Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dynamic Worship

Psalm 19, Nehemiah 8:1-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21



At the end of the Exile in Babylon the Jewish people who returned to Jerusalem underwent a religious revival. There had been a similar revival before the Exodus, during the reign of the young king Josiah, when the Book of Deuteronomy was suddenly 'discovered', hidden away and neglected in the Temple. The reform in Josiah's reign had prompted the closure of all the hill shrines in Judah and the centralisation of worship in the Temple. The new religious revival expanded the Law of Moses to include new books which seem to have been gathered together from earlier traditions during and immediately after the Exile, when scholars were striving to protect and preserve what was important in the Jewish heritage.

The people who returned from exile certainly took Bible study seriously. They spent six hours listening attentively to the reading of the Law, that is from sunrise to midday. When Ezra blessed the Torah they stood up respectfully, then they raised their hands in worship, saying 'Amen, Amen!' at the end of the blessing, and prostrated themselves on the ground. It isn't clear whether they remained prostrate throughout the reading of the Scriptures, or stood up again, or were allowed to sit. Whatever they did, however, listening attentively for that length of time was a remarkable feat.

Notice how the words of scripture had to be interpreted to the people. They didn't immediately understand what the Law meant for their own situation. Someone who already understood had to make sense of it for them. And so preaching was born. And, of course, with preaching comes the tendency to over-interpret instead of letting the words speak for themselves. Complicated explanations, and the quest for additional meaning, are not just a feature of Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures. They have always featured in Christianity, too, not to mention Islam.

So the Parable of the Good Samaritan was once reinterpreted as a story about the salvation of the world, rather than a challenge for us to take care of one another in more practical ways. In this reinterpretation, the man fallen among thieves became the average sinner, the Good Samaritan was identified with Jesus himself, the inn to which the Samaritan was taken became the Church and the two coins which the Good Samaritan gives to the inn-keeper became the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. And that's just one example of a celebrated ancient preacher over egging the pudding!

But the Bible does need to be interpreted, to help us understand what it meant for its first readers and what - by extension - it might therefore be capable of meaning for our own situation too. If we don't interpret it, then it cannot speak to many of the issues we face which the original writers could not have foreseen - issues such as the huge expansion of science and technology, the changing roles of men and women, the modern global economy, new medical understanding and so on.

Notice how - after all this attentive listening and solemn interpretation - the people did at last get to have some fun. It was the Lord's Day, but it was also a day for celebration, not a day for mourning and weeping. With their earnest exhortations to spend Sunday sitting quietly reading the Bible or sewing samplers of The Lord's Prayer, Christians in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries too easily forgot this. Even when I was a child we weren't allowed to play football in the garden or watch TV, lest Sunday should get too exciting. And a generation before, of course, everyone had to go to church three times on a Sunday. If only Christians had remembered that joy in the Lord was their true strength, perhaps the secular backlash against Sunday would not have turned it into just another day like all the rest.

Psalm 19 says that there's so much to celebrate and praise God for that the whole of creation is vibrant with praise. This praise is not expressed in words, of course. Just by being and doing their thing, the universe, the sun and the earth all celebrate God's power and creativity. The sheer joy of their very existence is praise enough. And the Law of Moses, far from being dreary, or dry as dust, or stern and impenetrable, is cause for celebration too - sweeter than honey or sugar candy - because it contains the distilled wisdom and will of God.

Apparently, one of the things that attracts people to the Qu'ran is the beauty of the Arabic poetry in which it is written. I say 'apparently', because the poetry suffers badly in translation. And perhaps that's true of the Law of Moses, too. But notice that, unlike Muslim claims for the Qur'an, no where do either of these Old Testament passages suggest that these scriptures are the Word of God. They are words, decrees, precepts and ordinances - they contain the wisdom of God, but they are not the Word of God. The Word of God, his wisdom in action, cannot be contained within the pages of any book, however well written. And that, of course, is a fundamental point of difference between the Jewish and Christian faiths and Islam. But more of that in a few minutes.

