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?

Saturday, 28 March 2015

People of the Book? Or People of the Word?

When Christians meet with Jews and Muslims and want to emphasise their common heritage, the expression “Abrahamic faiths” is often used. This is an accurate description historically, and it also helps us to remember that our differences of belief are in a sense disagreements within the family.

An expression that is not so helpful is “people of the book”, the description given to Jews and Christians in the Qur’an and often used by Muslims today. It is often hard for us to explain that this does not adequately describe the relationship of Christians to their Bible. It is not true that “just as” Jews have the Tanakh, Muslims the Qur’an, Sikhs the Guru Granth and so on, “so” Christians have the Bible. Christians do not see it in quite this way. Some sects on the fringe of Christianity, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, base their whole system of belief on the Bible as God-given data, and there are perhaps some extreme fundamentalists we can rightly regard as more biblical than Christian. However, even the most conservative of Christian Bible-believers would say that see the heart of their faith and experience as a living relationship with Jesus Christ: the Bible is not the ultimate object of their faith, it is the vehicle that conveys Christ to them. The Christian faith is faith not in a Book but in a Person. Christians do not lose sight of the New Testament statement (John 1:14) that the Word of God is Jesus.

“People of the Book” is thus not a good description of Christians. But perhaps “people of the Word” is nearer the mark. Many people call the Bible “the Word”, but the two expressions are not the same. A book, however sacred, is an inanimate object that remains unchanged. It can be interpreted and discussed, but you cannot ask it what it means and get a direct answer. A word is the utterance of a living person at a particular moment in time. It speaks to the present situation.

A word is not necessarily just a piece of information. It often addresses us at an emotional level: comforting, cheering, encouraging or challenging, making us laugh or cry. A word can be an action: sealing an agreement, making a promise, opening a new relationship or restoring a broken one.

The story of the Jewish and Christian faiths is one of hearing the word of God. In the Hebrew Scriptures a prophecy is often introduced by “the word of the LORD came to …”. The prophets had no canonical Scripture to study and interpret: they believed God had spoken to them directly. Sometimes they contradicted each other: there were “true prophets” and “false prophets”. The only reliable definition of true prophets was that their prophecies turned out to be right, but there was no infallible way of knowing at the time which was true and which was false. Sometimes the prophets themselves argued with God and doubted their own call, or the words they felt God wanted them to say. Just as in human relationships, so in relationship with God, a word cannot convey absolute certainty: it can only be taken in trust, and in the context of a relationship.

 “Word” can sometimes mean promise, as when we say “I give you my word”. When the preacher in Isaiah 40:8 said, “the grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever”, he was not referring to Scripture, but to God’s promise to restore Jerusalem. He was quite probably referring specifically to the prophecies of the original Isaiah.

In the New Testament, when we read (Acts 6:7) that “the word of God continued to spread” it doesn’t mean that the apostles went around distributing Bibles! The “word of God” was the message about Jesus. The expression is sometimes still used today, as when a preacher is introduced with words like “so-and-so will now bring us the word”.

No, Christians are not “people of the book”. We are something much more dynamic, more immediate and more challenging: we are “people of the word”.

Monday, 19 January 2015

When the Answer is 'Neither'

The story of the meeting of Jesus with a Samaritan woman is meaningful on many levels. One feature of it seems to me to suggest a model for inter-faith dialogue.
The Jews and Samaritans in Jesus' time were a bit like Christians and Muslims today – worshipping the same God, but deeply divided and disassociated from one another.

When the woman started feeling uncomfortable with what Jesus had to say about her personal life, she decided to change the subject. Religion was a safer topic! So she said, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is Jerusalem". This was a stock point of controversy between Jews and Samaritans.
The answer Jesus gave was to raise the whole question to a higher level: "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem ... the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth".
Jesus seems to be saying that what matters is not where people worship God but how.
Perhaps the equivalent controversial question Muslims raise with Christians is something like this: "We Muslims believe in Jesus as a great prophet,  but you Christians say he is the Son of God."
I wonder whether the best response would be that the real question is: how close are any of us to the spirit of Jesus? Are we in the end judged on what we believe about the nature and status of Jesus, or on whether we follow him? 

