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.

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.

We are Poetry in Motion

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10, NIVUK

Introduction
The film Memento came out in the year 2000. It is directed by Christopher Nolan. He is now famous for doing strange things with time in many of his movies. Memento is no exception. It tells a story where some scenes are chronological and others are in reverse order because of a memory issue for the story’s lead character. Only at the end does it finally make sense as the reverse scenes arrive at the start of the story.

This post, whilst not as complicated as a Christopher Nolan time-twist, proceeds backwards through one verse—a single sentence—of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

Why look at this verse backwards? Well, the last part of Paul’s sentence can be easily misread or misheard. And the first part of the sentence is the place where I want this post to end—to marvel that we are God’s handiwork.

At the outset of this look at Ephesians 2:10 we should note that all three elements of this verse are the work of God in Christ our Cornerstone:

• We are God’s handiwork.
• We are created in Christ.
• Our good deeds are prepared in advance by God.

God’ action here is both excellent news, but also potentially confusing. What place is there for us if God does all of this?

Prepared in Advance
Such a short crisp verse. And yet for many it comes with distracting baggage. For seasoned and new Christians alike the final phrase, ‘good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ distracts us with its apparent affirmation that our lives are predetermined by God. For some young Christians I know, it can be an immense barrier to faith rather than just the subject of idle musing.

Predestination is hardly a new debate. Some answers to this question have been labelled as heresy, for example Pelagius’ teachings at the turn of the 4th to 5th BCE, and other answers have founded denominations. Both extremes of accounting for predestination are problematic.

I suggest that the Bible does not tell us that all of our good works are already decided by God. For a start this would contradict both the freedom that God gave humankind to choose to love him, or not. Perhaps more problematic still, it would kill dead the freedom of the gospel that Paul speaks of elsewhere:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
Galatians 5:13-14, NIVUK

If we think Ephesians 2:10 tells us we have no choices, we are not seeing it on its own terms. This is because we wear glasses with a narcissistic prescription. We are so used to being individuals that we read ourselves as an individual into every biblical claim.

Contrary to what we are told from cradle-to-grave in Western culture, we are not even the centre of our own lives—it is Christ the cornerstone who should be central. To Paul we would all look like self-obsessed narcissists. The predestination of Ephesians does not refer to our individual deeds, played out frame-by-frame with the inevitability of a Christopher Nolan film—our lives are not one inevitable cause-and-effect after another. Ephesians refers to God’s beautiful plan for this world. The plan to create a single people, to reverse the expulsion from Eden and the stupidity of Babel. This universal and corporate perspective is seen in Chapter 1 if we suspend our self-obsession for a moment:

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:11–14, NIVUK

Paul’s concern in Ephesians is with the building of the people of God, built on Christ as the cornerstone. A few verses after Ephesians 2:10 Paul goes on to talk about the dividing wall that lay between Gentiles and God’s first family the Jews. Jesus Christ has torn down that wall—the first of many. It is a wall demolished, in order to build one people, with him the measure and foundation—our cornerstone.

Our baggage does not end when we put on corporate glasses, rather than our default individualistic ones.

The phrase ‘good works’ also has baggage of its own. Our culture would not only attempt to have us redefine God’s work to create a universal Church, as the creation of a lot of self-obsessed individuals. Our culture also misreads the good news because it has misread ‘good works’.

Our culture has a pervasive myth that Christianity is about earning entry to the afterlife by doing ‘good deeds’. This is not the message of the Bible. This myth goes back to the Middle-Ages when the Church did teach something like this. Although the Reformation produced a new perspective on justification it also created another myth.

The is the idea that the Judaism of the Bible was all about earning salvation by good deeds. We might have learned this in our formative years. Judaism then, and Judaism today, is not about good deeds and earning salvation. Jews believe they are chosen, elected, by God—predestined to know God in the age to come.

When Paul says in the preceding two verses to Ephesians 2:10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8–9, NIVUK

He is not comparing Jew and Gentile; he is pointing out something that all the community of faith can agree on. Both Jew and Gentile are saved by grace not by works.

Created in Christ
The gospel is the news that God, through the work of Christ Jesus, has established a single people. In Paul’s day best expressed by the impossible dream of Jew and Gentile being made one. This is good news, Isaiah’s good news, or evangelion:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!’
Isaiah 52:7, NIVUK

The Incarnation, Jesus’ ministry, the cross, the resurrection, his ascension, all testify to this good news. In Jesus’ person and in his deeds, there is new creation. All of humanity can be created in him to join the one people of God. Whatever our views on predestination, good works, philosophy, whether we are catholic or protestant, our one foundation is Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ ascended.

