Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Real Meaning of Christmas

Isaiah 63:7-9
This passage is truly prophetic. It doesn't predict the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. It doesn't say that his mother would be a virgin when he was born, nor that he would eventually be rejected, crucified and raised from death. But it's prophetic in the true sense of that word. All true prophecy contains profound insights into the nature of God and into our relationship with God. And this passage is truly prophetic for, without recognising exactly how it might happen, the writer - the third prophet in the Isaiah tradition - understands that God will chose, out of a mixture of love and pity, to save the human race from its distress, and that he will do this not by sending a messenger or an angel to tell us how to change things for the better but by his own personal presence among us. Was the prophet thinking of incarnation, of God becoming a human baby lying in a manger? Probably not. That would have been beyond his wildest imagining. But he had sensed that God cannot save us from a distance, by remote control, but only by getting involved, by being in the midst of us.

Hebrews 2.10-18
Here the writer of the letter to the Hebrews explains the concept of incarnation in a few clear and concise phrases, crystallising - in a way that the third prophet in the Isaiah tradition could only grope towards - the full profundity of what it means for God to be present to save his people.

It means that God becomes our brother and shares the human condition with us, which also means suffering and dying, and being tested by all manner of trials and troubles, but continuing nonetheless to trust that all will be well in spite of these things. Just as the prophet had understood that God could only save us by being present with us, so the writer of Hebrews recognises that God had 'to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect so that he might' come to our help.

It's like the age old question, 'What would you do if you saw someone drowning?' From a purely selfish perspective, the safest thing to do would be to pretend that we hadn't seen the drowning person in the water. However, if that wasn't an option, the sensible thing might be to shout instructions to them from the bank, or to throw them a lifeline. And if that didn't work, the only options left would be either to stand helplessly and watch them die or to get into the water with them - like the fire fighter who begged for permission to be lowered into the freezing RiverHumber to save a drowning woman. The rope securing him to the shore nearly broke during the rescue, justifying his senior officer's doubts that it was a safe thing to do, but the fireman managed to bring the woman to the shore.

That is the kind of thing which Jesus did for us - except that, from a Health and Safety perspective, his mission was a tragic disaster. He actually had to go through death in order to pioneer the way to salvation. He saved us from slavery to the power and fear of death by dying himself and being raised by God, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest who accompanies us through suffering and death, to ensure that we need not be afraid any more.

Matthew 2.13-23
This story helps Matthew to explain how Jesus could be born in Bethlehem and yet raised in Nazareth, fulfilling two prophecies at the same time. It also means that, althoughJesus was disparagingly called 'the Galilean' by his enemies, Matthew can argue that his Galilean accent and provincial manners disguise a royal lineage that even the dastardly King Herod had recognised and tried to cut short.

Like Moses, who serves as an archetype for Jesus in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus and his family are exiled in Egypt. But, unlike Moses,Jesus is eventually able to return to the Promised Land, with fateful consequences both for himself and for the whole human race.

Finally, the story is anchored in real life, with all its tragedy and senseless wrongdoing. Sometimes people think that the Christmas story has fairytale elements to it. If that's true, then it's a Brothers Grimm fairytale, with moments of darkness and danger, not a sugary and saccharine tale for tiny tots.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Real Glory of Christmas

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1.18-25

Isaiah's prophecy seems harsh. Ahaz loyally refuses to ask God for a sign. He says that he doesn't want to put the Lord to the test - a sentiment later echoed by none other than Jesus himself! But it would appear that, on this occasion at least, it's the wrong answer to give! The Prophet tells him that he should have asked for a sign, after all, and now he will be given one whether he likes it or not.

What's going on here? Perhaps Isaiah realizes that the real reason why Ahaz didn't ask for a sign is that he already suspects it will be inauspicious. Is this the royal equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and singing 'La, la, la!' to drown out the sound of bad news?

If so, the King is showing remarkable faithlessness because, in fact, the sign is not going to be the bad news he dreads. Instead, the sign is going to be full of hope. And what could be more hopeful than new life? Within two years - in other words, in the time that it takes for a woman to carry a child through pregnancy, wean him and begin to teach him the difference between right and wrong - the two enemy nations which are currently threatening Judah will have been turned into a desert. This is a true sign that God is taking care of the nation of Judah, and that is why the child shall be named 'Immanuel'.

There is, however, a scorpion's sting in the tail. The conclusion of the prophecy, which is not part of our reading this week, warns that Assyria - the great power which will soon destroy Judah's enemies - will bring upon Judah an even greater day of reckoning. It seems that Ahaz may not have been so stupid after all in choosing not to ask for a sign. He had actually asked Assyria to come to his rescue. In the short term that will seem like a smart move. But in the longer term Ahaz will learn that it would have been wiser if he had shown real trust in the Lord.

And what about the way that Matthew recycles the prophecy to explain the story of the virgin birth of Jesus? One problem with this borrowing of Isaiah's prophecy about Immanuel is that the mother who was expecting a baby was not actually a virgin, but just an ordinary young woman - possibly the wife of Isaiah or of Ahaz himself. The other problem is that Isaiah was not looking far into the future. He was simply explaining how something was going to happen very soon that would change the local situation out of all recognition.

Matthew, by comparison, is using the prophecy to show how the birth of a baby can have a far greater impact even than Isaiah imagined. God with us in Jesus will transform the entire course of human history. Now that really is a miracle! And that's why Matthew feels able to link the story of Jesus with the prophecy in another way. It's clear that there was already a tradition circulating that Mary had a virgin birth. What could be more fitting, thinks Matthew, for a baby who is destined to become God with us for all time?

Paul agrees with Matthew that the Good News of Jesus was promised beforehand by the Old Testament prophets, but there they diverge because Paul does not know the tradition of the virgin birth. Whereas Matthew describes how Jesus became a descendant of David by adoption, when Joseph married the already pregnant Mary, Paul tells us instead that Jesus was a physical descendant of David. For Paul, this means that Jesus is Son of God only in a spiritual sense, because the spirit of holiness dwelt within him, and not because he was conceived through the Holy Spirit's intervention.

It is one of the great conundrums of the New Testament that these two conflicting traditions co-exist side by side. Both traditions remind us of important aspects of the Jesus story. Jesus' descent from David is a reminder that he is the Christ, or Messiah, God's anointed or chosen leader - an aspect of the Gospel which is missing from the Isaiah prophecy. But the story of God With Us in a tiny baby adds another dimension to the messiahship of Jesus. He is not only someone sent by God to save us, he is also God come amongst us to share our human experience. And although they may have started from different historical traditions about Jesus, Matthew and Paul are agreed that both these aspects of the story are vital to the Good News they have to proclaim.

Bishop David Jenkins, the former theology professor who loved to shock journalists with his unexpected statements about the Christian faith, said this about the Christmas story: "Christmas confronts us with a baby as the glory of God. The real wonder did not, and does not, lie with angels and shepherds or a guiding star from the East. All these are derived wonders. They only point to the true wonder. They symbolise the faith and reflect the glory.

"The real glory, the lasting glory and the undeniable glory is the baby, who grew up as Jesus of Nazareth to be 'crucified, dead and buried'. But this was the beginning rather than the end: for the God, who he named with particular passion, raised Jesus up. So Jesus was known to be Christ the Lord, the power of God's kingdom, the means of judgement and the promise of God's future. Thus when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ we are confronted with a baby as the glory of God."

Saturday, December 08, 2007

A New Kind of Judgement

Matthew 11:2-11
James 5.7—10
The newspapers have been full in the last week of the amazing story of John Darwin, the canoeist who returned from the dead after going missing in the North Sea more than five years ago. At first it seemed like a miracle, but now his wife has admitted that – at least for most of the time – his disappearance had become a scam. People are still speculating about his motives but newspaper reports suggest that it had to do with escaping debts.

From his prison cell, John the Baptist began to hear similar stories about amazing events – blind people receiving their sight, lame people walking, the deaf hearing, even the dead being raised to life. Only this was no scam. John's disciples were able to report what they had actually seen and heard. Isaiah's prophecy seemed to be coming true before their very eyes.

But were people pleased about it? Jesus clearly implies that they were not! 'Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me,' he says, as if anyone ought to take offence at such wonderful things. But, of course, human nature being what it is, people always look for the flaw in the story, the thing that doesn't add up, the discrepancies and dubious details.

People wanted to find something wrong with the ministry of Jesus, some reason to doubt him. The same instinct was the undoing of John and Anne Darwin. Cynical newspaper reporters soon tracked down a photograph of the two of them taken together a year ago, when Mr Darwin was still supposed to be dead or missing.

And people had the same cynicism about John the Baptist before he was imprisoned, when he first appeared in the wilderness calling for repentance. The crowds who flocked to see him were motivated by curiosity as much as by faith and expectancy. Indeed, Jesus wonders what some of them were expecting to find.