Paul, in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, reminds his readers of another dimension to Christian celebration - it's dynamic. That is to say, it's spirit-filled. It's not just an exercise in listening. It's about receiving. We all get to drink in God's Spirit. That's a heady image, isn't it? Like drinking sparkling wine - a fizzy concoction, likely to get up our noses if we don't do it right, but capable of adding an amazing buzz to our lives. Drinking in the Spirit is what transforms some people into apostles, prophets or teachers - that is people commissioned to proclaim, or explain the Gospel, or to tease out its implications. And, says Paul, that's not to forget the gifts of power which the Spirit can bestow. This is a drink with a real kick, real vavoom! Some people will be inspired by the Spirit to become healers, or helpers, or leaders, or to speak in ecstatic tongues.

There are two things to note about what Paul says here. First, he makes no distinction between the more glamorous gifts - such as healing and leadership, and a more mundane gift like helping or assisting other people. Both would appear to be equally important in the eyes of God.

Paul illustrates this by talking about body image. Even when we feel concerned about our body image, if we think our bottom or our stomach is too large for example, we don't usually do a Gok Wan and let it all hang out or try to look good naked. Instead, we go to special lengths - like Trinny and Susannah - to dress in a way which will flatter our whole body and make us feel better about ourselves. So, perversely, it's the bits of ourselves that we feel most comfortable with that get the least attention, while when it comes to the bits that bother us - our flabby stomach or our big bottom - we will happily spend a fortune trying to conceal or camouflage them.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, in a strange way, the whole of our body ends up being treated as equally important. The bits that give us the most pride are allowed to speak for themselves, while the bits that trouble us are cleverly under-stated beneath flattering and sometimes expensive suits of clothes, and in this way we are able to give the impression that we're fit and good looking.

That brings us to Paul's second point, that drinking in the Spirit is all about team work, all about different people coming together to make their own unique contribution to the out-working of the Spirit's power in whatever way God has called them. And if that's true, drinking in God's Spirit can only be done to best advantage if we are part of a team and belong to a worshipping community.

It's no accident, of course, that Paul talks about drinking the Spirit straight after his instructions for the celebration of the Eucharist. It is when the Christian community gathers to break bread together and pass around the cup of wine which recalls Jesus' death that the Spirit's power becomes available to them in this way.

And so to our Gospel reading, which is also about worship. Just like the returning exiles in Nehemiah's time, Jesus leads the congregation in the study of the Scriptures; not the Law of Moses this time but the Prophecy of Isaiah. However, the impact on the congregation when Jesus explains the meaning of the passage for the present time is just as electrifying. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him as he told them, 'Today in your hearing this text has come true!'

Not only is this passage about reading and interpreting the Scripture. It's also a dynamic encounter with the power of the Spirit. Jesus comes to the synagogue filled with the Holy Spirit and he tells the congregation, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me', so that they can be in doubt God is working and speaking through him.

This is where God's Word comes back into the picture. As we have seen, people often associate the Word of God with the written word. We even say, sometimes, after the reading of the Scriptures in our own services, 'This is the Word of the Lord' . But, in fact, the Word of the Lord is Jesus himself.

For Muslims, God is revealed supremely through the poetic words of the Qur'an. For Christians he is revealed supremely not in a book, but in a person. For Muslims, as for orthodox Jews in the case of the Torah, Scripture is a divine creation handed down to human beings who are merely its curators - in the case of the Qur'an to Muhammad, and in the case of the Torah to Moses. But for Christians, the Scriptures are an inspired work of human minds as the faithful followers of God attempt to record and make sense of the revelation they have received in Jesus. It is the Cross that is the central revelation of God's Word, his wisdom at work in the world. And the New Testament contains only the divinely inspired attempts of Jesus' followers to tell the good news of that event and to explain what it means for us today. In order words, like the preaching of Esra in the time of Nehemiah, the Bible is above all an attempt to explain what God is doing. And, like the worship of Paul's day, the dynamic result is teaching that is inspired by God's Spirit.

