Saturday, March 28, 2015

Jeremiah, Jesus & The Moral Compass

Jeremiah 31.31-34
John  12.20-36
These passages tell us about two important moments in salvation history which have helped people to decide which way they ought to go. The first is the promise God made to Jeremiah, that God's People will no longer need to ask for directions but will be given their own internal satellite navigation system.
In some ways it's a bit like the colleague who told me that she has an internal sense of direction which means she never gets lost. To which I replied, 'So that' why, when we got to the fork on our way to the synod in Harrogate - this way to Spoforth, that way to Knaresborough - you instinctively knew which way to go - not! What's different about the promise made to Jeremiah is that the navigation system actually works, and also that there's nothing instinctive about it.
Jeremiah's assessment is that the People of Israel had taken a series of wrong turns in the past. They had eaten sour grapes, as Jeremiah puts it. But, as a result, it was their children teeth which were being set on edge.
The children found themselves in the same place as the traveller who asked the countryman how to get back to the town. 'Well if I wanted to go there,' he replied, I certainly wouldn't start from here.'
Jeremiah's generation was lost and didn't know which way to turn, and that was because of the mistakes of their parents. And finding their way back to God wasn't proving easy to do. The children had no moral compass, they were hopelessly lost.
So, according to Jeremiah, God's new solution is to give people an internal compass, or an internal Satnav, which will always be able to direct them onto the right path, wherever they're starting from. It's not something they can learn from their parents or their teachers, or something they can acquire by their own persistence or from experience, nor is it an innate sense that that they're born with - it's a gracious gift from God. God will put his law within them and write it on their hearts.
In our Gospel reading John portrays Jesus as facing the same dilemma. The right way to go is counter-intuitive, it doesn't make common sense. Instead, it is all about trusting in God. It means dying in order to bear fruit, hating this life in order to find everlasting life. No wonder that Jesus feels troubled and wants to be saved from death. He realises, however, that his death is - in fact - the decisive moment, his hour in the spotlight of history, to which his whole life has been leading him. He has to walk this way, the way that leads through the valley of the shadow of death, the way of the Cross, if he is to give glory to God's name.
And John emphasises, at the same time, that servants cannot expect to be greater than their master. If Jesus had to accept that being lifted up on the cross to die was his manifest destiny, what is our internal moral compass telling us to do? Where Jesus goes, there must his servants go also. Whoever serves him will therefore follow him.

The Snakes & The Cheshire Cat

Numbers 21.4-9
John  3.14-21
The passages we read today tell us about two important moments in salvation history when people have had to decide which way they ought to go. The first happens when the People of Israel are wandering in the Wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.
As they have been rescued from slavery and ethnic cleansing we might expect the People to be grateful. But their memories are short. There aren’t yet enough of them in the loose federation of rootless and landless tribes which gathered under Moses’ protection to be able to challenge the ancient civilizations of Edom and Canaan with their walled cities, settled governments and citizen armies. Indeed, the Bible tells us that Edom had its own kings long before Israel, and the Edomites weren’t about to have their authority challenged by this bunch of ne’er-do-wells and Johnny-come-latelies. So the People of Israel couldn’t go through Edom, they had to go round it - wandering many miles out of their way through inhospitable desert.
That’s when the some of the People started to become impatient, and to speak out against Moses and even against God. However, in those days it was clearly not a good idea to exasperate God.
The writer Garrison Keillor sums up the dangers like this, in his book “Lake Wobegone Days”: ‘In the Bible people who did wrong tended to get smote, and that at a time when God smote hard: when he smited you stayed smitten, smiting was no slap on the wrist. Mrs Tollerud illustrated this in Sunday School with a flannelgraph: a cloth-covered board on which she placed cloth figures and moved them around. Pharaoh, though decent in some ways, didn’t obey God. She took down the figure of Pharaoh the ruler and put up the figure of Pharaoh with his hands over his face. It made us think twice about striking out in new directions!’
Well, the price the People of Israel pay for challenging the hard way that God needs them to go and striking out in new directions is to be bitten by poisonous snakes. Fortunately, though, there is an antidote. If they turn back to God and start following again the direction that Moses is urging them to take, God is prepared to relent. He tells Moses to make a bronze image of one of the poisonous snakes and stick it on a pole. Anyone who looks at the image will be healed. Problem solved.
John interprets this strange story as an allegory. The snakes or serpents represent temptation. People easily complain about following God’s way - the hard and narrow way that leads to salvation. They wander off into the undergrowth and then they get bitten by temptation.
But there is a cure, a way of getting back onto the track which leads to new life and rebirth. And that is to follow the difficult but ultimately rewarding way which signposts us to the Cross - which is easily identifiable because, like the bronze serpent nailed to the pole, the Son of Man has been lifted up and nailed to the Cross to die, as a permanent reminder of the right direction of travel and - like the bronze serpent - as a remedy for sin and disobedience.
So, in John’s interpretation of the story, being enabled to make a fresh start and strike out in the right direction is inextricably linked to dying - dying to sin and disobedience with Jesus on his cross. But it is also linked inextricably to eternal life. For God does not stay angry with us. Rather he loves the world so much that he gives his only Son so that we might not perish in the end but be enabled, instead, to find life in all its fullness.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Moses, Paul and the Cheshire Cat

The passages we read today tell us about two of the most important moments in salvation history, moments of decision when God’s people had to decide which way to go. The first is the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. We tend to think of it as a key point in the life of Moses, but he is only the Cheshire Cat in the story, if you like, the person who can tell the people which direction they should take.

