Penitential Wisdom

Introduction
Perhaps the above title jars? In a way I hope that it does, as when we find something odd or ill-fitting it can be the start of learning something new. Of course, it might just be a fleeting move away from, and the, back towards the status quo of our understanding.

This short post arose from simultaneously questioning the very idea that biblical wisdom literature is a genuine genre and some extensive of the penitential psalms. So, where do we begin?

The Puzzle of the Penitential Psalms
The seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—are something of a puzzle to us today, when judged by modern genre definitions. Harry Nasuti has explored this collision of old categories with modern genres in his Defining the Sacred Songs, with helpful attention to the details of interpretative practice that span more than two millennia [1]. One insight he has is that the ancient seven psalms are more coherently defined by external factors than their content.

It is evident that the seven psalms are not of one genre in the modern sense. Two of them—Psalms 51 and 130—might be ‘penitential’ in the strictest sense if we consider a single-minded focus on asking for forgiveness from sin. In this manner Psalm 51, as is often recognised, becomes the penitential psalm par excellence [2]. Psalms 6, 38, 102 and 143 are understood today as individual laments, with other influences in some cases. Some might allow that they contain varying degrees of evidence that the psalmist is penitent. Uniquely, Psalm 32 arguably looks back on past penitence. The biggest problem for modern penitential genre is that in these psalms, the psalmist’s enemies often appear on the scene, muddying any singular concern with penitence.

This presence of enemies is just the most obvious challenge. A less stark issue, but a complexity none the less, is the difficulty in distinguishing between the psalmist’s spiritual and physical afflictions. This might be compounded by the potential for anachronism in wanting to differentiate angst from illness, based on modern distinctions. It is further obscured by what seems to be the deliberate attempt by the psalm collectors and editors to make the psalms malleable for later singers, readers, and poets to inhabit.

Luther is one interpreter who sees all afflictions, whether spiritual, health-related or enemies, as a reminder of the need for an attitude of penitence and as an opportunity for being trained in righteousness [3]. Luther’s acute interest in these psalms coheres with his profound fear of God, or anfechtungen, and a connection between Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and the seven penitential psalms.

The connection between Romans and the seven psalms is essentially a reading of these psalms from the perspective of an aspect of Pauline theology. Romans has sometimes been noted as something of a locus maximus for God’s wrath in the Second Testament. Psalms 6, 38 and 102 all refer to God’s wrath explicitly:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
Psalm 6:1, NIV

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
and your hand has come down on me.
Psalm 38:1–2, NIV

For I eat ashes as my food
and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NIV

The other four penitential psalms are all quoted or alluded to in Chapters 3 and 4 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. A case could be made that Saint Paul created the tradition that gave rise to the crystallisation of these seven psalms as penitential. This tradition that can be traced from Paul through possibly Augustine (mediated by his biographer, Possidius [4]), to Cassiodorus (c.490–c.583) who identified the seven psalms explicitly [5], through connections with penance, Lent, Indulgences, and praying for dead, in the medieval period, then finally jettisoned of much baggage by Luther to arrive at the present day.

Wisdom as Fear of the Lord
When the seven psalms are read through an Pauline/Augustinian lens, or simply from the expectation they are penitential which arises from the traditional designation, then all of the ills of the psalmist are rendered as an opportunity for chastisement. In this way every angst, ailment and experience of opposition can be an opportunity for growing in spiritual maturity. This is not only an intertextual reading but by its very nature it becomes a worldview. This is a specific example of the general problem facing us moderns as we read the Bible as Scripture. How much of a space do we have for providence over scientific cause-and-effect? Do we eclipse the authors of Scripture in unseemly haste with our supposedly sophisticated view of God? This post will not answer such questions, only pose them.

Those writings that are generally termed wisdom literature—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job—are often characterised with a call to fear Yahweh, as seen in an earlier post. Does this fear connect with the stance of the awareness of both our sinfulness and God’s wrath—in other words penitence? Our modern sensibilities cry no, as do the years of softening the ‘fear’ required to call faithfully to the Lord. The very notion jars like our title. Indeed, the title captures this notion. Just because something makes us uncomfortable does not make it right or true of course. But surely the stakes are high enough that it merits further meditation. Maybe, just maybe, our discomfort is a necessary first step in finding comfort in Jesus Christ, who now sits are the right hand of the God of holy love.

Bibliography
1. Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).
2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries: Volume 2—A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2018) p.304.
3. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Volume 14: Selected Psalms III, Jaroslav Pelikan (ed.) (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1958).
4. Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012) p.4.
5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Three Volumes, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

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 Voice of the Good Shepherd is Blowin’ in the Wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Ezekiel we read a prophecy about Jesus:

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

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

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

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

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

A few verses later, Jesus does what Ezekiel promised:

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

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

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

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

Psalm 23 can also be misheard as a rural niceness:

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

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

Martin Luther expressed it like this in 1536:

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

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

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

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

Returning to the opening words from John:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reference

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

Life Understood Backwards

Looking Back
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard claimed that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

The experience of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus was something like this. How could they understand Jesus’ life at its end? Even at the end did it make sense? Cleopas and the other, unnamed disciple have not understood Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. We do not know how much time they spent with Jesus—it is clear they are not among the eleven disciples. But they certainly knew enough to be disappointed. He was not the deliverer they had hoped for. They, like many, wanted a Messiah who was a military redeemer. A messiah like David in every sense. An anointed leader who would defeat the occupying Romans just as David had tackled Goliath and the Philistines.

The one they had begun to think might be God’s anointed ruler had died shamefully on a cross. A remarkable man in many ways, but in the end as frail as any other. And now the women claimed his body was gone. More than that, they also said they had seen angels announcing that he was alive.

