The Gospel of Eve: A Novel by Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann, The Gospel of Eve, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2020

I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of The Gospel of Eve. It is set in Littlemore Theological College, a fictional Anglican seminary just outside Oxford. The story takes place in the late 1990s, but it is narrated by Catherine Bolton in the present. Kitty, as she is known by her friends, joined Littlemore after completing a PhD in Medieval History at the University of Lancaster. The story concerns the first few months of Kitty’s time at the college and her relationship with five fellow ordinands, including the almost titular Evie. The apparent suicide of Evie is revealed in the first line of the prologue. Right from the outset the reader knows that her death not only drives the narrative but that this terrible event has ongoing consequences for Kitty.

This review will not give away anything further concerning the plot—this is vital, as one of the delights of this novel is that as it unfolds the reader must continually adjust their assessment of where the narrative will take them. The Gospel of Eve is beautifully written. College life and the broader context of Oxford are both captured with engaging effortlessness. It is a small detail—and difficult to explain—but Mann has a real gift for naming characters, contributing to the ease with which the minor players crystallise in their respective roles. The main characters are thoroughly three-dimensional in their complexity. There is not so much character development, as a chapter-by-chapter revelation of who they are. All of this works to make the central, and it must be said remarkable, plot development credible.

So much for the form, what of the content? Whilst this is certainly a novel that can just be read as an engaging page-turner it offers rather more than this. Barely below the surface lie the serious challenges posed by human frailty, all brought to life in what can only be described as a rich intertextuality. There are literary connections to theology, Church history, famous literary Oxfordians, and Dostoevsky. The religious literature of the Middle Ages occupies pride of place, and it functions on a number of levels. The three parts of the book each open with a short quote from medieval literature, and we soon realise that the frequent mention of the likes of Piers Plowman, Margery Kempe and Chaucer are not just incidental details of Kitty’s life. The love of literature is felt profoundly throughout, only to intensify in the story’s denouement. The most impressive aspect of this prevalent intertextuality is that there is no artifice only effortless flowing prose.

If the intertextual insights cast light it is all too often on the darkness of human aspiration and desire. All the characters in the story have embarked on laudable quests. For Kitty and her friends this is the wish to become closer to God and to minister to others. Indeed, at times, they come across as set apart from the rest of the college in their priestly calling. In the case of Professor Albertus Loewe, a donnish key influence on the six ordinands, his task is the formation of the next generation of clergy which includes the inculcation of a love of religious literature. Yet, we find that these positive pursuits are all, without exception, tainted in very different ways by the hardening of virtue with human obsession. This novel offers no simple answers to the human condition. What good novel does? Instead the reader has to decide for themselves what to make of the rich interplay between the story of the first Eve, the fate of Evie, and the lives of so many other Eves.

 

Children and Heirs of God

A reflection on Psalm 148, Luke 2:36–40 and Galatians 4:4–7.

Anna the daughter of Phanuel makes the briefest of appearances in the Bible, in what we call the Christmas story. Only here in Luke’s gospel do we meet her and get the briefest insight into who she is. One of the remarkable things we find out, in this small window on the life of a widow, is that she lived in lockdown.

For us lockdown has mostly, perhaps entirely, negative connotations. Being stuck largely within the confines of a single building with all the freedoms we normally taken for granted removed is painfully restrictive. Unlike us, Anna chose lockdown. Perhaps her humble circumstances as a widow helped her make the choice. Perhaps she just wanted a life of devotion to the living God of Israel.

Her confines were larger than ours—the parts of the temple complex she was allowed in were a lot bigger than a typical modern house and garden. Nevertheless, choosing such confinement seems odd to us. In church history others have followed Anna’s lead. There have been countless individuals and communities who have renounced normality, if there is such a thing. Many have chosen lockdown, or confinement in one place.

Julian of Norwich is possibly the most famous example. She lived in a single room within a Parish church (now St. Julian’s Church) for more than 20 years, until her death around 1416. She was what is known as an anchorite —someone so anchored to Christ that they choose to anchor themselves to a single place as an act of extreme devotion. So serious was this act of confinement in the Middle Ages that Julian had the last rites read for her before being ‘locked down’—she was literally dead to her old life. Like Anna her experience was not total self-isolation, for both Julian and Anna were judged prophets—they had a ministry to others.

After nine months of the Hokey Cokey (or Hokey Pokey) of lockdowns—national and local—we probably don’t have the metal bandwidth to consider such confinement as a choice. But for Anna, and Julian, this was the exact point of their lockdown. It was not just a life choice but was the way they felt best able to honour the living God. We perhaps dismiss the likes of Anna, before giving serious thought to their singular commitment to recognise the worship of God in Christ as a priority that eclipses all others.

