Jesus, Psalm 19 and Empty Words

The Sound of Silence
Jesus had something to say about empty words. We’ll get to these words a little a later after we’ve encountered some other words, as well as some silence. Simon and Garfunkel rereleased The Sound of Silence as a single some fifty-six years ago in September 1965 to some acclaim. Its previous release, in a different musical form, a couple of years earlier had not been a success. The song was written by Paul Simon and since 1965 there have been diverse opinions as to its meaning. Such ambiguity and polyvalence are often a good thing for a song or a poem’s popularity and therefore survival. This is, for example, probably part of the story behind the 150 biblical psalms which are most likely a small fraction of Israel’s hymnody.

I understand The Sound of Silence to be an expression of concern about the nature of modern society and culture. More specifically, that a clarity regarding underpinning principles, philosophy or truth is absent. There is instead just a resounding silence. This lack of words of value and words of veracity seems to fit with:

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

The singer of the song seems to know a potential antidote to this cultural malaise:

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”

But this wisdom is met as just another voice amid the competition, and these ‘words, like silent raindrops fell’. The song goes on to allude to the creation of new gods—the neon god they made—alluding perhaps to consumerism, materialism and marketing, symbolised by the observation that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”.

Whether, or not, this is the meaning of The Sound of Silence, I find that any testament I make as to my faith is met by people ‘hearing without listening’ and perhaps to them my words, as ‘my truth’, are like me ‘talking without speaking’. In a world of cynicism about a guiding narrative all testimony to something bigger rings hollow or perhaps there is simply a communication failure. And so in this way the collective denial of universal truth means that ‘silence like a cancer grows’. Words as signifiers and pointers to something else evaporate if there is no possibility of belief in what they point to.

Creative Speaking and Speech
The Bible, when it can be heard, makes a very different claim right from the outset. Just a few verses in, and we find all creation being spoken into existence. And with such rhythm that words are celebrated as this unfolds. God even takes delight in naming things. Following on from such an opening, is it any surprise that Psalm 29 can make the more modest claim that God’s voice is like the loudest thunder? Although here, God’s voice is as destructive as it is creative in Genesis 1. It seems that this biblical deity can both create and destroy with his thunderous voice. Humankind echoes this potential for bipolar speech-acts as part of their reflection of God’s image. Our ability to both create and destroy with our words is part of what lies behind the empty words that Jesus refers in Matthew’s gospel (see below).

Psalm 19 also picks up where Genesis 1 leaves off. There the connection between creation and God’s speech is given a little twist. In verses 1–6 it is creation that does the talking, speaking of the God who spoke it into existence:

Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:2–4, NIVUK

These verses push the speech metaphor to breaking point. This is both ‘speech’ (v.2) and ‘not speech’ (v.3). This recognition that we are both dealing with a metaphor and stretching it to its limit is vitally important. We are dealing with poetic (but nevertheless true) ideas in all their richness. Neither Genesis 1 nor Psalm 19 provide literal accounts of creation being spoken into existence or creation testifying to its creator. We have something that is mysteriously difficult to pin down. We have language grappling with the undeniable reality of creation as observable fact—testifying in some sense to the creator. This is a testimony that can’t be otherwise, a worldview that accepts creation without creator makes no sense here. This is a working hypothesis that explains the universe in all its wonder and magnificence. This is no mechanistic account of the way things are, or the way things came to be. This is faith seeking understanding—a faith and an understanding that is more than two millennia old but we each should make afresh day-by-day.

Instruction
The second half of Psalm 19 deepens this poetic claim of metaphysical insight. Verses 7–11 complement creation’s testimony to the creator with reflection on the creator’s words. These words are precious and sustaining to creation and its creatures:

The decrees of the Lord are firm,
  and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
  than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
  than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:9b–11, NIVUK

Some scholars of the old form critical school see a tension between the first and second part of this psalm. But this is over-categorisation to the detriment of the richer poetry and synergy of its claims, all centred on speech. The creation and God’s instruction are twin pillars of order behind the space-time universe. They are each so very different and yet interwoven as the very fabric of reality.

