Friday, 27 April 2018

Holy Land Thoughts

I have just got back from my first ever visit to the Holy Land. For most of my life I have not felt much desire to go there. My expectation was that it would be full of touristy commercialism and that the 'sacred' sites were largely unreal and unrecognisable. I was put off too by the bitter divisions in that country.

The commercialism turned out to be no worse than anywhere else. The unreality of the 'sacred sites' was sometimes jarring and even amusing. Seeing 'the birthplace of the Virgin Mary' in Jerusalem brought me up with a start. How would anyone know where she was born? And surely her most probable place of  birth was Nazareth. Even where one can be more sure of a site being the actual one, it is more often than not marked by a huge, ornate church that seems quite remote from the simplicity and humble surroundings of the original event. Perhaps the most ironic 'site' is Mount Tabor, thought to have been the scene of the Transfiguration. Notwithstanding Peter's inappropriate suggestion and the implied rebuke it received, the spot is now marked by an ornate church complete with statues of Moses, Elijah and Jesus!

A question often in my mind during the visit and reflection after it is was: where are you, Jesus?

I found it hard to see Jesus in Bethlehem. It is a crowded modern town full of souvenir shops. Manger Square is a pleasant open space, but it is hard to imagine what the little town looked like when Jesus was born, and in any case my critical study the Bible tells me it is highly unlikely that he was born there anyway. The one souvenir I treated myself to was a china mug with the one word 'Bethlehem' and a picture of a shepherd with his flock: at least we can be reasonably sure that David, the musical shepherd boy, lived there.

I found it just as hard to see Jesus in Nazareth, with another great church supposedly covering the home of Mary, which must have been a comparatively poor one. It was well nigh impossible to see Jesus at the supposed site of Golgotha and the tomb. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which purports to contain them both, is a maze of shrines and chapels, a monument to wealth, power and the rivalry of Christian denominations.

There were places where I felt I was looking at scenes that had not changed very much since Jesus was there. Standing by the walls of Jerusalem, we could see the route from the Mount of Olives down into the valley and up to the Golden Gate - a steeper journey than I had imagined. There is also the little chapel of Dominus Flevit, reminding us of the moment when, according to Luke's Gospel, Jesus paused in his journey and wept for Jerusalem. At the bottom of the hill is what is quite likely to be the actual Garden of Gethsemane, and it was a moving experience to stand by it, hear the Gospel story being read, and sing the words 'There in the garden of tears ...'.

The Via Dolorosa, too, seems strangely authentic. It is still a route through a crowded market place, with local people going about their daily business and hordes of visitors, as it would have been on the day of the Crucifixion.

In Galilee we stopped at the place supposed to be the spot where Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection. The altar in the little church there is a rough rock, said to be the rock on which they sat to eat their breakfast of bread and fish. Of course there is no way of knowing that was the site: it could have been anywhere along that shore. But for the first time it suddenly hit me that this does not really matter. In a sense the whole point of the story is that the risen Christ can come to us anywhere.

The question 'where are you, Jesus?' was answered for me in other ways too, not in places but in people. It was answered in seeing pilgrims of many nationalities dipping themselves in the Jordan to renew their baptism (or perhaps for some, to be baptised) on the Orthodox Easter Sunday. It was answered in the crowds of people at the Paternoster Church on the Mount of Olives, where little groups took it in turn to go inside the chapel and say the Lord's Prayer in their own language, and in a group behind us as we came down the Mount of Olives, who were singing a hymn in a language I could not recognise with the exception of the one word 'Hosanna'. Experiences like this brought home the worldwide effects of those things that happened in Palestine two thousand years ago. Millions of people in places unknown to Jesus and his followers find the meaning of their lives in his story.

I saw Jesus in a Christian Palestinian farmer in the West Bank, who is resisting the harassment of Israeli settlers threatening to drive him from the land that has been his family home for a century. While continuing to resist, he has made his farm into an international centre for peace and reconciliation with the motto 'we refuse to be enemies'. I saw Jesus too in the Muslim women at a refugee camp who, in the midst of their poverty, were empowering one another and lovingly caring for children with special needs, the most vulnerable people in that divided society.

I thought of these and others while walking in the garden on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Again, who knows whether that is the place where they were spoken, but does it matter? Among the plaques bearing the words of the Beatitudes, I was struck by the one that said 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land'. Surely if there is to be an answer to the problem of Israel and Palestine, it has to be in that promise.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Where is the Peace? A Christmas Sermon

One of my favourite Christmas hymns is 'It came upon the midnight clear', with its moving plea: 'O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.', and its hopeful ending: '... when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling, and all the world send back the song which now the angels sing.'

But there is also something very depressing about it - the fact that we have been singing it since 1849, and its dream seems no nearer.

The Victorian era was one of great optimism. The advance of science and technology was improving the conditions of life for many. Europeans were confident in their Christian civilisation and busy exporting it to the rest of the world. There was a feeling that humanity was becoming more enlightened year by year and the kingdom of God was being built on earth.

But since then we have had two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust and the numerous other horrors of the twentieth century. And the twenty-first century so far seems even worse: terrorism, the atrocities of Isis, war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria and other places, more refugees than ever, many of them dying at sea, others living without shelter while Britain and other countries turn them away. We have the renewed threat of nuclear war, the threats to the whole planetary environment, xenophobia, prejudice and racism, the way powerful people whip up feelings of fear and hate, and the increasing nastiness that has crept into our political disagreements.