Many Christian confessions describe the purpose of humanity as the unceasing praise of the living God through Christ. For example, the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith opens with the assertion that:

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

This sits well with the singular abandoned praise of Psalm 148. It chimes with the choice of Anna to live in the Temple grounds. It fits with the brave decision of countless men and women who have renounced everything for Christ.

Putting the words in a more modern vain:

Humankind’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

This is certainly where things started in Eden and where they end in the Book of Revelation. In living in between, most of us don’t adopt the singlemindedness of Anna. She gave up distractions, whereas we have more than ever. And clearly this cannot be the normal call for all of us who know Jesus as saviour and lord. We would, however, do well to be inspired by Anna’s commitment and we should head the remarkable insight she is given about Jesus as the basis for the redemption of Jerusalem. Her insight might at first sound parochial—the redemption of the city, the place of her lockdown—but she perceived the bigger picture. For this child opens the way to the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, the New Heaven and the New Earth. This will be a place for day and night worship for all. Where there will be no more distraction from our primary calling.

Anna understood that the fullness of time had come. She understood that the child, Jesus, born of a woman and under the law was a gateway to redemption. Paul, writing from the other side of cross and resurrection explains this further: We are, in Christ, made children of God. Of course, we were originally made as God’s children, but we need to be adopted once again because of our waywardness and distraction. In the new relationship found through Jesus Christ we are restored to our original relationship with the Father. Our Father can once again look upon us with delight, as our opposition to him, that comes all too easily, is taken from us in Christ.

Contrary to what you might have heard, Abba is not Aramaic for Daddy. The word is far richer than this. It has all the intimacy of Daddy but at the same time the recognition of absolute Fatherly authority. This richer meaning of the word Abba is the heart of the gospel. It is the four-letter appellation for God that captures the mystery of the creator God in all his majesty and glory who has nevertheless adopted us in a father-child relationship.

We don’t tend to enjoy having authorities over us. We might well feel we are slaves to our government’s laws, restrictions, and guidance, to the point where for the first time we think consciously on a daily basis about such matters.

Such slavery, if that’s what it is, pales into insignificance before the slavery that is the human condition. Without Jesus Christ, and our newfound adoption, we would be slaves to sin and slaves to death. Whilst we still sin, and we will die, we are now slaves to neither. Neither sin nor death bars us from an eternity with Abba Father. We know Christ crucified, who put an end to the slavery of both sin and death. We have seen Christ resurrected as the promise of this reality.

As Galatians 4:7 says:

So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. [NRSV]

What did Anna inherit? What did Julian of Norwich inherit? What have we inherited? The same things as one another! Namely the steadfast hope of an eternity with our Father. We should rejoice here and now. We should avoid being distracted from both worshipping him and acknowledging his lordship. And yet our present reality pales before that day of glory when the one born of a woman, and born under the law, returns in splendour. God’s firstborn enables us all to be children and heirs.

Advent: Love

In our modern world there are those that would challenge the very notion of love. Sadly, we see regular evidence of the failure of love. We know of, and perhaps experience first-hand, damaged relationships, broken vows and ended marriages. In the news we see celebrities, and the famous, failing to model true love in this age. Too many people can testify to the darker side of love. For some love is just a synonym for lust or sexual coercion and abuse.

In the 1980s the pop duo Eurythmics captured the darker side of so-called love in a song which claims to define love. In the words of Love is a Stranger (1982):

It’s savage and it’s cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like the flood
And it seems like religion
It’s noble and it’s brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it wrenches you up
And you’re left like a zombie

Such a view of love might match some experiences of modern relationships, but it’s also a parody of the Bible’s most famous passage about love:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13: 4–7, NIV

Both Eurythmics and the Apostle Paul describe love. I know which definition I prefer. For Christians, Saint Paul has the final word because his understanding of love is its truest form – for it is a view of love defined in the very nature of who the God of the Bible is. As the New Testament claims elsewhere: God is love (1 John 4:16).

It is perhaps in worldly love that we see most clearly the damage of humankind’s selfishness. As broken human beings when we aim at patient-and-kind love it is only a matter of time before we fall into savage-and-cruel love. Which of us has not said something to our dearest in the heat of the moment? Sometimes such words cannot be forgiven and even if they can, they are seldom forgotten.

Of the estimated 107 billion people who have walked this Earth, it is only Jesus Christ who continually eclipsed selfishness with selflessness. Though we might want to fix our eyes on the baby Jesus as we think on the noble theme of love. To fix our hearts requires a broken Jesus on a cross.

