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.

Palm Sunday 2020: Gathered though Scattered

Given the challenging events of the past days and weeks perhaps some of us have forgotten which day of the week it is. Palm Sunday is the day we remember Jesus arriving in Jerusalem at Passover, less than a week before he would be executed by the Romans. The name Palm Sunday arises from the gospel accounts in which Jesus arrives on a Donkey. The crowds acknowledge his arrival, celebrating in various ways including waving palm leaves in a party atmosphere. In doing this they practice the words of verse 27 of the Passover festival’s Psalm 118.

Today we are looking at the testimony of Luke of events just ahead of that triumphal entry. Events in which Jesus is feeling anything but triumphant. We read from Luke Chapter 13 verse 31:

31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, ‘Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.’

32 He replied, ‘Go and tell that fox, “I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.” 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

34 ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”’

Luke 13: 31–35, UKNIV

In the context of the Covid pandemic many of us have a wish to hunker down. We want to gather those we love and protect them from harm. We might want to gather our children and protect them. What could be more natural than this? We might want to gather our elderly parents and try and look after them? Some of us might wish we could gather the homeless and the vulnerable to help them weather the storm.

To want to gather and protect is a basic human instinct. Jesus wants to gather the children of Israel and protect them. In spite of their fickleness in waving palm leaves one day and approving of his death almost the next. His natural human inclination is to protect and gather those who are his people.

Of course, he is not only a man. He is God incarnate. Lest we imagine that there is a tension between his humanity and his deity we should note that Jesus is identifying with God. Six times in the psalms the Psalmist sees God as a hen protecting her brood with her wings.

What an image—a hen gathering her chicks. This is God and his people. Jesus wanting to gather even those who will abandon him—his desire is to protect them. The imagery is not only powerful it is remarkable. Remarkable not only in its tenderness but in its motherliness. For it is mothers who best exemplify the level of care offered by the God-Man Jesus. Jesus the Mother hen!

In our best moments we share the wish to protect. But we don’t have the ability to succeed as Jesus did. Sometimes the more we close our loving wings the more we struggle to hold everything together. In the cosy West we tell ourselves the lie that all is under our control. And often it looks like this is the case. Deep down, of course, we know this is not true. We know that day-to-day, apparent blind chance rolls the dice in accidents, in disease, in mental illness, in fire and in flood. If nothing else, we must learn to put our hope in the one who is one hundred percent faithful.

Jesus wished to shield his people. He wanted to spread wide his arms to embrace them and ward off evil. He couldn’t do it in those days before Easter Week, but later that week he did. He let others spread his wings and fix them to a beam. Lashed and nailed to a tree, those wings gave the best protection ever devised by man or by God.

Those spread-wide arms can ward off any ill, even a newly minted virus. And whilst there is no guarantee of this anti-viral effect there is a guarantee that those outstretched arms can cure sin and death.

This world is desperate for a vaccine to the pestilence name Covid-19 but we have something better. Jesus spread his wings for us—having learnt from the Father who sent him. In doing this he has cured us all. Sin and death will be no more.

And we recognise the profound truth of Jesus’ words: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.

Why do the Nations Conspire?

The Psalms as Psalter

The Psalms have been called an anatomy of the soul. The reformer Calvin said, in the opening of his commentary on The Psalms, that:

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 any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.

He goes on to point out that the Holy Spirit has inspired the capture in the psalms of griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares and perplexities. Luther, another reformer, had in some ways an even more remarkable view of the psalms:

It seems to me as if the Holy Ghost had been pleased to take on himself the trouble of putting together a short Bible, or book of exemplars, touching the whole of Christianity or all the saints, in order that they who are unable to read the whole Bible may nevertheless find almost the whole sum comprehended in one little book … the Psalter is the very paragon of books …

For both Luther and Calvin this collection of 150 psalms is complete in some sense. I therefore prefer the term Psalter to Book. The term Psalter normally refers to an illuminated book of psalms or a collection written specifically for sung worship. But i recommend the term for the biblical ‘book’ to remind us this not just any old anthology by is an intentional complete literary unit.

The Monastic Traditions agree with such a view in that all of the biblical psalms are read and/or sung weekly in canonical order, that is the whole Psalter in a week. In some Reformed Churches, to this day, the only sung worship is the singing of biblical psalms. In Church History the Psalms have been to the fore of Christian worship and devotion as a complete corpus.

