Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Return

It hadn’t been very long at all, but so much had changed. Not in the town, it was the same as ever, another typical Galilean village; no, it was his role and purpose that had changed. When he left they had known him simply as the carpenter’s son, a nice guy if a little ‘different’, who had done the right thing supporting his mother and younger brothers until the boys were old enough to assume full responsibility. In the humdrum world of daily work, the simple world of ordinary people he had simply been taken for granted, and the oddities of their family history were largely overlooked.

But now his reputation had preceded him, and he could see the questions in his former neighbours’ eyes. They were remembering how his mother was pregnant too soon, they were remembering how his whole family had disappeared down to Egypt for a while, they were remembering little ways in which he had seemed unusual as a child. The rumours had been flying all round Galilee: the deaf who could now hear, the blind who could now see, the lame and the paralysed who were walking again. Wasn’t there something a little bit strange about that? Not quite sound, not quite ... reliable? And in the sideways glances their unspoken question shouted, “Who does he think he is?”

Now he looked around at them, gathering their attention as he stood before them. Then he looked down at the scroll and began to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor ...” He read through that glorious proclamation of the freedom and healing that were God’s signs of His Messiah, then he sat down and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

He could feel their shock turning to anger, and the deep, resentful scepticism that lay behind it. Their thoughts were written clear across their hardening faces: Who did he think he was? He was a child of shame; his mother, who’d always seemed to be more pious than the rest of them, had been the very one who’d had to move her wedding forward. And what had he ever done for them? It was all very well to go round healing people in Capernaum (mere fishermen!) but what miracles had he ever done for the people of Nazareth all the time he had been with them? Didn’t they have first claim on him?

“No prophet is accepted in his hometown,” he told them. Hadn’t it always been the way? Men were contemptuous of the familiar, and resented one of their own claiming to be something more. Also, they always thought they had ownership. If they had ‘put up’ all those years (as they saw it) with someone who wasn’t quite one of them, there was an expectation that they should, at the very least, have a share in the rewards. That the prophets of God belong to God alone, go where He sends them, and give the glory to Him alone, was something they had no interest in knowing. In fact, the very idea enraged them.

His words about Elijah and Elisha only inflamed them further. How dare he! In one accord, just as a herd of wild creatures turns on one they perceive to be an outsider, they rose and drove him out of the synagogue, through the town and up towards a precipice. There was murder in their hearts, but it was not his time to die, and he slipped through their midst and departed, leaving them alone with their futile anger in a world grown mysteriously greyer.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sheep and Wolves

The lamb, having no appetite for meat,
Does not suspect the wolf.

The wolf, moved by strange hunger,
Eternally suspicious,
Thinks the lamb a hypocrite.

Surely only the self-righteous
Play the public vegetarian?

How shall sheep refute an accusation
We do not even understand?
Our ways are not their ways,
Our hungers not their hungers.
We are black sheep, we have strayed.
We are not wolves.

Clarity of language
Is always the first casualty.

Imbalance of power
Hides dark in the long grasses.

The lamb becomes condemned
For being made of meat,
For being sweet and juicy
And for eating grass.

It is never enough to be innocent
When wolves want blood.
To be .. is to be in the wrong,

To be sheepish is a crime.

Idols? Who, me?

Every one of us is familiar with the second commandment, Exodus 20: 4-5
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them...
It is easy to read that and feel confident that we at least got that one right. Most of us haven’t taken a statue of someone-or-other, placed it in some sort of shrine and prayed to it. (If you have then we need to be having a different conversation: one about the supremacy of Jesus and how He desires to be worshiped). So, do we not need to worry about this commandment? Are we so much more advanced than those ancient Israelites who were tempted to run off to worship Baal and Ashtoreth at every opportunity, or who could not wait too long at the bottom of Mount Sinai without creating a golden calf to worship instead of the great God who had so recently showed them His power to redeem with a mighty hand and outstretched arm?
Man-made gods
One common (and very useful) application of this commandment is to look at the things that distract us from serving and following God with all that we are (putting “our whole selves in” as per the Hokey-Pokey). Money, pleasure, possessions, status – the list of potential idols goes on and on and everyone can think of their own additions (or weaknesses). Our human hearts are capable of latching onto anything that seems desirable and making it into the central pursuit of our lives, sometimes with disastrous consequences to our bodies (think of drug addictions for example) or relationships (e.g. the consequences of pornography), but always with disastrous consequences to our walk with God. Just like ancient Israel, we turn so quickly from the One who so powerfully redeemed us to other, more immediate satisfactions – the things that we imagine we just can’t do without.
Those other desires which rule our hearts even while we profess to be following Jesus  are what the Bible calls “the greed which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).  For, as Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6: 21)