As Jesus knew all too well:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13, NIV

Advent: Joy

Why are children so much better at showing joy than adults? We are accustomed to seeing regions of the world marred by war and poverty on our TV screens. Sometimes we see behind the reporter, conveying a story of woe and suffering, children playing with expressions of laughter and joy. I am not pretending that children do not suffer daily in such contexts but rather drawing attention to a child’s ability to make the best of a situation and find joy where we jaded adults would not bother to look.

Children unwittingly know the truth of R. S. Thomas’ poem The Gift:

Some ask the world
and are diminished
in the receiving
of it. You gave me

only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
me with sourceless light.

So why is it we adults find joy so elusive? Do we all ask the world? So much of being an adult brings barriers that prevent us enjoying the simple things of life. Joy requires a sense of abandonment to something – this might be playing a game, enjoying being with friends, holding a tame animal, or making time to notice the beauty of creation.

As adults, worry, responsibility, selfishness, and dissatisfaction can be the things that form an impermeable barrier to joy. Perhaps the ultimate death knell of joy is that all too adult concept of cynicism. As adults our experiences in this life can enable us to become either wiser or just plain cynical.

A few days ago, we saw the first people being vaccinated against Covid-19. The UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was seen to shed a tear of joy on national TV. Some of the press and a well-known satirical TV show have questioned the genuine nature of these tears. We might do well to avoid such cynicism. Perhaps we might heed the biblical proverb:

The heart knows its own bitterness,
and no stranger shares its joy.
Proverbs 14:10, NRSV

This is one to chew over. It seems to allude to the difficulty in sharing another’s joy. And it is a warning that too often there’s a binary choice between a path characterised by bitterness or one on which joy is found. In this way it seems that joy is part of the choices that we make. Such choices are all to seldom made consciously. The Bible does more than just offer wisdom on choosing the path of joy, it promises that joy can come from a relationship with God. Paul puts it like this:

. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control . . .
Galatians 4:4–5, NRSV

As we approach Christmas we remember the one born in the stable who makes such a relationship possible, the one who is truly Joy to the World.

Advent: Peace

In our culture, peace means, above all, a cessation of war and conflict. This prevails over the wider idea of peace that the Bible presents, captured in the Hebrew and Greek words, shalom and eirene. They include wellbeing, friendship, harmony, and vitality.

In terms of the more general meaning of peace, we all share a desire that war would cease. There are by some counts ten wars currently taking place around the world. If we factor in civil unrest and local armed conflict this number is much much larger. The results of war are not just the obvious fatalities and injuries of combatant and civilians. One result of large conflicts are refugees in their millions, and all the pain and suffering that comes with the displacement of entire populations.

The age to come which Jesus will bring with him is a time of peace. The Bible pictures this in its dramatic conclusion—The Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse of John. But what of peace here and now? Well we can pray for peace. We can give support to humanitarian relief organisations. The sceptic might ask what difference does this make? The person of faith wonders just how much worse things would be without our prayers and actions.

Isaiah prophecies of the infant Jesus:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. [Isaiah 9:6].

The end of war, civilian deaths, refugee camps, and atrocities, is only part of the reason that Jesus Christ is known as Prince of Peace.

Advent is a season of waiting for the Prince of Peace who has already enabled countless millions to find shalom over two millennia. Jesus firstly brings peace between God and humanity. He invites us to see that we all share a frustrating habit of building a wall between us and God; sometimes choosing open hostility to our creator. Jesus brings down this wall, not just in the age to come but here and now.

The wall of hostility between nations is also addressed now by Jesus. Jesus showed the way during his short life on Earth, by building a bridge between Jews and Samaritans in their centuries-old sectarian dispute. Whilst few of us can make a contribution to world peace that will be remembered two thousand years later, we can all contribute to the demolition of the walls that divide us, one from another. And if you can’t demolish a wall today can you at least reach or look across one, as a small step here, and now, to a world free of hostility? Such baby steps are a foretaste of the work of the Prince of Peace born two thousand years ago in Bethlehem.

Advent: Hope

At this time, even more than is normally the case, hope is in the air. Even the UK government is aspiring to offer us hope. The hope of a vaccine for Covid-19, and the hope of a Christmas in which family, friends, and hugs will be especially cherished. Perhaps this year a love of stuff and stuffing will be eclipsed by a love to be with others, and a love for others. Such a hope for the festive season, although encouraging, is not biblical hope. Although, of course, the love for family and friend accords with the love and relationships which are central to Christian hope.

So, what is this greater hope? The Apostle Paul said:

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction. [Romans 12:12]

The hope that Paul says we must await in joy requires patience because it lies way beyond Christmas. This hope is characterised by love, but it lies beyond the earth. It is a hope in a new heaven and a new earth—a new reality—a place where love abounds, and friendship encompasses God, as well as family and friends. Perhaps we see the value of such things clearer after the events of 2020. Perhaps this is the gift of 2020 vision.

