Sunday, February 24, 2013

We All Want What We Can't Have

Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-21, Luke 13.34-35

Next week my wife and I are going to see a famous play called Dr Faustus by the Elizabethan Playwright Christopher Marlowe. The advert for the play said, ‘We all want what we can’t have. But what price would we pay to get it?’

We all want what we can’t have! What do you want? The latest i-phone or i-pad, designer clothes or shoes, an exciting holiday adventure in some exotic faraway place, a wonderful romance with someone stunningly attractive, a new car, a beautiful house to impress your friends, a breathtaking view from your window, long life and happiness perhaps, or lots of money?

We all want what we can’t have! It’s not a new idea. The Ten Commandments in the Old Testament tell us not to covet other people’s things - their house, their husband or wife, their beautiful slave, their strong ox, their cuddly-looking donkey, or anything else that belongs to them.

The people who wrote the Bible understood that it’s human nature for us all to want what we can’t have - either because we can’t afford it or because what we want already belongs to someone else. They also felt that it was wrong to want those things.

There’s a proverb which says, ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.’ Anything that we don’t have, but someone else does, often looks that little bit more attractive than it otherwise might.

“You’re so lucky,” someone says to their friend, “You went to college, you’ve got a good job, you’re earning great money and you’re so smart. You’ll probably accomplish more by the time you’re 30 than I will in my entire life.”

But the friend says, “Are you serious? I’ve always envied you! People expect so much from me. I’ve never been able to enjoy life because of all the studying and other schoolwork I had to do. If I got less then an A, my parents and teachers freaked out about it. It was like I’d got an F or flunked the course completely! I may do every bit as well as you think I’m going to, but with all the pressure on me I’ll probably go insane by the time I’m 35. In so many ways, I wish I could just be an ordinary person like you, with normal expectations and a normal life.” So both friends end up wanting what they can’t have.

‘We all want what we can’t have,’ said the advert for Dr Faustus. And then it went on, ‘But what price would we pay to get it?’ Would we lie, and cheat, or betray or friends and our values, just to get what we want but shouldn’t have? In the play Dr Faustus makes a pact with the Devil to get what he wants. That’s the price he is willing to pay to get what he wants! And, as you can probably guess, it turns out badly.

‘We all want what we can’t have.’ What price would we pay to get it?

The author John Fowles has his own version of the same saying: “We all want things we can't have. Being a decent human being is accepting that.” In other words - managing without those things.

The writer of Psalm 27 asks God for only one thing: to be able to live close to God all through his or her life and to experience God’s loving kindness.

In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul says that many people really do live as though they can have all the things they shouldn’t have, and are willing to pay any price to get what they want. He warns that they are living like enemies of the way of Jesus and they are headed for hell. Instead, he says that we should willingly and joyfully live like Jesus, who gave up what was rightfully his - including his own life - in order to help other people lead better lives and draw closer to God.

Jesus warned that the people of the great city of Jerusalem always seemed to want what they couldn’t have. When God sent prophets and messengers to ask them to change their ways, they threw stones at them and put them to death. That was the price they were willing to pay to be left alone by God, so that they could go after what they wanted.

Jesus gives them his own message from God. God says, “I have often wanted to gather your people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you wouldn’t let me.”

Do we want to go through life permanently dissatisfied and always wanting more, or are we prepared to be the kind of people who are happy with what we’ve already got, who want to make other people happy too and want to get closer to God? If we do let God get close to us, and if we come closer to God, he will shelter us under his wing. For, as the Psalmist said, ‘God is the light that keeps us safe and we should ask only one thing, to live in him.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Living Dangerously in His Ministry

Luke 4.21-30
My wife is a local preacher and the one thing she dislikes is preaching in her own church. I guess the famous words of Jesus echo in her ears as she’s preparing her sermon: No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.

Actually, the last time she was there - a couple of weeks ago - the service was very well received, but we can imagine how nervous Jesus was going back to Nazareth and speaking in front of his family, friends and neighbours.

Mark and Matthew only tell us that his message was not well received, but Luke goes further and tells us that - although at first they were surprised how eloquent Jesus was - the congregation quickly became enraged and tried to throw him off a nearby cliff. The implication is that they bundled him out of town towards the cliff face but apparently the nearest cliff is at least 20 minutes walk from the synagogue and perhaps not as close by as Luke imagined. Be that as it may, Luke’s seems to want to heighten the drama of the story. Like Jesus we will often find that the Christian message is rejected by those we know or love. In Jesus’ case it was his lack of formal education that caused doubt but, knowing our foibles, our family, friends, colleagues  and neighbours may feel that we don’t walk the talk sufficiently well to convince them! Nonetheless, we have to persevere and not be discouraged.