These events lived forwards made no sense to these two followers. Jesus was a man who taught with authority, healed the sick, and cast out demons. Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem like a king. And then it all turned sour. These two disciples had apparently given up on the one they had been following. They had left Jerusalem for Emmaus and presumably were returning to their old lives.

But they encounter the risen Jesus, although they do not know this at first. This meeting is a revelation—a revealing in two stages. They experience a progressive understanding of who Jesus is. They will come to understand Jesus’ life.

First Jesus makes them look back as they journey together. They simultaneously look back on the life of Jesus and the work of God in the Old Testament. The Risen Jesus does the most remarkable thing. He combines his story with the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. Read through Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures become the First Testament to his life, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus is the fulfilment of the Hebrew scriptures.

The second stage of unveiling is a more personal encounter that goes beyond explanation. It is an opening of their eyes. They literally see the risen Christ. They had started out lost on the road, but now were found. They had been blind but now they could see.

Our Conversion
We are unlikely to have had the same type of encounter with the risen Christ as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But there is likely to be some similarity. I remember at the age of seventeen finding out more about Jesus and the Bible. I had seen lots of the bits and pieces of the gospel but struggled to put it all together. I still needed my eyes to be opened. I can remember two distinct moments when Jesus suddenly made more sense. The first was a bit like the two disciples on the road having things explained to them. My Emmaus road was a tent, in Margate, where the crucifixion was explained in rather graphic detail to me, and several hundred others. This converted my brain and my conscience. I went forward knowing that my life was never going to be the same again.

Just a few days later I had the second step of eye opening—only possible because of the first. I was reading the Parable of the Tenants in Mark 12 and my heart was converted. My heart burned at that moment like the experience of those two disciples. I understood at a heart level just what it meant that God had sent prophets to speak of him. Prophets who were beaten and killed. I understood at the heart level that he sent his own Son that we might know him. Only for him to suffer the same fate. It was as though Jesus was there with me, unpacking the Law and the Prophets—refreshing me as the bread of life with a meal.

Knowing Jesus in this way does not mean that the rest of our lives suddenly make complete sense. But it is a start. Much still happens in my life that I do not understand. Things have happened to me and my family which I wish had not. But in Christ I trust that in the end it will make sense. The times of pain and trial will be found to have some benefit or important consequence. If we have met Jesus on our Road to Emmaus we can find him too in our Valley of the Shadow of Death. The poet B M Franklin puts is this way:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

Our Ongoing Experience of Christ
In the Emmaus story the two disciples do something simple. They have a meal with Jesus—they break bread with him. It is no surprise that it was at the breaking of bread that their eyes were opened, and they recognised that the man before them is the risen Lord Jesus. Less than a week earlier Jesus has broken bread and explained that his body must be broken. These two disciples would surely have heard about this odd teaching.

Almighty God does not fix his broken creation and broken relationships with a display of power and might. He does the unthinkable—Jesus lays down his life for his friends. One of the most frustrating things about our distance from one another because of Covid-19 is the fact that we cannot gather, and worse still that we cannot eat bread and drink wine, and remember Christ together. As the body of Christ, we are meant to meet together.

In our distance from each other let’s be reminded of the privilege of meeting together so that we can make the best of that day when we join one another again. Let’s remember that puzzle that we are in a mysterious sense the body of Christ.

Scattered we might be, but we are still united in Christ.

A Call to Passion for Christ
The two disciples have their hearts kindled by Jesus. A mixture of joy that he was not dead and a revelation of what he had accomplished in the twin events of cross and resurrection.

How can we kindle that flame afresh—that same passion and conviction in Christ that we have tasted before? There are obvious answers of course, such as prayer and Bible reading. But in the spirit of the gospel, and to keep the light alive in us, reaching out to our fellow disciples is vital. As members of his body our concern should be with the health of all.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full. Circumstances prevent us meeting to celebrate together. This does not mean we retreat and just wait for a better time. A crisis like this, it tests our depth in Christ. Being united and encouraged in Christ can be as simple as a phone call, a text message, a card, or a good old-fashioned letter. Some of us might be called to heroics if we are on the front-line but for most of us we need to do the small things that show love and concern. George Eliot expresses it will in her novel Middlemarch:

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Many of the blessings we can bring to one another, even at this time, are unremarkable. But these things not only achieve good now they echo in eternity as the lives of disciples of Jesus lived well. A crisis is just the time when we need some gospel purpose, when we need to show love, kindness, and generosity. Encouraging one another, listening to one another, taking time to do something for one another is part of living the gospel—it is the ongoing re-creation of proper relationships in Christ Jesus.

It is not just our fellow Christians that need encouragement. In these odd times all sorts of questions are in people’s minds. Many people are asking questions about life and death, not so different to those asked by Cleopas and his friend.

Our lives do not make much sense lived forward. How much more is this the case for those who do not know Christ? There are likely to be people you know who are lonely. If nothing else, you can remedy this for a few minutes. There are almost certainly people you know who are fearful. Well, you can listen. There are very likely people you know who are asking questions. Your effort to reach out to them might be the only answer they get.

We believe in the priesthood of all believers we can all use this time to connect with others.

Loving One Another Makes Sense
The act of reaching out to someone is a small step in making sense of life. The strengthening of relationships is a natural consequence of the gospel. Simple acts of love will strengthen both parties and strengthen the body, the fellowship of believers.

The one certainty of understanding our lives is that where there is love this is where they most readily make sense.

The ‘Corona test’ asks of us all how much we love. If we have not love we are, as the Apostle Paul says, a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Love sings a better song. Don’t wait for someone else to connect.

