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Showing posts from 2008

Pure Evil?

Isaiah 40.1-11
Mark 1.1-8

Several things strike me immediately about the prophecy of Isaiah when I think about it in the light of recent events. First there is the trial of Karen Matthews, described by the policeman who led the investigation as 'pure evil'. She has become a hate figure not only for West Yorkshire Police, but for the people of Dewsbury and for the nation as a whole. And, certainly, her plot to kidnap her own daughter and collect a reward from the newspapers for Shannon's safe return was monstrously wicked, as well as monumentally stupid.

In the prophecy, Israel is compared to a prisoner who has also committed monstrous and monumentally stupid crimes. She has betrayed her God, acted unjustly towards the poor and oppressed, and shown arrogant complacency in imagining that, when her enemies invaded the land and besieged her capital city, nonetheless, God would save her from the consequences of her folly. God - and his Prophet - have every right therefore to point…

Credit Crunch and Harvest Munch

Exodus 20:1-11
Matthew 21:33-46

Today's lectionary reading from the Old Testament is one of the foundation texts of the Jewish faith - the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, which sit at the heart of the Jewish Law. It's a fitting reading for a harvest festival because it reminds us, first, that - however wonderful the natural world might be - it is not in itself a fit enough object for contemplation or worship. A beautiful view or a glorious sunset might take our breath away. The image of the earth seen from outer space might be awe inspiring. The wonderful intricacies of sub-atomic physics might boggle our minds. Knowing what happened in the first split second after the Big Bang might give us a theory of everything. The birth of a baby might reduce us to tears of joy. But in the end the sum of all these things does not comprise everything that exists, so our contemplation cannot stop with what we can sense and measure.. It must reach beyond these things to something great…

The Moment of Decision

Exodus 1.8 - 2.10
Romans 12.1-8
Matthew 16.13-20

Today's Old Testament reading from Exodus seems to be a mixture of history and legend. On the one hand it says that the Israelite people were more numerous, or in danger of becoming more numerous, than their Egyptian hosts. On the other hand it says that there were only two Israelite midwives. Even if we take them to be the chief midwives of a nationwide team these two statements simply cannot be reconciled! Two people could not possibly have headed up the vast army of midwives which such a large population would have required, especially in the days before a modern health service.

Against this slightly muddled background, the charming story of Moses being rescued from the bulrushes helps to explain both his name and his origins, as an Egyptian prince of Hebrew descent. The story also explains how God is able to work through human history because human beings work alongside him to ensure that the right thing can happen. If Moses' mo…

Breaking out of the prison of the past

Genesis 45.1-15
Romans 11.1-2a & 29-32
Matthew 15.21-28

The writers of this passage wanted it to be clearly understood that God works in human lives and human history, and that events which seem tragic and troubling to us in the present moment are sometimes part of - or can be woven into - the longterm out-working of God's purposes for us. There is a danger here, of course. People of faith will always try their hardest to look back on what has happened and impose a pattern on random events so that they seem to make sense and prove that God was with us all of the time, shaping the way things turned out. But I think that is to misunderstand how God works through history. We cannot absolve ourselves of all responsibility when things go wrong simply by imagining that they are part of some grand scheme of which we are totally unaware - although they may be, and how else are we to make sense of the Cross? However, the truth is more complicated than that. God is like a master weaver, pa…

The Sound of Silence

1 Kings 19.9-13
Romans 10.5-11
Matthew 14.22-33

A few weeks ago the administration of a town somewhere in England changed from Labour to Liberal Democrat, and with the change of administration came a change for the voluntary and community sector, too. The new Council decided that, while community work is valuable it isn't an immediate priority. It was suggested that there was almost a surplus of community work going on in the town, made possible by the good times when the City benefited from a lot of grant funding. Now that the grants are being targeted elsewhere, it was suggested that the time might have come to let things return to normal and allow some of that community work to wither on the vine.

Coupled with endless delays and complications in releasing what little grant funding remains, and continued debate about what it can - or cannot - be spent on, this suggested that lean times might lie ahead. The only way that most community work can continue in these circumstances is if o…

Discerning Good and Evil

1 Kings 3.5-12
Romans 8.26-39
Matthew 13.31-3, 44-52

The wisdom of Solomon is proverbial. But he did not ask God for wisdom. He asked only for "an understanding mind able to discern between good and evil." God was so impressed by Solomon's selflessness and maturity that he gave him the gift of wisdom too.