Such a hope is sometimes described as a sure and certain hope because of its foundation. It is founded on Christmas in as far as Christmas concerns God’s Son made flesh to dwell among us. It is founded on Easter too, in that the same Jesus was found to be God’s Son when he rose to life. The sure and certain hope of resurrection is our future hope.

In this way, our hope, is a future beyond our current earthly reality. Yet it is founded in the past events recounted in the Bible. But what of the present? The future hope, founded in the past, changes everything here and now. Christian hope provides new glasses, a God-given prescription to see the world anew.

No more tears. No more death. No more worries. No more frailty. No loneliness. Such a future hope puts the, all to obvious, fragility of our present into perspective. We can live life to the full now sustained by such a glorious future hope. This is the sort of 2020 vision we always need but we perhaps see it afresh this year.

Psalm 51: Miserere mei, Deus

For various reasons I have been reflecting on the penitential psalms for much of 2020. If this is a response in any way to Covid-19 then it has been an unconscious one. The grouping of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 together dates to before the time of Cassiodorus (487–585). Some attribute the group to Augustine (354–430) but Cassiodorus’ Expositio Psalmorum, or Exposition of the Psalms, is the earliest extant work that clearly identifies each of these seven as a closed group of psalms. The identification of seven such psalms is somewhat puzzling. There are other psalms, for example Psalm 25, that seem to fit well with the others due to its penitential concern. A convincing case can even be made that Psalm 25 is ‘more penitential’ than some of the seven. Some have argued that the link is God’s wrath, noting that all of them either (i) mention God’s anger, or (ii) are cited, or referred to, in the early chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans [1].

Whatever the original thinking behind their grouping they have been bound together in liturgy, sung worship, devotional commentary, and theological dispute ever since the sixth century. They can also be seen to display a certain symmetry befitting their sevenfold nature. The symmetry I refer to draws attention to the central psalm, Psalm 51. Either side of Psalm 51 the opening words of four of the psalms reveal two pairs. Psalms 6 and 38 both open with a similar address, generally made identical in their Latin liturgical titles as Domine, ne in furore tuo. In a similar way Psalms 102 and 143 have identical openings in Latin: Domine, exaudi.

Domine, ne in furore tuo unites Psalms 6 and 38 as the psalmist petitions God that he will not rebuke, despite his anger. In the penitential framework, implicit in the identifying of this psalm group, this anger is assumed to be the result of the psalmist’s sin. The opening of Psalms 102 and 143, in a similar vein, is a plea that God will hear and answer the fearful lamenting psalmist. Psalm 51 at the centre of the group, even without the framing provided by this symmetry, is the penitential psalm par excellence. Many commenters have gone further, seeing it as the psalms of psalms [2]. What makes Psalm 51 so special?

This psalm is one of the thirteen psalms that contains a biographic comment about the life of David. Though critical scholars make a strong case that such headings are late additions to the psalms, they have played an important role in Christian interpretation of the psalms. This is especially the case with Psalm 51 because it relates one of the most, if not the most, pivotal moment in David’s life. It condenses the terrible events of 2 Samuel 11 into a few words:

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. (Psalm 51 heading, NRSV)

David’s adultery with Bathsheba might well have amounted to rape. Even without this possible dynamic, with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, we see David commit two conjoined sins. It is not just the depth of the iniquity of one so beloved of God that is notable here. It is the remarkable gracious forgiveness of the living God that transforms this psalm into something truly special:

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. (2 Samuel 12:13, NRSV)

Here in the heart of the First Testament we see grace at work. Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12:13 both highlight the acute generosity of God. The wider narrative of 2 Samuel 12 does, however, reveal complications in that Nathan has to tease the truth from David, and despite God’s gracious forgiveness, sin still has its unpleasant consequences.

This biographical heading and the narrative in 2 Samuel enable a penitential theology that sees David as a model penitent. In this way, the penitential nature of these psalms means that their words have been understood on the lips of Christ as he prays as his body, the Church. Both their use in confession and in a rich Augustinian tradition have made the penitentials, and especially Psalm 51, the inspiration for some remarkable music in a variety of traditions. The four examples mentioned below are as varied as the theological, doctrinal, and pastoral aspects of this psalm, known simply as the Miserere. The collision of sin, penitence, forgiveness, and grace defies any singular mood.

In terms of the Latin choral tradition Gregorio Allegri’s (c. 1582–1652) Miserere is perhaps the most well know. There is story that the detailed score for the various choral parts of this music was kept secret so that it could only be used in the Sistene Chapel. This was the case until one day a fourteen-year-old, by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, witnessed a performance and then subsequently wrote down the score from memory.

