Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Love in the Shape of a Cross

John 1.1-14

Now that we've talked about our own presents, it's time to open another one - a present for everybody here today but, as I hope you can see, it's not a very big present.

Someone helps me to open it and it turns out to be an empty box with the words 'Love' scrawled on each of it's six sides.

Well, an empty box of love. That's a bit of a lightweight gift, isn't it? I'm reminded of the priest who went on holiday to Spain. He was a visiting a church one day and when the sexton discovered that he was a priest he said to him, 'Would you like to see our most holy treasure? Normally we only get it out on feast days, and then we parade it around the village, but - as you're a priest - I'll give you a special glimpse of it. And he led the priest down to the crypt under the church and there on a tiny stone niche under the high altar was a golden box with a glass lid. The sexton lifted it down carefully and the priest looked inside. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light in the crypt, coming from just a few electric light bulbs fastened around the ancient stone walls, he realised that what he had first thought was indeed true - the box was empty. He had expected to see the thumb nail of a famous saint, or a sliver of bone, or a lock of hair, but no, there was nothing inside the box at all.

'What is it?' he asked, bemused. 'Don't you know?' said the sexton triumphantly. 'It's the Holy Spirit!' So there they were, looking at the Holy Spirit supposedly shut up in a box. And this (our box) is love shut up in a box - it's an equally daft idea, isn't it? Except that, when you unfasten the sides of the box it becomes love in the shape of a cross!

I belong to a minister's e-group. We exchange ideas and answer each other's questions. And one of the things people have been discussing over the last couple of days is how it feels to go and visit your family at Christmas, especially after you've been working so hard in the days leading up to Christmas itself. For some it's a wonderful opportunity to unwind and relax in the company of people who will love them unconditionally and spare them the criticism which they sometimes face during the rest of the year. But for others it's the exact opposite. Their fathers and mothers criticise them continually and they find it hard to bear.

One woman was amazed when she collected her mother from a fortnight's respite care and the sister in charge of the residential home gave her mother a hug and said, 'Isn't she lovely? I wish I could take her home!' 'So do I!' thought the minister. 'Because if you had her at home with you for any length of time you'd very soon see another side to her nature!'

People have been wondering why parents and children can sometimes antagonise one another in this way, when they can both get on perfectly well with everyone else they meet. I think the answer is that the relationship between parents and children is so important to us, and so full of love, that we always expect the very best of one another and then of course we get desperately disappointed when our children, or our parents, can't always meet our expectations. Whereas, if we don't love someone, then we'll put up with what's ordinary or even mediocre and think it's acceptable and even be quite nice about it. That's why it's our own children, or our own parents, who often see us at our most difficult and inflexible.

God is different, of course. God also wants to get the very best out of us and to give the very best to us, and God gets just as frustrated as any parent when we fall short. But God doesn't lecture us, or criticise us or complain. Instead, God offers himself to us again and again, in love, calling us to respond and to be the best that we can be in him.

With acknowledgement to Robert Amos for the idea of the cross-shaped present.

The Prince of Peace

Isaiah 9.2-7, Luke 2.1-14, Titus 2.11-14

The zeal of the Lord of Hosts versus the boots of earth-shaking armies on the march. It's a slight over translation but it's a wonderfully evocative image and if you went to the cinema, to see Schindler's List or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then you'll have a vivid idea of the sort of clash which Isaiah has in mind.

In Schindler's List the confrontation is between an enterprising man and a group of Jewish prisoners on the one side, and the might of the Nazi war machine on the other, symbolised by a cohort of SS soldiers parading through the streets of Cracow. The whole street seems to shake as they march past the camera.

In The Lord of the Rings the confrontation is between Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship of the Ring on one side, and the huge armies of the dark land of Mordor on the other. As the vast column of soldiers heads for the battlefield where they will confront the forces of goodness, the whole canyon through which they are marching seems to shake with the echo of their footsteps.

But in Isaiah, of course, it is all of the armies which have ever marched anywhere on earth who are confronted by the authority vested in one tiny newborn child. He will be the Prince of Peace and the old ways of getting things done will be made so utterly redundant by his coming that they will be fit only to be burned up or recycled into something more appropriate for an age of endless or boundless peace.

The Gospel reading takes this amazing image, which is only an uncertain hope in Isaiah's prophecy, and anchors it firmly in history. Scholars have struggled, actually, to find any evidence at all that Augustus ordered an empire wide census. Nor is there any obvious reason why people should return to their home town from the place where they are currently living. After all, the whole point of a census is to record where people are living now - not where they used to live or where they might like to live in future. In 1901 my grandfather was recorded as living with his grandparents in Marshchapel in East Lincolnshire, and not in Grimsby with the rest of his family, because he must have been on a visit to them at the time when the census was taken. But he didn't go there deliberately. It's just where he happened to be on the night when the census enumerator called.

But Luke is doing his best here to anchor his story in a definite time and place. Not only has the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace finally been born on earth, but it has happened in a place called Bethlehem while August was emperor of Rome and Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Ironically, Augustus reckoned that he too was the living fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy. Coins from his reign bear the inscription, 'Augustus Caesar, Son of God, Father of the Fatherland.' And not to be out done, he was also called the Prince of Peace. The Poet Horace says of him in one of his Odes, 'As long as Caesar is the guardian of the state, neither civil dissension nor violence shall banish peace.' But only when Jesus is born do armies of heavenly angels join in the chorus of acclamation, proving that he is the true leader destined to bring 'peace on earth to all in whom he delights'.

Christians are divided as to how exactly we should understand the story of the appearance of the angels to the shepherds. For some it's an historical fact just as real as the life and inflated claims to greatness of Augustus, and they go on pilgrimage to the Shepherds' Field outside modern day Bethlehem and photograph the very spot where the shepherds heard the angels sing. But to others it's simply a story included by Luke to underline the fact that Jesus' significance is eternal whereas Augustus will be emperor only for a fleeting moment in history.

And it's no coincidence, of course, that the message of the angels is heard by shepherds. Sometimes they symbolise the leaders of the nation, as we saw last Sunday morning when we were looking at the prophecy of Micah. But they also symbolise the most ordinary of people. Almost every family would have owned a few sheep, even families who did not own any land, and it was the duty of one of the younger children - usually, but not always, a boy - to take the sheep into the wilderness to graze, travelling to fresh pasture each day and often quite far from home. Only if a family did not have a child old enough to tend their sheep were they forced to look to a hired shepherd to care for them - and there was often a feeling that hired shepherds were less likely to defend your sheep against a wolf, a lion or a bear. Shepherds then were plucky, independent, used to living rough and being away from home, outside the normal bounds of society and yet, many people - as they were growing up - would have been through a phase of their life when they too were shepherds. So in this one story we combine an appeal to the people at the very centre of society - kings and community leaders - and to the people at its outermost edge, just as in the story of the wise visitors following the star to Bethlehem the Christmas message extends its reach to every point of the compass. The good news is for everyone.

The passage from the Letter of Titus brings into sharp focus the irony which has been unstated within our readings so far. In the prophecy from Isaiah we have seen the ironic contrast between earth shaking armies and a newborn child who is destined to be the Prince of Peace. In Luke's Gospel we have seen the contrast between the mighty August and the baby lying in a manger, who is acclaimed by angels. But only in the Letter to Titus is the full extent of the irony spelt out. The grace of God disciplines us just as Augustus had once disciplined his people to renounce their godless ways. The Poet Horace and said that Augustus had 'wiped away our sins and revived the ancient virtues', but he had done this at the point of the sword, by ruthlessly intriguing against or defeating his enemies and by ruling as a dictator, whereas the 'splendour of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ' appeared only when he 'sacrificed himself for us to set us free from all wickedness and to make us his own people, pure and eager to do good.'

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Big Things in Small Packages

Micah 5.1-5, Luke 1.39-45

Last week all eyes were fixed on Copenhagen, and no wonder for the very future of the world hangs in the balance. Will the world's leaders be able to settle their differences and save the human race and many other creatures from extinction, or will they continue to bicker and prevaricate while one half of the world fries and the other half drowns?

Great hopes were invested in President Obama. Would he or wouldn't he even go to Copenhagen, and if he did would he be able to break the deadlock? Sadly, his keynote speech seemed only to make matters worse by putting all the blame on China and humiliating the Chinese delegation. Is something as basic as injured pride going to be the cause of humanity's downfall?