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew’s gospel which tells us how our lives will make sense in the end when we meet him face-to-face:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:34–40, NIV

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

The enarratio (exposition or setting forth) of Psalm 1, below, is not an effort at modern exegesis. It does not progress from distinct and careful assessment of textual, canonical, or theological context and then move on to drawing some spiritual lessons for today. It is of the same ilk as Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos, or Expositions of the Psalms. The psalm is read wilfully in the light of Christ and the Rule of Faith—recognising that we are ‘his body’, the Church, and he is ‘our head’. It is also read by using Scripture to understand Scripture. In this way, the meditation is not afraid to recognise that if the Scriptures are inspired by the one Spirit then they have an illuminating and meaningful intertextuality. This echo of Augustine is presented as an experiment—a case that asks us the questions: What have we gained in modern exegesis? And, more importantly what have we lost? The NKJV has been chosen in order to ensure the use of ‘man’ in verse 1—most contemporary translations use inclusive language obscure the word. I normally welcome inclusive translation, but here there is a danger of losing some of the remarkable theological potential of this psalm if the Hebrew word ha’ish is not rendered ‘man’ but as ‘the one’ (as in the NIV), ‘those’ (so the NRSV), or similar.

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

Blessed is the man. Who is this man we meet at the beginning of the Psalter? In this beginning, this opening of the Book of Psalms, there are rivers and a tree. A choice is presented between obeying God or ungodly council. Is this an echo of the Eden story? Is this man Adam? Or, perhaps we have here the Second Adam? A man presented boldly at the outset of the Psalter—itself a great work of the words of life and salvation. Who better than Jesus Christ, our saviour, to set us on the path ahead? As we start our journey is he the man we should behold? Or do we find ourselves here? Christ came to live the life of every-man, and in Adam all men find their mould. Is this man the first Adam, the Second Adam, and every Adam fashioned from the earth? For we know from the Apostle Paul that all men, and women, are united in both Adams (Rom. 5:12–17; 1 Cor. 15:45). In one we have tasted sin and death, and in the other we are put to death so that we might have life. This psalm most certainly concerns two possibilities: the way of nature in the First Adam, and the way of grace in the Second Adam.

And yet, is this not the Book of David? Even though there is no title mentioning David, is this not his book? But, the Second Adam is the Son of David. And so, we have all these men at work. The first Adam in which we died, David who had a heart that God loved and yet a sinner, and the Second Adam who defines being blessed as being sinless and passing on this blessing to others. It is in him that we are made whole.

Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; . . . In that glorious garden, named Eden, Adam received the counsel of the ungodly. The ancient serpent counselled Eve directly against God’s instruction: “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Adam lamely followed the deceiver’s counsel, through his wife, without hesitation according to the Scriptures. In a moment, in the blinking of an eye, the first man becomes a sinner set on a new path. This path would take him from Edenic blessing into a world were all his progeny would have to choose who to walk with, who to stand with, and who to take to their table. In this fractured world, journeying away from God can happen without even the effort of placing one foot in front of another. Yet God in his mercy still allows for a path on which he accompanies anyone who would know him—the way of grace. But how can man decide between grace and his own nature? What can help us keep to the path?

But his delight is in the law of the Lord, . . . It is God’s instruction, his torah or law, in which we can see the proper path. The first Adam strayed from this path. He had but one prohibitive instruction and yet could not obey it. His delight strayed from God’s instruction to a piece of fruit, a fruit we tend to imagine as an apple, at least in the Western world. Who has not put more delight in ‘other fruit’ than God’s torah? Augustine famously tells us of how it was pears that lead him astray. He, together with other youths, stole the fruit not out of hunger but just because they wanted to taste forbidden fruit. Just as Adam had Eve for company, as a companion in disobedience so we too go astray with others. Terrence Malick tells a story in the Tree of Life, of another youth—Jack O’Brien—who leads his fellows astray. They break things in their neighbourhood including a window. Only frail humanity would break the very things that let light in. Jack has made the wrong choice, the way of nature he has learnt from his Father, rather the way of grace by which his Mother lives. Only the Second Adam consistently found delight in the instruction of his Father, The Father of all humankind.

And in His instruction he meditates day and night. From the lips of Jesus, we hear words shaped not only by prayerful listening but attentive meditation on the law. Jesus found this law in The Law, and the words of the Prophets, and in the other Hebrew writings. He meditated and from his heart these words spilled out and gave rise in turn to new God-given wisdom and instruction. He would rise early to listen (Mk. 1:25), and when needs must he stayed awake into the night chewing over God’s promises (Mk. 14:32–42) and plans. And the result of such meditation by day and night?

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, . . . Cause and effect plain and simple. The first Adam distracted by one tree lost sight of the Tree of Life. He lost the chance to be a tree, fed by the Spirit’s water. He wandered away from God, though God hoped for him to remain rooted in paradise where he had placed him. It is the way of humanity’s nature that we stray like sheep. Sometimes we not only walk away from God, we run (Jonah 1:3; Luke 15:13). Why would we reject the gracious refreshing waters given to us by God? Only one man has remained planted firmly were God wanted him. The second Adam remained planted in God’s plan though it took him to another tree. A terrible tree of agony, suffering, and death. He was himself a faithful planted tree, his hands had shaped wood in life, but were now nailed to the cruellest of trees.

That brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper. Where is the fruit in dying on a tree? Did not the second Adam wither? In what sense can this be named prosperity? And yet the Second Adam said for all to hear: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24–25). In this way the First Adam lost his life and the Second Adam bore much fruit, bringing others eternal life. We too, both men and women, can gain our lives. But only in him as we join one another to be his body. Like Jack in the Tree of Life we can turn from the wrong path. The way of grace remains open to us all, that is the nature of grace. As for Jack in the film, the Tree of Life is always available, it pops up everywhere. This is the nature of grace. It is on our doorstep. It can be found even in the wilderness. The way of grace is knowing that we can be a fruitful tree by being grafted into a bigger tree that goes by the name of the Church. For we are the body and the Second Adam, he is our head (Acts 9:4; Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 1:24).