We are created not by the actions of a man, but they work of God. Created upon one sure foundation, Christ our cornerstone. In being created in Christ Jesus we are to do good works. They flow from relationship with the one God, through Christ. There is no better work than telling this news.

There can be a temptation to make the gospel a little simpler, to oil the wheels. Have you noticed that there is a difference between sharing ‘Jesus’ and sharing ‘Christ Jesus’?

It is relatively easy, and culturally acceptable, to speak of Jesus the man. The amazing carpenter from Nazareth. The great teacher. This is the Jesus who even the atheist Douglas Adams admired and gave a role to at the start of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy:

“one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change . . .”

Yet, if we speak of his miracles, we stray from acceptable polite conversation. If we move on to anything, like the resurrection, that claims Jesus was not a good man but the God-Man, then the shutters often come up. But Jesus the man can only inspire. Jesus the God-Man provides a foundation, a cornerstone, for our lives.

Our faith, our foundation as God’s people, the gift of the Holy Spirit, all centre on Jesus being The Christ, being both man and God.

Of course, proclaiming the gospel is not the only good work. All sorts of good wholesome deeds are central to being God’s handiwork.

God’s Handiwork
What does it mean to be God’s handiwork? Firstly, we need to pay attention to this at a corporate level. We are God’s handiwork as the universal Church and as a local church. In Paul’s language we are Christ’s body and Christ is our head. We can go further, both forwards and backwards in time too. The universal Church breaks the boundaries of time in a way that Christopher Nolan can only dream of.

Lying behind the NIVUK’s phrase ‘God’s handiwork’ is the Greek word poiema. Paul says that the local communities he writes to are poems and by extension so are all its members.

The language of being poems fits perfectly with the wider passage. As poems we are both established in Christ, just as a poem has rules, convention, and a framework that make it a poem. At the same time poems have a freedom, a beauty within a framework.

Being founded in Christ means we are poems, with Christ the cornerstone as our framework and foundation. The language of a cornerstone for the messiah comes originally from Psalm 118 and is used by Paul in verse 20 of Ephesians 2.

God has done his part of the poem by establishing us in Christ our cornerstone. Our dependence on him will enable us to rhyme and resonate with our cornerstone. Our lives will sound and look right when this happens.

Mercifully, there is room for redrafts when we do not rhyme with our cornerstone.

The Psalter as Mirror: Reflecting on a Metaphor

The Psalter is not only full of rich imagery and metaphors, but throughout church history interpreters have used metaphors to try and capture what it is. One of the most valuable of these metaphors is that of a mirror. In modern treatments of the Psalms it is often John Calvin (1509–1564) who is cited for this metaphorical insight [1]. We will return to his use of this metaphor below. The application of such a metaphor, however, predates Calvin by more than a millennium.

As far as I am aware, it was Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296–373) who first applied such a metaphor to the Psalms:

And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them. For in fact he who hears the one reading receives the song that is recited as being about him, and either, when he is convicted by his conscience, being pierced, he will repent, or hearing of the hope that resides in God, and of the succor available to believers—how this kind of grace exists for him—he exults and begins to give thanks to God.
Athanasius, The Letter to Marcellinus [2]

Athanasius’ wonderful work known as The Letter to Marcellinus gives an account of the psalms, their value, and their use. He tells of them as though he learnt everything from an old master of the Psalms which I take to be a modest self-reference. In the quote above, we see Athanasius referring to a mirror in its most basic function, reflecting a person. He claims that in singing a psalm there is an emotional dynamic in which the singer perceives themselves with new insight. This is an active process in which unperceived emotions are made tangible, and positive change is actualised. The focus for Athanasius is specially connected with penitence.

Before we return to Calvin, we note that Martin Luther (1483–1546) also used this metaphor of a mirror for reflecting on the Psalms. There is both continuity with Athanasius, and novelty in his application of the image. Just as Athanasius’ insight was made in his major work on the Psalms, for Luther too the metaphor is employed in a major work—his fresh translation of the whole Psalter into German. Luther produced many works on the Psalms but it his translation of the Psalter into the vernacular that was a central achievement. This book was so popular it went through a huge number of print runs in short space of time. Luther saw fit to revise it twice. This quote comes from the second edition, as well as all subsequent editions to this day:

In a word, if you would see the holy Christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter. There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true gnothi seauton [Know yourself], as well as God himself and all creatures.
Luther, Preface to the Psalter, second edition (1528) [3]

Here, for Luther, in addition to the Psalms reflecting their reader they reflect Christendom. This additional dimension owes much to Luther’s claim that the Psalms are a Bible in miniature. It is unclear whether Luther is consciously or unconsciously following Athanasius or coming afresh to a similar metaphorical insight.