Do you remember the old days of vinyl recordings? Each one conveyed a record of the original performance of words and music, but - no matter how good the record player - there was always some background hiss. The Bible is the divinely inspired record of God's Word at work in the world, but always in the background of the text - and its explanation of what God's Word has been doing - there is the hiss which comes from the writers' own assumptions and preoccupations. And, no matter how much we may be guided by the Spirit today, in our own dynamic preaching and teaching and listening, there is always the background hiss of our own assumptions and culture too. Only when we see God's Word face to face, as the congregation did in Nazareth, will we get the digital version of the recording and be certain that today the text is being interpreted perfectly in our hearing.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Epiphany

Isaiah 60.1-6, Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12

The beginning of Isaiah chapter 60 is the origin of a lot of the myth and fable surrounding the story of the magi, astrologers or wise men. Isaiah is probably talking about a spotlight shining on the renewed nation of Israel, lighting up the darkness of sin and ignorance around her and making her a beacon of God's glory for the whole world to see, to which peoples and their rulers will naturally be drawn like moths to a flame. But it was a rather optimistic view, wasn't it, and Christians have naturally seen the passage's true fulfilment in Jesus.

Once he becomes the focus of the prophecy everything falls into place and the origins of Matthew's famous birth narrative become clear. When Jesus is born the light of the Lord God will arise over the place where Jesus lies in his mother's arms and God's glory will appear over him. Nations and kings will journey towards his radiant light from faraway lands, acknowledging at last that God is their true overlord. These seekers after truth and light will be female as well as male, though whether they will walk side by side or whether the daughters will be gathered in the arms of their nurses or mothers depends on your interpretation of the Hebrew original. But they will come bearing lavish gifts, including gold and frankincense. And there will be camels - lots of them - and, in verse 7, sheep too. Even when Matthew doesn't weave some of these details into his own version of the Christmas story, other later writers don't hesitate to include them.

Psalm 72 was probably a coronation psalm, used when a new king came to the throne or perhaps at an annual enthronement ceremony, when the people pledged their allegiance to the king and he renewed his vows both to them and to God. But, again, it's rather idealistic. There is an appeal for the king to rule with justice and righteousness, but also for his rule to last for as long as the sun and moon endure, which seems extremely hopeful. The Psalmist prays that the king's reign may bring as much prosperity and vitality to the land as the Spring reigns and, once again, the hope is expressed that other nations will be drawn by his example to bring gifts from faraway places and kneel before him. It's all rather reminiscent of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but whereas Solomon's head was turned by all the wealth and prestige which he accumulated, the Psalm prays that the king will remember that his first priority must always be the care of the poor, the oppressed, the victims and the needy - in fact the needy get repeated mention throughout the last few verses that we read.

Again, it's little wonder that Christians have used these words as a hymn to Jesus and have linked them with Matthew's account of Jesus' birth. Does Matthew himself allude to verse 11, perhaps, when he says that the wise men bowed down in homage to Jesus? The Revised English Bible certainly thinks so, because it uses the word 'homage' in both passages to heighten the allusion and the Revised Version does the same thing, only using the words 'fall down' as in the phrase, 'kings shall fall down before him'. And this, then, together with the passage from Isaiah, becomes the source of the idea that the astrologers or wise men were also kings.

Ephesians chapter 3 begins with a reminder that Paul's mission to the Gentiles was revealed to him in a vision of the risen Jesus. It's not clear to me where the 'secret purpose' of Christ comes into this, and perhaps - once again - this is an over translation by the Revised English Bible of what the Letter to the Ephesians actually says because the word the writer actually uses is 'mystery' - meaning something previously hidden but which God has now revealed.

Some early Christians did believe that their new faith was a bit like the popular understanding of freemasonry - something full of secret knowledge which only those who were initiated into it could properly understand - and the writer's cryptic reference to an earlier brief account which his readers already know about, and which helps to explain the mystery revealed to Paul, could suggest that the writer of Ephesians is that kind of Christian too. But I don't think so. I think it's a reference to what he has been saying earlier in the Letter, in chapter 1, that the mystery now revealed to those who believe in Jesus is that the entire cosmos is being gathered together or brought into harmony and unity in him. And Paul's special part in this mysterious plan was to be made the chief apostle - although the writer uses the word 'minister' rather than apostle - to the Gentiles, to give them the good news that in Jesus they have become part of God's chosen people and are now joint heirs to all God's promises alongside the Jewish nation. And, says the writer, when Paul has squared the circle by carrying out his special part in God's plan, the wisdom of God will finally be made clear to all the rulers and authorities in the cosmos.