The ungodly are not so but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Some want to see the ungodly’s step-by-step journey away from God as synonymous with being blown away. And yet this humbling image seems to cohere with a sadder fate on the path away from God. For we know that chaff speaks of the Day of Days (Hosea 13:3), the Day of the Lord.

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. What is more tragic than a creature who does not know their Creator and so never lives the full life that was put before them? Those that do not join the blessed man, who are not flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, bear not the fruit of forgiveness; sin and death are still theirs as they live in union with the First Adam, a legacy that cannot be healed other than by the Second.

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish. So, it is confirmed there are two paths though an infinite number of twists and turns on these two ways. Those who know the Lord taste his way of grace. Those that are strangers to him can only follow nature’s instruction. In this way a psalm that opens with the word blessed must close with the word perish. And this a reminder that we should praise the one in who we are found, the blessed man who carries us home so we will not be carried hither and thither on the wind in this life or the next.

Standing Firm: Philippians 4:1–3

1. Joy
How might we ensure we stand firm in our faith? Such a question seems a sensible one when we see some around us drifting away from their faith. There are of course many answers. One way, I suggest lies at the heart of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and is mentioned in Philippians 4:1–3. How about cultivating joy, and more specifically a joy in the gospel?

Philippians 4 vv 1 to 3 17th Feb 2019

Paul sees the Philippians as his brothers and sisters. He loves them and longs to see them. For they are his joy and his crown. They are a crown in the sense that in his striving for the gospel of Jesus Christ he founded them as a church. They would not exist as a local embodiment of Christ were it not for his efforts to preach in their city. They would not be in Christ if he had not preached first to Jew and then to Gentile, and won enough people over to the gospel, to plant a congregation in Philippi. They testify continually to his missionary calling and action. In this sense they are his crown—just like the expression we might make today about some achievement being our crowning glory. This is no immodesty on Paul’s part. He knows that the church in Philippi is ultimately God’s work. Yet he also knows, just as surely as he has co-workers, that he is a co-worker with God (see 2 Corinthians 6:1).

Paul also sees them as his joy. Some people sadly suck the joy out of Christianity. But for Paul, and for us, for all who perceive the glory of what Jesus has done, joy should be at its very heart. What greater joy could there be than people finding out that God loves them in Christ and that they are called to be his community here on earth—called to be his hands and feet in furthering the gospel.

There is joy in being Christ’s body, of continuing his work. Knowing his incarnation as we realise, we are his hands and his feet. Knowing his death as we die to sin and death. Knowing his resurrection as we perceive the glory to come. Knowing his ascension to heaven as we trust in his faithfulness. Let us not become so serious in the task of being Christ’s body that we lose sight of the joy—the joy of seeing God at work in those around us.

The joy of the gospel starts with God himself. We all know that wonderful picture in The Parable of the Prodigal Son —the Father running to greet his wayward child, breaking with middle-eastern convention by hoisting his clothing and running—both seriously embarrassing for a respectable figure.

If that’s not joy, I don’t know what is. But the joy was gospel-focused for Jesus too:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1–2 (NIV)

There are stages to this race—this life of faith—there are hills to traverse, there are dark valleys to wander in, there are mountain top experiences, the analogues are endless. There are however three basic experiences in the midst of this infinite variety: disorientation, reorientation, and orientation.

Joy can come with reorientation. The experience of God putting things right. The joy of knowing Christ as a fresh experience. A recovery from illness, the getting over a bad relationship, the discovery of a good place after serious hardship.

2. Division
Standing firm can also be aided by avoiding division. There are many pitfall and diversions along the way. Loss of unity amongst brothers and sisters in Christ is an especially painful one. When fellowship in Jesus goes wrong, we all have a problem on our journey at the same moment.

Unity is of fundamental importance to remaining a healthy community of God’s people. But we all know that unity is not always a straightforward goal.

Sometimes we learn the hard way the truth and profundity of Psalm 133 which opens:

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

Psalm 133:1 (NIV)

This is so self-evident when we have experienced serious disunity, that the illustrations that follow in verses 2 and 3 about beards, oil, mountains, and dew are poetic details that are almost unnecessary.

How do we commit to unity? How do we avoid division? No one sets out to create it at the outset and yet it can rear its ugly head in a moment. One way to avoid it, and it is but one way, is to be more open to the joy that we have in Christ and in serving him. When we have genuine joy in Christ, we take ourselves as individuals a little less seriously, we are fixing our eyes in the right place—we are humble servants of Jesus Christ. The lightness in our spirits that comes from joy is also less prone to take offence, on the one hand, and less hasty in judging others on the other.

Division at the end of the day is serious—it is about undoing the very work of Jesus. The body that Jesus has made whole through being broken on the cross, is denied in division. The walls that Jesus broke down are rebuilt. Division is the very opposite of the reconciliation that Jesus died for.

Indeed, so serious is the ground we walk on in joining division that we are likely to be walking off without Jesus by our side. Or perhaps he’s still there but we become myopic? Whatever the reality of Jesus’ presence, it is no coincidence that so many people at the centre of division leave behind their faith in Christ.

Euodia and Syntyche in our short passage have experienced lack of unity. And Paul urges them ‘to be of the same mind’. This is a rich idea, as members of the local body of Christ they should have his one mind on key matters.

As Paul says elsewhere:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.

1 Corinthians 1:10 (NIV)

We don’t know all the details about this situation. We do know they are Paul’s co-workers, and though he’s exhorting them to sort the problem out he is clearly tender to them, they are not the people he has harsh words for elsewhere in this letter.

Lack of unity is painful. It is one of the many events in the life of faith that is difficult. We need to do all we can humanly and prayerfully to avoid it. It is one of the causes of Disorientation, the difficult steep upward slog on the marathon or pilgrimage.