What does our faith have to say about all this? First, we must face the fact that the Old Testament prophets would say it was judgment, and in many ways that is true today. So much of the trouble we see is the result of generations, even centuries, of wrong values and wrong actions. We in the 'civilised' world are not entirely innocent. Terrorism is often a response to long term injustice and the way we have dominated and exploited other nations. Refugees are often driven by the poverty the richer nations have created by their selfishness and unrestrained profit-seeking. We are all part of this, and it is a judgment on us.

But the good news is that the God who judges is a God who loves. The message of the prophets is that God's purpose in judgment is not to have revenge, but to bring us to repentance that we may live and enjoy his blessings. To 'repent' means to change our ways. Christmas is an opportunity to do that if only in a small way: to be generous, to care about those in need, to follow up our adoration of the baby Jesus with a determination to create a world safe for children, to rejoice in goodwill, neighbourliness and fellowship, and to be reminded again that the most important thing is not money or power but love.

Many of the Jews in New Testament times were looking for a Messiah who would bring them victory in battle and  save them from their enemies. Many people of all nationalities still do. But Joseph was told: 'you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins'.

And how does he do that? Not by exercising power that forces us to change, but by coming in weakness: a child needing to be looked after, a condemned criminal dying on the cross, a little group of poor and 'insignificant' people who setting the pattern for a new world. God's way is not to destroy - it is to appeal to our compassion, to melt our hearts and transform humanity. It is slow work, but it is the only real hope, and God doesn't give up.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Are the Prophets Jews, Christians or Muslims?

This is the text of a lecture I gave at the University of South Wales Chaplaincy to launch my book 'Sing Out for Justice: The Poetry and Passion of the Hebrew Prophets' on 29th November 2017

If you were looking for a factual historical answer, you would of course say they were Jews. But in fact this would not be quite correct. The word ‘Jew’ comes from the name of the tribe of Judah, who was a great-grandson of Abraham. This means that Abraham was not a Jew: he was called a Hebrew, a nomad from what is now Iraq. He had two sons, Ishmael – the ancestor of the Arabs – and Isaac. Isaac’s son Jacob was also called ‘Israel’, so his descendants were the Israelites, or ‘children of Israel’. One of his twelve sons was Judah, and his descendants are the Jews. So, for instance, the prophets Moses, Miriam, Deborah, Elijah and Elisha were Israelites, but they were not Jews.

To cut a long, complicated history short, the kingdom of Israel with its twelve tribes was eventually reduced to virtually the one tribe of Judah. And so all the Israelites who were left were ‘Jews’.

But of course my intention is not to answer the question literally. When the Jews became consolidated as a religious community with a faith we now call Judaism, they preserved, edited and gathered together the words of all the prophets, which became part of the Jewish Scriptures. In that sense all the prophets are Jews. The Jewish Scriptures were adopted by Christians as their ‘Old Testament’, so that the prophets are part of Christian history and their books are part of the Christian Bible. Later, many of these prophets came to be mentioned in the Qur'an, so that their story and their preaching are part of the Muslim faith too.

This means we could answer the question ‘were the prophets Jews, Christians or Muslims?’ by saying ‘all three’. They are an essential element in the three Abrahamic faiths. Each one of these faiths has claimed the prophets as its own, but they see their significance in different ways. I want to look first at these three different understandings of the prophets.

The Jewish View

In Judaism the Prophets are one of the three divisions of Scripture. The Jews often call the Scriptures the ‘tanak’. This is an acronym based on the Hebrew words for Law, Prophets and Writings (Torah, Nebi'im, Kethubim).

The Law (Torah) is basic. It consists of the first five books, those that are called the ‘books of Moses’: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Orthodox Jews believe that this Torah is an eternal divine entity given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The role of the prophets was to comment on it and reinforce it. In the Jewish Scriptures the ‘Prophets’ include the history books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. These are not history in the modern, secular sense. They are not written simply to satisfy people’s curiosity. Nor are they patriotically motivated, to boost up the nation by telling its story. They are the story of God's dealings with his people, told from the point of view of the prophets. In a sense, they are sermons illustrated by history.

The Jewish Scriptures present the prophets as people who have a special relationship with God: people who are, as it were, taken into God's confidence. They receive a message to pass on to the people. The message is not the whole teaching of religion, but a specific message for the time and circumstances. It can be a prediction or warning addressed to an individual, but more often it is addressed to the whole nation through its leaders. The prophets are a vital link in the covenant relationship between God and the people of Israel.

They do not merely pass on what God tells them: they sometimes argue with God and have an influence on his decisions. One classic account of this is in a story about Abraham (Gen 18). God has seen the wickedness of the city of Sodom and resolved to destroy it, but he says to himself: ‘I will not hide from Abraham what I am going to do …’, and so he tells him. But then Abraham asks God: what if not all the people of Sodom are deserving of punishment? If, for instance, there are fifty righteous men in the city, will God destroy the righteous along with the wicked? God responds by promising that he will spare the whole city if he finds fifty righteous men in it. Then Abraham asks: what if there are only forty-five? This leads on to a conversation that sounds very much like the traditional haggling in an oriental market. What if there are only forty? Or twenty? Or ten? When Abraham has ‘beaten him down’ to ten, God walks away: that is his final offer. From the story that follows, it seems there were not even ten.

