinely believes in multiculturalism. His isn't the kind of faith which refuses to meet and mix with people who hold different beliefs. Nor is he the kind of person who will contemplate a fling with someone from a different cultural community but only gets serious with a partner from their own kind.
His rebellion against the Philistines begins quite by chance, when he meets and marries a Philistine woman, only to be betrayed by her. During the wedding feast she nags him into revealing the solution to a riddle that he’s posed as a bet with some of the wedding guests: ‘Out of the eater came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet.’
It's difficult not to sympathise with her. The guests  threaten to burn her father’s house down and kill her unless she can coax the answer to the riddle out of him. And instead of going to Samson and telling him what's going on, she gives in to their demands.
Because he loves her, Samson eventually  explains that he killed a lion and then found a bees’ nest full of honey in its carcass. As a result Samson loses the bet and has to kill 30 innocent Philistines just to steal the things he needs to pay the gambling debt. Then he goes on the run, abandoning his fickle wife and never realising, apparently, the dilemma that she faced. It’s hardly an edifying start to his crusade and of course it marks an abrupt end to his marriage, although he later tries for a reconciliation.
But Samson never learns from his mistakes. He falls in love a second time, with another Philistine - Delilah, and because he loves her he turns a blind eye to her deceitful nature and makes the fatal mistake of revealing the true source of his power.
Again it’s a triumph for the sheer persistence of nagging. For a long time Samson teases her, indulging her propensity for tying him up because he thinks she likes playing games and because he imagines that he’ll always be able to end the game when he starts to feel threatened by it.
The story makes clear that Delilah and the Lords of the Philistines never really understand the true source of his power. Although, as part of the oath dedicating him to God, he’s supposed never to cut his hair, Samson cheerfully reveals this to Delilah knowing that she is likely to have his head shaved. He imagines that even so he will be able to escape, and when he can't she’s convinced that she has stumbled upon his secret.  
But Samson’s hair isn't the true source of his strength, because he’s able to bring the house down at the end of the story before his hair has completely grown back. The Philistines think he’s still powerless because his hair is still short, and they even obligingly show him where the pillars holding up the roof are. If Samson has made a fatal mistake in trusting Delilah, the Philistines now make a fatal mistake in thinking that they know what makes him strong.
So what is the true source of his power? It's his commitment to God. He loses his strength because he shares the secret that he’s a Nazirite, someone who’s supposed to put God first in his life above everyone else and all other things, even love itself.
It's a bit like a Freemason revealing all the secret rites and ceremonies of the lodge to the uninitiated. It may be mumbo jumbo, but that's not the point. If they believe that they’ve betrayed the Order then they’ve crossed a line. Psychologically they’ve aligned themselves with the rest of the world against their fellow Masons.
By putting his love for Delilah before his love for God, Samson crosses a line. When he wakes to find his head shaved, he knows he’s gone too far. His spiritual conviction that God is on his side deserts him.
We could argue that some of the things Samson had supposedly done in the power of God were not very godly anyway. His murderous behaviour during his guerrilla campaign against the Philistines marks him out as the worst kind of religious fanatic - someone who switches from an easy-going tolerance and openness to blind hatred just because of one betrayal, brought about by those bullies at his wedding. But the point is that that he believes God is with him and that belief is the source of his strength.
When he allows Delilah to betray him that self-confidence abandons Samson, until the moment when he gets the chance for revenge. Then for the first time he prays, ‘Lord remember me, and strengthen me only this once.’
Samson makes it into the Bible only because he’s a folk hero of his nation’s resistance to oppressors like the Philistines and because his spectacular suicide attack seems to be a victory for Israel’s God over the god Dagon. But in this modern age of suicide bombings and religiously motivated violence that's not the message we can take from his story.