3. New Order
Another way of standing firm is embracing God’s new order. Paul repeatedly speaks of the age to come—here it’s the mention of the Book of Life. A reminder of that goal for all who follow Jesus Christ.

Both discipleship and pilgrimage are about the journey and the destination:

  1. We walk with Christ and he is our destination.
  2. We walk with the Father and he is our destination.
  3. We journey with the life-giving Spirit and he is the very breath of God that breathes life into our bones at the resurrection.

 

4. Closing Prayer

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Saviour,
And life more abundant and free.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus’
Helen Howarth Lemmel (1863–1961)

Advent 2018: Pointing to the Light

Readings

Job 28:1–28; John 1:1–18; Matthew 2:1–2

Introduction

At the start of chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel we find these words:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?

Wise men from the East come in search of the king of the Jews—there is a little bit more to the story of course. But the short account leaves little information for us to work with, and so understand how this odd situation arose. Pagan wise men seeking a Jewish king raises a number of questions. However our imagination fills in the details, there is something timeless in this story. Since the dawn of history, it has been a natural thing for people to seek wisdom. The Wise Men presumably made it their vocation as did a number of groups in the Ancient Near-East.

And it seems to me that Wise Men from the east might well have been hoping for the king of the Jews to offer wisdom. They are likely to have heard of the earlier king of the Jews, King Solomon, famous for his wisdom. Knowing little of Judean politics, they perhaps expected to be greeted by a wise benevolent royal family. In any case, as seekers after wisdom they join the wider cry of humanity which still finds voice today:

“Where Shall Wisdom be Found?”

Where Shall Wisdom be Found?

The Book of Job lavishly and beautifully asks this question. It compares the quest for wisdom with that of the quest for precious stones and valuable minerals. Mining is an enterprise that most of us know little about. We can, however, all appreciate the difficulty and danger of going deep underground to use tools to extract rock in the hope of revealing something useful or something precious. Such a task has always been dangerous, especially in an age with no support from technology other than basic hand-held metal tools.

Looking for wisdom is by analogy hard work. It takes great effort. It is both an individual endeavour and a collective one. The Book of Job is itself a result of the quest for wisdom. It showcases the wrong way to go about wisdom (Job’s friends) versus the right way (Job). Chapter 28, in the heart of the Book, offers something of a prelude to the Book’s conclusion. Job will find that despite all his questions, invited by terrible suffering, the only wise answer is to fear God. Chapter 28 concludes this too:

And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:28)

It is wise for us to reflect soberly in the waiting time of Advent as to whether we have this fear of the Lord. As we see our lives in the perspective of God’s plan for his creation. As we stand between the First Advent of Christ and his Second, we must wait. Faithful waiting starts with the passivity of reflection. Reflection on the precious wisdom we have from God.

Reflection is not passive but rather generative as we open ourselves to God. It culminates in right action based on right orientation before the living God. If we are to share the gospel—the ultimate wisdom of God—we need to remember both its value and what it cost. We cannot hope to share this good news unless it is already quickened in our heart, mind and soul.

Where is the King?

The little we know of the Wise Men suggests that they were obedient and generous. Perhaps when they set out, they had little idea of the specific danger they would face from Herod. Though such a journey would have been fraught with the obvious dangers of travelling for many months. Their foreign appearance and the riches they carried would have made them likely targets for bandits.

Does our seeking after Jesus put us in danger? Compared to our brothers and sisters in cultures highly hostile to Christianity we are more likely to face mild inconvenience, or passing ridicule, than any real danger. If pagan kings feel the need to see this Jesus how much more should we his disciples fix or eyes on him?

The Wise Men not only made a bold time-consuming journey. The gifts they brought with them were precious costly things. In their earthly wisdom they recognised the preciousness of this new king of the Jews. Maybe they thought they would receive wisdom from their endeavour and in so doing they should offer something in return. Perhaps they were living out the proverb:

How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver. (Proverbs 16:16)

Whatever their original motives they gave generously. What did they receive? Did they see their journey as worthwhile? I think they would have. They most likely never heard the end of the story that they were part of. But they could see God at work in dreams, in signs and in, let’s be frank, his mysterious ways. How else can we label God’s plan for a working-class Judean-born to be king of an oppressed and troubled nation.

What we give to God might be less than the Wise Men gave to Jesus’ family. What we receive, however, is so much more.

John Witnesses to the Light

Like precious stones glinting in the darkness of a mine, so God’s wisdom, Jesus, shines in this dark world. As John says in his prelude to his gospel:

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:4–5)

John paints a profound picture of the Word become flesh. Part of the revelation that he testifies to is that Jesus is wisdom:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9)

Describing Jesus as logos, also implies he is wisdom. The deep questions asked in the Book of Job and answered in part in wisdom literature, in the Law of Moses and sketched in the Prophets, are answered fully in Jesus Christ.  In the First Testament, God could not be seen because of the barrier of sin that humanity chose to build. The closest Job got to the living God, after asking Him some demanding questions, was a speech from a whirlwind. A speech of revelation that left him firmly put in his place as creature before his creator.

This story reminds me of an idea from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It makes reference to something called the Total Perspective Vortex. In the words of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

‘When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.”‘

Douglas Adam’s imagination invents something much like Job’s experience before his maker. Unlike those that enter the vortex, insanity is not the result. Job’s response was to place his hand over his mouth. In Jesus, the Word, we have a fresh revelation. A perspective of a very different sort. As John puts it:

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)

Pointing to the Light

Where is Jesus?