Micah describes a similar situation. It's not the world that is under threat in his prophecy, of course, but the tiny country of Judah. The people have had to flee the land and take shelter behind the walls of their cities while the Assyrian hordes lay waste to the land. The ruler of Judah, King David's successor and the Lord's anointed representative, is publicly humiliated - suffering the equivalent of a smack in the face from a leather glove, the sort of taunt used by men to demand a duel or Nazi officers laughing at their hapless prisoners.

And yet, while all the attention is focused on the walled cities, where all the action is, Micah reminds his readers that sometimes big things come in small packages. Tiny insignificant Bethlehem was the place where the mighty King David had been plucked from obscurity as a shepherd boy to lead his nation to victory over the Philistines, and the same thing can happen again. When Bethlehem, or perhaps the nation, has brought forth a new leader, his compatriots will be able to return from exile or, perhaps, go back to their farmland for he shall restore security and peace.

If Copenhagen had witnessed a similar David and Goliath moment, when a leader from somewhere small and insignificant proved to be the catalyst for a new era of peace and prosperity, it would surely have been Dessima Williams - the passionate, articulate and outspoken leader of the Alliance of Small Island States - who would have emerged centre stage. Whenever she was interviewed she was always impressive and compelling, but sadly President Obama and Prime Minister Hu Jintao did not listen to her, or indeed to the British delegation either, so the struggle will have to go on.

The last part of verse 5, incidentally, does not belong with the rest of the prophecy. It has been inserted into the text at this point by a later editor. It doesn't refer to the new messianic leader from Bethlehem at all. Rather it is a boastful claim that, if the Assyrians attack Judah, countless people will rise up to lead the nation against them. The phrase seven and eight in Hebrew means 'an incredibly large number' and, although it might seem strange to us, 'shepherds' and 'rulers' are often interchangeable in Hebrew thinking.

And so to our Gospel reading. It describes a moment of hope, expectation and joy because these two women really do believe that now the prophecy of Micah is going to be fulfilled and, from Bethlehem, there will at last come a leader who will change the world for ever. However, the Christian interpretation of Micah's words sharpens the message. Not only will God's new messiah come unnoticed from an insignificant place like Bethlehem, while all the world's attention is focused elsewhere, but also the new leader will himself be a very ordinary person - born in a stable, of doubtful parentage, a carpenter by trade. And yet, already, John the Baptist is foretelling the new Messiah's imminent arrival, even though he is still in his mother's womb.

Sometimes when young people are off out for the night and everyone else in the house is going to bed before they return, Mum or Dad will say to them, "I'll keep the light on for you" so that they will be able to find their way back into the house safely and easily when they return. Isn't that the role of Christians in a time like the present? We have to keep the light on, keep hope burning, even when the world's leaders seem incapable - as one environmental campaigner said sadly - of looking beyond their own narrow self-interest. 'If we're ever going to beat problems like global warming we will need a totally new kind of leader,' he said. Isn't that what Christmas is all about?

The Gospel says that ordinary people, and ordinary communities of people, can make a difference to our world - especially if we are inspired by the example and the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

God's Grace at Work in the World

Baruch 5:1-9, Philippians 1:1-11, Luke 1.57-64

Baruch is a book which didn't make it into the Protestant version of the canon of scripture, although you will find it in the Roman Catholic version. It purports to have been written soon after the Exile of the people of Jerusalem to Babylon and other parts of the Middle East. The author claims to be Baruch, the person who wrote down the prophecies of Jeremiah, but because no copies have survived in the Hebrew language - if indeed there ever were any - people have long suspected that it was written much later, probably during a time of rebellion against the Greek rulers of Palestine about 150 years before the birth of Christ.

The opening image of chapter 5 pictures Jerusalem as a woman, perhaps a widow or an orphan, who is exchanging the garments of mourning for a wedding dress. Now at last, after a long time of exile and sadness, it is the time for celebration.

When I went with my daughter, Jenny, to see her try on the wedding dress which she and Helen had found during a trawl through the bridal shops of Leeds, a colleague at work said, 'Prepare to shed a tear.' And I think the tone of the reading captures that sense of something very special happening which, in this case, will utterly transform Jerusalem into a symbol of true peace and glory.

This is no ordinary peace. We're not just talking about the absence of conflict here. We're talking about 'righteous peace' - a pure harmony brought out by the removal of all the causes of bitterness and division between people. And we're not just talking about ordinary glory, the kind associated with celebrities and VIPs - swanky cars, high fashion, loads of expensive bling, an entourage of heavies to protect them from the hoi polloi. No. We're talking about 'godly glory' - the kind of glory which, for Christians especially, is associated with love and self-sacrifice, for godly glory finds its fullest and truest expression in the Cross of Jesus.

The passage then moves on to another striking image. The old city of Jerusalem is perched on top of a high hill and the writer imagines the City, personified again as a woman, gazing into the distance,
straining to see her lost children returning to their home. They will gather from all the points of the compass to which they were scattered - though mainly they will be coming from the East, whence a long column of weary prisoners trudged into exile when the City fell. But they will return not on foot, but carried high in triumph like conquerors.

My grandfather was a policeman in Surrey and one of the high points of his year was to accompany the winner of the national rifle shooting championships on a victory parade led by a military band. The winner was always borne aloft by the other competitors in an open topped sedan chair, and that's the kind of picture which Baruch evokes here.

Finally, the passage echoes Isaiah by depicting the idea of ancient hills being levelled and valleys being filled in to make a straight path for the returning exiles to follow. However, the writer adds an extra dimension to the image. The road will be a tree-lined avenue, or else it will run through woods and groves, shading the travellers and providing fragrant air for their journey. Generally, ancient travellers were wary of making their way through woods, because trees can shelter highwaymen and outlaws as well as providing shade. But Israel will walk safely in the glory of God.

The key note of the passage is that glory will be given to God and his people - but not glory as the world currently understands it; this will be glory tempered by a mercy and righteousness that makes true peacefulness a real possibility, even in the Middle East. What would this look like in terms of today's world situation?

We should picture Afghanistan, still occupied maybe, still struggling no doubt against the Taliban, but without any corruption and bribery, and without any bombs falling on wedding parties or innocent villagers. We should imagine a policy focused on making travel and ordinary life as safe for as many people as possible - the kind of policy which has, of late, been attempted with some success in Iraq. It's a policy which, of course, requires the occupying army to show mercy to former adversaries, like the new policy in Iraq which allowed tribal and religious leaders formerly opposed to the Americans to join them in resisting the more hardline Al Quaida militants.

Peace in Palestine. That's another intractable problem, isn't it? How would mercy and righteousness play out in that situation? I think it would have to involve the more powerful side in the conflict treating their enemies as equals in the negotiations for peace and offering serious concessions in return for an end to violence. It would mean paying compensation for war crimes and agreeing to abide by international law. It would mean an end to illegal settlements. That's my interpretation of mercy and righteousness.

And what about the meaning of mercy and righteousness in our own situation? I think it means giving everyone meaningful work to do for a fair day's pay. It means not giving up on those who have struggled to get the education and training that they need. It means ridding ourselves of a culture where people think that how much we can earn in salaries and bonuses is the true measure of our worth, and where fairness and integrity receive the recognition they truly deserve. I think that would go a long way to making our streets and parks safe places for everyone to walk.

These sound like political ideas, and they could be part of a political manifesto, of course. But as Paul makes clear in his letter to the Christians of Philippi, striving for peace. mercy and righteousness is also a deeply personal thing. In fact, without personal commitment to the vision on the part of millions of ordinary people, we won't see the glory and harmony in our society which Baruch envisaged. Paul says that by the grace and peace of God working among us, we have to share in the gospel - or 'take part in it' as the Revised English Bible puts it, though I prefer the idea of 'sharing' because to share in something implies that we identify with it completely, whereas anyone can take part in something for a day or two and for a variety of motives.

That Paul really is talking about a deep level of sharing and commitment is made clear by what follows. Paul himself has landed up in gaol because of his total commitment to the cause, and - even though he is parted from them - the Christians at Philippi have continued to hold him in their hearts and he has continued to pray constantly and joyously for them, longing - with the compassion, or deep yearning, that is a characteristic of truly Christ-like people - to be with them again and be able to support them.

The beautiful image of his friends holding Paul in their hearts, and thus reciprocating his Christ-like concern for them, is missing from the Revised English Bible translation which we heard tonight. It talks instead about Paul holding the Philippian Christians in deep affection, but - whichever translation we prefer - did you notice how that word 'sharing' crops up again in this verse? The Revised English Bible describes how the Christians at Philippi share with Paul in
the privilege of defending the truth of the gospel. But that's a paraphrase of Paul's actual words. The original Greek talks about Paul and his friends sharing in the grace of God, who will bring the good work begun among them to completion by the day of Christ. Only when we all share in the grace of God can the full harvest of righteousness anticipated by Baruch actually be achieved.