Howard Goodall’s recent Have mercy on me – miserere mei stands in the same tradition of use of the Latin text. Unlike Allegri’s work the vocals are supported by musical instruments. But like Allegri, it uses the beauty of music to invite reflection on the superabundant forgiveness and mercy found in Psalm 51.

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in his Miserere does something very different. His lengthy work from 1992 takes each word of the Latin text one at a time in its opening minutes. As each word is sung it is answered by a bassoon. This reveals the penitent petitioning God for mercy with disturbing slowness. Perhaps they are struggling with fear of God? Maybe they simply need to show the solemnity of their petition? As the work unfolds it provides a journey to the day of judgement and beyond.

We conclude with this post with mention of arguably the wildest interpretation of Psalm 51: Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The dependence here is of course more of a riff and there’s no hint of Latin. Psalm 51 awakens in me the immense gratitude and solace that despite my sin, in Christ, I can say with Cohen’s David:

And even though it all went wrong.
I’ll stand before the lord of song.
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.

 

References

    1. Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms, Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, p.33.
    2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72, John Wiley & Sons, 2018, pp.304–316.

Zechariah 7—A Rebuke in a Time of Uncertainty

Zechariah Season 2
It is the fourth year of King Darius. Two years ago, the prophet Zechariah delivered a series of prophecies of hope and encouragement. These were wonderful messages for a time of great uncertainty for the returning exiles. That First Season of Zechariah’s prophecies was binge-read and binge-heard by the returned exiles as they struggled to return to a new normal. They were working hard to rebuild the temple and restore economic prosperity. So popular was Season One that it was preserved for all generations of God’s people. Season Two, which starts here in Chapter 7, was also preserved for us.

Two years on, the hard slog of temple building, and the difficulties of post-exilic life seem the same. Although the temple is nearing completion, everyday life seems as hard as ever. The first prophecies of Zechariah have been an encouragement. It has become increasingly clear, however, that these words speak of a distant future hope.

So what new words will Zechariah bring now after a two-year hiatus?
Zechariah’s new words are prompted by Sharezer and Regem-Melek, and some others, arriving from Bethel, a 10 mile, or so, walk to the north. They ask a question about whether they need to keep to a regular annual fast that laments the exile and the loss of the temple. They are asking a question raised by Zechariah’s First Season of prophecies: “Is the exile over?”.

Rather than getting a yes or a no from the prophet they get essentially a rebuke. Prophets inspired by God don’t go in for simple yes-and-no answers. They have a tendency to challenge and question. And this is very much the case here. As we hear the answer and rebuke we would do well to receive as a community, not as an individual.

Fasting and Feasting
Rather than address the question, Zechariah questions the spiritual sincerity of these people from Bethel and the wider community—although at the end of chapter 8 he does return to the matter of fasting and indeed unpacks an exciting answer of “yes” to their question.

According to Chapter 7 this is not even Zechariah’s rebuke. Rather, Zechariah is instructed to question them by God. He asks if their 70-year routine of fasting was really an act for God. The fasting in question here would be reflective and would have focused on repentance. There was a need to avoid being like the people of old who gave rise to the judgement of exile.

Zechariah’s challenging rebuke can be generalised to all people of God. When do our spiritual practices become an empty routine? More positively, when are they genuine expressions of devotion or repentance?

Zechariah doesn’t just challenge them with regard to fasting and genuine repentance. He goes on to extend his rebuke to feasting too. There were a number of prescribed festivals in the Law, in addition to the number of annual fasts we learn about here—there are four fasts mentioned later in this prophecy. Zechariah pulls no punches. He is questioning the sincerity of both their fasting and their celebrations. Nearly every month of the calendar there was a feast or a fast. The fundamental underlying question is: “Are you any better than the people who gave God cause to leave the Temple and scatter the people in exile?”.

Are the people of Bethel, and by extension the people of Jerusalem, walking with God? Are they living by faith and not by sight? Or to take this seriously as a divine Word are we, in our time of uncertainty, walking with God? Are we living by faith and not by sight?

Following and Serving
Such questions are sobering. Is our daily practice of praise, thanksgiving, praying, and Bible reading a healthy genuine expression of our love for Jesus Christ? Are we following Jesus daily? Or are we paying lip service to what should be a living relationship?

Do we make every effort to get the best from fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we expectant when we gather virtually. Do we pray for others, including those that lead? Are we just hunkering down and resigned to spiritual mediocrity and passivity? Or are we living as Christ’s body to support and nurture one another? Dare we imagine sharing our faith at this time?

The men sent by the people of Bethel probably did not welcome challenging questions anymore than we do. Did they shrug off the challenge, or see the Word of God behind the prophet’s words? Are we willing to be open to discerning whether Zechariah’s words are a rebuke for us too?

