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.

Mountains Will Tremble Before Him: Isaiah 64:1-9

What does this mean? (vv.13)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Do you ever have moments when you just wish that God would intervene and make things right? I think we all do from time to time. It might be we just feel we need him and he feels distant—we feel alone, or overwhelmed, or frustrated. It might be that our life does not make sense—our finances are a mess, we are addicted to something unwholesome, our relationships seem broken or we are struggling with our family. It might be that we are horrified with the way things are. Why can’t God show up and deal with the warmongers, those that promote hatred, those that sow discord and those that use terror as a means to their own ends? Maybe, more positively, we have simply arrived at the elusive spiritual fulfilment of the Apostle Paul—“to live is Christ and to die is gain” [Phil 1:21]—a readiness for the Day of the Lord and the New Heaven and the New Earth.

There are all sorts of reasons to want God to show up, but the sort of arrival of God described here might not be what we always have in mind. The Advent of God described in Isaiah 64 certainly seems far away from a baby in a manager. This is the full-on might of God the Father, Yahweh God of Israel, showing up in all his power, glory and majesty. God appearing in creation as only the creator can.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Isaiah was writing to a people that knew this God of power, glory and majesty. For centuries they had known the reality of this God who made mountains tremble. Moses had made a covenant with him and experienced him in the burning bush. The nation had seen him settle in smoke and cloud on Sinai. They had followed him—a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. He had dwelt with them in the holy of holies. And yet, more recently they knew his reality only by his absence. They knew what it was to be in exile, to be a pawn played by the big nations.

The experience of old, turned into a desire for salvation, for restoration, for vindication and for judgement of those brash big nations and their false gods. They wanted the nations to quake and squirm before their God, their Yahweh. Israel did not get the answer from Yahweh they hoped for. When the Father did rend the heavens it was indeed God who came down. But it was the Son who came down and became a man. A man who commanded the elements, but whose mission was not one of smoke, fire and trembling. No mountain trembled, at least not at his first Advent. Later, in his death and his resurrection, the cosmos would be set on a path to being remade but to the casual observer this was not Isaiah’s Day of the Lord. The first Advent happened 2,000 years ago—We still await the second.

 

Who is this God? (vv.45)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Israel did not invent their God. Israel experienced their God. Firstly through the patriarchs who he brought to the Promised Land working through day-to-day agriculture and farming, through world events and through asking remarkable things of unremarkable people. Later they experienced him through deliverance from slavery , through plagues upon their captors and through parted-water and desert wandering.

They were called to be a holy nation. God loved them so much that he gave them his precious law. Not a law just of legal statements but a law of life-giving instruction explaining who this God who acted on their behalf was. Instructing them to wait upon him in worship, sacrifice and praise—to centre a nation on doing right before him. But like us, when experience receded to memory they forgot, they turned away, they sinned by looking elsewhere for life and reward. Despite understanding that a God who can rend mountains is not one to be crossed, the people of Israel looked to Baal and other manufactured gods. They were led astray by other peoples they should have shared their faith with.

Idols of wealth, sex and power are not discoveries of our modern world—though we have developed, promoted and even marketed them. Humankind has struggled with such idols from the moment we looked from the true God to others with whom we hope to find satisfaction. That original choice, to question our relationship with God opens up the possibility of plugging that gap with alternatives that feel good in the short term, but fall to dust in the longer term, and in the age to come. We, like our ancient counterparts, struggle to remember the ways of God.

 

Why is this a problem? (vv.67)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

A God who makes mountains tremble is a problem for frail, sinful people. Such holiness and majesty that makes mountains quake is hostile to our lack of holiness. The language of the Bible on this matter, so we are told, is dated and outmoded. But we know our moral brokenness, our sin, is not removed by it being unpopular or inconvenient. The gospel of Good News only makes sense when we understand the bad news of our brokenness. Of course God did not make us broken—humanity chose that path.  Isaiah’s language of uncleanness picks up on a central theme of the law. He explains that despite our best efforts our attempts at doing right fall short of the perfection of God.