For us the message has to be about finding strength - spiritual  strength not physical power - through trust in God. As St Paul says, ‘Grace is sufficient for [us], for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’
Samson, the proverbial strongman, is reduced to weakness when he loses his confidence in God’s protection but, in the face of insults, hardships, persecutions and calamity, he finds strength again. Samson uses it to wreak revenge but I think we have to use God’s strength to work for salvation, to build up struggling churches, to make mission contemporary and relevant to the communities around us, to achieve things which, relying purely on our own strength, would be impossible.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews asks, ‘What more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.’ He specifically mentions Samson by name, but that mention of winning strength out of weakness couldn't be more appropriate and must also be a reference to him.
Samson, the guy who can kill lions with his bare hands and slay whole regiments with the jawbone of an ass, turns out to be a symbol of how spiritual weakness can disable and imprison us. But he also teaches us that when we turn to God, instead of relying on our own strength, we’re never forgotten. His grace will be sufficient for us.

Gideon

Judges 6:11–27, 36–40
When Gideon is introduced to us he is described by God’s messenger as a ‘mighty warrior’ who is going to deliver Israel from oppression by the people of Midian. This isn’t a statement of fact; it’s a prophecy. It’s what Gideon is meant to become, what he could become if he trusted in God. But for now he is the very essence of timidity. He’s hiding in a wine press so that he can thresh some wheat and keep it concealed from the enemy. He’s not  a leader; he’s the very opposite of a man of action.
The hallmark of Gideon is that he’s ‘too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do [as the Lord has told him] by day,’ so ‘he does it by night.’ The Lord tells him not to fear but he goes on being afraid. He’s a very ordinary hero.
Normally, holy people put their trust in God, but Gideon is famous for ‘laying a fleece’, that is for demanding a sign that he really can rely on God’s power. What’s less well remembered is that he demands not one sign, but two, what one commentator has called ’pushing his luck’! He reminds us of Moses, another holy man who demanded signs from God.
It’s this sense of inadequacy, that seems to make Gideon and Moses the right sort of people to serve the Lord. He doesn’t choose the swaggering sort of leader. He chooses people who are unsure of themselves, who have doubts. And later on Gideon’s army is whittled down from 32,000 to 300 men who brandish trumpets and torches rather than conventional weapons, and win their victory by sowing panic in the enemy camp rather than by confronting them head on. It’s not an action movie outcome.
If the 32,000 soldiers assembled by Gideon had been allowed to attack the Midianites in open battle Israel would have taken the credit away from God, saying, ‘We did it ourselves.’ So instead the manner of the victory makes clear that it belongs to the Lord and the unlikely strategy that he’s instructed Gideon to follow.
But the victory that Gideon is inspired to lead in is not the end of his story. Sadly he turns from being someone who was once a reluctant leader into someone who now feels that he might be able to establish a royal line. He wasn’t a natural leader himself but he begins to imagine that his own children might be born leaders.
Things start to go wrong on the eve of the original attack when Gideon instructs his men to blow their trumpets around the whole camp and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon!’ Why, ‘And for Gideon’? The man who was once hiding from the enemy has already come a long way.
Although he goes on to be the judge of Israel for forty years, and must therefore be counted a success in political terms, he does some very cruel things, such as forcing people who had disobeyed him to lie down under a covering of thorns and briars so that his army can trample on them.
One commentator says that there are only brief glimpses in the Book of Judges of Gideon the statesman, acting wisely and generously, and these - coupled with his military victory - prompt the people of Israel to ask him to become their king. At the time he reminds them that ‘the Lord is their king’. But this proves to be the highpoint of his career as a judge, and perhaps it also marks the moment when the rot sets in, because he realises that a sort of royal kingship, as God’s chosen representatives, is now within his family’s grasp.
He asks the people to collect the gold they have captured and melt it down to make an ephod - a sort of chasuble or ornate outer garment worn by priests when they’re offering sacrifices. There’s nothing wrong in principle about making a golden ephod, presumably as a way of saying thank you to God for the victory he’s given to Israel, except that arguably splashing out on fancy gold garments is not the right way to please Him.