Did they expect to find a reed shaken by the wind? If so, that could mean they were expecting a prophet who would proclaim the latest fashionable ideas, bending with the prevailing wind, or it could be a reference to the way that the wind whistles through reed beds creating an eerie and arresting sound, but a sound which nonetheless has no real substance.

Did some go expecting to find a celebrity dressed in soft robes? If so, they were surely looking in the wrong place. For the implication of Jesus' questions is that the only kind of person you are likely to find living and preaching in the wilderness is a genuine prophet – someone with a lot of strong convictions, an uncompromising message and a pretty Spartan dress code. And Jesus confirms that he believes John is a very special person.

So why are the least of those who live under God's new dispensation greater than John? Because John was still looking for the wrong thing, a new era of fiery judgement and harsh separation between the good and the bad, whereas Jesus knows that God is offering a different kind of judgement, a judgement tempered with mercy, patience and unfailing love.

The writer of the Letter of James has the same concept in mind when he pictures the patience of the farmer who treats the whole crop as precious and hopes that the early and late rains will help it to mature.

The Desert That Becomes a Garden

Isaiah 35:1-10
This passage mixes beautiful images of peace and regeneration with more disturbing themes about the nature of God's justice.

Years ago our family was toiling through an Alpine meadow in the hot sunshine when one of our children turned to us and asked, rather crossly, 'Why are you making us go through this barren wilderness?' It was an incredible thing to say because only someone walking with their head down could have failed to notice that, on both sides of the path – as far as the eye could see – there were literally millions of flowers of every colour and shade. If this was a wilderness, it was a wilderness which was rejoicing and blossoming like the one pictured by the Prophet.

In the prophet's vision, not only shall the wilderness blossom abundantly but the burning sand shall become like a pool, and the thirsty ground shall gush with springs of water. And this will be no empty mirage. The sparse desert grass will mutate into water-loving beds of reeds and rushes.

And there will be a special road through this flowering desert, a busy highway where no lions, jackals or ravenous beasts dare lie in wait for the lonely traveller. Joy and gladness will replace sorrow and sighing.

So far so good. But there is a jarring note in the prophecy. For the God who will come to strengthen the feeble and make the lame leap like a deer will also come with vengeance and terrible recompense. Some people will be saved, but others will be cut down. And the broad highway which leads to safety through the desert will be a holy way. Although it will be so straight and easy to follow that no one will need a map or satellite navigation to negotiate it, the unclean will not be allowed to travel on it at all. Only the redeemed shall walk there.

If this were a description of heaven, or of the Kingdom of God, there would be nothing wrong with this picture. But it isn't. It's meant to be a picture of our world, but it's a picture in which some people find peace and prosperity while others are excluded. It's the sort of picture of righteousness and justice which inspired the people who built a huge fence between Israel and Palestine, so that they could keep the suicide bombers, but also many ordinary Palestinians, on the outside.

And, of course, it's not a Christian image, for Jesus made it very clear that – at least for the time being – God is determined not to choose between the good and the bad. One day there will indeed come a time for judgement but, until then, the struggle goes on to persuade everyone to choose the right way. Being holy doesn't mean shutting some people out because they are considered unclean, it means welcoming everybody in and trying to convince them to be made holy too.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Wicked Wolf and The Lamb

Matthew 3.1—12
John the Baptist, too, has been reading the prophecy of Isaiah and – like the Prophet – he expects the Messiah to wreak powerful vengeance on wrong doers. He pictures God's special agent and new ruler arriving on Earth with his winnowing fork in his hand, ready – in the days before combine harvesters or threshing machines – to begin the laborious task of separating the nourishing wheat from the inedible chaff. The chaff, he observes ominously, will be burned with unquenchable fire.

Hundreds of years before, Isaiah had warned that God would be compelled to chop down the decaying nation of Israel so that righteous new growth could spring from its roots. Once again, warns John, the axe is at the root of the tree. And this time the Jewish nation may not be so fortunate, for God may cause those new shoots of righteousness and spiritual vigour to grow up among Gentile peoples instead of giving Israel another chance.

Once again, too, snakes feature in the story. This time they are not friends or foes as such, just inevitable bit-part players in this End Time drama – vipers fleeing the wrath to come, eager to learn new tricks and give up their poisonous ways to save themselves. John is taken aback. He had obviously intended his message to appeal only to the common people, not to Pharisees and Sadducees. But who is he to judge?

Recently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded Radio 4 listeners that God, as we see Him in Jesus, is remarkably unfussy and inclusive. Far from flaying about him with a winnowing fork, in a desperate bid to cleanse the Earth with fire, he welcomes sinners and eats with them, gladly calling himself their friend. The wolf shall indeed live with the lamb, but that is because the Lamb of God is willing even to welcome the wicked wolf – if the wolf will mend its ways.

Living Together in Harmony

Romans 15:4-13
Paul here seizes on just one verse from Isaiah's memorable prophecy in order to prove that Jesus was given a special mission to take God's saving message to Gentile people as well as to members of the Jewish race. He was having a hard task in convincing some Jewish Christians that he was right about this, and Isaiah's words, 'The root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples', seemed to lend powerful support to his argument.

Of course, then as now, some Christians probably said that Isaiah had been talking about the people, or the kings, of Israel and Judah, not about Jesus. Paul will have none of it. He asserts that whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, to give us hope and encouragement on our own faith pilgrimage. This doesn't mean that the prophecies of Isaiah and others didn't have a different meaning at the time, only that they have a special meaning for Christians too, and that meaning is just as valid.

The special meaning of the passage for Paul is that people of different races are meant to live in harmony, just as the wild and domestic animals are supposed to dwell in peace together.

Looking Backwards and Forwards

Isaiah 11:1-10
Once, years ago, a neighbour and his son helped me cut down a large sycamore tree which was too close to the manse. Actually, they did all the cutting and I just shouted, 'Timber'. The neighbour, who had been a forestry worker in his youth, painted the stump with tar to try and kill it. But his efforts were in vain. In no time at all vigorous new shoots grew from the stump and it took me all of my time to keep them in check. In a year they could easily grow six or seven feet tall and almost too thick to prune without lopping tools.

Of course, this method of harvesting quick growing wood has been known by human beings for thousands of years. The technical terms for cutting down an old tree in order to encourage new and vigorous growth which can be easily harvested is 'coppicing'.

In their attempts to explain why God had allowed his chosen nation to be enslaved, the Bible writers seized on this image of coppicing. Israel, they believed, had become morally and spiritually bankrupt, a spent force. By cutting the nation back to its roots God had allowed new and vigorous energy to spring forth.

It's not clear whether the Prophet had a single individual in mind when he wrote about the new shoot springing from the stump of King David's father Jesse. He may have been thinking of a new line of kings, or of a reinvigorated nation which, collectively, would judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity. But Christians have seen this prophecy as an uncannily accurate description of the manner in which Jesus will rule the nations.

Nonetheless, some Christians may wonder whether parts of the description don't quite fit when we apply them to Jesus. What would it mean for Jesus to strike the earth with the rod of his mouth? Will he really kill the wicked with the breath of his lips? This would hark back to an image of the kind of God who rides on the storm, wreaking hurricane-force vengeance on wrong doers. Old Testament writers sometimes described God like this, and the Prophet is certainly suggesting in this passage that the rod of Jesse will act on God's behalf and with God's power, but can we still describe God in the same way when we know that he was crucified for sinners?

Finally, what are we to make of the very different and very striking images of the over-turning of the natural order so that peace and harmony break out even between ferocious wild animals and domestic cattle, goats and little children? The reference to a little child leading lions, leopards, kids and calves like a good shepherd guiding his flock is another startling example of the way this passage often seems to look forward to Jesus? Isn't he the little child, lying in the manger in Bethlehem, who was at the same time Lord of all creation?

However, the Prophet is just as likely to have been looking back to the very beginning of the created order when the misinformation peddled by a talking snake was responsible for unleashing human-focused knowledge into the world, with sometimes disastrous results. The Prophet is not against the spread of knowledge, but what is needed if the world is to be transformed into a peaceful place is not more human learning but more knowledge of God, otherwise our technology – no matter how promising it might seem – will only help us to destroy ourselves and our planet. In the kind of God-centred world which the Prophet imagines, the snake will no longer be cursed because of its tempting advice to go our own way. Instead, it will become a symbol of al things new, a friend even to toddlers.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Best of All Possible Worlds?

Genesis 1.1-5
Revelation 22.1-5

These two passages deal with the twin themes of creation and light. They are both about creation because the first passage, from Genesis, describes the origin of the universe and the second passage, from Revelation, describes its recreation. They are both about light because the writers of Genesis envisage the nothingness before the universe began as infinite darkness, and the writer of Revelation imagines the new creation as infinite light.

Whether this is a description of the physical reality in the time before creation and in the the new creation surely doesn't matter. It is a poetic description, which sums up our most basic hopes and fears.

