Thursday, January 13, 2022

Close encounters

 


The Gospel set for Holy Communion today, Mark 1:40-45, catches Jesus out in a compromising position. He has been in close personal contact with someone from whom he is supposed to be socially distanced—someone who might infect him and others—and subsequently he has tried, and failed, to keep this event quiet, out of the public eye. Now he is at the centre of a storm of unwanted attention.

What is interesting is the agency of the outcast or marginalised man. The word my English translation renders ‘begging’—a word that draws out an emotion of disgust and thoughts of shaming, in my cultural context—combines the Greek words to come close-beside someone and to testify to their character and actions. It can be used as a word to describe encouraging someone or admonishing someone.

The leper comes close beside Jesus, to reveal something about him. What this man acts to reveal is that Jesus is both willing (a question of desire) and able (a question of power) to cleanse him, to address the (albeit temporarily necessary) injustice of his isolation from human touch. The desire and power of the leper reveals the desire and power of the celebrated man Jesus.

That is fascinating and exposes our assumptions of where will (or desire) and the means to act on that will (that is, power) lie.

Regardless of our social standing, we can exercise the will and the power to come close-beside someone else to admonish or encourage them, by witnessing to their will and power to do good, or their refusal to respond with such compassion.

We can stand with others, or at a distance. We can empower others or keep power for our own self-interest. We can move to restore others as quickly and fully as possible, preferring them before ourselves—even at cost to ourselves—or not. We can participate in human dignity, or by our actions send ourselves into exile.

 

Monday, January 10, 2022

Poverty and riches

 




A collect is a form of prayer, that helps focus our personal prayers according to a shared theme. There are collects for every week of the year, as well as collects for other events or occasions, and the collect for this coming Sunday has long been my absolute favourite:

 

Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

 

Here ‘the poverty of our nature’ means a recognition that everything we are and have is a gift. We came into this world with nothing, and we shall take nothing with us when we go. And in-between these two moments, we steward the life given us, the world entrusted to us to hand on to those who will come after us. To recognise this poverty of our nature is freedom from hubris. What might otherwise be tragedy and a cause for resentment is transformed into something beautiful in its time, a life for which we can be truly grateful, by the riches of God’s grace at work in our lives, renewing us, so that the glory of God in whose likeness we are formed is revealed.

 

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Epiphany

 

The unspecified number of travellers bearing three kinds of gift to the infant Jesus are most likely a consortium of Persian court astronomers (Magi) and Chinese Han dynasty court astronomers. Their arrival at the court in Jerusalem, enquiring after a child born to be king of the Jews, causes consternation.

There is a pattern in the Gospels of identifying events in the life of Jesus as fulfilling earlier events. For example, Isaiah speaks of a woman, pregnant at the time of his speaking some 600 years before Jesus, and of a judgement that will fall before her son is weaned. That Jesus’ birth fulfils this is not to say that Isaiah prophesies Jesus’ birth, but that Jesus’ birth is a similar but greater sign, and that the earlier sign helps us understand what will happen in and through and to Jesus.

In the same manner, I would suggest that the reality that the Christian church today is growing faster—under persecution by the governing authorities—in Iran and China than anywhere else on earth is a fulfilment of the journey of the Magi.

Happy Epiphany to all, and especially to my Iranian and Chinese friends!

 

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

On the twelfth day of Christmas

 

When is Christmas?

That’s not as daft a question as it may sound. Obviously, Christmas Day is 25th December. But for many people in our impatient society, Christmas Day is the culmination of Christmas, or at least the summit before a rapid downhill through Boxing Day and the relief of taking down the decorations and collapsing in a heap.

In the Church of England the season of Christmas runs, essentially, from sunset on Christmas Eve until sunset on 5th January, with the season of Epiphany (the Feast of the Epiphany is 6th January) taking up the baton. The Christmas cycle then carries on until Candlemas, on 2nd February. Many churches will take down most of their decorations now, with the crib remaining until Candlemas. I think, though I am not certain, that in the Roman Catholic church the season of Christmas runs until this coming Sunday, the Baptism of Christ, with the Christmas cycle also lasting a little longer into the Sundays before Lent. But small variations aside, what both share in common is that Christmas Day is not the end of the matter but the dawn.