However, Judges says that the ephod is put on display in Gideon’s home town and the people come and worship it. Perhaps Gideon puts it on himself sometimes and begins to act like a priestly king - interceding between God and his people. The writers of Judges certainly think he’s taken a step too far.
We’ve already seen troubling echoes in Gideon’s story of the earlier example of the prophet Moses. There are also echoes here of the story of Moses’ brother Aaron, who got the people of Israel to donate pieces of gold jewellery so that he could make a golden calf. The calf was probably meant to be the footstool for God’s throne, the holy place where his feet touched the earth, and it was intended to be the centrepiece of a ‘festival to the Lord’. But it too gets the thumbs down from the writers of the Old Testament.
Whether or not he tries his hand at being a priest, Gideon certainly starts to act a bit like a king in other ways. He calls one of his children, or his son gets the nickname, ‘My father is king.’ Hubris - excessive pride or overweening self-confidence - seems to be getting to work here on Gideon and his family.
What does his story tell us about the expectations we place on our leaders today? There’s plenty of evidence - in the lives of leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron - that once in power hubris got to work on them too. They soon began to think their judgement was always right and that things would always turn out for the best with them at the helm. All of them were proved wrong and we’re still living with the consequences. So that suggests we should be praying hard for our political leaders today, as they steer us towards choppy and uncharted waters.
Is there a warning here for us, too, when we find ourselves playing a leadership role, as ministers, church leaders, parents, managers, team leaders or just old hands at the game? Do we manage to keep a proper sense of perspective? Do we remember our weaknesses and susceptibilities, our character flaws as well as our strengths? Can other people set us straight when we wander off the right track, or are we like the proverbial Yorkshire person, whom you can always tell but whom you can’t tell very much?
What does Gideon’s story tell us about the grace of God and how does it change the way we think about our own vocation from God? Does it remind us of our need to trust God and to rely constantly on his help in all the challenges we face - large or small, extraordinary or everyday?
One commentator says that in the Book of Judges the people of God demonstrate a persistent vulnerability to sin and a chronic lack of faithfulness. They seem incapable of anything other than brief episodes of keeping their covenant with God.
What warning does that have for us about our capacity to live out our own calling in faith and love - both as individuals and as the Church? We mustn’t kid ourselves. It’s surely a good thing that we confess our sins each day, and together each week, and renew our covenant each year.

The Good Samaritan and The Kindness of Strangers



We often read the parable of the Good Samaritan in isolation, as if it were a self-contained story. But it isn’t. It belongs in a specific context in St Luke’s Gospel. We know this from the way it begins: ‘Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.’
Just when exactly does the lawyer stand up, though? Just after Jesus has said, ‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’ In private to his disciples he has also said, ‘Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’
Just then up pops the lawyer. Granted that he would not have been party to the private aside to Jesus’ disciples about important people desiring to see and yet not seeing what is now being revealed to little children, it would still be pretty brazen for anyone to try to test Jesus about his understanding of the Law of Moses. The gist of Jesus reply fits in exactly with what has gone before. Intellectual argument about the meaning of words only takes us so far. We don’t discover who our neighbour is by poring over ancient texts, even when they’re taken from Holy Scripture. Faith is tested not by saying we believe in this or that proposition; it is tested in action. We discover who our neighbour is when we meet him or her on the road.
It’s not our wisdom and intelligence which will count when we stumble upon a wounded person lying in the road. It’s our gut response to someone else’s suffering, our compassion, our human kindness.
When my father fell over in the road during an attack of dizziness, banged his head on the ground and was knocked unconscious, he was fortunate that some of the passer-by recognised him as their neighbour and stopped to help him. The first person on the scene was a man with his little daughter, the proverbial infant of the story. She became hysterical at the sight of all the blood, so when two other neighbours happened along, a man on his way home from work and a paramedic, they were glad to leave them taking care of my father until the ambulance arrived. Who is my neighbour? The person who needs my help!