Ephesians was written, or put together from the fragments of Paul's previous writings, by someone anxious to defend Paul's reputation and to argue that he had been right to preach to Gentiles that they could become followers of Jesus without adopting the Jewish faith, although this passage is most uncharacteristic of anything else written by Paul - or in his name - in that normally he is very explicitly called an apostle whenever the word is mentioned. This is because, even in his own lifetime, some of his fellow Jewish Christians had tried to deny that he was a real apostle like them and Paul and his friends were very touchy about it.

The passage finds its way into the readings for Epiphany because of its stress on God's plan to reveal the Gospel of Jesus to the Gentiles, since that also seems to be the main emphasis behind Matthew's birth narrative about the magi, wise men or astrologers. They are symbolic of all the nations of the world who will come to pay homage to Jesus as God's anointed leader, in fulfilment of the ancient prophecies and the psalms.

The rulers and authorities which the writer to Ephesians talks about are spiritual powers which he believes are in control of the universe, but who will now discover their part in God's over-arching plan and become part of his purposes too, whereas the rulers and authorities which Matthew, Isaiah and the Psalmist talk about are real flesh and blood people, who are also destined to discover their part in God's plan. Wicked King Herod, the pantomime villain of the Bible, pretends that now he knows about the need to join the procession of leaders and nations who are going to submit to the authority of God's new leader, he too will go and worship him, but the wise men or astrologers are warned by God not to take him at his word.

So what is the message of the Epiphany story for us, at the start of an election year? Obviously that we need to be wary of politicians, even when they very explicitly promise to do the right thing!

David Owen has argued that politicians, even Christian ones, all too easily fall victim to hubris. That is, they begin to believe in their own myth. He cites Mrs Thatcher as an example. She became so used to taking on her own cabinet colleagues, and apparently being able to prove that she knew better than any of them, that when everyone told her the Poll Tax was a crazy idea she simply wouldn't listen to them but pressed ahead with it anyway, believing she was always right, and thus bringing about her own downfall. And, he argues that a similar thing happened to Tony Blair when he insisted on supporting the American invasion of Iraq despite massive opposition and the misgivings of many of his closest colleagues and advisers. Even now he still can't accept that it was a massive mistake.

The template for true leadership is a politician's willingness to pay due homage to the will of God and put the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the victims and the needy at the top of their election manifesto, and then stick to those pledges when they are in office. Even the economy and high finance take second place to compassion and should be put at the service of those in greatest need. Bankers and captains of industry, as well as politicians, must be willing to bow the knee before Jesus and lavish their richest gifts on doing his will.

But, of course, the message of Epiphany is not just for politicians. As Ephesians reminds us, the Church is caught up in the purposes and plans of God, too. We have a special responsibility to call everyone into partnership with Jesus and to make sure that they know they belong to him - again beginning with those who are outsiders, who are the weakest and most vulnerable members of society or who are normally left out of everyone else's thinking.

Unless we allow the Epiphany story to shape our actions in this way, so that we too come to pay homage to the little child lying in the arms of Mary his mother, it will remain a picture book story, a pretty tale for nursery and infant school children to re-enact at Christmas, whereas it is meant to be a world changing event. It is our responsibility to work as partners and co-workers with God, to make sure that the spotlight remains fixed on Jesus and enables him to go on banishing the darkness which otherwise threatens to engulf the world.

Baptism

Isaiah 43.1-2, Luke 3.15-17, 21-22, Acts 8.14-17


Unlike our other lectionary readings, the beginning of Isaiah chapter 43 is not a passage that is directly about baptism, but it is redolent with themes that are linked to baptism. It talks about the idea that we belong to God, and are called by name to be part of his people. It talks about the idea that God redeems, or sets us free, from all that would hold us captive or enthralled and which would prevent us from realising our true potential. And it talks about us passing through rivers without being overwhelmed and fires without being scorched or consumed. This part of the passage has, perhaps, less to do with baptism and more to do with God being with us in times of hardship, suffering and adventure. But, of course, the mention of waters and rivers immediately conjures up baptismal imagery. And fire and flame might remind us of the Holy Spirit.


