Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hezekiah and Lazarus

Isaiah 38.1-5, 9-20, John 11.1-45
King Hezekiah experienced something that all of us want to avoid. He got very sick. Worse than that, he was close to death. We normally think of Jeremiah as the bearer of bad news, but here it’s Isaiah who was sent to tell him that ‘the Lord says you won’t ever get well. You are going to die.’ Isaiah advised him to put his affairs in order.
Hezekiah had been quite a good king. The Bible says that ‘he obeyed the Lord, just as his ancestor David had done.’ With some exaggeration, it goes on to claim that ‘no other king of Judah was like Hezekiah, either before or after him,’ and that ‘he was successful in everything he did.’ This is because he closed all the ancient hill shrines, which had sometimes been associated with pagan worship or with sacrifices offered by people who weren’t ordained as priests. Instead people had to worship God in Jerusalem.
The Old Testament doesn’t expect good people to have an untimely death, so that begs the question, ‘Where had Hezekiah gone wrong?’ Perhaps he shouldn’t have rebelled against the emperor of Assyria and refused to be his servant.
The emperor left his own record of what happened next. He writes, ‘I shut up King Hezekiah himself in Jerusalem, a bird in a cage. I plundered his towns and gave them to [the Philistine kings]. I reduced his territory but increased the annual tribute he had to pay. Later Hezekiah himself sent to me in Nineveh, my royal city, his own daughters.’
You might think things couldn’t get any worse, but it was then that Hezekiah had his near death experience. He cried hard and prayed hard too, and God reprieved him.
The Book of Isaiah records the psalm which Hezekiah wrote in gratitude. His daughters might be prisoners in Assyria, but at least he had escaped from being a prisoner in the world of the dead.
Oddly enough, the way that Hezekiah thought of the world of the dead very closely resembles one of the oldest works of literature, the story of Bílgamés and the Netherworld, which was written in Babylonia where his daughters had been sent into exile. Bílgamés had invented a game with bat and ball which he and his friends played all day long until their womenfolk complained to the gods, who made their playthings fall down a deep hole into the underworld.
Bílgamés best friend, Enkidu, volunteered to go and get them back, and so he saw at first hand what being in the world of the dead was really like. He found that people who’d had lots of children in this life felt like gods, because they had plenty of descendants still left on earth to remember them. But people who had no surviving children sat around moping, because they would soon be forgotten.
In other words, it wasn’t a real existence.  In the realm of the dead people lived on only in the memories of those who’d loved them on earth.  So the people who wrote the story of Bílgamés and Enkidu believed, as Hezekiah  did, that dying would be like a thread being cut off from a weaver’s loom when the garment is finished, or tent pegs being pulled up and the tent folded away when the trip has come to an end. It was a giant full stop.
We talk about ‘meeting our maker’ when we die, but Hezekiah didn’t expect to meet God in the afterlife. ‘No one in the world of the dead can thank you or praise you,’ he says. ‘None of those in the deep pit can hope for you to show them how faithful you are. Only the living can thank you as I am doing today.’
We meet the same attitude when Martha and Mary lose their brother Lazarus. Jesus talks about Lazarus’ death as though it were reversible. Lazarus has only fallen asleep. He can be woken up again.
Understandably Jesus’ friends don’t quite get what he means. As far as they can see Lazarus is either sleeping, or in a coma, or he’s died. Even Martha, who  believes that Jesus is God’s Chosen Leader, expects that her brother will only rise again ‘when all people rise again at the last day.’
And in a sense she’s right. Lazarus’ rescue from the grave is not a resurrection. Death is not behind him, he’s just been granted a temporary reprieve.
This is what Hezekiah felt had happened to him. He says, ‘Your love protected me from doom in the deep pit’ and made ‘me healthy and strong again.’ And he praises God because, ‘Your words and your deeds bring life to everyone, including me,’ but he only means ‘so long as I am alive!’
Hezekiah believed that he’d been saved him from death because God had taught him a stern lesson, by putting him in fear of his life, but had then   forgiven his sins. So why did Jesus save Lazarus from death?
Was it because he was deeply moved by his friends’ grief? John hints at this, but in the end he thinks it’s too arbitrary a reason.
However, there are other possible reasons. Jesus saw himself as a prophet in the same mould as Moses or Elijah. Both Elijah and his protegé Elisha had raised young people from death, apparently because they too were friends of the family and were deeply moved by the mothers’ grief, so perhaps Jesus wanted to show people that God would do the same for him if he asked it. Again John hints at this as a possible reason for the miracle. The crowd was already muttering that if Jesus really were such an amazing healer, ‘couldn’t he have done something to stop this man from dying.’ At the tomb of Lazarus Jesus is reported as saying to God, ‘I want these people to be sure that you have sent me.’
But John suggests a third reason. He identifies seven signs which Jesus performed during his ministry to show the kind of salvation he was bringing. The raising of Lazarus is the sixth of those signs which punctuate his Gospel. According to John, Jesus told his friends that Lazarus’ death had ‘happened so that God’s own presence among human beings may be clearly seen; and that it may be clearly seen, too, that the Son of God makes God’s presence real for men and women.’
So what did this sign reveal about God’s presence in Jesus? Surely not just that Jesus was caring and compassionate, nor even that he was a great prophet and miracle worker like Elijah and Elisha. Its key purpose was to show that Jesus is ‘the resurrection and the source of life. Whoever trusts’ in him ‘shall come to life again, even though they die and nobody who is alive and trusts in him shall ever die.’
And yet, although the raising of Lazarus was a sign, it’s not the real thing. It’s just a foretaste, a promise that if we trust in Jesus - as Mary, Martha and Lazarus did - we shall come to life again even though we die. because life in him is indestructible.
All of us are going to have Hezekiah moments in our lives, or we’re going to sit at the bedside of someone going through the same kind of dark night experience. We’re going to have moments of doubt when we wonder just how strong that bond between the believer and Jesus really is. ‘I thought I would never again see you, My Lord,’ says Hezekiah in his psalm. ‘Can God’s love  for us in Jesus really overcome death?’ we may wonder.
And even if we’re not assailed by doubts of that kind, we might feel - as Hezekiah did - that our bones are being crushed, as though a lion were savaging us in its jaws, or that our lives are being wrecked or have turned sour, or that we’re being terribly abused by the circumstances which have befallen us.
Like Hezekiah, we know that the Lord’s ‘words and deeds bring life to everyone,’ but he could only pray that God would make him ‘healthy and strong again’ whereas we have the promise of Jesus that even though we die we shall come to life again.