In the story, nothing would have distinguished the Samaritan’s understanding of the Law of Moses from the way the minister and the church steward, the priest and the levite, understood it. The difference is how they actually respond when they stumble upon someone lying injured deep in bandit country. Do they hurry on by, pretending not to have seen the person in trouble? Do they deny that they are really neighbours to the man who fell into the hands of robbers, or do they find that they cannot pass by on the other side? The crucial test is not what they understand the Bible to mean on this or that point; it’s whether they are filled with pity for him, whether they find themselves thinking, ‘That could have been me!’
One commentator points out that the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ invites us to answer it from the perspective of the victim of the robbery.  When we’re down and out we’re entitled to accept a helping hand from anyone, from capitalists or communists, Muslims or Christians, Remainers or Brexiteers, young people or the elderly, law-abiding people or shady people who sit light to the law, anyone in fact who is prepared to show mercy to us.
Like the time I was going home from a District meeting in a snowstorm. I was driving up hill when I came to a queue of cars struggling to get past a broken down bus. As you probably know, if you can keep your wheels turning on your way up a snowy hill, the chances are that you will get safely to the top, but if you have to stop then starting again is going to be very difficult. Well, I had to stop! And the only way any of the cars in that queue got moving again that night was because of some modern day good Samaritans. A group of young men on their way home from a good night out stopped and pushed each car, one after another, until we got going again. Anyone who takes pity on us is our neighbour.
And because it was the lawyer, who asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ we can also ask, ‘Who was it who showed mercy to him?’ The answer, according to the same commentator, is that Jesus is the lawyer’s neighbour, the person who recognises his vulnerability and tries to help him.
But, of course, in the end it is Jesus’ final advice to the lawyer which shapes who we see as the central character of the story. He tells him to go and do likewise.’ So who is he being called to imitate? Not the victim but the protagonist, the Good Samaritan with his oil, and wine, and bandages, his animal to carry the man to the inn and his readiness to foot the bill for the traveller’s convalescence.
A character in Tennessee Williams’ play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, says, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ If we’re honest, that’s true for even the most independent minded person among us. We all depend on the kindness of strangers at many points in our lives, especially at some of the most critical moments.
It’s doubtful whether the strangers in the play really are dependably kind. The priest and the levite weren’t as kind as one might have expected, either. Thankfully the man who fell into the hands of robbers, and therefore experienced the cruelty of strangers, also experienced the
Isn’t Jesus telling us that ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ means that being kind to strangers, and being able to depend on the kindness of strangers in our turn, is one of the key things that makes life bearable? That is why it is an absolute requirement, a commandment, for those who would love God.

Meeting God Face to Face

Exodus 33.12-23
The writers of the material in the Book of Exodus are obsessed with the theme of encountering God. They return to it again and again.
This shouldn’t surprise us because encountering God is what spirituality is all about. It is the Holy Grail, if you like, which all believers are pursuing throughout this life and into the life beyond.
Here Moses is told most emphatically that a full-on encounter with God is just not possible. It’s too scary. He will go mad or die. Only a partial revelation is safe.
It’s a bit like the Greek myth of the Gorgon. Anyone who gazed upon her face was turned to stone. Even in death she retained this awesome power.
Christians know, however, that God is not like the Gorgon. We can look upon his face and yet still remain alive. If anything, this encounter can enrich our lives to the point where our old life seems trivial and incomplete by comparison.
But this is only made possible for us because we can look upon the face of God become human, in the person of Jesus. Meeting God as Creator of the universe would doubtless be more daunting.
And yet, St Paul observes that even meeting God in Jesus is a death-defying experience. The encounter forces us to die to our old way of living and rise to new life in him. So we still meet God in Jesus at our peril. There are no free lunches.