Thursday, February 28, 2008
An advertising campaign for a famous perfume is urging us to buy perfume for a Mothers' Day gift with the slogan - “A Yummier Mummy”. I found myself wondering if this is entirely appropriate. Should we be encouraged to think of Mummies as 'yummy'? And who, exactly, is supposed to think that Mummy is 'yummy' anyway?
This week's Old Testament lesson doesn't seem entirely appropriate either. First, there is Samuel's disloyalty in anointing a new king while the old one is still on the throne. Generally the Bible is opposed to this kind of thing, urging us to obey the properly constituted authorities whenever we can. But, of course, there are limits.
German Christians traditionally believed very firmly in the idea of loyalty to their government, but this tradition was severely tested in the Twentieth Century. Their example proves that sometimes it can indeed be right to break the law as Samuel did. Eventually, in the 1940s, a handful of German Christians actually conspired to overthrow their government by force. Less controversially, it was Christian-inspired civil disobedience which later brought communist East Germany to an end.
Second, there is the issue of whether God judges by appearances. At first 1 Samuel seems clear that God does not. When Samuel sees Jesse's eldest son, a strong and mature warrior, Samuel naturally assumes that he is the one whom God has chosen to be anointed as the new king. But not so. It is the shepherd boy, whom his father had judged to be so insignificant that he didn't even send for him to meet the great prophet, who is the new king whom Samuel has been sent to find. However, the Bible wants to have it both ways. David may be puny compared to his brothers, but he is still ruddy and handsome, with beautiful eyes – a yummy kind of king after all!
Is this passage a none too subtle dig at values and mores of which the writer strongly disapproves and which he thinks are shameful, even though most people seem to live by them? Or is it really a plea for integrity?
So often our politicians are caught out doing things in private or in secret which they should be ashamed about if the stern searchlight of publicity were turned upon them. This seems to be particularly the case when it comes to the way they handle their expenses. What is called for here is the kind of integrity which Ephesians describes.
But none of us is without fault. How often do we allow ourselves to indulge in behaviour which doesn't fit with what we publicly profess to believe as Christians?
This passage raises some fundamental questions about Jesus and his opponents. Who is really living in darkness, whether they know it or not? And who can cast light on the situation and bring glory to God? Sometimes, as with the choice of David as the new king of Israel, things are not as obvious as they might first seem.
What we need, as we thread our way carefully through life's many challenges and pitfalls, is the discernment to recognise what is right and the integrity to do it.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
The People of Israel are depicted by the writers of Exodus as a pretty ungrateful bunch. Rescued from abject slavery, they are soon complaining that they were better off in Egypt than wandering free in the wilderness. And, of course, they do have a point. The Pharaoh was engaged in a campaign of mass extermination - killing the baby boys and working the adults to death - so life in Egypt was no bed of roses. But, on the other hand, life in the wilderness certainly isn't a picnic, either. The escaped slaves are now at risk of dying from thirst, until God rescues them again with a stream of life-giving water which flows from a new spring on the holy mountain of Horeb.
Mind you, we might well ask ourselves what the people of Israel were doing in the wilderness, wandering constantly around the inhospitable fringes of this mysterious holy mountain. The journey from Egypt to the Promised Land should have taken only a matter of days or weeks, even for people travelling on foot and driving their livestock with them. Another of the traditions about this period, the Book of Deuteronomy, makes clear that the reason the nomadic life in the wilderness lasted for forty years was entirely because of the faithlessness and disobedience of the people themselves. They refused to trust God's promises, preferring to scratch a living in the desert rather than enter the land flowing with milk and honey that lay just over the horizon.
Do we inflict wilderness experiences on ourselves because of a lack of trust in God's promises? Are there countless possibilities waiting for us just beyond a horizon which we refuse to cross, preferring instead to sulk in our tents or stay in the relative safety of what is already familiar to us?
Christians are also reminded by this passage that, when we find ourselves in a wilderness of our own or other people's making, Jesus is the rock from which the life-giving water flows which can sustain us through hard times. This week's reading from John's Gospel consciously draws this parallel - making the point that the Spirit of Jesus can give us a life-giving spring of spiritual resources welling up constantly within us.
Paul makes the case that having wilderness times in our lives is not always such a bad thing. People who have been born with a silver spoon in their mouths, and who have therefore never wanted for anything, often lack the stamina and strength of character that are needed to make the best out of life. I guess that's why Nigella Lawson reportedly plans to cut her children out of her will, or at least to make them think that they might be cut out. She wants them to stand on their own two feet.
Paul lists a number of advantages of going through a wilderness experience. First, he points out that if we have never encountered any trouble we shall never need to rely on faith. Perhaps that's one of the problems with modern life in the West. It can be so trouble-free, for much of the time anyway, that we never learn to develop the spiritual resources that will see us through the hard times.