Turning to Calvin, we find him using essentially the same imagery, also in his major work on the Psalms—the preface to his massive commentary on all 150 biblical psalms. It is worth quoting him at length:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandment which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. It is certainly a rare and singular advantage, when all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection, hypocrisy. In short, as calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in The Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine.
John Calvin, Preface to Psalms Commentary [4]

Again, his dependence on Athanasius and/or Luther is unclear. Whatever the inspiration for Calvin, I judge that his claim is the richest. It has the pithy precise hermeneutical claim that we, as readers and singers of the Psalms, are reflected with an actualising clarity in this remarkable book. It also points to not only penitence, but salvation and virtue too.

This metaphor, whether in the hands of Athanasius, Luther, or Calvin, is hermeneutically rich. It makes a claim about the nature of the text, about us, and about how God works salvation and sanctification. Such a claim is vital in complementing modern critical insights. For all their rich detail we cannot get from their literary, religious, and cultic insights to substantiate the life-changing dogmatic claims implicit in the pre-critical work of the three interpreters above.

Taken together with modern criticism, the mirror metaphor brings us close to the insight of Brueggemann that in these ancient texts we find ourselves. Whether we read whilst in a state of orientation or disorientation they reflect our experience. Perhaps, unlike Brueggemann, we can look directly to God’s providence and grace through his Holy spirit for the actualisation of a new reflection or revelation—the reorientation that we so frequently need, and we are so often promised in this small Bible. These songs need to be sung regularly, for in Christ we need to be reoriented continually, even from the status quo of orientation that all too quickly loses its brightness as we look elsewhere than to the one on whom we should fix our eyes. On other occasions we need to own these words to perceive the crucified one amidst the brokenness that is our primary disorientation.

Whatever state we are in, we look at the Mirror to perceive ourselves so as to be changed. To look at this reflection is no narcissistic preoccupation, this is the beginning of our receding from the spotlight, our growing strangely dim, that we can see Christ who is in this book and who also lies behind both it and us.

 

References

  1. See for example, The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schutzer and David M. Howard Jr. (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013, pp.52–54 which plays on Calvin’s associated insight into the Psalms as a language of all seasons of the soul which is a corollary of the mirror metaphor. See also Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984, p.17.
  2. Athanasius, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Latter to Marcellinus, Robert C. Gregg (translator), Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980, p.111.
  3. Luther, ‘Preface to the Psalter’ (1528), in Luther’s Works Volume 35, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, pp.256–257.
  4. Calvin, Psalms Commentary Volume 1, James N. Anderson (translator), 1845, p.19.

From Hand Washing to #SyrophoenicianLivesMatter: Mark 7

As human beings we have an annoying trait of complicating what God instructs us to do. This is where Mark 7 begins, but not where it ends. At the start of the chapter it is the Pharisees who are complicating God’s instruction. In fact, Jesus will go on to explain they are doing something even worse.

Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus faces hostility from the religious leaders. It was not just Jesus that the leaders had it in for, Israel had a long tradition of prophets who criticised the status quo and thereby the leaders. In Jesus’ time it was still the case. Many people would announce a new teaching, usually centred on the need for political change. Then they set out to bring truth to power. Some, like Jesus, gave everything in the attempt.

Here, the Pharisees have taken some of God’s instruction (torah) and made an extra burden of tradition to go on top. The Law (torah) required priests to ritually clean their hands. This was an act of grace as it reminded them that when dealing with the Holy God of Israel a clean heart is essential.

Please note that this is not about hand hygiene—though this is the centre of our daily lives at present. As an aside, we might want to have a word with Jesus and his disciples on this count.

The accusation that the disciples have not washed their hands, is a claim that they have not obeyed the extra rules made by the Elders. These rules had been added as a burden on everyone. When you are travelling doing itinerant ministry, is not feasible to carry the necessary dedicated washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles. And Mark’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus liked his disciples to travel light.

Jesus, as a rabbi, is responsible for his disciple’s actions. At this level, the Pharisees are justified in bringing the matter to Jesus. The problem with their case is, however, twofold. Firstly, their motives are dubious. This, however, is not the point that Jesus takes up with them. The second issue is the key one. By focusing on man-made traditions these become a distraction from God himself.

Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

We must not get self-righteous at this point by spotting what we do without thinking. In my own Baptist tradition, the trinity of words: tradition, doctrine, and ritual are often unspoken and these matters judged as peripheral. We might read what Jesus says about human traditions and then go further than Jesus does.

In quoting from Isaiah, God-sanctioned tradition, Jesus is primarily pointing out that God desires true worship. He wants hearts that are set on him. At the same time, he affirms that doctrine and ritual still have a place. In the New Testament, the disciples and Jesus’ brother, James, affirm both doctrine and ritual. In the case of ritual, we still have cleansing effected baptism, we have Christ’s sacrifice proclaimed in bread and wine, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit through anointing with oil. All these are mandated by Jesus and/or the testimony of the New Testament.