Perhaps, like me, you hated the darkness when you were a child. When I was asleep in bed I always had to have the bedroom door ajar and a light shining on the landing. It symbolised order and security. If the light was on, and even if the narrow strip of light shining through the gap between the door and its frame was too dim to see by, I had no need to be anxious. But if the light went out, chaos descended – at least in my own mind.

One night the bedroom door blew shut. I don't know why. Suddenly I was engulfed in thick darkness. To say that I was afraid is an under-statement, but I was even more afraid of my mother. So it never occurred to me to get out of bed, tip-toe to the door, and open it ajar again. Instead, I lay in bed – moaning softly – for what seemed like hours, until my mother realised what had happened and opened the door ajar again.

If darkness represents chaos, nothingness, ignorance, doubt and fear, the opposite is – of course – perpetual light. Actually light doesn't seem so wonderful in our civilisation as it would have done to the writer of Revelation. If anything, we have a surfeit of light. There is so much light in our night-time cities that it causes serious light pollution, which upsets nocturnal and diurnal animals alike and prevents astronomers from studying the night sky.

It has been decided to build a new bridge over the dual carriageway which leads to Sheffield city centre from the south. Although it's only going to be a humble footbridge, the planners have decided to make it an iconic bridge – a gateway feature to the City. There are five designs under consideration, and two of them use solar-generated light to create a stunning night-time display. Why? Won't it just be distracting to drivers, and add to the existing pollution of the darkness?

Well, of course, the answer to 'why' is that we can't help feeling light is good. Not only does it symbolise the opposite of darkness, chaos, ignorance and fear, it is also the opposite of godlessness. In the heavenly city, the new creation, God will be the light that never goes out. And that light symbolises hope, trust, faithfulness, love and perfection.

In the original creation story the writers emphasise repeatedly that the universe is good, but are they just whistling in the dark? The universe we have got may be the best of all possible universes, but it's not without it's problems, is it?

First there is the whole nature 'red in tooth and claw' thing. As William Blake put it, 'Tyger, tyger burning bright, in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry...? Did he who made the lamb make thee?' And the ferocious but beautiful tiger is perhaps the least of our difficulties. What about tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes and pestilence?

And then there is the whole question of suffering, pain, ageing and decay! And the question I saw on the front of a book the other day, 'Does anything eat wasps?' Are these issues built into the fabric of creation because they are simply part of what it means to live in the best of all possible worlds?

As long ago as the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755, which killed 15,000 people, the philosopher Voltaire attacked the notion that we do live in a basically good world. But this wasn't such a new and radical idea as he imagined. The writer of Revelation had got there before him. Acknowledging that the universe as we know it is not good enough, he writes about a perfect universe that is to come – a universe in which not only nature is made perfect, with its crystal clear, life-giving waters – but human creativity, with its streets and cities, is made perfect too.

Whereas in the Garden of Eden, as it is described later in Genesis, fruit trees are not only a source of goodness but also the means by which doubt and disobedience enter the equation, in the new creation the fruit trees bear fruit every month – a bit like the cigarette trees in the Big Rock Candy mountains except that, instead of dealing out cancer, their leaves have special healing properties. They never bring harm to humankind. They only bring wholeness. What I think the writer is driving at here is that, whereas in the universe as we know it things can go wrong, in the new creation things will never go wrong.

And what is the link between life as we know it now, with all of its imperfections, and life as we are promised it is going to be one day when we live in God and he is our light? The answer is that the link between these two states of being is the Cross of Jesus, the place in history where God shared our suffering and pain, our fear and loneliness, and overcame them for our sake. The crucified Jesus is here called the Lamb of God because he sacrificed his own life – like a sacrificial lamb – to bring hope to a broken world by sharing its brokenness. It is because of him that the light shines and the darkness cannot put it out.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

True Leadership

Luke 23.33-43
This passage is filled with irony. Jesus behaves with the graciousness and greatness of a true leader, thinking of others even at the moment when he himself is being put to death and is enduring terrible pain. But no one recognises his qualities They are too busy casting lots for his clothes or scoffing at him. If he is the good shepherd, the true king who is capable of rescuing and safeguarding the nation from harm, why can't he also save himself?

Even one of the criminals joins in the mockery, but the other springs to Jesus' defence. Perhaps he is just clutching at straws. After all, what has he got to lose? As well as being executed, he is about to come under the judgement of God for his misdeeds. By throwing himself upon Jesus' mercy he just might escape eternal punishment for his crimes. Or is there more to it than this? Does he recognise that the ironic thing about true leadership is the willingness of the leader to endure suffering and make self-sacrifices for the sake of the people he is leading? Only empty and worthless leaders stand aloof from the suffering and experiences of the people they are in charge of; genuine leaders stand alongside their colleagues and lead by example.

Someone has said that true leaders don't inflict pain, they bear pain. Someone else has said that true leadership has nothing to do with your job title, or the position you happen to hold, but everything to do with how you act. And the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu observed that in order to lead people, you have to walk beside them. All of these characteristics of true leadership are borne out by the example of Jesus on the cross.

The Meaning of The Light

Colossians 1:11-20
As we approach Christmas Christians have much to be joyful about, for - like hostages rescued from captivity and emerging blinking into the daylight - we are people who have been transferred from the power of darkness into the inheritance of the saints who dwell in the light. And what is this light of which Paul speaks so eloquently in this beautiful poem? It is the light shed upon the world by the arrival in human history of someone who is the image of the invisible God, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. The astounding claim made by Paul is that Jesus, the child born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, is the person in, through and for whom all things were created. In other words, he is the being in whom all things hold together, none other than God himself. But this incredible and wonderful news is tinged with pathos, for God only became human in order to reconcile all things to himself by dying on a cross. The good news of Christmas is also an Easter story.

No More Spin!

Jeremiah 23:1-6
The shepherds of the nation in Jeremiah's time were the kings of Judah, who were both the spiritual and political leaders of their people. They had not only failed to protect their flock through negligence or weakness. They had done active harm by destroying and scattering it, which implies that their policies were wicked and reckless. Their conduct brought God's judgement down upon their heads.

Why does Jeremiah go on to say that God drove the people into exile? Was this for their own protection, to save them from further harm? Or was God angry with the people for putting up with such poor leadership? Who are the leaders of the nation today? In a democratic country, and a democratic church, is it we - the people - who have failed to show proper vision and obedience, or can we still blame other people, politicians and church leaders, for our problems?

One of the concerns which people had when democracy was first introduced was that people would make ill-informed and misguided decisions, egged on by leaders who were happy to sell them lies and half-truths. The only way to avert that danger in a democracy is for people to have good, solid values and allegiances, not shifting and deceitful ones.

The Advent promise is that God will raise up new, more capable leaders who really do care for the nation, and who know the difference between right and wrong because they are guide by a king who rules with wisdom, righteousness and justice. We could call it an era of 'no more spin'!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Whole of Human History in One-and-a-Half Chapters

Luke 21:5-19
Many people, beginning with the first disciples, have interpreted this passage as a prophecy about the end of the world and what it will be like. But maybe that is to misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Perhaps it is better to see these words as a prophecy about the whole of human history from the time of Jesus until the present.

Times will always be hard for believers. Each generation will face new risks and challenges. In every age many will be led astray by false ideas and false teachers. There will always be wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines and plagues. And people will also see dreadful portents of future disaster. When Christians stick fearlessly to the proclamation of the Gospel, they will always face persecution and betrayal, and they will need the guidance of Jesus' Spirit to know how to deal with these challenges. Endurance and faithfulness have been the name of the game for true Christians throughout history.

But maybe there is also something especially portentous about the times we now live in. While it is true that Jesus' followers have always thought this, never before have human beings had the capacity to destroy their own environment and jeopardise their own history. Perhaps the day of judgement really is approaching this time! Will human beings turn out to have the humility and openness to work together and save themselves, or will we finally perish from the earth?

Believers are offered the consolation that, so long as they speak the truth in love and wisdom, they will gain their souls. I don't think this means that we can expect to escape whatever conflagration might finally engulf the human race. But at least we can expect to be safe in God's eternal keeping.

The Protestant Work Ethic

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
This passage is the foundation of what academics now call 'The Protestant Work Ethic' – the idea that idleness is ungodly and wicked, that Christians are called to work quietly and earn their own living, and that anyone who is unwilling to work doesn't really deserve to eat. What's more, Paul says that we should never be weary in doing what is right. I don't think he means that it's right to work 24/7 but, if working diligently to earn our own living is godly and Christ-like, it's easy to take the further step of arguing that earning as much as we can, for as long as we can, is also the right thing to do.

Of course, the work ethic was around in Christianity before Protestantism came along. Perhaps we should call it 'The Pauline Work Ethic', but later observers have noticed that Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian teachers never seemed to push the work ethic as far as some Protestant teachers were prepared to do. In fact, until the industrial revolution it was widely accepted that no one really needed to do more work than was absolutely necessary to support themselves and their dependents. Large parts of the year were given over to holy days and saints' days of various kinds, when no work was done at all.