It would be nice to be guided by wise leaders, wouldn't it? One of Gordon Brown's difficulties is that on television he appears less wise than he apparently is in person. Someone commented that, at an award ceremony this week for former members of the Women's Land Army, he was dignified, relaxed and good humoured. He gave a short speech, without any notes, in which he said just the right things to impress everyone there and he captured precisely the mood of the occasion.

But, unlike Tony Blair, he cannot do this in front of the cameras. Tony Blair always looked assured and at ease on television. Love him or hate him, he often found just the right thing to say, wh…

When a Little Produces a Lot

Isaiah 55.10-13
Romans 8.1-11
Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

We haven't seen much snow for a long time but we do get plenty of rain, don't we? It might not be as much fun as the sunshine, but it does help the plants to grow. Most vegetables, for instance, need plenty of water in order to grow big and strong. God's word has the same effect. It stimulates spiritual growth making us more rounded people, closer to the image of God.

Of course, the rain which stimulates the growth of vegetables and garden flowers also helps the weeds to grow, which is not a good thing. Fortunately, the word of God is not like this. It doesn't cause the indiscriminate growth of good and bad things. Instead, it tends to suppress what is bad and promote what is good.

The Prophet Isaiah gives too examples of bad plants and two examples of good ones. The cypress tree was valued because its timber was highly valued in the ancient world. It was used, for instance, to make the coffins of the pharaohs. The myrtle …

True Religion

Zechariah 9.9-12
This passage is part of the answer to those critics who claim that religion causes hostility and aggression. While it is true that religion is often used as an excuse for aggressive behaviour, the Prophet Zechariah makes clear that the true mark of religious leadership is a resolute determination to see peace prevail. Not only does the true leader choose to ride on a humble beast of burden, but he also cuts off the chariot and the bow, and positively commands peace. He may choose humble symbols like the donkey, but his aim is a worldwide dominion of peace. In other words, true religion is - by definition - almost aggressively peaceful.

Romans 7.15-25a

The great difference between Christianity and its sister religions, Judaism and Islam, is that while Christianity recognises that holy laws are good in principle, it also recognises that human beings cannot rise to the challenge of being holy - at least not without divine help. There is something about human nature which ma…

Good News for Pessimists?

Jeremiah 28.5-9
It's easy to see how Jeremiah's name became a byword for pessimism. The Prophet Hananiah had prophesied that everything would turn out for the best; the exiles and the booty taken away to Babylon would be returned. It was the message that everyone wanted to hear, but Jeremiah would have none of it.

In his opinion a true prophet is like Private Fraser from the old TV sitcom "Dad's Army". He - or she - only speaks words of doom about war, famine, and pestilence. If a prophet speaks words of peace we should be on our guard and believe them only then those words come true.

We might feel that Jeremiah is exaggerating a bit. He leaves no room for prophets who speak words of inspiration and encouragement, who dream of a better world or of new possibilities. Martin Luther King was this kind of prophet, and there were prophets like this in the Isaiah tradition.

As someone said recently on Radio 4's "Start The Week" programme, pessimists like Jere…

Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Ishmael

Genesis 21.8-21
Something about this story doesn't quite add up. According to an earlier episode in the saga of Abraham and Sarah, Ishmael - Abraham's son by the slave woman Hagar - is already more than thirteen years-old and is therefore, in Jewish tradition, already a man when he and his mother are sent away. However, in this passage the story reads as though Ishmael were still only a little child, not old enough to understand what is happening. His mother is described as casting him under a bush when she sits down in the desert to die, and then - a little later - she lifts him up and holds him fast in her hand. It would seem, therefore, that he is really little more than a toddler in this particular version of the Abrahamic tradition.

The Hadith, a traditional collection of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, preserves a similar version of the story, in which Ishmael is not yet weaned. In both the Hadith and today's passage from the Bible account of Ishmael's life, t…

The Forgotten Part of Jesus' Ministry

Matthew 9.35-10.8

During his earthy life there were three aspects to the ministry of Jesus. He went around teaching, proclaiming good news and healing the sick. His teaching was not written down until long after his death, but much of it survives because it was treasured and carefully remembered by his followers until - eventually - it was committed to paper. The good news which he proclaimed was not just spoken, it was enacted. Jesus was not a First Century spin doctor dreaming up headline grabbing stories about God, or trying to put a positive spin on events. He lived the good news, proclaiming it in action as well as in words. Indeed, he would not have imagined that it was good news at all if people had not been able to see it unfolding before their very eyes.

