Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Crime

The king sat and listened carefully, as was his wont. It was his responsibility to listen. As a king he must listen to the stories of his people so that he could lead them in the right way; for how can there be wise leadership without understanding? And as a man who sought to honour the Lord, and not fall away and reject God’s Spirit, as his predecessor Saul had done so miserably, he must give his full attention to the words of God’s prophet. But as he listened he felt indignation swell up inside him, making it harder to concentrate. This was a crime that should never have been committed in Israel! Yes, of course, sin was everywhere there were human beings; but this kind of sin flew directly in the face of how God’s covenant people were supposed to live and reflect his character. God’s people were called to be both just and generous, and the man who oppressed others because his wealth and power allowed him to get away with it – behaviour considered normal, and even admirable in the pagan nations around them – was absolutely, heinously wrong.

The story, in and of itself was ordinary enough. It could have happened anywhere in Israel. And, oddly, the prophet gave no indications of place or tribe or lineage. Instead, referring to “a certain town”, he spoke of a rich man who had abundant flocks and herds, yet when a traveller arrived at his house, he did not take a beast from his own plentiful possessions to feed his guest, but took from his neighbour instead. Now this neighbour was a very poor man, and all he owned was one little ewe lamb, which he loved as dearly as a daughter. And it was this ewe lamb which the rich man took from him, leaving him bereft, and without any payment or compensation.

The king was so angry. “The man who did this should be put to death, and he should have to pay back the value of the lamb four times over!” (as the Law declared for thieves) “He has done great wickedness and shown no pity!”

For a heartbeat there was silence in the room, and the king puzzled over the way the prophet looked at him so sadly. Then the prophet looked upward for a moment, like a man gathering strength from beyond himself, stepped forward, raised his arm and said, in ringing tones. “You are the man!”

The court was shocked into total silence. The king sat there looking completely bewildered. Then, as the prophet continued, the court saw the king’s face change from confusion to a bleak and terrible sorrow. For the prophet explained how the king, richly blessed with wives and concubines and wealth, honour and favour had set his desires on the wife of one of his own loyal soldiers, Uriah the Hittite and taken her to his bed, in very truth a rich man stealing from a poor man. Then, to compound matters, when Uriah’s wife became pregnant, he solved the potential scandal by plotting the man’s death! Everything the king had said about the rich man in the story was true of himself, and out of his own mouth he had condemned himself.

In great distress, King David exclaimed, “I have sinned before the Lord!”

Saturday, January 10, 2015


They wouldn’t take his money back. Somehow, more than anything else that had happened in this last day or so (he had lost all track of time), that single detail undid him. He had thrown the money at their feet and stormed out. That moment of contempt was the last shred of his self-righteousness, and now even that was gone. His mind, his heart, his whole being, had become a dark and terrible void in which events and thoughts and feelings swirled without meaning or connection, then rearranged themselves into something so terrible that he shrank from giving it a name.

He could not even clearly remember his own motives now. It was almost as if they had come from outside of him, and slunk in, masked and hooded, never offering their names, to take up residence in the nooks and crannies of his psyche as if those gaping holes of doubt and fear had been made to measure for them.  He had been walking in a strange fog and now the fog had lifted and he was horrified to find himself in a quicksand – filthy beyond description and inexorably sinking.

He remembered when the agent of the priests had first approached him. Oh, they knew their man! He could imagine the blazing scorn with which Simon Peter would have responded to such a suggestion. And as for John? The love he felt for Jesus left no room for that particular disloyalty. So why himself? What made him, Judas, so different? Why was he so greedily eager to soil himself with their plots?

It wasn’t any one single thing. There was always the lure of money, of course. Any sane man needed some security for the future. And there was the dull, throbbing jealousy eating away at him because Jesus always seemed to favour some of the others, like that oaf, Peter, or that idealistic simpleton John, even Thomas, the perpetual pessimist, above himself. Did no one care that he was smart, canny, a good tactician, and a great networker? And there was the feeling, never quite defined, that things were getting off course, that Jesus’ campaign (whatever exactly it was?) was floundering and needed a nudge in a new direction. Surely, if they cornered him, he would do something amazing and the crowds would return?  When Jesus had told him to go and do what he had to, he had somehow almost convinced himself that Jesus was in the conspiracy too. Only now did he see how ludicrous that was. Besides, and it had never occurred to him till now, he had been flattered that the great men of Israel had noticed him and confided in him.

It was no use. There was no excuse, no justification for what he had done. This rejection, by the priests and elders was the ultimate rejection. He had betrayed the innocent, and sent him to death. There was blood on his hands. And when, desperately, he had sought absolution, they offered only scornful indifference. There was nothing left. He did not know that the very one he had betrayed was, himself, the sacrifice for sin, and the source of forgiveness and reconciliation for all mankind. 