Protestant Christians prepared the way for the industrial revolution by abolishing many of these holidays, by encouraging people to study the Bible for themselves – and so rediscover Paul's teaching, and by inventing the idea of hard work. However, Protestant teachers like John Calvin and John Wesley still stressed that once you had earned all that you could, the profit of your labour belonged to God and should be given away.

Paradoxically, something else had to happen before 'The Protestant Work Ethic' could really begin to drive the industrial revolution and the modern economy. That extra something was the Enlightenment, a new wave of scientific and humanist thinking when many industrialists and investors lost their faith in God. Set free from the need to do what is right, these new thinkers still clung onto the idea that idleness was wrong and persuaded politicians and opinion formers that it was morally justified to force people to work for long hours in large, soulless offices and factories.

Despite many subsequent reforms and refinements of 'The Protestant Work Ethic' it still shapes the kind of society we live in today. Britain is a hard work society whereas France, by comparison, is still more Catholic in its attitude to work.

Do we have Paul to blame for this? Why can't we be more like the lilies of the field, which are content simply to be? If all of us did just enough to get by, wouldn't that conserve a great deal more of the world's scarce resources? And yet, on the other hand, in a world where there are now so many hungry mouths to feed, perhaps hard work is more essential than ever.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The New Creation

Isaiah 65:17-25

This passage describes the world as God intends it to be – a new creation where suffering, tragedy, sadness and disappointment will be banished and where there will only be peace, plenty, joy and delight. This is a vision towards which all believers are called to commit themselves, in prayer and action.

But the passage raises some interesting questions. First, it talks about the imminence of this new creation, where as we know that it has yet to be established. Is this because – from God's perspective – a thousand years is but the blinking of an eye? Or is God's plan for a new and better world constantly frustrated by human disobedience?

Second, isn't the passage denying the created order, which Genesis tells us is already good? It's one thing for God to banish to sort of injustice and misuse of the world's resources which leads some children to die, needlessly, when they are only a few days old and some workers to toil for rewards which someone else receives. It's another thing entirely for lions to eat straw and serpents to eat dust. Does that mean the way in which the universe has evolved is not as God would like it to be? Is it just the best of all possible worlds rather than a perfect reflection of God's will?

And, finally, while the new order clearly has implications for the whole world, it is striking that the passage concentrates so much on life in the city. We tend to see cities as irredeemably bad – a human construct which we have imposed on nature and which inevitably make life worse than it might be, for all living things and not just for their human citizens. We talk about concrete jungles or concrete wastelands. But the Prophet is clear that cities, too, can be redeemed and are part of what it means to be truly human. Cities, like nature, can be made holy.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Life Beyond Death

Luke 20:27-38
This is one of a number of 'controversy' stories in which Jesus' opponents appear to be trying to trap him. The Sadducees were a group of Jewish leaders who did not believe in the idea of life beyond death. They saw this, quite rightly, as a new idea imported into the Jewish religion from other world faiths. But, of course, that doesn't make it a wrong idea.

It rather depends what we mean by 'resurrection'. If we think it means rising to a new life just like the old one, in which we all live in little thatched cottages with roses round the door and get to be married to beautiful people, then we are in for a big disappointment. Such will be the fate of the ignorant men and women who become suicide bombers in the hope of a life of this-worldly bliss in Paradise. Jesus scotches this idea with his abrupt reply to the Sadduccees: 'The dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.'

But just because we can't take the idea of resurrection as literally as this, that doesn't mean it isn't true. Jesus points out that the Lord God cannot be God of the dead if they no longer exist, because to be 'God' implies that you have supreme power to make yourself known and you cannot reveal yourself to someone who isn't there any more. It follows that the Lord can only be God of what is, of what still exists. And God told Moses that he was the God of Moses' ancestors – so clearly they were still alive in him. That doesn't mean they were alive in the way that we experience life. But it does mean that no one who has ever existed is lost to God and forgotten simply because they have died. In some sense we live on, in God, and that means the Sadducees are wrong.

Today is Remembrance Sunday and later on we are going to spend more time reflecting on what it means to remember the fallen. For many people the idea of remembrance on Armistice Day means that, so long as we continue to honour their memory and remember what they did for us, the sacrifice of so many young people's lives in two world wars – and in other conflicts since – has not been for nothing. Of course, remembering their names by itself is not enough, we also have to honour their memory by honouring the principles they died to defend, such as freedom and democracy.

I think Jesus' understanding of resurrection has something in common with this idea of remembering, except that the spiritual understanding of remembrance is stronger still. It doesn't just mean keeping people's memories alive. It means making them – and what they stood for – real in the present moment. That's what Christians mean by remembering the death of Jesus in Holy Communion. As we break the bread and share the wine we not only recall what happened when Jesus died, we also make its meaning and power real for us now.

When Jesus talks about people continuing in live in God, he isn't just talking about God remembering them and honouring their memory. He is describing how God can make them real in the present by an eternal act of remembering.

Idle Speculation

2 Thessalonians 2:1-17
Paul seems to be warning his readers here that they mustn't be preoccupied with the 'Advent' theme of God's promised new dawn for creation. It will come one day, but no one knows the time nor the hour and so it is foolish to speculate about it.

However, he is only human, and immediately Paul begins to indulge in some speculation of his own. The End Time will be clearly flagged, he says, because before that time there will be rebellion and lawlessness and the Anti-Christ will take over God's Temple.

This is almost certainly a reference to earlier prophecies that the reign of King Antioches Epiphanes – who installed a statue of himself in the Temple and declared himself to be God – would mark the end of the world. The prophecy turned out to be untrue, but that didn't stop later readers – including Paul – from reinterpreting it and applying it to their own situation. As recently as the 1970s I heard a lecture in which someone reinterpreted other Biblical passages about the End Time to mean that the expansion of the European Union marked the beginning of the end. So the practice of trying to read the signs of the times goes on!

Paul is surely on sounder territory when he goes on to urge his readers to concentrate on the present rather than straining to see the future. 'Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us,' he urges. And those traditions are that Jesus will comfort and strengthen us 'in every good word and work', not in idle speculation.

Silver and Gold for Good Causes

Haggai 1.15b—2.9
This is one of the Bible's great 'Advent' passages. The outlook may seem bleak, says the Prophet, but it's time to start singing a happy song for 'Things can only get better!' And, indeed, they are going to get better.

Sometimes people talk about wanting to take a silent collection at a meeting or service. They mean, of course, that they don't want the congregation, or the members of the meeting, to put coins into the offertory plate – even one and two pound coins. Instead of the chink of loose change, they want to hear only silence as people put five, ten and twenty pound notes into the collection.

Well, in this prophecy, God goes one better! The collection is going to be a noisy one, but not the careless noise of loose change being discarded. This is going to be the very deliberate noise of treasure clattering into the Temple vaults as God shakes the heavens, and the earth, and all the nations, to empty out their gold and silver.

It would be nice to think that the Prophet believes this will be a freewill offering, as the nations recognise the debt which they owe to God. But I suspect the Prophet sees it as a forced levy, as God wrings the resources which belong to him from ungrateful hands and wallets. The message seems to be that there is no such thing as a free lunch!

I run a charity, working in the most disadvantaged community in Sheffield. It faces closure next summer if we do not receive an injection of new funds. As I fundraise for its future, I would love to believe that God will give prosperity to such a good cause. And yet, although I believe that God does want his silver and gold to be redistributed to those who need it most, I also believe that God helps those who help themselves – even when they are the most deserving of help. I think we have to be prepared to work creatively and imaginatively to bring about change instead of waiting for money to fall into our laps.

Should this passage influence our thinking as we consider the future of our churches and their mission, and how we are going to fund them?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Reflecting On This Week's Bible Readings

Habbakuk1.1-4, 2.1-4
The Prophet reflects that his readers, or hearers, are living in dangerous and violent times. The righteous feel surrounded by wickedness. Justice doesn't seem to be done. He could be describing our world - the war on terrorism, global warming, violent crime, a legal system that many people cannot afford to resort to when things go wrong.

But, lest we're attempted to abandon hope, the Prophet says that God still has a vision for a better world which we are called to share and hold on to. It will be realised at the appointed time and if it seems a long while coming that is no reason to despair. We must be patient. For, whereas people who have no problems - and seem to be enjoying life - are often living just for the moment, the righteous - that is those who are right with God - live by faith. They share a vision which keeps them faithful and trusting, even when things get really tough They are always on the lookout for something better.

Are we obviously 'faithful' people? Is our outlook characterised by faith? Do we have a clear vision of better times to come? Are we working for a new kind of world?

2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12
Paul takes up the same theme in his second letter to the church at Thessalonica. The congregation there was also suffering from persecution and affliction and, like the Prophet Habbakuk, Paul urges his readers to be steadfast, faithful and full of good resolve. Again, God's grace will give them the strength they need.