Incidentally, we have just seen that the Revised English Bible can sometimes be a bit free with its interpretation of the meaning of the text. But don't ask me which is the better translation of that striking phrase in verse 7 about being held in the heart. The Greek says something like, "Because to hold me in the heart you", which doesn't make much sense, does it? It could mean, 'Because you hold me in your heart' or it could mean 'Because I hold you in my heart'. Normally, the Greek language would make it absolutely clear which meaning is intended, but on this occasion there seems - at least to me - to be a grammatical mistake in the sentence, which prevents the meaning from being clear. That's why the New Revised Standard Version opts for one translation and the Revised English Bible opts for the other.

So, when people say that "
every word in every part of the Bible comes from God" I think they have a problem, because if the Bible really were that kind of book it wouldn't have any unnecessary ambiguity in it and, of course, God would not make any grammatical mistakes. The truth is, I think, that Paul dictated his letters and - like anyone doing dictation - sometimes got a bit muddled halfway through one of his longer sentences. Hence the difficulties with translating some of what he says. But, even when the details are a little clouded, the big picture is always clear and that's the level at which the text is inspired by God.

And one more incidental note about this passage - the reference here to bishops and deacons simply means the leaders of the Christian community in Philippi and its pastoral or community workers. I think Paul is still using the word 'bishop' here to mean any kind of leader, and the later distinction between bishops and priests, or presbyters, hasn't emerged yet.

So, finally, to our Gospel reading. This isn't the lectionary reading. The lectionary invites us to read either Zechariah's hymn of praise to God after John's birth, or the story of John the Baptist's ministry, when he called people to repentance in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, God's anointed representative. But I thought it would be interesting to look at John's naming ceremony, the moment when Luke says that - to the surprise of the onlookers - Elizabeth and Zechariah departed from tradition and called their son 'John', instead of one of the names previously used in their family.

The story puts me in mind of my granddaughter, Erin. Before she was born we were informed that we wouldn't be told what she was going to be called, because we probably wouldn't like the name and might try to persuade my daughter and her husband to change it. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. We've had three goes at choosing names for a child, and that was quite enough. We once missed a turning on the motorway because we were deep in discussion about whether our third child should be called Susanna or Sarah. As it happens, he was a boy so it made no odds.

Why the name 'John', then? Because, it means 'God's Grace' or 'God is gracious'. Zechariah had been sceptical when God's messenger first told him that he and his wife would be the parents of a special son. As a result he had lost his voice - not, I think, as a punishment, but as a reflection of the deep turmoil going on within his psyche as he struggled to come to terms with God's intervention in his life. His choice of the name 'John', 'God is gracious', which he writes on a piece of broken pottery - the equivalent of a post-it note or memo today - marks the turning point when Zechariah reaches the same understanding as his wife, that only by sharing in and opening ourselves to God's grace can we play our allotted part in his great enterprise to reshape the world. To put it another way, only when we fully participate in God's grace can we share in bringing about the glorious harvest of mercy, righteousness and peace.

The Gift of Hope

Malachi 3.1b—2 , Luke 1.68—74

When I was small my grandfather used to tell the story of his most memorable childhood Christmas. I always used to find it unbearably sad, but it's important to say that he didn't tell the story to get sympathy, or as a way into a rant about how young people don't know how lucky they are these days. He always told it as a funny story, and - of course - as a warning about what happens to naughty children.

The story goes like this, when he was small - about five or six years' old - he slept in the same bed as his younger brother. On Christmas morning he woke up very early and decided to look in his Christmas stocking. And guess what was in it? An apple, an orange, a six pence and - one toy. It was a clockwork train. He wound it up and it ran along the bed. Then he wound it up and it ran along the bed again. And then he wound it up and, again, it ran along the bed.

And then he got bored. So he decided to have a look in his brother's stocking and see what Father Christmas had brought him. And guess what his brother's stocking contained? An apple, an orange, a six pence of course, and - one toy, not a train this time but a steamroller.

And this is when he did a very naughty thing. He wound up the steamroller and it ran along the bed. And then, guess what happened next! He wound it up again and it ran along the bed and it fell off the end. He picked it up quickly and it seemed to be all right but, of course, when he wound it up this time it wouldn't go.

So what do you suppose he did? He stuffed all of the presents back into the two stockings, laid down again in the bed and pretended to be fast asleep until his brother woke up. Of course, you can imagine the fuss when his brother found out that the steamroller wouldn't work. I guess my grandfather hoped his parents would think it must have been like that when it was delivered by Father Christmas. But there was a fatal flaw in his thinking. Can you see where his plan had gone wrong? The steamroller was already wound up, which meant someone must have tried to play with it.

The upshot was that my grandfather got the broken steamroller for Christmas and his brother got the train. So his only real present that year was a broken toy steamroller, which I always found very sad.

My grandfather only got one present partly because, in those days, children didn't expect much for Christmas, so Father Christmas didn't have his work cut out like he does now when he has to deliver mountains of X-Boxes and Wiis and what have you. But still there are children who don't expect much for Christmas, who don't see any point in writing a great long wish list if things they would like to receive, and that's the reason for our service today.

Our two short Bible readings were also about a gift - the gift of hope. In the very short reading from the Old Testament prophecy of Malachi his readers are told to expect a messenger who will bring them a promise that the world is going to be put right. All the things that are wrong in our world will be purified or scrubbed clean. Not by magic, of course. And not without a cost. Our drama reminded us that if you purify something by setting it on fire that will not only get rid of any impurities that are clinging to it, but it will also change that thing forever. It will be transformed into something completely different.

If we were to set fire to a pair of jeans, of course, they would be transformed to a pile of ash. That's a silly idea, and not a change for the better. But even if we put them in the washing machine and clean them with strong detergent they will be transformed. Their colour will fade a bit more. They might shrink a bit. And they will look less grungy - at least for a while.

My son is a waiter and after every shift he comes home with his trousers covered in gravy, because customers leave a sea of gravy on their plates at the end of their meal. The trousers need a good wash to transform them back into something presentable for the next day.

Refining silver is a bit of a step change, of course, from washing clothes. In the picture we can see some liquid silver which has been obtained as a bi-product from making gold. It comes out of the furnace where the gold is refined as a black powder residue, but when it's heated up to a very high temperature it melts and becomes white liquid which can be poured into a plaster mould. When it cools, the plaster mould is broken, leaving behind the solid piece of silver.

God's coming into the world at Christmas is the moment which turns the black dross of our daily lives into the pure silver of eternity. This is because, the baby Jesus born in Bethlehem grew up to become the man who was crucified, in the final phase of his mission to help human beings reconnect with God. As we discover God's love, flooding into our lives and our world, it's like receiving the one present which can transform our drab Christmases - the Christmases when the toy got broken or the relatives got on our nerves - into the meaning and purpose that will make our lives worthwhile.

Then, as our reading from Luke's Gospel says, we will be able to serve God 'by being holy and good as long as we live'.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Perfect Leader

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36

As we enter a new liturgical year, with the beginning of Advent, how appropriate that the Old Testament reading should be about the perfect leader, because - before the year is out - we shall be thinking a lot about what it takes to lead a modern nation state out of economic crisis and through the uncharted waters of global warming.

The prophecy was first spoken in the context of impending disaster. The days were surely coming when the Kingdom of Judah would be crushed like a bug, and the Prophet Jeremiah had been warning about this for a long time. He had even been put in prison for spreading defeatism and being unpatriotic. Now is the time to say, 'I told you so!' But instead the register of the prophecies changes just at this point and the prevailing tone of despair at the climate of corruption and faithlessness surrounding the nation is replaced by a new note of hope and expectancy. All manner of things will be well after all!

Actually, these may not be words spoken by Jeremiah himself, because they are missing from some of the manuscripts. But they are words inspired by Jeremiah, and - even in translation - they have a power and elegance which is in itself uplifting. 'The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.'

What exactly is the promise to the house of Israel and the house of Judah? The young shepherd David summed it up when he went out to meet the giant Goliath in single combat. The promise is that the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel and that the Lord saves his people without sword or spear. The promise was also set out, in a bit more detail, by the Prophet Ahijah, when he met the future king of Israel, Jeroboam, on the road leading from Jerusalem. Ahijah told him, '"The Lord says, 'If you will listen to all that I command , walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight by keeping my statutes and commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you and will build you an enduring house.'" So there you have the two versions of the promise - the short version from David, the man of action, and the version with the small print attached, from the Prophet Ahijah, who was obviously working in the insurance industry at the time.