More significantly, perhaps, the image of passing through deep waters is often associated in the Bible with dying and reminds us, also, therefore that baptism is a rite of passage. That is to say, it marks an important transition, or staging post, from one state of being to another. For a long time, when people commonly believed that God could only forgive our sins once in a lifetime, they delayed their baptism until they were at the point of death, as the Emperor Constantine did. But there was another ancient tradition, which eventually gained greater popularity, that Christians should baptise their children as soon as possible after their birth, perhaps because life expectancy for infants was once so uncertain. So, either way, baptism soon came to mark a vital moment in a Christian's physical existence - either the point of our entry into life or the point of our leave taking from it.


However, before it became associated with physical birth and death, baptism was already linked to spiritual turning points in human life. When Gentile people adopt the Jewish faith, one of the rites of entry into Judaism, is a kind of baptism - signifying that they're dying to their old Gentile way of life - or being cleansed of its associations - and rising to their new Jewish existence. At the time of Jesus, a radical Jewish sect called the Essenes took this a step further. Deciding that the rest of the nation was irrevocably sinful, they separated themselves off into new communities where everyone was totally obedient to their interpretation of the Jewish faith. To enter an Essene community it was necessary to be cleansed of the old sinful way of life, just as if one were a Gentile, and to leave behind all of its old associations, just as if one had died to the old way of life completely.

John the Baptist had his own variation on the theme of baptism. He didn't ask people to separate themselves from the rest of society, but he did ask them to die to their old sinful way of life and make a radical new beginning before they fell under God's judgement and were doomed forever. He differed from the Essenes in that he was far more optimistic than they were. They had given up hope that the whole nation might ever be holy again, which is why they retreated into the desert and set themselves apart, whereas John the Baptist believed that everyone still had the chance to make a new beginning.

Notice how there's no suggestion, in Luke's account of John's ministry, that John actually knew Jesus, which is strange given the earlier story in the Gospel about John's miraculous birth, and the claim - within that story - that he was Jesus' cousin. Some people have felt, when they read these two different accounts side by side, that the birth narrative must be a later addition to the Gospel, which was perhaps originally intended to begin at chapter 3.

Be that as it may, Luke makes clear that John did not consider himself to be the Messiah, perhaps because at first - in the early days of the Christian faith - there was still some doubt about this. But in Luke's account John doesn't say that Jesus is the Messiah, either, only that one is coming who is mightier or more powerful than he. The baptism conferred by this newcomer will be more meaningful than John's purely symbolic baptism, in which people merely committed themselves to a new start, at least in Luke's understanding of what was happening. In contrast, his new baptism will also be sacramental - that is to say, it will confer a real spiritual blessing on those who are baptised, as they receive the Holy Spirit and - with it - the power to be changed and to change the world around them.

Not only is it not clear from Luke's account that John spoke about Jesus, it's not even clear that he actually baptised Jesus. It may have been one of John's disciples who performed the baptism because Jesus simply joined the crowd of people flocking to make a new start in their life and renounce their share in the nation's sinful ways.

We can be very sure that Jesus was baptised, however, because Christians were - from the very beginning of the faith - a little bit embarrassed about this. Why should Jesus feel the need to identify himself with all the people who were trying to turn their life around? Didn't he already know that he was special? Luke leaves this open to doubt, remarking only that - while Jesus was praying after his baptism - he had an intense visionary experience in which he felt the Spirit of God descending on him in a very graphic and real way, and heard a voice assuring him that he was the voice's beloved Son.

