Friday, October 29, 2010

Facing Up To Challenge

Psalm 129
This psalm reminds me of the saying that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you! Life often seems like one long series of little assaults, doesn’t it? Tax bills, speeding tickets perhaps, petty demands from officious people to show them ID that you’ve left in the drawer at home. So I could go on. Helen remarked the other day that problems at work seem to be stored up for the afternoon before her day off so that she either comes home very late or ends up working in her own time. ‘Often have they attacked me from my youth,’ or so it sometimes seems anyway.

But the Psalmist makes it clear that here it is the nation of Israel which is speaking, not a harassed individual. Often has she been attacked since her youth - by desert raiders, by the Egyptians of course, by the Philistines, the Syrians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and so I could go on - right up until the time of the Nazi Holocaust. ‘Often they have attacked me, yet they have not prevailed.’

If the Church is the New Israel then perhaps the words of the Psalm apply to us also. The Church was born out of the blood of its first martyrs, indeed Christianity began with the crucifixion of its founder. Today Christians still face localised persecution in places like Pakistan. And, of course, the Pope and his advisers have courted unpopularity by drawing attention to the aggressive atheism which constantly gnaws away at religious faith in this country too - especially in the media. ‘Often they have attacked me, yet they have not prevailed.’

The image of our opponents ploughing on our backs is graphic and disturbing. It reminds me of the scourging of Jesus and the tortures inflicted on the Suffering Servant in Isaiah’s prophecies. ‘Often they have attacked me, yet they have not prevailed.’

The Psalmist ends by hoping that the Lord will intervene to overcome the wicked by cutting the cords that they use to flail or bind their opponents. He imagines them withering like grass growing in the thatch of a house. It will never grow long enough to be harvested and turned into hay because its roots will not sustain it in the dry thatch. In the same way he hopes that the plans of the wicked will never come to final fruition.

However, the Gospel teaches us that it is only through enduring the suffering and scorn of the wicked that the faithful can prevail. Jesus not only underwent flogging and crucifixion, he also had to put up with the jeers of passers-by who said to him as he hung on the cross, ‘Clearly the blessing of the Lord is not with you.’ This was part of the spiritual and psychological torment which he had to undergo along with the physical pain and, in the end, he was reduced to asking God why he had been abandoned by him? And yet, of course, he had not been abandoned. ‘Often they have attacked me, yet they have not prevailed.’

Ezra 1.1-11
The Book of Ezra is one of the most exclusivist books in the Bible. Perhaps inevitably, given the broken state of the nation at the time, it focuses inwards on the nation of Israel to the virtual exclusion of all other people.

It’s amazing, therefore that it begins with a very generous tribute to the Persian Emperor Cyrus. It says that God inspired him to restore the nation and to help its people to restore their temple. It also says that God put him in charge of all the nations which he ruled. Actually, somewhat bombastically, Cyrus clams to be the ruler of all the nations of the earth, which he must have known to be a falsehood.

The story has some resonance with us because it’s about the restoration and refurbishment of a place of worship for the community. I wouldn’t want to make too much of a single word, whose meaning is anyway disputed by scholars, but interestingly Cyrus doesn’t tell the people of Judah to go and restore or reconstruct their ruined temple. He tells them to build a new one. It’s not a command to restore the glories of the past but to make something that’s ready to meet the challenge of the future.

John 7.14-36
The Gospel reading raises some interesting issues. The first one concerns the place and importance of learning in human affairs.

Much has been made recently of Stephen Hawking’s assertion that we no longer need God to explain the existence of the universe, and his criticism of philosophers, who he said were behind the curve and had lost touch with cutting edge thinking. Of course, those statements produced an ascerbic response from philosophers, who didn’t take kindly to being lectured by a scientist.

Jesus says that true learning has nothing to do with academic achievement. In fact, real wisdom has a spiritual dimension and an ethical dimension. People who understand what is right and just are better able to discern the truth and are more likely to be sincere.

A great deal of so-called academic learning is self-promotion, helping the professor or teacher to sell more copies of his or her latest book and advance his or her career. Could that be the case with Stephen Hawking? A few controversial remarks can drum up a great deal of publicity.

As regards what Professor Hawking has to say about God and the universe, a God of the Gaps is no use at all to people of faith. If we just wheel God out like a deus ex machina to explain gaps in human knowledge we will be doomed to end up with a redundant and powerless God because the gaps in human knowledge keep shrinking.

But people of faith have long recognised this. I’m sure we don’t need theologians or philosophers to explain how the universe came into existence. But perhaps we need them to consider a different question, ‘Why is it here?’

After talking about the challenge to his teaching, Jesus goes on to attack the absurdity of religious regulations which allow people to be inducted into the faith, but not to be healed or made whole, on the sabbath day. Of course, we might feel that this is a caricature of the true Jewish faith. There are actually just thirty-nine things which Jewish people are absolutely forbidden to do on the sabbath and healing is not one of them. In particular, saving someone’s life is a sacred obligation and it overrides any other sabbath law. But Jesus was impatient with any religious rules and regulations unless they were absolutely justified. He even permitted his followers to prepare food and plough their fields on the sabbath, both of which certainly are forbidden in Jewish Law.

Some Jewish people expected the origins of the true Messiah to be shrouded in mystery whereas clearly there was nothing mysterious about Jesus. He was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee, and therefore he could not be the true Messiah. But Jesus counters this reasoning by saying that although he is an ordinary person he has been given a special mission by God - and that is something genuinely mysterious. Jesus’ response is enough to convince some people in the crowd that he’s mad, bad and dangerous to know. But others are convinced that he really is from God and they believe in him.

The authorities now try to arrest Jesus for claiming to be the Messiah but John is quick to point out that - although Jesus was eventually tried and executed - this could only happen at the time appointed by God. In the meantime the authorities were bound to be thwarted.

The other Gospels hint that what kept Jesus at liberty for so long was the protection of the crowds surrounding him, which made it difficult to carry out an arrest without provoking a riot. But for John this is too haphazard an explanation because he wants us to understand beyond any doubt that God was in control of the whole of Jesus’ destiny. However, Jesus warns that his earthly ministry will inevitably come to an end and then finding him will become a matter of faith.

As so often in the Gospels, the crowd don’t understand some of his more enigmatic remarks and look for a more straight forward explanation. If they won’t be able to see him any more, does that means he’s going on a mission to the Diaspora, the Jewish people dispersed to Gentile lands who actually out-numbered Jewish people living in Palestine?

Paradoxically the crowd are right, of course. Jesus’ mission is going to be extended to Gentile lands, and not just to the Jewish people living there, but the task will be undertaken by his followers empowered by his Spirit. And we stand in that succession. Our mission is to help the people around us to continue finding Jesus.

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