It is interesting to note that in the course of this argument Abraham appeals to God to be true to himself: ‘Should not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ Political campaigners often use this kind of technique. They challenge their government to act according to the constitution, or to live up to the best traditions and ideals of the nation. This is what Abraham is doing here, and some of the other prophets did it as well: challenging God to live up to his declared nature. This dynamic relationship of the prophets with God comes out in the portrayal of Moses, in which God does actually yield to persuasion. It is a feature of the book of Jeremiah and some of the others too. And so behind these conversations there is the earnest quest of the Jewish people to understand what is good and just.

In Judaism the prophets are seen as people very close to God, but they were not perfect, sinless people. They had their times of doubt, and sometimes God rebuked them for their mistakes or lack of faith. It is important to note too that not all the prophets were male. Miriam, Deborah and Huldah are mentioned as prophets.

In Jewish thinking the age of prophecy ended with Malachi, the last book in the ‘Prophets’ collection, and incidentally the last book of the Christian Old Testament. Jews believe so strongly in the supremacy of the Torah that sometimes they say that Moses knew beforehand what all the prophets were going to say. In other words, the prophets were drawing out messages that were already in the Torah received by Moses but not written. And so there can be no contradiction between the Torah and the Prophets.

The Christian View

Christianity began as a movement within Judaism. In the first century AD the Jews were talking a lot about the coming of the Messiah, or 'Anointed One', the new David who was going to set the Jewish people free from their oppressors and bring in the Kingdom of God. The followers of Jesus believed he was the Messiah. In fact the title 'Christ' is the Greek equivalent of ‘Messiah’, which means 'anointed'. In a sense Christianity began as an argument among the Jews as to whether Jesus was the Messiah or not. The early Christians searched the Jewish Scriptures for all the evidence they could find to back up their claim.

This is well illustrated in the story of Jesus, after the resurrection, talking with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, when he ‘explained to them what was said about himself in all the Scriptures, beginning with the books of Moses and the writings of all the prophets’ (Luke 24:27). The Apostle Paul at one point repeats what was already a kind of Christian ‘creed’: ‘I passed on to you what I received, which is of the greatest importance: that Christ died for our sins, as written in the Scriptures; that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later, as written in the Scriptures . . .’ (1 Cor 15:3-4)

The early Christians saw the proof that Jesus was the Messiah in the way he fulfilled the predictions of Scripture. This led to the traditional Christian perception of the prophets that sees their main function, if not their only function, as pointing forward to Jesus. The favourite Old Testament book for the early Christians - the one most frequently mentioned in the New Testament - was Isaiah. It is interesting that the prophet Isaiah is one of those not mentioned at all in the Qur'an. For Christians the book of Isaiah is important because it is has the largest number of passages that Christians have interpreted as predicting Christ. It gives us:

·         the virgin conceiving and bearing a child (Isa 7)

·         the Son born to us who will be called Almighty God and Prince of Peace (Isa 9)

·         the voice crying in the wilderness who foreshadows John the Baptist (Isa 40)

·         the Servant who would bring light to all the nations (Isa 42 and 49) and would be wounded for our transgressions (Isa 53), and so on.  

Some Christian commentators have labelled Isaiah ‘the Fifth Gospel’, because it seems to be all about Jesus.

This perspective on the prophets comes out in the difference between the Jewish Bible and the Christian Old Testament. In a sense they are the same - they contain the same books. But the books are in a different order. In the Jewish tanak, the Torah comes first, then the Prophets, and then various other books that are called the ‘Writings’. The Christian Old Testament also starts with the Torah, but then it lumps all the historical books together, whether they belong to the ‘Prophets’ or to the ‘Writings’. Then come the poetic and philosophical books, and finally the Prophets. It looks as if Christianity has reshaped the Jewish Bible as an arrow to point to Christ.

The Muslim View

Prophecy is more central to Islam than it is to either of the other faiths. For the Jews, Torah is central, and the Prophets comment on it. For Christians, Jesus Christ is central, and the prophets point to him. But for Islam prophecy is in a sense the whole content of the faith. The Qur'an consists entirely of revelations to a prophet. The basic confession of the Muslim faith is, ‘There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger’, and the title given to Muhammad is ‘Prophet’.

There are 25 prophets mentioned in the Qur’an. Some of them are recognised Hebrew prophets like Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah and Zechariah. Others are mentioned in the Bible but not called prophets: e.g., Adam, Noah, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Aaron, David, Solomon and Job. Two of them, John the Baptist and Jesus, are in the New Testament. The Qur'an also mentions other prophets without naming them. Interestingly, it does not mention some of the most prominent prophets in the Bible such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Amos.

Muslims believe that Muhammad is ‘the seal of the prophets’, the final one. They believe that each of the earlier prophets was sent to a specific people for a specific time, but Muhammad's message is for the whole of humanity for all time. Muslims respect other Scriptures, but believe that where they differ from the Qur’an they have been corrupted. Muslims believe that the prophets were perfect in their lives, free of all sin. They all preached the same message: the oneness of God, charity, prayer, pilgrimage, worship of God, fasting and the judgment. This means that from the Muslim point of view all the prophets were Muslims.