Of course, atheists would argue that faith is only for wimps and cry babies. They would say that truly mature people don't need a crutch to lean on when life turns sour. Instead, they would urge us to turn inwards and find within ourselves the inner strength to cope with our troubles. But the truth is that very few people are atheists at heart. If they don't think about God it isn't, generally, because they don't want to believe in anything. It's because they have never needed to ask themselves the difficult questions about the meaning of life and the suffering it brings.
Finding faith can be a great source of strength and peace when those difficult questions are brought bubbling to the surface by tragedy or disappointment. And not only that, says Paul, but also suffering - in and of itself - can build our character by giving us qualities like determination and endurance. This, after all, is why people climb mountains and cross seas in small boats. They don't just confront these challenges because they are there to be conquered. They do it because they want to prove themselves and become better, stronger people, whose characters have been forged in the furnace of affliction. Without hardship there can be no exhilaration. Without sorrow we can never know true joy.
Above all, of course, experiencing difficulty encourages a sense of hope and hope is uplifting. In 1996 Tony Blair surged to victory on the slogan, 'Things can only get better!', and people hoped it was true. As far as the economy is concerned, New Labour probably lived up to that promise, although only time will tell. But I think voters were expecting something more than a strong dose of Gordon Brown's economic prudence. They also hoped to see a different kind of politics, with less sleaze and graft. The fact that turnout at elections has fallen steadily since then probably reflects a loss of hope that things really can change. And that's sad, because - without hope - our society is condemned to flat-line on a wave of disillusionment and despair. If the wilderness doesn't create a sense of hope for something better then there can be no escape.
Thank goodness, then, that it is when we are at our weakest, and the wilderness seems to stretch on and on for ever, that Jesus comes to our rescue. And if he can rescue us from the wilderness - and from our own despair that things can ever improve - how much more can he empower us when we are working with him for change.
Saturday, February 09, 2008
One of the problems often faced by congregations in traditional churches is that the church members cling to the ways of their ancestors. They stick rigidly to patterns of worship and organisation which suited their parents and grandparents, who were often members of the same churches, even when these aren't suitable tools for reaching out to their contemporaries and making new Christians. These churches are in maintenance rather than mission mode. Like King Canute, they want to hold back the tide of change washing through the world around them and keep things as they used to be.
Holding back the tide makes a fun game on the beach, but it's no way to run a church and it isn't what God wants us to do. Like Abraham, God wants us to go where he tells us to go, even if it means leaving cherished traditions behind in order to connect with the people around us in new ways. That's the only way our churches are going to be blessed.
Romans 4.1-5, 13-17
In a series of complicated arguments, Paul makes the case that what counts is not sticking to tradition or doing the right thing - in this case keeping the Jewish Law - but being faithful to God. If the Jewish Law were crucial to being put right with God, what hope would there be for people who have never lived under that Law? Yet, Paul notes, Abraham was promised that he would become the father of many nations, not just of one nation. This is because keeping things the way they used to be is not part of the believer's mission. Trusting God, and putting our whole lives in God's hands, as Abraham did, is all that matters.
Here John is even more specific than Paul, although elsewhere Paul says exactly the same thing. Believing in Jesus and being filled with his Spirit is what trusting God really means. Of course, traditionalists would argue that they too have put their faith in Jesus and in the unchanging Gospel values which are enshrined in their traditions. But 'the wind blows where it chooses, and [we] hear the sound of it, but [we] do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.' We can't pin God or Jesus down to some fixed set of traditions which we happen to like. While it is true that the essential truths of the Gospel, such as John 3.16, remain unchanged for all time, we have to be ready to follow where the Spirit leads us and the Spirit may take us in new directions in order to communicate the eternal message that God 'gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish'.
The advertising slogan for Bounties is, 'A taste of paradise' and the makers of Bounty sponsored another TV programme, Paradise Island. As we bite into a Bounty we're supposed to feel that we're been transported to a tropical paradise, with warm seas, hot sand, blue skies and scantily clad young men and women. That's what the Garden of Eden was like – scantily clad young people running around and having fun without a care in the world. Except that the Garden of Eden was not by the seaside and the taste of paradise in the Garden of Eden was not a Bounty bar but an apple.
When God forbids the man to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge it's for the man and woman's own good. Living in paradise means they don't need to know anything, because they already have everything they need. God understands that once they begin to realise there might be something more to life, they won't be in paradise any more.
In the story, the serpent is able to tempt the woman because it persuades her that paradise is a bit dull. Being outside paradise will be dangerous and unpredictable. Instead of being the same every day, life will be changeable and change is risky and chaotic, but – of course – it's also exciting and challenging.