So Judas went out and hanged himself.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

After the Siege

Sink slowly sun, we need your last, long light
Now, more than ever. Harrowed is the night
And long beliefs lie shattered like the glass.

Fragile our kingdom is, more than we ken.
Fragile, alike, the peace we trusted then;
And jagged pain has rent our coverings.

Flowers bedeck, we know no other gift
For pity to lay forth in sorrow’s rift:
And fumbling fingers lay them patiently.

And tears flow easily, a hidden stream
With which to wash our trampled, bloodied dream.
Hands clasp, for hope does not so simply die.

And Christmas lights shine out across the land
Mirroring what we barely understand
Dark night, dim faith, but ah! the angels sing!

Peace and goodwill sound like an empty tale.
How could a newborn baby here prevail
Against the madness when the beasts run wild?

Yet “Hallelujah” still the ages the sing
The while we tramp round history’s land-mined ring
And the eternal stars weep down on us.

The sun shall rise till suns shall rise no more.
No sun, no moon, no tears, no death, no war

Shall drag us back. The promise is so sure.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


And then the angel left her. She arose
After a while, and took the broom again
And wondered, as she swept, “was it a dream?
And what are dreams and what is waking life?”

She walked in dreams. How do you reconcile
The strange transcendence of another world
With baking bread and spinning wool for cloaks?
And why should such a being greet her thus?

And then she smiles an inward-turning smile
And cups her work-rough hands across her front
Protectively, as women always have
Who carry a new life inside their flesh.

Angels, it seems, do not give detailed plans
Of how and who to tell of such strange things,
But the necessity, the child within
Loosens her awe-struck tongue – this must be told.

It seems she walks in an unsolid place
One foot on earth and one foot in the air,
And round her head the secret angels fly
And round her feet the thorns and thistles tear.

She fears the scorn in Joseph’s honest eyes:
Must this, too, be yielded as the price?
But no, this mercy given wraps her round;
He knows she is the mother of the Christ.

And then Elizabeth, the one who knows,
Whose miracle blooms like a desert rose,
Richly endowing a gaunt barren place,
And tears of wonder water both their hearts.

And then her feet are turned to Bethlehem
As some far emperor she has never seen
Moves all the pieces round upon the board
Into a shape that is the will of God.

And soon now will the angel-hosts return
To bless the turning earth with peace decreed,
The while she carries, underneath her heart

The meaning and the answer to our need.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Beast

It was born into the world back near the beginning, when the man and the woman both turned away from Life. At first it was weak and tentative; its presence remained unknown until brother envied brother, and selfish rage fuelled the hand that rose and struck down the one had done well. Then it stood revealed, and its presence was accepted as inevitable. Soon it was stretching its power, and man after man, woman after woman, sooner or later became its lawful prey. There was only one jarring exception: the man called Enoch, who walked straight past it into the presence of God, and it could not lift so much as a claw against him. That was disconcerting, and troubling, implying a weakness in its absolute tyranny, but, as time passed and humanity expanded, that one anomaly was almost forgotten. There were no other exceptions, everybody else, however strong, wealthy or good, was forced, in the end to submit to it.

The centuries passed and it grew stronger and stronger, with more to feed upon, though there was a niggling sense of weariness even in its insatiable appetite. Flexing its muscles, feeding its hunger, it developed more and more weapons to use for its purposes: violence, famine, disease, flood, fire, foolish superstitions and corrupt religion which gave it little children and men and women at their finest strength offered up in useless sacrifice. Its favourite of all was war. When clan fought against clan, or, better still, nation fought against nation, men women and children were fed to the beast in such quantities that it was left marvelling that humanity could so hate itself! Oh yes, there was the strange anomaly of Elijah, so many centuries before, managed to bypass its claims, but what was one against so very, very many?

Then came the time that changed everything. It loved the Roman armies, for they fed it well, so well that it had no particular attention to spare for one more crucifixion in a small provincial town. But on that particular day, when that particular man died, and Death, the great Beast, took Him down into its jaws, something indescribable happened. This prey did not stay lifeless and limp in its jaws. Instead the hunter became the prey, the victim became the victor. In the darkness of the tomb, beyond the reach of human sight or understanding, cosmic battle was waged on mankind’s behalf by one who was a man, yet more than a man. And Death itself was defeated, the Beast was chained, its power broken.