But, of course, David and Jeroboam did not always do what was right in the Lord's sight, and their kingdoms eventually fell. Jeremiah was there to witness the last days of the independent kingdom of Judah, just before its annihilation. But the promise that is made here is that a righteous branch will eventually spring up from the royal line of David - someone who really will live up to the small print in the contract, and who will execute justice and righteousness. In those days, when Judah is finally identified with what is right in God's sight, the nation will be saved and her citizens will live in safety.

So, when we're reading the election manifestos, and listening to the speeches and observing the posturing of our political leaders, we need to ask ourselves, 'Are these the kind of leaders who are going to do what is just and righteous? Are they going to protect the poor, are they going to do something decisive to tackle global warming, are they going to act with honesty and integrity?' Nothing else matters, because this is the only route map to living in safety.

Of course, no political leader is going to entirely live up to the ideal. Politics is a dirty business. Even in the best of times it involves compromise and horse trading, which is why Christians traditionally see the ultimate fulfilment of the prophecy in the life and reign of the Lord Jesus.

Jesus himself seems to have been looking forward to a time of disaster and turmoil which would be ended by the arrival of God's anointed leader whose true power and great glory would eclipse the politicians and put the world to rights. The signs of the times which he predicted sound awfully like the storms and confusion which we hear about all of the time in the news.

They're also a fairly close match to the dreadful end predicted in the film 2012 when - if I've got this right - a galactic alignment of planets causes the neutrinos in the sun to mutate, giving rise to all sorts of special effects. 2012 was inspired, if that's the right word, by a Mayan prophecy rather than the words of Jesus, and it doesn't end with a just and righteous ruler coming in a cloud to restore peace and tranquility.

Tempting as it is to try to correlate Jesus' prophecy to precise events in our own time, and so create a timetable for the end of the world, the fact is that Luke was already introducing a note of vagueness into these sayings when he edited his sources. We have simply got to be alert at all times, like the townspeople waiting for a once in a thousand year flood event, praying that we may have the strength to escape calamity when it befalls.

The advice to stand upright and hold our heads high when disaster threatens could seem a bit like encouraging us to sing, 'Always look on the bright side of life' or to keep a stiff upper lip when all around are losing theirs. But I think in fact it's a challenge to be like Jeremiah and his followers, to look beyond the bleak and gloomy headlines of today and work tirelessly for a new era when justice and righteous will finally hold sway all across the world and we will all be able - as a result - to live in safety.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The example of Hannah

1 Samuel 1.4-10 & Hebrews 10.11-25

Sunday's Old Testament passage seems far remote from our modern culture, yet it contains some very topical themes.
  • the jealousy and bitterness between rivals for someone else's affections;
  • the deep-seated need felt by many people for children, and their pain and sadness when this need is denied;
  • the conviction that God is in control of our lives and can change things, for better or for worse;
  • the tendency to make assumptions about other people based on the flimsiest and most superficial evidence;
  • and the idea that some people are worth more or less than others, in this case that women are worth less than men.
The first of these themes, sexual jealousy - leads naturally to the conclusion that loyalty to one person works best. Forget all the carefully refined arguments about the Christian understanding of marriage, family life or sexuality. The central idea which the Bible communicates about sexual relationships is the wisdom of committing yourself to one other person. The writers of the Old Testament recorded polygamy as an incontestable and unavoidable fact of life, but they repeatedly return to and point out its problems.

The deep-seated issue of our biological imperative to have children is another issue which remains as central to human life as ever. It drives the whole fertility industry, including practices - such as the storage and discarding of human embryos and assisted conception for older women - which some Christians have found distasteful and even unethical. This Bible passage reminds us that, at all times, our attitude should be coloured by the very great hurt which infertility causes to couples. This doesn't give scientists a licence to sanction any and every kind of intervention in human conception and gestation, and we need to remain vigilant about innovations such as designer babies, conceived to fix the medical problems of their brothers and sisters, and surrogate parenthood, but it does mean that we should always begin our thinking about this issue from a position of profound sympathy and compassion for couples who cannot have children and who need assistance with conception and pregnancy.

Someone told me the other day that the belief that God is in control of every aspect of our lives, and shapes what happens to us, is the one aspect of the Muslim faith which he finds hardest to understand and accept as a Christian. I was puzzled by this, because - of course - it's also a Biblical idea. It finds expression in Christianity in the teaching of St Paul, later expanded and amplified by John Calvin who became the main leader of the Reformed tradition. It is one of the thirty-nine articles of faith of the Church of England, and it also features in this passage. When things go wrong for us, when our ambitions are thwarted or tragedy strikes, surely it is comforting to know that God is still in control of our lives, mending the broken threads and weaving them together to repair the picture and make it beautiful and complete.

What is very difficult, however, is the notion - also found in this passage - that God deliberately does harmful things to us, such as closing Hannah's womb. I think that's a sub-Christian idea. I prefer to believe that God neither inflicts harm on us nor makes the best things happen to us, but that God works with us to use the circumstances of our lives creatively to bring about as much good as possible. I suspect that is how our prayers are answered.

Hannah went away from her encounter with Eli in the Temple convinced that her prayer had at least been heard by God and hopeful that it would be answered, and she did indeed conceive a child and has become one of the Bible's greatest exemplars of faith. But was it really a supernatural intervention that made her pregnant? Was it a change of heart by a God who had previously closed her womb and who now knew that it was the right time to open it? Or was it one of those cases where, freed from her burden of anxiety about becoming pregnant, Hannah found that it happened naturally and unexpectedly after all?

Eli proves himself to be a disastrous pastor in this situation. He allows his prejudice to shape his perception and makes a totally unfounded assumption about Hannah based on the flimsiest and most superficial evidence. Confronted by a deeply troubled person who was pouring out her soul silently to God he jumped to the conclusion that she was drunk, just as the bystanders thought that Jesus' disciples must be drunk when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Eli failed to look beyond her desperate appearance to the truth concealed within. But we should hesitate to condemn him, shouldn't we. because we live in a deeply superficial society which judges people by appearances every day. Why else are we so much more lenient towards beautiful people than plain people? Why else are Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee - from the radio era - the last of our prime ministers who were bald? Why else do women who wear the hijab, and men who wear long beards and prayer caps, face daily prejudice and hostility? Why else do older people make immediate assumptions that young people are a danger to them, and why do younger people assume that older people will be boring and out of touch? All of these attitudes are wrong and unchristian, not least because they lead to the idea that some people are worth more or less than others, and we know that isn't true because Jesus said it isn't true. St Paul got it right when he said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free person, for all are one in him.

In our Old Testament lesson we see Eli the priest falling short of his calling and almost coming between a supplicant and her God. In the New Testament lesson we see the opposite. We see a high priest who never fails because he completely identifies himself with God. This complete identification is symbolised here by his place at God's right hand, doing God's bidding. But also, he never fails because - unlike Eli - he continually identifies himself the worshippers. His spirit writes God's laws in our hearts and minds so that we no longer need to remain stuck in the vicious cycle of sinfulness, failure, guilt and repentance which the ancient system of cultic sacrifices did nothing to address. However, Jesus' identification of himself with us did involve a sacrifice, for he died standing alongside us and seeking to demonstrate God's love and forgiveness.

On armistice day Radio 4's Today programme celebrated one small act of heroism and self-sacrifice. While the trench warfare raged overhead, armies of sappers dug underground, trying to undermine the enemy's most entrenched positions and make room for a breakthrough above ground. It was terribly dangerous work and one day five men were buried in the tunnel they were digging when the roof caved in behind them after an explosion in one of the trenches above. Colleagues worked desperately to save them and eventually made a hole big enough to pass through a pipe which they used to pump air and water to the trapped men. Then the hole was made large enough to pass food through to them and finally - after several days - it was made wide enough to allow three of the men to crawl to safety. But one of the men had broken some of his ribs and couldn't get through. A colleague, Sapper William Hackett, who was a miner from Nottinghamshire, refused to leave him until the hole was made wider still. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, there was another roof collapse, and both men were trapped again. Their companions spent another four days trying to rescue them, but in vain.