Later, some Christians interpreted this as meaning that Jesus only became one with God when he received the Holy Spirit after his baptism and submitted himself entirely to God's will. But, as time went by, this understanding of what had happened at the River Jordan was felt to be incompatible with the teaching in the Gospel of John that Jesus is the divine Word, who has always been part of what it means to be God and who shared in creation. Whether it really is incompatible with that teaching is perhaps another matter, but for Christians who held the view that God had somehow adopted Jesus after his baptism, it was certainly very easy to imagine that God had only been present in Jesus in the same way that he is present in all of us - although perhaps in a more sustained and intense way than usual, whereas mainstream Christianity has come to view that in Jesus God has actually experienced the totality of human existence - its joy and sadness, its moments of pain and elation, but above all - our birth and death, and has experienced them not as a disinterested spectator but as someone who was actually sharing in those things himself. And because God has experienced what it is to be fully human we are promised that we will one day be able to experience what it means to be fully divine.

For Christians, then, baptism soon came to mean a great deal more than just a rite of passage, it became a sacramental moment, a moment of grace and gifting by God. Paul describes it as the moment when we die to ordinary human existence, with all its limitations and failings, and rise to a new kind of human life - the kind which Jesus shares with God.

And so we come to that curious passage from the Acts of the Apostles, which was also written by Luke and therefore is shot through with his rather peculiar understanding of how the Holy Spirit works. No where else can one imagine reading an account of a baptism which is only half of the real thing. What is supposed to be going on here?

Well, for one thing, the mission to Samaria, which was taking place when this story happens, had not been begun by one of the apostles - that is by one of the men and women commissioned by the risen Jesus to proclaim the good news about him. Instead, the person leading this mission was Philip, a man who had been appointed to manage the church's social work but not to preach and baptise. Perhaps Luke was a little uncomfortable about this. It's possible that, in his own day, unauthorised people were going around preaching and he felt this was a bad thing and that they might be encouraged by this story. So he makes the point that Philip's baptism isn't complete without the intervention of a real apostle, someone who can actually do the sacramental bit and confer the Holy Spirit on people, as Jesus did. However, if that's the case, then Luke very soon seems to forget the limitations of Philip's baptism, because later in the same chapter Philip also baptises the Ethiopian Eunuch, and there's no suggestion that the eunuch's baptism wasn't complete.

Perhaps, instead therefore, Luke means us to understand the episode in Samaria as part of a learning curve for Philip. At first, not unnaturally, he baptises people just in the name of Jesus, whereas by the time of Luke Christians were probably being baptised in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and certainly the Holy Spirit is very important to Luke and he doesn't feel it can be left out of the equation.

I think, in the end, we're probably being reminded again by this little story that baptism is indeed a sacrament, that it isn't just about ministers, or anyone else, doing something symbolic and stating publicly that we owe our allegiance to Jesus. It's also about bringing God's Spirit into the situation, and into the life of the person who is being baptised, in a very real and powerful way. It's about separating out - but not about separating individual believers out from the rest of the community in the way that the Essene's separated people out. It's more about separating the worthless husk within our human nature - the disobedient side - from the pure grain, the part of us that is naturally drawn to godliness, and giving us the spiritual resources to keep them apart so that we can set be set aside for service to the community.

However, baptism is only the start of a process. In baptism we acknowledge that we - or our children - belong to God, that we are called by God to be part of his people, to identify ourselves with Jesus' death for us and to die to life without him. But what we are called to is a journey, not a destination. We are on the way, but we have not yet arrived. It's a process, or a pilgrimage, which has to be renewed and reaffirmed each day.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Lavish Gift of God's Covenant

Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ephesians 1.3-14, John 1.10-18


These passages are about the nature of God's covenant. The covenant is not a promise to protect people from harm. It's not a magic bubble in which we can take refuge. But it is a promise that God will never forget his servants and that he will save them in spite of disaster.


To whom is Jeremiah's promise addressed? Mention is made in verses 6 and 9 of Ephraim, one of the sons of Joseph and the ancestor of the most significant of the ten tribes which made up the northern kingdom of Israel before her people were defeated and exiled by the Assyrians, more than a hundred years before Jeremiah is prophesying. Is the promise meant for the descendants of those earlier exiles as well as for the people of the two southern tribes of Judah, who were now about to be defeated and exiled by the Babylonians?

