Saturday, December 24, 2011

What if men organised Christmas?

2 Samuel 7.1-11,16, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38

A recent survey of 2,000 men found a third of them were convinced that, if they were put in charge of organising Christmas, it would be less rushed, less stressful and less expensive. One female commentator remarked acidly that she didn’t believe Christmas would be less rushed if men were put in charge, simply because the planning wouldn’t begin until Christmas Eve. However, the ways that the men said they would cut down at Christmas were by sending fewer cards, (half of them wouldn’t send any cards at all in fact), by giving fewer presents and by having much simpler food. They wouldn’t be cooking turkey, for a start! A fifth said they would cook steak and chips for the family; another fifth said they would order in the food from a takeaway. And two-fifths said they would spend far less time with their in-laws.

School children were also surveyed. They too were worried about the cost of Christmas, and whether their parents would be able to afford it. Two-fifths said they would rather that Father Christmas brought them more time with their parents than a sackful of expensive presents, although - of course - that’s easily said! A quarter hoped to be able to see relatives who rarely visit during the rest of the year, but more than three in twenty worried about family rows at Christmas time. So beneath the veneer of festive cheer, a lot of people believe all is not well with the traditional British Christmas.

Our Old Testament reading from the Second Book of Samuel reminds us how David wanted to plan a more lavish worship space for God - a space fit for the Lord of lords and King of kings. He felt that there was an awful incongruity about God being worshipped in a tent while he was living in state in a palace built of cedar wood.

But God reminded David that he chooses to dwell in the midst of his people. If they live in tents then God expects to be worshipped in a tent, and not in a temple.

John Wesley adopted the same principle in his own ministry. For a long time Methodists were discouraged from building fine chapels and churches because Wesley believed that the proclamation of the Gospel properly belongs in the fields and in the streets, and in the homes of believers where they meet together to pray, encourage one another and break bread.

Our church is very beautiful and an ideal space for contemporary worship, but its existence cannot be justified purely as a home for God or a place purely for worship and prayer. Churches need to be community hubs if they are to be truly places where God is pleased to dwell.

This is an incarnational principle. It is surely no coincidence that the God who was pleased to be worshipped in a tent was pleased also to be born in a stable and to come to live and minister among his people, wandering from place to place like a travelling salesman with nowhere permanent to lay his head.

To think of God in this way is so startling - even now - that Paul calls it ‘that divine secret kept in silence for long ages’. Mind you, calling it a ‘divine secret’, which is the Revised English Bible translation, is perhaps a bit too strong, actually. It might be more accurate to talk about a ‘mystery’ rather than a ‘secret’.

I think Paul has in mind something more akin to a cryptic crossword puzzle or a Men’s and Women’s Fellowship combined Christmas quiz, than a dark Da Vinci code style conspiracy. In his new translation, which attempts to get as close as possible to the original Greek, Nicholas King calls it ‘the mystery that was wrapped in silence’.

Paul’s point is that, although the mystery of the incarnation has been made known to people throughout the world by the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel, many continue to look for God in the wrong place - in a palace rather than in the stable at Bethlehem. Even the wise are wrong-footed, therefore, by the only wise God.

So, last week, clips were played on television of the renowned atheist and essayist Christopher Hitchens calling God a ‘celestial dictator in a kind of divine North Korea’ where ‘nice’ people are ‘forced to surrender their critical faculties’ or ‘do unkind things’ in return for ‘the promise of salvation.’

Clearly he didn’t taking seriously the idea that God could be born as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem. No doubt he would have considered the incarnation to be one of those ‘stupid things’ which intelligent people are required to swallow in order to become Christian believers. But he acknowledged only recently that - although nothing had yet persuaded him to change his mind about God - ‘he liked surprises’. How intriguing, then, that both the Prophet Nathan and St Paul believed in a God of surprises!

Mary, of course, encountered the same God of surprises a little earlier than Paul. Luke tells how she was deeply troubled by the Angel’s message - at least according to the Revised English Bible’s version of events. Nicholas King perhaps captures the intensity of her feelings more acutely when he translates the same phrase as ‘deeply disturbed’. And certainly that word ‘disturbed’ reflects the way that Gabriel interpreted her response, because Luke goes on to record in both versions, that the Angel told her not to be afraid of the message he was bringing to her.