William Hackett was awarded the Victoria Cross for his decision to remain with his injured colleague when he could have crawled to safety. His refusal to leave the man alone cost him his life. It was a remarkable thing to do, and an inspiration for us all - but, of course, this is what Jesus did, too. The Letter to the Hebrews says that he gave his life as an act of solidarity with human beings, so that we would not be left alone in our predicament, constantly falling short of the wholeness and perfection which God requires, constantly prey to weakness and self-centredness, but would be able to cross the divide that separates us from God and find completeness in him. That is why the example of Jesus, and the example of people like William Hackett, should provoke us to love and good deeds, always encouraging one another.

Monday, November 02, 2009

On being a piece of the jigsaw

1 John 3.1-3, Mark 12.28-34

November the First is All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day as it used to be called in old English. That, of course, is how we get the name Halloween, the evening before All Hallows. Our first Bible passage is one of the special Bible readings for All Saints Day.

It's also a reading that is especially appropriate for a baptism, because when the Bible talks about saints it doesn't mean people who are especially good or holy. It means all of the people, throughout the world, who recognise that they belong to God and who call God their Parent or Father because they know that God loves us even more than our own mothers and fathers do.

Not everyone realises this, of course. Some people don't believe in God, and some people don't believe in a personal God. In other words, they don't understand that God actually cares for us, and loves us, and wants to know us and be known by us. That's the real difference between the saints and everyone else. A saint knows how much God loves us and knows that we are God's children.

Of course, if God really loves us with a love like our mothers or fathers, that means God must love us before we learn to love him back. In fact, God loves us before we are born. So we're already God's children, and already loved by God, long before anyone knows how we're going to turn out in life, what we're going to grow up to become, and whether or not we choose to love him back.

What we do know, however, is that every human being has the potential, or the capacity, to become like God - to be filled with God's love, to share his concern for the world and everything in it, and to share his love for other people. That is the hope which lies behind the service of baptism. It's the hope that we will not only learn to recognise God's love for us, and become one of the saints - the great company of believers spread out across the world and stretching back through time - but that we will begin to be like God - sharing his love and goodness.

Today's reading from the Gospel of Mark is all about rules for living. Jesus told the teacher that we must love God with all our being and love other people as much as we love ourselves. These are wonderful ideas but what difference will they make in practice to the way we actually live?

Let's imagine that living in today's world is like being part of a huge jigsaw puzzle. Living in our town is also like being part of a jigsaw puzzle, nothing like as big as being part of the whole world picture but still pretty big. And living on my road, or my family, living in your road and your family is like being part of a small jigsaw puzzle with just a few pieces.

Each one of us holds a piece of the jigsaw in our hands. Our life, and what we say and do, makes up one piece in the whole picture, and it's up to us whether it becomes a good piece, which makes the picture better and richer, or a poor piece which diminishes the picture and makes it worse.

Or think of life another way - as a very dark road on a very dark night. Each of our lives is like a torch or a streetlight, that can help to light up the darkness and make the way clear. The greatest number of road accidents that have ever happened in Britain happened during the 1940s. There were a lot fewer cars then, but there were no streetlights because there was a black-out at night to stop enemy planes from bombing the towns and cities, and so a lot more people were knocked down and a lot more cars went off the road in the darkness. If we choose to, each one of us can shed a little light through what we do and help to light up the darkness.

And because we can make a difference, even f it's just a tiny difference, to the big picture or to the amount of light that shines in the darkness, each of us holds a little bit of hope in our hands.

There are some huge problems in the world - deforestation, global warming, the extinction of different species of animals, fighting, starvation, bullying, unkindness, selfishness. But we go on hoping because Christians believe you don't have to be an especially good, or important or famous person to make things better.

Recently President Obama got a Nobel peace Prize, and people asked, 'What special thing has he done so far to bring about peace?' And the answer is that he hasn't really achieved anything much, yet, but he's a very important person and he's trying to bring about peace. All Saints Day is there to remind us that actually everyone can win prizes. Everyone matters to God, and everyone holds a little bit of the jigsaw in their hands. And everyone can try to make the world a better place. Hope means that each of us - not just Presidents and Prime Ministers - can act for change.

But, of course, all the little pieces in the jigsaw, all the little lights along the road, will only be really effective when we join all the pieces together. That's why Christians come together in church, and its why people join pressure groups and organisations and charities, because when we join up all the pieces of the jigsaw that's when we can make the bigger picture complete.

Freed to be part of the Elect

Psalm 24.1-6,Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, John 11.32-44, Revelation 21.1-6a

Every member of the human race belongs to God. But does that make everyone a saint, a member of God's family? Not according to the Psalmist. Only someone whose deeds, motives and intentions are pure can be blessed and vindicated by God. Everyone else is out of luck. But that leaves us with a problem, because which of us is pure?

If we aren't good enough to worship God in the old temple in the old Jerusalem, what about the new Jerusalem? There is no temple in the new Jerusalem for in Jesus God comes to be with us instead of waiting for us to have the moral stamina to ascend to meet him on his holy mountain. Nor does God come in judgement. He comes ready to comfort the afflicted and the bereaved.

However, the way things are now will be swept away. The world will be turned upside down. And that cannot be good news for the powerful and the privileged, who maintain their position at other people's expense. Furthermore, we can be sure that one day this prophecy in Revelation will come to pass for the future has already been determined.

The Gospel reading could look like the odd one out here. What has it got to do with the saintliness, or otherwise, of all God's people? One connection is that Jesus is seen comforting the bereaved. The other connection, I think, is that God's love is seen in action saving Lazarus from death, and not just from physical death. The impurity of Lazarus' death and decay in the tomb represents all the impurity which separates human beings from God, and from which Jesus can free us like someone unbinding a mummy and commanding the corpse to return to the land of the living. As George Matheson said, 'Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free' - free to join all of the saints on earth and in heaven.

And so to the Wisdom of Solomon. This passage really is the odd one out because it comes from the Jewish Apocrypha and not from the Old Testament. However, it is alluded to in the Letter to the Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament.

It was written after a time of fierce persecution when most of the Jewish people had finally come around to belief in the resurrection of the dead. Otherwise it was hard to understand why so many good people had died without God intervening to save them. The writer can only cope with this calamity by imagining that they were plucked like brands from the burning, so that they only seemed to suffer and die whereas in fact God had beamed them up to safety on the mother ship.

This is an idea later inherited by some Christians - who were nicknamed Docetists after the word 'to seem' which is used about the martyrs in the passage here, who only seemed to have died. What distinguished the Docetists from other Christians is that they said Jesus had only seemed to die on the Cross. The Prophet Muhammad encountered Docetic Christians on his travels as a merchant and assumed that they represented mainstream Christianity, so to this day Muslims also believe that Jesus only appeared to have died and that no torment had actually touched him on the Cross.

However, the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon wants it both ways. He wants the martyrs to have escaped ultimate disaster and yet to have been tested in the furnace of affliction. Christians were surely right in the end to conclude that suffering pain and death is not incompatible with being close to God and being vindicated by him. So here is another reason why the Wisdom of Solomon is the odd one out from these passages.

But there is a third and final reason. As we saw this morning, All Saints Day is not about special people, it's a celebration of the great mass of ordinary believers who bear faithful witness to God's goodness in everyday acts of loving kindness. However, the Wisdom of Solomon is about the vanguard of the faithful, people who were prepared to be sacrificed for what they believed. There is a sense in which all of us are called to follow their example, and that's certainly what Jesus said when he talked about his disciples shouldering their own cross in order to follow him. But the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon sees the martyrs as set apart from everyone else, like the traditional understanding of the word saint. Their deeds make them shine forth and run like sparks through the stubble of history, and they will therefore have a special role in God's plan as his cadre of senior managers. In this sense the passage is closer to the Roman Catholic practice of canonising saints, who are somehow seen to be different from the rest of us.

And yet, in the end, the writer comes back to the idea of sainthood as being something which is ultimately open to everyone. God's grace and mercy can help us all to follow in the footsteps of the martyrs. We can all be helped to trust in God and to understand the truth. We can all be empowered to be faithful and abide with him in love. We can all join God's elect, which is a circle drawn to include people in and not to shut them out.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Hope in God's Future

Deuteronomy 26.1-11
1 Timothy 6.6-10
Matthew 6.25-33

Today's Old Testament passage from the Book of Deuteronomy is about thanking God for the harvest and doing so in a very concrete and practical way, by making a donation to God of the first fruits of the farmer's labour before sitting down with the whole community, including outsiders from different cultures and faiths, and celebrating God's goodness together. But the celebration is very deliberately set in the context of a journey. It is the culmination of the Exodus of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. They have come to a land flowing with milk and honey via a long drawn out period of wandering in the wilderness, and they are never to forget it.