If God were not able to reach us in death, the only hope we’d have left is that someone might remember us after we’re gone. But if God can overcome death, so that the life we enjoyed in Jesus continues after it and the thread is not cut off or the tent pegs pulled up and stashed away, then we can trust that he will always remember us. As the Psalmist says, even if we’re forgotten by everyone else, ‘the Lord will not forget to give us his blessing.’

Friday, March 24, 2017

The ideal way of governing

Isaiah 32.1-8, 15-10
Our ideal way of governing is democracy. But that’s not Isaiah’s ideal. For him good governance is not about who governs but about how they do it. Mob rule can be just as tyrannical as despotic rule.
We forget too easily that democracy has limited value unless it goes hand in hand with the love of justice. A just society is a place of refuge in a cruel world whereas an unjust society is harsh and unforgiving even when it has democratic elections, and for how long will it be truly democratic anyway?
In a just society the citizens would make an effort to see things from other people’s point of view. They would open their eyes to see what is really going on. They would pay attention to what other people are saying.
In a just society people would take time to think before they said anything. They wouldn’t rush to judgement because rushed judgements often turn out to be profoundly unjust.
In a just society voters would recognise foolish plans for what they are. They would have a sixth sense for proposals that are self-serving and unfair, that make the poor even poorer and limit access to the knowledge that we all need if we are to become equal stakeholders in society. People would know when ideas are cruel - aimed at destroying those who need help most or denying justice to the weak, and they would instinctively realise when politicians are trustworthy and are trying to help build a better, fairer world.
This sort of society, embracing the right kind of values, would be one where it was truly worth living. It’s a vision that every government and every citizen should make their aim. But, of course, it is unachievable in the real world.
Or is it? Isaiah says not. And that’s where Pentecost Sunday comes into the picture, because he says that God’s Spirit can make the difference between an impossible dream and an amazing reality. If we allow God’s Spirit to guide us, ‘honesty and justice will prosper and… produce lasting peace and security.’ Even when things go wrong, everyone will rally round to put them right again.
For him it doesn’t matter who brings this about. An authoritarian society that was ruled in a free and fair way would be better for Isaiah than an unjust democracy. But as the Nineteenth Century historian Lord Acton once said, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’  We talk glibly about ‘the great and the good,’ but he said that ‘the great’ - by whom he meant the most powerful people in society - almost always turn out to be bad.
That’s why, in the end, democracy probably gives us the best chance of creating the sort of society that Isaiah envisioned. But only spirit-led democracy can do that. Democracies led by people who tell lies and do evil things is just as likely to turn out bad as any great man or woman.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Covering our ears