Do we ask God for the strength to persevere and keep the faith in difficult times?

Luke 19.1-10
As is so often the case, the Gospel reading in the lectionary has little connection with the other passages. It is yet another of Luke's stories about someone whose actions go against type. Sometimes Luke relays parables and stories about people who appear to be good but are actually very bad. Here he narrates the story of someone with a deservedly bad reputation who undergoes a surprising change of heart and turns out not to be so bad after all. It is an example of the transforming power of an encounter with Jesus. If we meet him in the right frame of mind, with enough self-understanding to recognise our need to change and be changed, and if we respond to Jesus' offer of friendship in faith and with true conviction, even the worst of us can turn over a new leaf and be transformed.

Not long ago I found myself, as part of a team-building day, dangling thirty feet from the ground in the canopy of some of the large pine trees in part of the Forestry Commission's plantation at Sherwood Forest. Scaling those dizzy heights, and just for fun, takes some resolution but I was quite happy to do it because I was attached to a safety line. Imagine the resolution which Zacchaeus needed, not just to climb a tree but to do so in front of a crowd of people. It was the sort of resolution which he also needed to accept the challenge to turn his whole life around and dismantle his considerable fortune.

Are we that ready to be transformed?

Friday, October 26, 2007

How Not to Be Very Bad

Luke 18:9-14
As followers of Jesus it's okay to feel good about ourselves. In fact, that's an essential part of being true to Jesus' teaching. We're not called to beat ourselves up all the time, like the Christians and Muslims who - in various times and places - have gone around striking themselves with whips to punish themselves for their sinfulness. Jesus wants us to be repentant, but repentance is not about wallowing in guilt. It's about learning to love ourselves and about receiving the strength to change.

However, it's definitely not okay to feel good about ourselves if that leads us to look down on other people. Being a follower of Jesus isn't about being better than anyone else.

It's doubtful that Jesus saw anything wrong with being a Pharisee as such. His teaching has a lot in common with the teaching of the Pharisees. Like Jesus' own followers, the Pharisees were happy to draw on the best ideas about God and goodness, wherever they come from. Like Jesus' followers, they were a popular movement supported by many ordinary people. Like Jesus and his followers they didn't have much regard for the Temple and its elaborate system of sacrifices, believing that personal prayer and piety was much more important. Like Jesus and his followers, they also thought that merit has nothing to do with who you are, but is entirely dependent on the kind of person you become. When the Temple was destroyed one of the leaders of the Pharisees told his followers not to mourn, for there was another way of being close to God, and that was to practise loving kindness. The Pharisees also had a favourite saying, 'A learned outsider is better than an ignorant High Priest.' That isn't very different, is it, from what Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where an outsider from Samaria has compassion on the victim of highway robbery while the priest callously passes by on the other side of the road? The Pharisees were very conscious, too, that some of their number were insincere and they tried to weed out hypocrisy. Like Jesus and his followers, they believed that everyone was called to lead a holy life, not just the priests and leaders of the nation.

So where do Jesus and the Pharisees part company? There are two things which separate them. First, Jesus and his followers teach that the only way to be holy is by relying on the grace of God, whereas the Pharisees teach that we can be holy by carefully obeying the Jewish Law - not just the part written down in the first five books of the Bible but also an equally large collection of oral teaching passed down, they believed, through the generations.

This first difference between Jesus and the Pharisees leads naturally to the second one. If we happen to think, as the Pharisees do, that we can become holy or righteous by obeying the Law of God, then there's a danger that we will feel very pleased with ourselves if we keep the Law and - worse still - there's a danger that we'll begin to treat other people, lawbreakers, with contempt. If, however, we happen to think - as Jesus and his followers do - that we can't do anything to deserve God's favour, but must rely entirely on God's grace, that should make us more humble, not only about ourselves but also in our attitude to other people. Even if they seem much less holy than us, and much less obedient to God, even if they're not good and kind but are selfish and greedy or unkind, is there really so very much difference between them and us? There - but for the grace of God - go we! And, anyway, today or tomorrow we might fall from grace. Or we might deceive ourselves that we are much nicer people than we really are.

This is where the Pharisee goes wrong in Jesus' story. He assumes that he's a better person than the tax collector because he thinks he's a nicer person than he really is, when everyone who listens to the story can see immediately that the Pharisee is a thoroughly unpleasant man, puffed up with pride and full of contempt for other people who are different from him.

Of course, it's easy to laugh at the Pharisee in the story and then to fall into exactly the same trap. We begin to compare ourselves to thieves - the kind of people who steal the lead from church rooves, or laptops from cars, or mobile phones from children. We compare ourselves to drug addicts who become so desperate for a fix that they will steal from their own families and friends. And we say, 'Thank goodness I'm not like them.'

And then, if we're not careful, we compare ourselves to people we think are just a bit roguish - scroungers, idlers, people who seem either to have no values or else very different values from ours, perhaps people who swear a lot, or drink a lot, or gamble recklessly, or whatever. And we say, 'Thank goodness I'm not like them.'

And, if we're not very careful, we compare ourselves to adulterers, and to people who live with a series of different partners, or who get divorced for what we consider are not very good reasons, or who have casual affairs, or whatever, and we say, 'Thank goodness I'm not like them.'

And finally, if we're not very, very careful, we can find ourselves looking down on someone, and treating them with contempt, just because of the job they do. 'He's never had a steady job, of course,' we might say of someone. Or, 'She doesn't have any skills.' Or, 'He's a plumber, but he's a Polish plumber.' And before we know where we are, we've become just like the bad man in the parable, the person who went down to his home feeling justified when, in fact, he was not justified at all.

Jesus told the story not to attack Pharisees, but to remind us all to be humble. If a Pharisee can get it wrong, he seems to be saying, anyone can get it wrong. Because here are a group of people trying so hard to be holy and yet missing the mark completely just by forgetting to be humble. If we are to avoid the same trap we have to repeat into the mirror each day, as we comb or hair or shave, that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but everyone who humbles themselves will be exalted.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fighting the Good Fight

2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18

This passage purports to be Paul's farewell message to his protégé and successor Timothy. Like the three hundred brave soldiers from Sparta who defended Greece against a huge invading Persian army at Thermopylae, Paul senses that he is going to have to sacrifice his life for the cause. Whereas the Spartan soldiers died in the cause of Greek nationhood, to buy more time for the City of Athens to get ready to take up the fight, Paul is going to die in God's service, and for the sake of the Gospel. And just as the death of the Spartans and their king Leonidas was not really a defeat, but the beginning of the end for the Persian invaders, so Paul knows too that his death will not be the end of the struggle to bring Christianity to a disbelieving world. Generations of people since have been inspired by the Spartans' last stand, and similarly Timothy will be inspired by Paul's example. For, like the Spartan royal guard he has fought the good fight. Like an athlete, he has finished the marathon. And, like a true and steadfast believer, he has kept the faith. But he's not a special case. The writer recognises that countless other Christians will do the same and will share with Paul the crown of righteousness when they appear before the Son of Man on the Day of Judgement.

And yet Paul's final days have been tinged with loneliness and sorrow. At first, when he needed help, no one came to his support. Only the Lord Jesus stood beside him, to give him strength. He feels like Daniel, apparently all alone in the lion's den but actually not alone – for he Lord is with him to rescue him from the lion's mouth. But, when Paul thinks of being rescued – like Daniel – from every evil attack, he's not expecting to come through his final ordeal unscathed. He doesn't speak of being pardoned by the Emperor and sent on his way to Spain, where he had intended to go on proclaiming the Gospel after his visit to Rome. He speaks instead of being saved for God's heavenly kingdom.

What does this passage have to say to us? On a very practical level, as we approach Remembrance Sunday, we are reminded that life can demand very real sacrifices from some people. Whatever the merits of the war they're involved in, the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan find themselves confronting a ruthless and fanatical enemy inspired by a bloodthirsty perversion of Islam. If they do not fight the good fight and stay the course on our behalf, many moderate and peace-loving Muslim people in those countries will be let down and abandoned to their fate, and fanatical Muslims everywhere will feel encouraged. But if they continue to resist, in the face of bitter opposition, they will not only take more heavy casualties, they will also risk being painted as meddlers and invaders interfering in a culture and a faith to which they do not belong. It's an unenviable task and there seems to be no easy way out, no obvious way of being rescued from the lion's mouth.

For Christians there are parallels with our own personal life. The Lord stands alongside us in times of suffering, pain and hardship. He rescues us from evil attack, but that doesn't necessarily mean we shall be snatched from the jaws of death. Eventually we shall all have to be rescued and justified through death and in spite of it.