In the modern Western churches, however, the centrality of the Psalms is not now the norm. Many churches and Christians do not encounter every psalm in a year. There are many reasons for the demise of the biblical psalms.

  1. Contemporary music preferences can eclipse the Psalms. The Psalter has the idea of singing a New Song (e.g. Psalms 96 and 98) but this is not a proof text for their demise but a pointer to their generative centrality.
  2. In an age of science and technology propositional truth is often preferred to poetry. And yet the psalms abound in imagery, poetic devices and mystery.
  3. Our modern sensibilities play a part too. We might want whitewash over Psalm 137’s uncomfortable reference to infants being dashed on rocks.
  4. We sometimes mistake the Psalmist’s passion for being holier-than-thou. For example, we misapprehend Psalm 1’s “Blessed is the one . . . whose delight is in the law of the Lord” for legalism rather than seeing it as passion and desire for God’s precious instruction.

Perhaps another force is at work too, the conspiring nations mentioned in Psalm 2. Our modern world means that worst of the bad news emerging from the nations bombards us daily, perhaps even hourly. The drip feed of the bad news undermines the veracity of the good news. Psalms 1 and 2 as they open the Psalter have a certainty and positivity that is at odds with the dripping tap of the nation’s horrors. But the Psalms should be our worldview not the news from the nations.

The Psalms are rich, complex, mysterious, challenging in an age which celebrates caricature, oversimplification and shrillness. This devotion will look at Psalm 2 in all its richness, complexity, mystery and challenge. At the same time, I am hoping to offer a way to pray for the nations of this tragic world in which we live in. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll persuade some readers to make the Psalter a greater part of your walk with Jesus Christ.

Seeing Psalm 2—Coronation

Psalm 2 has had several lives—this might well come as news to you. This is one reason why the psalms can seem like hard work, but also why they are so rich. One way of looking at these ‘lives’ is the question: “What is the context of a psalm?”. There are many answers:

  • The life of David—The biographical headings of twelve psalms make this claim.
  • The life a worship leader—the headings which mention Asaph and the Sons of Korah indicate this.
  • A national event—some psalms have a historical context, either implied or explicitly stated.
  • Temple worship—the Psalter was a songbook as indicated by the centrality of musical instruments in many psalms.
  • The life of the reader—how else can we explain their universal appeal, the extreme example being Psalm 23 which seems to ‘work’ in any experience of the soul.
  • The life of Jesus—being this side of Easter provides a new dynamic.
  • A future prophetic context—the New Testament uses them like this a lot.

We don’t need to choose one context, but we do need to reflect on the variety of possibilities.

We start with the drama that we can feel in Psalm 2. Imagine a scene like Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation but with a king in Israel. You can see a throne, the king’s rich clothes, priest’s in equally fine regalia. You can hear music. Rich strings, as fine a string quartet, deep trumpeting creating a hush. You can smell incense and your eyes sting a little with the fragrant smoke. A hush falls and now the liturgy will follow—various figures have their lines ready for the drama.

A priest says:

Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
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.’

Another priest says:

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
‘I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.’

The king replies:

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have become your father.
Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’

A third priest says:

 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
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.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This is not how we normally read Psalm 2, but this is something like the original use of this psalm. We must put new glasses on to see it in this light. In this light it looks to Israel as a theocracy imposing power over the conspiring nations.

Feeling Psalm 2—Subjugation

We’ve tried to see Psalm 2. Now we’ll try and feel this psalm.

There came a time when Psalm 2 seemed ridiculously over the top. A day came when the nation was punished by the nations rather than leading those nations. The nation of Israel was a power in the days of David and Solomon. But power games behind the throne soon ended the golden age. The temple was destroyed along with the royal palace, the best people were taken into captivity, the king was blinded and dragged away in chains.

How hollow, or impossible, did Psalm 2 sound then?

Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.

A subjugated people would make something very different of this psalm. And they must have made something of it otherwise it would not have survived to take pride of place with Psalm 1 at the head of the Psalter. The nations had not only conspired together they has succeeded in subjugating God’s people.

Psalm 2 did not go on being read at coronations as there were no kings to crown. But despite the beauty of the pomp that gave it life it now helped the nation to rediscover their place amongst the nations. Israel did not have a king, but they perceived that one day this would change. The coronation and anointing of the king became a way of seeing that God would send his anointed one, or Messiah. What had been an image of the king as God’s son, raised the possibility of the new anointed as God’s Son.