At the end of the day, God was not worried about the events calendar back in Bethel or the religious programme in Jerusalem. He’s not interested in the specifics of our calendars either. How the people of Bethel organise the details of fasting, feasting, and fellowship is no more the point than the details of time, frequency, and name of our church events and groups.

The important matter is whether the life of faith we share with one another brings us closer to God and bears fruit. The measure is not the website or church bulletin. Zechariah, and our God who inspired him, ask other questions of us.

Specifically, these questions include: Are we a people concerned with justice? Are we able and willing to extend the mercy we have known to others? Do we have compassion for those who suffer hardship because of their faith or the cruel events that scar this world? Can we meet the needs of the marginalised?

Word and Spirit
Our current time of uncertainty might seem like a hindrance. But this is the season that God has given us.

We can hunker down. We can complain about zoom. We can lament how much easier it was when masks and social distance didn’t encumber us. But in the time that God gives us now, the gospel of Jesus Christ would have us do better. We still have his Word and his Spirit. And compared to many others we have more material blessings.

We can lean on the one who we praise, thank, pray to and listen to. We can live by faith, not by sight, here and now. We can be a blessing to others now. In all this we are reliant on the living God through Christ. As Zechariah has already explained God works “Not by might nor by power, but by his Spirit.”

Encouragement in a Time of Uncertainty—Zechariah 5:1-11

Zechariah’s ministry was an encouragement in a time of uncertainty. He spoke to those exiles who had made it back to Jerusalem—and he speaks to us.

The exiles had many challenges. They weren’t able to worship as normal because the temple was a pile of rubble. Can you imagine being unable to worship with others like you were used to? The city was in ruins and sanitation was difficult. Although they had laws explaining the need to purify their hands disease was still rife. Can you imagine disease spreading indiscriminately amongst the population?

The leaders were struggling to organise the basics of life and were also distracted by the challenge of taking back control of their borders. Can you imagine being frustrated with your national leaders? The returned exiles were struggling with not seeing loved ones—those that had not made it back from exile. Can you imagine being cut-off from and unable to see people that you love?

The economy of the nation was in tatters. The very poorest in their society were the hardest hit. What a terrible injustice that would be. Things just weren’t how they used to be. It felt like life was on hold as they struggled with what a new normal might look like? Can you imagine this?

Perhaps in our time we can appreciate better some of the challenges faced by the exiles? Their challenges have some affinity with ours, but their situation was more precarious than ours. Zechariah’s ministry provided God’s word in answer to the questions raised by uncertainty. His answers are an antidote to the fear that so easily follows in the footsteps of uncertainty.

Zechariah’s sixth and seventh visions speak to questions we share with the exiles of old. The answers remind us that we too are exiles, though closer to the final stage of God’s plan for humankind.

Vision 6—Zechariah 5:1-4
The exile of the people of Judah to Babylon is a dramatic illustration of the fundamental problem that lies at the heart of God’s relationship with his people.

That problem is that God wants his people to live in wholesome healthy relationship with him—the only thing God expects in return is that his people will fear him.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7, NIVUK

He instructed his people on how they can do this and gave them the choice. They could live in covenant faithfulness with him and know his blessing. Or they could break the covenant by ignoring his instruction and receive a curse instead of a blessing. This is all mapped out in the Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 28. There we see the promise of blessing put side-by-side with the ‘promise’ of a curse.

We know that the people and their rulers chose to disobey God’s instruction time-and again until the covenant reached breaking point. Whenever I hear the Abba song SOS it reminds me of this most tragic of relationship breakdowns. The love story of the bridegroom Yahweh and his bride Israel:

Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find?
I try to reach for you, but you have closed your mind.
Whatever happened to our love? I wish I understood.
It used to be so nice, it used to be so good.

The most tragic part of the story was that God left Jerusalem before the people were taken into exile. This is told in visionary language in the Book of Ezekiel. Here is a short snippet:

18 Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. 19 While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the Lord’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.
Ezekiel 10:18-19, NIVUK

Ezekiel makes it clear that God left because of iniquity, wickedness, and idolatry. Old fashioned terms but central to the Bible’s central story and the reality of this broken world:

    • Iniquity is sin and the associated guilt of sin.
    • Wickedness is the fundamental commitment to evil that underlies some sin.
    • Idolatry is the looking for other God’s, whether ancient deities of the modern gods of money, sex, and power.

Zechariah’s visions 1-3 explore God’s return to Jerusalem—the undoing of Ezekiel’s depiction of God’s departure. Visions 4 and 5 are centred on Jerusalem. Visions 6 and 7 explain the outworking of God’s return to Jerusalem.