Like Jesus we will sometimes find that living and preaching the Gospel is a risky thing to do. On this occasion he was spared. Perhaps, in the end, the people of Nazareth couldn’t bring themselves to hurt one of their own. But, of course, Luke’s readers know that Jesus will eventually be rejected and crucified.

It’s interesting that Luke introduces us very early in his story to the dangers which Jesus habitually faced. Sometimes the crowd wanted to proclaim him as their king - which in itself was dangerous enough - but sometimes their mood could turn ugly. Proclaiming and living the Gospel will always involve an element of challenge and risk. It’s not a safe or cosy thing to do. If we feel too comfortable - as a congregation or as individuals - perhaps we’re not really following Jesus.

On this occasion Jesus emerged unscathed, but that wasn’t because he had been given safe passage by God through all life’s difficulties and troubles. It was simply because his hour had not yet come. His destiny was to die in Jerusalem, not in his hometown. What is our destiny? To keep out of trouble or to look for opportunities and confront them head on? Luke seems to be inviting us to ask what Jesus would do if he came to our hometown.

Living Dangerously From The Beginning

Isaiah 60.1-6; Matthew 2.1-12

Whether or not Mathew intended his story about the wisemen to be a commentary on Isaiah Chapter 60, that is how generations of Christians have interpreted it. That’s why the wisemen have come to be seen as kings riding on camels.

Matthew includes his story in the Gospel for a number of reasons: first to show that the birth of Jesus is not just significant for Jewish people, or even for human beings - it is a truly show-stopping event with comic significance; second, he wants to show that even people from other faiths can acknowledge the importance of Jesus, since the wisemen were probably Zoroastrians, an ancient faith which began in Persia and attaches huge significance to the victory of light over darkness; third, he wants to show that Jesus’ birth fulfils ancient Jewish prophecies; and finally to show that Jesus makes a difference to politics and world events. Believing in him is not just a private and personal thing.

It’s interesting that - in his Christmas story - Matthew chooses to include the theme of danger from the very beginning. There’s nothing cosy about his version of the Nativity. The story begins with the ominous words, ‘In the time of King Herod...’ and later, of course, the cruel and scheming King slaughters innocent children and forces Mary and Joseph to flee into exile to escape his wrath. Although, according to Matthew, their real home is in Bethlehem and they have a house there, they dare not return - even after Herod’s death - and start a new life, incognito, in Nazareth.

In the passage from Isaiah, the kings bring only two gifts, gold and frankincense, whereas in Matthew’s story there is a third gift - myrrh - reminding us of the sorrow and danger that lie ahead for Jesus. To live with him and to follow him is to accept challenge, risk and danger as part and parcel of our everyday existence. Being his friend is not a featherbed choice. He faced danger from the moment of his birth until his crucifixion, and he asks us to be prepared to do the same. But he promises to be with us - holding our hands and leading the way - in every peril or danger that we might face.

A Prophecy for Turbulent Times

Zephaniah 3.14-20
Philippians 4.4-7

Zephaniah prophesied in turbulent times. He seems to have been an adviser to the young King Josiah, who came to the throne as a child of eight after the murder of his father. Not that the Prophet approved of Josiah’s father. On the contrary, he was determined to mould the young Josiah’s character so that he would take an entirely different direction from his father. And in his early prophecies, perhaps when he was trying to get the new policy established, Zephaniah rails against the terrible behaviour both of Josiah’s father and of his grandfather too. They had worshipped the Canaanite gods Molech, Baal and Astarte and had practised soothsaying, magic and child sacrifice as well as ordinary everyday idolatry. Although Josiah’s grandfather had reigned for 55 years, the Bible and Zephaniah brand him a terrible failure and a blot on Judah’s history.

In comparison Josiah was a blazing success morally, but unfortunately he lacked the diplomatic skills of his grandfather. The culmination of Josiah’s reign was a foolish alliance with Babylon against Egypt and Assyria. At Armageddon, or Megiddo as it’s also called, he met the Egyptian army on its way to attack the Babylonians, and was shot full of arrows for his pains. He died in Jerusalem, still a relatively young man, his full potential unfulfilled.

Later in his prophecies, then, Zephaniah celebrates Josiah’s reforms but looks back with regret on the demise of this good reforming king, who had heeded the Prophet’s advice and done everything he could to make the people of Judah more holy and God-fearing. Zephaniah tries to reassure the people that another good ruler will be coming along soon. It’s a Biblical example of someone whistling in the dark to keep his and other people’s spirits up.