To complete the record we should mention the other, much younger, prophetic faith, that of the Bahai's. This religion came out of Islam in the 19th century. It differs from Islam chiefly in having a wider view of God's messengers, not confined within the Abrahamic succession. Baha'is believe that people such as Krishna, the Buddha and Zoroaster were part of the succession of special messengers through whom God has revealed himself to the human race. It is a kind of progressive revelation or step-by-step education of humanity. The latest messenger is Baha'ullah. He is not the final one, but he is the last one we will hear, because the next one will not appear for another thousand years.

And so we may answer the question ‘Are the Prophets Jews, Christians or Muslims?’ by saying ‘all three, and in a sense Bahai’s as well’.

An Alternative View

But I would also want to say that there is a sense in which they are ‘none of the above’. After all, in the lifetime of the prophets themselves none of those classifications existed. They lived in a culture that pre-dates them all. They would not have known that the words they preached to specific people in their own time would one day be part of the Holy Scriptures of three worldwide religions. They had their own issues to deal with, and their own things to say.

The understanding of the Bible, and indeed the Christian faith itself, has been deeply influenced by modern scientific methods of study. Scholars study the Bible as they would any other set of ancient writings. Historians and archaeologists compare it with other evidence from the same historical period. They also read ‘between the lines’ in the text itself, trying to work out how it was put together and what the original authors meant to say. Not all Christian believers are happy with this approach. They think it goes against reverence for the Bible as Holy Scripture. But what this reverence means in practice is reading into the Bible what we have traditionally been taught, trying to make it fit in with orthodox belief and turning a blind eye to the bits that don’t fit in. The modern way of reading is much more realistic, and in my opinion more respectful. It means looking honestly for the truth, and taking  the Bible seriously rather than literally. With this approach we notice things we did not notice before, and we can hear the individual voices of the prophets in their own lifetime and situation. To me, this brings the Bible to life and is far more interesting, inspiring and in the end challenging.

Take for instance the prophecy of Isaiah that we always read at Christmas carol services and hear in Handel's Messiah: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel’ (Isa 7:14). We usually just hear that one verse, which is quoted in the New Testament (Matt 1:23) as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. But if we read the whole story in Isaiah from the beginning of the chapter, we get a different picture. Isaiah was speaking to Ahaz, the king of Judah. The people were in a state of panic because two of the neighbouring kingdoms were threatening to invade. Isaiah was urging the king to keep calm and not let himself be drawn into any foolish strategy. In order to reinforce his point he made a specific prediction. A young woman is pregnant, he said, and her son will be called Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us’. We do not know who this young woman was: it could be Isaiah’s wife, or a member of the royal family. The prediction is that by the time this child is old enough to know good from bad the whole situation will have been transformed, and the threat from those two kingdoms will be no more. It’s not quite clear what he meant by knowing good from bad. It could be, as one translation puts it, knowing right from wrong, in which case the child might be at least a few years old. On the other hand, it could be more immediate than that. As soon as a child is weaned and begins to eat food, that child knows what it likes and what it doesn’t like. But whichever it means, Isaiah was obviously not talking about a child who was going to be born 700 years later. That would have meant nothing to the people he was talking to, and would have given them no comfort or challenge.

Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament takes up these words as a supernatural prediction that Jesus would be born of a virgin. This is based partly on an ambiguity in the meaning of a word. The Hebrew word generally means a young woman, but the early Christians mostly read the Scriptures in Greek, and the Greek word specifically means ‘virgin’. It is quite reasonable to say that the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah have acquired a new meaning, but that is not the same as saying that the main point Isaiah was making at the time was a prediction of the birth of Jesus.

We often think of a ‘prophet’ as someone who predicts the future, but this was not the main function of the biblical prophets. They weren't like Nostradamus or Old Moore's Almanac. Admittedly, there was a category of people who specialised in clairvoyance or soothsaying, but the classical prophets - the ones who have books in the Bible named after them - were generally nothing like that. Any predictions they made came either out of their good judgment or out of their faith. Like many wise politicians or journalists today, they could see more clearly than others the way things were going and what the outcome would be. But for the prophets it was not just a matter of political experience or judgment. It was their faith that inspired what they said. This faith told them that wrong actions would inevitably lead to disastrous consequences, but doing right and trusting God would always be the best policy in the long term.

The prophets were poets. Most of their books are in poetic form. They were also singers. In Isaiah there is a chapter (Ch 5) that starts: ‘I will sing for my beloved a song concerning his vineyard …’ In that culture vineyards and grapes had the kind of association that ‘June’ and ‘moon’ have today. Hear ‘beloved’ and ‘vineyard’, and immediately people would think, ‘Here comes a love song’. The song goes on to describe the care the singer’s ‘beloved’ took with his vineyard: preparing the ground, planting choice vines and preparing the vat to store the grapes. But the produce is disappointing. The grapes are useless for making wine – no better than wild grapes. He becomes angry at his vineyard: he threatens to take away its hedge and leave it defenceless, to be overgrown with briers and thorns, and even to command the clouds not to rain on it. This is obviously not just a story about the cultivation of grapes. It is the passionate outburst of a spurned lover. But then it moves into yet another dimension. The tone becomes grimmer. The singer points out that the vineyard is the nation and the vine grower is God. The image of Israel as a vine or a vineyard was also well known. The singer now spells out what the bad fruit is:

‘he expected justice,

but saw bloodshed;


but heard a cry!’