We would do well to ask this question. Yes, we know the answer with our heads. But reflective waiting on God is necessary for the reality to fill our very bones and refresh our souls. Advent is about waiting. Waiting is not about doing nothing. Waiting before God allows us to hear his precious voice. Waiting allows us to be in an age defined by doing. Waiting allows us to orientate ourselves. The season of Advent is a reminder that we live between Jesus’ first advent and his second. Where is Jesus? He is in the heavenly places with his Father. He will visit us again. We need to look to the light before we can point the light effectively.

Where Shall Wisdom be Found?

The people we work with, our friends, our neighbours, our family members are asking the question where can wisdom be found? They rarely state it that precisely of course. But it is the question that goes to the heart of being human. The question that all of us ask about meaning. The Wise Men gave up time, for God. How much more should we give our time to God? One way of offering our time to God, is to make time to listen to the people in our lives—to listen to how they ask the question, Where Shall Wisdom be Found? Jesus, God’s wisdom, is the answer to their question—but we can point them to the light most effectively when we understand where they are looking already.

Pointing to Jesus

The Wise Men point to Jesus; it was God who enabled them to do so. John the Baptist points to Jesus; it was God who sent him to do so. We too can point to Jesus, God has sent each of us to do this. Of course, we do this best when we do it together as church.

Perceiving, Proclaiming and Partaking of the Cross

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’   Mark 8:31–33

1. Perceiving the Cross

I have lost count of the number of times I have correctly predicted the future. Please don’t be anxious this is not a claim to be a clairvoyant or a confession of divination. Simply the acknowledgement that I am a parent.

I recall all three of my children running around in circles in our house. My words proclaimed wisely: “If you don’t calm down someone’s going to get hurt”. The sentence was barely finished and we were weighing-up whether go to take a child to hospital, as a swelling grew before our eyes on their forehead.

I also recall making the comment: “If you drag him round by his arms like that you will dislocate something”. The uncontrollable crying was only silenced two hours later in hospital as a doctor fixed an elbow joint with a dull click.

More recently by knowledge of the world had me observe: “If you keep kicking the ball that hard you’ll break a pane of glass in the greenhouse”. This time I hadn’t quite foreseen what would happen. There were three broken panes.

This is no prescience, or anything unnatural, this is cause and effect. Years of observing how the world works and inferring what will happen next. This is what the Bible calls wisdom. Jesus has often been labelled as a Sage, a biblical wise man in the tradition of Solomon and in the tradition of the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. Many of his words recorded in the gospels echo the wise way of looking at the world and at life, for example:

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.   Matthew 6:28–29

As Jesus discovered his mission, to preach and teach about God’s Kingdom, and grew in his understanding of the scope of what he was doing and teaching; as he realised he was the Son, as he worked out what this meant—he didn’t need to be the wisest sage to put two and two together—to realise he would come into massive conflict with the authorities.

As hostility grew with the religious leaders, to his words and deeds, it would have become painfully clear to Jesus that there was not going to be a happy conclusion to his ministry on earth.

As the best teacher of his day, as the wisest sage, as the most remarkable worker of miracles he was not destined to become ‘Professor of the Kingdom’, at the University of Jerusalem, but rather he was so bugging the scribes, the elders, the chief priests, that a conflict was inevitable. And when the Romans eventually noticed, well, others had done less—and been less—and been silenced by execution.

In this way Jesus perceived that death was the outcome of his words and actions. But wisdom and reason only get anyone so far. Although Jesus gave up the attributes of deity prior to his Incarnation, as a man he was still able to receive from God—he was still able to experience revelation.

That he was not only proclaiming a message but was the message, didn’t come from being wise—this could only come from revelation.

Whilst reason pointed to his death at the hands of Jews and Romans in an unholy alliance to silence an inconvenient truth, only revelation can point to the significance of that death. Human wisdom points to cause and effect. It is only revelation that can truly explain.

And it was a vicious cycle as Jesus recognised who he was—Son of God and Messiah—so he upset the authorities more and more. There was an inevitability that he would die because of his words and deeds. Our passage does not mention the cross. We read this back into this episode. But Jesus was probably all too aware of the likely nature of his death.

As Jesus wrestled with God the Father in prayer; perhaps in those profound moments of baptism and transfiguration, he received an answer:

the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again

 Through wisdom Jesus saw his death; through revelation he understood its significance and glimpsed resurrection too.

2. Proclaiming the Cross

As Jesus understood his death and resurrection—as he reasoned and as God revealed—he became the first to proclaim the cross. And what a result. If healing, miracles and inspired preaching caused hostility, the preaching of the cross inspired disbelief and fear. So off-the-mark is Peter that Jesus sees the hand of the deceiver, of Satan, at work.

From Peter’s perspective, so unwelcome and so unexpected was Jesus’ proclamation that he simply saw it as wrong. In his mind it went again everything he had learnt. That your Rabbi should die would surely mean they were a failed teacher. That a Messiah should die was unthinkable. It did not stand to reason. Jesus’ death as Son of God, as Messiah requires new knowledge—revelation, first to Jesus, then to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.

Peter was so bewildered by the thought of Jesus’ death, that in all likelihood he couldn’t see beyond this to remotely comprehend Jesus rising again.

Jesus, of course, had to start with his disciples—a constant education by drip-feeding information. They might not understand his death and resurrection before they happened, but they needed to afterwards.

The drip-feed education is seen in two further episodes in Mark, for example in the second one we read:

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.   Mark 9:30–32

The thought of Death and Resurrection caused Peter to disbelieve and to fear. The proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection always has a result. Its meaning provokes response. Disbelief is perhaps the normal first response. Fear is perhaps the natural step beyond disbelief. An emotional response of fear is a belief of sorts.

We can expect similar responses as we share the gospel. Some will simply disbelieve. Some will make a more significant move and be fearful. Such people are only a hair-breadth away from the belief that inspires fear to the belief that inspires faith.