It is probable that only some of the people of Israel had their origins in Egypt, where the Bible tells us they had gone to escape famine in their homeland of Palestine. There they found work as functionaries of the Egyptian pharaohs but gradually, as their numbers increased, they began to be seen as a threat and eventually they were enslaved and forced into hard labour until God freed them from oppression.

Only in the Bible do we find this story recounted. The Egyptians do not tell us about the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, but then people rarely leave monuments to their own defeats. However, many ancient near eastern civilisations - including the Egyptians - did leave behind records which mention a group of people - nomads who sometimes served as mercenary soldiers or labourers - whom they describe as the Habiru. These records are letters sent between kings, or orders exchanged between generals, and they reveal that the Habiru were perceived as a threat and - although they sometimes provided useful service - there were frequent tensions between them and the people of the countries where they settled. Often they were forced to move on, or sent to work in quarries, and sometimes there were even pitched battles with them. Some scholars think that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt were a part at least of this mass movement of nomadic outsiders, and the description in our reading of the ancestors of Israel as 'wandering Arameans' bears out that idea.

The instructions about celebrating harvest festival time are written in the form of a prophecy about the future, something which Moses promises the people of Israel as part of their destiny even though - at the moment - they are still living as outcasts. But it's probably something which was actually written much later, during a time of religious revival after the conquest of Palestine. It forms part of a liturgy, used in the Temple, when the story of Israel's rescue from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land was recounted to remind people how gracious God had been to them.

So much for the history lesson. The interesting thing for us is that an ecumenical report to this year's Methodist Conference about global warming chose to focus on this story as a model for the way that we, as Christians, should be responding to the crisis. The report is called Hope in God's Future, and it sets out to inspire the same sense of hope about the way ahead which Moses is attempting to create when he tells the people of Israel to look forward to their first harvest in the Promised Land.

It would have been easy for the wandering Habiru or Arameans to despair, as some of them did when they rebelled - from time to time - and told Moses and Joshua that slavery in Egypt had been preferable to wandering, lost and hungry, in the Wilderness. But Moses constantly calls them to be hopeful. Moses' promise about the harvest is designed to kindle the same kind of warm feelings as the Labour Party campaign of 1997, when Tony Blair's theme song was 'Things can only get better.' What a long time ago that seems now! But that is very much the theme of this passage. Things not only can get better, but they will get better! God has not abandoned Israel to her fate in the wilderness, he has a plan to make them a mighty and prosperous nation with a land of their own, so long as they never forget their past, as an oppressed people in Egypt, and remember to treat the strangers in their own midst with a lot more compassion and kindness than their own ancestors were shown.

In the same way, the report warns us that - if the human race, and many other species, are to survive - we must embark on an urgent and difficult journey to a new way of life, a journey full of uncertainty and not without hardship, but a journey which - if we embrace it wholeheartedly - can still end in hope. It is a journey which - like the Exodus from Egypt - 'has a destination only future generations will reach and benefit from...' and 'the most difficult part of such a journey is' the report says, 'leaving without looking back.'

So what exactly is this journey which the report foretells? Actually, it says that much of the way ahead is still unclear, but it does suggest strongly that we shall have to expect to be content with much less worldly wealth than we have been used to enjoying in the last few decades. Today's reading from 1 Timothy sets the right tone when it says that there is much to be gained from being content with the basics of life - food and clothes. In fact, in a striking phrase, the Revised English Bible translation says that religion 'yields high dividends to those who are content with what they have.'

We've been used to looking for a different kind of high dividend - the get rich quick kind, perhaps - but that's not what the future will have to offer. Last summer I was looking on one of those comparison websites to see where we could get the best rate of interest for our meagre savings. 'The experts are recommending a Bank called Kaupthing' I said. 'They've got the best rate of interest at the moment.' 'Well I'm not investing in anything with a name like Kaupthing,' said Helen, and how right her instincts proved to be! We have to let go of the dream of high dividends from stock markets and banks, these are symptoms of the foolish and harmful desires that threaten to plunge us headlong into ruin and destruction unless we mend our ways.

Our Gospel reading, from Matthew chapter six, urges us not to worry or be anxious, about the future, because God knows our needs and - as the report puts it - nothing can ultimately frustrate the will of God. But neither the Gospel reading nor the report offer a recipe for sitting back and waiting for God to rescue us. God needs active allies and he is calling us to strive for change, 'to set our minds on his justice before everything else.' If we do this, all the rest will come right in the end.

So, in this vein, the report reminds us that we have to repent for the negligence of our own ancestors, who started the harmful industrial processes that have damaged the atmosphere so badly, that we need to be willing to pay an immediate price to safeguard the future for our own children and grandchildren, and that we need to make sure the poorest and most vulnerable members of society are not disproportionately affected by any lifestyle changes that need to be made - and that goes for disadvantaged people in our own country as well as for the more disadvantaged nations in the global economy.

Perhaps it all sounds a bit daunting. But, remember, all of these Bible passages celebrate the future and insist that it will be good, so long as we allow ourselves to be guided and inspired by God. There can and will continue to be a rich harvest at the end of our journey. Urgent, bold and costly action can still make a difference. And, because we are able to live our lives in Christ, we can be made capable of lives which we could not otherwise live.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Esther, The Inglorious Basterds and the Hoard of Golden Treasure

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22
Psalm 124
James 5.13-20
Mark 9.49-50

In the film 'Inglorious Basterds' Quentin Tarantino plays with history. He imagines a situation where a group of Jewish American soldiers are parachuted into occupied France to get even with the Nazis and kick ass as a punishment for the way the occupiers are hunting down and exterminating French Jews. I mention this simply because the Book of Esther is the same kind of story. 'Inglorious Basterds' begins with some white words projected against a black background, 'Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France' and Esther is also make believe. It could easily begin with the words, 'Once upon a time in ancient Persia.' Not only that, but both narratives are equally bloodthirsty. The theme of both stories is that Jewish people - even when they are a beleaguered minority far from their Promised Land - cannot be knocked down and counted out. If the need arises, and they are threatened by great evil, they are capable of standing up for themselves and putting their enemies to the sword. And, strangely for a book of the Bible, the story of Esther never mentions God. This is a fairy tale about Jewish people doing it for themselves and not relying on God to rescue them or help them to get even.

If only life were really like that, and every oppressed minority could rise up and be revenged upon their ruthless persecutors. Instead, of course, millions perished in the Holocaust, unable to save themselves and without any miraculous intervention from God or from avenging bands of Jewish GIs. No doubt that experience of helplessness shaped the mindset of the modern state of Israel, with its mean military machine where Jewish people really do get to play with tanks and guns.

But sometimes even weakness can inspire a peculiar kind of strength. I remember an Austrian Jew recounting on the radio his experience of being rounded up with other Jewish young men and taken to a police station soon after the reunification, or Anschluss, with Nazi Germany. After being questioned they were allowed to leave, but only if they were prepared to make their way along a corridor lined with Storm Troopers armed with clubs. As they ran down the corridor towards the street, the hapless Jewish men were beaten. The man telling the story said that he ran as fast as he could and the storm troopers only caught him a couple of glancing blows. But, he said, the thing which made the deepest impression on him was a group of observant Jewish men who insisted on walking slowly down the corridor just to show that even Storm Troopers with cudgels could not intimidate them. They took a fearful beating yet obstinately refused to increase their pace. It was an example of faith and fortitude that he never forgot.

Psalm 124 exudes the same apparently easy confidence as the story of Esther. The theme of both passages seems to be that God will always come to the rescue of Israel, like the Seventh Cavalry riding to save the beleaguered settlers just in the nick of time. But, of course, Auschwitz reminded modern believers that this simply isn't true. The industrial scale of the Holocaust demonstrated that it is technically possible to swallow whole peoples up alive. And modern technology isn't essential to thwarting the will of God on this scale. In the Ukraine, in the 1930s, Stalin used famine to kill even more people, possibly as many as ten million, and in Rwanda government backed mobs used machetes to kill hundreds of thousands of their enemies.

On the face of it, the film Inglorious Basterds seems to be a "Boys' Own" adventure, glorifying war. However, some reviewers claim to detect a subtle tone of irony in the film that subverts the genre and pokes fun at it or critiques it even. And maybe that's what is going on in Psalm 124 and the Book of Esther, for even in Biblical times it was already clear that history isn't a simple tale of good triumphing over evil. Both the people who edited the Book of Psalms, and the writer of the Book of Esther, knew perfectly well that Jerusalem had fallen to her enemies and many of Israel's people had either been cut down or forced into exile. The flood had not swept the nation away, but there had still been a catastrophic deluge of enemy soldiers descending like locusts on the Promised Land and causing devastation. A faithful remnant of Israel might have escaped the teeth of the wolves that were trying to devour them, but the rest of the flock had been hunted and scattered. The remnant might have escaped the hunter's snare, like a bird escaping from a broken trap, but nonetheless the nation of Israel had been caught. And yet the writers still believed that our help is in the name of the Lord. That is the kind of faith which was displayed by those dogged young men in Austria when they were beaten in the police station.