Ultimately, of course, his proclamation of good news was to culminate in the tragic events of Good Friday, when he was put to death as a sign of God's self-giving love, and in the mysterious but powerful resurrection life w…

God's Righteous Anger

Hosea 5.15-6.6
Romans 4.13-25
Matt 9.9-13, 18-26

This passage is just one of a series of quite disturbing oracles in which we learn that Israel has incurred the wrath of God and he is going to tear and devour her much as a young lion might or, if she were already prostrate or dead, a swarm of maggots.

There is an uncomfortable ambiguity here, for the Prophet acknowledges that although God smites Israel he also loves and cares for. The oracle is not unlike the protestations of a partner who perpetrates cruel acts of domestic violence, only to shower the victim afterwards with love and attention. We are told that God will tear Israel, and then heal her; strike her down, and then bind up her wounds.

Of course, there are clearly differences here from genuine domestic violence. First, this is metaphorical language. God is not going to inflict actual bodily harm on Israel. Instead, she will be attacked by some of her human enemies. The Prophet's message is that God is so angry he will not pr…

Coping with Floods

Genesis 6.9-22, 7.24, 8.14-19
Romans 1.16-17, 3.22b-28
Matthew 7.21-29

One year on from the serious flooding in Yorkshire and the Humber, this week's readings are all about floods! The original 'Flood' was probably caused by the retreat of the ice sheet at the end of the last ice age, so to blame it on human sinfulness seems a bit unfair. But the next flood could indeed be the fault of humankind and some experts think significant climate change is now unavoidable. If so, what sort of ark are we going to build to protect the threatened flora and fauna of the world, not to mention the many millions of people living in low lying lands? There can be no doubt that God is calling us to radical action. Are we listening? One suspects that the current clamour for lower petrol and diesel prices tells us the answer.

Noah is a proverbial example of faithfulness, battling to save his family and, one presumes from the tiny dimensions of his frail three-decker craft, as many breeds of domest…

Do we need to worry?

Isaiah 49.8-16a
1 Corinthians 4.1-5
Matthew 6.24-34
Today's Old Testament reading from Isaiah includes two striking images. The first is a feminine image - comparing God's faithfulness and care to that of a nursing mother. What mother, asks the prophet, would abandon her tiny baby? But, of course, it does happen occasionally - whereas God's love for us is so profound and tender that he - or she, perhaps - will never abandon us.

The passage concludes with the second striking image, which is a word from the Lord to the Prophet, "See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands."

Sometimes when I find myself with nothing to write on I write names or phone numbers on my hands. This is a technique which only works if I remember to transfer this vital information to a more permanent place before I next wash my hands! Often, as I dry my hands, and remove the last vestige of the data, I remember the funny moment in the first episode of Cold Feet when one of the characters h…

Our relationship with God

Exodus 34.4-6,8-9
2 Corinthians 13.11-13
Matthew 28.16-20

These passages, specially selected for reflection on Trinity Sunday, illustrate that the doctrine of the Trinity is not so much an attempt to discern the essential nature of God as to describe God's relationship with creation, including ourselves, and with Jesus - whom Christians believe to be a human being in perfect relationship with God.

The passage from Exodus contains the unpleasant verse about God's wrath visiting the iniquity of parents on their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, and the editors of the lectionary have chosen to miss it out. However, there is a truth here. We cannot hope that our mistakes will not have implications for future generations. The slate is not wiped clean after things go wrong and we recognise the error of our ways. If we wanted proof of this uncompromising truth we need only think about global warming.

However, people suffering for the iniquity of t…

Mobilising for Mission

Numbers 11.24-30
1 Corinthians 12.1b-13
John 7.37-39

The point of the strange story about Moses surely lies in its punchline. We don't need to worry too much why the Lord should have commanded Moses to gather a symbolic group of seventy elders around the tent of his presence, in order to bestow on them a share of the prophetic spirit which he had already given to Moses himself, although a quick look back at the earlier part of the story shows that it was part of God's response to Moses' complaints about the intolerable burden of leadership which he felt that he had to bear on his own two shoulders.

So part of the story's purpose is to remind us that God's people can never rely on one or two charismatic leaders to carry out God's mission for them. Mission is a shared enterprise which requires team leadership at the very least.

This much might seem obvious. But the punchline then takes the lesson of the story to a new and unexpected level which is much more challengin…