Making use of God
But this is not the only form of idolatry. Another problem (which we will be talking about in church in a few weeks’ time – stay tuned!) is when we think that the worship of God is the means to something else (the thing which we really want). We seek the gifts rather than the Giver, and He who created heaven and earth, and in whom all things hold together, becomes regarded as the means to the end rather than an end in Himself. People profess Christianity for because they perceive some other benefits (or perceived side-benefits): health, wealth, social respectability etc, or even to date/marry a Christian.

Misunderstanding God
And there is yet another kind of idolatry, much more rarely discussed, which we should also be aware of: the idolatry of our own theology, i.e. our own understanding of God. I remember being told once, when I was young, that the reason that it is wrong to make a physical image of God is that it limits our understanding of Him, confining Him, as it were, to the particular characteristics   which the artist chose to depict. It is like trying to draw a rainbow in black and white, or reduce a complex, 3-dimensional object to a single 2-dimensional picture. It will always be inadequate, and, if taken literally, it will become misleading, however well-intentioned the design.
God is always more than our conceptions of Him, and He will stretch us, through the truth of His word and the sharp experience of reality, to see Him more clearly, more truly. It was C S Lewis, in ‘A Grief Observed’, written after the death of his wife, who said that it is God, Himself who is the iconoclast (destroyer of images):
"My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins."

It is so dangerously easy to make God in our own image, rather than submitting ourselves to be remade in His. It is so dangerously easy to let the immediate gratifications of this world become more important to us than the glories of eternity. It is so dangerously easy to see ‘religion’ as a means to obtain those gratifications. It was Calvin who said that the human heart is a factory for making idols; let us return ourselves, over and over again to the truth of His Word, that our hearts and minds might, more and more, fall in love all over again with the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Compassionate One

I will never forget the first time my whole world changed. I was lifting an armful of firewood for my wife when my sleeve pulled back and I saw something on my arm which had not been there before.  I nearly dropped the wood in my surprise, but I recovered myself quickly. I didn’t want to draw attention or alarm anybody until I’d taken a closer look. But I should have known that I could not hide anything from my wife! Her intelligent awareness of everyone and everything around her was one of the qualities I loved her for. She demanded to know, and so I showed her. What else could I do? But when she lifted my sleeve and looked carefully in the clear sunlight I wasn’t looking at my arm. In my heart I already knew the truth. So I was watching her face, and I can still recall, with absolute clarity, how her expression changed from tender concern to alarm and, yes, revulsion. “Leprosy,” she said, and I could feel her shudder against me.

That was the last time I touched my wife. We both knew what the Law required, went to the priest and I was declared a leper. Seven horrible years of loneliness and ostracism followed. Ragged and dirty, forced to depend on the charity of those who despised me for my very survival, I watched the slow spread of the disease in my body with a kind of numb horror. Once I had been a successful man with a beautiful wife, looking forward to the birth of our first child and anticipating a contented future together; now I was an outcast whom all men treated with fear and loathing, occasionally tinged with horrified pity. I did not even know if I was the father of a boy or a girl, and the only name I could call myself was “unclean”.

I will never forget the second time my whole world changed. There had been rumours of a man they called Jesus in the area – a preacher, a healer, some called him a prophet of God. I remembered how Elisha had once healed the Gentile Naaman from his leprosy, and a wild, crazy hope awoke in my heart. Could such things still happen? And what did I have to lose?

So I came, and I found him and, compelled by my desperation, I knelt at a distance and called out to him, “If you will, you can make me clean!” Immediately he turned, and looked me full in the face. I thought I had seen and known love and tenderness in that other life where I had been reckoned as a man, but it was minuscule compared to the Love that shone from him, a compassion that crossed the gulf between life and death, between purity and filth as if it were nothing. He touched me! For seven long years no hand had touched me; I was an object of revulsion and a source of contagion. But this man loved and was not afraid. I had no power to make him unclean. His touch healed my body as simply as running water rinses dirty hands, but it also healed my heart as his tenderness filled and overflowed the hollows dug by rejection.