There are also parallels with church life. We are called to persevere even when times are hard, when we face vandalism and indifference, hostility and even persecution. When the going gets tough we are called to feats of endurance, for that is when the tough get going. Will we be rescued from the lion's mouth if we stand firm? Yes, but not necessarily to carry on with business as usual. Just as the Spartan soldiers had to lose their lives to save their nation, and just as Paul's life had to be poured out as an offering to God, maybe we have to be prepared to sacrifice some things, to let go of some things, in order to be reborn and find new life.

When I was a child I was fascinated by a book which my grandparents had about feats of derring-do in the Second World War. It was illustrated by colour plates depicting various heroic events, and one particularly gripped my imagination. It showed the last stand of HMS Rawalpindi, a lookout ship on patrol near Iceland in November 1939 to prevent German battleships from slipping into the Atlantic to attack allied convoys. Her crew encountered the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and were able to signal their presence to the British fleet. But, with no chance of escape, the captain and crew refused to surrender and the Rawlapindi was pounded to bits. The picture showed a sailor, up to his knees in water, firing a gun at the distant cruisers while a colleague sits holding his head in his hands. The caption read, 'Burning like a piece of paper, HMS Rawalpindi goes down fighting. It is the proud tradition of the Royal Navy that she never scuppers a ship.'

This story came to my mind once during a church meeting, when people started to talk gloomily about possible closure. I suggested that we shouldn't cut and run. While being realistic about what the future holds, we should be ready to fight the good fight and endure to the end. That church didn't close. It was reborn, in a new form, as a community centre shared with the nearby Anglican Church, and it is still running the race.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Reflecting on Next Week's Bible Passages

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Jeremiah is writing to people who find themselves living as exiles in an alien land. They are not to give up hope. They are to assume that there is still a future both for them and for their faith. And they are no to try to attack or sabotage the society in which they now live, even though its values and culture are alien to them. Instead, they are to work for its welfare, because if it is a flourishing and successful society they will flourish and be successful too.

Many theologians and religious leaders have understood this to mean that Christians, and Jewish people, should not get involved in politics or in trying to challenge or change the society around them. Instead, they have concentrated on trying to build up and encourage the faithful. At best, they have seen the Church - or their faith community - as leaven in the lump, influencing what happens around them quietly and in almost imperceptible ways. At worst, they have left the rest of society to its own devices and have encouraged believers to draw their wagons into a tight circle in order to keep hostile people, or people who thought and behaved differently from them, safely on the outside.

But I don't think this is what Jeremiah means. He had, after all, been very involved in trying to change the hostile society around him when he was prophesying in Jerusalem, and even went to prison for his pains.

If we believe that God has shown us the right way to live, then seeking the welfare of the society around us means trying to change it for the better and influence the way people think and behave. This can happen on two levels - as we try to communicate what we believe and as we try to put our faith into action in daily life.

While, in normal circumstances, we should be law-abiding and not try to sabotage the way society is run, Jeremiah does not mean us to imagine that it is wrong to subvert and undermine any alien values - such as materialism and secularism - which shape our society at the present time. On the contrary, if we are really seeking the welfare of our society, what choice do we have but to seek to change and challenge everything that is wrong with it? And if we want the Church to flourish, how can this happen unless other people come to believe in the Gospel we proclaim and share its values with us?

Christians today often feel like a tiny beleaguered minority in an alien land or city. Jeremiah speaks to us in a way that perhaps he did not speak to earlier generations, giving us fresh reason to hope and keep steadfast.

How should we be seeking the welfare of our city, and our community, today?

2 Timothy 2:3-15
The passage from 2 Timothy begins with a series of rather gnomic observations taken from ordinary life - describing the outlook of a soldier, an athlete and a farmer. Greek-speaking people loved terse sayings like this and used them all the time as a way of helping them to remember important lessons from life. But the writer, perhaps Paul or a follower of his teaching, acknowledges that the meaning he wants the reader to extract from these sayings will only come to those who are prepared to reflect carefully and prayerfully about them.

That said, the saying about the soldier's life seems relatively straightforward. Christians mustn't be distracted by other agendas. Their job is to accept the suffering and self-denial which is an inevitable part of carrying your cross and following Jesus. Soldiers, too, accept that suffering and danger may be part of their lot, and in return the nation makes a covenant with them to take care of them, and their families, if they are hurt or killed. In the same way, God makes a covenant to keep faith with us if we are faithful to Jesus.

The saying about the athlete also seems reasonably easy to interpret. People who try to win by cheating are likely to be found out, just like the athletes who have been brought down - and have lost their medals, fame and sponsorship - by taking performance enhancing drugs. There is no shortcut to discipleship, no easy route that bypasses the way of the Cross. To imagine that there might be is to delude ourselves.

The last saying, about the farmer, is a little more tricky to understand. After all, Jesus said that the workers in the vineyard who had toiled all day, and done the lion's share of the work, wouldn't get a larger share of the proceeds just because some of their colleagues had come to the job late in the day and only put in a small amount of effort. He also said that the first would be last, and the last would be first.

So what does it mean, in the context of the Christian Gospel, to say that the farmer who does the work ought to have the first share of the crops? Only, I think, that while we can never earn God's grace, and while it is also true that grace is freely given to all who ask for it, something is expected of us in return for what we have received. It is those who, in response to his love for them, are prepared to die for Christ who will live with him. It is those who are willing to endure hardship for his sake who will share his glory. It is those who keep faith with Jesus who will find that he keeps faith with them.

This is somewhat controversial, not least because it seems to be at odds with Paul's earlier teaching, in his letter to the Romans, where he says that we are justified by faith alone and not by anything we do ourselves. Is the writer of the letters to Timothy a follower of Paul who wants to modify that teaching, or is it Paul himself who is modifying it because some people have taken it to extremes?

This is what he had to do elsewhere in his letters when he was responding to Christians who mistakenly thought he had been teaching that we can go on doing wrong, even after we become followers of Jesus. These misguided interpreters of his teaching thought he was saying that God's love revealed in Jesus means we will always be forgiven, no matter how badly we behave. 'God forbid!' was Paul's horrified reply.

Whoever wrote 2 Timothy, the author is in no doubt that we do need to be approved by God. We cannot make ourselves holy or righteous. But, at the same time, only those who were prepared to work for the Gospel, and who need not be ashamed that they let Jesus down, can expect to be approved. To argue for any other interpretation of the Christian faith is just playing with words, in the writer's opinion, and leads to spiritual ruin.

This is a very rigorous understanding of what it means to be a Christian - the sort that often becomes popular during times of persecution or when Christians find themselves in a tiny minority? Is it something we feel comfortable with, or do we find it easier to believe that faith is the only thing necessary for Christians to be put right with God?

Is there any overlap here with what Jeremiah was saying in his letter to the exiles in Babylon, who also needed to remain steadfast in hard times, but who were encouraged to continue trusting in God?

Luke 17:11-19
This isn't a story about the importance of good manners. The grateful man with leprosy didn't just return to say 'thank you', he came back to praise God and because he had faith in Jesus.

The others took their healing for granted, but perhaps they still praised God in their own way. The difference is that they didn't see Jesus' intervention as decisive. Their healing was a life changing event, because it meant they no longer needed to live as outcasts from society, but it didn't change the way they looked at life.

This bring us to the meaning of the phrase, 'Your faith has made you well.' It's not just about physical healing. The word used by Luke to translate what Jesus said means 'to be made whole' or even 'to be saved'. The man's faith changed his life around completely, whereas the other nine lepers were only healed of one disease.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sharing in God's Harvest

Luke 17.5-10

There is little doubt that these two sayings started their life separate from one another. We can infer this because Matthew's Gospel has an almost identical saying, about a mountain rather than a mulberry bush, but it isn't linked to the saying about slavery, which is unique to Luke's Gospel. This means we are entitled to consider each of the sayings in isolation, to see what it might have to say to us today. But we may also wish to consider why Luke has chosen to link them. How did he expect them to work together?

The first saying is about the huge potential of faith. If we only have microscopic faith, the world can still be our oyster. In today's Observer newspaper there is an article about the peaceful revolution which toppled the communist regime in East Germany in 1989. The author, Henry Porter, reminds us that it all began with prayer vigils outside a Lutheran church in Leipzig. By the time that 400,000 people were attending each vigil the game was up for the regime and it collapsed.

Henry Porter goes on, as you can probably imagine, to compare the events in East Germany in 1989 to the resistance of the Buddhist monks to the Burmese junta today. It is a similar example of faithfulness and courage even if - so far - it has not met with the same success. History proves, however, that faith can and does move both mountains and mulberry trees.

Today people often say that there's nothing we can do to avert global warming. I'm sure you've heard the arguments. Anything we do, even as a nation, to reduce carbon emissions will be more than offset by the continued growth of carbon emissions in India and China, so why bother trying to make a difference? But as Graham Kendrick said at a concert I attended in Harrogate a week ago, it's a big lie to say that we, as individuals, can't change the world we live in. If everyone takes the same negative attitude then, of course, nothing will change and the crisis will simply get worse and worse. But the sooner that tens of millions of people start working hand in hand to reduce the impact of global warming and take care of our planet, the sooner China and India will agree to take part in the process.

And if we can change the world, then surely we can change the community in which we live too. We may be few in number, but we can still make a small difference through the community projects we nurture and support and. above all, through our prayers and faithful example. A bad example won't change the world for the better, of course, but think of the harvest which a good example can yield - in our families, and among our colleagues, friends and neighbours. I'm not necessarily talking about adding to the size of our congregation. I'm talking about influencing the sum of human goodwill and spiritual growth simply by who we are and how we choose to live. It's good to give thanks for the harvest of the land and the harvest of industry, but we should never forget to give thanks for the mighty spiritual harvest which can grow from tiny acorns of faithful witness.

This saying is often seen as a critique of the disciples. If only they had faith as big as a mustard seed they could uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the ocean. But actually it's not a criticism, it's a word of encouragement. The disciples have asked for more faith, and Jesus' response is, 'You don't need more faith! You already have enough!' For it only takes a little bit of faith to make a world of difference.

By linking this saying with the one about slavery, Luke makes a further point. There is nothing extraordinary about changing the world. It is just what disciples do. As slaves would think nothing of plowing and tending the sheep before coming home to prepare their master's dinner and wait at table, so striving to change the world is simply what we ought to be spending our lives doing. It's not a bonus, on top of believing and worshipping, it's a must. It's part and parcel of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Is this different from what the saying might mean if it stood on its own? Well, not really. Except that, when it stands alone, the focus of the saying becomes not what we do to serve Jesus, but the very fact of serving. The calling of the disciple of Jesus is to devote ourselves to doing the will of God, night and day - and serving is its own reward. We are to expect no kudos for obeying our calling, no medals, no special recognition. It is supposed to be enough for us to know that we have served the cause, for we are basically worthless when compared to our master and so it is an honour to be able to contribute anything at all to God's Kingdom, however small and insignificant the change might seem.

So harvest time is not just a time to thank you to God for all that we have received. It's also a chance to thank God for the tremendous privilege of being allowed to be in partnership with him. Let's praise God that we can share in the work of building a better world and pray for the strength to continue doing our little bit. And let us consider what Jesus is calling us to do in our community, and our world, today.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Our Calling

2 Timothy 1:1-14

This passage is a spirited challenge to be faithful to our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. It could be interpreted just as a message of encouragement for church leaders, an ordination sermon almost, but in the earlier letters of Paul it is made very clear that mission is part of the calling of every Christian. So either this passage is a development of Paul's original ideas, by later theologians who saw a need to set apart leaders for the Church to guide and sustain it, or else - in prison and facing imminent death - Paul has begun thinking about the need to appoint Timothy as his successor and to ensure sound teaching in the Church. In either case, it is legitimate to see the message as applicable to every Christian, even if it has a special resonance for ministers.

The gift of God is within each one of us, as we are reminded at our baptism and confirmation. It is a spirit of love and self-discipline, empowering us to do God's mission, not relying on our own achievements and ability but upon the strength and energy that God will supply. There is no room, in the Church which Paul envisages here, for shrinking violets - for people who are afraid or ashamed to share their faith and to work for change in the world. This is because God's purpose for the Church is to transform the world around us.

Grace, which Paul talks about a great deal in this passage, means the undeserved gifting of God, bestowed on those who have faith in Jesus Christ and are willing to share in his suffering in order to share also in his transforming and life-giving power. This was unleashed by his death on the Cross. If we put our trust in him, he will take care of us. But that doesn't mean he will protect us from suffering and hardship. The Church is no place for cowardice. Instead we need to be resolute to follow the crucified Christ.

Weeping For The City

Lamentations 1:1-6

The city of Jerusalem, which the people of Judah had always believed was a special, holy place and the centre of the created order, had been ransacked by her enemies. Former allies had turned against her. Many of her citizens had been deported to do hard labour. The Temple was a ruin and no one came to the City on pilgrimage any more. Her leaders were in hiding or had been brought to bay, but the prophet believed that the suffering of Jerusalem was well deserved. People had been complacent and disobedient.

What message does this passage have for us? Sheffield was once a mighty engine of the industrial revolution. Now large tracts of its former industrial heartland are desolate where once they were full of people. But Sheffield has also experienced a revival and many parts of the City never lost their prosperity . It wouldn't be true to say that her gates are in ruins, or that no one comes to visit Sheffield any more. On the contrary, there are ambitious plans to create new and more impressive gateways to the City - striking buildings which will impress the visitors and commuters who stream in each day, and the City has a large region of influence around it. What a pity then that there is still a widening gap between the most prosperous and the most disadvantaged parts of the City. Some of the residents of Sheffield still have cause to mourn, and this should be put right.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Closing The Gap

Luke 16:19-31
Some Christians have taken the teaching of people like Jeremiah and turned it into a 'prosperity doctrine', arguing that if we put our trust in God we will prosper. There is no doubt that Jeremiah did believe something like this, but he wasn't thinking of individual prosperity. His argument was that nations and communities will prosper when they put their trust in God.

In the same vein, the writer of the letters to Timothy explains that, for individual Christians, trusting God means sitting light to our own material possessions and making do with just enough to be content; any surplus should be given away to those in greater need. Thus, in a society made up entirely of believers, no one would strive to be more prosperous than their neighbours and prosperity would, in fact, be shared.

This is not an argument against enterprise, but it is an argument against the idea that the driving force behind enterprise must always be personal gain. The Bible envisages a society in which people will find enterprising solutions to the world's problems not just to make themselves more prosperous but in order to benefit everyone.

There was an example of this on the radio last week. A man has invented a new and cheaper way of purifying water, so that it is safe to drink after a natural disaster or in a war zone. He didn't want to make a huge profit from his invention, he explained. It's already much cheaper than alternative ways of providing pure water to drink in disaster zones but, so long as he could sell enough units to reduce the cost of production and recoup his original investment, he said that he would be happy to reduce the price still further.

He sounded genuine. But, if we're striving after a godly economy, there's an ever better way of doing enterprise. It's called 'social enterprise', where the rewards don't go to the individual entrepreneurs but are reinvested for the benefit of everyone, workers and clients alike. Of course, in a world like ours, where profit is king, it's not a very attractive way of doing business. Entrepreneurs find it hard to understand why they should make the effort of being enterprising unless they are going to benefit themselves.

That's the mindset of the rich man in Luke's story. He doesn't care about closing the gap between himself and the poor man at his gate. He's a devotee of the Prosperity Doctrine, by which I mean that the rich man thinks they have both got what they deserve. Until, that is, their roles are reversed and the gap separating them becomes a great chasm, with burning fire on the side where the rich man now finds himself. Then he wishes that he had listened to the teachings of the prophets about creating a more just society!

How can we close the gap between rich and poor today - in our world and, closer to home, in our city?

What Really Matters

1 Timothy 6.6-19
Jeremiah is happy to assert that there is a link between trust in God and material well-being. He encourages us to trust that God is working for social justice and for an end to oppression. In the world order that God will one day establish, land will be bought and sold freely, and people will get a fair wage for the work that they do.

The writer of the letters to Timothy is not so convinced. When he talks about trusting God for the future, he's not thinking about the promise of heaven on earth but of a pure spiritual union with God beyond this life. To him, therefore, worldly wealth is at best irrelevant, and at worst a distraction from what really matters. So he argues that we should only worry about having enough material wealth to be content.

In saying this, I think he is being true to the teaching of Jesus, who said that we should imitate the wildflowers and the wild birds, which do not worry about tomorrow or about doing better for themselves, but simply are what they are, as God intended them to be. In contrast, the eagerness to make ourselves better off is the root of all evil.

People have sometimes misunderstood the writer. They have thought that money itself is the root of all evil, forgetting that he says it is the love of money which is wrong. Instead of setting their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, wealthy people are to use their money to do good works, being generous and ready to share. This is how we can really store up treasure for ourselves, in a place where neither moth nor rust can destroy it, and thus ensure that we are laying a good foundation for our future. For it is our spiritual life that is the most real thing about our existence, not our material well-being.

despite the difference in emphasis this is not in conflict with Jeremiah's teaching about social justice. The writer of these letters does say that by sitting light to worldly prosperity, and sharing what we don't need, we are keeping the commandment of Jesus to love one another as much as we love ourselves.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Never Give Up Hope

Jeremiah 32:1-15
The other day I heard people talking on the radio about buying-to-let, the practice of buying a portfolio of two or three bedroom houses and renting them out to tenants, either as a way of making a living or as an alternative to saving for a pension. Buying-to-let has been very popular in recent years and has been blamed for driving up the price of small houses. But the popularity of buy-to-let depended on low interest rates and on mortgages being easy to obtain.

The landlords who were being interviewed on the radio were finding it tough in today's housing market. One person had three properties which they wanted to buy, but no one would lend them the money. Another person had a portfolio of thirty properties. Was he making any money? he was asked. 'No,' he said. He wasn't even covering the cost of his mortgages. And would he do it again if he were starting from scratch? No, he wouldn't.
Jeremiah's action, in buying his cousin's field, is a bit like someone going out now and buying thirty buy-to-lets. It's a gesture of faith in the future.

The field he buys is behind enemy lines. Doubtless his cousin needed to sell in order to feed his family, who had taken refuge with him in the besieged city. It was Jeremiah's duty to redeem the field – that is to keep it in the family, if he could – by purchasing it from his cousin.

A lot of people would have said, however, that the middle of a desperate siege is no time to be squandering money on land, even if you do have a sacred duty to look after it. And Jeremiah was certain that the tiny kingdom of Judah was about to be conquered by the mighty army of Babylon. Nonetheless, God tells Jeremiah that he should not only purchase the land, but keep the title deeds safe and secure because – one day – land will be bought and sold in Israel again.

What are the things which make us anxious about the future? Jeremiah is proverbial for being someone who always assumed the worst, but here his message is exactly the opposite of doom and gloom. He says things can never get so desperate that we should lose our trust in God.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

God's View Point on Disaster

Jeremiah 8.18-9.1
Jeremiah's lament is a reminder that Christians don't have to be relentlessly cheerful. He looks around for good news and can't find any. The harvest is over, but it has not been a good one. The people are hurting, but there is no one to heal them. They have made mistakes, and their errors are coming back to haunt them, a bit like the managers and directors of Northern Rock who gambled on an endless supply of cheap money and were caught out when times suddenly changed.

Unlike the people who have queued up not just to withdraw their deposits, but to point the finger of blame, Jeremiah chooses not to accuse anyone or rub salt in open wounds. He gets alongside the people in their suffering and mourns with them.

But, of course, it's not just Jeremiah who laments with those who have been bereaved, and mourns those who have died. For Jeremiah is reporting God's view point on disaster. Even when we are responsible for our own downfall, God chooses not to blame us but to share our pain. And the final proof of this is Jesus' death for us on the Cross.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Christian Guide to Leadership and Management

Luke 16.1-13

The story of the 'dishonest manager' has always been a puzzle to Jesus' disciples. Its message is so cryptic that no one has ever been able to say for certain what it means.

St Luke sticks onto the end of the story some sayings of Jesus which seem to belong to it, but he also includes one of the 'floating' sayings of Jesus – things which Jesus definitely said at some time in his ministry, but whose original context has long since been lost.

The saying in question is the one about two masters: 'You cannot serve God and money.' That's undoubtedly true, of course, but the saying doesn't belong to the story, which isn't about money, although money figures in it.

The story is really about leadership. We're all leaders – some great, some small. Some of us are destined to lead nations and armies. Some get to lead a company or a team. Some lead a class of schoolchildren. Some lead their family or friends. All of us, from time to time, are called upon to give a lead, though we don't necessarily rise to the challenge!

The story asks us to consider what sort of leaders we are. Are we resourceful? Are we resilient? Are we clever? Are we capable? Have we the makings of a good leader, or do we still have much to learn? Are we Christian leaders? Here are some things to consider as we ponder the answers to those questions.

First, to be a good leader we must be ourselves. The dishonest manager knew himself through and through. 'I can't dig ditches, and I'm ashamed to beg,' he thought, 'But I know what I am good at!'

If we're not honest with ourselves, if we don't know our own strengths and limitations, we can't be trusted to make good leadership decisions. And if we try to cover up our weaknesses by posturing and play-acting we shall either make mistakes or fail to convince those whom we would like to follow our lead. The only solution, then, is to be honest with ourselves, to recognise our weaknesses and to enlist the help of other people so that we can overcome those weaknesses. That's exactly what the dishonest manager did!

Second, to be a good leader we must value all the people we work with. Again, that's exactly what the dishonest manager did. When he knew he was about to be fired he started doing favours for some of his boss's tenants, but he didn't just curry favour with the wealthier or more influential ones. His help was given indiscriminately, in the best way at his disposal.

The wheat farmer owed the landlord a thousand sacks of wheat, which is roughly £5,000 in today's money. The dishonest manager allowed him to write down his debt to £4,000.

The olive grower owed the landlord one hundred barrels of olive oil. It doesn't sound much, does it, but just think what a bottle of olive oil costs today! Extra virgin olive oil must fetch around £400 a barrel, maybe more, so the man owed at least £4,000, which the dishonest manager allowed him to write down the debt to £2,000.

If you or I were the dishonest manager, we might choose to focus our attention on one or two people for whom we could secure the greatest advantage – and who would therefore owe us the biggest favours. It would be only human nature to concentrate our energies in this way. But the dishonest manager doesn't operate like that. He treats all the tenants equally. It doesn't seem to matter to him whether he's doing them a big favour or a small one, because – after all – when he's been fired every favour will be worth calling in. So he makes no distinctions. He calls them in one by one and deals with them systematically, because all the tenants are valuable to him, and he can help each one to a greater or lesser degree.

Three managers were having a conversation in the town hall when a very influential councillor walked by. The first manager had just asked one of his colleagues how things were going but, on seeing the councillor, he immediately peeled away from the group – even though the second manager was only halfway through his answer. Without even a word of apology, the first manager was gone – walking at the councillor's elbow and looking for an opportunity to speak to him. 'Well,' said the second manager to the third, 'That shows me how important I am!' It didn't, of course, but it did show him how much he was valued by the first manager.

One of the points Jesus is making here is that – if a dishonest manager is shrewd enough to value everyone in his organisation equally highly, from the humblest to the most important – shouldn't Christians be aiming to value everyone equally highly too? And yet we don't, do we? If we're not careful, we find ourselves paying more attention to people we like, or to the people we think can do the most to help us. That's not how a good leader behaves. A good leader tries to befriend everyone.

But there's much more to say about this story. For instance, good leaders don't sit around waiting for things to happen. Like the dishonest manager, they try to make an impact on the situation. They act and speak decisively to make sure that everything they do makes a difference and changes the outcome. In other words, they prepare for the future instead of waiting for it to catch up with them. In fact, they almost make their own future, if they can!

And good leaders also work as a team with those around them. They consult their colleagues and formulate a plan of action with them, but they always get the other members of the team to make their own decisions and play an active part in what's going on.

The dishonest manager could have written down the debts for the tenants and just told them what he was doing. But he was too wily for that. He knew they could always deny all knowledge of what he had done, so he implicated them in his plan by getting them to alter their accounts themselves. Again, the point Jesus is making is that, if crooks believe in teamwork, how much more should Christians work together as a team!

Good leaders also don't waste time and energy reacting to criticism, unless there's some way they can benefit from it. Too many of us spend a lot of our time complaining about unfair criticism, or responding in detail to what others have said about us, or trying to get even, when we ought to put the criticism behind us and get on with the job.

At the start of the story, the dishonest manager is accused by the landlord of wasting money. He's asked to justify himself, but he knows that's not going to be easy. One person's prudent expenditure can easily seem like wasteful extravagance to another. So, instead of putting his energies into constructing an elaborate defence of his actions, ('I did x because I knew that the longterm benefits would be y'), the dishonest manager simply makes the best of it. He's going to get fired, so he concentrates on doing some featherbedding to cushion his fall.

Jesus is warning us not to waste time justifying ourselves and trying to deflect criticism. We should do our best, and if we're not appreciated we should shake the dust off our feet and move on.

Finally, what about the landlord? Does he have anything to teach us? Yes, he does! For good leaders know how to recognise achievement. The landlord may have thought his manager had failed to deliver Best Value by squandering money, but he was generous enough to recognise that the man was a shrewd and skilful leader. 'He praised his dishonest manager for looking out for himself so well.'

That doesn't mean the manager got his job back. Nor does it mean the landlord was happy to have lost his unpaid debts. What Jesus means is that the landlord could see he had been outsmarted and was ready to concede as much.

If ruthless and level-headed businessmen and women can give credit where it's due, shouldn't Christians be ready always to acknowledge the gifts and achievements of those around us? That's the final message from our story. In fact, some of Jesus' other sayings – about the first being last, and the last being first – make it clear that we should never take credit for anything if the credit can possibly be shared with, or given to, someone else.

Is this, then, what the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is all about? Is it an illustration of how the Church could benefit from the way the world operates, and the way business leaders choose to work – not by borrowing some of their more dubious techniques, such as appraisal schemes, ever-reducing budgets and endless target setting and monitoring – but by recognising the qualities that go to make a good leader: knowing our own strengths and limitations, valuing our colleagues, making an impact, sharing decision-making, getting on with the job in spite of criticism, working as a team and recognising the achievements of others.

Whatever we might be called upon to do in life, it's a recipe for successful leadership; but it's also a recipe for Christian leadership.