Does it matter, when and how we celebrate Christmas? Well, yes and no. I really don’t think that it matters in terms of when we take down decorations, and even friendly arguments about whether that should be 5th January or 2nd February tend to miss the point.

But I do think that it matters that we, collectively, can’t bear to live in the moment. That we rush to bring the trappings of Christmas into Advent, because it is too stark; that we rush to put away Christmas, because it is too much; that we look for ways to transform our dark and dismal January lives with New Year’s Resolutions because we (think that we) need a New Me. It bothers me that we are, collectively, in such a rush.

It is still Christmas. Joy and peace be with you this day.

 

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

On giving, and taking, advice at the beginning of a new year

 

This time of year, there’s a good chance thar your social media feed is full of advice for living well in the year ahead. The New Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today included these verses, from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, chapter 3:

18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.

It is always hard to translate and apply advice for living well across ages and cultures, and these verses—verse 18 in particular—have been badly mishandled by conservative men and women. But these verses are worthy of a second look.

In the Genesis account of the first man and woman, we are presented with an undifferentiated human, made from the clay of the earth, who is then separated into two equal and non-hierarchical humans: the man, to be the gardener; and the woman, to be the warrior-deliverer, given to rescue the man when he is overwhelmed. The role-description of the woman—Hebrew: ezer, active intervention on behalf of another, especially in military contexts—is one shared by the Lord God.

The word translated ‘submit’ in Colossians 3:18 is a compound of the Greek word for ‘under’ and the word for ‘to arrange.’ Moreover, the word for ‘to arrange’ is used almost exclusively in a military context, for how soldiers arrange themselves in formation. In other words, the form this submission is to take is concerned with fulfilling the vocation to be a warrior. Women are warriors, who fight in all kinds of arenas to deliver, or bring liberation to, men, women and children who experience injustice and oppression. But if you are married, don’t allow the long list of good causes to fight for to come between you and your marriage, which is meant to be a lifegiving and lifelong relationship.

The word translated ‘love’ in verse 19 means to prefer another over yourself. Husbands, prefer your wife over yourself. Put her first, before you. That sounds a lot more like submission, as we would understand the term today, than ‘wives, don’t allow yourself to be distracted out of military formation’ does. Moreover, the advice to husbands—again, lost in translation—goes on to deal specifically with warning against nurturing the fruit of bitterness. In other words, this is a gardening metaphor, addressed to the gardener. If you are married, the primary garden which you are to prefer over your own clay is the clay of your wife’s life, giving yourself to nurture every good fruit that grows there, and to guard against sowing seeds that will produce bitter fruit.

To those given as warriors, remember the focus of who you are called to fight alongside. To those who are given as gardeners, commit yourself to bringing out the very best fruit of the life you care for.

That is pretty good advice, that stands the test of time, and which we disregard at our peril, and great relational cost.

The word translated ‘obey’ in verse 20 is another compound, of the words for ‘under’ and ‘to listen’ conveying the meaning, ‘children, listen carefully to your parents.’ Listen to your parents, they may actually know what they are talking about.

And in verse 21, advice to fathers (advice mothers don’t need reminding of in quite the same way?) not to provoke their children to anger, because the long-term consequence of such provoking will be to dishearten them.

I am a dad. And I would love my children to learn that their mum and dad might actually know what we are talking about when we give them advice...But until they discover this for themselves, I need to take on board the wise advice not to provoke them to anger or dishearten them. Some days I need to hear this more than others, but in any case, I need to be reminded of this on a regular basis.

 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 28

 


In which the exiles come home

 

Genesis 1:1, 2

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.”

 

Lamentations 3:22-24

The LORD’s kindness has not ended, for His mercies are not exhausted. They are renewed every morning. Great is Your faithfulness. “My portion is the LORD,” I said. therefore I yet hope for Him.

 

Twenty-eight days is the longest possible duration of Advent, the start of which falls between 27 November and 3 December. In 2021, there are twenty-seven days of Advent, but no twenty-eighth. This, then, is a bonus reflection.