3. Partaking of the Cross

The disciples journeyed with Jesus, but they were also on a different sort of journey—a journey of discovery as to who Jesus was. This journey can only end when the significance of both his death and resurrection are understood. The disciples had already partaken of the First Covenant—they were circumcised—and each year they remembered the Covenant during Passover. Each and every Sabbath they heard the Law of the Covenant read. This First Covenant came as Revelation, as God revealed himself in mighty acts and in his Word. The disciples needed fresh revelation to understand the New Covenant. They had partaken of a First Covenant that knew its foundation in the blood of a lamb. They were soon to experience the Last Supper at Passover.

The disciples some forty, or so, days after that Passover would understand John’s baptism afresh in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They would understand that baptism marked the start of partaking in the gospel. A step into water, being submerged and coming up out of the water, marks the journey from old life to new life. It marks the entry into a new covenant with God.

Hearing the gospel is a way of receiving the gospel, of receiving grace. Sharing bread and wine is a way of receiving the gospel and receiving grace. Being baptised in water as obedience to Jesus; being baptised by Spirit by the laying of hands, such a baptism is a way of receiving the gospel and receiving grace.

We would do well to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a self-help gospel. The good news of new life only comes through grace—through God’s undeserved favour. Representing the Gospel as a lifestyle choice—a self-help gospel—like all the other lifestyle choices is one of the reasons for the frailty of the Western Church.

In the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Captain Miller and others, give their lives, as the film’s title reveals, to save private Ryan from death in combat. As Miller dies, having given his own life, he tells Private Ryan to “Earn this”.

In contrast, the cross does not speak of earning. We cannot earn it, we can only receive it. We can partake, in what is a remarkable gift of new covenant, new relationship, new life. The normal Christian birth comes, first through hearing the Word, then through baptism in Spirit and Water, and then is regularly renewed, remembered and celebrated through Bread and Wine.

So, carry on receiving this gospel—listen, be filled, be cleansed, be fed—imbibe the very water of life. All these things are what it means to perceive the cross, proclaim the cross and partake of the cross.

 

Jesus is Baptised — Mark 1:1–11 

Introduction: Jesus in 4-D

On the 28th August 1989 the band Depeche Mode released a song called Personal Jesus. I personally think it’s a great song. If you like 1980s music you might well agree. However, it does not make for good theology. In fact, it inadvertently acts as a critique of other bad theology. A close analysis of the lyrics implies that Jesus is essentially just a therapist and not a lot more. The singer-poet implies that they could be both lover and therapist—the implication is that Jesus might be good therapist, but the singing lover will be a better one.

One of the biggest problems in faith, as well as theology, is that we have a terrifying tendency to make Jesus into a reflection of ourselves and/or to caricature him. Professional theologians and believers in general both have this ability of taking the God-Man Jesus and making him into their own ‘personal Jesus’—seeing him in 1-D, or at best 2-D. In this way, the most remarkable person in all history is neatly labelled, categorised and at the same time emptied of his enormous depth and substance.

Church History and history at large have countless examples. Here are just three:

  1. Nineteenth-century German liberal theologians saw Jesus as a liberal pedlar of timeless truths emptied of his Jewishness.
  2. Some Marxist Liberation theologians look to Jesus and see a Marxist revolutionary.
  3. Margaret Thatcher famously looked at Jesus and saw a proponent of Thatcherite economics.

The wrong Jesus means the wrong gospel, and the wrong gospel is simply not Good News. Seeing Jesus in 1-D supports lifestyles, politics, worship and faith, all contrary to the Good News. The wrong Jesus obscures the best news. The very real danger is that we lose the Good News about the creator’s action for us and obscure it with a Jesus of our creation. In creating our own personal Jesus we can prevent the possibility of genuine personal relationship with the Father through Jesus.

One way to address this problem is to turn to the four New Testament gospels. To attempt to see Jesus afresh as those first witnesses report. To see Jesus in 4-D. This reflection is just one small contribution to this aim.

Mark and Jesus’ Baptism

Mark’s gospel is the shortest of the canonical gospels. Most of its verses are found in the other two Synoptic Gospels: Matthew and Luke. In terms of content it does not add much to the accounts of Matthew and Luke. So why worry about Mark’s Gospel? Why even bother? Can’t we just cut out the unique bits and paste them as an appendix to Matthew and Luke? Or how about making a single bigger gospel? As great a theologian as John Calvin did just this in his epic commentary on the Synoptics: A Harmony of the Gospels.

If we think this is a good idea we are, I think, missing a major point of why there are four gospels included in Scripture. Mark has a ‘story’ to tell and a ‘biography’ to unfold. Jesus’ life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his significance are beyond one human’s capacity to capture. Mark makes a contribution equal to that of the other gospel writers. Despite being shorter he has captured and presented a unique account of the remarkable nature of Jesus in his own God-authorised way.

Mark’s account is a gospel of phenomenal pace and dynamism, as well as having been shaped so that the episodes and events emphasise Mark’s understanding of Jesus. This account probably served as The Gospel for one of the earliest Christian churches—it was all they had for perhaps a decade or two. We are privileged to have all four authorised ‘biographies’ of Jesus.

I would encourage you to make time to encounter each gospel over the next three months. Reading Mark’s gospel at a gentle pace takes just under two hours—this is the length of a typical film or four episodes of a soap opera. Why not get it as an audio book for freshness?

Mark makes much of three key events in the life of Jesus: his baptism, his transfiguration and his crucifixion.1 Mark even appears to make deliberately links between the three events. Here at his baptism, for example, the heavens are ‘torn open’ and a dove descends. At the transfiguration his garments turn white and a cloud descends. Whilst at his crucifixion the sanctuary curtain is torn and darkness descends.

At his baptism of Jesus, a voice from heaven is heard, at the transfiguration a voice is heard from the cloud and at the crucifixion Jesus’ own loud voice is heard.