Our Christian tradition makes it easier to see some things than others. Let us not abandon other commandments of God. And Let us remember that working these out requires a framework of tradition, doctrine and ritual.

Things get worse for the Pharisees as Jesus spells out why he has quoted Isaiah. He suggests that their specific traditions get in the way of God’s commands. He mentions the idea of ‘corban‘ in which something could be set apart for God. The specific issues seem to be that some where giving land and wealth, made ‘corban‘, to the religious leaders. In doing so, some then deprived their parents of the support that was their due in old age, according to the Law.

Then Jesus gets to the revolutionary bit. Jesus’s comments about the human heart, our insides, our outsides, and purity is both great teaching, spells out a bigger problem—a problem for everyone.

With reference to our basic bodily functions, Jesus explains that what we eat cannot make us unclean. This even transforms some of the commandments of the Law. This is a trajectory that enables God’s people to eat screech owl and even pig should they wish to. The repercussions of this took years to work out after Jesus death hence the editorial note in verse 19.

The counterpoint to this is that we know a person’s heart by their fruit. There is that horrible list: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Jesus and the Pharisees are on common ground with this list. They can also agree on its root cause.

Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on ample evidence from the Scriptures that the heart is the underlying problem:

  1. God judges people on the basis of their heart, ‘for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7, NRSV).
  2. The law acknowledges the problem of the uncircumcised heart (Leviticus 26:41).
  3. Proverbs 20:9 puts the issue as a rhetorical question: “Who can say, “I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin”?”

Why does he tell them what they already know? The problem is that human effort, via traditions, cannot deal with the sinful heart that we each have. Not even God’s commandments can do this. They might be a helpful bandage or provide palliative care, but they do not deal with a sinful heart. This is a bigger problem than ritual impurity over the lack of hand-washing.

Jesus does not address the problem in this encounter with the Pharisees. Remarkably in the next episode in Mark’s gospel it is a Syrophoenician women—yes, a Gentile—that perceives that Jesus is the at the centre of a game changing solution to this conundrum.

Here we enter someone’s home, the details are left out by Mark. Presumably, this is a house where Jesus has been able to get peace and quiet previously—a safe house. But his effort to get some downtime has not worked. A Syrophoenician woman gate-crashes his rest. This is a bold and desperate move; Gentiles don’t barge into Jewish homes to address a Jewish Rabbi.

It is the hope that Jesus can work a miracle that has driven her to do the unthinkable. She begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her absent daughter, left suffering at home. So far so good, our sensibilities have not been ruffled even if those of polite Jewish society have.

And then we wake up because our Lord and Saviour, our role model for life, the sinless one, the man who has just preached that we are all judged by what comes from our mouths, makes what could be understood as a racial slur. Jesus implies the common label of Gentiles as dogs in what he says to his woman. So offensive is this episode that Luke misses it out of his gospel written to a Gentile audience. 

In this tricky saying, Jesus explains that his ministry has been essentially to the Jews, and only in passing to the Gentiles. In this way, Jesus’ ministry is food for the children of Israel, and not food for Gentiles.

Are you feeling uncomfortable? Are we going to have to have take down any statues of Jesus and crosses that commemorate his death and resurrection, in a #SyrophoencianLivesMatter rampage? Is Jesus being racist?

We will of course never know Jesus’ tone, his demeanour, the possible twinkle in his eye when he said these words. What we do know is that despite alluding to the labelling of Gentiles as dogs, standard practice in his culture, his statement elicits the most remarkable response from this woman:

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In this brief exchange and based on the knowledge of Jesus that brought her to a strange Jewish house, she has understood what the Pharisees with all their hand-wringing and hand-washing have missed. She has seen that Jesus’ work starts with Jews but is the hope of all humanity. She is pleading that this might begin right here and right now with her daughter. Her faith and courage are rewarded:

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

This remarkable new understanding of Jesus’ work is the start of Mark’s Gospel revealing that he in his deeds and his person he will address the bigger problem of the heart. Both Jew and Gentile will have the possibility of a circumcised heart as Leviticus puts it.

The Breath of Life: Acts 2

1. The Invisible
This post is dedicated to George Floyd who had the breath of life taken from him in horrific circumstances on 25th May 2020.

I am something of a fan of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. For me, his book the Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece. One of the reasons for this judgement is that, like the Bible, it has a richness and depth. There is a sense that behind it lies something remarkable and mysterious. Of course, with the Lord of the Rings this is the life-long musings and imagination of its author. With the Bible it is the inspiration and providential hand of an author of a very different type—the Holy Spirit.