The Angel told her that her baby wouldl inherit God’s promises to David, and that he would sit on David’s throne for ever. The power of the most High would make this possible and Jesus would be called the Son of the Most High.

It sounds impressive, and Luke’s first readers would surely have been amazed to discover, a few verses later, that Jesus was actually destined to be born in a stable and laid in a manger. This is hardly the outcome we would expect for a great king, unless - of course - we are familiar with the prophecy in 2 Samuel, that the family and the kingship which will be established for ever is being set up and sustained by a God who chooses to be worshipped in a tent and to dwell in the midst of his wandering people.

I think there is something of the Ebenezeer Scrooge about the minority of men who are quick to say ‘Bah, humbug!’ about the tinsel and turkey Christmas and who insist that they would stay at home eating a takeaway dinner and eschewing their family and friends. But perhaps they, and the children who hanker after a simpler, less expensive, less frenetic Christmas celebration, are also recalling - somewhere at the back of their minds - a distant folk memory of the humble beginnings of Jesus and the modest demands of the God he represents. Shouldn’t the feast which is named after Jesus be celebrated more simply, in a way that is more in-keeping with the story it proclaims?

Remembering the School Nativity Play

Luke 2.1-7
Have you been in any Christmas plays at school? If so, what part did you get to play?

I was once a shepherd, a part I remember because the headmistress lent me a valuable family heirloom - a pottery hot water bottle - which she thought would be an impressive prop that would make me look more authentic. She told me it was a special privilege to borrow such a precious thing, but she was letting me have it because I was such a good boy and could be trusted with it. Unfortunately, I was carrying it by a string fastened round the neck of the bottle. The string snapped during the dress rehearsal and - to my horror - the bottle smashed to pieces on the wooden floor. The headmistress lost her temper and shouted at me that I had been careless, so I thought it was in big trouble, but when she calmed down she said she was sorry and that it wasn’t me fault. Phew!

Another year it felt much safer to be a wiseman and read my own poem about the gift I had brought for the Baby Jesus.

The low point for me was when one of my teachers said I couldn’t sing - which wasn’t true - and therefore couldn’t be part of the group chosen to sing Good King Wenceslas. However, I was allowed to be the peasant gathering firewood in the snow. My mother dressed me up in peasant costume, complete with a woolly moustache stuck on with special glue that brought me out in a rash. ‘Oh you don’t need a costume!’ said the teacher. ‘Your ordinary clothes would have done just fine.’ She was like that with almost everyone. No wonder the class cheered when she announced she would be leaving soon!

In November there was a survey of more than 1,000 people to see what they remembered about the nativity and Christmas plays they were in at school. Girls remembered how they always wanted to be an angel, but only beautiful blonde girls were chosen for that role. Their second choice was to be Mary, but the teacher’s pet always got that part. Boys recalled how they wanted to play Joseph, or a wiseman. But someone has to be the donkey, don’t they? My sons got to be the donkey and the lamb one year because their mother was good at sewing and could make the best animal costumes! How lucky is that?

Looking back, older people think now that they would have liked to be the innkeeper or the wicked King Herod. Those are the scene stealing parts! The innkeeper has the power to change the whole story, like the boy who was asked, ‘Is there any room in the inn?’ and replied, ‘Yes, of course. Come in and make yourselves at home!’

The school Christmas play often isn’t fair, but then life often isn’t fair, either, and God understands that. The whole point of the Christmas story is that God came to live among us in Jesus to experience what life is really like from the inside, and to share it with us. Whatever we may face, he faces it with us. That is the wonder of Christmas.

Hope in a Time of Looming Crisis

Isaiah 40.1-11
Mark 1.1-8
We were watching the news on Channel 4 the other night when Helen said, ‘The news is so terrible these days that you really don’t have time to take in the enormity of it before they’ve moved on to the next item.’