Theologians have tried to capture our difference from God in terms of righteousness in precise and sophisticated language, but the Prophet Isaiah’s language of filthy rags says it all. And as Isaiah nails our unrighteousness so well, he also captures the terrible consequences. This is poetic language, but no less sobering and disturbing for that. The fallen condition means that all will shrivel like a leaf and the wind of our sins blows us away as dust.

 

When will this happen? (vv.89)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

The God who shakes mountains is also a God of mercy and grace. As the potter he wants to remake us. The Two Advents are the means of this mercy and grace being worked out to refashion us. Advent is the coming of God who as potter can refashion us to cleanse us from sin, give us new life so that we will not shrivel, re-clothe us with royal garments and restore relationships.

That First Advent —the Incarnation of the Son as a baby—the story of the God-man Jesus is the story of the rending of the heavens firstly in Incarnation and secondly in Resurrection. Nothing less than a shockwave that makes space-time tremble as the New Creation is initiated. A new creation in which ultimately sin will not consume us as its power has been broken. A new creation in which resurrection eclipses the shrivelling finality of death. A new creation in which our filthy rags are replaced with spotless robes. A new creation in which relationships are made whole and wholesome.

The Second Advent, the so-called second coming, is Isaiah’s Day of the Lord. That day is when God completes both mercy and judgement and on that day:

[He] rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before [Him!] (64:1)

Right now of course we are caught between two Advents. It is here that we can encounter our Father as the potter. We can acknowledge him in his glory and majesty and know him in the mercy revealed at that first Advent. We will not know the completion of God’s work until the day when mountains tremble but we can continue the journey, to that day, by being re-moulded by him.

We can be clay in his hands; he gives us freedom to choose. One of the key ways to transformation, to be clay in his hands, is to learn what it means to wait. Waiting for God is central to the Christian faith. Why else would we find the psalmist crying time-and-again: ‘how long O Lord?’ Our Western societies have lost any sense of waiting. The patient waiting for the age to come stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the age—the spirit of secular Christmas. The Bible promises more, but at a pace which is down to God. We don’t know when that day of second Advent will come. But we do know that patient waiting on him is the key. Waiting is not passive—as we wait we are moulded and refashioned.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

    that the mountains would tremble before you! (64:1)

Beautiful Lord: An Advent Reflection on Revelation 1:12‒18

What is Beauty?

Beauty tends to be something that is peripheral to Western society and culture today. At least that is my view. When things are marginal there is a danger that they are neglected. Worse still, in an age of soundbites we might define important things by a short saying or an aphorism.

In the past Beauty was a central concept within Christian Theology. It was joined by Goodness and Truth. Some theologians organised their whole theology around these three. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously called urgently for a need to reclaim beauty in our theology and thinking. His stark claim that instigated a multi-decade project is worth a lengthy quotation:

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. 1 Seeing the Form

I want to speak positively about Beauty. But this positivity is in the context of the danger posed by Western culture. The values of our culture in practice are:

  • Post-goodness—morality based on any absolutes is under attack. Only a shallow concept of rights exists.
  • Post-truth—politics has become so cynical that plain untruths are said and the electorate are, either powerless to change this or collude with it.
  • Post-beauty—advertising tells us what is beautiful.

When it comes to beauty there is no shortage of sayings that spring to mind. Two in particular pervade Western culture:

  1. Beauty is only skin deep. Sir Thomas Overbury is the first person known to have used this in print, in his poem A Wife (1613). She was probably less than impressed.
  2. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It has been used in many forms and its origin is obscure. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford first used in this form in her novel Molly Bawn (1878).

Whilst both have some value, the latter’s potential to deny absolute beauty is problematic for a Christian Theology of beauty.