One of Tolkien’s most remarkable creations is the creature Gollum. He is known to many of us more recently as acted and voiced by Andy Serkis in Peter Jackson’s films. Gollum appears briefly in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. For most of his appearance he plays a game of riddles with the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. This is a game with serious consequences. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will lead him to safely out of the maze of dark dank tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains. If Gollum wins? Let us put it this way he won’t go hungry for quite some time.

One of the riddles from this serious game reads:

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

Like all riddles when we have the answer it is obvious. The answer for this riddle is time.

A number of the riddles in The Hobbit concern things that are invisible. Reminding us that just because something is not visible it does not mean it is not real. A virus can only be seen with an electron microscope, but we knew they were real before the microscope was invented because of their effect. Some things are invisible not because of their small size but because of their very nature. Time is of course like that. We are literally in it and cannot perceive it directly although we can measure it physically with great precision, for example with the National Physical Laboratory’s atomic clock. Or we can measure it spiritually and emotionally as we number our days on this earth.

Another riddle from the Hobbit is much closer to the Pentecost story.

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

The answer this time is wind. Seen not by its nature but by its effect. The half-mast flag waving in the breeze marking the tragic death of George Floyd, the scene of devastation after a tornado, or more pleasantly the slowly drifting smoke rising above the first post-lockdown family barbecue.

This is how it is with the Spirit of God. We perceive his work by consequences not because we can perceive him directly. In Acts 2 we can see the Spirit indirectly as language is employed at near breaking point. There is a wind—’a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house’. There are flames—’They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them’. We are left puzzling over how literally we understand these metaphors, which are an attempt to describe the indescribable. There are languages too as the disciples speak other tongues—another sign of the invisible Spirit.

2. A New Beginning
In reading this passage we already know it marks a new beginning for God’s people. It is the birth of the Church, although at the time it might well have felt like a renewal of Judaism.

As the birth of the Church, or the rebirth of God’s people, it echoes the birth of the biblical Israel. Their leader Moses experienced wind and fire on Mont Sinai. The whole nation saw a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day which they followed.

It is not just the wind and flames that show this to be a new beginning—the birth of something wonderful. It is what has just happened over the previous 50 days, or so, and what happens next. The cross, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus have redefined the hope for a messiah. Jesus is the messiah. He fulfils the promise but redefines it too. This Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of God.

And what he said just before his ascension, unfolds on the Day of Pentecost:

He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Acts 1:7–9, NIVUK

The sermon that follows the wind and flames fulfils Jesus’ words of ten days earlier. It fulfils promises from the Book of Joel, just as Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfils the Psalms. This is all explained in Peter, the Fisher of Men’s first sermon.

So, what is this power imparted by the Holy Spirit? The word ‘power’ in our English translation is dunamis which gave its meaning to dynamite—this is serious power. What dynamite have we the Church been given as Christ pours out his Spirit?

This is a controversial topic because so often the Church has sought power of an all too earthly a nature. The first point we should note is that this power is sent by the one whose best expression of the grace we need, was surrender to death on a cross. We would do well to remember this and to be cautious that this power is not to be equated with military might. It is not coercive in any sense. It was after all, for freedom that Christ has set us free. We are no longer to be slaves to a yoke of slavery.

3. To the Ends of the Earth
The subject of the Holy Spirit is a divisive one, which for me is the saddest and most horribly ironic aspects of the worldwide church. Where Jesus’ Spirit is really at work, we would expect walls to come down. That is of course exactly what happened on that first Pentecost. Jews—the people of Israel—had been scattered across the whole of the Roman Empire because of their persecution at the hands of first the Greek Empire and then the Roman occupiers of their nation. The list in Acts 2 is comprehensive. It is as if God’s people have all been re-gathered in Jerusalem to be made one people again. The festival of Pentecost was a time when many scattered Jews made a pilgrimage to the City of Peace Jerusalem. It is God’s timing that people are in Jerusalem from the ends of the earth.

What they witness and take part in is a reconstitution of the scattered people of God. But now the rules have changed, in the freedom of Christ and the freedom of the Spirit. Now Gentiles get admitted to the people of God. This is after all the mission that Jesus gave to his disciples before he ascended:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
Acts 1:8, NIVUK

Here in Acts 2 we are in Jerusalem with representatives of the nations, and by the end of the Book of Acts the gospel is set firmly on its way to the ends of the earth.

Church History reveals the most remarkable divergence in how this work unfolds. And on occasions Church History reveals events in which we struggle to see God’s work being done. At one extreme there can be the deadness of dry empty institutional religion. At the other can be the theatre of the televangelist or fundamentalist personality cult. Both belittle the true power and the real life to be found in God’s word through God’s Spirit.

Closer to home it is all too easy for us to mistake our words for God’s and our desires for the prompting of God’s Spirit. May we never be a church in which anyone claims to have heard the Spirit’s voice as a trump card to stifle other voices.

4. We Are All in This Together
One thing we can note from that first Christian Pentecost is that the disciples were all in it together. The eleven of them together have had the same message from Jesus and the same Spirit poured out upon them. But they like us are still distinct individual people. Only one of their number had to preach on that day. Doubtless as they set about dealing with the three thousand new converts that day, they each used their different abilities. We can but use our imagination, think of all the conversations and practical matters that are needed to cope with 3,000 new disciples.

As Christ’s Body we are all in God’s mission together but we each have different tasks. We can depend on each other. We know that no one person exudes spirit-inspired hospitality, bakes superb cakes, has evangelistic talents for reaching 2 year-olds and the over eighties, leadership wisdom, the gift of healing, administrative excellence, talent with the flute, speaks in tongues, can calculate doses of radiation to heal people, performs worshipful dance, builds PA systems, calculates budgets, makes great coffee, casts out demons, and leads prize-worthy contemplative prayer.

We are not called to be Jesus as individuals! We are the body of Christ together. We nurture our own gifts and look to encouraging others with theirs.

5. Good News
The Gospel is a message of good news. It was Isaiah who coined the term ‘good news’ or evangelion from which we get the terms evangelism and evangelical. Isaiah’s’ words—from what some call the fifth gospel—has enormous resonance with the Pentecost story:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!’
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7–10, NIVUK

Peter of course tells the Good News in his Pentecost sermon.

Preaching the gospel rarely looks like this for us of course. One of the biggest challenges of the modern Western church is how to preach the good news. The days of mission tents are long gone, here in the UK. As humans we want things to be simple but reaching people today with the good news is not simple. Not simple, if by simple we mean a big organised event with immediate fruit. And yet on the other hand it can be simple. We are all free in the Spirit to dream dreams. This is the promise of the Prophet Joel, the promise of Pentecost, the good news enabled by the Spirit.

Each of us needs to understand our gifts and our priorities before God. If we honour God with our Spirit-inspired gifts and give him back some of our time we will find ways to show the gospel and to speak it. It might not look tidy and neat. And it is of course only when we work together that the good news can be heard in all its richness.

The biggest challenge for Church Leaders is to enable us to nurture the loving organic relationships which is where so often the Spirit blows and fires up hearts.

How can we achieve together appropriate space and time in which the gospel can be heard and responded too?

Pray for your friends and the Spirit’s leading. Pray for your church leaders and the Spirit’s leading.

I will finish by praying Psalm 126 (The Message version) which has long been my prayer for our church. Maybe it could be a prayer for yours too?

It seemed like a dream, too good to be true,
when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang,
we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were the talk of the nations—
“God was wonderful to them!”
God was wonderful to us;
we are one happy people.

And now, God, do it again—
bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.

An Enarratio of Psalm 2: Behold God’s Anointed

This post follows on from an earlier post: An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man. This is therefore the second in what is an experiment which asks what we miss with modern biblical criticism and what we can gain by sympathy with some aspects of Augustine’s interpretive paradigm for reading the Psalms. It bears the name Enarratio to echo Augustine’s remarkable and massive Enarrationes in Psalmos, or Expositions of the Psalms. Like this great work this allusion is an exposition not a scientific exegesis. It reads the psalms through post-Easter spectacles; declaring that without such spectacles our reading will be short-sighted.

 

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? A rhetorical question? Well perhaps, but only because the answer is written so clearly across the pages of several thousand years of history. Even in prehistory, at Babel, the nations conspired with a skyscraper to reach to the heavens. In our days, skyscrapers mark the competition between nations—vanity projects that are also in vain. The question could be restated: When did the nations not conspire? Has there ever been a time when the leaders of the nations conspired not against God but for peace? Over millennia, projects and prospects of hope arise as nations gather to aspire to something good. Only for them to fracture into groups to conspire once again.

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’ Why do they rebel? How can they know better than the almighty? Is it that they ‘know not what they do?’. God’s anointed have always been fragile because they are one-and-all, frail men and women. So frail that the first king anointed in Israel rose up against God. Saul never grew from the time we first see him in the scriptures—failing in his task of donkey hunting. In throwing off imagined constraints he was imprisoned by bad choices. He was replaced by a less likely anointed one—the least likely of eight sons. This anointed one founded a royal line of anointed ones. An anointed son, with a heart that God saw was committed to agape despite its proneness to unrestrained eros. This son, this first David, faced threats from would be kings in God’s own nation, as well as the kings of nations all around. This son was a foretaste of The Son—blessed David redux. For though David’s anointing was most obviously as king, on some occasions he was also priest. He also made both music and song. He turned out to be not just a poet inspired by the muses, but a prophet inspired by the Spirit.

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. God’s first move is merriment and how could it be otherwise? The nations abuzz with plots are like angry bees, but in their mortality, they have no sting that can harm the immortal. The one in heaven’s laughter is not an attempt at provocation but just the uncontainable mirth at the ridiculous idea that there could ever be enough creatures to overthrow the Creator.

He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, not because of any churlishness or delight in such a sad reality. The freedom of God, rejected and misread as chains, gives all kings, indeed all people, a digital choice. Free to choose the way of delight in instruction, or the way of making new rebellious rival rules. How can God not be angry and wrathful? Though we struggle with such stark anthropomorphic metaphors. Why is it we question God’s right to wrath when in the same breath we decry that we cannot see his hand at work amidst the nations now? God’s hand is stayed at present because he has granted freedom, but a day must come when justice is done.

And yet, there is so much more before the day of anger because we hear him speaking not words of judgement and doom but saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ The first David meted out judgement but the ultimate incumbent on the throne of God’s holy mountain does something new. His installation was the antithesis of coronation splendour. His crown was of thorns. His robe was nakedness. His hands could grip no ruling rod of iron because they were held open with metal of a sharper form, to welcome one-and-all.

The first David, at his hard-earned investiture heard the priests recite this liturgy: I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, ‘You are my son;

    today I have become your father.

Other kings and other sons of this Davidic line heard the same words. Like a microcosm of all humanity some of them believed these words, some did not. For a time, the line appeared to be broken and the promise lay all but dead. But then came a voice of one calling in the desert who pointed at a man from Galilee. This stonemason, already destined to be a cornerstone, chose to be anointed in the river Jordan. He knew that his baptism there in water was but a foretaste of a baptism in blood when finally he would come to Zion’s holy hill. In days gone by, David’s line were proclaimed as kings by bearded priests. This final Son, who is both first and last, heard the Lord’s decree spoken from heaven by the Spirit: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ Words of mission and purpose received with joy, whilst being anointed in river water.

Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. The first David and his son founded a nation which seemed to honour and fulfil these words—at least in their own eager eyes. David redux knew this promise too. So awesome was the awakening of his baptism that he went into the desert like his people of old. Once there, another promised him the ends of the earth as his possession, but he did not bow the knee to that ancient serpent.

You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’ Though there is an immense time between his anointing and his execution of full authority, that Day will come. Though such language might be misheard as a sign of pique this is instead the best balance of mercy and justice in a creation of freedom and of love.

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. We can but hope they will hear and obey. O that they might Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. There are all too few signs that they will. No indication that they will hear this wise saying: Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. So finally, we are called to remember that this a song not just for kings. We can all heed its closing wisdom, for Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

 

The Voice of the Good Shepherd is Blowin’ in the Wind

‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
John 10:14–16, NIVUK

I have been working at home for around nine weeks now. I am missing all the chance conversations I used to have with my work colleagues. I miss the ongoing joke with the painter and decorator about my twin brother that no one else understands. I miss the encouragement of a friend very much on my wavelength. I miss the exchange of little snippets of life that connects my story to that of others.

There are a handful of colleagues whose conversation I do not miss so much—the handful of cynics who turn everything sour. These are the small number of people who turn anything good to dust. Being cynical is easy—I know I have tried it. Of course, sometimes being cynical is wise when we have seen how certain things operate, especially when they involve people and power. But being cynical is an unhappy state. It is a surrender to fate. It is a denial of new possibilities. It is contrary to the vitality and new life afforded by the gospel.

Our brokenness and frailty can give us a default setting to cynicism. We see this in casual ways. We make children embrace drawing, painting, stories, drama, and poetry, but often deny these things any role or influence over us as adults. These creative, imaginative, and reflective things all take time. And we have bought into the lie that we are time poor when we have more time at our disposal than at any previous time in history.

Being a Christian does not immunise us from the malaise. Often we have little time for stories about sheep, bad shepherds, the Good Shepherd, gates, and green pastures. We have been there and done that. The poetic seems too vague and idealistic—we do not have time in our schedule for these things.

But if we do not embrace story and imagery, we have little left of what God has given us in the Bible. The Bible is not a list of propositions for adults who have graduated from stories and poems. It tells us about God, about ourselves, and about how Jesus Christ makes a relationship with God possible. It does this in imagery, in stories, and in poetry. We live in the Information Age. We must not mistake information, for understanding, or wisdom, or the possibility of spiritual growth. We must not embrace the information deception, in which facts eclipse imagery and story. I was found by God when I heard the story of the crucifixion. I was saved when I understood a poetic parable about a vineyard.