I am a man with a wife and a son and a trade, but far more, I am a man who met God on a dusty Galilean road, and I pray that the truth of his tender compassion will flow forth from me all the days that he gives me on this earth.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Not My Will ..

Of course it wasn’t what I wanted, how could you think such a thing? It isn’t a pleasure at all, you know, but I’m a leader, and sometimes leaders have to take responsibility and do the things that nobody wants to do. It’s part of the heavy burden of responsibility we leaders have to carry, the burden of office that weighs us down so heavily. We don’t please ourselves, we do what is best for everyone. That’s why we have to be careful to look after ourselves so vigilantly, what would happen if we were too sick, too tired, too weighed down with the petty, bothersome details of daily life to have the energy to do what has to be done when the crisis comes? Oh, don’t look at me like that, you know it would be chaos for Israel if we didn’t step in and do the hard stuff! I didn’t do it for myself, I did it for us; sacrificing this Jesus was one of the most sacrificial things I have ever done. I risked getting my hands dirty for the good of the nation. It truly was expedient that one man should die for the people – look how many lives I saved.

The trouble began up in Galilee, where most such troubles start. You know as well as I do that nothing good ever comes from there. Anyway, the Pharisees heard the rumours and went bustling up there to see if their precious law was being broken. Healing on the Sabbath? They didn’t seem to get that the important thing was that people were getting excited about him healing on the Sabbath. That’s what we have to avoid: excitement, popular movements, anything that destabilises the balance of power. Rome doesn’t like that, and Rome is the one we must placate. We can’t afford any Messiahs, once it goes to their heads they’re not the only ones who end up on crosses, so do a significant number of their followers, and then Rome starts tightening the screws a little more ... You have no idea how much delicate negotiating we have to do just to keep the peace. So, of course it’s expedient that one man should die ...

Sorry, I’m repeating myself. Where was I? Oh yes, we started keeping an eye on him after that – but he was a slippery customer. Our scholars would spend ages thinking up clever questions to trap him and show him up to the people, so that they’d forget about him, and every single time he’d manage to come up with an answer that slid him safely out again. It was infuriating! Someone must have schooled him well. Oh no, the wisdom couldn’t have come from him, he was just a peasant from Nazareth, and you know what they say about that place! And there were rumours that his mother ... you know ... it wasn’t nine months after the wedding ... no better than she should be ...

In the end we had a lucky break, one of his followers came to do a deal with us. Do you think I enjoyed dealing with a low life like him though? The things we leaders have to dirty our hands with to keep the people safe! And this Judas was an idiot! After it was all over he came snivelling back to us and wanted to hand back the blood money! As if we’d want it! And what did he think we were going to do? Give his “Master” a nice little talking-to? Hardly! We had him where we wanted him, and we were going to crush that problem once and for all!

What’s that you say? Oh yes, I’ve heard those rumours, but they can’t possibly be true. Dead is dead. We Sadducees know that the dead don’t rise at all, let alone in this world! No, the only power we have to worry about is Rome, and that’s why we priests are so careful to guard our own power. We do it all for you.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Last Time

He knew he would never see the palace again, and his eyes lingered over the details as an act of farewell. It looked different in the depths of night, and tonight not all the flaring torches were lit, just enough for to make the so-familiar pillars and painted walls dance in the flickering light. It was a night unlike any other night, and tension ricocheted through the corridors.

Of course, it only took a moment, as they strode through, to burn the image into his mind, to stay there for the rest of his days. The palace had been the exotica of his childhood, occasionally glimpsed when he ventured out of the little world of the women’s quarters, and then, in a sense, his home in his early manhood, when he had walked through these passages as one who had a right to, and the bowing servants had scuttled out of the way. But even when he was most dazzled by his fortune, he had known that his true home was that little slave hut, not far from the banks of the Nile, where his real parents and his brother and sister lived. But in truth he was a wanderer upon the earth, just like Jacob, just like Abraham. And now he was returning to the wilderness, and this time, unlike forty years earlier, when he had fled as a fugitive from justice, he would never come back again.