In the face of God, the creator, whose creation points to him as a cosmic signpost and the claim that he has provided instruction for us, the psalmist is all too aware of their frailty (vv.12–13) and asks:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

Empty Words?
Such a laudable response to God seems worlds away from these sober words of Jesus:

‘. . . But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’
Matthew 12:36–37, NIVUK

Before we rush confidently to celebrate the merciful possibility of acquittal we would do well to pause. We all know that our words can be creative and life giving as we echo a microcosm of God’s creative capacity. It is equally clear just how destructive our words can be. Even our empty words can cause real harm and destruction. Being human means experiencing time-and-again, directly and indirectly, both the life-giving and destructive potential of words. Words after all are not heard in a vacuum. They arise from our heart (Matthew 12:35) and they signify the state of our innermost being.

How might we avoid empty words? How might we not be silent when we should speak? Whilst we can try harder, and this might not be a bad thing, it’s not the answer. Rather, the hope we have is not only to look to Jesus Christ, the Word, to acquit us, but to also to transform us. What if praying such Scriptures as those above could work such a miracle?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

 

 

Ephesians 6:18 and Psalm 1—Prayer as the Church’s Banquet

This post is a reflection on prayer with references to Ephesians 6:18, Psalm 1 and George Herbert’s poem Prayer (1). All three are shown below for convenience.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.
Ephesians 6:18, NIVUK

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
    They are like chaff
     that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
Psalm 1, NIVUK

Prayer (1)

PRAYER the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
    God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
    The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
    Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
    The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
    Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
    Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
    Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
    The land of spices; something understood.
George Herbert (1593–1633)

The Problem of Prayer
Prayer can sometimes seem to be something of a problem. We can easily adopt a variety of negative views of prayer. We sometimes feel that we spend too little time praying. On other occasions, if we’re frank, we go through the motions. Sometimes it’s as if our prayers fizzle out a few metres above our heads and never make it to God’s ear.

And yet we all, I hope, have had experiences of joy, a closeness to God, a feeling of connection with our almighty creator. We all have had prayers that were answered. As frail humans we are good at remembering the challenges rather than the positives of prayer. It’s not even necessarily our sinfulness that’s the problem with prayer. Everything worthwhile in the here and now requires discipline—plain old hard work.

Being good at a sport requires diligence day-after-day, for the fleeting joy of success and victory. Being close to someone in a relationship requires self-giving love over months and years. All made worthwhile for the contentment of closeness that is often rather more fleeting. You can’t win a race after prolonged idleness. A relationship withers without day-by-day effort. You can’t conjure God at the other end of the prayer phone or experience religious bliss at the press of a button.

It’s a fact that prayer requires effort. It’s also the case that we can benefit from a rethink about prayer. A refresher as to its riches and richness can spur us to invest more in this, the lifeblood of our soul. The images we’re going to meet are just three of the twenty-seven used in the poem by George Herbert titled Prayer (1). The twenty-seven are almost certainly twenty-six—one for each letter of the alphabet, an A to Z—plus one as a summary: ‘something understood’.

The Church’s Banquet
Prayer is the Church’s banquet. This might sound a long way from some of our experiences of prayer but let’s run with this and see where we get to. Paul urges us to pray in the Spirit on all occasions. Does this mean something like speaking in tongues and prophecy, gifts that Paul speaks of elsewhere? Well, there are times when this is Paul’s subject. But ‘all occasions’ here puts the onus on us not the Holy Spirit—this is a reminder that we can pray in the spirit or in the flesh. This is the polar choice in all actions that Paul explains in Romans 8.

The choice between praying in the spirit, or in the flesh, echoes the stark choice described in Psalm 1—there we are have the path of the righteous contrasted with the road of the wicked. The earlier verses of Ephesians 6 remind us, lest we forget—that we are righteous. This is only possible as we put on the breastplate of righteousness. In other words, putting on nothing less than Christ. In this we are owning as a reality the image that we, the Church, are Christ’s body.

Psalm 1 reminds us that there is wisdom in avoiding sitting with mockers. In contrast the assembly of the righteous—the gathered body of Christ—is the place to be.

Praying as God’s gathered people is easily taken for granted. But as we seek something heavenly here on earth, and ask our Father in heaven for our daily bread in the way that Jesus taught us, this is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet promised in the gospels—the wedding feast of the Lamb described in the Book of Revelation:

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

‘Hallelujah!
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.’
Revelation 19:6–8, NIVUK

Paul’s ‘all kinds of prayer and requests’ are course-after-course of prayer. How often do our prayers seem more like hasty serving of tinned fruit than the rich banquet they could be? Why do we jump straight to the requests, which is dessert, before the four previous courses? Let’s breathe, slowdown, and note this is a banquet.