The Bible and Beauty

A typical English translation of the Bible does not have many Hebrew and Greek words translated as beauty. For example, the New International Version has 71 occurrences of Beautiful and 33 of Beauty. Most of these uses of the two words refer to physical human beauty. The first usage in the Bible has this meaning:

the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.

Genesis 6:2 (NIV)

Around 20% of the uses of beauty and beautiful occur in the erotic love poem Song of Songs and relate to physical beauty. But this in itself tells as something further about God. Song of Songs is an erotic love poem but its place in the Bible has as much to do with how it tells of God’s love for his people and the love of his people for him.

We are meant to find God beautiful just as he recognises the beauty of his people perfected in Christ.

Some uses of the words beauty and beautiful refer to the importance of an inner beauty, picking up on beauty being ‘only skin deep’. In Ezekiel 16 we find almost 10% of all Bible uses of the words beauty and beautiful. It is imagery about the beauty of God’s people and how as God’s beloved they looked for another lover. The inference is that their beauty should have been more than skin deep—the beauty of God’s people lies in who they are in God.

Some of these words from Ezekiel use imagery which is coherent with what God has done for us in Christ:

“‘I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. 10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewellery: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.13 So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was honey, olive oil and the finest flour. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. 14 And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendour I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord.

Ezekiel 16:914 (NIV)

In the New Testament, Peter, being a fisherman points out the relationship between inner and outer beauty more succinctly:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

1 Peter 3:34 (NIV)

I am reminded of the words of the humble hobbit gardener, Sam Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings:

“Handsome is as handsome does.”

Very few, if any, of the occurrences of beauty and beautiful (in most English Bible translations) refer to creation. In an exception, Ezekiel 31:9 one of the trees of Eden is referred to as beautiful, surpassing all the other trees. So exceptional is this usage that it proves the rule. A few uses of these two words refer to God, for example:

From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines forth.
Our God comes
and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
and around him a tempest rages.

Psalm 50:2‒3 (NIV)

Glory

So how can beauty be a central biblical concept if when reading Scripture we find the semantic range refers largely to physical appearance with only an occasional acknowledgement that inner beauty is more important?

What of the beauty of God?

What of the beauty of creation?

We have a different word in English that overlaps with beauty. A word that translates the Hebrew word, kavod. This word captures the idea of being heavy—of having serious substance or great importance. It is often translated heart—literally liver in Hebrew, the liver being the heaviest and therefore most important organ—as the most important part of somebody.

Glory, comes into its own as the tangible importance and greatness of God; it goes beyond the visibility of beauty into beautiful presence and beautiful physicality. My favourite example is Psalm 24 where it is intertwined with Yahweh’s kingship, strength and might:

Lift up your heads, you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is he, this King of glory?
The Lord Almighty—
he is the King of glory.

Psalm 24: 710 (NIV)

The Beauty of God

In the Book of Revelation John the Elder, describes his encounter with Christ. Like all of this remarkable book it is written in the symbolic language of apocalyptic—a rich poetic way to describe things beyond the everyday. His description of Christ can sound reminiscent of the unhelpful ‘old man on a cloud’ view of God, for example, hair like white wool, but when understood as imagery it becomes much richer.

One day we too will each encounter the living Christ as he judges all of creation ahead of the renewal of heaven and earth. Unlike John’s vision ours will be a full encounter with the beautiful resurrected Christ.

Isaiah described the suffering servant in this way:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

Isaiah 53:2 (NIV)

The risen Jesus is not just beautiful he is full of majesty and glory. Perhaps like John our encounter with Jesus will make us fall to the ground as though dead.

The vision of John portrays Jesus Christ among his Church, the seven lamp stands. He is living and active in our midst when we gather.

His clothes are those of a priest. The ultimate priest who enables us to come before the living God. A priest, who as a sacrifice without beauty, makes us beautiful before the Father.