In the original Hebrew there is a dramatic juxtaposition of similar words: ‘justice’ is mishpat, ‘bloodshed’ is mishpach; ‘righteousness’ is tsedakah and ‘a cry’ is tse’aqah, a harsh guttural word to end what started as a sweet love song. This is a protest song. Isaiah today would be playing a guitar.

The prophets were protesters and demonstrators. Their concerns were very much the same as the concerns of protesters and demonstrators today: poverty, injustice, exploitation, lack of care for the vulnerable, the extravagant military ambitions of national leaders, and religious hypocrisy. All these issues come up in their books.

Listen to Isaiah talking about the rich women of his time. One can’t help feeling that he was a bit of a misogynist:

‘Look how proud the women of Jerusalem are! They walk along with their noses in the air. They are always flirting. They take dainty little steps, and the bracelets on their ankles jingle … A day is coming when the LORD will take away from the women of Jerusalem everything they are so proud of – the ornaments they wear on their ankles, on their heads, on their necks and on their wrists. He will take away their veils and their hats; the magic charms they wear on their arms and at their waists; the rings they wear on their fingers and in their noses; all their fine robes, gowns, cloaks and purses; their revealing garments, their linen handkerchiefs, and the scarves and long veils they wear on their heads. Instead of using perfumes, they will stink; instead of fine belts, they will wear coarse ropes; instead of having beautiful hair, they will be bald; instead of fine clothes, they will be dressed in rags; their beauty will be turned to shame!’ (Isa 3:16-24)

Isaiah was making a serious point about the gross inequality and injustice in the society of his time, but we can imagine that he rather enjoyed cooking up this piece of satire. This is the kind of thing that makes the Bible fun!

The prophets were particularly angry about the way the people flocked to the temple for religious worship and ritual and thought they were pleasing God, while they were promoting injustice and mistreating their neighbours. They made it quite clear what they believed God’s priorities to be. Listen to Amos:  

‘The LORD says, ‘I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies … Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’ (Amos 5:21-24)

In those days just as much as today, people’s thoughts would wander during worship. Amos could read their real thoughts:

‘You say to yourselves, “We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our corn. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and tamper with the scales to cheat our customers. We can sell worthless wheat at a high price We’ll find a poor man who can’t pay his debts … and we’ll buy him as a slave.’…”’ (Amos 8:5-6). This somehow reminds me of things like Black Friday or the Boxing Day sales.

Or Isaiah again:

‘When you lift your hands in prayer, I will not look at you. No matter how much you pray, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves clean. Yes, stop doing evil and learn to do right. See that justice is done – help those who are oppressed, give orphans their rights, and defend widows.’ (Isa 1:15-17)

Like many poets, the prophets could have nightmare visions. Listen to this passage from Jeremiah that sounds almost like the aftermath of a nuclear war or an ecological disaster:

‘I looked at the earth – it was a barren waste; at the sky – there was no light. I looked at the mountains – they were shaking, and the hills were rocking to and fro. I saw that there were no people; even the birds had flown away. The fertile land had become a desert; its cities were in ruins …’ (Jer 4:23-26)

But they also had inspiring dreams:

‘They will hammer their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning-knives. Nations will never again go to war, never prepare for battle again. Everyone will live in peace among his own vineyards and fig-trees, and no one will make him afraid.’ (Micah 4:1-4)

Then there is that lovely vision in the book of Isaiah about the prophet’s own city of Jerusalem:

‘The new Jerusalem I make will be full of joy, and her people will be happy … There will be no weeping there, no calling for help. Babies will no longer die in infancy, and all people will live out their life span. Those who live to be a hundred will be considered young … People will build houses and live in them themselves – they will not be used by someone else. They will plant vineyards and enjoy the wine – it will not be drunk by others …’ (Isa 65:17-25)

What a vision for the world we still live in today! No more lives cut short by poverty or violence, no more evictions, no more people robbed of their land by developers, or having their homes destroyed by bombing, no more people working in terrible conditions to provide luxury goods for others. The prophets can hold before us the hope of a fairer society not just in one city or one country but everywhere.

The prophets could also be demonstrators. They used what we today would call ‘street theatre’. Isaiah at one time went around barefoot with his buttocks exposed to show the privation that was going to come (Isa 20). Ezekiel did all sorts of peculiar things – lying on his side for days on end, cutting off his hair and doing strange symbolic things with it, digging a hole in the wall of his house and so on (Ezek 4-5 etc) – in order to warn people that Jerusalem would fall and her people would be deported.

Sometimes the prophets demonstrated in ways that directly affected their own lives. Ezekiel’s wife died, and he showed no sign of mourning because he wanted to drive it home to people that death would come to the nation with no chance to mourn (Ezek 24:15-18). Jeremiah said that God told him not to marry at all, so that he could show his conviction that disaster was coming (Jer 16:1-4). On the positive side, when the disaster came and the kingdom of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians and the people exiled, Jeremiah bought a bit of his ancestral land and hid the deeds, showing his confidence that one day things would be back to normal (Jer 32:6-15).