These are different lenses with which to read this psalm – the glasses that come with subjugation are those of hope and trust in God against the odds. A trust and hope that defy the realities and horrors of being subject to the nations – whether Babylonians, Persians, Greeks or Romans. Psalm 2 transforms the crushing boot of the nations into the hope of being first among the nations.

But of course these are still not our glasses.

Saying Psalm 2 – Expectation

We have new glasses. Not because we have been to SpecSavers but because we are living after Easter. We have an expectation of the Risen Jesus’ return and our own resurrection in the Age to Come. The Incarnation of the Son, the life of Jesus, his death, his resurrection and his ascension mean that we read this psalm and indeed all of the Old Testament with Jesus vision- with our eyes fixed on the author and perfector of our faith.

The words of Psalm 2 take on even greater drama. First, they spoke of Israel and the Near-Eastern nations and the king of the line of David. Now these same words speak of God’s people founded in Christ a people from all nations and our King Jesus.

The sense of frailty we have as broken humanity finds an end in the expectation of this Psalm. Whatever appearances to the contrary such as the bad news on our TVs and in our Newspapers,  God has a plan for the nations.

Jesus has already shown the completion of the kingdom in the cross and resurrection:

‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’

The second coming of Jesus will bring this to fruition. This will be a time of reward and judgement:

You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’

Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction.

What about praying Psalm 2? When the news overwhelms us when it all seems like the disorder of this world denies the living God. Why not pray Psalm 2 and in trust and faith call to mind that glorious day when people from every tribe and nation will join the Lamb in his Kingdom. Such prayers of trust feed our souls nourishing further faith, trust and hope. If the whole seem seems to much, why not start with a simple prayer to our Father: ‘Why do the Nations Conspire?’.

I is for Israel

Introducing Israel

The use of the word Israel is complicated in the Hebrew Bible because its meaning varies throughout the unfolding story that this collection of texts narrates. This post will briefly consider four key meanings of the term Israel. The next post returns to some specific issues mentioned in this post in a little more detail.

Jacob become Israel

The word Israel is first encountered in the biblical narrative when Jacob is renamed Israel in Genesis 32:28. In this story it is Yahweh, in the form of a sparring partner who does the renaming—the name Israel is thought to mean ‘he struggles with God’. Jacob is the father of many sons, who the book of Genesis explains are the founders of the tribes of Israel. We meet Jacob’s fourth son Judah in the next post. For now we note that it seems apposite that Jacob as Israel is the father of the tribes of the people of Israel.

The Tribes of Israel

During the first three of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges and Samuel) the tribes of Israel emerge from a forty-year wandering in the desert to conqueror the Promised Land. Their leader Joshua heads up this conquest—an event which raises difficult questions because of the genocidal activities described. The book of Judges deals with ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ of the events which surround the tribes of Israel. In this context, Israel refers to the collection of tribes. It means something closer to a people than a geographical nation. These people are also fragmented. This is clear in the stories which unfold in the book of Judges: the various episodes tend to be local, concerning a single tribe and are not in chronological. Some editorial is at work, as an effort has been made to be selective, so as to ensure that each tribe gets a mention. The events of the Book of Samuel move the story into a new phase as the people press God to have a king like the other nations (see I Samuel 8:5). It is here we see the move from Israel meaning ‘a people’ to ‘a nation’. This meaning takes a new turn further on in the story after God permits them to have a king.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel

Under the kingship of Saul, David and Solomon we see a period known as the united monarchy. This state of affairs was unfortunately short lived, lasting only 75 years. The death of Solomon (1 Kings 12) provided enough of a power vacuum for the relatively newly formed nation of Israel to become two nations. This is where matters become confusing in that the Northern Kingdom becomes known as Israel whilst the Southern Kingdom was known as Judah. It is in this time that the term Israel took on the very specific meaning of a nation, but no longer the nation of all of God’s people.

The people of Israel

This new state of affairs was also only temporary although it lasted rather longer than 75 years. Both of the new nations were to suffer military defeat and exile as we saw some posts ago. The Northern Kingdom of Israel came to an end in 722 BCE when Samaria, its capital city, was destroyed by the Assyrians. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, suffered a similar fate in 586 BCE. After the restoration of the nation (as people returned from exile), the Hebrew Bible uses the term Israel in a new way. The words Israel and Judah are now both used. The word Israel tends to refer to the people of Judah and the word Judah refers to what is a province within wider empires.