Repeated mention is also made of Jacob, the common ancestor of all the tribes, both from the north and the south. Legend had it that whatever sufferings his descendants endured Jacob would undergo with them. And verse 6 calls upon all the returning exiles, whether from North or South, to go up to Mount Zion, the home of God's Temple in the southern capital city of Jerusalem. So this would seem to be a promise to all those who have seen their families killed or uprooted, their homes destroyed, and who have been forced to leave the land of their birth.

The Lord is going to save his people - but not all of them, only a remnant will survive to be gathered again as a mother hen gathers her scattered chicks after the predator has swooped down to attack them. This is a God, then who stays with his people in disaster and seeks to bring them safely through it, but who cannot prevent the disaster from happening and from taking its toll.

However, when he does restore the nation the returning exiles will still make up a vast company of people, even though they are only a remnant of those who were there before. And this will be a very inclusive gathering. God will tenderly guide back to the homeland those who are blind, or lame, or pregnant, or even in labour. And instead of having to pass through arid deserts or over high mountains, which might have claimed further victims, the returning exiles will be escorted beside streams of water and along smooth paths where there are no treacherous places to stumble and fall.

Life in the promised land will once more be like it was when the people of Israel, fresh from their previous captivity in Egypt, first saw that it was a land flowing with milk and honey. There will be plenty of grain, wine and olive oil, there will be abundant herds and flocks. There will be dancing and singing again. And over all of this prosperity God will watch like a fatherly shepherd who has rescued - the Hebrew actually says 'redeemed' - his people from a foe who was too strong for them and who had overcome them.

But, of course, all of this covenant care which God will lavish upon the returning exiles begs the question, why does the nation have to suffer and be destroyed or exiled in the first place? Why couldn't God have stopped the Assyrian and Babylonian armies in their tracks? And why will he have to wait for the Persian army, in its turn, to end the exile and create the conditions in which the remnant can come home? The exiles were to wrestle with these issues for many years before finally deciding to include the Book of Jeremiah in their canon of scripture.

Their answer was twofold. First, that God uses human agents to do his work on earth, even including foreign rulers who don't believe in him. And second, that the people of Israel - north and south - must have done something terribly wrong to bring about a chain of events where foes too strong for them were able to overwhelm them and take them into captivity without God being able to intervene.

In other words, the people who put together the Old Testament concluded that God's covenant must be a two-way process. God promises to be with us and to watch over us but, unless we faithfully obey him and live according to his commands, he cannot always save us from our own folly even though he will never abandon us and will always try to rescue us.

In so far as the people of both kingdoms had failed to have absolute faith in God, and had sought the protection either of other gods or of alliances with neighbouring kingdoms and empires to save them from Assyria and Babylon, this thinking does help to explain what went wrong for Israel in the days before the Exile. Perhaps if they had taken the advice of prophets like Jeremiah, and put their whole trust in God, things might have turned out differently. But, of course, it still begs the question as to whether God's covenant can actually save us from trouble even when we are totally obedient to him. If trouble still engulfs us, even when we have made a covenant with God, does this inevitably mean that we must have broken our side of the agreement and done something to deserve it?

And so we come to the letter to the Ephesians, which takes up the idea of God's covenant and teases it out in new directions. First, the covenant now becomes very much a spiritual thing. It's no longer about giving the tribes of Israel the Promised Land as their inheritance. Instead it's about becoming God's adoptive children for all time. And it's no longer focused on a specific corner of the planet which God's people can call their home. Instead it's about the whole cosmos being brought into unity in Christ, for all things are going to be gathered up in Jesus Christ and Christians are simply the first people on earth to find out about this destiny and to be incorporated into it through their faith in the saving power of Christ's death on the Cross.

But second, it's now very clearly spelt out that God always knew he would have to step in to redeem the human race from sin and disobedience. To use management speak for a moment, the covenant promise is not a reactive process; it's not an attempt to stop the rot, it's God being proactive - seeing trouble on the way and planning a solution to it. Beginning with Paul, the New Testament sees that there is a fatal flaw in human nature. However sincerely we might want to live according to God's commands, we will never be able to do it by our own efforts. This is why the ancient kingdoms of Israel were doomed to fail in their experiment to create a holy society, and it's why the mission of Jesus Christ to secure our release from this predicament, or redeem us, by dying on the Cross for us, has been part of God's mysterious but wise and insightful plans from the very dawn of time. And here I suspect that the Revised English Bible is wrong when it says that the writer believes God has lavished all wisdom and insight on us. The passage is so loosely written that it is capable of meaning that, but it's surely more likely that what the writer really means s that God's own wisdom and insight have led him to reveal his covenant to us.