The story of Esther ends with a celebratory feast, but it's not just a round of mutual back-slapping. The Jewish community celebrates its good fortune by giving presents to the poor and downtrodden. In escaping from oppression themselves, the people in the story do not forget to care for others who are oppressed.

Years ago, when I worked in Salford, someone in the church objected to giving money to help people in developing countries. 'My grandparents and great-grandparents were hard-up,' she said, 'Now it's the turn of someone else to put up with hard times.' Despite its main theme of vengeance against powerful wrongdoers like Harman, the Book of Esther does not share her ungracious attitude towards the needs of those at the bottom of the pile. It ends on a note of gratitude and generosity.

The writer of the Letter of James takes up where the writers of Psalm 124 and the Book of Esther leave off. He too recognises that believers are not immune from trouble or suffering. These things are an inevitable part of life. Sometimes we will be able to keep cheerful, and thank God for our good fortune, but sometimes we will be sick. Whatever happens to us, though, God is alongside us. In Jesus he shares our good times and our bad times.

That's not to say, however, that we must resign ourselves to suffering and simply endure it. The writer urges us to pray for healing, and to get the congregation praying for us too. Actually, 'healing' is not quite the right word, although it's the one chosen by The Revised English Bible to translate this idea, but it's perhaps more accurate to say that the writer says prayer will 'save' us or make us 'whole'. To be saved or made whole when we are sick or suffering can - of course - include being healed, but it can mean a range of other things too. It can - for instance - mean being saved from despair or being helped to find something positive in our suffering. It can mean learning that we are not alone, that we are cared for and loved. And it can mean being made whole in a spiritual rather than a physical sense. This broader understanding of what the word means also explains why the writer's thought process leads naturally from being saved from illness and suffering to being saved from sin. Either way, the prayers of the righteous - or of good people, as the Revised English Bible puts it - are powerful and effective. They are never ineffectual. Some good will always come of them.

The example that the writer uses to illustrate this point is not, perhaps, one that would immediately occur to us, because he describes a prayer which actually had a negative effect. Elijah prayed for a drought to afflict Israel because of the faithlessness and wickedness of King Ahab, who had allowed his wife Jezebel to massacre some of the Lord's Prophets, and as a result of that prayer not a drop of rain or dew fell on the land for three years. Then Elijah ended the drought, just as dramatically as it had begun, by challenging Jezebel's pagan prophets to make the rains fall again. They prayed all day long to Baal, the god of the thunder storm, dancing around their altar in a frenzy and slashing themselves with knives, but nothing happened. Then Elijah rebuilt the altar of the Lord God, prayed very simply for a sign that God was working through him and, suddenly, lightning devoured the offering on his altar and it began to rain. Then he told the people of Israel to massacre Jezebel's prophets in revenge for the earlier massacre of the prophets of the Lord.

So we are back to where we began, with yet another story of oppressed people avenging themselves on their oppressors by striking back, except that the Book of Esther and Inglorious Basterds are make-believe, whereas the story of Elijah is more or less for real. In Elijah's day people did massacre one another in the name of religion, just as they have done many times since.

Today's Gospel passage is a collection of disparate sayings, so I just want to draw your attention to one of them, from Mark Chapter 9 and verses 49 to 50: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Personally I like a lot of salt. My children keep warning me that I will die young, from high blood pressure or something, but I simply can't eat most savoury foods without it. And am I the only person who finds the mono-sodium glutamate in Pringles totally addictive? When they're not in the house I'm fine, but when we have any in the cupboard I soon succumb to temptation. I could cheerfully eat a whole tube of them at a time. Salt, for me, is one of the things that makes food interesting and gives it appeal.

Well Jesus clearly shared my taste for salt, because he several times used saltiness as a metaphor for being the kind of person he wants his followers to be. And here he explains one of the things that will help to make us salty - being salted with fire. It's a striking and unusual image, isn't it? Normally, we wouldn't associate the two things together. Burning something, for instance, doesn't make it taste saltier - or at least not in my experience. But Jesus suggests that an encounter with fire, with suffering or trouble of some kind, can actually make us better people, more complete, more rounded, more worth meeting and getting to know, more believable - perhaps -as followers of the Way of the Cross.

It's a disturbing idea, because it goes further than the Letter of James. There, the writer only dared to suggest that we might be saved, or reconnected to God in Jesus, through suffering. But here Jesus goes a little further, I think, and suggests that a certain amount of suffering might actually make us stronger and better disciples.

Personally, I think people can be given too much suffering to endure, way beyond the point where it adds anything to their life or builds their character. Even Jesus only suffered torment on the cross for a few hours, but some people endure torment for days, weeks, months, years even. I don't see how that can be particularly beneficial. And Jesus submitted himself to suffering knowing full well what he was doing, and that is very different from something like the suffering of a vulnerable child, or suffering that is inflicted on us at random, or out of the blue.

Nonetheless, there is a sort of comfort to be found in the idea that a certain amount of suffering might be good for the soul, and might help us to be more effective disciples, better able to get alongside others and help them through their own troubles. Might being touched by suffering, being salted by fire, be a necessary part of effective discipleship?

Perhaps the last word should go, this week, to the enormous find of Anglo-Saxon treasure trove in a field at the heart of what was once the ancient kingdom of Mercia. The Mercians, who lived in the modern day Midlands and East Anglia, were Pagans, whereas their neighbours to the north, in Yorkshire, and to the south also, were Christians. At various points in their history, the pagan Mercians fought pitched battles against the Christians, and in one of these battles someone came away with this enormous and valuable horde of loot, including gold crosses and gold and gems prised from broken swords and helmets. One of the most interesting finds is a curious lucky charm or talisman, a verse from Psalm 68 that had been engraved in Latin on a strip of gold. It reads: 'Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him.'

Sadly, as the soldiers who carried those crosses and that Bible inscription must have discovered, religion cannot be used as a lucky charm to ward off suffering and evil. The pagan enemies of God were not scattered. Those who hated Christianity did not flee before him. Instead. they got to claim all of these treasured possessions as trophies of war, and perhaps even gloated - as they took them - that they had proved the Christians wrong. Some time later, however, the tables must have turned. They buried their looted treasure in haste, and never returned to claim it. All they had really proved was that, whether we are believers or not, we must all be prepared to be salted by fire. The question is, when the fire burns will we know that Jesus is alongside us, enduring it with us and helping us to overcome it and be saved?

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Tongue

Isaiah 50.4-9, James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-38

A few years ago I was sent to see a consultant at the Leeds General Infirmary because I had lost my voice. She was prodding inside my mouth with a thing like the back of a tablespoon, trying to see the inside of my throat. "Can't you stick your tongue out any further than that?" she asked. "No," I said, "That's as far as it will go." "Really?" She was a bit surprised, so she lifted up my tongue and then exclaimed, "Hey, look everyone! He's tongue-tied!" The students and junior doctors in the room crowded rounded to see. Someone opened a door and called out to the nurses, "Come and look at this!" And I thought, "Fantastic! I'm a freak show!"

Apparently, tongue-tied people are very rare nowadays because if a baby is tongue-tied the paediatricians cut the tie in the first few days of life to help them breastfeed better. But that never happened to me, and I had to make the best of it. I never was much good at breastfeeding, my mother says, and that's not the only thing I'm not very good at. Rolling my "Rs" isn't possible, for a start.

Tonight's Bible readings are all about the tongue. "The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher," says the Prophet in the New Revised Standard version of this passage, "So that I may... sustain the weary with a word." And the writer of the Letter of James is actually obsessed with tongues. First he describes how a bit is placed on top of a horse's tongue to control the way it moves - and then goes on to compare sailing ships to horses. The wind filling the sails drives a boat through the water, but it is the tiny rudder which - like a tongue - decides which course the ship will steer. And then, finally, he says that the tongue is a burning fire sent straight from hell, a world of iniquity staining or polluting the whole body.

That description of the tongue could sound a touch hysterical, were it not for the example of Peter, who just goes to prove why the tongue can be so dangerous. Peter tries to put his Master straight about some disturbing ideas that he has begun to share with the disciples, but Jesus rounds on him and says, "Get behind me Satan!" Here it seems is a tongue which really is 'a restless evil, full of deadly poison.'