Isaiah 30.1-11, 18
The membership of the Methodist Church has declined over the last 12 years from around 300,000 to about 190,000. This decline comes against the background of a similar decline in other Churches and in Christian allegiance in general.
People have wondered why. Perhaps we haven’t worked hard enough. Perhaps we haven’t been listening for God’s guidance. Perhaps we have lacked faith.
Isaiah offers another explanation. We have been listening, but we didn’t want to hear what God has been saying to us. We were like my little brother who, when he didn’t want to hear something, would cover his ears and try to drown out the sound.
‘Don’t tell us the truth,’ we have thought to ourselves. ‘Just say what we want to hear, even if it’s false. We don’t want to hear any more’ about the more challenging way we ought to be going.
We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. The truth can be difficult and uncompromising. It can be hard to swallow. It can be much easier to take comfort in old certainties, traditional  answers, and the way we have always done things. But then we find ourselves wondering why churches are shrinking rather than growing. ‘Don’t tell us the truth,’ we think, ‘Just let us hear what we want to hear, even if it’s false.’
Yet Isaiah also has a message of hope. We don’t have to be stuck in this dead end. ‘The Lord God is waiting to show how kind he is and to have pity on us. The Lord always… blesses those who trust him.’
It’s never too late to face up to the truth and seek to move on. If we trust God to show how kind he is, and to have pity on us, and to bless us we can surely find the courage we will need to on venture to new ground and try new things, to allow God to reinvent us.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Kindness to Strangers

Isaiah 16.3-5
At the height of the EU Referendum campaign some of the Leavers unveiled a poster showing a long line of Syrian refugees snaking towards the borders of the European Union. The subtext was that, if we stayed in the Union, these people might arrive on our shores, taking our homes and jobs, our school places and hospital beds.  Even some Leavers were shocked at the implicit rejection of an ‘open-hearted humanitarian response to appalling distress,’ the response someone has said we should be expected to make when a country like Syria is torn apart by warfare.
This was the situation which faced the people of Judah at the time of Isaiah. There had been deep enmity between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel and their Moabite neighbours. King Omri of Israel - someone the Bible doesn’t like very much, actually - oppressed Moab during his reign so, in revenge King Mesha of Moab attacked Israel after the death of Omri’s son Ahab, and dragged away the sacred vessels from God’s shrine and took them to the temple of his god, Chemosh. We know this because he left a record carved in stone, celebrating his victory. We also know that the Bible accuses the people of Moab of sacrificing their own children to Chemosh, which is presumably why the Bible calls the worship of Chemosh ‘disgusting’.
This long standing enmity between Israel and Judah on the one side, and Moab on the other, makes it all the more surprising, therefore, that Isaiah reports the appeal from the defeated people of Moab for sanctuary in Judah. ‘Be kind and help us!’ they plead. ‘Shade us from the heat of the noonday sun. Hide our refugees! Don’t turn them away. Let our people live in your country.’
It has to be said that Isaiah isn’t always as forgiving. He has some particularly unkind things to say about the powerful empire of Babylon and its rulers, but he confesses that, ‘Deep in my heart I hurt for Moab.’ He mourns the refugees’ fate and sheds tears for them, even though he believes it is God’s will that their country has been brought low.
Perhaps part of the reason is that the people of Israel, Judah and Moab shared similar dialects of the same language. One of the most revered people in the Bible, Ruth the grandmother of King David, was also from Moab. Isaiah finds himself recognising the shared humanity of the Moabite, Israelite and Judahite peoples.
He promises the Moabites that they will not need to be refugees forever. ‘Moab, your cruel enemies will disappear,’ he says. ‘They will no longer attack and destroy your land.’ But he goes further: ‘Then a kingdom of love will be set up, and someone from David’s family will rule with fairness. He will do what is right     and quickly bring justice.’ In other words, in Isaiah’s opinion these foreigners deserve the same God-given destiny as his own people.
That’s a far cry from our own reluctance to open our hearts and our land today to people being attacked by cruel enemies. We often imagine that we have made progress on the attitudes and behaviour of the past. This passage should give us pause for thought.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hannah Arendt & the Temptation of Christ