As Jesus is baptised God says “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”, during the transfiguration God says “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” and during his crucifixion it is said that “Surely this man was the Son of God!”.

John the Baptist plays the role of Elijah at the baptism (the camel’s hair and belt give it away), Jesus is joined by Elijah on the mount of transfiguration and Jesus is thought, by some, to be calling to Elijah as he is crucified.

The baptism, transfiguration and crucifixion are for Mark the central points of revelation—they reveal his gospel to be the:

“good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”

 As he stated at the very outset.

John the Baptiser

The return of Elijah had become a mainstream Jewish hope by the time of Jesus. And Mark echoes the description of Elijah from 2 Kings 1:8. Mark picks up specifically on the hope that Elijah, or a new Elijah, would prepare the way for the Messiah. John the Baptist was a proponent, as his name suggests, of baptism. The very word baptism, is for us, rich in meaning and we see it as a religious word, the carrying out of a religious rite whether by immersion in water or by sprinkling of water during infant baptism or Christening.

But those hearing the call to be baptised and seeing other people baptised were seeing something new—we know that there was a Jewish renewal movement who practiced ritual bathing, the Essenes who were the owners of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But their practice was for the community and was a repeated ritual. Some scholars think John might have been one of these Essenes. But John is doing something different in his call to baptism. The word baptism was a normal everyday word, simply meaning being submerged or being drenched in water.

John the Baptist, as Mark makes clear started something—he initiated a call to baptism as a testimony to a decision of repentance and renewal of faith. He prepared the way by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. He is part of the old order—he preaches forgiveness under the old covenant. He is also a bridge between old and new. A bridge between Torah and Gospel. Just as John heralds Jesus, so Jesus heralds good news. The first we hear of this good news is some continuity. Jesus also promotes baptism and he also teaches forgiveness of sins.

Jesus the Baptiser

But when someone is a bridge there is not only continuity there is also newness. There is startling newness encountered here in Mark’s story of Jesus. It might not sound new to us, but the way in which Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope was remarkable. This is the reason why so many did no instantly believe this message of good news.

The truth of Jesus’ message was not enough to start Christianity. The veracity of Mark’s account and the other gospels was not enough. The Holy Spirit that Jesus baptised with at Pentecost, and subsequently, was the powerhouse that enabled the journey of the Good News of forgiveness from 12, to 120, to 2000, and to the ends of the earth.

The forgiveness of sins is of course not just something that Jesus talks about, it is something that he achieves in his very actions—in his life, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. What John promises is not just a present opportunity for water baptism, but that the Messiah bringing an extra dimension to baptism. John was only too aware that he baptised with water—just good old H2O, with a few impurities no doubt, from the river Jordan. But the one he was preparing the way for would baptise in Holy Spirit.

In much of the New Testament it is not always clear whether baptism refers to water or the Holy Spirit. In early Christian thinking the two merged into one—water baptism and Spirit baptism are both expected early steps in Christian initiation and discipleship—two sides of the same early experience of faith and the encounter with Jesus in 4-D.

Christians have disagreed on what Spirit baptism means, for example whether it must be accompanied by speaking in tongues, prophecy or some other manifestation. Most Pentecostals teach a two-stage process as normal where Spirit baptism is normally a so-called second blessing after the receiving of the Spirit as a seal for salvation. Others see, at least ideally, a single stage.

Whether it be a quiet sense of inner peace, a warm inward glow, speaking in other tongues or something even more dramatic, such work and experience of the Spirit is part of what it means to follow a Jesus who baptises in Spirit. We must remember that we can’t invoke the Holy Spirit. God’s action by his Spirit is not dependent on us. Unfortunately, what we can do is quench his work.

The best ways of avoiding quenching the Spirit and to be in the place of God moving by his Spirit are to look to holiness, prayer, repentance, obedience and Scripture. The Church and our faith are served best when our lives are open to both receiving God’s word and receiving God’s Holy Spirit. For God the Father works in his creation continually by his two hands, the 4-D Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

 

Reference

  1. I am indebted to Ched Myers’s unique commentary, Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, for this helpful point.

Psalm Sunday: selah #2

Psalm 118:20

This is the gate of the Lord;

    the righteous shall enter through it. (NRSV)

This verse referred to the city gate of Jerusalem when this psalm was written and used in festivals. By the time of Jesus such festivals had been taking place for hundreds of years. Jesus was going to Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday because it was the Passover festival. Of course unlike any one of the other thousands of pilgrims he was not going to celebrate Passover simply to remember the past. Yes he would join with his disciples in commemorating the mighty act of his Father in delivering the nation from slavery in Egypt. But his celebration with the disciples would be a subversive one. It would echo the Passover but there was to be no ordinary lamb. In the months before, Jesus had realised that he himself was to be the Passover lamb.

Not only was he to be the sacrifice but he knew what his sacrifice would accomplish. As the Lamb of God he would take away the sin of the world. He would open up the gate of the Lord. Through him anyone could acknowledge him and become righteous and in being righteous could enter the gate of the Lord.

  • It is because of God’s immense grace that we can walk with him in this life.
  • It is because of God’s grace that we know that our journey leads us home to the heavenly city.
  • It is because of grace that we can anticipate eternal life with God the Father and his son, the Passover Lamb of God.

Grace is free. Yet grace is not without cost.

  • The grace that we experience on our path was costly indeed.
  • The Father knew the cost when he sent the Son to become a man.
  • Jesus knew the cost as he made that journey to Jerusalem.
  • Jesus knew the price as the crowds waved, as the people shouted, as the whole world went after him.

Free grace at such a cost is worth celebrating, it is worth shouting about.

The gracious act of Jesus means that a roughly-made cross is now the gate of the Lord through which the righteous can enter.