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Playing Games with God

Matthew 11:16-19 (NRSVA)One of the fascinating things about this passage is that it gives us an intriguing glimpse into Jesus’ own childhood. This isn’t St Luke’s version - where a saintly and erudite Jesus sits listening intently to the scribes debating in the Temple. This is a recollection from Jesus’ own lips. Like any preacher or teacher he’s reaching into his own memory bank for illustrations.We need to put out of mind any ideas we might have about teenagers hanging around together in the marketplace drinking cheap cider. Before the Twentieth Century there was no concept of being in between childhood and adulthood. At the time of Jesus you were either a child or a grown-up, in his case apprenticed to his father. Adolescent girls weren’t allowed to mix with boys and were soon married off, and teenagers of both sexes were probably too busy to do much socialising anyway.So this is a childhood memory. At a loose end after doing their chores or attending scripture classes, the childre…
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St Paul and Sigmund Freud

Romans 7.15-25aWith considerable psychological acuity, St Paul understood - long before the theories of Sigmund Freud turned this into science - that we can genuinely believe in something, and want to do it, but find ourselves completely unable to follow through. Something deep and primitive is embedded in our nature, a sort of instinctive self-centredness - that will not let us go. We are, in fact, enslaved to it.More than that, patterns of behaviour become embedded in our psyche because of long forgotten events in our childhood. So we play out the thwarted love that a jealous toddler feels for its mother when she sleeps at night not with the child but with the father. And as we grow older, the way that we’re treated by our parents, and their role models - good or bad, shapes the way that we respond to others and treat them in our turn. Parents can never be perfect but we can only hope that they were good enough to save us from further psychological damage.How can we escape from this…

Is the coronavirus the wages of sin or a gateway to grace?

Romans 6.12-23The New Revised Standard Version rather slavishly follows the Authorised Version of the Bible here, on which it’s based. Wilfully ignoring the modern connotations of a phrase like ‘you once presented your members as slaves to impurity’, it persists in using this rather archaic translation of a Greek word that really means ‘limbs’. What Paul seems to be saying is that in the past we were zombies for sin, but now we that we’ve given our lives to Christ we can enjoy God’s free gift of eternal life - we can truly live in him.Mind you, taking into account the conduct of American presidents past and present, it’s easy to understand why the American translators of the New Revised Standard Version obstinately stuck with the word ‘members’. Perhaps they felt it’s new sexualised meaning wasn’t entirely inappropriate. What Paul is saying still works when it’s understood as a way of allowing God to take control of some of our more fundamental drives and instincts.But in a time of gl…

Predicting the Future

Jeremiah 28.5-9 (NRSVA)This passage describes a battle of the prophets, a sort of prophesying contest which happened in the Temple. The Prophet Hananiah faced down Jeremiah and told him that he was getting it all wrong. The Kingdom of Judah wasn’t facing disaster, instead things were just about to get a lot better. The heavy yoke of the King of Babylon was about to be broken and the people who’d already been taken away into exile would be allowed to return, bringing with them the treasured sacred objects that had been looted from the Temple..This put Jeremiah in a difficult position. He was convinced that Hananiah was mistaken, but to deny the truth of such a hopeful prophecy wasn’t going to increase his own dismal popularity ratings. So he’d no alternative but to solemnly endorse what Hananiah was saying. ‘Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfil the words that you have prophesied.’ But he added a warning. The reputation of people who promise good times will always be measured b…

The steadfast love of God endures forever

Psalm 89.1-4, 15-18 (NRSVA)This is one of the royal psalms which may have been sung at the coronation of a new ruler or on other national holidays. It begins by celebrating the rock solid reliability of God’s promises and then focuses specifically on his covenant with the royal house of David. God is supposed to have promised David that his descendants would rule over Israel forever, although building his throne from generation to generation - which was probably intended to mean the same thing - is in fact a slightly different idea. It implies only the continuity of the government and nation state established by David.Be that as it may, God’s favour towards Israel can only mean that the people of Judah can afford to be joyful and should exult or rejoice in God’s name. Their horn of plenty should always be full and they should expect to be shielded from harm. The king is God’s appointee, so what could possibly go wrong?This is the sort of sentiment which encouraged Hananiah to oppose J…

Make haste to answer me!

‘Make haste to answer me!’ Psalm 69.7-18 (NRSVA)This psalm has been a source of inspiration ever since it was first composed. Jesus’ disciples remembered verse 9 when he got upset with the moneychangers in the Temple at Jerusalem. ‘Zeal for God’s house has consumed him,’ they thought, (John 2.17). A similar zeal has consumed generations of Methodists so it’s ironic that we now find ourselves locked out of our much loved church buildings. Many people continue to put their hope in worship life returning to normal again, while others hope that perhaps we shall rethink what ‘God’s house’ really means.Paul quotes the same verse in Romans 15.3, when he says that the Roman Christians should ‘build up’ or encourage their neighbours because ‘the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ But he’s not saying that when people think ill of them this reflects badly on him. He hardly knew them. He’s saying that this verse applies to Jesus himself. When people insult Jesus, those insults al…

A dynamic way of being Church

Matthew 10.40-42Today congregations from all denominations are having to rethink what it means to be church. The old model is no longer working. Perhaps it never did, and perhaps our failure to adopt the right model helps to explain the gradual decline of organised Christianity in the West. The prevailing model for the last 150 years has been congregations gathering together primarily for worship. Whether worship means having a good sing, or sharing communal prayers, or gathering around the table to share Holy Communion, it’s been focused on honouring and praying to God. But does God need our songs of praise? Do we really need to gather together to draw God's attention to the world's problems? And what are we expecting to achieve by meeting Christ in bread and wine at the table of the Lord?In chapter 10, as we’ve seen before, Matthew uses the way Jesus and his disciples engaged in mission to suggest another way of being church - an alternative model which might be more appropr…

Truth will prevail

Jeremiah 20.7-13 (NRSV)This is a page from Jeremiah's spiritual journal where he reflects privately on the difficulties of being a prophet. His name’s forever associated with doom and gloom; to this day people accuse pessimistic forecasters of being ‘a Jeremiah’. And of course his bleak warnings got on people’s nerves. They took turns either to reproach him for lowering national morale or to deride him for being a ‘remoaner’, always imagining disaster instead of planning for success. Even his friends distanced themselves from Jeremiah. After all, he’d spent time in prison for his stand against the government’s foolishly optimistic policies. ‘Terror is all around!’ they whispered, ‘Why not conform?’ When he still refused to listen there was understandable pressure on his allies to denounce him. Some people tried to entice him to change sides, others tried to wear him down. His enemies tried to take revenge on him for the damage that his fearless campaigning had done to their reputa…