Hosea is one of the most remarkable of the books of the prophets. It says that God told Hosea to marry a prostitute. We don't know whether he actually heard a voice telling him to do that. It could be that Hosea's wife just turned out to be persistently unfaithful, and that in looking back he realised it was meant to be. Either way, Hosea's message was that his tormented relationship with his wife was a reflection of God's relationship with Israel - a tug of war between anger at their unfaithfulness and the love that made him want to forgive. Hosea gives us a rare and moving picture of the pain in the heart of God.

So the prophets were men and women of their own time, angry and tender, warning or promising, distressed or joyful, all according to the situation and their own personality. They lived in the thick of the issues of their time, admired by some and abused and persecuted by others. Elijah had to flee for his life. Jeremiah was despised as a traitor and imprisoned for a while. Ezekiel was probably regarded as a madman. He probably was slightly mad, but he was right about some things. There was constant conflict between 'true prophets' and 'false prophets', and it was often hard to tell the difference. Only time would show who was right. 

Jesus was well within the tradition of the prophets. His preaching could be tender and angry, serious and humorous. Like the prophets, he expressed his message in action – healing the sick, befriending outcasts – and we could say that his death on the cross was the supreme act of prophetic symbolism, demonstrating with his own life the infinite self-giving love of God.

Who are the prophets for our time?

As a 21st century Christian, I do not see ‘the prophets’ as a set group of people who lived a long time ago. I believe that God still speaks. And just as the prophets in their time were controversial figures not accepted by everybody, so today God can speak through unexpected and people and sometimes through despised people. The prophets for our time can be campaigners, popular singers and songwriters singing out their anger about injustice, poverty, war and violence, challenging the accepted values of the world and imagining a world that can be different. Perhaps sometimes even politicians can be prophets! Religion thinks of the prophets as respectable teachers of an unchanging truth, but actually they were passionate people, controversial, ahead of their time, shocking some people while they inspired others. They were constantly reinterpreting the religious tradition and sometimes contradicting those who had gone before them. They were embroiled in the difficult and divisive issues of their time. And they were not always right! They were human beings who made mistakes. There are even examples in the Bible of prophecies that turned out to be incorrect.

So among the prophets today I believe there are some who are Jews, some who are Christians and some who are Muslims. But there are some who are of other faiths and some who do not fit any religious category and cannot be confined to any box. They are people of all kinds who have the vision and the courage to ‘sing out for justice’. They are not just traditional religious teachers reinforcing what people already believe. Prophets are flesh and blood human beings living in the world, in the heart of its suffering and conflict. They take sides, and to take sides is to take risks. They are controversial characters, often mocked and persecuted. But the great thing about prophets is that they preach hope. They may not be infallible, and they may not be realistic, but they hold before us the possibility that there is another way.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Four Generations of a Dysfunctional Family

It all goes back to the great-grandparents. Abe and Sally were an aging childless couple. Abe, longing to become a father, had an affair with Sally's  maid and got her pregnant. The maid then started gloating about it, and Sally responded by ill-treating her. At one point the maid ran away, but was persuaded to come back. A few years later Abe and Sally had a child of their own, and Sally felt uncomfortable seeing the two boys playing together. One day she blew her top and said to Abe, "I refuse to have that woman and her child in this house any longer". So the maid and her young son were turned out and became homeless. They survived, but the boy grew up to be a loner and a delinquent.

Abe and Sally's son, Ike, married Becca and had two sons, Ed and Jake. Ed was a real he-man with a hairy chest and a fine beard: he was his father's favourite. Jake was altogether different: a mother's boy, a stay-at-home and a bit of a softie. He was also devious and crafty. He played a trick on his father when he was old and blind, and so managed to get a promise of inheritance that Ike had meant to give to Ed. This led to a violent quarrel in which Ed threatened to kill Jake, so Jake ran away from home and stayed away for fourteen years.

In his wanderings he found work with Ben, a sheep farmer. There he fell in love with Ben's daughter Rae, but Ben tricked him into marrying his other daughter, who was older and rather plain. Jake carried on living with both of them anyway. Over the years he cheated Ben out of almost all his property, absconded and eventually went back home and curried favour with Ed. He went on to have thirteen children by four different women.

Out of all his children Jake had a special soft spot for Jo because he was the child of Rae, the real love of his life. Jo grew up thoroughly spoilt. He didn't go out to work like the others, but stayed at home wearing a luxurious and rather feminine gown his father had got specially made for him. He thought he was a cut above his brothers, and was a bit of a tell-tale, reporting back to his father about all their little misdemeanours. They came to hate him so much that one day they kidnapped him and sold him to some people-traffickers. When they got home they faked evidence to make Jake believe he had been murdered. The mean trick Jake had played on his own father came back to him in an even crueller way.

After many struggles in the foreign country where he was taken, Jo's honesty and hard work eventually got him into a position of great power. Some years later the family became quite poor, and some of the brothers unknowingly turned up in Jo's office looking for help. They didn't recognise him in his exalted position, but he recognised them and played some rather mean tricks on them before eventually making himself known and becoming reconciled with them.