So why a flying scroll? Its huge size and the fact that it is flying implies this is God’s work. Other references to scrolls in the Prophets (Jeremiah 36 and Ezekiel 2-3) tell us this is God’s word. In the context of the Prophets this is a word that brings judgement to the nation and nations. To put it another way, this is a word of woe.

This flying scroll brings two judgements:

‘This is the curse that is going out over the whole land; for according to what it says on one side, every thief will be banished, and according to what it says on the other, everyone who swears falsely will be banished’. [v.3, NIVUK]

These sins might well be representative of sins as a whole but both seem to have been especially problematic to the exiles trying to rebuild. In these chaotic times there were those that would steal from their fellows and others who failed to keep their word. Times of uncertainty threaten societal cohesion, at a time when it is especially important that everyone works to support one another.

The dramatic judgement of banishment is rephrased and reframed a verse later:

The LORD Almighty declares, “I will send it out, and it will enter the house of the thief and the house of anyone who swears falsely by my name. It will remain in that house and destroy it completely, both its timbers and its stones.”’ [v.4, NIVUK]

What encouragement can be found in these harsh words? We are two quick to gloss over judgement. God’s judgement is a necessary part of his love for a broken world. Do we not want justice? Are there not deeds of evil that must be dealt with? Only God can ultimately deal with iniquity and wickedness. This is a comfort in times of trouble; that through God’s mighty hand justice arrives sooner or later. This is part of what it means to trust that God still rules this Earth. He will bring order and restoration, and this must necessarily include judgement.

In Christ we have a greater encouragement, for in him it is not yet too late to turn to him for forgiveness. Zechariah’s picture of God’s word is also a call to repentance. It is, after all, the only alternative to a broken house and banishment from God’s holy presence.

Vision 7—Zechariah 5:5-11
As we reach the seventh vision it is readily apparent that God is committed to return now that the people have reversed their exile. They have travelled from Babylon to Jerusalem. Now we see a journey in the opposite direction, from Jerusalem to Babylon. Initially it seems not only bizarre but makes little sense. Just a few details and connections, however, can make this imagery’s meaning and significance come to life.

Seeing the imagery at the end of the vision reveals the punchline. The basket is going from Jerusalem to Babylon. In the original Hebrew the word so often translated Babylon is Shinar, the plane on which the tower of Babel was built. Just as the exiles are rebuilding the temple there is a new Babel building project.

The basket is a parody of the ark through which God is portrayed as having returned to the Temple. The basket has a lid, like the ark, but this one is made of the basest metal, lead rather than the precious gold of the ark’s lid. This anti-ark is not carried by beautiful and powerful winged cherubim but two women that look like storks—a poor echo of the majesty of the real thing.

What does this anti ark contain? Well the original had God’s word – the torah or instruction. Here we have the opposite, wickedness equated to a woman. At first this sound like a patriarchal slur on women, but this is not the case. The Hebrew word for wickedness sounds very like Asherah—a woman named Asherah most likely means that this is a statue of the goddess Asherah. As the anti-ark it contains the heart of idolatrous religion just as the real ark contained the word of God, a God that cannot be portrayed as a physical object according to that law

The visons are reaching their climax of glorious hope—the beleaguered exiles have returned. They are promised that God too is returning to them and that wickedness will depart. They not only have an experience of an emerging new normal from the pain of exile but their hope as God’s people is alive again. They will once again know God with them, Immanuel. They will have wickedness, iniquity, and idolatry removed from them. This hope takes on its full nature only in Christ. For it happened in the single day of Christ’s resurrection (cf. Zechariah 3:9).

The exiles were comforted by the promise of God’s presence in the temple. We know of Jesus Christ, God with us, in a fuller sense. By his Spirit he no longer is confined to a temple but is with us his people.

Teresa of Avila put such hope this way:

Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you, all things are passing, God is unchanging. Patience gains all; nothing is lacking to those who have God: God alone is sufficient.

Living Life to the Full with Psalm 16:11

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

Introduction
What does it mean to live life to the full? What significance do our lives have? Where do we go for answers to such questions? Perhaps we would rather not face such demanding questions? Sometimes cynicism, disappointment, or lack of faith can make the question of living life to the full irrelevant. Faith of course is key to the radical gospel-focused answers to questions about life, the universe, and everything.

The humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow touched on these sorts of questions, from the perspective of our needs, in the 1940s. At the most basic level we have physiological needs. Forget fullness of life—without air we can’t live more than a few minutes at best. Without water we can’t live more than a few days. Without food we can’t live more than a very small number of weeks. Sleep is another physiological need.

At the next level in what Maslow termed a hierarchy of need, and assuming we have our physiological needs met we look for safety. This includes housing, and civil society and its structures that keep us safe. If those needs are met, we look for love and belonging (Stage 3). We need a family, friends, and/or a partner to meet these needs.

If we are fortunate enough to get all that sorted, according to Maslow we look for esteem (Stage 4). This might be finding, and being recognised for, our role within our neighbourhood or wider society. Finally, in this hierarchy comes Stage 5: self-actualisation—achieving one’s potential through hard work, grit, and determination.

A few weeks ago, I went to my first post lock-down film. It was the film Goodfellas (1990). It is directed by Martin Scorsese and is based on the true story of the mobster Henry Hill. It opens with these words from Henry Hill:

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an after school job I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew that I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in the neighbourhood that was full of nobodies. They weren’t like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever game them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.”

Right there on the silver screen, mirroring a real life, we have the ‘belonging’ of Stage 3 of the hierarchy of need. The ‘esteem’ of Stage 4, and the ‘self-actualisation’ of Stage 5. All of this in an ugly law-breaking fulfilment of Maslow’s five-stage hierarchy of need—the American Dream at its worst.

The Bible, of course, has something to say about all five stages of Maslow’s hierachy. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us to be thankful to God that our physiological needs are met:

Give us this day our daily bread.
Matthew 6:11, NRSV

The Psalms remind us that ultimately our safety is found in God:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
Psalm 18:2, NRSV

The Bible celebrates friends, family, and sexual union. Though the gospel puts all of these in second position to loving Christ:

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Matthew 19:27–29, NRSV

What the Bible says about our need for esteem and our desire for self-actualisation is a much more complex and is tempered by our brokenness as sinners. Maslow’s hierarchy of need cannot account for our ultimate needs according to the Bible. This is where Psalm 16:11 comes in.

The Path of Life
Psalm 16 can be read as David’s words. It can be read as Jesus’ words. We are going to read Psalm 16 as our words, or better still our prayer.

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

The Bible is awash with journeys. The first journey was leaving Eden. If it hadn’t been for this there would have been no need for any other journeys. Abraham famously left his home country and journeyed to the Promised Land. Israel left slavery in Egypt and journeyed in the Desert on their journey to the Promised Land. Jesus journeyed from a quiet northern backwater to the Cross outside the City of Peace.

Our lives are also journeys. As Disciples we follow Jesus and we also bear a cross. As Pilgrims we journey to a Promised Land and the new City of Peace. The path of life is a walk with God; it is walking with Jesus; it is keeping in step with the Spirit. This is a path that is important because of both the journey and the destination.

Joy in God’s Presence
The path of life is about the journey and it is about the destination. This is an important balance. Our faith loses its vitality without this balance. If we only remember the journey our priority to welcome people into the Kingdom—to know Christ—will dwindle and wane. This is the mistake of various expressions of Christianity such as the German liberalism of the nineteenth century.

If we only have a future hope, we will not celebrate our gifts here and now. Nor will we be good stewards of all the good things that God has given us. This has been the mistake of Christian fundamentalism and some cult perversions of Christianity.

Putting God at our right-hand means putting him in the place of honour. It means that our discipleship and pilgrimage both come ahead of all wants and even needs. It means seeing not a hierarchy of need in our life, but a hierarchy of blessing. We perceive that all good things come from God.

In your presence there is fullness of joy.
Psalm 16:11b, NRSV

When we have God at our right hand—Jesus in that place of authority in our lives—then we discover true blessing. This is the blessing that the Bible speaks about, a blessing which is also happiness, and joy. This is what God’s presence does in our lives. This fullness of joy, that comes through putting Jesus Christ in the place of Lordship in our lives, replaces esteem on the hierarchy of need and transforms it into the hierarchy of blessing.This also should remind us that bringing a one-dimensional gospel to people who have physiological needs, issues with safety, and a lack of belonging will be fruitless.

Eternal Pleasure
Faith in Christ means we have knowledge of an ultimate destination. We tend to spend too little time and effort on celebrating and reflecting on this hope.

in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

We don’t just have a place in eternity with the living God. It is a place of immense blessing. We need to forget our culture’s misreading of the biblical hope. This is not a disembodied floating, cloud-based, harp-playing eternity of repetitive singing. It is rooted in physical resurrection.

In centuries gone by when life was hard, unpleasant, uncomfortable, and short for just about everyone, this glorious future of a New Heaven and a New Earth was something that was more central to Christian faith.

If the hierarchy of need has as its hard-won pinnacle self-actualisation, our hierarchy of blessing has an eternity with the living God at the summit. This blessing is achieved in Christ, on our behalf, and is not subject to a fiercely competitive race to the top. The apostle Paul of course does portray the journey  as a race, but this is a race that all can win in Christ.

Psalm 16 verse 11 provides beautiful answers to the difficult questions we started with. This is a verse worth taking with us, either literally or by committing it to memory.