In sitting with the text of Genesis 1-11 as a theological resource for the return from exile and restoration of Jerusalem, I have sought to hold Advent not so much as a preparation for the celebration of the first coming of Jesus, but, rather, as the anticipation of and preparation for his coming again, in power and great glory. Where is this Jesus in these texts, and in these meditations? Where Jesus always is, in the pages of the Old Testament: hidden, present by faith not sight.

As we find ourselves in days of painful constraint and great upheaval, may our Advent longing be sustained by God’s grace, until it be fulfilled in God’s mercy.

 

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary

 

Advent readings 2021 :Day 27

 


In which the exiles return to the beginning

 

Genesis 11:31, 32

And Terah took Abram his son and Lot son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Abram, and he set out with them from Ur of the Chaldees toward the land of Canaan, and they came to Haran and settled there. And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years, and Terah died in Haran.

 

Jeremiah 33:1-9, 25, 26

And the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah again while he was still shut up in the court of the guard, saying, “Thus said the LORD, Who fashions it to bring it about, the LORD is His name. Call out to Me that I may answer you and yell you great and lofty things you did not know. For thus said the LORD God of Israel concerning the houses of the city and the houses of the kings of Judah torn down before the siege-ramps and before the sword, those coming to do battle with the Chaldeans, but to fill them with human corpses whom I struck down in My wrath and in My anger as I hid My face from this city for all their evil. I am about to grant them a cure and a healing, and I will heal them and reveal to them a wealth of true peace. And I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel and rebuild them as before. And I will cleanse them of their crimes with which they offended against Me and with which they rebelled against Me. And it shall become for Me a joyous name, praise and glory, to all nations of the earth, who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble over all the good and all the peace that I do for them.

Thus said the LORD: As I have surely set out My covenant with day and night, the laws of the heavens and the earth, so will I not reject the seed of Jacob and David My servant to take rulers from his seed, from the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for I will restore their fortunes and show them mercy.”

 

The origins stories of the returning exiles conclude with a link into the story of Abraham, drawn out from Chaldea, in what will be the original origin story of this people who will come to settle in Canaan, via a long detour into Egypt. Abraham’s story begins with  his father, and a setting out towards a vision Terah will not live to see fulfilled. Indeed, Abraham himself will not see it, for the vision God has placed in our hearts, if it truly is of God, is far bigger than our part within in.

As Advent draws to a close for another year, and prepares to give way to Christmas, we are reminded that the questions we bring to the issues we face are not met with false-comforting answers, but that our longing for God’s reign of justice and mercy to be more fully manifest is sustained once more. We are in this story for the long haul, the arc of history bending towards God’s will, done on earth as in heaven. And in this, we are not abandoned.

 

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary

 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 26

 


In which the exiles lay siege to themselves

 

Genesis 11:1-9

And all the earth was one language, one set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” And the brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And the LORD said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.” And the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building the city. Therefore it is called Babel, for there the LORD made the language of all the earth babble. And from there the LORD scattered them over all the earth.

 

Ezekiel 4:1-3

And you, man, take you a brick and put it before you and incise on it the city of Jerusalem. And you shall lay a siege against it and build against it a siege-work and throw up a ramp against it and set up an armed camp against it and put against it battering rams all round. And you shall set your face toward it, and it shall be besieged, and you shall lay siege against it. It is a sign for the house of Israel.

 

Babel represents the fall of the city, Jerusalem as much as Babylon, the lifting-up and bringing down of empires. As we draw very close to the close, the returning exiles are reminded that their God is at work in the changing fortunes of the nations, that, should they reject their vocation the Master who has humbled them before may do so again. In this world, there are no everlasting kingdoms. The stories that will sustain a people are not simply stories of specialness, of being chosen, but also lessons from past failures. Bricks and mortar matter, but they count for little if they become our grand enterprise, and even less if it is to our own glory. How then, might the things we build—our homes, our churches, our workplaces, our cities with their communal meeting spaces—bring people of different tongues—different languages and cultures, different worldviews and perspectives, different faiths and doubts concerning faith—together, to discover God at work in the contradiction and mess of our lives?

 

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary

 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 25

 


In which the exiles are situated at the epicentre of the cosmos

 

Genesis 10:32

These are the clans of the sons of Noah according to their lineage in their nations. And from these the nations branched out on the earth after the Flood.