Meanwhile, something even more disreputable and weird had happened with Jude, one of the older brothers. He had three sons. The oldest one married a woman called Tanya, but died soon after. Tanya then married the second son, but he too died. The third son was a young boy, but Jude promised that if she stayed single he would arrange for her to marry the boy when he grew up. Years went by, the boy grew up and nothing happened, probably because Jude had a superstitious fear that if he married Tanya he might die too . In any case, by this time Tanya had no wish to marry someone so much younger: she was more interested in  Jude. So, true to the family tradition, she played a trick. When she heard that Jude was going to do some business in another town, she took off her respectable widow's clothes, tarted herself up. veiled her face, and went there and sat by the roadside. Jude had recently lost his wife and was feeling the need of some comfort. Thinking Tanya was a prostitute, he availed himself of her services. He didn't have enough money to pay what she asked, so he promised to send the money and gave her his signet ring as security. When he got home he sent a friend to pay her, but the friend came back and said he could find no trace of her. A few months later he was told that Tanya was pregnant. He was livid. He even threatened to kill her. How dare she disgrace the family like that? But she of course produced the ring and said, "The owner of this is the father". At that he relented and openly acknowledged the twins she had as his own.

This sounds worse than Eastenders! If you know the Bible, you have probably seen through my ineffectual attempts to disguise the names and change the cultural setting a bit. Yes, it is the story of the origins of Israel - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the twelve tribes - as told in the Book of Genesis. If ever there was a rough dysfunctional family it was this one.

And, believe it or not, there is a positive message in it. It tells us that God's purpose is not necessarily carried out through squeaky-clean "righteous" people. God's love for these people was unchanging however they behaved. Abraham still became (as the New Testament says) "the father of all those who have faith". The deserted single mother Hagar became the mother of the Arab nation. Jacob, running away from home in disgrace, was granted a vision of a ladder between earth and heaven. God used the cruelty of Joseph's brothers to ensure that the family survived in the famine. And perhaps the most mind-blowing thing of all is that the whole tribe of Judah, the Jews, including David, and including Jesus Christ, would not have come into existence without that weird, deception-based incestuous relationship of Judah and Tamar. Yes, God really does "move in a mysterious way".

Monday, 14 March 2016

Creationism Lite?

It seems to me that much of the debate about homosexuality boils down to one basic theological question: the question of creationism versus evolution.  Most Christians now, apart from some extremely conservative believers, accept evolution as the scientific explanation of life. They do not believe that God literally made everything in six days. God created the world, they say, but he created it through evolution. But if they use expressions like “the divinely ordained  order of creation”, or “God’s plan for human life”, they are actually creationists at heart. Evolution is not just a way of explaining how we human beings “came from apes”. If we take its implications seriously, it is a fundamental fact about the nature of the universe, the way things are. There is no order laid down from the beginning. The whole universe evolves: it always has and it always will.

The evolution of life mostly happens by accidental mutations, only a small minority of which give rise to a survival advantage that is reproduced in subsequent generations. Often they produce a one-off anomaly or a variation that has little or no effect on survival. In spite of what the Bible says about God creating male and female, we know from actual experience that sometimes babies are born with mixed male and female characteristics. When this is an obvious physical fact it cannot be denied, but when it is psychological – someone feeling they are a woman in a male body or a man in a female body  – it can be very hard to convince other people of it, and this causes enormous pain to the person involved. Similarly, it is all very well to quote the Bible about a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife (Genesis 2:24), but there are men and women in whom this instinct is not present: they have a deep need to cleave to someone of the same sex. Again, because this is not physically obvious, some people deny it, saying that homosexuality is a life style choice and so causing a lot of hurt to those who know within themselves that it is not a choice. Whatever we may say about the “divine plan”, it doesn’t always seem to work.

If there is a creator God, we can best imagine him as an experimenter. His experiment with dinosaurs seemed to work for a few million years, but proved non-viable in the long run. He is currently experimenting with human beings. Among them are lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transsexuals and lots of other variations. Experience, not abstract theory, will tell us whether they work or not.

This kind of perception of God is in fact reflected in parts of the Bible. Even in Genesis we are told that when God saw the way human beings were behaving he regretted that he had created them and decided to destroy them with a flood. Just one man seemed to be an exception to the general sinfulness of humanity, so God arranged for him and his family to survive. Then, after the flood was over, he regretted what he had done and resolved never to destroy the world with a flood again. But the subsequent story of Noah and his descendants shows that in any case sparing him and his family wasn’t such a bright idea as it had seemed! The Bible itself seems to suggest that there is no fixed “divine plan”: God keeps experimenting, and sometimes gets it wrong.

God is also open to persuasion by human beings. Abraham haggled with God over how many righteous people it would need to stop him destroying Sodom. Soon after bringing the Israelites out of Egypt God found them so ungrateful and rebellious that he wanted to destroy them, but Moses persuaded him not to. God sent Jonah to the city of Nineveh to tell them that it would be destroyed in forty days, but when the people repented and prayed he changed his mind. We tend to dismiss stories like this as examples of a primitive view of God, but perhaps they are telling us something very profound. This is a dynamic, evolving, unpredictable, open-ended  universe, and so is God’s relationship with the human race.