Third, it's very clear now that honouring the covenant promise costs God dearly. Jeremiah had implied this when he talked about God redeeming the people from exile. Their return home was no accident. When a member of the family was redeemed from slavery, or when a piece of land that used to be part of the family's inheritance was bought back, or redeemed, from its new owner it meant inevitably that the rest of the clan - uncles and aunts, and cousins, brothers and sisters - had clubbed together to raise the purchase price. Or, if the family was lucky, one member of the clan might have made good and become wealthy enough to be persuaded to put up the whole purchase price for them. And that's what Jeremiah believed would happen when the Exile was ended and the people returned home to the Promised Land. God would find some mysterious way to broker their release.

What the New Testament does is to unwrap the mystery. It is Jesus' death which secures our redemption - not in some mechanistic way by paying the Devil - or some other agency - to set us free, but by unlocking a process which will allow God to overcome our innate weakness and stubbornness. If we set our hope on Jesus Christ, and on the tremendous love of God revealed by his death for us, then we will be stamped with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the guarantee that we are part of God's covenant people. If we have received the Holy Spirit it shows that we are included in the deal. But also, it gives us the power that people previously lacked to live according to the covenant and become obedient children.

Methodists sometimes stay away from the covenant service because they say that the promises are too hard to keep. But that's to misunderstand the nature of the covenant. This is something which, as Ephesians makes abundantly clear, is God's immeasurable gift which he lavishes upon us in love, and our response is just that - a response, a thank you letter, after being showered with gifts - including the power to keep our promises. So our covenant promise is only a tiny part of the bargain. Again, the Revised English Bible over translates the passage when it says that we have been chosen by God to be full of love. What the writer actually says is that, in Jesus Christ, we have been chosen to be holy and blameless before him in love. That could mean that
we have got to be full of love, which would be a tall order even with the help of the Holy Spirit! But it is surely more likely to mean that it's the power of God's love revealed in Jesus which makes it possible for us to be holy and blameless and to keep our side of the covenant.

The fourth and last thing to say about the New Testament understanding of the covenant is that suffering is part and parcel of the deal. God mediates the covenant to us through the suffering of Jesus Christ on the Cross. That suffering reveals the depth of God;s love for us, but is also shows us that - in Jesus - God identifies with us in our suffering. So, when trouble comes, when we find ourselves suffering, it's not a sign that we have failed God or been abandoned by him. Just as God could not stop the Assyrian and Babylonian armies from devastating Israel, so he cannot stop disasters from befalling us now. He can only be with us in them and redeem us from them, because that's the nature of a universe in which other people, and we ourselves, enjoy free will. Things have to be free to go wrong as well as to go right.

The passage from Ephesians seems to me to be an attempt to spell out the implications of John's Gospel Chapter One. There's a strong affinity between many of the ideas in Paul's letters and the teaching of John, especially about the meaning of the Cross and the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Perhaps Paul inspired John when he was writing the Prologue to his Gospel, and perhaps - in turn - the Prologue to the Gospel inspired the passage which we read from Ephesians.

The person who put together Paul's Letter to the Ephesians was probably a follower of Paul who had some fragments of Paul's original letter to work with but who needed to fill in the gaps between them to make them into a coherent whole. The passage which we read today is actually a poem or hymn, perhaps used in the worship of the early church, which the writer has used to fill in the gap where Paul's original words of thanksgiving for God's work in the church at Ephesus would have been. They express perfectly what John is also saying in his Prologue - that Jesus' coming was always part of God's masterplan, that by trusting in him we can become God's children, that he gives us grace upon grace to enable us to live for him and that trusting in his grace and truth is the only way in which we can ever hope to live according to God's commands. It's in this spirit of trust and thankfulness that we are called to make our covenant today.