So Jerusalem or Zion - the name of the hill on which Jerusalem stands - is depicted as a young girl singing a heartfelt song of joy and thanksgiving. The wickedness of Josiah’s father and grandfather - and the willingness of the people to follow their example - have been forgiven by God. And, although Josiah’s death may have brought fresh disaster, God is now in their midst. And he’s a warrior who will give the people victory, so there’s nothing to fear from Egypt or Assyria.

God will renew the nation in his love. It will be like a holiday time, not a tragedy, because God will wipe out the disaster of Josiah’s death and ensure that Judah will not be reproached for taking a wrong turn and getting mixed up in power politics. He will deal with the mighty empires that would like to oppress Judah and rescue the men who were disabled or scattered in the fighting. Their shame at losing the battle of Megiddo will be changed to worldwide praise and renown because God is going to restore the nation’s fortunes.

So what has this got to do with Advent? Well, arguably the prophecies of Zephaniah did not come true in his lifetime. The succession of weak and vacillating kings who succeeded Josiah did not see the fortunes of Jerusalem restored. Worst of all, perhaps, Josiah’s chosen successor was deported to Egypt and died in exile there. And eventually, many years later of course, Jerusalem herself was overthrown and destroyed by her former Babylonian allies.

Zephaniah’s prophecy survived, one suspects, because it could be looked at more generally, as a promise for the future. It was probably a source of comfort and encouragement to the returning exiles who re-established Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, and to those who later defended it against another wicked king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who tried to wipe out the Jewish faith and replace it with Greek idols rather than Canaanite ones.

It was also a source of encouragement, of course, to Christians. But is Jesus the warrior king anticipated by Zephaniah? I hardly think so. At best the prophecy has to be treated as a metaphor for God’s victory over evil through Jesus’ death on the cross. But one thing is for sure, God is love and he does intend to save the lame and gather the outcasts. Those who trust in him need not be afraid. All of these things chime with the Christian message of hope.

And we live in pretty turbulent times ourselves, perhaps not as turbulent as the time of Zephaniah and Josiah, but turbulent enough. We too need to know that God is in the midst of us. We too need reassurance that cost-cutting and recession will not go on and on for ever. We too need encouragement not to fear and not to give up - ‘not to let our hand grow weak’ as the Prophet puts it. We too need to know that those at the bottom of the pile, the disabled, the oppressed, the marginalised, have not been forgotten and that our past sins - of greed and over-indulgence - have been forgiven.

In our reading from Philippians Paul says that Christians should stand out from the crowd because we should always be rejoicing, even when times are hard. When others are jostling and competing for influence, or trying to shove their way to the front of the queue for profits, or tax breaks, or funding, or welfare, we should be an example of gentleness and forbearance.

This is because Jesus is the exact opposite of the kind of messiah envisaged by Zephaniah. Zephaniah expected a warrior king, someone with a heart of gold but who was also ready to use tough love when oppressors and enemies of the truth stood in his way, someone who believed that the end can justify the means. But Jesus is the very opposite of Zephaniah’s vision, a gentle messiah, someone who aims to overcome evil and injustice purely by moral example. But he’s a messiah who doesn’t just make peace come about - by force if necessary; he’s a messiah who is the living embodiment of peace.

It can’t be denied that Zephaniah’s picture of leadership has its attractions. His kind of messiah would certainly be a useful ally to have on your side in a bitter conflict against ruthless and determined foes. In contrast, Jesus’ pattern of messiahship is about enduring suffering in order to overcome hatred and violence through love. It’s a tough ask for people who are oppressed by evil forces. Yet Paul insists that Jesus’ way is the only geneuine option if we want to achieve the peace that belongs to God, the peace which passes all understanding and which has the power to guard our hearts and minds forever.

Yet the biggest contrast between Zephaniah’s vision of messiahship and Jesus’ vision is something else. We’re not just talking about a contrast between force force and gentleness, for Zephaniah’s messiah is someone who has never actually arrived. Zephaniah looked forward eagerly to his coming, but even the good King Josiah was unable to bring about the peace of God, and neither could later Jewish leaders. It’s a goal which still eludes the leaders of modern Israel, and isn’t that because - in the last resort - they try to establish peace like a warrior giving victory to his people, who does not let his hands grow weak, just as Josiah tried to do at Armageddon?

If forceful leaders can sometimes restore the fortunes of their people for a time, they can never get over the bar of establishing a peace that endures for ever and guards our hearts and minds. If people follow Zephaniah’s way something always goes wrong in the end, whereas Jesus’ vision may be hard to follow but it really is deliverable. Advent is a celebration of the fact that our messiah did come and he still reigns. As the Prophet Isaiah said, ‘He will reign over [his people] forever, and his kingdom will know no end.’