For this beautiful figure is not just the risen Jesus. He is the Christ. Not just Son of Man, but one like a Son of Man. Now shown to be God himself in resurrection glory. Lest we be in any doubt, we see his hair, white like wool, white like snow—this is the ancient of days, the God of Israel.

Through the cross and resurrection his purity and holiness have been found perfect—we can see this as his feet glow like bronze in a furnace.

Like his Father before him his spoken word is like the sound of rushing water—a sound so loud that it silences everything else. His spoken word is inflected by a tongue like a double-edged sword.

In this way he judges all. Those made clean by his priestly sacrifice will withstand this judgement, being found pure like him. His beauty and glory given to them as a free and gracious gift. And because of this his people can stand before him bathed in the light shining from his face; illuminated not blinded, warmed not consumed.

One day we will know the very touch of the living Christ. He will declare to us that we need not fear, he has led the way into God’s beautiful presence. He was First, there with God in the beginning. He is Last, in that he has restored the creation broken by the sin of Adam. In a sense he became Adam but he did not stray. In resurrection he makes an end to Adam’s sin. He is the Living One—not just the resurrected Jesus but the Living God Yahweh. God of Israel and God of all the redeemed of mankind.

He was dead just as we will die, but he is alive, just as we too shall be made alive in him. He holds the keys of both death and Hades. As his followers we have no need to fear death or Hades.

Please see Malcolm Guite’s O Rex Gentium which provides an appropriate reflective prayer.

Isaiah Tweets: 37 to 66

This is the final collection of Isaiah tweets. I have found journeying through Isaiah day-by-day, tweeting a chapter a day, a refreshing and illuminating experience. I would strongly others to try this as a modern spiritual discipline. As with tweeting the Psalms it remains a challenge to work within the 140 character limit. Yet, in a way this limit is so constraining, it constantly reminds the author that the tweet is a fleeting engagement with a permanent text. The tweets vary in style and include attempts at summary, thematic pointers, prayers or simply key verses or part verses.

Isaiah 37:
Idolatry is a major theme of Isaiah.
What are our modern equivalents?
What distracts us from Yahweh?

Isaiah 38:
The Lord will save me, and we will sing with stringed instruments all the days of our lives in the temple of the Lord.

Isaiah 39:
The book hinges on this chapter.
A heady mishmash of exile, return and future hope now follow.

Isaiah 40:
Tidings of comfort and joy.

Isaiah 41:
No matter how much effort we put into bolstering our idols they are still made by us and prone to topple over.

Isaiah 42:
The Servant of The Lord is a beautifully polyvalent poetic truth.
Judah, Jesus, Church and disciple.

Isaiah 43:
I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; don’t you perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
& streams in the wasteland.

Isaiah 44:
Humankind, all too often, turn creation into idols.
A day approaches when humanity and all creation acknowledge the Creator.

Isaiah 45:
Gather together and come;
assemble, you fugitives from the nations.
#Ecclesiology

Isaiah 46:
Remember the former things, those of long ago;
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.

Isaiah 47:
With literal Babylon long gone, but metaphorical Babylon all around, let’s learn how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.

Isaiah 48:
Lord, as we walk in the desert, sustain us with your river of peace;
irrigate our communities with streams of life-giving water.

Isaiah 49:
Yahweh has our name engraved on the psalms of his hands.
Where is his name visible in our lives?

Isaiah 50:
Servanthood and discipleship are characterised by taking up a cross.

Isaiah 51:
The New Heaven and Earth will make the wonder that was Eden look like an allotment.

Isaiah 52:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.

Isaiah 53:
This chapter was the subject of the very first Bible Study I attended.
#PersonalParadigmShift

Isaiah 54:
Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes.

Isaiah 55:
Hungry we eat God’s Word.
Thirsty we imbibe God’s Spirit.
Hallelujah for sweet honey and living water.

Isaiah 56:
Though we were foreigners you welcomed us into covenant.
Hallelujah.

Isaiah 57:
Some of today’s idols are as dangerous and unpleasant as those described here.
Lord, grant us wise eyes we pray.