The ‘facts’ of our faith are of course important, but rather short and to the point. You can catch them in a good creed. But these propositions are just the dry roots of our relationship with God, not its end. They require feeding if they are to enable our growth. We are changed and transformed on our pilgrimage to God by the richness of the biblical story and its intersection with our own. The Bible is full of stories, imagery, metaphor, and poetry.

Or, to switch images, we are sheep following a shepherd. We are journeying through mixed pasture with a shepherd to a final green pasture. The picture of God as the Good Shepherd is just one of a huge variety of images. But it is a biggie. We find it in Psalm 23, the book of Jeremiah, the book of Ezekiel, in Zechariah, in different ways in all four gospels, and in Peter’s First Letter. And as someone who I admire, called Jason Byassee, once said “We do well to listen when the Bible talks to itself.”

In Ezekiel we read a prophecy about Jesus:

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
Ezekiel 34:23–24, NIVUK

This is God promising to send the messiah, the New David, to be the shepherd of his people. Just a few verses before this we hear God promising that he himself will be the shepherd:

I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.
Ezekiel 34:14–16a, NIVUK

These words from Ezekiel are the foundation of the familiar story of the feeding of the 5,000. Where we read:

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognised them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Mark 6:32–34, NIVUK

A few verses later, Jesus does what Ezekiel promised:

Then Jesus told them to make all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
Mark 6:39–44, NIVUK

This is all ‘very nice’, but in all this talk of sheep, shepherds, and green grass, we are in danger of missing something. Because of our wet climate and experience of the English countryside and fluffy well-kempt sheep, all these stories and images becomes sickly sweet and as pointless as a poster of sheep in a field in Somerset with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ stuck on it.

Even in this serene story it is not all pastoral idyll and tenderness. The people with Jesus have walked many miles—there is nothing to eat. This is no miracle done only so Jesus can be the David Blaine of the first century. This is provision of their greatest need—a meal so they have the energy, having not eaten all day, to make their way back home across many miles.

In the wider accounts of the Good Shepherd we need to appreciate that a Good Shepherd is the difference between life and death. A Good Shepherd is the only chance the sheep have of surviving the night! In the first century there were no walls or fences keeping predators out – the shepherd is the only hope for being alive in the morning. This is why the Good Shepherd will go out looking for the one missing sheep.

Psalm 23 can also be misheard as a rural niceness:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.

But the same first century Palestine realities lie on the background. As a sheep you would very quickly lack everything. You need a shepherd to protect you from predators to guide you to safe water and good pasture. You wouldn’t know the right path without this sure guide.

Martin Luther expressed it like this in 1536:

A sheep must live entirely by its shepherds help, protection and care. As soon as it loses him, it is surrounded by all kinds of dangers and must perish, for it is quite unable to help itself. The reason? It is a poor, weak, simple little beast that can neither feed nor rule itself, nor find the right way, nor protect itself against any kind of danger or misfortune. Moreover, it is by nature timid, shy and likely to go astray. When it does go a bit astray and leaves its shepherd, it is unable to find its way back to him; indeed, it merely runs farther away from him. Though it may find other shepherds and sheep, that does not help it, for it does not know the voices of strange shepherds. Therefore it flees them and strays about until the wolf seizes or it perishes some other way.

Of course, we know the Psalm is not an idyll:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

The Good Shepherd is not good because he hides us from trouble, hardship, and death. He is the Good Shepherd because he is our guide and our comfort in the midst of all life’s challenges. He is there leading on the path even when it goes places, we’d rather it didn’t. I sometimes feel that the cynical are those who have unknowingly chosen to make their home in the valley of the shadow of death.

Returning to the opening words from John:

I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

As Gentiles we have been let into the sheepfold that is home to all God’s people. We are called to listen to his voice. The voice of Jesus is not a one-off reality in our lives, though of course there is that first day when metaphorically we hear him.

How do you listen to his voice? What space and time do we make for this? There are so many competing voices. The needs of family and friends. Our own internal voice. The news that seems like Groundhog Day at the moment. The froth of Facebook. The insanity of Twitter. How many voices do we have to choose from?

For some of us the current situation means a possibility of more time to hear our Lord. It is a test in some ways. When asked what we did in an Age of Covid-19 what will our answer be. Will it be binge-watching TV? Or might it be the time we came before God to hear his voice—a time of quietness by still waters before our Shepherd? Might it be the time we ensured we were on the path looking ahead to follow our guide to put ourselves close enough to him to hear his voice?

Amidst so many voices clamouring for our waning attention it can be like being in a Bob Dylan song.

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?

The true voice of the shepherd is blowin’ in the wind. The still small voice of the Spirit is there to be heard if we just turn off the other voices for a time.

 

Reference

The quote from Luther comes from his Exegesis of Psalm 23 at Table, Luther’s Works Volume 12, Muhlenberg Press, 1955.