For example, there was a report that high inflation, government cuts and the longest period of wage stagnation on record will mean that the spending power of the average British family is going to plummet over the next five years. And families with children will be particularly hard hit. In 2016 they will be worse off than they might have been if their children had been exactly the same age 14 years earlier in 2002.

Mind you, it’s not just younger people who are feeling the pinch. As Jeremy Clarkson might have said, public sector workers should perhaps spare a thought for those of us who don’t already enjoy their fairly generous pension arrangements. An announcement in George Osbourne’s autumn statement on Tuesday changed my retirement date from 2024 to 2026. Not only is that the date when I will now receive my state retirement pension, the date when Methodist Ministers are able to collect their full occupational pension was recently pegged to the state retirement pension age as well. So, if I want more or less the same pension I could previously have expected to receive at 65, I must now wait for at least another two years.

And then, of course, there’s the threatened melt down of the Euro, which promises to make the 2008 banking crisis look like a mere overture. The other day I tried to order some more Euros for our post office, where we sell them to holidaymakers, but Post Office Ltd - the people who run the network - were having none of it. ‘We’re trying to limit our exposure to the Euro,’ said the man on the other end of the phone, ‘In case things go wrong.’ In the end I persuaded him to let me have more 20, 10 and 5 Euro notes in exchange for most of our 50 Euro notes - no one wants them anyway.

And so I could go on, heaping one bad news story on top of another. But, funnily enough, a government report published this week also revealed that - at least as recently as last summer - most people in Britain were still feeling happy with their life. Perhaps that’s because, like my colleagues at work, they don’t watch the Channel 4 news, or any news programmes for that matter. Or maybe it’s because, as one expert suggested, when times are hard people have to put more reliance on relationships than on things, and if we’ve got good relationships with the people who matter to us it’s easier to feel happy even when the news is unremittingly bad.

Advent is supposed to be a time of joyful expectation. Instead, this year it’s a time of looming crisis, a crisis more serious perhaps than any when since World War II. How appropriate, then, that we read this Sunday the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, ‘Comfort my people, bring comfort to them. Proclaim that their term of bondage is served, for they have already received double measure for all their sins.’

Isaiah is clear that, no matter how deep the problems we may face, we human beings have only ourselves to blame. We are being punished for our own collective arrogance, short sightedness and greed. We assumed that every year things could go on getting better and better, that living standards would grow, that we could all enjoy longer and more prosperous retirements, and we were wrong.

But Isaiah is also clear that God is not going to abandon us. Instead, he has a message of comfort for us. God is coming to face the music with us, to stand alongside us, to help us and encourage us. And like the world’s major clearing banks pumping cheap cash into beleaguered European banks, the Lord God is coming in might to help us, lending us his powerful arm to protect and guide us.

So what is it that God can do for us to bring us comfort? I think Isaiah’s message is about the power of a personal relationship with God to bring us comfort even in the darkest of times.

He reminds us that we are as frail and fragile as grass or flowers, and our achievements - like our good looks - could so quickly and easily be gone and forgotten, just like a faded flower. ‘The grass withers, the flower fades, when the blast of the Lord blows on them.’ says the Prophet. And we might conclude, therefore, that God doesn’t care to save us; that we matter no more to him than a flower or a blade of grass. But, of course, Jesus said that God does care even for sparrows and wildflowers, and so he will care for us.

And Isaiah says that God will carry us in his bosom, and lead us to water, and shield us with his arm, tending us and looking after us like a gentle shepherd. In him, and in his word, we will endure for ever.

The worship resource Roots on the Web recommended that I should buy some locusts, which it said were readily available in supermarkets, and then do a blind tasting - a bit like the man in the TV documentary who gave his guests road kill to eat at a barbecue. Only after they had eaten the meat, and declared it very tasty, did he reveal that one of the dishes was actually squirrel. Or maybe it would have been more like the delicacies served up to celebrities in the jungle, except that they know what they’re eating. But then I asked myself, ‘What would be the point of giving you locusts to eat, even if they tasted lovely?’

John ate locusts and wild honey and people often say that this was in conscious imitation of the Prophet Elijah, but actually Elijah never ate a single locust in his life, nor is there any record that he ate honey. Like John, he did wear a trademark hairshirt fastened with a leather belt, but like Crocodile Dundee he would probably have advised that, while you can eat ants and grubs you really wouldn’t want to.