Isaiah 58:
Lord, help us cultivate rich spiritual disciplines that deepen our care for the poor and marginalised.

Isaiah 59:
Collective wrongs and identification with unjust world-views can both distance a nation from the living God.

Isaiah 60:
Gates that are never closed – now that’s God’s vision.

Isaiah 61:
We join Isaiah and Jesus in continuing the announcement of the year of the Lord’s favour.

Isaiah 62:
Prepare the way for the people.
Build up, build up the highway!
Remove the stones.
Raise a banner for the nations.

Isaiah 63:
Mighty to save and robed in crimson.
Judgement and mercy established by the Father and the servant.
#intertextuality

Isaiah 64:
Our Father in heaven,
we are the clay,
you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah 65:
The wolf & the lamb will feed together,
& the lion will eat straw like the ox,
& dust will be the serpent’s food.

Isaiah 66:
Each pilgrim builds for God – home, church, a life and community.
Each is a foretaste of Isaiah’s ultimate vision.

On Tweeting Isaiah

My church, New Life Baptist Church (Guildford), is looking at Isaiah 40-55 on Sunday mornings during January to March this year. Alongside this we are encouraging the whole church to work through the book of Isaiah as part of their daily devotions. The collective reading and reflection helps make our small groups function more effectively as we share insights and challenges.

Over this period I have decided to Tweet daily, chapter by chapter, through the book of Isaiah. This is not a naive attempt to distill some new found wisdom from the book! It is simply another way of ensuring engagement with the biblical text – a spiritual discipline if you like. The tweets can function in various ways. They: (i) can attempt to summarise, by way of a propositional statement, (ii) can reflect on a poetic device in the chapter, (iii) can quote a key verse from the chapter, (iv) can make intertextual connections, (v) can appropriate the text in some personal way, such as a sort prayer.

140 characters, or less, cannot hope to do justice to each chapter. It is, rather, the attempt that is valuable. With similar Tweets on the Psalms I have also found it interesting to see how other people tackle this simple idea. To illustrate the idea I have collected the first few below.

Isaiah 1:
My people why are you deaf?
Your choices have broken the Promised Land.
Come, obey your Yahweh and be my Faithful City again.

Isaiah 2:
Jacob, you shall be a gateway for all nations;
a stream in the desert ahead of the flood.
All will make plowshares from swords.

Isaiah 3:
In that day I will take away the grapes in your vineyards as you are so devoted to crushing your own people.

Isaiah 4:
The branch of The Lord redefines glory.
In Him we find shelter and sojourn to glory.

Isaiah 5:
O Yahweh, what have we done to your vineyard?
Your chosen vines have borne an abundance yes, but only of bad grapes.

Isaiah 6:
Open eyes, to the extent of your glory.
Cleanse hearts, that we might speak of your glory.
Loose feet, that we might walk with you.

Isaiah 7:
If you do not stand firm in faith,
you shall not stand at all.

Isaiah 8:
He will be a holy place;
for both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble &
a rock that makes them fall.

Isaiah 9:
Unto Galilee, of all places, the Son of God is given – a child born of a carpenter’s household; Son of Mary.

Isaiah 10:
Your people, O Yahweh, in your mercy are numbered like grains of sand.
Your kingdom come.

Isaiah 11:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him.

Isaiah 12:
On this day we say:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
let this be known to all the world.”

Isaiah 13:
Fallen is Babylon.

Isaiah 14:
Hallelujah, I am a foreigner grafted into the descendants of Jacob.

Isaiah 15:
My heart cries out at the brittleness of the nations.

Isaiah 16:
Why do the rulers of the nations see the trampling of ‘the other’ as leadership and justice?

Isaiah 17:
In that day people will look to their Maker and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah 18:
All people of the world;
who live on Earth,
when a banner is raised on the mountains, see it;
when the trumpet sounds, hear it.