And Moses is unequivocal about it. He doesn’t sit on the fence like the Cheshire Cat did, at least metaphorically anyway. he gives the people a clear set of instructions because he relays to them what he considers to be the direct word of God.

They are to have only one guiding principle in their lives, not a pantheon of different options and creeds. They are not to pretend - to themselves or to others - that they are going in one direction while taking another that leads somewhere else. They are to show an example of just stewardship of all their resources, including the people who work for them or are dependent on them. They are to care for the weak and the marginalised, show proper respect for the elderly, respect family values and the sanctity of life, and avoid an acquisitive lifestyle.

It’s not an easy path that’s offered to them here. No wonder that they were afraid and trembled. They recognised that they were not being offered an easy choice, wherein it didn’t much matter which way they took.

Paul similarly spells out stark choices to the Christians in Corinth. They can follow the way of the cross, the way of Jesus, which seems foolish to people who base their reasoning on cold, hard logic. They can, in faith, stick to this way even though there is no positive proof that it is the right way. They can choose a path which others will despise and ridicule. Or, they can take the wrong path - the path dictated by wisdom, cleverness and power. The right way, the way of Jesus, is full of stumbling blocks that trip up those who can’t suspend their disbelief in the redemptive power of self-sacrifice and suffering, or who fall by the wayside.

We live in a culture that finds the way of the cross hard to accept. It’s a culture which believes in self-fulfilment, not self-sacrifice; in reward not loss; in healing rather than suffering; in happiness rather than joy. Christianity, therefore, remains just as counter-cultural as it was when Paul first dictated his letter. The Gospel seems to be pointing down a dead-end, a cul-de-sac, whereas we believe that it has surprising twists and turns which will bring us out at the end in the presence of God.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Abraham, Sarah, Jesus and the Cheshire Cat

Genesis 17.1-7,15-16 and Mark 8.31-38
The passages we read today tell us about important moments of decision for Abraham, Sarah and the disciples of Jesus. God invites Abraham ‘to walk before him’ and it certainly does matter which way he decides to go at this point. If Abraham and Sarah listen to God’s call their direction of travel will take them from being a minor clan chieftain and his childless wife to becoming the ancestors of a great nation. It’s a choice between lifelong obscurity and - as the Bible says - ‘everlasting’ renown.
Could that be the choice for our churches in the Aire and Calder Circuit? A choice between a daring decision to walk before God and become a new type of church for the Twenty-first Century and beyond or a safer, but less glorious decision perhaps, to fade into obscurity, before becoming - if we’re lucky - a blue plaque on the wall that says, ‘Such-and-such Methodist Church once met here,’ and - if we’re not so lucky - a carpet warehouse!
Jesus leaves his disciples in no doubt that it certainly is a decision filled with risk that does require great daring. When they come to the parting of the ways at Caesarea Philippi he challenges Peter to choose the right path. There are three choices - those who think Jesus is a reincarnation of one of the great men of history, those who think he’s just a charismatic religious teacher and those who think he is the chosen representative of God - the Messiah, the ‘anointed one’. Peter makes the right choice, but without realising what the implications will be. For, just as it had been with Abraham and Sarah, this is a decision which really does matter.
Believing that Jesus is God’s chosen representative takes his disciples down a very particular path which leads to suffering, rejection and death. Immediately he realises this, Peter regrets his choice and tries to take it back. But to turn back is to choose the human way out, not the divine path. And this is not a decision for Peter only. Jesus calls the crowd and his disciples and offers the same uncompromising choice to them. How far are we, as individuals and as a church, prepared to accept the challenge to take up our cross and follow him?
Someone once said, 'Following Jesus and the way of the cross begins with small steps. Later we'll look up and discover where he's led us.' Someone else said, 'Being a disciple means embarking on a lifelong journey of allowing Jesus' identity to gradually shape our own [identity].' And, finally, John Wesley said, 'Embrace the will of God, however painful, daily, hourly, continually. Thus only can we follow him in holiness to glory.'
'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?' Alice asked.
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
Alice didn't much care where-- but that's not an option for followers of Jesus.
It does matter which way we go, because we have somewhere to which we need to get. We want to follow Jesus to holiness in glory, and that means travelling the way of the cross. And, with the Spirit of Jesus to guide us, we're sure to get to glory if we walk for long enough and keep on going on the risky adventure that the way of the cross entails.