Isaiah 5.18-21; Matthew 4.1-11
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt was the subject of a radio programme recently and her ideas sounded very relevant. She wanted to understand what had given rise to totalitarian states like Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.
The Nazi Party in particular had come to power through democratic elections and during the 1930s the Nazis continued to hold  a series of plebiscites or referendums in which they asked people to endorse what they were doing. They took these very seriously and campaigned hard to win people’s support. In all of them they got more than 90% of the vote, and they only stopped holding them once they realised that popular support was ebbing away. No one was allowed to contest these elections and put an opposing point of view, but it’s striking nonetheless how many people gave their unthinking support. At the Nuremberg Trials, the most important surviving Nazi leader - Hermann Goering - based his defence on this mandate from the people. He said that he shouldn’t be held to account for doing things which were the democratic will of the German nation.
Having been a refugee from Nazi Germany, Hannah Arendt wanted to find out how the Nazis were able to achieve this level of political control. She believed that they had gradually taken over the discussion of ideas. Instead of allowing people to have open and free discussions, they closed down the debate by making some ideas unacceptable. It became unpatriotic, or treasonable even, to say things with which the majority of people disagreed, so there was no room any longer to challenge the direction of travel. And the same thing had happened in Communist Russia.
You might think that’s not a very original idea, but Arendt saw that what the Nazis and the Communists had also done was to close down the thought processes inside people’s heads. She said that in a healthy person there should be a constant debate going on. We think to ourselves, ‘Should I be doing this or that thing?’ - stealing a loaf of bread, for example - and then we have a debate with ourselves about the rights and wrongs of that idea. So we might think, ‘It’s always wrong to steal so I should never take a loaf of bread.’ But on the other hand we might also think, ‘If my children are starving and I can’t afford to buy them something to eat, maybe it’s all right to steal some bread for them.’
The Nazis and the Communists tried to stop people from having this debate. Arendt went to the trial of Adolf Eichman, who was responsible for organising the transport of Jewish people to the gas chambers. She observed that he never once asked himself whether this was right or wrong. In fact he patted himself on the back because he had tried to reduce the overcrowding on the trains.
Arendt said that there always needs to be a conversation going on, inside people’s heads and also between people, about what we’re doing. If somebody says, ‘Let’s give blue eyed children a free education and make brown eyed children pay,’ it needs to be possible for other people to challenge them and say, ‘That’s not fair,’ or, ‘There must be a better way of doing things.’ And even if the government organises a referendum and gets the majority of people to agree to preferential treatment for blue eyed children it still needs to be possible to dissent, to try to get the policy changed, and people still need to be able to ask themselves, ‘Is this really the right thing to do?’
Arendt’s ideas stray into the realm of religion at this point, because she says that a healthy country needs to allow  its leaders to make a promise - if they sincerely mean what they say at the time - but then break it if, when they’re challenged, other people show them that they’re making a mistake or a different course of action would be better. And Arendt says this means a healthy country has to be willing to forgive its leaders for being less than perfect.
We don’t live in that kind of country, do we? We still haven’t forgiven Tony Blair for invading Iraq, or Nick Clegg for his change of heart on student tuition fees, and we haven’t forgiven John Major just for being John Major. So when these characters from the past pop up to warn us about the danger of closing down discussion about what sort of Brexit we want, people dismiss them as discredited has-beens.
And we’re equally bad at forgiving one another, and even ourselves. We put a huge premium on success and punish people who try something new and then fail. Only those who never put a foot wrong go on receiving our support.
Paul points out that - contrary to modern expectations - failure to live up to our hopes and ideals, our promises and plans, is hard-wired into us. The first people, Adam and Eve, fell short of God’s way and ever since all human beings have been doomed to fall short. But then along came Jesus, someone who lived up to his promises, who obeyed God’s path for his life, and who - as a result - was able to break out of this cycle of failure and despair. God’s kindness shown to us in Jesus offers us the forgiveness we need to be able to start over and try again, not necessarily just once but as many times as it takes.
The temptation of Jesus can be seen as a conversation or discourse between two people - one on either side of the argument - Jesus and the Devil. It’s the sort of conversation which Hannah Arendt wanted to see taking place whenever people make important decisions. But it can also be seen as an internal conversation that Jesus is having with himself, where he’s being tempted, as we are. He’s having the sort of conversation with himself - trying out ideas, probing them, testing them  - which Arendt says all of us should have if we want to be sure we’re doing the right thing.
Should he give people free food, should he perform stunts to impress them, or should he conquer the world by force? Jesus thinks through all of these options only to reject them because they’re not God’s will. And that’s what we should do when we’re making decisions. We should debate them, first with ourselves and then with one another.
Arendt’s complaint about Adolf Eichmann was that he was thoughtless. He did terrible things without questioning. He didn’t ask where hatred of the Jewish race had come from, or whether sending Jewish people to their deaths was right. He just took the Nazis at their word and got on with the job. Arendt called this kind of behaviour ‘the banality of evil’, by which she meant that evil is sometimes done by unimaginative, uninspired, thoughtless people.
In a way, she thought it was better to be tempted and give in to temptation - like King Richard III who kills his nephews and seizes the crown of England because according to Shakespeare, he says, ‘I am determined to prove a villain... subtle, false and treacherous.’ Thinking about right and wrong, whatever the outcome, is better she thinks than doing wrong things thoughtlessly.
Best of all, of course, is to be like Jesus, tempted in all points as we are and yet without sin; to have that conversation with the Tempter and then renounce all his works. And if we fail, and make the wrong choices, to find forgiveness in Jesus and try again.