Friday, 9 January 2015

A Wake Up Call from a Little Known Prophet

Zephaniah is one of the least known books of the Bible. A fairly short book, it seems to consist mostly of "doom and gloom" - the sort of book we are inclined to ignore as "typically Old Testament". But it is well worth looking at.
Zephaniah preached in the reign of Josiah in Judah (639-609 BC). This was a heady time of promise and threat. Judah was experiencing a brief moment of relative freedom as the Assyrian Empire was in its final decline. In this situation, Josiah presided over a radical reform of religion. All artefacts associated with idolatry were removed from the Temple and destroyed, the offering of sacrifices in places other then the Jerusalem Temple was abolished, the shrines destroyed and the priests removed.  A ceremony was held in which Josiah led the people in a covenant to obey the laws of God, and a reformed Passover was celebrated. Josiah is recorded in the histories as an outstandingly godly king.
However, the sense of a new beginning was short-lived. By that time the days of Judah as a kingdom were numbered. About ten years after these reforms, Josiah was killed by the King of Egypt while trying to prevent him from going to the assistance of Assyria against Babylon. This attempt to help Babylon did Judah no good in the long run. Twelve years later the Babylonians took control of Judah and deposed Josiah’s son, and after another eleven years they destroyed Jerusalem and deported most of its leading citizens to Babylon.

As Zephaniah looks out over the devastations  being wrought by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, his book begins:

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the LORD.
I will sweep away humans and animals;
I will sweep away the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea…..”

However, this does  not apparently include the kingdom of Judah. God’s purpose there is to cut off all remnants of the worship of Baal and other gods, and to seek out and punish all those who have participated in these practices. Other nations, meanwhile – the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Assyrians and even the faraway Ethiopians – will be utterly destroyed.

Along with this will come a humbling and purification of the “remnant of Israel”. The proud leaders will be removed, leaving behind “a people humble and lowly” who will seek refuge in the true God of Israel and live in his ways.

Like most of the prophets, Zephaniah projects his fears and hopes for Israel and surrounding nations onto a cosmic screen. This is part of the style of prophetic hyperbole, a feature still found in poetry today. But looking from the point of view of our own time there is perhaps a new relevance in Zephaniah’s language. Today, with nuclear weapons and climate change, the inability of human beings to act justly, to curb their inordinate greed and ambition and to live together in peace is posing a threat to the whole global environment. There is now a real possibility that not only human life but even “the birds of the air and the fish of the sea” could be swept off the face of the earth. Or, if that does not happen, there could remain a depleted human race, “a people humble and lowly” to start the hard task of rebuilding civilisation on sounder principles. That rather obscure and grim prophet who lived 2,600 years ago is still able to furnish a “wake up” call to humanity in the twenty-first century.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Unanswered Questions

The Bible is often hard to understand. Maybe it is meant to be so – not to hide things from us or intimidate us into servile reverence, but rather to make us think. 

Take for instance the story of the Magi. What does it really mean? What is the point we are meant to take from it? Who were these “wise men”? 

The name magi already makes us think. Two other people in the New Testament share that label. One was Simon (Acts 8:9-24) who practise mageia and was converted to Christ, but temporarily fell back into his old ways and was sternly rebuked by Peter. The other was Elymas (Acts 13:6-12), a magos who opposed Paul when he was preaching to the governor of Cyprus and was struck blind.

The English word “magic” is derived from the same root: they were magicians, “wizards” rather than “wise men”. John Henson has a version of “We three kings” that is more realistic. It begins:

“We are freaks who follow the stars,
Pleiades, Neptune, Venus and Mars;
men and women, dressed in linen,
peddling our lucky charms”

They were also astrologers. The idea of their following a moving star is a bit of traditional embellishment. The story simply says that they saw a new star which, to them, meant that a king had been born among the Jews. They came to look for him in the obvious place, Jerusalem, and were redirected to Bethlehem. Then, to their great joy, they saw the same star again.

The Bible never has a good word to say about magicians or astrologers. In the Book of Isaiah the people are mocked for trusting in them:
“But evil will come upon you, which you cannot charm away…  Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries … perhaps you may be able to succeed … let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars and at each new moon predict what shall befall you.” (Isa 47:11-13).

Today we have our “stars” in the newspapers, but few take their predictions seriously, and orthodox Christians generally disapprove.

Unanswered question number one: what does this story imply about astrology?

It is also clear that they were not of the Jewish faith, nor did they share the Jewish expectation of the Messiah. They were probably Zoroastrians. Unanswered question number two: after this experience, did they “see the folly of their ways” and become believers in the God of the Bible?

Number three: did they, years later, hear the story of Jesus and become Christians?

And number four: if they did not, and if (as traditional evangelical doctrine asserts) only born again believers in Christ go to heaven, where are they now?

This apparently simple story leaves a lot of questions unanswered! But in this respect it is closer to our present-day experience of faith than we often realise. In today’s multi-cultural society the old “certainties” don’t hold any more. Life isn’t as simple as we used to think.

The story of the Magi is meant to tell us that Jesus came for the whole world. But how does this work out in practice? Can people be led to Christ through other faiths or by means we think are heretical or superstitious? And if so does this mean they are meant to become Christians? And if not, can we say that it really doesn’t matter what you believe? Yet more unanswered questions!

This is the nature, and the power, of the Bible. It  doesn’t give us answers: it gives us stories and leaves us to work out their meaning in the confusion and ambiguity of real life.