Locusts usually figure in the Bible as a symbol of disaster and destruction - they eat up propsperity, a bit like financial speculators. If John has taken to eating the locusts maybe it’s to make a point, that with God alongside us we can chomp our way through even the toughest of credit crunches and come out smiling.

None of this is to make light of the trouble we are in. It’s very real. But the Bible promises us that after John, the man who bit the heads off locusts, comes one who is mightier still, whose sandals he is not even worthy to stoop down and unfasten.

The Messiah, the Lord’s anointed, will baptise us with the Spirit, allowing us to find a relationship with God that is so strong and enduring that nothing will ever be able to separate us from his love.

A Christmas Story

Mark 1.1-3
Christmas was approaching and the whole family was looking forward to the holiday - the food, the presents, the decorations, playing games round a blazing log fire. But everyone agreed that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if they couldn’t attend the Christmas Eve service in the little church down in the valley.

‘I hope it doesn’t snow,’ said Mum. ‘If it snows we won’t be able to go.’

‘Oh, why not?’ asked the Twins. ‘Couldn’t we ski?’ asked Johnny. ‘Couldn’t we go by sledge?’ asked Jenny.

‘Well,’ said Dad, ‘We could only ski if we had any skis. And we could go by sledge down the hill, but then we would have to pull it back up the hill through the snow at one o’clock in the morning.’

So everyone agreed that if it snowed heavily they would have to stay at home, even on Christmas Eve, in their farmhouse high on the hillside.

‘That means we would miss the service where we celebrate the coming of Jesus,’ said Mum. ‘Somehow it won’t feel like Christmas if we can’t be there.’

The weather stayed warm and mild for December right up until the night of Christmas Eve. That evening, as the sun set, dark clouds full of snow blanketed the sky. Soon a few flurries of snow began to fall and - by mid-evening - the snow was coming down so thick that it was impossible to see across the farmyard.

Dad came in from checking the animals. ‘We won’t be going to the service,’ he said. ‘The snow is already half a metre deep on the road. Even with snow chains it will soon be impassable.’

The Twins watched the snow falling through the window and wished they could be outside playing in it. ‘Tomorrow, after we’ve opened our presents, we can throw snow balls and ride on our sledges,’ they said to one another.

Then, just as they were going to bed, there was an urgent kock at the back door. The Twins crept to the top of the stairs and looked through the bannisters, curious to see who was visiting them so late.

It was a young man, his coat and head covered in snow. ‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ he said to Dad, ‘But we were trying to get home for Christmas to see our family and our car is stuck in the snow. My wife and baby are still in the car, but they can’t spend the night there. is there any chance we could stay here?’

Well, of course, Mum and Dad said it would be no trouble at all. The young man fetched his wife and baby and Mum brought some blankets for them and made up the settees so that they could sleep on them, by the fire. The twins came downstairs and shyly watched the baby feeding while Mum prepared some supper for the visitors. It was all very exciting, much more fun than going to church - even in the middle of the night.

In the morning, after a lovely breakfast of soup and toast and hot boiled eggs, Dad got out the tractor and towed the stranded car - with the young couple and their baby safe inside - down to the village where the road was still open.

I’m sorry you missed your service,’ Dad said to Mum as the family ate their Christmas dinner together. ‘I know you feel Christmas isn’t quite Chritsmas without it.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Mum. ‘The service reminds us how Jesus came as a baby to live with us in the middle of the night, while his family were far from home. But I think we were reminded of that anyway by our surprise visitors. I think it’s been a lovely Christmas.’

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Doing Good For The Right Reasons

Matthew 25.31-46
Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince

On one level the parable of the separation of the sheep from the goats is a straight forward story about the rewards of doing the right thing. Like the Happy Prince, the sheep and the goats discover that true happiness lies in serving others not in enjoying ourselves.

However, both the parable and Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince add a further twist to what would otherwise be a simple morality tale. The more deserving the recipients of our help, the more easily they might otherwise be overlooked, the greater will be our reward in reaching out to them.

If we only help those who can return the favour, that is not good enough. We must make sure of helping the people at the back of the queue, the strangers and the marginalised. If anything, these are the people to whom we should give priority.

And yet there are problems with this interpretation. First of all, shouldn’t doing good be its own reward. Why do we need to inherit a kingdom? Isn’t this no different - on a moral level - from singling out for help those who can afford to return the favour one day. The only differences are that the gratification is being postponed - and also greatly enhanced, because it will last for ever. And if we help people solely in order to be chosen and rewarded by God, we are also scarcely any better - at least at the level of personal motivation - than the misguided individuals who blow people up for the same reason?

However, Jesus has - of course - thought of this objection. The sheep didn’t realise they were earning a reward. They just did what seemed to them to be right at the time. They may not even have believed in God, or in eternal rewards. They are surprised, gobsmacked even, to be chosen and rewarded now. And the same is true of the Happy Prince and the swallow. They never expected any reward save that of knowing they were doing what was right.

This means the parable cannot be a template for getting on the right side of God. It isn’t telling us that, by doing A, B and C we will earn our way into the kingdom prepared since the foundation of the world. The only way into that kingdom is to be the kind of person to whom doing the right thing comes as second nature. There can be no calculation in becoming a sheep.

Second, the parable appears to devalue the spiritual life in favour of robust social action. Getting close to God ceases to be about prayer and worship, about opening oneself to God’s grace and mercy, and becomes a matter of doing as much good to as many people in as short a time as possible. But there are other aspects of the Christian story - and the teaching of Jesus - which emphasise that we can never do enough good to deserve to inherit the kingdom. It is always a gift, even to the sheep.

Perhaps in order to become the kind of person who never stops reaching out and giving to others, we first have to recognise our own need of help, of love and forgiveness. Those who are totally absorbed in seeking their own salvation may never find the time and energy to reach out to others, but equally those who don’t feel any need of help themselves are unlikely to help others with the right spirit, or in the right frame of mind.

Isn’t that one of the points of the story about the pharisee and the tax collector? The first couldn’t see that he needed any help at all. The other could only see his total need of grace and help. Which was the more appealing character?

The third difficulty with the parable of the Sheep and the Goats is that it talks about helping the members of Jesus’ family. Who are they? Is the kingdom reserved for those who help suffering and persecuted members of the Church? Or is Jesus’ family the whole human race, or those who are disadvantaged, those who - like him - are being crucified?

And this, of course, leads us to the final difficulty. What does Jesus mean when he says that, if we help those in need we shall find we have helped him? Being poor, marginalised or disadvantaged doesn’t make people Christ-like.

Sometimes it frees people from a reliance on material things and makes them genuinely content with little things, the small blessings of daily life, like the children in the Happy Prince who were able to play in the streets and enjoy themselves once they had been fed. But sometimes poverty and lack of opportunity make people disillusioned, bitter, despairing, hopeless and even feckless, and helping them can make them reliant on hand-outs or cynical and greedy for more, like the notorious welfare scroungers beloved of right-wing tabloid newspapers.

Of course, if the people in need in the parable are members of the Church, they are therefore part of the Body of Christ, and helping them means helping him too. But it’s difficult to interpret the story with such a narrow focus. Isn’t Jesus calling us to reach out to others and to try to include them into his family, whether they deserve it or not? In doing his will, are we not serving him?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Recognising where we are

Matthew 25.1-13

This Gospel reading is about our spiritual journey. It’s a story that gives a young woman’s perspective on the ups and downs involved. It’s like being a bridesmaid. Perhaps other religious communities, like the Muslim community, have a closer experience to the one Jesus recounts than a typical Christian or secular bridesmaid might have. Muslim bridesmaids might have to get dressed up to the nines and then hang around all day with the bride on about five separate occasions because in the build up to the wedding there could be a party every night of the week. No wonder then that it might be necessary to take a whole week off work just to get ready, psyche themselves up and then perform their appointed role.

A Christian or secular bridesmaid has to support the bride on the hen night, perhaps at some sort of eve of wedding party nowadays, and - of course - on the big day itself. There’s still plenty of room for things to go wrong - losing the bride on the hen night would be bad, for instance. Failing to take the flowers from the bride in church - or at the register office - and help her remove her veil if she has one are pretty bad omissions too. Assisting the bride in and out of her dress might be a bridesmaid’s responsibility, depending on whether her mother gets involved.

But essentially Jesus’ story is an illustration about the ups and downs of the spiritual life. The message, as in a number of his other stories, is about remaining alert and ready to do our bit when the opportunity arises.

‘Recognising where we are’ is another way of depicting the same idea, and I thought of it because the Guides have been talking this morning about their trip to Switzerland.

'Recognising where we are' is a picture which depicts the spiritual journey as a mountain climb. At the bottom of the picture we find the start of the journey - sitting at the bottom of the mountain and wondering how we’re ever going to get up to the top, perhaps feeling in two minds about whether even to make the attempt, or else - like the wise bridesmaids - planning our route carefully before we set out so that we take the best route and know what to expect.

The picture also depicts some of the foolish climbers, people who were not properly prepared for the rigours of the journey. One person seems to be sliding down the mountain. Are they on the way back from the summit? Are they a risk taker, who enjoys the thrill of the quick descent - like mountain bikers who slog all the way to the top of a mountain, or ride up in a cable car, just for the thrill of hurtling down again at fifty miles per hour? The look on the face of the would be climber suggests otherwise - that they have lost their footing and are making an unintended descent. They are like one of the foolish bridesmaids. perhaps they were too busy looking at the view instead of watching where they out their feet. Or perhaps they just tried to take too perilous a route.

Then there’s a person who’s on their hands and needs. Are they watching their partner sliding down the mountain side or are they just completely out of wind? And another person is hanging from a ledge by their finger tips with no toeholds to help them, but at least they’ve managed to rope themselves to the mountain side so all is not lost. I’m not so sure about a person lowering themselves from a horizontal tree trunk. The tree has leaves growing on it, so perhaps its roots are firm and the climber is like one of the wiser bridesmaids who was well prepared. That certainly can’t be said for one man shivering in a t-shirt and another who’s laid down in the open and seems to be taking a nap.

The picture shows people who are doing a bit better. One of them has taken shelter in a cave, one is in the rain - but at least she has an umbrella. And others look well prepared and confident about what they’re doing.

Finally there’s the summit. But are we all climbing the same mountain? is the person far away on a different mountain top jumping for joy that they have made it to their goal, or furious at finding they have climbed the wrong peak? Are they wise or foolish?

What do these parables have to say to us? Each of us are on our own personal pilgrimage with God. Are we going the same way, or do we all have our own unique direction of travel? Does it matter if we are going to slightly different destinations? or should be going to the same place, even if we take different routes?

The answer to those questions will depend on how you understand the Christian faith. Some people think there is really only one way to the top of the mountain, and certainly only one mountain to climb. They will say that we have to do x, y and z - probably in a very precise order - if we wish to be put right with God. But other people will say that there are different ways of believing and following Jesus, and we must all find the way that suits us. Or again people will say that we each have our own personal vocation - something that God wants us to do to make complete sense of our lives and get the most from our experiences. And, then, of course there will be other people who say that Christianity, or our understanding of what it means at any rate, is not the only way of reaching the mountain top and that - however we get above the clouds - reaching the summit of our particular mountain is still cause to celebrate.

It’s also interesting to ask what this story has to say to our church at this particular time. We have completed the refurbishment, which some people saw as a staging post on our way to the mountain top and others saw as a wrong turn or even a backwards step. We’re now thinking about future patterns of worship. Should we be promoting different ways of worshipping to help people find the way up the mountain which suits them best, or should we be roping ourselves together and trying to go up the mountain in one group by the same path?

The church is also thinking about how we can best serve the local community, and who we need to guide us on the next part of the journey. How can we be sure that we’re making wise choices and not foolish ones?

Because the stakes are high. The spiritual life is not just a personal indulgence, something we cultivate purely for its own sake or because we happen to enjoy it. And the church is not just a club for like-minded travellers.