Julian Barnes captures how the woman must have felt in one of the chapters of his book, 'The History of the World in 10½ Chapters'. A man from Leicester dies and goes to what, at first ,seems like heaven. Leicester City win the FA Cup every Saturday, and he gets to play in the match and score the winning goal. He also gets to eat his favourite food all of the time, and when he gets a round of golf he gets a hole in one every time. At first he feels as though he's gone to paradise but, after a while of course, it becomes unbearably tedious.
Falling in and out of paradise is a bit like falling in and out of love with someone. To be in love, and to be completely happy when we are with a particular person, is like being in paradise. But if that feeling begins to wear off, the temptation to stray beyond that relationship, and to seek something new and different, is like the temptation faced by the man and the woman in the garden.
Unfortunately, the reason God gives to explain why the man and the woman can't eat the fruit isn't really true. The snake points out that God has told them a white lie. The fruit isn't really poisonous. It's dangerous, but only because it will open their eyes. And this temptation appeals to the woman because, of course, the thing which makes human beings unique is our curiosity. Animals aren't curious but we are, and so the woman falls for the temptation.
The serpent also lies, but it tells a wicked lie designed to cause mischief. It tells the woman that knowledge is the way to get wisdom and that it will make her like God, whereas we know that the knowledge of good and evil doesn't make us wise or God-like at all. We just have to think of President Clinton, a very clever man who went to Georgetown, Oxford and Yale – three of the world's most prestigious universities – but his behaviour around pretty women was anything but wise. Knowing that something is right doesn't always persuade us to do it, and knowing that something is wrong doesn't always prevent us from doing it.
As Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, this is partly because human beings make mistakes. We give in to temptation, just as the man and the woman did in paradise. But it's also because knowledge and wisdom are two entirely different things. Wisdom depends on a mixture of things – experience, insight and enlightenment or revelation, that moment when God is able to make us aware of some greater truth which would otherwise have been beyond our grasp. Knowledge, on the other hand, is fed by curiosity. It can be combined with wisdom but it needn't be.
People sometimes ask, 'Is this story true?' Well, in so far as it charts the moment when human beings became different from the rest of the animal kingdom, and at once both superior and inferior to the other animals around us, it is true. Whoever they were, the first truly curious person started us on the path of scientific and material progress, but they also destroyed the paradise from which human beings had first emerged.
St Paul claims in his letter to Rome that, if the first man and woman had never left paradise, no one would ever have died. That's a claim which is impossible to take at face value, even if the underlying event which the Garden of Eden story relates is basically true. But if he's talking about spiritual death, it's a different matter. Without their natural curiosity and its tragic consequences human beings would not have been separated from God and death would not have become final. In the Bible the word 'sin' means that same separation from God which the first man and woman experienced when they were thrown out of the Garden.
Animals are content with their lot. They don't expect things to change very much. But human beings are restless. That can be a good thing, when it causes us to strive to make things better. But it can also be a bad thing when it makes us want more than our fair share of what's going, and Paul recognises that this restless curiosity about life, and this desire for change, marked the beginning of our separation from God. But, says Paul, there has been another epoch changing event in human history – and that is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Just as the start of our thirst for knowledge caused our separation from God, so this new revolution - ushered in by Jesus - makes it possible for us to be put right with God again.
Paul is at pains to explain to his readers that Jesus had to be a human being, albeit a very special one, in order to rescue us from our very human predicament. For this same reason, Matthew also believes that Jesus had to be tempted in all points as we are.
So Matthew tells us that Jesus was tempted by the need to get back to a kind of paradise – to the feeling that all his wants were being satisfied - though the Devil is very subtle here, tempting him not with the promise of luxuries but simply with his hunger for bread. To be truly faithful it seems we must trust God to provide for us, even when we are hungry. But if we followed that idea to its logical conclusion we would never plan for our retirement or buy any insurance, so perhaps this temptation is a matter of degree. We shall not live by bread alone but, of course, we do still need bread, so I guess Matthew is simply asking us to keep things in proportion and remember that there is more to life than material things.
Then Jesus was tempted, like the first man and woman, to take unnecessary risks, trusting in God to save him from the consequences of his own folly. This is the temptation to which the people in charge at Northern Rock gave in when they took stupid risks and trusted in the Bank of England to bale them out if things went wrong. Bankers may live recklessly, but Christians should not. This is why we cannot join our voices to those who say, 'But global warming may not be our fault, or it may not be as bad as some scientists are predicting.' Even if these things have a slim chance of being true, we are not supposed to gamble with destiny by continuing to pollute the earth.
Finally, Jesus was tempted by the promise of power. He knew, however, that power for its own sake is not worth having, and that power won by political scheming or brute force is always fragile and can be lost just as quickly as it was gained.
So let us pray that we may not be led into temptation as we say together The Lord's Prayer. Our Father...
(For the Bible studies behind this entry see the previous post.)