If this is so, there is no divine blueprint, no preordained order, and the moral decisions we make should not be decided by eternal laws laid down by Scripture or by the “natural order”. Christian faith at its best has always been oriented to the future. Modern science has discovered things previously unknown and this has led to achievements once thought impossible – like flying, or having conversations with people thousands of miles away., or walking on the moon. In the same way a deepening understanding of human experience and a more attentive listening to previously unheard voices has taught us to welcome things once thought impermissible or “unnatural”. We have discovered things about human life that were previously unknown, or known only to minorities who were ignored or persecuted.

To base our morality on experience rather than law or “revelation” does not mean throwing all morality to the winds. Nor does it mean, as some people put it, turning our backs on God’s way and choosing our own. The God presented in the Bible may be unpredictable at times and even cruel, but through the many-sided conversation of the Bible another view emerges and comes to its full-blown expression in Jesus: a God who is pure, universal love. Guided by our faith in this kind of God we try in all the dilemmas of life to find the most loving solution. We can never be a hundred percent sure that we have found the right solution. In fact there is no “right” solution, only the “best” solution as it appears at the time. Science advances by experiment leading to theory and theory being tested by further experiment, and if this reflects the way the universe is, then our understanding of God and of morality have to proceed in the same way.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

This is That

As a child I often attended chapel with my parents and heard sermons that were way over my head. Sometimes a recurring phrase, or maybe just the preacher's text, stuck in my memory. I remember one preacher who constantly repeated the text 'Remember Lot's wife'. I remember nothing about the sermon, but I still remember Lot's wife!

On another occasion the text was 'This is that'. All I remember of the occasion is thinking what a daft text it was! It sounded like one of those examples of taking a few words completely out of context, like 'Hang all the law and the prophets'. I have since found out that the words came from Acts 2:16, when on the day of Pentecost Peter stood up to explain the strange things that were happening and said 'This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel'. It was the promised pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh.

I was too young to understand the subtlety of that sermon (assuming there was any), but have since come to see those three words as a central element in the whole nature of Christian faith and in our reading of the Bible. In fact the main point of reading the Bible at all is that we see a connection between something in the Bible and something in our own experience or in the world situation. There is that thrill of recognition, that light-bulb moment when we say, 'Ah yes! This is that!'

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Isaiah: Poet, Dreamer and Angry Young Man

Here is the gist of a sermon I preached recently.
I read from Isaiah, chapter 5: "Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard ..."

 Those of you who are of my generation will probably remember the rise of the “protest song”. In our young days, practically all popular songs were about romantic love, with rhymes like “moon” and “June” etc. Then, around the 1960s, we started hearing songs in the same kind of style, but their content was about war and peace, nuclear weapons, social justice etc.

This passage starts like a love song. Even “vineyard” in the Old Testament culture had associations with romantic love. The tone makes it obvious that it is not just about an agricultural failure, The vineyard owner is not trying to analyse what went wrong – he is angry with the vineyard. He even wants to command the clouds to stop raining on it! This is obviously the song of a spurned lover. But then it takes another turn: “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel”. It is not just a love song – it is an indictment of the whole nation. “Vine” was also a symbol of Israel.

The end of the song is shocking and stark: “He expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mishpach), righteousness (tsedakah), but heard a cry (tse’aqah).”

We do not often think of the prophets as singers, but they probably delivered many of their messages as songs. They were certainly poets. Their books too are like an anthology: we shouldn’t expect to be able to read the"m from beginning to end and follow a plot. It’s best to dip in and read one short passage at a time.

Poets are sensitive people who feel things very deeply. They have visions we think are unrealistic, nightmares we would rather not think about. Their logic is sometimes difficult to understand, but we can feel the passion of what they say. Their anger was not grim, puritanical “righteousness”: it was the anger we see today in demonstrators, marchers and protest singers. They were controversial, often mocked, imprisoned or even executed.

They were dreamers. The Book of Isaiah begins with the words “The vision  …”. He and the other prophets could have said “I have a dream”.  Martin Luther King was a preacher. His message was the dream of a world that could be different. It led him into political engagement and into death. Yet that dream has begun to come true.

We think of the prophets as predictors of the future. In a sense they were, but only because they saw deeply into the present time. Their messages were for their own time. Isa 7:14-15 is about a child who is about to be born and named “God with us” in confidence of a better time to come. 
Isa 9:6-7 is the celebration of a royal birth. The prophet is perhaps acting in the role of a Poet Laureate. The grandiose titles "Mighty God", "Prince of Peace" etc., were normal for kings in that culture. Isa 40: 3 is about the imminent return of the exiles from Babylon across the desert to Jerusalem.

These sayings acquired new meaning in new situations. But we do the prophet an injustice if we think he was only making some sort of magical prediction that would mean nothing to anybody till 700 years later.

The best way to read the prophets is:

  • don’t try to understand everything
  • don’t try to square it all with Christian doctrine
  • don’t feel you have to read it all
  • read what inspires you, give other passages a try, but treat it like an anthology of poetry
  • read it aloud
  • enter into the passion
  • try to imagine the story behind it
I closed by reading Isaiah 1:1-20. It is a young man’s rant. God is not impressed with religion. He’s tired of all the sacrifices, festivals, songs and prayers. What he wants his people to do is “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”.

How can we say that the Old Testament prophets are not relevant today?