 

Micah 4:1-5

And it shall happen in future days that the mount of the LORD’s house shall be firm-founded at the top of the mountains and lifted over the hills. And the people shall flow to it, and many nations shall go and say: Come, let us go up to the mount of the LORD, and to the house of Jacob’s God, that He may teach us of His ways and that we may walk in His paths. For from Zion shall teaching come forth and the LORD’s word from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among many peoples and be arbiter to vast nations from far away. And they shall grind their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not raise sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore. And they shall dwell each man beneath his vine and beneath his fig tree, with none to make him tremble, for the mouth of the LORD of Armies has spoken. For all the peoples shall walk each in the name of his god. But we shall walk in the name of the LORD our God forevermore.

 

The nations branch out from the family that have built and ridden out the Flood in the ark. And as, for the returning exiles, this speaks of them and their call to rebuild the Temple on Mount Zion, the table of nations is an ordering of the world with Jerusalem at the centre and the surrounding nations deriving wisdom for post-Flood existence from her. Indeed, in as much as they continue, albeit chastened and humbled, the empires of the Ancient Near East owe their very ongoing existence to the intercession of God’s faithful and restored people. Yet this is not a restoration and expansion of David’s empire, but of Solomon’s reputation for wisdom for living in harmony with gods and neighbours. Here, the family tree becomes an orchard, each tree—each people-group, each human community—having room to flourish, to give shelter within the shared shelter of the orchard.

We are drawing near to the end of the beginning, to the close of the origin stories that will envision the self-understanding of the new Jerusalem community in relation to the world. They are to be a beacon of hope, and instructors to all who seek wisdom and justice. They are to be generous, self-giving, undefended, imaginative. I think of a Christian community in the United States who take handed-in semi-automatic assault weapons and transform them into tools for community gardening. This is the vision. What might it look like in your context, in mine?

 

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary

 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 24

 


In which the exiles’ borders are secured

 

Genesis 10:8-12

And Cush begot Nimrod. He was the first mighty man on earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD. Therefore is it said: Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD. The start of his kingdom was Babylon and Erech and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land, Asshur emerged, and he built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah, and Resen, between Nineveh and Calah, which is the great city.

 

Micah 5:2-6

And you, Bethlehem of Ephrath, the least of Judah’s clans, from you shall one come forth for Me to be ruler of Israel whose origins are from ancient times, from days of yore. Therefore shall He give them over till the time the woman in labor bears her child, and the rest of his brothers shall come back with the Israelites. And he shall stand and shepherd them by the might of the LORD, by the pride of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for then shall he be great to the ends of the earth. And thus shall be the peace: Assyria shall not enter our land nor tread in our citadels. And we shall set up against him seven shepherds and eight princes of the peoples, and they shall smash the land of Assyria with the sword and the land of Nimrod in its gateways. And they shall save us from Assyria should he enter our land and should he tread within our borders. And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples like the dew from the LORD, like gentle rain upon the grass, as he shall not place hope in man nor expectation in humankind.

 

After the story of Noah, of consolation from the pain of our hands’ work, we are given a table of the family of nations who descend from Noah’s sons after the Flood. The list includes both friends and enemies, just as every family has its clashes, conflicts, and alliances. These are presented as of old, but if the ark stands for the vocation of God’s people to rebuild the Temple as a light for the Gentiles, then the relationship between a restored Israel and the surrounding nations draws the boundaries of God’s saving grace: it is for all who live their lives openly before the Lord, both Jew and Gentile; and though God gives His people into the hands of mighty hunters when they turn away from Him, He will restore their place. A mother giving birth safely, and rain in a dry land, are both signs of grace and favour towards those who trust, and signs that underline the interdependency of life.

Struggle may beget strife, but that cycle can be interrupted: peace begetting peace, even if, for now, in the pain of labour, we cannot quite yet imagine a world beyond violence. Perhaps it is those places where our expectation cannot let go of aggression towards our human family, or where, like Jonah with Nineveh, we hope for the downfall of our enemies, that we most need the deliberate wait of Advent. Come, Mighty Saviour, and reign over us.

 

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary