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?