What were Enoch and Elijah compared to this? They may have bypassed Death for themselves, but this man, this Christ, this illegitimate shabby Jewish teacher, had destroyed death in the very act of his dying, and offered freedom from the Beast for all mankind. Oh, until the last Act of the drama was played out, men’s bodies would still endure death. But his jaws held no more terror now, his gums were toothless. The Beast was now on a chain, and one day, very soon, the chain would be pulled in and the end would come. He was the Last Enemy, but one day every enemy would be conquered. Death would die, its death sentence had already been given in the court that could not be gainsaid. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

What the World Could not Give

She stood trembling at the edge of the room, knowing that if she did not soon gather her courage together, she never would. She was still half- hidden from sight standing by a pillar, a veiled woman standing in the shadows, retreating from the judgemental sight of men. She knew who she was, better than any of them did, and she knew what she had done: the sordid couplings that chased the illusion of glamour and excitement, but always fell short of what they promised, the descent into shame, and the terrible place she had found herself in, when glamour and illusion had departed, laughing scornfully at her as they fled, and she found herself alone, used, degraded, despised, and with no way of existence that did not involve even further degradation. There was no bitter name they could have called her that she had not already called herself. Shame was like an acid that had eaten into her bones and left her weak and incapable. Any movement of her will had simply led to more grating pain. It was easier to be numb, to be hardened, to live from one spitefully given coin to the next. Oh, the stories she could tell of some of the men right here in this room! But who would ever believe her testimony anyway?

But then she had seen Him, the Nazarene preacher, the man who was different. She had hidden herself at the edges of the crowd, and listened, again and again. It had not been easy. Sometimes she had needed to walk away for a while because his words had re-opened wounds which she thought had long since died. No one had ever told her how painfully hope can come to the hopeless. But she always came back for more; it was like learning to breathe clean air or drink sweet water.

And now she had come to the Pharisee’s house, because she knew he would be there, and she wanted him to know how his words had changed her. She fixed her eyes on him, and as she did, her fear of everyone else faded away. There were banqueters, and servants and as always, a heap of beggarly onlookers. But none of them mattered. There was only herself and Jesus. He looked up, looked her straight in the eye, and, overwhelmed by what she saw there, she ran straight to his feet. She pushed her veil out of the way, and fell sobbing at his feet, overcome by wonder and gratitude. She took out the little jar of perfume, the most valuable thing she owned, broke the seal and poured it out recklessly, prodigally, all over his feet. She wiped them with her own hair. She could the gasps of shock and outrage around the room, but she no longer cared what those hypocrites thought.  She looked up into his eyes, and it was as if the love she found there created a shield to protect her from their cruel judgement. The world could only offer her condemnation, but he had given her something far more precious. He had given her forgiveness.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Lighten our Darkness

Lighten our darkness oh Lord we pray, for we who bear your name can no longer see our way.
We have eaten from what you had forbidden, and we know ourselves to be naked and ashamed.
We are exiled from the garden, and our world is full of bitter weeds.
There is tempest and storm and terror, and we feel ourselves shipwrecked and your deeps rise up against us
We have followed your command to leave the comfortable and familiar, but we cannot discern where the place of Your promise lies
You have promised us an inheritance and a future, but we ache with our barrenness
We wrestle with you, aching to be a people of integrity, but our fears are our downfall
Lighten our darkness, oh Lord!

Lighten our darkness oh Lord we pray.
We groan under the shackles of slavery, and do not know how to protect our own from death.
We stand on holy ground, but cannot believe your calling
We see how your judgement falls, but alien gods have twisted their fingers in our souls.
You kept us dry as we walked through the terrible waters, but our hearts are still the hearts of slaves.
We have trembled before the thunder of your commands, and are afraid to come too close to you.
We would rather worship the work of our own hands.
We have stepped back at the moment when you called us forwards, because our wilderness, whilst bitter, is safe and familiar.
Lighten our darkness, oh Lord!

Lighten our darkness, oh Lord we pray!
We have seen your victory, and rejoiced, but grew weary of the battle before the job was done.
Whenever we were not inspired, we returned to the old ways and the old habits, and were helpless to defend ourselves from oppression.
We wanted to look like everyone else around us, and your kingship was too high for us, so we made ourselves subject to the rulership of men.
We judge by outward appearance, and do not look upon the heart
We can be so faith-filled one minute, and fall prey to our most egregious appetites the next, and power and privilege are so quickly our corruption
We build your temple while our hearts are wandering away
Lighten our darkness oh Lord!

Lighten our darkness oh Lord we pray!
We all claim to be yours, but so easily divide between ourselves.
We follow corrupt leadership, because they offer us an easier way.
We find ourselves in exile from your promise, and do not believe you could have let this happen.
Only your angels stand between ourselves and ravening persecution
And when we return to the place we left, it seems a poor restoration, for the place itself has been defiled and diminished.
We strive to keep your law, and harden our hearts against each other in the process
We harden our hearts against you and do not even know what we have done.
We are proud to have put away our idols, and cannot see that we worship our  own piety.
Lighten our darkness oh Lord!

Lighten our darkness oh Lord we pray!
We need your deliverance, for we cannot redeem ourselves.
Unless you take our part, unless you take our place, we will never find your peace.
We wait for your redemption, for you are our redeemer
We hunger for that city which needs neither sun nor moon, for you, yourself are its light
We hunger for you, our only hope, our only way, our only truth, our only life.

Lighten our darkness oh Lord!