Therefore, how about an appetiser of praise? What about a main course of adoration? What about a salad of thanksgiving? What about a cheese board of confession? Then we get to dessert: our requests and petitions.

Exalted Manna
Prayer is exalted manna. In John 6 we find Jesus saying:

“. . . I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

In the wilderness the Lord’s people had to trust God daily for their bread. Each day just enough manna was given to sustain them. Whilst we don’t live in a physical desert, in spiritual terms we in are in a wilderness. As Michael Card puts it in his song, In the Wilderness:

Groaning and growing
Amidst the desert days
The windy winter wilderness
Can blow the self away

In the wilderness
In the wilderness
He calls His sons and daughters
To the wilderness

When we look to God for our daily bread, in prayer, it is wise to remember that everyday we need both a physical meal and a spiritual one. We need Christ, our living bread come down from heaven daily.

In remembering Christ when we share bread and wine, we re-member—we join afresh as one. This is a way in which we, as Paul instructs us, ‘always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people’, we go beyond prayer to the physical enactment of a remarkable truth. We are all joined as one body through Christ.

The Land of Spices
The Spice Islands are in a remote part of Indonesia. For centuries Europeans did not know where nutmeg came from just that it came a long way along trade routes from the Far East. In the 16th Century, sailors from multiple nations died in the spice race to find the origin of nutmeg and other exotic spices. The Portuguese got there first, and then the English and Dutch muscled them out. According to the diaries of 16th century sailors and traders they could smell the spice islands before they saw them.

In a sense prayer is the land of spices in that, at its best, we feel a connection with Christ. That sense of peace, that passes all understanding. The still voice of God. Only the poetic can attempt to grasp something of this mystery. Sometimes it’s as if we are for a moment on the verge of heaven. We can almost taste it. We can almost smell it.

‘Praying in the Spirit on all occasions, with kinds of prayer and requests’, can make us feel close to God. We need to heed Paul’s call to alertness. This is the same call ‘to stand’ that the armour of God, in the previous verses, addresses. It’s the same message of readiness and preparedness for the coming Kingdom found in so many of Jesus’ parables.

Our prayer might often be about asking, but its real blessing is simply relationship with God through Christ. This relationship is for us as individuals and especially for us together. It’s our way of re-membering—our connecting to Christ, our head, in whom we have salvation. Such fruit arises through Christ. Elsewhere (2 Corinthians 2:14–16) when we read Paul we might imagine that fruit is like nutmeg:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?

It can only be done in the Spirit, in Christ. And so:

. . . pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying

Johnny Cash’s Psalm 1: I Walk the Line

Johnny Cash the Psalmist perhaps sounds a little unlikely. And to be fair it is probably by some peculiar coincidence that there are so many connections between Cash’s I Walk The Line and Psalm 1. But the intertextual and thematic connections are worth considering. I suggest that both texts are enriched by reflecting on the other.

Both songs concern faithfulness. Cash’s song is, at face value and indeed originally was, a declaration of fidelity to his wife, Vivian Liberto. In later life after he discovered Christ it took on a new meaning as a declaration of fidelity to the God of the Bible. Psalm 1 is a statement of faithfulness, and a reflection on what that faith might look like, as well as the blessing it leads to. Some might judge it to be concerned with a dry legalism, but such a view owes more to eisegesis informed by a popular caricature of Jewish faith, than a true reading of the psalm. When we remember that law, or torah, is instruction from God we can perceive the relationship described in Psalm 1 rather than any transactional mechanism based on works righteousness.

Cash declares that he keeps ‘a close watch on this heart of mine’ and has his ‘eyes wide open all the time. One can imagine that early in his career, on tour in front of adoring adolescents, away from home that this would wisely be followed up as avoiding walking (Psalm 1:1a), standing (1:1b), sitting (1:1c) or lying in the wrong company.