Young women don’t dress up as bridesmaids just for their own amusement. There is a wedding day looming. And, in the same way, we are asked to make progress - as individuals and as a church community - not just to suit ourselves but so that we can be ready to play our part whenever the opportunity arises to serve God.

I have always found that ministry is about being open to opportunities. They have a habit of coming along, and we can either grasp them and use them to help us make further progress in our vocation, or we can miss them and perhaps find ourselves imagining that we have already reached the summit when it is still actually a long way off, or - worse still - we can end up sliding back down the way we have come. So, in the final analysis, being prepared is the crucial thing. If we’re always ready - or even sometimes ready - to recognise an opportunity when God places it in our way we can make our way to the top of the mountain or gain admission to the wedding banquet.

Dr Fox, Tony Blair and The Counsel of the Wicked

Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2.1-8

‘Happy is the one who does not take the counsel of the wicked for a guide.’ Why might Doctor Fox come to mind when we read those words? He didn’t take the counsel of the wicked, but neither did he take the counsel of his civil servants for a guide. Despite repeated warnings he failed to stick to the path laid out in the ministerial code and - in the end - he didn’t prosper. When judgement came he found that he could not stand firm in the assembly of the righteous.

Of course, he’s not alone. Tony Blair didn’t take the counsel of the wicked either, but he did take the counsel of spin doctors for a guide when he wanted to justify the war against Iraq. He followed the path laid out in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ and - like Dr Fox - he has been driven hither and thither like chaff, by the winds of public opinion. When judgement came, in the shape of the Chilcot Inquiry, he had plenty to say in his own defence - because Tony Blair is never wrong, of course - but will he really find, after the verdict is handed down, that he can stand firm in the assembly of the righteous? In the meantime at any rate, Tony Blair still prospers in all he does. In fact, he’s made his fortune since he resigned as prime minister.

Righteousness took a long while to catch up with Colonel Gaddafi. He began as a radical reformer, but his head was soon turned by the counsel of the wicked. He followed the path set out in his own Green Book. ‘Women are females and men are males,’ he wrote in one of the sillier passages. But in other sections of the book he could be quite philosophical. He called for a universal cultural revolution to rid the world of fanaticism. But, of course, that didn’t extend to ridding the world of his own peculiar brand of fanaticism. When there was a revolution against him, Gaddafi proved the accuracy of one of his own sayings by the barbaric actions that he ordered his troops to take: ‘Boxing and wrestling,’ he had said, ‘Are proof that human beings have not rid themselves of all savage behavior.’ Gaddafi was certainly driven like chaff before the wind, and he was certainly doomed, but he didn’t come to judgement.

Yet is the way of the wicked really doomed? Adolf Hitler came to a bad end, but not Joseph Stalin! Sometimes righteous people do not prosper because they seem too good for a world like this. They seem to suffer because they won’t take the counsel of the wicked - they refuse to take short cuts, or appease the crowd, or short change their customers, or bend the rules.

What about the Welsh ruby team? They considered cheating in their match against France. But the coach did not the counsel of the wicked, nor take the path that sinners tread. His delight was in the international laws of rugby. However, the team didn’t prosper, it lost. Who can say what would have happened if they had bent the rules, instead. Would they have been found out, or might they have won the game?

Later writers got around this problem by coming up with the idea of life beyond death. If judgement comes at the end of time, after death, it doesn’t matter whether or not we have prospered in this life. We can still imagine the wicked being driven like chaff driven before the wind until they perish, while the righteous are like a tree planted by streams of water which stands firm.

The final question to ask about this psalm is, ‘What about the scoffers?’ The Psalmist imagines that the wicked take refuge among the scoffers, but that was before the creation of a free press. The newspapers have taken a battering in recent months, after the scandal of mobile phone hacking. Picking up on the widespread revulsion which people feel about tabloid journalism, Dr Fox couldn’t resist taking a swipe at some of the people who had scoffed at him, accusing journalists of vindictive and hurtful reporting.