We do have to be careful, don't we, what we say? Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words do also hurt and - for most people - it's easier to speak rashly and harshly than it is to inflict actual bodily harm. So a loose tongue can do a lot of damage. As the Chinese proverb puts it, words are like a kite whose string has been broken. Once they are gone, they cannot be recalled. We can apologise for their effect, but we can never undo what we have said.

A while ago someone was speaking to me in a stressful situation. They were feeling ill, I think, and their temper got the better of them. In no time at all they were calling other people - their colleagues - lazy, dishonest, deceptive, prejudiced and even unchristian. I advised them to consider their words because, as I pointed out, if later they felt differently they would have a lot of explaining to do.

'No one can tame the tongue,' says the writer of the epistle, 'With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. [But], my brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.'

Let's try to be positive about tongues, though. What about the words of the Prophet with which I began? 'The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher.' Is that actually a positive thing? I think back to some of my teachers, and their ability to use biting irony or even simple ridicule to belittle their pupils, and I'm not sure that it is. But the best teachers, of course, could maintain order without resort to shouting or unpleasantness. Their enthusiasm for their subject, and their ability to communicate, made us ready to listen to them and to learn.

That's the sort of teacher whom the Prophet has in mind when he talks about the tongue of a teacher sustaining the weary with a word. He is, in fact, thinking about God's own infinite ability to teach and guide us. 'Morning by morning God wakens the Prophet to listen, and he has not been rebellious, like a naughty child, instead God opened his ear to learn and he did not turn back from what God was calling him to do.

That's not because God's teaching was soothing or easy to follow. The Prophet found himself being called to give his back to those who were striking him - presumably that means allowing himself to be flogged or beaten instead of running away or turning to fight, and that's what the Revised English Bible assumes with its translation, 'I offered my back to the lash.' Worse still, the Prophet had to endure people pulling out strands - or even clumps - of his beard, as well as insulting him and spitting in his face.

Not that this is uncontrolled aggression from a bunch of bullies or psychopaths. The antagonists of the Prophet seem to have been softening him up, or trying to extract a confession, ready for a show trial at which they expect him to be disgraced or put to shame, so that his opinions will be neutralised and will count for nothing any more. But the Prophet was so sure that God was on his side that he resolved to set his face like flint and wait confidently for a not guilty verdict.

So here we have a poem about God's tongue, the tongue of the perfect teacher, preparing his weary servant for a harsh experience, but promising to exonerate him and clear his name before the court of public opinion.

Who were these opponents who were trying to destroy the Prophet's reputation? He was probably an exile from his homeland, living in modern day Iraq. Were these members of the Iraqi regime - then called the Babylonian Empire - trying to prevent him from raising false expectations among his fellow exiles? Were they members of the Jewish community in exile in Babylon, who didn't share his optimism that God was about to change the course of history and who wanted the exiles to keep a low profile? Or is he describing - in poetry - the collective experience which the whole exiled community had gone through when they were snatched from their homeland and marched into captivity?

Christians, of course, cannot fail to notice the striking parallel with the trial of Jesus. Had he read and been inspired by this poem when he began to prophesy to his friends that God's representative, The Son of Man, must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and only then - after three days - rise again?

James reminds us that only God can fairly be described as a perfect teacher, and he warns that teaching and preaching for that matter, is therefore a risky profession because those 'who teach will be judged with greater strictness' than those who do not presume to tell other people what to do or how to behave. But in the end, after his rant about the evils of an unguarded tongue, he comes around to much the same way of thinking as the Prophecy. What matters is that we are true to our calling. If we are meant to be a spring or a fountain, we should produce fresh water. If we are meant to be an olive tree, we should yield olives. If we are meant to be seawater we should taste salty.

If we came across a spring that produced brackish water, or olive trees that yielded figs, or saltwater that tasted sweet, something would clearly be very wrong and we should have to treat that situation with extreme caution and suspicion. It's the same alarming situation which we face, says James, when someone says one thing but does another, or says conflicting things. In those circumstances we have to ask ourselves what's really going on. Has the person who is doing this lost their direction, or have they been corrupted by false motives?

Jesus rebuked Peter for losing his way and then went on to explain to his startled disciples that being true to the inner teachings of God's Spirit is all about behaving like the Prophet in the poem. Just as the Prophet was not rebellious, and did not turn his back on suffering when this became part of his calling, so - as Christians - we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus.

However, this call to suffering is not about becoming holy doormats, and refusing to resist any bully who happens to cross our path. It doesn't mean that we must accept pain or misfortune as an inevitable part of the Christian life. The call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and - if necessary - forfeit our lives is explicitly a call to do this only when it it is necessary for Jesus' sake and for the sake of the gospel. Which brings us full circle, back to the need to listen carefully - like the Prophet - for God's guidance and calling. Unlike Peter, we must set our minds resolutely on divine things, not human things.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Our instruction manual

Psalm 19.1-4
Proverbs 1.20-33

Someone claimed on the Radio the other day that the real difference between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom is that only human beings can write - or read - an instruction manual. Instruction manuals combine language and tool making so that we can pass on really complicated designs to people who have never seen them before and enable them to make a copy of their own, or learn how to use a piece of technology that someone else has devised. No other animal can do that.

Mind you, before we congratulate ourselves too much for our superiority to the other animals, let's remember that it's not easy to write a good instruction manual. I saw one example posted on a blog which was intended for making a bike tower, to
hang up bicycles on the wall in a garage or shed and save space. It begins, 'Please read this instruction manual carefully before use.' But then it goes on, "If you lost this instructions, please call us written on the end of this instructions." Does that make any sense to you? What can it mean? If we've lost our instructions, how are we going to call a number - presumably, I think that's what they mean - that's actually written on the instructions?

And then it says, "Bike Tower 3100 is the display stand for ordinary two-wheel bicycles, only. Keep out small babies from Bike Tower 2." The mind boggles. Do the writers imagine that babies are going to be climbing up the wall to reach this thing?

After these important instructions, it goes on to say in smaller print, "In this instructions we explain some duties to you as below for keeping yours and your neighbourhood's safety from any troubles." And it prints three symbols,
two with exclamation marks in the middle of - respectively - a triangle and a circle, and one resembling a 'no entry' sign.

The first, the triangle,
"Means most dangerous things as death or serious injury, or damage to your possessions." The 'no entry' sign "means forbid things." And the final symbol, the circle, 'Means your duty as compulsion things."

Well I could go on. Suffice to say the instruction manual goes on to mention that, "It is your duty that you always adjust the degree of the Frame Hook Beam when you hang another bicycles." Of course, it's not clear what that means, which just goes to show that writing a good instruction manual is not easy. So perhaps we're not so very different from the other animals as we'd like to think!

Mind you, the Bible is an instruction manual, but not for hanging up our bicycles. It's an instruction manual for how to live our lives the way that God intended. And it tells us that there are other good instruction manuals which we can use, too. The beauty and grandeur of the earth and sky remind us, for example, how important it is for us to take care of the world around us. And they do this without speaking aloud, and there's no need for sky-writing to explain things to us, because it's all spelt out for us in pictures - the sunrise and the sunset, breathtaking cloud formations, twinkling stars, and so on. Who wouldn't want to look after a world as beautiful as ours?

And the Bible tells us that another instruction manual given to us by God is the gift of wisdom - the knowledge of what is true, or right, or just and the ability to recognise it when we see it.

The trouble is that a lot of us don't bother with instruction manuals. No one can blame us, of course, when they're not very good. But even when they are helpful, the rule of thumb that a lot of us choose to live by is, 'If all else fails, read the manual!' In our Bible reading Wisdom cries out to people in frustration, trying to tell us that it's foolish to do that, and especially to ignore God's instructions for living.

The way we sometimes choose to behave is a bit like building a city in a hurricane zone, and then neglecting to look after its flood defences. Or like making the climate hotter and hotter, by filling the atmosphere with pollution, and then wondering why the ice is melting and the sea level is rising. If we only listened to Wisdom, we would know how unwise these things are. The only way to be safe and secure is to listen to what God's Wisdom is telling us.

Jesus, of course, never wrote a book, or an instruction manual. Yet the Bible gives us a record not only of his teaching about how to live, but also something much better - a record of how he himself lived so that we can copy the master. That means our instruction manual isn't a lot of boring facts, or things that don't make sense, unless you puzzle out what the writer really intended to say. Our instruction manual is a person.