Death was in the air tonight, and Egypt was racked with the turmoil of grief. This final plague had reached through Pharaoh’s stubborn mind to his broken heart, and this time he was summoning them only to tell them to get out of his sight forever. All over the land the firstborn of Egypt had been struck dead, in a single night, from Pharaoh’s son and heir to the newborn lamb in the pen of the lowliest in the land. Only the Israelites were spared, for over their doorways was painted the blood of a lamb, and where that sacrificial death had been claimed, no further death was required.

And so they would leave Egypt, the land of their sojourning which had become the land of their slavery, and journey out into the wilderness, as God directed, in search of the place which God had promised. How this was to be accomplished he had absolutely no idea, but the hand of God was heavy on the land of Egypt that night, and the breath of God was stirring the cool night air, and at this moment he could feel neither fear nor regret. Mentally he traced his life and the pattern of his journey: from the jaws of death to the palace of Egypt , from the grandeur of the palace to the bleak silence of the wilderness, from that holy, terrifying encounter with the burning bush (long after the desert had dried up all his former self-confidence) back to Egypt again, and now back into the wilderness again, whilst Egypt herself shuddered in the jaws of death. And then forward to a land which he had never seen, where the blessing of God fell as rain from Heaven.

It was time to leave, to gather a whole nation with him, and move forward into a new destiny. The power of Egypt would be gone from his life forever.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

A Time for War ..

They called themselves the Zealots because they were zealous for the restoration of Israel’s power. They longed for the overthrow of Rome, and would do whatever they could to subvert the oppressor’s domination. Some of them, as happens in any cause, were brutes who were attracted by the opportunity for violence and personal gain, but many were men who embraced a noble cause. They remembered the promises to Abraham, especially the promise of the Land, and they believed that the restoration of their sovereignty over their own nation (and beyond) was part of that promise. To that end they were waiting for a Messiah who would give them back their rightful place in the world.

And now a likely candidate had appeared. He healed the sick and fed the hungry, he made the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear, it was even rumoured he could raise the dead to life. Surely he was the one who would accomplish victory over Rome! And now he had come to Jerusalem at the Passover, the time when all true Israelites were gathered for the feast, a ready-made army who, divinely empowered, with this Jesus at their head, would overthrow the might of Rome. It was a time for war ..


They saw themselves as the guardians of Israel’s holiness. They knew the Law, and they knew all the other laws that they had devised for themselves as a hedge of protection around it, so that it could not be accidentally transgressed. They knew their history, they knew that violation of the covenant had led to exile from the Land, and they were determined this should never happen again. So they set about creating a visible form of religion that would set the faithful apart from the faithless. They would keep the Law so perfectly that no one could ever accuse them of failure.

But now somebody was accusing them! For a long time this miracle worker, this homespun backwoods preacher, had been disturbing the religious equilibrium, and painting a very different picture of God to the one they taught. Was he going to be another failed revolutionary who would bring down the wrath of Rome upon them and disturb the delicate balance of power? Or would his engaging stories of shepherds and Samaritans alienate their own following? And now he had come out and openly attacked them. Being called whitewashed tombs, or a brood of vipers is very hard to forgive. But he was in Jerusalem, he could be silenced. It was a time for war ..

His heart was heavy, He knew that the time had come. Around Him the beloved faces whispered and wondered. How long would it take them to understand that a greater Passover was about to unfold? He broke the bread, saying “This is my body  ...”  He took up the cup saying , “This is my blood ..” and He felt the full weight of the sentence about to be passed. Before tomorrow’s sunset, His body would be tortured to death, His blood would be poured out, and He would be crushed beneath the weight of humanity’s terror and despair. There was no other way, and there was no one else who could do it. For this reason He had come into the world. There was a battle to be fought, and the only way to win it was to be utterly defeated. The price must be paid, and sin and death and hell must be overcome. And these, whom He loved, would have to walk through the darkness of grief and loss and despair until the victory would be revealed.

He rose from the table and bid them come with Him to the Mount of Olives. For one last time He must rest in the Father’s love before all was stripped away. It was a time for war ..