In his speech to the Levison Inquiry into the Media, a week ago, Paul Dacre - editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail - put the case for press freedom. He said, ‘I’d … like to persuade you that there are thousands of decent journalists in Britain who don’t hack phones, don’t bribe policemen and who work long anti-social hours for modest recompense – and if they’re in the regional press often for a pittance – because they passionately believe that their papers give a voice to the voiceless and expose the misdeeds of the rich, the powerful and the pompous.’ He suggested that those who feel the press ought to be more regulated should try living in Zimbabwe.

Scoffers today, then, can sometimes be the very people who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night, to the discomfort of the powerful. But, of course, the Psalmist is thinking of a different kind of scoffer, the person who deliberately scoffs at the very idea of principles and righteousness and seeks to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator, to human greed and veniality.

Last Monday, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, I heard the famous atheist Richard Dawkins trying to defend himself from just this charge. Although he believes the world doesn’t have any meaning or purpose, nonetheless he was still capable, he insisted, of recognising beauty and mystery - a magical quality he called it - in the world around him, and of finding inspiration in music and so on. In that sense, he wants us to understand that he is not a scoffer. But, of course, plenty of other people, who are less intelligent and thoughtful, have concluded that if the world is without meaning then it no longer matters how they live or what they do.

Another atheist on the same programme, cosmologist Lisa Randall, said that - although she didn’t believe in anything - she still took pride in being the best scientist that she could possibly be. But a lot of people who don’t believe in anything don’t take pride in anything, either. They scoff at effort of any kind, preferring the counsel of the wicked and the feckless as their guide, following the easy path that sinners take, which is why the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs - who was also a guest on the same programme - insisted that without belief there is no real hope.

Standing up to the scoffers may not be easy if you are a politician caught out misusing your power, but neither is it easy for Christians and other believers in a secular and deeply cynical world. The scoffers of today are not necessarily deliberately siding with wickedness, as the Psalmist imagined. They are simply people who refuse to commit to any principles at all and who find it easy to criticise those who do have principles, especially when they go wrong or if they stand up for what they believe.

This is what Paul and his companions were doing - standing firm for the Gospel despite the outrageous treatment meted out to them in Philippi, where they were stripped, flogged and thrown into prison. When Paul talks about the great opposition they had faced he is referring to mob rule. Anyone would think - from the way they had been treated - that they were trying to deceive people, or cheat them, or that Paul and his companions were somehow deluded and needed saving from themselves. But, of course, all they had been trying to do was delight in the law of the Lord and yield God’s fruit by proclaiming the Gospel.

They didn’t follow the counsel of the wicked, or the path that sinners tread, by currying favour with the angry mob. They were, instead, ever mindful that they would need, one day, to be able to stand firm in the assembly of the righteous.

And, of course, a leopard doesn’t change its spots. Now that they have been to Thessaolonica too, the Thessalonian Christians know only too well that Paul never minces his words or resortes to insincere flattery. He tells it how he sees it.

Although Paul clearly felt that he was entitled to claim authority over the churches he ministered to, because of his call from the risen Jesus to be an apostle or messenger of the Gospel, he prefers - or so he claims here - to take a gentler approach, sharing his very self with the congregations he worked alongside, out of deep affection for them.

In the short term, Paul’s approach appeared to meet with failure. He was eventually taken to Rome in chains where he was almost certainly martyred for his faith. His letters were so easily disregarded, and so little cherished, by the people who had received them that whole sections of some of them, and in other cases the entire correspondence, was lost to posterity. Yet, in God’s good time he was vindicated. Many of his lost letters were rediscovered and dusted off; some new ones were even written around a few scattered fragments of the missing originals; and his theology has come to dominate much of Christian thinking. The Lord watches over the way of the righteous.

What are we to conclude? God will make our cause to prosper, he will help us to yield fruit, he is watching over us. But God’s ways are not the world’s ways. The counsel of the wicked will suggest that we are misguided. The scoffers will insist that we are deluding ourselves. But in the end their opinions will be driven before the wind like chaff. They will not stand firm in the assembly of the righteous. Their worldly wisdom is doomed. And, in the meantime, we must continue to gently share our very selves with the people around us as we seek to impart - fearlessly and frankly - the truth that has been entrusted to us.