Saturday, February 02, 2008
Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7
This ancient story from Genesis is about the anatomy of temptation. The very definition of paradise is at stake. If we are living in paradise then, by definition, we have everything we need. Once we begin to think that there might be something more, we are no longer in paradise. That is why God forbids the man to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It is for his own protection.
Why the serpent chooses to tempt the woman is unclear. However, there are three reasons why the serpent is able to tempt her. The first is that she is open to persuasion. She can see the limitations of living in paradise. It would be nice to want for nothing and to be content with our lot, but what if we thought there was something more to life - that we were missing out somehow? And isn't paradise likely to grow dull? Change and uncertainty make life interesting. If the man and the woman leave paradise they will expose themselves to risk, but they will also open themselves to new possibilities, and that's exciting.
The concept of falling in and out of paradise is not unlike the idea of falling in and out of love with someone. To be in love, and to be completely happy when we are with a particular person, is like being in paradise. The temptation to stray beyond that relationship, and to seek something new and different, is like the temptation faced by the man and the woman in the garden.
The second reason why the temptation works is that the prohibition on eating the fruit is based on a lie, albeit a white lie designed to protect the man and the woman from themselves. The serpent is able to point out that the fruit is not really poisonous. It is dangerous, but only because it will open their eyes. And this appeals to the woman because, of course, one of the defining things about human beings is our curiosity. Animals are not curious but we are, and so the woman falls for the temptation.
The third reason why the temptation succeeds is that the serpent also lies, but its lie is a dangerous one designed to cause mischief. The serpent tells the woman that knowledge is the route to wisdom and that it will make her like God. Unfortunately, this is very far from the case. By itself, the knowledge of good and evil does not make us wise or God-like. Knowing that something is right does not necessarily persuade us to do it and, regrettably, knowing that something is wrong does not always stop us from wanting to do it, either. God cannot do what is wrong, but we can.
This is partly because of human nature. We are weak and fallible. We give in to temptations, just as the man and the woman did in paradise. But it is also because knowledge and wisdom are two different things. Wisdom grows out of a mixture of experience and insight. Religious people would also argue that it depends to some extent on faith. Knowledge, on the other hand, is fed by curiosity. It can be combined with wisdom but it need not be - which is why their new found knowledge destroyed the man and the woman's sense of being in paradise and launched the course of human history with all its false starts, dead ends and tragic mistakes.
People sometimes ask, 'Is this story true?' In the sense that it charts the moment when human beings became different from the rest of the animal kingdom, and at once both superior and inferior to the other animals around them, it is true. The first truly curious person started us on the path of scientific and material progress, but they also destroyed the paradise from which we first emerged.
It's difficult to accept at face value Paul's assertion that, unless the first man and woman had left paradise, no one would ever have died. If, however, he means that - without their natural curiosity and its tragic consequences - human beings would not have been separated from God and death would not have been final, it is possible to agree with him. Sin, in its Biblical sense, means that same separation from God which the first man and woman experienced, although in his letters Paul uses the term both in this technical sense and in the more popular sense of 'bad things which sinful people do'.
The heart of this passage from Romans is verses 18-19. The beginning of our separation from God was the awakening of that sense of curiosity which has now become the defining characteristic of our race - homo sapiens. Once we realised that we could shape our environment, and that we could also change things both for better and for worse, we became different from other animals, even from our closest cousins, and this realisation marked the dawn of human history. But there has been another epoch changing event in human history - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Just as the first revolution caused our separation from God, so the new revolution - ushered in by Jesus - makes it possible for us to be put right with God again.
Paul is at pains to explain to his readers that Jesus had to be a human being, albeit a very special one, in order to rescue us from our human predicament. For this same reason, Matthew also believes that we need to know Jesus was tempted in all points as we are.
He was tempted by the need to get back to a kind of paradise - to the feeling that his wants were being satisfied - though the Devil is very subtle here, tempting him not with the promise of luxuries but simply with his hunger for bread. To be truly faithful it seems we must trust God to provide for us, even when we are hungry. But if we followed that idea to its logical conclusion we would never plan for our retirement or buy any insurance, so perhaps this temptation is a matter of degree. We shall not live by bread alone but, of course, bread is still necessary for life so it could be that Matthew is simply asking us to consider where our priorities lie.
Then Jesus was tempted, like the first man and woman, to take unnecessary risks, trusting in God to save him from the consequences of his own folly. In this respect he was not unlike the directors and executives of Northern Rock, who took stupid risks and trusted in the Bank of England to bale them out when things went wrong. Bankers may live like this, but Christians should not. This is why we cannot join our voices to those who say, 'But global warming may not be our fault, or may not be as bad as some scientists are predicting.' Even if these things had a slim chance of being true, we are not supposed to gamble with human destiny by continuing to pollute the earth.
Finally, Jesus was tempted by the promise of power. He knew, however, that power for its own sake is not worth having, and that power won by political scheming or brute force is always fragile and can be lost just as quickly as it was gained.