The experience of Cash’s early career revealed his declaration ‘I find it very, very easy to be true’, to be rather naïve in the face of the temptations of the rock and roll lifestyle. In many ways Psalm 1 also has a naivety about it. It is sure-footed and certain in its call to integrity and piety, but later psalms revisit its certitude and make it appear naïve amidst the ups-and-downs of the life of faith. For example, Psalm 37 and 73 read as if they are penned by the same person a few years down the line—this person now questions not only their ability to do the right thing but wonders about those who seem blessed despite doing the worst of things. Closer to Psalm 1, Psalms 3 to 7 are a series of laments that cast doubt on the straightforward path to blessing promised in Psalm 1. Of course, Psalm 1 can be understood eschatologically, see Psalm 1:5, in which case it transcends naivety to become a reality in eternity.

Both Cash’s song and our psalm have a 24-7 motif:

I keep you on my mind both day and night.
Cash

. . . and who meditates on his law day and night.
Psalm 1:2b

And in both cases, this ‘meditation’ is key to happiness. Cash claims that the ‘happiness I’ve known proves that it’s right’, whereas the psalmist equates such meditation with delight (Psalm 1:2a) and the whole poem is connected with happiness with its opening word meaning this in Hebrew (Psalm 1:1a). It should be noted that the happiness of Psalm 1 is a deeper more nuanced well-being, that encompasses happiness and blessedness and everything in between. In contrast, Cash speaks of the happiness that come out of right relationship with a loving human partner.

By its very nature and title, I Walk the Line is about the correct path to follow. This is very much a moral road as it concerns perfect fidelity and loving commitment to another. This is also the exact concern of Psalm 1 as it asks the question as to which path, or line, we travel, the way of the righteous or the way of the wicked (Psalm 1:6).

You can test this synergy and complementarity, between Psalm 1 and Cash’s song, for yourself by listening to Johnny Cash sing I Walk The Line here:

Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises I Walk the Line — Johnny Cash

 

Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’: Song, Prayer, Psalm

Leonard Cohen described If It Be Your Will ‘as more of a prayer’ than a song during his introduction to its performance by the Webb Sisters and Neil Larson. Here I suggest that it is not only a prayer but more specifically a psalm.

Even the title is highly suggestive of a key feature of psalmody—an absolute trust in God. As the song unfolds this trust, we see that this commitment to God is founded in a creature-Creator relationship, as the singer’s finitude is sublimely conveyed:

If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before

The frailty of the singer is in little doubt given their own metaphorical claim to be a ‘broken hill’. Is it pushing our reflection too far to imagine this as an oblique reference and contrast to the ‘holy hill’ (Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 43:3 and 78:54) of the Psalter? Beyond the trust and frailty, we also have a subtle undertone of accusation. For all the trust implicit and explicit in the biblical psalms the psalmist is not slow in challenging Yahweh. Here, likewise, Cohen questions with the very refrain, ‘If it be your will’. This is no fatalistic trust in the deity but a relationship and commitment-based questioning:

If it be your will, that a voice be true

Of course, poetry has an immense capacity for polyvalence and here there is a welcome poignant ambiguity. Undoubtedly other readings are possible. We are on firm ground when we note that some of the language of this song is undoubtedly redolent of the Psalms. For example, we cannot miss the allusion to Psalm 98:8:

Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice

The specific focus of this prayer, mercy, is also a key aspect of the biblical psalms. Cohen’s psalm is, like many of its Hebrew progenitors, a plea for mercy:

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well

Interestingly here in Cohen’s work the call for mercy is for others, and not for himself. Of the 29 calls for mercy, I can find in the Psalter, all but four (Psalm 79:8; 106:46; 123:2 and 3) are prayers prayed by the psalmist for his own deliverance, like that most famously found in Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love
Psalm 51:1a, NRSV

The poetic plea also challenges the conventional notion of hell. It appears that Cohen sees many in this world in need of a deliverance from an all too tangible place of suffering. This adds to the difficulty in pinning down the polarities of trust and challenge—perhaps, like in the Psalter and throughout the Hebrew Bible, these are not polarities at all but concomitant in the God-given grace of a relationship between creature and Creator.

On another occasion when he performed this song, Cohen refers to humanity as ‘creatures of a higher order’. He is, however, under no illusion about the source of the suffering of those in earthly hell. For Cohen, just as we creatures reflect something of our Creator in our ‘rags of light’ so these same clothes make us ‘dressed to kill’ in the worst sense.

Cohen’s poem stands in the firmest of biblical traditions—there is profound questioning here as well as ultimately a willingness to surrender in trust—a response that reflects the creature-Creator relationship. Both Job and Jesus have gone before on this precarious path as illustrated here as we close with three parallel statements:

See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Job 40:4, NRSV

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me;
yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Matthew 26:39b, NRSV

If it be your will, that I speak no more;
And my voice be still, as it was before.
I will speak no more, I shall abide until;
I am spoken for, if it be your will.
If It Be Your Will, Leonard Cohen

T is for Tears

Despite the title, I have to confess there are no tears mentioned in Psalm 51. Despite this undeniable fact how many will have shed tears when praying this psalm? Is this not the frequent marker of true contrition and compunction?

I know from personal experience that this psalm can be accompanied by tears. If we read it as the head of the penitential psalms then it’s accompanied by tears, groans, and sighs:

I am weary with my moaning;
    every night I flood my bed with tears;
    I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
    they grow weak because of all my foes.
Psalm 6:6–7, NRSV

Here we have arguably the most copious shedding of tears in all of the Bible. There’s even the indication that the plentiful tears are linked to a sight issue. Although we should note these psalms are often metaphorical with regard to the psalmist’s plight, the language would seem to imply these are the most literal of tears. The choice between literal or metaphorical elsewhere in the penitential psalms defies certainty, as here for example:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
Psalm 32:3, NRSV

And similarly, here in this account of sighing and eyes:

O Lord, all my longing is known to you;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
    as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
Psalm 38:9–10, NRSV

The mention of tears in Psalm 102 is less concerned with contrition than with general woe, or is the link with ashes a sign of penitence?

For I eat ashes like bread,
    and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NRSV

There is, I suggest, an openness that defies a singular interpretation. This is an aspect of God’s mercy, that these psalms though rooted in an ancient context, when prayed today our context, our situation in life, makes these words ours. So, let’s pray Psalm 51 frequently and when the situation is right let’s not hold back the tears. We live after all in a vale of tears awaiting that day when there will be no more need of tear ducts (Revelation 21:4). Tears can be words before God as they are a sacrament, a sign, of our response to the living God.

George Herbert and the Psalms

Regular readers of this blog will probably be aware that the penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) have featured prominently here over the past year, or so. This is because of an ongoing project on these psalms. As I have spent time with these seven psalms I have become increasingly surprised at their generative potential in literature, liturgy, poetry, music, politics, and preaching. George Herbert (1593–1633) was an Anglican poet-priest and contributed, in his short life, to most of the aforementioned arenas. The Psalter appears to have been a major source of inspiration. More specifically, the language of the penitential psalms, and the traditional penitential lens through which they are read, seems to lie behind much of his work too.

This short post is an encouragement to reflect on one poem and one poetic verse from Herbert’s pen which both respond to the Psalms. The aim is primarily to celebrate his poetry, albeit in just 83 words, on the day he is remembered in the liturgy. A second aim is a nod to the profoundly generative spirit of the psalms that has provided us with such a cloud of witnesses—an unceasing testimony of praise to celebrate and perpetuate that already found in the two testaments.

At the risk of straying from delight to dissection I will say a little about Herbert’s two pieces of verse. The first, Bitter-sweet, captures the life of faith and its two poles of complaint and praise. Whilst scholars have spilt much ink over such matters none can match this short poem’s sublime portrait of psalm-like trust. It is a sublime microcosm of the Psalter in both form and content.

Bitter-sweet.
Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.

The second piece, the first of some thirteen verses, grasps the gasps of the penitential psalmist. Though as short as the above, it is redolent with the seven psalms. We find the metaphorical travails of the penitent (Pss. 6:7; 32:3; 38:7; 51:8), their sense of distance from God (38:9; 102:2; 130:5–6; 143:7), and their all-encompassing day and night waiting for the living God of the penitential psalms (Pss. 6:6; 32:4; 130:6).

Home.
Come Lord, my head doth burn, my heart is sick,
While thou dost ever, ever stay:
Thy long deferrings wound me to the quick,
My spirit gaspeth night and day.
O show thy self to me,
Or take me up to thee!

Perhaps the choice of the 27th February to celebrate Herbert and his place in the season of Lent (most years at least) is a fitting one?

Children and Heirs of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the words in a more modern vain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Galatians 4:7 says:

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

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

Advent: Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Jesus knew all too well:

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

Advent: Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent: Peace

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

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

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

Isaiah prophecies of the infant Jesus:

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

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

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

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